From OutTraveler Magazine
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and it’s never been a problem for me to be gay,” I was told by one of the most famous voices in Greenland in perfect English. ” When I came out in the national newspaper with a photo of myself, I had people contacting me from all over Greenland, asking how they could get involved with the gay organization I was starting.” Erik Olsen nodded, smiling. “It’s OK here. We’re accepted.”
I was sitting in an upscale bar in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, chatting over a Danish beer with Erik, a well-known personality on Greenland’s national radio service. Erik is part Inuit, part Danish (as are the majority of his countrymen). His voice is instantly recognizable across the world’s largest island because he reads the news from Europe and, more important in this meteorologically volatile part of the world, the local weather forecasts. His unassuming voice travels to the far, icy blue corners of Greenland, reaching into fellow citizens’ homes and offices, linking them to a greater, more hectic world beyond these still, frozen shores. He is an intimate confidant to isolated listeners who exist in months of silent darkness at a time.
“At the height of our gay organization [named Qaamaneq, meaning “light”] a few years ago, we would rent out a house in the old part of town and have parties with up to 50 gay and lesbian people at a time,” Erik said, his shy grin spreading across his face again. “We’re all like one family here anyway.”
In Greenland, everything was a surprise to me. Erik himself was a revelation, as was the posh wood-and-brass pub we sat in, as was the modern city life of Nuuk outside, as was the fact that LGBT parties even occurred in this remote outpost of the globe. Without even seeking them, I found LGBT Greenlanders greeting me everywhere I turned, from my local tour guide to the top two officials at Nuuk Tourism, who happen to be an out gay man and a lesbian. The cliche couldn’t be truer: We are everywhere.
And here we were, alive and well in mythical Greenland — a dream at the top of the world, a mysterious, secret, vast, inhuman place where men and women are mere abstracts against the impenetrable reality of the monolithic environment. I had traveled to the cold ends of the planet before, to places like Alaska and Antarctica, but nothing prepared me for Greenland.
The towering icebergs, the unending sea, the unimaginably thick ice cap that smothers the island and pushes it down into the planet — it’s all on such a severe, unbearable scale you might wonder why humans even bothered to live here at all. One feels like a footnote here, your ego squeezed of its fuel. But that’s just the thing about humans: we can persevere and even thrive in the most hopeless scenarios.
The tenacity required simply to exist in this coldhearted land made human habitation an epic struggle here. The first wave of Inuit hunters (Inuit translates simply as “people” and is the correct term for those historically referred to by outsiders as Eskimos) arrived in Greenland around 2500 B.C. but died out within the succeeding 1,000 years. That didn’t stop obstinate humans: Later waves of Inuit finally established a foothold, and just before A.D. 1000, Norse settlers (led by Erik the Red, who had the marketing savvy to name the polar island “Greenland”) began to populate southwestern shores, only to vanish around four centuries later.
Norway and Denmark argued over ownership of the barely inhabitable island until 1933, the year International Court of Justice at The Hague awarded Denmark total sovereignty.
In the 21st century, Greenland is unmistakably Danish. The government of Denmark subsidizes Greenland to the tune of thousands of dollars per inhabitant per year, bolstering this corner of the subsistence-economy Arctic. Denmark’s benevolent colonialism at times seemed misguided, as in the 1960s, when Danes tried relocating the Inuit in apartment towers in Nuuk in an effort to reduce village poverty. Unanticipated consequences included the breakup of traditional extended families and destruction of their hunting lifestyle.
In 1979, Denmark granted Greenland sovereignty under the Home Rule Act, and in 1985 Greenland became the first and still only country to have ever left the European Union (then known as the European Community), a source of pride among locals. Denmark still oversees the island’s international relations and maintains a foothold — some say in order to stake a claim to the island’s untapped oil reserves.
And Denmark has left firm cultural marks here too, the most progressive being same-sex civil unions: In 1989 Denmark became the first country in the world to recognize such partnerships, and Greenland followed suit in 1996.
The same sleek cafes found in Copenhagen line the tidy streets of Nuuk, Greenland’s largest “city” with a population of about 15,000 — representing more than a quarter of the island’s inhabitants. The place has a strange air of urban prosperity about it. Danish television (as well as CNN and BBC) is broadcast to cozy homes while a white wind howls outside. Brightly lit supermarkets, shops, and hotels line the snowy streets, and rosy-cheeked kids wrapped in ski gear listen to hip-hop on their iPods. Older generations watch foreign soap operas while drying their sealskins by the fire. Local gays can be found in stylish, mixed nightclubs with names like Manhattan (with photos of the New York skyline adorning the walls). It all feels unquestionably European, but the looming emptiness of the land beyond feels utterly North American.
Most of the hardy inhabitants of Greenland are spread among several isolated towns hugging the western shoreline, pushed to the edges of the icy landmass like mini islets unto themselves. No roads link these towns together. A new direct flight on Air Greenland had flown me here non-stop from Baltimore, landing me in Kangerlussuaq, an inland airstrip built during World War II by the United States, who protected the island during the German occupation of Denmark. All international flights to Greenland land here, amid herds of musk oxen and reindeer. I came in November, the chilling prelude to a long, dark winter. Most tourists visit Greenland in its summer — May through September — when temperatures in the southern areas can reach a toasty 68 degrees. But for me, experiencing Greenland in all its snowy glory seemed more apropos.
I joined a tour group and spent a day around the ex-military base of Kangerlussuaq, as most tourists do, in order to ride a bulldozer-type bus once used to transport Pershing missiles over dirt roads. We were headed to the nearby glass ocean that is Greenland’s enormous inland ice cap.
After Antarctica, Greenland is the largest reservoir of fresh water on earth, holding about 10% of the world’s supply. As I stood shivering on the hard, Windex-blue ice, which felt like cold concrete under my feet, the enormity of the place struck me. The giant sky went on into the universe and, as the sun set, I could feel its darkness ready to enfold the land, to conquer it once and for all. The very northern reaches of Greenland can exist in winter darkness for months at a time without respite, and I could sense what that heavy blanket of unending night must feel like.
North of Kangerlussuaq lies another big attraction: Disko Bay. Over 70% of tourists to Greenland fly to the nearby town of Illulissat to see the bay’s tidewater glacier. It’s the northern hemisphere’s most active, giving birth to myriad chunks of iceberg the size of buildings. I spent hours sitting in my suite at the four-star Hotel Arctic in Illulissat, staring out the large windows at these mountains of ice floating by. They were spotlighted by the sun’s rays, which nevertheless could not melt the mammoths. Later, gliding across the bay in a tour boat, I and the other passengers kept instinctively still as we passed the bergs, as if we might wake them and incur their impassive wrath.
“This bay used to freeze over all the time, but it rarely does anymore,” said one of the crewmembers. His name — Johann Christiansen — conjured a blond, blue-eyed countenance, but his smiling face was 100% Inuit. “In 2002, everything changed.”
“What happened?” I ventured.
“Everything warmed up. The icebergs got smaller; the fish are different. It’s not the same as it used to be.”
Johann seemed resigned to the fact that Greenland couldn’t do much against the rest of the world and its actions. When I visited a shrimp processing factory later in the trip, a tour guide told me that coldwater shrimp has historically accounted for as much as 80% of the country’s export economy, but now for the first time ever, Greenlanders are seeing large numbers of warm-water fish such as cod in the area. “Fishermen are trying to figure out how to change the way they live,” I was told. “It’s all happening so quickly.”
Greenland’s ice cap is melting at a rate three times faster than it was only a few years ago, and the freshwater runoff has the potential to throw off the Gulf Stream current in the Atlantic. Covered by 630,000 cubic miles of ice, Greenland contains enough water volume to raise global sea levels by 23 feet. Total meltdown is a far-fetched scenario, but Greenland is now seen as the single largest contributor to the rise in global sea level. No wonder hundreds of the world’s top scientists are convening in Greenland for the International Polar Year (which runs from March 2007 to March 2009) to share data on regional climate changes.
This thawing island is becoming ground zero for studying the devastating effects of global warming. And on top of such environmental problems, the world’s largest oil companies are eyeing Disko Bay’s offshore oil and gas reserves for possible drilling — which could be very beneficial to Greenland’s economy, but potentially ruinous to its number 1 tourist destination.
This land of earthly extremes is no stranger to epic calamities.
Towards the end of my trip I was in the town of Sisimiut, listening to an elderly woman, Alma Olsen, inside her comfy home. Surrounding houses, all painted in traditionally bright primary colors, seemed aggressively cheery amid the aloof whiteness outside. Homemade cakes and coffee were before us, part of the tradition of kaffemik, or coffee parties. No one in Greenland would ever not offer something to guests. The tradition of sharing resources — food, hunting equipment, housing, everything — with neighbors for mutual survival is still very much alive here, despite the fact that stores carry everything from imported fruit to DVDs.
In Greenlandic dialect that sounds at once tongue-twisting and soothing, Alma told me how she lived without electricity until 1950. Her daughter translated: “I remember over 50 people dying in our tiny village from flu in 1935. The hunters got sick first, and we all almost starved to death because they couldn’t get food for us.” In Alma’s immaculate, well-heated house, with satellite television buzzing in the corner, it was hard to imagine now-prosperous Greenland ever being so down and out. But I could trace the hardships Alma endured in her weathered face and hands.
Nowadays, life is a little easier. Nearly every Greenlander I spoke with had resided in both Denmark and Greenland at some point in their lives, and it was interesting to hear how they were ultimately drawn back to this wintry corner of the world. Many gay and lesbian Greenlanders had lived in Copenhagen for a spell in order to experience a wider-ranging gay life and to find mates, but they too inevitably drifted back home.
Greenlanders tried to express to me their love of this huge, brutal land. But they could only explain it in mythological terms. They spoke of the sea goddess who lives at the bottom of the ocean and who, when angry, keeps all the life-giving sea animals to herself. Shamans have to travel beneath the sea and coax them from her. They explained that the northern lights are really souls hovering above the earth, waiting to be reborn as children, and that one has to whisper in their presence, lest the souls take you up to their heavenly world. Their eyes danced with an inexplicable relationship with the land, this colossal kingdom where ice and wind ruled and where humans were forced to the very margins of existence.
I somehow understood. Traveling to Greenland makes you feel like you’ve perhaps experienced how the earth really is — and how it has been through the epochs. Humankind was now finally making a permanent mark here at the end of the world, melting this last bastion of pure earth. But I also saw how this frozen fortress, in all its unfathomable limitlessness, would somehow persevere.
By Matthew Link