WINTER IN WONDERLAND !! ~~ Camping in the Misty Mountains !

DAUNTING DOWNHILL

The rickety pickup truck puffed its way up the steep mountain road. Excited young voices, from the back of the truck were in sync with the haphazard movement of the vehicle ; rising with speed, laughing in turns and hollering in general ! I was squeezed in the front seat with a lady colleague and carton of mountain oranges for company ! I, of course, was enjoying the novel experience !

I could not identify if the truck was hitting a pothole or was on normal road. The vehicle was lurching on the rain eroded ghat roads, at times careening near the sharp turns. After a point, I started a guessing game with myself – will the vehicle tilt to the right or left now ?! But the local young man, who was driving the pickup truck made no guesses while driving. He seemed to know every inch of the road and steered the loaded vehicle very confidently. The inquisitive villagers along the way waved out to us excitedly, while some waved down the vehicle to have a small chat with the driver, to expressly question him about the details and itinerary of his passengers !

After a good forty minutes drive we spotted the familiar yellow bus, our school bus, which was occupied by the students from earlier jeep & truck trips. A batch of the senior students has braved the steep terrain and long distance to trek two hours to the bus from the camp site ! A quick headcount and excited mini- reunions later (friends separated for a maximum period of two hours !), our school buses started the journey to the commercialized part of the hills.

lake house

A scenic spot in Kodai Lake

Kodai Lake was hosting the tourists, hawkers and locals along its paved banks. Its waters, the main attraction, saw boats of many sizes and types. We split ourselves in groups and went out to explore the lake and its surroundings. While some rented bicycles, some chose to walk along the clean pavements. Walking had its advantages, as we could stop for a spicy freshly roasted corn here, a hot pineapple there or a chilly bajji anywhere ! We leveraged our advantage to quieten our creaking tummies ! The girls in my group enjoyed the sights and sounds as we sauntered in the lake’s circumference !

Some quick shopping for homemade chocolates and fragrant oils later, we boarded the bus for the most difficult part of our journey – the downhill drive ! Avomins became the most sought after commodity followed the ubiquitious plastic bag, in case the avomin is inefficient in keeping the contents of the digestive system inside. For once, even the audio system was shut down ! And, all the occupants of the bus maintained a stoic silence, for fear of offending their respective digestive systems which was threatening to retaliate by propelling its remnants up the esophagus and out of one’s facial cavity ! I will not reveal any specific details of that drive, sparing both the reader and the passenger in the process !

roasted corn

Roasted, spicy corn on the cob !

After what seemed like an eternity, we were finally in the plains. And relieved too ! A hearty lunch and lots of lemon sodas rebooted our systems and the students got back their verve ! From then on all the way to Pondicherry the mood was festive, with the students making up for the quiet time downhill !

The adventurous trip was in its last leg, and I dozed intermittently, for a teacher can never sleep deeply when chaperoning students.

THE PATHFINDERS

The Pathfinder Camp, has been an important event in the annual calendar of  The Study L’ecole Internationale, Pondicherry for a few years now. The Camp Director Dr. Kisku, has been at the forefront in organizing these camps in a purposeful way. While the junior camp, for 3rd to 6th graders, focuses on inculcating self-reliance in the kids, the senior camp, comprising of grades 7 to 12, challenges the students to higher levels of physical endurance through adventure and mental ability through puzzles and games – all in the outdoors of the pristine hills . The learnings in the four days of camping would in effect be equivalent to many weeks of classroom instruction.

PERSISTENCE PAYS

This year’s camp had been overwhelmed by delays ;  the original date in late September clashed with the weekend a court in a neighbouring state chose to convict a famous politician in another neighbouring state. The trip was cancelled due to the ensuing mob violences across the 2 states and 1 UT. The students were disappointed, but soon enough started awaiting new dates for the camp. The second time the camp was planned was in early November. An active NE monsoon was bringing in copious rainfall and landslides in the mountains. The Principal, Mrs. Alice, had to take a call in this and the camp was postponed again. The students were disappointed, but had not lost hope. And their patience was rewarded in the third week of December, when all the campers finally boarded the bus to Kodaikanal one cold early morning ! The 100 students, teachers, staff and drivers were ready for the challenges ahead !

The bus. after a pleasant journey, stopped at a small hill town, Perumal Malai. We jumped out of the bus, due as much from the eagerness to breathe the fresh mountain air, as also to stretch our cramped muscles. And, we did get around two hours to work our restrained muscles and exercise them, in our trek to the base campsite !

A hot homemade lunch awaited us at Kodai Camp, our home for the next four days. The students were given a choice of lodging – dorm, big tents or small tents. Ultimately, the younger ones were accommodated in dorms, while the seniors students took over the tents. The group gathered around the campfire for songs and interactions. The quiet, remote valley resonated with the voices of wonderful children.

calf

A cute calf in the campsite !

TREKKING INTO NATURE’S HEARTLAND

It was 8.30 in the morning and all the campers had assembled to start their trek through the Elephant Valley. The trek leads, guides and teachers/camp counselors made sure their group was suitably equipped with water, snacks, team spirit and adventurous attitude !

A hut in the forest

A lovely hut in the forest ! My dream house !

The mountains and valleys were covered by a thick envelope of mist and fog, giving an alluring aura to the hidden beauty. The visibility was only a few feet at its best in the trail. It was as if one had to tear open the Veil of foggy ignorance to realize the hidden Summit of Truth Within. Nature carries life’s signposts everywhere in Existence.

village woman

A village woman going home with the days rewards.

The city bred kids and adults seemed to find their foothold over the mountain trails pretty quickly. Some fell on pebbly trails, some slided over rock faces, some glided over smooth surfaces and many rested at every opportunity ! Hands were held out to rescue the one’s stuck, bags were carried by the stronger one’s, snacks shared and songs sung ; but silence too reigned intermittently when even the kids were awed by the forest sounds.

Just walking ma'am !

Just walking ma’am ! Really !

Some parts of the slopes were eroded due to the heavy rains, exposing more rocks underneath. The roots and grasses, a trekkers natural hand bars, provided the grip in the steep slippery slopes. I had divided my team of 11 into micro groups of approximately 3’s, thus minimizing the chances of an individual getting lost. Two is a crowd in lonely forests, a desired crowd infact !

slushy trail

Climbing the slippery slope

Our trek started through a spice garden and then running into an orange grove. We picked up the fallen oranges to savour the fresh flavor and aroma ! A steep walk up a paved road brought us to the edge of the wild forest – the profuse animal droppings seemed to be the welcome sign to their natural habitat ! From that point on we were leaving the last signs of civilization and going into unspoilt nature.

lemon grass

Lemon grass fringed trail !

How respectful should one be when one is a guest in another’s home ? Shouldn’t the laws of civilization be applicable to human ventures into the forest too ? The students were told to not leave trash the forest, which they complied with in all sincerity.

We trekked through the forest, under the canopy of tall and short trees. The narrow trails, just a foot or two wide at the maximum, was bordered by wild shrubs, trees and spice plants. It seemed quite dark at places. And the, suddenly the mountain seemed to open her arms to welcome her persistent children !

misty trek

“Are we crossing mountains ?!” Trekking to somewhere in low visibility !

The vista was wide open now. The mist became thicker, the tress had fallen back in the trail and we seemed to be on the steep slopes of the mountain. I say seemed to, because we were not really sure of how steep or how deep the slopes were. At one point it looked like we were crossing from one hill to the next, sometimes it looked like we were circumambulating a mountain. Few instances it looked like we were climbing higher to the very peak of that mountain. We had no way of confirming anything then.

IMG_20141220_111529

“Where are we ?!!”

Our trek guides were with us, helping us navigate the tough terrain. Some places we were wandering alone (in micro groups ofcourse). We stuck to our groups and were guided by the few feet of visibility before us, sometimes just a foot ahead. Lemon grass, a prized herb in the cities, was growing all along the slopes lending fragrance to the air. It provided the only grip in some places.

water falls

The top of the steep falls

In all this adventure, we did time for selfies, pictures, talks and lots of fun. How can one not have fun when surrounded by kids ?!! We were also well past lunch time and snacks were passed around to keep the tummies happy. Every teacher took the utmost care to see her group safe through the trek.

gorge

Gorge receiving the water from the falls

At a point near a falls, all the students converged. The water falls had a steep drop into the gorge below and the view from the top was breathtaking. Our next stop was the river that was the source of this falls. It was a gentle river, with just two feet deep at its centre – a perfect place for splashing in the water ! And this exactly what all the kids did – jumped into the water to wash away all the fatigue due to the six hour trek.

village temple

A quaint village temple covered in mist

The mist was closing in more heavily on the river now, as if telling us that visiting hours were over and the river and the forest need to get their beauty sleep ! We continued our trek out of the forest and onto our campsite through a small village. It was a beautifully adventurous day into Nature’s Heartland, where everyone, including the teacher becomes the taught.

misty river

Misty River !

Hot baths and hot meals soothed our weary bodies, and the kids bounced right back into action after a brief break ! Children are indeed the powerhouse of energy !

TEAM BUILDING

The sun shone a little the next day and we discovered that our campsite was surrounded by huge mountains, in layer after layer ! The mist had hidden this secret the previous two days. Our trek guide traced the trek route we had covered the previous day. From the comfort of our camp, we realized the arduous trek we had accomplished  – straddling a few mountains, forests and valleys ! It was like looking at the x-ray in a doctor’s office through a well lit board ! The sun was shining the spotlight on our trekking path, perhaps as a reward to the endurance of the entire team !

Collage KODAI

Pathfinders in blue – a cool collage !

The day was spent in team building activities designed by a team of resource people in the outdoors – photo scavenging, spotting, nature scavenging, plank walking etc. Each activity required the participation and contribution of each and every child. And making the every child to come out with ideas and involvement was the success. As a testimony to the inclusive nature of the camp, my younger son in 4th grade who accompanied me to the camp, was made part of the teams right at the beginning. The 12th graders heard out his ideas as much as they did a 7th graders.

camp activity

Camping grounds with the mountains as backdrop !

Co-operation, inclusiveness, initiative, team spirit, idea generation, responsibility and other such lofty ideals would remain just that – lofty ideals – if confined to text books or dry sermons by teachers in classrooms. I am by no means undermining the value of the textbook or teachers – I have utmost regard for both. But it is only in a sports ground or in the wilderness that a child can get the time and space to practice first hand and make these lofty ideals a habit, a recurring habit. I am a staunch believer in this. I am fortunate to be working in an institution that too believes and practices this.

hula hoop

Hula Hoopers !

SPECIAL MENTIONS

A special mention about our super seniors, the 12th graders, where the ‘super’ is not just a category name but an adjective to those seniors. They took their juniors under their wings, looked out for them, helped them out in difficult tasks, and coordinated with their teachers and other resource people to make this camp a success ! They were an inspiration to their juniors too, my kids still bring in the name of their senior annas and akkas when discussing the camp.

tandem plank

Tandem Bridge ! The seniors leading from the front and guiding from the rear too. The juniors learning team spirit !

It is wrong to stereotype an entire generation as irresponsible or brash or brand them with other such adjectives. Sometimes we have to trust them and give them a free hand to let them experience their goodness and potential. And the perfect setting to initiate this would be away from the classroom or even home, as the classroom dynamics sometimes comes too loaded with pre-conceived baggage.

campfire

Stories by the camp fire ! Pic courtesy : The Study

Sending out fit and responsible citizens out into the world is the responsibility of every parent, teacher, school and college. I am sure that these students will definitely Be the Change in the place and time they live.

Tha cubed !

‘Tha’ cubed 🙂

My colleagues, camp director, the resource people, the campsite owners, their staff, the students – everyone contributed to make this camp a true ‘Winter in Wonderland’ !!

ADIEUS !

It was past midnight when we reached back to school. The eager parents were happy to get back with their kids. Teachers and students were bidding adieus with a heavy heart, for the bond had grown in the four adventurous days.

tree swing

Cheered by the students to try this very long roped tyre swing ! An exhilarating experience !

~Punitha Lakshmi

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A Growth Story – of Child & Mother !

The summer of 2012. The cusp of April showers & May flowers !

I was enjoying the ride in the scenic route. The Coimbatore-Velliangiri route was scenic and the weather cool.  I was driving the car and would have been super excited normally… but now I was a little pensive too.

I had enrolled my son Abhimanyu in a 5-day Nature Awareness camp at Isha Ashram, Velliangiri. He was all of 8 yrs and was going away on a camp alone ! It was me who motivated him to join the camp, registered, packed, prepared etc… But now I was having doubts. I tried to hide my worries and was trying to pep up Abhi who was sitting beside me silently, a little thoughtful too.  He was not very happy to be away from home for 5 days in an unknown place, with strangers. Though he was excited a month back while deciding, he was also worried now.

I tried to cheer  the situation by singing songs and telling Abhi how great a time he is going to have. How his little brother is too tiny to be accepted for such camps,, and that Abhi is truly the big boy now ! This seemed to bring a little smile to Abhi. Ofcourse Rahul was not happy that he was being used as a pawn in my earnestness to cheer up Abhi 😉

Abhi clicks - his trekking route

Abhi clicks – his trekking route

I thought to myself of the time when I was in standard 4th in school. My class was being taken on a day trip to nearby Mahabalipuram, a trip of just a few hours from Pondy. My dad had flatly refused to send me, fearing that –  I’ll drown in the beach / lose my way / be kidnapped, or all of the above !! It took me a long time (many years) to convince my father that none of the above would happen to me on  a trip ! But each time it was a struggle to get permission for trips ! But that did not deter me from trying and going on fun trips in school, college & for chess tournaments 🙂

But forward to the present, and here I am, sending away my little 4th grader to a camp – for 5 days !! A camp where I will not even be able to talk to him on phone ! How much more cool can a mom get ??!! 😉

My other family members were not too happy with me sending Abhimanyu to a camp. But, I was firm. I did not want my child to be timid like me, it has been a continuous hard struggle out of this timidness for me. I wanted him to be brave, to live upto his name – Abhimanyu !

I tried to look cheerful & positive about the whole thing. We were now turning into more secluded roads while nearing our destination. Now, I too became quite and little jittery.  We entered Isha ashram and after the formalities it was time to let go, as parents were not allowed to go beyond a certain point. I hugged him and tears started flowing in my eyes.

Suddenly Abhi says : “Amma, don’t cry. Its going to be only 5 days. I’ll ask them permission and call you.”

I smiled at him and thought “That was supposed to be my parting dialogue, and this little guy has stolen my words !!” All I could do was hug and kiss him .

I drove back in silence. Even Rahul’s incessant chit-chat could not elicit a reply from me.

Abhi clicks - trekking with his camp friends !

Abhi clicks – trekking with his camp friends !

The 5 days seemed to move very slowly. I spent the time with my second kid, brother, cousins, nieces etc. We explored Coimbatore, Pollachi & the beautiful Anamalai hills. We spent most of the time soaked in rivers ! Pleasant weather, wonderful people, good food, stunning locations, fun times – yet something was missing.

I tried to call the Isha office, and everytime they said that all kids are fine, do not worry. Once I got the info that the campers have gone to Nilgiris for trekking & camping. My heart skipped a beat. Nilgiris is too vast an area, and I had no clue to which part of the hills they have gone. I was not sure how Abhi would cope with the trekking and camping there .

Abhi had gone on 3 day camps from his school for the last 2 years. The consolation in those camps were that, it was hardly 100 kms away from home, with his dear friends, caring teachers, known people, delicious familiar food, in an absolutely safe place and 2 way communication open with mom – though it cannot be overused. All these previous camps & treks had familiarised him with camp life.

But this Isha camp was different ; unknown people, unknown itinerary, no friends while entering the camp, different food habits and absolutely no contact with mom ! How is my baby going to get through this ?!

Abhi clicks - stream crossing !

Abhi clicks – stream crossing !

I have been taking my kids on a few mini treks and couple of full day treks. They had just glided on the trails with ease and had enjoyed it immensely. So I was confident that Abhi would be able to trek decent trails. I also had faith in Isha to choose activities with safety in mind.

Then why was I worried. Well, blame Motherhood !

The last day of the camp arrived, draggingly in my opinion ! But I arrived at the Isha Ashram in lightning speed, so it seemed to me !

Abhi was dancing with his friends ; ya, the shy Abhi dancing happily to a beautifully rhythmic folksy tune !! Though he tried to become a spectator now and then, his new friends and teachers in the camp were pulling him into the dance floor. It was a heart warming sight to see all the kids dance happily with a permanent smile over their lips !

Abhi saw me & Rahul and ran to us ! Before I could hug him, he was called by his friends.

There were parting hugs and goodbyes and Abhi took me to his dorm to show his abode of 5 days ! It was a spartan hall on the first floor with bunk beds, a few shelves and lots of space for the kids ! The bathrooms were down the hall. It was airy and lots of sunlight came in.

Abhi was telling me about his camp life – early morning wake ups, standing in line for the bathrooms, sharing things, getting ready, yoga, food etc. He tried to tell the experiences of 5 days in 5 minutes ! He had packed his bags all by himself and showed it to me proudly ! I listened to his banter happily ! For once Rahul also was spell bound and listened quietly.

I was looking at this apparently grown up boy and wondered where my little boy was – my careless, home-sick, babyish mom’s boy ! He seemed to have metamorphosed into this self-sufficient, courageous, outgoing big boy ! I was happy at this transformation and was proud of him ! I was proud of myself too for being brave enough to send him to this camp !

Well, my illusion was broken quickly ! Rahul was teasing and pulling Abhi into brotherly ‘games’ ! Abhi appealed to me “Amma, look at Rahul… he is fighting with me !”. Well, All izz Well & Normal after all 😉 !!

We walked back to the car with his luggage and as we were loading the bags, Abhi quickly pulled out a book from his bag. After we were seated he showed me the album of his camp memories, which the organizers had beautifully put together. He turned to the first page and pointed very proudly to a photograph ! My heart stopped on seeing that. It was a picture of Abhi with a snake around him !

Brave Abhimanyu !

Veera Abhimanyu !

Tears started flowing from my eyes and I instinctively held him close. Abhi looked at me silently and wiped my eyes.

“Why are you crying ma ?”

I could only mutter, “Hope you were not hurt by the snake.”

Abhi patted me and said “Amma, it is Indian Rat Snake. Non-venomous. It is diurnal and are found near human habitation !”

I was surprised to hear this from my little boy !

He continued “I was afraid in the beginning ma, but later enjoyed holding it. See, it did not bite me at all and I’m fine !!”

I smiled at him encouragingly, not wanting to diminish his new found courage !

He said with concern, “Ma, you cried when you left me at the camp. You cry when you receive me at the camp. You are crying when you see my pictures.I am fine, dont cry ma !!”. Again this little boy had changed the script and stolen my dialogues. I was supposed to be the brave mother, in control of the situation and telling him words of courage !! I smiled bravely and told him, “I am happy that you are brave !”

His little brother, was in awe of him and utterly proud of him. He kept telling me for many days later “Abhi is brave ma !!” , though only when out of earshot of his big brother ;).

While signing up Abhi for the camp, my goals were to increase his nature awareness, adapt him to mingling with strangers easily, learn to be away from me & home, become self-sufficient in his daily personal activities and learn to eat different foods !

More importantly I wanted him to become independent and bold enough to take his own decisions and stand by them, never going back on a promise, even if the world turns against him. Only a brave person can do this.

I was glad that majority of the purpose was touched upon, a beginning made.

While signing up, I had thought about my acceptance of his absence & my reactions to camp conditions only fleetingly ; lest I do not sign him up at all !

It was as much a test of courage for me, as it was for him ! More so for me, perhaps !

A camp of growing up for the mother as much as for the child !

Now my younger one is waiting to go for the camp and show me proudly his picture with a snake around him ! I teased him that the snake may be afraid of Rahul and so let’s not trouble the snake. But he has made up his mind ! I have one more stage to grow up I guess, with my little baby !

As Abhimanyu turns 10, I look back at the way he has overcome challenges in life at this young age, how he has adapted to sudden turns of tides and situations and how his innocent childhood blooms amidst a rocky sea.

This does not mean that he has magically become mature, very brave, perfect etc etc. That is boring anyways, right ? A child has to take his/ her own sweet time to grow, being naughty, careless, fun-loving etc along the way ! Infact, a person should retain a little of his childlike nature even as an adult.

But exposure to nature and new situations at an young age definitely gives the child a strong foundation, rooted personality , a courageous outlook and respect for all of Existence. This is what I’m trying to give children.

Abhimanyu’s growth reflects my growth as a person and a mother in the past few years, in some ways.

May Existence take care of every child on this Earth.

~Punitha Lakshmi