Travel Diaries of a Nomadic Family

by Oormi Kapadia

“Travel is the best teacher.” — a cliché, but something that has stayed with me over the years while I have forgotten most of my other childhood teachings.

In 2017, my husband Marzban and I decided to leave our Mumbai urban life of consumption and competition behind and lead an alternate life of simplicity and consciousness. This was easier said than done! What does it mean to live simply and consciously? To seek answer to this question, we decided to take up a journey around the country on roads less travelled, through smaller towns and villages, to see how others lived. We wanted this to be a slow journey and not a destination-to-destination travel. As Milan Kundera beautifully says, “There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.”

The journey was going to be unplanned. We decided to leave in 2020 after completing our projects on hand (we are architects by profession). We stopped formal education for our then 7-year-old son Arzaan and decided to un-school him through the journey. Unfortunately, in March 2020, Covid-19 struck and a lockdown was announced. We spent two months cooped up in our pigeon hole apartment in Mumbai and left in June 2020 with the first relaxation of travel rules. We loaded up our pick-up truck which was to be our home for the next few years and headed out of Mumbai.

Our first stop was a farm at Mulshi, Maharashtra where we had built a home with natural materials. We decided to spend the monsoon there learning the basics of farming through paddy farming. The biggest challenge was to slow down our pace of life and become sensitive to the cycles of nature which we had neglected staying in a city. Waking up and sleeping with the sun was an alien concept. Electricity and water supply were taken for granted without much reverence for natural resources. Slowly we got tuned to the withering of plants in rains, breeding cycles of insects and bugs, movements of earthworms and many other miracles of nature. Children adapt very quickly to different ways of living; it is the adults who take time letting go of their set patterns. With the help of the locals, we learnt to sow, transplant and care for the paddy.

We experienced the tyranny of cyclone Nisarg which had missed its mark on Mumbai and landed south-east of the city. It devastated a lot of homes in the village. The monsoons in Mulshi are notorious and surpass Cherrapunji in volume. More than the rains, the winds create a greater havoc. Along with the villagers, we learnt the local tricks of holding the roof down, banking the fields with stones and ultimately surrendering to Mother Nature. Finally, after Dussera we harvested the paddy and threshed it. Arzaan too went through the 5-month cycle of working on the farm. Contributing physical labour in growing of rice made us and Arzaan look at each morsel of food with a renewed respect. Wasting a grain of rice on the plate felt painful.

Post Diwali, we decided to move on and went to Indapur on Mumbai-Goa highway which is a small town where the potter-artist Rajesh Kulkarni has his studio. We spent a month understanding and learning the process of terra-cotta pottery, one of the oldest skills known to human beings. We learnt to identify various kinds of soils, understood the components that make the soil viable for pottery, learnt making of the right mix, working with the material free hand and then on the wheel. Arzaan took to clay like fish to water. Firing is another skill altogether. A month wasn’t enough to hone our skills, but it exposed us to another way of living life consciously.

Rajesh works with local potters all over the country who are slowly moving away from the family profession. His aim is to put the economic trust back into the art. Most of the traditional potters give up pottery because of deterioration of the raw material — clay and resultant low returns. The knowledge of what makes good potter’s clay was never passed on from one generation to the other (possibly because deterioration of something as omnipresent as soil was unimaginable then). So, Rajesh has taken upon himself to bring this technical knowledge to the traditional potters so that they can fill in the missing components into their local soil and once again continue the art without unnecessary expenditure.

After a month in Indapur, we continued driving down the west coast, zig-zagging up the Western ghats, down the Deccan Plateau and back on the coast. For the first time, we consciously experienced the Indian topography. Arzaan was always exposed to road trips. All three of us enjoyed motorbike trips when Arzaan was younger; but car journey is a different experience. Most times you are locked in a bubble, self-sustained with all the essentials that we carry and have minimal interactions with the outside. This was completely undesirable. We established four rules for the journey — no AC, no packaged food or water, no highways and no hotels. This automatically made us more open to the places we visited. Not hoarding of water made us stop every hour and drink the local water. No highways ensured we keep our journey non-destination based. No AC ensured we were in tune with the weather outside. And no hotels nudged us to interact with the people and share their accommodations. Every now and then, we would pitch a tent or seek refuge in a dharamshala. This was as close to a motorbike journey as we could manage.

We got an opportunity to volunteer at a forest living program in Angadibail in Karnataka. Savitha Naik, a well-known scholar of tribal cultures, runs a forest living and learning program called Rutu (season) program for the urban youth in the forests of western ghats of Karnataka. The youth aged between 11 to 18 years spend an entire season (in this case it was 12 weeks of Winter) in the forest, learning how to survive on forest resources, knowing about the local tribes and learning various arts and crafts from them. The experience at varied levels was unmatchable. We interacted with Halakki and Siddhi tribes of the region, learnt the tribal songs related to their seasonal activities, learnt quilting, basket weaving, foraging forest food, making ant chutney amongst other things. Everyday living in the forest was sans packaged food, chemical-based toiletries, any form of plumbing, electricity and any form of fossil fuel. There was no connectivity to the outer world of any kind. Kids along with adults were to look for firewood in the forest, cook on chulas, make our own tooth powder, soaps and shampoos out of natural materials and use a flowing stream as our open-air bathroom. The urban youth discovered the joy of writing letters to their parents and receiving a reply after two weeks. Virtue of patience, boredom, lack of constant stimulants and denial of instant gratification did wonders to kids and adults alike.

We explored the region through various treks. We learnt Kannada from local kids and taught them English. We took this opportunity to build a chicken coop in mud with the kids. We experimented with different colour mud plasters with lime as an alternative to cement plaster and paint and debated about pros and cons of vernacular architecture. At the end of the three months, we were a tight-knit family.

After this experience we continued our journey in the forests of Karnataka exploring Aghnashini and Sharavati river valleys and fell in love with the region. We continued further south along the coast and after reaching Kanya Kumari at the southern tip of the country, we came up the east coast zig-zagging the Eastern Ghats. The Eastern Ghats were very different from the Western Ghats. Much older and dispersed, they do not give the experience of traversing a mountain range but as occasional retreats from the plains. We stopped in Auroville and volunteered at Sadhana Forest.

Sadhana Forest is an ecosystem conceived by a family, Aviram and Yorit Rozin, that settled in India in 2003. Based on basic principles of compassion, collaboration, community living, gift economy, veganism, unschooling, water conservation and afforestation the family began their life on an arid piece of land and today they have transformed it into a diverse tropical dry evergreen forest. The actual learning was living with large number of volunteers that throng the place from all over the world and Sadhana Forest’s no door policy (literally — the place has no doors) welcome everyone unconditionally. Water conservation is serious business here — high irrigation demand crops are avoided in the meals, local millets and veggies requiring no to minimum irrigation form the diet. Water stations for hand wash, vessel washing and bathing work on simple systems that use minimal water. Dry toilets provide rich ‘humanure’ (human manure) for forest growing. Swales, ponds and catchment areas ensure not a single drop of water leaves the land. Waste segregation into multiple units made us responsible for our consumption. Many such systems and activities have been designed and implemented at Sadhana Forest to lead a life of awareness and complete responsibility.

We continued our journey up the east coast to Andhra Pradesh then headed west into Araku valley and the forests of Chattisgarh. We arrived at Hemalkasa at the state border of Maharashtra and Chattisgarh after a tiring convoluted road as there are no bridges across Indravati and Godavari rivers in this region. We had heard about Baba Amte and Prakash Amte’s life journey, but wanted to experience the place for ourselves. As we arrived at Lok Biradri Prakalp’s campus, the remoteness of the place was overwhelming. But more surprising was the level of infrastructure that had been established within the campus in such remote location which stands testimony to the years of hard struggle that the entire core team would have gone through. A full-service hospital, guest house for patient’s families, 800 students’ residential school, a dairy, a poultry and the rescued animal’s ark form the main campus. Serving this are community kitchens, petrol pump, skill building centers, and many infrastructural systems that we otherwise take for granted.

Other than on-campus activities, LBP runs many schools, health centers and other infrastructural activities in and around the region. A visit to one such school changed our perception about level of dedication that people can have towards education. Geographically Nelgunda is only 23 km away from LBP but we took an hour and a half to reach there. Accessible only on a two-wheeler, there is no discernible road to reach there. You zig-zag through the dense forest, cross multiple streams (there are no bridges built) that engulf the path, you slip, you fall and scrape yourself multiple times before reaching this beautiful region that seems to have stood still for the last few centuries. It is completely cut off from the rest of the country. No electricity, no cell phone coverage, no land-line and not even a post office. The kids walk anywhere from 2 to 10 km each way to reach the school and teachers make the journey that we made, every day from Hemalkasa. This kind of dedication is unheard of. This village is just one amongst hundreds of tribal villages further inside the forest, some which do not even feature in our country’s census survey.

We continued our journey westwards. By the time we arrived at Swaraj University, we were already on the road for a year and a half. Throughout our journey, the association of various institutes and individuals with Swaraj was uncanny and so it was inevitable that we landed up here. Contrary to our pre-conceived notion of a structured institute, the wooded campus and Mr. Mehta (founder of Tapovan Ashram) basking in the sun were the first images that greeted us as we entered. Over the period of ten days of our stay at Swaraj we learnt the essence of unschooling — not only for the children but for everyone in all aspects of their lives. A platform of blank canvas, written and painted over and again by anyone willing to experiment with their lives — immaterial of which path they have taken or which point in the journey they are at… this kind of unconditional, non-judgemental spaces are far and few.

During our stay at Swaraj, it was hosting a month-long camp for 11- to 16-year-olds and had begun the Unschoolers Ecovillage with two host families. We had an opportunity to witness how the teens organised themselves and pursued varied activities of their interest. Arzaan fit right in and we rarely saw him through those ten days. Teens would confidently approach any of the facilitators or the host families or even visiting families like ours with questions, guidance or for pure fun-filled chats.

Days were spent with the host families cooking, cleaning, helping in their farm activities, bathing in the lake and exploring the surrounding landscapes. Most interesting were the nights where we would all gather on the terrace (named Ojas) and chat, discuss and debate endlessly about each other’s experiences, journeys, world views. Memorable for me would be our heated discussion about the viability of community living in today’s individualistic societies and individualistic aspirations. Ideas of cashless societies, gift economies and delicate lines separating flat hierarchies from anarchies.

Our journey continues. It is now two years on the road. A lot is learnt, and a lot still stands to be explored. The two years have not been all hunky-dory. There have been times when we would be traveling for days without any definite purpose or any meaningful interactions. Such times would create self-doubts about our intent. Physical discomforts were many. Finding ‘clean’ (the definition of this word is under scrutiny) accommodations, comfortable weather and temperatures, palatable food, varied tastes, varied cuisines were all a part of these discomforts which we took up as a challenge to peel off our layers of urban conditioning. Contrary to popular beliefs, we have never had an experience of theft or discomforts from people. The common question that people ask is “how do you economically sustain yourself?” — to which our answer is simple. Our expenditure is less than half of what we would have otherwise spent staying in Mumbai. We volunteer from place to place either our physical labour or our architectural skills and get a place to stay and meals in return. Embracing the concept of ‘enough’ has been the toughest. We as urban dwellers feel that there is never enough money earned — but this travel revealed that there is always enough.

There have been many personal transformations over the last two years. Each of us has grown immensely patient — the concept of time flows very slowly on a travel of this nature and patience is an essential skill to hone. As city dwellers, we are quick to judge and pigeon-hole anyone or anything. Redundancy of this habit becomes evident. Each person is on a journey of their own and each one is at a different stage; judging and compartmentalising a person obstructs our own journey further.

The idea of detachment we learnt from our son — each place we visited brought us a new family and Arzaan with his lack of inhibitions would adapt them as his own. At the end of our stay, we would be sceptical about leaving this family comfort behind, but Arzaan as easily as he had attached himself would say goodbye and move on. Detachment is not lack of attachment. It is being able to rid our sense of possession of people and things behind. The only advice, if any, that we can have for people considering such life journeys is that there will never be a right time, there will never be enough earned or saved — the journey will never come out of a logical decision taken, it will always be a leap of faith. Sooner you take it the better.

The fears that we live with, in the city, slowly disappear. We were never anxious about Arzaan’s education. The redundancy and the harm caused by conventional education was evident to us prior to this journey. The education that Arzaan has received through this journey is priceless. His confidence, his independence, his sensitivity to nature, his unique understanding of the world, of the values leave us astounded. At the young age of 9, he is already equipped to handle conflicts and navigate through the world. We long to relook at the world through his eyes.

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