How far we’ll go…Life at Sapna Ranch

by Nitya Sanath

Nestled in the lap of nature in a nook of Terdi village in Maharashtra, an unassuming ranch lives, breathes, and nurtures life, a love for life, and a thirst for learning.

Hasmukh Sapnawala, the ranch ‘sharer’, as he likes to be known, is the dream whisperer, the man behind the ranch, and hence its name, ‘Sapna Ranch’.

We are a slightly off-beat family of 4 (which family isn’t?): my husband, Salil, is an engineer from Michigan, who grew up in Doha; I am Nitya, a grants writer/social worker from TISS; and our 2 daughters: Naomi, a bookworm-storywriter-singer, whose incisive people-watching skills spare no one including us (10 years old) and, Annabel who has a prolific imagination in pretend play and who currently prefers friendships with animals to humans (6 years old).

We’ve lived and worked in Mumbai, Chennai, and briefly in Puttaparthi village, Andhra. We’ve lived in the ranch for 6 months since January 2017… Come, listen in as we chat about our experiences at Sapna :)

First with Annabel (6):

Me: What did you like about the ranch, anna?

A: I like Hasmukh uncle sharing his food, watermelon, grapes, bananas, vegetables, vegetable puffs. Can we also do that, mom?

(Sigh) We'll get there, anna...

Me: Can you tell me which animal you liked the most? And why?

A: I love Scotch, mom. He taught me how to be a dog...by rolling with me in the mud everyday. And you teach me how to be a human.

Me: Hmm...Anything else you loved doing, Anna-ma?

A: I loved Shaurya (a 6 year old friend) and climbing with him on the bamboo bunk beds!

I loved climbing trees; I liked it at the toppest! Climbing down was scary!

I loved mudplay, jumping in the rain, food forest swimming pools (water in the fields) with the TISSians...

I will never forget Surya's 5 kittens, mom...(hours-old kittens born at the ranch)

Now with Naomi (10):

Me: So, Nao, what are your most unforgettable moments at the ranch?

N: There are so many, mom!

(Sullen) The day Orion, the kitten died, I can never forget... I'd prayed so hard...

And then, the mystery of the dog-skull in the field was so exciting!

The day I got my own room, decorating it with my own handmade crafts... I loved it!

I made so many friends, I learnt Minecraft, shared stories and my love for books, played so many games... (To name a few) Vaidehi, Nandini, Emily, Gillian, Nikhil, Sunil, Vedant, Abhiram, Ajanmaya, Dev... I also learnt how to handle bullying! (Laughs)

Nadia, (a dance teacher from Seattle), I can never forget. She was just so, I don't know, so cheerful. I loved her!

And all the animals, fun, fun, and fun!

Me: Compared to homeschooling (that we had followed with a strict syllabus, back at home), what do you feel about learning at the ranch?

I loved life at the ranch...cos at home, we have tiled floors that you can't mess up, but at the ranch, how much ever you mess up, its always messy! I could write draw on the walls, floors... Decorate with mud, tidbits of grass, and paints!

Me: Any other high points?

The summer camp with some 25 kids was great! The trek climb was awesome! And yes, gorging on wild mangoes endlessly, the karwandhaaaa (wild berries loaded with micronutrients), yummmm!

The banana plantations had a lot of positive energy...I loved my walks there, narrating my own stories to myself. And I loved it when volunteers liked listening to my stories too! (On long walks)

There were times I was very bored, mom...

Now with Salil:

Me: What's your experience been like, at the ranch?

I have never come across such a learning environment before. I found Sapna Ranch as a lab where you have the freedom to do things by yourself, experiment, and learn in the process.

Hasmukh bhai's focus is teaching and mentoring; so, all the work is geared towards learning with a practical approach.

Me: Nice! What have some of your learnings been?

To start with, I learnt basic skills almost like how to use a screwdriver (laughs) and how to use a drill, say. I've learnt so many unconventional principles of eco construction that Hasmukh has gleaned through years of interactions with villagers and through his own trial and error.

Me: How do these learnings make you feel?

Moving from a desk-job for so many years, it (eco construction) didn't seem like something I could do. It was so out of my comfort zone. But once I started doing it, I discovered a new love for hands-on experience. It reminded me of my childhood experience of playing with lego... The same satisfaction and excitement...multiplied several times over!

Me: Any highlights?

The hypar (hyperbolic parabola)! I felt privileged that I was part of the team constructing India's only bamboo hypar structure. I was lucky to be there!

Me: Anything about the animals?

We’ve always been a family that loves animals, no?...but yes, I've never been used to cats and I really love cats now (after living with 11 lovely cats and kittens for 6 months, what'd you expect?)

Me: What about farming?

In farming, my experience has been just like eco construction. I've done a bit of gardening before, but here, even the daily 'mundane' tasks of watering plants, turning on bore well pumps for irrigation on time, gave me a lot of satisfaction that I am taking care of them and keeping them alive.

I learnt permaculture formulas like jeev amrut and enjoyed making bulk batches of it. Reminds me, even most volunteers who came have been knowledgeable, passionate, friendly, and I've learnt different things in farming from them.

Me: Lastly, your thoughts as dad and husband?

It's been a really good experience for us as a family, the ranch is very conducive to family bonding and its been a fulfilling, unplugged experience!

View from our bamboo tent

And, last but not least, for me (Nitya), living at the ranch converted my worst visceral fears into informed compassion (say creepy crawlies and snakes), inspired us to pursue a low-impact lifestyle, helped us discern needs/wants thereby detoxing us from several urban trappings, and gave us an opportunity to face reality: joy and boredom, changing seasons, life and dying, and the evergreen friendships of some lovely people.

* * * *

If you’re planning to visit Sapna ranch or any other ranch in the wilderness, my first tip, apart from the obvious “call and check availability” would be to “expect nothing and bring along your sense of humour” (to quote Hasmukh bhai).

My second tip would be, as much as your instinct/upbringing screams “run from this place!,” dig your heels in and allow your experiences to speak, not the appearance.

My last tip would be to just know that your whole life, perspective, and priorities will change, after an immersive rural experience. In other words, be ready for a wiser, calmer, braver you.