Traveling with a beautiful purpose – Aarti Polavarapu, Outbound participant

Traveling with a beautiful purpose – Aarti Polavarapu, Outbound participant

If someone asks me to define my experience in Greenland, I believe these 5 words would perfectly encapsulate my 5 weeks spent there.

Being an Indian who grew up in Delhi, I’ve grown accustomed to having different seasons, but never any snow. Naturally, learning about the world’s biggest island 80 percent of which is permanently covered with ice, was fascinating for me. When I heard my friend from London talk about how she volunteers during summers to work with the children in Greenland, it was definitely intriguing for me. Initially, I was interested in this volunteering programme because I’d get to travel to the magical land of Greenland, but soon it became more about the reason and meaning of undertaking such a volunteering camp, instead. My love for traveling now had a purpose attached to it, which made it more meaningful for me.

Greenland has an extremely cold winter that spans over 8 months, but the disadvantage that comes with the low temperatures is the fact that there’s very little light during this time. In the short summers that they do have, people are lucky enough to witness the midnight sun, which basically means there is no night. And, during these summer months, ForeningenGrønlandskeBørn (The Association of Greenlandic Children) organises summer camps with volunteers from around the world, in different remote settlements in Greenland, to give the Greenlandic children a fun-filled summer to energise them and engage them with their peers and volunteers. Owing to the diversity of volunteers, the aim is also to create a multi-national exchange by exposing them to different cultures of the world.

I volunteered at one such camp called ‘Camp Kulloq’ in July-August 2019, held in Kullorsuaq (settlement in north-western Greenland), along with 12 other volunteers. Amongst the 13 of us, we had 10 different nationalities with people from Denmark, Greenland, England, Poland, Estonia, Czechia, Russia, Serbia, Belarus, and of course, India. Even though this camp was meant for the children of Greenland and to teach them new things, we all learnt a lot from them and from each other in the process, which made it a truly enriching experience. 

At the very beginning, all of us volunteers were excited, yet nervous because we were going on a 5-week journey to a remote place in the world, and we were going to be completely disconnected from the rest of the world. We all took it as a challenge and believed in the mission of the camp, and were motivated to help accomplish what it set out to do. To get to Kullorsuaq, I had to get to Copenhagen first, from Delhi. This first flight made it all finally feel real to me. From there, we took a flight to Kangerlussuaq, and then to Ilulissat, and then from there to Upernavik. We stayed in Upernavik for a couple of days to plan out our camp and the activities we’d like to organise in the camp.

We spent our days in Upernavik getting to know each other and planning out our camp. I loved how much autonomy we had concerning the nature of the activities we would like to be involved in, which made it very comfortable for me. We brainstormed and had a list of possible activities, and we decided to review after our first week to make our camp more engaging based on the response. After all this, it was finally time to fly to our destination of Kullorsuaq.

The first sight of Kullorsuaq from the helicopter honestly made me fall in love with the place. It was the most serene island surrounded by the occasional icebergs and pristine blue water. The prominent thumb like hill top (after which the place has been named as ‘Kulloq’, in Greenlandic, ‘thumb’) made the place stand out. Right when we got off the helicopter, we could see a lot of children at the helipad waving Greenlandic flags to welcome us. They all looked so excited and kept giggling all the time. Even though they barely spoke any English, they kept smiling at us and followed us all the way to the school, which is where we were going to stay during our time at the camp.

We spent the first few days settling in and taking into account the resources we had to understand how we could completely utilise them. The first event we were going to organise was on our first weekend there to announce our camp, and get everyone interested in what we had planned for them. We hosted our ‘Nationality Night’ and made dishes specific to our cultures, and set up booths for all our countries to show what we represent and pique their interests. We were nervous before we opened the doors for them, but it was so encouraging to see people come in huge crowds. The night was meant to make them feel welcome, but they ended up making us feel welcome.

Over the next few weeks, we had activities for people of all age groups, from 12 pm to 6 pm every day of the week. Even though originally the camp was only meant to be for children, it was inspiring to see that people of different age groups took interest and wanted to join in. We were happy to have them and so, took that into account while planning our activities after the first day onwards. We always planned the activities a day before and tried to include as many new activities as possible, to try and ensure that no 2 days are the same.

All our activities would either be sports activities, or creative activities, and we had different ones throughout the day for people of different age groups. We didn’t speak much Greenlandic and they didn’t speak much English, but we never really needed any language to communicate. It was fascinating how perceptive they were, and how eager they were to learn new things and make the most of the experience. It warmed our hearts to see that our bonds were beyond language and we learnt so much in return, making it a truly inspiring experience for us too.

On Saturdays, we used to have town evenings from 6 pm onwards, where we would come up with events that could engage the whole town as one. We had different themes for these events such as Inuit games evening, or barbeque evening. All evenings had the element of music because everyone in the town loved music and so did we, as we would all be humming along to the songs with them, barely understanding the lyrics. We were also fans of the Greenlandic polka and enjoyed being integrated into their dances.

It was interesting to see the whole community coming together as one and enjoying such occasions together, but what was more humbling was the fact that they took all of us as being a part of their community so quickly and always made us feel like we belonged there, as well. Not just the town evenings, but we were always invited to every celebration that took place while we were there and the people had opened their homes and hearts to us, which made us feel like we weren’t a long way from our home. This sense of community and belongingness moved all of us which made it difficult for all of us to say goodbye in the end. And so, our farewell was marked with happy tears from both the sides.

The camp was a huge success with around 333 people from the population of 450 in Kullorsuaq having attended the camp activities, with not only children, but the youngsters and adults taking keen interest too. It was personally rewarding for me because of the interactions I had with the children, and the bonds I formed with the people in Kullorsuaq. Many of them are now my Facebook friends, and talking to them often warms my heart.

However, my interactions with my fellow volunteers was definitely an added bonus. I met so many wonderful people and learnt so many different things about cultures from around the world. We all came from such diverse backgrounds and had such different experiences in our lives, which always made for interesting conversations during our evenings. Not only was it a once in a lifetime volunteering experience, it also gave me the joy of forming some interesting friendships with my fellow volunteers.

Furthermore, we always had Sundays off for recreational activities and relaxing, and I had some of the most brilliant experiences of my life during those days. I went kayaking on my own for the first time, walked on glaciers and icebergs, saw seals both alive and while being hunted, took a dip in the cold ocean water, got to pet some ferocious Greenlandic dogs and their newly born pups, and try traditional Greenlandic food, among other things. It was an entirely different world out there.

Now that I am back home writing about it, I can’t help but smile looking back fondly on my days in Greenland. I know I am aching to go back, and perhaps I will if I have the opportunity. I am grateful to Rohan and his team at Field Services and intercultural Learning (FSL India) who made it possible for me to be a part of this experience, guided me throughout the process, and gave me the confidence and assistance required. I look forward to participating in more such programs while encouraging others to do so, as well. I am thankful that there are such opportunities available which make it possible for us to contribute to the well-being and development of others, while also making it such a rewarding and beautiful experience for ourselves.

This volunteering experience has made my outlook and perception more optimistic. I can only hope to have touched and changed their lives in some way, but I can affirm that it definitely has changed mine in the most positive way.

Photographs taken by Nicola Abraham for Foreningen Grønlandske Børn  

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