When the news broke of Donald Trump’s interest in acquiring Greenland from the Danes for strategic, mining and perhaps golf course development purposes, it was a perfectly timed affirmation of what had otherwise looked an eccentric choice of summer holiday destination — namely to spend three days last week exploring part of the island’s east coast.
When friends asked ‘Why Greenland?’ I explained that Iceland had served as the gateway drug. A fortuitous visit to Reykjavik a few years ago to advise on a new budget law had prompted return trips, not least for the food but also to explore the country’s fabled natural landscape. But it wasn’t enough. Surely you must have something else behind the counter, you know, a little harder…?
In this quest, last week my elder son and I flew two hours west from Reykjavik’s tiny city airport to Kulusuk, a small island flat enough for a runway, and then ten minutes further by helicopter to Tasiilaq, the largest town in the east, with around 2,000 inhabitants. Attractive in its own right, with colourful wood and iron houses clinging to the steep slopes that rise from its misty harbour, it is a perfect base to explore the surrounding fjords and islands by boat.
On the trip we took, we were struck not just by stunning natural beauty — ice floes the size of office blocks framed against huge mountain ridges rising from the water — but by man’s tenuous existence in such an environment. Beautiful Tiniteqilaaq (pop. 110) looked viable enough, with kids playing on the village basketball court as sled dogs (resting for the summer) looked on. But a few miles down the fjord lay Ikkatteq. A thriving cod fishing village 30 years ago, the settlement went into decline and was finally abandoned by its last two residents in 2005.
The buildings and their contents remain, though: the red church with its still–functioning organ and hymn numbers chalked on the board, and the houses littered with everyday ephemera — milk cartons, guitars, New Testaments and the occasional porn mag. It’s good news that the US President will not be building an enormous golden Trump Tower on the island’s coast, as that would somewhat spoil things.
Another former settlement — perhaps 120 years old — has just two houses visible, although they have largely been reclaimed by the earth. Legend has it that the families feuded. In Iceland it would have been an eye for an eye, our guide tells us; but here no one could afford the luxury of losing a man.
Back in Tasiilaq, the Trump news broke too late for me to assess the national reaction. But, perhaps not surprisingly in a country where people cling to the edges of a vast land mass, local identity seems just as important as national. A shopkeeper apologised for selling books in West Greenlandic rather than East (which is largely oral and which the local school is officially not allowed to teach). But she told me the young are fostering a new written tradition, spurred by texting. From my brief glimpse, Greenlanders don’t seem the type of people to let their homeland be sold from under them.