First and foremost, apologies for the delay on the blog for my second week of travels in India. Life in Kolkata is very hectic, and you constantly find yourself buzzing around from one place to another, or if you’re Bengali, you just sleep all day – but that could just be the two lads I’m staying with, Arun, Roshan, and Nanda.
To kick off week numero dos we had a bit of inner country travel as myself, Arun, and Roshan caught the night bus to another city in the state of Bengal named Siliguri, which is located in the East part of the state and is nestled between Bangladesh, Nepal, China, Bhutan and Burma. And in all honesty, from the second we stepped foot on the bus I immediately knew that it was going to be no luxurious form of travel whatsoever, but at no point had I considered the extent of how unbearable it would become.
When looking at our tickets we had got the impression that we had booked three seats, one each seated in the same row of the bus – happy days … Though this was not the case, as we were told that one of use would have to travel is the sleeping compartment above the seats. Now you might be thinking “Ideal, I can have a nice long snooze then …” But you haven’t seen the size of these compartments. Without any exaggeration, they were not much bigger than the hand luggage shelves you would find on a standard coach or train, so you can imagine my bemusement when Arun and Roshan asked me if i wanted to travel in it! In order to even fit in there I would have to be folded up like an origami ball of meat, so this was clearly not an option. Then it was left for the other two boys to fight over the isle seat, and this issue was not solved swiftly as for the first half an hour of the journey the three of us were all crammed into our two seats together before Roshan decided that he would take the bullet considering that he was the smallest member of our party. I finally kicked back, tried to relax and get some sleep for the remainder of what came to be a 17 hour plus marathon.
The first hour or so I couldn’t help but stare out of the window before darkness fell so that I could try to take in as much of the scenery as possible, though sadly to say the only things I saw for that hour were more street vendors in the middle of Kolkata, as getting out of the city is no 5 minute journey. I finally began to drift off as we reached the fringes of the city and went out onto the open road, and went into would could’ve potentially been a very nice, deep sleep, however this was not to be the case. It was only after about 20 minutes of sleep that I was first awoken by the marvellous highway maintenance that spans across the wilderness of India combined with the blatant ignorance of our Colin McRae-esque bus driver, who decided to hit the foot deep potholes at blistering speeds, resulting in me literally being launched from my chair and face first into the ceiling as though I had a jet pack strapped to my backside. Foolishly before I got on the bus I slid my sunglasses on top of my head instead of putting them in my bag, and the face-to-bus impact had obliterated my relatively unworn new sunnies. I was not a happy bunny for the rest of that journey as the driver persistently and consistently hit every bump in the road like a pothole-seeking missile. Mine and Arun’s drinks were thrown around the bus amongst many other items, and by the end of the journey I’d managed to break one pair of sunglasses, pour half a bottle of mango juice over myself and throw a packet of sour cream and onion crisps directly at the passenger in front of me … several times. The only way I could describe that journey to anybody would be like doing the Dakar rally on a space hopper. Though I must admit that the journey was thoroughly rewarding, and worth every bus bruise and crisp crumb after arriving in Siliguri.
The city of Siliguri is based at the foot of the Himalayas, and from what I noticed is one of the most culturally diverse places in Bengal, if not India! There is someone from everywhere, through frustratingly for me there were still no other whites, as it had started to get on my nerves as locals would stare at me without breaking eye contact for the entire stop at a traffic light, which after a while feels quite intrusive.
Upon first arrival we went to visit Amirul and Sanu, two of the Khelo rugby coaches who are currently based in Siliguri so that they can help develop rugby in the areas surrounding the city. We met them at their flat which I believe is rented by the Jungle Crows foundation (who run the Khelo rugby programme), to have a nice cool shower, get some vital H2O on board and then leave for food. Once everyone was finally satisfied the five of us found a safari type buggy to take us to a nearby village, Saraswatipur, where the two guys Amirul and Sanu are currently coaching as part of the Khelo rugby programme.
So we all climbed aboard our hired wagon and set off. For a while there was nothing to see as we were still emerging from the fringes of the city, until about 15 minutes into our short trip the driver turned off onto a narrow, winding dirt track and we entered the jungle! Once we were in the thick of the trees the driver stopped the vehicle and told us to jump out and climb up on the roof for a better view in hope of spotting Elephants and Leopards. Sadly we didn’t have great luck and couldn’t manage to spot any of our prime targets, though we were treated with some incredible scenery deep into the jungle dirt track as well as lots of various species of monkey perched on branches barely a meter above your head! However the most common creature we found was the staggering variety of bugs and insects, of which I sampled three by directly swallowing them. Though I must say, one of them wasn’t actually too bad. But the best had been saved until last when we had emerged on the other side of the jungle to be greeted by an open expanse of tea gardens as far as the eye could see. Now a simple tea garden might not sound like much, but honestly, when you’re greeted by the endless view of rich green colour after spending the previous week in a polluted urban area it is one of the most splendid experiences you could ever find, especially when accompanied with the smell of the tea leaves and cool higher altitude environment. An ideal place for any tea drinking Brit.
We jumped off the buggy and went straight to the playing field located at the edge of the tea gardens where the next part of jungle begins, and in all honesty I would rather play on that pitch any day of the week over any modern stadium or club field. The posts are vertical trunks of bamboo, and the whole field is a lush green and is surrounded by quaint beauty, as I’m sure you can see from the photos.
Amirul and Sanu got the local kids together and started the training sessions with various activities, from touch rugby for the older guys and girls to all inclusive games for the younger ones. Myself, Arun and Roshan all got involved and were allocated to the senior girls team. Now you may be unaware, but there are a lot more languages in India than you might think, but in this area nobody spoke the common Hindi or Bengali, but instead had their own local tongue of which only Roshan spoke, so any coaching advise from myself or Arun had to be interpreted through Xaxa (Roshan’s surname) which limited our ability to do much, so we let Xaxa take the reigns and whenever there were distinct breaks between activities myself and Arun would chip in with small bits of helpful advise, but eventually we realised that we were of no use so moved on to help Sanu with the younger kids. We had missed the bulk of activities that were rugby related, but at the end of each Khelo session that I’ve attended there has been some sort of sing-song to round up the day and have everybody leave in a positive mood in up keeping with the whole vibe of the Jungle Crows foundation and Khelo Rugby. I may not have understood the words in the songs that I heard, but nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed the kids enthusiasm and the melody of them all singing together (lead by Sanu).
To round off events for the day all of the coaching staff were asked to a game of football by all of the local boys who had been anxiously been waiting to use the field whilst we were coaching the other children; and so we agreed. I probably haven’t played football for a good five years or so, and never was too great at it in the first place (hence why I stick to rugby), so I stuck myself at left back so there was less dribbling and other touchy feely crap and more whoosh-bang-whollop with tackles flying in left, right and centre accompanied by a few lofty clearances – oosh. I felt like I had something to prove as not only was I a guest, but also these guys were actually pretty bloody decent footballers, so I went all guns blazin’ in the first 10 minutes, totally misjudging the humidity from the hotter temperatures in Kolkata. And bugger me, I never knew that humidity could be such a killer! Within that amount of time my entire body was saturated with sweat, and I genuinely looked like a drowned rat! But nonetheless I continued and eventually a few of the other local lads had noticed I was struggling, and so they started to attack down my wing and had started to breach in behind me, but I plugged the leak before any damage could be done.
I have no idea who won the game, and I don’t think anybody else knew either to be completely honest, as there were goals being banged in every other minute (a combination of great strikers and not so great keepers), but it was all fun and games and we all had a laugh. But after that I was well and truly drained, and needed a cold shower and vast quantities of fluids, so we were shown to our accommodation for the night in the local church, which was very nice, cool and well aired, so I was right at home and slept like a log – definitely my best sleep of the entire month long trip.
The next day was the same again with coaching sessions bright and early starting at 7.00am on the dot, but most were rearing to go as early as 6.15am! This time though I did not get as involved as I knew I was of little use, so took the opportunity to get some great photos of the kids, the scenery, the field, and a lovely video of the younger kids singing. This was to be the last contribution in the village of Saraswatipur for me, so accompanied by Amirul we went to seek a lift back to the city and found a large open lorry which ended up ferrying half the village or so it seemed; but back through the trees we went and emerged back into one of India’s concrete jungles – though I must mention that Siliguri was a much, much cleaner city than Kolkata!
From this point onwards until we returned to Kolkata by bus all of our travel was to be dependant on rickshaws, more locally referred to as “autos”. And I had some truly eye opening experiences travelling in them as we went to purchase our return tickets for the bus the following day! Drivers would swing bus buses at bizarre speeds millimetres away from writing themselves off, they would beep and curse at anybody who was in their way, and they completely ignored the 8 person per rickshaw limit and would stack as many people into a vehicle smaller than a quad bike as they possibly could – sometimes getting caught by the traffic police and facing a quite hefty fine – as I experienced myself when our driver stopped meters from a traffic officer telling people to get off immediately in an attempt not to get caught … it didn’t work out for him.
After booking our bus tickets for the following day rather than the evening of the same day as we had wished to we had plenty of time to spare, so myself and Amirul decided that we would go to the City Centre shopping mall for a bit of a day out. This mall was by far the most modern building that I had come across anywhere in India, and was to the same standard (if not better) as Cabot Circus in Bristol. We strutted around for most of the day eating nice local mango ice cream, having a KFC, and going to the cinema to watch the new X-Men film (in English), which for me was a nice slice of home, but for Amirul was something much different as he could not afford to do these things himself. We ended the day out by seeking somewhere to go and watch the IPL Final, between KKR and Kings XI Punjab. We found a very nice Oriental Thai bar/restaurant that were showing the game, ordered some drinks and sat down to enjoy. The game was a cracker and went to the final over but the Kolkata men pulled through with few balls remaining, and the place erupted! We left the restaurant and could already hear that chants as we walked down the street “KKR, KKR, KKR …” as well as a couple of chaps wheel spinning or their motorcycles and chanting.
The next day Amirul had to go and visit a new school where the guys were discussing implementing the Khelo Rugby programme with the headmaster of the school, and decided it was was best for us both to visit the school. The school was not in Siliguri but instead it was a couple hours drive away, so we found a taxi (off road tour vehicle) and headed off. Little did I know, the school we had set out to visit, Don Bosco school, was based in a small town 5000ft above sea level, with it’s highest point closer to 6000ft!
Off we went in our 4×4 cruiser up the 40+ miles of snaking mountain roads seated pleasantly next to the window so that I could admire all of the spectacular views. It was not long before we’d reach an altitude where we could see the structures of Siliguri fade into the distance as our sight became enveloped in clouds and fog as we ventured higher and higher; the vehicle slowed as the incline became steeper until we were travelling at a snails pace which endured until we reached the top, but how grateful was I that it did for it gave me the time to admire as much as I possibly could of the Darjeeling countryside. Though as we climbed higher, the air got thinner, and it hit my like a brick wall as I fell asleep without even being aware that I was tiring! As we neared the drop off point our driver did some sharp turning and breaking combinations which threw my bison head at a rate of knots into the seat in front of me – again – and woke me from my unconsciousness. We were now surrounded by houses and shops once again as we enter the town of Mirik going down streets no wider than a Nissan Micra; but nonetheless we had arrived.
Our first task was to locate the school, and although Amirul had been there before he had somehow forgotten his way. After bobbing and weaving down several wrong lanes Amirul eventually recognised where we were, and in no time we had found Don Bosco school. We walked through the gates and down towards the children’s playground, and it just so happened to be lunch time and all of the children were running around. We walked down the stair case towards the playground and through the entrance of the school buildings to meet the headmaster, Father Jose. We walked into his office and sat down, and I talked to him a lot about the school. He informed me that the school was for the children of those who work in the tea gardens, and that the school was funded by charitable donations from various people. The school is primarily a English speaking Christian school, however there are pupils of many religions and tongues as well. He also proudly informed me of the success rate of his students, and how their grades were all of high merit. We then went on to discuss rugby, and how it would be incorporated into the school. Amirul lead the conversation, and the headmaster already seemed very interested in the Khelo Rugby programme before we even got into the depths of discussion and pressed to get the programme started as soon as possible.
With our nice meeting had, we were taken to the dining facility where we had some absolutely glorious food. After eating, Father Jose had to read a prayer to the children in the playground, and so we shook hands and left. We listened to his prayer from a distance and then went walking down the mountain towards the pick up point for a taxi back down the mountain, but not without having a quick look at the lake.
After visiting the lake and looking at the pools of fish there, we were heading back down the mountain side so that we would make it back to Siliguri in time to catch the bus back to Kolkata. Somehow, the way down became even more picturesque than the journey up, despite the increased speed of our driver limiting how long you had to take everything in. The route we had taken was down the other side of the mountain to the way we had come up, and now we got to see the luscious green mountains covered in tea gardens over the rolling contours. Words cannot describe how lovely the views were, only going there yourself can do that, but the photos I have taken capture a glimpse of how magnificent it all is.
To round out week 2, upon my return to Kolkata I was to play my first game for the Crows against Maidan Hazards (the Jungle Crows 2nd team). I was absolutely buzzing to play my first game with all of the guys I had met and went flying out of the gate from the first whistle. We kicked off to the Hazards and within the first phase I was required to make a tackle, though no standard of rugby can prepare you for defending against men half your size that are as agile as a house fly! I immediately realised that there was only one way to tackle here – bear hugging. For me, as someone who takes pride in defence it took a little bit of zap out of the game, but considering that the Hazards were our 2nd team, and they were all my friends who I had been training together with previously it seemed right not to be able to make any aggressive tackles.
The Crows dominated the majority of the game, with great bits of pace and footwork from Tiger and Ajay (our centre and fullback), as well as some great teamwork lead by Mesu and Nanda in the scrum, who had assumed responsibility in place of the absent captain, Arun (from our flat), who was claiming to be ill – but we all really know what he was doing … jaja man!
By half time the heat had broken me, as I took the majority of the teams ice and started rubbing myself with all of it as though it were soap in an extreme effort to try and cool down, but within 10 minutes of the second half I was done, and had to be replaced. Playing rugby in the middle of the Kolkata sunshine is not for the feint hearted!
The boys had sealed the win, and the Hazards held their heads high even in defeat, and after the game both teams did their warm down together and went back to the changing rooms as a squad – which was great to see.
That was it for week 2, though I’ve had to leave out a few bits so that you don’t all end up reading a short novel, but there will be plenty more to come for the following weeks. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog, ciao.