Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Visit to Greenland

I stayed in Greenland’s tiny capital city, Nuuk, for two weeks in 2006, while researching my book The Far Traveler. My hosts were Kristjana, an Icelander, and her husband, Jonathan Motzfeldt, an Inuit known as the “father of his country” for having negotiated Greenland’s semi-independence from Denmark. Jonathan was prime minister of the Home Rule government for many years and remained a significant voice in politics when I met him; he died in 2010. Here’s how I remember him:

One night over tea and cookies, we watched a Greenlandic TV program about independence, on which he was featured. I asked if he was in favor of it. “Someday,” he replied, “but not in my time.” Although ninety percent of Greenland’s people are indigenous Inuit, Danish subsidies, he explained, built Greenland’s airports and public buildings, including the new university complex going up next to the Institute of Natural Sciences, where Kristjana works. Half of the Home Rule government’s expenditures come from Denmark—and nearly half of Greenland’s workers are government employees. Initiatives the Danes are backing include mining for gold, extracting low-temperature enzymes from glacial lakes, bottling glacier water, tourism and archaeology, and—harking back to the Viking era—sheep farming.

For dinner, Jonathan had boiled a joint from a sheep raised on Eirik the Red’s farm—an old sheep, he said, his dark face lit with a cartoonish grin. He repeated it several times, with emphasis, “Eirik the Red’s ooooold sheep.” He seemed to be testing the extent of my American fussiness (later he would serve boiled eiderduck and noisily enjoy sucking the duck’s feet). But I knew he was teasing. I had taken to him the first time we met. Trim and neat, he turned Kristjana into a giant: he hardly came up to her ear. His smile was as sunny as a child’s—and as apparently irrepressible. Appropriately solemn-faced discussing the eight suicides Nuuk had seen in the two weeks since I had arrived in Greenland, he was beaming again as soon as Kristjana changed the subject. Now, he served the sheep broth first, tiny potatoes and rice floating in it, then  put the big, dry, chewy hunk of grayish meat and bone, glistening with little white globs of fat, on a platter. He handed me a penknife and a glass of red wine.

One perk of Jonathan’s position was the Motzfeldt’s house: high, glass-fronted, it overlooked the bay like the prow of a ship. At the breakfast table one morning, his pipe curled in a meaty fist, Jonathan shouted out, “There!” and “There!,” picking out herds of seal as they swam by. Through binoculars, I saw a flurry of little triangular flippers and smooth black backs before they dove again. Another day, reading a book on Greenland from the Motzfeldts’ excellent library, I was startled to my feet by the Hoosh-Wash of a whale breaching. Hurrying outside, I hung over the cliffside with a neighbor and her two children to see four more jets and a pair of flukes.

Each morning before the fog burned off, a flotilla of small boats would etch silver lines away from the harbor. There was no other way to get out of town, I’d soon learned, unless you flew.

“Do you notice all the boats are going into the fjords?,” Kristjana said wistfully one day. She ran a hand through her blonde, boy-cut hair and took a drag on her cigarette. “That’s where spring is.”

I had been introduced to Kristjana by an Icelandic friend, a botanist who worked with her in southern Greenland on a project to stem erosion caused by the sheep farming. Learning of my plans to visit the Viking sites near Nuuk, Kristjana had immediately volunteered to take me there, but the Motzfeldts’ boat had gone in for repairs in November, just after we started planning our trip, and being “father of your country” doesn’t unfortunately get your boat fixed any sooner in Nuuk. Greenland, Kristjana agreed, was mis-named. It should have been called “Maybe-Land.”

“Maybe you can go to Sandnes with Georg on Tuesday.” Georg Nyegaard, a Danish archaeologist working at the National Museum of Greenland, was going to inspect a farmer’s potato patch near the Viking site: Greenland has no private property; every individual use of land is approved and monitored by a government committee, and the museum officials suspected this potato patch was encroaching on the archaeology.

“Maybe we can go with the Swedish ambassador,” Kristjana said another day. “He said he’d like to see Sandnes. His yacht is luxury, much better than our boat—except that one motor is broken.”

Tupilak Travel had a boat going to a different spot known for Viking ruins—down the fjord just north of Nuuk—but the trip was cancelled at the last moment: The wind was too strong.

By the time the Motzfeldt’s boat was finally ready, Jonathan had been called away to Copenhagen and Kristjana was drowning in things to do before she herself left for Italy a few days later. So she turned me and the boat over to Tobias, whom she introduced as Jonathan’s chauffeur.

“You have a map, you know where you want to go, good, good,” she said, brushing away my doubts. “Tobias will get you there”—despite the fact that he spoke no English (or Icelandic) and I spoke no Greenlandic (or Danish). His wife Rusina would be going, too, I learned when I met them at the boat early Saturday morning. “Beautiful!” she said, with an expansive wave of one hand, as we passed the dramatic mountains that marked the harbor mouth. It was her favorite (and almost her only) English word.

But we did get to the Viking ruins at Sandnes—you can read about it in The Far Traveler—and we did, in spite of the strengthening wind and the growling sea, get safely back.

If you want to visit the Viking sites in Greenland, I recommend Blue Ice Explorer at in south Greenland. Jacky can do everything. If you make it to Nuuk, don't miss the Greenland National Museum, I also recommend Tupilak Travel,