How I Spent My Sabbatical

Updated: Jan 20

This is what greeted me on day 1 of my sabbatical - a warm, cozy home-stay surrounded by mountains in a small village near Ranikhet. Hosted by Radha didi, her two little sons and a nefarious but lovable Chintu (you can spot him in the lower right side of the house in the picture). I've been guilty of rambling on and on about this place and my host family more often than I would like to admit. But this post is not about that so let me take a step back and tell you about how I got here and what all I did in my time off.

I had ventured to Uttarakhand on an unpaid sabbatical from my advertising job in Bangalore. Why? That's a long story and I'll leave it for another post. Why here? I grew up with a fascination for the mountains, especially the Himalayas. Not just because they make for beautiful landscapes. Having made a few trips in my student years, I had come to be deeply intrigued by the people that live there. So when I thought of a sabbatical, I knew I that that’s where I wanted to spend time. But restless as I am, I did not want to just travel. So I spent some time identifying my interest areas and then writing to the relevant organizations in this region to request for volunteering opportunities. These are the three places where I volunteered -

1. Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation, Ranikhet (Uttarakhand)

They are an organization focused on enterprise building through sustainable and organic means. They have a network of women-oriented Self Help Groups which, along with participating in income-generating activities, also host volunteers and other guests for home-stay. The place where I was put up was also a part of the same network.

What I did here - I did not have a specific project here. So I did a few small projects - making a video documentary about the organization, a product photoshoot for their range of food and woolen products and a corporate deck about the organization.

What I could have done better - In retrospect, instead of doing small jobs, I feel if I had taken up one structured, big project, my time here would have been more useful.

2. Dharmalaya Institute of Compassionate Living, Bir (Himachal Pradesh)

This was the trippiest place of all. Situated as an only building on the top of a hill, which required a good 15 minutes of leech-infested hike, it was the most solitary and calm place I had been to. As the name suggests, this organization is all about inculcating a habit of sustainable, compassionate (vegan) living. Built by the celebrated octogenarian architect Didi Contractor, who is famous for building eco-friendly structures, this institute is built using natural, locally sourced material like mud and bamboo sticks. At different times in the year, they host workshops and retreats around holistic living. Unfortunately, I stayed with them at a time when there were no workshops planned.

What I did here - I, along with the other volunteers, worked on the construction of a small outhouse near the main building. So we spent our days making mud bricks, stacking them together with the help of a mud-based alternative to cement to make walls and plastering them with cow-dung. We would be physically drained by the end of the day, and help ourselves to healthy, organic, vegan food.

What I could have done better - Nothing. I initially thought I should have timed my volunteering with a workshop. But then I eventually ended up having a really good time here.

3. Aavishkaar - Centre for Science and Math, Palampur (Himachal Pradesh)

Another great place to volunteer for anyone interested in education! Aavishkar, when I had volunteered with them in 2016, was involved in conducting math and science camps - month long residential camps conducted for students from an NGO in Bihar that worked with dalit girls. They use alternate teaching methods and tools to explain concepts in math and science. Now they have expanded their scope of work in education and tied up with more organizations. They take in volunteers to teach kids.

What I did here - Taught economics.

What I could have done better - At the time when I volunteered, there were enough teachers for math and science so I felt we were overstaffed. While I had a great time here, in retrospect, I felt I could have picked another time when there were fewer volunteers.

In all, an experience of a lifetime! :) And a few learnings on how it could have been better. I would talk about other aspects on planning a sabbatical in further posts.


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