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26 February, 2018

I was incredibly fortunate to be offered the opportunity to go to Panchgani to visit the Initiatives of Change India; Asia Plateau. My work within IofC UK had only happened fairly recently, after being introduced several months ago through Howard Grace. Following the initial introduction, I became actively involved in attending events, volunteering at events and functions, being invited to participate in the 2018 School for Change Makers and then working with members of IofC and Alumni of SforC to put together an event around youth and religion. I knew that at Asia Plateau not only would I be learning more about IofC internationally but I would also have a terrific platform for telling others about the work IofC UK are doing.

Before arriving at Asia Plateau, four of the five SforC attendees decided to have a short trip to Goa to ‘settle in’ before the conference. We had several pleasant days in Goa but it was only when leaving for Panchgani that I realised my strength and endurance was going to be tested! Unfortunately thre hotel had forgot to put my bag into the taxi alongside the other bags and we realised this just as we arrived at the airport with an hour to go before the flight! I had to take a taxi from Goa to Panchgani which took around eight hours – but gave me an incredible insight into some of the rural communities along the way where we stopped and had tea breaks, the views were breath taking and we also stopped and fed monkeys; which, unbeknown to me at the time, would lead to being given the nickname ‘The Monkey Whisperer’ later in the trip.
I actually arrived earlier than the other three who had taken the plane and had a warm welcome from Jacqui and others at Asia Plateau.

I was led to my accommodation, a farm building called ‘Grampari,’ which I would later learn was part of an incredibly innovative eco-project working with local farmers and creating huge social change in the local area. The accommodation was interesting and an exciting place and we soon learnt we had room-mates from various corners of the globe! We said goodnight and went straight to sleep.

The first day was spent exploring the centre. We had a tour of the buildings and gardens and already felt at home, everyone was incredibly welcoming and before the main sessions had even started I had met some very interesting new friends. The afternoon kicked off with a huge inauguration ceremony which provided an incredible insight into the history and current goings-on of IofC India and Asia Plateau. We heard a fascinating talk by David Young about the early stages of Asia Plateau and many others shared their experiences.

Day two started with a big breakfast and then straight into morning sessions, the talk of the morning was on ‘Melting Divisions’ and gave reflections and reports on an area in the north of India called Nagaland. I had been very fortunate and just the day before met several young people who had travelled from Nagaland to be part of the conference and many were going on to engage in the inspiring 50/50 project. My new friends had told me much about Nagaland’s history, current political climate and their involvement with IofC which meant listening to the morning talk resonated hugely and it was very interesting. Following lunch and a bit more exploring, I particularly enjoyed the afternoon session which was all about the Grampari initiative. It gave me a huge sense of pride and admiration to be staying in a place that was doing so much good for the wider world around it! We finished the day with dinner and a screening of the film ‘The Imam and the Pastor’.

On day three, breakfast was followed by a talk by the Iman and the Pastor, this was a very valuable insight into the lives beyond the film. In the afternoon we had the opportunity to speak with and meet Rajmohan Ghandi. I attended the session and found the approach very personal and informative. Like the others from SforC, I had met Rajmohan earlier last year at an event at Greencoat Place. As well as talk there was a question and answer session, with Rajmohan commenting that he doesn’t have the answers to all of the issues but gave those with questions a valuable platform to voice them.

Several of us decided to explore the Table Mountain. After getting to the top and walking around we soon discovered we weren’t alone up there. Huge groups of monkeys were also playing around the edges of one of the sides. After telling the group that I’ve had some recent experience in feeding and greeting wild monkeys, I let them approach and fed them with nuts and seeds I had in my bag and instructed other members of the group on how to do the same. One monkey became a little restless and tried to reach for my bag which prompted me to say firmly ‘No’, followed by ‘Sit.’, which he did instantly and very politely. This prompted a swift ‘wow’ from the group and therefore resulted in my nickname of ‘Monkey Whisperer.’

Day four started with breakfast with the Imam and Pastor. Possibly one of my favourite breakfasts that I’ve ever had, it was both incredibly informative and very, very fun. Both our guests had a brilliant sense of humor and rapport between the two was inspiring and genuine. We got to ask many questions and learnt a lot about the relationship between them and their respective groups. The five of us who had travelled from the UK each have different religions and beliefs and all come from very diverse backgrounds. I felt the five of us have all individually achieved a way to respect others whilst pursuing curiosity to learn about them.

The day then unfolded into lunch and a talk by Rajmohan. Then we delivered a workshop based around our individual stories leading to how we became involved with IofC. We set the tables into five circles and each took position at one, then after ten minutes of telling our stories and answering questions, we changed seats. This gave the session more of an active feel, rather than just five people speaking from a speaker panel. The feedback we received was hugely inspiring and we really enjoyed the session. We then had a dinner and watched a play created by the Nagaland Youth, which was really creative, and told individual stories of people from Nagaland and their connections to Asia Plateau.

The conference then ended with a very informative session on the internal and external workings of IofC with talks from Directors and insights into international programmes. Then there was a natural close where we were able to say goodbye to everyone we met and leave with some truly lasting memories and friendships.

Overall, I learnt so much during my week at Asia Plateau. I’m still talking to the friends that I made and have a head full of ideas for ways to work with IofC UK and AP in the future. I am already forming plans to visit Nagaland and many of the young friends I made during the week are actively involved in the 50/50 project which is starting now and I’ve asked them to keep me updated on their progress. I am so grateful for the opportunity to attend and know that the experience will stay with me for a long time.

Reflection by Luke Addison