World Challenge Expedition 2019 – Southern India
Meeting on a rather sunny July day in the UK seemed a little strange; as we knew, the next 16 days of our summer holiday would be spent in Southern India during the monsoon season. As I conducted a full kit check I took great care in overseeing the umbrella competition I had set the team during our build up day designed the ensure the team are fully prepared for their World Challenge adventure. After successfully squeezing personal and team kit into rucksacks, we then spent time recapping elements of our training on how to facilitate an expedition predominately lead by the students. The next morning extremely early for anyone never mind teenagers we headed for Manchester airport and after a race through Abu Dhabi airport some 12 hours later, we arrived as the sun was rising in Kochi. Our first three days consisted of planning our time in India and seeing some of the local cultural sites around the small fishing town of Fort Kochi. From spice processing factories, a traditional India laundry to a masked stage show alongside visiting temples, churches it was full on from the word go, that’s without mentioning the public bus journeys, and tuk tuk rides.
Feeling slightly more settled into the chaos we took a 5 hour bus journey into the Western Ghats a long ridge of mountains that run along the west coast of southern India consisting of a large variation of spice plantations and tea growing farms. Our 5 day trek from camp to camp took us through small villages where we were able to see how the locals worked together farming the spices, took us to the summits of some local peaks, took us through lake basins unusually empty due to a lack of monsoon rainfall and following the footsteps of Elephants. Each night’s camp was different from luxury tents with on suit bathrooms to fishing in a local lake for some dinner and traditional bucket baths. The local guides demonstrated their expert knowledge of the flora and fauna and were keen to join in with our team games of who could pack the throwline the quickest and they watched over our design your leech socks fashion competition. Our final trek day ended with a very windy ascent of a local peak involving an exciting rope descent and a hour trekking very quietly through the trees as our Elephant tracker was convinced the magnificent animals could be close sadly the closest we came was looking at very fresh Elephant poo.
After testing our physical strength, we headed to our community phase working in a very small primary school built in the 1800 but with very little money to pay for building improvements. Our arrival at the school was very humbling with the children dressed in their smart uniforms and the parents in their traditional Keralan saree’s holding a sign aiming to spell out ‘welcome’ if at times the little ones not knowing where they should stand to form the correct spelling. We were immersed into their lives and culture for 4 days arriving every day to the school on tuk tuk’s, eating curry three times a day alongside some of the team members learning Malayalam the local language. Our work at the school was just as physical as the trek just in a different way, carrying sand and cement, digging up floors and laying tiles in the school office and in the classroom all whilst surrounded by very small children wanting to play games, practicing the crazy moose or crashing into one another when singing the hokey cokey. We organised for lockable shutters to be fixed to the windows in the office and even a plug socket to be wired into the school cooks shed at the back of the school, she was so pleased it brought a tear to my eye. On our final day the wider community arrived to give us a leaving ceremony showcasing traditional dancing, singing and awards given to us for our hard work, many of the team were encouraged to dress in traditional outfits with females in Saree’s and men in a Mundu. We were all sad to leave but also happy to be heading for our last two days of relaxation at a villa on the Indian ocean coast and a day floating around the backwaters on a traditional Keralan houseboat. We were also lucky to witness the local snake boat racing consisting of over 100 men rapidly padding down the waterways hoping to take the trophy.
Sitting on the tarmac at Kochi airport waiting to take off as we looked out of the windows on Kerala we saw the first major downpour of monsoon, our umbrellas had not been needed after all. It was a very bumpy take off and a rather cold arrival back in the UK many hours later.
Once again our students taking part from SRPA embraced the challenge, took themselves out of their comfort zone in various different ways, laughed, cried, fell out and hugged becoming a close nit group and possibly family described by one of our team members as ‘a dysfunctional family’ but one she couldn’t have done it without. Thanks again team for being awesome, with a huge thank you to Mr Chetwynd tiler extraordinaire it has been a pleasure and a privilege and a huge thank you to Mr Cogan our UK mini bus driver without you we would not have even made it to the airport.
On return to the UK we were all very upset to see on the news that the beautiful area we had just visited had yet again for the second year been hit by extreme monsoon rains causing wide spread flooding and in some areas loss of life. Our thoughts are with the beautiful people who made us all feel so welcome in their country and their lives.