SONDRESTROM, GREENLAND — It was not the sound one associates with airline terminals. Not the garbled announcements. Not the annoying pop music indistinguishable from country to country. Instead, it was the sound of people singing - beautiful, lyrical music in voices untrained but earnest and in harmony. It came from a group of perhaps 15 people - men, women, and a few teenagers - sitting in the waiting area of Kangerlussuaq Airport. Most were Inuit - Greenlander natives. A few were of European descent. All were singing in Greenlandic, an Inuit dialect.
I sat down and listened, as did other travelers waiting for their flights.
There was a soulful, loving sense to the songs. One would start the song, and, after a phrase or two, the others would join in. They looked from one to the other with expressions of warmth and joy for what each was giving, for what all were sharing.
At first I thought these must be folk tunes. Perhaps something to do with the spectacular landscape, or the relative handful of people spread around the rim of the world's largest island, people holding to a way of life they see as part of a natural, harmonious whole - animals and humans, weather and ice.
Then I noticed a hand go up, palm outward then a small silver cross worn by one of the women. I asked one person what the songs were about, but she spoke no English, nor I any Greenlandic. One of the men was able to explain that they were evangelical Christians, on their way from one small community to another for a church conference. The impromptu entertainment - inspiration, really - was cut off when an official gently told the singers the flight announcements could not be heard over their music. The moment ended.
Christianity has been here for a millennium. Leif Ericson introduced it to his mother, Thjodhild, who was unsuccessful in converting her husband, Eric the Red. She built the first church here. The Norse disappeared several hundred years later, last mentioned in an account of a wedding in 1408. Some 300 years after that, Danish explorers brought Lutheran and Moravian missionaries, who set out to convert Greenland's natives.
Some conversions were no doubt involuntary, but the religion stuck here. I thought about this history when I heard the singers because I felt the outward manifestations of love, grace, and compassion that are so much a part of true Christianity. I have yet to see an argument or hear a sharp word in our time here. People make eye contact, smile, say hello.
It's our sixth day in Greenland, waiting for the weather to improve. What I'm finding is that there is an introspective nature to the trip at this point - the point at which we cross the last stretch of the North Atlantic and begin the final leg across North America to Alaska and home. At some point, all journeys become internal, all landscapes interior. Travel writer Paul Theroux makes that point. So do my Buddhist friends.
But what I'm finding here is that it's not the exotic that I'm drawn to, but the familiar - or maybe the familiar recognized more clearly in the exotic. It's the things that connect us across continents rather than those that separate us. I hear this singing - I haven't a clue as to the lyrics - and I feel sure it's the "old, old story" told by earnest Christians around the world.
Then I notice how the children are treated here, and I see more links between cultures and people. I watch a young father with his small son and daughter - they look a mix of Inuit and European - as he helps them with their dinner. The younger one, the girl, apparently had wanted something else from the cafeteria. Her lips quiver, and she is on the verge of tears. But her father talks to her quietly - no irritation - and soon her chubby cheeks are chubbier with reindeer sausage and potatoes. She gives me a little smile when she sees me watching. Would I have been so loving in this circumstance when I was a young father?
I read later that Greenlandic children are never punished or chastised. They are believed to be born with the full intelligence and wisdom of their ancestors, and punishing them would dishonor their forebears. As far as I can see, they don't need to be punished or chastised. They seem lovely and well behaved - with each other and with adults. Maybe expectation and a right notion of lineage are at play here.
We expect to be on our way soon. We have not been tourists in Greenland but travelers passing through, seeing goodness in a child's smile, hearing it in a song. And feeling the pull of home.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society