Narsarsuaq’s half-remembered histories
I step off the Dash-8 onto the tarmac, greeted by blue sky arching over the glittering fjord. Despite living in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, it’s been years since I’ve been in the South Greenlandic settlement of Narsarsuaq, an abandoned American military airbase.
A spotless, metallic-silver DC3 is the only other aircraft in sight. A handful of Americans, beaming with pride, are chattering, fussing around this splendid, mirror-like machine. Many such private aircraft turn up in remote parts of Greenland. This one is a veteran visitor and, built more than eighty years ago, has more flight hours than any other aircraft in the world.
In contrast, far off at the end of the airstrip, a rusted fuselage lies abandoned, dismembered, it’s wings and tail long gone. And near it, a ten-seater prop plane seems to have collapsed into the tarmac. It looks as if it would like to raise itself up, turn and start back down that wide empty space and over the fjord again. But its undercarriage, even its wings – defeated – rest heavily on the ground.
There is no moving from this final resting place. Places like Narsarsuaq are filled with the physical relics of stories that ended long ago, half-remembered pasts.
We’ve arranged to pick up a hire car at the airport, but there is no one to meet us. My friend asks around and eventually someone points him in the direction of the owner, by which I mean actually points at him. We follow him out of the terminal as he talks with someone else.
Their conversation is unhurried and I’m not quite sure if he’s noticed us. But after he finishes, he nods toward a battered red Hilux. He hasn’t checked my drivers’ license. He doesn’t know my name. In fact, he has not uttered a word to me before he wanders off without any obvious conclusion to our interaction. So we go to the car. The keys are in the ignition.
One minute’s drive down the road, we pull in to the expansive parking lot outside the equally expansive Hotel Narsarsuaq. Danish, American, and Greenlandic flags snap in the wind atop tall flagpoles towering above the entrance.
In the foyer, we pass a broad, curved staircase on our way to reception where a staff member hunches over the desk. “There are two single rooms upstairs,” she says, gesturing uneasily toward the staircase, “or you could take the two in the other wing.” She nods toward a two-storey building almost out of sight down a long, empty hallway.
I frown slightly. The implication seems to be that there are only four rooms available. Given the size of this place, there must be hundreds of rooms and I haven’t yet seen another soul. The massive parking lot outside has one car in it and that’s ours.
“I guess we’ll take the ones in the other building,” I reply. From the way she smiles, I get the feeling that was the right choice. What’s wrong with the other rooms? I wonder. Are there spooky twin girls who appear suddenly in the hall in that part of the hotel? The place does have a touch of The Shining to it.
Visiting anywhere in Greenland out of season is a little surreal. One has no idea what strange coincidences, what fragments of the past, what dreams of another time will materialize.
My room is the first in a long, brightly-lit corridor. For the duration of my stay, I see no one else in that corridor. I hear no doors opening or closing. Only once, I hear the spray of a shower somewhere downstairs, which I assume is my friend in the other room that was apparently available.
I stayed here years ago at the very end of the high season. Back then the hotel was filled with life. I remember climbing that winding staircase, my hand sliding up the curved wooden rail toward music, laughter, colored lights. Guests in the restaurant were drifting through to the bar. I was one of an international group of twenty. We were supposed to have departed Greenland that afternoon on the last direct flight of the summer but the plane never arrived.
I remember wondering vaguely what that meant. Would we now have to wait until next year? There had been no information from the airline. But I put that slightly concerning thought out of my head and focussed on enjoying the evening.
Lights flickered on the dance floor where a tiny, withered Greenlandic woman of indeterminate age shuffled and staggered, clutching her beer and smiling broadly through terrible teeth. It was only seven in the evening. With her handful of English words, she made her intentions toward the young men in our group vividly clear and could not be dissuaded by mere excuses or even outright rejections.
Meanwhile, a group of Greenlandic boys, surely not old enough to be drinking the beers they clung to, clustered in a protective circle, casting nervous glances toward the decades-older women in our group. It turns out they were youths from around the country in town for an air-traffic control course.
In the deep yellow light bursting through the windows on that last long evening of summer, unlikely passions surged, the bestowers oblivious to the lack of reciprocity, the recipients helpless to defend themselves. And I laughed into my beer.
But now, standing alone in that same space, years into the future, the early summer sun cast its light onto a forgotten renovation that left the old bar in pieces cast across the floor.
Empty, the space seemed smaller than it had when it was full of revellers all those years ago. The restaurant next door stood empty too, tables set, napkins neatly arranged. But the yellowing oil paintings of snowy mountains overlooking wind-clipped fjords watched over only stillness.
Narsarsuaq has a collection of enormous old warehouses left behind by the Americans. And the next day, I stood in the gaping doorway of one that had slowly decayed and slumped into its foundations.
Concrete walls and steel frames continued to brace themselves against the passing years. But the windows were shattered, the wooden roof hanging shredded, gaping holes welcoming in the blue sky, the snow, the wind, and the rain.
I took one step from the squinting sunlight into the deep and suddenly cold shadow of the building’s bulk. A wren, alarmed, darted back and forth between girders, her frantic cries echoing across the dark emptiness. Get out! This belongs to me.
We drove on to the massive, grey building furthest from town. It is two storeys high but so elongate that the perspective makes it appear low, crouched, almost hidden in the landscape.
The air is about ten degrees cooler inside. When I press the switches, there is a solid clunk and overhead fluorescent lights flicker on and hum to themselves.
This building is known by the locals as Ikea. And indeed, you can find anything here. For decades, it has been stuffed with diverse things by diverse people. It’s so large inside that it seems almost empty.
But these are some of the things it houses: hundreds of drums of aviation fuel, a couple of tractors, a cement mixer, a fuel tanker, an enormous pile of gravel, five forty-foot zodiacs draped in blue tarpaulins, a truck, some cars, an assortment of household appliances, dozens of large rolls of piping, cables, bikes, old computers, and, amidst it all, a horse-drawn carriage leaning heavily to one side, still filled with boxes wrapped in Christmas paper.
What happy event did this vehicle once see? What children laughed and clapped and chased it down the street? Everything is now covered in a thick layer of dust which, when disturbed, bursts into a fine grey plume that hangs in the air, reluctant to dissipate.
Further out of town, we follow the road as far as it goes along the valley until it twists back on itself, circling around a grassy field.
Fifty years ago we would have been circling the dozens of hospital buildings that once stood here. Buildings that housed hundreds of injured American soldiers, far from home.
Now they’re gone, the soldiers and the buildings, and the wind rustles the long grass. A stone chimney, the only survivor, stands alone and unyielding against a backdrop of snowy mountains. Remember me? it asks.
Before we head back to the airport, we stop at the Narsarsuaq museum. I remember calling here, was it fifteen years ago? I remember the photographs on the walls of dozens and dozens (could it have been hundreds?) of planes, arranged wing-tip to wing-tip on the airstrip.
It’s almost impossible to imagine this place was once thriving, filled with more than a thousand people, when the base was still operational. I’d like to see those photographs again. But today the museum door is locked. And with cupped hands, face pressed against the cold glass, I peer through the windows into empty rooms.
Back at the airport, I leave the Hilux as we found it, parked outside with the keys in the ignition.
A handful of people sit in plastic chairs, waiting. It looks like the plane won’t be full. But when it arrives, dozens of Greenlanders pour into the silent space we’ve been occupying, briefly inflating the population of Narsarsuaq.
They’re passengers from Nuuk who should have disembarked on the route in Paamiut but, as usual, Paamiut is shrouded in fog. So here they are, awaiting the return and another attempt at getting home.
A man in an airline uniform boards the group, checking off names on a clipboard. Is he the pilot? With all the Paamiut passengers, the plane is crowded and noisy as we return along the coast in brilliant sunshine, early evening summer light cast across glittering ice and blue fjords.
It couldn’t be more perfect. But when we reach Paamiut, the passengers look down with furrowed brows at the dense pocket of fog squatting stubbornly over their town. And they return once more to Nuuk.