Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bodysnatchers (with thanks to Thom Yorke)

Over the Kazakh steppe inbound to Almaty

Sunday, August 14, 2011 2241 local time

The sense of time that air travel engenders is akin to a distance warp (as opposed to a time warp). It always seems entirely possible that you get into a box surrounded by green screens and on a gimbel and you don’t actually go anywhere. Life in the Matrix as it were.

On Saturday morning Nathan (the 12 year old in my world) and I woke in the quiet comfort of the Reykjavik Centrum hotel just off the main street in Iceland’s Capital. The sun had stayed up until well past 2200, and the light only really left the sky at midnight, glistening again about 4am. To a photographer that’s magic in indescribable ways. In summer the famous “golden hour” of light just before sunset lasts three hours, and the rush to catch the perfect tone on a woman’s face or a meadow’s sleek slope gives way to thought and framing spread out over minutes not moments.

The streets were empty at 0730 but the parties of the night before were still fresh on the sidewalk – cups, slices of lemon or lime, bits of pretzel, carrot and cucumber and the scent of Viking beer. Yet the air was cool and bracing as it poured in over the North Atlantic which hung low and impossibly blue just down the street and so the smells were not off-putting. The city itself hugs the ground, the result of living in a land of eternal earthquakes. In Iceland they rumble all through the day, though they largely remain imperceptible to us. Perhaps that has something to do with why Icelanders so love their music -- even through the double-paned hotel window I could hear hints of it – little earthquakes on the glass, drumbeats and bass lines vibrating deep into the night.

We’d come off a two-day trip by super Jeep (think jacked-up Pathfinder with tires as tall as you are – or standard transport for rural Texas) deep inside the Valley of Thor (Thorsmork in local parlance – though no one looked like Chris Hemsworth that we could see). You haul yourself up and into it by pulling just so on the door, balancing to the step and up and over, avoiding hitting your head on the halogen lights strapped to the side and overhanging the cab. “When your driving in a glacier-fed stream or river at dusk you don’t want any surprises, you know,” said Ingo, the driver/guide and soon friend on our SJ tour.

“You’d be amazed how easy it is to drive off the end of the world here.” However euphemistically he may have been speaking, the time in Thorsmork and up on the glacier’s melting face drove that point home. The pictures with humorous captions of an endless array of vehicles half-submerged in water, ice, ash and sand made that clear. “We love that foreigners contribute to our economy, though that’s not always the way we have in mind….”

Those Super Jeeps blast through everything, but they’re at their most entertaining in town, where suddenly you’re the center of an endless amount of attention, particularly from photographers and teenage girls (and particularly from teenage girls who fancy themselves photographers). The presumption is probably that only rock stars drive those – both the geologic and music types – and so your “cool factor” goes way up. To see a 12 year old clamber out of that thing was particularly fun – especially since he navigated it better than either Ingo or I did. Sort of Nathan’s introduction to a particular and particularly peculiar form of rock-climbing.

Just off the Reykjavik coast is an island habitat of the local Puffin population. Incredible birds (who are monogamous) they spend their summers nesting and conceiving, hatching and raising their one chick per pair and their winters on the open ocean. Yet in the last five years that population is in trouble. In 2006, 2010 and it seems again this year there are huge die-offs of the chicks, apparently of starvation. The small fish species that chicks can consume are missing – some say because of over-fishing – and the fish that the parents find to bring them are too large for the chicks to eat. They starve with the food beside them.

“The whole sea is being fished-out” someone next to us on a whale-watching cruise muttered.

But that’s something to talk about another time.

Our flight departed Reykjavik at 10am local time. We landed in DC just before 1700 DC local. By 2200 I was in the air again bound for Almaty. It was 24 hours exactly from the time I left Reykjavik to the time I flew over it again at 35,000 feet; daytime for the entire time. Summer is a strange beast that way. A 90 minute layover in Frankfurt to change planes and I find myself here, 45 minutes out of Almaty, at just before 2300 local time (1700 in Reykjavik, 1300 in DC). Either none of that makes any sense of it all does. Two days in four airplanes. Jet lag doesn’t even describe the disorientation – or maybe you actually get the better of it because there really is absolutely no sense of linear time. How often in life do you fly over a country you were in a day before?

147,000 Frequent flyer miles on United/Lufthansa since summer 2010 and counting. Since the beginning of May its been Israel/ the West Bank, Kazakhstan, Peru, Belarus, Switzerland, China, Iceland and now Kazakhstan again. All save Iceland were State Department projects and all as CityDance the dance company collapsed around and after the Peru tour and the new company took shape. Hard to reconcile so much success with so much transition – like stepping onto an airplane on a hot summer afternoon and waking 12 hours later on a new continent – like being body-snatched.

Almaty glows out the window to the right. Time to pack up and get ready for the next part of the journey.

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