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Staff Cadet Sgt Fresneda

As a Staff Cadet Sergeant in the Army Cadet Force (ACF), I had the privilege of participating in the recent youth exchange programme in India. This once-in-a-lifetime experience has left an indelible impression on me. The trip was a celebration of the 75th year of India’s independence and the establishment of the National Cadet Corps (NCC). Through this exchange, we had the opportunity to build lasting friendships with cadets from India and 32 other nations whilst experiencing the beauty of this amazing country.

Before departing for India, we were invited to the Indian High Commission in London. Accompanied by Brigadier N Holmes MBE, Deputy Commander Cadets, we enjoyed a presentation of India’s rich history created by the NCC. Afterwards, we met the High Commissioner and other embassy officials and enjoyed a high tea. While still at the Cadet Training Centre in Frimley Park, another staff cadet and I had the honour of meeting Sir Jonathan Van-Tam MBE FRCPath FRSB FMedSci, who is also the Honorary Colonel of the ACF Medical Branch. It was a true delight.

After all the preparations and a ten-hour flight to Delhi, we began our journey eager to explore the wonders of this incredible country. The first five days were spent sightseeing in New Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra. The remaining ten days focused mostly on military events where we could interact with cadets from other countries.

While in the capital, New Dehli, we visited the iconic India Gate and War Memorial. The impressive monument left us in awe of the sacrifices made by the brave soldiers. In the evening, we attended an exciting horse show presented by NCC cadets, which showcased the prowess of both the cadets and their horses.

On the third day, we went to Jaipur. We visited the Birla Mandir Temple and were mesmerised by the intricate carvings and beautiful architecture. After visiting the temple, we headed to the Jal Mahal, a palace located in the middle of Man Sagar Lake. The sight was truly breathtaking! The water surrounding the palace was a beautiful shade of blue, and the palace itself was an architectural masterpiece – a truly unforgettable sight.

Later, we visited one of the oldest museums in the state, the Albert Hall Museum. There, we saw a vast collection of historical artefacts, including exquisite jewellery and decorative arts from the royal families of Rajasthan. We also received gifts from the Directorate NCC Rajasthan and had the opportunity to engage with NCC cadets.

In the evening, we visited a cultural centre where we enjoyed shopping and exploring the Chokhi Dhani Village, an Indian food valley. We were enthralled by the cultural displays of dancing, magic, metal shaping, and the traditional making of Indian bread. After that, we savoured an exquisite and spicy vegetarian meal, which was an unforgettable experience.

Next day, we visited the Jantar Mantar observatory, which showcased the astronomical knowledge of ancient India. We were fascinated by the sundial, which could tell time with an accuracy of two seconds. After that, we visited the famous Hawa Mahal, a five-story red and pink sandstone palace, designed for royal women to observe the city and its people without being seen themselves. The history and story behind its construction were remarkable. Later, we toured Amber Fort where we heard the story of King Mansing and his 12 wives, each of whom he kept in a separate apartment, with exclusive access granted only to him.

Finally, we visited Jaipur Cottage Industries, where we saw a demonstration of traditional block painting techniques using vegetable-based colours, as well as carpet-making. After browsing and purchasing some souvenirs, we enjoyed refreshments of Lassi and Kachori. We had our midday meal at The Pink City restaurant, where we were presented with flower garlands known as Welcome Necklaces, ending a remarkable and unforgettable day.

Agra was the final sightseeing destination, and it was certainly worth the wait. The city is famous for its two UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal.

As I explored Agra Fort, I was captivated by its palaces, gardens and courtyards, each with a unique story and engineering marvels such as the cooling system designed to regulate the temperature. Then, the Taj Mahal, an iconic symbol of India, stood before me, a beautiful white marble mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. A true masterpiece of Mughal architecture, featuring impressive symmetry, detailed designs, and towering minarets. Exploring the Taj Mahal was not only a visual treat but also an intriguing experience. The sheer precision and attention to detail were astonishing, especially the recurrence of the number 22 in its structure. The 22 steps leading to the main floor, the 22 small domes, the tomb’s height of 22 yards above the ground level, and the Taj Mahal’s diameter of 22 metres are said to symbolise spiritual and mystical concepts. It was fascinating to unravel the possible hidden meanings behind the monument’s design, leaving me with a deeper appreciation of its cultural significance.

During our sightseeing trips, I had the pleasure of bonding with fellow cadets from the USA and Mongolia, as we always travelled with the same coach. We shared our experiences and formed close bonds. We even had a fun time singing together in the coach. These friendships with cadets from all over the world added to my experience and are cherished memories that will always hold a special place in my heart.

After the sightseeing there were cultural presentations. Every delegation from the 32 countries had the opportunity to showcase their unique culture and traditions. This included giving a presentation about their youth organisation and performing a traditional national dance. Our delegation was no exception, and we proudly presented the ACF to all the contingents. We performed the Scottish dance, Strip the Willow. It was an amazing experience to see so many different cultures coming together and sharing their traditions. We all gained a greater understanding and appreciation of each other’s customs and heritage.

The exchange included many memorable and exciting military events as part of the programme.

We had the honour of meeting the Directorate General of NCC cadets, Lt Gen Gurbirpal Singh and we marched on the NCC camp’s parade ground. We were also invited to his residence and met with many NCC cadets. I still keep in contact with the cadets I met on that day, and the experience remains memorable.

We also had the honour of meeting the Prime Minister and President of India at their residencies. When visiting the Prime Minister, he addressed the NCC, NSS and Youth Exchange cadets along with cultural Volunteers from around India with inspirational words. He praised the NCC cadets for their dances and stunning performances which introduced the evening. Along with all of the other delegations we managed to take a picture with the Prime Minister and the esteemed guests including, the Minister of Defence. Our delegation had the luck to be in the front rows so we had a great view of the whole event. The following day we went to the residence of the President, where we heard NCC cadets singing the national anthem and the NCC song. Meeting the head of state was a delightful experience that I will always remember.

We then attended the Republic Day Parade and the Prime Minister Rally. It was a momentous occasion where every delegation marched on Cariappa Parade Ground to inaugurate the NCC’s 75th anniversary. It was an honour for our contingent to be representing the UK and the Army, marching on the parade ground, live on national television. The Prime Minister then gave a speech and presented the best cadet awards to NCC cadets, making it a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

During the Republic Day Parade, we witnessed the Indian regiments march down Kartavya Path along with their latest defence equipment, including their most advanced BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles and the Quick Reaction Fighting Vehicles. The Indian Air Force’s Surya Kiran aerobatics demonstration team performed breath-taking stunts, showcasing an array of vintage and modern aircraft. The ones that stood out the most to me were the Su-30 MKI fighter jets that flew in a ‘Trishul’ formation.

The trip to India was an unforgettable experience, one I will cherish for a lifetime. From the breathtaking architecture to the cultural displays, we experienced the rich history and culture of India. The friendships we made during the trip were a true highlight, and it was heart-warming to see how the shared experiences brought us all closer together. Overall, it was a perfect blend of adventure, culture, and camaraderie, and I am grateful for the opportunity and being a part of it. I was honoured to be representing the UK during the celebrations and do not regret anything, except the flight back home. I wish I was still there and promised myself to go back someday. I cannot capture the full experience in a single article, but I hope this is an incentive for people to visit India, and savour its true beauty.