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Greenland’s passenger ferries: all life is there

I gripped the frozen handrail with both hands, wide apart for support. My feet were planted wide as well, to keep my balance on the wildly rolling deck. And I slitted my eyes, the only part of my body not covered by thick, protective clothing, to counteract the driving and stinging snow pellets in the midst of the storm. Through the last of the light I peered at the monstrous icebergs through which we weaved a delicate path as night came. I was on the Sarfaq Ittuk, a passenger ship north of the Arctic Circle. But why was I on a small, pitching ship in the midst of the icy sea? Quite simply, I was in Greenland and wanted to get somewhere.

Greenland is the largest and oldest island in the world with a total population of 60,000. Most of those people live on the slightly more hospitable western and southern coasts, in villages and towns. But it is a land without roads, rail, and with only limited long-distance skiing or sled tracks because it is so precipitous, rugged, icy and inhospitable. So the only way for the average person to travel is by ship – unless of course you ransom your children, sell a vital body part or sell large quantities of drugs, for then you can fly with one of the most expensive airlines in the world. But once on board a ship, you encounter seas where a five metre swell is but a ripple, where a deep THUNK below the waterline is just another submerged chunk of ice trying to rip a hole in the hull, and where you need to weave in and out of the icebergs as nonchalantly as pedalling a bicycle through the park.

Most people have their own boats, of all descriptions and sizes, but the only form of long distance public transport are a couple of simple, smallish passenger ships – the Sarfaq Ittuk and Sarpik Ittuk – that run between Nasarsuaq in the south and as far north as Upernavik on the west coast, which is less than half-way north. On the way, the ships call in at each hamlet and village, with fantastic names like Narsaq, Qeqertarsuatsiaat, Maniitsoq, Kangaamuit, Sisimiut and Aarsiaat, reaching as far north as they can go. In winter that’s not so far, since the ice pack of Disko Bay – breaking off from the massive glacier – is too thick even for this ice-breaker. So the ship stops at the amazing town of Ilulissat just south of the ice pack. Why the South-West Coast, which faces Labrador in Canada? Simply because that is where most of the settlements lie. It’s slightly milder, the seas less ferocious and, unlike the sparsely settled and remote east coast, isn’t beset by kilometres of ice for most of the year. Even so, the ship’s timetable is flexible, since the weather is extreme and unpredictable. It may arrive late, very late, or even early. No wonder one of the favourite Greenlandic words is immaqa, maybe.

In early spring sunshine Christina and I boarded the Sarfaq Ittuk at Nuuk, the capital city (population 15,000) at roughly the halfway point of the voyage. We were to go as far north as we could and then return to Nuuk. What is it like on a regular passenger ship like this, on which Greenlanders of all ages, sizes and shapes board, sleep, eat, socialise, disembark and board again? Old Greenlandic women would sit all day in one corner of the cafeteria, drinking coffee, talking and smoking. Old Greenlandic men would sit all day in another corner of the cafeteria, drinking coffee, talking and smoking. They had as much time as it took for the ship to arrive at its destination. The mixed families would pile into a simple cabin, with functional beds and (if you had an extra dollar) a toilet and shower. For a time the boat was full of school children on holiday, off for a cross-country skiing trip (it was Easter), or at least they were on board for day or so, moving in between one town and the next. Unlike their elders, the young people were impatient for the ship to arrive before its destination. An occasional Dane would be part of the mix, although after almost 300 years of colonial control, most Greenlandic families have the odd Danish mother or grandmother, father or grandfather, and even further back. They all seemed to treat the ship like a well-known bus or the all-stations train full of its snoozing, talking, smoking, yelling, breathing mix of people – which of course it was in one respect, except it was waterborne.

And we would all gather for the regular mealtimes. A bell would ring, and from that time you had an hour before the meal was over. Simple fare, served buffet-style, with some items you could order cooked in your own way, but the food was a rich mix of culture, colonial history and geography. I would load up on the Danish rugbrød and about a dozen types of sild (ryebread and herring), although I later avoided the sild since I started burping it up. The sild was really mashed up fish in a variety of sauces. I liked the curry sild, chilled and stingingly tasty. On the dense ryebread, made with a little yeast and a good deal of fermentation, it is a perfect match in texture and taste. And then there were the Greenlandic items, such as dried and chewy fish, which the locals gnaw at like sweets, as well as whale blubber, seal-blood soup or nearly anything else you could imagine from the sea. The blubber is something either to try once or grow up with. Not cooked, but frozen to kill any parasites, the veiny yellow blob on your plate slides readily as soon as you try to stick it with a fork. And the taste: gamey, of the sea (obviously), slippery and slick. Or you could go back to smelly, crumbly cheeses or about a dozen different types of dead pig for which the Danes are famous. Go to any Danish feast and you will find them crunching on baked stuff, slicing the loaf made from trotters and pink odd bits, or tipping their heads back to swallow a long rasher of bacon. Then again, you could ask for a drink of water flavoured with a peculiar Greenlandic plant that looked something like chives but tasted fresh and green and wild. In short, it was all quite fishy and gamey when it came from Greenland, since the arable land in Greenland is about two percent, and then tame and domesticated when from Denmark, but in the mix my tastebuds could trace the colonial history.

Yet what struck me about the dining area was an act as simple and everyday as it was (for me at least) extraordinary: the sticky mats placed on the table to stop everything slipping off in the roll. For some reason, it always seemed to be rolling heavily when it was time to eat. Or maybe the roll became more noticeable when we sat down to eat. Either way, the plates and cups and forks and knives and the rest of the table clutter would simply not stay still. So one of the staff would go by and place a large sticky table-cloth under everything. They were made of the same substance sometimes found in showers to stop you slipping arse over tit. And once down on the table, the tea or soup might have waves you could surf on, or the saltshaker describe an arc like a reverse pendulum, but it would all stay put, latched onto the table top by these mats.

What does one do on a ship like this? Or, as I have been asked so often: don’t you get bored? The short answer is no. One reason is that a ship like the Sarfaq Ittuk doesn’t try to remind you that you should be bored. If you have theatres, swimming pools, nightclubs, sun decks and the other accoutrements of an ocean liner, then the hidden message is: a voyage is inherently boring; you are a boring person; so here are endless forms of mindless entertainment to stave off boredom. I remember once as children when the TV in our home broke down. My parents were too poor to replace it, so for almost a year we had no television. For the first few days we wandered about aimlessly, at a loss as to what we should do. But then our minds kicked into gear and we began inventing all sorts of activities: a cubby house out the back, a new game, a book to read, a plank hung on a tree for a swing, odd bits of wood and tin that would make a suit of armour, intrepid exploration under the house, where we found some old newspapers from the Second World War …

So also on a regular ship. For example, the porthole in the cabin has more entertainment than you could ever want. In heavy seas, the waves would crash into the porthole, at others small fish would fly out the water at our passing, in sea ice you could watch the complex patterns as the ice cracked with the ship’s passing, at times larger chunks would thump into the ship and you would stare out of the porthole to see it pass, in the distance (always a safe distance) you could see the icebergs and try to estimate their size, and at all times the delicate play of light from dawn until dusk would provide a million variations on the view. But the porthole was also a signal that one needed to go on deck.

On deck I would go, whenever possible. The Sarfaq Ittuk was not quite like a container ship, where you are permitted on the bridge, deck, engine room – in fact pretty much everywhere. But it came close. The deck covered most of the small ship and gave me access to all sides. Up the stairs I would go, often to be hit with a blast of Arctic air and yet another stunning sight. Since the deck rocked and rolled most of the time, a firm grip and wide stance was needed to keep one’s balance. But it was worth every moment: the wake of the boat wound a delicate path between the icebergs further north, which turned endless shades of white, green, blue, turquoise and aqua. When the sea ice became thicker, I watched, mesmerized, the complex patterns of cracks as it begrudgingly allowed the ship through. The perpetually changing weather took me as well, from soft sunsets with light running across the ice, glancing off the bergs, swelling on the horizon, through to low racing cloud before a storm and the horizontal hard snow that came in with the storms. Since visibility was down to a few meters in front of my face when the storms hit, I would make my way up at night, watching the snow driven in the safety lights on the edge of the deck, racing specks in absolute blackness. At those times, on a dark, heavily rolling deck, I was the only one there, hanging on even more firmly since footing was treacherous, seemingly more vertical than horizontal. Eventually I returned to the cabin, for I need to thaw out for a while before another stint on my watch.

Back on deck, like a little boy pretending to be a man, I stood by and guide the ship into the narrow harbours and then, after a pause for cargo and passengers, back out to sea along the tight passage. Some ports were hamlets of a few houses, with a boat or two in the tiny harbour. The sea was the only way to access them, unless you took a helicopter with Air Greenland (one of the few airlines to have a regular helicopter service). And to board or disembark there were no fancy passenger bridges; a gangplank off the small dock was it. On the dock would be a few people, some waiting for a friend or a family member to arrive, others with suitcases waiting to board and head up or down the coast for a bit. It was thoroughly refreshing to see no need for security checks, counters and the usual bland paraphernalia of airports or long-distance bus stations.

At one such hamlet, Maniitsoq, another character was waiting for the ship. Not on the dock, but in the water of the tiny harbour. One of us saw a flash of movement in the corner of my eye, looked again and saw a whale playing. Not quite the size of the one I saw spouting Gotthåb Fjord near Nuuk, a magnificent beast that had come in for a run up the coast. But this one at Maniitsoq was more intimate, barely meters from the ship and perfectly happy to share the limited harbour space with its dumb metal companion.

At each port we had a couple of hours, time enough to take a walk, slip about on the ice, explore a hamlet. Except at Sisimiut, our northernmost port on this voyage, for here we had almost a whole day, arriving in the morning and leaving that evening. It happened to be Easter Day and since about 95% of Greenlanders are Christian – the result of Danish Lutheran mission work since the early eighteenth century – the church was full (there was only one even in this larger town), Greenlandic hymns rang through the air and the day sparkled with the sun on new snow. We meandered along the road that led through town, although it didn’t manage to go out of town since the roads do not lead anywhere. A man passed by, perched on a sled hauled by his dog team.

Much of the open space in town was for the dogs. South of the Arctic Circle you may own any manner of dog except an Eskimo Dog. North of the Arctic Circle is the obverse. The idea is to keep the species pure. But the dogs, obviously descended from wolves, are barely domesticated. They sleep outside, huddled together in even the bitterest cold, keeping warm beneath a blanket of snow. Heavy chains prevent them from prowling around town although they do not stop them snarling, howling, fighting and sorting out the order of the pack. And should you be staggering home drunk of an evening and happen to fall amongst a sleeping pack, they will tear you up and enjoy the meal – as has happened on more than one occasion. Sometimes a younger dog will be allowed to roam for a bit, under two years and still a pup. The trick in those situations, or so we were told, is to show the dog who is boss should it entertain any thoughts of taking a piece of your leg. At one point in the sparkling sun, we stopped on a rise and there, across the small valley, were more than twenty sled teams, snoozing, eating, stretching, snarling, waiting, being harnessed to a sled. On the other side of the road, a child was playing, quietly by itself in the snow. It was one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen.

Most of that voyage was a string of the extraordinary: the sheer mountains and cliff faces plunging into fjords full of ice, seals and whales; the five-metre swells that would make the locals at my home town gape in awe; the brightly painted hamlets with their collection of boats in the rocky harbours, the massive icebergs and ever-thickening sea ice, the dog-sled teams scattered about a town while people went about their business. Or rather, it seemed extraordinary to me. For the Greenlanders for whom this is the only way to travel it was simply ordinary, part of their everyday lives.

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