A Road Trip to Cherish...
I remember taking road trips since my childhood. Perhaps that’s how I got bitten by the travel bug. My earliest memories of a proper road trip are of the 7-day long journey to the hills of Assam and the other North-Eastern (NE) states.
It all started one fine October morning in 1989 when Uncle G and Aunty L from Bombay Natural History Society visited us at our Guwahati home. They were planning to a take a tour of a few hill towns of NE for research purpose and wanted Deta’s (my father’s) inputs. Our Durga Puja vacation was on and we kept on flitting in and out of the living room where the elders were having their discussions.
I could hear snippets of the conversation.
“.....in fact, why don’t you all come along with us?” I heard Aunty saying.
Deta threw a worried glance at us, and then looked towards Ma.
That evening saw the parents conferring earnestly among themselves. Finally, Ma approached us.
“We will be going on a long journey,” she said. “And you must behave yourselves in front of Uncle and Aunty.”
Sis was famous for her tantrums and this was addressed particularly to her. We nodded our heads excitedly.
And thus, I embarked on a journey that covered over 1,130 kms and till date remains the longest road trip I have taken.
The itinerary read something like this: Guwahati – Shillong (Meghalaya) – Cherrapunji (Meghalaya) – Jowai (Meghalaya) – Umrangso – Haflong - Jatinga – Dimapur (Nagaland) – Jorhat – Golaghat - Guwahati.
Uncle G had a Mahindra & Mahindra Jeep and since we also had one at that time, it was like travelling in our family vehicle. Ma, Deta and Uncle sat on the front seat while Aunty, sis and I sat behind. I can never forget the fun we had while driving through the hairpin bends amongst the lush green hills and knolls. Those were the days when hairpin curves did not make me queasy. Sis and I used to fall upon each other at every bend and laugh away to glory. So much so that our parents had to ‘shush’ us up. Aunty used to look upon the pair of us quite amusedly.
(Source: Google images)
October in Assam meant the onset of winter and the evenings used to be chill. We would be cleaving our way ahead in the darkness, mists swirling around us, with the headlights of the Jeep trying in vain to pierce through the foggy blanket. I would stare ahead hypnotized at the two parallel beams of lights. Ghost stories heard a long time ago, told by uncles and older cousins, would play on my mind as I searched for lost souls in the fog. Cold wind would sneak in through the Jeep’s gaps and we would huddle under thick Naga shawls, our feet tucked up on the seat. Ma would turn around from time to time to check on us, worried about us catching cold.
Mornings were cheerful and bright, the Sun casting its long, warm ray over the trees and hills. We would stop at roadside tea stalls and have sweet milky tea with Marie biscuits. Later, Ma and Aunty would buy oranges, guavas and cucumbers from village ‘haats’ (markets) and we would munch on them whenever hunger pangs made their presence felt. I have vivid memories of having sandwich made from bakery-bought fresh loaves of bread and cucumber-tomato slices sitting on wooden benches by the side of Ward’s Lake in Shillong. The trees were in full bloom at that time and even the ones which did not have flowers bore colourful leaves in shades of yellow and ochre. Sis and I would run amongst the pine trees and slip down on the pine needles, bursting into fits of laughter.
(Source: Google images)
Come evening and the beautiful hills turned into dark, grotesque forms on both sides of the road. Trees became witches with pointed hats. I would keep my eyes on the lonely road ahead and try to block out such imaginations. There was no music system in the vehicle; instead the night air would be raided by the loud, unceasing song of the cricket. We would drive miles and miles in search of the twinkling lights of a ‘dhaba’, open late for starving people like us. There, we would devour hot, charred tandoori rotis and ghee-laden dal with green chillies and chunks of onion.
Our nights would be mostly spent in Forest Inspection Bungalows, thanks to Deta’s contacts, where we would lie down gratefully on warm cozy beds and catch a few hours of sleep before waking up early the next morning to continue our journey. I remember it was in Umrangso that sis finally cracked her resolution of ‘keeping good behaviour’ and absolutely refused to board the Jeep for the next destination. That particular lodge had caught her fancy and her loud cries of protest could be heard ringing all the way to the villages in the hills, for sure. And so, the first Assamese words that Malayalam-speaking Aunty picked up were ‘Moi najau’ (I will NOT go). We still tease her about the incident which took place almost 25 years back.
On our journey, Deta would point out many new things to us. At one point, Uncle had stopped the car so that we could have a better look at the ‘jhoom’ cultivation (or shifting cultivation/slash and burn cultivation) a system in which plots of land are cultivated temporarily, then abandoned and allowed to revert to their natural vegetation while the cultivator moves on to another plot. I don’t have much idea on present conditions, but at that time jhoom cultivation had resulted in gross deforestation of the hills. It was sad to see patches of verdant green forests burned down or chopped off to accommodate this form of agriculture.
(Source: Google images)
At the time of our road trip, the monsoons had just got over and the hills were vibrant with streams and waterfalls rushing down their sides. Many a times, we would just pause and admire the beauty of these natural creations. I recollect seeing the slender Nohkalikai Falls in Cherrapunji and gasping at its height. No wonder that it is tallest plunge waterfall in India.
(Source: Google images)
Another memory that will always remain in my mind is the night we spent in Jatinga. Jatinga, a small village in Dima Hasao district, is known all over as the place where birds commit suicide. Nothing can be further from the truth, a painful one, which till date pricks my mind. What the world knows as ‘birds suicide’ is actually a deceptive process where the villagers engage in attracting the birds using strong lights and then killing/capturing the dazed birds. (I don’t know if things have changed today.) Uncle and Aunty were quite keen to record the procedure and made some enquiries in the village, without disclosing their professions or their motives. But the villagers got wind of it. We stayed up waiting for the lights to come on the whole night and yet nothing stirred. The villagers had checkmated us. It was the coldest of nights, while we waited on a small tower to see the spectacle. Misty rain and howling winds flayed us from all directions. My teeth were chattering from the cold and Ma wrapped her shawl around us and pulled us close together to keep us warm. Finally, we had to give up and return to our guest house.
Another memory that stands out is of the frog legs on offer in Dimapur, Nagaland. I remember gawping at the signboard that said ‘Frog legs available’ and feeling quite uneasy about it. I think I am much more adventurous today and would rather like to try one of those legs. On the topic of food, Aunty was amazed at the crisp golden Masala Dosa that we were served in Haflong (or was it Umrangso?). She had never imagined that a South Indian delicacy would be served so perfectly in a small hill town of Assam.
While returning to Guwahati we had stopped at a natural hot water spring called Garampani (what else) near Golaghat. The hot water spring was located inside the Nambar Reserve Forest and we were thrilled to see such a natural phenomenon. The hot water could be seen bubbling up and it was with some apprehension that we dipped our fingers into the pool. Sis had some acne on her face then and someone had told that the water had healing properties. I remember her enthusiastically dabbing her face with the water but cannot recall if that had actually worked on removing her acne.
We had spent days 7 days on the road and towards the end of it, I was really looking forward to returning home. The journey had worn me out and I just wanted to have a long snooze on my own bed and have hot food cooked by Ma. And yet, I felt twinges of sadness as we left behind the undulated stretches of green hills and small brooks, and made our way towards city life. I knew that the time I had spent during those 7 days, the places I had visited, the sights I had seen, the people I had met, could never be replicated again. I remember waving back at cherubic school kids on the road with a heavy heart as the Sun was preparing to set against the fast receding hilly skyline.
And so, all I have today are the memories of my first road trip, one which I will always cherish for the rest of my life.
(This is an entry for Indiblogger and AmbiPur’s ‘The Perfect Road Trip’)