By BEN WRIGHT
“Yes, there are a lot of tourists in Iceland now, perhaps too many,” said Silvia, in perfect English and with no irony. Her daughters, who spoke English too, as well as Icelandic and Zulu, were playing with mine at Boston Airport. We were on the same plane to Reykjavik. She was going home. I was adding to the “too many.”
Like a lot of Icelanders over the last decade or so, she had spent time abroad, found love and then found her way back home. As an Englishman married to an American, I enjoyed swapping stories about travel, in-laws and children. These are the raw materials of life and love when one becomes entangled with (no, cleaved to) a foreigner. So I let the “too many” comment slide.
It was good she spoke English. I speak very little Zulu and even less Icelandic, though they I assume they are both ancient, unreconstructed tongues that pride themselves on resisting modern encoding. Thanks to a deeply treasured and impressively elaborate history – the Viking sagas of their poet-warrior founding fathers – Icelandic hasn’t changed that much in a thousand years. Think: African Welsh, or Swedish Shakespeare. Unlike other Scandinavian languages, Icelandic hasn’t really moved on from Old Norse. It must sound like the Lord’s Prayer to Danes.
Iceland is handsome more than beautiful. Sea breezes, low sun, and ocean blues makes for an eerie, intense palette. It feels a little like taking two tablets, selecting Instagram, choosing an otherworldly filter, and then plastering the screens to your upper face. Actually, it’s way funkier than that, though many tourists act like Iceland exists for the sake of their smartphones.
We spent a week there. Things were expensive and people were friendly. Our hosts, Sigurdur and Kate, rented out their basement to us. Kate was from England and Siggi used to perform in a death metal band. (Siggi played guitar…) Our kids and theirs rough-housed until 11pm when the sun started to go down, while we plied them for info. They gave sound advice; don’t go to the volcanoes. They’re busy and no more interesting than any other big hill. (If they get interesting, you’re about to die.) Instead, go north rather than south. Eat hot dogs (high lamb content) from gas stations. Don’t worry about the exchange rate. Accept prices. Get up early. Head to the public pools and talk politics. So we did. We got up, ate hot dogs, forsook math, swam and soaked.
Icelandic pools are like English pubs: chatty, warm, full of oddly shaped people in skimpy clothing, and they have designated areas for children and nudity. Talking politics usually gets me into hot water, but if you’re already in a geo-thermally heated pool, you’ve little to lose. I made a T-shirt that said, “talk to me about Trump or Brexit.” Swimmers in Borgarnes, Fludir and Mosfellsbaer are moderate and provincial. They believe that Trump is a moron, that Brexit is moronic, that England have a bad football team, that Tolkien plagiarized their sagas, and that there are too many tourists. They also think that their land is unique and in particular need of protection. I agree.
Iceland is volcanic and damp and marine and clear. Green mosses cling to the gravel-and-lava landscape as if God were experimenting with the English countryside on the surface of the moon. Steam shoots up through the ground as the world turns itself over underneath. Iceland isn’t a magical place. But I can forgive those who believe in magic for thinking it so. It is certainly a place worthy of myths and sagas.
One can forgive Icelanders for their home-grown version of American exceptionalism, for their pint-sized culture undergirded by a sense of difference and divergence, for thinking they are a special people. It’s a feeling rooted in the landscape and in the crazy people who discovered and settled it. Just like the English, Spanish and Boers who encountered strange places, Icelanders have added a layer of religious imagination to their perceptions. (Though in favor to the Icelanders, there is no geopolitical edge to their transgression and no one was already here when they showed up.)
It is this sense of magic and uniqueness which tourism threatens – not so much as a thing but as a culture. In general, tourism as a thing is usually good for the economy and bad for the ecology of a place. Those forces can always be balanced; it depends what the locals and their leaders want most – money or home. If the locals are in charge, they always get what they deserve. Tourism as a culture is more difficult to manage. Like sin, it is something we all contribute to, wish we didn’t, and of which we think others are worse culprits. It’s characterized by things like bad cappuccinos, tour buses, cheap lager, Japanese people with cameras the size of empires, burgers, T-shirts with silly phrases, ponchos, Irish pubs, elderly American couples who think everything is quaint, selfie sticks and Ryan Lochte.
Tourism culture is vast and global and looks the same everywhere. It’s more than people just cluttering up paradise. It’s the boatloads of crap from China, with the name of paradise printed upon it, that come to define the spaces formerly reserved for solitude. Take for example the great Gullfoss waterfall. Last century, several efforts to dam it for hydro-electric power were thwarted. The chances of the view being ruined by hotels – like Niagara Falls – are thankfully slim. But soon, better guard rails and walkways will find their way. Selfie sticks have already made it. The gift shop is larger than the museum. Gullfoss may not be dammed, but it may already be damned. Or at least demystified, and safer.
Safety is good. I don’t want Gullfoss gobbling up my kids. But Iceland is rightly a place that prides itself on wild(er)ness. For the moment, it remains blissfully deplete of government-sponsored signage. Speed limits apart, you simply don’t experience a lot of being told what to do in Iceland – whether it’s to stay of this and that, whether or not here or there requires caution. In the pools, there were no lifeguards. Toddlers climbed concrete stairs to be flung from flumes. Kids are expected to be smart and to look out for each other while the grown-ups marinade and debate. I’m from a nanny state and live in the most litigious country on earth, so I found this pathetically exhilarating, and well worth the scalding of my feet in a hot lake. But these are the things, these little globs of dark matter which darkly matter to a culture, that Iceland stands to lose by catering to people like me. I can understand sacrificing your best weather to the tourism gods. It’s good business. And for the most parts, we can be shunted from spot to spot in a predictable manner and for a premium. But what of Iceland’s id and ego? Sagas are for hard places.
During the trip, your correspondent read a lot of Hemingway, which probably explains why my prose is more clipped, self aware, and uses a lot of “ands” and use phrases like “your correspondent.” I wonder what Hemingway would have made of Iceland. I bet he would have enjoyed it, written about it, and set a generation of folks off on a quest to distill it. Maybe it’s good he didn’t go. Reykjavik doesn’t want to become the next Pamplona. But it may be on it’s way to a worse fate. This place is simply too cool to become the Thailand of the Arctic. Ten years ago, Thailand taught me what one could reasonably expect as a tourist. As usual, I went in search of Hemingway moments, but found the Travel Channel. I wanted to inhale the local culture, rather than consume it. I had no intention of dredging its meaningfulness in search of the perfect social media post. I wanted to meet locals and make friends. And I wanted danger in tapas form – just enough for a good dinner party story. What I encountered was a gormless veneer of tourist culture masking injustice and poverty. The most authentic cultural moments I experienced were sketchy moments when I attempted to lift the veil and got lost or pick-pocketed. The rest was just a tame, badly-curated fumble in the jungle that people like me had created for people like me.
I had a wonderful time in Iceland. But was I just part of the problem? How can one experience strange, wild places without eroding them? I don’t know the answer, but the question reminds me of the times I spent in college going on short term mission trips. Whether it was to Serbia or Mexico, whether building a house for a widow or playing soccer with refugee children, I felt useful, welcome and exotically energised. For sure, mission trips can suck. They can be part of the problem. They can degenerate into social safari for rich kids whose parents don’t let them drink during spring break. But helping people in strange places shouldn’t be smugly written off – not in a world like this. Maybe for my next trip, I’ll try to satisfy my restlessness by volunteering in a war zone – helping others, being endangered, by experiencing a broken heart somewhere new. The problem is, there are no ski slopes in Syria. There are no hot pools in Haiti. It has me almost hoping one of those volcanoes go off in Iceland…