Monday, July 23, 2007

In Greenland's north

The day here lasts, literally, for months. We’re a few hundred degrees north of the Arctic Circle; it will be a week yet before the first shadowy hours of night edge their way into the light. Which means that despite a fog-delayed start to the morning, we’re able to make our way to the village of Ukkussiat, population 180, settled in the crook of a 4,300-foot granite massive.

The entire town comes out to meet the ship as we clamber from our Polar Circle launches onto the town dock. It’s more than just a chance to sell a few handicrafts –intricate glass bead necklaces that are part of the national dress, and figures carved from the local soapstone. It’s a happening.

The mayor leads us to the one-room schoolhouse, where a dozen children in jeans and t-shirts – Just do it! proclaims one advertising Nike – will perform traditional dances that look remarkably like American square dances or an Austrian quadrille.

On school days, 26 students learn here, taught by six teachers. After the 9th grade they move on to school in the larger, nearby town of Ummannaq or take up a traditional lifestyle of hunting and fishing. The dead seal we’ve seen down at the habor was shot by a 12-year-old boy, who has already bagged more than 30 seals in his hunting career. Some of the meat will be eaten raw, some dried for winter, some cooked.

But today is for showing off the village and socializing with the visitors and the ship’s crew, who clearly have become friends.

One of the women invites nearly a dozen of us to her home for coffee. In Greenland, coffee is more than simply a drink, it’s a social gathering where thick sugary bread and cookies are the fuel for celebration and welcome. Amalie is our host, welcoming us into a small house with a sitting room lined with family photos: the daughter as a baby, and now, standing before us, a 17-year-old, about to go off to Denmark for a year of study.

The daughter’s room is lined with posters of rock stars. Greenlandic rap plays on the radio.

We ask all kinds of questions: How big is Amalie’s family (just herself, husband and daughter)? Did she grow up here (nearby)?

Some day, settlements like these will diminish in number, perhaps disappear altogether, explains Janus, one of our guides. The government plan is to draw down the number of settlements in the next 15-20 years. The problem: No one knows which ones will survive and which will be closed … so no one wants to invest in them.

And moving to another village can be a real hardship. While the men know the hunting and fishing grounds around their home, they will not have that crucial local knowledge in a new place.

The future is uncertain. But on this clear and glorious day in Ukkussiat, the present is a gift.

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