On the day I turned 27, my world was quiet. I’d awoken on farmland on the southern coast of Iceland, inside a tent yet to shake off the damp of yesterday’s downpour. It was early, but there are times your body awakes and simply tells you it’s time. (Jet lag puts you squarely in between exhaustion—the kind that doesn’t let you sleep—and adventurous optimism for the day ahead). I slipped a hardy wool sweater on and unzipped the tarp, toothpaste in hand, but the view beyond the tent, of grassy fields and distant rock formations and the faintest hint of a horizon, stopped me in my tracks.
Words and Photography by Mandy Sham
It didn’t look this way yesterday. Iceland was, as I quickly learned, characteristic in its weather tantrums, hurling all kinds of cold rain, fierce winds, and dense fog my way. By morning, that was mostly gone. I greeted the day with coffee in a chilly barn, admiring a landscape that practically transformed overnight.
The quiet of dawn has an unshakeable peace to it. The usual volume of thoughts is conspicuously absent, as coffee percolates, mixing in with the aroma of dew and as other humans continue their deep slumber. It didn’t take long to realize this sense of calm extended across the island, no matter the place or time of day. Less than 400 thousand people live in Iceland, and the absence of people (for someone accustomed to a life of cities) feels surreal, when juxtaposed with so much natural beauty.
“At times, the land looks almost too stunning to be habitable.”
It’s the ethereal terrain that makes Iceland what it is—an abundance of natural wonders formed over volcanic rock. Moss in lieu of grass (with an extraterrestrial, splash pad-like consistency); flowers of all colours; fields of jagged stones. From all angles, slender waterfalls cascade over cliff-edges and down the face of mountains. There are places where you can trace them, hiking for days alongside streams that lead to immense glaciers.
Being here feels, in some sense, accidental because of Iceland’s sometimes dangerous challenges of winter, and the tenacity its ancestors needed to survive. At times, the land looks almost too stunning to be habitable. In summer, there is already a wet chill in the air; I can only imagine what other seasons bring, alongside many hours of darkness. That’s what makes it all the more enchanting to see, the unwieldy nature of it and at the same time, the Icelandic capacity to make a life of such surroundings. It’s cold out, but every last café and fisherman’s diner feels eternally cozy.
“Iceland reminds me of the many ways the world is bizarre as it is beautiful.”
When the sun does finally come out, you feel like you’ve won—it is marvellous, the way the ocean waves roll in with a pearly shimmer—the way golden hour rays are cast on the Reykjavik harbour, long after what should have been sundown. One of my most beloved memories of Iceland is driving down the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and watching as the coast undulated with breathtaking vistas. It’s hard to express my joy at passing picturesque waterfront towns (with more birds and goats than humans), or rock formations that feel simulated in a dream.
Iceland reminds me of the many ways the world is bizarre as it is beautiful. And that is something I’ll recall for the rest of my days—the Earth’s many years of wisdom, packed into a small, mighty island in the north.