Under a brooding sky

Under a brooding sky

Sometimes the simple things in life are what matter


Under a brooding sky
Illustration: Brian Wang
Twelve years since its first massive eruption, the Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name - Eyjafjallajokull - is still blasting ash and debris into the sky.

Its poisonous fumes have killed more than 20 million people, destroyed the lives of the people of Iceland and accelerated global warming. What's more, it became my summer holiday destination.

'Come on! How many chances do you get to watch a volcano erupt?' my mother asked, with her irritating enthusiasm.

'Hopefully none,' I answered, truthfully. 'If I do, it will be in the moments before I'm incinerated and die a horribly excruciating death.'

'You're exaggerating. It's perfectly safe.'

'I'm not coming.'

'Yes, you are.'

'Am not.'

'Are too.'

'Make me.'

'Ok - no football ...'

There was a short pause.

'Alright, I'll come,' I said grudgingly, 'but Iceland had better broadcast the World Cup.'

Sitting on the extremely rickety aeroplane, I gazed out the window at a dreary view of dense black clouds. I considered eating the in-flight meal but as I searched the putrid lumps for signs of something edible, I quickly dismissed the idea.

The constant shuddering of the engine made it impossible to sleep, so I spent seven hours twisting on my uncomfortable economy class seat, watching the rhythmic flicker of the lights and listening to the patter of raindrops on my window. It was strange. It was beautiful.

Getting off the plane was particularly hazardous, as Iceland was notorious for its showers of icy hailstones. Furthermore, the airport only provided a slippery ladder for disembarkation. Tentatively, I slithered down the stairs, wary of the drop on either side. It was a slow but exhilarating journey and I felt extremely proud when I reached the bottom.

Iceland is a very apt name for this country, especially the first bit. A glass of water soon freezes if you don't occasionally sip from it. Car engines regularly stall because of the temperatures which, incredible as it may seem, take a further massive dip at night.

I asked a local man if people regularly fell through the ice.

'Um ... yes.'


'Yes ... two last weeks.'

'Two! And are they dead?'

'Quite dead.'

After his unintended warning, fear and cold sharpened my senses and helped me combat the difficult terrain.

Since the icecaps started melting, and Iceland's rivers started flooding, the people eat only one thing: fish. Breakfast was delicious smoked salmon. Lunch consisted of steamed fish, and dinner was usually a heap of steamed, roasted, raw, smoked, grilled and boiled fish. I pride myself on being a machine when it comes to food, and it just happens that I love fish, so my plate was always empty. My mum was relieved that I was enjoying something about the holiday.

But my pleasure was painfully, and abruptly, cut short. When I turned on the TV to watch China play their first match in the World Cup, all I found was a screaming cacophony of white noise. It was explained that, because of the ash clouds, the television signals could not get through.

Feeling murderous, I took a stroll. The wind cleared my head and I was treated to a new and amazing sight. At this time of year, it's nearly always daytime in Iceland, but now, as I gazed up in wonder, the last streaks of ash-tinted light illuminated the dark clouds in a spectacular way. It was definitely a consolation.

I waited for many days to see another sunset, but I never did. Instead, I was treated to the ever-changing beauty of Iceland's skies. I quickly became accustomed to the switching weather conditions. One second, the sky was a clear, cloudless blue, the next, clouds billowed up, twisting their tendrils around the light and sending rain pouring down in a steady shower.

The clouds and the infinite blue were constantly battling for supremacy, and I soon found I could read the skies and make reliable weather predictions. I advised my mum on whether we should go out or stay in our heated rooms. Sometimes she would ignore my advice ... and then return to the hotel, soaked.

After a week in Iceland, I was cautiously starting to relax and enjoy the holiday. Unlike the compact, polluted cities of China, the icy landscapes around me seemed to stretch out forever.

But there was still one thing I had yet to witness: the volcanic eruption. The exploding ash which had transformed a sunset into such a beautiful thing. The magma which had polluted the landscape and caused the evacuation of millions of people. Iceland's natural wonder, and the tourist attraction my mum had wanted me to see.

We were full of anxious excitement as we set out the next day. Along with all the other tourists keen to see one of the natural marvels of the world, we boarded the waiting coach. The volcano has been described as deadly and beautiful; I was about to discover which description was better.

Slowly the bus pulled to a stop in front of the sight. A hushed silence fell over us as we walked through the tunnel to the viewing gallery. With our breath forming foggy circles on the glass, we narrowed our eyes for any sign of activity.

A sudden rumble sent tensions soaring. Suddenly there was a loud crash and I strained to catch a glimpse of the eruption. Then I heard sighs of disappointment. A torrential downpour began and the volcano disappeared behind a wall of rain. Cloud swirled and lightning flashed in a way that would have been impressive at any other time. My mum was bitterly disappointed as I dragged her back to the hotel.

After that miserable failure, everyone was feeling down. The rain continued throughout the night and through the whole of the next day.

I slept. It rained. I could feel it drumming into my skull.

After three days, the rain showed no signs of abating, and people were becoming worried. On the fifth day, the rivers began to flood. On the seventh day, it became a disaster. In the news pictures shot from the air, Iceland looked like it was bleeding.

Then on the 13th day it stopped. At precisely 3.42pm, the rain ceased. I was shocked - then I started laughing. Soon everyone else realised and started smiling. And to top it all off, we saw a sunset.

The clouds faded away and rays of sunlight broke through, scattering the darkness in all directions. The sun set majestically, shining intensely as it dipped below the horizon ... then it finally happened.

The volcano was extraordinary. It spewed magma like an angry beast, ash flooding from its nostrils. Confronted by its thunderous rumble, everyone was silent. It truly was a natural miracle.

However, even though it was magnificent, I was not completely blown away. A small part of me nagged that something was missing. I realised that the soft patter of raindrops, the taste of a mouthful of salmon, the pride of overcoming a challenge and the sight of a sunset, while everyday things, to me had more meaning than that volcano could possibly ever have.

The volcanic eruption lasted for three minutes but that first sunset will stay with me for my whole life.

It's astounding what you can believe is amazing. After those few weeks in Iceland I discovered that, to quote Kung Fu Panda, 'to think something is special you just have to believe it's special'.

Nothing could ever compare to that stunning sunset. Sometimes we take everyday occurrences for granted, never noticing them until someone points them out. But when I was in Iceland where everything - from the fire streaming out of the volcano, to the shining sheets of ice - seemed special, I realised that something as ordinary as a sunset could stand out.

My mum was right: Iceland was pretty awesome but not for the reasons she believed.

Oh, and I just heard that China won the World Cup.

Now, that's an unbelievable summer.

Thomas is a student at Harrow International School of Beijing


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