FOO CHEE CHANG
Here's a classroom with a difference – where shouting and cheering are not only allowed but encouraged, where students are not burdened with the bags of textbooks, where teachers come to work in sports t-shirts, utility pants and bags full of safety equipment, and where 'taking it indoors' could easily mean going to explore a cave.
The 'school' in question is Initiative Outdoor, an adventure company set up to promote and provide experiential, or hands-on, education. Aside from offering the gamut of adventure sports from mountain biking to rock-climbing, the seven-year-old outfit also runs life skills and team-building courses for schools and corporations
While adventure-seekers and corporations make up the bulk of Initiative Outdoor's business, founder Chandra Ale's (pic, right) passion lies in bringing the beauty and majesty of Nepal's nature closer to a new generation of Nepalis. By doing so, he hopes to not only restore the nation's love for the great outdoors, which has long given way to modernisation and its trappings, but also to impart lessons and skills which will inspire these young people to be responsible to themselves, the environment, and those around them.
"Youngsters these days have only one aspiration when they come of age," jokes Ale, "to own a motorbike and to ride it around with a boyfriend or a girlfriend."
Though he light-heartedly bemoans the dearth of an appreciation for nature in Nepal, Ale is dead serious about his company's vision. He regularly visits schools all over the country to give talks and presentations, showing students a side of the country they may not be fully aware of, and encouraging them to participate in adventure camps during the holidays.
"Some of the students are very enthusiastic about our programs. The greatest obstacle is often the parents, who just don't see the value in our activities," says Ale. He explains that changing mindsets will take a long time but he is optimistic and is prepared to stay the course.
Like any typical group of students, there were boys and girls chattering away in cliques, complaints about everything from the heat to bad phone reception, and a general lethargy. Ale was having none of it. First on the agenda, the group was spread out over the activity area and asked to comb it for litter. Despite good-natured moans and grumbles, the youngsters proceeded without too much objection. Ale then explained the 'Leave No Trace' principle to the students, telling them that while the outdoors should be explored and enjoyed, one also has a responsibility to help preserve it.
Object lessons like the above characterise the games and activities employed by Initiative Outdoor. Ale and his team may be adventurous to the extreme, but they draw strongly on the spirit of Sangha and Seva, the former implying teamwork and cooperation and the latter, service to others.
Though some of the activities they run through are more challenging than others, they all require a group effort. Most importantly, the instructors never condemn failure. "If these kids don't fail some of the time, how will they learn? And if they are afraid to fail, they will not even dare to try," explains Ale.
As the group progressed through games with names like 'Toxic Waste', 'Magic Stick' and 'Spider Web', personal and social barriers were broken down and a new rapport established. The group was then decked out in helmets, pads and headlamps to tackle the narrow confines of the cave complex above the Bagmati River. As they squirmed through the serpentine interior, the group took frequent breaks to ensure no one was left behind, and once more, the emphasis was on working together to negotiate the tough parts.
At the end of each hour-long run, the students emerged from the darkness, savouring not only the light of day, but also a newfound confidence in themselves and their peers.
Fun in the sun, photo gallery by Foo Chee Chang