Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Never Before

                                                           29 May, 2009

No, I didn't try it. Next time, though.


Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Movies Seen: Get him to the Greek, Almost Famous

2 movies about affable people who're rock fans but otherwise normal, suddenly caught up in the world of rock, forced to spend time with rock musicians and deal with their chaotic lives and the changes in their own lives that follow.

Get him to the Greek (2010) - mild mannered record company executive is sent to London to escort an eccentric washed out rock star to the US for a comeback concert. Both are forced to face their individual problems along the way.

Almost Famous (2000) - A coming of age film. Young boy dreams of being a rock journalist; gets his wish fulfilled when Rolling Stone asks him to travel with a certain band and do a story on them. He learns about life, love, betrayal and failure along the way.

Neither movie glorifies the whole rock and roll lifestyle thing. That's not the focus of the films. Rather, the films portray the lifestyle or the lifestyle's stereotypes for what they are, and use that imagery, the extreme that is the lifestyle of a rock star, as a mirror against which the protagonists view themselves in all their apparent mediocrity, their own truth, learning something new about themselves.

As this guy says, we see ourselves in terms of others.



Friday, 21 January 2011

Just Passing Through

This is Fei and Yuan-Yuan, and they've been cycling almost all the way from Nepal. Apparently, the 2 girls are friends who first met a couple of months ago in Kathmandu. Yuan was already 3 months into her cycling trip, travelling all the way from Shanghai to Kathmandu with her husband. Fei was hitch hiking when she met the couple in Kathmandu and decided to join them, buying a bicycle immediately. Together, they rode through Nepal, and then parts of India like Delhi, Varanasi and Rajasthan (spending New Years in the desert) before they split up and the ladies caught a bus and train to Mumbai (they prefer cycling though, and would have cycled all the way if they had the time), where I met them.

Their original plan was to ride through Pakistan and Iran too, but only Yuan's husband could go, since the two ladies had visa problems which no amount of haggling at the embassy could fix. And so they parted ways, with the 2 girls proceeding to Mumbai, where they spent their first night on the streets, before looking for a place to stay. They were unsuccessful at the first bungalow they inquired, and got lucky the second time around, on Monday, Jan 10, when they dropped by my friend ZP's place.

My friend ZP has a SV-road-facing bungalow in Jogeshwari. Imagine his surprise when, while cooking at home in the afternoon, 2 Chinese girls he'd never seen before showed up at his place, greeted him with folded hands and a namaste, and asked, using sign language and broken English, if they could pitch their tent there. He let them stay for 3 nights, till they left the city.

They had a DSLR, and I got to see all their travel pics - Nepal, the mountains, the snow, then Varanasi, Jaisalmer, the palaces, camels & desert. It must have been cold. Occasionally, they got to meet other cyclists, but were mostly by themselves. They spent a lot of nights camping in schools. They said they enjoyed their time in India and that they'd be leaving for Kenya on Thursday, the 13th, where they would continue cycling for at least a few more months. On their travels, they met a lady who lent them some money and offered them work in her restaurant in Tanzania, which they plan to take up. After they finish travelling, Fei wants to go to the U.S to study, while Yuan-Yuan plans on going back home to her husband. They both want to improve their English first.

I wish them all the best.


Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Travel Diary: Jan 2 - 3, 2011

Day 16 - Sunday - Jan 2

We've got a busy day planned. We intend on visiting the city zoo, which is supposed to be huge. After the best breakfast ever, we leave at 11.00 for the zoo, partaking in some shopping and roaming around the marketplace first, and then heading to the zoo in 2 cycle-rickshaws (Rs.15/rickshaw). It's only 1-2 kms away. The ride is a fun first-time experience.

The zoo is crowded. We have to stand in a long line to buy tickets. It's Rs.10/adult and another Rs.10 for still cameras. Inside, it's huge. A few square kilometres. Some animals have decent natural-like enclosures. But it's sad that the elephants are chained. There are freely roaming monkeys all over the place. We also see tigers (the main draw), lions, leopards, leopard cats, hyena, jackal, giraffe, gharial, deer, hippos, African and Indian rhinos, eagle, kites and other birds.

It takes us 2-3 hours to walk around, seeing everything. I didn't even know Guwahati had a zoo till RB mentioned it. It's not in the LP. We leave for a late lunch, taking a bus to Delicacy restaurant. It's supposed to be really old and popular. We walk in and it looks posh and expensive. RB tells us he's brought us here because I've told him I'd like to try duck and pigeon, which are both delicacies here. Both are on the menu, retailing at Rs.180/plate. A full n.veg thali goes for Rs.340.

The duck meat is good. It tastes somewhere in between chicken and mutton. The pigeon curry is good too, though I'm not able to describe the taste. The only drawback would be the number of tiny bones in the dish. I'm happy. That's two more things crossed off my list of weird things to eat. And on my penultimate day too.

We return to Wireless by 4.30. Go to a place nearby to get online. Stay there for 2 hours. I finish an hour before the others. Wander outside to watch the construction work taking place on one section of the road at Wireless. Apparently, it's an election year, so they're trying to catch up with a lot of work after not touching the roads for 5 years. I remember what K told us that night at the river, about Assam being the most corrupt state in India, overtaking Bihar.

We return home for tea, then chill out at the terrace for an hour with a bonfire, drinks, and the house watchman and his superstitious stories. I realise I've lost my taste for alcohol. And then another delicious dinner of pork, pickled and non-pickled vegetables, rice and thick dahl.

ZP's neck has been aching all day, and it's getting progressively worse. He seems to be in a lot of pain. He has a very uncomfortable night.

Day 17 - Monday - Jan 3

I wake at 7.00. ZP is in a bad state. Needs to see a doctor immediately. He can hardly move his neck without hurting it. And he's supposed to catch a train to Kolkata today and then a connecting one to Mumbai tomorrow. RB and his dad drop us at a nursing home close by, on their way to work. 

While ZP sees a doctor, I go in search of an ATM that's not out of cash. Apparently they all get depleted over the weekend. I'm lucky on my 4th try. I return to the little hospital by cycle rickshaw (I've probably walked a kilometer looking for cash), and help ZP pay up. We then go to a pharmacy for some meds for him and return home by bus by 9.00 am. He's already feeling better after the injection they gave him.

We pack. I help ZP. We decide to carry one of his bags with us on the plane so he only has to take care of one bag on the train. RG leaves with him for the train station and to help him get our refund from where we had booked our original tickets from Tura, the ones we didn't use.

RG returns at just before lunchtime, and we go out to eat. I have a delicious roll. I'm so going to miss the food here. On our return we find a rickshaw driver who agrees to drop us to the airport for Rs.400. We leave right away with plenty of time to spare, which is a good thing since we get stuck in a major jam on the highway.

And our flight's delayed by an hour and a half. Luckily for us, we're taking the same plane all the way to Mumbai. No changing planes during the stop over in Delhi. We chill. And then board. We're in Mumbai in around 5 hours. Technically, it's Jan 4 by the time we arrive. Nice and cool in Mumbai, without being freezing. We enjoy the rickshaw ride home. Christmas decorations everywhere. Good to be back home.


1. Cherrapunjee is awesome. You can spend at least 4 days there. Friendly people, delicious food, natural beauty, greenery, an amazing valley, roads to drive around on & explore, bridges, waterfalls, caves. Must go back there for some caving, and just after the rains to enjoy the waterfalls. This is currently the best place in Meghalaya to go for a holiday.

2. Mizoram is beautiful too. I'd like to go back and spend at least a week or two travelling about. Unspoiled natural beauty, and lovely people.

3. The Christmas and New Year season is the absolute worst time to visit Meghalaya and Mizoram. Everyone is one leave, and everything shuts down at this time, even museums, national parks, shops, restaurants, and essential public and private transport.

4. Having your own transport would be an asset. Unlike other places in India like Ladakh, Himachal, Rajasthan, etc., cheap regular public transport is rare, forcing you to use expensive private transport, and so the N.E is not the most convenient place to go backpacking in India. The private transport that we got between towns was usually once a day, and always left at odd hours, wreaking havoc on our diets. And it was pricey - most of our expenses were transport-related, mainly shared Sumos and private buses.

5. Also, in general, most of Meghalaya (with the exception of Shillong and Cherrapunjee), and almost the whole of Mizoram, is not tourist friendly yet i.e tourism hasn't been developed here. There are beautiful places to see, but no one cares about promoting them. You have to work towards finding and enjoying them. There aren't any local tourism agencies to help you, no tourist friendly maps, no road signs, no transport, no publicity & little local help. Hence the extra time and expense needed, if you're travelling by yourself. Again, having your own transport would be preferable.

6. And lastly, inspite of all the time we spent in Assam, I still have to return to visit Kaziranga, Manas and a few other places. Next time.


Thursday, 13 January 2011

Travel Diary: Dec 28, 2010 - Jan 1, 2011

Day 11 - Tuesday - Dec 28

I'm up at 7.00 am today, much before the others. I talk with RB's dad. Tell him we're planning on visiting the museum today since we have the time. He tells me about a rhino wildlife reserve nearby called Pobitora. Says it's close by and gives us directions.

I tell ZP & RG when they awake. They like the idea of the wildlife reserve too. We leave at 11.30. Just the 3 of us. RB is at work. Head to Palthan Bazaar by bus. Collect ZP's passport size photos that he had taken on his first day here before we arrived but didn't collect. We find a private car for Pobitora. A WagonR, like RG's car, for Rs. 1100 for the full day. Had to bargain it down from Rs. 1500.

The drive to Pobitora is really nice. We get to see some good Assam scenery - flat fields and farms with blue skies, a welcome change from the concrete jungle that is Guwahati. Like what we saw on the ride to and from Aizawl, only this time was better because we could stop the car whenever we wanted to take pictures.

We see a domesticated elephant on the way, a buffalo, and finally a couple of rhinos on a large field, just before coming to the main entrance to the reserve. Apparently, this land around the approach road also belongs to the reserve. There are many security personnel, trucks and even a crane parked on this field. We figure there's a rhino trans-location going on. Rhinos are being moved from this reserve, where they're in abundance, to a national park, where they're needed. And all this can be seen from the main road that approaches the reserve. What a free treat! Especially for the villagers who live nearby, many of whom are watching the spectacle from the road.

The rhinos are fantastic to watch. This is the first time I'm seeing real live wild ones right in front of me. We try to take pics but the animals are really far away. I have to use the digital zoom on my 18x optical zoom Panasonic Lumix FZ35 (borrowed from friend NC) and go up to the maximum limit of 72x to get the rhinos to fill up the camera frame. The pics will be blurred on 100% magnification, owing to the fact that I'm not using a tripod.

Of course, the rhino trans-location means that the reserve is closed, so we can't take a jeep or elephant safari inside. A bit disappointing, but we do save over Rs. 300 by not doing this, and we already got to see and click wild rhinos and some excellent scenery, so we don't feel too bad. We have a lunch of pork chilly at a restaurant at the reserve called Kunki's. I like the ambiance but the food's a bit pricey.

The drive back is via an alternative road that's also very scenic. We get some excellent pics of the sunset lit clouds. It's nice to be excited about a subject. We haven't taken these many pics in one day since Cherrapunjee. We need this. Being stuck in Guwahati for 3 days has left us a bit edgy and in a bad mood, so this one fun productive day really lifts our spirits.

We get back home, but not before booking the same guy to take ZP, RG and I to Machkhowa early tomorrow morning to catch our ride to Tura. He's cheaper than the rickshaw guys out here. At home, ZP realises he's lost his camera. He searches the house, then calls the driver who says it's in the car and he'll return it tomorrow morning.

We go out for a walk with RB, then to a cyber centre, and then meet K again, who takes us for a drive. A few drinks and smokes later (them, not me), he leads us to Beatrix restaurant, quite a nice place with this cafe look on the ground floor, and caricatures on the walls, like Mondegars in Mumbai.

We all order the 'king burger', this huge chicken burger for Rs. 95. Very filling. K orders 3 rolls too, cut into 2 halves, but RG and I can't touch ours. We're too full. We all head back home. Stop outside RB's house for more smokes (them, not me) and stories of illegal activities. It's really cold now. Need to zip up my jacket. Head inside at 11.30 pm. We've got an early start tomorrow.

Day 12 - Wednesday - Dec 29

We take the 6.30 am shared sumo to Tura. They had originally booked us into a Bolero but cancelled that and moved us into a Sumo instead to accommodate the people who's trips have had to be cancelled over the last 2 days.

The journey is uneventful. The Guwahati-Tura road is good. Beautiful early morning scenery. We reach Tura by 1.00 pm (6 hrs). It's a small town. Quiet compared to Guwahati. The city centre, where we find a cheap hotel for the 3 of us for one night for Rs. 550, is a dump. Mostly outsiders (read Bangladeshis) staying here. We don't see many locals.

Tura, and most of Garo Hills that we've seen so far, just seems like one unending forest, with pockets of habitation here and there, which is what Tura would qualify as. A town spread out in parts here and there in the middle of a forest. There don't seem to be any plains here. Just forested hills. 

Without lunch, we ask around for transport to Nokrek, the biosphere reserve. We've heard a lot about it, and I'm guessing we'll need a full day there to go exploring, but half a day is all we have, since we're leaving tomorrow for Baghmara (we would have stayed an extra day or two in Tura if we had the time, but those strikes in Assam have cut our trip short). Unfortunately, no one here seems to know about Nokrek or how to get there, though they've all heard about Balpakram national park near Baghmara, which is our next stop. Even the rickshaw people either don't know about it or are reluctant to go there.

So we cancel the plan to visit Nokrek and instead take a shared rick to the Forest Office in Dakopgre, a suburb, where we hear there's a Gibbon reserve. We find the place easily, but since we're not sure they allow tourists inside, we pose as official visitors on forest business. However, we see mostly empty offices and residences belonging to the forest dept. The support staff tells us that everyone's on Christmas leave, that there's no reserve here, and that we should try Nehru zoo in Danpokgre if we want to catch some wildlife. One of the staff is leaving on an errand in a car, and drops us half-way there.

We take a bus the rest of the way to the zoo. There's a ticket counter, but no one manning it. We slip inside. RG decides to sit tight, while ZP and I take a long walk around. It's 3.00 pm now. Nehru zoo is really one big garden, with the zoo area hidden away towards the extreme left. We do see a few creatures - bears, barking deer, serpent crested eagles, owls, wild cats, a rock python. 

The animals all seem to approach the cages as we go past. Maybe hoping for food. I hope they're being fed. I can't see anyone around. We're the only ones here, apart from some villagers nearby. There's no security here. We could come in with some wire cutters, steal a pair of leopard cats and be gone before anyone knew.

We take a bus back to town and book a shared Sumo to Baghmara for tomorrow at 5.30 am. There just seems to be one private travel agency arranging transport  to Baghmara. The only other option is the bus. Again, we haven't had much of a breakfast and no lunch so we go for a buffet dinner at Brenga restaurant at the Hotel Rickman at 7.00. (Rs. 185 per person). ZP eats his money's worth.

Back to the hotel. Watch some T.V. Pack. The others are cranky.

Day 13 - Thursday - Dec 30

Early morning drive from Tura to Baghmara in a Sumo. The road is bad in parts, but we're there in 3 hours. Baghmara is a really small town. We stop at the main bus stand and shared transport ground a little further down from the market area. Our first order of business is to arrange for transport back to Tura/Guwahati. 

They tell us there'll be no transport at all on the 1st. And we don't want to leave on the 2nd morning since that would mean spending the night in Tura on the 2nd and leaving for Guwahati on the 3rd, and ZP has to be in Guwahati in time for his train on that day. We're not aware of any night transport. So the only option left is to leave for Tura tomorrow, the 31st, and try to get something for Guwahati on the 1st or 2nd from there. But the problem now is none of the private operators are willing to guarantee transport to Tura for tomorrow, since they have no one else travelling that day and they usually pack in 10 people in a Sumo, and we're just 3. So we're stuck for now.

We decide to at least try to see Balpakram since we came so far, and see what we get in terms of transport to Tura tomorrow morning. We get our permits done at the forest office nearby. Again, most of the staff are on leave but one of the guys lets us write out or own permits in the absence of official forms, and then stamps them. We then return to the grounds where we book a shared Sumo to Balpakram (Rs. 180 per person) and park our bags in the Baghmara tourist lodge on a hill above the grounds (Rs. 20/ person for a really really good room). We hope we can return to the lodge to spend the night. It looks really nice, cosy and has a beautiful view.  We return to the grounds, have a quick pork-curry-and-rice lunch, and take the shared Sumo to Balpakram. 

The drive starts off well on a tarmac road but soon ends upon a rocky dirt track. Balpakram National Park is 60 kms from Baghmara, and it takes us 2 hours to get there, the road being narrow, curvy and bad. We can see the plains of Bangladesh from the mountain road we're on. We reach the entrance to the park; it's on the main road, but there's no one around. We go snooping about. A couple of the residences around the entrance seem to be occupied. They're unlocked, so someone's living there. In one of the residences, someone has just cooked a meal and left. We find a guard's badge in one of the rooms. Maybe he's on patrol. 

We go for a short walk, return, hang around for an hour and then leave. We could stay here for the night in one of the residences, whether our mystery guard returns or not. We even have some supplies. But we decide to see if we can get transport back. We meet a bike on the road outside who tells us we probably won't be getting any transport back at this time (it's almost 3.30) and ask us to check in at a guesthouse about 20 mins away. 

We walk there, but the guesthouse is being renovated. The caretaker kindly directs us to the next village 5 kms away - Mahadev - where he says we might get accommodation in the PWD guesthouse. We start to walk, and then hitch a ride in an approaching border security van. The officers are nice; they seem amused at our story and how far we've travelled, and drop us at Mahadev, which we learn is on the border with Bangladesh and where the army guys have a checkpost.

We get a lot of glances at the village. The people are friendly but curious about the 3 foreign boys who've just been dropped off in their tiny village by the army. We find the guesthouse soon enough; it's situated on a hill just before the bridge that leads to the village, and is unoccupied, so we finally have our accommodation if we need to spend the night here. We look for transport but find none.

It's getting dark. We chill out at the village. This is a really beautiful place. The guys aren't cranky anymore, which is surprising as this is the one point in our journey so far that I'd expect to be the tipping point at which their anger would boil over and we'd all be at each other's throats, but I guess people can surprise you sometimes. RG seems in a wonderful mood. He's happy that a series of unrelated events has let us to be stranded at this beautiful place almost on the Bangladeshi border with little hope for return in time for any transport back to Tura tomorrow.

We shop for supplies at the village market. Supplies for dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow. ZP's phone is the only one that's been working up till now, but even here, as in Cherrapunjee, he's on a Bangladeshi mobile network. He finds someone who'll let him make a call to his travel agent to book his tatkal ticket. He also finds someone to make us dinner - fish curry & rice & Maggi. Oh joy! He's especially kicked about the possibility of the fish coming from Bangladesh.

In the meantime, RG stops a bus going the other way and confirms that a bus will be leaving to Tura tomorrow, coming from the next village farther up the road. The bus usually stops in Baghmara, but they're running a service to Tura tomorrow because it's New Year's eve. We're in luck at last.

We sit in the village and look at the stars while munching snacks and waiting for dinner. We can see so many of them in the sky because of the darkness. It's wonderful. Then we eat. I have a little Maggi. But all that travelling has left me without much of an appetite. The helpful villagers guide us back to the guesthouse with torches.

We return to the guesthouse. The lights go out as soon as we unlock and open the door. ZP is scared. He believes it's haunted. The guesthouse is a 2 bedroom one, with a small dining area joining both bedrooms. He insists we all sleep in one room. So we drag the mattress and sheets from one bed to the floor of the other bedroom. Some of the glass panes in the windows in both rooms are broken. And the metal grill along the top of one bathroom wall is rolled back a little. And we can hear tribal-sacrifice-like drum beats coming from the caretaker's house nearby. ZP is spooked. We spend the night shivering with 2 candles for company, wondering at the strange turn of events.

Day 14 - Friday - Dec 31

New Year's eve. We were originally supposed to be back in Baghmara early in the morning for a 6.30 am shared Sumo to Tura, but we've obviously missed that now. Instead, we're out in the cold in Mahadev at 6.00 am, waiting for a bus to pick us up and (luckily for us) take us all the way to Tura. The only catch is that our backpacks are still in the Baghmara tourist lodge, so we'll have to stop the bus there to get them. Will they let us do this? Or will we have to get off altogether and spend New Year's at Baghmara. The place is nice, but spending a night in Baghmara means we might not get transport to Guwahati back in time for ZP's train. And RG wants to get back at least a day early to make sure we don't miss our flights in case of another bandh.

We take a lot of early morning dawn pics while waiting for the bus. We wait for an hour. One of the villagers tells us how easy it is to cross the border over here. Everyone seems to be doing it both ways. He even points a couple of Bangladeshi traders out to us. The bus arrives at 7.00. The ride to Baghmara is slow and bumpy. It takes us twice as long to reach Baghmara as the Sumo to Balpakram did yesterday - 4 hours. I have a small snack at a stop midway. We reach Baghmara by 11.00.

What follows next is nothing less than a splendid moment of success. We've already told the bus conductor to stop the bus beside the hill on which the tourist lodge is located, and wait a minute for us to get our bags. We leave ZP waiting at the bus and RG and I dash up the steps set into the little hill leading to the tourist lodge, sprint to our room, which I unlock, grab our 4 bags, and dash down the steps to the bus, all in under 2 minutes. We're panting from the effort. And extremely proud of ourselves. 

The bus continues on to Tura, stopping in between at a place where I eat a roti for lunch. The others are surprised that I'm eating on a journey, something I usually don't do. But it's just a small snack. The journey takes 4 hours, longer than the previous 3 hour Sumo ride. The ride is bumpy and dusty. We reach Tura and search for transport for Guwahati asap, and when all we can get is something for the 2nd, book it and search for a hotel again. RG & I want to stay at someplace better for New Year's. We need to rest, and clean up big time. We haven't bathed for over 2 days. ZP wants to take up a cheaper place, but I tell him I'll treat him to dinner if he goes along with us, and we can stay in a cheaper room on our second day here.

We check into Hotel Rickman, clean up, relax and get some BBQ dinner from outside - 4 pieces of chicken, 4 pieces of pork, and chicken liver. Very delicious. We're starved. We also order some food from the hotel - pork fried rice & manchurian chicken (we had originally ordered 2 plates of rice but they screwed up our order, to our benefit). An amazing new year's meal. One that I will always remember.

I gather that in general, though English is widely spoken here, there seems to be a communication problem. People in Meghalaya can't understand us and we can't get through to them. It's probably easier to converse in Hindi.

We're done with dinner by 10.30 and chill out for a while, watching T.V. ZP and I take a walk at a little before midnight. We move away from the town centre, and discover that Tura is actually quite pretty at night. The town explodes into crackers and fireworks at midnight, and we get to see a real spectacle. Church is over for most people by this time, and everyone's zipping about on bikes & in cars, wishing everyone else. The town's in celebratory mode. It rains for a while too.

ZP returns to the hotel at 1.00 AM, and I continue walking for another hour. It's generally cool outside, but not cold. All the walking has left me hot, and the hotel room is stifling.

Day 15 - Saturday - Jan 1

We take our time getting up today. A lot of our past mornings have been spent on early morning starts to get early morning transport to some other place. And since we're not going anywhere today, we sleep in. We miss the complimentary hotel breakfast that ends at 10.00, so RG & I go out in search of some and a cheaper hotel room.

Almost everything is closed today, except for a few grocery stores. Like in Aizawl, they really take this time of year seriously. RG and I eat a tasty omelette breakfast at a restaurant nearby and book a room at a cheaper hotel. We return to Rickman, and the 3 of us check out. 

On leaving, we see a travel operator nearby who actually has seats available for today afternoon i.e 1 hour from now, in a traveller, a 13 seat vehicle (like a coach). We book at once, even though we've already booked tickets elsewhere for Sunday. The plan is to get out of here asap as everything's dead. We cancel our booking at the new hotel, and dump our bags in the vehicle. It's cloudy outside. Signs of rain. Beautiful weather.

The journey to Guwahati takes around 6 hours, as before. We stop at Machkhowa again, take a rickshaw to Palthan Bazaar, and a bus to Wireless, where we finally get home, and go out with RB for dinner to a restaurant nearby - where we eat pork masala, pork in bamboo shoots & rice.
A very delicious New Year's meal. 

Over dinner, he tells us of a run-in with the cops a day after we left. Ruined his New Year plans. He might have been better off with us. We head home for an early night.


Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Travel Diary: Dec 23 - 27, 2010

Day 6 - Thursday - Dec 23

Try to sleep on the bus during our 20 hour drive to Aizawl from Shillong. Not much luck. The road is mostly bad and the bus is slow as a consequence.

I see dawn in Assam. We pass fields, farms and villages along a dirt road that's supposed to be a highway. All flat topography. Beautiful calm scenery. Yellow fields and blue skies. Wish the road were better. We'd be able to enjoy the ride more and the drive would have been shorter. I have a couple of chocolate chip biscuits and a chocolate bar for breakfast. Parle Hide and Seek Milano is really good.

The guy next to me on the bus, JG, works for a rural development organisation based in Shillong, but works out of Garo hills, which is next on our itinerary. He tells me about their work in Selbagre village.

The bus journey seems never ending. It seems to go even slower after entering Mizoram, where the hills begin, and seems to snake up the hills forever. We pass three check points, and the bus is searched once at the Assam-Mizoram border. Alcohol is prohibited here, meaning it can't be sold in Mizoram, and I think that's what they're searching for. However, my companions are able to get their few alcohol bottles through, so I guess the border guards are mainly looking for professionals with crates of the stuff.

That first glimpse of Aizawl is breathtaking. Never going to forget it. A white city set into the side of a hill. Like nothing I've ever seen before. Kind of like McLeod Ganj, but much larger, and way more beautiful. We finally reach Aizawl at 5.00 pm exactly. It's very dark.

The people on the bus are nice, helping us with a cab and general info. We go to the tourist lodge at Chaltalang, but find it's closed till the 26th, and so head to the market area, some distance away, where the hotels are. Pity about the tourist lodge. It looked nice. And seemed very favourably located, on top of a hill. And their rates were excellent too. Rs 600 for a room for 3 people.

When looking for a hotel in the market area, we employ the same technique we used 2 days ago in Shillong, and find a room for Rs.700/night for the 3 of us in Hotel Tropicana. We dump our bags and look for a place to eat. It's 7.00 pm now. Our last real meal was lunch yesterday. We've missed out on a whole day of food. While looking for a restaurant, we come across a place called Earth Rock Cafe, some kind of lounge cafe set up by these group of friends. They tell us it's still early and we're welcome to come back later.

We then find Hot Pot, a really cool cheap place, and order mutton biryani, pork chow, and pork steamed momos. The bill for the 3 of us comes to Rs. 165 combined! Unfortunately, I don't have much of an appetite after all the travel, but force myself to eat something. The food is tasty. After dinner, we go back to our hotel to freshen up, and while RG sleeps, ZP and I go back to Earth Rock Cafe. Nothing much happening there. Just a group of friends hanging out. We share a drink with one of the guys there. He used to work in the fashion business in Delhi before moving back home.

We retire at midnight. It's not too cold outside, not like Shillong or Guwahati.

Day 7 - Friday - Dec 24

We wake late today. Go for a long walk around the market area. They don't allow traffic into the city centre during working hours, at least during Christmas time (though I could hear a lot of traffic on the streets outside our hotel at 5 am), so the people have the streets to themselves.

There are loads of people shopping. According to the 2001 census, the population of Aizawl is 228,280. We probably pass by 10% of that number on the streets today. The streets are really crowded, people doing their last minute Christmas shopping. We wander about, and I have a beef egg roll. We walk about some more, away from the market, and then take a bus ride, an excellent way to see the town. We return by another bus, and then another short walk back to our hotel.

Aizawl is beautiful, not like other Indian towns. It's clean, and looks prosperous. There doesn't seem to be any poverty. And the people look happy. Everyone is very well dressed, very fashionable. The people of Aizawl, and I suppose Mizoram in general, are among the most beautiful in the world. There are at least 2 beauty parlours on every street, and everyone looks like they stepped off a fashion ramp. Everyone is making a fashion statement, and there isn't a fugly person is town.

Also, almost everyone we see is a local, and they all look decent. I mean, they don't give out bad vibes or look hostile or anything, nor are they over friendly. They simply go about their daily lives, content, and are happy to help out if need be. Some of them occassionally glance in our direction, perhaps wondering who we are and why we're here. Guess they're not used to tourists, or outsiders. To be honest, this is the first time we feel like we're outside India. We didn't feel this way in Meghalaya. I guess it's because we're the other tourists here. There are other people from other parts of India, but they're here on business.

The guys go out for lunch near the hotel. I join them. We're told that tomorrow (Saturday) being Christmas, and the day after being both Sunday and the day after Christmas, the entire place is going to be dead. We won't even be able to find transport in and out of town. I rush out looking to book transport out of here asap, and after some running around, find 3 seats in a shared Sumo to Silchar for early tomorrow morning for Rs. 350/person. They say there's regular transport running from Silchar to Guwahati everyday, so we needn't worry.

RG and ZP join me by now, after finishing off lunch, and ZP goes to double check for alternate transport. In the meantime, a Mizo friend from Mumbai drops by and we chat for a couple of minutes. He's here for the holidays. ZP returns. He can't find anything better, so we book the tickets and chill at the hotel.

I take a walk around 6.00 in the evening to check out the Christmas eve scene. Everyone's dressed and going to church. I stop by one service. It's in a local language. The kids and adults are in different rooms. The kids are singing. I return to the hotel and drag RG out for an early 7.00 pm dinner. I haven't had lunch so I'm starving. He's stuffed himself for lunch so not really hungry. 

We go to David's Kitchen, a restaurant close by that is probably the best and most expensive in Aizawl (it even has a little fountain and lights in front, and people keep posing for pictures in front of it) but we think 'what the hell, it's Christmas, right? Let's indulge ourselves for once'. The restaurant is mostly empty. Not many locals there. I have pork in bamboo shoots and rice for Rs.185. The food is relatively bland, as Mizo food generally is, I'm told, but the quality and presentation is excellent. ZP drops by after his nap and the hostess tells us that there's going to be a concert at Temple square, so we walk there together, leaving RG at the hotel midway. 

The concert is an open-air affair, with different amateur Mizo bands playing mostly average Christmas music. They have some talent, but aren't really professional. ZP and I leave after a while and catch the remainder of the concert live on the T.V in our room. He drinks; we talk. He leaves for a late night dinner, and returns just after midnight to wish RG and I a Merry Christmas. The concert ends at a little after midnight.

Day 8 - Saturday - Dec 25

Christmas day. We take the early morning shared Sumo that we've booked (4 people per row) to Silchar. The ride is bumpy at times, but the scenery is excellent. And we're all fresh so we can enjoy it. We can see a carpet of white mist in the valleys below us as we ride through the hills away from Aizawl. 

I listen to music on my phone all through the trip. Noise canceling earphones. I highly recommend them. They cancel out the dumb Bollywood music playing in the car. Everyone else in the car is non-Mizo. The ride to Silchar is uneventful. We only see a few locals going to church, but that's it. Everything else seems dead.

We come down to the plains of Assam where we see lots of farms again. It's very scenic. We come to Silchar at last at around lunchtime. We can't decide whether to take a bus or a train back to Guwahati. We settle on a bus since a train would involve changing trains at Lumding as there's no direct train to Guwahati.

We're hungry too; we haven't eaten breakfast, it's lunchtime and RG and I go looking for a restaurant for a minute, leaving ZP alone, who soon wanders off, despite instructions to stay in one place. He's like a child. We eat mutton/chicken thalis at a place nearby for Rs. 70/60 each. Nice spicy ones. We then book bus tickets to Guwahati (Rs. 390 each) and head to an internet browsing centre (Rs. 25/hr).

We return by 4.30 to the bus counter. ZP goes wandering off again in search of a snack and we miss our connecting bus to the ISBT, which means we have to take a rick there (Rs.80). Once there, we find our bus easily and like it. It's more of a luxury bus than the one that brought us here, and more comfortable. I listen to music again, till I feel sleepy. No dinner. The roads through Assam are bad, and there's mist everywhere.

Day 9 - Sunday - Dec 26

I don't sleep much on the bus. We reach Guwahati at around 5.00 am and we're all tired. It's very cold, uncomfortable. The original plan was to go to Tura next, but we figure we need to recuperate and get some sleep, so we take a shared taxi to Wireless, walk the 10 minutes to RB's place from the main road (Rs. 40 each), and sleep beautifully for the next 6 hours.

We wake, freshen up, and at 1 pm have one of the most beautiful meals we've had in a long time, courtesy RB's mom - smoked pork, rice, fish, pork liver & prawn chutney. Very filling. I've been surviving on just 1 meal each day for the last 4 days, and my jeans are getting loose, so this food, and more like it, is welcome.

We rest again after lunch, then take a walk to the street outside. ZP makes us wait while he has some momos in chilli sauce. We return to RB's place for tea and delicious snacks, watch a little T.V, and then go out for a drive in RB's car. We meet his cousin K again, buy some liquor and head to the banks of the Brahmaputra. The others light up and drink while I talk and listen and try not to inhale too much smoke. We leave from there a little after 10.00 pm. ZP and K are drunk and high on the drive back making a lot of noise in the back seat, on either side of me.

Back home, I eat a very light dinner, and sleep. The plan is to leave for Tura tomorrow.

Day 10 - Monday - Dec 27

We wake up reasonably early, and are fresh and ready to leave the city by 9.00 am, after a full day of rest, when we hear that there's a bandh in place that's blocking all roads leading in and out of the city to the east i.e Tura and the airport, which means our plans for Garo Hills might have to be postponed.

By 11.00, we're told the roads are open, but inquiries at the ISBT, where RB's dad drops us (they only have buses leaving at 8.00 pm for Tura) and at Machkhowa (where the 2 private operators have cancelled their shared Sumo services to Tura for the day but one of them lets us book for tomorrow morning at 6.30 am) force us to shelve our plans for the day, after taking a tracker and a bus to get there.

We go to Kamakhya Mandir to kill time, taking a bus to the base of the hill, and a shared van to the top, which is mostly congested and dirty on the outside, though I'm sure the inner mandir complex is clean. No good photo opps here. We take a bus from the top to Palthan Bazaar, where the main city bus & taxi depo is, and get a bus to Wireless. And all this with our luggage. So a lot of travelling today, but it still seems like a waste.

We eat a roll for lunch at 3.45 and return home to RB's place where we chill, wait for him to return from work, and then book an early morning rickshaw to Machkhowa tomorrow. Rickshaw booked, the others head to an internet browsing centre while I return home to watch T.V, read and take a nap.

They phone me out for dinner. I go to the street outside, and meet ZP, who gives me really bad news - there's another bandh tomorrow. We hasten to make calls to see if we can get something, anything to move tomorrow, with no luck. ISBT services aren't running. And helicopter services are out of the question, since the road to the airport is also blocked. There's a longer route to Tura and Baghmara via Shillong along the Bangladeshi border, but that's both long and grossly expensive since we'd need to hire our own private vehicle from Shillong.

In the end, we postpone our shared Sumo tickets to the 29th. This is a bad blow. We could afford to spend 1 extra day in Guwahati, but 2 is too much. We'll have to cut short our trip to Garo hills, and if there's a bandh on the 3rd day, scrap it altogether and go somewhere closer like Kaziranga or Manas. We regret not leaving the previous night.

The roads inside Assam and the highway to Shillong are fine. It's just the main highway and connector east to Bengal and the rest of India that's blocked. Unfortunately for us, that's also the road to Tura and the airport. RG worries that if there's a bandh on 3rd Jan, we might miss our flight back to Mumbai.

It's almost 10.00 pm by now, so we catch a late dinner at a restaurant nearby, before going back home. The others tell me this trip is too rushed, but we had no choice really. If we knew there was going to be a bandh, we would have definitely spent more time in Mizoram or Meghalaya.


Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Travel Diary: Dec 18 - 22, 2010

I returned recently from a 17 day trip to Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram. As before, I kept a travel diary and I'll be putting up my entries online, beginning below.

Day 1 - Saturday - Dec 18

RG & I take a cab to the airport at 9.30 am. We reach reasonably quickly, and well in time for our 11.20 am flight. The 2 hour flight to Delhi and the connecting 2.5 hour one to Guwahati are painful. Major earaches. Maybe it's because I've not flown in over a year. Also, an additional 1 hour delay to our 2 hour stopover at Delhi airport means we only arrive at Guwahati airport well into late evening.

It's cold outside. And dark. I'm wearing a T-shirt and a heavy jacket, along with my warm skull cap. Our friend RB meets us at the airport. He used to live and work in Mumbai, among other places, in our colony in fact, which is how we met him. He's now returned to Guwahati to set up his own business. We take a rick to a circle in Guwahati (the airport is way outside town) for Rs.300, where RB's cousin picks us up in his car and we drive around for a little while. He tells us about this idea he has for a houseboat on the Brahmaputra river.

We're dropped off at RB's house, a large beautiful place, where we meet his parents and my friend ZP, who travelled here by train, leaving Mumbai 3 days ago, and only just reached Guwahati early this morning. Greetings are exchanged. I have a bath, and then a special dinner, that's absolutely delicious.

It gets colder as the night progresses. The floor is to cold to walk on barefoot. ZP and I share one bedroom, while RB & RG share another. We plan to go to Cherrapunjee tomorrow, in a car that RB has hired for the day (for Rs.2500), where we've booked a couple of tents at Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort for 2 days, and see a little of Shillong en route.

ZP and I have a lot to talk about. We're up till 4.00 am.

Day 2 - Sunday - Dec 19

We wake at 7.00 am today. I've not had much sleep, but feel fresh, excited.

Even though Guwahati and Shillong are the capitals of two different states, Guwahati being located close to the border of Assam to the south, and Shillong close to the border of Meghalaya to the north, means that they're only around 3 hours apart by car. And the good highway connecting them makes for a lovely drive.

We set off at around 9.00 am, after tea & biscuits. Guwahati's roads are dusty. We soon leave the city and the drive to Shillong is beautiful and peaceful. We stop to click pics at Umiam lake on the way to Shillong, and have a little pork snack. Pork is very common here.

We reach Shillong. Most of the city is closed because it's Sunday. No shops. No people. No nothing. But it seems like a nice place, and we make good time because of the absence of any traffic. We go to Ward's lake, which is a kind of picnic spot. Some people are here relaxing on the nice lawns, but the lake itself is brown. We don't want to spend too much time here.

Shillong seems like a nice place to walk around. There's nothing 'touristy' as such here, no clickable sights, it's more a place to take a walk in. We drive to the Cathedral next. It's grand. Lovely. Something clickable. It's past lunchtime now but we go to Shillong peak next. It's this hill really high up on the hill station that is Shillong from where you get views of the whole city. It's literally bone chilling up here, and the view is just O.K.

We drive to Cherra, all of us feeling sleepy in the car. The drive from Shillong to Cherra is again short, just about an hour or so. The scenery is very beautiful. The place is green even in winter. It's essentially a huge valley, much larger than Khandala, and stunning. We stop for a late lunch at Cherrapunjee town. Cherrapunjee is also called Sohra. The restaurant we stop at is called Halari. It's close to the petrol station, and they also offer rooms for 800/night.

Lunch here is delicious. We have 2 plates of steamed pork momos, 2 plates of pork dry fry (the best), 2 pork potato chops & 2 plates of rice, all for Rs 150/person. It gets close to twilight. Because these places are so far east, they're really in a different timezone altogether, but because they follow IST, sunrise and sunset both happen much earlier here. Sunset in winter, for example, takes place at 4.30, with it growing completely dark by 5.00 pm.

Our resort is about 15 kms away from Cherra town, along an inside edge of the valley. The narrow bumpy road means it takes a while to cover these 15 kms. We arrive, and check into our tents. They've set up the 2 huge army tents in a thatched room on the first floor of an under construction building next to the present resort. The tents each have a double mattress and blankets, and the temporary thatched room is somewhat cosy with moody lighting, tables & chairs, & gives us some privacy. A great place to chill out. The room is easily accessible via an external staircase and we have access to external bathrooms too.

So we sit around drinking as dinner time approaches, talking and planning our next day. RB & ZP do most of the drinking from 7-9, and RB keeps us laughing with his stories, after which we go down to the resort to eat. They have an excellent menu, and we have 2 pork jadoh stems (sort of like a pork biryani) and pork neiiong (a spicy pork curry). Heavenly food. I eat a lot of pork in Mumbai, but nothing like this.

ZP and I decide to do a trek to the double decker living root bridge at Nongriat village tomorrow. It's a full day trek. He wants to spend the night at a village guesthouse there, and I would too, but we're on a tight schedule here, so we decide to make it a 1 day trip. RG & RB decide to stay back and stroll around tomorrow.

There's an American here, TP. He did the trek yesterday and gives us some tips, like taking photos on our way up instead of down since we'll be taking more breaks going up anyway. He was here for 2 weeks last year, and went caving. He's done a lot of Alaskan treks, and is used to the cold. He tells us to say hi to Andreas at Nongriat tomorrow.

There's a campfire set up outside the resort, which we use to warm ourselves before retiring for the night.

Day 3 - Monday - Dec 20

The plan today was to trek to the double decker root bridge. We had originally planned to leave at 8.00 am. We finally leave at 8.45, after a breakfast of 1 paratha for me and omelettes for the others. The resort has fixed us up with a guide for Rs.500. His name is Bat. RG decides to join ZP and I at the last minute.

We start walking from the resort. What we need to do is follow the motorable road leading down from the resort to the nearest village, and then to a second village, and it's a proper trek from there. This road is about 3 kms, and we begin walking, taking a few pics along the way. It's so green, it feels as if it's rained only yesterday. We manage to hitch a ride all the way to the second village.

We walk down many many steps from the village, seeing some beautiful spiders on the way, before making it to the bottom of the valley, from where I change into something lighter, and we take a short detour to the first root bridge, which is the longest one. It's a sight to behold, and we walk across it. It's scary at first, but we soon get the hang of it. It's pretty sturdy. We return and get on the trail to the double decker root bridge. This involves crossing a couple of steel cable bridges, where we run into a group of guys from Shillong who've been here many times, and another small wide root bridge, before ascending a few tiring steps to the village of Nongriat, where the double decker is located.

We relax at the village. This trek down has takes us 3 hours, and I'm soaked. I had set out in full warm gear - 2 t-shirts and a jacket - and our guide is now helpfully carrying most of that. We meet Andreas, a local primary schoolteacher there, with whom we arrange lunch with and then walk to the double decker root bridge. It's awesome, like the others. They're even guiding the tree roots in a way that will make it a triple decker in some time.

We have lunch at Andreas' place for Rs. 60 each, and then do the long walk back to the resort. It's much harder this time because of all the uphill climbing, though they're only steps and not an actual dirt track. We make it back up to the village where we take a shared vehicle to the resort which we reach by dusk. So the trek took 8 hours in all, quickened by hitching rides, though I think ZP & RG slowed me down by at least 1 hour with all their extra breaks.

We freshen up, relax and ZP & RB drink while I warm myself by the campfire. We have dinner - pork meatballs, chicken & pork jadoh stem, dal in mustard leaves, and a dessert of apple cubes in cream for RG.

After dinner, ZP and I arrange a cab from the resort back to Sohra for Rs. 300. Travel is really expensive here. It pays to have your own vehicle. Shared or cheap public transport isn't always readily available. We discount any other travel plans here, like hiring a cab for the full day to visit the waterfalls and caves, because of the expense, but we'd really like to return to do some caving & exploring.

ZP and I chat with TP for a while, before retiring. RG and RB are already fast asleep. RB had the whole day to himself here, and he spent it walking around and watching a football match. People here (the Khasis) are really football crazy.

Day 4 - Tuesday - Dec 21

We wake at 9.00. Our bodies are aching after yesterday's trek. Have a breakfast of parathas, omelettes and orange juice. The resort restaurant is really good, and we've all eaten well. ZP orders a masala omelette, but gets one with onions and no masala. He queries this, and we discover that's how they make masala omelettes over here.

We pay up and leave by 10.30. Our cab drops us at Cherrapunjee (Sohra) town, from where we take a shared taxi to Shillong for Rs. 50 each. Though they're close, and the ride is scenic, it seems to take us much longer than 2 days before. The approach into Shillong especially is hell. Too many bottlenecks and too much traffic.

We get off at the shared taxi stop and take a local cab to Police Bazaar to drop Ravi off for his bus to Guwahati, and then continue on to Mizoram House to get our permits for Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram. ZP has discovered that there's a direct bus leaving for Mizoram every evening from Shillong, and we're aiming to get on one of those. We've already made some extra passport size photos in Sohra town this morning for Rs.60 each.

Mizoram House is almost deserted when we arrive at 3.00 pm. We have to go looking around for someone, and when we finally find someone, they're just leaving, but get us our permits without much hassle. The permits cost Rs.120 each, and require 2 photos and you filling out 2 forms with your basic info, one of which serves as your permit and the other which they keep for records.

That done, we take the cab to the area where buses leave for Aizawl and visit a couple of travel agencies to get our tickets, but one of them only has seats available for the 22nd evening (the other one doesn't have any), which means we'll have to spend a night in Shillong.

So we return to Police Bazaar and, after searching for a long time with one of us guarding our bags and the other 2 heading off in different directions to inquire about rooms), get a nice room at Stay-Inn guesthouse for Rs.1000 for the 3 of us. We dump out bags and roam around PB.

It's like this huge city centre, a central node on a little incline, with around 5-6 streets tapering down and off from the centre in all directions, like spokes on a wheel, each little street housing numerous hotels, restaurants and different kinds of shops. It's nice, not the cleanest, but nice if you like busy. It's crowded, everyone Christmas shopping, everyone busy. Most of the locals are very smartly dressed. Everything's lit up and decorated.

We haven't had any lunch today, we're all hungry, and it's getting to be dinnertime. We walk to a highly recommended restaurant nearby - Centre Dhaba - but that turns out too expensive and has been mostly booked out for a wedding reception. So we keep looking, find a Bengali section of PB, and then a local restaurant called Travellers Point, where we order chilly pork, mixed special fried rice, and rice & chicken gravy for Rs. 265.

RG goes to bed, while ZP and I walk about checking out the nightlife. We go to Cloud 9, a lounge bar here in PB. Posh, but reasonably priced. Also a bit small, and almost empty. We check out another bar at just after 9 pm, but they tell us they've just closed. Few bars here, and they're either deserted or shut by 9.00. Everything seems to close early here. Even the restaurants shut by 9.00. One of the places we check tells us they take their last order at 8.30.

It's getting progressively colder as the shop lights go out and the night goes on. Shillong is the coldest place we've been to so far in the N.E. We walk around for a bit just talking, watching PB shut down, before getting back to the guesthouse.

Day 5 - Wednesday - Dec 22

We get up late deliberately, skipping breakfast. We've earned it. Check out of the hotel at 12.30 but leave our bags behind to pick up later. We begin walking to the Don Bosco museum. We figure we'll go there as it's supposed to be good and we have a day to kill.

We walk a fair distance before realising it's really far and then manage to take a shared cab the rest of the way. The cab driver is playing Scorpions. We reach the museum and discover it's closed from 22-25 Dec due to Christmas. We walk down the street from the museum. This is nothing like PB. It's an area/district called Mawlai, a quiet beautiful locality with lovely bungalows. We catch a cab back to PB by 3.00 pm and look for lunch.

We go to a Manipuri restaurant for lunch. We had first seen it last night. We figure we'll try some Manipuri food here since we're not going to Manipur. And for Rs. 60 each we eat some of the most delicious chicken curry, fish curry & rice we've ever had. It's 4.00 by the time we're done. The owner tells us he used to run a Taikwando school in Colaba.

We kill time for 2.5 hours, first listening to some open air carol singing, which turns out to be a preview to some more serious worship, then shopping for supplies - biscuits, alcohol and chocolate - our next few meals on the bus to Aizawl, and then finally chilling out at a coffee place that's a dead ringer for CCD. I call a Mumbai friend who's Mizo and currently in Mizoram. He helps with some info.

At 6.30 pm we collect our bags from the hotel and catch a shared cab to to the designated bus stop. The bus is late coming in from Guwahati. Damn Shillong traffic. It finally arrives at around 8.30. We leave. No dinner tonight.