Sunday, 25 August 2013


The city of Reykjavík sits on the edge of the northern hemisphere. The climate is mild on the southwest corner where this northernmost capital of Europe is settled into a dramatic scenery where hilly mountains meet the awesome Atlantic Ocean.

The sea is a friend and a foe, a powerful ally and a fierce enemy. For centuries, lives have been sacrificed in the name of survival. Fishermen braved out to sea, unsheltered from the rough torrents of winter and welcome gesture of the summer sun.

My grandfather was a fisherman. My great-grandmother's first husband died at sea. Countless stories tell of death at sea, the finite defeat in the battle against a raging foe, and merrier maritime stories describe the brave victory that is survival for the grace of a powerful ally.

Such is Iceland's heritage. Dramatic accounts in a dramatic scenery.

The city nightlife is a raging bull, high on life, that feeds off the wild commotion of liquid intoxication. Fashion influences monotonous but striking and edgy. Black on black. Licorice shooters and pints. The wild north.

In the modern day city, multiculturalism challenges the monoculture of the old fishing village. A melting pot of familiar and unfamiliar languages, of exotic restaurants and delightful cafés, the city embraces the birth of a new heritage.

In the prosperous years before the chaos of the economic crisis struck the little land, tall-ish high-rises where luxury was the fundamental ingredient rose in excess. The Icelandic Manhattan dream came true in splendid glass towers overlooking Faxe bay, the sea neither a friend or foe. Just a splendid background to material wealth readily available for a big sum of money.

The "vue de mar" a precious commodity. The sea not only a source of income but a symbol of wealth.

Unlike the splendid dream that died upon the first big blow, the thick stonewall that is constantly under attack from the temperamental sea, the sea that is sometimes gay and at other times gray from gloom, survives each and every blow the warrior waves send its way.

Meanwhile, the palace of music, the majestic Harpa, (in short, the "Harp") sits in her new throne. The frames in the glass walls change shades in the eve of night and reflect the rainbow of musicality that is celebrated in the spacious interior.

But there is another side to the city; a side that is quiet, so quiet not even the violent tendencies of the North Atlantic Ocean care to strike with too much force. Sometimes, just sometimes, the reminisce of a tantrum is spread across the acres of tall grass and paved tracks meant for a leisurely walk, run or a quick sprint.

Across is a row of magnificent three-storey homes with neatly trimmed gardens and French windows all along the little street.

At Oceanside, colloquially known as "Ægisíða", the wind speaks in no vague terms against the sturdy foundation of the row of "Old Reykjavík" mansions. Neither is effected by the other. Only the beach takes on the full power of the grand Atlantic Ocean.

Oceanside is where I go to think, to explore and to share a moment of pure happiness with a one-year old puppy whose joie-de-vivre and endearing curiosity takes me on a journey of discovery every time we traverse the black sand.

Words are words. They speak volumes and when properly composed draw an image of the dramatic landscape that is so innate to the little city in the north.

But alas, the raw beauty of Oceanside is best conveyed through a visual medium, a medium that serves as a visual consent of the imagery drawn with words...


Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The New Indian-a Jones

As a child, I was enthralled by adventurous conquests for relics in ancient sites and ruins of historical importance. I was eager to pursue archaeology as an academic field after watching the series of films featuring Indiana Jones and playing so-themed computer games from LucasArts. My chosen field there within was Egyptology as my fascination with the mysteries of Egypt grew with each film and game.

The element of travel to locations out of sight and off the beaten track was the glowing ball of fire so enticing to the adventurer in me, and awakening imaginary of extraordinary excursions in-between teaching a class at an esteemed university.

On the eve of a long weekend, in a sort of "off the beaten track" locations, a place exclusive to my intimate family and close circle of friends, I found myself watching an extraordinary account of how Dr. Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist, uses her technology to discover previously unknown sites and ruins that help to discover new ancient sites hidden beneath the surface, clarify and identify in more depth previous findings, and connect the dots for scientists on the brink of proving a theory but lacking physical proof.

I'd seen a previous episode covering the use of space technology to discover whole new sites beneath the surface of Egyptian soil, some that (if my memory serves me right) may take 50 years or more to uncover. 

Thus, an episode about the Roman empire and how space technology can help to explain the ways of the Roman Empire and its grand conquests and vast expansion on a grandeur scale to the north and east. 

Being a bit of a history nerd, I couldn't resist the temptation. After all, the nature of her work is to examine the world from a very remote perspective and travel to sites that most of us can only dream of visiting.

She visited a site in which I had a very rare experience, a site generally packed with people but due to sudden changes in the political climate following 9/11, was about as busy as a butcher shop in a vegetarian compound.

The rustic red ancient city of Petra shimmered as it did on the late autumn day I visited the city in 2001, and the grounds above were as empty as I remembered them. The scattered stones among the remarkable still-standing ruins and the caves hidden away from sight told stories invisible to the naked eye and seeing Dr. Parcak explore the grounds and meeting an expert in the history of the ancient city, I longed to return to the site with a mind perhaps mature enough to take in greater depth the great history of the city.

At the age of 21, I was already taken back by the magnitude of feelings I experienced as Mother Nature's beauty and ancient history collided in the dry desert landscape that today is Petra. At the time, I thought of a cinematic moment, that is, the very moment Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones stared the old city treasure in the face at the exact same moment it met with mine. I was among perhaps twenty visitors visiting the ancient grounds in the very early aftermath of 9/11, and the city was but desolate grounds inhabited by friendly Bedouins who offered delicious tea cooked over hot bed of fire in the midst of the old city.

Other sites she visited in the episode was the beautiful cityscape of Rome, the mysterious forest-land of Transylvania and the previously fertile soil of Tunisia, that once upon a time was home to grand fields of wheat feeding the whole super-sized republic of Rome. 

The great Roman empire dazzled the senses of newcomers at the height of its empire and continues to do so. So many questions remain unanswered no matter how many times one visits Rome. I have been to the city twice, once with my dad and once with my husband and his family, and both time I felt my list of things to do in the city was still incomplete. Yes, I've walked past the amazing ruins at the heart of the city and looked over them late at night after another culinary feast, and wondered what life was like in this grand city once upon a time.

I, like most of us without a vast historical knowledge of the Roman empire, isolate its centre to the city of Rome and Italy. We fail to recognize the greater borders of the empire, borders that stretched all the way to Great Britain, the Oriental East and the edges of North Africa.

My impression of the old Roman empire was also somewhat blinded by prejudice of its grand warrior reputation; how Roman soldiers violated women as they pleased and slaughtered slaves captured in victorious battles in grand exhibition-style at the colosseums.

A surprising revelation was how in some parts of the Roman empire, such as in the North African regions and Petra in Jordan, the rulers nurtured its inhabitants with prosperous living conditions and access to entertainment and leisure previously only available to royalty.

When her use of space technology failed to produce satellite images, military tools generally used to scout enemy quarters in dense areas where satellites are unable to retrieve data, was re-purposed to find great fortresses in the dense forest regions of Transylvania.

I spent a night camping in the steep hills of Transylvania in the vicinity of Dracula's notorious but white as snow castle, and I was a little amused by the "hype" the producers made out the presence of wildlife such as wolves and bears in the dense forest-land of the region. The dangers on route are nonetheless a great built up to the intriguing discoveries Dr. Parcak discovers with experts in the field.

If I were a young girl or a boy seated between my parents - interestingly enough, I was sitting between my parents in our family cottage - I'd inspire to be her or one of the many scholars she encounters.

In fact, I inspire to have the life she is fortunate enough to lead. As an academic in the field of archaeology and a seasoned traveler, Dr. Sarah Parcak is the modern-day Indiana Jones, and entirely without the theatrical drama of black and white vilification of foes, as is the case in the fictional Indiana Jones.

In the vastness of my dreams, I could envision tracing the source of grand literary traditions, discovering previously unknown manuscripts and excavate the worlds in which some of the greatest literary works are set a long time ago, as well as grasping a better understanding of modern day literature that takes my breath away.

And I do... in my nocturnal dreams at least.

I have grown tired of mindless reality television with no purpose other than to embellish shallowness of popular culture or the satisfaction of making a mockery of real people. 

To see esteemed academics document their career-changing studies, sharing their knowledge and "peeling the onion" of history (a term referring to the title of Gunter Grass' wartime memoir so-titled) in a way that is reciprocal to the needs of a "novice" audience in the field, while being intellectually stimulating and enriched by mind-blowing landscape, is a treat to all our most valuable senses.

In her travels, she is on a path of discovery, excavating places most of us will not access in that depth in our lifetime, and letting us in while doing so. 

But it doesn't mean the curious traveler without the resources to which an esteemed academic has access cannot explore this world's incredible wealth of history. 

Investing but a fraction of one's travel to learning a little more about the history of regions explored along the way is well worth the effort it may take. History has the power to explain cultural elements we may fail to understand and even recognize as we travel to and experience far and sometimes distant lands.

Take the extensive wheat (and I mean the stuff that looks more like barley than the green leaves of the weed plant) production in North Africa. Italy, the ancient centre of the Roman empire to us non-experts, is enriched by culinary culture that depends a great deal on wheat (pasta, pizza, etc) and it is possible to make the assumption the tradition may in part derive from its ancient ruling grounds.

If for no other reason than to enrich a journey through this extraordinary world of ours, an academic or/and educational program about the regions we plan to visit has the potential to enrich the journey and help us to be better travelers.

Next year, Brazil is host to the world cup in its favorite sport. For those planning to travel to the land of great football (soccer in some parts of the world), I recommend watching BBC's Brazil with Michael Palin. It provides an insight to regions with its local traditions (culinary, dancing, etc), history, wildlife and landscape that'll truly make a dreamer out of the most pragmatic pessimist.

It'll no doubt double the pleasure of visiting this extraordinary (and almost continental-sized) country that happens to be the only country in Latin America that has (Brazilian) Portuguese as its official language. 

Just like, Dr. Sarah Parcak's documentary episodes on Discovery Channel, truly enrich a trip to Rome as much as it will a trip to parts of Tunisia...  

And just so it's clear, if Dr. Parcak or Mr. Palin require an assistance or are currently looking for a new member to join their team, I'll be the first to volunteer my services!