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Wanderlust and cosmic dust

“It is not so much a matter of traveling as of getting away; which of us has not some pain to dull, or some yoke to cast off?”

– George Sand, Winter in Majorca

That’s the epigraph in the book I just started, The Vacationers by Emma Straub, the book I coincidentally started reading on the plane ride to my mini-vacation. It struck me not for its literal truth, but there is truth in there. (I prefer Pico Iyer’s “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.”) The timing of Iceland wasn’t coincidental — a year after my brother died — and this trip, plus Galapagos in the fall, come as I ramp up Operation What’s Next?

What fills my well is travel, and experiences outside my normal world, so on a whim I applied for social media accreditation for the launch of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (what happened to OCO-1? Oops.)

This is what the mission is all about:

I didn’t think about logistics, and didn’t think I had much chance of being accepted, so when I got the word I was one of 50 out of 500 applicants selected I scrambled to make arrangements to get to not-really-close-to-anything Lompoc, California for the Canada Day launch (would I have applied if I’d read carefully enough to realize it was launching at 3am on July 1? Maybe.) A road trip idea fell through and LA is the nearest major airport, at least the nearest with direct flights from Vancouver, and I have friends there and a list of must-sees I haven’t seen in my past trips there. (Most of which I’m likely not to see this time either.)

So after driving from LA to Lompoc today, tomorrow we get treated like media, if most media bothered to cover launches, with access to the mission scientists and engineers and a tour of the base. Then we sleep, briefly, and will watch the launch from a privileged vantage point, and will I come down from the high to sleep again before heading back to LA? Maybe not, but either way I’ll head back there for a day before heading home, dreaming of the memory of rockets’ red glare and the anticipation of giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies, instead of nightmares about needles and death.

I’ve been defensive recently when hit with “must be nice” comments about my travels — Iceland was in the works for 3 years, Russia wasn’t a holiday, and Galapagos has been top of my bucket list for a long time and I finally have the opportunity to go with someone who feels the same. My flippant but true answer to explain the money, time and energy I expend on travel is “I don’t have kids,” and the more complete answer is that travel and interesting experiences are what feed my soul, so I spend my money, time and energy on what feeds my soul. I’m looking forward to the next couple days of feasting.

Oh and you can follow my in-the-moment launch thoughts @deekayw and www.becausegeeks.com.

Cold War and Peace

Cold War and Peace

spilledblood

What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too

— Russians by Sting, 1985

Oh shut up Sting. I know, it was a rhetorical rather than literal “what if,” but even 15 year old me, fearing the prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction, thought it was trite. (To be clear I loved him and still kinda do, though there’s even more I have to ignore now in order to maintain that love.)

I didn’t exactly choose to go to Russia, but I did choose to do a quick trip to Moscow and Saint Petersburg before heading home from the weird bubble that was Sochi in my six-week stint in January and February. That Stingian refrain was my earworm as I battled the cognitive dissonance of the dispairingly ugly news around me and the fascinating beauty in front of me.

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Saint Petersburg with its canals and architecture eminded me of Venice, though people who have actually been to Venice are likely to vehemently disagree. It felt European — it is, in fact, European — with reminders of the Russian empire everywhere, while Moscow was decidedly Russian with reminders of the Soviet Union everywhere.

We wandered through the vast Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, founded by Catherine the Great and including the empire’s opulent Winter Palace, and I was struck by the thought: “No wonder the working class revolted.”

Hermitage

Our guide was both proud of the history and culture on display, and proud of the fact that it now belonged to the state for all to enjoy. As she said, during Soviet times the tenor of the tour would have been much different. I wouldn’t have been able to write the first part of that sentence. Well, actually, I wouldn’t have been allowed to be there. Now, there seems an odd mix of shame at what the Soviets destroyed and what they tried to suppress, and nostalgia for some of the lost ideals.

We visited the Summer Palace in the countryside and as we heard more and more tales of each subsequent tsar or emporer erecting grand buildings to mark their legacy, I was struck by the thought: “Sochi was Putin’s Winter and Summer Palace.”

Seven of us walked into Red Square in Moscow and burst into a cacophony of wows, oooohs, and look at thats … all pointed in a different direction. “It’s like Disneyland!” one Brit exclaimed of the colourful spectacle.

StBasil

The GUM department store still sells Soviet-era baked goods, ice cream (your choice of vanilla or vanilla) and sodas (your choice of carbonated lemonade or carbonated lemonade). Our guide remembers birthdays as a young girl, her entire class wearing the same uniform, bringing the same mushroom-looking pastry for the class on your birthday.

The way we’d have 50s diners they have Soviet diners, selling the same wares at, we were told, the same prices, with cheeky “vintage” signs.

Soviet

Over the wall peeks the Kremlin, including the palatial yellow building bearing Putin’s office: Disnelyand’s dictator, whose tendency to trample on human rights went largely unnoticed until some of it got Facebook friendly. We were trailed by a special “Kremlin guide” inside the walls, who did no guiding but a lot of peering at us from a distance.

We saw the church where Pussy Riot was arrested — the largest orthodox church which had been literally blown up by Stalin, replaced with a swimming pool, and faithfully ressurected after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without agreeing with the band’s punishment, I wondered how Catholics would have reacted to an anti-Catholic protest in the Vatican, never mind after decades of religion being illegal and a couple of decades of rebuilding the suppressed faith and destroyed buildings. “We can say what we want here,” said our guide, dismissing concerns of censorship. “They went too far.” I neither agree nor disagree, but I note the sentiment, which is widespread.

Church

Later we visited a cold war bunker, now a museum where they show visitors how close we came to mass destruction, and we could sit in the consoles where the launch codes would have been entered, and they showed a film of what the ensuing strikes would have looked like. Another film they showed on the history of the cold war was no more propaganda than anything I saw in school, but from the Russian view: this was a dark period in the world’s history, we hope we’ve learned from it, and without explicit finger-pointing there’s the message that the United States started the nuclear arms race and are the only country to have used a nuclear bomb in war.

At the end of the bunker tour the museum let us have photo opps with some props — Kalashnikov rifles, Soviet army uniforms — but I couldn’t play after the sombre reminder of what could have been.

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And then the Crimean peninsula situation was in the news just before I l left the country, and the West was outraged and the Muscovites were scared. In the Soviet era, our guide’s teacher parents had been rewarded with family trips to Sochi for the summer, but after the collapse they, like many Russians, went to the Crimean instead, where they had family and friends, and which used to be part of their homeland.

During the week in the two capitals, we heard stories of a history I’d largely forgotten since grade nine, and literary figures I’ve loved without really understanding where they came from, and I sat in awe in the packed Bolshoi and Mariinsky (aka Kirov) theatres watching ballet and opera. with Russians of every age. It was ironic hearing Westerners talk about the barbarism of Russians while hearing Russians speak passionately of history and culture and philosophical ideas to foreigners who couldn’t reciprocate.

Mariinsky

I’ve heard that one of the difficulties the US is facing now as Putin expands his palace is that there are few Russian experts to advise. That career path didn’t seem to have a bright future much after 1991. I can’t pretend to have an understanding of the Russian mind or Putin’s mind, but I know everyone’s the hero of their own story, and Russians do love their children too, and I can only hope there’s enough understanding and wisdom on both sides so the world doesn’t go MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) once again.

Cold War and Peace

Dreaming big and little with Airbnb

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My favourite was the treehouse on Whidbey Island. Not just a tiny house in a tree, it had a giant tree growing through the middle of its one octagon-ish room, a bachelor apartment in the sky.

My wish list on Airbnb is full of unusual micro dwellings, partly for the cute factor and partly for the price: you can rent an entire enchanting home for no more than — and often less than — a nondescript hotel room.

The site makes it easy to browse, with Airbnb Picks lists such as Atypical Places to Stay, Trees & Zzzzs, Snow Domes, Littlest Listings, Artsy Abodes and Private Islands, among others.

I have a close-to-home getaway wish list featuring a caravan hotel in Portland and an itty bitty cabin in the cedars in Washington, a dome house in Sedona and a yurt art farm in Arroyo Grande, a funky jetstream trailer in Austin and a Creole cottage loft in New Orleans.

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There’s my European vacation wish list. A troglodyte house in France (above) and a cave home in Spain. A former pub in Ireland. A gypsy car or former art gallery in France, or a houseboat near the Eiffel Tower. An owl house in England or water tower in London. A garden home in the Netherlands. A tower in Italy. A stone villa in Crete.

I have a practical list, pretty places in planned destinations where I’d otherwise get a hotel, like the 2-bedroom condo booked in Quebec City that will afford some privacy and the ability to cook our meals over Christmas.

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Some are quaint places I may use simply as an excuse to travel, like the rainforest treehouse with hotsprings in Costa Rica or the astronomy-focused geodesic dome hotel in Chile (pictured).

Sometimes I browse the Airbnb app’s featured listings just to dream … and save my favourites to a wish list so maybe one day the dream will become reality.

Cold War and Peace

Iceland: The hills are alive with the sound of … hidden people

Lava2

“It’s not that we believe in ghosts; it’s that we know they’re there.”

So said our Icelandic guide Hlíf after we visited Höfði, the site of the Reykjavík summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that marked the beginning of the end of the cold war, and which is said to be haunted by The White Lady. She repeated the phrase when discussing Icelanders’ belief in elves, a topic she broached with a tone of “here we go…”

Most tourists have heard about roads being diverted so as not to disturb the elves. Icelandic celebrities (that is, Björk) are probed by foreign journalists hoping for a link-bait headline. There’s also genuine curiosity: could anyone today really believe in hidden people? Are they quirking it up for the tourist industry?

Hlíf explained the persistence of elves in various ways. Respect for the old beliefs of their people who attempted to explain the world around them, no different from any religion or folklore, and which is now ingrained in their culture. A fiercely independent, isolated society who adopted Christianity by arbitration in 1000 AD on the condition that old customs would coexist. A way to anthropomorphize and therefore protect nature, in a land where the extreme beauty is so worth preserving and so often demands appeasing.

“If a loved one was depressed and disappeared, why not assume they found peace with the elves? If there’s an interesting rock formation and the road would destroy it, why not assume it’s an elf house and divert the road?” Hlíf asked.

When you see the vastness of space in this country, huge swaths of which are unpopulated, and where the second-biggest city would barely qualify as a town at home, there does seem no good reason not to divert the road. Just in case.

So much land. So few people.

But it was when we stopped at the endless, undulating lava field that caused the catastrophic mist hardships in the late 1700s that I half-expected to see hidden people darting among the shadowy crevices. The quaintness disappeared. They’re right.

Call it hidden people or geothermal activity, this land is alive.

Icelanders are tightly connected to the land in ways spiritual and practical. The ubiquitous sheep roaming freely are tonight’s dinner. Renewable energy provides nearly all of Iceland’s electricity.

Volcanic eruptions are common, some from familiar mountain-like stratovolcanos and some from the ground opening up, swallowing and spitting destruction and new life.

In 1973, inhabitants of Iceland’s Westman Islands were evacuated for months when their little island Heimaey erupted. The volcano threatened to destroy the harbour that was their life. Instead, when the lava flow stopped and cooled, it was sheltered and improved.

Iceland itself is growing by 5 cm per year as the two tectonic plates that meet in Þingvellir drift apart.

Those lava fields so alive with moss and elves blanket large swaths of the country. Some are vivid green where moisture helps the moss thrive, some peppered with waterfalls. Some are cracked black moonscapes where it seems nothing could survive, yet a lone farm occasionally appears in the distance, dwarfed by the hills above.

The Blue Lagoon might be glamming it up for tourists but natural hot springs and pools are the vital centre of Icelandic towns. Steaming sulfur flats bubble with flatulent mud, geysers erupt predictably as though the earth is breathing water.

In Iceland, nature has anthropomorphized herself. Icelanders follow her lead.

Quotable Lonely Planet’s Iceland

Quotable Lonely Planet’s Iceland

Iceland

Some of my favourite bits of my favourite brand of guidebook for my favourite 22-days-away holiday destination:

“Immense glaciers and wiggling fjords, unspoiled wilderness areas ripe for exploration, a clean and icy sea where humpback whales surface, roll and dive into the depths again — Iceland’s cinematic beauty is overwhelming. Stir in a fascinating Viking past, tiny fishing villages, geothermal pools and hot pots, and a hint of magic in the air, and you’ve hit the holiday jackpot.”

  • Pet dogs were illegal in Reykjavik until 1988.
  • Beer was illegal until 1989.
  • “Until 1988 Iceland had only one state-run TV station — which went off air on Thursdays so that citizens could do something healthier instead. (It’s said that most children born before 1988 were conceived on a Thursday…)”
  • “In fact, the town council at Hafnarfjordur contains three people who can mediate with elves during building projects.”
  • “Eyeball a plate of old-fashioned Icelandic food and chances are it will eyeball you back. In the past nothing was wasted, and some traditional specialties look more like horror-film props than food.”
  • “Selfoss is the largest town in Southern Iceland, an important trade and industry centre, and witlessly ugly.”
  • “Q: What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? A: Stand up.”

“The world’s most northerly capital [Reykjavik] combines colourful buildings, quirky people, a wild nightlife and a capricious soul to devastating effect. Most visitors fall helplessly in love, returning home already saving to come back.”

Why Iceland’s cool

Why Iceland’s cool

Iceland

Akureyri in North Iceland – photo by www.icelandair.us

The countdown is on: 46 days until my long-delayed vacation to Iceland. And 46 more days of fielding the question “Why Iceland?”

It’s become a popular destination — my flight sold out though I’m travelling in shoulder season — but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the frequency of the question. After all, most Canadians are smart enough to vacation in warmer climates, not colder ones. What’s next, Antarctica? (Answer: maybe someday.)

The simple explanation is that, as usual, when I came back from my last major trip I instantly started planning the next one. And immediately after Egypt two friends and one boss showed me photos of their recent Icelandic vacations. So the short version of this list is:

1. It’s OH MY GOD SO BEAUTIFUL and unlike any other place on earth.

But who writes a blog list with one item on it? So here’s other reasons why Iceland is cool. (Keep in mind I haven’t actually been there yet but I’ve read my Lonely Planet and the Iceland Wikipedia entry so I’m totally an expert.)

2. Iceland is literally cool. Have you heard that truism about Greenland being icy and Iceland being green? It’s only true-ish. The average high temperature in Reykjavik in July — the warmest month — is 14C (57F). So when others are sweltering in the heat of Vancouver’s 18C average high in September, I will be cooling off in Iceland’s 9C.

3. On the other hand, Iceland is green in another sense. Renewable sources — geothermal and hydropower — provide all of their electricity. All that geothermal activity means pretty geysers and volcanoes that disrupt Egyptian vacations, too. (Word nerd tip: we borrowed geyser from the Icelandic geysir.)

4. They (mostly, kind of) believe in elves. Roads have been rerouted so as not to disturb them, and there’s even an Elf School where students can learn about the country’s hidden peoples (I hope to take the class and get the promised certificate in … elvery?)

5. If you ignore pesky issues like a colossal banking collapse and almost always having an unstable coalition government, they have some cool politics. Arguably the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy, Iceland also boasts the first directly elected female head of state and first openly gay head of state. Plus the Pirate Party is represented in their parliament.

6. Iceland has no standing army and the Global Peace Index calls them the most peaceful nation on earth. So clearly they’re ripe for a Canadian invasion. (46 more days!)

7. Icelandic parents must name their children according to a state-approved list, so everyone in the country is called Bjork. (It’s possible only the first part of that sentence is true.)

8. Iceland is consistently ranked among the top three countries in the world for women to live in. However, being a single woman might not be as fun since the datable men are probably your cousins.

9. They have the highest number of bookstores per capita in the world. Granted only 57 people live in Iceland so that means one bookstore. (Kidding. The population is 320,000 and I have no idea how many bookstores but Wikipedia says it’s the most.)

10. I can’t believe I got to 10 without mentioning Vikings. They’re (mostly, ancestrally speaking) Vikings. Vikings are cool.

If that’s not enough for you, let’s go back to #1 and check out some gorgeous Icelandic scenery in Bon Iver’s Holocene video: