My First Visit To India

When I told people that I was going to India there were typically one of two responses and neither were encouraging. The primary comments were linked to the potential of an upset digestion system and the classic description was ‘Delhi belly’. The secondary comment was linked to the condition and perceived state of the country and it was therefore generally treated with surprise that I would want to visit.

I had been invited by the charity The Cycle our company had done a little to help over the years. The Cycle was a new name for an old charity set-up by Andy Barrs and David Crosweller who were both very active in its operation and were in fact driving the trip I was invited on. I was looking forward to getting to know them better and I was looking forward to learning more about India.


Around 2018 I undertook a fourth London to Paris bike ride and my third on behalf of the charity which was then known as Sanitation First. The trip had been quite a success and the funds raised and helped contribute towards a new toilet block at the Oasis Trust school. I had learned through David and visits by colleagues that the school was in a state of huge disrepair and in fact, had pretty much been abandoned. The Cycle stepped in, along with support from the Indian Government and the place was restored and rapidly populated with some of the regions most vulnerable children – the mentally and physically disabled.

Colleagues had advised me that stories of having to walk across the field to find a clean area to defecate were quite hard to take. They were even harder when about young children with no legs who, in order to preserve an ounce of dignity, would drag themselves through the same field, and everyone else’s waste in the process. These children really had been pushed to the bottom of the ladder.

The school toilet was rebuilt with a DEWATS system that to the best of my knowledge, is a miraculous system that cleans the waste from the toilet and produces clean water that is then used by the kitchen and crop garden. You almost have to hear it twice to believe that it does that. It was one of the first of its kind installed at a school in India. Our company didn’t pay for all the work, but the modesty of the other benefactors meant the credit for the work was given to us with a plaque boastfully acknowledging our company and our bike challenge.

The main principles at Oasis Trust with me and the Sanitation First India CEO

The trip wasn’t just about a visit to the OASIS centre. I don’t divert away from the school as a to dismiss the visit, but the reality is I feel like I could write about 10,000 words on the experience and it would be more therapeutic than it would be perhaps of interest. I will though summarise by saying it was emotional, humbling, motivating and overwhelming at all once and something I will never forget.

We started our visit by visiting a large Government school that had increased its pupil count significantly following COVID where many private schools lost pupils due to the change in economic circumstances of the parents. Every pupil we saw had a huge smile on their face and the noise they made was at times was sufficient to drown out the band that they had assembled to maximise the celebratory greeting that awaited us. One of our party had rowed the Atlantic, a feat hugely more challenging than a cycle ride to Paris, but one that had achieved a similar result. The outcome was a new set of EcoSan toilets that not only significantly improved the welfare of all the students but brought dignity to the girls when they started their periods. The EcoSan toilet also produces totally compostable waste that can be used to fertilise crops – it really is an incredible solution.

After a visit to another neighbouring school, we headed down the coast to the city of Puducherry where after dinner in a local restaurant we headed to our beachside hotel. It had been a long day and one that combined with jet lag was really catching up on me, but I was desperate to get the most out of the trip and I think adrenalin was keeping me going.

The next day we headed to a specialist waste management farm and at the time I wondered why. The farm was the location of a specialist test being undertaken to investigate the effects of different fertilisation methods on crops. Here’s the key point, they were testing a mixture of human waste (humanure), urine and biochar and more conventional methods that were known to cause long term damage to the soil.

The conclusion of the tests so far had demonstrated that waste taken from an EcoSan toilet, if correctly mixed with other natural (and carbon eating materials), can in fact yield better results with the crops. This was hugely significant because if a farmer were to have his own EcoSan toilet, he would be able to use the waste to increase his crop growth and effectively feed more people. Not only that, but in doing so they would be causing less damage to the land, the environment and the economy. The most shocking aspect of this fact was when I learned that a failure to address this problem is likely to cause a future catastrophe whereby millions of Indians would be forced to migrate – in order to find food. Can you imagine the impact on the whole world? And there I was in this field, down the end of a quiet lane, listening to some very clever scientists who were working passionately and tirelessly towards the solution alongside the Cornell University, New York.

Another bus journey and another school. On a Saturday we were denied the joy of the children, but the teacher had joined us for our visit as we took a look inside a brand new two story EcoSan toilet block built for the girls and boys. It was really impressive and a long way from some of the facilities we had seen at other schools that were in desperate need of one. It was freshly painted and as good as any I had seen in my own primary school days in England.

Whilst there, we learned about the huge importance of the Happy Periods training being undertaken by the charity and how this was empowering young women (and their parents) in so many ways. It’s another huge subject and one I don’t feel qualified to comment on greatly here, but I learned that quite horrific things happen to young girls and women as a result of a lack of education and stigma associated with having a period and that by changing this, more women were now attending school, being educated and setting themselves, and their family up for a healthier and brighter future. You can read more about it at The Cycle here:

After a tourist visit to the Descent of the Ganges, known locally as Arjuna’s Penance, a monument at Mamallapuram, on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal, we headed to a local tribal village and to another reality check. At the village, as we strolled around in the heat of a midday sun, we discovered that the inhabitants had no toilet and only recently had gained a source of water – funded by The Cycle.

The villagers greeted us very positively and as we walked around in our expensive sunglasses, strange western clothes and plastic bottles of cold mineral water, I wondered what they were thinking. If they had any resentment towards us they did not show it, and in fact, judging by the smiles and friendly waves as we left, I concluded that they were grateful for the visit and of course, hopeful that we would somehow be the source of a solution to their poor living conditions. I later learned that The Cycle are to put in place an EcoSan toilet for them and it was another reminder of how important their work was and how it never ends.

We also visited a reservoir that was the sole water source for a village. It seemed simple to me on arrival that the purpose was to ensure that the village didn’t run out of water but the reality was far more significant. The reservoir had previously run dry and was a huge state of disrepair. As a result, the women in the village, who were tasked with collecting the water for the family, would have to walk miles to gather it from another source and of course, this water was realistically needed in that other area.

There was simply not enough water to go round and what they did have was not always able to be captured. The Cycle stepped in and, with the help from the whole community, restored the reservoir walls, cleaned out all the rubbish from the bottom and it was now a brimming full pool of water at the heart of the village. It was at this visit that it was explained to me that in many other parts of India the women must trade sex for water. Sex for water to cook with. Another shocking reminder that this was not just about basic sanitation but basic human dignity and female empowerment. I was rapidly learning why the charity had renamed from Sanitation First to The Cycle – to represent the development of Women, the World and Water and their constant interaction and dependance on each other.

It was then to the Oasis centre. and to a musical performance from the children, a showering of rose petals and hand made gifts from the them to show their thanks for our visit and support. I also learned that it was in making these items that they developed skills that hopefully will serve them well when they are old enough to leave the centre.

It’s an indescribable feeling seeing people, young children, doing their best to live anything close to a normal life whilst expressing their thanks to strangers that have everything they could possible want in the world. You stand there, head spinning a little as you try to process what you are seeing, hearing and feeling and the only conclusion you can reach is that you simply must do more to help. We all do.

My souvenir video here

Final Thoughts

Having looked at the busy schedule before I visited I had done a little homework on the places, the schools and the hotels we would reside at and of course the charity. What I hadn’t spent much time thinking about was who else was attending the trip. I met such a wonderful friendly group of people and I must confess, one of the overall highlights was the downtime spent with them. Whether on the bus, over breakfast, sat in a road side restaurant or over a wonderful dinner at the hotel, their time was given generously with interest, humour and intelligence and as the frequent opportunities arose, compassion too. I left India loaded to the brim with memories, thoughts and emotions and I hope to repeat the whole experience another day and hopefully to meet the Oasis Trust team in front of a fully functional dormitory.

Before that though, there is the job of fund raising – that girls dormitory still in a state of disrepair is not going to build itself so I am going to ride from Bath to Edinburgh (c450 miles) in four days and I have persuaded 17 other people to do it with me and three others to support it.

You can donate to the cause here:

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