Rishikesh #6 – Syrian dreams by the Ganges

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5.

Some of the most pristine white sand beaches in mainland India lie on the banks of the Ganges between Lakshman Jhula and Devprayag. So one sunny day, Jessica, Matt, Carol, Jasbir and I killed our lethargy and went on a long walk to a beach that was just off the road to the Neelkanth Mahadev temple. Jasbir was an expert at the picnic thing and arranged for two flasks of chai and a backpack full of snacks from one of his numerous contacts in Rishikesh.

We idled on the sand for hours on end, eating, smoking up, having weird conversations about UFOs (Carol apparently had seen them flying in the sky all the time when she was living in Costa Rica), watching the river rafters stumble about on the turquoise waters and wondering how mass tourism in Rishikesh had left such beautiful spots alone (FLASH NEWS: These spots have now been discovered with a vengeance.)

Matt had done a fair amount of traveling in his life. He was from New Zealand and wanted to pursue a career in liberal arts but couldn’t find a course that suited his needs. So he began roaming the world in 2002 working as a bartender in towns like Sihanoukville, Luzon and Chiang Mai to pay for travels to more intrepid parts of the world like Saharan Algeria, Congo, Central African Republic, Turkmenistan etc. Soon, he met an archaeologist doing a recce in a remote corner of Mali and followed him as an assistant for digs in Syria, Turkey and Iran.

That day on the beach, he was telling us about the time he got lost in a maze of alleys in an old souk in Aleppo on an archaeological recce. The finer details of the story are lost in the mists of memory but here’s a little gist of it. At one of the souk’s bewildering corners, he stopped at a spice vendor’s shop asking for directions. They got talking and the vendor appeared to be highly knowledgeable about the genealogy of spices. He invited Matt to live with him for a few days in his village which was about 60 kms north of Aleppo close to the Turkish border.  Matt, ever adventurous and greedy for knowledge, thought this trip might provide him some historical scoops that might impress his colleagues and went with the man and lived with him for a week learning an awful lot about spice routes and origins.

When Matt decided it was time to leave and re-join his boss who was waiting for him in Damascus, the vendor became very upset. He wanted him to stay for a longer time because he had come to enjoy his company too much. He was perhaps the first person he had met who showed any interest in listening to his long monologues on the spice trade. Matt thought of a plan to sneak out of the house while the vendor was asleep at night to avoid any complications. He waved down the first vehicle he saw and decided he would get down wherever it stopped and make a move from there. It came to a halt across the border in Turkey in a remote Kurdish town where he was arrested by the Turkish police for traveling without a visa stamp on his passport. The police refused to believe his story and he was put in jail for 3 days accused of all things from robbery, espionage and insurgency. Luckily, he’d been to some of the Kurdish parts of Turkey just a few weeks before and had become acquainted with an influential mullah in the Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir who could vouch for him.  After a few phone calls and some bureaucratic wrangling, he was thrown into a bus going towards Damascus.

Two weeks later, he chanced upon the spice trader while wandering in a market in Damascus. He thought the trader would be angry at him for leaving his house unannounced. But the trader seemed unusually happy to see him and took him to what he wagered was the best coffee house in Damascus. Matt waited for the trader to take a sip to make sure he wasn’t being drugged or poisoned. After a few more coffees and another long conversation about spices, the trader said, “You know, you were the best guest I ever had in my house because you were the only one to find a way out all by yourself.”

Matt was a good raconteur and had a natural gift to bring out the humour from little details. Carol, Jessica and I enjoyed the story very much while Jasbir waited for our applause to die down to pronounce his critique and said, “Good story, bad climax.” Matt shrugged, took another drag on his cigarette, plastered a grin on his face and said, “Thanks, mate.”

Jasbir never liked to be around Matt but he had his eyes set on Jessica. He was envious of the fact that Matt could connect with Jessica more naturally than he could. He would frequently joke about getting one of his goony friends to bump him off. In his head, the idea that Jessica wouldn’t be attracted to him didn’t exist. She didn’t have the time for him because Matt was hogging all of it. He would obsessively follow her routine, join all the activities she joined and stalk her wherever she went. But Jessica would never meet him alone so he had to tag along with Matt and the rest of us whenever we hung out if he wanted to get in a conversation.

One of the places we met often was Devraj Coffee Corner at one end of Lakshman Jhula. The coffee sucked and the food wasn’t particularly great but the café offered a view that none of the others did in Rishikesh. If you were lucky to find space in the outdoor sitting area, you had an uninterrupted view of Lakshman Jhula with its hectic humdrum of pilgrims, tourists, bikers, babas and the opportunistic monkeys pestering all of them. It was people-watching paradise.

Here Matt used to hold court and tell us more stories about his time in Africa and the Middle East. One moment he would be in Fez, the next in Timbuktu, a few minutes later on a hike in the Pamirs but the country he loved the most was Syria. He gushed not only about the archaeology and the history of the place but also its people who he felt were brave and courageous to retain their humour and humanity while being oppressed under the Assad regime. Syria was the place he hoped to go to when he was done exploring the world and settle down in peace because that’s where he felt the most alive.

And one day, he was gone. This made Jasbir very cheerful for a couple of days. He treated us to meals at places where he had exclusive access. He had already been dreaming up a world where he would be alone with Jessica on a honeymoon on a tropical island sipping rum out of a coconut. These fantasies were brutally dashed when Jessica left a couple of days later after saying goodbye to everyone else but him before she left.

When you’ve travelled for a while, you get used to people coming and going out of your lives and there are times when you forget that you’ve only known people for a week or two. Sometimes it’s comforting because it tells you that you can make friends in no time at all but it’s also scary because you feel you’re getting close to people without knowing anything about them.

It never struck me to ask Matt what he was doing in Rishikesh in the first place. He wasn’t particularly spiritual and appeared to enjoy intrepid travel more than the tame, soft-cushion backpacker world here. Jasbir felt he came to Rishikesh just to show off. Jessica thought he was lost and lonely in some way and needed to vegetate with human company to clear his head out. It didn’t make any sense because when Matt was around, he did a lot of the talking and if his wild stories were to be believed, he was never truly alone.

Matt’s accounts of Syria were the first time the country ever entered my consciousness. I resolved to go there as soon as I could. So in February 2011, after two years of traveling around India, when I finally got a passport, I chose to make Damascus my first international destination. I devoured books on the region, foremost among them Colin Thubron’s dense, intensely personal travelogue Mirror to Damascus, William Dalrymple’s examination of the remnants of Byzantium From the Holy Mountain (the only book of his that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anybody) and Edward Said’s critique of Western notions of the East, Orientalism. I drew up plans, went through the guidebooks, checked online for the cheapest tickets in and out, trawled the web for information on land border crossings, made a daily budget to stick to and so on. But instead of going abroad, I went to Varanasi for a project with the Ramakrishna Mission that came to me at the same time I was planning this journey which would allow me to spend a few months in the old city. At the time, it seemed an unmissable opportunity.

It might have been a life saver because, in March 2011, the Arab Spring bled into Syria and launched a cycle of escalating violence that continues to this day, decimating the country and its people.

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Mawsynram

It never rained during the 2 and a half days I spent in Mawsynram but it is known to be the wettest place on earth because of a long monsoon season during which it receives a mind-boggling average of 11,800 mm of rain every year. It’s a fairly big village about 60 odd kilometres from Shillong, a typically beautiful ride through rolling hills and high clouds. The village itself isn’t particularly pretty with concrete houses galore but step outside of it and hidden groves, alluring knolls and obscure little caves are just a little hike away.

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We had booked a room at Emily & Sankrita’s Homestay through Airbnb and this beautiful cottage is perhaps the only comfortable place to stay in the vicinity. Sankrita’s friendly hospitality and delectable cooking is reason enough to make the journey here. We gorged ourselves on Jadoh (rice cooked in pork fat/blood), pork intestines in salty broth, pork salad, dry pork intestines sliced into small pieces, another preparation of pork served in a delicious broth and some chicken. We were also served some vegetarian dishes to go with these meaty delights like rajma, mashed potatoes, squash and carrots which were done so well that they would have been a perfectly satisfactory meal in themselves.

To burn all the calories we had consumed, we had to get some exercise. So Sankrita arranged for a local boy named Biang to take us on a gentle trek around the hills. The path wound down to a rivulet winding through rocky pools and then up and over into the airy hills. It was a quintessentially wild Khasi landscape with bald, bulbous hills punctuated by thick, forested groves. We reached a point at the top of one hill which was crowned with a pair of Khasi monoliths and dolmens, memorial stones erected to honour the spirits of the ancestors.

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We then wound our way down a narrow trail deep inside a forested grove bisected by a dainty little stream. The trail here was slippery and we had to cut our way through the thick foliage to get back up to the main trail at the top of another hill. From here there was a stunning view of the forests below with a beautiful stream winding its way through white, curvy beaches at the edges of the jungle.

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Our final stop was a limestone cave formation called Krem Dam. Meghalaya Tourism appears to have big plans for the place because they were constructing a staircase to enable less hardy tourists to reach this spot more comfortably. We had to sidestep the construction site to scramble our way down to the stream which runs down the cave. It was an impressive sight and a bit of a struggle for less sure-footed people like myself and S to get to. Biang, who was springing over rocks like it was a garden stroll, wanted us to follow him and have a look inside. But we had a hard time just balancing ourselves on the slippery knife-edge of the rocks we were standing on, so hopping over them like Biang wasn’t ever an option.

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After the cave, both of us were tired and hungry. Biang wanted us to see another (in his opinion) unmissable cave nearby which apparently had a naturally-formed Shivling but neither of us were too keen. This exercise was exhausting and rejuvenating enough and all we wanted to do was go back to Sankrita’s house and eat more food.

Mawsynram was also memorable to me for one other incident. After the late lunch, Biang took us on a walk to a “sunset point”. On the way, I slipped on a loose slab of rock and hurt my left arm. It was already badly fractured a few years ago in a terrible accident in Laos and two metal plates had been holding the bones together since then. We ran immediately to the Primary Health Care Center and I had a few anxious moments as I was waiting for the doctor to arrive at seeing the soft tissue on the injured section swelling up. But thankfully, there was no fracture. After getting back to our room, Sankrita came up to give me a bottle of a local tribal ointment which she said would help my wound heal quickly. I never used the ointment but hey, it’s the thought that counts and I’ll always be grateful to Sankrita for showing concern.

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Mawlynnong

Mawlynnong, a peaceful little village of 80 odd households tucked away deep in the Khasi Hills might seem like an unlikely candidate for mass tourism when you go there and look at it but as of 2018, it’s among the most visited spots in Meghalaya.  The reason people come here in droves is because of a splendid marketing campaign advertising the place on the one hand as “God’s Own Garden” and on the other as the “Cleanest Village in Asia”. While the latter moniker may sound gimmicky and the claim appears a bit of a stretch, the people of the village have earned their right to it by keeping their surroundings commendably clean over many generations.

I wish I could say something nice about the room we stayed in though. We had to trawl through online forums and have a local contact named Embor book a room for us because all the places we called appeared to have been booked out by a big South Indian film crew that had set up camp in the village. While Embor was highly efficient in arranging a good driver to take us in and out of the place, the homestay was a disappointment. The room cost 2000 Rs., which was somewhat outrageous for what it was. There was a tiny living area, another cramped, musty bedroom and a bathroom with a squat toilet. The man running the homestay told us he had given the room we had originally booked (allegedly nicer and furnished with a western commode) to a family that checked in before us. We had booked for two nights but the room was so crummy that we chose to spend just one. It was a pity because that gave us very little time to explore the village at leisure.

To cater to the tourists who make their way here on day trips from Shillong, some “attractions” have been devised. So there’s a “Balancing Rock” (essentially one big rock on top of a tiny rock that looks like its levitating in the air) and a “Sky View Point” which is a bamboo ramp leading to an elevated platform that delivers views of the Bangladesh plains in the distance. These views are considerably better in other parts of the Khasi Hills, most notably Cherrapunjee, but the one from Mawlynnong is nothing to sneeze at. Having arrived here late in the evening from Dawki, we could only catch the dawn view which was very good.

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By far the best thing we did was to walk 2 kms to the village of Riwai where a flight of stony steps leads down to a stream above which hangs one of Meghalaya’s famed living root bridges. I have been to half a dozen bridges in the Khasi Hills and this was the easiest to get to. It might be the reason why it’s among the top draws for day-trippers from Shillong. We avoided the crowds by leaving at the crack of dawn and the only company we had was another group of people taking in the scenery quietly while we watched bands of butterflies flitting about and little fishes and tadpoles swimming underneath the crystal clear waters.

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So having spent just a night and a few daytime hours in Mawlynnong, do I have the urge to come back here? Probably not. Life is too short, the journey is a bit too tedious and there are far better spots to idle in the Khasi Hills. But I’ll say this, if the accommodation had worked out and the film crew hadn’t taken over the place, I could easily have spent a couple of days lounging around its brooks and groves.

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Rishikesh #5 – The Brenda problem

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3 and #4.

It was 11 in the night and Brenda, the big German girl we met in post #2 was sick. She was slouched over at the reception surrounded by everybody who worked there (and didn’t). The guest house people had thrown their hands up, made her write a note absolving them of any responsibility or wrongdoing and asked her to pack her bags and go someplace else.

She looked decidedly uneasy and was running a fever. Carol and Jessica pleaded with the people at the reception to get a doctor in but after a casual discussion where they counted all the doctors they knew in Rishikesh, they were highly doubtful if anyone would bother coming over at that time of the night for a fever and stomach upset. And since Brenda had already checked out and signed those forms, they said she ought to go look for help right away.

Everyone seemed to be sure that there were 24 hour clinics in the vicinity but no one knew where they were. Swarg Ashram at 11 p.m. at night in 2009 was one of the most peaceful places on earth because its denizens slept early. So there was little hope of finding a taxi or autorickshaw in that remote corner of Swargashram, where even on a busy day, one had to walk 20 minutes to Ram Jhula for any hope of transport. Both Jessica and Carol looked worried because Brenda had stooped over crying.

Ashok, the rude reception guy, wasn’t too happy with the slow pace at which things were moving along. He called the watchman and ordered him to escort Brenda out so he could go back to his room and get some sleep. Jessica and Carol ran ahead and formed a human barrier between the watchman and Brenda and said they wouldn’t let him evict her until she was seen by a doctor. Jasbir then poked his nose in by volunteering to accompany Brenda to the health center. This suggestion was decidedly rejected by Jessica who never liked Jasbir and thought he was a bit of a creep (he was). She said she would go along with Carol and Matt and take Brenda to the hospital. Ashok just laughed at this suggestion and told her calmly that if that’s what they wanted to do then they would have to write and sign the same note that Brenda had to and then pack their bags and look for another place to live because foreigners had special rules in the guest house.

Meanwhile, Brenda’s condition began worsening. She went up to the tiny open drain bordering the  building walls and threw up. Moments later, she could barely get her eyes open and was so anxious, she had a hard time breathing. One of Ashok’s ill-paid stooges then recalled that he had once been to a medical facility 2-3 kms away when his mother had become very sick in the middle of the night. Jasbir went up to Ashok and told him that he would take her if he sent this guy along with him to show the way. Ashok happily agreed and ordered Deepu (for that was the ill-paid stooge’s name) to do the job. Jasbir then looked at me and said, “Tum bhi aao hamare saath. Bahut boriyat hogi raaste mein.” (You come with me. I’ll get bored on the way.”)

I began cursing myself for a). making friends with Jasbir and b). venturing out of my room where I had been happily turning the pages on Terry Patchett’s Hogfather. I wanted to be an asshole and tell Jasbir, Brenda and the others that no, I would rather go back to my room and continue with my book, thank you, but I just didn’t have the nerve. Jessica pleaded with Matt and I to go along like it was her life and not Brenda’s which depended on our dark hike to the hospital. Ashok made a concession for Matt and allowed him to join the group without any repercussions or formalities.

After a slow crawl down the dark unlit alleys of Swargashram, Brenda couldn’t walk anymore. She was quite a big girl. Matt was about 6 foot 2 inches tall and Brenda was bigger than he was. Improvisation was in order and Jasbir, perhaps for the first time ever, felt happy that Matt was in his vicinity. Matt and I took the shoulders while Jasbir and Deepu took the legs. We huffed it for a few metres, put her down, caught our breaths and came to the conclusion that it was a very bad idea. We looked around for a vehicle to take us to the clinic at Ram Jhula but couldn’t find any. Deepu ran across the bridge to see if he could find a taxi there, again to no avail.

So we had no option but to walk. After an arduous struggle for an hour where we proceeded at the pace Brenda was able to amble, we entered what appeared to be a dark, jungly wilderness and the only lights illuminating our path were Matt’s head-torch and faint trickles of moonlight from a sliver of a crescent. Jasbir looked suspiciously at Deepu and asked him if he was sure we were going to the right place. Deepu wasn’t sure. He mumbled something about having come across a dark forest at 2 a.m. and getting lost before “Bholenath ki krupa se woh aspatal hamare nazar mein aa gaya. Kisko pata woh sahi mein hain ki nahin?” (“Thanks to Lord Shiva’s grace, we miraculously found the clinic in front of us. Who knows whether it really exists or no?”)

All of us were getting exhausted with this ordeal but we had come too far to give up. Every once in a while, Brenda would begin crying and apologizing profusely for putting us through this trouble and Jasbir would console her. We couldn’t imagine what she was feeling when we ourselves felt so hopeless. Matt made her sit down under a tree in the darkness while Deepu and I stole his head-torch and went looking for any signs of this elusive clinic. Deepu kept muttering a mantra under his breath seeking divine providence to get us out of this pickle. And sure enough, after 5 minutes of wild walking, there it was, in the distance, its tube-lights flickering in the wilderness like the proverbial lights at the end of a tunnel making some of us sceptics momentarily believe in the existence of a higher being.

The clinic had a stretcher which helped us carry Brenda over. It was serviced by one doctor and two female attendants. It was a small place with one room for the doctor and a partitioned waiting area. There was another room whose walls were cob-webbed and mouldy where a couple of unloved cots lingered on the edge for the unfortunate patient or two that might show up in the middle of the night. The doctor, after examining Brenda thoroughly, said it was nothing serious, just a case of food poisoning but it would be better if she stayed over for the night.

The clinic didn’t look like a great place to consign Brenda to her fate. But we didn’t want to lug her back either. We asked the doctor if we could stay over and take her to a hotel in the morning. The doctor just shrugged lackadaisically and said the choice was ours.

Jasbir then valiantly offered to spend the night, a gesture which drew a sarcastic snicker from Matt. He said he would stay over too in a tone which seemed to suggest he didn’t have any faith in Jasbir’s offer. Then Jasbir, who was half a foot shorter, grabbed Matt’s collar and said with all the venom he could conjure, “Why? You don’t trust me?” Matt gently pushed him away and said, “Leave it be, mate. You don’t want to get hurt.” This left Jasbir fuming but he wisely decided not to push the issue. He looked at me and said, “Chalte hain waapas. Hamari bas ki baat nahin hai. Goron ko lagta hai ki saare Indian chor hai. Ye jaanta nahin hai ki main chahoon toh paanch minute mein iski haddiyan tudwa sakta hoon. Dilli mein hota toh shaayad toot bhi gaye hote ab tak. ” (Let’s go. This is not our concern anymore. These white people think all Indians are thieves. If I wish, I could have his bones broken in 5 minutes. If he was in Delhi, they might even be broken by now.)

Matt let me borrow his head-torch because we didn’t have anything else to light our way back and we walked in the darkness to the ashram. Jessica was relieved to know that Matt was staying over with Brenda at the clinic. It was 3 a.m. in the morning and I went swiftly back to my room and fell asleep.

In 20 minutes, just as my mind was drifting into deep slumber, I heard loud knocks on my door. I pinched myself to make sure it wasn’t a nightmare but the knocking was incessant and frantic. I was afraid something might have happened to our friends at the clinic. I opened the door to see Jasbir’s petrified face shedding buckets of sweat staring back at me. This looked ominous and I had a faint feeling of dread coming over me.

“What happened? Sab theek hai?”, I asked. (Is everything alright?)

He took me down to a corner and began whispering rapidly.

“Bhai, tera pata nahi par mujhe toh bahut darr lag raha hai. Woh Matt sahi insaan nahi hai. Raat ko kuch kar baitha toh police humein andar daalegi. In goron ko jaanta nahi hai tu, bahut smart log hai. Unhe kuch nahi hoga, hum jaayenge andar”. (Dude, I don’t know about you but I am feeling very scared. Matt is not a good person. If anything happens at night, the police are going to lock us up. You don’t know these white people, they’re very smart. Nothing will ever happen to them and we’ll get locked up for their crimes.)

These panic-stricken anxieties coming from a man who had built his entire character on Dilli swag and brag was quite a shock. I assured him that Matt wasn’t capable of hurting a fly but my assurances were in vain. For the next two days, Jasbir couldn’t sleep a wink and didn’t come to hang out with us because he didn’t want to be seen around Matt. He was certain he was going to jail. He would knock at my door at 3 a.m. every night to spoil my sleep and vent his anxieties till the wee hours of the morning. I would tell him Brenda was perfectly fine and that Matt made sure she found a decent hotel but he just wouldn’t believe me.

So it was a real pleasure for the two of us to find Brenda lounging at the Devraj Coffee Corner one afternoon and see with our own eyes that she was safe. Jasbir got the entire story from her and tallied every detail to what he had heard from me to make sure the pieces fit perfectly. She was extremely thankful for our help and treated us to coffee and lunch.

After lunch, I went straight to my room, locked the door and slept like I seldom slept before.

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Dawki

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On the way from Shillong to Mawlynnong aka “the cleanest village in Asia” as its known in tourist parlance, we made a longish detour through the settlement of Dawki.  It lies on the Indian side of the Indo-Bangladesh border crossing on the southern edge of Meghalaya but the reason a lot of us casual tourists come here is not to enter Bangladesh but to float in the clear waters of the Umgnot river on the fishing boats idling on the riverbanks. I had been to Dawki back in 2010 and while the place has been well and truly discovered now, it was still pretty quiet with just a handful of tourists for company.

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On my previous trip, I had two sunny days to enjoy the setting and the crystal clear waters all the way to the hamlet of Shnongpdeng which is a handy base to explore this area with a few homestays offering basic food and accommodation. This time around, it was cloudy and rainy and while the lack of sunlight meant you couldn’t see all the way to the bottom of the river-bed, it was still beautiful to be on the river.

In a way, I liked the fact that I got to see the place in different conditions than before even if it meant getting my clothes and the camera drenched. My lenses went all misty on me for the shot below but I quite like this foggy, grainy image of the fishermen in Dawki working in the drizzle on the turquoise waters of the Umgnot river.

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There have been proposals since time immemorial to demolish the 86 year old suspension bridge that you see in the shot below to build a new, sturdy one that could support the coal economy of the region more efficiently. Call it bureaucratic lethargy or lack of political will but they haven’t been able to get it done yet. So for now, people like myself who like their architecture more old-fashioned and aesthetically pleasing can still gawk at the old structure that connects the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and provides overland access to Bangladesh.

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The boat rides on the Dawki river take you to a wide sand-bank where, if it weren’t for the rainy weather, I could imagine myself sitting for hours on end reading a book and staring at the misty mountains beyond. I looked wistfully at a couple of guys setting tents on the sand and wished I had come here with more time on hand. It is as tranquil a setting as one could imagine.

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Cherrapunjee #4 – Mines, meadows and a jaw-dropping view over the Bangladesh plains

Just a little beyond the view of Nohkalikai Falls is this gobsmackingly beautiful wilderness of rolling hills, dainty meadows and if you’re lucky, double-decker clouds in the sky. It’s better than it sounds because none of the crowds that flock to see the falls on package tours ever make it to this place and we had the entire landscape to ourselves. Certainly a highlight of my trip here.

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One of the defining features of the Khasi and Jaintia landscape these days is the ugly gash of mining that’s cutting up the hills. It’s an unavoidable sight no matter where you go here. The mining money is big and it’s one of the reasons the Khasi Hills have the best roads in all of North-East India bringing some prosperity to a few of its denizens.

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We were fortunate to find a last-minute reservation at the spectacularly located and busy Kutmadan Resort in the outskirts of Cherrapunjee. It was quite late by the time we finished wandering the meadows around Nohkalikai and chose to skip a trip to the Mawsmai Caves. It was a wise call because the view across the edge of the Khasi cliffs down to the watery Bangladesh plains was just jaw-droppingly beautiful. The Resort itself comes highly recommended because while it’s on the pricier side, if you’re in a small group, the price evens out and the rooms are huge and well-appointed. Our room had a living area with a fireplace which was bigger than some hotel rooms I’ve seen and another spacious bedroom area. It goes without saying that the views from the place are worth the price of admission in itself.

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Rishikesh #4 – The Return of Joseph

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2 and #3.

One evening, after a round of our usual Rishikesh haunts like Chotiwala, Parmarth Niketan and the chai stops in between, Jasbir and I went to Ganga café to see what’s going on. It was bereft of people except for one lone figure slouched on a table in the corner with his palms covering his face. It was a face we knew well but couldn’t quite recognize because even if we got the face right, the soul appeared to have been sucked out of its eyes leaving a lifeless dummy resembling someone we might have known once. The face belonged to Joseph. He looked utterly distraught and broken. His clothes were torn, his appearance was dishevelled, and his hair was all over the place. He resembled one of the more derelict pavement dwellers you find all over the streets of urban India.

Jasbir went up to him in his usual brash and tactless manner and asked, “Abey oye, kahaan gayab ho gaya tu? Kidhar gayi teri girlfriend?” (“Hey, where were you? Where did your girlfriend go?”)

Joseph’s tormented eyes looked up at him like they’d just survived a brutal pummelling in a war zone. He shook his head and began weeping miserably. After shedding a Gangaload of tears, he told us the story.

Catherine was perfect, he said. She understood him completely and was a joy to be with. He was convinced that she was the fortress of stability and the ray of sunshine he needed to cure the casual off-handedness with which he had been treating the women in his life. Her presence made him abandon his spiritual quest and find peace while indulging in the more human passions of romantic love.

One day, while they hung about one of the innumerable Lakshman Jhula backpacker pads, they ran into a dreadlocked Rastafarian whom Catherine knew from her time in Vashisht. After generously spreading his wealth of smokes, the Rastafarian invited them to travel with him to the “Rainbow Gathering”.

The Rainbow Gathering is a community living concept where a group of people from different parts of the world who didn’t know each other got together and lived in wild places, sleeping either in tents or the caves and crevices they could find, subsisting on what they could gather from the forest. The work was distributed somewhat equally between all the dwellers with some people designated to collect wood, some to cook food, some to roll joints and all to share their experiences over bonfires at nights. Joseph wasn’t entirely sold on the concept because he was having a pretty good time with Catherine in Rishikesh and he didn’t want this beautiful time disrupted by some hippie utopia. But Catherine was eager and excited. She would say, “Imagine! We could meet people from all over the world!” To which Joseph would say, “But we can do that in Rishikesh also!” Eventually, he gave in and they packed their bags, bought a 4 man tent and left the very next day with the Rastafarian.

The Rainbow Gathering in 2009 was happening in a village near Khairna in the Kumaon mountains. Joseph liked the community life as it was entirely different from anything he had ever experienced before. The natural settings and working together brought him closer to Catherine. The evenings were quite special as they swapped stories, sang songs, smoked weed and danced around the fire. All the urban ugliness that he had brought with him to Rishikesh seemed a world away and he was filled with optimism and love again.

So happy was he that, after 3 days in the forest, one fine morning, he asked Catherine to marry him. Catherine’s immediate reaction to his question was to laugh and ask if he had been smoking too much weed. Joseph, who until now was only prepared for a “yes” answer, told her no and that he was serious about it and they could get married that day itself if she wished, outside the boundaries of civilized society. This, according to Joseph, made Catherine run up to the Rastafarian and ask him if he could get her out of there because she didn’t want to be with that creepy guy from Rishikesh anymore.

The Rastafarian came up to Joseph and told him he’d better leave because he didn’t belong there as the invitation he had extended was only to Catherine and not to him. Not for the first time in his life, Joseph was left an angry and broken man. As he was on his way out, a German guy he got to know at the commune followed him to make sure he was okay. Joseph told him he was going to give up his life to look for an authentic spiritual experience. He wanted to give up any worldly pleasures he was clinging on to in search of true wisdom. The German advised him to go back to Rishikesh because he had entertained similar ideas a few weeks ago. After a lot of searching, he had found out about a baba who meditated in a cave near one end of a suspension bridge between Rishikesh and Shivpuri. But the search had left him frustrated because he could never find where he was. Some of the riverside babas claimed he was invisible and only showed himself to deserving candidates and that he had to live on the banks of the Ganges without food and water while waiting for the elusive invite. The German had heard of other babas deep in the Himalayas but they were considerably more elusive and the idea of spending a lifetime or two looking for one of them had thwarted his quest.

Joseph wasn’t one to leave his quest thwarted and slummed two days without food and water under the open sky. He passed out after day 2 and while he was unconscious, an opportunistic wanderer relieved him of the few rupees he had. Hungry, weak, broke and utterly devastated, he walked 10 kilometers to the ashram for refuge. But, alas, the ashram manager got spooked looking at his condition and refused to lend him a room. The only choice he had left was to hang about the café and hope we would show up.

After he finished his tale, Jasbir looked at the river in the distance thoughtfully and said, “Hmmm. You’re a Christian no?”

Joseph looked understandably puzzled and said, “I was born Christian yes. Why are you asking?”

Jasbir then brought his arm down from above, smacked Joseph in the face furiously and said, “Then be Christian, you idiot! You think these 1000 year old babas you go looking for exist? And if they exist and don’t want to be found, don’t you think 1000 years is enough for them to find nooks and crannies in the hills to hide so they wouldn’t be disturbed by idiots like you? And if you can actually find them, how do you find out if they’re genuine? Tomorrow I’ll go up the hill and sit there for 10 days, so you’ll come and worship me? And who the fuck proposes to a girl in less than a week since you met? You know what? You deserve to be in the state you’re in because I haven’t met anyone as stupid as you. You’re so stupid that you deserve to be like this for the rest of your life.

“But I’m your friend. So, here, take 500 rupees from me and 500 from him,” he gestured to me to donate to his fund, “and go home. Go look after your father and your business. Go to a church maybe if you want to look for God. Find a girl and try to love her for more than a week. I hope we never meet again.”

Jasbir went on to order some masala chai and pakodas. Joseph wept uncontrollably for 5 minutes, then took the money and left the café. We never saw him again.

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