1. Catching the travel bug
Growing up, my mum used to tell stories about places she has visited around the world, such as Norway and Japan, which to the ears of a 7 year-old sounded like faraway and exotic places. I most have caught the travelling bug from her, because I remember being fascinated by travel and nature programmes. Through a combination of a love for a journey, scientific curiosity, and sense of adventure, I made a list of places I wanted to visit and cultures I wanted to experience.
The list probably started with the Galapagos islands, due to my need to see the place where Darwin came up with the theory of Evolution in combination with the amazing work by Jacques-Yves Cousteau along with David Attenborough, who brought this archipelago and its unique inhabitants into our living rooms.
I also wanted to visit the Serengeti in Kenya and embark on a safari, following the journey of elephants, zebras and wildebeest and seeing up close their daily fight for survival from a number of predators, such as the cheetahs, crocodiles, leopards and of course the king of the African plains.
Tv programmes and films from the 70s and 80s were a big influence on shaping my fascination with other cultures and further augmented the travel list. I remember being in awe when I saw the scene of Indiana Jones riding through the canyon and emerging to see the Treasury building of the Nabataean city of Petra in the Last Crusade. Jordan was immediately added to the list.
I also wanted to visit Peru when I learned about the brutal and abrupt end of the Incas civilization at the hands of the Spanish. I imagined trekking the Inca trail that leads to the citadel of Machu Picchu, one of the world’s most famous manmade wonders, where I could get a glimpse of its towering stone monuments, its terraced fields and be captivated by the mysteries it is still holding.
2. A special place
The list of countries, territories, with a diverse range of landscapes, flora and fauna, and cultures was ever-growing. And the excitement wasn’t just about the destination, but also about the journey to it — both the actual travelling part and the planning of it.
One destination though stood out from all others. It is a country that could be considered rather flat and yet it has some high peaks. It is very cold in the winter time and you could therefore be excused in expecting it to be snow/ice covered for large parts of the year, and yet you would be wrong. It has though many glaciers, spectacular waterfalls and rugged landscapes, but hardly any trees.
It is close to the Arctic Circle — in fact one of its tiny islands is on it — and therefore is one of the best places in the world to enjoy the spectacular show of the Northern Lights, which makes everything else mesmerizing under the night sky.
It is the land of the Vikings and Norsemen, which is filled with myths and traditions going back a millennium.
Have you guessed which country I’m talking about?
3. A huge personal loss
Christmas is a wonderful time of the year with all its traditions, festivities, colours and sounds. Magical family memories. There is almost a religious procession of places and people you visit on specific dates leading up to Christmas and the New Year Eve.
One thing that is usually missing during these times is snow. Ireland rarely gets a white Christmas, so when one comes along it is a treat.
Christmas of 2009 was that kind of year.
The country did come to a standstill because it is ill-equipped to deal with even the slightest snowfall, but it was so picturesque that it was worth the hassle in the end.
The holidays are usually spent in Dublin, but that year also included a trip to lovely Galway. The family had an additional reason to celebrate that year, the fact that mum had undergone treatment for breast cancer the months leading into the festive season an had got the all clear from her doctors. She was in remission!
However, looking at the last photo we have of her, taken at Galway’s railway station, things did not seem alright.
Fast forward a few months and the Catholic Easter was upon us. It was during a meeting with my boss at noon on the Friday before the Holy week that I received the dreaded phone call.
The cancer had come back and the situation was dire. The doctors gave mum 2 months to live.
It was devastating!!!
It there and then resigned from the post in order to spend the last couple of months with her and help dad.
Two days later, following 2 flights and a long bus ride, I was at her bedside in Greece. For the next several days I spent most of my time there. We weren’t really making any plans for what was to come and at the same time we weren’t paying that much attention to what was happening around the world.
In less than 5 days, the following Friday, she passed away quietly.
It was April 15th, 2010.
We decided to fly her home (Ireland) to be buried with her parents.
Hold on a minute though. Does that date ring any bells for you?
As I mentioned earlier, during that week, we weren’t really paying attention to the news and world events. So it came as a shock to us that the previous night there was a huge eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland.
That volcano (and others in Iceland) can erupt up to several times a year. The unwelcome combination of winds blowing towards Europe, very fine ash and an eruption lasting persistently for 39 days magnified the impact of what usually is a relatively ordinary event.
All flights were cancelled from Greece to most other European destinations. We were stuck there for what turned out to be the longest 10 days of our lives.
We booked and rebooked flights numerous times and had to change funeral arrangements.
The trauma of loosing a loved one was compounded by this unfortunate event.
In the following couple of weeks, the volcanic ash subsided, airlines started flying again, we made it home and life eventually carried on as it always does.
Having said that, it was fascinating how an event thousands of kilometres away had such a profound effect on our lives.
The land of many active volcanoes had caused us so much stress and sleepless nights. Iceland is so much more than that and had always been one of the top destinations I wanted to visit.
This episode did not change that desire one iota.
4. Twist of fate
It was less than a year later that I got employed to work on a European project, and I was lucky to have funding available to attend conferences. The wounds of 2010 had not healed yet, and yet to my surprise the first event I was going to attend was a conference and training workshop in Reykjavik in June of 2011. I was very apprehensive. Firstly, at a professional level, I wanted to make a good impression to my European colleagues. Secondly, at a personal level, I was uneasy to visit the place that caused the havoc in April of 2010, but excited at the same time to tick off one destination from the list.
The conference and training went rather well, I didn’t make a fool out of myself. Now it was time to have some fun and do some travelling.
One of the main things I wanted to do in the limited time I had left before flying home was to visit Grimsey island off the north/north-east coast of Iceland, because that is the only part of the country that is crossed by the Arctic Circle.
The early start and significant travel time to get there and back was worth for the 50 minutes we stayed on the island, where I took a photo with the line marked for the Circle.
The following day I went on a Golden circle full day tour, that included the Gullfoss waterfall and a stroll along the divergent boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. I wasn’t aware that the boundary was visible on dry land and I was pleasantly surprised that I could touch the volcanic rock that was spewed and hardened in relatively recent times.
The tour was moving really fast in order to bring us to a number of sights all over the western part of the country in 7 hours or so, that I didn’t really have time to absorb that experience and feel the importance of that moment. I flew home the next day with a desire to one day come back and experience the sights at a more leisurely pace and explore the less touristy parts.