India: The Arc of the Himalayas–Dispatch 6

I realize I have only just delivered Bulletin #5, but that’s because it was stuck in my laptop until I was able to find a WiFi connection, actually let’s  be honest…until I got back to where there was electricity!!…. through which to transmit it.  Between the time I wrote it and finally was able to send it, we visited northeast India and got to Calcutta.  So now it’s time to catch you up with those experiences.

Our time in the northeast was one of the much-anticipated forays of our trip, and it didn’t disappoint.  A short flight from Bagdogra/Shiliguri (south of Darjeeling) to Guwahati (capital of Assam), brought us to  James Perry, our guide for our venture into Nagaland.  James, a 40-ish Canadian born in Shillong (capital of the state of Maghalaya, just south of Assam), has been travelling into the far eastern edge of Nagaland for many years now, and was a wonderful companion for our trip, even if his driving skills had us cringing and wincing, and his old jeep left both of us with shortened spinal columns.

Our first day’s drive was to have been beautiful and romantic, cruising along the shore of the mighty Brahmaputra river.  But, we actually never even caught a glimpse of it, as we zigged and zagged around intrusive highway construction obstacles.  Here’s an interesting observation about road building in India:  the local assemblyman or MP who has secured funds for road building wants to gain as many votes as possible through his distribution of funds.  Therefore, rather than award the funds to one good road builder, the funds are given to lots of little companies, each with a separate little stretch of highway to build.  Quite often (read  “always”) this results in lots of little bits of paved highway interspersed with painfully jarring segments of dirt, rock and gravel.  The reality of it is that you jounce along at a frustratingly slow pace, then with great relief you reach pavement.  Wow, you think.  Smooth road at last!  With a joyful woosh of acceleration, you zoom off on the new smooth surface, only to discover it lasts all of 100yds before giving way to rocky potholes once more.  It’s maddeningly slow and frustrating.

On our first day we reached Kaziranga National Park, where we bunked down for the night in a clean road-side inn, home of hard beds and big, juicy spiders in the shower.  We got up at 6a.m. the next morning to go on an elephant ride in the park, which is home to a thriving rhino population. On our small Asian elephants, we tramped through tall green elephant grass in the morning mist as an orange sun rose dimly on the horizon.   Within the first 15 minutes, our heffalumps had brought us within 10 yards of THREE rhinos.  Wow!!!  This was very exciting to see.  These rhinos were not disturbed by our presence. One was asleep, actually, and it took an elephant moving in quite close to make her lumber to her feet and cast us a baleful look before slumping off to lie down again behind some denser elephant grass.

We crossed the Assam border into Nagaland uneventfully and bumped along many hours more to the Naga town of Mon, where we had to register our presence with the local police.  The local police didn’t feel too strongly about this formality and thus we waited around at their empty hilltop station for nearly an hour before one of them turned up, made some new lines in their signature book and wrote in our permit, visa and passport details for posterity.  Didn’t even offer us a cup of tea….!  Then it was off on the last 40km stretch to the Konyak tribe village of Longwa, where we would stay for the next few days.

We arrived in Longwa well after dark and it was pitch black in the village as there’s no electricity there.  But as soon as James killed the Jeep’s engine there were people surrounding the car, shaking our hands with both of theres andwelcoming us to their home.  This was the family of a young man named Longshah, a most engaging, bright and well-spoken Naga who was our main contact, guide and interpreter.  We were greeted with enthusiasm and dragged into their house, which was a long one-story structure made of bamboo and thatch.  There was no light inside other than what came from the small flickering flames of their cooking fire, set in a shallow circle dug in the dirt floor.  As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, and smarted from the smoke, we could discern 8 or so faces highlighted by the flames’ light.  Men and women sat on low woven bamboo stools, a blackened tea pot bubbled and hissed on the ashy coals, and a big pot of rice with smaller pots of vegetables were being stirred and seasoned by Longshah’s sisters.

After eating, Longshah invited us into the back room, also lit by the glowing embers of a small fire, where 4-5 workers/friends were smoking opium and making gunpowder.  We were utterly fascinated by all this.  Where were we?  And what century was it?  People making their own gumpowder?!  And smoking opium???

In talking with Longshah about the gunpowder, what we deduced is that the soil of the village must contain salt peter.  This is extracted by mixing the dirt with water in a huge bamboo vat, and essentially enabling the water to evaporate slowly, at the end of which you’re left with crystals of salt peter.  In turn, the crystals are powderized and then mixed with carbon made from bamboo. coals  Wadding is made from coconut fiber.  And a local village smith makes the rifles….muzzle-loaders actually.  Bullets are made from small snips of lead.  All of this is properly shoved and packed into the barrel of the local guns and then fired with quite good effect.  Bernard did a test fire and missed the target entirely, but Longshah’s brother, who knew just how much to compensate for the rifle’s idiosyncracies, was within the bull’s eye.

Over the next few days, we ate every meal around the smoky family fire, walked through the whole area of Longwa, set foot in Burma (Longwa village is actually divided by the border between Burma and India, which also runs straight through the village headman’s house), and visited the village headman.  The latter, like many of the men in Longwa, was hopelessly in the clutches of opium. We found him with his opium pipe in a small walled-off section of his very long, very empty house, smoking. After shaking hands he completely ignored us, wrapped up as he was in negotiations with Red Cross volunteers from Mon who were promising to send a car with doctors to the village some time in the future.  In exchange for his permission, the headman would receive a handsome payment, which would feed his opium habit nicely for a good long while.

Longwa village has no electricity, no plumbing, no cars. To our eyes, people were living pretty much as they had for hundreds of years, though a big improvement in people’s lives came from piping water from the spring to several washing areas.  This shortened the distance needed to collect water, but the water still was transported by village women using 3-foot long sections of bamboo carried in baskets hung from their head.  The quiet at night was total, centuries old, unbroken by any sounds like airplanes overhead, or generators, car engines, or TVs. Two nights we were serenaded by the sweet voices of Longshah’s 5 sisters who practiced the harmonies of the hymns they sing in church each week (yes, the majority of the tribe is Christian…another story).

One day we hiked three and a half hour along a narrow forest path to a neighoring village called Nungye, where we were guests of the local headman (also opium-addicted).  This village looked similar to, but poorer than, Longwa. THe headman, who at 32 had recently taken over from his father, spoke a surprising amount of English.  In conversation he seemed to have some good ideas about what to do to help his village.  But in practice none of them were going forward, because he succumbed to the allure of opium by mid-afternoon each day, and thereafter was in a studious nod till the next morning.   The headman’s new young wife was not happy having us visit, so we slept on the floor of their food storage hut.  The yams and other tubers kept quiet at night and weren’t averse to our presence.  My main souvenir from Nungye were the 15 flea bites on my right calf, the reaction to which served to swell up my ankle to the point where all I could see of the ankle bone was a tiny blip reminding of what used to be there!  Itchy, too!!

The next day, on our walk back to Longwa, we encountered a group of men cutting up an enormous tree with a handsaw, for firewood. One of these tree cutters had a tattooed face, indication that he was a successful headhunter. According to  Konyak tribal tradition, when a young man takes up arms to fight for his village, his chest is tattooed.  When he takes his first head, his face is tattooed by the Queen, who also creates the pattern of the tattoo, which covers most of the skin on the face.   Books will tell you that the last recorded head was taken in 1963.  This is unlikely.  The particular gentleman with the tree cutters told me he was 63, and that he had taken his first head in 1968.  It’s quite likely that he took more than one before villages agreed to stop that particular practice. We sat around for a short bit and he was very friendly.  My neck didn’t tingle at all.

Shortly after making nice with the headhunter, we met up with Longshah’s family for a picnic in the woods, where they, too, were cutting a tree down for firewood.  They made us some handy plates from large fibrous leaves stitched together with bamboo threads.  And they cut us all small mugs from the narrow end of a bamboo stalk.  The tea kettle and pots on the fire were manipulated using bamboo tongs which they made by moistening the center of a two-inch wide strip of bamboo, heating it up on the warm ashes and then bending it in the middle.  Water for drinking had been boiled and then placed in a 6-inch wide tube of bamboo for carrying and storage; same for the washing water.  All the carrying baskets were made from bamboo.  BAck at home, their house walls, beams and posts also were bamboo.  And all the house furniture (bed pallets, stools, shelves) also were made from bamboo. Of course, the opium pipes were made from bamboo, as was the huge funnel-shaped vat in which earth was dissolved to distill out the salt peter. I think I’ve mentioned all the many uses to which bamboo was put in this village, but it’s possible I’ve missed some since the applications of this plant seemed limited only by the ingenuity of the villagers. The little village boys even had 3-wheeled go carts made from bamboo!!!!

When we left Longwa, we had plans to continue on to another Naga tribal village and from there up the Tawang valley in Arunachal Pradesh.  It was while we were waiting in Mon, again, for the police official to note in his book that we were leaving his district, that Bernard and I had a brief tete-a-tete and agreed that we just couldn’t stomach 5 more long days of bumping at 5kim/hour along roads that Bernard himself  could have driven at 30km/hour.  With little regret we decide just to fly on to Calcutta as soon as we reached a town with a decent airport.

Thus Calcutta is where we’ve been for the past 5 days.  This city has appealed to us much more than any other we’ve been to/through in India.  If you’ve ever read books that include Calcutta and wondered whether the descriptions match the reality, I’m here to tell you that they are indeed accurate.  We’ve spent most of our time walking in different neighborhoods.  The city is full of crumbling ornate buildings, their shutters broken and hanging at a crazy angle from one hinge, their filigreed cast-iron balcony railings rusted and broken, with roots from nearby trees draped like tentacles around the bricks and cement.  And that’s the inhabited ones.  There’s very visible homelessness here,  a major issue throughout India in cities and in the countryside.  Perhaps it’s the noticeable though decaying glamor of the buildings that makes it harder to deal with here than elsewhere.

For our final week are heading to Sri Lanka. Yes, yes, I know there’s a civil war raging there, but it’s confined to the north end of the island and we’ll be staying decidedly south, so should be fine.  I guess if there’s no Bulletin #7 you’ll be left to wonder……..

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