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Alastair's Indian Adventure

When I decided to sign up to spend three months teaching in a remote community living in the foothills of the Himalayas, I had no idea what I had let myself in for.  I was given lots of information, talked to people who had been there and watched films about India, but nothing can prepare you for the experience itself.  From the moment we left Kolkata airport we were surrounded by scores of beggars and a feeling of absolute helplessness as to what could be done about it.  The scale of poverty in India was impossible to comprehend from my sheltered Western perspective, but through teaching we could at least make some difference, however small, to the lives of those less fortunate.

We were given a week's orientation to find our feet and learn more about the culture of the Lepcha people and a crash course in how to teach English.  The Lepchas are the indigenous people of the area, fighting to preserve their culture and traditions.  Education is a very important issue for the Lepchas, especially for those who cannot afford to go to the fee paying schools.  Many schools only have one paid teacher, with any other helpers teaching as volunteers.  I had to teach a class of 72 children as there were not enough teachers to make the class sizes smaller.  Teachers would often be away from school with other duties meaning other teachers would have to cover classes at very short notice or take several at once.  Some schools had no money for benches or teaching materials; at other schools the paid government teacher did not turn up.  As a way of encouraging students to learn English many of the textbooks were written in English, but as most of the teachers could not read English, the textbooks were useless.  Some schools had such a strict, disciplined approach that the children were terrified to make mistakes through fear of being hit for it.

Through teaching we could encourage the children to have fun whilst learning English.  Night Schools have been set up in each village so the Lepcha children can learn English and the Lepcha language before Alastair learning to dance with his night school pupilsand after school.  The children have an enormous desire to succeed and to learn and so they come to these optional classes and are an absolute joy to teach.  The children also had to teach me traditional Lepcha dances and songs and this was a wonderful part of the experience.  I was extremely nervous about dancing, given how hopeless I am at it, but at least it gave the children something to laugh at!  To my surprise, performing these dances and songs in front of hundreds of people was great fun and helped me become part of the rich Lepcha culture.  One of the highlights of my time was the Lepcha-English Language Day, where all the Night Schools performed English songs and plays and we (their AV teachers) competed by performing the Lepcha songs, dances and poems that we had learnt.  I gained so much from the experience; both from the reward of seeing the children perform something that I taught them, discovering a rich culture unlike anything I knew and gaining confidence from doing something new in front of a large audience.

Living and eating with a Lepcha family gave me the best insight into the culture and life of the Lepchas.  Staying there for three months meant that I could truly immerse myself in the culture, seeing how they worked in the fields, planting and cultivating ginger and cardamom helped by the children who had several hours work before and after school.  I also ate with the family in their delightful kitchen, on little stools crowded round the clay oven.  The food was delicious and I would never have guessed that after eating rice once or twice a day for 3 months it would still taste so good!  TAlastair and his  fellow volunteers comepete in a local archery competition. When teaching  in rural India volunteers are expected to wear local dress.he whole experience was set to the backdrop of stunning scenery with the houses nestled into the terraced hills.  When the mist cleared you could look one way and see the plains hundreds of miles away, stretching out into the horizon and the other way the snowy peaks of the Himalayas.  The small village of Pakang in the foothills of the Himalayas I now view as a second home and the people cared for me as if I was one of the family.  My only regret was not being able to stay longer.

The trip did not end there, and AV organised a trek in Sikkim, complete with yaks to take our luggage, cooks who kept us well fed and breathtaking panoramic views of the Himalayas and Kanchenjunga.  We then had time for our own free travel and I went to Nepal with my brother.  Once we left the tourist trap of Kathmandu, we had a wonderful time seeing rhinos, monkeys, deer, elephants and crocodiles at Chitwan National Park.  Away from the cities, with the persistent locals attempting to get as much money from tourists as they possibly can, the Nepalese were extremely welcoming and friendly.  When staying in a hostel in the little village of Kagbeni, we were invited in to have dinner in the kitchen and ate with the hosts Alastair  and fellow AV volunteers on trek in northern India.who cooked a delicious dinner for us.  My brother and I took a jeep back down the extremely bumpy mountain track from Kagbeni.  My brother shared the roof with 15 locals, whilst I was in the back with 7 others and 2 chickens!  Despite language barriers, we managed to communicate and they shared their food with us and showed us tatopani (meaning hot water), a hot natural spring.

Gap Years have received some bad press in recent years, with the view that these projects do not make a positive difference to the communities.  But I could see firsthand the difference that these projects can make.  The money has helped build classrooms, fix roofs and buy teaching materials.  The work done has helped to build bridges and improve water supplies.  Most importantly the teaching has helped the children with their English, confidence and shown some children that they should not be too scared to make mistakes.  For the gap year students the difference can be even greater, giving an insight into a different culture.  A direct recognition that many people are far poorer than ourselves in monetary terms and yet still live a rich life with a smile, a sense of humour, a wonderful community spirit and enormous generosity and kindness.

Alastair Couldrey's placement and trek in India were arranged with Africa & Asia Venture