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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- India Part 1: The Tamil Nadu Express
- India Part 3: Does the Dalai Lama Eat Banana Pancakes?
- India Part 4: Delhi
Expect them within the next week.