Travel Report Greenland 2019

When more than your heart breaks…

Day 1, September 13th

Departure from Vienna Airport to Keflavik via Germany. Every time I fly to East Greenland, I have to stay in Iceland / Reykjavic for a night, which is unfortunately not cheap. A tiny room in a guest house with shared bathrooms costs between 80 and 150 euros, depending on the season. 

The only thing I know about Iceland is the route from Keflavik, where the international airport is to Reykjavik, where the domestic airport is… Even though we are flying to Greenland.

I took my flight the next morning and after the 11th time, it’s almost like coming home.

Day 2, September 14th

Having finally arrived in East Greenland, I still have to wait for the helicopter to Tasiilaq. A lot has changed here. I still remember well when I had been waiting here at the small airport, together with only a few locals and tourists. Now tourists from all over the world are bustling about, among them Chinese with protective masks… Crazy world.

But now in September, it is already a bit better, fewer people, more space. Unfortunately, even the cruise ships are already conquering East Greenland…

On the plane from Iceland, I was sitting next to a pleasant seat neighbour and we started to talk. You always meet people who are interesting and/or can be helpful for our sledge dog project.

Lone from Denmark, a teacher, is already 70 years old but has worked as a teacher in the far north of Greenland and also in Sermiligaaq, one of the remote villages in East Greenland, precisely where Robin Hood also wants to help the dogs. 

Lone will be working in Sermiligaaq again and help us to make contacts. Once again, a wonderful “coincidence” that I am seated next to her of all people?

Having landed in East Greenland, in Kulusuk, I am waiting for the helicopter to take me to Tasiilaq…

In the evening I meet up with Lars Anker, who runs the dog food project with Robin Hood. He orders nutritious food in Denmark and Robin Hood pays for the freighting costs so dog owners can buy more food for their dogs. The success is beginning to show as Tasiilaq’s dogs are now much better nurtured. Before I leave Lars tells me what the flashing lights on some of the roofs in the village mean: They are a storm warning. A little worried I start my way back.

Day 3, September 15th

Storm warning. Staying inside. Something, that I can’t bear with at all. Together with Lone, I have breakfast and we stay inside until midday. She tells me a lot about her life and I talk about our project. Outside the storm is blowing and I think about the dogs… but it isn’t as bad as predicted prior. I don’t want to stay inside any longer and wander through the village so well-known to me. The storm is more like a strong wind. I visit the dogs… in the Flower Valley… at the big square close to the supermarket… outside of the city at the dog space. Tomorrow, I am going to Tinitetilaaq by boat… I dress warm awaiting hours of hours on the polar sea.

In the village, I meet playing children. I walk up to a young dog, who gets excited and jumps up and down. Curiously, the children approach it as well… They are shouting, running away from it and also stepping on it… business as usual. Even though I don’t speak their language, I explain to them how to approach a dog, how to touch it, how to talk to it. Curiously they try themselves, I encourage and praise them, “super” is understood everywhere. The dog throws itself on its back and lets them scratch its belly, the children laugh… it would be so easy… you just have to teach them from an early age on.

I visit nearly all the dogs in the village, many of them I can’t recognize anymore as the life expectancy of the dogs here isn’t high. If they don’t function anymore they are shot. Paddocks were built for the puppies, something that previously didn’t exist. The dogs sleep on rocks bound with chains. Some have pallets, more and more have our white dog houses. Also in between, our water containers. I look around and realise how much we have already been able to accomplish. But the way is still long. Lost in my thoughts I go “home”, the wind slowing down, it looks as if we will probably be able to take the boat tomorrow. The dogs watching me walk away, I have to turn around often as leaving them behind is always incredibly difficult for me. 

Day 4, September 16th

I’ve been writing on this travel report for over two months. Too many things were going on lately. In the beginning, I was a bit handicapped and even now my hand is still hurting.

My boat to Tiniteqilaaq would have departed at 09:00 a.m. … would have… as on the way there I stumbled unluckily, no idea how exactly it happened. I tried to support myself with my hands. A silent knckkk and excruciating pain did not foreshadow anything good… After having gotten back up, passersby wanted to take me to the small hospital of Tasiilaq, which I refused because I didn’t want to accept that my hand was in fact broken. So I went to the dock, peeled off my multiple jackets awkwardly, as I had been prepared for multiple hours out on the cold sea in an open boat… The disaster came to light. a big bulge at my wrist showed me there was no escape from reality. The x-ray (which by now already exists) was clear: A complicated fracture with dislocation, which should be operated within 2 weeks. As flying back home was no option, I got a half cast because I wouldn’t have been allowed to fly with a full cast and tons of painkillers (10 per day). The doctor was a great Danish accident orthopaedist. In Greenland, there are always experts for a set period to provide treatments. Straight from the hospital, I set up the surgery back in Austria and two hours later I was already on the boat across the ice sea. And it didn’t get much easier on the boat either. Five Chinese tourists had booked the trip (I was allowed to go for free as I was working together with the tourism operator Lars Anker on the food project.), each of them having incredibly expensive camera equipment, seeing the world only through the lens of their cameras. Each and every iceberg had to be circumnavigated… Be granted to them that they are now allowed to travel. However, where my personal understanding stopped, was when they insisted on seeing a seal being shot. Indeed, one surfaced, our captain grabbed his gun and got on the roof of the small boat… I tried to remain calm… I started to pray that the seal should dive down again, tried to somehow connect to the seal, please submerge, please hide behind an iceberg for half an hour, please… whoosh, it was gone and I was relieved… But the hunter didn’t give in, the boat travelling slowly between the ice floes and the seal showed up again… He raised the rifle to his shoulder quickly, gone again… this game continued for I don’t know how long… my nerves wear tense to tear… the Chinese tourists insisted on seeing the seal shot… it should then have been brought onto the boat and tasted in the evening. To clear up andy misunderstandings at this point: I do not care about the fact that these tourists happened to be Chinese, it would also have been possible with Americans, Germans or Austrians… Moreover, I have also learned to see the hunting habits of the Inuit in a different light, even though I am a strict opponent of hunting. But I don’t understand that an animal has to die just because someone wants to see it happen. The final outcome? The seal got away. I smiled on the inside and was happy. But we were still in the middle of the ice sea, beautiful floes passed our way, light blue, turquoise, dark blue icebergs as tall as skyscrapers aroused the delight of the tourists and the clicking of the cameras never stopped. I, as an “old hand”, took it more relaxed, 11 times in Greenland, it is like being at home… well… close to at least. Nevertheless, I took a picture of a particularly beautiful one with my phone… Unpacking my camera with my broken hand was too cumbersome for me.

Finally, after five hours of sailing, usually, the boat trip takes about two hours, but as I was on board for free I couldn’t complain, Tinit was in sight, but sadly not yet reachable. Drift ice blocked our way to the dock, the small boat bravely fought its way through until it finally got stuck. A long stick was used to try and remove the ice from the screw, the engine howled and I thought this wouldn’t go well for long. The tourists were sitting in the rear fascinated by the events… until I intervened and said that we would never be able to make it this way and that we should go to the front of the boat… and so we did and finally, we managed to break free. But the ice was like a thick carpet and the small boat seemed to climb over it with legs. One ice floe after the other… no way that we make it, is what I thought. Line, the danish tour guide said dry-wittedly that the Greenlandic boatsman had to be able to do it. The boat started to lean sideways, and I, by no means normally an easily-scared person, started to worry a bit. If we were to topple over, I wouldn’t be able to swim at all with my broken arm, but in water with a temperature of around three degrees, this would prove impossible either way…

First the stress with the seal, then this and all of that combined with a broken hand… finally the boat makes it over the landscape of drift ice and we come back to the open water and finally arrived in Tinit. But another small challenge was still waiting for me before going ashore: Leaving the swaying boat and walking up a narrow, steep wooden staircase onto dry land. One wrong step and I would fall right into the icy sea. Normally, not a problem at all, but now I see how much I needed both hands.

Finally onshore. I went to the school and met with the french teacher Max, who has been living in Greenland for over 30 years and with whom we do our school dog project. And also Kamilla, a polish physicist who also happened to move to Greenland for some time.

I was allowed to sleep at her place after I had borrowed a pillow and a sleeping bag from Max. I brought both to her house walking the stony path across Tinit while also somehow balancing a flashlight, all only with one hand. Just don’t trip now and break your second hand as well…

Having finally arrived at her house, Kamilla made tea for us, then I headed straight to bed… pain, not knowing where to put my hand that was feeling like a foreign object being attached to my body. Outside in the Greenlandic night, the howling of the dogs, the fjord glowing with its bizarre ice sculptures. Greenland – a dream. Greenland – a hard place for animal lovers.

Day 5, September 17th

Kamilla’s house is one of the teachers’. There is no water inside the house in those small villages, you have to get it with a canister. Also, the toilet can be compared to what is an outhouse to us, but inside the house… it gets emptied by the public service.

I sleep under the roof on the top floor, my eyes meet a sledge dog, who is lonely chained. In all of my days there, I didn’t see anyone even approach it. I could make out a bit of food, probably the remains of a seal…

 The same drama can be seen from the kitchen window… Dogs chained to rocks, behind them a dream scenery, big icebergs and the drift ice of the fjord.

The ice changes its colour with the incoming light and changes from light blue over turquoise to dark blue.

The dog’s gaze hits my heart… daily…

Kamilla is at school with teacher Max, they are building a children’s kayak, trying to keep the traditions and give them back to the children. Just like we do with our school project. School dog Arpi, who we can give a future to with it, is an absolute novelty in Greenland. Arpi is an old, discarded sledge dog, who now performs a valuable service. 

I visit the dogs of Tinit. I have to approach them carefully with my broken hand, they just love to jump up on me and it can be dangerous with the chains, as I am just not as stable as normally. I sit down with some, talk to them, watch them. To me, this is the best thing, just being with the dogs, doesn’t matter at which time of the year. Because in September it is not particularly warm anymore and it is impossible to close the zipper of my jacket with one hand, I always have to decide whether to keep my jacket closed or open it. Even an open shoelace turns into an obstacle I can’t surpass on my own. Nevertheless, I climb over rocks and stones to find as many dogs as I can. Taking pictures with one hand also presents certain difficulties. But it is possible, putting the camera on my cast, even though the focusing is a bit tedious.

Thanks to the painkillers, everything I do during the day is reasonably achievable. 

The dogs howl as soon as they see me and it goes through my bones. This project has burned itself into my heart and despite all existing adversities, I can’t leave it behind. Their dark eyes, thin bodies, they aren’t well fed even if kept well, otherwise, they wouldn’t pull the sledge… it simply isn’t comparable to our dog keeping, where admittedly, many of the dogs are too fat. From the feedings, I can see just how hungry they are… In the summer, they are fed every three days, not more. In the winter, they are fed daily and also more food, but only from those dog owners, who mean it well with their dogs. 

As generally, it is easier to achieve more with children, we got the idea to do a school brochure, stating that dogs need water, that they need good harnesses, to not throw stones at them, etc. 

Kamilla and I are working on the brochure that will be distributed among schools after being finished and printed.

The day passes, I got lucky with the weather. It is cold but sunny and the evening burn up in glistening sunsets behind the ice.

Day 6, September 18th

Today I hold a presentation at school, Max translates. The children are already waiting eagerly. And: Arpi, the school dog is allowed to come into the classroom. Something that probably has never happened in Greenland before. We have to be extremely careful, the smallest incident would destroy this project. But Arpi behaves as if this was all he had ever done before. The big, black dog (Arpi means black whale) looks around with his soft, dark eyes and remains calm as the kids gather around him. I tell the children about Romania, about the stray dogs and our shelter there. On the map, I show them where I come from and where Romania is. After my presentation is over, the children are handed stickers and badges, this is the highlight for them – just like everywhere else in the world they are happy about these small gifts. 

Arpi, on a long rope, walks with Max and the children in single file to his place behind the village. The children are curious, want to see everything and more and more of the girls want to learn everything about the dogs. Back in the day, dogs where solely a matter for men, that too is changing.

In the afternoon Kamilla and I continue to work on the brochure. The protagonist of the story is a young boy, who teaches his sister how to handle dogs, he himself having learned it from his father. Simple texts, nice drawings, colour-in pictures, this is supposed to be our first brochure.

In the evening we are invited to Max’s house for dinner, who made an incredible salad and also pasta and vegetables for us (for him and Kamilla also meat. Vegetarianism or veganism are no talking subjects here, but it is accepted and respected that I live a vegan life). Max cooked very well, salad and vegetables are luxury goods here as everything has to be flown in… His small house is cosy and you can see that he likes to read and so I get some book tips about life in the Arctic. 

Day 7, September 19th

Today I fly back to Tasiilaq by helicopter. I take my backpack to the drop-off point in the small “supermarket” – in these villages everything is centred in one place. The other passengers and I hope that the helicopter will be able to fly, as the weather is getting worse. It’s not an uncommon thing to be stuck in Greenland for a few days. I use the last few hours to visit the dogs. Saying goodbye is always very difficult. From one pack I walk over to the next, across the village, and bid my farewells, promising them that I’d come back and do everything in my power to make their lives better.

I discussed with Max that the school project will continue and also new dog house orders are accepted. Moreover, we want to provide dog food for dog owners cheaper, Robin Hood will help here so that more owners can afford it.

I go to the helipad, Kamilla following me on crutches. From the far, the rattling of the Bell-helicopter can be heard, who fights against the wind bravely. One of the pilots is from Salzburg, this is often the case, pilots, doctors, nurses coming to Greenland to work there for some time. The pilot helps me to fasten my seat belt, as once again, with only one hand I don’t stand a chance. I wave to Kamilla… saying goodbye is sad, she is a sympathetic, interesting woman, whom I am hopefully going to meet again in Austria… as she as well is going to have to say goodbye to Greenland. As a Pole, she didn’t get a renewal for her working permit here and is going to work in Austria as a skiing instructor. Up until she finds a new adventure… Greenland is a landing site for interesting people…

The red helicopter circles over the sea and then flies overland back to Tasiilaq. From above you can see the grey inland ice that blends from the country into the turquoise water. Unique and breathtaking. I concentrate my eyes on the rocks and hope, that maybe, this time I would finally see a polar bear… unfortunately once again in vain.

I spend the last one and a half days staying in a guest house of Lars Anker. Only one French woman, her daughter and I are staying there – season end. Dorothee’ was also in Tinit before and we had become friends there. She is living in Denmark now, after having been in Iceland for a long time. Everyone has his or her story here…

My hand is so swollen and my finger almost black and so Dorothee’ convinces me to once again visit the hospital. A little worried I agree… but the doctor tells me it’s normal.

Then, yet again, I am stressed out… I order wood for the dog houses from the building materials seller. I visit the shipping company to clarify whether the dog houses will be sent from Tasiilaq to Tinit this year.

And I visit the dogs.

And Eli, who, together with his young people builds the dog houses.

And Robert Peroni, who runs the Red House. He is terribly sick, but this year he looks better again. Robert was an extreme alpine climber who moved to East Greenland to give young Inuit the possibility to work at his guest house. An interesting man who has experienced a lot and I really enjoy talking to him. As I said, exceptional people are washed ashore like driftwood in Greenland.

Day 8, September 20th

I meet Natalia and her dogs, but on the way there I witness a typical sledge dog drama. A young dog, not yet on a chain, got caught in another dogs chain for an unknown reason. The chain was wrapped around his belly and legs. The dog on the chain, also being chained to another female dog, is jumping around, the young one wants to flee, barking in pain as the chains get more and more contracted. I am standing next to them, unable to do anything due to my broken hand. I can’t loosen the chain with one hand, especially not with three dogs pulling it. Awkwardly I pull my phone out of my pocket and call a few people, without success. Finally, Natalia comes along, she knows the dog owner… Natalia tries to loosen the chains… finally the owner shows up, chains the big dog somewhere else, lets the female one go and can free the young one after some troubles… once again gone well. A bit later and the young dog would have probably died or at least been majorly injured. 

We walk to Natalia’s dogs, one small, lively puppy from somewhere starts to follow us. He disturbs the pack and we start to laugh and pet the dogs. Natalia gets water… she treats her dogs very well, but she can’t keep them without being chained either. Her dogs are in the Flower Valley, close to the river. She tells me what had happened last year… one of her dogs had died… she said he had been raped. My stomach tightens and shrinks to the size of a nut… and once again I condemn the human race.

I brought one of our sledge dogs calendars for Natalia, as her dogs were also used as “models”…

I wandered on… to the big dog place. Nobody is there… Without success, I wait for Egon, who was supposed to meet me there… While I wait I use the time to take pictures, talk to the dogs. It starts to rain, but I stay with the dogs for as long as possible, because tomorrow I have to say goodbye to Greenland, at least for this year. Farewell to the dogs, who managed to capture my heart. These furry, strong beings who have suffered so much and are still friendly. I spend the evening with Dorothee’ and Line, who works for Lars. She brings bad news, a looming storm risks our flight. That’s the last thing I want, as my hand needs surgery urgently. Having to stay here for a few more days would not be good… I pack my backpack.

Day 9, September 21st

I am waiting at the heliport, unsure whether the helicopter would come or not, which is depending on the pilot and nobody on site can tell me anything about that. I walk up to the dogs not far from the landing site, take last pictures and say goodbye… my heart is heavy, tears start to build up and I bravely try to keep them down…

The sound of the helicopter confirms it, we are going to fly. In Kulusuk I wait for Air Iceland. In Reykjavik, I go to the bus terminal and wait for my bus to Keflavik. There I have to wait for seven hours for my plane to Prague. There, the transfer time is incredibly short and I have to rush to my plane back to Vienna. In the next morning, I arrive in Vienna where my parents pick me up and take me straight to the hospital. Preparing for the surgery: x-rays, taking blood, etc. I head home in a rush, have a shower, pack everything for my stay at the hospital and cuddle the dogs. The surgery is planned for the next day.

A titanium plate partially turns me into a Terminator. Now the pain is incredibly big and I am quite unable to manage daily life on my own. Taking six dogs for a walk, cleaning and cutting bread are just some examples. Using one hand to type on my laptop, that’s already possible in the hospital bed after surgery. Because work has to be done. My parents are of great help to me, my mother cleans, my stepfather takes the dogs for walks, a huge thank you at this point, what would I do without them.

Now it is December… and I can still feel the pain. The plate will be taken out in March. Something like this cannot happen to me again. Greenland is waiting as well as the other projects.

When more than a heart breaks… there are plates for arms and legs, but sadly, this doesn’t work for the heart.

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