Friday, April 22, 2011

March-April 2011: Three Weeks in Northeast India

Back in India again - fifth time! Ten years ago, my husband and I arranged a rip from Delhi via the Golden Triangle to Lucknow, Allahabad and the Kumbh Mela, ending at Varanasi, traveling by auto and train. In 2004, I traveled with Explore from Bangladesh to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Bhutan. Several years later, I was with Sundowners on a journey which included a train ride from from Delhi to Amritsar before venturing onto Pakistan, China and several of the ’Stans. Last year, it was back with Explore, Delhi to Lakdakl: Manali. Leh and Amritsar.

This time out, I was with an American company, Advantage Travel, who had arranged an extensive, three week tour of the northeast portion of India, the so called Seven Sisters, which borders on Bangladesh, Burma and China. Tripura, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh: all different tribes, all in transition, all feeling neglected by the central government. And all well policed by the Assam Rifles, para- military units with a long history predating the partition. Because of unrest in the region for years, travellers were not allowed into the border states; even now, special permits had to be obtained.

In several states, there were demonstrations protesting the high cost of living and lack of government concern for the area. Women led the marchers with a lesser number of men in the rear. The parades were relatively quiet with no conflict.

Surprisingly, Christian missionaries, both Western and Indian, have left their mark on several states, though Hinduism is still the predominate religion overall. Buddhism, Islam and Animism continued to be practiced. The government is concerned enough about the encroachment of Christian proselytizers that permits into the area included a prohibition against missionaries.

In Tripura, a flag lowering ceremony is performed at the border between Bangladesh and Indian troops, not as elaborate at the one at Wagah, the Pakistan-Indian border. But impressive enough. As with Wagah, the movements are all very precisely, exaggeratedly British, one of the many things left from the British Raj.

There were several festivals: the Monyu festival in Nagaland and the Goru Bihu Festival in Assam. Some differences: our group of ten were strictly observers in the earlier event while several of our group got more involved in the Goru Biru Festival, with photos in the newspapers and television interviews. This one involved washing of cows in the river - cows’ protestations resulted in more people getting washed than cows - and an afternoon presentation by various drummers and dancers. Between these two festivals, a exhibition dance group performed atop our Mizoram hotel with people and pigs observing from nearby buildings.

Houses were built on stilts - concrete, wood or bamboo, with wood or bamboo matting flooring and walls. Roofs were either thatched or corrugated - or both. The cooking place was in the middle of the kitchen-eating area. Above was a rack to store goods. Other rooms were very plain, with coverings rolled up along the walls. I was in several houses, from very basic or more elaborate but all followed this simple plan. In both the flat land and the hills, stilts were needed due to the rains.

One of my big interests in seeing this area was the importance of Kohima and Imphal during WW2. I reread John Master’s Road Past Mandalay and a biography of Michael Calvert to prepare myself for the sites: Kohina had been he scene of a significant British- Japanese battle and Imphal has was significant staging area for British and Indian Army troops during WW2.

The large cemeteries were immaculately kept, by the Commonwealth, unlike the British cemeteries in Kabul and Gilgit . I photographed the grave of the one Assamese soldier killed on one of the conflicts - and the grave of a forebearer of mine, a totally unexpected discovery. As I looked at the huge number of graves, mostly of young Brits, Scots, Irish, Indian and Gorkha, I could only think, what a waste - a waste we are continuing even now!

Throughout, there were museums, mosques, palaces, temples, monasteries, shrines - all old and significant to the religious believers of the area. Time was spent in a Tibetan community, where they were sure of a return to Tibet! At one monastery, a great banging of cymbals was part of The ritualistic circling by one to two dozen acolytes.

Shillong had been a summer capital for the British Raj who were driven there by the South’s heat. a delightful place with some of the old British bungalows still surviving, and a hugh golf course, now overrun with local families. Out a ways, was living Root Bridge and the Elephant Falls - the Falls weren’t too spectacular as the water level was down but a bridge from tree roots was pretty unique.

We spent time in two schools: one in Mizoram,the other in Arunachal Pradesh. The Mizoram facility was Christian run for abusers and users, orphans, and the mentally challenged. No money, lots of rice and a willing spirit. The one in Arunachal Pradesh was a boarding school - the kids were from two different schools, one of girls and one co-ed, ages through high school. They put on a charming program and were very open in talking with us.

In lieu of an semi-built bridge, we rode a ferry across one river, than did two more ferry rides to/from the Majuli Island. And these ferries were really basic: old wooden barges where vehicles were driven aboard via planks with blocks at front and back. As passengers, we simply stood around., handing onto some railing or another. On two of the trips, the boat got stuck on a sandbar - crew dived in with bamboo poles to push off. Now when I read about ferries going down in in one of the far corners of this earth, I know what they mean. I wondered what our tour leader, a former Navy Commander, thought of it all.

Throughout Assam were the tea plantations with colorful dressed women, plucking the tea leaves. We stopped at the manufacturing plant where the Sikh manager explained the process and his wife served us tea. The field workers were there, waiting for their pay.

Toward the end, we started seeing more Westerners, particularly at Kazieranga Park. Early on, there had been a couple of Russians, an Footprints editor, two European guys, and a missionary couple from Tennessee. But at Kazieranga, there was an European couple, two Kiwis on their way to Nepal, a journalist from Vermont, and a retired Britisher and his wife, now living in Palo Alto . Altogether though, less than two dozen.

All in all, the trip was well worth it: the mountains awesome and the people friendly. I felt I was moving through living history, particularly when having tea with a Sadhu, along the river bank. I was able to talk with people and see areas before they were affected by tourism. Our local guide was superb and intelligent - this was his home turf and he made sure all went well for us.

Accommodations: Overall, better than I expected. Though some stops had only squats, most had Western toilets which helped as some of the group was unfamiliar with squats. With one exception, the hotels all had Western plumbing. Several hotels were quite luxurious - local politicos stayed here - several were nicely picturesque and the remainder were basic. One place managed to have Western toilet, no tub or shower but pail, bucket and plumbing for Hindu bath - with no drain! But did have an internet! Others were sans hot water. Ah, c’est la guerre!

Roads: Ah, the Indian roads have not changed. Still bumpy, narrow and chancy. All sorts of vehicles on them from the colorful trucks to the hand drawn carts. Not as bad as they are during the rainy season but still bad! Two lane asphalt on a good day - with three vehicles trying to pass. And obeying signs to honk. The several internal flights were a relief.

Cost:: $7580 which included flights from SFO-India plus internal Indian Flights. All other expenses, including meals, were included. I paid an additional $300 for local tips and donations.

NB: I really lucked out on my roommate. A lady with a sense of humor who put up with my warped approach with life.


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Anonymous said...

Glad to know you loved the northeast and had a great time. I see you have covered a lot of the region.