Saturday, September 29, 2012

Qaanaaq Magnifique

And now the sea is flat. Baby waves noiselessly caress the shore. They look like nothing to a traveler from afar. But to a local hunter they are a sure sign that a big storm is again on its way to Etah. IMG_2834

When we were caught by bad weather in Neqip Akia on a beautiful sunny afternoon, the storm also came “out of nowhere.” The emerald land turned black, and the sapphire bergs turned into a skyline of grey frightening fortresses ready for war. Everything changed in a moment. But that’s what happens in Avannaa. Here you can’t assume. You can’t have expectations. You can’t really plan, because a plan has been already made for you. IMG_2983

The 6 day long storm has severely beaten our boat and damaged our bodies, but that is nothing to us: we know that we have been lucky again. As we are trying to repair the mechanics and heal our wounds on shore, I will use this moment of “doing-nothing” (or what it may seem to be from aside) to tell you more about the great town of Qaanaaq. IMG_3136

Greenland is changing today, and I am sometimes surprised that despite all odds it still has a place like Qaanaaq. Here one can still see love and mutual assistance; they actually still live here. Like in the old days before “Progress”, people come out and help without asking for anything in return. The community, like in the old days, still matters. Take a look at our boat: it is getting a helping hand from so many people all at once! IMG_2550

Greenland has many faces today, but Qaanaaq may be the one that represents it best. Not too many people outside of Greenland know this face. I wish more would. Spend a summer in Qaanaaq and you will go through a personal transformation after which you will never be the same.

Just a few days ago when we almost lost our boat again due to the bad weather, Tuku Oshima, the daughter of a great Japanese polar explorer who 40 years ago went on an expedition and instead chose to settle down in Siorapaluk and become a hunter, spotted us from her window. She was watching us for a while before she came out and saved us. Tuku is a great hunter – maybe the only female great hunter in the region. Tuku is stronger than any man I know in person. If she wanted she could literally lift up our tiny boat with all of us inside and carry all of us on her shoulders to a safer spot – or at least that’s how it feels. But don’t mess up with Tuku – you will be injured or dead.
By the way, I forgot to mention that Tuku not only is a great hunter, but also an electrician, a researcher and a writer. Here is her newest book, The Meaning of Ice, although it is not released yet; look for it in the stores maybe a year from now. In The Meaning of Ice she talks about the peculiarities of ice and I can assure you that she is the best connossieur of it.
So, such is Tuku. And then there Inge Qaavigaq. Every time I run up or down Qaanaaq’s Broadway she is always there, at her “Arctic Café” – a hot spot one can’t miss. Confined to her wheelchair in Qaanaaq, she emanates more joy of life than any person I know in my highrise on Upper East Side in New York. She knows how to celebrate her day, and there is place in her big heart for everyone – including such a hopeless person as myself. But in the country of understatements she will never accept this type of a compliment. Instead, she would just shout, “Come you, come and have some coffee!” And her coffee, I swear, is the best! IMG_4764

So, we have so many friends here. We spend our hours walking from home to home and socializing. After a week of hunger and thirst we are lucky again to have all the pleasures of life. IMG_2631

And the eternal polar day gives us all the time we need. One feast is not over yet, but another kaffemik is awaiting for us just around the corner.
And kaffemiks in Qaanaaq are not just any tea party. A kaffemik in Qaanaaq is always a journey into the past.
Qaannaq a place where so many famous expeditions have started and where they have returned after a success or a failure. But of course, the border between a success and a failure in Avannaa is so permeable. In these days I am thinking constantly of Admiral Robert Peary: about his so many failed attempts to reach the North Pole and about his eight amputated toes that he lost on the way to Qalaserssuaq. He had the highest commitment, but also – very importantly - the highest tolerance for failure. IMG_4689

I could only compare Peary’s failed attempts to reach Qalaserssuaq (Big Navel) to the Mars Ranger missions’ attempts to land on the Martian landscape. There were also 7. On the Avannaa Expedition we faced a much simplier, but in a way a similar mission. And yes, we too failed so many times. But the secret is to tolerate the failure and to keep going despite all odds. IMG_4935

Qaanaaq is a place of great proud history that is - unlike in so many other places - still alive. Qaanaaq may be one of very few places on Earth where the Pearies and the Hensons still talk to each other. Actually, you can see this happening every single day in Pillersuisoq (local store) while you are standing in line to get the groceries.
Peary got a son in 1906 here and Henson did too. Left behind by their fathers, two half-Eskimo boys grew up, turned into the great hunters, established the families that eventually intermarried. IMG_3088

We were lucky to spend much time with Anaukaq’s (Mathew Henson’s and Akatingwah’s son) children and grandchildren who still live in Qaanaaq. In 1906 Matthew Henson left Greenland and his Eskimo family behind. He never saw them gain. After Henson returned to New York, he married a girl named Lucy Ross. They lived together for 49 years, but had no children. So, Qaanaaq may be one of the very few places where one can find “real” Hensons. IMG_3011 - Version 2

And then, there is Peary’s family. Peary and Ahlikahsingwah had two sons, Anaukaq and Kale. In 1950 Jean Malaurie reported about Kale's existence to the outside world. Left by his father in 1909 Kale was brought up by several step-fathers who taught him about ancient ways of life. Kale had several sons and daughters, Paulina being the oldest. IMG_6889

I was lucky to have several talks with her and with the grandson Aleqatsiaq (Peter) Peary. IMG_6888

Peter’s father and Paulina’s son, Robert Peary Jr. has been a good friend of ours; we went with him on a few ice trips in Uummannaq Bay. Excellent drum-singer and storyteller, Robert, or Hivshu Ua how he calls himself now, does a lot to save the old Avannaa traditions, language and culture. Harvesting Sun

Paulina who will turn 78 in a month lives in this humble house. Some 65 years ago she used to live in Uummannaq, Thule, with her father Kale. By the age of 10 she was an experienced dog-sledder. In those days it was not really customary for women to drive the dogs, but she was the oldest among her father’s children while his son was still too young.
When she turned 13, and had to go for confirmation, her father asked her to have her own dog team. Pauline was crying: “Father, but women don’t do it!” But he told her that she had to carry meat for the people who were hungry. He said it was not good to be hungry. “When I arrived for my confirmation I was very ashamed, says Paulina.- I was a woman on dog sled by myself! But then we stopped by every house and gave people meat. This was a happy moment. And by Christmas I received more presents than I ever did before.”
And this is Qulutanguaq – the old man in the “Old People’s Home” – a hunter and a drumdancer and maybe the oldest man in Qaanaaq. He recently turned 90. Qulutanguaq still drums and watches life outside of the “Old People’s Home” through his binoculars that are always ready at his window. IMG_2388

We roam from room to room in the “Old People’s Home” and we meet more and more people who still remember how the life was before the arrival of the “Progress” and “Civilization”.
And finally, comes Uusaqqaq Qujaakitsoq – the big grand man of Qaanaaq. IMG_6866 - Version 2

One could write a book about him, or two, but for now I will just say a word about his great film “Aulahuliat” which literally means “moving images”. IMG_6932

Uusaqqaq started to shoot when he was only 15 – that’s when he got his first camera – and eventually was able to document the tragic history of displacement of people of Uummannaq, Thule from their homeland in Uummannaq to Qaanaaq when the American military had chosen Uummannaq as the site for the Thule Air Force Base and a Ballistic Missile Early Warning radar in 1951. “Aulahuliat” is a rare film and may be the best film about Avanersuaq that I have ever watched in my life. IMG_5925

In other words, Qaanaaq is a storytelling place. Even rocks here will tell you their story. “Ujarak” means “a stone” in Kalaallisut. And then there is “Ujarappassuit “ which means “lots of stones”. And then there is “Ujarapparparparparsuit” which means “lots, and lots, and lots, a whole universe of stones”. And a “Qerrut” is a “Rockfall”! So, you can imagine how many stories there are here, and each one is worthwhile to be told. And this is what really Qaanaaq is about. IMG_6457

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Stolen Moments

Only from the water and only through returning from a trip where one may have been lost, one can see how big Qaanaaq is!

Qaanaaq is a truly metropolitan place, but unlike other big places that are self-absorbent, even narcissistic, and therefore looking inward, Qaanaaq looks outward. Every single window in Qaanaaq is a fortified observation post well equipped with tripods, binoculars and other surveillance gadgets.

So, even though Qaanaaq’s “Broadway” may seem to be completely empty at this time of a night, we know that we have been already noticed  by our friends and soon they will show up to give us a warm welcome  back.

Our return from Neqip Akia has been brutal. It might have been the toughest part of our journey so far. We spent another night on turbulent sea, the third one out of five. When one is squeezed into a narrow open boat that happens to be narrower than most beds in the tiniest of the Manhattan studios, even one hour seems to be an eternity. You can’t really move at all – you stay motionless and you sometimes freeze to death.

Hunger, cold, a leaking boat and a growing confusion took a toll even on Aalibarti – usually the unbreakable one. He spent all five nights at sea and had to be alert all the time – day and night. He was able to save both boats, but now it seems that he is simply burnt out.

Constant thirst may have added up to that. The “water” we collected and drank in these days has been really “heavy”. Comprised of sand, stones and rare metals – maybe exactly the ones that are being extensively searched for in Greenland by international consortiums, and mixed with the arctic birds’ excrements that nurture the beautiful green lichen fields that make this part of Greenland really green, but that are too loaded  with metals such as cadmium and mercury, aluminum and zinc,  this “power drink” has been filling our systems to the top for the last 5 days.

I am taking samples with me and am anxious to run the tests to find out what exactly we consumed during these 6 days at sea in Neqip Akia – a place that  seems to be so far away from pollution by industrial and agricultural contaminants such as mercury, PCBs and DDT.

At 10 pm the wind was still raising, but – miraculously, the barometer was rising too. This gave us a slight hope that we could sneak into a narrow corridor of a fair weather opening to make a safe return trip to Qaanaaq.

We started at 2 am in the morning, the quietest hour at sea, and rushed south at full speed.

The waters of Neqip Akia Fjord were almost flat, but as soon as we turned  the corner,  we embraced a turbulent white capped sea and a cold south-east wind. 

Now we are in the middle of the tormented sea again. And every quarter hour it increases its fury. The horizon is dark. Our small open boat seems to be too small and too open for these steep arousals and descents. My computer bag is now floating amidst the gasoline tanks along with other hard-wired essentials. No matter how often I use a “qallut” – a bailing scoop – the water is rapidly filling the boat.


 I am clinging to the rope as hard as I can but I still fly in the air and the heavy canisters with pink gasoline do too. Should we have stayed and waited for a better moment? We were again too impatient and too anxious ahead of time?

Our life in a small open boat is an enigma to many. “What can you possibly do there?” our friends from New York and London ask. “And why don’t you get a bigger boat? And why don’t you get efficient pumps? And a solid roof?”   But this is a “Greenlandic way”; we have what we have, we take what comes. We take our beating and try to adapt.

And yes, on some 4 square meters of space 80% of which is covered by canisters with gasoline, we are living on top of each other, the old communal style. There is no room for privacy.  Our “sleeping place” is on top of our “living room” that is in turn on top of our “kitchen” whilst the entire structure is partially submerged in the freezing water. But don’t people in Manhattan live the same way – on top of each other, like Arctic birds on the cliff?  They are happy about their life style, so why can’t we be?  Especially when we have this immense and unobstructed world in front of our “window” – a landscape in which the frontiers between myth and reality simply transcend.

For some reason, I am constantly thinking of Uisaakassak, Sallutoorsuaq  - The Big Liar, one of the six Eskimos Robert Peary took with him in 1897 from Avannaa to New York for an exhibition at  the Museum of Natural History. Out of six, Minik and  Uisaakassak were the only ones to have survived. In 1898 Uisaakassak was able to return to his people in Uummannaq, Thule District. When he told his people about his experiences in Manhattan – about houses tall as  icebergs, about people living in the them like little auks on the cliffs, and about streetcars that could move without dogs, they called The Sallutoorsuaq, The Big Liar. An excellent hunter, Uisaakassak  had to flee Uummannaq and find a refuge at Uisaakassaap Nunaa, not far from Tuttulissuaq, now an uninhabited place. We passed it on our way from Kullorsuaq to Savissivik.

The spirit of Uisaakassak (which actually means “Restless”) who eventually had been killed by his fellow compatriots because he kept “lying” will never leave us.  It travels with us in the moments of storm and in the times of stillness. I think of him as the fifth one in our boat.  Expedition Avanna has many faces, and the face of Uisaakassak is definitely one of them. I guess, when we return to Uummannaq – if we return safely, some people will also call us The Big Liars too. Imaqa.

After so many misfortunes, we are lucky again. We are soaked to our bones, but that is nothing to the Inuit (=human beings) returning to Qaanaaq.

Landing in Qaanaaq employs a special procedure which may seem to some as almost theatrical. But for people living in Qaanaaq low and high tides are an everyday reality, so they see nothing special about it.

God is great. And mattaq is too.

Clothes are washed and hung to dry.

From our friends we have learned all the news we had missed in the days passed. We learned that a big storm had hit Qaanaaq. It tunred out that the weather had been bad for all not only for us. In Uummannaq for example a big tsunami caused by a collapse of a nearby iceberg caused a lot of damage and even moved the part of one house a few meters away.

In the days of our journey from Qaanaaq to Neqip akia we lived through the moments of a great chaos but also of a great order – a higher order of nature.  Wind, waves, cold, and constant rain reminded us again about the fragility of a human body and the limits of a human mind. Our hands got swollen, and wounds on them got infected. At a certain point I had to open them with a knife and clean them with urine and blubber that  happens to be a natural antibiotic.  Our minds had been travelling on their own too, and it was not an easy journey either.

And now finally  to “lessons learned”. Did we learn anything if at all on the way North? I hope we did. Was our failed trip to Etah one of the saddest stories in the world? I hope it was not. What some people may call the drama of disillusionment, we simply call life.  In the last six days when our boat was sinking and when our hearts’ ligaments  were stretched to their breaking point, we felt that we were just paying a fair  price for the moments of living, for the moments  that no one can take away from us.

We live through these stolen moments of infinite beauty that does not exist in our everyday world. We live through them, and then all of a sudden our normal, routine world retreats, diminishes and finally disappears entirely, and the new, infinite world  takes its place. And we call it life!

Puikkarneq = A Mirage

Sometime after midnight, on the day of our arrival to Qaanaaq, the low midnight sun has finally broken through the clouds and illuminated everything around. And this was the moment we lived for.