Thursday, 19 September 2013

FoS Gathering 2013

The Friends of Sangam gatherings are designed to remind you of why you love Sangam.  They do so in many ways...

After a 6 hour journey (which should have been 4), in the pouring rain with a tired, hungry and screaming toddler in the back for the last hour, the sat nav directing me down a 'road' (or bridleway) which had a sign saying no cars, I'm beginning to loose my nerve on whether I had entered the right post code for the venue I am heading for...

When the sat nav tells me I am near my location and I spot the Friends of Sangam banner I briefly think to myself that never before have I been so relieved to see the Sangam sign... but this isn't true...

Eleven years ago, near enough to the day, I arrived in India.  This wasn't a trip that had been planned for months, in fact it wasn't even a month from being told I was heading to India and getting on that plane, and I was in Mexico at the time.  Ten days back in the UK was long enough to book a flight, get a visa and any jabs I needed, but not to look into finer details of the trip. Anyway, I digress...

I arrived in India having taken full advantage of the drinks on my flight and was beginning to feel a little hungover... I clocked a man with a sign containing my name and said "Sangam". He wobbled his head, turn around and walked off.  I tried to keep up with him and he led me to his car.  Mumbai by night is pretty full on at the best of times, but during Ganapati the darkness is sometimes replaced by a shrine to the pink elephant god - I began to wonder how much I had had to drink...

Actually, I was no longer sure that the driver of my taxi was the same man who had held the sign with my name... figuring there was nothing I could do, I wrapped my arms through the straps of my rucksack and fell asleep.

It was daylight when I woke, and I noticed that we were no longer moving. I opened my eyes to see where I was and I saw a man with a GUN! Before I had time to think, the door opened and the driver got back in the car (where had he been?) and we continued on our way.

Looking back, I think we must have been at a toll booth on the Mumbai-Pune highway.  I sat in the back on the taxi, eyes wide open taking in all the sights (I can remember seeing girls walking to school in their blue dresses and red ribbons at the end of their plaits, and women in saris carrying pots on their heads). The longer we drove, the more I worried that I hadn't got in the right taxi.  I hadn't taken my mobile with me so there really was nothing I could do.

Eventually, driving along quite a busy road, the driver pulled over and stopped to open a gate, and there on the gate was the Sangam logo and the World Trefoil, truly the relief was overwhelming!

Back to 2013, the UK and my arrival at the Elim Centre near Worcester.  Although it felt like the middle of the night it was in fact not yet 7 o'clock and that meant we were in time for dinner. We were rushed upstairs to the restaurant where we were greeted by a sea of faces, all women, dressed in a mixture of western and Indian dress (although the western had a slight tendency to blue t-shirts and fleeces).  Many of the faces were familiar, some from that first trip to India 11 years ago, others from subsequent trips and more still from these annual gatherings in the UK. Finally I could relax, I was surrounded by friends, and Little Owl couldn't be happier, she had a plate full of food and a room full of people to entertain!

The gatherings are held in a different place every year, September has seen me travel to Northumberland, Isle of Wight, Peak District, Edinburgh, Lancaster and York. Always a bit of a challenge on a Friday evening after work! I have been lucky since having Little Owl that I have been able to make the journeys during the day.

Despite the different locations, the programme for the weekend follows a familiar pattern.  There are meetings for the trustees, the AGM with a letter (email) from the World Centre Manager (we had hoped for a live Skype message this year but it wasn't to be), a vast amount of children turning up expecting to be entertained and the Indian meal for which we all put on our finest Indian clothing. This year we even had entertainment from the local guides!

The arrival of 100 Brownies and Guides used to take me by surprise but I now expect it.  The same would happen at Sangam, you would be quietly sat working at your desk when 100 Bharat Scouts and Guides from Mumbai would turn up for a tour round Sangam.  You would think with a 5 hour drive that they would call ahead!

The Brownies and Guides at the Elim Centre got more then just an Indian Experience.  Long before the Elim Church took over the building, it had been a girls boarding school where the two Baden-Powell daughters had attended.  Lord Baden-Powell once went to visit his daughters and stayed overnight.  
He chose this 'shelter' in the grounds which seems rather odd but then you must remember he was terribly famous and staying in a building full of girls might not have been such a good idea.  Besides, he loved to sleep outdoors.  He always chose to sleep on the veranda at their Hampshire home Pax Hill (its a wonder they had any children) and whenever he was at Foxlease in the New Forrest he would sleep on the balcony.

Little Owl, exhausted by the journey and all the excitement of the morning had a two hour nap after lunch (why does she not do this at home?) and so we missed most of the fun with the Brownies and Guides but this is what we saw:
The Indian meal is always a highlight of the weekend.  Its a chance if you haven't  done so already to wear your Indian clothes.  I decided that a Sari wasn't practical with Little Owl tugging at me so borrowed a pretty blue Punjabi Suit from my mother.  Little Owl was lucky to have been given a beautiful outfit as a gift earlier this year so we were all set.

At Sangam, the Maharashtrian dinner is also the highlight of the event.  By then the tailor would have returned all the saris and blouses, and the afternoon is spent in preparation, getting mehendi and learning how to tie the sari.

Once dressed, photos are taken before entering the dining room where all tables and chairs have been removed and you take your place on a mat on the floor.  Dinner is served on a plate made from banana leaves and the food is wonderful.  
After dinner there is some entertainment, which could be a professional dancer performing a traditional dance with amazing skill, or the local guides showing you their best moves to the latest Bollywood hits. Each is equally good.

Sundays at the gathering, are a mixed day.  In the morning there is another trustees meeting to welcome the new trustees elected at the AGM, and plans are made for the year ahead.  Other guests head out to explore the local area.  We all come together for lunch before heading off home.

Another year, another gathering.  See you all next year at Waddow!

***Friends of Sangam UK is a UK charity which raises funds and supports Sangam World Centre, one of the four world centres belonging to WAGGGS (World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts) ***


  1. Loved reading this article Becky! Lots of super memrories!

  2. How wonderful! And I very much enjoyed your nervous journey too! Must have been a fabulous experience.


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