It’s 8pm and we are inside the huge and incredibly busy Howrah train station in Kolkata. The team is exhausted after an intensive three weeks, we would all rather be in bed but our journey must continue. Finally our train and platform number come up on the departure board, so we load ourselves up with our bags and all the kit and make our way onto the train; a stressful experience as the platform is full of people and the notion of queuing does not exist here. After muscling our way onto the train we find our berths in sleeper class, stow the gear and make ready for the 12 hour overnight train journey to Varanasi.
After a disturbed night sleep on the train it is morning, we are close to our destination, and the train makes its way over the huge bridge across The Ganges. We catch our first glimpse of Varanasi, stacks of buildings make their way up from the river bank and the excitement of a new place and new project starts to take hold. Next to me some locals take coins from their pocket and toss them into the Ganges. From this I gathered it was for good fortune to do so, and I quicky followed suit, found a coin and threw it in, wishing for good fortune on this next leg of the tour. Upon alighting the train at Varanasi junction, another busy indian train station, we are immediately swamped by touts offering us transport, accommodation and anything else we could possibly want. Fortunately our accommodation is arranged and transport is all we need. Once we battled our way out of the train station the first task was at hand, haggling for a good price for transport! After 15 minutes of hard bargaining we pile ourselves in to four auto rickshaws. We are on our way to the Ganga paying guesthouse.
Varanasi is not like Kolkata. It’s the second oldest settlement in the world, which becomes apparent in the town planning. We snake our way through the streets dodging other road users from trucks to bicycles and most importantly the cows and water buffalo which are everywhere! After this 30 minute roller coaster ride we arrive at our guesthouse. Its just on the edge of the city at the southernmost ghat, Assi Ghat. It meets the beginning of the suburb called Nagwa, where will be doing most of our work. We are greeted with a warm smile from the guesthouse owner who shows us to our rooms. After dumping our stuff we take our first look around, and stroll along the ghats. Its a completly different vibe to Kolkata, fortunately much more relaxed and immediately the stress levels come down and we begin to to soak in the sights sounds and smells of Varanasi. I think it’s going to be a good project.
On our first day of work in Varanasi the team discuss bicycle as a mode of transport. Met with a varied response, some saddle up, whilst others prefer to walk, and we are ready to go. As a regular cyclist back home the notion of cycling to work is no problem. However once we set off it is clear this will not be a gentle ride to work, the narrow suburbian road is packed with people, motorbikes, rickshaws and animals. As we pass there are street dogs sleeping in the middle of the road, children playing marbles plus all the other traffic coming from every direction, I’m starting to feel like I should have just walked!
Some of the team decorate their bikes for the journey!
As we go a bit further the road opens up to small bridge where we take a left turn and we enter into what can best be described as a safari of pigs, cows, chickens, goats, dogs and water buffalo all over the road seemingly oblivious to the traffic. Piglets can be seen running around digging through the rubbish, while a gang of cows and buffalo block the road just chewing the cud! At this point I dismount my bike and walk it through the bovine blockade feeling afraid that I could be crushed at any moment if these beasts decide to move. After batlling through, still yet to arrive at our destination, and the tarmac track ends, it’s time to go off road! We follow the sandy path which is aligned with what can only be described as a cliff face into the Ganges. Moving between the buffalo and the world of dung, we finally come to the end of the path, only to be met by a wall and a slither of mud half a meter wide. Another spine tingling sheer drop into the Ganges! Nervously we wheel our bikes along the path and around a corner, again to be met with, you guessed it………. buffalo and dung!
A local lady works at the river bank where we attempt to navigate the sheer drop!
At last we have arrived at a Asha Deep, a school for the children of rickshaw drivers, to begin our first workshop. We park our bikes and walk through the scool to the playground where we will be working, to be greeted by around 100 children. They all shriek with excitement and before we have had a chance to put our bags down we are surrounded with little ones trying to climb on us and older ones desperate to shake our hands and ask our name. Despite the poverty in which they live, they seem like the happiest children I have ever seen and a smile covers my face. I love my job, lets get to work!
Bruno and Ashley lead a warm-up for the excited children of Dunyia School.
Written by Tom Puckett
Arranged by Jodie Cole