Student Voice: Olivia Ford on Iceland

Iceland glacier group

The Global Scholars hiked up glaciers and traversed the Icelandic frontier over winter break. Here, they take a photo break on one of those hikes. (Photos courtesy of Olivia Ford)

The first thing about Iceland is: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” We witnessed all kinds of weather during our first morning in and around Reykjavík — a pitch-black sky and torrential rain, a sunrise when the clouds disappeared, a seven-minute blizzard, monsoon-worthy winds, and most of the day remaining largely overcast. The second thing you must know about Iceland is that all the while, our bus driver wore a short sleeve polo shirt, even while braving the weather outside with us. Icelanders are a proud and hardy people who have lived strikingly more isolated than the rest of their European cousins. Their isolation, coupled with the fact that the island has only been inhabited since the late 10th century, has created a very unique society that the Global Scholars were lucky to visit for five days this January.

Traveling to Iceland in the dead of winter might have made any other group trepidatious, but we were filled with optimism at the prospect of seeing the Northern Lights, which are at their prime in winter. We weren’t lucky enough to witness them, but the rest of the otherworldly sights more than made up for the loss.

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park

There are a mere six hours of daylight during the winter months, and the sun only rises halfway in the sky, but this gives everything a soft glow and makes for picture-perfect lighting.

Right: The vast and snowy scenery in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park.

Some places, such as Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, seemed like magical winter wonderlands covered in snow and ice. Meanwhile, the rocky land surrounding the famous Blue Lagoon stood out because of its deep, prominent green color, the result of the dense moss that grows there. There was the black sand beach of Reynisfjara in Vík, the black so dark it felt like trampling the ashes of a volcanic eruption. Our group hiked up Sólheimajökull glacier, walked behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, and got up close and personal to boiling, bubbling water rising from underground in the Reykjadalur valley — you simply don’t notice that it’s winter when you realize you’ve entered what appears to be the real life pages of an issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Skógafoss waterfall

Right: The spectacular Seljalandsfoss waterfall.

Icelanders definitely notice the difference, however. A few of us engaged in a great conversation with an older Icelandic gentleman during our visit to the capital’s concert space and convention center, Harpa. He remarked on the disparity in population between Iceland and New York City, NY, — around 330,000 and 8,000,000 respectively — as well as the difference in behaviors. New Yorkers walk around with their heads down and avoid eye contact, while Icelanders are more than happy to say hello or have a chat with a passerby, even a tourist. He also explained to us that the summer months are the busiest for tourism, especially in Reykjavik; and while he’s more than happy to see tourists explore and enjoy his home, he hopes the population doesn’t surge.

From my observations of the city and the smaller areas we visited, it did become clear that Icelanders prefer their isolation, and it’s almost necessary — the country is powered by 100% renewable energy, whether harvested from a geothermal or hydropower plant.

Iceland Blue Lagoon

Access to this energy is Mother Nature’s great gift that can only be truly appreciated by a population that remains small.

Right: The famous Blue Lagoon provided a welcome respite and indulgence for the student travelers.

Over the past few years, Iceland has become an increasingly popular, yet expensive, tourist destination. Headlines from the country have made international news — the 2008 financial crisis, the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano, and the resignation of the prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson in the wake of the Panama Papers revelations, just to name a few.But they have piggybacked off of this popularity to become the “stopover” country. Many flights from the United States to Europe, and vice versa, include a free stopover in and around Reykjavik, for a soothing experience in the Blue Lagoon or a shopping spree on Laugavegur, a main street in the capital. Personally, I sometimes felt that our five-day trip was an extended stopover, but I think I’m just making excuses to go back, to feel like I’m entering the pages of a fantastical (J.R.R.) Tolkien novel all over again.