When I was a little girl, I had dreamed of seeing the Himalaya. I imagined the faces of mountains, sharp and eternal, blues and greys. I planned that one day I would look upon these faces, I would learn their landscape, and meet the people who lived in their shadow.
In 2010, I bought a ticket to Kathmandu with adventure on my mind, and the desire to volunteer at a school, offering whatever I could as far as skills and support to people who might need them. When I arrived at the little brick building that is Tribhuvan International Airport, I had that odd feeling inside that my life was never going to be the same.
The Universe aligned in a most peculiar way to place me at Shree Mangal Dvip School for Himalayan Children (SMD) in Boudha, on the edge of Kathmandu. I was to teach art, as there were no art classes, and there was a group of talented young students hungering to draw. I still remember walking into the dim little classroom for the first time, where I was met with wide eyes and shy smiles, feeling nervous, wondering if I could give them what they needed.
By the time the summer was over, the shy smiles were wide, happy grins and the growth of confidence was tangible in all of us. We talked, we laughed, we drew. Somewhere in the grey, thick monsoon, these kids became my kids, and I felt a pull in my soul to return. I left with a heavy heart, and it took me two weeks to readjust to living in Istanbul again. I scanned the horizon for mountains, I searched for the smiles I missed. I saved every kuruş for seven months to buy my plane ticket back to what I can only call home.
SMD had virtually no art supplies when I arrived in the summer of 2010— we did everything with pencils and A4 copier paper. This year, with the generous help of a 10th grade class at Istanbul International Community School and Güven Sanat art supply store in Kadıköy (who kindly offered me a massive discount, enabling me to purchase even more supplies), I returned to Nepal armed with two suitcases bursting with paints, colour pencils, charcoal and other fun materials.
The smiles that greeted me this June were larger than the ones I remembered from the previous summer— I had come back. So often, volunteers do wonderful work and are never seen again, and though the kids at SMD are accustomed to this, I must believe there is some sense of loss felt. Every single student I had taught in 2010 was waiting for me on the balcony of the cafeteria, where we had determined had the most light, bursting with enthusiasm and anxious to get started. I pulled out a box of charcoal.
"Have you ever used charcoal before?" I asked.
As the summer rolled on with the giant, heavy clouds, we studied proportion, expression, and the figure. With blackened fingers and dark smears of charcoal stretched across damp foreheads, laughter and jokes filled the space we had claimed, and the windows to the cafeteria began to fog with the breath of curious onlookers.
"Samantha, kasto cha?"
"Mo san chai chu." I would pronounce clumsily back.
They taught me Nepali, and I showed them perspective.
We planned an exhibition.
We filled the library with our art, something that had never been done at the school before, and all the children were brought up in groups by their teachers, and they stood on benches and stared, marvelling at their classmates' work.
"Our kids really did all this?" One teacher asked me, as he studied the drawings in awe.
I realised that day in the library, that I belong. I belong to something larger than myself. My life is entwined with the lives of these gorgeous faces, and I have a place that will welcome me as family each time I return. The love I feel is mightier than any mountain.
Thank you, my artists. Thank you, Shirley. Thank you Lama S.T. Thank you Karma Tsering.
We were lucky to have with us this summer the very talented and big-hearted Toby, a young volunteer from Portugal whose artistic skills are beyond measure. Thank you, Toby.
Thank you SMD.