so much of iceland feels like we've left earth behind.
maybe that's partly to do with the fact that we're on holiday and we're in a new country and we're all feeling pretty suspended from reality — like, there's work back in the states and future summer plans and to-do lists, but we're here, driving around this country of unworldly beauty in a camper van.
when i think about it later, i think, did that really happen, did we really do that, or was it just a dream?
and i think, can i go back to that dream?
i can't believe that, a week ago, i was in iceland.
my little cousin carries a thermos of hot cocoa around with her at all times. at first, we fill it with ghirardelli's my aunt brought from the states, but we run out of that, so we buy hot cocoa when we're buying eggs and milk and apples. (we eat a lot of apples and bananas in iceland. and tomatoes. tomatoes are freaking good in iceland.) we buy giant tins of swiss miss because that's what we can find and we decide that the giant tin is more economical than a box of 10 envelopes, and that turns out to be accurate because it's a sizable thermos, and we also drink hot cocoa out of cups for breakfast and dinner sometimes.
we finish 2 giant tins of swiss miss in roughly a week.
my aunt also buys cartons and cartons of almond milk, and, when she and my uncle and cousin return to the states a week before we do, she leaves behind five cartons, tasking my cousins with drinking it all. we cook oatmeal with it in the mornings, but the rest is left to my little cousin, who chugs it with toast, with lunch, with rice mixed with beef and eggs.
the middle cousin and i prefer cow milk instead.
but, anyway, the point was that my little cousin carries a thermos of hot cocoa around with her at all times, even when we're hiking up and down mountains or walking through alien landscapes smoking sulfuric smells. she'll carry the hot cocoa, though she'll hand her jacket over to me when she gets hot, and i get used to tying discarded jackets around my waist.
luckily, she shares the hot cocoa. the little one doesn't need sugar to make herself giddy. she comes naturally charged that way.
sometimes, i think it must be weird to know a writer who'll turn you into a character in the stories she tells. it must be strange to come across something and find yourself so casually mentioned, to find yourself a character in someone else's life, in someone else's story, which, i suppose, we all are, really — we're all characters in other people's lives.
we can't control what people think of us, how they perceive us, what they believe about us. we can't control how they interpret our actions or the insecurities they project onto us. we can't control how they try to place us within the narratives of their own lives.
and i think that's something i've learned to let go of over the last few years. instead, i've been turning it around to the realization that, while i can't control how someone considers me, i can control how she/he/they make me feel. that kind of power is not something i have to hand over to someone, and it is not something anyone deserves or is entitled to.
similarly, i can't control how people feel about me. i can try and make the effort to put my best foot forward and to be the best person i can be, but, ultimately, i can't control how someone decides to react personally to me and my actions.
this, too, is something i've been learning about communication — that it requires us to go in these roundabout loops sometimes, where our intentions and meanings get lost and twisted and lock us in frustrating back-and-forths in the hopes of reaching a point of understanding. when i was a child, i hated this, thought it was wasted breath and effort, trying to get people (namely my parents) to understand. now, though, i think it's a struggle worth engaging in, especially when the relationship means something to you and has value and is worth preserving.
i mean, no one says interpersonal relationships are easy.
as it turns out, i like talking. i like engaging. as it turns out, i'm not as much an introvert (or misanthrope) at my core as i thought i was. as it turns out, i like people. i kinda like people a whole lot.
one of my favorite things about iceland is the midnight sun. i love that there is light at all times, that it looks like blue hour from 11:30 pm to 5 am.
we fall into a routine of sleeping late and waking late, and we usually leave campgrounds around 11:30 am, maybe noon. we don't worry about this, though, don't follow a schedule obsessively, because the point is to enjoy the country, not stress out over things we might be missing because we're in such a hurry.
there's the midnight sun, too, the fact that there is always light, so we don't need to worry about making it from one campground to the next before dark. we don't need to worry about getting stuck in the mountains or along a fjord or in the middle of nowhere, not even a tiny town nearby, before dark. we don't need to worry about a whole lot — or, at least, i don't worry about a whole lot.
the thing i do worry about, though, is the state of our tires, and, one morning, i go to the bathroom to wash up and am walking back to our van when i notice that our left rear tire has deflated overnight. i think, oh shit, it happened, and i think, oh shit, even more because i know that, while we have a spare tire, we have neither the tools nor the knowledge to change our tire.
i wake the eldest up, and we go to the hotel down the hill to ask if there's a tire place nearby. the receptionist is professional but unhelpful, telling us the nearest person is about a 10-minute drive away — and our tire is too low to drive on gravel roads without risking damage to the rim.
we're standing at the counter, frustrated and concerned because we have a ferry to catch and it'll take hours for roadside assistance to get to us. as we consider cancelling the ferry and just hiking around the area and finding a hot spring while we wait, a man comes up to us and says he thinks he has tools in his car — if he does, he'd be happy to help us out.
i think one of the things traveling teaches you is about the kindness of strangers.
sometimes, it's a big kindness, like taking time out of your morning, out of your trip, to help strangers change the tire on their car because you overheard them talking to the receptionist, and you overheard her saying it'd probably be four hours before help could reach them.
sometimes, it's a small kindness, like stepping in when you see a stupid foreigner (aka me) at a market, mumbling about wanting milk but not being able to read the labels, intervening when you see her reaching for something that is not milk and pointing her to the right cartons, explaining that the blue carton is thicker milk and the yellow carton is thinner milk. sometimes, it's stopping to offer help with directions or to offer to take a group photo.
and you learn not only to receive such kindnesses with grace and thanks but also to offer it. i think that's always something nice to be reminded of, this notion of paying it forward, that we should strive to give back at least as much as we have received.
and i'm constantly encouraged to see this in the literary community, in the support we try to show each other, whether by reading each other's work, sharing each other's work, or simply offering comfort and support and encouragement when it's needed. i'm not saying this is something exclusive or unique to the literary community, simply that this is the community i know and and participate in and love, that i am lucky enough to find myself in a community, particularly of asian-american women writers, that is warm and invested and supportive. it's a wonderful thing and not something i take for granted.
the eldest explains that the black sand is from lava that's cooled, become rock, and has been broken down into sand. the eldest has a lot of explanations for things, so we start asking her everything, like, how long do sheep live? and how many babies do sheep have? and do only male sheep have horns?
we have a lot of questions about sheep because we really like the sheep.
at one point on the eastern coast, there is a beach where chunks of glaciers sometimes maroon themselves while on their way out to sea. it's called a diamond beach because some of the glaciers break down into smaller bits and scatter themselves on the black sand beach, so they look like (surprise, surprise) diamonds.
the little one picks up a chunk of ice and cradles it in her arms, licking it to taste it. the middle one is like, ew, why would you do that, that was on the ground — but, then, i lick it, too, because i want to taste it. it tastes like clean water, and i could keep licking away at it like a popsicle if it weren't weird to be standing in the middle of a beach, holding a chunk of glacier in my arms.
black sand feels softer and finer than regular sand. it feels denser, too, and it's easier to walk on because i sink less, don't feel the ground slipping away from under my feet and filtering unpleasantly into my shoes. i prefer how dramatic black sand looks, too, like the blackness, the origins, the relative rareness of it.
i like how it contrasts against the vivid blue of icelandic waters.
we do the tourist thing and go to the blue lagoon, and we have a repeat at the baths at myvatn in north iceland.
the water is that otherworldly blue, which the eldest explains is a result of the silica content in the water, and we go gasping from the changing room, in 6-degrees celsius weather, into the hot water. we sink into it with relief, feel our bodies melting and relaxing, and we go wading around (the water isn't deep; when i stand, it maybe comes up to my waist), only our heads floating above that blue.
we're told not to put our hair in the water because the sulfur is bad for hair, so we tie our hair in buns on top of our heads. the middle plunges his head into the water anyway, and the little one follows suit, and she marvels over the smoothness of her skin but the roughness of her hair the next day.
we get really close on this trip. we shower in the communal, public shower, and i think, wow, i haven't seen so many naked bodies since i was in korea in 2012.
i think, hey, it's nothing to be so weird about. a body is just a body. my body is just a body.
after the baths at myvatn, we drive to the campground nearby. it's past midnight when we get there, and the campground is packed because it's in a beautiful location, right by water. my aunt and uncle and cousin will be leaving us early in the morning to drive back to reykjavik to catch their afternoon flight back to the states, and we're all washed and clean and happy from the baths, so we decided to make ramyeon outside.
we're the only ones awake, and there are tents pitched near our table, so we talk in whispers while we wait for the water to boil. we cook two packets first and eat them, cook a third when my aunt and uncle walk over. they don't want any, though, so we eat the third ourselves.
it's one am, and we're sitting at this table on a campground by water in north iceland, and it's bright out, no need for flashlights or headlights or lamps. the sky is pink and blue, and the clouds look like cotton candy, and i think, god, this is such a dream world, and, god, how is this real. i think, god damn, how lucky i am to be alive.