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Winter Interlude


Morning Mist at MaplePine Farm

Morning Mist at Maple Pine Farm

One week at the office has already dissipated memories of the vacation, rendering them with a vagueness which is typical of nostalgia. In this fast paced age memories fade quickly, losing colour, turning grey scale in a short span. Whatever scraps that are still left, I would like to capture before they are lost forever in the onslaught of work and the general morbidness of daily life which is focused (in my case at least) on moneymaking.

This was a surrogate vacation, something hastily crafted in lieu of another which was cancelled at short notice. No agenda, not much planning; we just wanted to see the living root bridges in Meghalaya and were willing to hike to reach them. The rest was left to Cultural Pursuits, the team who owned MaplePine Farms and conducted various hikes around Meghalaya and the rest of North East India.

Overnight flight from Dubai, the exasperating queue at Delhi Airport, the fog and chill and the shuttle bus ride to the domestic airport with the gentleman (I would rather call him an asshole) across the aisle noisily hoicking and spitting on the bus floor, the domestic check in, the tedious wait for the flight to Guwahati, the exorbitantly priced stuffed parantha at the airport restaurant, the indignity of security check, the coziness of the flight, the soporific airport at Guwahati, the taxi ride to Shillong along winding roads with the hour long traffic jam(due to coal trucks), the chat with Paia (who picked us up from Shillong to take to Mawphlang where the farm is) tinged with local superstitions and myths, the sight of the green roofs and windmills of MaplePine Farm far away in the valley and the sudden realization of the urgent need to use the loo, all these are chronologically etched in the recording mechanism within my cranium.

It is late evening by the time we reach the farm. The maid shows us to our cottage. Our hosts are not around. It is bitterly cold, the water even more so. Soon there is a rumble of a jeep and voices. I go out to meet and greet. My wife is slightly unwell and decides to sleep in. In the fading twilight, with his ivory pony tail, James (our host) looks like a woman from a distance. There are other guests, four noisy and rather unpleasant group of aged Bengali’s. I can tell by the look of it that our host is not quite pleased to have them around. A curt introduction and James shows us around and explains the terms of the farm. The quartet is not impressed which is evident from the grunts and groans emanating from some of them. One of them has the audacity to ask for “bed tea” against the norms of the farm clearly stated in the web site.

Maple Pine Farm

Maple Pine Farm

Later, for dinner, we are served Jadoh -a traditional Khasi rice dish – accompanied by chutney and fresh cucumber and tomato salad. Jadoh tastes strongly of turmeric and reminds me of Khichdi sprinkled with tiny pieces of meat. The Bongs seem delighted with the meal and hover over it noisily. There is a young couple whom I had not seen before sitting in a corner immersed in a world of their own. Valerie (James’s wife) makes a brief appearance and greets us all with a sweet welcoming smile. After dinner, I walk over to the cabin, but could not resist spending a while gazing up at the stars. The sky and stars are so vivid, unspoilt by the glare of horizon lights.

The farm is enveloped in mist at day break. The grass is drenched in dew. Dew drips and forms small pits under the overhanging cottage roofs. The mist evaporates in steamy curls as the sun rises gradually revealing the mountains all around. Brown earth, streaks of green, glittering water, bone white house fronts far away, people and animals stirring to life (the cliche of it, I can’t find a better description though), an amber light pervading it all – a perfect curtain raiser for this journey.

Monolith at the Sacred Grove - Mawphlang

Monolith at the Sacred Grove – Mawphlang

We are on own on today. Our trek starts only tomorrow. James gives us directions to go to the nearby “sacred grove” – a patch of forest left untouched by locals for religious reasons. A short walk over fields beside the stream, under the curious gaze of women washing clothes (they seem to be washing them perpetually) and children and dogs, across the road, a steep climb, a plateau with a football field already speckled with players and onlookers, we buy a ticket to enter the forest and the landscape is suddenly tropical. All around tall, nameless trees, draped in moss and sprouting orchids, sunlight filtering through deep green foliage, a barely visible trail covered with dry leaves with monoliths of tall flat stone erected at an angle (kind of like a reluctant blessing) over stone tablets (looks like seats) along it; a shrunken space, holding lost narratives of life and death and worship – a touch of the ominous redeemed by the sun for now. I wouldn’t like to be here after dark. We wander around till we reach a stream and lose the trail and turn back. By the time we return from this labyrinth pickled in time, the meadow is like a carnival city – loud thump of music from huge speakers installed on auto-rickshaws, street food and paan vendors, men and women cooking pork and chicken over large aluminium pots, scampering children, men watching and cheering the football match and along the fringes of the football field teenage girls posing for photo shoots (embarrassed as we pass by) – a sudden and shocking contrast. The monoliths and the time when they had some significance seem even more remote when juxtaposed with the frenzy and the excitement and the cars and the loud speakers and the blaring music.

Bridge on David Scott Trail

Bridge on David Scott Trail

We start early next morning with a small backpack for camera and water to hike what is left of David Scott’s trail with James. It is also a test of our level of fitness which will help James to figure out where to takes us in the days to come. If we prove worthy of it, we shall go for the relatively tough hikes. We leave it to James to be the judge of it. As we walk over the trail, wide enough for four people walking abreast at most places, the conversation becomes intimate – an exploration of each others attitudes, approach to life, beliefs, faith. James has a piquant sense of humour which is quite endearing, we are able to identify with it without taking offense. He has traveled widely, to the most unlikely places, has experienced the hard side of life. The sunlit landscape,the constant motion and the talk blends to make lovely cocktail of memory within me. Several times en route we meet hunters with shotguns and in one case with bow and iron tipped arrows. We are obviously out of place, but almost always “Khubleh” – the local greeting is exchanged as we pass each other. At the end of the trail we pack into a Maruti 800 and drive to Sohra (local name for Cherapunjee). We are introduced to “Morning Star”, our guide for the next few days. The back of the car is stuffed with our trekking gear which literally blocks the rear window. Morning Star talks to James almost incessantly in Khasi. We ask some questions from time to time which brings the conversation back to English. However, it lapses to Khasi almost immediately. As we descend, the landscape changes visibly and the air is warmer than Mawphlang. There are large plantations of broomstick and betel nut along the road, quite reminiscent of Kerala where we hail from.

Living Root Bridge - Nowhet

Living Root Bridge – Nowhet

By 5 in the evening we reach the village of Nowhet which is our overnight stopover. After unloading our gear we are frisked off to a brilliant view point overlooking a deep valley with a sliver of river. Tiny hamlets are visible on a plateau across the dizzying expanse of the valley. The vast plains of Bangladesh could be seen shimmering in the distance to the left of the viewpoint. There is a living root bridge associated with this village which has been usurped by the more famous village 15 min walk away – Mawlynnong, advertised as the cleanest village of Asia!!! We walk down the steep steps from the village leading to the bridge. The first glimpse of the bridge is bound to elicit a gasp from anyone. There it is, a tangle of roots spanning the river, a wonderful feat of patient engineering –  the result of decades of guiding roots over hollow bamboo poles. It takes anywhere from 30 to 60 years to form a bridge and it is expected to last for over 600 years. How many steel and concrete bridges can boast such life span. These bridges are unique to this region. There is no such thing anywhere else in the world (I guess so, at least not to my knowledge). How did anyone strike upon the idea? Why was it not replicated anywhere else? According to Morning Star there are over 45 of them in the region, most of them inaccessible. Meghalaya government has made little effort to preserve them despite their uniqueness and tourist value. There are several visitors (mostly local) taking selfies on their mobile phones against the backdrop of the bridge. They have come here from Mawlynnong which has claimed credit for the bridge , something which is deeply resented by the villagers of Nowhet. We decided to walk over to Mawlynnong and witness for ourselves the degree of sterility achieved by the villagers to merit the accolade. But it was already nightfall and we couldn’t see much although the place appeared as clean as anywhere else.

Living Root Bridge - NowhetI

Living Root Bridge – Nowhet

Back at Nowhet, Morning Star dragged us to the house of a local elder. There were several glass bottles filled with a purple liquid neatly stacked on the drawing room shelf of his house.This turned out to be star fruit (Carambola) juice which he made on his own and sold. He opened couple of these bottles and served the juice with the elan of an experienced barman. It tasted bitter sweet and kind of refreshing.

A Bamboo House in Nowhet

A Bamboo House in Nowhet

The house where we were staying at Nowhet had an annexe which served as the dining and the kitchen. We were seated facing the stove. They hosts prepared an excellent meal of country chicken, a cauliflower and potato sabzi, roti, rice, various chutneys, Khasi salad, sliced cucumber and fresh leaves for us. We sat and talked, James serving as the interpreter, the warmth of the stove gently dispelling the cold.

Our Hosts, James and Morning Star Sumer at Nowhet

Our Hosts, James and Morning Star Sumer at Nowhet

Despite its small size, the village had three churches – Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic – thanks to the fervent missionary work over centuries (at least decades). The village, though sharing the same language and cultural traditions (I guess), was sharply divided on religious lines. Although marriage between the various Christian denominations was permissible, it often resulted in unpleasant compromises. Being from Kerala with its proliferation of Christian denominations – Roman Catholic, Syrian, Orthodox, Pentecost, Evangelist, Church of God to name a few – and having witnessed the bickering that goes on between them, this did not surprise me in the least.

Dawki town on Bangladesh border

Dawki town on Bangladesh border

Next morning we set out for an unknown destination. At the town of Dowki we saw massive dredging of the river, across the border in Bangladesh.Morning star appeared to know almost everyone along the road and frequently stopped the car for a chat. We even met his family over a friendly cup of tea in his betel nut grove where harvest was in full swing. By mid-afternoon we reached a village where we picked up provisions for the rest of the trek. We also acquired a guide cum cook – Tchiang (I am sure I have spelled his name incorrectly) from the village.The descend from the road to the river was steep; we crossed the river on a slim bridge of bamboo poles tied together to reach a small sand bar beside a pool where we set camp and pitched tents. Since it was already late we set out immediately to visit a bigger pool. It was one hell of a hike over huge boulders (I mean really really huge), slippery banks, precipitous edges. At this pool I was delighted to discover fresh water shrimp (I did not know they existed)  One of which came and eagerly explored my feet till it was driven away by a small fish (which in turn began a ticklish inspection of my feet). The water was cool and placid, reflecting the forest along the river bank and the pale green mountain ahead. It was deeply quiet. Since we had to return to our camp before nightfall, we could not linger here much longer (which is still a matter of regret). Darkness came upon us quicker than expected. It was getting quite cold too. Tchiang quickly assembled logs and lighted a fire. All of us pitched in to cook rice and a veggie mixture of cauliflower, tomatoes and potatoes for a grand dinner.

Broomstick stack

Broomstick stack

In the primaeval jungle (that’s stretching truth quite a bit), sitting around the dying embers of a fire (occasionally replenished with twigs), inhaling wood smoke, our talk turned to existentialism, God, beliefs, UFO’s, astrology and philosophy all of which made sense on a full stomach and a safe and comfortable place to sleep. Wherever we go, we carry our baggage of beliefs, ever willing to share its treasures to a willing ear. But, eventually, it all turns out to be wind in the bag. Insubstantial, delusory, ludicrous. Back in reality, the philosophies quickly sublimate leaving behind the grime of daily existence. Pretty pessimistic? But, that is how I have been experiencing it over and over. This moment was a temporary shift from the base line. A blip. The baseline itself doesn’t shift an iota.

I slept fitfully in the night. My ears were cold and no matter how much I burrowed into the sleeping bag, it did not get much better. Also, I was worried that a flash flood would sweep us all away, wrapped up in the tent, shattering our bones across those massive boulders, sweeping away the blood, leaving a pulpy mess and, and, and….

Broomstick Field

Broomstick Field

Crashing, crashing through stalks of broomstick, that’s how we began our hike today,  after a steep, steep climb from the river bank. Broomstick field, patch of jungle, broomstick field, patch of jungle, we seemed to thread through this tapestry for a long while before we breaking into large plains of dry grass and shrub land. It was a long walk to Padu, where we snacked on local Chow and stuffed ourselves with chocolate and biscuits. Water was scarce in this village. Women were carrying water in aluminium pots poised on their heads from a nearby spring. We walked along the asphalt main road of the village (followed by the chorus of kids howling Phoren -foreigner- after James) till we reached its edge and struck out into a field of broomstick, down a deep declination into the cool, tropical, moss covered banks of a rivulet and into the view of a magnificent living root bridge.


Downstream, after a long hike over boulders and some tricky patches of river bank there was another living root bridge. This stretch of walk was the most scenic of the entire trip to me – tranquil pools among boulders, decaying leaves, mossy rocks and tree stumps, lichen, patches of sunlight spotlighting the  river bed, cascades gently draining into the river, a mouldy, ancient, primordial effect to it all, absolutely picture postcardish and beckoning.The second living root bridge was double lane (I wondered about the traffic) and in active use. Several women with a heavy load of broomstick strapped to their forehead were climbing up and down the near vertical steps on either side of the river and across the bridge. Their stamina was amazing. James tried lifting one of their broomstick bundles and declared that it must be 25 kg at least. To trudge up and down those steps with 25 kg on my back was unimaginable to me. Women here were real amazons, even though they did not look as much.
Hike 1

Living Root Bridge at Padu

Living Root Bridge at Padu

We were exhausted by the time we returned to Padu. Fortunately, a good meal of Puri/ Chana and Jadoh soon restored our energy for the long walk back to our campsite.

Double Lane Living Root Bridge near Padu

Double Lane Living Root Bridge near Padu

We returned to the camp via the last living root bridge that we would see on the trip. It was very much in disuse and we had to be really careful walking across it. The campsite was upstream of the bridge and we had to traverse two waterfalls to reach it. This stretch was quite treacherous if one was not careful. We did our Tarzan bits climbing over rocks with half-inch thick footholds, and forded the river a bit to reach the camp. Tchiang was amazing. He had the agility and the flexibility of a cat and to think that he’s over 70, I still cannot get over it. Hike-2

We were really tired to do any cooking at the camp. James with great foresight had brought packets of noodles which we quickly boiled and gulped down and crawled bone weary into the sleeping bags. Relatively dreamless sleep tonight.



Morning. We pack up all the gear and return to the car. It is intact which speaks a lot about the place we are in. Had it been left unattended for so long in a place like Ghaziabad, even scraps of it would be hard to find. While waiting for Morning Star to return from the village, we play with Tchiang’s sling shot, trying to hit a nearby tree with pebbles. Thciang breaks off some flowers and gestures us to suck them. There is sweet nectar inside. I hope there aren’t any bees inside though. Time to say goodbye to him. Even though we could hardly converse, he was such a pleasant company.

We stopped at a little roadside Dhaba run by three girls (almost all the tea shops were run by women) for breakfast. The Puri’s served were perfect; they didn’t drip oil at all. We also sampled some of the sweets kept in glass jars. The breakfast was so wholesome, it made us inordinately happy.The next stretch of journey was really long. Along the way we stopped at an archaeological site to visit some ancient bridges and stone carved elephants. There was a sign by Archaeological Survey of India here (this was the only place where we found ASI’s presence in the entire journey). According to Morning Star the sculptures and the bridges belonged to a prosperous kingdom which existed in these hills and vanished long ago. Morning Star hinted that it may have been an offshoot of the Sumerians. To think that they came all the way from Mesopotamia to the jungles of Meghalaya seem far fetched to me, but then it’s such fables that lend colour to antiquity. (Morning Star’s own family name was Sumer which could account for his obsession with the Sumerians).

It was late afternoon when we reached a village near Bangladesh border by the river Myntdu. Myntdu is a dead river, at least this section of it. The water is dirt green, there are no fish, there are no signs of life except a few water striders. Till recently the villagers did not dare to wash in the river. They blame the coal mines upstream in Jowai and elsewhere for the plight of the river. It may be true. I do not know. But the damage wrought to the river is obvious.The river may recover given sufficient time and if further pollution is prevented. I wish it does. (We were told that Al Jazeera TV covered the story of the river. But none of the national channels seem to have bothered to do so).
We pitched our tents on the river bank and went for a long boat ride along the river.Dust billowed from a patch where a football match was in progress. As night fell, a chill wind rose up. Except for the rhythmic sound of the paddle and the occasional croak of a frog, all else was silent.Inky dark hills rose up on either bank. Tiny lights flickered on in the villages on some hill tops. Every once in a while a boat passed us in the darkness with an exchange of whoops, part greeting, part collision avoidance signal (I guess), with the boat man straining over a long bamboo pole.We were suspended in space-time in the gentle motion of the boat, within the hollow of the river valley.  But, instead of quietude, a kind of restlessness stirred in me – a persistent longing for the shore.  At night we went to a small shop at Kharkhana and gorged on rice, boiled eggs and sabzi served by a bent old lady. Back at the camp, we tried to keep up a conversation over the bonfire. Then we discovered ants in one of the logs and later a spider which scampered off somewhere and sent Morning Star into a torchlight expedition to find and prevent it from entering his tent.  There was also the scare of migrant Bangladeshi labourers in the vicinity who might try to steal from the camp. But, as we snuggled inside the sleeping bags and turned off the torch, the concerns vanished and we sunk into a sullen sleep.
Jaintapur Altar
In the morning we took the boat across the river to Kharkhana and began a long walk to another village where there were ruins of a palace.It was sultry and the walk was not particularly comfortable.  Along the road, outside many houses, women were stacking betel leaves for selling in the market. A bridge was being constructed across the river near the palace ruins. In fact there was not much to the ruins except an ‘L’ shaped section half buried in sand amid a betel nut grove. It took considerable imagination to contrive a palace out of what was left of it (If there ever were one was what I was thinking at that time). The palace complex was supposed to be part of the transit abode of the king of Jaintapur. A short walk from the ruins, there was a small structure with a sacrificial altar where king used to (purportedly) sacrifice beautiful women. It was pretty badly maintained. There was no sign of ASI having got anywhere near this place. This structure however lend some credibility to the claim of having had a palace nearby. The village was nondescript other wise, a marriage ceremony was in progress with loud speakers blaring some commentary in Khasi, construction workers went about unloading cement bags from a truck, dogs and cats wandered about; we had tea from a stall run by an evil looking woman whose daughter accidentally spilled tea on the table and got quickly reprimanded for it, there was the ever present chatter of Morning Star, there was heat, there was dust and I suddenly felt being part of some dismal Marquez novel.  We trudged back to Kharkhana and took the boat back to our camp. I hardly remember anything of the camp that night, not even a blur.

We broke camp the following day and went across the river back to Kharkhana where Morning Star came with the car to fetch us. Children stared at James, I distributed some toffees among them, women stared at us from roof tops, dogs scampered (Many dogs had their tail cut off to make them bolder!!!! – a strange initiation rite I must say. Thankfully, their penises were left alone. I do not know if the she dogs met a similar fate), people brushed teeth and spat, hens flitted among stacks of wood, sun shone, life stretched its limbs and prepared for another hard days work.  Our hike was over and we were returning to the farm. It felt GOOD!!!, surprisingly. I felt I could do with a wash, a decent toilet and a comfortable bed. So it was that we took to the road again, breakfasting at Mukhtapur,stopping at Pynursla to buy oranges and Sophlang and Solyang and Nei (don’t think I have spelled any of them right) and wild apple sprinkled with chilly seeds and haggle over hand woven mats and baskets. A silence filled the car as we approached the farm, quenching even Morning star’s appetite for talk, there was a mention about blood sausages and the oncoming slow food festival and gently, ever so gently we came to a halt back at the farm.
Time to leave. After the friendly chat in the night with James and Valerie, today it is a busy morning preparing for departure. There is no mist this morning, the hill tops are an orange blaze, we walk around a bit after breakfast, James explains the solar and wind power systems of the farm, Ben and Gwen are dozing in a patch of sunlight, Ayra is nowhere to be seen, Paia comes with the taxi and we say good bye. Will we return? Who can tell? We are driftwood, whither we go, whence we came, these are questions best left unanswered. Already, sounds and smells of the place are extinguished, the visuals remain out of which this long narrative has taken shape. I’m sure though that somewhere inside me this kaleidoscope of memories will remain and would surface and lend their flavour in the most unexpected of times.

Cultural Pursuits Adventures: http://www.culturalpursuits.com/

MaplePine Farm: https://www.facebook.com/mpoutdoors

Travel Tips:

1. Guwahati Airport to Shillong by Taxi costs INR 2000/- and takes close to 3-1/2 hours (if there is no traffic jam). Taxi’s are easily available.

2. End Jan was quite cold in Mawphlang. So better carry sufficient winter clothing.

3. In case you are going on a similar itinerary, do carry swim wear. Those pools I mention are really great to swim in.

4. In case you plan to buy a SIM for this place, go for Aircell. The network is available in most places.

5. State Bank of India ATM’s are ubiquitous. We found one HDFC bank (and ATM) at Pynursla

6.If you plan to go hiking, make sure you don’t listen to Valerie’s tale of scrub typhus….

Can’t remember any more tips now. 🙂 Shall update later.

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