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December 27th: 'The Shoe Shine Kids,' Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India

It's time to leave Jaisalmer and take to the road once more. Rob and I plan to backtrack to Pokaran by bus, a stretch of road we've already ridden from Bikaner. Pokharan, infamous as the site of India's controversial nuclear testing, lies at a junction; from there we'll cycle to Jodhpur to form a loop around Rajasthan. The sun, a blood red globe, sets directly down the main street as we scan for local buses. 'Five minutes!' promises a fruitstall holder. The famous Indian 'five minutes.' We begin our wait patiently...

Before long, the bikes draw a small crowd - the usual inspection of gear systems and the squeezing of tyres. A boy approaches, a bag of shoe shine tools slung over his shoulder. He sits himself down close by and contemplates our bikes. 'This,' he says, holding his shoe shine bag aloft, 'is my passport to the whole of India!' I smile, my interest caught, and he begins to tell me a little of his life story...

Rakesh, from Jodhpur, is 15 years old. He and his younger brother work as shoe shiners while their little sisters go to school. He earns enough money for the day, then returns home to give it to his parents. But as a shoeshiner, he also enjoys a special privilege - travelling the whole of India's vast rail network for free. Accompanied by his gang, they work the tourist spots by day, sleeping on station benches by night. He reels of the places he's been to in Rajasthan. 'I've even been to Bombay,' he says with a smile.

Rakesh introduces me to his gang of five, amongst them his closest friend - a serious looking and silent Kashmiri, far from home - he seems fiercely loyal. They all look after each other. His younger brother arrives - 'My brother!' he says proudly. The younger brother, in turn the the 'leader' of a gang of five younger shoe shiners, is being taught the ropes of shoeshining away from home.

They're all following the Palace on Wheels - a luxury train whisking wealthy tourists on a two week jaunt around Rajasthan. Today Rakesh has made 200 rupees - it's an excellent wage. Only five pairs of shoes shined, each paying a very generous dollar each. The usual daily earnings are less than a dollar. It's been well worth the trip up by night train, catching the Palace on Wheel's weekly Sunday stopover in Jaisalmer. Now, it's time to catch the night train home - a ride of some 10 hours.

It's immediately apparent that Rakesh is a thinker and a hard worker - showing a maturity that makes it strange to call him a boy. Perhaps, born anywhere else... I talk about travelling round the world by bicycle, he talks about the life he leads, travelling the trains by night, the closeness of his friends - his 'other' family - the tools of his trade that are forever in his hands. He's charismatic, and speaks remarkably good English considering it's been learnt through listening to snippets of tourist conversations.

The bus arrives and our fascinating conversation comes to an abrupt end as Rob and I hurriedly tie the bikes onto the roof - Indian bus drivers are notoriously impatient. The two gangs of shoe shine boys help pack up our gear and I shake their hands and wave goodbye to them. It's been an incredible encounter and the abruptness with which it ends reminds me of the privileged life I lead - off once more on the road to adventure.

The speed at which children are forced to grow up in India is something of which I'm well aware, seeing so many homeless kids wandering the streets of Delhi. (Vividly brought to life by the film 'Salem Bombay.') But it's not something I had thought enough about. After the initial culture shock of India, it's all to easy to shut down to the constant hounding of beggars and touts that face every traveller. This meeting reminds me of the incredibly hard life led by so many kids, who aspire to so much but seem caught within the boundaries of their society. Rakesh had made a strong and personal impression on me - he didn't want anything more than to find out what it's like travelling the world by bicycle and in turn to tell me about his life. It wasn't recounted with self-pity - this is his life and he's enjoying it. I resolved to look for him around Jodhpur's clock tower, where the shoe shiners hang out, and talk a little more.

We board the bus, lugging our panniers amongst the various boxes and bags of rice that line the gangway. Our fellow passengers appear only as a collection of dark faces peering out from earthy shawls, wrapped around their whole bodies. Watching the blur of the darkening desert landscape, I think about the ambiguity of India - a country which launches rockets in space, has it own 'Silicon Valley' and the world's largest film industry yet still abides by the caste system and whose children are forced to grow up well before their time.

Yet again, I feel the privilege of the freedom that I've always taken for granted.



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