Ice and Fire

Surprises are perhaps one of life’s greatest joys. Be it an unexpected gift, a visit from someone you weren’t expecting, or just a simple gesture of kindness, the pleasant surprises of life not only bring happiness to us, but also make life more interesting and therefore more rewarding. Maybe this is why I love traveling so much. The essence of travel is to discover that which you don’t know, going somewhere you haven’t been before.

As a student, I studied at a small engineering school. I had many memorable classes and countless interesting, edifying lectures. But you know what class was must surprising? Geography. My course plan was littered with physics, chemistry, computational theory, and countless flavors of mathematics. But that was all expected, part of an engineering education. What I learned in geography, a class taken to fulfill one of those required “humanities” credits that engineering students tend to scoff at, was what truly surprised me.

I was shocked how much a person could learn by simply studying a map. Beyond simple locations of places, maps told stories of geological formation and catastrophe. Stories of the development of nations. Stories of conflict. But most of all, maps told stories of people.

I’ve heard geography described as a bridge between the humanities and physical sciences, and maybe that is why I found it so fascinating. As an engineering student, steeped in hard science, it spoke to my background in the humanities and together people and their places together. It put a lot of what I had learned about people and the countries that I had traveled through into context. It also showed me just how much I didn’t know about the world. It was humbling and it was surprising.

My professor showed us endless slides of his own travels around the world. I sat spellbound in that lecture hall, enchanted by the images of places I hadn’t even considered before, learning about their people, traditions, and environments. Only the year before I had studied abroad, and yet found myself wanting to leave again and discover new lands. That was surprising.

One place that I never forgot from those lectures was Iceland. Towering glaciers, vast open floodplains, craggy volcanic mountains, verdant mossy coastlines, endless black beaches, steaming thermals, and countless waterfalls: Iceland was surprising in not only its variety, but also in how unexpected it was to my naive mind that such a small island in the North Atlantic could hide such treasures. So many years later, we finally went to discover it for ourselves.

Maybe the joy of surprise is its fragility: you ruin a surprise by knowing about it. And though I had since learned much about Iceland, it was still a surprise. It was a surprise not only how varying the landscape was, but also how quickly it changed. It was a surprise not at how good the food was, but how consistently excellent it was no matter where we ate. Through my travels in Scandinavia, I expected the Icelanders to be friendly, but I was surprised at how ridiculously warm and welcoming everyone was with an additional, delightful sardonic wit.

Joined by my cousins and regular travel companions, Jeanene and Deavron, we spent two weeks driving the ring road following a terrific itinerary assembled by Elise. We circled the island taking in breathtaking wonders of nature while exploring quaint fishing villages with miles and miles of vast, open, beautiful country, with surprises seemingly at every turn. We even saw humpback whales!

Maybe the only unsurprising thing was how much I want to go back.

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