Thursday, February 5, 2009

From Assam With Love - The Glorious Northeast of India

All aboard the Rajdhani Train Express departing from New Delhi and arriving in Guwahati! Your journey will last two whole days. Surprisingly, the 48-hour trek is ├╝ber comfortable. I manage to read half of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1989). I make friends with an auntie and her bratty kids as I gaze, from the comfort of my sleeper class seat, across the neon green patchwork of mustard fields that span the rural landscape of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Within seconds of stepping foot on the platform at Guwahati Central Station, I am whisked away to a lodge nestled in high hills overlooking the Brahmaputra River. A cheetah skin hangs in the foyer. A tiger skin is sprawled on the floor. Deer heads line the walls. The wooden staircase that leads me upwards to my bedroom creaks most romantically. Archie comics, The Hardy Boys, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Burmese warfare, Nehru's biography; the book shelves are stacked.

The following morning, four hours away from Guwahati, I reach Kaziranga National Park. On the way, I wave at a rhino, four elephants, cranes, lizards, wild pigs, and sheep. We drive into Wild Grass Resort (oldassam.com). Mangoes, Chinese roses, betel nuts, guavas and Indian olives hang from their stems among the lodges. A local artist paints pottery made from his own hands. Adivasis (i.e. Aboriginals) of Assam perform ancient dances and earn a fair wage. I step into the colonial-style dining hall. Framed maps of Britain's India and watercolours of native ducks hang on the walls. On the opposite end of the dining hall and through a set of French doors, out onto the veranda, I see my intense and bearded companion, my old flat mate from England, deep in conversation; we will call him Haati Walla (i.e. Elephen Man) because conducts research on conflict between humans and elephants in this region. I drop my luggage and, before I am aware of it, we are exchanging old stories. Haati Walla was raised in this eco-tourist resort and I am excited to finally arrive in the world that built my exceptional friend.

Haati Walla’s countless friends, who offer countless gestures of friendship, welcome me with open arms. I lodge with a trio: Bipul the butterfly researcher, Swapna the physics lecturer, and Ranadeep the pre-law candidate. In the late afternoons, when the warm winds settle, we play badminton. During the evenings we pack ourselves into a roofless jeep, driving atop unlit dirt roads. Quite high above sea level, the stars are close enough to swallow. During these winter months in Assam, when the Bihu festival of fertility is celebrated, home-brewed rice beer (like an apple-infused Japanese sake) is served with platefuls of spicy potatoes and pork. We eat sticky rice, yellow lentils, duck, and local fish simmered in a sour curry. I speak with a little girl. She is dumbfounded by my Hindi (or maybe by my shaved head). In Hindi, I ask the girl "How old are you?" She is dumbfounded the Hindi language spewing out of my Western face and cannot muster the words to tell me her age. I ask her if she is 30 (which seems to snap the girl back into conciousness) and she blurts out in response: "are you out of your mind? I'm 11!" During the rest of the week, we conclude cricket matches with pints of beer, I ride atop an elephant during sunrise in search of wild rhinos, and we race through countless acres of tea estates.

Following, I reach Majuli for two days; the world’s largest river island, floating atop the Brahmaputra River. The journey from Wild Grass Resort to Majuli is an exhausting six hours of rough roads and water, but I am coddled by the goodness of Assamese folk the entire way. After two hours on a bumpy bus and 30 minutes on an even bumpier auto rickshaw (the bruise marks that freckle my head now serve as the state’s Barometer of Bumpiness), I arrive at Nimati Ghat (Nimati Port). From Nimati Ghat I ride a ferry to the island of Majuli. Aboard the ferry, I am befriended by a 22-year-old Assamese MBA candidate. He is friendly and has passionate opinions about Bangladeshis migrating into Assam. The wrinkly captain of the ferry asks us to present proof-of-payment and the MBA informs me that the captain, who appears quite ordinary, can speak in three tongues and is father to a chemist (i.e. a pharmacist). The young man sitting behind us, an army soldier from the state of Maharastra and stationed in Assam, appear enchanted by my spoken Hindi and excitedly joins our conversation. After three hours, the ferry docks at Majuli. The MBA departs towards his direction and the army soldier, who has come to Majuli for only a few hours (before having to head back to Assam proper to report to his General), sticks by my side. From the dock, we ride in a shared jeep towards the city centre of Kamalabari. Squashed into the hole of a rubber tire, I sit opposite a tourist from Spain, who speaks little English and is enjoying his fifth trip to Bharat (i.e. India). Once I reach Kamalabari, army soldier by my side, I meet my local contact, Dulal, who is a monk serving as head priest at the monastery Uttar Kamalabari Satra. Dulal is a modern monk. With his mobile in hand, he operates a newspaper and stationary store to finance maintenance of his monastery. I stay with Dulal in his monastery for two days. Seated cross-legged on the cool clay floors of the monks' huts, I eat from brass plates with the most primal utensil (i.e. my hand). I attend prayers during one of the 14 daily musical sessions of symbols drums and vocals and draw milk from the teets of the house cow.

During the ferry ride back to Assam proper, the same captain (with three tongues and a son of science) asks me to present my proof-of-payment. In English, he asks me if I enjoyed Majuli and I inform him that, yes, I did. In Hindi, I ask the captain if his son is a chemist and he replies, in clear English, 'No, he is not a chemist (i.e. a pharmacist). He is a scientist and he specializes in chemistry'. The ferry docks, the captain grabs my wrist, and he offers to drive me to the local city centre to eventually grab a bus to reach my home in Kaziranga; thereby bypassing three hours of local buses. I peep into the captain's car. A young couple and their 5-year-old are seated and are heading to the same destination. The sight of a well-groomed family makes me feel less apprehensive and I gladly accept the captain's offer.

After a week in Kaziranga and two days in Majuli, I reach Pathsala, a most authentic Assamese village, to visit the homes of my new friends, my lodge mates from Kaziranga: Bipul (butterfly enthusiast and bollywood dancer extraordinaire), Swapna (the physicist, whose theories, in his mind, will break ground once the length of his hair grows beyond his shoulders and to reach earth and literally break ground), and Ranadeep (mister law-101, whose freshly shaved head (razored to match mine) makes him appear more suitable for occupation as lawbreaker rather than aspiring lawmaker). Their homes, set within the depths of palm tree jungles, opposite acres of cauliflowers potatoes mustard green beans, are fantasies of rural fair. Morning, afternoon, and night we sip on hot Assamese chai brewed in milk extracted from the home cow. Local rice beer among youth is reserved for the evenings when parents retire to their own quarters. Mind you, the elders probably sip on their own private nightcap. Food is endless as are the smiles and hugs from each local in the village. Every three hours I am whisked off to another relative or friend of the family who are eager to welcome me at their front door, to seat me amongst their children, and to stuff my belly with creations from their fire-pit (like cylindrical rice cakes baked inside bamboo stalks called pitha). They each request that I return for chai at least one more time before departing Pathsala. One night I cook my wildly popular spread of Kashmiri food for a band of 15 brothers, cousin-brothers, and village-brothers.

By my fifth day in Pathsala, news has spread (like wildfire) that a non-local and foreigner is in town. That afternoon, I am stopped by the local paan walla (i.e. man who prepares and sells paan, a mouth-freshener consisting of betel nut wrapped around a leaf from a betel tree). He inquires fervently why we have not exchanged words yet. Our conversation does not last too long because he already knows my name, where I am from, my purpose for visiting (etc.).

Assamese hospitality should be touted as a tourist attraction in its own right!

*images have been captured by myself

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

what a beautiful, blissful rendition of your experience. loved it.

i've never even heard of Assam, thanks for putting it on the map

Anonymous said...

Love the photos, and glad you're having a great time. Keep in touch x

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this ... it was lovely to have you in Assam, and I hope that you will return again in the not-too-distant future, before we get to old for partying!

Anonymous said...

Hi adventurer,

That was certainly a rugged and wonderful trip, glad you are having such a great time. I think you have a book in the future with these travels, start taking notes (:-)

Anonymous said...

I can now just imagine how much fun you had! Sorry if it had to end..