Back in my university days there was a book that passed hands with the same speed as No-Global leaflets, only with more enthusiastic reviews. It was Collapse, by American geographer and historian Jared Diamond, author of that Guns, Germs and Steel that our faculty’s dean said we all had to read if we wanted any hope of understanding the world.
Guns, Germs and Steel grappled with the age-old question of why certain nations achieve prominence on the world’s stage; Collapse, instead, tried to explain why others didn’t, finishing discarded in the great dustbin of history. Chief amongst the many soundbites that peppered the book was the notion of “ecocide”. Ecological Suicide, in Diamond’s view, was the fact of destroying one’s habitat through carelessness or sheer mismanagement with results that were more or less always catastrophic for the society in question. One such community, he maintained, was Easter Island’s. By cutting all the trees, the Rapa Nui effectively ended their megalithic civilisation and descended in a hellish situation of starvation, famine, warfare and cannibalism.
Or did they?
To quote freely from Mark Twain’s response to his own obituary, today we think that news of Rapa Nui’s descent into cannibalism are exaggerated. They rely on assumptions that are being challenged by modern researchers drawing from the notes of those who first visited the island as well as from science. This post wants to be a summary of the state of the art of research, a brief foray into academia: don’t worry, travelogue and nonsense will return soon.
A peaceful society.
Central to the concept of ecocide is war. Once resources grew scarce, Rapa Nui clans turned one against each other in a bloody civil war that left only one “long ear” alive. This is dramatically in contrast with the diaries of the three expeditions that, first, brought Europeans in contact with the island.
When he arrived on Easter Day 1722, Dutch explored Jacob Roggeveen made no mention of weapons. Forty-eight years later in 1770, Don Felipe González claimed the island for Spain (who subsequently forgot they had it, much like – true story – Silvio Berlusconi forgot to have bought a yacht in Bahamas); a bit of a buddying anthropologist, González’s chief pilot Don Francisco Antonio de Aguera y Infanzon – who, for brevity, I shall call Don Pancho – gave a bow, arrow, knife and cutlass to a Rapa Nui that had swam on his ship. The Rapa Nui, who bore a scar that Don Pancho thought was the result of a war wound, turned to be comically unaware of the purpose of these weapons: he wore the bow on his head and neck as a jewel and held the cutting tools by their blades and not, as it’d be normal, by the handle.
Rapa Nui society was seemingly made of peaceful people who were wholeheartedly enthusiastic of their unexpected visitors. For instance, flint blades, until considered as weapons, have been found by Hawaii’s Bishop Museum researchers to be used to cut fibrous plants such as potatoes and taro. The only problem mentioned by the first visitors was Rapa Nui’s nonchalant attitude to liberating their property: a Dutch sailor in Roggeveen’s landing party shot a few locals that seemed keen on nicking his arquebus. Captain Cook, who visited in 1774, remarked sadly that, although “friendly and hospitable”, people were also “addicted to pilfering”. Hats in particular seemed all the rage and disappeared quicker than cheap TVs on a Black Friday sale.
Abundance of food.
All three explorers left descriptions of the Rapa Nui that, it can be argued, don’t quite fit with the ideal type of a starving person. “Tall, well-built and proportioned in their limbs” was Don Pancho’s one-liner. Cook wrote in his journal that they had “Not disagreeable countenances” which is as passionate as upper-class Brits will ever get, even today. Roggeveen must’ve had a knack for dentistry for he remarked that the Rapa Nui had “pearly white teeth so strong that could crack nuts”.
It doesn’t end there. The Dutch remarked that agriculture was widely practiced with bananas, yam and potatoes, whilst chickens roamed around. Another Spaniard in Don Felipe crew, Don Juan Hervé, walked the length of the island and saw plenty of crops which his crew took extra care not to ruin. Modern-day analysis of Rapa Nui skeletal remains highlighted a fairly rich and diverse diet where seafood was surprisingly present, covering 35% of their diet and up to 50% of their protein intake. But wasn’t deforestation meant to be causing erosion and depletion of the topsoil? How did the Rapa Nui managed not to starve?
The answer lies in the concept of “lithic enhancement”. Much unlike our fields where every pebble and stone has been eliminated, Rapa Nui’s are littered with black volcanic rocks. The rocks were used to replenish those mineral nutrients, such as nitrogen, that were depleted by successive crops, thus keeping yields high. Additionally, every village had one or more manavai or “mulch gardens”, a ring of rocks surrounding and protecting crops from wind and excessive sun whilst at the same time retaining moisture. As a result, estimates now put the maximum potential population of the island between 3 and 29 thousand souls, with 17,500 as being the most likely option.
Who cut all the trees then?
It’s undeniable that deforestation took place and, as a result, life changed on Rapa Nui. It’s also undeniable that deforestation happened relatively quickly, in a matter of a few centuries from the arrival of king Hotu Matu’a from the Marquesas. Yet, it mightn’t have been all down to humans.
According to Oregon University archaeologist Terry Hunt, Hotu Matu’a’s fleet carried some stowaways under the form of rats. As the men and women arrived at Anakena beach so did the pests which found a virgin environment without so much of a predator. It must’ve been rat heaven and the results did not wait to arrive: estimates put the peak mice population to be numbering in the low millions, all gorging themselves on the rich forest around them. Palm nuts showing rat gnaws have been found all throughout the island, showing that humans had a four-legged helper in the destruction of the primeval tree cover.
And what about the moai?
Today we see most moai standing on top of their ahu platform. However, until the 1960s all of them had been knocked down, many in bits. The vulgata tells stories of tit-for-tat vandalism in the framework of a civil war that is very hard to imagine (Bishop Museum’s researchers found that only 2% of skeletons showed signs of a violent death). Additionally, it goes against the observations of our explorers.
Roggeveen saw the moai all standing on their ahu and witnessed clear signs of devotion from the islanders. He mentions how people lit fires in front of the statues and venerated the megaliths by crouching before them and by moving hands up and down in adoration. Don Pancho agrees in defining the moai as objects of worship.
Things were evolving when Cook passed, four years after the Spaniards. On the east side of the island he saw three ahu which, originally, hosted 4 moai each. Two ahu had no moai standing and, as for the last one, one moai had already been toppled. He also mentioned that, based on his experience, the statues weren’t object of devotion “however it might’ve been in the days of the Dutch”. He rather thought that the moai were being used as burying places as he saw a skeleton lying beneath one.
It’s anyone’s guess why the Rapa Nui decided to topple their statues. It was done with a certain degree of care, for most have been put face down and most of their faces – long noses included – haven’t been damaged. But what led them to do this? I like to think that the moai had been built for a purpose or that they were expression of a belief and that, when the Europeans arrived, either that purpose had been accomplished or the belief had been proved fundamentally wrong. Imagine if we somehow had irrefutable proof of the existence of God, but also that he’s neither Allah or Jehovah: would we still need mosques, churches or synagogues?
The real catastrophe.
All evidence, both historic and scientific, seem to point towards an island that had changed drastically but whose civilisation managed to evolve and to keep its vitality by the time of European contact. What happened after the first, relatively benign, visits was however much worse.
Ships began kidnapping Rapa Nui, culminating in the devastating 1862 Peruvian slaving raid where approximately 2,500 islanders were captured and led to the continent where they succumbed to forced labour and illnesses. The entire clan leadership was wiped out; then a missionary descended on the few, wretched, survivors. Eugène Eyraud, a French priest, came to Rapa Nui to carry out the proselytism that many of his kind were already doing throughout the Pacific. In doing so he helped wiping out a culture that existed for centuries. A sheep and cattle station was established soon afterwards, being discontinued only in the 1950s.
Can Rapa Nui still teach us a lesson?
Absolutely yes. Whilst we can’t fully buy the ecocide narrative, it’d be wrong not to take heed from Rapa Nui’s deforestation. Without trees the islanders couldn’t manufacture ropes or use wood and, therefore, had to give up on their megalithic industry almost overnight, as the Rano Raraku quarry seems to show.
Our civilisation is in the same situation with many materials that are rare or in short supply. I’m talking about yttrium, coltan, lithium and many others: without them we don’t have LEDs, mobile phones or Toyota Priuses and, right now, it seems to me that there isn’t a lot of care on how we manage this finite stock of resources.
Another important lesson is our approach to aboriginal – or uncontacted – civilisations but, alas, I’m afraid that we’ve well and truly missed that train now.
1. João Vicente Ganzarolli de Oliveira, Culture and Isolation in Easter Island, in Rapa Nui Journal Vol. II N. 4, December 1997
2. Whitney Dangerfield, The Mystery of Easter Island, in The Smithsonian 31/03/2007
3. Jago Cooper, Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World, BBC4
4. L. Jarman, T. Larsen, T. Hunt et al, Diet of the Prehistoric Population of Rapa Nui Shows Environmental Adaptation and Resilience in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2017; 164 343-361
5. Cedric O. Puleston et al, Rain, Sun, Soil and Sweat: A Consideration of Population Limits on Rapa Nui Before European Contact, in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, July 2017, vol. 5, article 69
6. Ship Log of 1770 voyage of Captain Don Felipe González, retrieved easterisland.travel
7. Ship Log of 1774 voyage of Captain James Cook, retrieved easterisland.travel
8. Herbert von Saher, Some Details of the Journal of Jacob Roggeveen, in Rapa Nui Journal Vol IV N. 3, Fall 1990
9. Zuzanna Jakubowska-Vorbrich, Chilean Report on Easter Island, 1870: From Science to Politics and Prejudice, Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies, University of Warsaw, 2018
10. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin, 2011
The sun is setting on a scene I’ve waited 26 years to see. There’s people around me; for some, this is one of many such sunsets; for others it’s as new as it is for me. But I doubt that many more are feeling that same sense of satisfaction, of wholeness, of meeting your childhood hero and discovering that he’s every bit as great as you thought he’d be.
The sun sets to a remote West where it’s already tomorrow. The sun sets, the wind picks up and I’m reminded of a song from The War on Drugs.
And I’m thinking of a place
And it feels so very real
There are countless articles singing the virtues of this or that stretch of road, claiming it to be “the best in the UK/Europe/world” (delete as applicable). So what’s the point in writing another one? What’s the use of increasing the count of Best road to ∞+1? The reason is that I’ve really found the best road, at least for me and, since I’m not a selfish bastard, here it is: the ring formed around the Icelandic Snæfellsnes peninsula by routes 54, 574 and 56.
The recipe for the perfect road isn’t really hard to ace; all you need are the right ingredients. Once you’ve bagged them it’s “all over but the shouting” as Frank Borman famously said on the Apollo 8 return trip.
The first key ingredient to be tossed in the cauldron is the road. It must have a balanced blend of straights, ups, downs and corners. In fact, it must have all the types of corners under the sun. Fast ones, switchbacks and those large, swooping ones – yeah, you know the kind – that make you smile, put an elbow on the window frame and invite you to take in the views.
The views, then. They are as fundamental as the road, if not more. To me, they are the real deal-breaker: no road can be truly enjoyed if all you can see around are flatbed trucks or industrial estates.
There are also other elements in my recipe – let’s consider them those extra toppings at the bottom of the menu – such as smooth tarmac, no traffic, a radio station alternating Creedence and DJ Krush, but my best road needn’t a fancy car in order to be appreciated. Sure, there might be a bit of a fox-and-grapes complex lurking around here but my best road is egalitarian: whatever the car hire roulette has blurted out, you’ll enjoy it. How do I know? Well, I had a toffee-black Suzuki Vitara and I did. See if you can spot it in this video.
The start of my road, so I’ve decided, is at a landmark some 35km north of Borgarnes. As you drive north you’ll see, on your right, Eldborg crater. Its name and meaning (“Fortress of Fire”) will definitely appeal to the JRR Tolkien in you.
From there all you need to do is follow the road as it worms its way along the coast. It’s that easy: keep the wet bit on your left and, as they say, Bob’s your uncle.
It’s not as if this is only a road to be driven on, for there’s plenty to do in case you’re the kind of guy or gal who enjoys a break every now and then. There’s, for instance, a seal colony at Ytri-Tunga where you can admire our aquatic cousins perfecting the art of being fat. Or, but you need to be past the tip of the peninsula for that, you can hike to the top of Saxhóll volcano which, let me tell you, works better if you’re not risking frostbite. Add the occasional team of Icelandic horses to the mix.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Once you’re past the cape the road snakes around hills and mountains abutting to the fjord in a parade of vistas where water and stone and snow continuously trade places. This is where you can find little gems such as black beaches or, of course, Kirkjufell mountain (be aware of awe-struck tourists walking in your path, though).Grundarfjörður is nothing but a blip before you get back in a wonderland that feels dragged out of a saga and often is.
If I had to choose, this is where the road’s party piece is. Past a lava field is a junction: carry on forward for Stykkishólmur and the Westfjords, turn right to head back towards Reykjavík. That’s where we are headed.
In this part the road, now no. 56, will run over the mountains that make the spine of the peninsula: what awaits is a spectacular journey amongst meadows, often blanketed by thick snow, and interludes of utter serendipity when the view is almost 180 degrees wide.
It is, alas, brief, over before you can say Eyjafjallajökull: soon the familiar shape of Eldborg will appear, this time on your right, heralding the end of the road and the start of the return. You might be tempted to say no and to U-turn for another round; go on, I won’t judge: I might’ve done the same.
As far as names are concerned, few animals have had it as bad as the Orca. Popularly known as “killer whale” – a connotative appellative if ever there was one – they don’t fare much better from a scientific point of view either: Orcinus Orca, as they are indeed known, means “Of the Orcus”, the Roman god of the underworld, punisher of broken promises. Quite how it became the name for a marine mammal is something that only Linnaeus can answer.
– § –
Olafsvík was in the midst of a snow-clearing campaign. Two tractors fitted with huge blades were pushing mountains of the stuff away from the thoroughfares and into the harbour so that the little port had, by the time we arrived, assumed a Siberian je-ne-sais-quoi. We were early for our tour and had little to do but to idle about on the pier, eyeing our fellow tourists and watching the crew shovelling the snow off the boat that, we surmised, was going to have the honours. Typically, it was the tiniest in the whole port.
No, it was neither of these two.
– § –
Evidently not satisfied with just giving orcas a whole host of bad names, the western world never really managed to build a decent relationship with the animal. Pliny the Elder, the Roman commander and Attenborough precursor, began the smear campaign with lines dripping with vitriol, effectively calling them savage murderers. Fast forward to the modern age and orcas have alternatively been used for target practice or were kidnapped to toil away in our aquaparks.
– § –
The crew working on the boat was as Icelandic as a Sigur Rós album: nice, courteous, wool-hatted and completely no-nonsense. A name check was followed by the distribution of padded, waterproof overalls. Transformation into Michelin men completed the sailors corralled us, shuffling like beached penguins, onboard. Soon after we were chugging out of the harbour and into the deep, cold waters of the fjord.
Our sea-faring skills ranged quite a lot: we had the lonesome guy, Moby Dick tattooed on the knuckles, who drank builder’s tea out of a flask the size of a submarine as he stood on the top deck, oozing comfort and savoir-faire. On the other side were those sad bastards whose knees and stomachs had already started trading places. If you’re wondering on which end of the spectrum I was, well, I’ll have you know that when Maria the guide found me I was already cowering in the lower deck, doing my best impersonation of an abandoned puppy. With well concealed pity she suggested I headed to the stern of the boat, stood up and looked at the horizon. Thinking it the stupidest idea ever I complied.
– § –
As years went by science managed to disprove the cliché of the evil and bloodthirsty orca that had held sway for so long. What Pliny described as a ruthless killer is now widely recognised as an incredibly intelligent animal with one of the most complex social life in the sea. Orcas have been found to live in a multi-layered social order run matriarchically, using a varied vocabulary that includes dialectal inflexions which they employ to organise some of the most astonishing hunting parties ever seen in the animal world.
Orcas have been observed teaching their calves a curriculum that includes both language and hunting skills: the pods living off Crozet Island in Argentina, for instance, coach their young on how to catch seals when they are wading through half a meter of water. Families in Antarctica would repeat attacks on Weddel seals – performed by triggering tidal waves that break the ice floes upon which the seals are resting – time and again until the calves can recite their part by heart.
– § –
Far from being stupid, Maria’s suggestion turned out to be a stroke of genius: as soon as I wrapped myself around a sturdy pole, breathing in the cold breeze (and occasional whiff of diesel exhausts) I felt immensely better. For starters, the weather was gorgeous: clouds sailed by, urged on by a lively breeze, so that sun and shade were trading places amiably and the whole world was either gold or dark blue. A fishing trawler bobbed in the sea and, on the northern horizon, the white cliffs of the Westfjords beckoned. “People think it’s Greenland” smiled a crew member.
The feeling of unease quickly washed away and I was getting used to the rhythmic rising and falling of our boat as we steamed out of the fjord, pointing east towards the open sea. In our wake were dozens and dozens of squawking seagulls: for a while I thought that we were following them in the hope to be guided towards the shoals of herring and the orcas, but then it became apparent that they were betting on us getting them to the fish. The whole thing was pretty ironic and even if it meant that we wouldn’t see any orcas I still felt good about being able to overcome my fears.
Precisely at that moment the blower came to life and Maria announced, “Good news everyone”.
– § –
Throughout the world, Aboriginal cultures nurtured views of the orcas that differed from the beliefs of the West under every aspect, views that – as scientific research intensified – were vindicated however posthumously. The First Nations that inhabited the Pacific coast of America from Alaska down to Oregon called orcas “blackfish” and considered them to be the most powerful fish in the ocean, reincarnation of famous chiefs or of drowned people. Almost every tribe considered their appearance to be auspicious for human activities. Yupik people living on the Chukchi peninsula, where Siberia ends in the Bering strait, offered orcas gifts as a way to ensure their support during walrus hunts; whenever they found an orca carcass beached on the coast they’d celebrate a funeral in its honour.
– § –
I remember the day – cold, wet and miserable – when I saw my first blue whale off the coast of Sri Lanka. I remember the feeling of sheer, unadulterated awe that swamped me as soon as the beast came to the surface not far from our boat, how it nullified the discomfort of that journey. I often wondered if I’d ever experience something like that again and what would cause it. The sight of an orca pod off the Snæfellsnes peninsula did it.
The pod was swimming west, commuting behind the shoals of herring that constitute their main staple, their fins – tall and straight were the males’, arced like scimitars the females’ – emerging at regular intervals. Often their heads would pop out too, perhaps checking out this boatload of excitable bipeds.
Click or tap on any photo to start the slideshow.
For the next two hours we were to accompany these beautiful animals in their meanderings. We were to encounter three pods and, our resident researchers said, a total of 30 orcas, each and every one of them recognisable because of the white patch behind their dorsal fin. We were to see them from afar and up close, from above and from below too when our boat was sinking in the through of a wave and they were riding its crest; we saw adults, juveniles and even calves. In one happy moment I caught a fleeting image that will remain with me forever: an orca’s silhouette, pectoral fins extended, the delicate interplay of blacks and whites running across her body perfectly visible, as she swam inside a wave of green water illuminated by the shining sun.
Click or tap on any photo to start the slideshow.
Some around us were cold, some were feeling sick and some hadn’t quite finished vomiting since we’d left the harbour but, thankfully, we didn’t. The sheer beauty of nature kept us warm, happy and sprightly as Duracell bunnies.
– § –
Years of activism have succeeded in turning the idea of capturing juvenile orcas to turn them into attractions as despicable as the act of selling cigarettes to eight-year olds. Far from being killers, researchers will point out that no fatal attacks on humans have ever been recorded. Stories such as the remarkable one captured by South African photographer Rainier Schimpf – of a mutilated orca, unable to fend for herself – being supported for years by her pod sisters are, instead, the new anecdotes being employed when describing these animals. If ever there was a species in need of a rebranding orcas are them. Perhaps we should call them blackfish.
– § –
Suddenly the ‘home time’ marker was upon us. It must’ve come as welcome news to the sickest amongst us; for me, though, it was a farewell that I wished I could postpone. We turned east as the orcas kept on swimming nobly to the east. Their future is fraught with danger – climate change, overfishing, pollution, plastics – but, at least, everywhere they’ll go people will now meet them with the same respect and awe that our aboriginal ancestors tribute to them.
Iceland doesn’t score very high in terms of cityscapes. Granted, there are corners of beauty peppered here and there in Reykjavik but there’s no denying that, besides those exceptions, towns and villages all around this island have a utilitarian air. They were built to answer a function, to solve a need, not to be admired.
The village of Grundarfjörður was, at least from the outset, not that different. There was no promenade by the shore but a harbour where pick-ups and fork-lifts manoeuvred in and out of warehouses. Homes and civic buildings all had a Spartan look; even the café-cum-library boasted a nude concrete floor which, we believed, must’ve been easier to clean than wood or tiles.
Yet Grundarfjörður had an undeniable allure. There was an air of frank no-nonsense, of affable helpfulness. No one, there, had neither time nor the interest for playing politics or to mess about. And there was the landscape. Honestly, you could plop any eyesore in such a location and I’d still stop, awe-struck, in contemplation.
We stayed at a small cluster of homes just outside of town. Our window opened on a panorama of mountains softened by the snow that kept on falling every night, but the real treat lied waiting just past the front door.
Our stay was brief; yet, halfway through it, we’d already gotten the measures of the place: which brand of cheese we liked, how to get the coffee machine to work and, as it’s typical in villages, we begun recognising some of the villagers. The friendly bear-of-a-man who worked as the cashier in the store; the groovy café guy; the farm boys who drove snowmobiles every late afternoon.
Alas, we were to leave soon. On our last evening we stood outside the guesthouse as the sun sunk behind the horizon in an eternal crepuscule, hoping for some clear skies. Initially, though, that did not seem to be the case.
But then, at around midnight, a casual glance out of the window revealed a blanket of stars. We quickly tossed on some layers and braved the -8C armed with tripod and camera. Millions of stars twinkled above us and, before the camera’s lenses, they began their slow dance. A fishing trawler, meanwhile, chugged serenely into port, its mission evidently done.
In spite of being late in the season we had harboured hopes of witnessing the spectacle of the aurora borealis. It was our last night and, if ever it was going to happen, it had to be now. Suddenly and without noise, but for the quacking of two quarrelling ducks in the stream beneath us, a grey band materialised in the sky. It sneaked elegantly across the bay, describing an arc from Kirkjufell to the mountain range to our backs. It looked like a cloud, but stars shone through it. As we weighted options the band became two. And then three, four, like incomprehensibly large amoebas whose Petri dish was the entire celestial vault. As the grey bands went about their business we waited with baited breath.
Then it began. From behind Kirkjufell a faint green curtain appeared. Pulled by an invisible hand along an unseen railing, the curtain worked its way across the fjord and up our heads. There it remained, dancing into the night sky to a rhythm that no one on Earth could hear, for a good ten minutes before it disappeared as gently as it’d arrived. As far as auroras went, we would be told later, this was a pretty weak show and it only left the faintest glow on our photos. But, yet, the sense of child-like wonder, the shiver of excitement at the sight of such a mysterious phenomenon was the best parting gift that Grundarfjörður could give us.
The 9-18mm lenses I’ve just bought are, in the words of the photographer who won the chance of endorsing them, “perfect for panoramas”.
In a rare astronomical conjunction where marketing met reality and they both shook hands with user requirements a set of wide-angle lenses was precisely what I needed, for Snæfellsnes turned out to be panorama country.
Doubter are you? Master Yoga would say. If so, allow me to show you some examples that, hopefully, will explain. (Just remember can you can click/tap on any photo to see it in widescreen format).
A storm brewing across the fjord.
The day was blustery to the extreme, omen of the waves of snowstorm that were to lash the coast throughout the following 24 hours. We were driving along the Hvalfjörður as yet another squall rolled in from the howling sea. I remember thinking “What if we took bikes?” and shudder despite the heated seat.
It was a short drive from Lýsudalur – 3 houses, one stable, something looking like a school – to Búðir, one hotel and a chapel. Between the two places a volcano, now long gone, had left a trail of scoria: a tormented landscape of corrugated rocks twisted and turned by incomprehensible forces. A lava field.
A dance of snow and sun.
We were having to stop every half-hour or so to scrape the powdered ice that would inevitably plaster itself all over the car’s rear lights. As we did so the weather kept on turning like the mood swings of a spoilt brat: sun followed white-out and wind followed calm. Briefly, on the road between Hellissandur and Ólafsvík, we were able to witness that changing-of-the-guard moment.
The “most photographed mountain in Iceland”, or so some claimed, lived up to its fame on a rare moment where the crowds with whom we shared it trickled down to just a handful of visitors impregnable to the icy wind, as well as a dog apoplectic with joy at the sight of snow.
Within spitting (with wind in favour) distance from Hellissandur lies Ingjaldshóll. Once a farm; now a church, graveyard and not much more. As the story goes a young man wintered here after arriving at the nearby port of Rif on a ship from Bristol. During those long winter nights he came to learn more about the Vikings’ voyages west, to Greenland and further on to Vinland. That man was none other than Christopher Columbus.
On the beach.
Echoes of Neil Young would be welcome if only Ambulance Blues wasn’t so sombre. A beach just outside Grundarfjörður, deserted but for a man with a drone – thankfully far away. A black beach dotted with purple sea shells, flanked by white hills and covered, in places, by a thin water film over which the blue, golds and greys of the sky can run like a cinema screen.
Past Grundarfjörður is a road turning right, running over the mountains that make up the spine of Snæfellsnes. That road, sneaking as it does up an inviting mountain pass, is an utter joy. And it’s not just because of the driving pleasure: it’s also gifted by great, great views. More on that later on.
The medieval chronicler.
Not too far from the Laugarsbrekka farmstead that saw the birth of Guðríður Víðförla is a locality known as Staðarstaður. There’s a monolith there but, unlike that monolith, it hadn’t mysteriously appeared to make apes intelligent. Soiled as it was by a sacrilegious bird, the monolith is a monument to one Ari Þorgilsson, cleric and XII century chronicler. Author of Íslendigabók, Ari told the story of Iceland between the times where she was settled by Norse outcasts and the conversion to Christianity. I don’t know about you, but if, 1000 years from now, I could be remembered by a monument this grand in a place this supremely beautiful, it’ll be a great, great satisfaction.
We live in an age where travel is becoming a commodity. £300 return fares, London-New York, non-stop. £60 tickets for the train to Paris. Competition has brought low fares and low fares have shrunk the world: the jet set is no more, and we should all be thankful for that.
But what if today was AD 980 and you were a good eight centuries away from the invention of the internal combustion engine, let alone a Wi-Fi-equipped airliner? Well, in that case you’d be up the creek without a paddle. Unless your name was Guðriður Þorbjarnardóttir from Laugarbrekka in Snæfellsnes, Iceland.
The X and XI centuries mustn’t have been easy on the tourism industry in Europe. Carolingian unity was well and truly a thing of the past, roads were still those designed by people walking around in togas and I doubt that the postal service was much better either or they would be reading something other than the Epistles to the Corinthians in church. In facts, it seems to me that long-distance travelling was something that one would indulge in only if part of a band of Saracen pirates. Or a Viking.
Laugarbrekka’s many charms were a bit hard to appreciate on the morning when we paid it a visit. A cloud the colour of graphite hung above a sea that was on the tenebrous end of the blues palette, all while a vicious wind pelted us with ice goblets that flew almost horizontally. The very act of inching the car’s door open sent the thing flying, breaking some part that I dearly hoped was covered by the insurance.
This was the place that Guðriður, daughter of Þorbjarn, called “home”. Hardly surprising, we figured, that one fine day her family decided they’d enough and that it was time to head towards pastures new. Like Greenland.
Greenland, avid readers of Norse sagas will know, had been colonised by an enterprising Viking called Eirik the Red who, with a brainwave worthy of an advertising agency, decided to give such a name to island that is 85% covered in ice as a mean to entice gullible settlers. Still, for a while everything seemed to go just fine: the colony functioned and Guðriður had tied the knot with one Þorstein, son of Eirik himself and brother of none other than Leif, the chap who was first to discover Vinland. Perhaps it was Leif’s raving reviews that convinced Guðriður and Þorstein to kiss Greenland goodbye and head over there too.
As we sat in our car, listening to the storm rumbling outside, I thought about travelling through seas such as the ones just a few hundred meters away from us. I thought about boarding a drakkar made of wood, not much longer than a bus, and setting sail into a sea peppered with icebergs and freak waves. Even considering the thing was enough to send me shivering.
On that particular occasion, though, things didn’t work and the trip ended in disaster with Þorstein dying in the process. Such a setback would’ve been enough for anyone to call it quits with this thing called travelling, but not Guðriður. Newly widowed, the redoubtable Viking returned to her native Iceland by way of Norway (stopovers are always cheaper as we know). There she met a gentleman going by the name of Þorfinnur Karlsefni who, the saga points out, was “a man of good family and good means”.
The newlyweds didn’t lack vision and, evidently, Guðriður still had a bee in her bonnet when it came to Vinland for, soon after becoming Mr and Mrs, they led an expedition across the ocean. This time the enterprise proved to be successful and the party – the saga mentions sixty men, five women and an unspecified number of animals – made landfall in what today is Mr Trudeau’s happy country sometimes after the year 1000. The small colony was soon cheered by the arrival of Guðriður’s son, Snorri, the first European ever to be born in the New World.
Snorri was still a little more than an infant when things, though, started to go south. Relations with the First Peoples with whom the Vikings had gotten in contact soon turned sour and, faced with the perspective of annihilation, Þorfinnur and Guðriður opted to cut their losses and make sail for the friendlier shores of Greenland and, thence, back to Iceland.
In her older age Guðriður, once again widowed, didn’t lose that feeling of wanderlust that had evidently been flowing in her veins. Her sons had by then flown the nest and she had recently converted to Christianity: no better time, then, for a pilgrimage to Rome. So off she went and, some say, managed to chat about her travels to the Pope himself. Whether she met the big man or not is unsure, but I’d like to think she did; what is certain is that, on her return, she became a nun and lived the rest of her years in a church built by her sons, becoming known as Víðförla or “far-travelled”.
Somewhere in Laugarbrekka, we were told, Guðriður’s legacy lived on and there it was: a small plinth holding a sleek, metallic drakkar. On it, standing tall and proud like the woman she undoubtedly was, was Guðriður the far travelled, little Snorri waving from her shoulder. In that snowy, windy morning in Snæfellsnes, it looked as if she was smiling at us in encouragement.
The sky at night over London is alive. Perhaps not with immortal angels listening in to the thoughts of those down below but very much alive it is.
A camera, a tripod and an Internet forum thread with tips on settings was everything we needed but for the skies themselves. Then, for a handful of nights in February, the heavens pitched in to show that, yes, alive indeed they are.
A trail of white lights: a stream running from left to right like an avenue in the sky over the western part of the city. Further to the left and higher up, a faint halo: a stack of Plasmon biscuits made of red lines and dots. Planes coming in to land at Heathrow airport; more planes – or perhaps the same – patiently waiting for their turn in a ‘stack’, a gigantic three-dimensional racetrack where planes enter from up above and descend, slowly but steadily, until it’s their turn to line up for the runways. As they proceed, as they move about the sky, they leave a faint but indelible trace on the sequence of 1 and 0s that make the RAW file captured by my camera’s sensor. In the deepening turquoise of London’s evening, the sky is not populated by angels. It’s business consultants coming home, travellers transferring on to the late night long hauls, it’s pilots and cabin crews. People.
On our second attempt the twilight had well and truly been washed away from the sky. We left the camera on its tripod, quietly whirring away, and went about our business. When we returned, after well more than an hour, we had an unexpected surprise: not only had the sensor captured the pale, blinking lights of the jets but it had also recorded things we had never figured we could see. Strange curving lines – some green, some white, some stronger, some paler – bisecting the dotted vectors of commercial flights. They were so intriguing that we ignored the novelty of having been able to capture not just Heathrow’s but also City’s traffic: what were they?
The answer could only be satellites.
There are an estimated 4,600 satellites orbiting around Earth, not including junk. Tiny moons we can’t see with naked eye but that, still basking in direct sunlight, describe their serene trajectories as they allowed humans to communicate with one another, share Instagram photos or spy over unsuspecting fellow earthlings.
Night #3 brought a change. A breeze from the east meant a shift in air operations: airliners would no longer cruise over the city en route to Heathrow, opting instead for an approach that led them above Windsor. Take offs, on the other side, would aim for the city, swerving gently over north London to avoid the centre. Fully expecting a less crowded scene we nonetheless set up our camera pointing northwards, ready to capture whatever may come.
Boy weren’t we in for a surprise.
Beacons criss-crossed the sky in delicate networks, the lights of the departing widebodies bound for the East and Africa mingling with thin necklaces of green and red anti-collision lights of those flights that already were at cruising altitude. Here and there, like old friends stopping by for a quick greet, were the satellites, sailing higher than anyone could.
Days of morning fog ensued before, eventually, a clear dawn appeared. A clear dawn with no easterly winds. As they arrived from China, Singapore and South Africa the early morning flights lined up diligently and, one after the other, came in to land with their cargo of yawning families, execs straightening the knot of their ties and window seat dreamers. To the east, behind the towers of Canary Wharf, a golden glow announced a new day.
I’ve since long harboured the dream of having – or, more modestly, staying at – a house on the Bosporus. Something with balconies abutting the waterfront, or perhaps a terrace with a view of the passing ships, a bottle of Sipsmith at the ready and a supply of tonic water and cucumbers.
Alas, that dream hasn’t quite morphed into reality: as it seems, waterfront real estate is either occupied by Dolmabahçe Palace – which, I’m told, is not for sale – or by a monumentally large Four Seasons hotel whose clientele, at least judging by what I can gather from the outside, isn’t in the same line of business as I am. In the meantime I have to make do with Beyoğlu, that part of Istanbul that I loosely identify with Galata, Karaköy and the meander of streets fanning away from Istiklal caddesi. Don’t get me wrong here: as far as second choices go, this is the softest of landings.
The subconscious, as always, plays a big part. I love Genoa and the whole Liguria region in which she sits, pretty and smug: in Istanbul all you need to do is to scratch here and there and, voilá, the red-blue DNA of Galata will emerge. But there are also more objective reasons: chiefly Beyoğlu’s liveliness and relative libertarianism. Other parts of town might have sunk under the touristic onslaught or might be sulking in a sense of betrayal and abandonment; some will have evolved into soulless dormitories. Not here. Beyoğlu has what London lost or sold decades ago: charisma, identity and that very abused locution, “A sense of place”.
Lately, though, I’ve been coming here on tiptoe, as you’d do when entering the room of somebody who’s very sick. Encroached by terrorism on one side – the Daesh suicide attack in 2016, the Kurdish car bombs outside Beşiktaş’ Vodafone Arena on the same year and more – and authoritarianism on the other – why do you need water cannons outside Gezi Park? – I always dreaded to find the place a shadow of its former self.
I needn’t have worried.
Under a very British drizzle, Karaköy’s hipster scene was flourishing in the former docks that – the whole world over – seem to have been built with the sole purpose of being refurbished into bars and cafés.
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In the streets leading to the sea small-town life continues unabated with barbers flapping razors in the air when labouring a point; in Galata, meanwhile, the stairway leading to my hotel had been blocked by a music video set.
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Boys still needed just a guitar to hook up with adoring fans.
Above all, there still was Istiklal caddesi. Past the barricades erected around Lycée Galatasaray, regardless of the threat of bombings, the place still throbbed with people.
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Thousands strolled up and down as dozens of buskers played folk music from Anatolia. Writer Charles Bukowski is alleged to have said, once, that “people are the best show in the world”. If he really had said that, he must’ve passed through Beyoğlu on a Saturday afternoon.