India Part 2: Aavishkaar

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. -Mahatma Gandhi

Coby and I arrived at Aavishkaar School at 5:00am on a Tuesday morning, after a sleepless 11-hour bus ride from Delhi. Aavishkaar is located in the tiny town of Sungal, in the Himachal Pradesh (lit: Snow-capped Region) district of India. Even more specifically, we were in the Dhauladhar Range of the western Himalayas.

As it was so early in the morning, we arrived at the school before sunrise. One of Aavishkaar’s friendly faculty members showed us to our room in the dormitory. We were the dormitory’s only occupants—the thirty or so girls currently attending Aavishkaar (which brings students in from all over India for periods of about a month at a time) were on the second day of a three-day trek. After unloading my backpack, I immediately stepped back outside and waited for the sun to rise. When it did, I got my first look at the Himalayas.

I have no doubt that hundreds of writers have described the beauty of this range more eloquently than I could. But I will say that it knocked my socks off. We weren’t even anywhere near the big boys, your Everests, your Lhotses, your Annapurnas. In fact, the peaks I could see from the dormitory’s front porch weren’t even snow-capped. They were at low enough altitude that trees still covered a good portion of their flanks, with bare, purple-gray rock only peeking out at the very top. Still…beautiful.


Sunrise in the Dhauladhars

After the sun rose I went immediately to sleep.

Later that day, Coby and I explored the area. In Sungal’s neighboring town of Baijnath, we visited the remains of an ancient temple, in which people used to worship Shiva. Now its main occupants are statues and monkeys.

From Baijnath we descended to a wonderfully clear river, and spent a relaxing afternoon swimming in its cold waters and drying in the heat of the sun.


Incense burning at Baijnath Temple


Coby was having a bad hair day.

That evening I met Sandhya, who leads Aavishkaar with the help of her husband, Sarit. As soon as she learned that I teach English, she was overjoyed. Aavishkaar is mostly a math-and-science kind of school, but she didn’t want to pass up the opportunity for the students to get some English practice, and politely asked if I would teach an hour or two during my stay. I accepted.

The next day was our first hike. We walked uphill from Sungal (stopping on the main road for a morning cup of masala chai) until we left the road, following a trail outlined for us by Sandhya. Unlike most trails I’ve hiked in the States, this trail was not marked. At all. We had nothing but luck and a Sandhya’s hand-drawn map to guide us.

Luck was on our side, and the map was well-drawn. We hiked uphill for four hours, finding some excellent views along the way. Eventually we stopped in a clearing for lunch. This clearing was somewhat off the trail and in the middle of nowhere. There was not a sign of life to be seen for miles.


A view from our hike


Another view from the hike.

After a short, impromptu nap, we stood from this wilderness bed and began heading downhill. Within two minutes of leaving that place we came upon a mountainside village. I do no exaggerate. From our clearing we could see no sign of human civilization. Two minutes after leaving it we were in a village. This village had ten buildings at the most. One of its inhabitants spoke English. He translated between us and the others (perhaps twenty people, all of them watching us with great interest). They led us to a stone porch, where we sat as they gave us masala chai and walnuts to eat. Also on this porch were many kernels of corn. They were drying in the sun prior to being ground into flour—which was how the people of the village made a living.

I wanted to stay at the village for a night and help them grind flour in exchange for their kindness. But we were expected back at Aavishkaar that night, so we resumed the hike.


Leaving the village.

The rest of that hike was a mixture of treading through cold river water and walking barefoot on the mountain road while our shoes dried. The latter was actually the easiest part of the hike.

Soon after we got back to the school, the students also returned from their three-day trek. We introduced ourselves to them, they were introduced to us as girls who come from slums and poor communities, who probably lacked decent education at home if they had any at all. And what I really remember is being told that none of them could speak English well at all. Certainly, when I tried engaging some of them in conversation, they couldn’t really get past “How are you?” “I’m fine,” which is about the same level many of my Thai students are at.

That night we helped the girls make dinner (it is not required for students to cook for themselves. Aavishkaar keeps a cook on staff. This group of girls just particularly enjoyed cooking). In particular, Coby and I helped make roti, or chapaati. This is a circular, Indian flatbread, not entirely unlike pita bread.

The next day was my first English lesson. I could tell right away that these girls were more advanced than I was led to believe. Within five minutes we breezed through a lesson I had planned to last the entire hour. Within forty-five minutes we had gone through my entire list of typical activities that we do at Bunditnoi. Sandhya, I felt, was rather disappointed. I believe she had expected me to give more of a challenge, or be, well, a better teacher.

The truth is, my experience in Thailand has not made me a universally effective English teacher. I am now prepared to teach certain aspects of English (mostly very basic vocabulary) to students in Thailand in a particular way. To be suddenly faced with a group of girls who were much more advanced than any student I’ve yet taught was daunting. I knew I had to step up my game.

But Coby and I left Aavishkaar that afternoon for a three-day trek of our own. When we returned that Saturday evening, I had a game plan…literally.


The Grand Gate of Aavishkaar.

My second lesson was on Sunday morning. Instead of lecturing or any other kind of activity, we played a game.

This game has no official title I’m aware of. In the version I’ve played in America, everybody writes the name of a famous person on a card. The cards are shuffled, and then, without looking, everybody puts one of the cards on their forehead. The purpose of the game is to guess whose name is written on your forehead.

I introduced this game to the students, but had them all write their own name on a card. Then they had to guess which of their classmates was written on their forehead! In addition to the obvious rules of: 1) Don’t look at the card, and 2) Don’t read aloud the names on other peoples’ cards, I added rule 3) Only speak in English.

The game proved more of a challenge to them that my initial lessons. The girls mostly used questions like “What color shirt am I wearing?” and “What color is my hair?” The answer to the latter being unilaterally “black,” so I don’t know how that helped them. Still, throughout the hour I only had to remind them once that speaking Hindi was against the rules. The game lasted the entire period and everybody enjoyed it.

Later that morning, Coby taught a workshop on building bridges. In exchange for minimal amounts of “money,” the girls would get supplies like toothpicks, popsicle sticks, and string. At the end of the workshop, the team whose bridge held the most weight in proportion to the amount of “money” the bridge cost won the contest.


A flower in Himachal Pradesh.

That was our final night at Aavishkaar. As it happens, it was also the day the girls left to go home, so the night was very quiet. Coby and I, along with Bharat, the math teacher, broke out the school’s big telescope, set it up on the roof, and spent the night stargazing. We didn’t really get the telescope to work well, but we didn’t need to. In the Himachal Pradesh you could see the Milky Way with the naked eye every night.

NOTICE: This is the second in a four-post series about my trip to India. The series is generally, but not strictly, in chronological order. The previous and remaining posts are as follows:

Expect them within the next week.

Be dareful!


India Part 1: The Tamil Nadu Express

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. –Mahatma Gandhi.

The plane landed in Chennai, India on October 1. As the disembarkation began, I said goodbye to Paul, a friendly middle-aged Indian man who offered to call a hostel at which he was a frequent guest and arrange for a discount on my behalf, just as soon as we both passed through customs.

To make a long, boring story short, the foreigners’ line at customs took a ridiculously long time—by the time I was on the other side, it was after 11:00 pm, and Paul was long gone. I taxied to nearby Hotel Mars and fell asleep immediately.

The next day was my true introduction to India. From Hotel Mars I took an ‘auto,’ (a three-wheeled vehicle large enough to fit two or three passengers. In Thailand autos are called tuk-tuks, which means they go everywhere) toward Thiruvanmiyur bus station to meet my cousin Coby. The auto ran out of gas in the middle of the highway, and the driver hopped out to finagle various tubing to attach to a reserve tank.

When Coby arrived, we had eight hours to kill before our 33-hour ride on the Tamil Nadu Express (northbound train from Chennai to Delhi). We visited the local beach and I dipped my feet in the Bay of Bengal. The beach was significantly more crowded than beaches I’m used to, but as you’ve no doubt heard about India, everything there is crowded. At the beach we met a local fisherman/pearl diver, who gave us chai (masala) tea and showed off a collection of pearl necklaces he made with the fruits of his labors.


At the Bay of Bengal

That night, after dinner and a brief conversation with our grandparents, we boarded the Tamil Nadu Express! We were in sleeper car 11, which thanks to the direction the train was travelling, was practically the front. We had a whole compartment to ourselves—for about 10 minutes. Then we were joined by a group of jolly firemen on their way to Delhi for a conference.


The Tamil Nadu Express

The compartment had eight beds. Six were on one side of the walking aisle (stacked three high), two on the other. I slept in the middle berth of one of the sets of three.

But before sleep, we got to know our firemen companions. Unfortunately, I cannot now remember any of their names. But there is one very interesting thing to note about the group. Among their member was a man in his mid-thirties. He claimed that thanks to occasional meditation (no more than once or twice a week), he had lost the physical need for sleep! Coby and I made it our goal for the train ride to catch him in this lie, and it proved a task more difficult than I’d have thought…but also easier than this man would probably have liked…


To the left, Coby. To the right, the Man Who Never Sleeps

I found it difficult to sleep for more than a couple hours at a time on the train. Whenever I awoke, I’d check on the Man Who Never Sleeps—his berth was one below mine and across the aisle. Every time I awoke during the night, he would indeed be awake! Sometimes he’d catch me checking and smile or chuckle to himself.

But the second day I awoke from a brief midafternoon nap. And there he was, sound asleep. He awoke a few minutes later.

There was no malicious intent behind his lie. He was playing a joke on us, or fabricating a story. He wasn’t a bad person, but he had an excellent poker face. Coby and I spent a lot of time needling him for details about how he could achieve such a feat, or what he did during all his spare time! Many people would go to great lengths to acquire eight extra hours to work or play each day! He always answered our questions diligently and with a straight face, and meanwhile we could barely keep from cracking up as we asked them. It was great fun.

Anyways, the Tamil Nadu Express chugged along. Apart from the aforementioned social entertainment, there wasn’t a whole lot to do on the train. There was decent food and a surplus of chai tea (an attendant carrying a kettle of the stuff went up the aisle every ten or fifteen minutes).

I occupied my time reading (check out my list of ‘books read’ at the bottom of the page. You’ll notice it grew significantly in the past few weeks), walking up and down the length of the train (apart from air conditioning, the first class cars really weren’t much more luxurious than the sleeper cars), and taking photographs.

The latter was fun. If you’re at all worried about my safety, don’t read the following paragraph.

I would spend hours leaning out of the train doors to get photos. The train wasn’t so fast that this felt unsafe, although I’m sure nothing good would have come of falling out. The wind felt nice in my face, and I had fun trying to capture both the landscape and the train itself.


It was especially fun leaning out over bridges! Look at me now, Grammy!


A beautiful Indian riverbed.


Tents in the countryside.

Thirty-three hours later, the train finally pulled into Delhi, and the adventure continued from there.
NOTICE: This with the first in a four-post series about my trip to India. The following posts will be generally, but not strictly chronological. They will be as follows:

  • India Part 2: Aavishkaar
  • India Part 3: Does the Dalai Lama Eat Banana Pancakes?
  • India Part 4: Delhi

Expect them within the next week.

Be dareful.