It was 4am, it was pitch black. I’m in the back of a tuk tuk with two 16 year olds, and it’s the first time in days I’ve felt a breeze in the my face as we cruise along the bumpy streets on our way to the train station. I feel a leap of excitement in my stomach – already in the dim dusk of dawn there are people walking the streets, on their way to work, on their way home, talking as they go.
I’m in India, or Fort Kochi, Kerala to be precise. I’ve only been here 3 days but already I’m amazed and in awe of the countries simplistic beauty. I’m spending the next month in India with 11 school leavers and a teacher for company – my task, to support the group through a project, a trek, some sight seeing, souvenir shopping and life changing adventures!
We arrive at the bustling train station, stepping over sleeping bodies lining the platforms, and waited for our train to arrive. There are people everywhere, even at 5am on a Saturday morning. From a distance I can hear the train as masses of Indians start to get closer to the track in anticipation and I start to wonder if the train is going to stop or are we going to be expected to run and jump onto it’s moving carriages as it passes (yes I’ve been watching too many Hollywood movies!). The train does stop and we hop on one by one, dragging our heavy backpacks behind us, and look for our allocated seat numbers and carriage, quickly realising there’s no real system and you basically sit where you can (or stand if you’re not quick enough!). We do find seats and squash up next to each other with our rucksacks in between and the train starts to move.
The carriages have no windows, just bars and there are no doors either – strange but exciting coming from an over the top health and safety conscious country! Our 5-hour journey to Varkala is fascinating as we cross meandering rivers with tiny wooden fishing boats, small wooden homes that skirt the side of the railway line, and vast countryside until we eventually reach the coast. Our ten minute tuk tuk journey from the train station to our accommodation on the beach front is fast and furious, weaving in and out of cars, motorbikes, carts and cows until we finally pass a huge elephant walking down the side of the road. Unbelievable!
Varkala, like any other Indian town, is bustling with shops of various shapes and sizes selling weird and wonderful things. Indian men gather outside shops talking excitedly, women walk together in groups wearing their beautifully coloured sari’s, hindu temples are busy with worshippers whilst the serene call to prayer from the nearby mosque can be heard from the roadside speakers. Some Indians stare as we drive by and children smile and wave. We have become accustomed to being the only “whites in the village” as it’s monsoon season, but we don’t mind being stared at, it’s more out of intrigue than anything else.
Our accommodation is wooden bungalows on the sea front, with an open restaurant next door. The staff are friendly and humble, polite and incredibly hard working.The food is magnificent, freshly cooked vegetables with fragrant spices, dhal, rice and a selection of Indian breads. Again I’m surprised and in awe of the simplistic but incredible taste of the Indian dishes served, the experience further enhanced by the view of the sun setting over the sea, white waves crashing into the shore, sending a welcome cool breeze into the restaurant.
The following morning we squeeze into our tuk tuks and head to one of the local schools, where we will be spending time tiling two classroom floors and painting tables and chairs. The school is poor, with little resources, outside toilets and taps which run only occasionally. Surprisingly, though, this is one of the ‘better off’ areas of India with good literacy and numeracy levels. Walking into the school we are met by shy stares from hundreds of Indian school children who stand outside their classrooms whispering excitedly to each other. The boys are far more confident than the girls and it doesn’t take long before one comes over to us and starts asking our names. Before long we are literally surrounded by girls and boys, all excitedly talking over each other. They ask us our names, our mothers name, our fathers name, our age, and then move on to the next person. They are fascinated by us, so friendly, so smiley, so intrigued. It’s wonderful to see such innocence, interest, and simple beauty. The bell sounds and the children quickly disperse to their classrooms, but as soon as break time comes they are there again, asking the same questions. It’s fascinating and quite a strange feeling to be the object of so many peoples interest; it’s like being famous, eyes following you wherever you go, children standing at open windows of the classrooms we are working in, waiting for you at lunch time, even following you to the toilet asking you questions along the way.
The week was an unbelievable experience, one which I’ll never forget. We completed the work and the school teachers were so pleased to have their first tiled classroom, something they had dreamed of for some time. On the last day of the project all the children had their textbooks out for us to sign our autographs in. Some of the girls gave our students gifts like bracelets or hand made cards, and the boys played football together in the school yard. The teachers held a presentation for us and thanked us for our hard work, before we left in our tuk tuks for the last time. It was sad to leave the school yet also an exhilarating feeling of having accomplished something that made a real difference. Spending time integrating with the young Indian children was inspirational.
It amazes me that the Keralan people have so little yet will give you so much. Everybody I met in Kerala that week were friendly, kind, helpful and always smiling. Kerala and its people are full of beauty, hope and resilience, and I hope one day I can return to ‘Gods own country’…