I was taking photos of a beautiful sunset after a long day's ride when I chanced upon a couple of Hindu nuns who were standing outside their school / orphanage.
When I first noticed the orange-clad ladies they spent some minutes watching me do various acrobatics getting different angles of the sky and I noticed a twinkle of interest and curiosity in their eyes.
After getting my fill of the melting pot of colours that formed the sky that evening, I was asked 'where are you from' in a fluent Indian-English. I met Didi Dyotana, a nun since 1979 from the Ananda Marga Hindu sect, and heard about her project there.
The Ananda Marga sect of Hinduism doesn't believe in worshiping idols. Instead they believe that it is possible to meditate and pray wherever you are, e.g. you don't have to go up a mountains, to a cave or a temple. They also believe in 'Dharma' - a search for truth within oneself through meditation and a belief in service for the good of society as a whole.
The school comprised three basic buildings, one of which was unusable due to subsidence into the ground, with no electricity, or running water.
I was intrigued to hear of a 'self-sufficiency' policy of sorts born partially out of necessity and partially from the philosophy developed by their Guru. They grew their own food in a vegetable garden, collected rain water, and I was told of how in Indian culture, compared to western culture (she had been stationed previously in the US), much less is wasted.
She told me how over the past years, due to global warming and extraction of the groundwater for mass irrigation and industry, they can now only pump water from the well in the morning and it takes longer for the water to arrive when pumping. I observed this in the Punjab also. I was told in the village of Bhala Wala, that they had to go deeper than last year to get drinkable water. The higher up water (50ft) was only useful for washing cloths and watering the buffalo.
The locals chose to send their children to the school instead of the local government school because it provided a higher standard of education. For the price of 40 rupees per the day the children have their materials and books for learning.
Funding for the organisation comes mainly from oversees donors who pay a monthly amount. 600 rupees (about $10) provides for the child's education for a month.
Some children are living at the school and have been brought up by the nuns in the absence of their parents. I met the children and was pleased to see that they are bright and enthusiast little people and top of their class at school.
The school teachers are just volunteers from the local villages; women who are trained by the nuns. However, I was told that if a woman is unmarried then gets married then she often leaves the school for the life of an Indian housewife.
In fact, only one teacher was fully trained, along with the nuns and 2 women were helping out with around 100 students.
One of the teachers is nun Didi Mahueanda. I heard she usually walks for 1 hour to reach school in the morning from the village 5 km away. She seemed an ideal candidate for a bike donation on behalf of Wheels4life.
I felt very motivated as I was touched by the efforts of the devoted women and their hard work and beliefs and I had a good feeling about it.
Next day, I went in search of a bike shop in the local town Rewa. The nuns arrived on a cycle rickshaw, to the 'Hercules' bike shop. Hercules and Atlas bikes are the major bike producers in India. India is the largest producer of bikes in the world and bikes are a staple mode of utility transport for local people. People carry all kinds of things on them and modified cycle-rickshaws often replace the work of a tractor, carrying hay, wood, and other products.
We chose upon a sturdy, workhorse, ladies style bike complete with steel frame, strong pannier rack and granny basket to transport supplies from town. The cost of the bike, a mere 2600 rupees is equivalent to $54. This provided a new, reliable bike that would require minimal maintenance and could be used by any member of the school who required it.
Back at the school the next day, I filmed the children in lessons and the nun comedically trying out the bike (I think she hadn't discovered the brakes) . However, she demonstrated excellent balance and a recklessness more akin to a champion extreme downhill mountain biker. I also had a go on the bike but ended up with a bruised chin and fewer teeth than I started with due to my gangly legs.
It was a pleasure and an honour to place a bike in a good home. I am currently staying in the Ashram of the same foundation's base in Varanasi and have visited the school here, which is in a sorry state of affairs.
The school, located in a out of town suburban area, suffers from severe flood damage in the wet season with the water rising to over half a metre. This renders the lower classes useless. It beggars belief that school happens in those conditions. The lactrine is flooded into the already disgusting water and the water has to be bailed out.
The school has no electricity, crumbling mortar and brickwork, poor drainage and guttering, numerous holes in the plaster work and health hazards galore. During the summer the classrooms are unbearably hot.
The place is dusty and drab and I got the feeling that the Didi working there was somewhat defeated. She had a plan to renovate the school but seemed to lack enthusiasm and realistic goals.
25 students currently attend the school and I witnessed the morning 'warm ups' singing songs in Hindi and English. In my head, I compared the primary school I attended in England, with computers, books, playing field and modern facilities. In comparison the local school is just the shell of an old building which looked like it may be a wiser decision to raze it and start again.
After visiting the school for the morning I was asked by the Didi 'so are you going to donate building materials for my school?' To which I replied 'I am unable to donate anything other than a bike. I've been toying with the idea of helping out but I'm wrangling over whether anything will be done with bags of cement other than sitting gathering dust and going off.
The school near Rewa had been built with the help of the 'Margi' followers and was a much more robust and attractive building. One could tell that it had been built with 'love'. I confronted the Didi in Varanasi, why the followers there couldn't help and I got a mumbled response gesturing that they just didn't. I got the impression that the prominent faith in the area was a different idol-worshipping sect of Hindu and therefore no-one gave donations or was available or forthcoming to help out. There were also other schools in the areas with better facilities out-competing the 'Margi' school.
The 25 students of the school could be left without an education if the school closes down as they may not be able to afford the alternative. Its a sad story and I feel somewhat frustrated that the Didi 'Anupriya' there is unable to drum up some more support.
Another bicycle is not as useful in this case because the roads are rocky and unsuited for a bicycle and the school is close enough to where the teacher 'Didi' leaves that she can walk in 10 minutes.
I am sure that if anyone reading this wanted to volunteer in India as a teacher or help out (as many foreigners seem to and often pay thousands of dollars for the privilege), make a donation or follow up on what I've just said here they would be most welcoming and grateful and I can provide contact details to anyone who is interested.
You can visit the website of Wheels4Life here.