By Rupert Melville-Ross
Having heard so much about the Jungle Crows and Khelo Rugby and after spending some months planning our trip we finally arrived in Kolkata on 7 December where we were met by the indomitable Nanda who delivered us to our hotel through the smog and late afternoon chaos of Kolkata.
After checking in at the hotel we were glad to get back amongst the atmosphere of the streets in the nearby New Market area and the next morning to Crow Field on the maidan for the Saturday rugby academy. We were greeted at Crow Field by hordes of enthusiastic kids and shook hands with each and every one of them. Ollo then handed out the rugby kit which Culford school had kindly donated to the charity and which the lads proudly wore for the rest of their training session.
We were then invited to play a game of touch rugby with some of the older girls who proceeded to teach us a rugby lesson. They had some great skills and were too good for an old bloke like me who hadn’t played rugby for years. It was great fun and wonderful to see all the kids playing with huge smiles on their faces. It was also a surprise to see the older boys wearing rugby boots and playing full contact rugby to a good standard with scrums and line outs.
From Crow Field it was a scramble back to the hotel and then to the airport for our flight up to Siliguri with Nanda and Suku. At Siliguri we met up with the remainder of our trekking gang, Roshan, Kisan and Nipen and were driven up the long and winding road up the side of the Himalayan foothills to Darjeeling. After a brief stay in Darjeeling we drove further into the hills through strange pine forests to the head of the Sandakphu trail at Maneybhanjan.
After dealing with various formalities in Maneybhanjan we set off up the road to the gompa at Chitrey and then on foot for the first day of trekking along the border with Nepal. It was a fairly gentle introduction wandering in the sun through parched meadows and rhododendron woods where the Indian lads saw snow for the first time which meant a fair bit of messing about while it was flung about and stuffed down the back of people’s shirts. By lunchtime it had clouded over and after rice and dhal served to us by a grumpy old crone (the sister of a friend of a friend as it happens, not that she seemed remotely interested) and where some poor chap in another group was bitten on the leg by her dog, we wandered through the mist up to our first lodge at Tumling.
The time before dusk was filled by a stretching session in the gloom led by the pink Nanda (so named on account of his pink earmuffs and rucksack) followed by flinging a mini rugby ball around which regularly disappeared down into the ravine on the India side of the trail. As night fell we retreated to our dormitory on the top floor of the lodge. It was extremely cold by our standards but I pitied the poor Indian boys who would never have experienced cold like it and hid in their beds each evening in the unheated dormitories, emerging only for food. Poor Nipen in particular was stunned into silence; Atty’s coat came into its own, however. The only slightly warm place at Tumling was a room which a monk used as his shrine where Ollo and I sat contemplating life with the monk and his several dozen candles. Otherwise, we cowered in our beds only emerging to carry out our evening ablutions under the stars on the crenellations alongside the nearby track.
It was still very cold the following morning (ice on the inside of the windows) but the cloud had stayed away so we awoke after not much sleep to stunning views of the sunrise over Kanchenjunga and the surrounding mountains. After staring at that for a while and taking far too many photos we had a rudimentary breakfast then packed up and headed off for the next day’s trekking. It was a longer and harder walk than on the first day, especially as we had to descend through the bamboo and rhododendron forest into a deep valley and up the other side. Kanchenjunga was our companion for much of the day and after a couple of hours we caught our first sight of Everest flanked by Lhotse and Makalu in the distance. The lads were much more vocal once they had warmed up in the sun and their superior fitness (to mine at any rate) began to show. I was glad that Nanda the pink guy seemed in no rush and was permanent back marker throughout the trek, often with me.
During the trek we began to hear some of the lads’ stories which were deeply humbling and gave us a sense of how successful the foundation has been in transforming young people’s lives and of how it is constantly renewing itself with young talent coming through from the most unpromising of beginnings. It was a privilege to spend time in their company and to learn how far they had travelled, both literally and metaphorically. It made all of us English guys in the party reflect on our good fortune.
We spent another uncomfortable night at Kalipokhri, this time in a cold tin hut. We did have supper and breakfast (rice pudding) in an adjoining wooden hut with a friendly family who did their best to make us feel comfortable. The only fire in evidence was the one they used for cooking in the corner of the hut, I have no idea how these people survive the bitter winter temperatures at an altitude of well over 3,000 metres without a proper fire and insulation (they seem to prefer to leave their doors and windows open at night). Theirs is a hard life.
We were greeted by another fine dawn on our final day of trekking up to Sandakphu. The views again made the effort more than worthwhile. It was a hard steep slog in the thinning air up to the top and Atty became the first (and only) person to lose his breakfast on the way. Everyone seemed to get stronger as the trek went on though which meant that by lunchtime we were all up at Sandakphu, a strange place perched on a hill at about 3,700 metres, but the views were fabulous. After some lunch most of the team rested up while Jim, Crofter and I continued on (without heavy bags, what joy) for an afternoon stroll with more incredible views along the ridge towards Phalut and back again.
The first two nights of the trek might have been cold but Sandakphu was beyond freezing. Layering up with every single item of clothing in the bag plus two blankets and two heavy duvets failed to work, I was frozen to the bone. Thankfully it was worth it as the dawn views of the Himalayas from Jomolhari in Bhutan in the east across to Kanchenjunga and then the Everest range in the west were out of this world. The Crows flag was duly unfurled in celebration before we retreated back down to the lodge for hot chai and eggy bread.
The journey in Land Rovers back down from Sandakphu was a bit of a nail biter, two hours of being flung round precipitous corners hanging over deep mountain valleys was not good for those with a moderate constitution. It was good preparation for being driven by Suku in Kolkata, however, and we all made it down in one piece and after a lunch in someone’s house which had been miraculously rustled up (the lunch, not the house) we headed off back down the mountain through the tea plantations and on to traffic choked Siliguri and then to Saraswatipur where we arrived in the dark. After dumping our kit in the village church we headed off down the lane to Aunty’s house where Roshan also lives with his rugby trophies for some welcome beer and food around the fire. It turned out that Aunty’s parrot was called Rupoo, no prizes for guessing my new name for the rest of the trip…
That night we all bedded down on mats on the church floor and slept the sleep of the righteous. The church doubles up as a school so we were greeted in the morning by hordes of cheeky kids in the playground outside. Jim led a morning stretching session with the kids which caused much hilarity. After an Aunty special for breakfast we then embarked on a walk across the river plain and then through the jungle with rugby balls and a gang of teenage kids who were keen to show us round. This took up most of the morning and ended up on the village rugby ground which is flanked by the jungle and tea plantations on two sides and the village on the other two sides. An impromptu cricket match followed with stumps and bats rustled up from somewhere; a feature of the game was people crossing the pitch carrying firewood collected from the neighbouring jungle.
Late afternoon was Crows rugby with the guys and girls who had accompanied us in the jungle plus dozens more. Again the standard was good, especially among the girls, some of whom had superb handling skills and were a match for the boys. It was also great to see Kisan and Nipen come alive in a warm place with a rugby ball in their hands. Once again we joined in, this time on a full sized pitch which was a real challenge for me. The best thing about the whole thing was the way all of the kids embraced the game, playing with real verve and with beaming smiles on their faces. It was also terrific to see so many girls taking part, I suspect that the idea of girls doing anything other than being at home and raising a family will have been anathema to the older generations in the village. Instead they have the opportunity to take part and play in rugby tournaments across India, something they would not have dreamed of only a few years ago.
Kisan kindly invited us all to eat with him and his family in the next village that evening. As we sat round the table by the light of the fire scooping up our food with our hands I reflected on the kindness and generosity of all of our hosts at Saraswatipur, they all welcomed us into their homes with open arms and seemed genuinely pleased that we were there. We were sad not to be able to spend longer at Saraswatipur, we all loved it there and it was a wrench to leave.
Much of the next day was spent returning to Kolkata where we arrived in time for the annual children’s party hosted by the governor of West Bengal at the spectacular Raj Bhawan, formerly the viceroy’s residence. It was again great to see so many kids from orphanages and deprived areas of the city enjoying themselves, even just for one afternoon. It was also good to see all the young leaders from the Jungle Crows taking on the responsibility for looking after the children and making the event run smoothly. They were all a credit to Paul Sir.
Our final day together as a group was spent back at Crow Field for more academy rugby, a bit of culture and then a visit to one of the slum areas near the docks for some impromptu rugby with a bunch of scrappy but enthusiastic kids who again embraced the game and the opportunity to play. They then insisted on giving us all a tour and proudly showed off their homes and very surprised families, in particular their poor mothers who were not expecting us and had to rustle up tea for us all.
We had an awesome time in India, thanks in the main to all of our Indian hosts who went out of their way to look after us, especially the wonderful Nanda. Yes Nanda and Antara, if that invitation to come to your wedding in 2020 still stands we will all be there. Careful what you wish for…
We were all moved by the great things that the foundation does and the opportunities it has given to so many people, it is a wonderful thing. You can count on our continued support and we will spread the word. Khelo Rugby!