Personally speaking, I like my classroom to be alive. Be that throwing paint at the teacher in art, climbing trees in maths, or creating animations in science. Not just a buzz will do either – I like the tiles on the roof to be vibrating, some days I even like to try and blow the roof clean off (I got into trouble for that one). If the children are looking out of the window it means I’m doing something wrong.
So when a teacher came from ActionAid to give a talk on Chembakolli, we were hooked. As she told us about the life and culture in this south Indian village, I started feeling a tingle that I wanted to head out there.
I struggled for a while to make the subject as exciting for the kids as it was for me. When you’re eight years old it’s hard to imagine another life existing in stark contrast to your own. There was only one thing for it. I was going to go out there to put myself – a figure they knew well (and I hope respected) – in the picture. By the age of 11 I’d already decided I wanted to travel the world for charity. What better chance would I get?
When I told my class, one astute boy – fully clued-up on our school’s Green Awareness policy – asked how I was going to get there. Plane? Train? Bus? In contradiction to everything I’d taught them this year? I couldn’t. The other option was unthinkable. A shiver ran down my spine. Four words changed my life. “I’m going by bicycle.” Nine thousand miles to India. On my own. Carrying everything I needed on my steel-framed bicycle, affectionately known as Shirley.
(I arrive in Chembakolli after my marathon journey. Photo: Courtesy of Accord.)
A fat lip
I would like to say it was meticulously planned to the nth degree, everything running like clockwork, tootling along on my bicycle without a care in the world. In reality that was far from the truth. I was arrested twice, chased by wild dogs, wined and dined by gangsters, propositioned by ladies of the night and forced to run away from stampeding elephants.
What on earth possessed me? I was raising money for ActionAid. The children at my school had raised vast sums of money in support of this venture, and the school in India was looking forward to my arrival. How could I let the children down? So I pedalled on.
And in every country I met wonderful people who invited me into their homes, to play music, dance, sing, eat and share each other’s cultures, beliefs, history and way of life.
After six months’ cycling, with a fat lip, tattered clothing and a bike that looked like it had been run over by a soviet tank, I rolled into Chembakolli on my 31st birthday – 20 years since I first dreamt up the idea.
I was greeted by a carnival of people playing drums, singing, cheering, waving flags and banners saying ‘Happy birthday’. I wanted to be articulate, to thank them for this tremendous welcome, tell them my adventures, pass on messages from the children in England.
All I could do was crouch down and cry. Tears of joy were rolling down my cheeks.
(What a welcoming crowd! Photo: Courtesy of Accord.)
Balloons and bows
For the next month I was to stay among this amazing community, learning about their way of life, customs, traditions and sense of humour.
The school is in the local town of Gudalur. It’s now situated in the old hospital, but just months before my arrival children were still being taught outside or in a very small classroom. Chembakolli itself is in the middle of the forest, 30 minutes’ drive from the school. We could hear tigers calling in the distance.
The children here are all desperate to learn and extremely positive. Each school day starts with tribal dancing and singing, led by the older children. I showed themhow to make balloon animals and they showed me how to shoot a bow and arrow. We were trying to knock my shoes from a tree branch!
I was immensely sad when the time came to leave. If you take a trip to Chembakolli to teach you need to be prepared for your life to change forever. People here will touch your heart in a way that nothing else can. The children and teachers gain so much from you and you will certainly learn a lot from them. It is a fantastic thing to have on your CV and will supply you with activity ideas for the rest of your career. And for me, it was a dream come true.
If you’d like to buy my book about my travels, please visit www.dannybent.com.