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My Icelandic Summers

by Veronica Li

The Icelandic Roots Writers Group wrote about summer memories for their April assignment.

I like to think of Iceland as my summer home. As a Chinese raised in Hong Kong and now living in the U.S., my claim to the place is by marriage. Since 1990, my Icelandic husband, whom I met at work in Washington, D.C., has been taking me to Iceland every other summer. He showed me his country in its original state, before tourists abandoned traditional hot spots for a cool island just off the polar circle.

I was visiting Iceland before it had hardly any visitors. On my first trip there, I saw one person who looked like me, probably one of the Vietnamese refugees admitted to the country. She was walking on the other side of the street. We both stopped and spun around to stare at each other. I could never have imagined that two decades later, busloads of Chinese tourists would swarm the once-quiet streets of Reykjavík.

On another early trip, Sverrir, my husband and tour guide, drove toward the airport on a day we weren’t booked to fly. A question mark hung in my head, but in Iceland, my guide did all the thinking for me, and he was an encyclopedia of surprises. Many a time he would pull the car off the road, make me walk a short, rugged distance, and unveil a breathtaking sight. Such as a rock stack rising out of the ocean like a church steeple, or a wall of basalt columns that reminded me of a Roman amphitheater. How did you know it was there? I asked him. There were no signs with an arrow pointing to a scenic view. Sverrir shrugged. He just knew.

Thus, on that ride toward the airport, I didn’t bother to ask where we were going. Sverrir pulled off the road aside a messy lava field. No grand vista greeted us, just an ugly chimney structure spewing steam a short distance away and a pool of stagnant water of a chalky, blue color. Sverrir beckoned me to a wooden stall where we changed into bathing suits. He waded into the sewage-looking water as though he’d done it before. I dipped in a toe, and to my pleasant surprise the water temperature was as comfortable as perfectly mixed bathwater, not too hot, not too cold. I immersed myself happily, until Sverrir told me where this water came from.

He explained that this was wastewater from the geothermal power plant nearby. The effluent was supposed to drain through the lava and out to sea, but the engineers must have miscalculated the porousness of the rocks.

When we returned some years later to the same spot, it looked as if a magician had waved a wand and turned the wasteland into an enchanting kingdom called The Blue Lagoon. A walkway led from the parking lot deeper and deeper into a pile of lava, ending at an entrance to a classy modern building. We stepped into a brightly lit hall, where an attendant told us the place was sold out, with no available reservations in the foreseeable future. I looked out the window and saw the tourist masses frolicking in “my pool.” I fumed silently, “I was here before any of them!”

Sverrir and I wandered around the sprawling building. The buffet at the restaurant was a feast for the eyes and stomach. One wall of the restaurant was a massive black rock surface flecked with gold and brown, reminding me of my whereabouts: inside the belly of a lava hillock. Wow, I thought, tourism isn’t all bad if it produces this stunning piece of volcanic architecture.

Tourism has done wonders for the Icelandic economy. In 2019, Iceland hosted a record two million tourists, almost six times the local population of 340,000. The country’s coffers overflowed, and so did the pockets of the private sector.  Thus, Icelanders tolerated the marauding hordes, state of siege, and feeling of being strangers in their homeland.

We’re resigned to this new Iceland, but one thing we refuse to accept is the degradation of the island’s nature. On my first trip to Iceland, I visited Skógafoss, a waterfall in south Iceland. It was a lacy curtain of water, just the right background for a photo op. After allowing me some time to take my shots, Sverrir clambered up the mountainside along the fall. I followed. At the top, I was breathless, not only from the climb but also the sight and sound of the torrent gushing toward me. This waterfall took me by surprise. We walked a little farther and saw—a waterfall again! How many more were there?

We went on and on for most of the day and counted twenty-some waterfalls. Some even had names, such as Bridal Dress. The top of that fall was clearly a strapless bodice, which narrowed to a shapely waist and billowed down a satin train.

The terrain we trod upon was a thin padding of anemic grass, probably a step up from moss. A narrow track made by humans and sheep was the only intrusion. Fortunately, foot traffic was light; during our trek, we saw only two other hikers. For our lunch picnic, we selected a spot close to the river. Sverrir dipped the empty bottle into the glacial water. Watching Sverrir guzzle it, I got up the nerve to swig it like a Viking.

Our last visit to Skógafoss in 2018 was an entirely different scenario. The parking lot was packed and next to the waterfall, a procession of tourists snaked up a long stairway built since our previous visit. We decided to skip it to spare ourselves the agony of watching what thousands of feet had done to the delicate vegetation.

In 2019, the environmental degradation above Skógafoss was so alarming that the authorities closed the area to visitors. Sverrir and I often wondered how long this tourist onslaught would last. What could possibly stem this tide? Would people tire of lava fields? Would a massive volcano explosion shut down the country? Or would Icelanders rise up and impose entry fees like those in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan?

In March 2020, we got our answer: COVID-19. International tourism came to a full stop. The Icelandic government, however, treated it as a pause, an opportunity to prepare the country for the upcoming invasion once the world reopens. Instead of cutting back, Iceland invested in infrastructure to protect its natural and cultural heritage.

Since then, the country has reopened and tourism rebounded to pre-COVID levels. All right, I’ll share my Iceland with the world on one condition. Visitors must tread lightly, with care and respect for this fragile land. In fact, the world would be better off if all tourists put their best foot forward wherever they travel. Imagine going to dinner at your mother-in-law’s (as I always did on my trips to Iceland): how would you behave to leave a good impression?


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