04 Dec 2014 - The Rules of Travel: Juxtaposition (pt. 1)
The first thing any astute traveller notices is that, regardless of the destination, it will inevitably be full of contradictions.
I’ve experienced more than one head-scratching juxtaposition, myself. Like that time in Kathmandu I spotted a woman riding on the back of a moped through a slum, carrying a goat in one arm and a Birkin in the other (one can only hope that was the closest in proximity the two ever got to each other). Or that time I spotted a grass and mud hut deep in the Kalahari outfitted with gigantic Bose speakers out of which Jay-Z and Beyonce were thumping full-blast.
Like physics, fashion and hockey, traveling has its own set of laws, foremost of which is the rule of juxtaposition. Iceland, I quickly learned, was no exception.
Which is why I found myself standing on a damp street corner of Reykjavik at seven in the morning, marveling at how spotlessly clean the whole place was, and at the same time holding my nose. Almost to spite the extreme cleanliness of the place—I could have eaten my peach flavoured Skyr off the airport floor—it reeked of flatulence.
I noticed it as soon as I stepped out of the airport and onto the shuttle bus that was going to take us into downtown Reykjavik. At first I thought it was Bimal and he thought it was me, but after emphatically establishing that it was neither of us (thank god), we began to cast suspicious glances at our fellow bus passengers.
But after an hour and a half of trundling through flat, volcanic tundra still shrouded in early-morning darkness, we were dropped off at our hostel and I could still smell it.
By now I was becoming used to the smell, but I began to wonder if it was literally falling from the sky. It had been drizzling since we landed, and every time a raindrop fell on my cheek, it got stronger.
As soon as we checked into the hostel and were given our room key, we looked it up. Apparently it was acid rain from the ongoing fissure eruption in the northeast of Iceland, and the ash and sulfur were mixing with the rain, hence the smell.
Hardly surprising, for the land of fire and ice.
After a long and much-needed nap—in a bed that was as clean and pure as the Madonna’s skirts—Bimal and I bundled up and headed outside to discover more of Reykjavik, where I quickly discovered another contradiction. Despite being the world’s northernmost capital city, it was surprisingly warm. After only ten minutes, I was perspiring in my too-warm Lululemon jacket.
The streets were paved in dark cobblestone, and the buildings were short, squat and candy-coloured, each one a different pastel hue. There were little apartments above the various shops, boutiques and restaurants in the downtown core, and people milled about on the roads. Like any European city, everyone was elegantly attired, and I felt grossly inadequate in my Canadian winter-survival gear (standard wear in Toronto—there’s a reason my beloved hometown is not and never will be one of the fashion capitals of the world).
We headed back after an hour or so, and got ready to go out again. We had booked a private tour with a local woman named Lisa, who would pick us up at our hostel and take us out to see the northern lights. Which brings me to the Second Law of Traveling. Expect the unexpected.
But I’ll get to that next time.