Sangam – Summoned by bells (and gongs, and flags)

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I was not a good Girl Guide. Even when I managed to earn a badge I had usually lost it before I got the time to sew it on. So it’s unlikely that, under my own steam, I’d ever have been invited to Sangam – one of international guiding’s World Centres, in Pune, India.

But Paul is the Deputy Director of Fundraising at Wagggs (that’s the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts for the unitiated – and those who didn’t listen enough at Guides, like me). He’s taking a sabbatical for the next year, but his last work commitment was the Free Being Me festival held at Sangam.

Pune, it turns out, is not a standard tourist destination. Every time we mentioned we were going there, puzzled Indians would raise an eyebrow. But it turns out to be prosperous (a major IT centre), welcoming, and a whole lot calmer than anywhere we’d experienced in India up to that point.

We arrived on a 23 hour train journey – our longest so far. Thanks to the wonder of Travelkhana – an internet app that allows you to order food and have it delivered to your train carriage, we were all well fed and still friends when we arrived. The girls sleep well on a train, and in the meantime we played cards, and they even did some school work.

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I think we’d all describe the 23 hour journey as well worth it. Sangam is not only beautiful, particularly with its brand new swimming pool, but also full of friendly girl guides and volunteers who are happy to play with the girls.

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The Free Being Me festival focussed on body confidence (it’s a worldwide project that Paul has been helping to run, set up by Wagggs and skincare brand Dove), so the girls, and nearly a hundred guides and scouts from around the world, got to go into a local school to see the project being run there and to help deliver body confidence activities.

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“Is it a tour?” Daisy asked world-wearily. “I’m not going on any more of those”. Perhaps we’ve overdone the sightseeing a little in the last week or so.

Instead, the girls lived at Sangam for the week, revelling in the good food, wonderful hospitality (special thanks to Cate who gave up half of her house and her gin to us weary travellers) and the swimming pool. I even got some work done while the girls were babysat by filmwatching or poolguarding volunteers.

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Sangam is easy India, in a way Varanasi and Agra will never be. We went shopping, and weren’t pestered in the market. We tried out mehendi, or henna tattooing, which made my hand look like those of an eighty year old, and Clover and Daisy’s look like they’d scribbled all up their arms, which is precisely what they had done. Paul worked, I wrote some features, and we all bought some lovely Indian clothes.

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How quickly girl guiding comes back to one! I was surprised to discover that I can salute with the best of them, not to mention sing “Taps”. The girls wore their brownie and rainbow uniforms for a welcome ceremony that involved a ghee lamp, prasad (a blessing of coconut and sugar) and a photo that lined us all up in height order, which took ages. Clover had some massive tantrums about not wanting to go to Flag (the morning ceremony) and I continually forgot that Guides shake with their left hand – even in India where you aren’t even supposed to eat with it (a continual problem for a lefty like me).

What else to say? A week is a long time to cover in one blog post. The girls helped with a synchronised swimming routine to open the pool, and followed Sangam boss Jen and Wagggs chair Nicola around like shadows (fortunately both were wonderful about it).

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They all looked after us so well that we became infantilised surprisingly quickly – I’m surprised I didn’t start salivating every time they hit the dinner gong, while they even provided a laminated card to with the address on to give to the rickshaw drivers (plus a video on how to hail and use a rickshaw!). All in all, it was a marvellous rest for us and the girls, even though Paul, in particular, was working quite hard.

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Finally, on Sunday morning, the volunteers got up to sing us off – “Go well and safely, may Sangam be ever with you”, and we left to catch an epic 27 hour train down to Kerala. Pity, when we arrived at Mumbai station, that we discovered that it was already three hours delayed. But more on that later.

Daisy says she’s going to work at Sangam when she grows up, and they’ve both been singing the Sangam song ‘ “Leave behind the barriers of culture, race and creed” ever since we left.

If that’s the thing they take home from their week in Sangam, we’ve all got to be grateful for that. Thanks so much, Girl Guiding.

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