Sunday October 24th, 6pm. We are back on the decrepit government bus which takes us to the main city, Visakhapatnam from where we will catch our night train to Hyderabad. Obscurity has fallen on the green hillsides that border Araku valley. A few words spoken in Telugu and the old bus is plunged into darkness.
There, carried away by the movements of the road, each of us relives the incredible week-end that is slowly wearing to an end. Now and then, faded horn sounds reach up from the bottom of the valley. At the back, Ko, Keisuke and Marc have fallen asleep, Bart dozes off or thinks. Arvind, Sudhir and Shiv, the three NGO members are conversing quietly. Somewhere in the front, the two girls on our small team, Muyura and Deepa, are eating bananas in silence.
One must admit that these two days have been emotionally intense and physically grueling. And while we are here, seating on the bus, our spirits are still out there, wandering about the tortuous footpaths of Araku’s jungle.
Araku is located at the extreme north of Andhra Pradesh, far, far away from the frenetic bustle of Hyderabad city life. It is a virgin space populated by mountains, sporadic plantations and green forests. At times, banana trees and palm trees emerge from the canopy. We are there to hand over solar lights to isolated villages deprived of electricity.
Reaching those villages is an adventure. Despite a gab of 100 years, probably not too far from what Phileas Fogg, experienced when he was heading to Calcutta from Bombay. We left Anantagiri resort, our headquarters, at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon; destination Nandigami and Madiyara, two villages perched in the mountains. The trek progressed at a fair pace for three hours. It slowly picked up in difficulty and started to involve going up and down very steep portions, taking narrow sliding paths, hopping across rivers on stone ways and climbing up piles of rocks. Sometimes, one would slip on a stone and fall miserably in the middle of the river or sink in a hole of mud. Nothing to deter the motivation of our small party, we were keeping pace.
And then, the night fell on our small team of philanthropic adventurers. At around 8 in the evening, we had reached a partially flooded rice field. Without light, without food, our reserves of water at an all time low, we placed all our hopes in our non English speaking guide, Samara. Samara is a true hero of the Persian mythology. Wearing the simplest sandals, he can heap over a river that is several meters wide, climb up a vertical rock wall and heave someone up, or run on a narrow beam of wood in the darkest night. And Samara knows every inch of the region. The hike was getting harder and harder, it was punctuated by Deepa’s epic falls and Bart’s memorable attempts to establish communication with Samara “Kya Normal trek kahan hai?”. Yet, a characteristic shared by many Indians is the optimism that underlies an answer: whenever asked about the distance to the first village, Samara would invariably serve us the regular “pandhra minut sir – 15 minutes “.
And so, we trudged along for another hour, wet, shivering, seriously starting to realize that we might well have to sleep under the stars, in the middle of the jungle. And then a faint light, somewhere up in the mountain, filled the group with renewed hope and enthusiasm. All bad memories vanished in the instant. We reached Nandigami at 9. Our biological clocks said 11. Our approach wakened up the dogs, children faces peeped through half open windows and mothers appeared in the doorframes. The villagers slowly emerged from their homes and started to gather outside. Though we could not understand the tribal language, we could clearly make out the surprise that slowly changed into concealed happiness. Samara spoke to them. The villagers were to come to our hotel in Anantagiri at 8 in the early morning hours to pick up their solar lanterns. Madiyara was half an hour away from the Nandigami. In Nandigami, the same arrangements were made, the villagers would come and collect the lamps the next day.
On Sunday, we visited another village, close by, in which the NGO had already brought the solar lights some time back, and replaced some broken lamps. Then we decided to drop the remaining stock of pencils, notebooks and candy, originally intended for the children of the villages, to Anantagiri’s primary school.
The school is an experience that stays with you for a long time, having grown up in very privileged settings. That one is a poor Government school. No table, no chair, no washroom. But children drawings, colorful paintings, biology diagrams, Telegu letters, and poems cover every square inch of the classrooms walls. Despite the striking poverty, candid joy and desire to learn emanate from this place.
In the meantime, the bus has arrived and is currently fighting to find a parking slot. Ko and Keisuke have woken up. Bart is actively taking pictures of the very animated streets of Visakhapatnam. Arvind left the bus to buy four portions of chicken Biryani. In half an hour the train will depart. When we wake up, we will be back in Hyderabad, far, far away from the peaceful and simple life of Araku valley.
We will never forget that time when we brought lights to small rural villages. We wish to thank very warmly Arvind, Sudhir and Shiv as well as the Net Impact club for offering us one of our most marking experiences in India. Arvind, Sudhir and Shiv we wish you all the best for your next missions.
Light is to the eye what freedom is to the soul.