Sometimes, something happens that just strikes a chord in you and remains with you always. For me, they are often very basic things, a moment of perfect peace and calm, or sharing a simple meal of homemade bread and cheese with one of the donkey owners in their home.
Another of these times happened to me during my final few days in India. After our Harness Course in Rajasthan, we went straight back to Delhi, grabbed a few hours sleep then went out to a brick kiln site. We were shown a mule with a massive sore just behind its wither. He was used daily for carrying 'green' bricks from the stack up to the kiln, a weight of around 180 kg (28 stone). The owner was concerned, but had no idea about how he could help his mule, and carry on working.
Maybe I was a bit tired, but instead of trying to explain things, I just went to the truck, got out a sack and my toolkit, sat down in the dirt, and started to make a simple sort of pack saddle, or back protector. I worked on quietly for an hour or so, occasionally dodging donkeys, mules, goats and children as they ran through the area of yard that I'd claimed as my workshop.
The old men started to gather around me, sitting on their heels in the hot sun, making jokes with each other about what I was doing. Then, as the saddle began to take shape they started to get interested, discussing the design, arguing about whether it would work. After a while they started asking the team questions. Why was the man making the saddle like this? Why was it like that? Was I from Kashmir?
I started to laugh, their curiosity was getting the better of them. They were getting interested in the project, they wanted me to make a little change here, alter that bit there, "so the bricks won't fall off". Where did I get the materials? Surely I hadn’t brought them all the way from England. Didn't I know that all the goods were available right here, for very little money?
I altered the patterns, argued design points with them, made jokes, a seat was brought for me, then small glasses of the hot, incredibly sweet tea, cigarettes were shared, and I suddenly found myself in the centre of an active workshop. We made the pack saddle between us, leaving it with the owner of the mule, and left materials for several of the men who reckoned they could do a better job.
Back in the truck one of the vets started to laugh, "that was brilliant, we could have spent hours trying to persuade them to try that saddle, do you think it'll work?". "Don't know", I replied, "it should be better than the one they have, but we have to come back and see in a few days.
The main thing is, for the first time in generations, there is a group of men sitting there now, arguing about how to make a better saddle, trying out ideas, instead of just using the same old problem causing system that's been passed on from father to son, without thought. That has got to be good.
Just for a short while back there, I'd been included in the group as an equal, even the language barriers had faded away, just leaving that feeling that you sometimes get when a group of people are working together in harmony, trying to solve a problem, bickering good naturedly, and enjoying the challenge.
We spent the next four days doing similar exercises at other kilns, and have left several little groups, huddled around in the dirt, trying to improve their harness and pack saddles.
All around Delhi, and indeed, every large town in India you'll find brick kilns, and using the products of these, are the matching building sites. If you've ever been there, you'll have seen the miles and miles of new tower blocks, maybe even have stayed in one of the new hotels. Bet you didn't realise that they were literally hand made though, did you?
The bricks are all individually moulded from the wet clay, in a little box, one at a time by the women of the family. They are then stacked, waiting for their turn to be loaded onto a donkey or mule and taken to the nearby kiln by the children, where they are restacked by the men and fired. Then they are moved again, using wheelbarrows, ready for the lorries and tractors to collect them for the nearby building sites. Here, other families use donkeys to carry the bricks, sand and cement up precarious stairways to whatever floor the tower block has reached, where the women mix mortar, and supply the men with all the materials they need to build the partitioning walls for the new building.
All these families come and go from the surrounding countryside, most are farmers, some come for the season, and will return to their home villages, maybe 60 km (37 miles) away, in time to prepare their fields and plant next year's crop. Other families (those on the building sites) may go home, or may stay for years. The brick kilns only operate outside the monsoon season, but the building sites stay at work all year. One man told me that with his donkeys, and if all the family worked, he could make maybe £1.50-£2.00 a day, that's got a lot more buying power out there than it would have here, it's not a lot, but it's enough to bring these migrant farmers, their wives, children, babies, donkeys and mules miles, away from their homes and into the cities, year after year.
By the way, the saddle didn't work at first, but we all sat down again on my last day, and came up with another, adapted version, which they really liked, and we're all hopeful that one day in the future, harness sores will be a thing of the past. It's going to take a lot of work. There are literally millions of working donkeys out there, and though we do all we can, and more, we just can't reach more than a fraction of them.