“Chalo Bachcha Log!!” is the cry from Hemant Ji as he runs after our minibus, which has just pulled away from the Centre for the Contemplation of Nature, in the Northern state of Uttarakhand. “Ji” is affixed to a name when we intend to pay respect to the person we are talking or referring too. Our journey of several hours twisting and turning through meandering mountain roads will take us downward to the Himalayan foothills, where we will catch a train at Ramnagar that demarcates the conclusion of our first month of Bridge Year India 10.0.
From my seat at the back of the minibus I turn my head one last time to wave farewell to Hemant Ji as he shrinks to a speck in the rear window, and I spend the hours of our drive reflecting on my first four weeks in India. As the mountains we pass change from towering snow-capped peaks to more gentle rolling hills covered in foliage, it occurs how blessed I have been to have visited a place that I can only imagine to be one of the most beautiful regions on Earth. Casting my mind back to sitting in my room, reading through the Bridge Year India predicted itinerary and marveling at the places I would visit, it’s important to say that India has not disappointed. The relatively small amount I have seen has proven to be full of diversity, scenery and wildlife. However, the greatest discovery of my Bridge Year was never highlighted in the itinerary or any course guide: it is, without a doubt, the people I have met on this journey.
Hemant Ji is a Where there be Dragons instructor who supported our Bridge Year Programme for its first month, and it is hard to sum up just how much I have learned from him. He grew up in Varanasi, and shared with us his lens so we could begin to understand how to look at India from the perspective of an Indian. He even taught us some Hindi. More personally, I learned much more from Hemant Ji than that which he intended to teach. Being around someone with a completely different value system and worldview, and strength in their own convictions, can teach you a significant amount about yourself and how to think more critically about aspects of your perceptions that need to be developed.
Ajay Ji runs the Centre for the Contemplation of Nature in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, and used to be a key player in the Fair Trade organisation in India. He taught us huge amounts about what had influenced agriculture and ecological conservation in India in the last hundred years, but again, what he taught us transcended information or understanding. He demonstrated what true passion for a cause you believe in really looks like. He taught us how to stand out from the crowd to acknowledge responsibility for the injustices committed by a whole generation because without such accountability, he indicates, change won’t be truly attempted or achieved by the next.
It is equally as important to analyse critically the people that we meet. Not to criticize them, but to understand what has shaped their experiences and how that might explain the beliefs that they have and the actions that they take. In theory, being a foreigner can allow you to take that step back to remove the emotion from the judgement and decision making, but it is impossible to remain unmoved in this country that certainly wears its heart on its sleeve.
There are countless other examples I could give. Each Auto Driver, Chai Wallah and Homestay Sibling has a story to tell and a lesson to teach, and these lessons often seem more impactful the less the surroundings look like a classroom. Living in close quarters for long periods of time with your fellow students and staff certainly provides opportunity to cross examine yourself, how you act and the ways you think. What is critical is that you search for these learning opportunities, because so many of them can pass you by if you do not have your eyes and ears open and the tenacity to say yes. So, as we arrive at Ramnagar station and begin to prepare ourselves for the overnight train down to Rajasthan and the bulk of our nine months in India, I vow to myself to be open to the opportunities presented to me and be ready for the challenges that are sure to come my way.
“Chalo Bachcha Log!” – “Let’s go Kiddies!”