January, 2016, and I am in a tiny, flimsy plane, speeding along the runway at Reykjavik domestic airport, at a 75 degree angle to the ground. I am in Iceland chasing the northern lights; I had wanted to see them before I die, and now I was seriously concerned that I might die trying.
I started to worry when I noticed the Icelandic people on the plane freaking out. When the stewardesses started freaking out, I really shat myself. There is turbulence, and then there is plane disintegrating, bowel loosening, panic inducing hell wind. As the pilot wrestled us down towards the runway, I honestly didn't know if we could land properly. Truly, a scary moment.
The pilot managed to land safely, and we breathed a sigh of relief. We had flown in from Akureyri in Northern Iceland, where the night before we explored the mountains with our lovely Icelandic tour guide. We learnt a lot about Icelandic culture, but unfortunately, we didn't see the lights. I was feeling drained, after all the adrenaline subsided that is. As we left, the pilot loudly proclaimed "the plane is broken". Not exactly comforting.
Back in Reykjavik, we booked into a coach tour, and journeyed to a golf course outside the city. I vividly remember the excitement I felt as we craned our necks skyward, surrounded by other tourists. Suddenly, someone shouted; they had seen a light. The whole group ran over. As I ran, I felt a visceral anticipation; I couldn't believe I was about to see the northern lights.
Then, we looked up and saw it, and it was...
At least that's what I thought, in all honestly. The green glow in the sky was almost entirely hidden behind cloud, and was so faint I could barely see it. I had to look through the photographer's camera to even work out where it was. I was extremely disappointed.
Not that any of our fellow tourists seemed to care. They were running around frantically, trying to set up tripods and get the best pictures. It occurred to me that we were the only people actually looking at the lights, not through a camera. For the first time in my life, I felt a profound sense of sadness for these people, who were more concerned with getting pictures than actually living in the moment, and enjoying however brief a glimpse we might get at this spectacle.
Fast forward one year, to Tromsø, Northern Norway. Stepping out of our apartment, we happened to look up. There it was, the aurora, but this time much brighter. Excited, we rushed over to a clearing in the nearby forest, and stopped and watched as the sky erupted into a beautiful cascade of rapidly dancing green and pink lights, illuminating the city beneath it.
It was absolutely as good as anyone could ever imagine. It was absolutely the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. It even made me forget how cold my hands felt in the -12 degree night.
I didn't have my camera with me, and for that I am glad. As I watched I thought about all the people around the world and throughout history who have witnessed this, and I felt some connection with them. On a fundamental level, my awestruck reaction is one we all must have felt. I would have hated for a camera to distract me away from that.
Later that night, I couldn't sleep. Looking out my window, I saw the lights again. Since my room was much warmer than outside, I took the opportunity to listen to music as I watched. It might be silly of me, but I don't feel like I can ever be the same person again after listening to Stairway to Heaven under the northern lights.
I would never discourage people from using technology, and the life it provides for us is amazing. Without it, I wouldn't have been able to listen to music in this beautiful moment, but to fall into the trap I saw ensnare so many would have been a tragedy. Whether viewing the northern lights, or doing something more mundane, being immersed in our world is one of the best things we can do. Technology can enhance our experiences, but if we become too habituated to using it we might not notice that we're missing important details in our own lives. I really hate seeing parents playing with their phones instead of their kids, or a group of friends sat looking at screens instead of talking. In our final moments, all technological concerns will vanish. We're going to be thinking about the time we spent with family and friends, the time spent doing the things we love, and now for me, breath-taking moments in which I got to live my dreams.