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Arriving in Greenland! Ch 5 of Go Greenland

Published
September 30, 2021
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GREENLAND conjures up images of ice, whales, catching fish and polar bears! I had always wanted to visit Greenland and learn more about the Inuit people and their way of life.

I knew that I had not chosen the best time to go. I was to arrive in April, which was still a cold time of the year and not yet the usual tourist season. But that didn’t sway me at all: it just added to my excitement!

I did a great deal of reading before I went to Greenland and decided I wanted to see the fiords toward the north, which, unlike the ones in the south, would be frozen over: a unique experience! I read all the books by Lonely Planet and other authorities that I could and created my own itinerary from them. I would arrive at the capital city of Nuuk, travel to the southern town of Narsarsuaq and take a boat to Ilulissat, which is north of the Arctic Circle. It would be freezing to say the least. But then I live in Queenstown in New Zealand, a mountain town where the winters can be bitter, so I felt kind of prepared.

It was spring, so the days were getting longer and the nights shorter. I missed the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights, which are most visible in winter. But I could catch them next time and at least I did not have to put up with either the near-perpetual or even 24-hour-long winter darkness typical of polar regions, nor endless summer daylight either.

I got a flight to begin with from Copenhagen to the capital of Greenland, Nuuk, via a stopover in Iceland, which features in some of my other writings. The itinerary was pretty expensive though and cost me US $1790 return.

From Reyjkavík, Iceland, I flew across the Denmark (or Greenland) Strait to Kulusuk Airport on the east coast of Greenland, and then across the Greenland Icecap to the capital city of Nuuk on the west coast.

I had my face pressed up against the glass for most of the time. The water of the strait was slate grey, and it looked so cold. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of tiny islands and dots of white — icebergs. It was mostly a bland expanse of ocean, but I wasn’t going to risk looking away, just in case I missed something!

Now, I tell you, Greenland was utterly amazing! Flying over snow-capped rugged hills and rocky mountains was just incredible. I was most glad to have a window seat!

At Kulusuk, and then at Nuuk, we flew in over harbours. Below, you could see ships going about their business and a smattering of buildings, more of them at Nuuk which is a sizeable town. I was blown away with the scenes below.

Getting off the planes, I was really amazed at just how rocky the landscape was. I could see the grey sky above that looked like it would rain at any moment. The planes themselves were quite interesting, specially built and designed to withstand rougher winds along with ice and snow.

At Nuuk, I found my accommodation via Lonely Planet at a place simply called ‘Sam’s Hostel’. It was only US $85 a night, which was a great price for Greenland, I thought (I had heard things can be quite expensive there).

I didn’t expect to really enter a state of culture shock, but I did. Driving to my hostel gave me a very bleak view of the city. There were homeless people everywhere along the streets — something I did not expect to see, and it was so in your face. Unemployment rates were really high among the almost 18,000 people that call Nuuk home. What I found out that really surprised me is that even though Greenland is part of Denmark, out of the 57,000 people who live there 89% of them are Inuit.

This fact is reflected in the names of the towns, which used to have Danish names in most cases but now mostly have Inuit ones. For instance, in older atlases, Nuuk is referred to as Godthåb, and Ilulissat as Jakobshavn.

Many of Greenland’s people want independence from Denmark, but then there is the other side to it too. Greenland is not profitable to Denmark, so it is almost like they are doing each other a favour by keeping this mutual relationship. Greenland is self-governing but depends on Denmark for income — so people do get by pretty well for a country where there is not much agriculture and only one single beekeeper in the whole country, at Narsarsuaq.

I did find that living costs and groceries were quite expensive in Greenland. The Greenlandic Krone was abandoned in favour of the Danish Krone in 2006, which drove the prices of food and everything up quite a fair bit. I suppose there is an adjustment period that they are still getting through.

As you can imagine there is a limit to the kinds of accommodation found in Greenland, but I was pleased to find Sam’s Hostel, I really am a hostel kind of traveller. It is by far, my preferred style of accommodation!

I arrived and was greeted by a blonde-haired woman called Sylvia. When she learned it was my first time in Greenland, she insisted I get a special tour of Nuuk. I gratefully accepted, immediately feeling welcome in this very foreign setting. To be honest I found Nuuk to be a bit, well, bland, but the pops of colour on the exterior of the houses made up for it. There were no gardens and flowerbeds like there was at home, and a distinctive lack of greenery — so unlike New Zealand.

Sylvia was a missionary and a social worker living in Nuuk. She was married to the hostel receptionist, and they were originally from Denmark. I told her I had just visited Copenhagen, and she was interested to know what I thought of the city. They had lived in Copenhagen, and knew of the commune I had stayed in. One day, she told me they simply decided (with the help of Jesus) to move, so they sold everything they had and headed to Greenland.

They had come to do missionary work and help the Greenlandic people, who were suffering from homelessness, ill health and unemployment.

I saw the Nuuk Cathedral or the Church of Our Saviour that is located in an area known as ‘old Nuuk’. It is but a simple weatherboard looking brownish red building: very modest but great to visit all the same. The area of old Nuuk was really interesting. Apparently, Sylvia told me, many houses still were without toilets and running water. It was a stark contrast to the newer areas and many Inuit people resided in old Nuuk. There seemed to be a not so invisible line of segregation here. Sylvia said she had met many of the local people who had had to move from smaller towns in the north and west because of the impacts of global warming.

Over-fishing was also becoming a huge problem and then unemployment on top of that — it just became impossible for them to make a living, so they moved here instead. Life in old Nuuk was relatively tough; Sylvia and her husband helped out where they could, even investing their spare time in local soup kitchen.

There is evidence of older churches further down the coast in an area settled by Erik Thorvaldsson or Erik the Red, a Norwegian Viking. Erik is mentioned in the Icelandic and Viking sagas for creating the first settlement in Greenland. Whether or not this is accurate, there are some amazing remains still there. Erik’s son Leif, who went on to lead the first known European expedition to America, succeeded Erik as chieftain of the area. Leif also brought Christianity to Greenland. While Erik refused and discouraged the religion, Leif’s mother quickly adopted it, sponsoring the construction of a church named after her, ‘Thjóðhild’s Church’.

It was not a touristy tour. It was a realistic tour I’d like to call it — one where I got to actually see both sides to a city and a country. There was a blizzard as well while I was being shown around, which made everything seem a lot bleaker than it usually was; snow and wind were coming in from all directions. I could see why mental health was becoming a big issue here too. Imagine a world full of grey most of the year round, with the only colour the prettified-up houses.

Go Greenland is available on this website, a-maverick.com.


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