Monday, 22 December 2008

On the Up: Helicopters

Nanortalik airport

OK, this is one of those dumb journalistic catchy titles. But it got you reading, didn't it?

It would be a lie to say that Greenland was my first experience riding in a helicopter. In fact, I once rode in a charity helicopter ride over the small Welsh town where I live, accompanied by one of the local entrepreneurs and the Cambrian News photographer.

It was all very exciting boarding the helicopter - I felt like a shuttle diplomat, ducking my head under the whirling blades, seeing the grass blow down and feeling the wind as the machine idled. Once on board the four seater, we were strapped into black leather seats, and the roar increased as we prepared to take off.

What happened next I was totally unprepared for.

As we rose, my familiar world of buildings and trees, playing fields and river turned inside out as they changed from normal ground level perspective to the aerial view. There is no other way I can describe that sensation. It was as if I had been worming along, only seeing the sides of things, when here all along was this other view of the familiar, from above, of which I was intellectually aware, of course, but of which I had no true understanding until that moment.

It was as if I had suddenly switched from being myself, to being my higher self.

I emerged from that quick tour of the familiar hills and valley, roads and farms, feeling as if a profound transformation had occurred. Quick eye contact with Entrepreneur, as we again played diplomats, assured me that he had felt the change as well.

That experience, so apparently removed from Greenland, surfaced in my mind again as soon as I realised that it was no longer possible to reach Nanortalik by scheduled coastal ferry, and that I would have to book a helicopter flight. What a hardship! Actually the flights are quite reasonably priced. However, if you live there it seems hard that flying, so susceptible to the vagaries of the weather, is the only way to get around. And suppose you are carrying something substantial, say, sculpture... In fact, on my first Greenlandic helicopter flight, part of the cargo was a massive Greenlandic husky, who had been patiently stowed in the front with my large wheelie luggage. (Fortunately the only food in that bag was firmly sealed in tins.)

Once in Qaqortoq, it became imperative to find the airport to reconfirm my flight. This, in true time-honoured fashion, I did entirely by accident. I was out exploring, found a run-down children's playground area (bouncy animals on springs with the handles ripped off, a graffittied wendy house, lots of litter) on a small rise. And from my vantage point: behold! The airport! Actually it was just across the road, but the rise made it easier not to mistake it for some offices. In I went, and confirmed my flight, face to face, in English, in ten seconds, with a rather surprised looking Air Greenland employee. Obviously most people don't bother to confirm these chopper flights - in a way, they are the bus service of the far south. If the chopper is delayed (and there is just one for Air Greenland, any other chopper is a charter flight), it will come along, when it comes, after it has shuttled from Narsarssuaq and Narsaq, or possibly Aliutsup Paa.

Finally I was ready to leave Qaqortoq (that makes it sound as if I couldn't wait to leave, which was anything but the truth). My new friend from the hostel and I had agreed to share a taxi, which was good, because otherwise I would have attempted to walk down and uphill dragging my wheelie luggage and carrying an unfeasible number of cameras in my rucksack.

Off we went, in a bit of a flurry. She was worried that we would be too late to check in. On arrival we found that we were... having to wait four hours, as the weather at Narsarssuaq was bad, and things were delayed.

to be continued...

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

end of trip summary e-mail

Arrived safely in Narsarsuaq on Saturday, and now am checked in to the flight to Copenhagen which doesn't leave for a few hours and it is sunny so hopefully plane will arrive & take off again on time.

Many more wonderful adventures here in Narsarsuaq, but will tell more later. Went on another wonderful 5 star walk yesterday. The big surprise here has been the fall colour, really bright. I didn't think there were any trees in Greenland, apart from a small forest tucked behind Nanortalik. But there are loads of shrub sized trees here, and a few real ones - they have an arboretum with trees with plaques saying they are from Colorado, Alaska, Kamchatka, etc.

Have met people and made not just contacts, but friends. It is surprising where artists and photographers turn up...

Well, I will be sorry to leave here but I am looking forward to term starting, and to getting going on the 10,000+ pictures I've accumulated. I have only 2 rolls of 35mm left, absolutely no more digital memory tucked away ANYWHERE, though I do have quite a bit of 120 film left, mainly because of problem with spool on the 1910 Kodak which I couldn't use, though I took Chris' large camera to some surprising places, including Year 7A at Nanortalik school, who loved looking through the viewfinder.

The best hostel was definitely Nanortalik, but everywhere I stayed was good, even the couchette on the ferry.

I've been all round the southern half of this country, by jumbo jet, Dash-7, 25 seater helicopter, ferry, bus, taxi, and even pickup trucks, and walking, walking, walking... Seen glaciers and icebergs (white ones, blue ones, and dirty dying ones), museums, artists' studios, the insides of peoples' homes, internet cafes with shouting boys, schools, a baby baptised in church, a photo of a 90 year old dying woman clinging to life, children, old people, Danes, Greenlanders, tourists from Italy and Argentina, seals, crows, gulls, trees draped over rocks, arctic cotton grass and bluebells, eaten wild crowberries and reindeer lasagne, been warm enough to run out in a t-shirt and flip flops to take a photo, cold enough to wear all my thermals, but usually OK without them. It's been a fantastic trip.

Nanortalik e-mail 2

A little bear named Nanok has been keeping me company. He is attached to the keychain of the spare key to the hostel and was hanging in the entranceway when I came in. (Nanok is Greenlandic for 'polar bear'.)

I am finding the Greenlandic cemeteries to be very photogenic. The standard burial is a white wooden cross, extraordinary in a country where wood is so precious. Although near Nanortalik there is Greenland's only proper forest. I have seen trees growing, however, draped like a shawl over the rocks, the largest about three feet across, also some growing against the houses like bushes, about four feet tall. Anyway the cemeteries are colourful with loads of plastic flowers.

I met a nice couple from Bath at the cruise ship show and they were puzzled as to what the building was there for, not realising until I explained it was the community sports centre, and used by the school, just like the leisure centres in Britain. Other amazing / amsuing / interesting comments from tourists:

I stepped off the boat and thought, this is just like the Nortwestern Territories and Yukon with the Innuit. (a Canadian)

Did you make these yourself? (traditional clothes) Now is this embroidery? (touching her leg) And is this seal? (touching her waist) These are just lovely!

Can I have a picture of you? Can I take a picture?

(in the sod hut) This is so warm! This is so cute! This is so cozy! Watch your head!

One man looked at me and said, 'Hard livin'!'

Now do you wear these all the time?

This is just such a beautiful country!

Can I just have one picture of you?

We started in Norway, and sailed up the coast, then the Faroes, then Iceland, and now here.

Can I take your picture?

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Nanortalik e-mail extract

Hi, just taking the chance to e-mail you from Nanortalik, where I am installed in a lovely little hostel surrounded by the open air museum. On Monday the town's population doubled due to the arrival of a cruise ship full of mostly Americans who went to see a show in the sports hall performed by a bunch of schoolkids doing traditional dancing, and the town choir. The whole day was kind of a surreal experience. One of the visitors thought the man in traditional costume actually lived in the reconstructed sod house until I explained that he had a very nice house in town somewhere. Niels at the tourist office has been more than helpful. He is a retired teacher and head teacher who came to the area in 1969 from Denmark and has stayed ever since. I told him today I wasn't surprised to find out he had been a teacher (he had announced it to the throng of tourists before introducing the performers). He wondered why and I said it was something about how he walked tall and held himself. Also the way he dispatched two young boys fooling around outside the tourist office might have been a giveaway ("excuse me," he said this morning and made a beeline out the door as they starting clanging on the old post box. "Los dos banditos!" he said upon returning just as swiftly. No more banging was heard.)

This internet cafe where I am writing not only has a number of kids hanging about, it is staffed by a kid struggling to keep up with the demand for hot chocolate. This building is also the radio station.

Yesterday I went for a long walk to see the Norse ruins out along one part of the coast on the other side of the bay directly opposite from where I am staying. Nanortalik is on a small island about three by four miles and the original settlement was on that part of the coast - the original 19th century settlement, that is. The weather and light were absolutely stunning on Monday and Tuesday, though it was rather windy at times. Today it is perfectly still but the fog has come on little cat feet, so a better day to shoot in black and white.

I have my own television at the hostel and the three channels are interesting. One is the Greenlandic channel, which is on air only from about 1pm to 11:30 pm and shows a mix of indigenous programmes, in Greenlandic with Danish subtitles, Danish programmes, and US or UK imports, including, bizarrely, a sort of Eurovision Let's Come Dancing hosted by the very camp Graham Norton, that must have aired on ITV sometime last year. Then there is the Hallmark channel with 'heartwarming' dramas and films, and Law and Order, in the evenings but sadly is a horrible cartoon channel the rest of the time. The third channel is Nanortalik-TV, which is a sort of continual slide show of advertisements for local services, accompanied by a Danish radio-speech channel sort of like Radio 2. Oh, and the Greenlandic TV channel turns into the test pattern plus Denmark's answer to Radio 4, I think it is called P5, all speech, news and documentaries. It also shows a clock, which is good, though I can just look out the kitchen window to see the church clock, at least during they day.

Qaqortoq e-mail extract

Ran up hill to hostel and back, have a couple more minutes to write. The library is very nice, people can drink coffee etc. here and most of the books have been rebound in a rainbow of nice colours. School is out but then kids seem to be wandering about the place most of the time. In Nuuk the school buses run all day, not just in the morning and afternoon but all day in between, and there are always kids going somewhere, or walking alone or in groups, in the most unlikely places, like way out by the airport, past the golf course (yes, there is one here, or rather, there!)

Tomorrow I have my first Air Greenland helicopter ride. Have already found the airport, by mistake, and confirmed my flight. Helicopters only, here, as in most of the small Greenlandic settlements. I may have to break off suddenly if the lady is ready to close the library.

In Greenlandic sentences are formed by adding more and more suffixes to just a few words, so the words are extremely long in print. People tend to read by running a finger along the line under the words. The purser on the ship handed out a questionnaire (not to me, it was only in Danish + Greenlandic) and all these elderly ladies were intently studying the first page, running a finger under the words. It seemed to take them a long time to read. The Danish lady at the hostel says this is typical. I have just had the librarian photocopy and article on the Greenlandic language issue for me from a new magazine called Greenland Today, new this year in Danish and English. Very interesting.

Much of the music on the radio sounds oddly like Radio Ceredigion, the Welsh middle-of-the-road stuff. I keep wondering why they aren't singing in Welsh! I have been eating kind of a lot of salami, at breakfast every day. I think I may get some pork chops tonight, for a change. Last week I got a slab of reindeer lasagne from the freezer deli section at the Brugsen supermarket in Nuuk. It was very good, made 3 portions. Sort of a more steak like hamburger.

Extract of e-mail from Nuuk

Today I had a lovely tour by taking the bus heading away from the city centre on the loop through the suburb where I am staying and then out past the airport to the new development and back again. Nuuk is one huge building site. I haven't seen so much construction since I lived in Toronto; in fact per capita there is probably a thousand times more construction here. Of course they can't do much in the winter... Everywhere there are new brightly coloured apartment blocks going up, and office skyscrapers of 8-10 stories, built into the solid 4 billion year old rock. Where I am staying is only two or three years old. The population of Nuuk must be bulging, also the apartment blocks from the 1960's are getting quite run down.

Today it was the same bus driver as the first day, still wearing gold reflective shades but with a different t-shirt today. I said something to him in Danish and he gave me that "Are you insane?" look I often get from people when I attempt to speak Danish. Then I pushed my own sunglasses up onto the top of my head and said something in English. He recognised me, and gave me a big smile. Today the rap music that had been playing on the last journey was replaced by country and western. At every stop he paused, so as not to get ahead of schedule, and carried on texting on his phone.

Speaking of music, the stuff they play on the radio here sounds oddly like the Welsh pop music featuring on Radio Ceredigion and for sale in good electronic goods shops everywhere: middle of the road, slightly-to-very country. Except here it's in Greenlandic.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Nuuk airport bus

Nuuk airport
Adventure from Day 1:

Margaret emerges from Nuuk airport and locates the bus stop, and then another bus stop. Soon a bus pulls up, to the other stop, and I race over through sandy gravel, trailing my wheelie luggage. (Everyone else on the flight had wheelie luggage as well, so not all sturdy backpackers as I feared.) The bus driver says he will be back in ten minutes, and to wait at the other stop. I say OK and go back.

A Nuuk bus stop

Ten minutes later, he reappears, having gone past the airport to Nuuk's second suburb, and back again. I board. He is wearing a blue Manchester United t-shirt and yellow reflecting shades. I am wearing a down puffa jacket covered in fake fur. We stare at each other. 'You have to put the coins there,' he says at last, indicating the stand in front of me, 'and then pull on the lever to get the ticket.'

'Where are you going in Greenland?' he asks, and when I tell him I am starting by staying four days in Nuuk, he says, 'Oh, don´t do that! Why would you want to do that? Nuuk is terrible. You want to go up north, and go dog sledding.' Meanwhile I am being driven past brilliantly coloured apartment blocks backed by spectacular mountains, all glowing in brilliant sunshine the likes of which I haven't seen in Britain, even in June. 'I don't know,' I say. 'It looks pretty nice here!'
Each bus stop in Nuuk has a handy individual number that co-ordinates with the bus route map.

Margaret's itinerary

This page will contain a list of places I went to.

For starters, the bare bones:

London - Copenhagen (overnight in airport) - Kangerlussuaq (transfer) - Nuuk (4 nights) - coastal ferry (4 nights) landing at: Sisimiut - Aasiaat - Ilulissat - Aasiaat - Sisimiut - Nuuk - Qaqortoq (3 nights) - Nanortalik (7 nights) - Narsarssuaq (4 nights) - Copenhagen (overnight in airport) - London
Flights were with Sterling Air (defunct the month after I returned) and Air Greenland.
More details:
  • To London by National Express coach.
  • Flew from Gatwick (home of the charter airlines).
  • Decided ahead of time to spend the night in Copenhagen's Kastrup Airport, due to late arrival time / early morning departure.
  • Flew Air Greenland to Kangerlussuaq. Nuuk, although the capital, does not have enough flat land for an airstrip large enough to accommodate jumbo jets, so international flights arrive at Kangerlussuaq, a former US air base at the head of a long fjord about an hour's flight north of Nuuk. My transfer to Dash-7 plane lasted less than an hour.
  • Arrived at Nuuk airport a little after noon and caught the city bus to the tourist information centre, near the colonial harbour. Got a booking for a bed and breakfast in one of the suburbs, and ended up getting a lift there in the tourist office pickup truck. Four nights in Nuuk. Activities included walking, forward trip planning, bus tour, visiting Nuuk's beaches, cemeteries, harbours, shopping, cafes, arts centre. Oh, and photography!
  • Taxi to harbour to catch AUL coastal ferry. 4 nights on ferry in couchette (4 beds in shared room).
more to come...

Greenland links

This page will contain some useful links about Greenland.

Table of Contents

I will be writing my entries as they occur to me. But on this page I will gather them together and order them chronologically... because some people really do like stories that start 'at the beginning'.


Photo galleries:

Other pages related to my trip:

Other pages related to things polar: