On a fairly gloomy day at my corporate job, I decided that I needed some sunshine. The idea was to take the much needed break and do something that would be emotionally fulfilling. It's then that all clichés came true and the universe conspired to fulfill my dreams. Well, I mean it felt that dramatic. A dear one tagged me in a social media post saying that his friend had started a portal called little local that helps you travel and make an impact on local communities. The website featured a number of projects including an education based one in Uttarakhand. I decided, purely on impulse, that I wanted to try this. And that I wanted to travel solo for it. I have to admit that the idea of working with kids was exciting and scary. Apart from assisting on a mime workshop for kids, years ago, I couldn't claim to have any prior association with children or teaching. A quick call with Antara, who runs little local put a few fears to rest.So, I got a ten- day leave sanctioned, packed my bags and landed up in Boun, a tiny village in Uttarakhand. Though I was excited about trying something new, I don't think I could have prepared for the absolutely surreal experience that I was about to have.
The Boun primary school is nestled amongst hills and greens. A half hour climb from the point where the vehicle drops you, the location of the school is bound to overwhelm. The first time I did half the mini trek with my luggage to the home I would spend the night in, I realized how the urban life has spoilt some of us thoroughly. Soon I learnt that most teachers in the school did this trek every day- even in the winters and in the rain. It took me about an hour to break the ice with the giggling, shy children, who would whisper to each other while stealing a sly glance at me. Sitting through some of their classes revealed that the language of instruction was Hindi and that I wouldn't have been qualified to teach the math and science classes since I struggled with to find the Hindi words for terms like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. A quick meeting with the most co operating teachers and a few trial classes later it was decided that I would focus on spoken English for class 3 to 5 and rhymes and games for class 1 and 2, where the kids took me for a complete ride and I usually found myself physically lifting them off tables and running behind them as they strayed outside the class.
I spent the first day living with the Padiyars, a local family in the Boun village. They allotted an extended section of their large home to me. Their youngest daughter stayed in the room next to mine. I did freak out a couple of times during my stay, including the first time I realized that the washroom was quite a walk away and that the bulb inside it was not working. I even screamed when I saw a rat stare at me from a corner under the diwan in the sit out. They were minor hitches when compared to the warmth that the family showed me. From trying to make me the perfect black tea (just because I preferred it to milk tea), letting me into their kitchen and sharing a meal to simply having two of their adorable younger daughters hang out with me, they made me feel like I belonged.
While my comfort level with the children increased and we made steady progress towards our final objective of being able to introduce ourselves in English and talk about our likes and dislikes, we also played vocabulary related games and watched The Jungle Book together.
Meanwhile, the members of Shri Bhubaneshwari Mahila Ashram - SBMA (little local's partners for this project) took it upon themselves to make my evenings productive. I visited their dairy, bio gas, pickle making and various other projects including one that encourages women to form microfinance co operatives to be financially independent.
As my day job in the city required me to stay virtually connected and the internet connectivity in Boun wouldn't allow that, the principal of the school Rekha Kotiyal offered to let me stay in her home. Her children lived in other cities and her husband and she had a large room to spare with a separate entrance. Despite initial reservations I took them up on their offer and I believe it was one of the best decisions I ever made. From discussing work with Rekha Ma'am, going grocery shopping, looking at wedding albums of their children, deciding what we'll eat for dinner to chatting away over cups of warm tea or watching the news and daily soaps with her husband and playing with her dog, I became part of their extended family.
While Thapiyal Ji who heads SBMA joined me for an early morning walk every day, I took the back seat on Bhupenderji's (SBMA) bike to the nearby villages to check out various projects while Sunaina Ji (SBMA) took me to the nearby temple, sweet shops and also joined me on my trip to Gangotri.
The children in Boun are bright and brilliant. They were naughty and earnest too. They threw me a farewell party and performed traditional folk songs and dances and I took the opportunity to shake a leg with them too. As my train from Dehradun to Delhi was late at night, one of the teachers took me to their family home in Dehradun, introduced me to their family, fed me and dropped to the station. They even discreetly tried to put a little money in my fist so that I could buy something to eat on the way. "Ashirwaad hai" they argued when I protested.
When you teach you learn. When you give a little, you get a whole lot more. When I decided to attempt teaching in the little school in Uttarkashi, many people including me thought that a week may not make a difference at all.
Though I agree it's a short time, the kids seemed to be a lot more confident while stringing sentences together in English and the teachers beamed. The experience changed something within me. It taught me more than I could teach the little ones. It opened my mind, brought me peace and gave me memories to cherish , apart from marking a fresh start. littlelocal made a long nurtured desire come true. Rekha Rani Kotiyal, Bhupendraji, Thapliyal Ji, Bimla Ma'am Sunaina Ji and the Padiyar family for being the kind of hosts that people can only dream of.
About our author - Suprita Mitter first travelled to 8 countries when she was a year old. Along with her mother, she accompanied her father, a marine engineer, and lived on the ship with him till it was time to go to school. Ever since she has been trying to make her way back to making travel her way of life. She uses the skills she picked up during her stints with media houses like NDTV, Reuters, PING Network, Mid Day and Condé Nast Traveller to aid her travel dreams. She also happens to be little local's first patron and now leads all our content initiatives.
About our partner - SBMA is an old and very reputed NGO in Uttarakhand. The organisation has been doing some incredible work in the area of women and child rights, education, healthcare, livelihoods and disaster management for the last 20+ years. You can read more about their interventions here.
If you enjoyed reading this and would like to be part of such travel experiences, do read about our current trips here. And please write to us on firstname.lastname@example.org and give us feedback on what you'd like us to post about!