Eyjafjalljokull. Just the tongue-twisting name emanates an impossible pronunciation for most people outside Iceland. And the glacier itself is creating a scenario that most of us thought to be impossible just a week ago. Our now-world famous local volcano continues to spew its ash into the atmosphere, creating a nagging inconvenience for millions of travelers. Nature’s power and merciless resolve surprise even the direst optimistic believer of technology and orderly “ordnung” today.
Living here in Hvolsvollur, less than 20 miles away in the “backyard” of the volcanic eruption, things are both the same and different. People’s lives are going on in an almost normal pattern in the zone just west of the volcano area. There is no panic or anxiety. We eat, sleep, work and go about our lives just as before. Just a bit more busy than usual.
The Hotel Ranga, which I manage, is about 25 miles away from the eruption (clearly visible from the hotel dining room). These days the hotel is constantly full as people from all over the world flock here to see this apocalyptic yet fascinating natural wonder. Journalists and TV crews, mostly coming from the U.S., are the bulk of our present clientele as most Europeans have been cut off from the skies. And business is good. For now. But if international flights are soon not resumed, I fear for our future as a tourist destination.
No longer just a tourist noveltyFlying over the first eruption at the Fimmvorduhals volcano in a helicopter two weeks ago — twice I might add — was one of the most fascinating and exciting experiences of my 46-year-old life. The glowing, golden-red lava stream falling 700 meters was something too beautiful and stunning to believe was possible. I even popped a champagne bottle just by the volcano with my girlfriend, adding a romantic twist that made it almost too good to be true. Riding a snowmobile on the nearby glacier at night, observing the red glow of volcano, the green glow of the overhead aurora borealis and a full moon casting its light on the white glacier snow, was a lifetime experience!
This was a friendly little “tourist volcano,” where thousands flocked in all kinds of vehicles and by foot to catch a glimpse of the seething red, hot lava. The new and considerably larger Eyjafjalljokull volcano is, on the other hand, BIG. And it is something that is hampering tourism all over the world. Ironically, the Reykjavik airport is one of the few in Europe that still remains open due to favorable wind conditions. But that can change in a flash and this causes immediate concern.
Under the glacier, things are definitely not normal. I was yesterday given permission to enter the restricted area with some journalists and was aghast at what I observed. The layer of accumulated ash was up to 4 inches thick. I saw abandoned farms. And we met terrified farmers. I saw areas that have been flooded with black ash and littered with surreal white icebergs scattered around randomly in the extraterrestrial landscape. I even saw one of my own hotels, Hotel Skogar, covered with ash and being an unsuspecting victim of a recent break-in, as plunderers were quick to use the evacuated area to their advantage. Kind of reminded me of a sci-fi scenario like the first "Mad Max" movie.
Putting life into perspective
I can honestly say that I feel no fear or remorse that this has now actually happened. It is exciting and adventurous. I do, of course, feel for the travelers stuck in destinations they immediately want to leave. I feel for the local farmers and people that have had to evacuate their homes and livestock. I feel for the people that missed important events like all the dignitaries that missed the funeral of Poland’s president.
But simultaneously, I feel soothed and relieved that nature's power puts things in my life into a perspective that gives insight in what puny ants we really are. And what a fine line there is that separates us from routine and chaos. It makes me appreciate the monotonous repetitions of everyday life in an entirely different way.
I know now that life is a wonderful gift we all must share, well worth taking care of. And that nature's power and beauty needs to be respected and nurtured if we are to continue to thrive on this blue-green sphere flying aimlessly through the vastness of black space.
Eyjafjalljokull. Try to say it ...
Bjorn Eriksson is the manager of Hotel Ranga.