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Updated: October 12, 2010 15:37 IST

The world's a classroom

BHUMIKA K.
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ROUND THE WORLD: Using natural energy. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K.
The Hindu ROUND THE WORLD: Using natural energy. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K.

Sailing, cycling, and climbing their way through the world to get people to commit to saving their planet, the TopToTop Schworer family sets an adventurous example, finds Bhumika K.

Fifty-six days at sea with not another human in sight, waiting for the winds to bring them closer to land, her one-year-old daughter, her husband, and six months' supplies loaded on the sailboat. And, oh, Sabine was pregnant.

If that's not being adventurous, what is? This is no reality series. This is the Schworer family's life, sans TV.

Dario Schworer, a Swiss climatologist and his wife, Sabine, a nurse, gave up their jobs in 2002, and set out in a sailboat with their savings of 2,000 Francs to raise awareness on climate change around the world. Along the way, they lived in South America for two years waiting to have their storm-battered boat repaired, had their three children, Salina, Andri and Noe, lived in Australia for a year…they've sailed over 70,000 kilometres, climbed 400,000 metres, cycled over 18,000 kilometres and met over 47,000 students.

Over the years, they came to be known as The TopToTop Global Climate Expedition with a view to visit seven seas and seven summits across the seven continents; they received support from the United Nations Environment Programme, the Swiss Government and various private firms. Hosted by Swissnex India, the family was recently in Bangalore, after having completed a three-month clean-up operation in the Himalayas.

So why would anyone want to do this, when most people don't look upon climate change as their problem? Dario has a simple explanation: “Our children are growing up in Nature, just like we did in our childhood. We come from remote areas (Sabine's village had a population of 76) and mountains become a part of you. When you have the possibility of not losing an arm, you'll do anything to save it. We hope that the next generation is able to see Nature as more than a physical entity.” Sabine pitches in: “He was on the glaciers and saw it melting…it's easy to think it's Nature's problem, not mine.”

Do they believe something like this will change the way people think? Dario says in the last eight years of their journey they have become more optimistic of the future. “Everybody in the world is a fan of Nature. When you have the privilege of collecting information on projects going on in the world to save Nature, you have to become an optimist.” They also observe how people in the rural areas are more aware of climate change and its effects on their lives, while in the cities people just don't know how they're affected. “Look at Bangalore…I was told it was much cooler; now every one uses ACs. If only people used more pushbikes, there would be less pollution, cooler temperatures and no expenditure on AC. Your life quality improves.”

Wherever they take the expedition, they interact with school children. “We don't want to be missionaries; we don't offer solutions. We ask the children for solutions to the planet's problems. Their brain is not filled up like ours, with experiences. They have creativity. Our society is a TV-society. Kids, specially in cities, always watch stories of war and environmental disasters on TV. They don't have much hope for the future. But when we tell them of our real and positive experiences, they believe it's worth protecting it. They join us online in support, or for clean-up programmes in their areas,” says Dario.

The world's a classroom for the Schworer children (Noe is the youngest person ever to be at the Mt. Everest base camp). The older two were born in South America and the youngest in Australia; they stay on an average, about three months in a country. Considering they were born on the expedition, and don't go to school (the oldest is five and youngest a little over one), one wonders what the experience has been for them. That's when I discover they do go to school, whenever they stay in a place long enough. They've recently been in classrooms in Shanghai, Kathmandu and now Bangalore. “Children are very adaptive — much more than we are — and adapt to a new culture easily. For them it's normal to be on a boat; it's difficult for them to stay in a house.” Sabine adds: “They seem happy.” And further describes how they are home-schooled on the boat with their lesson material arriving “in a box”. They are sent to school so that they don't miss out on social interaction with other children.

They firmly believe a classroom is no substitute for “experiencing the fresh air and butterflies”. Sabine also admits that if they told their children about climate change in a classroom they wouldn't listen. “Now they listen differently.” Dario points out how children staying indoors, playing videogames is quite an urban worldwide phenomenon. “If you want to save the planet, kids need to touch and experience Nature; not just see rainforests on National Geographic or Discovery. If they don't have a connection to Nature, and it's not apart of them, they'll give up so much more faster in protecting it.”

Sabine talks of how they initially wanted to start their family after the expedition (which they had hoped to complete in four years). But when things started moving slow, they changed their minds. “It's the best decision we made. Earlier we were looked upon as an extreme sports couple. Now that we have kids, we're seen as ‘normal' and people open their doors to us.” Of course it means their journey slows down and each leg of the expedition requires elaborate preparation.

While on their expedition, the family usually uses only human and natural energy (that's why the solar-powered wind-driven sailboat!). They usually cycle to the base camp before any climbing expedition. When outside the ambit of their expedition, they use public transport and fly during emergencies (like when Noe had to undergo surgery). Back home in Switzerland, Sabine always cycled to work, clocking 12 kilometres each way, four trips a day.

“We are looking forward to settle down somewhere. It's a beautiful life, but it's also hard,” says Sabine, though she admits they'll take another six years at least to complete the expedition. Their next stop is Africa, where they expect to live and travel for more than a year. What does she miss most about home? “My family, friends,…and Swiss chocolate!”

You can track the expedition, see pictures, and participate in the venture on www.expedition.toptotop.org

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