I was on a city scooter moving twenty kilometers per hour in the pouring rain when I realized I was in Iceland.
It was a few days into the trip and we were still shaking off the jitters of flight and of meeting the thirty new people we’d be living with for a month. Blank slates, we inspected each other’s tent set-ups and made fast friends. We repeated our names, majors, and hometowns countless times. I wondered where I would fit, who would take me in. We had started off strong with three long days of Geology when we had our first blessed day off.
At the end of a semi-leisurely day, a few of us wanted to check out a local café with darts and pool. It was a couple of miles away and we’d already walked around Reykjavik all day. Luckily, parked nearby the campsite were a few of Iceland’s newest popular form of transportation: the Hopp scooter. Like any city-sponsored vehicle, you can download an app and pay-as-you-go in time increments of 30 minutes or so.
We thought we’d Hopp there, play a few rounds of darts, and Hopp back before a reasonable bedtime. Iceland, it seems, saw an opportunity for a baptism.
Gabe led the pack. We had become friends a few days ago while hiking Esja, a popular mountain just outside the city, and daring to jump in the mountain’s freezing river water despite having no preparation to do so. On this fateful night we scootered alongside choppy water on a paved bike path; we knelt and stood up on one leg and struck poses while we tried to stay upright.
And just when we were engrossed in scooter tricks, Gabe said, “Look up!”
So I did, and I took in the sight: huge waves breaking offshore, thin clouds in front of a sun that shone until midnight, flat-topped mountains opposite the Reykjavik skyline.
It’s something Gabe had said a few times before, and I later learned he meant to reference a song. In “Look Up,” Joy Oladokun sings the following lines:
Do you see the sunlight?
There’s flowers in your hair
‘Cause somebody loves you
You know trouble’s always gonna be there
Don’t lеt it bring you to your knees
It reminds me of a song by my friend Steve, who makes music under the name Keyboard Dog. In his song “Amsterdam,” he sings:
Maybe one of these days I’ll lift up my head
And finally see that I’m in Amsterdam
Steve and Joy are both reminding us to pay attention—to look at the big picture that makes our day-to-day problems seem so small.
It’s easy to become so wrapped up in a stream of consciousness that you forget to notice the view. This is true regardless of whether you’re in Amsterdam or Boston, Iceland or your hometown. Often when I walk to class I keep my head down, eyes plastered to the sidewalk. I miss out on budding trees and the hidden storefronts that aren’t announcing themselves loudly to the world. My city becomes a conveyor belt of concrete. Until I look up—then I fall in love again with Boston springtime and the charms of urban transit. The tulips and the potholes and the screeching Green Line.
Then again, it’s also easy enough to say this when Boston weather is kind. Or when Iceland—famously one of the coldest countries in the world—is in the height of summer. What happens when it rains? When it’s too cold to go outside? Joy Oladokun says trouble will always be there. The challenge is to pay attention still, to look up through the trouble. Or even to love it.
We were put to the test on the way back to the campsite. It had only been an hour or two since we left, but the weather had taken a drastic turn. When we stepped outside, the rain got straight to work at soaking through our sneakers.
We looked at each other in dismay. The bus had stopped running and walking would only make it worse. There was only one option. We zipped up our jackets and put on gloves. My second time riding an electric scooter would be on slick pavement with fat raindrops angled toward my bare face. We booked the scooters online and started on our way.
The route home took us again past the open water. Ocean winds blew hard against my skin, accelerating raindrops so they felt like tons of tiny, angry pebbles. I knelt again, not for fun but to block some of the blow with narrow Hopp handles. I straddled the line between looking forward so as not to crash and turning away to shield my face from the rain. I was waiting for the journey to be over.
Until: I caught a glimpse of the sunset. A few minutes before midnight, the sky just barely darkened and dyed clouds with pink and orange. Through ominous clouds I saw a rare bit of evidence that the earth turns. With all the trouble of the ride, I had almost forgotten to look up!
Throughout the trip, I’ve been distracted by minor failures. My tent’s tendency to leak a bit, minor social shortcomings, and lack of laundry facilities, to name a few. When I look up and remember where I am, the beauty of snow-capped mountains overshadows the stylishness of my outfit entirely. You can love anything if you pay enough attention. In Boston, too, when I take time to gaze around and really notice where I am, the city becomes brighter and friendlier. Even fighting strong winds, tough classes, social drama. I see the sunlight.
Today we hiked a couple of miles over rolling glacial till to reach the ice’s toe. Amid a challenging walk deciding where to place our feet to prevent rockslides, my friend Maggie stopped and looked up. A strikingly-blue glacial lagoon with floating icebergs, as well as its mother glacier streaked with volcanic ash, crept like a tired cat below us. You could hear the earth move.
“Oh,” she said. “I forgot we’re here.”