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JUSTINE MA: 20 Tips on Ashram Life from a New York Perspective

Traveling to India? AWESOME. 

India is a beautiful country deeply rooted in tradition and culture. Most of my friends travel to India for a spiritual experience… and well, that’s because most of my friends are yogis. Go figure.

Most yogis who travel to India stay at ashrams, which are spiritual monasteries (and really, really, really cheap places to sleep). When I traveled Southern India (Kerala) this past March, I stayed at an Ayurvedic Ashram known worldwide as Amma’s Ashram.

Amma (meaning Mother) is a living saint (yes, a real person) who has the stamina to bless and hug people for 16hrs straight sans lunch or dinner. It’s kind of her thing and she’s been doing it for decades. Her ashram is open to everyone: locals, backpackers, yogis, devotees, travelers, etc. So for my first trip to India, I was looking forward to receiving one massive hug, yoga at sunrise, and one dosa a day. However, my time at Amma’s proved to be more challenging than initially expected.

Sidenote: Dosas are thin crepes that are made of fermented beans, stuffed with spicy potatoes, cooked in ghee, and topped with coconut chutney.

It is imperative that you are aware of this street food item because dosas will lead you to happiness. Or at least it does for me.

If you’re planning to stay at Amma’s Ashram ( in Kerala, I’ve compiled a list of “need to know info” that you will not find on the main website. These tips will mentally prepare you for your upcoming journey and (hopefully) allow you to embrace life at Amma’s. Please keep in mind that the ashram lifestyle isn’t for everyone but it is an experience that I highly recommend experiencing.



 1. Bring toilet paper, buy toilet paper. Carry a fanny pack stocked with toilet paper, tissues, and hand sanitizer. Throw a few bottles of water in there too. Just do it.

 2. What to wear? Most people wear loose white clothing as a statement of simplicity. I wore a typical NY outfit — black on black on black—Amma still embraced me.

3. Avoid a potential argument. Every roommate should have their own key to access their room — pick up extras at the International Center.

4. FACT: Half a year's rent in NYC (or less) will last you a lifetime at Amma's.

5. In the word's of Amma, "some people who come to the ashram are crazy," so just acknowledge that for a sec.

6. You'll find that most people at the ashram are living in savasana and will walk straight into you sans apology. Don't get all NY on them, just smile and move on.

7. Public Service Announcement: The ashram uses communal spoons, plates and cups. After you use your utensils, you are responsible for washing these items in cold water and cheap, watered down soap. Consider buying your own spoon (15 rupees), a food container (180 rupees) and cup (20 rupees) from the shop located inside the ashram. Basically, keep yo' germs to yo'self!

8. On a similar note, avoid contact with ALL left hands at ALL times in India (even expats)... if you don't know what I am talking about, google it.

9. FACT: The ashram provides one sheet, one pillow and one pillow cover for your cot. The room is the same size as a NYC studio apartment.

10. FACT: When you take a shower, hot water is not available. And you’ll need to bring your own towel. If this is a potential problem for you, bring dry shampoo and deodorant.

11. FACT: The shower is positioned directly above the western toilet… so forget the towel, just double up on the dry shampoo and deodorant.

12. Sign up for seva (service) at the office. If you don’t feel like waiting at the seva office, there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer throughout the ashram. No one will refuse your help. They’re uncomfortably kind and welcoming.

13. Seva is optional. You are not obligated to clean toilets. I chopped vegetables and enjoyed it.

14. Dosas are available on-site at the Indian canteen.

15. In case you’re not interested in the complimentary Indian food, there’s a western café where you can purchase grilled cheese, handmade pizza, egg sandwiches, toast, spirulina bars, etc. However, I was told they’ve run out of tator tots until October.

16. NY’ers walk a lot so if you find yourself strolling outside of the ashram walls, you can easily find Amrita University just over the bridge. Keep in mind, this state-of-the-art building does not have western toilets, soap or toilet paper. Hence, fanny pack.

17. Head straight to the beach, just don’t go in for a swim. Their rules, not mine.

18. Take probiotics daily. I recommend hitting up your local JUICE PRESS at least one month before you arrive in India.

19. The ashram is awesome; participate as much as possible.

20. Two full days and one night will give you the opportunity to experience everything… or you can stay for 18 years, your choice. 




Justine is a NYC food & lifestyle blogger who has eaten her way around the world to understand the connection between local culture and cuisine. Follow Justine at as she explores local food, travel, health and wellness.




JUSTIN GUERRA: How the Peace Corps Taught Me to Embrace Solitude

Allegheny National ForestIn far western Pennsylvania I stood deep within the Allegheny National Forest. I looked up, surrounded by megalithic mossy boulders and tall pines. It was quiet, the only sound was the faint protests of branches creaking in the fall breeze. I fumbled into my pocket and produced my cell phone, just to be sure. tried in vain to find service. I breathed a mental sigh of relief. I was alone.

It's been a little more than a year since I completed my volunteer service with the United States Peace Corps. I've learned these moments of solitude come few and far between. I had never noticed that before I left. In fact, I had avoided these moments altogether.  I know humans are meant to be social creatures, but the American millennial takes communication to the max. I used to spend so much time and energy just trying to not be alone.  All my downtime was spent with friends or in constant communication with them through text. Before I became a Peace Corps volunteer, I could spend more than 24 hours alone without becoming cranky and aloof.

So when I left the shores of the United States behind, I worried about being alone. I had done my homework. I had scoured over blogs and online journals, reading about the inevitable isolation, the homesickness, the loneliness that came with Peace Corps service. I read about depression and alcoholism. I braced myself for the day when my service location would be revealed.

MongoliaI was placed in a small town in Mongolia -- many of those things I had read about became my reality. I was isolated, hours away from any other volunteer or native English speaker. During my downtime, I would sit in my little sheep felt ger (yurt) and let loneliness and homesickness creep in.

One day I decided to take a walk. I didn't know where I was going to walk to, or what I was going to do when I got there, I just knew I couldn't sit around and think anymore. I ducked out of my ger.  My neighbor, Dawkraa, was chopping firewood in the yard.

"Haashaa yawakh we?" he asked, letting the wood chips settle after his last swing. Where are you going?

I only pointed off into the distance, at a hilltop peak just outside of our tiny town.

Dawkraa followed my finger then gave me a quizzical look. He shrugged his shoulders and went back to hammering away at a knotty log.

I walked out of town and up the hilltop, passing the bones of livestock and wild animals. At the rocky summit, I stopped. The only sound was the breeze running through the grassy steppe. I was alone. Maybe it was the scenery, maybe it was the fact that I had actually left and did something, but the solitude was therapeutic. It was meditative. This walk would mark the first of many over my two years in the Peace Corps.

MongoliaSometimes I walked south out into the vast open steppe, into a sea of grass where the wind made the blades move like ocean waves. Other times I'd walk north, to stony hilltops and boulder laden summits. I walked passed rusted out cars and dried up lake beds. Through herds of goats and along the trails of camels. Sometimes I brought my guitar or listened to music on my Ipod. I'd read a book perched atop a boulder or the skeleton of a forgotten car. I'd journal, or just sit and watch the landscape. Suddenly being alone wasn't so scary or depressing, it had become a beautiful and necessary part of my life. I realized that this search for solitude was one of the healthiest decisions I had made during my service. 

Then I came home. And I slapped a shiny new smartphone into my palm. This new, popular thing enabled me to never ever be alone again. At first, I scorned the piece of technology. But within days, no –hours, I had fallen under its addictive spell. I was instantly connected at all times to friends, family, colleagues, and complete strangers through an overflowing list of mediums and apps. 

Not only was being “alone” a thing of the past, it was virtually inexcusable.

MongoliaWe're expected to instantly respond to every text, return every call, comment on every post, share every tweet, like every photo. To tell someone you didn't have your phone on or that you had left it at home would be met with skepticism and irritation. It wasn't long before solitude, the one thing I had such trouble coping with in the Peace Corps, was one of the things I missed most about my service.

So I started doing what I had done in Mongolia. I started taking walks. But this time, they weren't to cope with my isolation. I needed them to seek out the quiet, to get away from the stress of continual connectedness and the guilt of an inbox of e-mails I hadn't yet responded to.

I stood in the middle of Allegheny National Forest, in the heart of Appalachia, to find that peace I had found more than a year ago on the steppes of Asia. Now, to go to where the reaches of technology couldn't find me. I was there with just myself, among the rocks and trees, and once again it was meditative. It had all come full circle, I had hiked in the past to get out of my home, stimulate my mind and do something new for myself instead of wallowing in homesickness. Now, I hiked to slow things down, to take a moment to myself without worrying or getting caught up in the fast paced society around me.

As I crunched my way over the fallen leaves toward the outskirts of Allegheny, I slowly heard the grumblings of machinery. The whirling of tires and sputtering of engines. I pushed through the underbrush and thorny branches out onto a paved road at the edge of the National Forest. Standing on the shoulder I felt my phone suddenly vibrate, ding, and buzz in my pocket as the messages and e-mails that had been held in limbo finally came rushing in with renewed cellular service. I wasn't bothered though. I knew I would walk again soon.




Justin is a writer, returned Peace Corps volunteer, part time archaeologist, summer tour guide, and blogger. He is currently leading summer community service programs for students in Southeast Asia. For more stories about Mongolia and beyond, check out his blog at Between the Contours.



ZORIAH MILLER: Entering the Exclusion Zone

Rudolf made the drive from Kiev to the militarized Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in less than three hours, a feat that would have been impossible had we been engaged in conversation. 

Luckily, Rufolf spoke no English and I spoke no Ukranian, so he concentrated on pushing his rusty little car to its limits while I concentrated on looking out the window.

I can’t say that I was able to see a lot on the drive up, as scenery tends to blur a bit over a hundred miles an hour. But I was aware of the fact that the closer we got to Chernobyl, the more civilization thinned out.

It’s an eerie feeling. I think we get used to seeing civilization everywhere and when you don’t you notice it. It’s also not like driving into nature as you are aware that the reason for the lack of human presence is due to the increase of radiation.

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The landscape is desolate and it is rare to pass other cars once you near the exclusion zone. Many of the roads are kept up by the military until you get into the town of Pripyat, where you often find trees growing right in the middle of the streets.

Signs by the side of the road warn of areas where the radiation is extremely high. Many of the smaller towns and village in the area were completely covered up after the disaster to try to bury the radioactivity. The only thing that remains of the these towns are the eerie signs and placards that warn people not to enter the area.

A sign warning of high radiation levels. The city of Pripyat returning to nature. A small cafe near the ferry terminal now lies in ruin. Hundreds of gas masks rest on the floor of a public building, a reminder of the chaos in the final moments of the evacuation. Pillow cases have completely decayed over the years, releasing their feathers wherever they lay. Abandoned dolls rest in the dark corners of an abandoned school. A hospital bed rests next to the peeling painted walls of one of Pripyat’s main medical facilities. A cafe, which once had ornate stained glass windows, like most in the city of Pripyat, is slowly being taken over by the forest that surrounds it.

Nearly fifty thousand people left the city in a matter of only a couple of of hours, never to return again.





Before becoming a professional photojournalist and war photographer, Zoriah was involved in disaster management and humanitarian aid to developing countries. He did some photography training in high school and college, but he learned mostly online and through mentors.



ALASTAIR HUMPHREYS: Mountain Microadventure

A mere 12km of walking on the hilltops of little old Britain. It doesn't sound like much.

It looked impressive though—my first sight of the Cuillin Ridge from many miles away, across the sea, looking over the water towards those far blue mountains.

I was heading to Skye on a whim to climb dangerous mountains with a man I’d never met, who had read my books then emailed me after we both entered a stupid winter mountain bike race. (He won the race. I just about survived it.) Alex’s idea appealed immediately: to mountain bike cross country to the sea, paddle over the sea to the mountains, and then attempt the formidable Cuillin Ridge. A triathlon of microadventures through some of the finest landscapes in Britain? I’m on my way, I replied.

So we began from “S”* (“Good pub there” is the guaranteed comment from those who know it), pedalling happily into the glen, excited to be on the move, delighted by the weather which appeared to be holding and which was crucial to our success.

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The path was narrow singletrack, strewn with rocks and ditches. I quickly realised that the hills of Surrey are inadequate preparation for the skill levels needed for mountain biking through the Scottish highlands.

However, in between my stumbles, foot-downs, and a comic straight-over-the-handlebars-into-a-bog it was beautiful, remote riding. On all sides barren peaks rose from the green glen into a warm blue sky. And silence. We passed a loch, perfect for a swim, but we had miles to go before nightfall so we pressed on, hurtling along an exhilarating sweeping descent down to the blue sea and a sweeping bay. Its isolation was accentuated by a single house, built bang in the middle of the curving bay far from electricity or running water.

We rode onwards, up a bugger of a hill and blasted wooping down the other side, down to a tight little bay and the beginning of the second phase of our Highland triathlon microadventure.

We needed now to paddle out into the sea, across the bay to the base of the impressive mountain range before us. Whilst I inflated my beloved packraft Alex chatted with his friend Colin who’d met us here armed with a couple of sea-kayaks.

The day was hot and the paddle was a joy. It was a windy day with the white clouds flying. And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

Waves cooled my face and soaked my clothes as my blunt packraft battered the swell. I struggled to make headway against the headwind (the curse not only of cyclists but also, I have learned, the packrafter too). Packrafts are the jacks of all trades but the masters of none (I feel an affinity!) and as I watched the two sea kayaks pull easily away from me I knew that I was in for a long drag if we were to reach the other side before nightfall.

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But it is a special thing, being in a boat. Your view is a privileged one, inaccessible to all those mere mortals left behind on the shore. Jellyfish pulsed and drifted, pretty pink and white, through the clear blue brine. The shore gradually receded behind us with each pull on the paddle. Blisters bubbled on my hands as the mountains ahead of us loomed a little larger with each small stroke. We were paddling westward into the dazzling evening sun. Liquid stars fell from our paddles and burst over the bows of my boat. At last, tired, wet, but happy we reached the lee of the mountains, sheltered from the headwind and I could lie back in my packraft and relax.

We were in the mouth of a secluded loch, tucked tight into a brooding cleft at the base of the mountains that thrust steeply straight up from the shore. The Cuillins are the ancient eroded remains of a vast volcano lip and they curved spectacularly high above us jagged and menacing like rotted black stumps of teeth.

It is hard to imagine a more beautiful sea paddle in Britain, and I grinned in smug delight once again at my decision to dedicate a year to searching for wildness and adventure here in my own country. Alex was thrilled as well. Although he knew Skye well and was a regular climber and mountain biker here, he had never experienced a paddle such as this. Even in your backyard there are new adventures, new sights, new perspectives: you just have to make the small effort to go and discover them.

Alex pointed behind me and I turned to look. A dozen seals were peering curiously at us from damp dark eyes.

Two snorted and dived. The rest watched us quizzically as we paddled smoothly towards the shore past a couple of seal pups still in their juvenile white fur. Two terns, the whitest, sleekest of sea birds, shrieked low overhead, concerned for the young in their nests. We though were concerned only for food, for we had been long on the move and were ready for dinner. We pulled our boats up onto the shore beside a small river.

As Alex boiled a big pan of pasta I followed the course of the river — surely one of Britain’s shortest — from the sea up through just a couple of hundred gentle metres to its beginning at Loch C. I had wanted to visit this spot for years. I learned about it in the book Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. He writes…

“We reached the entrance to C at dusk. Cliffs on one side, and a cut wall of rock, waterfall-seamed, on the other. As we passed between the cliffs I felt a strong sense of having crossed a portal, or stepped over a threshold.”

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We slept on the shore and then — too soon — we woke up again. 3am. Time to begin the third phase of our adventure: to tackle the famous Cuillin Ridge back to the pub at S. We hoped to reach it in time for last orders. Only 12km stood between us and beer and yet we had allowed 20 hours to get there. That should give an indication of the difficulties that stood in our way.

We left Colin sleeping (he would paddle home towing the spare kayak when he woke) and began climbing through the darkness. By sunrise we were atop our first Munro (any Scottish mountain with a height over 3,000ft (914.4m)) enjoying a staggeringly beautiful view of mountains, sea and islands.

This summit (Gars-bheinn) serves as the start point of the ridge challenge and we began at a good speed and in high spirits. The weather was beautiful, we’d made a really early start: everything was looking good. We made good speed for a couple of hours hiking, jumping and scrambling our way along the ridge.

On both sides was sky, a lot of sky, and a long, long way to fall on both sides. The views were as beautiful as from an aeroplane. But we could spare only a few glances for full attention was needed to concentrate on our footing and route finding at all times. It may seem strange that route finding is difficult high on an exposed ridge, but it’s a jumbled rocky chaos up there and progress was hellish hard. At one point Alex leaped across a gap then turned to watch me.

“I recommend you don’t look here — just jump.”

I jumped.

Then I looked down.

A long way down.

Deep breath.

Push on.

My admiration for people who run the length of the ridge in just 3.5 hours turned to amazement as we reached the first climbing section. These mountain madmen scamper up and down cliffs which, to my wimpish eye, looked frankly terrifying. I was happy indeed to be roped up as we wriggled our way up very difficult (VD) and mildly severe (MS) rock faces and abseiled down the other side. These climbing sections, we felt, were the only likely things to stop us finishing our challenge so we were chuffed to be ticking them off.

I am no climber and I do not intend to become one. I enjoyed the puzzle and the challenge of solving the riddle of hand and feet holds to heave yourself up a vertical face. But I did so with very little enthusiasm for looking down between my feet to enjoy the views. The technical term for this yawning empty space is ‘Exposure’.

I do not like Exposure one bit! But I found it fascinating to face it. I was tied securely to a rope. I was safe. But I did not feel safe. And that alone meant that this was a perfect microadventure: I was out of my comfort zone, I was pushing myself hard mentally and physically. I was learning about myself and peeling back my boundaries.

The most spectacular spot on the ridge is the marvellously named ‘Inaccessible Pinnacle’, and is described in Wild Places like this:

“A shark’s fin of black rock that jags hundreds of feet out of the ridge which had long been, to my mind, one of the wildest points in the world…”

I felt a quick buzz of fear, remembering the description of the Pinnacle by one of its first ascensionists: ‘a knife-edge ridge with an overhanging and infinite drop on one side, and a drop on the other side even steeper and longer.’

The Inaccesible Pinancle was the symbolic high point of the challenge. The view from the top was extraordinary, even if I was clinging to the rock with a vice-like grip. Unfortunately from here on things went downhill. My knee reacted badly to the terrain and, after eight hours up on the ridge I was moving like an old man. There was no way I would make it the whole way so we were forced to drop down from the ridge and concede defeat.

I was not happy to have failed, especially through something as random and uncontrollable as an injury. The triathlon microadventure challenge had been such a good one. I was disappointed to have let Alex down.

But I was also quite impressed to have failed. Britain is not a particularly wild place. You don’t tend to get beaten by the landscapes here. So I was impressed to have been humbled by these ancient, awesome mountains. I had underestimated them (the only other British challenge that I have underestimated is the Bob Graham Round). It eased one of my slight worries during this year of microadventure that, through trying to encourage others to challenge themselves, I was not particularly challenging myself.

Mountains do not care how you fare on their slopes and summits. They were around for millions of years before your petty quest began, and they’ll still be standing beautiful yet uncaring when our grandchildren’s grandchildren feel the same restless urges to test themselves.

Sure, you go and pit your wits, your skills, your guts, your luck against them. You might win, you might lose. But they don’t care either way. Maybe that’s part of their appeal. It’s certainly a good metaphor for doing big stuff in life.

Do it for the doing, not for the praise of others. And don’t be put off trying big stuff by the fear of failure.

The mountains don’t think any less of me because I failed. And they are far more impressive than the office jobs-worth whiner who loves to sneer at you if you fail something. So I failed this microadventure. But I did far more than if I had not even begun. And I now have an excuse, should one be needed, to return to the wild places of Skye for some unfinished business.






Alastair Humphreys is a British adventurer, author and blogger. He spent over 4 years cycling round the world, a journey of 46,000 miles through 60 countries and 5 continents. Alastair has written six books. He was named as one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the year for 2012.


DAVID NOYES: The Lure of Greenland's Icy World

Fog rolled quickly up the fjord enveloping us in a colorless milieu with no visible boundary separating the perfectly still water from the cold wet air. Small surface ripples created by our zodiac boat were the only indication that we were, in fact, moving. Our driver carefully navigated around massive chunks of arctic ice that suddenly appeared and disappeared like an enchanted mirage on the grey, featureless horizon. The baritone growl of the motor echoed off the surrounding granite walls as horns and whistles announced from the distance that we were not alone.

For two days we had waited for the wind and rain to subside before traveling down Tunulliarfik Fjord to our remote tent camp at Qaleraliq Glacier. Our guide Pedro casually noted that the dense fog can last for several days in South Greenland, but it was the high winds that made travel through the fjords particularly dangerous. As our speed increased, eleven of us huddled together around the outside of the zodiac wrapped in thick parkas, peering out of small openings in our protective hoods to catch a fleeting glimpse of a passing iceberg.

After a 45-minute, adrenaline-fueled arctic boat ride, we pulled into the small harbor at Narsaq. Low-lying clouds shrouded the twin peaks that frame the third most populated town in South Greenland. The iconic, brightly painted cottages were quiet as a soft rain began to fall. Our stop was brief. We boarded a smaller boat with a mountain guide equipped with crampons, helmets, harnesses, and ice axes. Before settling into our camp, we would be trekking across one of the oldest and largest masses of ice on the planet.

Recently, this mass of ice has inspired a flood of climate scientists, researchers, and historians onto the ancient ice sheet to sample ice-cores and document the thickness and movement of dozens of individual glaciers. In their quest to understand the causes and effects of climatic fluctuations, many scientists believe that what happens in Greenland over the next couple of decades will answer important questions about the complex interactions between our atmosphere and the world’s great oceans.

These scientists and researchers are no longer alone in their exploration of one of the world’s most remote and visually stunning destinations. Adventure travelers and hearty tourists from around the globe have also been lured to this icy world by spectacular images of a truly wild place. I joined travelers from Germany, Spain, France, Australia, South Africa, Greece, Ireland, England, and the United States to experience a landscape that has become the focus of an often intense and politically charged global warming debate.

As the boat carrying our group motored along the glacier front towards our landing, the enormity of the massive ice wall left us speechless. We disembarked onto huge flat rocks and scrambled up giant boulders to the base of the glacier where we geared up for the trek. We followed our guide in single file passing holes, drains, caves, seracs, and crevasses until we reached a vertical wall of translucent ice already affixed with ropes to belay our climb to another, higher level of the glacier. The persistent overcast sky and low-lying clouds unfortunately prevented a view of the vast inland glacier, but our intimacy with the impressive ice formations hinted at the incredible scale of the ice sheet beyond.

After several days of overcast, when the skies finally cleared and the fog lifted, the unmatched beauty of the landscape was revealed. From a small bluff near camp we could see for the first time that the three visible glacier fronts were actually one massive flow of ice with three separate routes to the fjord. As the sun dipped towards the horizon, deep shadows and pockets of iridescent blue created a three-dimensional glacial panorama. Soon the magnificent colors of sunset reflected in the fjord as our camp drifted into a perpetual twilight. The silence of the arctic night was only interrupted by the eerie rumble of moving ice.

The next morning greeted us with a spectacular sunrise and brilliant blue skies. We walked along the sandy shore before boarding our zodiac for the ride back to our base at the fjordside village of Qassiarsuk. We were excited and renewed by the sunshine as we once again entered the harbor at Narsaq. This time the town was bustling with activity. Fishermen packed their boats as children walked like mini glacier trekkers in single file on their way to school. We had an hour to wander through town and photograph the colorful cottages against the backdrop of blue skies and glowing white towers of ice.

With a total population of only around 57,000 Greenland is the least densely populated country on earth. Most Greenlanders are decedents of Inuit and eighteenth century Danish colonists and live along the habitable fringe between the ice and the sea. Over one quarter of the country’s population lives in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk. The rest live in a handful of small towns along the west coast, separated by a deeply indented coastline that makes road development between towns impossible.

There is very little remaining of the Viking presence on Greenland except for a few scattered ruins and the legends passed down in Norse sagas. By the year 874 CE colonists from Norway had settled permanently in Iceland bringing with them a dairy-based economy that they soon combined with seal hunting and fishing to earn a living in the new land. Warm summers allowed ample hay and barley harvests for winter food and fodder. They were successful and thrived at the edge of the arctic.

The Norse were essentially farmers and fishermen who did a bit of plundering and pillaging along the way. One of those tough seafaring farmers, the infamous Erik the Red, sailed west out of Iceland after being banished from the island for three years for of murder. He set off into unknown waters with a small group of men to explore reports of mysterious islands sighted by one of his relatives some half-century earlier. He landed on the rugged eastern shore of Greenland in 982 but soon sailed around the southern tip to a fjord near Qaqortog. He spent the next three years exploring the fjords of the south.

There is evidence that Erik the Red landed on Greenland during a period of exceptional warmth and stability known as the Medieval Warm Period. In the southwestern corner of the Island the Norse found green summer pastures that provided grazing land for sheep, abundant fish, and large numbers of sea mammals. Erik returned to Iceland with glowing reports about the fertile land he called Greenland, which he thought would be an attractive name to lure potential settlers.

A year later, Erik and 14 ships arrived on Greenland to establish settlements in the sheltered waters of the Southwest. Eventually 4,000 Norse settled the massive island raising sheep and cattle like they did back home. They built churches, homes, farms, and communities on relatively fertile ground compared to the thin volcanic soil and hardscrabble of Iceland. Erik himself settled in the heart of the richest farmland at a place that is now the village of Qassiarsuk.

We were greeted at Qassiarsuk by several staff of the Leif Erickson Hostel and by its Spanish owner, polar explorer Ramon Larramendi. Larramendi became a legend of sorts following his three-year arctic expedition from Greenland to Alaska by foot, kayak, and dog sled in the early 1990s. The Hostel has become his home in Greenland and a support enclave for kayak expeditions he leads throughout the country.

After Ramon welcomed us to the hostel, Pedro took us on a tour of the village and the ruins of Brattahild—the name of Erik the Red’s original farmstead. The modern village dates from a successful effort to reintroduce sheep breeding to the area in the 1920s and is home to about 60 year-round residents. The highlights of the tour were the picturesque recreation of what archaeologists believe was the first church built in the New World, and a turf-covered reconstruction of a Norse longhouse.

There are many theories about why the Norse mysteriously disappeared from Greenland after over four centuries of settlement. Maybe a massive epidemic swept the Island or a blight devastated their grazing land. But one contributing factor to the Norse exodus was most likely the onset of a 500-year period known as the Little Ice Age. By 1300, Greenland was already experiencing increasing cold and extreme, unpredictable shifts in weather. Glacial advances began in the early thirteenth century and increased ice pack while stormy seas in the northernmost Atlantic disrupted critical trading routes. What we do know is that the last known written record of the Norse on Greenland wasn’t about a war, plague, or famine. It was about a wedding in 1408.

By 1300, the Norse had also been sharing their remote island with Inuit, who arrived from northern Canada centuries earlier. While they brought with them dogsleds, kayaks, and other essential tools and skills that would help them survive the Little Ice Age, the Norse still relied on the same fishing and dairy economy introduced during the time of Erik the Red. Their existence depended on storing enough hay and fish to survive the long harsh winter. Even a small shift in the growing season would have caused livestock to die and put vulnerable settlers at risk.

Nobody knows if the current weather patterns will lead to another ice age or if we are heading into another prolonged warming period like the one that allowed the Norse to thrive, but the history of Greenland is a history of survival and adaptation in extreme arctic conditions. It is a harsh and unforgiving land of amazing beauty where life clings to the fertile fringes between the ice and the sea.





David’s most recent project is the 2013 launch of his nonprofit corporation Innocent Eyes Project, Inc. Innocent Eyes Project will support grassroots child education programs working in developing countries by raising and allocating funds for projects where small amounts of money can have the largest impact on underserved children and communities. Learn more about David’s project at: