When Elizabeth Schimenti decided to take a field-based wilderness course in India, she knew she would see remote villages and beautiful mountains in very different weather conditions. The expedition through northern regions of the populous south Asian nation, however, turned out to be much more eye-opening and adventurous than she expected.
"You definitely realize how privileged you are when you go to a place like India," the 20-year-old New Canaan resident said. "A lot of the resources that are available here don't exist there. Even to shower, they have to bring the water and heat it up over the stove."
Her trip was part of a nearly two-month course offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School, a Wyoming-based wilderness training academy. Schimenti, a junior English major at the University of Vermont, took last semester off to take the trek, during which she and nine others lived mostly outdoors -- sans electronic devices -- while learning about Indian culture from March through June.
The trip was broken into three stages. The first part was a 30-day backpacking expedition in the Kumaon and Garhwal regions of India's Himalayas, where Schimenti and her coursemates carried all supplies on their backs while hiking through soaring mountains, surrounded by the mountains' ever-present snow and ice.
While traveling over steep, rocky terrain at high altitudes and sleeping in a different camp every night, the group learned about map reading, cooking by stove and "leave-no-trace" techniques. The group also traveled by raft on the River Kali, which forms part of the border between India and Nepal.
Their heavy backpacks included food to last 10 to 14 days. Schimenti also carried three pairs of underwear, a pair of hiking pants, long-sleeved and short-sleeved shirts and a raincoat, which was "very much needed," she said. It rained most days, she said, and sometimes there was even hail.
Asked whether she was able to shower every day, Schimenti laughed. "Well, that didn't happen."
"When we wanted to get clean, we could jump into a river with our clothes on" because women are expected to be fully clothed in public at all times in India, Schimenti said.
She said everyone in the group probably took about five "real showers," adding that running water is a rare amenity there.
Next, the travelers spent 11 days with local families, where Schimenti and the others learned firsthand what it is like to live in remote, rural India. She and a Colorado student stayed with a family in the village of Kalika, a hamlet located at an altitude of 6,200 feet. Schimenti helped with household chores, ate meals with her host family, took classes with the children, practiced yoga and learned about their farming and medicine practices.
Her hostess, Hena, was a widow who lived with her two children and her mother. Schimenti said both children attend school, but neither Hena nor her mother has jobs.
"I'm not sure how they support themselves," she said. "Her day is kind of taking care of the house, going to the market to get food and taking care of the cows."
Although the youngsters spoke English well, the two women did not. Hindi is the main language in that region.
The culmination of the semester was a 10-day independent student expedition.
Despite hardships the community faces, Schimenti said the Himalaya region is "very beautiful," especially at the beginning of the summer season.
"It was one of the most challenging, but most incredible experiences of my life," she said. "I would definitely recommend it to anybody who loves the outdoors."
One of the key takeaways from the trip for Schimenti was "learning that you can go without a lot of things that you maybe thought you couldn't have gone without.
"I think that my favorite part had to be the hiking section, because it was such an experience to be isolated from society," she said. "It was just incredibly beautiful."
The worst part, according to Schimenti, also involved hiking, but only when "it got kind of monotonous" or when the temperature swings were "kind of hard to deal with."
Schimenti said it's "very hard to predict the weather" in India. "It will be beautiful and sunny during the day, and then at night, you might be caught in the hail." Quite often, she said, the temperatures depended on the elevation.
Several people, including herself, became ill at one point during the trip, but all recovered quickly, she said.
The student said she first learned about the course in 2008, when her brother took a mountain program through the same academy.
"I decided to do this because I always wanted to go to India," she said. "I wanted to head back into the mountains. I had done that in Peru five years ago, and I always wanted to see the Himalayas."
Schimenti, born and raised in New Canaan, graduated from Saxe Middle School before attending boarding school.
The wilderness course, which has more than 200,000 participants to date, helped Schimenti become more confident in herself. After all, she was "carrying everything on my back for 40 days."
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