Eating whale in Greenland


Don’t hate me but I ate whale meat. More than once and from more than one species (cringe).

I didn’t do it for the sake of boasting–I’ve eaten whale before in other countries. I did it because when you get invited over for dinner at somebody’s house in Greenland and they serve you whale, you just eat it and smile and say, “Qujanaq”(thank you).

As a guest in Greenland, I was first served a tender whale steak smothered in caramelized onions, and honestly-it was good. I still felt uneasy about eating it, though–I was indoctrinated by the Save the Whales campaigns of the 1980s and still believe that commercial whaling is fundamentally unnecessary.

Perhaps more disturbing was seeing humpback whale on a plate, which I also tasted and felt guilty about. Hunting humpbacks is banned by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and the species is still listed as endangered under the United States’ Endangered Species Act. However, the IWC does include an “aboriginal subsistence whaling” clause that recognizes tradition and allows indigenous hunting communities to take enough for their own consumption, as long as its done “sustainably”, meaning within the limits of internationally-recognized quotas.

The Inuit of Greenland have been whaling for a few thousand years and that won’t change any time soon. While visiting the southern town of Qaqortoq, a minke whale was hunted and butchered right down in the harbor. What followed was an odd blend of ancient tradition and 21st century technology: cell phones buzzed around town to spread the news, and all the old folks gathered around to chat and linger. It was a big event–whole families walked in to look over the meat, people brought their own bags and carefully picked out the morsel they wanted. For a few minutes, I was able to suspend judgment and just witness the way life is lived in Greenland.And life in Greenland includes eating whale. Not all the time-whale meat is rare and not eaten everyday. Also, whale isn’t cheap. In the supermarket, a pound of narwhal costs around $40. Smoked salmon is far more abundant and much cheaper, as is musk ox and reindeer (also tasty). But whale is the delicacy people love and the way Greenlanders talk about it is not unlike Americans raving about KFC-it’s oh so wrong, but it just tastes so good.

At some point, all travelers have to find that balance between personal beliefs (“But I’m a vegetarian!”) and simple respect towards the place they are visiting. For me, that meant eating tiny chunks of whale blubber as an appetizer at a cocktail party in Narsarsuaq.%Gallery-103128%

Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest


Unexpectedly, I ended up in Seattle.

My bags were packed for a nice New York City summer weekend (shorts, t-shirts, flip flops) but instead I took off for Seattle. Wrong clothes, wrong place, though last-minute travel still carries a thrill of spontaneity, even when you’re flying cross-country for a funeral.

Everybody has at least one friend in Seattle. It’s that kind of city where you’re bound to find that personal connection. And yet I never realized so many people lived out there–enough to fill up every cubicle on every floor of every earthquake-proof skyscraper. Back on the East Coast we like to think we invented all of America’s big cities, but no . . .

I come from the other Washington–DC–where it gets unbearably hot and sticky in the summer; where men sweat through three-piece suits and women wear impractical shoes; where any day you might pick up the Post and know somebody who’s in it and everyday there’s some kind of vigilant protest brewing on the Mall.

West coast Washington is a little less uptight but a whole lot damper. The stereotype about Seattle’s drizzled, overcast skies held true for me and in spite of summer, the day’s “high” was a shoulder-shaking 52 degrees. Dark, unorganized clouds greeted me in the morning and I started to understand the whole coffee thing–how this one city had unleashed Starbucks on the rest of us like a misunderstood gift of the heart.

The day after the funeral, another friend I was crashing with whipped out a yellow legal pad and began making a list of things to see and do in Seattle. Mostly, he suggested I do a lot eating. We made plans to meet up for lunch at a popular Russian café; my friend slipped me the address as we walked downtown. I had no map and no idea how I would find him.“Just remember,” he panted, “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest.” He ran all the words together as one and it didn’t make any sense at all.

“Huh?”

“It’s a way to remember the streets: Jesus is for Jefferson/James. Christ–Cherry and Columbia. Made–Marion/Madison . . . and so on, you’ll see. It’s easy–just follow the streets in that order. Be at Cherry and Third at one o’clock.”

Jesus! Christ! Made! Seattle! Under! Protest!” he shouted out each word as he spun around the corner and marched uphill. Every street in Seattle goes up or down.

I didn’t expect to find him again, ever. Normally, I take pride in my sense of direction. I never get lost in new cities and if I do, I just pretend that I’m exploring. But Seattle was a little confusing for me–no matter how many American cities claim to be laid out in a grid pattern, they all have their idiosyncratic exceptions to the rules, like Germanic languages. In the other Washington, we take pride in our many exceptions to the rules–in naming streets and in running the country.

I found Pike Place Market all by myself–not so hard. I just followed the street until I could see the sea, or “the Sound” rather. The sun was thinking about maybe coming out–there was a bit of backlight that made the sky look less grey and bit more like a faded watercolor. I began to wander through the stimulus of the market, comforted by the colors or neon signs and bright vegetables. I bought English tea packed in happy little tea tins–the kind you keep even after the tea is gone. I sampled Rainier cherries and dried apples from Wenatchee. I waited alongside a pack of tourists for the handsome bearded fishmongers to fling some twelve-pound salmon through the air, shifting back and forth on my two feet and hugging myself from the cold.

When I was a teenager, Seattle was so cool–it was this whole abstract fashion concept from a faraway foreign city. Now suddenly, having finally made it to Seattle, all those grunge styles sported by midwestern mall mannequins in the 90s made perfect sense. Here I stood, in July, shivering in a T-shirt-longing for facial hair or at least a thick flannel over long underwear or a groovy knit beanie on my head.

Seattle was still cool, I realized. All the people looked so damn cool, all dressed and ready for battle. The guy selling cherries had giant black plastic horns pushed through holes in his ears and his hair cut like a vicious pixie. The bikers and skaters wore helmets with dancing flames on the sides. The girl scooping organic ice cream for tourists had a pair of matching red devil faces tattooed into her inner elbows, two evil grins flashing poisonous fangs back at me through the frosted glass. Such a pretty girl, I thought. Why devils?

And then I remembered: “Jesus Christ made Seattle under protest.” The premise was ridiculous–“What does that even mean?” I wondered. God loves everyone. I mean, He did hate a few cities in the Old Testament, too, as I recall, but I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover and Seattle is not listed once, anywhere. Also, there are actual things that Jesus Christ did protest in real life, like common hypocrisy and the gaudy merchandising outside the temple in Jerusalem.

A city built against God’s best wishes, belligerent to the core–a kind of unholy city whose streets spelled out this almost anti-Christian agenda. I wondered as I wandered back into the square-cut grid of downtown, trying to navigate myself through the streets: Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike, Pine. Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest. I kept walking south, ticking backwards through my friend’s mnemonic device: Pike–Protest . . . Under . . . Seattle . . . Made . . . checking each street sign until finally I came to “C”, Christ–Columbia–Another block and there it was, Cherry Street, and there was my friend and a window filled with hot piroshky.
That same afternoon I napped on a bench near the waterfront and when I woke up, there was sunshine-not warmth, but light, yes. Seattle is like so many northern places–one may moan about the lousy weather, but if and when the sun does shine, it’s simply glorious. Suddenly there were pretty pine trees everywhere, quiet silver waves slapping the shores of the Puget Sound, and snowy pyramid mountains in the background. If God ever did protest Seattle, it’s only because the city occupies some pretty divine real estate.

Not that God could actually have anything against Seattle. Some of His best friends live in Seattle, I thought, just like me. My friend’s funeral was still fresh in my mind, as were the lyrics of Nirvana’s song “Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle“–the song whose chorus moans, “I miss the comfort of being sad.” It’s a backhanded slogan for the city that gave us grunge and caffeine addictions but also a common feeling among all travelers.

As I travel here, there, and everywhere in the world, I still wonder: Are sad places just sad on their own or do we make them sad by arriving with our own carry-on sadness? Do we ever let the destination just be the destination or do we turn to our own ideas about what it should be, based on a lifetime of prejudice and teenage notions?

My own teenage notion was to go visit Kurt Cobain’s house on Lake Washington–the one the rock star died in. It’s become a sort of insider’s drive-by tourist attraction that overlooks beautiful Lake Washington. “It’s a nice drive,” my friend kept reassuring me, promising to take me. But then we never went: too little time, too many other things to do. After 36 hours in the Emerald City, I found myself waiting in line at Sea-Tac, boarding a red-eye home, neck pillow in hand.

Perhaps Seattle was better that way. Yeah, I liked Kurt Cobain like everybody else but I was still unsure about seeing that pretty place where the icon had died–I was still coping with the pretty city where my friend had lived. And that was enough.

[All photos by Andrew Evans]

Playing Baseball in Greenland


“Hey, batter, batter, batter . . . saa-weeeeng!” doesn’t translate directly, but the Greenlandic word for it is Anaasilluni, meaning to swing or to hit.

When I saw these kids batting around in the schoolyard, I smiled and thought, “Hey, isn’t that cool? They’re playing baseball!”–but actually no, it’s not baseball. The game is called Anaalerooq, or “hit ball” and it’s played all across Greenland. It might look and feel like baseball-here they’re using an aluminum bat and a yellow tennis ball-but the rules are a little different. For one, there are only two bases, or “points”.

I happened upon this outdoor gym class right at the start of the school season in a village so remote it took me three flights, two helicopters and a two-hour boat ride to get there.

When you arrive, Tasiusaq feels like it’s the last village in the world. In fact, it’s not even a village, but rather a “settlement” at the edge of Tasermuit (“small fjord”). A single dirt path runs between two lines of compact wooden homes, all brightly colored and with steep roofs. There were fish drying out on the clotheslines next to the clothes, and a few perky dogs tied up. Beyond that, the world was just bright blue sea and the grey granite pinnacles of a million unnamed mountains. In the far distance, there was a hint of white and the coolness sweeping off the ice cap.

I was told that only 67 people live in Tasiusaq and that 13 of them were students in this bright red schoolhouse. It’s impossible for me to fathom what life is like in such an isolated place, but I do know that the inhabitants of Tasiusaq can’t ever complain about the view. %Gallery-102341%

Getting Around Greenland

When it comes to travel, Greenland has its own rules-which are nature’s rules really. In fact, nature rules so completely that the weather report determines your itinerary, as do the tricky logistics of Greenland’s giant glacial geography.

For starters, Greenland is the least densely populated country in the world: for every human being who lives on the coastal fringe, there are 15 square miles of silent, empty ice rising up in the middle of the country. More than 80% of the land is covered by permanent ice cap, which can only be crossed by air or by skis.

Also, did I mention? There are no roads between any two towns. Getting from A to B in Greenland is very much an adventure in its own right.

What is most shocking about traveling in Greenland is how remarkably empty a place it is. Most of us have never confronted such vast, undisturbed landscapes–no matter how well-traveled we pretend to be. The feeling of being this tiny singular person up against such gargantuan nature is odd and overwhelming. Our intellects tend to panic a little–where are the highways, streetlights, the telephone wires, the ambient glowing dome of the suburbs at night? After you’ve arrived in some town, your mind ponders the landscape and begins to realize that the only way out is to hike–and then to where? On foot, most villages are a good 4 to 5 days apart–and that’s in the summer when the weather is nice.

If you’re the kind of traveler who enjoys wandering in their rent-a-car or hopping from one place to the next in some tightly-packed trip, please skip Greenland. For the others out there–those of who sit all week at desks with computers and crave the open outdoors, then Greenland is the pinnacle of our big hiking dream. Back at home, you might drive a few hours to reach the closest state park that’s overrun with hot-dog roasters living in RVs with blasting rap music. In Greenland, a two-minute helicopter hop puts you into true and utter wilderness where if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll die.And so, Greenland separates one kind of traveler from another. In my hotel lobby, a giant wall map of the country spells out the tiny fishing villages around the coast, then announces the big, white center of the country in bold letters: IKKE OPMÅLT (“Unexplored” in Danish). If that makes your mouth water a little, then Greenland’s gonna be good to you.

Just bear in mind that getting to Greenland is the easy part. There are only two major international commercial airports in Greenland: Narsarsuaq in the south and Kangerlussuaq, right above the Arctic Circle. Both were built by the US military back in the days of the Korean War, and both runways are laid out in glacial deltas of grey silt that lie at the base of tremendous fjords.

From either airport, smaller flights connect to various regions of the country–north, south, east, and west (the most populated area). But due to the rugged landscape, and the overall remoteness of so many towns and villages, a lot of these “flights” take place in helicopters, scheduled daily, like busses that stop in one town and then the next. They are also very, very expensive.

Air Greenland is the country’s flagship carrier. With a virtual monopoly, very low passenger numbers, few and scattered airports, highly seasonal travel and even higher costs, a ticket on Air Greenland can be depressingly pricey. For instance, flying from Greenland’s west coast capital Nuuk to the east coast town of Kulusuk will set you back $1,800 round trip (yes, in economy class). Air Iceland offers several (cheaper) seasonal flights from Reykjavík, but it means leaving the country every time you want to reconnect to a new place.

What that means is that Greenlanders don’t travel so much in their own country. Many Greenlanders who live in one part of the country have never visited another part. When flying to Spain is cheaper than flying to the next town over, most Greenlanders choose Spain. For that reason, family reunions sometimes happen outside the country-it’s usually easier and cheaper to gather relatives for a week of shopping in Copenhagen then for everyone to meet up in some chosen Greenlandic town.

Similarly, the reality of transportation in Greenland is a major limiting factor for visitors. Many come with the erroneous belief that they will “do” Greenland, darting around the country like a tour of England, only to realize their budget or a flight schedule confines them to one tiny corner of the country or even a single town. Accept the reality of Greenland and enjoy what you can see. Pick an area–say the South–fly there, and then invest your budget in shorter jumps between towns. This might be on the subsidized helicopter rides (about $100 a pop) to boats and ferries between “closer” towns, ranging from $50-$100.

Another word of advice–always get a window seat. On helicopters, that means being a little pushy since the seats are not assigned. You’re spending a lot of money to be in this country, and while the flights and boat rides might seem long and functional, they are always scenic. It’s how you will see the in-between places that define the country as the great arctic wilderness that it is.

Air Greenland provided transportation for the author during his travels in Greenland, for which he is very grateful. He still thinks their tickets are very, very expensive.

How green is Greenland?

Is Greenland Green? The question and oft-given answer are cliché–even you’ve heard it before: that Iceland is really green whereas Greenland is covered with ice and snow.

Well, I’m about to set the record straight, right here, right now, because after spending more than a week in Greenland, I can tell you that Greenland is in fact, very, very GREEN.

Yes, it’s true that a Europe-sized piece of mile-thick ice covers a good 85% of the country. However, the peripheral parts of Greenland are quite open and even lush, especially in the long sun of late summer. Imposing mountains and immense sloping valleys bleed with bright green, a stunning color that is made even brighter by the dry air and utter lack of pollution.

Viking explorer and cunning marketer Eric the Red named Grønland (“green land”) in 982 AD because it was in fact green but also because he was trying to lull colonists from the warmer shores of Iceland. It worked back then, and a thousand years later, the colorful name of earth’s least-known country still provokes a strange wonderment.

The following photo essay shows the true green of Greenland, unedited and unplugged. Whether or not it’s intentional, the country shows a constant theme of the color for which it is named.%Gallery-101755%