Bella Bennett, a frequent contributor to The Times and rising junior at Skidmore College, will send regular dispatches from Iceland this summer.
Going into this, I wasn’t at all sure that I’d made the right choice. Who chooses to leave Martha’s Vineyard during the summer? Who wants to leave behind hot, sunny days at the beach and in the ocean (or in my case, bothering really inspiring Vineyard residents for interviews) for 40° to 60° weather and sideways rain?
It is now the end of the third day of my seven-week educational program, and I am already sure that I made the right choice. Iceland is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I am with a group of 22 other students, all studying environmental science, from all over America (two are from Europe). Thus far, it appears to be a very easygoing, fun, and adventurous group. In fact, we just came inside from a hike, and it’s nearly 9:30 pm. I should probably mention that due to Iceland’s proximity to the Arctic Circle, the sun sets at around midnight, and the sky darkens to a medium grey for a few hours before returning to a light grey. I’ve heard that Iceland has blue skies like the rest of the world, and that the sun does appear, but until I see it, I have my doubts. On the bright(er) side, it didn’t rain today like it did yesterday!
We spent our first morning in the airport. The group was scheduled to meet up at 10, but many of us arrived around six in the morning, and slowly and shyly found one another. It was easier than you might expect, because we’re all close to 20 years old, and were the only people hanging around the airport for hours on end. When finally we were all together and the program director arrived, we ventured out into the stark Icelandic landscape and headed to probably the biggest tourist destination on the island, the Blue Lagoon. Before getting there, however, we stopped to tour a geothermal power plant, where we donned hardhats and fluorescent yellow vests, and entered the belly of the beast. Iceland generates about 85 percent of its energy domestically, through hydropower and geothermal power. This particular plant, which produces around 74 MW, has three around-the-clock staff, and essentially runs itself. The best part of the power plant, in my opinion, is the way they dispose of the water after it has been heated into steam (using heat generated from natural hot springs) and used to spin the turbines. The “waste” water, which is still just naturally heated brine, is piped over to our next destination, the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a giant hot pool of salty water that people pay at least 45 euros to sit in. The water is lovely, and the silica mud that naturally precipitates to the bottom is healing for the skin. It’s kind of hard for me to come to terms with the fact that while Iceland is actually promoting health with the “waste” from their power generation, the waste from ours pollutes entire watersheds (see Erin Brockovich) and oceans (thanks, BP).
Our second day in Iceland, June 17, was Icelandic Independence Day. We spent the day exploring Reykjavik amid crowds of festive Icelanders and intrigued tourists. We watched sailboats glide majestically across the glassy harbor, checked out the city’s unique church, and watched a ruckus parade. There were a bunch of bouncy houses set up in a park, along with a human-size foosball court, which we jumped right into without questioning the lack of lines. After the first point was scored and a small crowd of children and parents had gathered around the blown-up structure and begun to cheer us on, a man appeared and told us that they were not yet open. It doesn’t feel good to fulfill the stereotype of the typical American. We apologized and went on, feeling guilty about our faux pas yet grateful for such a great bonding experience.
Despite such a fun afternoon, the highlight of day two for me came after a 40-minute commute to an eco-village called Solheimar on the southern coast. After dinner, we decided to hike around the the little village, and the area is unusually forested (only about 1 percent of Iceland is forested — it was deforested by the first settlers, starting in 874, and the extreme climate makes it hard for new trees to grow) and totally gorgeous. A small waterfall tumbles off a ledge, Icelandic horses graze on the moist, mossy ground, and thin streams crossable via bridges under which trolls definitely reside crisscross the land below the village. It feels magical.
Day three has been kind of a ride. After a morning meeting with the residents of Solheimar, during which we held hands and listened blindly to the daily announcements in Icelandic, and then a song, we moved on to begin learning the complex language ourselves. It is not easy. The one thing that I have definitely retained so far is a really beautiful cultural tradition. Every evening, Icelandic people say “Takk fyrir daggen” to each other, or “Thank you for today.” How wonderful is that? I’m definitely going to incorporate it into my life after this trip.
Between lessons, we also managed to squeeze in a quick lunch with the president of Iceland. I’m serious. It was a coincidence that his visit to Solheimar fell within the four days that we will be here, but so exciting! Obama has vacationed within a mile of my house for a few years now, and I’ve never even laid an eye on him, meanwhile on my third day in Iceland I stood less than two feet from the president, without security strip-searching me prior to the interaction. He even thanked us for coming. How cool is that? Needless to say, it’s been quite a wild trip so far. Next week we head up to the West Fjords, where we will stay with host families. I am sharing my host family with a girl named Alana, who is from Hawaii — two island girls on a new island in one house! Our family consists of a mother, father, and two boys, one of whom is a year old and the other 7. I can’t wait to meet them! I brought Island Bee Co. honey, Not Your Sugar Mamas chocolate, and wampum to share with the family, so I’m hoping that that will help me make a good impression.
Right now it is 11 pm, birds are chirping chipperly, the sun is shining brightly outside. It didn’t rain a drop today, and hiking in the hills around Solheimar in the sunshine under a blue sky was magical! I must go to bed so that I can be up and ready to learn bright and early in the morning. Takk fyrir daggen!