Sardines on a Bus

It’s been a while since I wrote my last blog post about India but I still have a tatty hand-written diary full of stories to tell. Today we’re having a #tbt Digha Beach in West Bengal and the six hour overnight coach journey which would take us there. We travelled overnight as it is undoubtedly much cooler on a bus without the midday sun beating down and the roads would also be quieter. The drive from Ranaghat to Digha took six hours and it didn’t even take us across the border of West Bengal. Although not all Indian roads are suited to smooth cruising at 70mph, if you consider how far a six hour journey would get you in the UK and compare it to the distance covered on the map of India below, it really puts into perspective the size of the country. Ranaghat is the red dropped pin on the map and Digha is a centimetre or two to the south west.

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On Sunday evening, all fifty seven children plus their responsible adults, a few extra helpers, the English team, a chef with everything except the kitchen sink and a baby all crammed onto a ‘ninety seater double-decker sleeper coach’. Now you might have already formed some ideas of what this coach might have looked like on the inside. The word ‘sleeper’ might make you think you could lie back and relax and the phrase ‘ninety seater double-decker’ might make you think that this bus would be large and spacious. Wipe away the image you have so carefully formed in your beautiful mind because it’s probably wrong. The sign on the back window read ‘Germany-Type Coach’. Now I can quite confidently assume that this coach had been designed by someone who has never been to Europe and was simply imagining how he thought the Germans might like to travel. It was an incredibly tight and uncomfortable squeeze to get everyone and everything onto the bus. Four (almost) fully grown adults were squished into our cosy compartment, which was designed for one person to lie down or two people to comfortably sit. Rather than having a traditional style upper deck, the seating areas were separated into compartments with the upper level looking more like a slightly larger than average luggage shelf above the compartments below. Looking back over my travel diary I’d written this to describe the bus ‘This bus was supposed to have seats which changed into beds. However, instead of using the terms ‘seats’ or ‘beds’ I would go for shelves, to be honest, and cramped shelves at that’.

I wrote very little about the bus journey to Digha in my travel diary but I did manage to write a couple of sentences which sum up my mental state at the time ‘I’m really struggling to continue the story at this point. The bus journey was a challenge to say the least, it was incredibly cramped. I’m sure it will be a funny story in the future’. When we finally pulled up outside our hotel in Digha at around 6am I was so tired, aching and disorientated that it didn’t feel real. I couldn’t quite believe that we had actually made it. I have to say that was definitely the most uncomfortable journey of my life and I’ve done a fair bit of travelling.

Just a few hours after arriving in Digha, once we’d had some breakfast curry and a quick nap, everyone headed down to the beach. The beach was about a ten minute walk away from where we were staying, along a straight road which was lined with little wooden stalls selling everything from fresh coconuts to buckets and spades, not so dissimilar from the small tourist shops you might find at a seaside resort in the UK. The sea wasn’t exactly how I’d imagined the Indian Ocean. I’d been optimistically dreaming of a tropical beach with white sand and palm trees and clear turquoise sea. That’s not quite what we were greeted with but when you look at the proximity of the beach to the mouth of the Hooghly River (part of the Ganges) it’s not surprising that the water was a little off colour. It definitely wasn’t as blue as I had expected it to be and, upon first sight, it disappointingly reminded me of the North Sea, except for the temperature, it was beautifully warm. Despite appearances, it was the Indian Ocean after all and it was pretty special so when Pete and I arrived at the beach we ran straight down to the sea like little kids to test the temperature, it was pleasantly warm, yet cool enough to be refreshing after lying in the sun for too long. The children were all so excited, for some of them it was the first time they had ever seen the sea and it was a privilege to be able to share this incredible experience with them. Some of them were understandably a little nervous in the water at first as none of them have had a chance to learn how to swim. I was ready to crack out the lifesaving skills at any moment. I spent most of my time in the water jumping over the waves with some of the girls. They wanted to keep going deeper to the point where I was lifting them over the larger waves! The younger children, who didn’t fancy a swim in such deep waters, were admiring the hundreds of little palm sized starfish in the shallow water. Following a good wave jumping session, Lucy and I picked up coconuts from a little corner shack for some fresh but hot coconut water which I have wanted to try for a while thanks to Instagram!

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There are a few interesting aspects to an Indian beach which I feel as though I should mention, such as cremations every morning on the beach and atypical wildlife like random horses on the promenade but you weren’t really expecting it to be completely normal now were you?

In the evening we went to Old Digha, about a mile along the shoreline, to sit with the children and watch the waves at night. There was a lovely cooling fresh breeze and, for the first time in a long time, I felt comfortable outside. It was wonderful to watch the children just enjoying watching the sea, we sat there for a good hour and they didn’t move, they were perfectly content watching the waves lapping up on the shore. It’s such a contrast from British children, many of whom grow up close to the sea and take it for granted.

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The next evening, after another morning at the beach and an afternoon at the Science City Museum and Jurassic Park we got back on the bus to head back to Bethel House, a journey which none of us were looking forward to. We managed to arrange the bus a little better on the way back so I had slightly more space and could be horizontal (in the foetal position) for the whole trip home, which was a lot more comfortable than on the outbound journey. However, the journey was never going to be completely plain sailing. Our driver took a wrong turn and, instead of continuing on to the next available exit, decided that the best option was to reverse down the motorway and do a three-point-turn over the central reservation, at which point I was convinced that the less than stable bus was about to topple over. Fortunately, following another long and tiring journey, we finally arrived back at Bethel House at 6am and all went straight to bed!

 

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