The Best Travel Writing 2010 is the seventh volume in the annual Travelers’ Tales series launched in 2004 to celebrate the world’s best travel writing—from Nobel Prize winners to emerging new writers. The points of view and perspectives are global, and themes encompass high adventure, spiritual growth, romance, hilarity and misadventure, service to humanity, and encounters with exotic cuisine.
In The Best Travel Writing 2010 readers will:
- Explore the mysteries of superstition in Cameroon
- Learn a thing or two about death in Mexico
- Take adopted children to Korea on a Homeland Tour
- Delve deep into the sacred Japanese pilgrimage route
- Travel solo in Panama’s forbidding Darien jungle…and much more.
With an Introduction by William Dalrymple
by WILLIAM DALRYMPLE
Not long ago, on a visit to the Mani in the Peloponnese, I went to visit the headland where the great travel writer Bruce Chatwin had asked for his ashes to be scattered.
The hillside chapel where Chatwin’s widow, Elizabeth, brought his urn, lies in rocky fields near the village of Exchori, high above the bay of Kardamyli. It has a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows built from stone the color of haloumi cheese. Inside are faded and flaking Byzantine frescoes of mounted warrior saints, lances held aloft.
The sun was slowly sinking over the Taygetus at the end of a hot day, and there was a warm smell of wild rosemary and cypress resin in the air. From the higher slopes, the distant peal of goat bells cut through the drowsy whirr of cicadas. It was, I thought, a perfect, beautiful, peaceful place for anyone to rest at the end of their travels.
My companion for the visit was Chatwin’s great friend and sometime mentor, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who for me at least was Chatwin’s only real rival as the greatest prose stylist of modern travel writing. Paddy’s two sublime masterpieces, A Time to Keep Silence and A Time of Gifts, are among the most beautifully written books of travel of any period, and it was really he who created the persona of the bookish wanderer, later adopted by Chatwin: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through remote mountains, a knapsack full of good books on his shoulder.
Inevitably, it was a melancholy visit. Not only were we there to honor the memory of the dead friend who had ¬introduced us, Paddy himself was not in great shape. At ¬dinner that night, it was clear that the great writer and war hero, now in his mid-nineties, was in very poor health:
“I’m deaf,” he told me as we sat eating in the moonlight, looking out through the arches of Paddy’s cloister to the olive groves beyond. “That’s the awful truth. That’s why I’m leaning towards you in this rather eerie fashion. I do have a hearing aid, but when I go swimming I always forget about it until I’m two strokes out, and then it starts singing at me. I get out and suck it, and with luck all is well. But both of them have gone now.”
From below came the crash of the sea on the pebbles of the foreshore of the bay. “Glasses too,” he added, taking a swig of retsina. “Running out of those very quickly. Occasionally the one that is lost is found, but their numbers slowly diminish…” He trailed off: “The amount that can go wrong at this age—you’ve no idea. My memory—anything like a date or a proper name just takes wing, and quite often never comes back. Even Winston Churchill—couldn’t remember his name last week. Terrific nuisance.”
Over dinner we talked about how travel writing seemed to have faded from view since its great moment of acclaim in the late 1970s and 80s, when both Paddy and Bruce had made their names and their reputations. It wasn’t just that publishers were not as receptive as they had once been to the genre, nor that stores like Waterstone’s and Borders had contracted their literary travel writing sections from prominent shelves at the storefront to a little annex at the back, usually lost under a great phalanx of Lonely Planet guidebooks. More seriously, and certainly more irreversibly, the great travel writers who I grew up reading were all dying.
The best of them had certainly had a good innings. Wilfred Thesiger (born 1910), who was in many ways the last of the great Victorian explorers, produced no less than four remarkable books in his final decade before departing on his final trek in 2003, at the age of ninety-three. More remarkable still, Norman Lewis was heading for his centenary when he published vThe Happy Ant-Heap in 1998, a characteristically bleak collection of pieces about trips to places so obscure, so uncomfortable and often so horrible, that they would tax anyone, never mind a man in his early nineties who should by rights have been shuffling around in carpet slippers with his colostomy bag, not planning trips to visit the smoked ancestral corpses of the highlands of Irian Jaya, or the torture chambers of Nicaragua, or any other of the grisly diversions Lewis settles upon to bring “some stimulation and variety” to his old age.
One typical adventure of the nonagenarian Lewis took place on a trip to Kos. On reading a story in the local paper about a police investigation into rumors that “women on the small island of Anirini were disposing of unwanted husbands by throwing them down dry wells,” Lewis merrily set off on a boat with three sponge fishermen and a prostitute they had picked up on the Piraeus waterfront (“they spent the crossing sleeping, eating and making love—the last on a strict rota”) in search of this barren island populated by homicidal widows. Before long Lewis, then aged ninety-two, had hopped ashore, rented a room from one of the chief suspects, and was soon cheerfully peering down well-heads in search of rotting cadavers.
Since then, however, the world of literary travel writing, once associated with the drumbeat of hooves across some distant steppe, has begun echoing instead with the slow tread of the undertaker’s muffled footfall. Within the last few years, as well as Thesiger and Lewis, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Eric Newby have both followed Bruce Chatwin on their last journey. Others—notably Jan Morris—have put down their pens or busied themselves with a final bout of anthologizing.
All this is a long way from the optimism of the scene twenty years ago, in 1989, when I published my first travel book, In Xanadu. At that time, the travel writing boom was one of the most important developments in publishing. The success of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, with its sales of 1.5 million copies, had dramatically breathed new life into the sort of travel memoir that had flourished in an earlier age, but which had languished since the European empires imploded after the second world war. Its success inspired Chatwin to give up his job on The Sunday Times Magazine and to go off to South America. The result—In Patagonia—was published in 1977, the same year Leigh Fermor produced A Time of Gifts. The final breakthrough came in 1984 with the publication of the celebrated Travel Writing issue of Granta: “Travel writing is undergoing a revival,” wrote Bill Buford,Granta’s editor, “evident not only in the busy reprinting of the travel classics, but in the staggering number of new travel writers emerging. Not since the 1930s has travel writing been so popular or so important…”
Travel writing was suddenly where the action was, and it remained so for nearly ten years. Among writers the form became popular for it re-emerged at a time of disenchantment with the novel, and seemed to present a serious alternative to fiction. A writer could still use the techniques of the novel—develop characters, select and tailor experience into a series of scenes and set pieces, arrange the action so as to give the narrative shape and momentum—yet what was being written about was all true; moreover, unlike most literary fiction, it sold.
Two decades later, however, the climate in the more elitist literary circles has long changed from enthusiasm to one of mild boredom. Academics have begun accusing travel writers of orientalism and cultural imperialism, while Theroux was himself one of the first to express his dislike of the publishing Leviathan he had helped create: in his most recent travel book,Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he writes that the travel book is: “Little better than a license to bore…the lowest form of literary self-indulgence: dishonest complaining, creative mendacity, pointless heroics, and chronic posturing.”
This seems to me to be a deeply myopic and mistaken way of looking at what is, after all, one of the world’s oldest and most universal forms of literature: along with heroic poetry, the quest takes us right back to man’s deepest literary roots, to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the wanderings of Abraham in the Old Testament, and the journeyings of the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata. Over time, like poetry, but unlike the novel, the travel book has appeared in almost all the world’s cultures, from the wanderings of Li Po in Japan, through to the medieval topographies of Marco Polo, Hiuen Tsang, Ibn Jubayr, and Ibn Battuta. Moroever, as Colin Thubron has pointed out, it is ridiculously simplistic to see all attempts at studying, observing, and empathizing with another culture necessarily “as an act of domination—rather than of understanding, respect or even catharsis… If even the attempt to understand is seen as aggression or appropriation, then all human contact declines into paranoia.”
* * *
It is also true that travelers tend often by their very natures to be rebels and outcasts and misfits: far from being an act of cultural imperialism, setting out alone and vulnerable on the road is often an expression of rejection of home and an embrace of the other: the history of travel is full of individuals who have fallen in love with other cultures and other parts of the world in this way. As the great French traveler, Nicolas Bouvier wrote in The Way of the World
, the experience of being on the road, “deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper” reduces you, yet makes you at the same time more “open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight… Traveling outgrows its motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you—or unmaking you.”
The question is often asked, however, whether travel writing now has a future: the tales of medieval travelers such as Marco Polo, or the explorations of “Bukhara Burnes” may have contained valuable empirical information impossible to harvest elsewhere; but is there really any point to the genre in the age of the internet, when you can instantly gather reliable knowledge about anywhere in the globe at the click of a mouse? Why bother with someone else’s subjective opinions, when hard information about the world is now so easily available? Why read a travel book when you can just go on Google Earth and look for yourself?
These are all issues I have been pondering as I have been writing Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, my first travel book after fifteen years away writing history, which looks at how India’s diverse religious and mystical traditions have been caught and transformed in a vortex of rapid change that has engulfed South Asia in recent years. Much, of course, has been written about how India is moving forward and transforming itself at the most incredible rate—the economy has been predicted to overtake that of the U.S. by 2050—but so far little has been said about the way these huge earthquakes have affected traditional religion in India.
Nine Lives explores this process through nine personal stories—a Sufi, a possession dancer, a Buddhist monk, a Jain nun, a tantric and so on, each story aiming to show how faith and ritual are clinging on in the face of India’s commercial boom. Each life represents a different religious path. The idea is to find out what it means to be a holy man, a mystical musician, or a tantric minstrel seeking salvation on the roads of modern India as the Tata trucks thunder past. Researching the book has brought home to me just how quickly and strangely the world is changing.
Two years ago, for example, I managed to track down a celebrated tantric at a cremation ground near Birbhum in West Bengal. Tapan Goswami was a feeder of skulls. Twenty years ago he had been interviewed by an American professor of comparative religion, who went on to write a scholarly essay on Tapan’s practice of spirit-summoning and spell-casting, using the cured skulls of dead virgins and restless suicides. It sounded rich material, albeit of a rather sinister nature, so I spent the best part of a day touring the various cremation grounds of Birbhum before finally finding Tapan sitting outside his small Kali temple on the edge of the town, preparing a sacrifice for the goddess.
The sun was sinking, and the light was beginning to fade; a funeral pyre was still smoking eerily in front of the temple. Tapan and I talked of tantra, and he confirmed that in his youth, when the professor had interviewed him, he had indeed been an enthusiastic skull-feeder. Yes, he said, all that had been written about him was true, and yes, he did occasionally still cure skulls, and summon their dead owners, so as to use their power. But sadly, he said, he could not talk to me about the details. Why was that? I asked. Because, he said, his two sons were now successful ophthalmologists in New Jersey. They had firmly forbidden him from giving any more interviews about what he did in case rumors of the family dabbling in Black Magic damaged their profitable East Coast practice. Now he thought he might even give away his skulls, and go and join them in the States.
It has been in the course of conversations such as this that I have come to realize what a major role there still is for the travel writer in a fast changing world. As the desperation of the Western world to comprehend events in the Middle East and Central Asia since 9/11 has shown so clearly, the sensation we have of knowing the world today is largely an illusion: in reality we simply don’t know nearly as much about the world as we thought. The sense of information omnipotence that we have had through the internet and Google Earth has proved horribly illusory, and we now realize that there are in fact huge areas of the world about which we know absolutely nothing. As print media shrinks, and television becomes ever more obsessed with celebrity, travel writing stands out as one place where the individual can really assess another culture in some depth, without using academic jargon or disappearing down a well of academic over-specialization.
For the travel book remains a vessel into which a wonderfully varied cocktail of ingredients can be poured: politics, archaeology, history, philosophy, art, or magic. You can cross-fertilize the genre with other literary forms: biography, or anthropological writing; or, more perhaps interesting still, following in Chatwin’s footsteps and muddying the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction by crossing the travel book with some of the wilder forms of the novel.
Certainly, if nineteenth-century travel writing was principally about place—about filling in the blanks of the map and describing remote places that few had seen—the best twenty-first-century travel writing is almost always about people: exploring the extraordinary diversity that still exists in the world beneath the veneer of globalization.
Rory Stewart, perhaps the most highly regarded of the younger generation of travel writers, believes passionately that travel books allow writers to explore other cultures in a slow and unhurried way that is impossible with most other forms of non-fiction. Stewart is quite clear that travel writing has a more important role than ever: “Just look what gets written about Afghanistan,” he says. “In an age when journalism is becoming more and more etiolated, when articles are becoming shorter and shorter, usually lacking all historical context, travel writing is one of the few venues to write with some complexity about an alien culture. An Obama speech, a foreign policy paper, or a counterinsurgency briefing minimizes differences, and the same phrases like ‘failed states’ are used to link countries which are actually very different such as Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan.
“But the best sort of travel book with its imaginative empathy and depiction of individuals inhabiting a landscape helps the reader to live through and understand the possibility of cultural difference. You can deploy paradox and incongruity, and use encounters with individuals to suggest complex problems within foreign societies. Above all you can leave things unexplained, and admit ignorance and uncertainty, and stress the fundamental problems of communication in a way that is almost never seen in policy documents or journalism. What kills so many briefing documents and newspaper reports, apart from their tendency to exaggerate fears and aggrandize ambitions, is their aspiration towards omniscience, and their impatience with everything that is intractable or mysterious. Travel writing provides a space for all these things.”
Stewart is also sure that the kind of travel writing which is showing particular durability is that where an informed observer roots and immerses himself in one place, committing time to get to know a place and its languages. Many of the greatest of the travel books of the late twentieth century were about epic journeys, often by young men, conveying the raw intoxication of travel during a moment in life when time is endless, and deadlines and commitments are nonexistent; when experience is all you hope to achieve and when the world is laid out before you like a map: think of the exhilaration of Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush or Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana.
Today, however, some of the most interesting travel books are by individuals who have made extended stays in places, getting to know them intimately: books like Iain Sinclair’s circling of the capital in London Orbital or Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. There is also Amitav Ghosh in his Egyptian village in In an Antique Land, or Chris de Bellaigue’s magnificent recent study, Rebel Land, which examines the way that the ghosts of the Armenian genocide and Kurdish nationalism haunt a single remote town in eastern Turkey. As the travel writer, novelist, and critic Pankaj Mishra puts it, in a more globalized post-colonial world the traveler “needs to train his eye in the way an ethnographer does…to remain relevant and stimulating, travel writing has to take on board some of the sophisticated knowledge available about these complex societies, about their religions, history, economy, and politics.”
Colin Thubron, perhaps the most revered of all the travel writers of the eighties still at work, is also clear that travel writing is now more needed than ever: “Great swathes of the world are hardly visited and remain much misunderstood—think of Iran. It’s no accident that the mess inflicted on the world by the last U.S. administration was done by a group of men who had hardly traveled, and relied for information on policy documents and the reports of journalists sitting interviewing middle class contacts in capital cities. The sympathetic traveler who takes time to immerse himself in a country may gain not only factual knowledge but also a sensuous and emotional understanding, and convey a people’s psychology and their response to things in a way that can never be accessed by studying in a library. A good travel writer can give you the warp and weft of everyday life, the generalities of people’s existence that is rarely reflected in academic writing or journalism, and hardly touched upon by any other discipline. Despite the internet and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute for a good piece of travel writing.”
Certainly, there seems to be a remarkable amount of good travel writing going on, such as Suketu Mehta’s Bombay book, Maximum City, one of the greatest city books ever written, in my opinion, while Alice Albinia’s wonderful Empires of the Indus is a breathtaking debut by an author who writes enviably cadent and beautiful prose, but has nerves of steel and the pluck of a twenty-first-century Freya Stark. I hugely admire Pankaj Mishra’s Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond, am currently reading Christopher de Bellaigue’s extraordinary book on eastern Turkey, Rebel Land: Among Turkey’s Forgotten Peoples. Then there is Geoff Dyer’s playful novel-cum-travel book Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and the work of Rory Stewart, The Prince of the Marshes and The Places in Between, the latter a particular favorite of mine.
To these names can be added the remarkable crop of new writers collected by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger, and Sean O’Reilly in the latest installment of their annual Best Travel Writing series. The 2010 volume truly encompasses the globe from Viking feasts and rotting meat in Iceland through sex in Skyros to hot dogs in Saigon; from Pico Iyer’s characteristically subtle thoughts on the Japanese mind while wandering around old Kyoto to Martin Mitchinson’s old fashioned adventure story of nearly dying in a Darien dugout. The sheer range of writing on show here, from yarns of traveling machismo, through art historical detective work to strippers and bored Japanese housewives shows just how varied and lively and energetic the travel writing scene is today.
This wonderful anthology shows that Paul Theroux’s obituary to travel writing is long premature. Perhaps it should be his close friend Jonathan Raban who is given the last word of ¬retort: “Old travelers grumpily complain that travel is now dead and that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they meet the brute differences in everything of importance.”
* * *
William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the highly-acclaimed bestseller In Xanadu
when he was twenty-two. In 1989, Dalrymple moved to Delhi where he lived for six years researching his second book, City of Djinns
, which won the 1994 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award. From the Holy Mountain
, his acclaimed study of the demise of Christianity in its Middle Eastern homeland, was awarded the Scottish Arts Council Autumn Book Award for 1997. In 2002, he was awarded the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for his “outstanding contribution to travel literature.” White Mughals
won the Wolfson Prize for History 2003 and the Scottish Book of the Year Prize. A collection of his writings about India, The Age of Kali
, won the French Prix D’Astrolabe in 2005. In 2007, The Last Moghal
won the Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. His most recent book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
, is published by Knopf. Dalrymple is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Asiatic Society, and is the founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival. He is married to the artist Olivia Fraser, and they have three children. They live on a farm outside Delhi.
Stuck in Bulawayo
Laura Lee P. Huttenbach
A Dugout Canoe in the Darien Gap
Martin Douglas Mitchinson
Epiphany of a Middle-Aged Pilgrim in Tea-Stained Pajamas
A Viking Repast
Cameron M. Smith
Bored Japanese Housewives
KAPTEIN, SPAN DIE SEILE
We Wait for Spring, Moldova and Me
Submitting to Shasta
Can I Help You?
My Roman Reality Show
“TAKUMBENG, C’EST QUOI?”
David Torrey Peters
Ready or Not
TRÈS Cheap: A Travel Writer Storms the Caribbean
Living Among Incompatibles
The Facts of Kathmandu
In or Out
The Train at Night
The Two-Dollar Difference
Ashes of San Miguel
Tawni Vee Waters
For the Spirits of Guinaang
Fruits of Childhood
Inside Kumano Kodo
Amy Greimann Carlson
12 Hours in Barcelona
Frenzy and Ecstasy
About the Editors
A Viking Repast
by Cameron M. Smith
The relentlessly terrible history of Iceland in three courses.
Follow the wind east of Reykjavik—east past the basalt pillars of Thingvellir, the chieftain’s gathering place, east past booming mount Hekla, east past Helgrindur, the Peaks of Hell, east over acres of slush and black quicksand and east almost to the edge of the mighty Vatnajokull ice cap—and you will find two wooden huts lying low in a treeless, hilly vastness of dark volcanic cinders. They are hard to spot; from far off their red roofs look like drops of blood soaking into the porous ground. Air is always on the move here, and low-blowing clouds often slide across the bare hilltops like a great lid. The Icelanders call this place of two huts Jokulheimar: glacier-home.
A number of decisions, delusions, accidents, and wild fortunes funneled me toward Iceland, and then toward Jokulheimar. More precisely, life stood me, one February night, on the porch of the smaller of the two huts. I drank in the sterile, supercooled air that flowed off the blunt toe of the ice cap, just a few miles away. Above were the familiar planets, galaxies, stars, and star clusters that had guided me in the wilderness for years. Below, the brightest of them were caught in the ice of a frozen stream.
I huffed into my mitts and headed for the larger hut. There were people in there, Icelanders who’d invited me to join them in Thorablott, Thor’s Feast, an ancient winter rite. I’d always found Icelanders to be rather reserved, but these folk had discovered me dragging a sled in the wilderness and either through pity or bemusement they had invited me to the feast.
On the way to the hut I stopped for a moment to examine the Icelanders’ snow vehicles. They were giant contraptions with chest-high tires, sprouting radio and GPS antennae. Banks of floodlights, big as soup bowls, were mounted on the roofs, protected by wire cages. Equipment trunks and tools were strapped to the roofs and hoods, bumpers protruded feet ahead and behind, and each truck was equipped with a winch and a spool of cable mounted on the front; some also had one on the back. The trucks had miniature ladders to get in and out because the floor was at waist level.
These were working vehicles, cobbled together in the most utilitarian way. The Spartan forms turned my mind to the stout, simple lines of Viking ships. Years ago, a farmer named Hordur had shown me a picture of such a vessel, a full-scale replica he’d built in the mid-1990s and sailed across the North Atlantic with a small crew. The undecked, forty-foot boat had rolled and banged and wallowed, but they’d made it to New York City. The original Iron Age design was a product of minds that revered utility, and the 1990s replica was a product of minds that equally revered history—minds that still drove Icelanders into the wilds for ancient winter rites, like Thorablott.
A history of utility…it was the story of the Icelanders. Although a thousand years separated this evening’s feasters from the first Norse to land in Iceland, an ethos of severe pragmatism bound them like a chain.
That chain stretched back to primal Iceland, to a time and place of nameless ice caps, restless volcanoes, and snow-blown moors; a time and place of nameless exploding seas, cracking crags and moaning caverns, forests of cold-stunted birch, snapping river-ice, and gurgling streams.
Millions of years passed before the island was visited by its first animals: beetles and birds came with the wind, foxes and polar bears stranded on Greenlandic ice floes, fishes swam into fjords. In Europe, the Neanderthals came and went. Eons later, farming spread from the Balkans to Scandinavia. Millennia after that, Rome rose from dust, flourished, and collapsed, five centuries after Christ. All this time, the little storm-lashed island was unknown to humankind.
But one blustery day (we can safely presume it was blustery) a sail appeared off the north coast. The first arrivals were not Norse, they were not Vikings: they were Irish monks, Christian hermitae who’d set out to find new land in which to worship in peace, and the farther from Dark Age Europe, the better. They arrived some time after A.D. 750, and for just over a hundred years, they farmed in what must have been unique isolation.
Their isolation didn’t last. By the 790s, clever and cunning Scandinavian chiefs had devised tactics—and built warships—for the express purpose of ransacking mainland Europe and Britain, both still anemic, dazed by the collapse of Rome centuries before. These chieftains and their people—collectively called the Vikings—struck out from Scandinavia to test their way of making a living. They descended on their first target, the English monastery of Lindisfarne, in 793. Of the rout, Simeon of Durham wrote:
…the pagans…robbed, tore and slaughtered not only beasts of burden, sheep and oxen, but even priests and deacons, and companies of monks and nuns. And they came to the church of Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fetters, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea…
Centuries later, Christianity would use the same tactics on “heathens” worldwide, but for the moment, early medieval Europe—where the borders of modern Europe were just being sketched out, and organized armies were only a memory of Rome—was stunned by the Viking assault. Only one thing united Europeans at this time, a commonly-muttered prayer: “From the fury of the northmen, deliver us, O Lord.”
The Vikings took full advantage of the disarray, ranging east as far as Kiev, rowing up the Seine to raid Paris, and barging into the Mediterranean and North Africa. But in some of those places there was stiff resistance, so they also explored the little-known west, voyaging on the north Atlantic in open wooden longboats equipped with square sails. They discovered the Faroes, the Shetlands, and Orkney, and in 894 they made their first permanent settlement in Iceland.
They arrived in a warm period, when the sea was relatively free of icebergs, and the land was thick with dwarf birches, willow, mats of sedges and grasses, and expansive moors that made good pasture. There’s little mention of the Irish hermits after the Vikings arrived. Some say they chose to leave, not wishing to live beside pagans, but I doubt they had much choice.
Reykjavik (“smoke bay,” named for the hot springs) was settled, and word spread that life could be good there. Within twenty years so many Norse had arrived that most of the farmable land was in ownership, and newcomers had to buy land rather than simply claim it. They came anyway, settling grassy plains near springs and building modest crofts composed of a semi-subterranean turf house and a few outbuildings enclosed by a low stone wall. Sheep and cattle grazed on the moors in summer, but, like the people, spent winters in the little turf bunkers, protected from the savage cold. Families of a wife and husband, several children, and perhaps a slave or two (many slaves were Irish, handily snatched up on the way to Iceland) tended to the animals, growing hay in the summer to store as winter fodder. Crofts were normally a few miles from one another, and an ethos of independence began to crystallize as one of the Icelanders’ most striking characteristics.
That characteristic can’t be bottled or bought, and it’s best described by Bjartur, the principal character of Halldor Laxnaess’s Nobel-prize-winning epic of Icelandic life, tellingly titledIndependent People: “…freedom is of more account than the height of a roof beam,” Bjartur declared, “…the man who lives on his own land is an independent man. He is his own master. If I can keep my sheep alive through the winter and can pay what has been stipulated from year to year—then I pay what has been stipulated; and I have kept my sheep alive… He who keeps his sheep alive through the winter lives in a palace.”
Mere survival, then, became a palace in the Icelandic psyche. That survival was based on the same utilitarian philosophy that had built the monstrous snow machines I stood before just outside the main Jokulheimar hut. I could hear the festivities inside, and, sure that it was going to be a special night, I paused just before ascending the steps up to the hut door. It was always good to come in from the cold, and I savored the transition.
But I knew it wasn’t smart to linger. An old Icelandic legend describes the folly of wandering outdoors during a Winter Feast. Centuries ago a fellow named Thidrandi went out into the cold moonlight during a Thorablot. He was waylaid by eighteen ghosts: nine swordswomen in white, nine swordswomen in black. It’s said that Icelandic ghosts aren’t mere specters; they can kill you. Poor Thidrandi wasn’t heard from again, but everyone knows what happened to him—he was simply and swiftly hacked to pieces.
* * *
I tramped into the hut’s fore-room with all the puffing and flapping of arms and clunking of boots on wood that is now so familiar and satisfying to me. Taking a moment to revel in the wholly sweet feeling of coming in from a cold wilderness is one of the treasures of winter travel.
I opened the door. The party was loud and nobody saw me.
“Evening,” I ventured, awkwardly fiddling with my hat. Finally someone noticed me and I was seated at the end of the thirty-foot-long wooden table.
These were not supermen or superwomen, but they were a people touched by the weather, their cheeks colored by icy wind, the men’s hands scarred here and there by frostbite, chipped here and there by contact with cold metal. They wore thick wool of muted colors: ivory, deep blue, rich blood-red. Rows of their boots stood in the fore-room, but here, wool socks padded on the wooden floor. Some of the Icelanders were Nordic blondes, others were short, stout, and raven-haired. There were occasional chuckles but, perhaps because I was there, they seemed guarded, precise, almost dour. And at times there was a dark cast to their mannerisms, as if ¬culturally they carried an ancient memory best left alone. There was also, though, a sort of subdued collective satisfaction, a genuine contentment rooted in the fact of cleverly-devised survival. Iceland is hard, but they and their ancestors thrived in it. They and their ancestors were harder than Iceland’s stone and ice itself, and they all knew it.
In the long, narrow wooden hut, with the big oil stove softly rumbling and the scene lit by flickering candles, I imagined myself in a Viking longhouse. Perhaps, here in enchanted Iceland, I’d wandered through some warlock’s time-portal, right back to the thirteenth century. Looking into their faces—intelligent, brusque, stoic, revealing little—I wondered if these Icelanders were magical beings.
As I took my seat, the Icelanders quieted and looked at me as one man spoke.
“Hvill you start vit a goodie?” he asked politely. His words were English, but somehow their cadence and delivery had an ancient resonance. I had indeed wandered back into the thirteenth century.
A goodie. What the hell. “Sure,” I said.
A plate supporting a ramshackle pyramid of small, gray, meaty cubes was set before me. The blocks, about the size of sugar cubes, were slightly off-white, and they reeked. My eyes swam.
“Shark flesh,” the man said gravely, “Ve let it…er…ROT…before ve eat it.”
The putrid little cubes had all the appeal of a urinal cake, but I popped one in my mouth. Before I could even chew, the whole crew of Icelanders was screaming with laughter. Some were banging their fists on the table. Chewing hard, I grimaced at my audience and crushed the urge to vomit. Shreds of rotten shark flesh slid down my throat. My mind scrambled for analogies. Filthy gym socks? Ammonia?
I swallowed. I didn’t throw up. I was doing well. I smiled. Everyone smiled. I was approved to stay. Perhaps I’d even broken the ice.
The hilarity subsided like a tide, but then a reserved cheer rose again; reserved because who could say what calamity was poised to descend on ghost-crowded Iceland? At any moment, Ymir, the Frost Giants of the Icelandic mythos, might just bluster up over the horizon and smash the huts to splinters. But until that inevitable disaster, some merriment was allowed. After all, I imagined my friend Halldor, barking with a wolfish grin and a cavalier wave of his hand, the whole island could just blow up or sink tonight, so why not try to drag your sled across the ice cap alone in winter, or any other damned thing you please? It’s all the same, in the end, if you look like a hero or a fool for a day.
Conversations picked up again, but, kindly, the Vikings didn’t resume singing, which would have made me feel profoundly useless. And they didn’t ask the usual barrage of questions, which was also kind. They were going to let me eat, first. It was the hospitable practicality of Icelanders, the same shown by the looming, quiet, welcoming Hordur, who also took me in from the cold, four years ago, on my first visit to Iceland.
A smorgasbord was laid out on the long wooden table. Piles of meats, blocks of cheese, bricks of butter, and hunks of bread; a colander of boiled potatoes and a pile of salt on a big plate that everyone dipped into. Everyone was drinking Gull beer, an Icelandic standard, from tall cans. Before long, I was working on a plate of sliced meat, heavily-buttered bread, and potatoes. Gull washed it down and the nip of alcohol tilted me into pleasant contentment. It was a simple and wonderful meal.
Later, it was time to talk.
“So, American, you hvill vok all de vay across de ice cap?”
“Yes. I pull my sled-hut. It contains my supplies, and it opens so I can sleep inside.”
“But hvill it hold in de storm?”
I took a breath. “I think so. I hope so.”
“You have radio?”
“Iridium.” Iceland is high-tech, and everyone knew this satellite phone. There were approving nods.
“And how did you come here?”
“With my friend Halldor,” I said. “Halldor Kvaran? From Reykjavik?”
Although Halldor seemed to know every one of the quarter-million Icelanders, it was like asking if anyone knew “Joe” from New York.
“Just one truck?” The man was not hiding his incredulity too well.
“Yes, just one.”
“Dis is crazy,” he said, touching the table with his index finger at each syllable. “Hvee never do dis. Hvee never do dis.” He was right, it had been crazy. I remembered Halldor bellowing gleefully as he gunned his truck across an expanse of deep slush: If we get stuck here, they won’t get us out until spring!
“There are risks,” I nodded, “but this is my fourth attempt to cross the Vatnajökull. I have to make it.” It was a weak defense, but perhaps they reasoned that it had worked, and that was enough…further Icelandic pragmatism.
“You need help?”
“Well, I have a repair to make on the sled-hut.” Everyone loved this. Now I was speaking their language; the Icelanders loved the repairing of things. As I described the repair I had to make, people talked earnestly of baling wire, crescent wrenches, and the benefits and merits of various classes of low-temperature bolt lubricants.
The big oil stove rumbled; guttering candles wavered darkly; festivities calmed. The food piles dwindled from the large metal platters. The Icelanders leaned back in their chairs, some humming, some stroking their lovers’ arms, some staring at the ceiling or the space beyond. A jar of toothpicks was passed around. Then the women cleared away plates and platters and brought in new ones, heavy with more food, and two men went into the fore-room and came back in with cardboard cases of Gull.
As the cold cans were passed around I noticed the clan leader looking at me intently. He looked back at his plate when I saw him.
Again the evening seemed to wind down, but then again there came more platters bearing piles of meats. These were strange meats, stranger-looking than even the shark-flesh cubes. I squinted at them and the clan leader looked at me again. Suddenly all eyes were, again, on me.
“You like dis?” asked one man, presenting me, like the finest waiter, a platter holding stacks of meaty gray-white discs, the size of pepperoni slices, but thicker and more irregular. They swam in a cold gray broth. I was determined to ingest everything that came at me that night, so I cavalierly stabbed two with my fork. The man settled in his seat as I cut a slice and started chewing.
“Hrutspungar,” he declared, rolling his R’s like a Panzer tank, “Rrram’s testicles!”
I chewed, looking straight into his eyes and sagely nodding my head, as if I’d known it all along.
“Ram’s testicles, soaked in de milk acid,” he said proudly.
Milk acid? What the hell is milk acid? I kept chewing. Not bad, really. Stinging, like over-salted meat, and a little fleshy—but not entirely bad. Tolerable. But the anatomy gave me a shiver. I was eating some ram’s balls. Poor bastard!
I started working on the second slice. It took a little effort. I like to think I’m not squeamish, but I shivered at least once as I gulped down the chunks of cold, wet, pulpy meat.
Finally, the clan leader spoke, his black eyes locked on mine from halfway down the table.
“You see, de meats are vrom de old days,” he said sternly, “De harrrd days.” Then he softened, and spoke almost ¬defensively. It was quiet in the hut and I could hear the fluttering of candle flames.
“In de old days, ve had to survive de vinter,” he said, patiently searching my eyes. “Dere vas notting else ve could do.”
I was an intruder who had to be educated, like someone who’s discovered a band of cannibalistic mountain survivors.
“In de old days it was colder and life voss harrrder,” he repeated, “Dere voss notting else ve could do. Ve had to eat everyting. Dis is vy ve eat de vinter meats, to remind us off de old days, de harrrd days.”
He rested his fists on either side of his plate; case closed.
I hadn’t tried to survive as a crofter in Iceland in the “harrrd days,” but I’d learned more than a little about desperation in Iceland’s diabolically damp, stabbing, bone-splitting cold. I took a swig of Gull and nodded, thinking on the history of the Icelandic people, the history that led right up to tonight’s Thorablott like an ancient, winding path. It was a path that passed through terrible darkness.
The story continues in the book…
James O’Reilly, publisher of Travelers’ Tales, was born in Oxford, England and raised in San Francisco. He graduated from Dartmouth College and wrote mystery serials before turning to travel writing and publishing. He’s visited nearly fifty countries and lived in four, along the way meditating with monks in Tibet, participating in West African voodoo rituals, living in the French Alps, and hanging out the laundry with nuns in Florence and penguins in Antarctica. He travels extensively with his wife, Wenda, and their three daughters. They live in Palo Alto, California, where they also publish art games and books for children at Birdcage Press (www.birdcagepress.com).
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since the late ’70s. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the Arctic to equatorial rainforests, the Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries and on WorldTravelWatch.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on more than 100 books, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers’ conferences (www.larryhabegger.com). He is editor-in-chief of Triporati.com, a destination discovery site, and is a principal of the Prose Doctors, a consortium of top editors for top writers (prosedoctors.com). He lives with his family on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
Sean O’Reilly is director of special sales and editor-at-large for Travelers’ Tales. He is a former seminarian, stockbroker, and prison instructor who lives in Virginia with his wife Brenda and their six children. He’s had a lifelong interest in philosophy, theology, and travel, and is the author of How to Manage Your DICK: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Spiritually Enlightened, Evolved Self (www.dickmanagement.com). His travels of late have taken him through China, Thailand, Indonesia, and the South Pacific, and his most recent non-travel project is redbrazil.com, a bookselling site.