Finding solace in a country as large as India should be straight forward, until you realise that 1.3 billion people, which is almost twice the population of Europe, are squeezed into a country one third its size. I was cycle touring solo for just over a week and the lack of solitude was slowly wearing me down. Yet despite being in a country with such a population density at times I felt lonely and isolated, an outcast. The only peace I could find was when I reluctantly locked myself away in a hotel room. I wanted to experience wild camping in India at least once but I couldn’t face the inevitability of being found and gawped at like a chimpanzee in a zoo. The things I love about camping; peace, tranquility, isolation, wilderness and the natural sounds of wildlife were extremely difficult to come by. After many debates with myself I decided that I would be more content if I could seek out a hotel or guest house each night. To those cycle tourers who successfully manage to find peace in India, I take my helmet off to you.
To maximise the probability of a hotel each night I had to town hop my way through the state of Bihar, which according to the 2011 census holds the title of the most densely populated state in India. It’s no surprise that my patience was grinding down to a stub. A 95 kilometre stint lead me to the next hotel hopeful town, Siwan. Five kilometres before the town and shortly after I had waved goodbye to a kind fellow who left me with a renewed sense of magnanimity towards the over-inquisitive natives and a consolation of my finals days India, I heard the unequivocal roar of a Royal Enfield engine attenuate as it closed in behind me, the distinct sign that I was in for another round of questioning. Though, I was somewhat astounded to be greeted with a well spoken and pronounced “Hello! How are you my friend?” By a sharp, well dressed friendly looking face and his companion on the back. “Can we stop and talk for two minutes?” Deciding that his aptitude of spoken English may lead to a more elaborate conversation than the customary small talk, I acquiesced with a nod “Sure!”
It turned out that Sharique was the head of English at a nearby private school, Bloombuds School and Boarding House, his acquaintance was a colleague who worked in the finance department. After a short, joyous conversation about travel, home and work I asked if he knew of any hotels in Siwan. He kindly provided detailed directions and gave me his mobile number in case I found myself in a spot of bother.
We said farewell and they rode into the distance, I continued cycling with a smile after a second kindhearted encounter in quick succession. Just before I rode into the streets of Siwan I spotted Sharique and his friend who waved and proposed that I follow them. We meandered through the traffic to the first hotel that Sharique had recommended, he offered to negotiate to ensure I wasn’t overcharged. It is a legal requirement in India for Hotels to hold a license in order to accept foreigners as guests. This hotel didn’t have the license. So we tried the next hotel, which also refused to house me. We then, in turn, tried every hotel in town, nowhere held the necessary license except the most extravagant hotel which was charging over twice my daily budget for a deluxe suite for the night. Even Sharique and his friend thought this preposterous. It was clear that Siwan was not a popular destination for foreign tourists.
Darkness was closing in, I began to mentally prepare myself to cycle out of town and seek out the most suitable location to face my fear and erect my tent. I thanked Sharique for all his help and apologised for wasting his time but he refused to relent. He asked me if I was hungry, I hadn’t eaten since lunch “Yeah….I could eat..” I said politely. What he didn’t know is that no matter what time of the day, I could always eat. He bought a selection of Indian sweets that we shared and we enjoyed a tea with the locals. “Don’t worry, we will find you somewhere to sleep.” He was determined to help me, he called his friends to see if anyone in town had a spare room but no one could help. “If we had met 10 kilometres earlier you could have stayed at my boarding school with the boys.” It was now dark and I was growing desperate. “If that is the only option, I am happy to cycle back the 14 kilometres”
“Of course! You can stay no problem, you will be well looked after and can enjoy the evening with my boys.”
He wasn’t keen on the idea of me cycling in the dark and arranged for my bike and I to be ferried to the school in a tuktuk. I was extremely grateful, he was concerned for my safety and well being and spent almost his entire evening trying to help me. Apparently Siwan had fallen victim to violence and unrest in the past and was perhaps not the safest of places for a lone traveller. I loaded my bike and luggage into the back on the tuktuk, wheels sticking out either side. Sharique gave directions to the driver, took the drivers mobile number and assured me that Tanvir, the school director would be waiting for my arrival. He was determined to see me safely to the boarding school. I couldn’t thank Sharique enough for everything he had done.
As promised, Tanvir met me at the school gates, helped me with my baggage and lead me inside. Three students were also awaiting my arrival and, like well-trained cadets, took all of my bags as I followed them to the boys dormitory on the fourth floor. Raj, sporting a Barcelona tracksuit with cheeky grin was the eldest student at the age of 16, he could speak English reasonably well and ensured that I settled in and was as comfortable as possible. They provided a bed, which was separated from the students, made up with clean bedding and a mosquito net. I was overjoyed. This certainly beats camping.
The boarding school housed 40 boys from the ages of 9 to 16. Slowly they started to appear like dwarves at Bilbo Baggins hobbit hole until I was encircled by an entourage of mesmerised faces. At first they were very shy, except Raj who seemed to be the patriarch and role model for the younger children, but eventually the ice was broken as I tried to explain what on earth I was doing there.
We ate a generous serving of rice, vegetable curry, daal and chapati in the dining quarters. I got to know a few of the boys as they gave me strange looks for eating with a spoon whilst they, as all locals do, got stuck in hands first.
I enjoyed a conversation with Tanvir over tea and biscuits about the differences between English and Indian schools and the importance of sports and exercise for pupils. He also informed me that they are taught to treat guests like they would treat a God. No wonder I was well looked after. I learned that the boarding school boys wake at 06:00 each morning and are lead by Raj to the local park for a football match. They were overly keen for me to join the following morning. After a long day I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, plus I had to continue on my way the following morning but I couldn’t disappoint their excited little faces who were thrilled when I eventually told them that I was in. Eventually I retired to my bed to write my diary, I was shattered and needed some rest. The children followed and each sat on or around my bed. I felt like an uncle about to read a bed time story. I was amazed at how welcoming, considerate and polite they all were. I felt that Sharique and Tanvir had something special here at Bloombuds and the children, some of whom were from poor families or had troublesome backgrounds, were extremely fortunate to have such benevolent teachers and mentors.
Just before I went to sleep I was informed that 1,000 day time pupils, boys and girls, would be attending school in the morning at 08:00. I couldn’t help but feel that I might cause some disruption if I was still there before school started. But I promised Sharique that I would wait for his arrival at 09:00 to meet once again and say thank you. And I had a football match to attend.
In the morning we woke and dressed in preparation for the match. We assembled outside school, had a quick kick about before running in age order, single file to the park.
I was asked to lead the warm up but kindly refused and mimicked Raj as he, quite professionally, lead a series of exercises and stretches. Teams were picked and we huddled to talk team tactics. Unbeknownst to the boys I wasn’t the professional premier league player that they thought I was, but either way they stuck me up front expecting me to score a hatrick.
The match was quite chaotic. With 20 players on each team the ball was often surrounded by a horde of children. Occasionally the ball slipped out and either team would make a desperate attempt to run towards the opponents goal. I stayed out on the left and had a few clear cut chances, one I rocketed over the bar, the other straight at the keeper and unfortunately my near perfect cross into the box met no friendly heads. Despite my lack of influence in the game I was applauded at every kick of the ball with a “Good effort” or one time it was a “Great shot!” When I had in fact squared it through to my teammate, it certainly wasn’t a shot. Needless to say that the boys were well disciplined, there was no back chat and free kicks and penalties were awarded with no hassle, even when I was accused of hand ball. Despite my heroic effort sporting my cycling jersey, we lost 4-1 with Raj scoring all four goals for the opposing team. It felt great to be accepted as part of their crew. We all shook hands and posed for a team photo before making our way back to school. Which was already teeming with children.
I was officially one of the boys. We showered together, we ate together and we laughed together. Before school started we chatted about our favourite sports and what we planned to do with our future. One of the boys then asked if I could stay for the day and play cricket or volleyball with them after school. I was keen to get to Varanasi where I could relax for a few days and politely declined the offer. Shortly after, Sharique came through the door and was happy to hear that I thoroughly enjoyed my stay. He also suggested that if I wanted to stay another night, have a tour of the school, meet the teachers and spend another evening with the boys then I would be more than welcome to do so. I couldn’t help but think that the boys had already asked him if I could stay before they asked me. I was in need of a rest day, I had cycled five days straight, climbing mountains in Nepal and rode long hours through India. The skies were grey and it looked like it would rain. I felt blessed and fortunate to be here with such a nice group of boys and would be honoured to spend another night at the school. It was opportunities like this that I may never have the chance to experience again.
Sharique was delighted of my decision to stay and suggested that I meet some of the day time pupils and even sit in one of his English classes. I set up my base of operations in his office which also provided a sanctuary to escape the commotion that was about to unfold. I had been spotted by quite a few children before their first class, the boarding boys had also spread rumours of my attendance. I spotted children peering down the corridor to catch a glimpse of the foreigner.
After being introduced to a number of the teachers, Sharique, lead me through the school one classroom at a time and politely interrupted to introduce me as “Luke Woods from England.“ He would briefly tell them of my cycling adventures and advised that I would be at the school throughout the day. From that point I was referred to as “Luke Sir” by every pupil.
I met four classes before it was time for my English lesson with a charming teacher dressed entirely in pink. She was extremely polite and enjoyed the opportunity to practise her English with a legitimate Englishman. She was twenty, English was her passion and Sharique had been a mentor to her. In an attempt to be as covert as possible I sat at the back with Raj. I felt like a naughty school child. The other pupils were bemused at my attendance and kept peering round and whispering to one another. One boy even asked for my autograph. I kept quiet and paid attention to the teacher in a hope to not disrupt the class anymore than I already had. It was interesting to see the structure of their lessons as they translated phrases from Hindi into English.
By now, everyone was aware of my impromptu visit, commotion and excitement began to spread throughout the school. All of the pupils wanted the foreigner to join their class. I felt slightly guilty that I may be disrupting their day but I think this was as much of a unique experience for them as it was for me.
Just as I was about to sit in a science lesson I was ushered to the eldest class who were due an English lesson by “Sharique Sir.” As I walked into the class room I greeted the class who responded in unison “Good morning Luke Sir.” I was blown away and replied;
“Where is your teacher, is this Sharique’s English class?” One pupil responded; “Sharique Sir says that you will be taking our class today.” Since playing out embarrassing roles in school assemblies when I was young I had never been confident in front of an audience. I was immediately struck with an anxious wave of nerves and sweaty palms. I had been thrown right in at the deep end and had better start paddling before I drowned. Thanks Sharique. I took a deep breath and started a little monologue about who I am, my background and an outline of my trip, how I was travelling and the places I had visited. It lasted about 10 minutes. I was relieved and felt it went rather well. I managed it without breaking a sweat. The pupils then asked a series of questions and I was beginning to get into it. They asked questions about England and English culture, my family, my views of India. I ended up filling the white board with some of my responses.
Eventually Sharique returned with a beaming smile and was happy to hear that it went rather well. He then helped to translate some of my responses to the pupils whose English wasn’t as good as others. I then went to four more classes to give a talk and answer questions that the pupils had prepared. One class had sweetly wrote “Welcome to Bloombuds” on the white board. One pupil even asked about Leicester City Football Club. I gave a perhaps long winded explanation of their relegation to league two, promotions back to the premier league, their relegation battle that then turned into the 5000/1 underdogs who were, against the odds, crowned Premier League Champions. All except the one pupil who asked the question seemed either bored of that story or looked perplexed and didn’t understand what I was on about. The topic swiftly changed to politics.
In the end I thoroughly enjoyed talking to each class and even thought that I could see myself as a school teacher. Before I could finally relax I was touched to hear that about 10 pupils of the top class had stayed behind at the end of the day and even missed their bus to talk with me. I learned that some of pupils in the school had never even seen a foreigner in their entire life and were keen to hear my travelling stories. They quizzed me on the royal family, English politics, English traditions and food. I showed them some of my travel photos and before they left we shared and discussed our life ambitions. Some were keen to join the Army and the Navy, one aspired to be pilot and another a doctor. I told them my that I had plan and hopes to return to university. But education aside, I stressed that what I believe is of utmost importance and my aim in life is to be content, live a happy life and have a positive impact on others.
By the end of the day the desire for my autograph had spread like wildfire, I was swarmed as if walking off centre court after a Wimbledon Final victory. The number of autographs I signed rose over the 200 mark. Some of the pupils must have genuinely thought that I was a celebrity or famous cyclist.
Once the children had left I enjoyed a late lunch with Sharique, Tanvir, Tanvir’s wife and daughters in their living quarters. The home cooked food by Tanvir’s wife was delicious. They were thrilled to hear that I had thoroughly enjoyed my experience with the students. We had further discussions about English and Indian education, politics and my future travel plans. They helped with route planning and showed me a 30 kilometre shortcut that wasn’t on my map. As promised, I then joined the boys for a game of volleyball.
Tanvir had been busy for most of the day and we hadn’t really had time to talk so after playing with the boys I jumped on the back of his Royal Enfield and we rode to a neighbouring town for tea and pakora. We discussed all manner of topics from family life in India, his and Sharique’s motorbike adventures, to the British Empire and the colonial era. He was only one year older than I, he had a wife and two children. He was the director of the school and responsible for the education and well being of over 1,000 pupils. He was so humble and wanted nothing more than to have a positive impact on his community and country. He knew that the new generation needed educating to drive the future of India in social and environmental development. From a young age he had acknowledged that in the area where he was brought up, only a superficial education was provided to the local children and failed to instill important morals and values such as good manners, behaviour, respect for others and responsibility. He had a dream and a vision of opening the school and threw everything he had at it. He lived at the school and had dedicated his life to his students. He was an inspiration. Bloombuds didn’t feel like an ordinary school, the relationship between teachers and pupils was open and honest. The younger students respected the older students and the latter supported and encouraged the former. These pupils were fortunate to have teachers and mentors such as Sharique and Tanvir. Many of the children’s parents in the area are poor, uneducated and in some cases illiterate. For those children especially, Bloombuds provided an opportunity to a brighter future.
The boys were reluctant for me to leave. They asked if I could stay one more day but unfortunately I had to make progress. On our last night together they all huddled around my bed while I showed them my travel photos. They were keen to see photos of my family and thought my mother and sister “Beautiful.” They were such gentlemen.
In the morning I loaded my bike whilst the boys were rousing and getting dressed. They decided to forgo the football match so that they could say farewell. Once I was ready, I shook everyone’s hand. I told Tanvir that I would stay in touch. He and Sharique wanted to hear from me to know that I was safe throughout the rest of my time in India.
My time spent at Bloombuds was an honour and a privilege, it had been a truly wonderful and heart warming experience. Firstly, I can’t possibly thank Sharique enough for everything he did the night that I was helpless and homeless in Siwan and for the opportunity to spend two nights at the school. The experience was eye opening. I learned a lot about the education system in India and was delighted to witness first hand the positive, promising changes that are being made and the life lessons that are being instilled into India’s next generation. I even felt I may have developed my personal presentation skills and crowd confidence. I feel and hope that the pupils and the teachers got something out of my visit, whether they learned something new, enjoyed hearing about my adventures and an insight into a unique means of travelling or to hear about the dreams and aspirations of a foreigner.
Sharique, Tanvir and the pupils of Bloombuds School, especially the boarding school boys have a special place in my heart. I hope that when the boys leave school they continue to act as gentlemen, continue to practise their compassionate, courteous and considerate behaviour towards others and go on to fulfill their dreams. I hope that one day in the future I can return to Bloombuds.