One of the unique things about travel to Greenland is the opportunity to meet the locals. The Inuit culture is fascinating and very few people really know much about it. We didn't know a lot ourselves before visiting this polar country, and have now come away with a better understanding and respect for the people who live within the Arctic Circle.
The West coast of Greenland is the least visited by tourists, and yet it has the highest density of population. There is Illulisat, a town of 4500 souls and even more sled dogs located where Icebergs are born in the heart of Disko Bay. It's an extraordinary bay filled with ice and most of the year, Illulisat is impossible to reach by boat.
Traveling down the West Coast of Greenland offered many chances to get on land and explore villages and towns.
Sisimut is a sort of university town with several trade and high schools in the area. It's also the northernmost ice-free port in the country making it the fastest growing urban centre in Greenland. It is here that we had the opportunity to eat minke whale and seal blubber. Two important foods that are a part of the Inuit diet supplying them with much needed and sought after vitamin C. Read all about it and see our video at Would You Eat Whale?
Fishing is an important industry in the country, but the public sector is growing rapidly. In the capital city of Nuuk, we had the opportunity to listen to a lecture and debate by two political parties. It was interesting to hear how Greenland is dealing with coming in to the modern world.
Palle and Naaja of the Socialist and Democratic parties respectively, have formed a coalition to work together and bring Greenland in to the 21st century. Their main focus is to educate the youth and give them options to living in the districts.
The districts are the small village communities around the country that are slowly closing.
As Naaja said to us, six months of the year are spent hunting in these villages, and while it is a rich life culturally, it is a poor and hard life economically. Children have the right to stay, but they should have the right to choose, so the government is working hard to fund university and education abroad.
Greenland is officially ruled by Denmark, but Greenland retains home rule, with Denmark taking care of things like foreign affairs and national defence, but more importantly, public aid. Denmark supplies Greenland with 3.2 billion dollars a year in aid and they need it. Greenland is an expensive country. I don't know how anyone can live there with the prices of things and can understand why villagers choose to remain in their districts. Unemployment is high and subsidies are greatly needed.
An apartment in the capital of Nuuk has a 32 year wait list. (yes, you hear me correctly, this is not a typo, it is 32 years).
The minute a child is born, they are put on the wait list for an apartment they may or may not get 32 years from now, and must pay the yearly fee to keep their place. One missed payment and they go to the bottom of the list. Buying a house is even more difficult and expensive. There is very little useable room in Greenland and space is at a premium. Most of the land is rocky and in the winter covered in ice.
Most districts have been closed around the country. If Greenland wants to join the 21st century, it is nearly impossible to keep them open. Naaja told us a story where there was one settlement that had a population of three people. A father and two brothers. The brothers had a falling out and one killed the other. After his son went to jail, it was simply the father living alone on the settlement at a cost of 1-million dollars a year for the Greenlandic government.
The people living in the districts aren't completely self sufficient and while they hold on to the old ways, they take advantage of the grants. It is a drain on the economy and the government is doing everything in their power to attract it's citizens to the South. It offers them money to help with the move, free education and free health care.
The mining industry is beginning to attract employment with oil exploration, iron, diamonds, gold, rubies and uranium. As the polar ice caps melt, the country of Greenland will have more opportunities. But will it come at a price?
When someone asked Palle if the Greenlandic people want to go back to the old ways of living, her response didn't surprise me.
She said that people have the Internet in Greenland, they have satellite TV and they see a better way of life. They want to travel and have the things that the rest of the world has. And we say, why shouldn't they? Why do tourists always say that people should live as they always have?
Some people say it is a shame that there isn't more culture left as they fly home to their heated and air conditioned homes and catch up on their favourite TV shows that they PVR'd while they were away. While it is wonderful to be able to see an ancient culture in action, it doesn't make sense for anyone to be left behind in the 21st century.
One of our stops on our expedition took us to the town of Itelliq.
It has a population of 250 people and is an isolated village on the West Coast. They invited us in to their homes and gave us a glimpse of their life. When we entered their homes, we were surprised with how spacious, cozy and comfortable it was. There was a big screen TV, a fully stocked kitchen and plenty of room. The Inuit people may seem foreign and different to us, but they are more similar than you could ever imagine.
We've said it before and we'll say it again, travel breaks down all stereotypes and the more people one meets, the more we realize that we are all united in this world. We are all similar. We all laugh, cry, have friends and family and simply want to make the best of our lives.
Like other European countries, Greenlanders love their football (soccer for our North American friends) and challenged the crew of The Sea Spirit to a friendly game. Nothing brings nations together more than sport and nothing makes people understand the world better than travel. Travel to Greenland was a privilege and something we'll never forget. As tourism grows, their lives will change drastically.
While listening to the politicians speak, we were inspired and filled with hope that they will learn from the mistakes our nations made and possibly lead the way into the next century. Greenland has a long way to go before it's independence, but in the meantime they are working hard to create an economy that works while holding on to the culture that makes it so special and unique to visit.