The World Solar Challenge is a biennial event that draws the best and brightest (pun intended) minds in the solar-powered car field together in teams, to compete in a race across the Australian outback. The purpose of this event is to promote research on alternative forms of powering vehicles, but symbolically it is also a race against the sun. The drivers of the cars must travel the farthest distance possible while the sun is shining. A kind of "make hay while the sun shines” type situation crossed with an interpretation of Greek legend Icarus and his golden wings. Soar as far as possible, the race challenges, but beware the awesome power you are attempting to harness, for the dessert like conditions in that unforgiveable environment can reek havoc on both car and driver. The race is a mix of myth, proverb, and science; if the interpretation of those three things could be packaged into a 1996 movie starring Halle Berry and entitled "Race the Sun." And, if such a retelling had nothing to do with flying but rather cars, and not falling to your doom, or promoting science, nor making the most of your time in the sun, but rather a vehicle to showcase a lot of Halle's Berry's caramel skin, then you have no reason to be unfamiliar with the race. But I digress...
I have never, to my knowledge, participated in a World Solar Challenge. I doubt that I have had practically anything to contribute to a race such as that, even though most would assume otherwise. They would be wrong. I did watch the movie and I remember thinking "this isn't the greatest" even though I was nine, and that was the extent of my critique of both the movie and the race. Until now. Now, I view that wonderful collection of cast and participants as heroes, role models, and mostly -cautionary tales. What they were trying to do, on a metaphorical level was to take advantage of everything that each day has to offer, and maybe translate blatant sex appeal, and Miss America pagent-winning, into a long lasting, Oscar winning career, but no matter. The World Solar Challenge is about taking the gift or life, and light, and energy and transforming it into a message of "This is what we are capable of, World! Get a load of us! This is what we are all about!" If they are triumphant then people know them, know what they are all about, and even in the smallest, simplest "the sun makes that car go" type of way, understand them. But, what if you are gifted with never ceasing sunlight, and instead of striving, thriving, and sending out the message of "This is me! This is who I am" you don't? What would the biennial participants have to say? How could you look any of them in the eye? How could you face yourself?
Because of it's Northernmost location, Iceland, as a nation experiences the waxing and waning of the sun's daily journey in extremes. In winter, there is darkness. At the spring equinox, which just so happened to coincide with my visit to the country, the sun does not set. Like, ever.
For lovers of the sun, those carpe diem type optimists with brains that contain, at least, a minimal amount of serotonin, this sounds like a real delight. "Hours of sunshine! Who wouldn't love that?" they'd cry. “A never ceasing day!” Well, those people are jerks, and like those Solar Challenge scientist punks, they shouldn't go to Iceland cause they'd ruin it and most importantly wouldn't get the point of this essay.
I was given fair warning that the sun may always be at my back. I had read about it, knew it happened, thought "weird" and imagined going forward with my trip by preparing to shake hands with Puffins, and maybe, a sheep. The sun not setting isn't unheard of. The Northwest Territories, part of my home and native land, for instance, experiences a varying degree of this. I had just never experienced it myself. When I first noticed the oddity of the sun cycles in the midst of the plane ride, I thought it was cool. "Cool!" I said to myself as I looked one direction and saw the moon, and then the other way, and saw the sun, bouncing along the surface of the northern Atlantic. Then I shrugged and redirected my focus to an episode of Homeland I had been watching, and avoiding the smell of the stinky old lady that was sitting beside me.
Upon landing, it was morning and before me stretched a whole wonderful day where my circadian rhythms felt at ease on the island. I ate breakfast, I ate lunch, I ate supper. Sure, I was a little tired but that was to be expected. I had flown for what ended up being like two day and there was jet lag to contend with; who wouldn't be a little beat?
If the history books were to describe the first day of our vacation, they would summarize it as perfection. My family and I rode into town on a bus by ourselves, we checked into our hotel without a problem. I went shopping with my mom and sister at a store with an adorable pig logo. We had coffee in a little bakery and I pretended to know what people were saying. I had a personality. We were ‘this’ (holds fingers very close together) close to riding tandem bicycles and laughing gaily. At dinner that night I ever so adorably pointed to items on the menu and had the waiter pronounce them in his native tongue and then un-apologetically laughed at him and his culture and his crazy speech. In other words I was my terribly obnoxious, self-satisfying, terrible self! And I liked it. Dinner was fabulous, and an after dinner stroll was just what our little family of weary travelers needed before heading off to bed. We walked the streets, climbed a church, looked out the steeple, and saw little people. It was idyllic. It was still…light?
This was the first sign of disaster. The sun dipped, into an anticipated, teasingly long, prolonged sunset that never came to completion. It still sparkled above the water long past the time when it should have gone to bed. As I crawled into a bed of my own, utterly exhausted, I felt as I had many years ago at sleepover birthday parties where us kid's would stay up till the sun started rising. Eventually everyone would fall asleep and I wouldn't be able to and then I'd feel sick and have to call my mom to go home. But here there was no going home, not for two more weeks. So as my brother and sister and mother and father slumbered on, I watched the sun stream through the window. I pulled my sleep mask down and tried to pretend that outside of that silken eye pillow the world had gone to sleep. Because I didn't. Not truly. I closed my eyes and lost track of time for a while, but I never did fully reach sleep actualization. I didn't ‘fall’ asleep so much as ‘exited into state of unconsciousness’ for a period of time.
Time, when on vacation is a malleable thing. What seems like hours is only minutes, days are long, but weeks are short. The interim between waking moments, is thankfully separated by the empty blackness of complete darkness to at least visually, split one day from the next. A proverbial curtain drawn at the end of each day. But when the sun shines constantly, fading only to the point of a hazy afternoon, you don’t get the daily cut, print, wrap. You are the actor stuck in the spot light center stage; your porcelain smile showing more and more cracks the more time ticks by under the unrelenting illumination. You can bow and bow, but unless some un-seen force drops the curtain, you’re stuck. And like any star, enshrined too long in the lime light- you lose it.
I can’t say, with any certainty that the next day wasn’t terrible, because maybe it was only later the same day. But I do remember waking up, or rather reanimating my body after a period of stationary activity, and still feeling a sense of excitement. Sights and sounds are more stimulating the first time you hear and see them and I buoyed myself up by experiencing as many as I could. I ate a hearty breakfast and set out with my family to learn more about the land of my ancestors.
As it happens, the land of fire and ice is rather chilly, especially when the harshest wind you’ve ever felt, blows constantly and makes you think that you’re skin is going to stretch away from your bones and turn you into an unwilling human parasail. So cold in fact that feel momentarily energized when waking in it. Only momentarily, however, because the minute you step out of it’s gale forces, you feel your eyelids droop. Because I find it near impossible to fall asleep while chewing, I found that I could stay awake by constantly consuming food. y family would be walking through a history museum, learning facts and collecting stories of our ancestors and I would be in the lobby, gesticulating enthusiastically at cinnamon buns at the café. One day I was nearly in tears because the hot dog stand I wanted to go to was closed when I walked over to get one. After I had just eaten dinner. I was out of control, but at least I was vertical.
I’m just going to come right out and say it: I'm not great at meeting new people. I feel uncomfortable around strangers. I'm too aware of myself: the way I talk, the way I look, and too aware of what strangers act, sound and look like to be ever truly at ease. I'm even less comfortable meeting new people surrounded by my family. It may sound strange, because the oft-imagined idea about family is that they are the people you feel most at home with. And while, that is the case, on the regular, it’s is ineffective to have them around when meeting new acquaintances. For usually, to put myself at ease I conjure up a persona or air of mystique to protect myself. I could be a carefree vagabond; I could be an up tight know-it-all. The persona doesn't have to reflect any truthful characteristic within myself, but it helps me be less focused who I actually am and how I am being received. But when I am with my family- when I am literally standing beside the source of my entire life force, personality, and caporal form- the cultivated personality doesn't fit quite right. There is no fooling these people. They know me too well. So, I'm forced to just be myself.
The only problem associated with being myself then (minus the crippling self doubt coupled with low self esteem) is that it takes a lot of time to become me. Appearances can be deceiving, but it takes hours of in the dark silence, and mindless watching of TV, and reading of ten year old Entertainment Weekly articles to bring forth my (Oprah Word!) "true self." On top of that I need a lot of sleep. REM sleep. Sleep and aloneness in a dark space of my own, preferably. When I get none of them I become about as exciting as an old turnip in the back of the fridge: soft, ugly, and not something that anyone is looking to spend a lot of time with.
Which is, precisely, what I became.
I was sullen, for no legitimate reason but because I missed having dreams and not feeling like (and not having the complexion of) a zombie. Within my natural habitat, I strive to make a good impression. I smile and nod, offer a joke, remember details about the people that I meet, and generally convey the general attitude of “Like me! Like me! LIKE ME!” But, on that small island, after a certain amount of rotations of the earth, with too little downtime for the old noggin’, I simply didn’t care. For this, I must apologize to my relatives there. I was not of sound mind. As they would talk, with abundant pride for their nation, I would, abruptly stand up from whatever table we were seated at and go to sit on a couch, a bench, a patch of grass or sand and try and try and recalibrate my personality adjusting it for lack of sleep. They probably thought me rude, standoffish, snobby or worse but there was little I could do. When someone asked me what my hobbies were one day I blanked entirely. “What was it I did in real life? How did I spend my days and nights?” I couldn’t recall. I knew I had some sort of life back from whence I came, but I wasn’t sure what I did with it. So I replied with the one activity, indeed the only activity, I could think about. The word that ran through my mind over and over and over again on constant repeat, that word that would have haunted my dreams if I had any: “Sleep.”
I shudder to think what those relations I came into contact with said about me, in their incomprehensible dialect, after I would make one of my unannounced exists from the conversation.
“Get a load of that one.” They’d say as, off in the distance I was trying to remember conversational etiquette with a tree trunk as a parnter “Not the brightest of the bunch.”
“Why doesn’t he breathe through his nose?” they’d wonder, “Does he not know how?”
Once, when I was about 21 or 22 I experienced what I liked to believe was insomnia. For about a week I didn’t sleep, or at least slept very little. Either way, my sleep patterns were severely distorted; the result from what I think was too many processed foods, too little actual physical exertion and probably an overabundance of sleep the previous week. However, I treated the entire experience as some sort of glamorous, eccentric affliction and secretly reveled in it. I lay, with hand over brow, Norma Desmond-style on sofas, and swanned around my house in oversized sweaters lamenting my desire to sleep, and used it as an excuse to skip classes. The problem resolved itself after a while, and although I was extremely tired for that time, it wasn’t so bad. I watched a lot of old movies and hung out with my roommate who was kind of a night owl, and had a reason for acting erratically. A disorder. A problem. A cause. However, when you want to sleep. When you have real, important things to do and real, important, majestic sights to see and try your damndest to sleep but never feel rested? That is something altogether more horrifying, and torturous than the Hairspray routine I preformed in my living room window at 4 am during the week I had “insomnia”. It’s a waste of a ceaseless day. It is making no hay while the sun shines, but rather whispering nonsense sounds into your sister’s ear while the “grown ups” are taking and then laughing too hard at it like it was supposed to be a joke. It’s having the most meaningful and insightful interaction with an extended branch of your family’s tree be with a three-year old, because although he can speak more words than you at the present time he doesn’t judge you when you only make inquisitive or impressed monkey-type sounds at his building blocks. In my own personal race against the sun, I was the Icarus/ Halle Berry character and thankfully Iceland is a place so chalk full of interesting, fantastic, magnificent imagery and people you’d have to be blind, deaf, and dumb (not just sleep deprived) to miss out on it.