In honour of my wonderful Mum’s 50th birthday today, I asked her to write about one of her adventures. She’s an inspiration to me, having explored so many places, learned some wild things, and has been a constant source of strength to me and those around her. She doesn’t let anything stop her, travelling around much of the world independently and with her friends and family. This particular trip was in 1985, when my Mum was 15, the year of Back To The Future, Walkmans, scrunchies, and powerful shoulder pads. However, it was also the year of Hope ’85: Operation Self Help Schools Farm, where a group of youths would be sent to India on behalf of a professor to gather the information that he needed. Without further ado, here is my Mum’s account, equipped with wonderful 80s photography!
Visit to India March 1985
On a dark rainy winter’s day, Dr Griffiths addressed the school morning assembly at Risca Comprehensive School in South Wales. He told us of the lives people were leading in part of India. He told us stories of starvation, food shortages and malnutrition. It was sad and sounded a million miles away from our comfortable lives in Wales. Dr Griffiths went on to outline his plan to install simple irrigation techniques in farms in one of the poorest parts of India. He had worked with architects, farmers and other specialists to come up with a plan to help the farmers to use these techniques to provide water for their crop to grow more produce and reduce hunger. You get the idea. Genius!
The only problem was that Dr Griffiths was elderly and not fit enough to travel to India to see how the plans were progressing. He explained he needed our help to do this and went on to tell us that there was to be a competition in school and the prize would be a ticket to India. There, you would spend 3 weeks data gathering, researching and bring back information for Dr Griffiths. There would also be time for a spot of sightseeing! The competition involved writing a letter to Dr Griffiths explaining why you should be chosen. Easy, right? I must have hit the right note as I was chosen! Four other pupils were also chosen to go on the trip, along with 3 members of staff and a documentary photographer. So off we all went, arriving 14 hour later to loud, noisy Calcutta.
We spent several days acclimatising in Calcutta and having a look around. We saw the Imperial Library of India and were blessed on the banks of the River Ganges where we simultaneously witnessed men bathing, a funeral pyre set off on its last journey, women doing laundry and a little further down, children collecting the water in containers for drinking. We visited a very beautiful Sikh temple and Calcutta Zoo. On the other hand, we all had significant stomach issues. I will certainly never forget my 15th birthday, spent here in Calcutta mainly with my head down a toilet! One night my roomie and I were awoken by strange noises in our hotel room. Upon putting on the light, we found our bedroom covered in rats pouring in at a rate of knots. We threw pillows and anything to hand to make a pathway to the door and escape. We spent the night with the rest of the girls. Safety in numbers!
We then travelled to our main reason for the excursion, McCluskiegunj. We travelled by train overnight. It was a sleeper train with Stella sheets to lie upon. Very comfortable! In McCluskiegunj, we stayed in a very simple, basic and lovely guest house. Our days were spent on local farms taking measurements and recording data. We bathed in the local ponds to keep cool. We visited the local schools and a factory where women were employed to make pottery roof tiles. This was very advanced as few women were employed in the area at that time. We saw sacred cows wandering around wherever they pleased. Children from the village would come and visit us at the guesthouse and we would share our sweeties with them. A week or so later we discovered a tiny shop. This shop bizarrely sold McVities Digestive biscuits! Boy, a digestive has never tasted so good! Later, we discovered the small railway station guarded by monkeys where we could purchase branches of minuscule sweet bananas. It was a lovely area and we felt comfortable there. Some families even invited us to their homes where they made us potato curries and sweet tea, despite them having very little themselves.
As our work was now complete, we went sightseeing. We caught a flight to Nepal where we stayed for a couple of days in Kathmandu. We saw amazing temples and a flight over the Himalayas where we saw Mount Everest! We then flew to Delhi and had a good look around before travelling to Agra where we visited the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal. On the day we went, the famous water feature was empty – we were shocked! A culture shock was when we were required to cover our heads and remove our shoes to go inside. Was that marble hot! Such a beautiful monument. The man who built it as a love token for his wife also built a second one out of black marble just a bit further down the river.
Finally three and a half weeks later we were on our 14 hour flight back to Wales. We were dusty, tanned and somewhat slimmer after all the stomach issues! But we had learned more than we knew about the world around us and, about ourselves. It’s amazing to think that this all happened 35 years ago! Incredible to think of my 15 year old self travelling to the other side of the world like this.
It was an experience I shall never forget and will always be grateful for.
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