We have here everything we need.
Our trip to Heimaey was exactly why I travel.
We took off from the domestic airport, about 3.5 km from our apartment. That in and of itself was an experience. There was no metal detector, no screening. We didn’t take of our shoes or empty our water bottles. We got our tickets, walked out to the plane, and boarded. I like the idea that Icelanders figure once you get on the island, you’re trustworthy.
The flight was 20 minutes. I looked to my right once we boarded and was greeted by the propeller. I decided to film and got this, which was totally unexpected but made me really happy.
Seriously, isn’t that cool? I’ll upload more later (flying over water, landing) so you can be further hypnotized on our vimeo page.
Heimaey Island, part of the Vestmannaeyjar chain, is known for several things. First, it hosts a music festival that about 15,000 people attend. Second, it is home to about half the puffin population in Iceland. It is also the home of much of the fishing trade in Iceland with its harbor playing a crucial role in international fishing. Fourth, in 1973 the volcano Eldfell announced itself to the world. The eruption started in the middle of a January night. Almost 5000 people from the town were safely evacuated by fishing boats to the mainland in one of the largest civil operations in Icelandic history.
Now, we were going–obviously–for the puffins. I was giddy, giddy, giddy. The thought of seeing partially buried fairly modern homes was pretty intriguing too. The festival is in a few weeks and while we are very happy for the harbour’s commercial importance, we weren’t angling to try our hand at fishing.
So, we booked a boat and bus tour to see some puffins (and other birds) and see the volcano. We watched a film about the volcano at the cafe/Chinese restaurant/soup spot/tourist center.
Our tour guide was Unnar. He was pretty sweet.
The dark, dry humor Icelanders are known for was in full effect. We got a chance to talk to him quite a bit on the trip about growing up on Heimaey. It turns out he’s been to Chicago twice to record albums with his band. (We both had our fingers crossed it wouldn’t be too weird or too awful. Turns out it is quite good!I particularly like the first song.)
We were driven into town and given some time to wander on the lava fields.
We later learned about 400 homes were swallowed up and that the locals had marked the old streets with street signs (you can see one in the photo above). Many had erected memorials to their houses, now 20 meters below us. (Of the people evacuated, about 80% eventually returned to the island. I don’t know how that percentage was impacted by whether the family home was destroyed or not.) After months of eruptions, the lava stopped at one street and went no further west.
The change to the landscape felt apparent as we looked down on the town from what had once been level land.
We headed back down to the harbor for the boat trip. It was an hour and a half around the island. I was moderately excited about this. For one, other birds are cool but I wanted to play with puffins (which yes, are also birds, but squee!) and they were probably not going to land on the boat and dance with me. I also tend to puke on boats.
The ride was incredible. The views, the cliffs, the fresh air. And I didn’t even dry heave. It was a good gut check for me. Enter with an open mind and an empty stomach.
The coastline was lovely.
The island is known as a haven for nesting birds of all kinds, like these:
They poop alot, like this:
It was important to peel yourself away from marveling at their poop production because the view off the port side was equally stunning. All the little islands that make up the archipelago revealed themselves. Some were rocky crags, some grassy dots with a single home.
We also got to see for ourselves the type of rock formations from which the Hallgrimskirkja draws its inspiration.
The coastline itself is full of caves, which provided this glorious moment courtesy of our captain:
Boat landed and it was off to the cafe/Chinese restaurant/etc for lunch. I pouted a bit about puffins because that was my big chance. Focusing on a delicious lunch option seemed a good way to temper the pout (and Brett surprised me with a piece of chocolate to ease my heartbreak). One of my things I do when I travel is eat certain foods which I think serve as a national litmus test. Ketchup is one. Ketchup in every country I’ve been to is different, sometimes tarter or sweeter or runnier or basically pasta sauce. Apparently here, in this one cafe, one could get very different kinds of ketchups (Brett & I ordered the same thing):
I also had a really touching interaction with the waitress. She had a most lovely ring, which I complemented. She touched it and said thanks then paused and told me that it was her grandfather’s wedding ring to which her aunt added a stone and gave to her when he passed. I was a bit surprised at the intimacy of that moment but also felt incredibly honored to have her tell me that as a line formed behind me. I thanked her (for the story and the change) then went back to eat my runny ketchup.
So then it was back on the bus. Unnar mentioned going to where the puffins live. Again, giddiness as I realized puffin redemption awaited. The boat trip got pushed into the back of my mind as I imagined being swallowed up in a sea of puffiness.
We drove around stopping to view seascapes while being pushed around by wind. And then he pulled up and told us 10 minutes at the puffin spot.
Turns out, all those little rascals were at sea. The puffin spot consisted of a viewing platform high over the cliffs. We could see cuteness happening. It was just very far away. And partially submerged.
You’d think I’d go full-out pout again. But the views. And the sheep (who may just supplant the puffin in my heart).
And this was my turning point. No longer disappointed, I was quite pleased. I was standing on a grassy cliff on a tiny island watching sheep bounce about as a wonderful man willing to marry me billy goated along the cliff. So there was no puffin cuddling. My expectations were wildly wrong for this day trip. And that is good for any traveler. Those expectations weren’t dashed or ruined. They were just recalibrated and reoriented.
My attitude adjusted and spirits buoyed, we were off to the volcano crater. Up we all hiked. It was dusty and red. And surprisingly steep.
And, despite how wildly embarrassed I am by two of the faces I make and almost everything that comes out of my mouth…here’s one of the reasons why we went. The awesome is at the end, and again, I can’t believe I’m sharing this footage.
And when I opened myself up to the magic, it just came a-rolling. Turns out Unnar, our driver, is Unnar’s son (yes, both named Unnar. Except Unnar is his mother. Follow?) Mama Unnar is written about in the guide books as a fantastic tour guide. And she’s the wife of the tour boat captain! Instead of puffins, I got a glimpse at a truly lovely family, full of spunk and humor, crafting a life on this volcanic island and doing it together.
Unnar Jr. took us back to the cafe (also owned by the family. That waitress? Unnar’s sister/daughter). Unnar Jr. explained he needed to see his wife and his mom (!!) was going to finish the tour. I got the full family gamut. Had we been playing Unnar bingo I would’ve rocked it. She hopped on the bus and we were off. She’s from Reykjavik with a mum from the Westman Islands. And 31 years ago she married a Westmanner and has lived here since.
She took us to the Pompeii of the North as she referred to it, clearly a branding attempt. It’s a single street in which all the houses were buried. The houses are labeled like a street map with a photo of what used to be and the land is covered by fishing nets to prevent erosion.
It was quite surreal. It wasn’t 1000 year old history. It was 1973 history. The town plans to excavate them (with the notion of returning any found property, so interesting). I was a bit disoriented processing it, but Brett had the presence of mind to take a quick video to take you inside one of the houses.
As Mama Unnar drove, she began listing all the things the island has. A grocery store. Lots of shops. A hospital. A rather well-regarded art school. And then she said: “We have everything here we need.” It was the “here” that got me. The power of place, the power of pride in home. The decision to come back to an island that nearly destroyed a town. The appreciation that the island is different, not worse. The realization that the harbor is now safer, with a narrower channel less prone to giant waves (the lava cut it from about 800 feet to about 100 feet wide). At another point she had two handfuls of volcanic rock ash (called tephra) in her hands and talked about how it is used to make the runway better, to pave the roads. It wasn’t a lemonade from lemons moment. It was an a true appreciation of home, for all that it is. It was a similar exploration of expectations on a much more major scale. So I’m grateful to this little puffin-tease of an island and to this family. I realize I’m just a visitor and a quickly forgotten guest on their tour. And that, too, is ok.
Before we left we had some time to wander. We headed by a home, still peeking out from lava.
And then up to the town church and cemetery.
The church, the third oldest in Iceland, also houses a memorial to lost fishermen.
When the eruption ended, the town cemetery was totally covered in tephra. Teenagers and young people from all over the world came to dig it out. This gate, which reads something like “I live so you shall live” was an iconic image, as the ash came up over the gate door.
And then, for us, time to hop back to Reykjavik. Time to go back to this temporary home. We have here everything we need too.