Many years ago upon having just finished Art School in my home town of Melbourne I spent 2 months travelling around Vietnam. At one very memorable point on that trip I made a trek to the far north-western corner of the country to the highlands very close to the Chinese border – a place called Sapa, an amazing community in the clouds where the people identify themselves with one of maybe 5 or so tribes, wearing tribal colours, and speak distinct dialects that in some instances bear little or often no resemblance to Vietnamese in spite of being part of that country. To get to Sapa one takes an overnight 13 hour train journey from Hanoi to the base of the highest mountains from which point the final 4 hour bus journey to Sapa winds up and over some of the most breathtaking and awe inspiring mountain scenery I have ever encountered in my life.
In spite of its beauty, that bus journey was also until last week the only time I have truly ever feared for my life in a vehicle. See, the road to Sapa winds a around the mountains not unlike the way they do in Looney Tunes cartoons, mostly only one lane wide, carved crudely into the earth the way a child’s finger scrapes through the icing of a birthday cake, unsealed, with no guard rails and the constant, extreme and very real possibility of death at every turn. We slid, we swayed and on several occasions, peering out of my seat over the edge of 500m cliffs I truly believed I was going to die.
To my initial bemusement, which later developed in to disbelief and finally into anger, the emotional rollercoaster that was my trip to Sapa all those years ago revisited me in this last week whilst travelling around Iceland on unsealed, un-railed one-lane mud tracks bordered by cliffs that dropped straight into the highly uncompromising North Atlantic. The difference is that the road I travelled to Sapa is barely detectable on any over the counter map of Vietnam as it leads to a village of 200 people in the middle of a highly remote mountain area in a developing country in South East Asia. However, the road I travelled last week that bought all those memories flooding back in Iceland was none other than Highway 1.
Yes. That is right. Just so everyone is clear on this point, The national highway of Iceland that connects north to south and everywhere in between consists of several very lengthy stretches of unsealed, un-railed single lane dirt tracks.
At the time of writing I have just paid my monthly tax bill and frankly in light of that experience I am quietly fucking pissed about it. Because, like most of you, nearly 40% of my income is paid to a government that evidently doesn’t see a priority in sealing the main arterial road of the nation. I am pissed about this and I live in Reykjavik, hundreds of kilometres away, so my real question is how is it that the people who live and work in these areas, who drive their children to school on these roads, in winter no less, whose lifeline to the rest of the world are these roads… How is it that they are not utterly furious? How is it that they are not in front of Alþingi hurling tomatoes at every politician that walks out the door?
Where is the rage?
Australia, where I was born, is a terribly flawed democracy where the socially oriented medical system, education and financial sectors have been reduced to all but nothing long ago and its a very much a dog eat dog world following in the footsteps of a Bush-esque USA. The Aboriginal people who had their land stolen from them have all but been eradicated, the stench of faux-nationalism reeks throughout the land and for the most part I am blatantly ashamed to call myself an Australian. Yet here nestled in the bosom of the famed “Scandinavian welfare model” I’ve been under the impression that the people of this country whose ancestors fought long and hard to establish a social fabric that supported and prioritized the needs of its people first was still the underlying and guiding principal of its current citizens. However, it seems to me more and more that this is simply not the case and that people are so malleable in the hands of their governing officials and corporate powers that they no longer question and subsequently no longer act upon the actions and inactions of their government.
So let’s discuss inaction. Let’s for example also discuss my experience of the quota system whose bland and ludicrous reality hit me smack in the face on my recent trip. Some readers of this paper will know a little about the fishing quota, the tourists reading this will not know a single thing about it, but then the majority of you, the citizens, should know a whole lot and yet apparently really don’t give a shit about any of it in spite of the fact that it affects your personal liberties on a daily basis, as I will now demonstrate:
The first stop on my trip around the country last week landed me in the tiny fishing town of Höfn, about half way up the east coast of Iceland. Now, let’s say I want to eat some fish for dinner in Höfn – after all it’s a fishing town. I would in fact have to go into the Netto Supermarket, go to the frozen foods section and buy a bag of diced cuts of Cod or Haddock, which were in all likelihood caught from the sea in the west fjords 3 months ago some 500km away. Meanwhile, 150m from my door fishing boats unload untold tonnes of fresh fish on a daily basis that under the Icelandic quota system I am simply not allowed to buy.
I’m sorry but that is just fucked. You all know it’s fucked and it apparently makes you all very mad and yet none of you do a single thing about it, not the consumers or the producers… nothing. You allow your fishing industry to be controlled by an obscenely wealthy Mafia of corporate interests – with the full support of your government and demand nothing more than the leftovers. They make you eat frozen offcuts from the other side of the country while they sell your fish to other people for ludicrous profit. If it was up to me they would all be tarred and feathered in the city square but I can’t even vote… Yet nobody with that singularly sacred democratic right seems to question this situation let alone act out against it. I can’t vote because I am not a citizen, in fact I have to pay your government for the privilege of staying here and yet I seem to care about this more than you do. It’s not like the Icelandic government is somehow oppressing you. There is no Burmese-style army and its not like President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is going to have you water-boarded and beheaded in Austurvöllur for acting out collectively on a mass scale, so I would like someone, anyone in fact to explain to me for what reason other than sheer ignorance, obliviousness and nonchalance on behalf of the Icelandic people this is allowed to occur?
The best kind of government is the one that fears its citizens, and by that measure I place both the state of the highway and the continuing betrayal of the Icelandic fishing industry and its consumers solely and squarely on the shoulders of Icelandic people because quite simply, there is NOTHING to fear from any of you.
With all this in mind I can’t help but occasionally think its very fitting that the shape of Iceland resembles a sheep.
You allow all of this to happen to you. Your government tells you it’s no longer allowed to buy fresh fish from the boat outside your door but to instead buy it frozen, from Bonus and you just do it. Your government tells you to drive your children to school in a blizzard on an unsealed road on the side of a mountain with no side guardrails and you just do it. Your government tells you that you can’t buy a bottle of wine on a Sunday because it makes baby Jesus cry and you just say OK.
Is this what is wrong with Iceland? Is this where it all goes wrong? Is the imagination of people so limited and you demand so little of your government that these atrocities are not only accepted but embraced then you are just working for your government when it is supposed to be working for you.