Learning on the Go!
Holidays can sometimes feel like an extraordinary experience - a getaway from every day, ‘regular’ life, but travel has always been more than that for me. It’s not just something outside of life, but something that enhances everyday life. So when I was talking to a friend about in80 recently, she didn’t bat an eyelid before introducing me to a Mumbai-based family whose children are being homeschooled and asked me to curate a trip for them.
The Jagani sisters – Kashish and Tanishk – left school in 8th and 9th standard when they felt they had little time to do things they were truly interested in and their family was tired of an education system that wasn’t emphasising learning and curiosity over marks and textbooks.
I was super excited to take on the challenge and used my experience in the field and my interest in training people to create an on-the-go programme for the girls. The best part – they were a big part of the planning process and making the trip was part of their learning too! They handled our accounts on a limited budget, and except for the train journeys which I handled, even figured out bus routes and how to get from one place to another using public transport.
Here’s a glimpse of our nine-day travel through parts of South India.
Our journey began at Gandhigram, a rural town in Dindigul District of Tamil Nadu. Ms. Aditi, a textile designer with the Khadi VIPC Trust organised a private tour of the Gandhigram Khadi Trust. Mr Manikandan, the manager at the Unit patiently took us through the process of how fibre becomes yarn and is then dyed and woven by skilled artisans – whom we met! We also saw the Ambar Charkha spinning, dyeing, weaving, visited the natural dye unit and had an absolutely amazing (and pocket friendly!) lunch at the mess – traditional South Indian Ellai Sapadu custom made to our food preferences – Mmmm delicious!
Later we spent some time talking to the artisans and the girls were shocked to discover that they get paid a pittance for something they spend so much time creating from scratch. The value of money and the disparity between effort and reward was a big take-back to this day.
Still questioning and reflecting on our learning, we spent the next day with Mr. Ajay Jacob, his wife Melanie and their three daughters – who are also being homeschooled! Mr. Ajay is a first-generation farmer who left his cushy corporate job in Chennai to set up an organic farm in Oddanchatram, Dindigul. The family grows their own food and even works with local farmers to shift to ecologically sensitive food production. He is also building community houses on a beautiful concept of ‘no-fencing’ and says that houses should be built on the basis of adequacy and not affordability. If you’re ever in the area, you must visit him and his family!
The girls spent the day helping Ajay with daily chores on the farm, cooked a meal with Melanie and exchanged experiences of homeschooling with his daughters. We stayed with the family that night. My favorite part of this trip was staying with local families wherever we went, learning what it means to share space and responsibilities, and how to be a guest, but also how to feel at home literally everywhere!
We found our next home in Madurai, arriving in time for Bapu’s birthday on October 2nd. Gandhi believed that basic education was education for life and through life and we were living his views as we abandoned history textbooks and classrooms and visited the Gandhi Ashram first-hand to discover his life journey and contribution to India. He had spoken about the importance of handicraft, agriculture, physical exercise and knowledge in education, and emphasised environment over books for learning – and we had the complete package on this trip!
We visited the world-famous Aravind Eye Hospital as well and got an understanding of all the services they offer and how they cater to so many patients worldwide. Finally, we ended the long day with a visit to the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple – Uff! What a beauty! We took in the magnificent stone sculptures and the resplendent golden gopurams for Lord Shiva in the form of Sundareswaran and Goddess Parvathi in the form of Meenakshi and marvelled at the sheer skill it took to build something of this scale without the technology we have today.
The temple is definitely the highlight of Madurai, but the highlight of our day was a yummy Jain meal we had at a local Jain Bhojalaya close by. The old man running the small joint was originally from Rajasthan, like all of us, and was taken aback and delighted to hear what the girls were doing and how they were choosing their own way to learn. He blessed them and they were happy to eat some familiar food as well.
The next day we continued our temple visits with a trip to Rameswaram, the ‘end point of India’ where we learnt about Ramayana right where the story happened! We hired a local auto guy to take us to the Rameswaram Temple – the southernmost Jyotirlinga of India – as well as the Abdul Kalam House to draw inspiration from the works of India’s ‘Missile Man’.
Next we took a day trip to Danushkodi to rediscover the abandoned town on the Pamban Island. The girls were excited to travel by government bus - the cheapest way to commute, but also surprisingly comfortable!
Our travels took us to Chettinad next where we spent a day experiencing the splendor of the Chettinad style – we visited the palace with its ornate domes and wide open courtyards, a Chettinad house and even ate a typical Chettinad meal at the house we stayed at - Idiyappam, sambar and a variety of chutneys! Both sisters hadn’t eaten South Indian food before this trip and often it was difficult for them to get used to anything but Jain food, but they learnt that travel also means experiencing the unique flavour of different places - quite literally!
I also arranged a workshop where the girls learned to make the famous Athangudi tiles. We were surprised to find that one tile takes a total of 10 days to be ready with the setting, soaking and drying process! They also learnt to weave baskets and I even bought a few for my mother! The ladies at the centre weave around 15 medium sized baskets a day and this makes up their entire livelihood. I enjoyed watching them chatting, giggling and watching TV together as they wove the colourful baskets; sharing life and work with each other.
We took a train to Pondicherry the next day and arrived at Sadhana Forest where we spent a day relaxing before a day of seva. Sadhana Forest emphasises sustainable living and community work. The girls helped to prepare vegan, gluten free meals in the kitchen, cleaned up after meals, composted food waste, managed the tool shed, gathered and processed firewood, and inspected huts for bee and termite damage. They even helped to maintain solar panels and the dry compost toilets as well as sort community waste for processing in nearby recycling centres. It was a long and tiring day but a fulfilling one, learning to live in harmony with other people and the environment.
Finally, we made our way back to Chennai via Mahabalipuram by bus. This was definitely a journey to remember – it was a Sunday morning and just like every Sunday, everyone heads back to the city, so the buses are packed! Finding a seat was pretty much impossible, but the girls stood throughout the journey back, learning how common folk travel. And what better way to learn than on the go?
As part of the trip, their parents wanted me to arrange a personal interactive session for them to gain experience meeting and talking to people. So we visited Solar Suresh, a 71-year-old wonder of a man who leads a completely eco-friendly, self-sufficient and self-sustaining life by generating all the electricity and resources he needs to survive even while living bang in the middle of Chennai city in Kilpauk! We couldn’t have chosen a more interesting and forthcoming person to spend our last day with. We ended the trip learning about yoga and the body with Shakti Shilpa from The Yoga Space, Chennai. It was the final thread that tied together the past nine days as we connected to ourselves and our bodies more deeply.
The trip for me was a true eye opener in how learning is not limited to classrooms, but that it happens anywhere and anytime and at any age! It was so wonderful for me to create a space for learning through my work and to unlearn so many notions I had in order to make room for new learning. We ended each day sharing our thoughts, insights and experiences and there was so much to gain from each other as well! Every person we met had a remarkable story that would never be part of a textbook, but somehow to me seems much more significant and valuable for life. I’m still filled with the warmth and love of the families we stayed with, the friends we made and the things we discovered at every turn we made. Maybe if we let our lives reflect the curiosity that travel inspires, we can always be learning!
Solar Suresh: https://yourstory.com/2017/01/solar-suresh
Sakthi Shilpa: https://www.theyogaspace.in/
Aditi Jain: http://aditijain.com/