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We're generally not the rugged outdoorsy types who enjoy rock-climbing, mountain biking, and other dangerous activities. To be honest, my idea of "roughing it" is a motel with no room service. Some of our trips have led to some unexpected adventures, and this story about our trip to Greenland in 2007, is one of my favorite examples.
On our second day in Qaqortoq, Greenland, we got up early to catch a boat to the Norse ruins at Hvalsey. I had been reading Jane Smiley's historical novel, The Greenlanders, which is set during the 14th century and the waning years of the Norse colony in Greenland. The book follows the fortunes and misfortunes of one family of Norse settlers, and the toll that disease, famine, and climate change take on them over the years. Most of the book takes place in the fjords near where we were staying, and I was curious to see how the modern scene compared to what was described in the book. It's a terrific book, one that I highly recommend if you are interested in what might have happened to the Viking colonies that settled Greenland for 500 years, then just disappeared.
We were supposed to meet our boat at the small dock at the bottom of the hill, and when we got there, there was a small cabin-cruiser waiting for us. We waited to see if a guide would join us, but didn't see anyone, so we just boarded the boat on our own. There was a thirty-ish Greenlandic woman on-board, a Danish man, and the captain, a handsome young Greenlandic man who looked a little like a weather-beaten Keanu Reeves.
As we were getting ready to leave, two older men wearing painting overalls came aboard with buckets of paint and tools. I wondered if they were doing some work at the ruins, or if we were dropping them off en route. No one except the captain spoke English. The three men had an animated conversation in Danish, as cigarettes dangled from their lips. I hoped none of the bottles of paint thinner they were carrying would burst into flames, but I tend to worry like that.
I asked Frank, "Are you sure this is the right boat?" just as the captain untied the boat from the dock.
"I guess so. It's 8 am, and this is the only boat here." He showed me the e-mail confirmation of the time and the name of the boat landing. We figured they would probably let us know if they weren't expecting us.
Captain Keanu invited us into the cabin and graciously offered us coffee. It was cold and misty outside, so we welcomed the chance to be inside the warm cabin. The Greenlandic woman stoically sat outside in the back for a while, but as we sped through the fjord, she got cold and came in. She didn't speak to anyone on the boat the entire time, so I figured she was most definitely not the tour guide.
We were on the boat for about an hour and made a turn up another fjord, this one full of ice chunks and icebergs of varying sizes. We could hear the ka-chunk ka-chunk ka-chunk of the boat hitting the ice. This sound scared me during the first boat trip we took through the icy waters of Ilulissat. By now, I was used to the sound and no longer feared that the ice was ripping the hull of the boat to shreds and that we were going to sink at any moment, like a mini-Titanic with no band.
As we got further into the ice-covered fjord, Frank noticed a town up ahead, so he asked the captain, "When do we get to Hvalsey?"
Captain Keanu looked at him blankly. "Hvalsey? This boat goes to Narsaq."
"Narsaq? Do we go to Hvalsey Church after Narsaq?" Frank replied.
"No. We never go to Hvalsey. Only Narsaq. I normally don't drive such a boat. I work on the passenger ship," the captain offered.
"When do you go back?" Frank asked.
"July 11. Next Tuesday," was the reply. Frank turned beet red and I thought he was going to have a stroke or a coronary right on the spot. Now I knew why we kept seeing ambulances parked at the docks. I started to worry. We pulled into the dock and the workers, the Greenlandic woman, and the Danish man got off, along with all the painting supplies.
I decided to pipe up,"So, when will this boat go back to Qaqortoq?"
"I don't know. You can get off if you want. Maybe the other captain will take you."
"Who is the other captain?" I asked.
"The other man who was here," he gestured to the seat at the table where the portly Danish man had been sitting. "Maybe he take you. Are you sure you won't get off?"
I said, "No, thanks." There was no way I was getting off that boat without finding someone to take us back to Qaqortoq. I had a vision of Captain Keanu and the Danish captain each grabbing one of my legs and trying to pull me off the boat while I dug my nails into the starboard side. At this point, hijacking the boat and ka-chunk-ing it back through the icebergs myself would not have been out of the question. Frank looked worried and mopped his brow.
I said, "We have made some kind of mistake. We thought this was the tour boat to Hvalsey, so now we need to go back to Qaqortoq. Can you take us? Or can you tell us how to get back there?"
Captain Keanu looked at us like we just dropped in from Mars and shrugged. Suddenly, he had an idea. "I will call Nils!" he said. He whipped out his cell phone and called someone named "Nils." They had a heated exchange in Danish.
Frank had the phone number for the tourist office on the receipt for the trip, so he asked if he could use the captain's cell phone to call. He tried it, but the number didn't work. Captain Keanu called Nils back and asked him to call the tourist office in Qaqortoq. Nils was able to reach the tourist office and found out that our tour left at 9, but they hadn't bothered to tell us. Captain Keanu thought this was hilarious. We were not amused.
Captain Keanu told us first that the other captain, the Danish fellow, would take us back, "but he does not speak English." Later, Nils called, and told him he was to take us back. I was relieved to hear this, since the Danish captain had disappeared. For all we knew, he had fallen off the pier, or was on a three day bender up the road somewhere.
We saw the Sarfaq Ittuk pull into the dock at Narsaq, and Captain Keanu said, "My girlfriend is on the ship. I go see her and I return to take you back. I play music for you. See you later!"
He put on a English CD of "Hits from the '70's" and left. The song that came on was "Living Next Door to Alice" by the band Smokie. Frank and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Years ago, we had taken a trip to Bimini and stayed in a hotel above a bar. The bar patrons kept us up all night long playing this song and during the chorus, would shout "Alice? Alice? Who the f*ck is Alice?" over and over again until dawn. If our worst vacation memories had a soundtrack, this song would certainly be on it.
"Well, at least he'll take us back to Qaqortoq," Frank said. We cheered up a bit at this thought. Frank had worried that we would have to go to the airport and wait for the next helicopter back to Qaqortoq, whichmight not leave for a day or two. I thought we might have better luck asking the Purser on the Sarfaq Ittuk to sell us a ticket, since it was the next stop for them on their route going North.
Narsaq, from my vantage point in the boat, looked like a much smaller town than Qaqortoq. There were some houses scattered on a hillside, and some commercial-looking buildings along the dock, but not much else. A number of weather-worn fishing boats came in and out of the harbor while we sat there, and a few speedboats tied up to the dock. For the most part, we just sat and stared out at the mountain overshadowing the town and watched people board other boats and speed away.
Finally, Captain Keanu and the Danish Captain both appeared and we set out across the ice floes back to Qaqortoq. We were happy to be moving. Just as we were reaching the end of the fjord, the Danish captain got a call on his cell phone. It was Nils (who was evidently their boss). Captain Keanu killed the engine, and we sat drifting among the icebergs while the Danish Captain had a boisterous conversation with Nils. Nils apparently told him that the workers were not able to paint due to the rain, so we would have to go back and get them. Captain Keanu told us that they worked for a company that was building some powerlines and the boat was to ferry the workers from town to town. He turned the boat around and headed straight back to Narsaq.
By the time we reached Narsaq, it was noon. I had exhausted our snack stash of pretzels, raisins, and rice cakes and Alex was getting hungry. We ate a few stale Gummy Bears that the captain had in a candy dish and waited for the men to return.
Several hours went by, and Alex started to get antsy. He and Frank decided to get off the boat and look for a snack bar or vending machines or maybe a piece of driftwood to gnaw on. Captain Keanu got off to smoke cigarettes and looked glum. I was stuck on the boat listening to "Living Next Door to Alice" for the 30th time. My personal vision of Hell has now been revised to include being stuck on a small, stinky fishing boat with construction workers and the band "Smokie" repeatedly singing that song for all eternity.
Frank and Alex came back empty-handed. They didn't want to stray too far, and there was nothing much at the docks other than warehouses and empty fishing shacks. Narsaq was making Qaqortoq look like Paris in comparison. Captain Keanu had a pack of chewing gum that he shared with us, so even though we were starving, we had fresh breath.
I started to quietly bang my head against the window and mutter, "Why? Why? Why?" like a mental patient who skipped her last dose of Thorazine.
A few times, Alex asked, "When will we get to see the Vikings?" I had to tell him that we probably weren't going to make it to the Viking ruins today. He was so crushingly disappointed that I felt like I was telling him that there was no Santa Claus.
Two hours later, the workers returned, and we sped off across the ice-studded fjord one more time. We made it back to Qaqortoq about 7 hours after we left the dock. Suddenly, Qaqortoq felt like home, sweet home.
We marched across the road and into the tourist office to find out what happened. The fellow who Frank talked to the day before was there, and sheepishly told us that he didn't know that the time had changed. He said we would have to talk to the person who did the bookings to see about a refund or another trip the next day. He apologized, but when we told him the story of our misadventure, he could barely contain his giggles. My Greenlandic "sister" from the ship happened to be there, and she quipped, "So you accidentally got a free trip to Narsaq!" The two of them thought this was uproariously funny.
"I suppose that's one way to look at it," groused Frank.
Other than being a little disappointed at not seeing any Vikings, Alex was nonplussed by the entire event. It didn't hurt that he had taken a half-tablet of Dramamine prior to leaving, so he slept through most of the trip. We went back to the Grille Baren fast food restaurant down the road for lunch. According to Alex, there's nothing like the comfort of cheese pizza to make you feel better after a long day of accidental tourism.
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All photos are Copyright Glennia Campbell/The Silent I. All Rights Reserved.