Little kids chuckled all around me as they ran across the playground of a small government school, just a few kilometers from our resort. I hid behind one of the broken walls of the main school building with little Sunita, while one of the other kids looked for us. We were playing hide and seek.
When I first signed up to go to Jim Corbett National park for Activity Week, I could not have imagined that my favorite part of a trip to a wildlife sanctuary would be spending time with kids I’d never met before. But here I was, on the last day of our trip, amazed by these kids, with such bright smiles on their faces, who were so excited to see us.
At this school, as our trip was coming to an end, I realised that this trip was not what I had expected it to be.
When we first arrived at Falcon Nest Resort after a sweltering 10-hour bus ride, I thought that this Activity Week would be the best one so far. I was with my best friends. We were staying at a resort for a week, and everything in our itinerary sounded fun— zip lining and rock climbing, a morning safari through the forests of Corbett, and visiting waterfalls and museums. We would not have to hike up mountains with heavy bags or sleep in tents like we usually did during activity week.
From our past experiences during Activity week trips, we were nervous to see what our living situation would be like. I was surprised when I saw the air-conditioned room and bathrooms that had showers with hot water. This time, unlike the others, there were no insects crawling up our backs inside sleeping bags. Instead, they entered through the wooden front doors and slept on our feather beds with us, and although some of my friends were scared of lizards creeping around the room and the spiderwebs on the furniture, it did not bother me much.
We had our first proper meal at the resort and were surprised by how good the food was. For the rest of the week, we would all be looking forward to lunch and dinner time, where we enjoyed various Indian dishes. The star of each of our meals would turn out to be the fresh, warm, and buttery naan.
The next morning, we found ourselves at an adventure camp near our resort, where we climbed rocks and walked bridges made of rope and wooden planks. Although it was fun, I did not think it was anything special. Like most days, the rest of our afternoons were free. After a satisfying meal, we got together to play cards. While some of us played ‘Monopoly Deal’ and various card games, others were glued to their phones. A large part of what had made activity week special in the past years was being disconnected from the outside world. Looking back, I wish we did not have our phones.
In the evening, we walked through the jungle as the sun set in the background over the Kosi Barrage river. Sitting there, looking at the birds flap their wings while the sun went down helped us unwind from the long and tiring day that we had.
That night, our excitement for the next morning didn’t let us go to sleep for a long time. We were supposed to wake up at 5 am for a morning safari that would take us through the dense forests of Corbett. We talked and played cards in our room till two in the morning when we finally decided to go to bed, exhausted.
Waking up so early in the chilly weather seemed like a small price to pay to see tigers, elephants, and other wild animals. So, I sat in our open jeep, wearing the warmest clothes I had, and watched the sky change colors while the sun came up.
As we drove past streams and rocky roads, I attentively looked around me, hoping to spot something. Much to our disappointment, all we saw were a few deer and some peacocks. We did, however, see paw prints on the tracks. Our guide told us that we had missed seeing a tiger just by a few minutes.
While driving back from the forest, I was tired and couldn’t keep my eyes open. As I rested my eyes while the cold morning air made shivers go down my body, I thought about the past couple of days. I realized that maybe what makes activity week so special is the feeling of accomplishment you get after a full day of hiking in the sun or working alongside villagers. Most of the things we had done so far did not make me feel like I had accomplished anything.
On one of the days, we drove to Jim Corbett’s house, which has been turned into a museum, located in a small town next to the forest called Choti Haldwani.
We walked through the forest to a river, where we had lunch. Seeing the river got all of us very excited. We took our shoes off and dipped our feet in the chilly, clear water. The water was a relief from the blinding and hot sunlight that had made all of sweaty and a couple of shades darker. We splattered water on each other and played there for a little while.
We also walked to a local village, where we spent some time with the locals, playing and getting to know them. Here, we also got a chance to cut some crops using tools made by the villagers. Talking to them and watching them work was not just fun, but also helped me understand what real hard work is.
Most of our time was spent at the resort, playing card games or reading books. Although it wasn’t the ideal week that I had expected it to be, I made some of the best memories of my high school life. I connected with the local villagers, the kids at the school, our chaperones, but most importantly to me, with my friends.
To me, Corbett was not about wildlife or adventures, it was about watching sunsets in the countryside, hearing stories about the lives of other people, and sipping hot chai while building relationships that would stay with me forever.
Janvi Poddar is the Managing Editor of The Woodstocker
Photos by Amani Mohan and Janvi Poddar
Edited by Nupur Agrawal and Dhrubhagat Singh