We made it!

We made it!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Day 23 – Community Walk and Visit in Bangarapet

This morning is a slow morning, we are all very tired after a long day yesterday and we have an early start, being picked up at 8am. Today is the first walk day for Kate and the kids so everyone is getting back into their walk gear. We plan to drive to a local town where we will walk with a group of people through the town, visiting many of the ChildFund projects along the way. We have a quick stop at a large temple surrounded in showground like stalls which is quite surreal. Within the temple is another temple where a blessing occurs. Gus finds this entertaining for only so long so I follow him out. Bec later informs me that part of the ceremony was the opportunity to drink from the holy plate. Bec, aka nurse ratchet declines the offer. Mum, determined to make the most of every experience takes a drink, sensing Bec’s hesitation turns to her and says “it’s holy water Bec”.

We arrive in Bangarapet and there is a huge crowd waiting for us, the biggest on our journey so far. We are immediately greeted by the local politician and there are flower garlands being placed on all of the team, blessings for team members and ofcourse photos. We have sponsored children and youth walking with us as well as hundreds of school kids following along. You have to be there to understand just how amazing this was – there was a line up of people following behind us for hundreds of metres. We turn to Kate and say “just go with it”. We walk through the main street of the local town and after a short time the school kids say their goodbye and head back to school. Gus is on my shoulders, being careful to give him a little more comfort than in previous crowds. Ally and Maxy are having their first amazing experience and seem to be taking it in their stride.

As we head out of town we see a small gathering up the road, a group of children and teachers waiting for our arrival. We stop for a roadside greeting, another blessing , some cookies for the team and an impromptu dance presentation on the side of the road. Here we are on a rural road, a group of beautiful young kids doing a dance for our walk team, buses every few minutes driving by, people everywhere, one of those moments you just smile and try to capture it like a photograph in your head.

We continue walking and find our way to a primary school. There is an entrance party like a guard of honour that we walk through with marigold petals flying on us from everywhere. We spend some time in the classroom with the teachers and kids, a few words shared and ofcourse some dancing. More tea and cookies and lots of time interacting with the kids. Whilst there the principle of this small school introduces us to a student called Nicholaas (not sure about the spelling) who has scored in the top 4 out of 1000 students in recent exams and as a result has won a scholarship for the remainder of his education. The school has plans to build a dining hall, currently there are two classrooms and a kitchen. You can tell that the school puts a great deal of care and dedication into their teaching, the walls and ceiling are full of the children’s work and teaching materials. The principal informs us that the school is requiring a computer and they hope this is something that can result from our visit, something we plan to follow up with our friends at ChildFund.

The children from the school join us for the next leg of the walk dropping off in age groups, the youngest first and so on. We again walk for some time and our next stop is at a local college. We walk into the grounds and you immediately sense that there is are large grounds but no classrooms, other than an administrative office. We are greeted by a throng of students, this time older than what we have encountered before. We walk up to the verandah of the office and a crowd forms, there is much activity as chairs come from everywhere and an informal stage is set up. The girls all come up and sit on the verandah and the boys stand alongside in the sun. A man stands up to speak and asks Mr Donald to sing for us. Nothing happens, Mr Donald can’t be found. Just when it started to become a concern out of nowhere Mr Donald appeared, a slight young man walked up on to the verandah and with no music opened his mouth to which this beautiful sound emanated. What a voice this young man had as he stood and sang for us all.

I was asked to share a few words which I did. It is always difficult to speak to a group where there is little context. We were not really sure what we were doing here, what the group wanted to know from us yet we were asked to address the group. The principal or his representative (I think) spoke next and it was clear that they were pitching to us for funding of their classrooms, clearly a project well beyond our means. They explained they have grown their college from 40 students to now 220 students and still with no classrooms. They shared a comment that was very touching, they shared that “every tree is a classroom”. Meaning ofcourse that the shade of the tree was their classroom. We enjoyed our stop although could sense that we were not going to completely meet the expectations of the staff here given they were hoping we could be the funders of their major infrastructure requirements. The students were as always super friendly and on our way out mobile phones appeared from everywhere to take photos of us all.

We were nearing the end of our walk and had a visit to one more school before reaching the Grama Vikas offices. Grama Vikas is the NGO that manages the implementation of the ChildFund projects. At the school there were many kids sitting waiting for us. Again there were speeches and dances and a short talk about our walk, I still get the feeling that people think we are crazy, walking from coast to coast. We ensured this was only a quick visit as we can smell the kids lunch waiting for them, and Indian’s take their meal times very seriously.

We continue for a short walk to the office and invited to take a rest upstairs on the roof where a special area had been set up. There was some temporary scaffolding set up with large heavy duty material curtains making an Arabian like tent set up for us for lunch. Looking from the roof we could see some kids running around waving to us, the kids from the school we just visited used the area behind the offices as a playground so we were able to wave and say hello. There were a family of monkeys running around who provided great entertainment to Gus and the kids. There were two Aussies there to greet us as well, Julia and Grant. Julia had studied here in 2010 as a social work student and was returning on holidays to spend time with the friends she made here. Ally commented on how great it was to hear an Aussie Accent – I reminded her she had only been here for a few days. Nevertheless she was right.

We had a beautiful lunch; pumpkin, potato, eggplant, pappads, chapatti, tomato soup, gulab jamun, bananas, it an absolute feast. The kids all ate well, I was proud of them. It didn’t take long for the monkeys to cotton on to the smell of the food and every now and again one would poke their head out from behind the curtains looking for a snack. The staff would come over with their ‘monkey stick’ and they would flee, just for a short time before returning for another raid. After lunch we cleared our plates into a bin and as we headed down the stairs a monkey jumped over on to the wall and was eyeing off the kids and the food and working out whether they could perform a snatch and grab. The monkey sitting only a foot away eyeing the food, then the kids, then the food. The monkey grabbed for the food and got a banana peel and took off. Seconds later, clearly not happy with his snatch he returned, this time for a chapatti. Ofcourse the kids found this to be great entertainment.

After lunch we were asked to move down to the community hall, some 50 metres down the road and around a corner. As we came around the corner we were once again amazed to see once again a large crowd of children and adults amassed around an open air community stage. Dignitaries were seated on the stage, perhaps 20-25 of them, large speakers and a long table at the back of the stage where the local politician was sitting waiting for us to arrive. As we made our way up on the stage and looked out there were hundreds of smiling faces that when you turned and said ‘Hi’ almost in complete unison you get a wave, a smile and a group ‘Hi’ coming back to you. Ofcourse each time one of the kids said Hi the crowd cam back with hi and as you can imagine Gus in particular enjoyed this game.

The event started as always with speeches from the Grama Vikas staff and managers, I was asked to speak once again and then the local politician also shared a talk. Fortunately the speeches didn’t last too long and it was over to the performers. As we were seated at the back of the stage and the performers were performing to the crowd at the front we all quickly jumped up and off the stage to get a front row seat with the kids. Popsy took his vantage point for his camera work as did Bec and I sat down next to some kids in the front. Almost immediately I felt this little arm link in with mine and looked next to me to see a beautiful smiling face of a young boy called Akram. Akram was a real snuggler and he had the biggest most beautiful brown eyes. Quite naturally he leaned in for a cuddle and we watched and enjoyed the show. Prem later told me that the whole ceremony today was the idea of the children and the staff, they were given complete control over how the event unfolded and what they did. Prem also mentioned that today was a dress rehearsal for these kids who would perform at the ChildFund India 60th birthday celebrations in Delhi. There is no doubt this would be a highlight, it would rival any opening ceremony of any Olympics. The stage was full of performers in colourful outfits, some in traditional outfits, others adorned in peacock feathers, it was a blast of colour and sound. All of the performers were wonderful and it was an absolute privilege to be there to experience them all.

After the performances were all enjoyed it was our favourite time of the day, we were distributing 20 bikes to school girls and 27 water filters for schools. You have to stop amidst all of the noise and photos being taken and people coming and going to just take a minute to think about what a bike would mean for a young girl and what a water filter means for a school and the children there. It is always a very emotional time for us and this was no different. Ally and Max got to experience the honour of distributing the items to their recipients.

After this was complete there was a final thankyou and the show was over. We took the opportunity to go and meet many of the children and the performers and thank them for their wonderful efforts. Gus is always a popular target although he is now getting very good at saying with a slight Indian accent “No, No, No, no hugging, no cheek pinching” and we make sure one of us is with him all the time. Everyone seems to want to have their photo taken holding Gus. We walk back to the office and on the way meet a young girl who has her new bike. I ask Prem to ask her what difference this bike will make to her life. She said that each day she was requiring to travel 15km each way to attend college and the cost of the auto to get there was very expensive. The opportunity to ride her bike there would be very important to her. It turns out that this young girl was Akram’s sister and she was a sponsored child from a nearby village. Akram ofcourse came along for his fifth goodbye and we walked to the office for a final cup of coffee and our final goodbyes. Maxy tried his first cup of coffee and was hooked, and for those of you who know Maxy he is already a bundle of energy, so we weren’t sure what would happen with a caffeine hit. Those who have travelled to India would also know that coffee here is very milky and not very strong.

We again thanked both Prem Kumar and Mr Ganesh and their wonderful team for the incredible experience they have created for us over the last 2 days. Mr Rao, the Executive Director of the project shared with us that he had worked in this community for 30 years. He was a wonderful man, very dedicated and together with his team have created a very professional and high performing project here with the local community. A final photo and we were off.

It was a very long day, starting with the long and slow walk through the community, into lunch and then the very large and very emotional presentation. The kids were awesome and despite feeling a little tired at lunchtime seemed to lap up the meaning of the day and were almost hyper in the car driving back to our hotel. There were all the famous family songs “Glenelg spelt backward is Glenelg” “Tintinara kicks forward” “The wombat song” “The Barry Evil Song” The I want to be like Poppa song”. All ofcourse made up by Poppa and now a family tradition to sing with great joy and great volume. Poor Raju got to experience the family in full song. It was amazing to see the kids and their energy at the end of an incredible day. Thankyou Prem, Mt Ganesh and the teams at Grama Vikas and ChildFund India.

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