The year “after” the pandemic is a wrap! We traveled again. We ate at restaurants again. We went to concerts again. We practically hugged and licked strangers. If I had to stop here, that was our 2022.
Wait, there’s more. The kids changed faster than Superman in a phone booth. I don’t remember what they were like a week ago. But I remember enough to brag a bit shamelessly. Vivian is somehow making honor role while binging on Brooklyn Nine-Nine the entire weekend before her exams. She travelled from school to two caving trips, her latest passion. And for a three-day conference on student leadership and diversity which she said was mind-blowing. She is a sport and doesn’t mind Jo and I pulling her leg about her dating situation at the family dinner table. She is having a lot of fun with visual art and did some good work, but fortunately she is also keen on science and math : – ). I enjoy most of my conversations with Vivian and I marvel at how she has a deeply nuanced feel for some of the hardest problems that her generation faces.
Evan grew and grew. He is a slightly mustachioed young man with a deep voice who needs longer pants every few months. He still plays center defender on his club soccer team with gusto and loves chasing down an opposing player who has the ball. He has fully nerded out on chemistry and physics and has a seemingly easy familiarity with Heisenberg and Planck. But he is diversifying. He has joined his school basketball team (first ever sport that is not called soccer!) and mock United Nations. He is mentoring a kindergarten kid at his school. He is contributing to the school newspaper (but predictably his first article was on the Bose-Einstein condensate). He is pretty chill and easy to hang out with unless you are trying to get him to do something. In that case he starts with “jez-a-minute” and it ends with me pulling out fist fulls of my sparse hair. Alas he is the refined product of generations of Chatterjee-Clark stubbornness distilled into one lovely human.
Jo is very much Jo. She celebrated the end of the pandemic by going to Jordan with a group of complete strangers. There she did things like pulling herself upriver in a slot canyon, and spending the night in a Bedouin encampment. I am learning to balance work (which has been extremely interesting) and family, and Jo is nice enough to rarely tell me that I am failing.
In 2022 we were fortunate to spend quality time with friends and family. And I was sadly reminded again that time is all we got.
Most mornings in 2022 I woke up and smelled the roses and marveled at this amazing life. Sure, there were ups and downs. But I got through Brazil losing on penalty kicks. I hope that 2023 is full of promise and hope for you.
Love and hugs from Pagosa Springs where the powder is light and the mountains are stunning.
When I went to Hawaii for the first time, I didn’t want to believe there was anything to the place. I assumed it was a less ugly version of Florida, overrated by mainland natives who are reluctant to step over international borders. But by my second day in Maui I was looking about jobs for computer architects in the neighborhood (there were none). I did not assume that the Italian Lake District was overrated. I was still blown away by how pretty it is.
We checked into our hotel in Como and walked up to the lake front. Soon we were on the slow boat to Bellagio (these people shamelessly steal the best of Las Vegas – they even put gondolas in Venice!). The scenery is breathtaking. The little towns and villages on the shoreline and up on the mountains are divine. I understand why, if you have a couple of extra hundreds of millions, you would buy a little place up here. Our slow boat with a bunch of drunk Russian wanna-be oligarchs slowly crisscrossed the lake going from village to village, stopping at stone steps and piers to load or unload roller-suitcase toting couples on their honeymoon. Evan drifted off to sleep on my shoulder under the bluest sunny skies. I stared at the villages wondering where I’d like to walk around for the day.
As we approached the picturesque hamlet of Argegno, I opened the All Trails app on my phone and found a description of a trail that I liked: about seven miles round trip with two thousand feet of elevation gain and breathtaking views of the lake and the mountains. We hopped off the boat and walked up a long wide set of stairs through Argegno. Then we stopped at a soccer field where the kids got to be silly for a few minutes. We peeked into a church perched over the lake, and walked through the narrow steep alleyways of Muronico and Rovasco till we found the sign for the mulattiera (mule trail) to the village of Pigra.
Jaime and I huffed and puffed our way up the steep inclines while the boys chatted with each other, occasionally falling far behind and then running up the hills to pass us. We paused at what must have once been a chestnut orchard with huge trees and beautiful sweeping views of Lake Como far below us. The kids played baseball and golf with the spikey chestnuts that covered the grass below the trees. We passed a small family of boars, and Adrian almost crept up to a huge stag.
Eventually we arrived at Pigra, a small mountain village tucked under Mount Pasquella. There are two restaurants in town and both were closed. It was dusk and the boys decided to play in the park next to the cemetery. Jaime and I walked up the street towards what looked like a bar that was open. A car passed us going the other way with a lone old driver. Just as we arrived at the bar we heard the loud blast of a trumpet behind us. My first instinct was that the kids had tripped some sort of an alarm. It turned out to be the old guy. He goes to the cemetery after sunset to play taps for some long forgotten lover much to the annoyance of the rest of the village. The bar owner grilled us a couple of sandwiches and poured me some wine. Jaime and I struck up a conversation with him. He had travelled the world and then married and settled here. The village was quiet and there were several unoccupied houses. Many locals went to work in Switzerland everyday because the pay is substantially higher there (the Swiss border is only a few miles away). Jaime asked if outsiders were buying up the empty houses in Pigra. David, in no uncertain terms indicated that while this is paradise, foreigners weren’t super welcome. He has lived here for 15 years and was born only 17 miles away. His kids were born in Pigra. And they are still treated as outsiders!
It was well after dark that we started down the path back to Argegno. Evan and Adrian entertained themselves with mostly imagined sounds of wild animals in the woods around us.
The full moon rose over Lake Como and we walked back through the now shuttered villages back to the lake and boarded the very last bus back to Como. By the time we walked back to the hotel, Evan was half asleep.
The next morning Jaime drove us to the town on Biella about an hour away. We stayed at a lovely old home and went out to look around a bit. And that was it. The morning after we packed up early and drove to the airport. There was a long stopover in Newark which Evan navigated well almost right up to the end. Then he OD-ed on Doritos and KitKats and passed out just when it was time to wake him up for a three hour flight to Austin. Jo picked us up at Bergstrom and we walked into the white wooden house at midnight. A week well spent!
Evan and I overslept. We had gotten back to our hotel in Milan well after midnight after the football game. I didn’t set an alarm. I woke up with a start at noon.
Jaime and co had gotten downstairs for breakfast but then when we didn’t show they went back up to rest. It was drizzling and gray and Evan and I walked across the street to the Esselunga supermercati and bought ourselves some fresh croissants, fruits, and something that Evan picked up. After having eaten enrobed (chocolate dipped) Oreos in Iceland, Evan continued his experimentation with this niche haute cuisine. He bought branded Oreo donuts covered in crushed Oreo with a ring of white Oreo goop inside. They weren’t very good.
We eventually got underway and walked around the Duomo. We found a Venchi store where we loaded up on chocolates. Evan wanted to shop for suits in the Galleria (the original mother of all gallerias, built a 150 years ago), but I told him to look at the prices and he unhappily changed his mind. I do believe that if he gets his shit together, Evan will be back to Milan one day to buy himself a suit or two.
We got on the road and Jaime followed the autostrada south towards Genova on the coast. After crossing the flat agricultural and industrial heart of Lombardy we eventually entered the Ligurian alps about an hour outside Genova. We drove past many small mountain towns that looked mostly deserted. On a whim Jaime took an exit and we explored the beautiful tiny comune of Isola del Cantone nestled on both banks of the Scrivia river. A few lighted windows and an occasional tendril of smoke curling up from a chimney indicated the village had a small number of residents. The kids crossed an ancient pedestrian bridge and walked over to a church next to a cemetery with eerie glowing electronic candles while Jaime and I drove to the next motorable bridge and met them on the other side. We talked about Italy’s demographic shift and the problem with keeping small villages and towns going. Many places give homes away for a single Euro to try to lure young people to return and invest and raise a family in these places.
We got into Genova well after dark and left next morning – just long enough to give us a vague impression of a vibrant working city built on high hills and deep river valleys reaching down to a big port. The highways in and out of Genova are engineering marvels consisting almost entirely of tall bridges and tunnels. This is where the Morandi bridge collapsed in 2018 killing 43 people both on and below the bridge. A new sleek (and hopefully stronger) replacement bridge was designed by hometown architect Renzo Piano and was operational in record time. We left Genova under a light drizzle on E80, the Trans European highway that connects the Atlantic coast of Portugal with the Turkish-Iranian border. Jaime was driving and that gave me a lot of time to look around. The kids rested in the back. The city gave way to green tree covered mountains and small colorful villages shrouded in low clouds.
After about an hour we exited the very modern high bridges and tunnels of E80 into a different world. Except for cars and light poles and an occasional Piaggio three-wheeler, the Ligurian coast is frozen in time. We drove along the twisted narrow road hugging the jagged coastline past the beautiful villages of Bonassola and Lavento to eventually set our eyes on the village on Monterosso al Mare, the first of the Cinque Terre villages when you approach from the north. Our hotel asked us to park at the village center and presently a car from the hotel came by to get us. Soon I understood why. This guy deftly drove us up narrow pedestrian paths cantilevered out over the deep blue waters below with inches to spare on either side, and deposited us at the Hotel Porto Roca. This is the view from my balcony.
We quickly dropped off our luggage and got on the sentiero or walking path to Vernazza, the second of the Cinque Terre villages. The internet told us it would take 90 minutes, and the man collecting toll (cash only) looked us up and down and said “two hours”. We didn’t hurry. The boys horsed around and joked and stopped often and Jaime stopped even more often to take photos of everything, so we were surprised when we arrived in Vernazza less than 50 minutes later. It is only 2 miles from Monterosso, but there are a lot of steps and walking along narrow ancient rock retaining walls. In the photo below you can see Vernazza around the second corner, a bit of the village of Corniglia up on the cliffs above and past Vernazza, and eventually Manarola, the fourth of the Cinque Terre. Riomaggiore, the last village is tucked in a bay behind Manarola before the last point of the coastal hills slopping into the Ligurian sea. If I look back from here I can still see Monterosso. So there you have it, all five famous villages a little over 5 miles from each other as the crow flies.
We walked down into Vernazza. Evan got a gelato. I ordered some tuna crudo from a little place and the Russian proprietor explained that she had traveled all over India several times before settling in Vernazza years ago. The tonno had been fished out of the waters outside the marine protected area around Cinque Terre a few hours ago. It was fresh enough to slap. We parted ways with Jaime & co who continued on the sentiero to Corniglia. Evan and I were lazier and we hopped on a train to Riomaggiore and after walking around a bit we returned to Monterosso the fast way. We dipped our feet at the beach in the cool clear waters of the Mediterranean, drank a cold birra and a Sprite, and went back to our hotel to enjoy the view from the balcony and his iPad in bed respectively.
At an awesome sunset we met the rest of our party for dinner and turned in for the night with the balcony door open. The faint sounds of the sea from the cliffs below lulled me to sleep while I pondered about life, the universe, and how AI can be used to automatically create short-form video stories.
I recollected all this and put it in the blog the day after we returned to Austin. My jet lagged brain woke up at 2am. It turns out that I can write a lot of unfocused shit when there are five hours to kill before anyone else is up.
Evan has a week off for Fall break. Vivian does not. When Jo asks Evan what he wants to do for his Fall break, he predictably says “Nothing”. Which is code for “I want to play video games, lay in bed reading or watching YouTube all week long”. So we do the exact opposite. Jaime and I plan a week long trip for our two 12-year old boys. The boys skip school on Friday (Evan is recovering from a bout of flu, so he has already missed several days of school this week) and we hop on a flight from Austin to Newark. I get this lovely view of downtown Manhattan as we come in to land at EWR airport early in the afternoon. Later that evening we board a longer flight and we wake up in Milan on Saturday morning.
Jaime finds us a great lunch spot and we eat like locals for hours. Eventually we stop at our hotel for a quick checkin and then we are on our way to San Siro stadium, the home of AC Milan, to watch them play Juventus. The stadium is buzzing. We have fancy VIP tickets because they were the only tickets available online directly from the AC Milan website. The teams are warming up. The crowd is streaming in. Pretty soon every last seat is filled. We are a few rows from the field up from the corner mark. The press and TV crew is in the field below us. The home team fan section is behind the near goal, to our right. They are chanting and waving and doing their European soccer fan thing. The atmosphere is electrifying.
The home team wins 2-0 and everyone except for a few thousand fans on the Juventus side of the stadium are happy. We stop at the VIP lounge for some champaign because that’s how we roll and then we step out of San Siro. The surrounding areas have been transformed into a big party. Thousands of fans are chatting away in groups. The food trucks are selling sandwiches and pizzas as fast as they can. The trams are filled to capacity and we can see people pressed against the glass windows inside. We opt to walk the two miles to the hotel, more than half of which is in the company of people leaving the stadium. By the time we get into bed it is well past midnight. Not a bad first day.
My dad used to famously walk. While my mother walked twice between our front door and the end of the driveway every evening while stopping to examine a plant or a bloom in the garden on her way to declaring victory, my dad was out there at the crack of dawn for his “morning walk”. It was his religion. He took our little Lhasa terrier, Rani (“queen” and treated like one) out on a leash. Rani quickly transferred herself to my dad’s right arm. My dad and Rani were a daily fixture on Road No. 2, Banjara Hills, back when it was a dirt road to nowhere. Our home was the very first house on the street. People had just started building in Jubilee Hills, at that time the largest new development in Hyderabad. They paved the road, one lane in each direction, and a handful of homes popped up between us and the end of the road at Jubilee Hills. The Chenali compound was built a year before my parents built their home, though there was no direct access to their four houses from Road No. 2. A bit further up the road was Nawab Ali Yawar Jung’s lovely Spanish style villa. Nawab Jung was a retired governor and diplomat and most interestingly he and his French wife were divorced (I was 13 so that was pretty damn interesting). Captain Bedi built a new house on Road No. 2. My friend Praveen’s wife’s parents (Praveen and Renuka wouldn’t meet for many years), Mr. & Mrs Shastry were our immediate neighbors with a lovely garden and some younger children.
But the majority of the property along the entire 2.5 km stretch of Road No. 2 between the Masjid and the Jubilee Hills checkpoint was the last personal property of Mukkaram Jah, the grandson of the richest man in the world in his time, the H.E.H Nizam of Hyderabad. The word on the street was that Muk was living in Australia with his European wife and he never came home. Because of that or perhaps because Rani was incredibly cute, my dad and she were the most famous morning walkers on Road No. 2. A few people stopped and chatted with Dr. Chatterjee and said hello to Rani. But a majority did not know my dad. They stopped to pay their respects to Rani, carefully tucked under my dad’s arm. It was in this weird way that my parents came to know Dr. Nageshwara Rao, a new neighbor and a preeminent eye surgeon who founded the L. V. Prasad Eye Institute up the street a few years later and operated on my mother’s cataracts, and Brigadier Rao, after whose passing his wife and my mother ran a charitable medical clinic in Srinagar Colony. Credit it all to my dad’s love for walking. He’d tell stories of when he was a young professor who had been sent to Katmandu, then under the preview of Patna University, to conduct exams. He was a royal visitor and the King of Nepal provided my dad with a hiking escort who took him on all kinds of adventures around Katmandu. Or when he was in Scotland working for ICI as a freshly minted PhD, and he’d walk up and down the coast along the Firth of Clyde near Saltcoats. When we were about Evan’s age, my dad dragged Alu and me on the first day of our summer vacations to walk to his work – a distance of about 12 km, just for fun. He’d send his driver on ahead in the car with a thermos filled with fresh squeezed tomato juice to wait for us at the far end.
About a year and a half ago I discovered accidentally that I am diabetic. Duh. My mother and later my dad were both diabetic. My mother’s mom died when my mother was young, due to complications from diabetes. My mother was a doctor and a pretty logical person in most ways (besides being somewhat religious). She managed her diabetes with an iron discipline, eating carefully and taking her insulin shots. In the end she lived to be 77, but she would be the first to say that 75 would have been sufficient. She lost her hearing after a stroke, and after that we mostly communicated by telling each other bad jokes (I had to write mine out on a small whiteboard for her to read so the jokes were bad and short). She told me when I was 14 that unless they cure diabetes by then, I had better be ready to stop eating sugar when I turned 50. I got seven more years than that and that’s OK.
As a part of managing my metabolism, and because I now have a dog or a dog has me, I took up walking in earnest when my doctor gave me my diabetes diagnosis. Ouiser and I are on the trails at least five days a week. We walk 2-5 miles, preferably on non-flat terrain. Seventy-five weeks, 10-20 miles a week, probably around 1000 miles. The weather is Austin in good enough to hit the road every day. In the heat of the worst summer days, I’m back home before it is 80 degrees F. On most other days Ouiser and I walk under glorious skies. I have about five trails I love and at least 2-3 variations on each one. That means I rarely do the same walk in the same direction more often than once in two weeks. Sometimes I wander aimlessly. More often I do something specific while walking. I sort out something that has been bugging me. Or I plan out a strategy or prepare a work presentation while walking. Though well-intentioned, my inner monologue is constantly interrupted by conversations with Ouiser. There are permissions to be given to jump into creeks for a swim. Or directions to pick at forks in the trail depending on our mood. Or admonishments for wandering too far or lollygagging too far behind. Or apologies for hot days. There is a constant chatter between us.
I may have given you an impression that Ouiser’s desire to go on these walks is equal or greater than my own. Alas that is not true. After devouring her breakfast, she prefers to curl up somewhere comfortable like in Vivian’s bed, for her morning nap. Then I say “Ouiser, let’s go for a walk”. She’ll at first studiously pretend not to hear. She’ll feign deep sleep. Or look intently at her tail. Eventually when this approach becomes untenable she walks up to Jo and begs sympathy and lays down behind her with a deep sigh. About half the time I let her be and go walk by myself. The rest of the time I insist. Once she’s there Ouiser loves every moment of it, galloping through the shallow creek beds, jumping into the deeper waters, and laying still in the swimming holes to cool off. She plays catch spontaneously in the thick grasses at places she has designated in her mind as play areas. She goes off exploring, following deer and feral pig scents on side trails. But Jo wonders if I’m making all this up. “If she likes her walks so much, why does she ask me to save her from your walks every morning?”
Walking in my soul food. It is therapy. It is being intimately aware of my surroundings. I know when the rain lilies bloom. And when they droop. And which salvia blooms under what cedar tree. And how high the water is at this crossing. And strangely, like in My Octopus Teacher, I know the horsefly that buzzes around me after I cross Turkey creek. And I dwell on it when he disappears. On Fridays Gunaraj and Rajeeta often join me. On a rare weekend I drag one of the kids along. But whether with them or Ouiser or alone it is all good. Often a run up a short hill. Or a jog down a long one. As I clear the spider webbing sticking to my face, the fog lifts from my mind. The world and everything in it is in a sharper focus when I move through it one step at a time.
Completely unecessarily I’ll quote my father and mother’s favorite poet whose enormous portrait hung over my dad’s desk in our library. Rabindranath Thakur wrote “Ekla cholo re” (“Walk Alone”).
যদি তোর ডাক শুনে কেউ না আসে তবে একলা চলো রে। একলা চলো একলা চলো একলা চলো একলা চলো রে॥
Recently I was fortunate to celebrate finishing another orbit around the sun.
That’s fifty eight so far. When you’re young you know you’ll live forever. When you’re old you know you’ll die someday. I’m at the uncertain age when I hold both thoughts in my head at the same time.
Evan most likely caught a flu infection during a sleepover last Saturday at a friend’s who wasn’t yet symptomatic. His parents texted us to warn us that their son had the flu on Monday morning. Early Tuesday morning Evan had a high fever and threw up. Evan’s pediatrician ran some tests. Evan came in negative for Covid and positive for flu. He was on Tamiflu by that evening after throwing up three times. Jo, Vivian, and I tried to be careful, and Evan isolated pretty well. After two years of pandemic we all knew the routine. But by 6pm on Wednesday I was distinctly unwell. Jo suggested I do a quick tele-health consult with a doctor. By 7pm he had called in a prescription for Tamiflu. By 8pm Jo had stood in line at the nearest 24-hour HEB pharmacy for 45 minutes to pick up my prescription. At 9pm I popped my first Tamiflu. Jo checked my temperature. One hundred and three point five degrees. She sighed. I grimaced. In 36 hours Evan and I were scheduled to be on a long airplane ride. Evan was on a trajectory to recovery but things didn’t look good for me. How I celebrated my birthday the next day wasn’t on top of my mind.
Tamiflu works by blocking newly replicated virus from being able to exit an infected cell. From our Covid reading, we all know that a virus enters a cell in the host using a suitable and specific spike protein. Then it takes over the biochemical factory of that cell to make many copies of itself. The copies are released into the host to repeat the process. The cell wall is ground zero in the fight against viral infections. The mRNA based Covid vaccines work by pretending they are the spike protein of the Covid virus, tricking the body into producing defensive antibodies for the Covid virus spike protein. This protects us from the worst effects of an actual Covid infection in the future because the virus can’t get into enough cells. Tamiflu works by stopping the newly created copies of a flu virus within our infected cells from being able to get out of the cells. It stops the neuraminidase enzymes of the virus from being able to attack the inside of our cell walls. The virus are trapped inside our cells. They can reproduce all they want inside an infected cell but they can’t infect new cells. If taken early in a viral infection, Tamiflu can reduce the spread of the infection, minimize symptoms, and make you less infectious quicker. I was a perfect case, having started my dose about three hours after the first onset of symptoms. As I went to sleep, I hoped the science would work.
Thursday dawned. I slept on. I had turned off my alarms but I am usually awake between 5:45am and 6:30 am. I woke with a start at 8:05am. My first thought was the memory of feeling sick the night before. The second was I late for my daily morning trail walk. The third was that Vivian had left the house for school almost an hour ago and here I was just waking up. The fourth was that it was my birthday. I jumped out of bed to check my temperature. I zapped my forehead with one of those forehead scanning thermometers left over from taking Vivian’s temps every morning for a year (for her school’s Covid protocol app). 98.6. I knew these aren’t the most accurate devices. I zapped three more times. No fever. I checked my pulse. Steady, strong, 68. Jo walked up the stairs and asked how I felt. I said “Uh – I think great!”.
I didn’t go on that walk. But I finished a huge breakfast just in time for my 9am meeting. Then there was another longer meeting at noon (both remote). When Jo asked I told her not to cancel dinner reservations. Evan took his unused puke bowl down from his bed and put it in the sink, saying he felt pretty good too. Birthday wishes came in from various time zones. Alu called and held out his phone while Michelle played the most uplifting concert version of Happy Birthday ever. By the time Jo and Vivian walked in after Vivian’s school, Evan and I were showered and dressed in real pants and we went for a lovely dinner at Josephine House.
Two glasses of cab and a perfect steak later I felt like a million bucks. Some of that was wondering whether I got lucky, or had the science worked so damn well. Some of it was because I knew Evan and I were going on that trip tomorrow morning. Some of it was the wine speaking. But most of it is warm reflections of another great orbit around the sun with my crew who are sitting around this marble dinner table outside Josephine House on a lovely October evening with me. Love you to the core of your DNA. And you RNA too.
We flew from Reykjavik to Boston, spent the night at an airport hotel, and continued at the crack of dawn to Kansas City where I had parked Jo’s car about three weeks ago. Before lunch we are driving past rolling fields of corn, dark green and already taller than we are. Carol is expecting us. She has left Sadie in her bedroom so that when we arrive, Ouiser can greet us properly without having another dog around. The kids grumble that Grandma has never shown this level of consideration for her grandkids. Jo adds that Carol was never this nice to her kids. Ouiser has been very well cared for.
The next few days in Dawson are slow and easy. The only things we really do is walk the dogs up to Heim cemetery and go to Frosty Queen for crunch cones. One day I get to visit the fields with Tom. As usual Tom patiently answers my questions about everything – corn futures, the internal workings of combines, an infestation of Japanese beetles. I see the copper and green Japanese beetles first hand eating their way through soy bean leaves. A crop duster flies low overhead dusting a neighboring field.
Carol has helped Vivian learn how to crochet and has given her a hook and yarn. Vivian and I fly back from Kansas City airport to home. She crochets obsessively all the way back. Over the next few days she makes herself a very shaggy looking sweater and calls it “cottagecore” while I call it ugly. At home we are greeted very vocally by our dear Zeus who tells us all about how she has been alone for weeks and that we are assholes, over and over again. She lays on top of us meowing very loudly.
In a few days Ouiser, Jo and Evan drive back to Austin from Nebraska and we are finally back to full strength at the white wooden house. Soccer and the schools start up. Summer is supposedly over and it is only a 100 degrees outside. Vivian is in 10th (I have a hard time wrapping my head around that) grade and Evan is in 7th.
It has been another epic summer trip, especially our 3000 km drive around Iceland. But we are happy to be back home and reunited with our furry kids. Once the hairless kids are in school Jo and I go for a nice brunch to Josephine House and enjoy our customary back to school celebration. Cheers to another academic year.
After breakfast we climb the steps to the observation platform overhanging Skógafoss. Then we pack up and drive to nearby Reynisfjara Beach. During the short drive the weather turns from beautiful summer morning to North Atlantic gale. By the time we arrive at the beach the rain has mostly stopped but the wind is still howling. I had primed the kids by showing them a YouTube video of stranded tourists on this beach. They had wandered to the edge of the water as most people on beaches do and a rouge wave had come out of nowhere. Several of them suddenly found themselves foundering in waist deep ice cold water. No one was washed out that day but it does happen. Vivian and Evan stop and read the warning sign before they go on the beach, and they are extremely cautious.
The waves that reach this coastline of Iceland have had a lot of room to gather energy, and often a rouge wave gets a bit rowdy. If you swim straight south from here, you’ll miss the bulge of Western Africa as well as the protrusion of Brazil and get all the way to Antartica without touching land anywhere. We are at about 65 degrees N here. Antartica starts at about 72 degrees S at the point directly below Iceland. So that is 137 degrees of latitude or 8220 nautical miles or 9459 miles or 15223 km. The circumference of the earth is about 40,000 km at the equator, so this isn’t too shabby. For those that want to know, the longest distance you can sail in a straight line starts at the coast of Pakistan, passes between Madagascar and Africa, threads between Tierra del Fuego and Antartica, crosses diagonally across the Pacific not far from Hawaii, and ends up in Kamchatka, Russia. That is a 32,000 km straight line, just 8000 km short of going fully around our watery home planet.
We wander around the beach and stick close to the giant cliffs of twisted basalt and try not to get blown away by the wind. Behind us the surf pounds the black sand beach and we keep a wry eye out for tourists being washed away by rouge waves. Fortunately no one obliges and Evan is slightly disappointed.
Incidentally, the last time we were here, there was not another soul and no YouTube videos or warning signs. Evan was four and Vivian was seven and they ran up and down right by the water and we didn’t know any better.
Reynisfjara Beach is a sandbar that runs east to west. We were on the eastern end of it. The western end of the sandbar almost touches the towering cliffs of the island of Dyrhólaey. The island is connected by a causeway and we drive around to it and park next to the trail head at Dyrhólaey. In front of me is one of the most beautiful public restrooms I’ve seen. I stop to admire it and take a picture.
Looking further west from the trail at Dyrhólaey is the view above. Access to the black sand beach is closed off with a rusted chain and a sign that says it is too dangerous to go down there. Eight years ago we had strolled on that beach for an hour and the kids had frolicked on the sand and played below the cliffs. I compare photos – the strip of black sand is much narrower today and it does look precarious with no way to run from a rouge wave.
You may not be able to spot it in the photo above but there is a dot of orange up on the cliff. That is the Dyrhólaey lighthouse and our next destination.
The view from the Dyrhólaey lighthouse is stunning. Cliffs drop away on three sides and puffins cling to tufts of grass. Far below them the black sand beach stretches to the horizon. This is our last stop before a two and half hour drive back to the big city lights of Reykjavik. About halfway back to Reykjavik we drive through the town of Selfoss. There is a Bobby Fischer museum here. In 1972 Bobby beat Boris Spassky in Reykjavik to become the chess world champion. It was the chess match of the century, the chess version of Rocky, a proxy war between the US and back then the USSR, and Bobby returned to America a hero and a household name. In 1992 Bobby, by then more notorious for his antisemitism than his chess, and Boris played again in Yugoslavia. Bobby ignored US and UN sanctions to go to Yugoslavia and a warrant was issued for his arrest by the US government. Bobby never returned to the US. He was eventually arrested trying to leave Japan years later, and while he was in prison there awaiting extradition to the US, he was granted full Icelandic citizenship by the Alþingi on the strength of his 1972 world championship in Reykjavik. Bobby died in 2008 in Iceland and is buried in Selfoss.
We get to Reykjavik and check into our hotel downtown. I look around and find a pho place around the corner. People with Vietnamese sounding names have given it good ratings on google. A few minutes later Vivian, Evan and I are slurping up pho with four heaping spoons of chili oil. Ahh – it is sooo good.
That evening I take a stroll around downtown. It is a beautiful evening and I run into crowds of tourists and some locals. At 10:30 at night it is bright enough to do brain surgery outside. Next morning we pack and I take another walk around downtown, this time with the fam. We are excited to be going home, but mostly we are excited to see Ouiser who Grandma has been taking care of. We are not looking forward to the 67 consecutive days of over 100 F days back in Texas.
We travel well. Fourteen days driving around in Iceland, preceded by two weeks of Jo and the kids driving through Virginia and Maryland. This trip felt different. Vivian and Evan interacted with each other as almost adults. And Jo and I think they had a good time. As the plane rises up into the deep blue sky and the island falls away below us, Jo’s face says it all….
Today we have a three hour relaxed drive from Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon, to Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s well-known waterfalls. Most of the ring road here is not far from Iceland’s southern coast. We start the morning by driving around the glacial fingers of ice coming down from Hvannadalshnúkur, Iceland’s highest peak, and the southernmost extention of the Vatnajökull ice cap.
We drive into the Skaftafell Visitor Centre, a part of the huge Vatnajökull National Park. I take a short 2-3 mile hike to see Svartifoss, a pretty little waterfall surrounded by basaltic columns. At the park I read about the flooding here in 1996 and look down at the flood plain from a viewpoint and see where the flooding created giant ripples in the flats below. We get back on the ring road and drive over the black sand flats that connect the sea on our left to the mountains and glaciers to our right. In a few minutes we drive past the twisted steel beams of the Skeiðará Bridge Monument. During the 1996 floods, and several times since, including during the infamous 2010 Eyjafjallajökulleruption that halted air travel in most of Europe for a couple of weeks (Sharath was conveniently stranded in Amsterdam during this time), there were subglacial eruptions in these areas. A tremendous amount of ice is quickly turned into water. The water initially lifts up the ice as ice floats on water, and then drains out of the volcanic caldera, leaving behind giant whirlpool patterns of ice. The warm water (actually it is pretty cold at 6-8 degrees C) then flows under the glaciers and lifts them up again like it pushed up the ice in the caldera. Eventually the glaciers can no longer hold back and millions of tones of melt water, rocks, and icebergs come crashing down across the coastal flats on their way out to sea. The ring road and several bridges here get destroyed by the floods and Iceland quickly builds them back. This road is the only connection to people in the eastern part of Iceland, where we were a few days ago. We saw lots of earthworks in progress and at least a few new bridges being built.
The vocabulary of a language often gives away things about the culture of the people that speak that language. Apparently the Inuit have a couple of dozen words for ice and snow (not 52 though, that’s a myth), and the Hawaiians have words that describe different types of lava rock. The Icelandic people have a word: jökulhlaup. It means glacial outburst flood. I bet there isn’t a word for that in Bangla.
Gradually the scenery is less stark and the glaciers give way to rolling green meadows and steep rocky cliffs. For miles at a time we drive over what were once lava flows but are now shaggy layers of spongy light colored moss. It looks like someone has dribbled it over everything. We stop and goof around on the moss for a bit. It is soft and warm and has a pleasant smell and I could go to sleep in the perfectly sized depressions. Evan does fall asleep.
We stop at the little town of Vik for lunch. On the way out I see the church on the hill and ask Jo to take a hasty photo out of the car window. I remember taking an almost identical photo eight years ago. Soon after Vik we drive to our hotel next to the Skógafoss. The weather is nice and we think about walking up to the falls that we can see from our window. But we wait till it starts raining. Evan sensibly decides to stay nice and dry inside and at about 11pm Jo, Vivian and I put on our jackets and stroll out to base of the thundering Skógafoss.
The next morning is beautiful. We climb up a bunch of steps to the observation platform over the top of Skógafoss. In this last photo you can see a bit of the falls on the top right corner. On the bottom left corner you can see the curve of the black sand bank on this side of the river after the falls. You may be able to spot a few tiny people standing right at the edge of the shore there. That is where Vivian was standing in the photo the night before.
Tomorrow is our last full day in Iceland. I am already missing it. Though I can’t wait to see my doggy again!
Vatnajökull is Europe’s largest ice cap. It covers an egg shaped area about 150 km long and 100 km wide. In places it is over one kilometer deep. Though Iceland got its name when Raven-Flóki saw an ice filled fjord in the north west of the island, if there is a heart of ice in Iceland, it is here on Vatnajökull. Snow falls on Vatnajökull and over centuries it is compressed into clear bubble free ice. In places all around its perimeter, under the force of its enormous weight, the ice cap very very slowly descends in tongues of ice. One of these tongues of ice on the southeast side of Vatnajökull is Breiðamerkurjökull, a name that just rolls off your tongue. In the map below, it is the small darker green patch that leads down to the coast at about 5 o’clock.
As the ice cap shrank, Breiðamerkurjökull retreated from the Atlantic and left behind a depression in the earth’s crust created by the weight of the ice over thousands of years. In the past century this became one of Iceland’s newest but deepest lakes. Most of the other glaciers end in braided rivulets that becomes streams and then rivers of glacial melt. Breiðamerkurjökull terminates at Jökulsárlón – the glacier lagoon – where ice calves off the glacier, floats around in the lake, and then flows out to sea under the one-laned suspension bridge on the ring-road.
Jo had planned a glacier hike for us. We got into an enormous franken-jeep and drove along a very rocky path on the eastern flank of the retreating glacier up to where a new lake is being spawned. Then we walked another mile or two up to the ice, put on our harnesses, crampons, and brain buckets, and then took a nice guided walk up the lower part of Breiðamerkurjökull. We got to descend a part of the way into a crevasse and we explored an ice cave.
The bad news is that this glacier is melting fast. We can quibble about what is causing it. Evan’s grandkids will one day be incredulous that their grandpa actually walked on one of those things called glaciers. In the next 50 years the probability of bringing back dinosaurs is higher than for saving glaciers. During our lifetimes, in South Asia, between Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, over 700 million people’s food and water sources and way of life will be disrupted severely by the disappearance of some of the world’s largest glaciers.
This depressing news made me very sad and when we got back to the hotel I finished the rest of the bottle of Olafsson Icelandic gin while Jo and the kids got into the nice wooden hot tub that was filled with hot water without requiring fossil fuels. In the morning we went back to stare at Jökulsárlón some more and to walk along it’s shores and up to the swirling blocks of ice on the beach on the Atlantic side. In the very last photo Evan is running along the lake like a freak. Behind him and across the lake is Breiðamerkurjökull. To the right there is a brown hulking mass of a rocky mountain sloping up above the glacier. The four of us were up there on the ice yesterday for the walk of a lifetime! Thank you, Iceland.