For the first time since we arrived just a week ago there is some commotion outside the row of six windows in our cute little cottage, all facing the water. Usually the view is onto an old fishing trawler, quite big, but rather deserted. A few kids might be riding their bikes or rollerblades on the small strip of bitumen that separates the ocean and a little inlet, surrounded by a rock wall. That’s the usual view at dusk.
Today, it is already dark, 10pm or a bit later, but there are lights shining out there today. What’s going on?
Ena told us about a festival coming up here at the end of May but they wouldn’t start setting up for it tonight, on April 28? There is a crane. From what I can see, it looks as if this machine is transporting something big from a boat onto the land. I squeeze my eyes to see more. No, it’s not a boat, it’s a big truck. And then there are lots of cars driving into the area.
What is going on?
There is a knock on our door. Magni comes in and explains. There has been a big whale hunt in a neighbouring village. They caught about 100 pilot whales and now every Faroese is entitled to get their share of whale meat. Do we want to go down and have a look?
Sure, Ron is putting his shoes on. Of course, he may bring his camera to get a few shots.
I am already in my PJ’s and decide to keep watching from our window. Half an hour later, Ron is back with stories to tell and a lot of photos in his box.
He tells me that I wouldn’t have liked the site. He talks about blood, skin and guts. And of big containers the locals use to receive what they are given. Big chunks of black whale meat.
(A few days later we are told that the whale steaks have all the blood still in them, that’s why the meat looks so dark and tastes so good). The people wait patiently in a row while some experienced fishermen in orange overalls skilfully cut the meat on a big table.
Another hour or so, and the spectacle is over. The cars leave, the lights go off, and the next morning the only evidence of last nights surprising event are the seagulls who feed on whatever is left around.
Ron and I are left with a degree of disbelief. What was that? Killing whales? Eating their meat? Every person on the island joins in, gets a feed for free?
In our country, tourists pay a lot of money to go on whale watching boat trips, to see the whales swimming and breeching, playing. In our country they are protected, and here they kill them in hundreds?
Strangely enough, a few nights earlier, around the dinner table at our hosts place, we are told the story about this more than 500 year old Faroese tradition.
To understand the background, you have to know that the Faroe Islands are very barren. Nothing much grows here apart from potatoes, turnips and rhubarb, all the rest gets imported from other parts of the world. Faroese main industry is fishing, about 97%. So, naturally, fish and potatoes are the staple foods for the 50 000 people living here now. Most of the year the weather is quite cold, temperatures in summer only reach around 12 degrees on average.
Whale hunting in the Faroese is an old tradition and has been a normal part of traditional life. It goes back to the times when people had to hunt for food to survive. Around 10 times a year, a school of pilot whales or dolphins is detected by fishermen. When that happens, the police get informed straight away. They let everybody in the village nearby know about it. All the men in the village will stop whatever they are doing and make their way to the water. Between 30 and 50 fisher boats leave the harbour to encircle the animals and bring them into the bay. The men on the beach enter the water with spears and knives and quickly kill the huge animals. Then the carcasses are brought to shore and get cleaned and cut up, divided into parts. Every community member gets a share of the nutritious meat for free to take home.
Ron and I talk it over in the next few days, discuss it further with our hosts and their extended family. It is a very strange, alien concept for us and we had no idea about this tradition unique to the Faroese before we came to the islands. We are grateful to have been given the opportunity to be part of this event and to be told the background. Without that, I may have condemned the people for what they do (coming only from the perspective I knew before) rather than start to understand the local perspective.
It makes me think: How often do we judge others? I am guilty of that many times. How often do we put in the effort to listen and learn about other people’s background and perspective? How often do we change our point of view in the light of someone else’s?
Big lessons to be learnt once again while travelling to a foreign land. For me, this is a great way. In fact, for me it is the best way. I learn by doing, by seeing with my own eyes, by touching, by trying it out and making mistakes.
Much better than just reading or hearing about it.
I go through another tangible learning experience while we are here. This time, it concerns the environment. Here in Vestmanna, our job in the “workaway” set up is to help paint a fishing boat. Ron and I both enjoy this work, we have done a lot of painting in our wooden Queenslander at home, so we are “experienced” hobby painters. It’s great working outside, in the famous Faroes’ fresh air, even though the cold temperatures and frequent gale winds freeze our noses and make the paint detach itself from the brush. We learn to hold on to loose objects on deck so covering the area with newspaper like we do at home would be of no use here.
The paint for the outside of the boat, white edges, green deck and black walls on the outside looks bright and cheerful, and it is thick and oil based, ideal for the rough weather conditions it has to withstand all year round. One afternoon, after finishing the green deck, we clean up the boat and manoeuvre the remaining paint, trays, paintbrushes and tools over the steps onto the metal jetty. It’s a little balancing act, but we manage well. Just then, by accident, the tray with the green paint tips over. Thank God, there isn’t much left in the tray. But straight away, the paint runs through the metal grid of the jetty into the crystal clear, pristine ocean water underneath. You should have seen the mess it created. It left an oily film on the surface that spread everywhere. In our desperation, we try to get the blobs of paint out of the water with a long handle broom, but it’s ineffective. Eventually, the whole oily film thins out and the next day we can’t spot it any more. Phew!
For me, that was a learning process. Sure, you have heard of oil spills in the ocean, from leaking oil tankers on the news, you have seen the pictures online. But seeing it with your own eyes, the damage a little blob of oil paint leaves in pristine water is devastating to watch and makes this whole problem so much more real.
It made me feel very distraught. I will be extra careful next time. That will not happen again.