Wide-eyed and eager, with my massive rucksack tightly packed with my mess tin, insect-repellent and long johns, I arrived in Bangalore, South India in January 2011 for a 10-week adventure with Raleigh International.
Little did I know that I was about to gain love, life experience and life-long friendships.
In 2010, graduates like me were struggling to land jobs post-university. Aiming to offer work and life experience, the adventure charity – whose alumni I knew included Prince William and Kate Middleton – had launched a bursary programme for people like me.
So I was one of the early-twentysomethings, with no career to call my own, who had jumped at the opportunity to fundraise for the trip – before flying solo to India. Here I would spend the best part of three months making new friends and trying something totally new.
I actually managed to extend it to nearly six months away, spending the last shreds of my student bank account – and money raised from summer jobs – to visit more of India, Bali, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia.
Raleigh’s 11A dispatch (big cheer, please) to Bangalore included a trio of three-week-long sections – a community project, an environmental project and a gruelling 200km Western Ghats trek in blistering heat with our tents and meals piled into our backpacks.
While many naive youngsters head off on gap years thinking they’re going there to transform the local community, I quickly had a sharp dose of reality as I realised that may not be the case.
The first project – digging trenches around crop fields to stop elephants getting in – caused a crowd of local people to gather daily to laugh (good naturedly) at how terrible we were at this manual work.
On the community project, we helped build toilets, which was actually quite transformative for that village – especially for the women, who previously had to wait until dark to go to outside, risking their health, snake attacks or sexual assault.
So maybe we did make a bit of a difference.
The experience taught me a lot about the notion of “Type two fun” where you find something hard at the time, but retrospectively cherish the memories.
It was also a great opportunity to get away from our phones (we had to hand them in) and have a post-finals alcohol detox (we weren’t allowed to drink).
Some low moments of the trip include having to always use a long drop (a big hole purporting to be a loo) – if you were extra lucky, you’d be the one digging it for the camp. Also walking 200km in sweltering heat while never having access to a shower – and when you were able to wash in a river, us girls having to do so in clothes that covered us to elbow and knee. It was certainly a reality check in terms of the privilege of my life thus far.
Standout joyful memories include one of our most-loved Raleigh leaders regularly and spontaneously shouting: “WE’RE IN INDIA, GUYS!”, bumpy bus rides with Bollywood tunes blaring, long conversations while trekking through the mountains, so much laughter – and of course the amazing scenery, food and wonderful people. I’ll never forget the call of “Longs o’clock!” as dusk descended and we had to cover up to prevent mosquito bites.
There was, naturally, a team video filmed to Eye Of The Tiger, and a talent show where my group sang Afroman’s “Because I got high” with the lyric-change “I was going to work, but then I got chai”.
All this is why it’s a devastating blow that Raleigh International has closed down. My one-week adventure, 11 years ago, is forever etched in my memory in so many ways – it’s a joy remembering it today. I’m so grateful for the resilience it taught me, for the experience of living with remote villagers in southern India and for the trio of pals who I still talk to weekly after sharing a tent with them.
Thank you Raleigh, you’re forever in my heart. And, yes I did get the T-shirt.
Did you go on a Raleigh International adventure? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.