Friday, August 3, 2012

A Vegan in Greenland

Polar bear is traditional Greenlandic food.  A skin hangs on the side of a home in Upernavik town.
Before I came to Greenland, many people asked me what I would eat there.  Like its Arctic counterparts in Canada, Siberia, and Alaska, Greenland is a land of meat and food from the sea.  Since I’ve completely abstained from eating animal products for more than two decades, it’s something I’d also given some thought to.  I’d either starve, find a supermarket- or begin eating meat again. 

Either way, I wasn’t panicked about it.  I’ve been doggedly committed to my project all along- and to traveling to Upernavik regardless of the food situation.  I knew I would be adapting to my circumstances in a variety of ways. 

But subsistence hunting has faded here in Upernavik.  Indeed, it seems to me that the old ways have all but disappeared from this small Arctic town, as the sea ice retreats and European influence increases.  There’s currently fewer fish and mammals in the sea to be taken, and changing weather patterns affect hunting and availability of prey.

What this means for me is that small markets exist in most of the settlements here.  There’s not much to choose from as a hardcore vegan, but I’m surviving.  I’m shy of protein and dropping weight, but I am getting by. 

What do I come home with from a typical store run?  Usually a can of garbanzo beans or navy beans, a small loaf of heavy rye bread (which I developed a taste for during my time in Denmark), maybe some cabbage or a banana if a ship has come in recently with supplies.  Maybe some jam, sweet pickles or pickled beets.  

Surely if I eat enough German bread I will look like the girl in the photo...?

It’s pricey here.  Understandably so.  The dollar is weak, and everything is imported from Denmark. I easily spend 20 bucks- about 500 Danish crowns- on what amounts to rations.  But who’s complaining? I’m in a supermarket in Greenland!!  I can have chips and Coke if I want!! 

There’s plenty of cookies, soda, and candy available, too.  And meat!  If I want to cook up some seal or whale, its available frozen and shrink wrapped along with more ordinary selections of fish, canned liver pate, sausage – and chicken.  (Chicken? In Greenland?)

When I came here, I promised myself to be open- to eat fish if I felt like it (along with whatever else served itself up to me), or if I just needed a good dose of quality protein.  It absolutely makes sense to eat fresh food from the sea and tundra here, consuming what the land provides and contributing to the local economy.  But honestly, after so many years as a non-meat eater, I have no taste for it.  Although I was (almost) ready to change my non-meat ways for the duration of this trip, I was granted a reprieve!  

There are numerous edible mushrooms in Greenland- but these look like trouble.
I also admit I arrived in Greenland with about 15 pounds of food from home. I brought mung means, which I love sprouted.  I’ve been rationing them all month. I’ve also got some almonds and flax seed.  Some fresh greens I’d dehydrated myself.  Some dates.  Some quinoa. A little of this and that, but certainly not enough to get me by for 40 days.  And believe me I’d have carried more with if I’d had the luggage capacity!  (Air Greenland allows only one 20 kilo bag.)

So the short story is, I’m still vegan. I won’t be very strong on my mountain bike when I get back to Durango, I don’t feel awesome physically, but I’m getting through.  I do dream of food at night, and have food cravings during the day- tofu, avocados, hemp protein, fresh corn tortillas with beans and salsa, fruit smoothies and fresh greens, tomatoes and melons.

A reindeer antler on a remote northern island returns to the earth.
And I do wonder if I should’ve just subsisted on local food these weeks, to be true to the culture and the experience.  But the fact is, I don’t know what to do with a fish– or a narwhal or an auk or a reindeer- and I don’t want to eat one.

The postscript to today’s blog is that I have been invited by the family of a new friend to dinner tonight - for seal stew.  I will leave you wondering how I decide to navigate the evening. I may  surprise myself.


  1. I'll make my broccoli and rigatoni for you when you get back. You pick the fixins to go with it.

  2. Hey Becca, what's the name of the fundraising site you used to raise money for this trip? I have been invited by Habitat for Humanity to a build in Nepal and can go if I raise $1550. for airfare.

  3. AH! THANK YOU! I'm a vegan myself, and are currently planning an arctic roadtrip, where I really want to spend the majority of my time in Greenland, as I've always been in love with that beautiful place. I too have been having the same thoughts like you did before, as I know how strong the fishing culture is up there, so I've had quite an open spirit to the fact that eating animals up there would possibly be a reality I had to face, but it seems like you did good? Any tips elsewise you want to share? :-) Xx Sibilla from CPH.

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