Mosca replied she would be happy to host Syla and her sister in California. She was a bit surprised, however, when the emailed response she received was, “Okay, our plane arrives at 12:30 p.m.”
“I didn’t know what day — if it was that day, or the next day, or the next week,” Mosca said, laughing. “Plus, I didn’t know if by 12:30 p.m. she meant noon or midnight.”
Mosca immediately imagined how Syla and sister Iga, Inuits who were born and raised in the remote Nunavut, would react to the big international airport — a far cry from the one-room building and tiny strip of runway they were used to up in the Arctic.
“I knew they wouldn’t plan for multiple terminals and such,” Mosca said. “I just imagined them wandering around this big airport, and I didn’t even know when they’d be arriving.”
The chaos, however, was tempered by what Mosca knew well of the Inuit — that obstacles that seem enormous are never too big to overcome.
“No matter what happens — no matter how bad it seems — the Inuit always laugh at it,” she said. “Laughing takes less energy than worrying or getting angry, and they need energy living up there.”
Another Inuit habit Mosca had discovered during her many travels to the Arctic was that nothing is ever planned ahead — proof of which she was given when the sisters decided on an impromptu trip to San Diego.
“We were in Ottawa [for vacation], and it was raining and I decided I didn’t want to spend time in the rain,” Syla said, sitting in Mosca’s sun-drenched kitchen. “So I told Iga I had a friend in San Diego, and we jumped on a plane.”
While Mosca was certainly surprised to have two last-minute guests, she was more surprised that she would be entertaining two Inuit in San Diego at all.
“I think they might be the only Inuit to ever come to San Diego,” Mosca said.
That claim may or may not be true, but one thing is for sure: not one of the 125 inhabitants of Syla and Iga’s hometown of Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island has been to America’s Finest City.
At 76 degrees 24 minutes north — 720 miles north of the Arctic Circle — Grise Fiord is the northernmost Inuit settlement. Indeed, its location and climate are belied in its Inuktitut name: Aujuittuq, meaning “the place that never thaws.” For 10 months out of the year, the water surrounding the hamlet is frozen through, allowing for travel on a sea ice highway by snowmobile and dogsled. Temperatures peak in July, usually around 40 degrees Fahrenheit — though they can sometimes reach 50 F in the 24-hour sun.
“Remote” doesn’t quite begin to describe Grise Fiord. Two cargo planes visit the village every week, bringing much-needed goods to the residents — “and that’s only in good weather,” Iga said. Not much goes in or out, making life there relatively expensive for the few that have chosen to remain. Many Inuit, once they graduate from high school, move away, Iga said.
“They don’t want to come back,” she said. “There’s nothing for them there, and there aren’t many activities. Everything is limited.”
Isolation and a high cost of living are taking a toll on the population, especially since the town rarely welcomes newcomers. When Mosca visited in 1985, she witnessed a very extraordinary phenomenon indeed — the first birth in five years.
“The Inuit have notoriously low birth rates,” Mosca said.
Still, Iga countered, Grise Fiord is her home, and there’s something to be said for the peace and quiet of her hamlet at the edge of the sea, where she teaches Inuktitut, the Inuit language that children speak exclusively until they go to school and start to learn English.
Syla, meanwhile, moved to Iqaluit on Baffin Island some years ago. She can make a good living there, working for the Nunavut government as an administrative coordinator for the Department of Finance.
The difference between their daily lifestyle and that of ours in Southern California is palpable — making for some potentially serious culture shock. For the sisters, however, what has them most in awe is the attire we don in San Diego.
“Most people here wear almost nothing,” Syla said. “I’m not used to not putting my jacket on when I go outside.”
So what sights do they plan to take in during their vacation? The things that La Jolla can most easily offer: sun, sand and sea, especially a sea that one can actually swim in.
“I’ve been going to the beach twice a day,” Syla said. “And I want to try paragliding.”
There’s one thing that has eluded them so far, however. With persistent daylight carrying on for three months, the sisters were anxious to see the sun do something they don’t normally see this time of year: rise and set. June gloom has so far prevented them from getting a good view of the sun melting into the Pacific, but they’re not worried. Maybe the weather will change, maybe it won’t. Either way, they won’t be upset. After all, they’re Inuit; they’ll laugh it off.