Thursday, 26 February 2009

A radio programme of interest to those who love the Arctic

Photo of Pete Abraham, copyright BBC, 2009.

This is nothing to do with my trip to Greenland, but the polar community is closely linked, from Greenland to Spitsbergen, from Kamchatka to Alaska. And I have recently enjoyed a radio documentary exploring the life and landscape of one man's life in remote Alaska.

BBC Radio 4's programme 'A Life With...' has recently completed a series on 'Tundra'. Presenter Grant Sonnex seems to have a genuine admiration for the Yupik way of life, if he sometimes seems unable to overcome his own cultural prejudices where Arctic attitudes to animals are concerned, in a way that seems unlikely had the programme been produced by the CBC. Nevertheless, Sonnex gives plenty of space for Pete Abraham to speak about his childhood memories of the traditional way of life.

For the next six days, you can listen to the programme at the BBC Radio 4 website.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Just touching down at Kangerlussuaq

I wasn't going to stay. I was just passing through. I was on my way to Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, but it is not possible to fly directly to the capital, because the airstrip there is not large enough to accommodate jumbo jets on international flights. But the airstrip at Kangerlussuaq is, because the place was built as a US military base with an eye to catering for the supersized might of Uncle Sam.

And yet, it was to be my first moments on Greenlandic soil (or tarmac, to be more precise). After shooting enough aerial footage on the descent to mount an exhibition (there, I'd justified my trip already, I could relax [!]), the excitement levels were soaring way out of control, the closer we got to terra firma. And then we landed.

Hmm. The equipment on the ground looked much like any other airport round the globe, if the operators were definitely Greenlandic.

And those hills rising up along the valley - they could be anywhere in the north Atlantic, say... Scotland, where I'd been so many times? I had come to earth with a bump. Still, the airport was as tiny as any remote airport could be expected to be; and I had the duty free to negotiate.

The latter turned out to be far more arduous than customs and immigration (an empty desk). Having ascertained that my luggage was transferring from jumbo to Dash-7 of its own accord, I drew myself up and plunged into the scrum that was the duty free. Even with two tills working at full speed, it seemed to take forever until I could emerge, clutching my bottle of (relatively) cheap white in its peculiar string vest: a Scandi-invention that I realised provided grip when pouring while simultaneously preventing clinking in the shopping sack (should I have been so pecunious as to purchase more than one bottle).

Boarding the Dash-7 I thought again how handsome the Air Greenland fleet was, with its glossy candy-apple-red planes with the white abstract snowflake logo. Inside the single aisle terminated abruptly in a beige wall fronted by a row of seats facing away from the direction of travel. I figured that nobody would want to sit there, so I found a window seat opposite these but facing the correct way for my purposes. And I had plenty of room to open my day rucksack and pull out the first two cameras. The man next to me was lost in reading the paper (bilingual Danish and Greenlandic) and paid little attention to me, or, once we took off, the spectacular scenery. Which was just as well, because after a cursory look at the safety card (complete with nonverbal instructions on how to survive turning into an iceberg) I was glued to the window. My first journey with turbo props!

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Greenlandic breakfasts

Top: Up and about early in Nuuk. Below: Typical Danish/Greenlandic breakfast ingredients: heavy rye bread, margarine, and salami

'It's all about the food!' one of my friends once e-mailed me gleefully, in response to yet another detailed account from me of my latest gastronomic exploits. Yes, indeed, it seems I travel nowhere, from round the corner to my favourite cafe, to Tate Britain in London, to the Greenlandic coastal ferry, without constantly thinking about, assessing, and enjoying the food. Unfortunately Greenland is one of the more expensive places in the world to indulge this little daily pleasure, but I did manage to eat well and enjoy the experience, without going permanently in debt.

Breakfast rolls and cheesy mushroom spread

To begin, then, with the start of the day. If you've visited Denmark, Greenlandic breakfasts will come as little surprise. They're heavy on the salami and other cold sliced meats, served smorrebrod style on heavy rye bread, or on special breakfast rolls. The bread may also be spread with a variety of soft cheesy spreads flavoured with mushrooms, etc., or covered with cheese sliced with the Danish cheese-slicing gadget. This last, initially puzzling device, is like a small single-stringed violin - the string being a wire with which you peel a thin perfect layer off the top of the block of cheese, which may be lurking in packaging that makes it look like butter to North Americans.

The Danish cheese-cutting gizmo in action. Greenlanders would not make such a mess of the cheese!

Dairy features heavily in the Greenlandic breakfast, despite all having to be imported from Denmark, as although there are some sheep in the far south of Greenland, as far as I know there is no dairy industry. I certainly didn't see (or hear) any cows. So breakfast often typically includes a glass of milk, or yogurt poured from a carton. Coffee, yes, which is fairly strong if a coffee maker is used, and butter and jam or preserves for the breakfast rolls, which are toasted on clever countertop grill/toaster appliances that run on a timer.

Toasting breakfast roll

My landlady at the bed and breakfast where I stayed in Nuuk just let me get on with things, and once I learned where things were kept and what foods were for me, I got my own breakfast. Things were pretty laid back, and she wasn't really a morning person... After she went to work, I would potter around the apartment, enjoying the breakfast and the views.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Leaving Greenland

leaving Narsarssuaq

Leaving is never easy, and it is more difficult when time has been altered by the experience of travel. I had been in Greenland for twenty-three days, but it seemed much longer - every four days or so had seemed like a month. So some part of me probably had assumed that I had moved here. There. You see, writing about it, I am back there.

The first flakes of snow were blowing on a very sharp breeze as I took my time boarding, then settled in my seat (last row, window again!). The large group of Russians from the airport waiting lounge were everywhere, including a man in the seat next to me. I couldn't help noticing he had a very large, up-to-date model iPod, that seemed to be photoviewer, games meister, mini computer, and whatnot all in one, with a large, sharp colour screen. I looked away in case I was about to be able to read his personal messages on the pin-sharp screen.

I was assembling my three cameras in preparation for the flight (Pentax K-1000 35mm, Mamiya medium format, and Olympus u-ju 35mm compact as backup - the Fuji FinePix digital was completely out of memory by this point) when a face appeared over the seat in front of me. It was one of the Russians, of course. 'I see that you have a window seat,' he began politely, holding up a compact digital camera. 'Would you mind taking some pictures for me, since I am not seated by a window?'

'Well...' I needed to be honest. 'I've been paid money to come here to take photographs. But I'll do the best I can. I'd be happy to.'

He thanked me very graciously, and I had a look at another nifty little piece of kit. The zoom lens was actually more powerful than my FinePix, although I suspected its outer range to be digital rather than optical. I took a couple of shots while we were on the ground, to make sure I could work the thing. And then, we were ready for takeoff.

more to follow...

I took these pictures with Vladimir's digital camera.

This last is one of Vladimir's photos, probably from somewhere completely different in Greenland, but I quite like it. But how do you know his name was Vladimir? I can hear you ask. All in good time... and I will look up his surname to credit the picture, as soon as I can.

photo by Vladimir Schuster, 2008