Greetings, and welcome to Kebe and Fast’s travel blog for 2013-14.
Our 2013 sales season was our most successful ever, although it ended on a bit of a sad note. On the last day that I was using our big red truck, taking the last load of empty boxes to the Cowichan Valley Recycling center we blew an oil cooler hose, and the engine seized. It was a big loss. Big Red had been with us from the very beginning, and was our third partner, and business icon. We loved that truck. R.I.P. Big Red.
With all of our end-of-season wrap up duties, the shape of this trip still hadn’t taken shape until the very end. We had our tickets to Bangkok, but after that, with less than a week until departure on Oct. 31st, I didn’t know if we would first go to Nepal, Indonesia, or India. Taking our current huge inventory into account, we ruled out Nepal, with great reluctance. Bali is a great place to start out a trip, and I am very excited about a new Indonesian destination, the remote Banda Islands. But that would mean leaving the buying trip to India for the spring, and they always, always screw up the shipment. Last year it was so late we didn’t have our new goods from there until the second week of July! So India first made the most sense. As well, leaving out Nepal gave us a window to get to one of the places on the sub-continent we have yet to explore: the N.E. corner.
Most people think of India as roughly diamond shaped with Bangladesh on the east, Tibet and Nepal on the north and Pakistan to the west. But there is a narrow corridor between Bhutan and Bangladesh through which the compacted pressure of India seems to have herniated a whole new territory, wrapping itself around the distended bulk of Bangladesh, and pushing out a vast balloon of land into the hills of Burma.
Until very recently travel was highly restricted throughout the N.E.. Permits were hard to come by, and arrangements had to be made through tour companies, and were very expensive. In 2011 many of the restrictions were lifted on a trial bases. It’s now almost two years on and nobody really seems to know what the present situation is. We are currently in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, and neither the state tourist office, nor the Govt. of India, whose job, one would think, is to know, can tell us if we are allowed to travel by road to either of the neighboring states. All I know for sure right now is that Arunachal Pradesh, the state that borders Tibet all the way from Bhutan to Burma, requires a difficult to obtain and expensive special permit, and Assam and Meghalaya, where we are now, do not.
We began this journey a week ago. Since the only cheap flight I could find from Bangkok to Calcutta arrived at a horrible hour (2:00 am) we decided we would just tough it out in Calcutta airport overnight and make a morning connection to Guwahati, Assam. I know, we are all about the glamour, and it doesn`t get much better than sleeping rough in Calcutta. In fact, since we were last here in the spring, a whole huge shiny new airport has appeared, and we follow the trend set by other passengers (and staff), and pushed conveniently-unsecured benches together to form an impromptu bed. Still, new or not, Calcutta is Calcutta, and in my sleepless clock-watching I counted four species of birds INSIDE the terminal, including a pair of minas who seemed intent on triggering a security door to get out.
Guwahati (pronounced Go Hottie) capital of Assam, on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River, gateway to the tribal N.E. should be more exotic than it is. But then again, as far as a YABDIC (yet another big dirty Indian city) goes, I`ll take it. There are the usual garbage-strewn broken streets and the snarled, honking, exhausting traffic, but the people are friendly and very chilled out, paying no attention to the sight of foreigners strolling through their neighborhood.
The real reason we wanted to come to the N.E. wasn`t to see Guwahati, or even Assam, but to go to the state to the south, Meghalaya. A few years ago I came across a photo of a bridge constructed from the inter-laced aerial roots of living fig trees, spanning a jungle-draped river, and it looked amazing.
That particular root bridge is near the town of Cherrapungee, also famous as the wettest place in the world, receiving around 11 meters of rain per year. To get there from Guwahati you first have to take a Sumo to Shillong. This isn`t as hard as it sounds. Sumos leave regularly from various points around town. Based on the Toyota Land Cruiser, the Sumo, built in India by Tata, is the transportation workhorse of the N.E.. We received our initiation into the art of Sumo riding a couple of years ago in Sikkim. At its best, tickets are sold – 3 in front, 4 in the middle seat, 4 in back – it departs when full, and doesn`t stop to pick up more along the way. At its worst…well, we`ll get to that. Guwahati to Shillong was a good Sumo. We got the front seat with the driver. Even though it was only the three of us, it was still so tight that K had to sit with the gear shift between her legs, the driver expertly and discretely running through the gears. Reverse was the worst.
All over India the British built high-elevation hot-weather retreats called Hill Stations, from where corseted mem-sahibs could wax nostalgic in their little ersatz Albion over breakfast G&T`s, and sit on church committees planning charity balls for the benefit of proselytizing campaigns among vicious, benighted tribes like, say, the Khasi. Shillong, where we are now, is one such Hill Station, on what was once and is again Khasi land. Among the Khasi the proselytizing was certainly successful, as they describe themselves as “100 %“ Christian. The Khasi have kept some older traditions, however, that are perhaps not typically Judeo-Christian. Worshipping sacred groves of trees is one, and a matriarchal system in which inheritance is passed through the youngest daughter is another.
The British are gone, but the new overlord, the State of India, has not been very kind to the Khasi, or Shillong. Much of the character of the hill station has been built over with drab concrete, and traffic often comes to a standstill, the drivers inching forward and switching their engines off to save petrol. The Khasi themselves have some 23 distinct languages among a population of almost 3 million, so language extinction is happening quickly. They are listed as a “scheduled tribe“ in India`s bizarre and complex system of affirmative action, which gives them educational opportunities and tax-free status. The down side to being an educated, fair-skinned, tax-free people with inheritance passed through the daughter is that it hasn`t escaped the attention of the rest of the country. If a businessman from, say, Gujarat can marry here, he can get tax-exempt status, and as a bonus inherit his wife`s family`s property. All this has led to a backlash against the influx of India, manifest in marches, strikes, and occasionally violent confrontations. I can fully understand the frustration of the people of the N.E.. This should really be a separate country.
Stay tuned for the next blog: we will be going to the enchanting valleys of the living root bridges! In the meantime, more photos can be seen on flickr (go to the link on the tool bar of our home page), and videos on our youtube channel.
Khublei (thank you in Khasi), and thanks for your kind attention.