On a quest for a new year’s aurora

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - Travel@wash­post.com

Our read­ers share tales of their ram­blings around the world.

Who: Stephanie Hol­combe (the au­thor) and her friends Caitlin Hay­den and Er­lin­gur Er­lings­son, all of the District.

Where, when, why: We de­cided to travel to Ice­land to cel­e­brate the new year in De­cem­ber. Er­lin­gur orig­i­nally is from Ice­land and cur­rently is in Wash­ing­ton as a diplo­mat. Caitlin, a friend of mine from col­lege, is his wife. They wanted to visit fam­ily on New Year’s Eve, and I wanted to kick-start 2017. I went on a hunt for the aurora bo­re­alis (the north­ern lights) be­cause it felt to me like a grand show­cas­ing of the power of the uni­verse that would put lit­tle ol' me into per­spec­tive. The uni­verse is way big­ger than what showed up in my life in 2016.

High­lights and high points: Of course, the high­light was see­ing the aurora bo­re­alis. (And on a cloudy night, at that!) It is most vis­i­ble be­tween 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., so I was about one hour out­side the city stand­ing in the freez­ing cold, on the windy plains of Ice­land in the mid­dle of the night, wist­fully look­ing up at a black sky. Soon, to my amaze­ment, there were danc­ing, lap­ping waves of green light fill­ing the dark.

I also went hik­ing on the Sol­heima­jokull glacier, which was a beau­ti­ful, blue, solid chunk of ice that is now, sadly, rapidly re­ced­ing. I went with peo­ple from Icle­andic Moun­tain Guides — who were aware of the ef­fects of cli­mate change and taught our group about the rapid changes they have seen in the past few years. Av­er­age re­ces­sion: 15 cen­time­ters per day! Next year, the group is plan­ning a new en­try point onto the ice be­cause of melt­ing of the path that they now use.

Cul­tural con­nec­tion or dis­con­nect: I re­ally con­nected with Skyr, a smooth, de­li­cious, ad­dic­tive (at least to me) cheese that is akin to su­per-smooth yo­gurt. It is jam­packed with pro­tein, has very lit­tle fat and is thought to have been a part of Ice­landic cul­ture for thou­sands of years. I think I ate a pint of it daily.

Big­gest laugh or cry: For me, it would have to be the bathing cul­ture. Hot geo­ther­mal baths are ubiq­ui­tous in Ice­landic cul­ture. Peo­ple soak and bathe as a rou­tine part of the Ice­landic day. Geo­ther­mal soak­ing pools in the ground are scat­tered through­out the coun­try­side; in the city, there are many paired with large Olympic-size pools, saunas and steam rooms. It is a beau­ti­ful part of the cul­ture in how it en­cour­ages peo­ple to take the time to re­lax and re­ju­ve­nate.

How­ever, North Amer­i­cans — who have such a dis­com­fort with show­ing skin, pub­lic bathing and naked­ness in gen­eral — def­i­nitely need the signs through­out all the bath houses ex­plain­ing the proper pro­ce­dures. First, you must take all your clothes off, in­clud­ing your bathing suit, and shower. (There are bathing fa­cil­i­ties for each sex.)

How un­ex­pected: The dark­ness def­i­nitely was sur­pris­ing. I knew in my mind that the win­ter day­light hours were short­ened, but it was an­other thing to try to ad­just my sleep­ing sched­ule to the new time zone with near-con­stant dark­ness. (Day­light starts around 11 a.m. and ends around 4:30 p.m.) I felt like I never saw the sun while I was there. It was more dim win­ter light, mixed with rain, snow or sleet, de­pend­ing on the hour. I found my­self sleep­ing 15 hours the first day, never wak­ing up be­fore 10 a.m. and some­times not go­ing to bed un­til 6 a.m. This was good and bad; it kept me on my East Coast time clock, but also meant that I was watch­ing a lot of Net­flix!

Fa­vorite me­mento or mem­ory: I loved eat­ing Ice­land’s creamy lan­gous­tine soup. I knew that seafood was one of the ma­jor food sources for the coun­try, but this soup, a smaller, sweeter cousin of the Amer­i­can lob­ster bisque, was a dish that I did not ex­pect to have. Er­lin­gur, be­ing the lo­cal, knew ex­actly where to take us for the best of the best. We drove an hour out­side Reyk­javik to Fjorubor­did, a fam­ily-owned lob­ster res­tau­rant on the sea. With the rain and cold out­side, the lob­ster soup and lo­cal res­tau­rant vibes made for the quin­tes­sen­tial rea­son that you travel — to learn and ap­pre­ci­ate the places lo­cals al­ready know about and love.

To tell us about your own trip, go to wash­ing­ton­post.com/travel and fill out the What a Trip form with your fond­est mem­o­ries, finest mo­ments and fa­vorite pho­tos.


On her way for some lan­gous­tine soup, the au­thor spends some qual­ity time with an Ice­landic horse.

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