Sunday, 7 September 2014

Life in the wrong lane

Mmm. maybe I'll get the train.
‘Can ask what is your good name Sir?’ asked the immigration official in the border town of Moreh.
I told him my good name.
‘And can I ask what is your religion?’
My answer arrived in a stream of vowel sounds, a mumble ‘none’.
‘None!’
‘No Sir’ I said, bowing my head in deep, illogical shame.

My cap was pulled down low, and as he led me out into the street I didn't see the top of the gate. My head smashed into it so hard I was knocked to the floor. Dazed, the guard helped me to my feet.

‘See Sir.’ He said. ‘Everyone needs a religion’.

It took a while to get this photo, after each snap one of the three students would appraise the image in my viewfinder and decide they weren't looking sultry enough. 'Another!' I was ordered.
I had travelled straight from the Burmese monsoon into the more illustrious Indian one. Rain gushed through the streets and pummelled my panniers as it has for months now. In Moreh I took a break, I needed one after the rush across Burma, and spent most of the next day gorging in the same eating house. In the morning I had spotted a man come out of it, jiggling airily to Bollywood tunes blaring from within, and holding out a wodge of chapattis for a passing cow. Was there a more clichéd an image of India than this? Deciding not I ventured inside where I found an amply constructed matriarch, whose belly on occasion loomed at me from between shivers of her sari, and her moustached husband who wiggled his head in that most convivial of Indianisms. The Bollywood medley came and went, victim to the region’s many, many power outages. I stopped often at the shop next door too because the purple-saried Indian girl working there was a smoldering beauty and kept called me ‘my brudder’. I am in love with the Indian accent. What’s more satisfying to the ear? It has music, zeal, insouciant charm. It’s an accent suited to the voice from the Intercom in the event of an imminent aeroplane disaster: things could be worse, I would muse, as my burning co-passengers thrashed and wailed around me.

To Indians, on discovering the extent of my journey, I am a 'roamer', and I am not 'single' with its rather dreary connotations, but a 'bachelor': yesteryear’s player. There are scores of appealing inventions: hotels advertise 'lodging and fooding', and the idea that food can be a warped into a present participle is a nice one I think because it implies that food might also become a verb. ‘I’m so famished I’m gonna food the hell out of this place’. Or ‘He fooded excessively for most of his natural life, before his stomach exploded.’ Metaphorical language too has an Indian tang: A young student once told me that he’d love to travel, but that in reality he was to remain ‘like a frog in a well’. Brilliant. And on a poster in the street I found an advertisement for a self-styled sexologist offering all kinds of cures for sexual related problems, from STDs and impotence, but it was the thought-provoking ailment of 'sexual devility' which tickled me most, conjuring the image of a pot-bellied man in a red devil outfit with a lusty glint in his eye. 'Doctor you must help me, I keep scaring girls with this damn sexual devility!'

India felt to arrive on me, more than I did to it, perhaps because of where I’d come in from. On occasion I pass a border where the two countries couldn’t be more at odds: Egypt and Sudan, Albania and Greece, Ethiopia and everywhere. Add Myanmar and India to the list. The roads are the first clue: the drivers more bullish, the streets more hectic. Even the animals move differently: nothing whimpers on the side-lines like in Myanmar, here the cows and goats meander unbidden, assuredly loping up and down the street with the calm of pacing school examiners, and moving through the traffic like the tuk tuks – edging slowly and forcibly across the road despite the blare of horns. Nowhere on earth has the intrigue, the explosion of colour and the air (happily in the figurative sense, unfortunately in the literal) of India.

Tea pickers
The road to Imphal was beset by police and army roadblocks - far more than I had encountered in Burma – the officials were hunting for smugglers of opium or currency. I was usually introduced to the commander - there was never any confusion about who that might be: dark aviator sunglasses, a galaxy of obsequious subordinates spilling about him and the mien of leader: someone who simultaneously exuded a warm and don’t-mess-with-me confidence. The soldier’s questions ranged from the eye-brow raising ‘what weapons do you carry?’ to the apparently pointless ‘father’s profession?’ to the unanswerable ‘vehicle registration?’ after which I’d leave them to grapple with that nightmare scenario shared by officials the world over: a form with an empty box. Occasionally we'd chat about the differences between India and the UK which would often culminate in some optimistic ruminations: ‘You have exciting life in England, no? This is simple life for us in India. In England you go out to casinos all the time, and you run about doing exciting things’.

I didn’t reach Imphal in one day because the road climbed to 1600 metres to an army encampment which straddled a cloud-rushed ridge. On the other side of the mountains my chain snapped: I was oil-stained and dejected when a young guy swung by on his motorbike and offered me a place to stay.

Lightson and his family were the very essence of hospitality. They prepared a bed for me and a meal of fish curry and rice. In India there is a grave responsibility to finish everything on your plate – no problem: the food was delicious. His aunt prowled behind our backs, ladle in one hand and huge pan of rice in the other. Frequently she would snap forward and dump another glut of rice on to our plates. I watched how the others would handle this as the meal progressed – as she went for the swoop they whipped their hands in front of their plates, barring the path of the barreling heap of rice, whilst emitting repellent grunting sounds. But she was persistent. When I tried she just batted my hand away and delivered more rice. It was amazing hospitality, and I had a great trouble moving after the meal.

Then into Imphal, the state capital of Manipur, where I met up with Pedal Attack - a vast tribe of tattooed mountain bikers who adopted me soon after I visited a local bike shop. I spent the next dew days being taken out to scenic sites and restaurants and to a local school where I gave a presentation. Amongst the din and chaos of Indians cities it was great to meet people so enthusiastic and passionate about biking. Thank you guys.

Lightson and fmaily
Leemax from Pedal Attack took me to Loktak lake on his Royal Enfield motorbike
These guys carry car batteries on their backs and electrocute the fish in order to catch them.
The North East of India is a collection of eight states, herniating off the rest of the country and at the slimmest point (the 'chicken neck') only a 14 mile wide tract of land connects it to the rest. Many people here would recognize their tribal allegiance, or even just their state, as surmounting their Indian citizenship.

Religion might factor in to this sense of detachment: the majority here are Christian rather than Hindu (and devotedly so). Whilst I sensed a real optimism about the North East (tourism is growing fast in the wake of lifted restrictions and successful PR) the region still has its problems. Imphal was gripped by protests over the reticence of the government to bring in the ‘Inner Line Permit’ - a system aimed at protecting local interests. In the streets I saw a great rush of students in protest, on the walls posters declared ‘Save Manipuri People – Endangered Human Species’ and on the local news hospitalized students were shown in the aftermath of the rounds of tear gas fired by police. The issue is a complicated one, well beyond the ken of a passing tourist like me, but there was a bit of me that was glad to see some evidence of mass dissent, however staged (how political are most 15 year olds?), after a month in Myanmar where to stymie that sort of rebellion, tear gas would be the hors d'oeuvre.

Imphal is pinned in by nine hulking mountains and the rising road out was decorated by government signs that read ‘Drive, don’t fly’, ‘Drive horsepower, not rum-power’ and ‘drunk drivers are bloody idiots’. Soon I battled up the road into the state of Meghalaya which was layered in thick mud, sometimes half a metre deep, halting the passage of traffic entirely. I had to get the help of a team of local men to haul my bike through. To my left a vast sheet of flat land was sprawled, spangled with sun-kissed lakes and rivers, spotted with vegetation. As I admired it a voice from behind me answered my question. ‘Bangladesh!’ it said. Of course it was, but with a single entry VISA for India, it would remain the stuff of remote glimpses.

That night the police at a roadblock found a small tin-roofed shack for me to stay in (‘we salute you and your amazing adventure!’), but first they had to evict seven chickens, one policeman walked out of it with one chicken neck in his grip, mid-execution. It was candle-lit and cobwebbed and dank inside, but it was mine, and from the window the lakes of Bangladesh shimmered like fish scales. The night was jagged with the creak of cicadas, the whirr of the wind and the prickle of rain on metal.

The next day no vehicles were granted permission to use the roads throughout the state of Meghalaya – it was Indian Independence day and local ‘outfits’ (‘militants’ according to the police) had instigated a ban on all traveling vehicles – a protest against a government decision to outlaw a form of coal mining called ‘rat hole mining’ on the grounds that it can lead to landslides, unsafe working conditions and pollution. For me, this meant no traffic and no horns, bliss then, if it weren’t for the torrential, unceasing rain. There was a big depression in the Bay of Bengal – big, I was told, even by monsoon standards. Days were slate-grey and bleary with cloud and soon every bit of clothing I owned was wet through which meant grim-faced shuddering when it was time to get dressed.

India - where even the insects are colourful.
The coolest thing about landslides is the mimicry of elements: for an instant land becomes water. Earth looks to flow and boil, a splash of rock here, a foam of shattering shale there. Running in the dun-coloured gash in the forest beside the road through the Jaintia hills was an actual waterfall, inseparable though from the powerful rockfalls beside it. The road had been closed for two days and as the mountain frayed, spitting out man sized boulders, all I could do was stand about with the truck drivers, who were wrapped in checkered shawls and hypnotized by the tumble. Finally there was something more stare-worthy than I was.

‘Last year we were stuck for a week’ a man told me resignedly. Eventually a JCB got to work but a massive pool of mud remained on the road. A panic of drivers ploughed into it, knowing this might be their only chance for who knows how long. As they drove madly they spread giant wings of mud from their tyres, covering me head to toe. My turn arrived: I whizzed into the soup, eyes ahead, up at the falling rock, ahead, up. Few cars came after me, there must have been another great collapse of the mountain soon after I got through.

Indian streets are knotted with bands of men, chewing paan (betel nut), each crowd absorbing wandering pairs and trios. Everything requires an audience: card games, conversations, arguments, me. India is just a place where people group, compulsively (they have to in a nation of 1.2 billion and growing fast) and here the observation most startling about me, more than the fact I pedal everywhere, is that I do it alone.

I don't want to indulge in too many gratuitous generalisations but privacy is to be a touch suspicious of in India, famously so. Ostensibly this means people having a good poke and peer at my bike and the contents of my panniers, and there is always interest in the affairs of strangers. Sometimes I hear conversations along the lines of:

‘I’m off to visit Ana’
‘Who’s that?’
‘You don’t know her. She’s in hospital’
‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘Something with her ears I think’
‘What is wrong with her ears?’



Yes, people stared, yes they grouped about me, yes, it wasn't always easy, but the Indian hospitality was unyielding. ‘There are good people everywhere’ one of Indian silver-haired professorly type told me in Silchar. ‘I was in England in 1988. I asked an Englishman where was this building, and he showed me right to it! He walked with me for 50 yards!’

He remained there frozen, truly impressed. I thought about how much his example paled in comparison to the generosity I received in the first two measly weeks in the country. Six different people have hosted me so far, strangers all, generally inviting me after spotting me on the street, and more have offered. I wondered if I would recount these stories to visiting Indians back in the UK one day. The man of course then paid for my breakfast, insisting as he did so that he was representing India.

My bicycle often acts as an ice-breaker and opens the door to conversation. At length, it’s established: I’m British, I can’t speak Hindi, I’m going to Darjeeling, Yes I’m a bachelor, yes I’m alone, yes really, yes completely alone. Lately I’ve been getting fed up with the surface nature of travel through countries in which I don’t know the language, so in India its great to learn what people feel about all kinds of issues: the legal system,dowries, population control, religion, the environment, Imperialism and the Commonwealth Games. Oh and cricket, of course.

The rain continued when I reached Jowai on Independence Day, an event which the town celebrates through a display of profound glumness. There was the incessant rain of course, but more depressing to locals was the decimation of their industry: this was the heart of the mining country.

I arrived into Shillong ready for time off, and wet through, though the rain had eased a touch. That’s not to say it was anything less than torrential, it was just marginally less sopping, like stepping out from under Victoria Falls and directly under Niagara. Shillong was much nicer than the other Indian cities I’d visited - with a very blue cathedral, the odd cafe and even pedestrianized areas (though cars do drive down it) and a no-beep zone (though everyone still beeps).

There is nothing as shameful as finding yourself in KFC when you are in a country of food of sublime flavour and renown. Nothing. Not even if I had stolen lunch from a blind street child would I feel this guilty. The Colonel's crispy chicken only just quelled my self-loathing. But it was in KFC that I met Ankan.

Ankan: an immensely affable and intelligent guy working on an environmental project who had spent time studying in the States. Within minutes of our meeting he had invited me to stay and I took him up on the offer. A presentation was arranged, media interviews, delicious dinners, and drinks and meetings and tea and then we teamed up with his friends: Rahul, Annelie and Max to visit the world famous living root bridges near Cherapunji.

We also did a lot of eating - of good food, not KFC. I'm getting used to people referring to me in the third person when I'm eating. As I gorged in Shillong, among my new awestruck friends, I heard things like:

'wow, look at him eat. How much do you think he'll manage?'
'Dunno. Doesn't look like he'll stop any time soon'
'Give him more rice, lets see what happens'

The Root Bridges, Near Cherripunji, Meghalaya

I am in the about the wettest place on earth, in the wettest time of year, during a particularly wet spell and I am wet. Soaking, in fact. I stare out at a high rim of land, the Sohra plateau, striped by immense waterfalls, a view so vast it's addictive. I notice Max by my side. ‘Might clear up’ I venture. He stares out, grimly. Silence. Lightning silvers the murk.

Why weather researchers still quote the annual rainfall of Cherripunji in milimetres is not clear considering it comes by the metre, usually around twelve of them each year. It has been raining hard and unendingly for three weeks, a local family tell me. Uncountable waterfalls streamed down every rock face on the way here. We were all out late last night and the twisting road flaired our hangovers.

Outside the car water immediately hijacks my senses: it is all I can see, hear and feel. ‘The clouds come from Bangladesh’ explains Rahul,’and when they hit the mountain, BOOM! They burst. Its incredible man’. Twelve metres, I recall. Incredible indeed.

Resigned to the fact I’m about to get wet, I stomp in the puddles which soon turn into streams. We descend steps, the first of a couple of thousand to the river below, and in its state of swollen fury, I can already hear it’s rumble.

'If you need to pee, do it now.' says Rahul. 'I’m serious. Forest is sacred. No peeing.'

Locals have stories. Of a woman dressed only in white who dissolves out of the mist and wanders through villages: the spirit of the forest. You would do well not to offend her. Another tale recounts the plight of a local man who had forsaken the spirit of the forest in some way. Slowly, tell locals, he went mad - cooking meals for a family he didn't have.

Eventually we make it down and cross iron bridges, where the violence of the water beneath our feet is mesmerizing, to reach our destination. The living root bridges were built by the War-Khasis native tribe who guided the growth of secondary roots of the Indian Rubber trees using wooden planks so that the roots eventually traversed entire rivers. It takes time to grow a bridge - decades in fact - and some here are over 500 years old.

The one we have hiked to see is known as the Double Decker. As I shuffle across, peering below and then into the mist-dressed jungle, a butterfly as fat and black as a bat flutters past me. The bridge is solid, no sway or give, sturdier in fact than the metal ones in our wake. Miraculously the rain has eased for our hike back, but not for long. As we reach our ride it rains anew. Pelts it down. I say a silent goodbye to the massive waterfalls still in sight, their majesty a good trade for the rain in my hair, in my boots, seeping into my clothes, foisting shudders. I realise at once that my hangover has vanished. In fact, I feel great.


I left Shillong a touch sentimental to be leaving behind new friends and there are a heap of thank yous this month:

Ankan – thank you so much dude, Aiban, Rahul, Annelie and Max, everyone at Asian Confluence, Sumanta (you will feature in the next blog post my friend), all of the boys at Pedal Attack, Lightson and family, the school in Imphal, Vikash and a big thank you to India for being generally fantastic.

Next – I’m heading to Darjeeling and then I cross into Nepal because my Indian VISA expires and I’m optimistically aiming to cross the Himalayas before the pass closes for the winter. Kathmandu will be home whilst I score VISAs for onward travel, collate kit and rest. Oh and write: I have a bunch of articles appearing in various magazines and websites soon – look out for pieces in Adventure Travel, CNN, Adventure.com and Wild among others. I’ll post links to these on my facebook page – and if you haven’t liked it yet: here’s your chance…