Dharma wanted to go out on the ice.
The black-haired boy was already climbing into his snowsuit, zipping up the front before yanking soft mittens over his hands. Stine, the social worker from Denmark, helped him with his boots and then pulled a woollen cap over his head. I wondered: was she there to chaperone the child, or me?
Dharma beckoned me to follow him outside into the frigid blank whiteness. The snow had been falling since yesterday and now he was knee deep in the stuff, kicking at it with gusto before climbing onto his wooden sled.
He commanded me in Greenlandic, an Inuit language that is older than most European cities. Even from a child’s mouth, the words sounded guttural and ancient.
“He wants you to push him down the hill,” guessed Stine, who knew no more Greenlandic than I. We were clueless adults, trailing behind our five-year-old guide, grown-up guests in his world.
I nudged Dharma gently down the frozen slope, away from the orphanage where he lived. Winter had replaced the slanted streets with a path of solid ice, and the boy flew away faster than I could waddle after him.
The island looks like a melted ice cream cone scattered with a child’s rejected Legos
The small village of Uummannaq in northwest Greenland is a craggy lump of granite rising up from a silver fjord, covered with a confetti of gabled houses painted blue, green, yellow and red. Arriving by helicopter, the island looks like a melted ice cream cone scattered with a child’s rejected Legos.
But on the ground, chasing Dharma down to the harbour, life in Ummannaq came into focus. Codfish – sliced, gutted, salted, dried and frozen – hung on clotheslines, swimming headless in the wind. Someone’s porch was coated in narwhal blood, a plastic tarp flapping over half the whale’s speckled corpse. Spiralled narwhal tusks leaned against the wall, each one a testament to a successful hunt. A pair of polar bear trousers, fluffy and white, stood upright, ready for a trip on the ice. The fishing boats sat frozen in the harbour, useless until spring.
In the violet and lingering winter dusk, the mournful wail of sled dogs building like a monastic chant against the arctic wind, Dharma’s silhouette stood out among the bluish mounds of crusty ice on the shore. My parental instinct was to grab the boy before he slipped, but I held back. He walked with ease on the ice, which is at least six feet thick, the fishermen say. Their safe path was marked with tyre tracks and a winter’s worth of snowmobile runs, leading us further and further away from the granite edge and out to the blank spread of sea ice.
Young Dharma knows ice better than he knows leaves on trees, or cows or trains. For half the year, his own backyard is ice, and I watched him play with broken chunks of iceberg as big as television sets.
“He wants you to carry the ice,” Stine said, mumbling something at Dharma in Danish. I joined in the childish game, piling the ice up on the sled and pushing it to shore, as if returning with some great treasure. Over and over, the ice fell off the wobbly little sled, but I humoured Dharma’s relentless commands, gathering more and more and carrying it all the way back up to the orphanage.
The Uummannaq Children's Home sits at the base of the island’s heart-shaped mountain. The 40-odd children who live here come from all over Greenland, but exactly how and why they are here is a mystery. Only the children know their own stories: some have escaped difficult lives in their communities, some come from destitute homes with alcoholic or abusive parents, some have suffered tremendous neglect. Such are the struggles that face many remote, indigenous communities around the country – and vulnerable kids like Dharma find a loving refuge and a new life in Uummannaq.
When we entered, good cooking smells hit my nose and I heard the lilting sound of Greenlandic radio from the kitchen. Dharma shook off his winter wear and ran off to join some of the older children who were back from school.
The Uummannaq Children's Home is anything but institutional. The big house on the hill is three times the size of a typical island home, and all the children all have their own bedrooms, filled with their own clothes and toys.
“It’s important that they have their own space,” explained Stine.
There are sprawling living rooms with couches and coffee tables, thick Persian rugs, and walls hung with framed art: oil paintings of gargantuan landscapes, block prints of Inuit hunters, soft watercolours of polar bears and seals. And there are souvenirs: aluminium Eiffel towers and Statues of Liberty. Many of these children have already seen the world – they have travelled from Australia to New York, from Paris to Japan. Part of their education is to learn to play musical instruments and to sing and perform; after which they tour the globe, sharing their Greenlandic culture.
Most of the children are away on tour now, while Dharma – who has yet to learn how to sing or play the viola or cello – has been left behind. He is too young.
Dinner was roasted narwhal. The meat was heavy and dark, the blubber sizzling hot with the marbled pattern of whale skin still attached. Nobody spoke – not the children, not the many matrons who manage the home day and night, not the visiting social workers from Denmark and not me. Silence is the rule at the table, and so I chewed the whale blubber quietly, swallowing hard.
“Most of these kids come from very troubled homes. Places where there was always yelling and crying – just chaos. We try to make a place that is quiet and without chaos. Dinner is always silent,” Stine whispered.
The children stayed in their seats until the last person had finished eating. We were excused together, and we all brought our dishes to the sink. The whole thing felt vaguely monastic.
After I said goodnight to Dharma and the others, I bundled up and trudged through the snow to my own room in a separate wing of the house. The Northern Lights glimmered overhead, green and gauzy, swirling like a ghoulish phantasm. I lay down in the cold and watched the oozing colours melting away, then brightening once more. The air stung my lungs and my head was hard on the frozen rock, but I could almost have stayed there all night, lost in the lights, listening once more to the mournful lullaby of dogs.
The next morning, Ummannaq had disappeared.
When I looked out the window, the island was gone. There was nothing but white, and on my way to the kitchen, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. This was snow and fog together, a frozen cloud pressing down on us at the top of the world.
There is no such thing as a snow day in Greenland and the remaining older kids had already left for school. I ate my silent breakfast at the table with Dharma, who made faces at me between spoonfuls of cereal, smirking and giggling until one of the matrons rebuked him to silence. The two of us ate, smiling, until another of the Greenlandic aunties swooped in and whisked my friend away for his lessons.
There was no point in going outdoors today, for there was literally nothing to see. Also, the wind was strong enough to blow me over. I remained indoors like a sorry spring breaker in the rain, a prisoner of circumstance. My world shrunk down to the size of a single bed in a guest room.
Stine was off today, so there was nobody to converse with, there was no wi-fi and there were no books in English. I attempted to be productive, studying my Greenlandic phrasebook and speaking the words out loud: Nnuappunga (I have a cold), Isigaalerpunga (my toes are freezing), Ajorpunga (I don’t feel well).
But how do you say, “I love the late winter of northern Greenland. I love how big and unpredictable the snow can be, and I love how the ice goes on forever – or at least as far as the high cliffs at the opposite end of the fjord. I love the kids playing football a good mile offshore, kicking the ball back and forth on top of the ocean.”
How do you say, “Uummannaq is amazing because it is so separate from the world I know – Manhattan and Miami, big American cities and the highways that cross them. I love how Greenland stands apart, home to a people who have never forgotten how to live, no matter the weather.”
I accept the fact that I will never learn to say these things in Greenlandic, that the people in this town will never hear the real words that I feel. I accept that upon this rock in the ice, my lifetime of knowledge and experience is useless, and that I am reduced to a somewhat foolish man who is in awe of the ferocious weather, yet still fears it. Up here, the greatest value lies in the invisible knowledge around us: how to find food in the dead of winter, how to stay warm when it’s well below freezing, when to stay inside and where to step on the ice.
The storm continued for two days. My helicopter out was cancelled, granting me an extra night at the Children’s Home, where I spent a few hours showing Dharma how to take pictures with my camera. In 20 minutes he shot my entire 32GB flashcard.
The sky cleared by morning, revealing a row of far mountains that pointed to the immense ice cap that fills Greenland like a bowl. Dharma did not understand my English goodbye, but I shook his little hand and said qujanaq (thank you) over and over again.
I do not expect Dharma to remember me – I have very few memories of the adults I encountered as a five-year old – but he is on me like a tattoo now. Years from now I will guess his age, and wonder what he is up to; whether he has left the home, if he is happy and well. Dharma is part of my map of the world, a smiling face on the nation that I know only slightly better than before.
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