Northern Light

The land is rolling, understated, desert like. Lava fields, volcanic craters, and boiling, sulfurous pools of water abound. But what I notice first is the light. A flat, soothing white light that envelops the land. A light that caresses your senses. A light that is never harsh or dull, but always luminescent, be it day or night. A light that wakes me up at 3:30 a.m., makes me pull the curtain aside, and shows me an orange sun peeking from behind the mountains lining the North Atlantic harbor. But mysteriously, the light remains a translucent white, brightening the sky all night long.

It is said that Tolkien invented hobbits, goblins, elves, and dwarves. But like most legacies that are claimed to be English, Tolkien appropriated the creatures from a far away people.

No fan of Tolkien, I am staying in this far away land. And I can see why its ancient settlers dreamt of magical creatures. One minute the green hills would be feeding the goats here, the next minute they would be spewing hot magma, paving everything with nature’s tar. A volcano would erupt sometimes, and its lava, cooled by the glaciers, would turn into basalt columns that would resemble walls little gremlins built. On occasion, ash from an eruption would cover the farms, forming such a large cloud that a nuclear winter would prevail, followed by an ice age. And people would huddle in their stone-and-wood huts, writing the sagas of their clan which they feared might not survive.

I visit the Viking house, located in a desolate valley covered with volcanic ash, still treeless after a thousand years; it resembles a wasteland even today, though a river has always run through it.

As a child, reading Uncle Moon magazine, I used to think of the Vikings with their horned-hats as mythological creatures; it never occurred to me that one day I would visit their houses.

From my desk now, I look upon the snow-covered Mt. Hekla, the culprit that destroyed the Vikings’ valley. And beside it, in the far distance, lies Mt. Eyjafjallajökull, which erupted in 2010, creating havoc for European air traffic. In the foreground, merely a few hundred yards away, is the Laugar, the lake, out of which steam spouts, living up to the town’s name, Laugarvatn, Hot Spring Lake. Somehow, I find its acrid odor comforting.

There are crater lakes here too, in the serene waters of which stand trolls, stone figures resembling humans frozen by daylight, the legend goes.

The goblins are not the only things that are miniature-sized in this land. Even canyons and rivers appear that way.

You arrive at a famed waterfall and all you see is an empty lot. You cannot imagine more than a finger of water flowing here but when you walk a hundred yards, a magnificent torrent gushes out of a hole in the ground, reminding you of Niagara.

Coming here, you feel you are witnessing the primordial earth, but ironies abound. It turns out that the landscape that is so mythologized in HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones is anything but natural. When the Nordic people came here, they cleared the forests for grazing. The ground eroded, creating this denuded landscape that has become America’s latest playground.

I myself have come here to escape. Yet, I’ve been full of misgivings. “Don’t expect too much,” I’ve told myself. “The other residents at the artists’ colony may not like you.”

“Or you might hate the food. You might not discover the sanctuary you long for.”

But this land is so serene, I sleep here for hours. I discover that, for once, the stars and the planets have aligned in my favor, and the residents, all women, are accommodating yet genuine.

From this vantage point, my life in America recedes into the distance; all the disappointments and traumas and stresses don’t exactly melt away but take on the optical illusion of being just as miniature-sized as mythological creatures. I am alive; I am breathing; I have ventured where few Indian women have gone on their own, I remind myself in moments of vulnerability. If someone hasn’t given me a prize, then I must reward myself for my valor.

This land may be small, its people may be few and isolated, sharing the same genealogical tree, but their circumstances have not made them small-minded. Our hosts, Alda and Jon, adopted two lovely children from India nearly twenty years ago and often talk about their recipes for tandoori chicken and aloo gobi.

Standing on the rim of a miniature black canyon, I meet an Indian rafting guide named Ravi who is spurring his charges to jump into the waters below. And I am touched. I so long to learn his story, but he is preoccupied.

Yet the looming disaster of Donald Trump and Brexit are never far away from my mind. But at least here, far away from the Republican Convention and its 24/7 cable coverage, I feel safe. I wish I could stay forever. I long to inhabit a country where strong women are respected, where men are genuinely interested in the outside world, and where children have a village willing to raise them.

I heart you Iceland, I whisper.

Sarita Sarvate ( has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.

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