By Zakiyya Ismail, Johannesburg, South Africa
The decision to spend two months in India — for a first visit — felt exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. I was to be travelling to India with my husband, my two sons aged eighteen and seventeen, and my ten year old daughter. None of us had any attachment to India as a country and as South Africans our identity wasn’t particularly Indian or African. But I was keen to explore the Indian connection. I was also very nervous. I was afraid I might not like India, the cultures and people, and I was afraid of what that would mean for the Indian part of my identity. I was wondering whether my Indian and African identities would co-exist or merge and how that would look. As I said, terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
Our family’s educational paradigm of choice is unschooling and as a family we try to live together as equals. Living as equals means we consult before taking decisions and take all members needs into account. It’s not that difficult to do and most of the time and many logistical decisions get deferred to my husband and I. Travelling as a family that practices participatory democracy comes with its own special challenges, but also opportunities for growth and self awareness, while travel in general is always enriching and the lessons we learn come in the most unexpected of ways.
These are some of the highlights in terms of moments of growth or unexpected lessons that we faced during our two month visit to India.
Bollywood has its (unexpected) Benefits
My schooling was successful in convincing me, mistakenly, that the only language worth knowing was English! I embraced the thinking completely and as such didn’t bother learning any Indian or African languages. Imagine my surprise when I arrived in India and realised I understood quite a bit of Hindi! Also imagine my family’s surprise when a waiter explained the bill to me in Hindi and I not only understood, but replied in Hindi! “You speak Hindi?” they exclaimed! “Turns out I do” I replied! So all that time watching Bollywood movies, something our society would normally consider wasted time, actually turned out to be incredibly useful! Yet another reminder to us that there is no such thing as wasted time because learning happens everywhere all the time and mostly in intangible and have unexpected benefits that become apparent later.
Even more interesting is the mystery and wonder of language acquisition. I probably stopped watching Indian movies when I was around 10 (or maybe 12). It was also pre-subtitle days. I definitely didn’t realise that I actually learned quite a bit of Hindi. In addition, even though I hadn’t interacted with Hindi for about 30 years, what I had learned was safely stored somewhere in my brain and accessible when I needed it. Now that we are back home, I can’t speak Hindi again. But I know now that it’s safely stored for my next visit! And I know better to judge those so called time wasting activities!
New trips bring new rituals
My eldest son proposed adding a new ritual to our daily schedule. It’s a variation of a ritual that he was exposed to on a teen retreat with Project World School. We decided to name our new ritual Pyramid. Each of us took turns to host Pyramid every evening. We all made input into the format of Pyramid to have an effective and useful session for us all. Pyramid always began with logistical announcements for the next day and consultations around changes to itinerary if needed. After logistics, we each took turns to share what worked for us and what didn’t work for us for the day. Often, Pyramid extended into various other discussions, some serious some jovial. Pyramid came with many benefits: it provided us with the opportunity to self reflect on our own experiences for the day and understand each others’ better; it was quite illuminating to see how the same experience was experienced so differently by each one of us; it helped us avert many potential break downs as it allowed us to debrief in a safe, supportive environment especially when flight delays and bad weather colluded in four days of missed flights to Kashmir and the frustrations that go with that most finally, the deliberate communication brought us closer as a family, in a way distinctly different from the connections built from doing things together.
When the very basis of your philosophy is Challenged
As an unschooling family, we practice a kind of participatory democracy. Each members’ needs, wants and thoughts are equal to every other members’. Adults do not (in theory) have more say than the younger members. I say in theory, because since my husband and I were raised within the mainstream parenting model of power, domination and control, we oftentimes fall back into those patterns. Staying the course of partnership parenting requires me to constantly reflect on my behaviour and interaction with my children. It helps that I am constantly aware of the different ways that I, a deschooling immigrant, process the world differently from the way our unschooled children do. I needed to dig deep on this trip. There were so many instances during the trip where I was severely challenged. I wanted to impose myself on my children and define for them how they should experience our time in India. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn’t impose, but I would be unfairly irritated with them. These were the times that reminded me that I had much work to do on myself and to learn to accept their authentic choices. I failed more times than I care to admit, but I am particularly proud of this moment at the Taj Mahal. My ten year old daughter was terribly bored and had little interest in the space beyond admiring the aesthetics of the Mahal. However The Taj Mahal presented an unexpected joy for her. Pokémon Go! This was a serious challenge to me — as a visit to the Taj Mahal, for me, was an experience was to be relished. She had a different idea of how the experience was to be relished. So there we were at the Taj Mahal. Her focus was on the potential Pokémons she could catch and mine on my disapproval at her choice. It turned out that neither of us were actually focussed on this beautiful Mahal!! Thankfully sanity prevailed before I completely ruined her experience. I reminded myself that she was the author of her life and her experiences were hers to define. With that realisation, I focussed on the monument of love and dedication and left her to create an experience that was meaningful to her.
We started out in Mumbai. Mumbai was overwhelming — it was hot and crowded and the traffic was insane. But it had a kind of energy to it that I really liked. Our next stop was Jaipur, followed by Sariska Tiger Reserve (no we didn’t see any tigers), Pushkar and finally Agra! The forts, palaces and cities were amazing and the history of India fascinating. So much of Indian culture is still in tact, unlike in South Africa where the combination of British Occupation and Apartheid destroyed or distorted so much of African culture. We left India for about 10 days to go to Nepal (for a visa run) where the competing Indian, Chinese and Tibetan influences made for some amazing food combinations.
We returned to India to go straight to Kashmir. It was so so special to witness my children’s first experience with snow — a moment that will forever be etched in my memory. They were in awe and the frustrations of 3 cancelled flights to get to Kashmir were soon forgotten. It didn’t feel like we were in India at all. The people, the language, it all felt and sounded different. We loved the welcoming warmth of the Kashmiris. My eldest son even looked like a local. However we found the constant military presence unnerving and we were glad to leave the -10 degrees weather for a warmer Delhi and finally onto Udaipur. Udaipur did not disappoint. Beautiful and calm and friendly. Eventually after all the travelling we were grateful that we’d decided to end our Indian adventure in Goa at the beach. It was in Goa that we finally got to eat good Biryani. While we loved the food in India we all agreed that the South African style biryani was better than the varieties we sampled in India. Until Goa.
I was relieved and overjoyed that I found a deep connection to India and to my heritage and I love the richness that my Indian Heritage and African living brings to me. Our Indian experience left a deep imprint in us all: the amazing food; the warm people; the overwhelming chaos; our personal growth; the connection to our heritage. The inspiration gained from visiting Shikshantar and Swaraj University and the meaningful conversations we had there. All the ingredients for a magical two months.