We are on our way back from North Sikkim to Gangtok when Shelly waves down our cab. As we stop to let her in, she confidently gets in and sits next to the driver, telling him the name of her village. Her school is seven km away from her house and she has already walked three of them.
Shelly smiles shyly at our questions but refuses to answer; our driver translates for us in Hindi. School leaves at four but she has stayed back today for some extra lessons. We have been seeing groups of giggling children all along the way trying to cadge a ride with us. As she hops off at the corner of her village she turns to us to say thank you bhaiyya, thank you didi before climbing up the narrow steps to disappear into her house.
And it is not just now and here. All over Sikkim, on the narrow winding hill roads, children are walking several kilometers to and from school each day. Tiny tots holding the hands of their elder sibling who in turn look too young to be walking on those roads by themselves. All of them walk anywhere from two to eight km each way everyday to school.
They seem to be having a lot of fun though; the young ones are playing with their umbrellas, some of them wave at passing cars while others seem to be playing games in small groups as they trudge on – to us it looks scary but these mountain goats seem to know their way around.
Most of them are in school uniform and in groups; in Yuksam in the West this little one is walking alone, the cares of the world on his young shoulders.
The ones not going to formal school study in monasteries, shy and solemn. They are even more fun to photograph, torn as they are between their natural diffidence and eagerness to get their photo taken.
All those miles on worn shoes; I wish, I hope the school, the education system gives them something in return…