Douglas Blane follows a gutsy group of Glaswegian pupils on a mission to refurbish a school in the Himalayas
from glasgow to the little Indian village of Musteek Soor is more than 4,000 miles as the crow flies. But schoolchildren do not possess wings, so the final stages of the journey among the foothills of the Himalayas were hair-raising, says Tony Begley, depute head of Holyrood Secondary.
"There were times on the bends when the front wheels of the bus would be round the corner but not the back ones, so sitting in the middle you could be looking straight down to the valley below," he says.
That was scary, agree the pupils, but not the worst part of their two-week expedition to refurbish an Indian village school.
"I was ill on the last leg, which we did on foot," says Kenneth Green (S6), from Hyndland Secondary. "I would walk a bit, throw up, then walk some more. I just wanted to stop. By the time we got to camp, half our group were sick from some bug, so we all lay down. Then the rains came and flooded some of the tents."
Rowan Campbell (S6) from Bellahouston Academy was worried about the heat. She got used to it, but the leeches were harder to endure. "At one point, they were dropping out of the trees on top of us. It was horrible. Later I got ill and had to sit down quietly and try hard not to be sick. But I was."
The Fulcrum Challenge is a modern initiative with an old-fashioned flavour. Boys used to be sent to far-flung places to make men of them. It worked too, if they survived. There was no such thing in those days as risk assessments, or charities such as Fulcrum, set up to raise young people's ambitions and unlock their leadership potential.
Months of physical and mental preparation precede the expeditions. Transport and provisions are provided, and Fulcrum staff, local guides and experienced teachers accompany the young people.
Qualifications are gained Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (ASDAN) Level 3 Certificate of Personal Effectiveness but that is not what it is all about, says Siobheann McCloskey, 18, from Notre Dame High, who plans to become a human rights lawyer: "It was the most amazing experience. Nothing that happened was really bad, because you were part of a team and could laugh about it together."
Glasgow City has been supporting its senior secondary pupils to take part in the Fulcrum Challenge for the past five years. The 26 young people involved have to raise pound;1,800 in sponsorship, while the city contributes an additional pound;1,000 for each.
Margaret Doran, Glasgow's executive director for education and social services, explained to this year's party why the trip is worth it: "You are going out there to help people who are really challenged by poverty. The kids you meet will remember you all their lives, and you will remember them. You are going to be different people when you come back to Glasgow.
"Afterwards, we'll ask you to talk to pupils around our schools and show them what young people, just like them, are capable of."
On the eve of the expedition, the youngsters talked about their hopes and fears. Kenneth was concerned about the poverty they would encounter. "Not being able to do anything about it might be overwhelming." Siobheann agreed: "I think there'll be a feeling of helplessness. You can only do a small part. But I guess that's better than nothing."
Jonathan McColgan (S6) from Holyrood Secondary had more practical concerns. "I passed out on one of the fitness days, and when I came round I couldn't see. So I'm worried about the physical side, especially the first couple of days."
All were looking forward to the reactions of the pupils at the school they were going to refurbish. "We take so much for granted," Jonathan said. "I saw the faces of the children in photos from last year, when they were given presents. They looked so happy."
The trip was lengthy and eventful: Glasgow to New Delhi by plane, followed by one night in a hotel, where they had hot running water for the last time. Then they took the midnight train to Haridwar.
"Going around New Delhi by bus, you saw some poverty, but also temples and the parliament building," Siobheann says. "The shock really hit you at the station, where people with lots of money boarded trains, while those with nothing lay along the tracks. I couldn't comprehend how a country could work like that."
From Haridwar, a convoy of jeeps took the party "Indiana Jones-style" to Rikikesh, on the banks of the Ganges. "There was a nature reserve there and we watched elephants and water buffalo come down to the water to drink," says Mr Begley. "Also, bits of burning log and people who had been cremated floated down the river."
A bus journey up steep trails took the party to Agunda, where they washed in a mountain stream and broke out the tents.
"Next day we trekked up high, to Pangrana." Two more days of hiking and camping brought the group to Belak Khal, where the bug hit, forcing a change of plan.
"We were going to go over a ridge and down to our village," says Mr Begley. "But so many people were sick, including the doctor and Fulcrum's John Hunt, that instead we trekked to Lata and took jeeps."
This was a tough leg of the trek, says Siobheann. "I was still healthy, but even I was tired. We saw jeeps in the distance and thought we were almost there then we realised what we had to do to cross the river."
A rickety suspension bridge spanned the Ganges. "As you got closer, you could make out big holes," says Siobheann. "There were logs and sheets of tin covering bits that were missing. We had to go around donkeys that were crossing, and the whole thing started shaking as soon as we got on to it."
The party's eventual arrival at Musteek Soor, eight days after leaving Glasgow, was a revelation, Kenneth says. The weather brightened, the campsite was the best so far and the views were breathtaking. "The village was built on a hill surrounded by mountains. It was really scenic."
Next morning, the hard work began. "By the end of the week, the school was something we were really proud of," says Jonathan. "We worked inside and out, cleaning and painting. We did the classroom in lilac, and painted it with lions, monkeys and rainbows." Electricity was installed, window frames painted and wooden benches built for pupils to sit on.
"We bought all 52 pupils a new schoolbag and an umbrella," says Jonathan. "The day we handed them out, the kids were all sitting in rows. It started raining and all the umbrellas went up." The memory makes him smile.
There were also presents for the nursery children, Kenneth says. "The mums knew what we were going to do, but the kids didn't. We handed out teddy bears and balloons. It made them so happy. There were a few tears from the mums and from us."
On the last day, the people of the village staged a surprise of their own for the departing visitors, says Siobheann. "We'd only been there five days, but we got really attached to people in the village. I was upset when we were leaving. Then we turned the corner and all the kids were lining the street. There were wee hands and faces at the windows and they were all waving and shouting 'Bye' to us." She swallows.
Before the students left Glasgow, Ms Doran pointed out that the Fulcrum Challenge is not just about privileged kids helping the poor; benefits flow both ways.
All look much the same as before their two weeks of close encounters with mountain trails, blood-sucking leeches and delightful young children on another continent. But every one of them has changed.
The mix of experiences was what made the trip so memorable, says Rowan. "Facing the sickness and the bad weather, and coming out of it. Seeing the difference we made to the village and the school. Working as part of a team at times and leading it at others. All that has made me a better person."
The world is a smaller place than it seemed, Siobheann has decided. "People are not that different, wherever you go, and language and culture don't have to be a barrier. I have learnt, too, that you don't have to just sit and watch other people jumping around the Congo or running off to the rainforest it can be you."
A personal development charity that helps young people with the transition to adulthood, Fulcrum enables participants to "understand themselves and their motives... and helps them realise their full potential". The challenges, based in India and Africa, are meaningful and substantial projects and students are supported to live in a third world country and "to integrate with the indigenous population and experience their culture."