A couple of years ago, I was teaching 6-9 year old children in Pune as a fellow at Teach For India. Being born and brought up in a town surrounded by hills and mountains in the foothills of Sahyadri, I had always desired to take my students trekking around Pune. Trekking in a group at a tender age (and of course even as an adult) is an exposure to more responsibilities and thus an opportunity to great learning – living a minimalistic lifestyle with limited food and water supply, taking care of your friends in difficulties, keep yourself and your friends motivated!
Unfortunately I could never do it due to my limited trekking experience and limited knowledge of the trails around Pune.
After that I gathered a moderate amount of trekking experience in last couple of years; but I had almost given up on my plans.
So when Santosh expressed his plan about this trek, I decided not to leave this opportunity at any cost. Moreover the opportunity came with a cherry on top. The plan was to take a group of students at Gateway School of Mumbai – a special education school where his son studies – for a trek to Shivaneri and Naneghat. And thus I joined the team as a volunteer.
Now even though we were a team of five including our trek leader and us four volunteers, all of us apart from Santosh, were almost novice in interacting with special students, let alone leading them. Like others, my experience was limited to my cousin (Santosh’s son) and a short internship in Gateway School of Mumbai. We had participants suffering from mild autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and other neurological and developmental disorders. In my mind, honestly, I was a little nervous thinking of the accountability of a total twelve children’s safety over the two days.
The first day and the overnight stay was full of surprises for the students. And more importantly full of new experiences.
This was the first time almost all the students had been in a place surrounded by multiple hills and forts. Most of them had never witnessed a sunset. They were amazed to see the sun gradually going down another hill. Sitting on the floor to have meal and a rule to finish everything in the plate were new too. Singing around a campfire and stargazing, overnight stay with friends, sleeping in a sleeping bag and so on. Most importantly, none of them had spent two full days in complete absence of any electronic gadgets and phone.
There were enough surprises for us too. Some pleasant, some troubling – but all of them adding to our learnings.
During the first few hours of the trip itself, it turned out that we had underestimated the difference between children and adults (later on, our under-estimate would be proven again!) We left Mumbai at 7 a.m., an hour later than planned. No, it was not because the students woke up late; they were perfectly on time. We went wrong in assuming that after leaving Mumbai, we would reach Talegaon non-stop to have breakfast and an equestrian demo; and from there non-stop to Junnar (town at the base of fort Shivneri) around lunchtime. We had to take 3-4 long pee breaks. We had totally missed accounting for these while planning!
We ended up reaching Junnar around 3 p.m. and it was past 4 p.m. by the time everyone finished lunch. (We also underestimated the time students would spend in saying “I don’t want to eat”! Of course) It was now impossible to climb Shivneri and reach our destination before dark. We had to discard Shivneri from our plan and instead moved to Ghatghar, a village near the Naneghat pass.
When we went for a walk in the hills in the evening, I found that the students had never watched a sunset. Knowing this was really disturbing for me, as I had a privilege to climb up a hill and watch the sun disappearing minute by minute everyday during my childhood. Today the students neither have any clearing in the concrete jungles to watch the sunset, nor do they have any time for it.
Next day, we were expecting that we would have a hard time to wake the students up in the morning. All of them were very tired from the journey and then the walk. Something shocking happened in the morning though. I woke up with our trek leader Ravi sir’s voice trying to convince someone to go back to bed. It was 5 o’clock in the morning. Two of the youngest students in our group had woken up saying “my mom told me to get up early and brush my teeth”. To give some relief to Ravi sir, I took charge and tried to talk them into going back to bed, tried putting them to sleep for more than half an hour. Finally we had to give up. Both of them finally slept only after Ravi sir took them out in the cold to brush and to wash face!
We started the trek around 9:30 a.m. It was a downhill trek, starting from Naneghat to the base village Vaishakhare. Naneghat, like almost every other trekking trail in Maharashtra, has great historical significance. It was a strategically important pass, where the trail served as a route fortraders between Kalyan and Junnar and the pass served as a toll gate. The huge stone pot that was used to collect the toll coins still lies at the pass.
The trek stretched longer than we had expected. As we started late, the sun slowed us down further. It took us around complete seven hours against the expected 4-4.5 hours. Remarkably, all the students finished the 6-7 km trek carrying their own backpacks. None of them – not even the youngest students ever requested us to carry their backpacks, or to carry them. Many of them had some or the other obstacle when it came to physical activities. But our worries were proven wrong. Each of them had their own strategies to deal with their shortcomings. The endurance and self esteem they showed was extraordinary.
A couple of students found it to be a daunting task trekking down the trail. They feared they couldn’t balance well. They feared they weren’t capable of so much physical activity. They feared they couldn’t do it without holding someone’s hand, without someone’s support. Given our limited knowledge about special students, we feared so too. This was the time when Santosh stepped in. He walked with them, told them stories and in his words, gave them some ‘secret mantra’. By the end of the trek, they were trekking independently and much more confidently.
This trek was surely different and special than other treks I do. I am looking forward to the next one. I am sure that one will present many more surprises – for us and for the students. And all of us will embrace these surprises with open arms.
Let me know your thoughts in comments!
Thanks for reading 🙂