SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 9, 2018 - 12:00am

REYKJAVIK –  My most memorable experience during my visit to this country with spectacular landscape is pitch-black darkness, and the sound of silence.

I experienced it at the Lava Tunnel, or Raufarholshellir near Reykjavik, the fourth longest lava tube in the country. The interior looks similar to the Subterranean River in Palawan, except there are no bats. The walls are not made of limestone but lava that has ossified over the past 5,600 years. 

Iron has oozed out of the basalt and oxidized, forming red veins or stria on the rock face. Scientists are studying the possibility that this is similar to what is found on Mars, the red planet. There are microbial mats on the ceiling and walls containing microorganisms that are collected for the manufacture of antibiotics.

Instead of a river, there are skylights at several spots along the cave. When we reached the end of the tunnel that is open to the public, which has been used for concerts, the guide told us to close our eyes and open them only when he said so. 

When we did, he had switched off the lights and it was pitch-black. We couldn’t see our hands in front of our eyes. In that kind of darkness, he told us, the eyes would never adjust, and would eventually go blind.

Then he told us to be quiet for at least 10 seconds. When we did, the silence seemed to take physical form, filling my ears. I could hear water dropping with an echo into the cave. It was wonderfully primeval; I held my breath during those 10 seconds so as not to miss any of the sounds. This was how it had been in the cave for the past 5,600 years, the guide told us when we resumed talking.

Icelanders are fully aware of the appeal of the natural state of things. The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, for example – Iceland’s major tourist draw even before “Game of Thrones” and Justin Bieber’s video – are best seen when artificial lights are off, on a dark night with few clouds.

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People had been visiting the Lava Tunnel for a long time for free. Portions of the movie “Noah” were shot in the tunnel. But then Icelanders began noticing that prehistoric lava straws that had formed on the ceiling like thin icicles were starting to disappear. Our guide said visitors were pelting the ceiling with rocks to take home the straws as souvenirs.

In 2015, the cave saw more than 20,000 visitors. Later in 2016, the cave was closed. A private operator installed lighting and a metal walkway inside part of the cave, roped off a path and collected several tons of garbage. 

Last year the Lava Tunnel opened, with only guided tours allowed, for a fee. All visitors are now required to wear helmets with lights like those of miners, and shoe ice cleats. And the number of visitors is now strictly regulated.

Similar regulation is being implemented in other tourist spots in Iceland, even as the country welcomes the boom in its travel industry, which now accounts for much of its GDP. 

The number of tourists is also strictly regulated at the Blue Lagoon. Areas are roped off in geyser areas and lava fields, not just to prevent visitors from venturing into dangerous spots but also from collecting rocks or trampling on ancient moss. 

There are always travelers who ignore the ropes, as I saw at the small waterfall where women used to be drowned by the community as punishment for various infractions such as adultery. The Icelanders can’t police all the destinations, but being law abiding can be contagious; the typical visitor behaves in this country.

Seeing the propensity of visitors to bring home free souvenirs courtesy of Mother Nature, Icelanders realized the value of their resources and the urgency of preserving them.

Today Iceland has an admonition to visitors: take nothing with you, and don’t leave anything behind. The second part refers not just to personal belongings but also to trash.

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Balancing the gains from tourism with the need to preserve the environment and heritage sites is complicated but cannot be ignored. 

Such efforts are going on in many parts of the world, especially in top travel destinations that have become victims of their own tourism success.

In our country, drastic measures have been undertaken to restore Boracay, or at least its beach areas, to their pristine state. This early, however, sustaining the reforms is proving to be a challenge.

There are also other travel destinations that are in urgent need of saving. The slopes of Baguio City, for example, are a deadly disaster waiting to happen, and Bontoc is rapidly going the same way. More effort is needed to save the hanging coffins of Sagada and the Banaue Rice Terraces. 

Visitor numbers are now being regulated at the Underground River in Palawan, but the rules can use more tightening. 

Other beaches are even more polluted and poorly regulated than Boracay before its shutdown. Local government executives must do more to save these beaches. 

Iceland must contend not only with threats to its natural environment but also with factors beyond its control outside the country. There are people who continue to challenge the science behind climate change, arguing that the planet is self-renewing. For the average Icelander, however, there is no question that global warming is happening, and that its impact could one day pose an existential threat to the country.

In 2014, the Okjokull glacier, the country’s smallest, lost its glacier title and is now known simply as OK because it had lost so much ice it could no longer be classified as a glacier. Nine years ago when I first visited this country, I climbed a glacier and was shown how far the ice had receded.

Iceland’s most active volcanoes sit under glaciers. At the Lava Center, there is a permanent exhibit about volcanic activity, which gave birth to the land now called Iceland. Visitors are told that the glaciers help minimize the power of eruptions. Once the glaciers melt, Icelanders expect more destructive eruptions from their numerous volcanoes.

While the complete meltdown isn’t expected until 100 to 150 years, Icelanders are preparing for what at this point seems like an inevitable disaster.

For now, however, their principal concern is maintaining a healthy balance between tourism and protection of their environment. 

We should be giving our travel destinations the same level of concern.

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