Lower Sixth India Trip 2016

This summer, for the second time, Ardingly sent a group of students and teachers into the hills of northern India to volunteer with the Tibetan refugee communities of the lower Himalayas. As well as teaching English in a Tibetan school, Ardingly students volunteered in a very small school for monks from a local monastery. These two projects offered students a window into two remarkably different schools – one a vast secondary school educating refugees from all over the area, the other a tiny and under-resourced monastery school with barely enough classrooms to accommodate its students. In addition to their teaching, students got the chance to do a spot of sightseeing around India's 'Golden Triangle', tried their hands at traditional Tibetan and Indian cooking, and spent time exploring the tea fields and monasteries dotted around verdant Himachal Pradesh during monsoon season.

The trip began with an overnight flight from Heathrow to Delhi. The group were all far too excited to sleep much, and both students and staff emerged bleary-eyed into the Delhi heat the following morning. After a whistle stop trip to the guesthouse we were off on our trusty bus to our first destination: the famous Humayun’s Tomb. After admiring this beautiful dome-shaped Mughal monument, carved in local red sandstone, we were off to look at the 'India Gate' war memorial and grab a much-needed ice cream. In the evening we headed to Lodi Gardens, a city park famous for the lovers who meet there, out of sight of prying eyes, to hold hands and wander under the mango trees. Our students preferred to spend their time there playing football, and Charlie Kelly soon got a game going against some local Indian boys. Our team was rather more mixed, with Lisa Brautigam and Selma Daut representing the girls most impressively. As dusk fell we headed back to the guesthouse for chapatti, veggie curry and daal – and a well-earned rest.

The following day we headed to Agra to see the beautiful Taj Mahal at sunset. Students were treated to a guided tour before exploring by themselves, taking pictures of the building and wandering inside the dark corridors of the tomb amongst the bats and birds who have made it their home. In the morning the group visited the Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was held prisoner by his son. Students saw the view he would have gazed at of the Taj Mahal over the river, where his wife was buried. It was a very romantic visit, made more so by having the place to ourselves.

That afternoon we drove all the way to Chandigarh, the affluent capital city of the Punjab. As we travelled we saw the landscape change from the dry dust of Agra to the lush green plains of Punjabi farms and rice paddies. We stayed overnight before stopping in at the Chandigarh Rock Garden, an eccentric local tourist attraction filled with recycled sculptures and waterfalls. After a peaceful walk we had to get back on the bus for our last big drive all the way up to Bir, where we would be volunteering. We arrived around 8pm to be greeted by our hosts, a Tibetan family of two brothers and a sister named Tinley, Puntash and Tsering who run 'The Garden Cafe'. Having existed for a few days on rice and daal, the group fell upon a delicious supper of pasta and salad made by Tsering, the chef. This set the tone for our stay at the guesthouse, where students ate really well and were brilliantly looked after. They even had their own conservatory space for relaxing and playing games, as well as admiring the monsoon storms, which occurred several times during our evenings there.

Then began the real focus of our trip:  seven days volunteering in the Tibetan Children's Village at nearby Puja, and at the Tashi Jung monastery near Baijnath. The TCV schools were set up by the Dalai Lama's sister to educate refugee Tibetans who had fled their home country after the Chinese invasion and subsequent occupation. Still today, many children arrive from Tibet alone, having made the three-week journey over the Himalayas on foot and without their parents. They then live at the school year-round in school 'homes' with a 'house mother'. The system is like that at Ardingly, except students often don't see family for years at a time. As well as Tibetan children there are also several pupils from Nepal; this has been the case since the earthquake which devastated the region last year. In all, the school has over 1,000 boys and girls aged between around four and twenty. Our students got the chance to work in both the junior and senior schools, teaching full lessons in English as well as helping the teachers as assistants. They did incredibly well to throw themselves into this work, which required confidence and patience and which had the potential to be very nerve-wracking! It was amazing to see students teaching everything from basic spelling to Keats, working together with the teachers to plan lessons and spending their time in the evening preparing resources. They all did themselves and the College proud, making teaching look misleadingly easy!

When they weren't at the TCV, the group were at the monastery school. This had a very different atmosphere. It was much smaller, with only three classes of boys aged between around five and twelve. They had very little by way of resources, really just pencils and paper, and their dining room also served as a makeshift classroom, which was adjacent to the dormitory where they all slept. Despite the basic conditions the boys themselves were all energetic, friendly and, above all, eager to learn. Our students led them in two-hour session of English, with no supervising teacher present, and they all had to learn to think on their feet and adapt their lessons to the ability of the different groups. Once again they did a brilliant job in this respect, and showed thought and generosity in the planning and delivery of their lessons. A difficult job done really well.

Our days in Bir passed very quickly as the students spent much of their time planning or teaching. In their free time they all had a go at learning how to make momos, Tibetan dumplings stuffed with cheese or mutton. The group also attended an Indian cooking class where they made aloo paratha, aloo mutter, and daal. One afternoon was spent trekking up to a local monastery in the forest, braving the leeches in order to witness a Buddhist prayer ceremony complete with gongs and throat singing. The following day students also got to see a High Lama dance: a traditional dance which took place at Chokling Monastery to commemorate the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet. The group also visited a local Hindu Shiva temple and a Sikh temple, in order to get a flavour of the religious plurality which is so much a part of India's identity. Finally, they spent their weekend visiting McLeod Ganj and seeing the Dalai Lama temple complex, as well as having the chance to buy some Tibetan souvenirs and witness some spectacularly heavy monsoon rain.

The trip was an enormous success, and all the students gained a huge amount from taking part, as well as putting a commendable amount of time and energy into their work. I owe all of them a big 'thank you' for meeting the challenge so well. The other teachers and myself were bowled over by their proactive attitudes and ability to work as a team. They have all made friends for life amongst the Tibetan children they taught; all that remains is for them to remember to honour the dozens of promises they have made to be pen pals!

Becky Allen