Sunday, 8 March 2009

Cool Kulusuk

"The violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing round us like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction, who were at once obeyed, soon detested and always misunderstood."
- excerpt of The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

That passage was from a book I was reading about sun-scorched Sicily while I was on "vacation", but it perfectly describes Greenland and it sums up my experience quite well.

I went to Kulusuk which is about 65 degrees on Eastern Greenland. The population is around 300. Greenland is part of Denmark although since it found oil it's becoming more autonomous.
I hesitated coming on this trip because I thought, "I could see this stuff in Canada."
But when do I ever go up there in Canada and when will I ever get a chance to go to Greenland again?

Day 1: The tundra is actually just a cold-climate desert, but I think of it as the prairies of the north because it goes on and on forever into the horizon. And then you start to see the mountains. It's an amazing experience, landing onto ice surrounded by white mountains on both sides. It really makes you feel insignificant. There really is nothing in Greenland except for snow. It seems like an alien planet and yet it is very much a part of the earth.
There is so much snow, endless, I've never seen so much of it.
But then you round a mountain corner and then in front of you are those colourful houses just perched like someone chose this spot to stay. You've seen lots of pictures of them, and you never thought you'd ever be there in your life, but then you are here.

We went into our cabin and then met our trip organizer, a jaded Icelandic anthropologist. He tells story after story of the villagers. When I finally meet the characters he talked about, it's funny because it gives me a different perspective of them. It's not necessarily bad but it's almost as if I say, "No, this guy couldn't have been through what the anthropologist just told us! They're tall tales!"
As we headed towards the edge of a lake with lots of icebergs (not technically bergs because they weren't that large), the husky dogs continuously howled. I was to discover over the next few days that they do not stop. I've read somewhere that huskies are the closest breed genetically to wild wolves. A villager said that one family tried to "domesticate" one and it got too aggressive; instead they are all chained up to poles outside. When we got to the lake we just lay there and for once in my life I heard complete silence. No white noise. It sounds very different from a sound-proofed, indoor room. It sounds like eternity.

Day 2: We went dogsledding and it was very fun.

Day 3: Others went hiking while I relaxed with AH in the cabin.
She noticed that the hot tap is on the right and the cold on the left: culture shock! We were alone in the cabin when a phone with sombre classical music came on and immediately following that a guy holding an axe walks past the cabin. We wonder if that he was introduced like that every time he walked past? Then we found out that the music was the ring tone of a cellphone.

Day 4: Some people decided to dig a snow cave (igloo) so we could sleep in it one night. Ambitious idea. MM and I went out to help but then got sidetracked by a cute kid who wanted to play with us.

It's funny how I love snow more as an adult than as a kid. As a kid all I could think of when it came to snow was scratchy, hot clothing, the wet, and the contrasting cold air. It was horrible. But now I play.
That's why I joined some people for a tobaggan ride. Unfortunately nobody told me that there were bumps on the hill. I had absolutely no control the first time I went down the hill. I weathered the first bump, but then there was a second bump and then I went even higher and then the third bump made me land face-first into the snow. People later told me I looked like a stuntman in an action movie. If only. I was laughing at the end, but it was pretty embarrassing.

Then at night there was a home visit and drum dancing. That was nice.

Day 5: The thing about Greenland is that it really is a frontier. The skies are cloudless, when the sun decides to shine it really shines and when the sky decides to storm it really storms.

When we got up there was a storm with lots of wind. Nevertheless, we wanted to see what it was like to go to church. The way up hurt a lot because ice pellets were hitting our face. After that I decided to stay in for the rest of the day.
The wind was like plane turbulence if you were on the second floor of the cabin. Pretty strong. The houses and cabins are made out of really strong, flexible wood.

Day 6: In the afternoon we sort of gelled with the local community. There were slides that were shown to the public from the 1960's. They looked rad. Then there was fish soup and bingo, all to raise money for the 100th anniversary of the village celebration in August.

Day 7:
Back in September I wrote that some people didn't know about sweet potatoes. Well, today I discovered that some people had no idea what oatmeal is and that syrup could be put on pancakes. hahaha, I'm sorry if you are the one reading this but it's quite funny what things I take for granted.

Although I'm not the best hiker, I decided that if I went all the way to Greenland I might as well see the country(side). Hiking is what makes the 'frontier' notion of Greenland all the more real.
In Canada when you go somewhere to hike it always says, 'do not stray off the marked trails'. But here, you are the one making the trail, the first footprints in the snow. You see a mountain or point in the distance you want to reach and just go. There is nothing around for miles. No park wardens, no buildings, nothing.
We headed out. It was a beautiful, mild day and we decided to go towards the ocean and hike along the coast. Maybe I've seen Vertical Limit or something, but somehow I got lots of vertigo and I feared for my life more than once, while the other people had to help me out. Seriously, they must've grown up on rocks and were goats in their past lives.
At one time, MM and I were about to go around the face of a mountain, just the two of us, and all of a sudden she said, "Where's the polar bear? This is the perfect scene for a polar bear."

Day 8: Last day. We woke up to some wind. It was supposed to be the day we're flying out, but we heard stories of some groups having to stay up to three weeks extra because the weather was so bad that they couldn't fly out. Then the anthropologist got a phone call saying the plane had taken off from Reykjavik. There was another phone call saying that we can't go directly back to Reykjavik, first we must stop at Caip, which is....north of the arctic circle! I was so excited. It would be my first time in that zone, and definitely not my last.
Well, other than the harrowing walk to the airport, it was one of the best plane rides ever and reminds me of why I'm in geography and love to travel. The thing about travel in Greenland is that it is like before all the airlines went into terrorism alert. We got to visit the cockpit, there were absolutely no security checks, we had to show our boarding pass only once, and we didn't even need passports. It was kind of crazy. And when we arrived in Caip the plane didn't taxi at all. It just braked and then the seatbelt sign went off immediately. The north was way more cold than Kulusuk. Another reason for a good plane ride was the amazing views of everything. The sea ice looked like continents from up there. There were no clouds, we were flying really low into the sunset against a backdrop of endless snow and small mountains.
There were also two filling meals. If only all air experiences could be like that, flying would be like taking a (European) train.

That is all for now, but I think that's enough.

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