Dimapur was close enough to our imagined Indian cities for worry to kick in. We walked around the city centre roads at night with no street lights, traffic jams, always dozens of eyes on us, taxis without headlights winding through the walkers, labourers still hauling giant loads on wooden carts at 8pm through exhaust fumes, and dudes pulling wagons on bikes lurching with each pedal stroke to keep moving. And so we went and bought some familiar Cadbury chocolate bars for 25 Rupees and felt less a part of it.
Filipe (our Portuguese friend we’d been riding with since Imphal) told me he’d been worrying about the dense population centres and hectic roads to come in India and I’ve been wondering if it will be too dangerous/shitty to be enjoyable since we bought our flights to Japan. Those cities and connected outskirts with millions and millions of people, the insane traffic, keep tugging at my sleeve asking: what if most of India is horrible to cycle in? Our entire trip so far seems idyllic in comparison and this fucked up chaos nobody is meant to cycle through is getting close. Dimapur was like a warning. It was a total divergence from what we’d been seeing and hearing since the border. We happily got out of there and back into the mountains, trying to shake the worry off.
We split with Filipe at Manja just west of Dimapur and started our back roads route toward ‘The Scotland of India’ a city in the hills called Shillong, 660 km away.
The mountains of the north-east are not India proper. The people aren’t Indian and it looks nothing like the India that word conjures. In Nagaland there are 16 main tribes, in Assam another 13, and another bundle in Meghalaya. They are hill people who got screwed first by the British and then by the Indian government, screwed out of life as they knew it and then screwed out of independence after it was taken away. Where the Assam plains end and the mountains begin to the south, east, and north, Indians mostly don’t visit. It’s an unreported part of the country too so it’s still seen as exotic by the rest of the country. We stayed in a hotel in Imphal and every morning a newspaper was slipped under our door. During buffet breakfast we read about the bombs and shootings and bodies found from the day before. Premier League football highlights were on TV, our water was refilled with in a whisper, “Good morning sir, good morning madam.” In Myanmar I tried to dig when talking with young people about politics and it was easy to get opinions. In Manipur and Nagaland there was a confusing barrier in conversation whenever the rebels were asked about. Answers were never sincere but I could never understand why except when a job was at stake or the people with guns were close by. The police and army would hardly be listening in on our conversations with villagers. The single exception was a groundskeeper at that hotel. A general strike was on day to mark a year since commandos had killed a student. The way he whispered it to me with 2 senior staff nearby, “commandos killed a student” with such venom was the only time the hostility toward the military was acknowledged. The Assam Rifles were this mans enemy but I couldn’t get close to knowing if most people resented them or even wanted them to stay.
Whoever is making bombs in their houses and burying them at night, they have no beef with us, and despite the massive military presence: checkpoints with machine gun turrets, the daily dozens of big transport trucks full of soldiers, and the squads walking the country roads on each side with machine guns like something out of a Vietnam war film, we never felt in any danger.
As we ride west crowds have formed around us just as we heard they would. Usually 1 person will try their English while the rest stare with intimidatingly unblinking eyes, and then a phone comes out and then they all come out, portrait then landscape, and they don’t ever seem happy with the result, phone back in pocket, and staring resumes. In a market town somewhere before Lumding Drew had gotten ahead of us and stopped at a tea and samosa shop. There were a few people drifting around his bike when we pulled up and more staring in at him sitting with his chai tea smiling, doing the questions and responses. When we pulled in people flowed towards us, from shops and houses and like water through a strainer. Everything at the market stopped as the crowd formed. Since then I’ve noticed that if the first dozen people to form a circle around us aren’t very close the next dozen will keep the same distance, this crowd gave us 2 feet. Once the crowd had swelled and we’d said hello to the 50-70 mostly non-responsive faces some young guys started speaking with us. They invited us to their shop which had mobile phone accessories and then into their families home which was through the front of a different mobile phone accessories shop. It was like a jump-cut scene change in a war film from battle to the quiet days before the war. Inside was a bright and colourful series of clean rooms filled with the warmest happy faces. Ladies had us sitting on a bed eating cake and having tea within 2 minutes. The grandma skipped over surprise and was just very, very pleased that we were there. She’d stroke Jorja’s hair and hold her hands, and a mother would come in and roughly place a terrified child on our laps. The pink walled room was a totally different environment from the overexposed red dirt marketplace, clean, and cool, and quiet with people touching our pale skin and giggling and speaking even though we didn’t share language. The boys told us we were the first white people they’d ever seen except on TV which was something we’d never heard. It seemed impossible, surely someone in a bus between small towns, a missionary, someone in the last 15 years or so of these boys’ memories had stopped here. This family who’d practically dragged us into their home waved us goodbye along with what seemed like over a hundred people from the market.
A few hours later we crested a hill and there was an elephant standing on the side of the road. I did that thing my Dad could never resist and kept saying to Jorja, “LOOK! Look at that!” As though she might not spot the enormous elephant on the empty road. The last elephants we’d seen were on the Laos-China border, chained to a post with 3 feet of slack, they looked like big sad gods in chains. This elephant was with a man but there were no chains, he grunted at the elephant when Jorja went over to it, his doughy soft looking trunk reached out and touched her hand. I saw them again when we were sitting at our campsite and the man was sitting behind his ears, they looked as happy as two friends could. Since then we’ve seen wild black orangutans with white mono-brows running up branches, long arms hanging low, and swinging through the trees down a steep hillside away from us. One didn’t swing or run away but stayed where he or she was, staring at us, through the branches and leaves. It’s hard to explain why but it was a haunting thing maintaining eye contact.
There were 3, then 5, and then 15 Dimasa standing on a steep hill looking down at our campsite waving, we hadn’t heard the word Dimasa or if we did it was among a list of other tribes of equal significance. The hill was deep red-brown like Uluru or the a Prince Edward Island potato field, it was pocked with shrubs and seemed too impossibly steep to walk down. But soon the crowd began twisting down through the pale green stubby plants, and down the red dirt hill. They moved as though they were walking down a bizarrely routed staircase. We gawked up at them streaming down disappointed to have this interaction after a long day, we just wanted to eat, have a campfire, and rest, but a group this size with more people coming to wave and stare from the hilltop didn’t seem likely to just leave us in peace after a quick chat. Soon we were in another crowd of people, I could hear Jorja while I robotically but enthusiastically answered the same natural questions, “Australia, yes that is my husband, no children, you are pretty/handsome, is this your child?” And Drew doing the same, smiling the whole time, trying to keep face and not be bothered when a new person arrives and starts the chain of questioning that had only just finished. And as I tried to get dinner started I was doing the same, but feeling that cracks of impatience and annoyance might be showing.
The crowds are fine if we’re mobile, we play around and shake hands, take some selfies and have a group goodbye. Immobile the crowds are different. They know you’re sticking around when the tent is up and when they leave chances are they’re coming back with their family and friends. If that sounds like a complaint where curiosity or novelty or something else should be in it’s place just think how time changes the scenario: 1 minute with a few people around is nothing, 3 hours with a big group watching your every move is tough to the point of exasperation. This group of people invited us to camp up on the hill they’d descended from saying, “It will be better, you will be safe”. Mostly because the hill was very steep we tried to fob them off but 15 minutes later there were more people and they were more insistent.
They all helped take something up, some had a helmet full of eggs, or a packet of noodles, some a bike, or pannier, the people without something to carry put their hand on a bag someone else was carrying. There were incredibly steep steps cut into the clay, I was carrying my bike and imagined tipping back or losing my footing and taking out 30 people behind me on the way down. We got up to our new campsite, I leaned my bike against the solitary tree, tried to walk away but a thin branch covered in long thorns had me in a spiked stranglehold, I tried to pull myself away and they went in deeper. I gradually unpeeled the branch and plucked out each thorn. Nobody noticed in the hubbub and by the time the last thorn was out it had been decided we would be guests in one of the men’s homes. The column of bags and bikes and helmets and trailing people touching them set off again further up the hill.
It’s a tricky game when a host offers something and you gauge if it’s really offered, pretend offered, and also if it’s right to do or receive. Usually the guilt kicks in quickly and I’d rather leave too soon or not accept something than outstay my welcome or take too much. Sitting in lawn chairs that first night drinking sweet rice beer we were offered to come to the funeral of a grandmother the next morning and rest the whole day, “Please feel completely free to rest” they kept repeating. The next day we were on the same hill the first people had waved to us from. There were over a hundred people gathered for the funeral meal. Jorja was wearing a dress given by one of the 2 families that were feeding and housing us, through a crowd I’d see her in Queen mode, holding a kid or making shy teenagers comfortable enough to laugh and introduce themselves. After hundreds of photos and feeling like it mightn’t be the time or place for all the commotion caused by our arrival we were shown into a tent to eat separately from the rest of the crowd who sat on ankle high seats and were served dishes from huge pots or small mass-produced individual portions of vegetable and meat dishes. The tent was for outsiders who weren’t Dimasa which is their custom – a kind of keep the weirdos away policy – but it was done in a respectfully and felt more like the VIP section to us.
Their funeral tradition is to cremate the body very soon after death and plan a funeral which must happen within 1 year from that date so that all the family and friends can attend. We didn’t go to the funeral rite, worrying it’d be inappropriate, but Drew did and described it to us:
“We came to the site where she had been cremated three months prior. All the women, wearing shawls that covered their heads, knelt on the ground around the funeral pyre. The pyre itself was laden with most of the grandmother’s possessions – her clothes and many of her personal effects. They were to be burned the next day. The women kneeling on the ground were making a loud keening, wailing sound that I was told were prayers. I could barely make out that words were being said. Many of the women were weeping and covering their eyes with their shawls. Most of the men stood around passively. After the highly emotional prayers were over the women filed out first, followed by the men. As each person left, they rinsed their face and hands with water from a large brass container. Down the road a short way, there was a length of bamboo that had been cut in half lengthwise and filled with water. As each person came to it, they stepped over it with their right foot and then dipped the big toe of their left foot into the water. A man counted the number of people who had attended the ritual as they passed over the bamboo. I was not allowed to participate in this part of the ritual, which is only for Hindus.”
We spent the rest of the day dancing with the kids, showing them how we make our version of roti, and doing some writing. It was a proper rest day and they keep bringing tea and biscuits and snacks. Maanvi took responsibility for us which suited us. She was the daughter of one of the families that took us in, and was immediately impressive: top student in her school, funny, and a soft demeanour backed up with confidence. She walked us down train tracks to the Stone House, a huge rock that was shaped into a house hundreds of years ago.
Staying with the Dimasa families was fantastic for everything but my midnight bathroom sprints on our last night. Between my volcanic body and a toilet were two bedrooms with kindly mothers and ancient grandmothers sleeping peacefully, 2 sets of creaky doors with loud bolts, and a series of mosquito net trip wires. It was a noisy night.
When we left we were told to touch an elder lady’s feet because it was their tradition. She came up on the balcony to me and I bent down in front of her white robes, touched her soft wrinkled feet and rose up slowly. I didn’t know how long to touch or what came after that but as I rose up she had her palms together and lifted her head with mine. She touched my hands and looked at me lightly with grey dewy eyes and smiled knowingly. Tears started spurting left and right and then everyone was laughing again and they followed us down the property to the street. We were all decked out in handmade Dimasa scarves they’d given us and all these wonderful people who we promised to visit again in 5-6 years waved us off like so many other people have in the last 6 months.
The day we left I could only make it 6km up the road before saying, “That hut looks like a good place for a break” and spending the next 10 hours shivering in jumpers and my winter sleeping bag in 30 degree heat. Jorja and Drew were sympathetic instead of being annoyed at sitting in a bamboo hut for almost 24 hours. They lugged everything up to the hut and dealt with a few rude people who stopped after seeing our bikes on the side of the road and wanted us to give them things and parked their trucks and cars and just stared at us for 15 minutes. Despite being there so long for me it passed like a dream, rotating on my mat every couple of hours, hearing Jorja and Drew talking in a funny daze.
The next day despite being empty, I felt ready to ride. 45km of easy climbing later I was shattered. We stopped in Haflong and endured a one-sided staring contest between 20 people and Jorja and I for two days, with only 1 side playing. Bored of that but not feeling any better we set off toward Drew who had powered through Haflong where we’d planned to stop, thinking we were ahead of him, and he stayed with a family. It was 11km from Haflong to where Drew was. No kidding, I almost didn’t make it without needing a taxi. Having not cycled and rested 2 days I was raring to go but my body was turning off as we climbed, Jorja dropped me and was waiting near the top when I slowly reached her swerving across the road to keep moving. We found drew and looking terrible were told we could rest. I felt like I was getting weaker instead of stronger as the days went by but had no more solutions than the tablets I’d been taking and litre after litre of water I’d been drinking. That was a dance party with rice wine and whisky at a local shop that turned into an after-hours secret bar and the next day there was another group goodbye where we had partied the night before.
(one of thousands of these pictures we’ve taken since arriving in India, note our weird smiles)
The uncontrollable, inappropriate, constant diarrhoea continued from one family house and campsite to another all the way to Shillong. Tablets Jorja’s mum had shipped us with Christmas chocolate in Vientiane didn’t have any effect and the electrolyte powder I bought from a chemist wasn’t making much difference. The combination of mountains and diarrhoea seemed behind us after the brutal weeks in Yunnan. I thought our immune systems had strengthened enough for it never to be the same. Still, 45-60km would tick by each day, and we’d be closer to real rest in Shillong. The last night, 39km away, I couldn’t stomach food and the tent was being blown off a hillside so I just laid down and tried to speed up reaching the end of this stretch with an extra long sleep. The worrying thing is that I have no lessons to apply for next time, no new drugs, or new foods on the list of eat or avoid. The good news is rest has started and there is a Domino’s and Subway in town that do free delivery.
The next few weeks are going to be very different. Drew is leaving us to fly back to a Thai romance and I’m going to ride on while Jorja stays put in Shillong to study and do work. I have half the compass for options of where to go, it’ll either be Arunachal Pradesh or Sikkim. Either way I’m cycling into the Himalayas.