I was a social worker for many years, often going from village to village, telling the people who live there how to ‘better’ their lives. My work involved talking a lot of jargon, pointing out ‘problems’ and how we could go about ‘improving’ them. In all that time, I never contemplated my own weaknesses, for I considered myself an educated and aware young man. I fell prey to what consumes most of us who like to call ourselves educated – conceit, which stops one from learning.
For, though I visited innumerable villages, never once did I make the effort to learn or understand questions that should be a part of such journeys. What is the knowledge that people in the villages have? What skills do they have? How can they be used for the benefit of communities? It was unthinkable that a trained social worker could learn from a population often referred to as ‘backward and illiterate’.
This worldview was not unique to me, many of my social worker colleagues seemed to have similar mindsets; the predominant idea was ‘saving them’ in the name of empowering the community. I had begun to realize that something was terribly wrong with this picture, and directed my reflection inwards after liberating myself from the formal social work rigour. I began asking myself - How aware am I in my own life? What are my strengths? What skills do I have? What are the things I like, and what are my dreams? I realized, in dismay, that I was ignorant about things essential for living a daily life, from my food to my lifestyle. I was unprepared. It hit home how little I actually knew.
Seeds of Yatra
My actual learning began after joining the Shikshantar movement. Shikshantar is an effort towards radical systemic transformation, in order to facilitate the development of Swaraj, throughout the country, through encouraging ‘walkouts’ from formal learning systems, and exploring other learning/doing options that exist including creating one’s own options.
In 2005, I started travelling around the Mewar region of Rajasthan. I went to several villages and met wonderful traditional healers. Most of them were labelled ‘illiterate’ and ‘uneducated’ because they didn’t know how to read text! Uday Singhji, one of the healers I met, advised me to stay with him for a longer period and learn by exploring the neighbouring jungle and villages.
A few months later, some of us at Shikshantar thought it would be fun to explore an area by cycling, and we decided to make this a learning journey without modern conveniences like mobile phones, cosmetics, extensive luggage and most importantly, without money! We shared the invitation with our friends who were interested in cycling, learning from villages and enjoying new challenges. Since then, I have been a part of several cycle yatras in different parts of Rajasthan, especially in the Mewar and Hardouti regions.
The yatras are an opportunity for me to travel to different villages and open my mind to new ways of life, along with others who are on similar quests. The journey is unlike any other – there is no competition of any sort nor is there a specific message or theme. Over one week, we tackle new challenges and make it a point to do without our gadgets, consumer items that
we are addicted to.
My first lesson in the yatra was to respect work that was done by hand. As we earned our food and stay by doing physical labour, I tried my hand at several things that villagers do in their farms and houses. My father was extremely surprised to see a photograph of me carrying a gobar-basket on my head, but he was happy to know that I was trying to get back to my roots… I soon realized how my school system had uprooted me from my traditional knowledge, culture and language.
Earlier, I used to feel insecure about the future of my kids, because they don’t go to school. My friends and relatives would often ask me about how my children would be able to make their “future” if they didn’t get a degree or a job. These yatras instilled confidence in me and all the experiments helped me trust the decision to un-school my children.
In the course of various journeys, I learnt how much money we really need to make our living – the answer is not much! After a few of these cycle yatras, I did several experiments with attempting to live on as little money as possible. I took up little challenges (I would call them ‘fast’ or ‘vrat’) – eating only raw food every Thursday, eating only local food (locally grown and prepared) every Saturday, spending a week without electricity, sometimes without money and even living without cooked food. I also began making natural products and using them – daily items like herbal soap, toothpowder, hair oils etc. and using them daily.
Spirit of ‘Spirit of Cycle Yatra’
The spirit behind every journey we undertake, is this -
- We go manual for transportation, and burn off some calories that we have so lovingly consumed despite being cholesterol-conscious
- We go slow, instead of breezing through in fast cars, and therefore get a better chance at appreciating nature and rural life
- We interact with the local people (rather than just buy stuff off them with money power) in the course of creatively managing our board and lodge
- We get to experience village life firsthand and in the process, learn skills that we have lost by virtue of being part of the ‘developed’ society, and also share any skills we have
- We develop an appreciation for local knowledge and skills and the ability to thrive with what nature has provided
- We develop some trust in the ability of nature to take care of us and in the goodness of human beings rather than having to constantly struggle for one’s existence as if it is one long battle against nature and other human beings
- We get some time to reflect on our own lives
- We loosen a little, the tight stranglehold that money has over our minds and learn that alternative ways to live might exist
- The most important bit is to enjoy nature, create music, dance, theatre, games and have a fun-filled adventure! It is a real chance to reconnect to the gift culture.
Lessons in Sustainability
Through the journeys, the attempt is to build relationships and bonds with people, work with them, learn from them the daily tasks that we take for granted, and learn and appreciate peoples’ traditional knowledge and wisdom, while picking up some skills along the way.
Our experience so far has been that solutions to grave problems of environmental change that face us, are present in the villages - prominently, through their ecological way of life and strong sense of independence, or ‘swaraj’. For example - Hardouti area (where we had a cycle yatra in October 2010) is called the ‘most backward’ region of the state, in terms of nutrition, health, education and ‘living standards’. However, all of us yatris experienced that the region was so rich in these very areas, but that people who come from outside are just unable to see and value this richness as they always measure it in their own terms. The people in the villages we journeyed through had so much knowledge about medicinal plants, nutritional plants (which we call ‘weeds’ now), natural eco-friendly housing, cooking without electricity, etc.
The interpersonal relationships they share, the connections that they forge with Nature, along with the strong sense of community and collective values, still form an important part of their lives. And these are the small things that make the Cycle Yatra truly enjoyable.
Many portions of this article have been translated from the original in Hindi by Ramawtar Singh.