“Gap Year” Part 3

After my memorable, and sometimes unsettling, experiences in Thailand and New Zealand, I returned to Whitehorse to work for awhile to top up my finances – and take advantage of a family vacation trip to Hawaii.

This is where the “natural disaster” phase of my travels began.

At the end of one of our first days there, we returned to our condominium to see the television warning: “TSUNAMI TO HIT HAWAII AT 11:19 AM”.

A devastating earthquake had just hit Chile and a tsunami was travelling across the Pacific in the direction of the Hawaiian Islands.

We packed our bags and headed for high ground just as the sirens were signalling everyone to evacuate the lowlands.

Up on a hillside, I curled up in our rental car listening to updates on the radio, alongside locals with cars packed to the brim with important possessions, pets and children.

Nine hours later, the authorities informed us we could return to our rented condominium; the tsunami had been smaller than expected and the beaches were now deemed safe.

Still, less than 100 metres from the ocean, I did not have the best sleep that night.

Although I had now been robbed in New Zealand, hospitalized in Thailand, and experienced a full-on tsunami evacuation, I still very much had the backpacker buzz.

I decided that Iceland would be my last gap-year destination. It’s a country I had longed to visit since I got my first globe.

After considerable Googling about the land of fire and ice, I came across a study camp on water and sustainable energy and decided to jump aboard.

Since I now realized that wildlife and natural resources was where I wanted to focus my studies, this remote northern European island seemed to be an ideal place to start learning more about polar environmental issues.

Besides, with the country experiencing an economic hit, it was probably the only time I could actually afford to travel to Iceland.

Before even touching down on Icelandic soil, I had already experienced the genuine friendliness of these Viking-descendant people.

The passenger seated next to me briefed me through the entire flight about the country, gave me his family’s contact information and even took my friend and me out on a truly Icelandic excursion to the outskirts of Reykjavák.

The author (far right) with other study camp participants atop the Mt. Esja volcano

We visited beautiful local secrets surrounding the city, including the famous Blue Lagoon, a sequence of misty blue natural rock pools heated by the water output of the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power plant.

Two days after my arrival, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, causing the largest air traffic halt since 9/11.

News of this event filled my inbox with “Are you alive!?” messages and caused my parents a few more grey hairs. But having already been through one natural disaster, I was starting to get the drill.

With the southern highways flooded due to the eruption, our group was obliged to drive clockwise around the entire island to begin our study camp in the eastern part of Iceland.

Visiting the Kárahnjúkar hydroelectric plant, built to power Alcoa’s recently-constructed Fjardaál aluminum smelter, proved to be very educational.

This gigantic project, which displaced a lot of wildlife in a previously untouched part of the country, had been the subject of much debate among Icelanders.

Many told me its construction had divided the Icelandic people. My visit there opened my eyes to the continuous global struggle between economy and environment, and the price the environment pays for our presence.

As we drove through blizzard conditions in and out of Icelandic fjords, winds sweeping from across the Atlantic pushed our van across the road more than once.

Caribou, swans and the odd randomly-placed Icelandic sheep farm inhabited this harsh environment.

Alongside the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon on the southeast coast, with its floating icebergs, I found it challenging to speak as the frosty winds froze my lips.

Back in Reykjavák, our group decided to hike Mt. Esja, the majestic volcano overlooking the capital city.

As we hiked through this barren territory, I could hear the jingle of four languages among the group. I’m pretty certain I now know how to say “Wow!” in each of those languages.

A colourful streetscape in Reykjavák, Iceland

When we reached the top, I gazed around at the snow-covered crater in awe. It was a stunning sight.

Still, I couldn’t resist a sigh of relief as we started our descent; I mean, we were atop a volcano only 100 km from another that had just exploded!

With participants from all over the globe during the camp, I learned a bit of everything, from how to cook for 30 people, to the structure of a geothermal power plant, and even the main principles of Islam.

On one of our last days in Reykjavák, I headed with the others to local hot pools on the coast to witness a truly Icelandic tradition.

Mid-April, freezing, with gloomy skies, and these people were running out into the Atlantic Ocean for a dip, then scooting into the steaming hot pools.

Man, are those people tough!

I stood there in my down jacket, toque and mitts thinking, “No way”.

But after some good ol’ European convincing, there I was, goosebumps, bikini and all, beelining it for a floating buoy.

It is amazing what a bond you can form with complete strangers after sharing an April plunge into the Atlantic!

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