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After Work: Visit To The Big City - Population 1,600

…Roads are rare in Greenland. This island, which encompasses over 836,000 square miles, has only 90 miles of roads, 40 miles of which are paved. Sheet ice covers about 677,000 miles of Greenland and steep mountain ridges make any thought of a road system impossibility..

Dona Gibbs spins out some entertaining thoughts while trying to wrap her mind around the island within the Arctic Circle.

For more of Dona’s dazzling columns please click on After Work in the menu on his page.

One can grow weary of ice.

One can become numb with cold.

One can be bored with rocks.

And me, I am that one.

On the morning I looked out the porthole and saw Ammassalik’s fairy-tale colored houses dotting the shore on Kong Oscars Havn, my heart leaped up.

Hooray, people. Hooray, culture. Hooray, cell phone service. I bounded into one of the first Zodiacs ashore.

Ammassalik is the closest thing to a municipal center in these bleak parts, boasting a municipal building with a vantage point overlooking the harbor. It also has several tiny hotels, a hospital, several apartment buildings and two grocery stores plus a stretch of paved road. A church with bright blue interior accents, a museum, a traditional potato house formerly used to house people and store potatoes and a tourist center with gift shop completed the picture.

Roads are rare in Greenland. This island, which encompasses over 836,000 square miles, has only 90 miles of roads, 40 miles of which are paved. Sheet ice covers about 677,000 miles of Greenland and steep mountain ridges make any thought of a road system impossibility.

Travel is by boat when the small harbors are clear of ice, helicopters and yes, by dogsled in the winter.

Some of the happiest Greenlanders I saw were the sanitation workers back in Ittoqqortoormitt. They were bouncing around the roads of the settlement picking up black plastic bags of human waste, the product of Greenland’s “box toilets.”

In spite of the yuck factor, they were grinning. They had a lot to smile about. They had real paying jobs and probably rent free housing since many government jobs carry such perks.

Greenland, a self-governing province of Denmark under home rule since 1979, is a modern welfare society with one-half of the government revenues coming in the form of government grants from Denmark. There is a population of nearly 60,000 people in all of Greenland. Ethnically, they are Inuit, Danes and a mixture of the two.

Up until World War II, Greenland was almost completely isolated. Denmark, claiming that the modern world’s encroachment would spell the end of traditional Inuit culture, was content to keep it isolated.

When Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, Greenland’s governmental ties were severed and the local Greenland governors stepped up to the task of ruling. Home rule came forty years later.

The climate, the topography and Denmark’s desire to see the Inuits’ hold on to their traditions are not enough to keep the modern world at bay. Houses may have a musk ox hide drying in the sun but they also have a satellite dish on the roof. Running water and electricity in these villages and settlements are not uncommon. Women strolling down to the grocery store with cell phones clamped to their ears aren’t unusual either.

There are costs to modernity. They are not just the monetary ones, such as the $10,000 per person per year subsidy the Danish government is said to contribute. There is the inevitable, uncomfortable squeeze that happens when one culture meets with another. Sadly it often results on alcoholism, drug abuse and child and spousal abuse. There are signs of a certain lack of pride – plastic wrappers in a stream, rusty pieces of things, broken bottles.

Many of the settlements cannot support a high school. There just aren’t enough students so those wishing a high school education must come to the larger villages such as Ammassalik where they board, far away from their parents. Many students – and their parents -- grow so despondent at the separation that the students leave before graduation. With that they abandon an opportunity for possible higher education at a university in Denmark. Without a higher education and no longer possessing the traditional skills -- even if those skills could support them —young Greenlanders are trapped.

What’s the answer? It’s complicated but jobs would be a start. Fishing and shrimping, two of Greenland’s industries, can’t support all those who wish employment. The last zinc and lead mines closed some time ago. There’s talk of harnessing Greenland’s potential for hydroelectric power. Mineral exploration, while costly, is becoming more viable. And there’s happy talk of developing the tourism business, but don’t expect a Club Med anytime soon.

And here in this village is another sign of the 21st century. Ammassalik has an Internet café. That’s right – an Internet café. It’s also a bookstore and ice cream parlor.

After trying to make sense of Greenland while walking up the steep hill to the village center, I came upon this wonderful sight: a low building flying a banner with an ice cream cone.

Yes, they had Internet. And yes, they had ice cream, imported from Denmark.

The proprietor, a large jovial Dane sporting a ponytail and pink pants, was scooping ice cream and dispensing help with the Internet connection.

“ I sell ice cream year round,” he explained.

“How much?” I asked.

“Oh, three tons.”

“Three tons,” I was incredulous.

“Oh, yes, I’m due for one more shipment before the harbor freezes,” he beamed.

Three tons. 1,800 people.

“What’s the most popular flavor?”

“Licorice,” was the answer.

Somehow I still can’t wrap my mind around this 836,000 square mile island.


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