January 7, 2014
Raw Seal And Suicide In Nuuk
The raw seal liver was cold on my tongue. It tasted of blood with a little fish oil. I slowly closed my mouth and felt the chunk of fresh blubber that lay on top of the liver. That was more of a challenge. As I pressed the liver/blubber cocktail up to the roof of my mouth I was surprised at the dense consistency of the blubber. Instead of the greasy lard-like gunk I had been expecting it felt more like a piece of thick fishy cheesecake. These were alien tastes and textures. I could smell the seal carcass that lay at my feet. My stomach began to quiver and nausea swept over me. Why do I do these things, I asked myself. But the big native Greenlander who had offered me the local delicacy was grinning at me, his face a few inches from mine. I had backed myself into another corner. I chomped down hard and chewed the grisly combo quickly. It wasn’t bad really, just different. I swallowed the whole lot down. I started to laugh and my new found friend slapped me on the back and then gave me a big bear hug.
I was in Nuuk, the diminutive capital of Greenland which is the world’s smallest capital with only about 15,000 inhabitants. I had found the local meat and fish market that was also the seal abbatoir. Lots of seals had already been butchered and the pieces were spread out on large tables. The meat was a rich red and black like an anarchist’s flag. I was busy taking photographs when a man pushed past me dragging three fresh seal carcasses into the long dark room next to where I was standing. I followed. Once inside the building I quickly adjusted my camera for the low light and, after asking for permission, began to photograph the whole process of butchering the seals. This was done with amazing skill and speed. When the guy doing the cutting got to the liver he cut a piece off then sat a bit of white blubber on top and ate it with obvious relish. It was at this point that I got to try the Innuit delicacy.
From a distance, as I approached the town by ship, Nuuk looked beautiful. Its brightly coloured houses nestled into the bay beneath a stunning mountain with a profile like Gandalf’s hat. Wandering around Nuuk later, however, I realised all is not picture book gloss. There are many drab modern buildings and a rather desolate frontier feel. All is not well with Greenland’s native population.
I walked through the streets to the infamous Blok P apartment building. Erected in 1965, this ugly eyesore came to symbolise the problems of Greenland’s conflict between old and new. It was part of the policy of “Folketinget” which the Danish authorities of the time implemented in order to move people away from local communities that they saw as “unprofitable, unhealthy and un-modern.” Blok P may have been modern but it certainly wasn’t healthy for its new inhabitants who found the doors and corridors so narrow they couldn’t get through them in their thick clothing. Fishing gear soon blocked the corridors. Congealing blood clogged the drains when fishermen and seal hunters cleaned their catch in the baths. With much of the population divorced from traditional lifestyles, Greenland suffers from high rates of alcoholism, depression, and poverty. Suicide rates are amongst the highest in the world, peaking in summer when 24 hour daylight leads to insomnia. These problems were exacerbated by shoe-horning Innuit hunters into Blok P’s dark boxes.
Since I was there in 2010, Blok P has been earmarked for demolition by 2015. The inhabitants are supposedly being moved to a new settlement in nearby Quinngorput, though it is hard to imagine them recovering from their decades in Blok P.
Image Credit: Thinkstock