From Iceland — A Day In the Sun

A Day In the Sun

Published June 30, 2006

“When we get to the airport we’ll make a 15 minute stop to make sure everyone can use the bathroom. There are no public toilets in town, so you better take care of your business before we leave the airport,” the guide announces. We are approaching the shores of Greenland as has been evident for quite a while now by the drift-ice I can see from the small airplane window.
The ice stretches as wide as I can see in either direction and for more than 20 minutes, we have been flying over the white spread without seeing the mountainous coast of Greenland. Now, in the distance, we can spot hills that are too big to pass as icebergs. As we draw closer, the spectacle of the mountain scenery grabs me.
We have caught an unusually clear and still day. There is hardly a cloud in the sky or a ripple on the sea. Ascending almost straight up from the ocean, every hillside looks twice its size in the mirror-like waterfront. From a certain angle, the reflection breaks, and I can see just how deep the water is, descending just as straight beneath the surface as it ascends above it. These are the islands of the Ammassaliq.
It is a warm day. The air temperature is around 12°c, an unusually high mark in these parts, and the sun is relentless. “I’ve been coming here for 20 years as a guide, and I hardly remember the weather ever being this good, it is usually between 2-6°c,” the guide says as we exit the airport.
As international airports go, Kulusuk Airport may be the smallest one I will ever encounter. It is a single gravel strip, located on the only flat patch of land near the village. Originally, built to service the US Army radar station that was located on the island during the Cold War, the airport is now the only connection between East-Greenland and the outside world.
It is a 45-minute walk from Kulusuk Airport into the village of Kulusuk. The name comes from the native tongue, Greenlandic, and means ‘the skeleton of a bird’. Our walk into the village takes us past the Kulusuk cemetery, located in a barren hillside midway between the village and the airport. The frozen ground makes actual burials difficult to perform, so the graves are more or less made from piles of stone. The cold is also unforgiving to the flora, so the graves are decorated with an assembly of colorful plastic flowers and an unmarked cross.
We cut short through the graveyard and over the hill. The road into town weaves between the hills behind us. Up on the hill, we catch our first glimpse of the village. A small body of houses scattered in an irregular fashion, most of them strategically placed to escape the onslaught of the fierce weather.
The houses are in poor condition, an irrefutable testimony to the poverty that plagues this area. There are some 300 odd souls that live in the village and most of them make their living seal hunting. However, at this time of year, the seal hunters have nothing to do. The drift ice makes it impossible to reach the hunting areas by a boat, and yet there is not enough ice to cross it on a dogsled. The hunters sit at home and wait for this transitional period to end.
There are more than 56,000 people living in Greenland, on roughly two million square kilometers of land. It is the most sparsely populated country in the world, and no two settlements are connected by a road. The favoured mode of transportation is still the dogsled, although for a few months each year, the ice relents, making boat travels possible. There are maybe five cars in the whole of Kulusuk. At least two of them are big modified SUVs used in relation to the town’s tourist industry. Tourism has been a growing sector in Greenland’s economy in the last few years, but it is difficult to maintain a year-round industry due to the short season.
As we enter the town, we walk past a group of schoolchildren. They are playful in the warm weather, running around, splashing water on each other from a nearby puddle. Anywhere else, this would hardly be considered a day warm enough for water play, but these kids are not likely to experience a better day this summer. In a few weeks time, the winter cold will return. I have been told that nearly half the population of Kulusuk is under 14 years old. I don’t know if this is true or not, but the children are everywhere, playing football, riding their bikes or playing hide and seek under the warm summer sun.
In town, we visit the store. It is the only place of business in the village, apart from a hotel that is located by the airport. It is an all-in-one kind of store, with food, clothes, electrical appliances, hunting equipment, all stocked in neatly organized sections. There is also a haphazard collection of CDs and rental videos. Nothing is recent, but the Barbara Streisand selection is impressive. The selection of fresh food selection is not as impressive though. There is some frozen meat available, imported from Denmark, and cereals, biscuits and other dried and canned goods. The only fresh food I can locate is a box of mandarins and a few red peppers. Along the broadside of the store is a stand where it is possible to buy hot dogs and pastries, as well as alcohol, cigarettes and an unusually wide variety of rifle shots in different calibers.
I order a hot dog in Swedish that I try to pass off as makeshift Danish by improvising a little on the pronunciation. It works, but I am told that I will have to wait, as they need to be warmed up. Also, there are no hot dog buns, so I will have to make do with a bread roll. 15-minutes later, I sit down on the steps outside the store to enjoy the meal. It is around lunchtime and the villagers are coming in small groups to pick up something for lunch.
One of them asks me in broken Danish where I come from. He smiles warmly when I tell him I come from Iceland. He proudly tells me a few things about his village, explains where the school is, the church etc. I try to ask him about what he does for a living, but only one of us really speaks Danish, and my Swedish can only take me so far.
An older man comes plodding slowly down the path from the far end of the village. He is pushing a wheelbarrow containing a single can of paint. He stops to shake hands with us and introduces himself as Lars. He poses for pictures and smiles a toothless smile. He tells us he used to work in Reykjavík, in a fusion of Danish, English, and Greenlandic. Obviously, he has fond memories of the place, but again, I have some trouble understanding him, although this time, I believe the fault lies with him.
We roam the town aimlessly for a while. Most of the villagers are sitting outside talking and enjoying the weather. Outside of every house, there is a plastic kayak, waiting for the hunting season to begin. Outside of every house, there are also at least two dogs chained to a post. These are the seal hunters’ sled dogs, unemployed for the summer months. We have been warned not to pet them. During the summer they are only fed every third day in order to keep them fit, they are hungry and liable to attack.
As we reach the outskirts of the village, a program that has been set up as a part of the tour is about to begin. A seal hunter in a traditional skin kayak comes rowing along the shore. He is dressed in a traditional fur anorak and I wonder how hot that must feel on a day like this one. He is here to demonstrate the technique used in the old days for hunting seal.
He balances his paddle in front of him and produces a spear that he carefully throws about five meters in front of him, in a make-believe attempt at hitting a seal. As the spear emerges again from the sea, he paddles after it and throws it again. This goes on for a while, until we feel satisfied that we have learned how Inuits hunted seal before being introduced to the more modern technique of using a rifle. Then he paddles away under the applause of the patrons in attendance.
For the second act of the show, we meet an older lady called Anna. She is here to perform a traditional drum dance. She learned to dance from her mother, and has been performing these little shows for 12 years. She explained for us that the drum dance is an important element of the Inuit culture and functions both as personal expression, entertainment and a social tool. In the past, these dances were used to settle disputes, particularly ones that had risen over women. In that case, the two suitors would compete, each performing a song and dance ritual, while pointing out the flaws in the other one. The one who evoked more laughter from the audience would bring home the girl.
She starts with a song dedicated to the mountains around us. For her next number she decides that something a little more frivolous is in order. Without me knowing it, her second dance is a traditional form for a woman to pursue a relationship with a man. At first, when she starts to move closer to me, I don’t feel threatened. When she is all of a sudden sitting in my lap, I am a little alarmed, but I indicate that I have no idea what she wants and she starts making angry faces. Really angry faces. As I raise my hands in the air in display of my utter lack of comprehension, she stands up to strike me with her drumstick.
Her strike stops just short of my head, and by now I am really scared. What if she is only fed every third day like the dogs? When she moves on to the next male, I feel a little easier. I realize that this is all a part of the program; she is evoking laughter among the audience. After the show she comes up to me smiling and says: “I was asking you to hold me – if you don’t want to hold me, I have to hit you.” I tell her that I did not realize that until too late.
As we head back for the airport, I reflect on the culture and the conditions of the Greenlandic people. In older literature, Greenlanders are commonly referred to as Eskimos. In the native tongue, it means ‘one who eats raw meat,’ and is nowadays generally thought of as a derogative term. They prefer the more favorable term Inuits, which means ‘a human being.’
I have spent half a day with the Inuits, and the experience has been somewhat strange. They are extremely friendly, and everyone we came across raised a hand, or said hello as we passed them. But as I walked through the village, it felt at times like I had gone 50 years back in time. I felt like I was walking through a display. In a way, it was like taking a tour through an old castle where a make-believe medieval market is being reenacted and old artifacts are put on display.
Except here, nothing is make-believe and nothing is really reenacted. The hunters still use a kayak to hunt for seals, although the skin boat has been replaced with a plastic one in most cases, and the spear has been replaced by a gun. The drum dance ritual is still a part of the Inuit culture, although we have been treated to the lighthearted edition of it.
Instead, what is on display here is the people and their way of life. We have come to bear witness to the culture of people that are forced to cope with the harsh climate and the unforgiving nature. And because it feels like the whole thing is on display, it is easy to forget that what we have seen is the everyday reality of this people. This thought made me feel out of place.
I have been to several small fishing villages in Iceland that are more or less identical to Kulusuk in many ways. Hell, I grew up in a village of 400 people, so I feel a certain kinship to them. The difference is that nobody ever visited our village in order to enjoy a day tour among the locals.
By the hotel, we come across a different group of tourists. It is a large group and most of them are women. Some of them are actually wearing high heels, while others carry a parasol. One of them is even dressed in a tiger-skin outfit. As I pass them, it crosses my mind, that if I felt out of place as a tourist among the villagers in Greenland, how ridiculous is this going to look?
The best way to get to Greenland:
Air iceland flies direct Flights from Reykjavík to kulusuk.
For more information, log on to
air Iceland provided tickets and a stipend for this travel piece.

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