Thursday, September 25, 2008

Six Hours

There are many things you could do in six hours. You could hike about 12 miles (about 20 kilometers – I am getting good at conversions here!), you could make a loaf of bread (or two), you could watch 12 episodes of America’s Funniest Home Videos (a national favourite here), you could write a paper (ha! I don’t do that – I’m not in school anymore!), you could catch a GAZILLION fish at the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord, and then spend another 6 hours cleaning and filleting them. Can you guess what we did yesterday?
Silver, the little, mustached Italian man who looks eerily like my dad and whose most common comments to me are ‘Oh! Why you so beautiful?!’ and ‘Why you don’t eat?’, lent his boat to a friend for the afternoon. It was the friend, an equally short and equally wonderful Greenlandic man named Niels, who passed his half-dozen hours catching so many Atlantic Cod that I’m beginning to wonder if all the cod that have disappeared from New England waters have just migrated up here. And then it was Marie, Silver’s Greenlandic wife who is always smiling, joking and keeping her hands busy (making a seal skin purse for her daughter, knitting a sweater for Silver …), stood at the sink from 6 PM – 12 AM, chopping the heads off the fish, setting aside their stomachs and livers, and slicing the meat off the bones. Ten of the fish are hanging from a clothesline-type contraption on the porch, where they are supposed to dry (I tend to think they will freeze?). The other dozen fishy corpses are individually bagged and packed into the huge freezer that is an essential in any household in Greenland (kind of ironic, since temperatures outside often FEEL colder than temperatures in the freezer!).
OK, so obviously when I said ‘guess what WE did’, I meant that the people surrounding me did all the work and I was told to sit and look pretty. You all know how good I am at doing that … So I went for an evening stroll through town. It was about 8:30 PM and -2 degrees Celsius (28 degrees F) when I left the house in fleece pants, a puffy jacket, a hat and a scarf. The sun had just sunk below the horizon, leaving an echo of soft, horizontal bands of color that made me want to dance and cry at the same time. Of course, I did a little of both J And then? I reached the top of a public staircase (Ilulissat has lots of staircases – pedestrian shortcuts in a town built into a land that rises out of the water and into the hills) and saw the moon! As much as I wanted to swim Southwest across the bay to meet the colors of the sunset, I wanted even more to walk north until I reached the moon. It floated just above the horizon – seemed like I could have touched it, just above my head, if I had walked all the way up there! Its crescent, old-man-with-a-big-chin-profile shape was the color of caramel, if caramel could shine, and made me think of the comfort of hot chocolate after a long day of sledding. And I’m about as good at ignoring thoughts of chocolate as I am at sitting pretty, so I started home again. The walk home, away from town and up the hills, takes me past the big grocery store, the incineration plant and a field of sled dogs that are more scary than cute at 9:30 at night (or any other time of day for that matter). So I had kinda thought my stroll had ended when I turned away from the sky and back to the (SNOW COVERED!) mountains. But alas! The Northern Lights were out! So I got to watch the ribbons green dance across the tops of the mountains and weave through the stars that looked on from a distance. Needless to say it was a magical evening. And when I got home, there was hot coffee waiting.
No, I don’t spend ALL my time wandering through town dreaming about various elements of the universe. Right now, I’m at work – at my computer, in my office … in Greenland. I am working for the Ilulissat municipality, as an intern in the Environment Department. Since I am unpaid, I get to decide my hours and my projects (within reason…) – they just give me resources and occasionally take breaks to come in here and tell me all about what they do (I just learned all about sewage in Ilulissat – intriguing). It’s a pretty sweet set up.
I am working on two environmental education projects for the municipality – one focusing on tourists and one on locals. Today I am meeting with the head of all the tourist agencies to talk about the tourist industry here and how best to communicate the natural history and climatic changes of this place to the 36,000 tourists that come to this town every year. The project for local awareness-raising is inspired by my experiences and conversations with people here about nature and climate change. Everyone loves the natural world around town and all the resources and adventures they glean from it, but very few know/believe much about climate change and the affects it could have on that natural world. Part of the problem is that most of the information that they get about climate change comes from the international press, which tends to use Greenland as an example of current, drastic climate changes that disturb animal populations, human lifeways, etc. But for many people here, the melting ice cap, receding glacier and rapid Arctic warming that they hear about are inconsistent with personal experience: the glacier still calves huge icebergs into the bay regularly, there doesn’t seem to be any less ice, and it is still cold (duh, it’s Greenland). So I’m trying to figure out 1. what the reality of climate change is up here (vs. what is media exaggeration) 2. how to communicate that reality to local people. I like the idea of having public forums and publications in Greenlandic of all the research done in the area – because I meet scientists all the time who are here studying permafrost or the glacier or ice cores, but they are not required to share any of it with local people. My first experiment will come on Tuesday, when a scientist from NASA will come to one of the English classes I’ve been helping with at the adult-ed center in town…
Right, I also teach English! Well, kind of. I have been to maybe 10 classes to introduce myself and talk about America – this at the request of the teachers, whose students are intrigued by the American culture and news that bombards them every day on the TV, radio, etc. So I’ve had two discussions about 9/11, which were really interesting, and 2 about climate change at the adult ed center (hence the interest in local environmental ed). Then I’ve had a bunch of classes at the local high school, where I’ve talked about what it’s like to grow up in the States, how the US is different from and similar to Greenland, etc. I only have one class that I teach on my own and it is a group of five 9th-grade girls who are very advanced English speakers. Last week we just did an introduction and this week I am starting a unit on Native Americans with them. I’m interested to see what kinds of connections we’ll be able to draw … They’ll (hopefully!) have pen pals from the Lakota reservation where I worked during my year off.
Alright, for a girl who is ‘at work’, I haven’t gotten very much done this morning! There’s much more to talk about and, now that I have a computer and regular internet access, I’ll try to tell you about it more often! For now, it’s coffee and the IPCC IV report for me …

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Yesterday I ate…

Oatmeal for breakfast; for lunch: smoked trout, reindeer liver patè, brie, white wine, French-pressed coffee; and dinner was plain pasta with onions, that we found leftover in the hostel fridge. A relatively accurate depiction of the surprises that greet me every day here. Yesterday, my biggest and most victorious surprise was finding a room to rent for the next 2.5 months in Ilulissat, a ‘large’ town in the middle of Greenland’s west coast that is famous for its very productive glacier.
Ilulissat is unbelievably beautiful. I’m posting some pictures with the understanding that neither the images nor my words could come close to doing it justice. But if you attach some imagination to the images, and try to dream about the incarnation of sublime and blue mixed together … well, maybe you’ll get close J. I have already hiked out to the fjord twice in the 2 days that I’ve been here. I even hiked on the same trail both times and was equally awed each time. Also, I saw three whales. Whoot whoot!
Before I arrived in Ilulissat, I stayed 5 days in Sisimiut, a town/city (it’s hard to make the distinction, because the largest city here is only 15,000 people) between Nuuk and Ilulissat. It was FANTASTIC. I stayed with Mads and Trine, a young Danish couple who moved to Greenland about a year ago. They have a small apartment that is full of books, which was one of the best parts of Sisimiut J We spent multiple evenings talking about American culture and politics, Greenlandic politics, books and bread-making. Needless to say, I could have gotten very comfortable there. During the day, I wandered around town and spoke with various people about climate change, sustainability, oil, culture and independence for Greenland. Sometimes, my head got so full of ideas that I had to hum a little to calm them down. I won’t bore you with all of them, except to say that I’m thinking a lot about how it is not climatic changes that are rupturing life ways and culture here, but rather economic changes. A lot of those changes are attached to Greenland’s economic development and bid for independence from Denmark, but also to global forces and a desire for general ‘modernization’. There’s an impossible tension between preserving ‘traditional culture’ and achieving economic and political independence (which is another way of preserving culture, but it has to be done by modern means …). I don’t know if I’m making any sense, so I’ll move on …
After a few days of reading (An Afruican in Greenland, by Tete-Michel Kpomassie about the first African man to travel to Greenland – it’s really good!), walking and boating in Sisimiut, I left for Ilulissat. I arrived at the youth hostel in the afternoon and, after discovering that the man who was supposed to rent me an apartment was home sick, decided to take the rest of the day off and go for a hike with Jean, the French professor of political science whom I met in Nuuk and ran into here. He is as poor as I am, so after our hike, we scrounged in the ‘leftovers’ box in the hostel kitchen and made pasta with one onion for dinner. It was delicious.
The following morning, I discovered that the alleged apartment for rent was not, in fact, available and I had one day to find another place to live at the height of tourist season in a town that is always crunched for housing. By the end of the day, I had 3 offers – partly because I was lucky, but mostly because I have met the kindest and most wonderful people who were so willing to help me out. I ended up agreeing to move in with the Italian/Greenlandic family that runs an adventure travel service in town. Unreal. Perhaps I will end up practicing my Italian while in Greenland …

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Danish danishes

Today, I ate my first Danish danish ever ... and it was excellent :) In fact, I also ate my second Danish danish. The Danes know what they're doing when it comes to pastries! Last night, I tried to prove to a few Danes that Americans, too, have our cooking strengths. I half-succeeded, as only half of my challah loaf was fully cooked. Oh well - they still believed me and we had a chance to convince the birds, to whom we threw the doughy middle of the loaf. In any case, it was the best looking challah I've ever made, which is what really counts anyway, right?
So I lied a little when I said I ate two danishes, because really I shared two danishes with my friend Stephan, who came to see me off at the airport this morning. Or rather, Stephan shared danishes with me, as he has shared so much in the past 5 days that I have been staying in his house, sharing meals and laughter with his family and basically following him around town. He has been very tolerant :) and overwhelmingly helpful, as his whole family has been. I am completely overwhelmed by their generosity and so grateful for their support and help during this first leg of my travels in what could be a difficult place to make the right connections.
But man, did I make some great connections! On Monday, I ran all over town talking to people about climate change, education, religion, culture and pretty much anything else that they would talk to me about. It was EXCELLENT and really reinforced for me how interested I am in this topic and how important I think it is. I don't want to bore you, but some highlights ...
I spoke with a young guy at the Institute of Arctic Education, where he is reforming the country's science curriculum and trying to incorporate lessons about climate change. He recognizes the severity of climate change and its potential impacts here and everywhere. He, like me, believes that to avoid the worst, individuals need to change their behavior. I see religion and religious communities as one powerful space for achieving changes in lifestyle, while he sees education as another. I hadn't thought about it and have quite enjoyed the ideas he opened up for me. He also gave me the bibliography to his master's thesis, which was on the affects of climate change on education in subsistence villages in Greenland. I am tempted to order some of the books ... but I already have more books than clothes and the weight of the library in my backpack makes it pretty certain that I will stick with what I have. However, if any of you are interested, try 'The Last Giant of Beringia' by Dan O'Neill or 'The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations and Arctic Environmental Change' by Shari Fox or, for more info on climate change in general, the book 'The Discovery of Global Warming?' by Spencer Weart is now a website documenting the history of climate change and can be found at
After my visit at the education institute, I tried my hand at public transportation and took the bus a couple miles up the road to the Nature Institute, an Arctic scientific research center. *A sidenote: it's not that i didn't want to take public transportation earlier, it's just that the city is so small and I so enjoy walking that I just didn't feel inclined. But on Monday it was cold and rainy and windy, which even made waiting in the little green bus stop more fun than walking.* Anyways, at the Nature Institute, I literally walked in, said I was a student researching climate change and was introduced to a relatively young researcher who spent the next hour describing the intricacies of marine research in Nuuk's fjord system. It was actually fascinating for me but I will not relay it here except to quote: 'The changes we are observing seem to be happening faster than climate models predict'. All the more reason to read some of those books mentioned above. Or walk to the store rather than drive today. Or stop reading this super long blog post and turn off your computer :)
Really, I should conclude on that note, but I have to shout out to the Inuit Circumpolar Youth Conference, who were my third interview on Monday. I met Stina, the country coordinator, for coffee at the webcafe downtown and we sat and talked about politics, social issues, tradition, youth culture, Greenland's independence and climate change for two hours. I won't even begin to describe it, except to say that you can learn more about some of those things at the Inuit Circumpolar Conference's website: Also, Stina got me really interested in issues of natural resource (especially oil) exploration and potential drilling/mines in Greenland and all of the social, economic, political, cultural issues surrounding it. I'll work on finding more info and posting a website or something soon.
OK, the more time I spend in front of this computer, the less time I have to gaze out at this beautiful view of the water and wonder about what new things I will learn in this new town. Oh, right, I am in a new place! I took a one-hour flight up the coast to Sisimiut, a city (?) of 5,000-6,000 people (and counting). I am staying with my friend Mads, whom I met at the conference last week, and his girlfriend, Trine, who is a teacher here. Hopefully, I'll interview some people at the Arctic Engineering Institute and in between, I'll be exploring a new place. I hope all is well where you are ...