I vividly remember the first school trip in 1983 with a group of standard 9 students at The Valley School. A teacher they were extremely fond of left them in mid-term and I was requested to take over. They knew me, of course, but I was an outsider. Nor did it help when I was forced to modify the syllabus to be able to teach what I knew! Stony silences or icy politeness greeted me every time I stepped into their class. I was desperate and flustrated. This went on for many weeks.
Then came the October vacations and the school decided that this class should go on a cultural trip to the South Indian temples of Mahabalipuram, Kanjeevaram, Tanjavur and Madurai. Since I taught them History, who else would be a better escort! Well, we set off...The miracle was that we returned to Bangalore at peace with each other. I do not remember any conscious moves made by anybody to dissolve the brittleness of the relationship but it happened. I suppose one could rationalize endlessly about what happened. I have never wanted to do so. Perhaps we were in a situation where we couldn't escape each other and were forced to act. The trip allowed that intangible and inexpressible to happen. Had we stayed on in school, our patterns would have defeated us.
After fifteen years it is hard to remember in which year one accompanied whom! As I write this all sorts of memories come to mind. I do remember every single place I have been to, sometimes more than once. In one sense the choice of places is not terribly important. Both at The Valley School and at Centre For Learning, teachers and students have many different preferences - trekking, adventure, wildlife, historic sites and developmental programmes - we have managed to do many of these.
Certain things have become very clear, though. Whereas it is quite possible to see the length and breadth of this country, it is imperative that leisure should be built into the excursion programme. Trips should be long enough (our longest has been 6 weeks long) and one should not try to do too many things. One place seen and that seen well should be a cardinal rule. Secondly, it helps children - in our case urban, affluent and English speaking- to be open and ready for language, food and cultural mores. This might mean having to eat rice and dal for every meal on a Himalayan trip; to be aware that girls travelling in shorts and sleeveless tops affect small town sensibility; that there can be hostility towards a group which seems so privileged and self-absorbed, whose members speak English all the time, being quite insensitive to the region they are visiting. Incidentally, the sounds and smells of this country are vibrant and overpowering. They can also be unpleasant - but they are part of the package and part of the preparedness.
For the group of adults and children travelling together, trips can bring about a heightened awareness of oneself in interpersonal relationships. As I mentioned earlier, the psychological challenges of constantly being together are quite enormous. On these long train journeys much can happen. A particular trip had two students so totally absorbed in each other that there was a drugged quality about their relationship. The sexual tensions and discomfort it was creating in the whole group had to be dealt with immediately. The train journeys were spent observing, listening and discussing the matter. I remember another time when younger children had to respond to the grief of a small girl whose father had died on the train - his body was discovered under the berth. Then the moment of shock when a student saw a 'platform-thief' walk away with my bag containing all the money, travellers cheques and the train tickets. I can assure you the way I chased and confronted him is not the image I have of myself! Finally, being in Dehradun at the time of the Uttar Kashi earthquake separated from the group for a couple of days and desperately fighting the thought that none of them may be alive.
Needless to say the most tedious part is the booking of accommodation and the long queues at reservation counters of railway stations. Never again, we say- but we go every year! It helps to go every year because one begins to tolerate the bureaucracy. I have often found that in our school the first group to do the bookings
returns to advise and inform. We have taken full advantage of personal contacts and have managed to stay in very beautiful places throughout the country. The parents of the school have been most supportive and since the last two years some have taken leave and willingly come along with us.
May I end with my all-time favourite excursion story? As part of the leisure-in-the-travel idea we had given ourselves three whole days at Konarak. We visited the Sun Temple the very afternoon of our arrival. Later Pulak, the art teacher, said it would be sacrilege if we couldn't view the temple at daybreak. There was the expected mumbling and grumbling and we decided to make this visit optional. The one to protest the loudest was quite world weary, cynical, charming and all of fifteen. He complained about everything - the food was indigestible, the weather insupportable, his mattress infested with bugs and why were we wasting time
dragging him around the country to look at blocks of stone hundreds of years old?! And in confirmation of our eccentric behaviour we were even planning a jaunt in the middle of the night!
Pulak and I met at the gates of the hostel at 3:30 a.m. No one else was there and we set off briskly for the hour long walk. It was still quite dark when we reached the Temple. We sat down in the silence feeling the wind and listening to the gentle rustle of leaves. By and by the sky slowly lightened and the first rays began to touch the spires and then dipped to touch the grey-green statue of the Sun God on one of the outer walls. I couldn't say how long we sat there. After a long while I heard a twig snapping behind me. I turned and there he was, just ten feet behind us. He looked at the temple, then at us and smiled slowly. He had quietly followed us from the hostel.