A Gap Year

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Chaitanya with a snake

‘I never let schooling interfere with my education’
Mark Twain

No studies, no regular classes, no exams, tests, and no tension about marks for a whole year! This sounded too good to be true.  On a trek once, Appa told me that I could take a break after completing my Class 10 examinations instead of immediately going to college. I was then 15 years old – he gave me an opportunity to experience life differently and explore my passions and hobbies.

Initially, the idea of a gap year seemed very appealing but after I finished my tenth exams, I was a bit nervous about it. I was worried that, academically, all my classmates would go ahead of me. Appa then suggested I read ‘Free from School’, a book written by Rahul about his year away from school.  There were many fun encounters described in it, and it persuaded me to go on a gap year adventure.

While I was still deciding whether to take the break, my friend Himanshu, told me that his father too was encouraging him to do something similar. Appa and I then met Prakash mama, Himanshu’s father, and it was finally decided that we would take a year’s gap.  The most interesting reaction came from one of my distant relatives, who when told of the gap year asked me “Have you failed in your SSLC exam?”

Over one year Himanshu and I did most of our experiments together – met scholars, journalists, artists, and individuals doing interesting things, travelled a fair bit, trained in water sport activities, picked up photography skills, even worked in a small hotel and most of all, enjoyed everything hugely.  All of which would not have been possible inside a classroom.

A different way of life

The very first thing we did was to visit Sudhakar mama, a Vedic scholar, in Bangalore. He and his family have some unique ideas for living. In his house there were hardly any steel utensils! They were mostly of brass and copper. All the cooking was done on a briquette stove.  
We also got along well with his son Bhrugu who has been homeschooled. Bhrugu is 12 years old; he likes reading magazines, does craftwork, studies Sanskrit and Vedas at home, and plays the flute very well.  Amrutvarshini, his older sister, is an expert on Sanskrit grammar and teaches other M.A students.

We  learnt just a little bit about the Vedas – but what has stayed with me is the experience of a very different way of life.

Learning Light

The photography workshop at Sagara, in Shimoga in Karnataka was one of the best things we did that year. Radhakrishna mama who is an expert in ‘Hase Chitra’ (a form of tribal art) and a theatre actor hosted us at his house during our trip.

We learnt about many things – from DSLR cameras to white balance from shutter speed to the ‘rule of thirds’ for composing a picture.
The bit I found most enjoyable was going around the city to take some photographs. Our group’s assignment was to prepare a final picture by combining different pictures using Photoshop, and create our own set of pictures.

After the workshop, we also learnt a bit about ‘Hase Chitra’. We first practiced some simple drawings on paper after which we learnt to make natural colours using Kesu leaves to prepare green colour. We put the leaves in a mixer and then added water, and soaked a piece of cloth in it. We added 30 – 40 percent of glue and mixed it in. Similarly, we also made two shades of colors from soil. We learnt to make paintings using our fingers and a blade.

We also saw pickle being made from midikai – a small variety of mango, interacted with writers and journalists, chatted with an expert in butterflies, who had around 256 dead specimens of butterflies as well as a collection of other insects like millipede, dung beetle, etc. On our last day we saw the ‘Netti of Bhatta (rice)’– planting small rice saplings and also managed to visit the lush green Jog falls nearby.

North Bound

Himanshu and I have been on many treks before. Therefore, when Anupama Moushi, a teacher at school told us about the water sports course in Himachal Pradesh, we jumped at the idea.

We first visited the Roerich Memorial Trust in Naggar, Himachal Pradesh.  Nicholas Roerich was a Russian painter, explorer and philosopher and since it was his 135th birth anniversary celebrations, we witnessed music and dance performances by Russian children; we saw their paintings, and did our bit by helping clean and arrange the chairs.

Along with the other visitors we walked around the nearby village of Rumsu, which had old traditional buildings, some built as long ago as 150 years ago! The trees there were huge and unlike anything we’d seen before!  We visited Manali with our Russian friends, saw some monasteries and temples and managed to pick up some Russian words and number names. We were fortunate to see the Dalai Lama at McLeodganj, a predominantly Tibetan populated hill town close to Dharamsala.

Pong Dam Adventures

We got off to a shaky start when we realized that our bus conductor didn’t know where the Water Sports Complex was. When we finally managed to reach Pong Dam, we realized that along with another trainee, we were only three participants – and the first couple of days were not very exciting.

Then, when five more trainees joined in we had a great time with a series of activities – rowing, sculling, canoeing, sailing. We also tried our hand (rather our feet) at water surfing and waterskiing, which was quite challenging. What we really enjoyed was capsizing in the kayaks!

Our bus adventures didn’t end at Pong dam. After the course, we went to Talwara city nearby; from there to Pathankot and to Amritsar by bus. Halfway into the journey, the bus driver stopped the bus and started talking to the passengers in Punjabi. We didn’t understand a word. It was only after some time we understood that the bus would not go to Amritsar and we’d have to take another bus. Bus facilities are poor in Himachal Pradesh!

On our return to Delhi, we got a chance to see the NDTV studio, thanks to my uncle who was a panelist in a TV program that day. We sat among the audience and appeared on TV! We also watched a cricket match between India and Australia, which was fun since we had never been to a stadium to watch a match before.

Karwar Capers

After the high–tech world of the television studio, we went to a small coastal town, Karwar to work as waiters at a small restaurant.
The restaurant, run by my father’s colleague’s grandmother served only non–vegetarian lunch and dinner – a challenge for Himanshu who is purely vegetarian.  We stayed at a room in Kodibagh, approximately 4 kms from Karwar town, and were given cycles for our daily trips back and forth
On our first day there, the regular waiters were absent and we were a bit lost. I was a little tensed since we were new to the place and the work – but we soon learnt to take orders, and serve the customers.

Some workers were cutting the fish and some the mutton pieces. Jnaneshwar uncle, the cook of the hotel told us what the menu for the day was. Initially the customers were few, so it was not difficult to manage. But as the number of customers increased it became confusing. We decided to break up the tasks to coordinate better; Himanshu would serve the water and take their orders while I would serve the customers their orders and extra items like soda, cold drinks, extra rice, extra curry or bhaji.

In the evenings, we walked along the seashore or read books on the beach, collected seashells and generally sat around. We had to return to the hotel around 6:30 pm, as the customers came by 7 pm. Parcel orders were popular and so was the biryaani. Late at night, we cycled back to our room in Kodibagh on empty roads in the dark. We would be so tired that we were fast asleep as soon as we lay down on our beds.
I had fun tasting different types of fish and crab. Though we didn’t get a chance to go deep sea fishing, we observed the fishermen from the shore. It was wonderful to watch them throwing their nets so skillfully into a semi-circular shape and then pull the ends together. We tried our hands at pulling in the net – it was much tougher than we thought!

Our Learnings

Now that I have joined college this year, it is a bit difficult to get back to the strict ‘timetabled’ way of living. After a few days however, it was not very difficult to get back to studies as usual.

The gap year has really changed my way of thinking. It gave me a better picture of the world outside school. I saw many places and met people who were skilled in so many different ways; many of them also work for the society at large. Now I feel that it is not only the college degree that matters, but also the way we live and work in the world.

My time away from school and college has helped me gain confidence because there was no pressure; we had the opportunity to do what we were really interested in. For example, snakes fascinate me and I learnt to identify them, handle them, learnt a bit about their life cycle, their behavior. I feel luckier than my 500 batchmates to have had an opportunity to learn and work with snakes.

I also became friends with a few snake experts - through e-mails and social networking sites as well, and have  often taken their help and clarified my doubts. Recently, I rescued a 1.5 meter long Cobra on my own!

This experience has definitely changed me in subtle but important ways – I feel connected to so many more people, places and creatures of the world.  Experience is the greatest teacher! I wish all youngsters the opportunity to educate themselves during a ‘gap year’.

Chaitanya is currently studying in Class 11. His passions are reptiles, trekking and photography.