A church in Iceland invited our church to come help them build a teen area in their main sanctuary. So a team of twelve traveled to Iceland bringing the lithium batteries for our power tools as carry-ons. The people in this church were not in need of food or clothing – just man (and woman) power.
Although we’d come to work, (more on that later), we had an opportunity to experience the island. An air-force base was constructed in Iceland around the time of World War II to protect the island’s neutrality – which really seems like a better way of ensuring Icelandic “neutrality” favored American and British interests. In 2006, the US vacated the base, turning it over to Iceland’s defense team. It’s now mostly abandoned except for a few barracks that have been turned into low-income housing or the “hotel” at which we stayed.
The vegetation in Iceland is short. You could see for miles because there were no trees, no shrubs, really nothing taller than spongy turf stretching to the horizon. At the end of the trip, we took the Golden Circle bus tour. Within eight hours we rode Icelandic horses, watched the Stokkur geyser, and walked over the Gulfoss waterfall. On the way, we noticed a batch of tall pine trees. After a week of seeing no vegetation reaching higher than our ankles, the tall trees dividing the horizon was jarring. Our tour guide explained that the trees were implants from immigrants who missed the pine trees of their native countries. The trees seemed to thrive in their little patches of like-minded trees, but there was an oddity to it, an out-of-place-ness. The trees seemed to me a little like the air force base. Who introduced this foreign presence? At least the trees stayed and made the place home.
The coffee was good. Even the mass produced Kaffitar had a nice, full flavor. And the latte at a beautiful café near the Stokkur was almost as memorable as the stark beauty of Iceland’s countryside. But I purposefully speed through these encounters. You can find better descriptions and pictures on the internet.
The PBS travel-guide Rick Steves gave a talk on Travel as a Political Act in which he points out that travel goes beyond mere tourism when we take time to get know the people of the places we visit. We, in turn, are changed and return home as better citizens of our home country, and better citizens of the world. This trip to Iceland was no different. Yes, I thrilled walking along Gulfoss. I felt like a character from Lord of the Rings riding all huddled up on amazingly furry, hobbit horses. I enjoyed the coffee and driving through the colorful town of Reykjavik. But that is not what changed me.
The church we’d come to help was comprised predominantly of kids. Teens brought their little brothers and sisters to hang out every afternoon. It was a place they could go if their parents were out or working, serving as a sort of home away from home. They were, to a kid, friendly to us, telling us the best lamb hot dog spots in town, bringing “real” licorice for us to try, explaining how only rich people eat steak – everyone else eats fish fresh from the lake or ocean. (They also eat horse. I ate horse by mistake – I thought it was just really strong bologna).
There was a thirteen-year-old boy there whose dad was an American pilot – who now lived in America. His English had a distinct American accent. The other kids expressed their jealousy that he got to visit America for a few months each summer. My guess is that the boy would have traded his American summers for a dad who lived nearby – or even on the same continent.
Jakob was the first to greet us. This fifteen-year-old sported a terrific blonde Mohawk and introduced himself as “Dr. Awesome.” Then there was Petra, with her shy smile, who told me she plans to be a teacher. There was Svandis, whose mom was a bride purchased from Nigeria; she wants to be a fashion designer. There was Bjarndis; Svandis’s spunky little sister who’s aiming to play soccer in the Women’s World Cup.
We Americans came focused on the building project. We had our power tools and list of objectives and, the first four days, worked late into the night to accomplish them and more. The kids sat, and watched, and helped where they could. Eventually we learned though. We started taking breaks in the afternoon to play Uno or shoot pool or race around breathless in “Viking Dodge-ball” (their term, not ours – and honestly, they improved our version of Dodge-ball by leaps and bounds).
Yes, we were able to add a second story inside their main sanctuary, complete with stairs and drywall. Yes, we saw fascinating wonders in Iceland, geysers, glimpses of the Northern Lights, thermally heated water, glaciers, Icelandic horses, vast fields of snow (I’m from Tucson, Arizona, water and snow in any quantity amazes me). In the mostly abandoned air force base, we saw ways in which a power imbalance can introduce foreign structures in a culture that didn’t ask for it, but now has to deal with the marks that are left. In the pine trees, we saw imported culture trying to be inconspicuous. And in Viking Dodge-ball, we also saw how cultures can meld and produce an improved version of things. But mostly, I remember the stories of these kids – their backgrounds and dreams. And I was reminded that, at home and abroad, “getting the job done” must never replace “getting to know people.”
Steves, R. (2011 ) Travel as a Political Act. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXL3IrlslSs