In a desperate exodus from urbanites, embryonic urbanism and most importantly flailing urbanoids, I booked the first flight available away from Calcutta, to the hills I had grown up to love, but, maybe this time to another face of the same slopes. A fastidious being every otherwise, I have realized that my respect is not only bountiful for Nature but I am abysmally forgiving towards serenity and virginity. The hills were calling and I couldn’t wait to leave the misgivings behind.
National Parks, tea, green rolling hills, everything about the North-east corridor has beckoned me since my childhood days, but political fiascoes, terrorism and illusory distance had kept us from answering the call. After a rather eventful flight early morning we reached Guwahati and expected disappointment that it was no better than any rural district in Bengal. Only messier. In a rented car, we stumbled along NH 37 eastwards for 230 km to the Western ranges of Kaziranga National Forest. Where the abundance of thugs is only marred by my abundance of assiduousness, it is difficult to be in peace. Nature is the only succor. We had reserved lodging in Bonhabi Resorts, which was close to the Central Range of the national park but still quite far from the entrance. While the campus was green and lush and the sun was plentiful, you were not quite in the forest so the “feel”, as my mother puts it, was lacking.
Early next morning, jostling in an open ranger car, we reached the western range for an early morning elephant ride. A rather touristy activity, it was busy with families in colorful scarves and screaming and excited kids and men with their many forms of digital cameras. After a long wait it was finally our turn to ‘board’ the elephant, a scary, tumultuous ride it was as two elephants and their ‘mahouts’ chatted side by side on a narrow slit of land dividing two marshlands. Imagine falling from 8 feet tall animal, in squishy mud and tall grass and the elephant on top of you, not a pretty image in your mind that early in your morning.
But soon the mist rising from the ponds, the light sunrays and plentiful deer assuaged my fear and negativity. Happy camper, I was enjoying the sightings of one-horned rhinos, the ubiquitous Kaziranga native. I was a kid again, excited at once, miserable the next missing her favorite toy—a basic Canon 75-300mm lens. Birds were plenteous, colorful feather flying around the swamps and perched in bushes. The deer stopped and looked at us, the rhinos in their cute shorts grazing in the sun like average cows. For the ones, more articulate with 4 legged wilderness, than with their 2-legged hairless brothers, it was heaven!
After the one-hour elephant ride, we were back to the reality of people and their commotion, a steaming cup of ginger spice Assamese tea mitigated my rising annoyance of all things I condemned as fake. Back at the resort it was a sumptuous breakfast of Puri Sabji (potatoes can do wonders!) and hours of whiling away in the sun. Something I have forgotten how to do.
Soon it was time for our evening safari this time to the eastern range, which albeit far was a bird abode. 20 km further east on the main road, we climbed dirt roads through villages, farms and backyards to reach the eastern entrance of the park—an hour-long bumpy ride with clouds of brown dust trailing us, mother and daughter stood on the Jeep rattling between the metal rods, enjoying, well, freedom.
A herd of buffaloes were lazing in the sun by the water, with a variety of swamp partridges, snow-white storks and exotic geese. At one point another herd, clumsily crossing the road, saw our trespassing vehicle and ran like coy maids into the thick of the forest. Chatty parrots flew from one bare branch to another, their shrillness evading the silence; while their cousins, the grim grey-headed fishing eagles perched on the trees created solemn silhouettes. Indian kingfishers glided brushstrokes of rich blue through the horizon as they swooped into Kaziranga waters, to catch dinner. A lone rhino was enjoying its mud bath, while its stork friend free rode on its back. It was a village of tranquility, an equilibrium set by Nature, where we were intruders with our binoculars, cameras and white noise of electronic gadgets, trying to get hold of something that we are inching away from simultaneously.
Next day, we bid farewell to the kind-eyed elephants and soft-spoken locals as we drove west on NH37 towards Guwahati. Everyone we asked had their own sense of dimension of time and distance: Shillong could be anywhere from 180 km away to 300+, anywhere from 5 to 7 hours of tedious driving away. At Jorabhat we diverted from NH37 and went south on NH40 and entered the state of Meghalaya (Land of the Clouds). The next one hour to Shillong was cloud filled alright, but clouds of dust and diesel fumes. We kept waiting for the much reputed drive to Shillong, but the only things we saw were trucks puffing out obnoxious fumes and a dreary half-baked twisty road, lined with stores selling manufacturing parts and orange local liquor. To eyes that grew up loving orchid-lined houses of North Bengal Duars, this was unexpected misery.
Soon we reached Lake Umiam, a large ameboid lake creviced into short rolling ridges. The twisting roads took us to our resort Ri Kynjai (Ri Kynjai= Khasi for ‘land of serene environs’), hidden without signs on one such hillock. Pleasantly surprised at what lay beyond the heavy brown gates, we walked into the wooden resort, aesthetically created and scrupulously maintained. Whoever said luxury was overrated, had definitely not been my copassenger on this journey. We appreciated the hot water, the comfortable bed and the tasty local comfort food. The view was a surplus that we gorged on for the next two days, and filled our pockets with to savor for a long time to come.
‘Legend has it that millennia ago the sea caressed the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas and the Ancient Khasi tribe may have been a sea faring community. They readily adopted the upturned boat roof form which is inherently capable of withstanding the harsh monsoon winds and incessant rainfall. The Cherrapunjee – Mawsynram belt, the world’s rainiest area, lies on these slopes. Being aerodynamically friendly, these upturned boat roofs were best suited to withstand the squalls and storms of the region. Ri Kynjai’s architecture, inspired and derived from the original Khasi thatch huts’ with the upturned boat roof, the intricate but minimalist décor with dry acorns and poinsettias, celebration of all things local and ethnic from Meghalayan weaving to the ‘rooster’ Ri Kynjai was comfort, spelt the right way. The herb colored Jadoh, a Biryani clone, cooked with succulent chunks of chicken or pork was a Khasi specialty, steaming with a dollop of butter, it was all we needed to crave a nap. The Khasi warmth and hospitality with a professional demeanor made up for our delirious ride up to Umiam, so much, that we decided to stay put and enjoy the lake and skip Shillong altogether.
We walked the many trails, discovering shorter pathways to the water and heaving as we climbed back up, weaving through cobwebs of ethnic spiders and bright wild flowers that bloomed aplenty, my mother bravely excavating strange berries and cute leaves that lay on the ground. We strolled through the neighboring village. Garbed in a breezy Christmas spirit, people roared up and down the road outside in overflowing cars, tribal kids dressed in their Sunday best walked back from Mass. This Christmas was special. This trip was a real escape, dodging familiarity for strangeness and strangers, a vacation from vacations.
(for more pictures, visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/kolika/sets/72157625664053444/with/5287988840/)