Last week I was talking with Frouke and the owner of the homestay (Sanjay) where we were staying in Kalimpong. The conversation somehow went round to when Leicester City won the Premiership in 2015. Frouke is not really into football but she does remembers me going on about some underdog winning something and it was amazing. I think I must have also gone on about Iceland doing well at Euro 2016 and how the team was full of part time footballers, the goalkeeper was a dentist or something. Anyway, Frouke, who really doesn’t care about football, was the one who brought up the whole Leicester thing but she merged the two football events into one and started talking about the time some team of part time goat herders won the Premier league. Now that would have been incredible but the fact of the matter is, Leicester City winning the premiership was, and still is, absolutely unbelievable. I told Sanjay and Frouke that when I think about when Leicester City won the Premiership I almost always seriously ask myself if that really happened or was it something I imagined. It’s not often that you have to ask yourself if something really happened. Even if you included alcohol assisted experiences it’s a very rare occurrence. However I do find myself asking this same question when I think about one day a couple of weeks ago when we were cycling up into the Himalaya.
Even though Darjeeling is at an altitude of 2100m we decided we would cycle there anyway. Why not eh? The views would be nice. Apparently the route we would take had the least traffic and had the best views. The total distance was a relatively short 90km. On a flat road that can be done in a day but these 90 km would involve 3254 metres of climbing and 1215 metres of descending. Sounded wonderful… In many ways it was. It was also bloody hard work. It was without a doubt the hardest cycling we have done on this whole trip. On one of the days, it took us about 4 hours to cycle 15km because the road was so steep. The scenery was, as promised, incredible. Beautiful mountain views while cycling through idyllic tea plantations, but sometimes, when the road is so steep, all you can do is look at the floor and try to make sure you dont pass out from trying to get enough oxygen into your lungs.
On the first day of the cycle we left Siliguri late but our intended destination was only 35km away so there would be no problem getting there, right? Wrong. Very wrong. The route was absolutely gorgeous but it was tough. Everything was uphill and it was either steep, very steep or ‘are you taking the piss’ steep. Around 4pm we were still about 14 km from our intended destination and Frouke suggested that we were not going to make it to Mirik before the dark. I thought we would make it. If we had decided to continue Frouke would have been right, I would have been wrong. Luckily we listened to Frouke and started to work out were we could stay tonight. We were in a tiny village which didn’t look like it had a hotel. We asked one of the locals if there was a hotel here. He said no. We then asked if we could put our tent somewhere in this village. He said maybe. Great! We waited while he had a think. After not much time at all he told us that maybe we could put our tent up on the football field in the middle of the village. He told us we should ask for permission from the ‘Christian” guy who was standing in the field now. Fair enough.
The football field could be reached via a rocky path which led down from the road we were on. We decided I would stay with the bikes while Frouke went down and did the talking. She walked towards a group of guys who were doing something with some large bamboo poles and some speakers. Clearly they were building something but I had no idea what. We’d be gone before it was finished by the looks of it. I watched as she talked to them for a few minutes. Usually in these situations one of us goes to do the talking while the other person looks on. I had no idea what was going on which is usually the case for the onlooker. In India, the person doing the talking also usually has no idea what is going on either. I wondered if this was the case now for Frouke. She turned around and gave me a kind of thumbs up but then walked off to some buildings behind the field where I lost sight of her. A few minutes later she came back laughing and smiling with who I can only assume was the ‘Christian’ guy. I assumed we were allowed to camp. My assumption was wrong. Frouke told me that at first they had said we could camp but then they thought it would be too cold so said we should stay in the church instead. When Frouke walked off to the houses behind the field they showed her the church and she agreed it would be much better to stay in there. We got the bikes and I followed Frouke down the slope to presumably the Church where we would sleep. After walking a short distance we stopped in front of a few buildings and Frouke started taking the bags off of her bike. This was confusing for me as we were not standing in front of a church.
“Why are you taking your bags off here? I thought you said we were sleeping in a church?”
“We are. This is the church”, she said, pointing at a small building that wasn’t a church.
After cycling uphill all day I was too tired to ask what she meant and just started removing my bike bags too, assuming that things would become clearer soon or that Frouke had forgotten what a church was. One of my assumption was right. Frouke walked into the small building and I followed her in. We were standing in a church. One of the smallest churches I’ve ever been in. Writing this now I can also say it now ranks as one of my favourite churches. It was small but full of character. There was a large green neon cross at the back, some other neon lights, a small pulpit and some musical instruments next to it. The small room, the neon lights and the small town setting made it look like something out of a kitsch, retro, David Lynch scene. In a good way. Not a scary, “Oh I am going to die here” way. It was beautiful, and the ‘Christian’ guy, Giner, who was the pastor of this church had given us permission to sleep here. He had set this church up relatively recently and the building was in fact one of the rooms of his family home.
After setting up our sleeping mats and sleeping bags we went outside. The mother of the pastor greeted us and asked us with a ‘no nonsense’ look on her face what we were planning to eat tonight.
“We’ll just buy something from somewhere in this town I guess..”, it was unclear to us and probably them whether this was a statement we were making or a question.
“No you won’t. There isn’t anywhere to buy food here”
“I’ll make you dinner”, said the no nonsense mother in her no nonsense way, but then a huge grin grew on her face as she asked us what we would like to eat and when we wanted to eat.
Very quickly from being in the position of having nowhere to stay or eat we now had a lovely church to sleep in and would be fed by this lovely family. Amazing.
Just before we sat down for dinner we were asked to join the family for a small prayer before dinner. This saying of “grace” would be done in the church. We followed Giner into our temporary bedroom where his mother, father, brother and another family member were waiting. The first thing Giner did was pick up his guitar and as he was tuning it he began giving thanks for all the things that maybe many people take for granted. It was a pretty big list of things and soon his guitar was tuned and he played a tune along with his words of appreciation. At the end of his list was genuine thanks for Frouke and I turning up and spending the evening with his family. Giner then seamlessly went from giving thanks while strumming his guitar into a song of praise which all his family sang along to. The whole event was quite surreal. Frouke and I are not religious and here we were having a singalong in this church/bedroom with a family we had met about 2 hours ago. It was actually extremely touching. The thanks Giner had given for us being there was completely genuine and we felt privileged to be part of, what I assume is, a daily ritual. When someone does something from the heart and with passion it is always enjoyable to experience. So it was with these warm feelings that we went to eat a lovely meal that Giner’s mum had prepared for us.
While eating we asked what they were building in the field outside. Apparently they were building a screen to show a movie. Not only that but the movie was being shown because a lady from this small mountain village was in the movie. We asked when they be screening this movie and could not believe our luck when they told us it would be on tonight! The movie would be in Nepali, which was the language that was spoken in this part of India, and there were no subtitles but we were more than welcome to watch.
And so we spent the final part of this already amazing day watching a movie on the sports field with the rest of the village. A village which was perched on the side of a mountain overlooking tea fields. The sun had gone down and the movie was playing. The lights of the city on the slopes of mountain on the opposite side of the valley came on and sparkled in the distance. It felt like those movies from the 80s where Amercian teenagers would go to the “Drive in theatre” in the hills of LA with their latest crush. I was with my latest crush, we were only missing the popcorn. I have never watched a movie in a more magical or atmospheric location and I suppose it’s likely I never will again. I remember looking at Frouke during the movie and thinking “is this really happening?”, and when I think about the day as a whole, the tough but scenic ride up the mountain, the welcoming village in the hills, the surreal church run by the beautiful family and finally the amazing movie setting I have to ask myself, “Did that really happen?”.