Going the Way of the Qivittoq

Lola Akimade Åkerström

Sweden

I sat alone in a cosy cabin perched atop a small hill on the banks of Nuuk fjord. Locals called it Ghost City because the sprawling view of the bay is obstructed from the other side of my hill. You’d never know there was something spectacular on the other side until you crossed over it. Dotted with four cabins enough to accommodate about sixteen people in total, the grounds were stark and quiet. I was the only guest.

Staring out large curtain-less windows into the dark night, I watched the moonlight bounce off snow-covered Sermitsiaq Mountain and the small island of Qasigiannguit across the bay. Moonbeams illuminated the surrounding landscape enough for me to see waves furiously leap and bend to the wind. The occasional cawing of a seabird or flapping of a wooden panel cut through its howl. Cocooned by the warmth of being indoors, I still felt restless. Across from where I sat was a large yellowing polar bear fur-throw strewn across a wooden sofa-like bench. Surrealist paintings of abstract polar bears intertwined with deities graced the walls of my modest cabin.

Outside, the wind howled. It kept howling something fierce and primal. Like the deep growls of an alpha male wolf marking its territory and insisting all around him bow in submission. As the world stormed around me, marking my first night in Greenland, a feeling I recognized washed over me. This wasn’t fear of the unknown – though I wasn’t ready to see a polar bear wash up outside my cabin riding an ice floe. This was a feeling I thought I’d left behind a long time ago when I moved from the American Midwest to make my home in Sweden. One I’d deeply known and lived with, even among the largest of crowds.

Isolation.

“You know your grandpa travelled to Greenland in the seventies,” my dad casually mentioned to me for the very first time, the night before I was to leave on my journey to the island.

A few moments of silence and my “What??” cut through our conversation.

I knew my grandfather had been adventurous. I knew he had travelled up to Scandinavia during his time as well. My father, a geologist, was also a traveling man and had explored the globe multiple times for work.

The fact that I was going to Greenland to trace someone else’s steps instead of my grandfather’s shook me. I could imagine my dad shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly on the other end, before telling me he loved me and hanging up.

The tail end of April found me in Greenland because of a book written by another man, old enough to be my own grandfather. An intriguing tale of the first African ever to set foot on the world’s largest island in the sixties. Years before, I’d poured through Togo-born Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s book, An African in Greenland. Fascinated by his journey, I vowed to follow some of his footsteps and see those very icebergs that had captivated him over 50 years ago.  After all, I was already riveted by the Arctic, polar travel, and someday reaching the North Pole.  Greenland and Svalbard had always been on my radar as well. Beyond the thrill of exploring the ends of the earth and reaching places I’d only traced my fingers across on a map, I had automatically assumed we shared the same lure of the unfamiliar. Tété had also been seduced to Greenland by a book. One he found in a Jesuit missionary bookstore about an indigenous people in a faraway land. And thus, began his plot to break from the chains of tradition to go explore this place. But as I settled into my first night in one of the most awe-inspiring places I’d ever set foot on, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue in Teté’s exact footsteps, even though I revered them with respect. While the squall wailed and groaned outside, reminding me who was boss, I realized what drew both Teté and I to Greenland weren’t one and the same.

“The traditional burden was so heavy that I could only breathe outside,” Teté shared in his book. A deep fascination of the unknown and sheer difference had pulled him, but mostly a space to breathe beyond restrictions he grew up with.

As for me, I came looking for something beyond the stillness of tundra, because I had known solitude before in the unlikeliest of places and wasn’t rushing to go face loneliness again. As a teenager in a new country, the United States, I had inhabited that space of otherness into which I was unwillingly pushed because I was different.  So, the search for metaphoric heat has always underpinned my work as a travel writer and photographer. The warmth of bodies and cultures, the recognition in tribes, and the voices of the unheard drive my work.

While I’ve marvelled at grandeur and stupendous panoramas, I’ve always wanted that overflow of emotions to spill over to someone else standing right next to me because awe needs to be shared. I have experienced seclusion beyond my control before and it is a very cold and hostile place to subsist within against one’s will.

If my travels were a map and I, its cartographer, it would be a series of red dots signifying heat. Heat maps of emotions I felt in places I hadn’t anticipated feeling that connection because I was different. There would be a large red dot over Jordan where the warmth I felt there cut right into my heart. There would be another red dot over Scotland where feelings of familiarity are evoked whenever I touch its shores. Like I was once the wife of a Scottish fisherman in a previous life. The red dot over Nigeria would be large and broad because I can fully bask there. Even to the coldest reaches of the earth, this internal cartographic process is what drives my work. So, I naturally gravitate towards heat and places that would provide me with the greatest opportunity to either create an evocative red dot or leave it grey without feeling. From bustling vibrant markets to artisans who passionately use their hands to create and craft, because passion is a flame in itself.

And as I continually build my own emotional heat references, specific interactions become landmarks on my map. That unexpected kiss on the back of my palm from a stranger to soothe my worries in Poland. The old stranger who cried on my shoulder in the Terror Museum in Budapest, Hungary, because he’d once been held prisoner there. The woman who embraced me as her sister in the village of Nauvucini, deep within Fiji’s dense forests.

Symbols and signs are mental spaces of recognition on my map. Various journeys and routes I’ve taken over the years are its topography. I was using cultural nuances as mile markers. As I began to explore and understand different cultures, I was inching forward along on my map, plotting down places and spaces where I’d anticipated otherness but was met with the opposite. I was spatially mapping out similarities despite cultural differences I met along my travels.

I had subconsciously started creating that atlas of acceptance from the very first time I travelled on my own as a preteen.

Now sitting in that warm cabin, listening to fury brew around me, I realized I was facing an overedge. Cartographically speaking, an overedge is a portion of a map that lies outside its nominal border leaving you with questions. For me, polar regions have always been my overedges on that internal map, and it was too early for me to place a red or grey dot over Greenland.

The steady rhythm of my beating heart cut above the cacophony. That feeling of deep solitude began to bubble up to the surface and for the first time in a long time, I felt lost on my emotional map.

Because Greenland was already reminding me of all the humbling grandeur I’d witnessed for so many years during a period in my life when I had no one to share them with.

“They say the qivittoq chooses to be alone and live in isolation,” Lykke shared with me before taking another bite of her multigrain sandwich. “This is a person who has left their village to go wander the wilderness, and then they turn into wandering spirits to survive.”

I wasn’t sure how to process that information, especially since she was describing two of my greatest worries – a valid fear of isolation and an irrational fear of zombies – as we were about to board a flight towards them.

“Some people say they have come across a qivittoq before when out in deep nature.”

We were sitting at the departure gate in Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport waiting for our Air Greenland flight to Kangerlussuaq. Lykke had helped me arrange this initial trip to Greenland, though traveling together on the same day to Kangerlussuaq had been pure coincidence.

Leaving Togo at the age of 16, it took Tété eight years to travel overland and by ship from his home country with short stints in other countries like Denmark before making the journey by ship to Greenland’s eastern coast. He would go on to live with the Inuit for two years.

I wanted to visit key places integral to Tété’s time in Greenland – Julianehåb (now Qaqortoq) which was the first village he docked at in the south, Nuuk (formerly Godthåb) which is the country’s capital, and Jakobshavn, now known as Ilulissat located 350 kilometers inside the Arctic circle, and famously called the town of icebergs.

Because I had only a week to do so, I decided to stick with Nuuk and Ilulissat on this initial journey to get a glimpse into the country and hopefully come back for a longer exploration and maybe an expedition.

Now I was sitting waiting to board, listening to spooky stories from Lykke.

Shame or deep sense of guilt and anger often drives normal people to go morph into restless spirits. Roaming around abandoned settlements, cemeteries, and wilderness, the qivittoq develops animal-like instincts to survive in the wild. The heightened sense of awareness, sounds, and movement. Of the steady beating rhythm of their hearts.

I wondered if isolation gave them superpowers. If the lonely have to evolve and adapt into superhumans to survive.

Isolation heightens all your senses. Sounds get louder and become shrill. A hypersensitivity takes hold of you with a death grip. Flying into Kangerlussuaq had been smooth and thankfully uneventful. Once a U.S. airbase during WWII, its airport has been repurposed into a passenger hub with connecting propeller flights to other villages and towns in the country. And as we descended over Søndre Strømfjord, looking at the otherworldly landscape covered in ice and snow, I got the sense that it – the feeling of loneliness – would grip me once again.

My connecting flight to Nuuk was through a white misty abyss that surrounded us. I couldn’t tell where land ended and where the sky started. The humming of the propellers and low drone of the engines were our soundtrack. The beating of hearts became the bass to our symphony too.

There was a heightened sense of surrender as we flew into this nothingness that seemed to envelope us. Greenland was forcing me to confront nature in a way that beat me into submission and remind me of just how powerless we all were. One’s emotions become clearer when faced with nature at its most pristine. Suddenly our worries seem less significant.

Even my first meal upon arrival into Nuuk was as raw, unpretentious, and bare as Greenland itself. Dried whale jerky, smoked reindeer, and musk ox pate.

My initial goal for this first trip was simple. I wanted to see some of the places Tété had seen. He had described the icebergs as swans and camels. “The smallest looked like swimming swans, and some were like crouching camels, rockling gently from side to side. A brilliant sun, cold as steel, glittered on them and transformed the sea into a fairy-tale world,” he wrote.

I also wanted an introduction to the country through its warmest ports of entry – its culture and food – so I could start outlining my own emotive map of Greenland. Lykke connected me with locals Livi and Simon who were testing out inviting strangers into their home for a traditional culinary experience.

Originally from Tasiilaq, the largest town in eastern Greenland, Nivi was now based in Nuuk with her Danish partner Simon. Her mother is the renowned Greenlandic artist Buuti whose paintings I would later find out graced the walls of my quiet cabin.

I watched Nivi cut into the thick patterned black-grey cut of Narwhal blubber with an “ulu” – a prehistoric-looking curved multipurpose utensil used for everything from skinning animals to cutting hair and food. Every family had their own special way of cutting blubber, Livi added, before passing the chewy bits of fat and tendon around for us to dip into soy sauce as an appetizer.

Over dinner of organic Greenlandic lamb roasted to damn-near perfection, I brought Tété up. I wanted to know what Greenlanders thought of him and his story.

“I have heard about the book,” another guest Tammy* interjected. “But I have never read it. The rumour going around is that he fathered many children during his time in Greenland. You can see his likeness in the facial features of some darker Greenlanders,” she finished off before digging into lump fish roe.

As with Lykke’s qivittoq, I wasn’t sure what to do with that information. He too probably needed warmth. I would later find out there are only about five people of African descent currently living in Nuuk, including the coach of the Greenlandic National Football Team. I wondered what drew them here. Maybe the lure of the unknown like Tété or reaffirmation of our humanity in the most desolate of places.

When it was time to go, I didn’t want to leave because I needed people. I didn’t want to go back to my semi-remote outpost in Ghost City to another night of howling winter swells. My taxi driver Måns – I needed to know his name – couldn’t get up the hill due to knee-deep slush and wet snow, so I was left at the base of the hill and had to trudge back in the dark to my cabin, hoping I didn’t run into a qivittoq en route.

The wind finally stopped howling and rocked me to sleep in pin drop silence.

I woke up to calm sweeping over the waters of the bay and clear skies overhead. The staggering beauty that came with this peace, spread before me. Leaving my cabin with my tripod, I planned to take a few photos.

And that was when I saw them. Fresh footsteps around my cabin starting from the top of the hill, trailing down the side of the cabin, stopping by my bedroom window, and then leading towards the front door before deciding to turn away.

They weren’t mine.

That morning, I took a long walk to the town center where I was going to meet Marc, a Spaniard from Barcelona who is married to a Dane and now calls Greenland home.

Unlike Tete’s era where being a tall black African man was a novelty, the looks of curiosity I got didn’t come from the indigenous Greenlandic Inuit, but rather, from older Danish men. They wordlessly questioned why I was there through their intense glares, because I seemed to be prancing outside the box they’d already mentally stuffed me – an African woman – into.

Marc was taking me snowshoeing around the foothills of mountains that ringed Nuuk. We started trudging through knee-deep snow right away as the wind picked up again, growling and trashing all around us.

The wind started howling and trashing all around us, and my fear of polar bears rushed up to the surface again. I kept checking over my shoulders, looking to make sure nothing came running at us from behind. He reassured me over a dozen times that the chances of us seeing a polar bear this south of the Arctic circle were slim to none and for the rest of our trek, I worried about the “slim” part. The wind picked up to slapping gusts that had us covering our mouths with fleece gaiters and putting on snow goggles. We pressed on against the bite. A few missteps and I was thigh-deep, trying to dig myself out with a heavy backpack on. Marc helped dig me out. We laughed about my clumsiness. That moment became a landmark etched on my map.

About an hour in, we paused by a rock to take a quick break and have some hot chocolate with our backs turned against the lashing winds. Emotions came flooding in. My grey dot which was initially sitting over Greenland was slowly warming up to a light shade of red. I was experiencing both its splendour and its punishing weather with another soul right by my side. I needed an overflow to someone else because Greenland really is too emotionally overpowering to explore it alone.

I’ve always been a solo traveller. Even now with a brood of my own, I still enjoy those moments when I steal away on my own. But as we hiked up higher and higher, snowshoeing in the storm re-inspired my sense of wanderlust in a whole new way. I didn’t want to bear witness alone. Because adventure was too grand not to share.

Visibility at the top of the mountain was near zero so we decided to turn around and make our way back down again. From our vantage point, the views of Nuuk’s colourful buildings standing like apparitions in the mist were surreal as dense thickness of the snowstorms and the whiteness began to lift.

“You can see why I love living here,” Marc interjected. He’d left the warmth of Spain years ago to find a different kind of warmth here in the wilds of Greenland.

“Behind these enormous white mountains appeared the community of Jakobshavn.”

Two days later, I left Nuuk in blizzard conditions to head 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle to Tété’s “Jakobshavn”. As we all nervously sat at Nuuk Airport while propeller planes danced violently in the wind as they were being refueled, taking off in this weather was the last thing I wanted to do. Out the window, a man rushing towards the single departure hall was swept off his feet in the gust, and my heart beat faster with worry.

The storm never really abated so we took off in it and an hour later, broke through thick clouds to see one of nature’s most beautiful patterned quilts across Disko Bay – ice floes dotting dark aquamarine blue waters.

Formerly known as Jakobshavn, the name “Ilulissat” means “iceberg” in Greenlandic Inuit and the town is fittingly called the “Iceberg capital of the world”. Its surrounding Disko bay and UNESCO-heritage site, Ilulissat Icefjord, has thousands of floating icebergs and ice floes carved off from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. The 19th century Danish-Greenlandic explorer, Knud Rasmussen, who was the first European to cross the Arctic Northwest Passage using only dog sleds, was born here.

I initially came in search of Tété’s “swans and camels”, inspired by the black-and-white photo of him wearing a fur-lined winter cap while sitting on the shores as dozens of white floating blocks dotted the bay like patchwork in front of him.

I did board a weathered fishing trawler with a few other travellers to go sailing with “swans” the size of skyscrapers, floating like giants as the crushing sound of ice meeting ice filled the quiet bay. Standing on the deck of the fishing boat, watching the captain curve past blocks of ice spanning several city-blocks in size, the fact that I was staring at only 10% – the tip of the iceberg – came with a mind-shattering humility. A few seagulls cawed and guffawed ahead as they circled above, following the trawler, assuming we were fishing this time around.

We continued sailing into the quiet, the only sounds around us being the slow hum of the engine, the crackling of icebergs, the squawking of sea birds, and the beating of my heart once again. I wasn’t alone. I was sharing this overwhelming grandeur with others. As I should.

The qivittoq craved isolation. I craved community.

By the time I reached Ilulissat, I was no longer firmly following in Tété’s footsteps because I had begun creating my own map of Greenland. Like cartographers inspired by explorers before them, charting the world. He’d initially inspired me to explore this land. He’d lured me out of the firm borders into that overedge, so I could start filling in the emotional blanks myself.

And my red dot over Greenland had now become a deep crimson red.




Lola Akimade Åkerström is a Contributing Photographer and Writer to Panorama.