Wandering Thoughts

July 20, 2008

On Top of the World

Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 11:33 am

The campground was about half a kilometre up a muddy road – just beyond the outskirts of Ilulissat. On the way, the road passed the village husky kennels, skirting to the left of the painted plywood dog-houses. For eight months of the year huskies are used by Inuit for hunting, pulling their sleds across the ice and snow of Arctic Greenland; for the other four, when the summer thaw makes sled-travel impossible, the dogs are chained, restless, to their kennels. Howling at passers-by and feeding on chunks of seal-blubber thrown to them by their owners.

Seal-blubber and dog shit: the husky kennels stank. Pretty quickly, I learnt to navigate that section of the road while not breathing through my nose.

The kennels were a good source of company though: whenever I walked past, I ended up with an entourage of juvenile dogs. Still too young to work, no-one thought to chain them up. So they got to roam, befriending backpackers hoping, I imagined, that their puppy-dog-eyes might earn them scraps of something other than semi-decomposed seal fat.

“I really can’t blame you,” I confided to my favourite dog as he tried his best one afternoon to look both lovely and emaciated. “If I had to eat that stuff I’d be howling too.”

“But the thing is, according to the guidebook I can’t feed you. It interrupts the natural order of things.”

The big brown eyes just stared back at me, insisting that there would be nothing more natural than a mid-afternoon snack.

“Anyhow, I’m vegetarian; I’ve got nothing you’d like to eat.”

For my first three days in Ilulissat the huskies were my sole companions. It was the end of summer and the campground was empty: my tent on its own, anchored to rocks by its storm-guys, trying to look cheerful as it flapped in the unending drizzle.

Each morning I would get up, pull on polyprops, clothes, a jersey and my ever-damp raincoat. And head out into the wet to walk. I’d collect the husky pups, and we’d make our way over the low granite hill behind the campground. On the other side the immense Ilulissat Ice Fjord – over five kilometres wide and one kilometre deep – graunched its way from the icecap towards the open sea. And for an hour or so I would walk up the ridgeline that fringed it, the steam of my breath blending with the mist. Loyal to a fault – I still hadn’t fed them – the husky pups would follow, their paws sloshing quietly in the mud. In between throwing things for them to fetch, I would listen to the creaks and complaints of the ice, and try not to feel lonely.

Loneliness in Greenland was different to being lonely in London. No longer did I feel the isolation of being one person amongst an impossible throng of others; now I was simply alone. And at times that was great: the first few days in Greenland I wandered round wonderstruck, taking in great big breaths of space, absorbed in the sky-blue glow of icebergs reflecting the arctic sun. At other times though, the same space became room for unwanted thoughts, allowing me to worry about the cost of my trip, or to berate myself for travelling so unprepared, or to wonder why I wasn’t better at befriending people. Or to dwell on the relationship that hadn’t worked out in London. And then to tell myself that I wasn’t sad about that anyhow.

Eventually, the dogs and I would tire, and turn around, and traipse back to camp. The huskies would scamper off and I would read, make lunch and walk again. Exploring until it was time to cook dinner.

In true Scandinavian style, the campground kitchen was clean and functional, and little more. It had a sink (cold water only), a plain nailed-together table, and three or four wooden chairs whose backs were set, exact and uncomfortable, at 90 degrees to their seats. I was sitting in one of those seats on the third night, trying to read and eat soup at the same time, when a man appeared at the entrance to the kitchen.

“Taler du Dansk?”
He was tidily dressed, with tidy grey hair. His wrinkled, sun-leathered skin was Inuit-brown, yet his blue eyes suggested he was at least part Danish.
“Nej. Taler du Engelsk?” I replied, using my entire Danish vocabulary in one breath.
He continued though, traversing the language barrier unperturbed.
“Hans,” he said, pointing at himself.
“Terence,” I replied, doing the same.
Then, making a drinking motion and pointing to the village, he suggested: “Kaffe?”
Coffee? And Company? Without a second thought, I abandoned the rest of my dinner, and hopped into his large new four wheel drive.

Hans’s house matched his car: big, and modern. Inside, in the centrally-heated air, he introduced me to his wife, Ansi. She was short, with round features and a round face. Her hair was dark and, if it wasn’t for the Levis and North Face Jacket that she wore, she could have been an “Eskimo” from one of the books I read as a child. Like Hans, she didn’t speak any English but the three of us, using props and pointing, were able to converse as the kettle chattered away in the background. Ansi showed me a collection of lopsided pictures she had painted. Hans found a map of the world, and I showed them New Zealand. Pretty soon caffeine and conversation were making me tingle happily.

Another cup of coffee later, the phone rang and, to my surprise, after several minutes of talk in Greenlandic, it was passed over to me.
“Hello?” I offered.
“Do you speak English?” was the response.
“Oh-my-gosh,” her words came rapid-fire from the phone, drenched in a Californian accent.
“I hope my parents don’t seem, like, strange or anything. They’ve always wondered about the tourists who camp above the village, and they felt sorry for you in the rain. I really hope they don’t seem too strange.”
“No really…”
“And they’ve travelled too, so they like meeting people from other countries.”
“And my father used to be a member of Greenland’s parliament, so he knows how important tourism is.”
“…it’s fine.”
“I’m busy right now, but my parents want to know if you’ll come back tomorrow evening. They want to cook you a traditional Greenlandic meal. And I’ll come and meet you then.”
“Ok pass me back over to them.”

It wasn’t until later that evening, when I was eating the rest of my now cold soup, that the significance of the word ‘traditional’ struck home. The Lonely Planet confirmed my worst fears: traditionally, the Inuit had eaten marine mammals and not much else.

The next day I wandered, watching the westerly wind sweep patches of sunlight over the tundra-clad hills. And wondered what dinner had in store. Should I have told them I was vegetarian? I didn’t want to: they were so friendly and many Inuit blamed vegetarians for the closure of the fur business. Anyhow, it was too late now. So I just worried my way until six o’clock, when I walked down to their house.

Erica, the daughter, was in her mid thirties. She had brown eyes but, tall and thin, took after Hans. When she was a teenager she lived for five years in the San Fernando Valley. She moved home at 15, but her English remained where it had been found. So for half an hour, as a large steel pot bubbled menacingly on the stove, I was regaled by the ‘oh-my-gosh’s’ and ‘like totally’s’ of an Inuit woman who lived north of the Arctic Circle. Her parents, now free to ask, had hundreds of questions for me too: “is it cold in New Zealand?”; “what work do they do in New Zealand?”; “what work do you do?”; “why are you so far from home?” Eventually, though, it was time to eat.

“So, what’s for dinner?” I asked looking at the pot.
“Well, Mom’s cooked you potatoes – Greenlandic style.”
“And seal.”
I smiled meekly; at least it wasn’t whale.

One by one Ansi served the slabs of meat onto our plates and I steeled myself: setting aside thoughts of Canadians clubbing seal cubs; setting aside the fact that I hadn’t eaten meat of any type for over five years. Concentrating, instead, on the three Inuit who had taken me in out of the rain, and had cooked the meal specially for me.

After the first few bites, I got the hang of things – sort of.

“Oh Gosh, I hope it’s not like, grossing you out.”
“No it’s fine, kind of like lamb. We eat a lot of lamb in New Zealand.”
“Oh wow, have some more then. Mom wants to know what you think.”
“Tell her it’s great, I really like the potatoes.”

Seal, I decided later in the evening as I walked home, was kind of like lamb chops. If lamb chops tasted like fish. Or tuna, if tuna was fatty and chewy. It wasn’t something I aspired to eat again but, as the pieces of pinniped swam their first laps around my stomach, I figured it was a small price to pay for a window into someone else’s life. And for the way the warmth radiating out of that window had defrosted my loneliness.



  1. Wow.

    That’s all I have.

    Comment by Nikki — July 23, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  2. yes. who would have thought. your CGASBS co-member was also an eater of seals. :)

    Comment by terence — July 23, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

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