Kya baat hai! Aarti’s trip of a lifetime!

As soon as we disclosed our intended project, immediately our sanity was questioned as we all know that driving in India is no easy task! You need to be alert at all times as you are constantly playing ‘chicken,’ so driving 2000km seems, to say the least, a bit crazy! However, as we continued to talk about the project, I became more and more confident about the whole idea, and making a difference in those children’s lives, and actually witnessing it first hand, was more than enough to win me over! Convincing our parents was an equally arduous task!

After countless board meetings and amazingly successful fundraisers, we finally boarded the planes and landed in Bhuj, our starting point. We got thrown into rickshaw training straight away, which was extremely regimented to say the least! In between training, we spent time with the amazingly talented children from the school, Shree Navchetan Andhjan Mandal, where we stayed; this is a very special school for children with various degrees of disability.

Initially the children were a bit apprehensive, but it didn’t take them too long to warm to us! They put on a special music concert for us, and the girls from the sister school also joined us. Instead of sitting around and just listening, we decided to get the children dancing, and as soon we got up, they jumped up and joined us dancing in a circle for about two hours! – It was a beautiful sight, the excitement showed in their faces when they lit up with huge smiles and grins.

Exhausted we sat down to have a rest, and they surrounded us. They were very inquisitive and wanted to know everything about me, in spite of their hearing and speech impairments, it did not stop them getting their answers! I was extremely impressed when they wrote fluently in English, Hindi and Gujarati on my hand – these children were special and their passion to learn about me shone through their eyes. In this very short time, all the children got so attached to us, they made sure that they were with us at every opportunity.

Leaving this school was very emotional and difficult as I felt that I’d only just started to connect with the children, I could have easily stayed there for two whole weeks! On the morning we were due to leave, we had an amazing news conference, where we explained to all the excited reporters about our plans. They all crowded us while we were getting ready to set off, shoving microphones in our faces trying to get the last few words before the engines started revving! It was a proud moment! Driving in India is not for the faint hearted, whilst driving, even if you were tired, you couldn’t stop for a break, you had to be on look out for crazy drivers trying to shove us off the road. The heat didn’t make it any easier as the scorching sun, which we are not used to AT ALL, was burning our hands and feet – it was definitely a challenge and a half!

My best driving moments were ones where I spent the entire 2 hours playing antakshari (singing game), winding up and down the hilly mountains in the rain, and through the crazy, over crowded towns!

There was one time when I had to go through a barrier and because there was oncoming traffic, I had to take life saving evasive action, which landed me in some sand, and I got stuck! Everyone was screaming as I was holding up the traffic and with some skilled driving moves, I managed to free my rickshaw.

I got the usual ladki jokes like ‘ yeh ladki kya karte hai? Ladki rickshaw kyu chalati hai? Ladki ke paas aur kaam nahi hai? – Roughly translated to: ‘What is this girl doing? Why is this girl driving a rickshaw? Doesn’t this girl have other work to do? The preconceived ideas of what a girl should be doing surfaced, and this has to change. This was the first time I felt the major impact of being a girl behind the wheel. Gender inequality was being displayed, by the men retorting their prejudices of where they believed a woman should be! I was not impressed and gave them a piece of my mind!

When driving the rickshaws, men were amazed to see me behind the wheel and looked twice to confirm what they were seeing and not dreaming! On the other hand, women saluted us and their smiles touched our hearts – we were taking a step forward in showing that women could do everything men can!

Along the route we visited many different centres and learnt about the great work CARE do. I especially enjoyed visiting the Training centre in Bassi Pathana, where the girls were delicately embroidering outfits – they made it look so easy! They were keen to teach, and I could’ve easily stayed back, but we had a mission to complete! At all the centres, schools and organisations, a few things stood out, the discipline they had within themselves, respect for others, the passion to learn, and their immaculate appearance. These things set these children apart from what I see in the UK, our discipline levels fluctuate, the passion to learn is only seen in the minority (as we are given the chance of education on a plate), and we spend too much time on our appearances, rather than focussing on more important things.

The whole trip flew by so quickly, and before we realised it, we were driving into Manali, to a massive crowd waiting to greet and congratulate us! The drive in was steep, and I managed to add an unexpected wheelie to end the journey! The response was amazing – we were showered with praise – this was truly an unbelievable and an unforgettable moment. We then made our way to the Himalayan Buddhist Cultural School – WOW is all I can say – we had the red carpet treatment, with all the students lining up to say ‘well done’ to us, we had a platform to sit on and were treated like royalty.

The students performed a variety show, which they had only learnt four days previous to us arriving, and the talent just oozed out at every angle. The confidence, enthusiasm and expression in their dance, was astounding! I love to dance, and have performed from a very young age, but without a doubt, I can say that these children put me to shame!

Within one minute of the variety show ending the area was transformed into a massive dance floor and all you could see was a sea of children, with huge smiles, ridiculous amounts of energy and the Rickshawalas strutting their stuff! It did not compare to any clubbing I have done ever – these children created an unforgettable atmosphere. Reluctantly, it had to come to an end as it was getting past the children’s bedtime, but I wanted it to continue forever!

We spent the next day playing games with the children, where I literally lost my voice shouting rules in Hindi for Kho Kho and learning new games from them. The sun was beating down on us but there was no way I was going to stop enjoying myself/ I sat down in the middle of the playground and just took a moment to watch these children enjoying themselves playing the simplest games and just laughing, real happiness, something we take for granted because we are not making time for ourselves. Within seconds all these children surrounded me, and I was still trying to catch my breath! I shouted ‘Lets play antakshari!’ and without any hesitation they burst, and I mean BURST into song, I felt my ear drum pop! A tear came to my eye when I saw each and everyone of their faces singing to ME…trying their hardest to make sure that they could be seen by ME. This memory will never ever fade away – they all decided to sing the latest ‘Chikni Chameli’ from Agneepath, word for word, and with dance moves. It was fantastic; they gave Katrina Kaif a run for her money with their slick moves!

In the back of my mind all I could think about was the struggles that these children have to overcome to attend the school. This was NEVER evident on the children’s faces. If there is snow in London, schools shut down and children are elated to not have to go to school. These children trek over 10 days in the SNOW to come to school, live away from their parents for 10 months and make that same return journey to be reunited with their families at the end of the school year. These children are inspirational and have made their mark in my heart.

 There is so much more I want to say, and not enough space to say! We started this journey with a view to change some lives, however, at the end of the journey I realised not only had I changed their lives in a small way but also I had changed immensely. Our team did a beautiful thing, which will never be forgotten…

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