Getting to Greenland: Book Excerpt

Here is an excerpt from my book Out in the Cold, in which we arrive in Greenland and try to sort out what to do next. Enjoy it:

GETTING TO TASIILAQ

First thing we have to do, we have to find Robert.

The men smoking outside the concrete block terminal are not Robert so I ask around inside. The man behind the check-in counter might as well be collecting Arctic tumbleweeds. No flights are pending; no one is checking in.

He does not know Robert.

Together we lean over his counter to look down to the harbor. One boat is speeding away and there don’t seem to be any others. He flips his palms up and shakes his head, “I think you just go down there and wait. That is your only chance.”

•••••

Humans inhabit the fringe, the perimeter of Greenland not flattened by the ice cap, and I mean flattened, literally. Even with its thinning, ice reaches three kilometers deep at its thickest, pushing the bedrock into the mantle such that if the ice disappeared, the island would become an archipelago.

You can’t fly to Tasiilaq, the biggest town on the eastern side of Greenland, for lack of sufficient flat space for an airstrip. So we have flown to a gravel strip called Kulusuk Airport. To get to Tasiilaq we must traverse the mouth of the Ammassalik fjord. We booked that online and all we know is, get to Kulusuk and ask for Robert.

We can see our destination twenty kilometers across the fjord behind a few icebergs and a coastline of precambrian rock thrust from the sea long before humanity, possibly even contemporaneous with the first life on Earth.

We invade and insult the silence with our prissy roll aboard carry-on bags, scraping and skipping the damned things down the rough gravel. Show more respect and stand still, and the quiet closes up around you as a vehement, absolute thing.

A man from Cologne with a massive backpack walks ahead of us. He has arrived with no itinerary beyond walking for two weeks. His pack reaches up past his head, bulging with two weeks of freeze-dried food and powdered milk.

Once he walked from Ilullisat to Sisimiut in western Greenland, and that is far, far farther than from here to Tasiilaq and then clear around the island, but that time he was advised that there was no danger of polar bears and he has yet to be so advised here. His itinerary may have to be revised based on local information. Right now he plans to circumambulate Ammassalik Island. He puts great store in the advice of Robert, but none of us know how to find him.

Airport to harbor, perhaps a twenty-minute walk. No boats in sight. Either side of the gravel path, just rock and a little but not much tenacious flora. Our destination across the water is low and bare with mountains rising snow-capped, glaciers embedded toward the top. Clouds tease the ridges but do not suggest a threat of rain. In between individual icebergs, not a field, rise like several-story buildings.

It turns out that two tiny Danish-built fiberglass Poca speedboats, so low slung that the dock hides them both, bob in the sea beyond the dock. Two Greenlandic men stand down there on the shore below the dock, neither in so much as a jacket, enjoying the northern summer.

We ask, “Robert?” and the younger man, with no English, shakes his head no, “Christian.” We and the backpacker, who is expecting the same ride, are at a bit of a loss until we work out, through gestures and goodwill, that Christian is here on behalf of Robert. For us, that is good.

The dock is too high for the boats, and so we scramble down onto rocks to climb aboard and Christian takes the backpacker, Mirja and me screaming across the fjord toward a similar spot on the far shore. Christian, hair stood up to a greased crown, drives standing, and stops us dead in the water alongside this iceberg, then that one, so we can take photos.

We clamber out on a rock where there is no dock at all. Christian motions without words, “up that way,” and makes no move to leave the boat. So off we scramble, not having paid anybody for anything, off to find someone who wants our money. Robert, maybe.

The Inuit seldom keep individual dogs as pets, but rather tether them in groups outside in summer, and we rouse the mild attention of a pack of tethered dogs as we troop up the hill. Inuit sled dogs have two layers of fur, the inner short, like wool for insulation, and the outer longer, coarser and water repellent. That may make them hot today, but overall they are surely chillin’, taking the warm season off, lounging all day except when growling and snapping over territory.

Sled Dog Greeting at Tasiilaq

A vehicle makes its way down the hill picking its path, for the way is gravel and bumpy. A slight girl stops to ask that we wait here, drives down the road to drop some camping supplies and returns to drive us to the Red House, a tour shop and hostel run by the famous Robert.

Robert’s reputation should have preceded him. Turns out in 1983, extreme explorer Robert Peroni from the Italian south Tyrol walked across the Greenland ice cap, all the way across the island at its widest point, some 1,400 kilometers, on an 88-day journey. 

Now 72, Robert stands before us trim and erect, and above all relieved to find we aren’t planning to stay in his hostel, for he is booked solid as he would hope to be in a very short high season. We pay him for the crossing from Kulusuk, bid farewell, and the girl drives us up the hill to the Hotel Angmagssalik.

•••••

There was a time when airline passengers celebrated successful landings. I remember applause in 1986 when my Lufthansa flight landed in Frankfurt from Moscow. I thought it was as likely for getting the bloody hell out of the Soviet Union.

We came over from Iceland today on a brand new, gleaming Air Iceland Bombardier Q400 prop plane, twenty rows two-by-two. Bustling their baby refreshment cart up and down the aisle meant actual work for the flight attendants, compared to the doorman role they play on short domestic flights.

Come time to land, the plane took on a buzz incongruent with today’s humdrum air travel. In a small plane you’ve more of a sense of flying, and when the pilot maneuvered to dip under the clouds and between the mountains, we all craned to be the first to see icebergs, and phone cameras filled the windows. The runway at Kulusuk came up fast and we rode it right to the end lights.

About fifty of the seventy aboard were here for a day trip. Over in the morning, touch the soil, check Greenland off your list and fly back. I met a taxi driver in Reykjavik who said he did as a fifteen year old.

What did they do?

They deplaned, someone took them around the side of the terminal and they watched a man in a costume play a drum and a fat woman dance.

Some months ago he drove a man to do the same and picked him up later that day. What did they do? A drum and a dance.

•••••

Order the whole book here in the U.S. or from Amazon in your country.

Tasiilaq town

The approach to Tasiilaq from Iceland in high summer

Lost in Translation

Published at the beginning of this year in the U.S., The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Riding the Iron Curtain, by the British writer Tim Moore, tells the story of his bicycle trip from the top of Europe, 400 kilometers above the Arctic Circle in Kirkines, Norway, all the way down to the Black Sea, in Varna, Bulgaria. En route he passes through a slice of Russia, skirting the Baltic Sea between the Finnish and Estonian borders, and finds himself outside St. Petersburg, ordering dinner in the town of Гостилицы, aka Gostilitsy.

I hope Mr. Moore won’t mind my excerpting this episode at some length. This passage by itself is worth the price of the book:

“The ordering process was memorably conducted by Tatiana, who dictated the Russian menu into a translation app on her phone. With the halting, toneless authority of a digitised train announcer, this device then offered me suggestions it was very difficult to listen to politely.

‘Meat Beach Gardens.’

‘Children’s Alexander.’

‘Tea Pork with JW Boils.’

‘The Sultan Episode.’

Tatiana’s enthusiasm for this technology did not ease the ordeal; battling my features into respectability, I looked up at her open, expectant face and falteringly ordered support beef with titles of mushroom. She smiled and scribbled, then spoke once more into her phone.

‘What is not a drink?’ it mused in response.

Pivo,’ I said.

With a flustered look she shook her head and a free hand, then held the phone to my mouth promptingly.

Pivo,’I told it.

The device said something in Russian that seemed to disappoint her. She pressed the screen a number of times then showed me its suggestions, translated back into English:

‘You knew. Pencil case. Peugeot.’

We tried again.

‘Beer,’ I said.

‘Bill,’ offered the phone. Then: ‘Pace of the warp.’

‘Heineken!’ I blurted, launching into a strident roll-call of ales that began with Champions League-grade ubiquities and very very sharply downwards, ‘Amstel, Budweiser … Skol … Carling Black La-’

‘Ah, piva.’

•••••

Reminds me of an experience in Tibet, recounted in Common Sense and Whiskey. At the end of another bone-jarring day-long ride we pulled up at the town of Lhaze, at a no-name hotel that wouldn’t have power until 8:00 that night.

“Not much use being there unable to see, so we found a restaurant across the street where there was power, and talked with some men from Guangdong on their way to China’s Everest base camp for holiday.

We asked for cold beer and one of the guys tried to translate. The waitress looked puzzled, was gone too long, then came back smiling triumphantly, buckling under a big metal tub of raw meat. Thought we asked for ‘cold beef.'”

 

Out in the Cold: Another Audiobook Excerpt

Torshavn, capital of the Faroe Islands

Here is another excerpt from my latest book, Out in the Cold: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. The audiobook version may be live on Audible.com as early as next week. This clip, like the previous, is from Part 2, The Faroe Islands, a small, gorgeous archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean. It comes early in the section, and sets the stage for the Faroes’ discovery, with a little history of the islands’ colonial master, Denmark.

It’s me speaking; I narrate the book. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Until the audiobook version is available, you can buy the written version of Out in the Cold on Amazon, here, or you can get the audiobook versions of either of my other books here:

Common Sense and Whiskey on Audible.
Visiting Chernobyl on Audible.

And here are several more written excerpts from Out in the Cold.

Stranded


The Royal Mail Ship St. Helena is under repairs in Capetown, South Africa. For a normal ship that wouldn’t generate any headlines. But the RMS St. Helena serves as a literal lifeline and the only means of transportation for the inhabitants of St. Helena Island, a speck of land way out in the South Atlantic ocean. This document, attempting to address questions from stranded and potential passengers and businesses, shows the RMS St. Helena’s importance to St. Helena Island and also to Ascension Island, where the RMS usually calls on it’s regular itinerary. It’s interesting to follow this link and read about the trouble caused by the possible dry-docking of the Royal Mail Ship.

You can feel the remoteness of these places when you take the three day journey out from the African mainland to St. Helena and the overnight journey onward to Ascension. But that just became way more immediate for the unfortunate subject of an article headlined British woman mauled by shark near Ascension Island saved after husband punched it. The only way off Ascension Island is the RMS St. Helena or via the British Ministry of Defense’s “airbridge,” used to shuttle troops between the Falkland Islands, the military base at Ascension and the Brize Norton base near Oxford, England. The airbridge, it turns out to the ill fortune of our shark attack victim, is temporarily not calling at Ascension either, as you can see from the question and answer sheet.

As a result,

the family found themselves “pretty stuck” by travel chaos across the South Atlantic. 

St Helena’s airport, built with the help of £285 million from the Department of International Development, was due to open last May but flights have been postponed indefinitely as it is too windy for commercial aircraft to land safely.

As a result, people normally get the island’s ageing supply ship, the RMS St Helena, to Ascension Island, but it broke down near South Africa in late March and it remains there having repairs to its propellor.

Furthermore, flights have stopped touching down on the military runway on Ascension for safety reasons, reportedly because of cracks in the runway.

Here is an idea of a bit of the other-worldliness of Ascension Island:

See more photos of both islands in the Ascension Island and Saint Helena Island galleries at EarthPhotos.com. More of my stories about St. Helena and Ascension here.

Manifesto for Travel

This morning I sat down to begin the long process of narrating the audio version of my new travel adventure book Out in the Cold. As I reread the preface (it has been a little while since I wrote it), I thought it stands alone as a pretty good manifesto for travel. So I thought I’d share:

OUT IN THE COLD
PREFACE

I’m pretty sure the discovery of America started with a bar fight and I believe I can persuade you that it is so. The chain of events that brought Norse ships to Newfoundland began when a court in Norway found Thorvald Erickson guilty of murder and tossed him out of the country.

The Saga of Eirik the Red, Thorvald’s son, doesn’t say exactly what his old man got up to that night, just that he was exiled “because of some killings,” so Thorvald and the clan loaded up the truck and they moved to northwest Iceland.

Eirik grew up and married a local girl. When Thorvald died they moved south where before long the local sheriff found Eirik guilty of murder just like his old man, and Eirik was banished from Iceland. Thorvald’s bar fight led to Iceland, Greenland and the New World. We will visit the settlement his grandson built in Newfoundland.

But this is not about the Vikings, although they are here. This is a collection of northern tales from the frozen-tight Svalbard archipelago, 800 miles from the North Pole, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Atlantic-facing Canada.

•••••

A daiquiri on your cruise ship balcony may imply that you are on vacation, but it does not mean that you are traveling. Crowding people together on “fun ships” to share viruses for several days holds up as well as socks from Wal-Mart.

Once, in the Himalayas, in a place called Sikkim, whose very geography required vocational derringdo, a mad driver told me “Man didn’t evolve from apes to act like sheep.” He meant that you must engage.

Your free time is as surely an asset as your home or your car. I say, get out there and put some of it to good use. If the unexamined life isn’t worth living (Socrates), get to examining. Compare and contrast your experiences to those of others.

In these pages we will meet an artisan carver of narwhal bones in Greenland. We’ll cruise the streets of Reykjavik with an ebullient Icelandic author, hike with a part-time tour guide in Labrador who cannot imagine why you’d want to be anywhere other than on the tundra, and spend time with others whose lives, objectively, are nothing like your own.

We will shake hands with the President of Iceland and stand naked and alone on the side of the glacier Vatnajokull (separately from the president). We will drop in on the last French outpost in North America, talk shop with a diplomat and eat wind dried sheep in the Faroe Islands, dine with strangers alongside icebergs at a lighthouse north of Newfoundland, and find Greenland so beguiling, we will visit twice.

•••••

Who ever thinks they are finally and fully grown up? Not me, not in my 20s, or 30s or even 40s. I still think people who wear adult clothes and enjoy it, skirt and blazer, suit and tie, selling investments or copiers or conjuring income from intangibles like air time or web space – those people are grown up, or at least grown up in a way I’m not, in the western businessy way.

I will never be a winning jockey in the Great American Corporate Advancement Derby. I don’t enjoy yard work or the NBA and I don’t know anything about grown-up stuff like the American Automobile Association or why you should be a member. Or what those ads for active traders are talking about, when you be honest.

I don’t buy clothing with the logo of its manufacturer or shop on Black Friday. That others do, that’s real nice. I just don’t have their motivation. But I think I’ve got one thing on them: I’m pretty sure the flame burns brighter in my magic adventure lamp.

Let us all think of a place that sounds exciting, take ourselves there and see what happens, minding Nelson Mandela’s words: May our choices reflect our hopes and not our fears.

•••••

Imagine a range of actions: At one extreme, you never leave your house, and at the other you drive into Somalia honking your horn and waving an American flag. I like it just inside the go-too-far side of that tent, poking on the fabric with a dull knife, trying not quite hard enough to cut through.

Within reason, mind you. Cut through the fabric and you end up kidnapped in Niamey, blasted in two in Helmand or beheaded in the new Caliphate. So let us stick with adventure reasonably achievable. In this case, starting 800 miles shy of the North Pole, chasing a total eclipse.

•••••

Preface from the book Out in the Cold, Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. Buy it in paperback here. Read other excerpts here. Kindle version soon. The audiobook version, begun today, should hit in the fall.

Also published on Medium.

Titanic History

Object of Rearrangement:
Deck Chair from the Titanic, from the
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax

105 years ago tonight the Titanic met its fate. Short excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold:

As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.

The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.

Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.

Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.

Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either….