We had come a long way. 511 suns had witnessed the steps of our stubborn resolve to reach India by land. And we were finally there – at the imaginary destination of our personal caravan. We had reached it via a route that never existed in our travel dreams; through a place blurred by the ignorance of our lack of knowledge. The tiny border of Tamu-Moreh, more accustomed to movements of opium and weapons smuggling, than independent wanderers with backpacks, duly let us through. Covered in jungles, Manipur, one of the easternmost provinces of India, lied ahead. A narrow geographical corridor squeezed between China and Bangladesh stretched like a highway leading to the core of our destination. Excited, self- pumped with the sense of great achievement, we entered India almost taking for granted an imminent distinguished welcoming. Bursting with happiness, we smiled and waved in all directions, as if greeting friends and relatives. But there, at the end of the road, of course nobody cared. There was no red carpet awaiting the travellers, no trumpets to salute us, no cup of tea served upon arrival, not even a place to get cash. A simple stamp on our passport, and off we went. We were one couple amongst many that had found a way to India overland. It felt like a lesson, of a very much needed humility, because we had done nothing else than putting one foot in front of the other and stretching thumbs, pursuing a personal quest that mattered nothing to those living their everyday lives. Length was the only variable that made our travel feel great, greater than any other journey we had previously made. But still, just a travel like many others in the end and promoted by simple selfish curiosity and itchy feet.
One night in the pretty sleepy town of Moreh, a row with arrogant bank officials rejecting to exchange us dollars and urging us to try our chance with a broken ATM that ‘might work if you have a lucky day’ and a few strolls back and forth the border (without an extra visa but with the consent of the police) into a Burmese Sunday market town in hunt for merchants willing to change currencies at more than half the official rate. Finally, we were ready to hitch to Imphal, the regional capital, but all cars had gone, so we simply walked, until someone stopped by ur side. We were in a hurry, not because of being fed up with beautiful natural surroundings, but because the road had brought us a gift we had to look after. A tiny baby cat, present from the side of the street, that needed a mum, and milk, and a vet, mewed sadly probably feeling sick, lost and unwanted. We wanted to reach a bigger city rather quickly than a snail’s pace, this time.
There are no bad places on Earth, just wrong timing and unlucky experiences. Imphal might be a nice city with its colourful markets, historical battle sights and active nightlife but unfortunately its name brings a different image to our minds. We reached at dusk and plunged straight from the green lush of the mountains into crowded dusty streets patrolled by large numbers of military personnel. Sleeping crawled in a corner of a strret, between burning rubbish piles, rats on a supper search and cow’s excrement felt unattractive and we decided to go for the safer option and get a room for the night. How could we guess that sleeping outside must have been by far the easier and less brain damaging option? We walked for hours until we had visited all hotels and guesthouses in the city. Big or small, dodgy or posh, they all rejected to let us in, kicked us once and again in over thirty receptions that were either to busy with local tourists and businessmen to fill a form for foreign visitors, or did not want us to witness the night life of their corridors, or were unwilling to allow a woman to sleep in, either one or the other, or all of them together. We did a second round, almost begging them to allow us to pay the double room fee, until Marta dropped her backpack, collapsed on a chair at a random reception and announced that she would sleep on the floor straight there, that nothing or nobody would move her a step further. Surprised looks, and “excuse me madam but”… nothing worked… She explained she had a sleeping bag, a stove and a tent, and she would happily camp there in the common room, or on the rooftop or anywhere else, but she would not move out unless taken to the police station where might be even more comfortable than on the streets of Imphal. Ten minutes later the key to a double room was dropped on our hands – “It is a lot of work to clean a room m’am”. One small victory had made us sweat and another story of walks and heat followed, while trying to find a vet for the kitten. Blocked roads, khaki suits, dust and narrow streets… But what could be more complicated than convincing a hotel-owner to let you pay for a room?
Cat vaccines sorted, and unwilling to explore the hostile city anymore, we decided to simply walk out, direction south. Not long later we were dropped by the shores of Lake Loktak, where heaven visits earth. Starring at its floating islands, we decided to head south to Mizoram, where we had heard that villages and cities perch on mountain tops. But despite all our plans, (and to a great deal thanks to the only one and extremely bad road map of the area we had managed get hold on) Manipur was not ready to let us go yet, and slowly, at its own pace and will, it began exposing both ends of its extreme character – its bottomless beauty and hideous perplexity.
At home in Churachanpur
It’s been a recurrent trend in this journey, that the best things happen when we simply decide to walk. And so we walked in Churachandpur, crossed the city and out of town, past the bridge, the last shops, and to our astonishment, a sinagogue, where, we later on learnt, a group of newly converted devotees celebrated the return of their long forgotten ancestral religion. ( Supposedly, a genealogical study had confirmed that some tribes in the area belong to one of the lost tribes of Israel…)
“But this is not the way to Aizawl” said Mesak three seconds after picking us up. We had thought so, it did not coincide with our map, but everyone we asked pointed ahead, so we had decided to trust people instead of drawn lines. “Why don’t you better come home with me and rest for a night? Tomorrow I shall show you the right way”. We doubted, looked at each other, and agreed that since we had been walking for a couple of hours on the ‘wrong ‘road, there was nothing else to do than accept the kind offer. “Are you Christians? What’s your mission?” In turned out, Mesak had only previously met foreigners who were missionaries. The North-east seemed to be a booming market for for all sorts of faiths.
Back in his town, Churachanpur (locally known as Chichipur), our plans to head south faced an unexpected interruption. The door of Mesak’s home opened wide for two complete strangers and their cat. His family welcomed us warmly yet unceremoniously, like close relatives or good friends that they had not seen for long. We joked and shared meals as the days rolled away unnoticed. We couldn’t go, they wouldn’t let us, not that we protested, their company was just too pleasant. Every night as we were preparing to say goodbye, they insisted that we should rest another day, celebrate Mesak and his wife’s anniversary, then our own, and a friend’s visit, and to let the rain pass… all occasions, ordered neatly, felt as if they had been scheduled months in advance. And we stayed, for days, and some more days, until more than a week had passed.
At Mesak´s we had the chance to meet Manipur from the living room, through talks and flavours. The names of local tribes mixed with family stories, village histories, languages, crafts…Vaiphei, Hmar, Paite, Zou, Kuki… if we wanted to learn more than just the present state of affairs, we were given books on the culture of the Hmar, their own family tribe, which told of myths and traditions that were now gone. The Hmars, like most of the Manipuri tribes and others in the North East, had joined the lines of Jesus Christ just a century back. We were invited to the family devotions around the dinner table, at church for Sunday mass and uphill to the prayer mountain, we witnessed their pledges for a better world, and a happy life. In Churachanpur we understood that in this land, Christianity was young and its followers enthusiastically embracing the gospel. Maybe a bridge opened and let us glimpse briefly into a the past that might have belonged to our own world. But when we asked about the spirits that had inhabited the forests just a few generations back, we were sent to the books for such myths belonged only to history.
“The road to Mizoram is dangerous, better take a shared taxi” – everyday, either Mesak or a member of his family would drop accidentally. To our questions about the nature of the dangers and their reasons, they would always look mysteriously at the floor and fail to produce an explanation different than – “People in the villages are not very hospitable, you see…”. When pressed to elaborate, their statements and behaviour seemed strange and contradictory. But it was difficult to think of hospitality rivaling theirs, so we were not greatly concerned by the road ahead when finally the day to leave came. Slightly anxious and sad for having to part we all stood in a row at the front door, the yellow flowers of the mustard and the green leaves of the broccoli dotting the background. “Go towards Thanlon, pass the city of Parboung and pop by Senvon, people are hospitable there, the first Christians of this part of the world” instructed Mesak’s father in his friendly and melodic voice. – “Be careful and God bless you! You know you have a family in this home.”
The deceiving highway 150 to Aizawl
This time we took the correct road. And we walked. Uphill on an empty lane of asphalt, with a tiny kitten mewing and clinging to our backs. We walked the serpentine road, stopping only for sugar cane juice at the point where the houses ended and the jungle began. “You better take the shortcuts” – told us a man sipping his juice nearby. “If you plan to walk to Mizoram, you better take the jungle paths, or you shall never arrive”.
We walked the road and the jungle paths, whenever we found anyone to point us through, enjoying each curve and turn, each step filled with jungle music and scents, each breeze of fresh wind, and the joy of an empty mountain road, careless for what may come. We were overtaken by the urge to walk, we wished we could turn into wild beasts and merge our tracks with all those that roam them. We were ants in a living labyrinth of trunks, vines, branches and leaves and we desperately tried to convince ourselves that this was our home. A borrowed one no doubt, maybe for a day, a week or a month, but all that held no importance. Like our kitten companion, we had lost notion of time as a line. It was only present, blind to the possibilities of past or future. We were just there, following the invisible signs of the road to Mizoram.
For three days we saw barely any cars, and were only picked up twice, by a jeep and a truck, a few kilometers each time. We slept in a village hall, a church and the temporary settlement of road engineers working far from their homes in central India. From them we learned that in fact there were two roads to Aizawl, and we were now on the wrong one, because despite being the official highway, as marked in our dubious map, it was partly under construction and not the preferred route for most cars. We rejected to turn back, and kept ahead, testing our luck, and along the way joined a grandparent’s celebration, tried the strange hilltribe food of Manipur, walked with the cat and joyfully slid down jungle corridors, carelessly greeting here and there a few locals with kalashnikovs.
“Sister, go home” – said a man to Marta while munching a puri for breakfast on the second morning on the road – “It’s dangerous here, there are underground groups”. So these must have been the armed men in the jungle, we concluded. “Mhmm..no..that were certainly hunters, there is nothing to worry about, this place is very safe. Do you want a cup of chai?” – the same man responded, leaving us perplexed by his contradicting words. Who were the underground groups? Were they truly dangerous? What was their aim and their means? We had heard of past events, terrifying ones, tribal tensions and huge conflicts, burnt houses and rapes. But they were only stories; the area of Manipur was supposed to be calm by now, and we had only be warned of a mere lack of hospitality…nothing more. But why all this mystery?
First encounter with the paramilitary, Assam Riffles in Aina
On the fourth day, by noon, we saw Ainah, a pretty village, perching on top of the highest mountain, strategically overlooking the vast sea of hills and valleys spread bellow. Standing there it was somehow difficult to confirm with certainty if any other sort of world existed beyond the forest. The pristine jungles were eternal and captivating. How could we know that a few men in military uniforms were waiting several hundred meters ahead by a barrier on the road? Ignorant to our arrival, they were to be left with no other choice than to interrupt our bliss.
The barrier blocked the empty way. Ominous, plastic and lifeless it broke the road’s unity into two imaginary spaces. Although symbolic, one could not pass through it. Firm, it demanded submission. “Good afternoon Sir. Your passports, please” – somebody requested kindly, but leaving no room for objection. “Please, follow me.” the person who requested our documents said with the same intonation. We were in the domain of Assam Riffles, a paramilitary body under the umbrella of the Indian Army, that is stationed wherever there is underground activity. We walked from one army office to the next, ascending in rank, foreigners on a free tour of military headquarters, and each visit ended with a phone call. Finally, we reached the end of the line. There, behind a large desk sat a most peculiar man. The commander; Mr. A.K., a middle-aged man with moustached smile, his joyful character well-masked beneath a ‘make-up’ of years of army training, tried to hide his curiosity over the unexpected appearance of two suspicious, weird hikers. The atmosphere of the place presupposed that his questions would certainly meet an answer, but all our wondering over underground groups and safety in the jungle would probably rely on deducing. Was the army operative or simply in Manipur as a matter of precaution and why we were an object of interest for them?
Eventually, it turned out that actually we had been brought there mainly for lunch. A meal that we would not have refused even if we had had breakfast, second breakfast, after breakfast and pre-lunch just before. An Indian culinary feast for our vegetarian taste buds. Meanwhile, as if somebody had switched on the most popular Manipuri radio, we listened to a program that we had already heard many times before. This area of the state was dangerous, Mr A.K: explained, wile the army doctor sitting with us on the table translated every sentence into Russian as if to make us feel more comfortable (happy to address us in language closer to Bulgarian). We should not continue on our own, we were told. There were stirs of underground activity in the hills. A slow, curvy dirty road lay ahead. Mizoram was far and the jungle deep.
We tried to explain a common hitchhiker’s philosophy, that if there was a road, it could be walked, and if there were cars, they could be hitched. It was only a matter of time to reach Aizawl, and time was precisely what we had. “OK, you can continue”- the commander said after a while – “but you better take transport to Thanlon”. We doubted any cars could be found, but were given permission to walk to the next village and find a car from there on. While spongy rasgula was served for dessert, we believed we had won the argument, and were even inclined to think, it was only curiosity that made A.K. spend his time on us. “But” he continued, “under one condition”…he reached for his wallet and handed us a wad of Indian rupees. We were dumbstruck and caught off-guard. We had been ready for an argument, but not for charity. The dining room quickly turned into a negotiations table. “Please, please, accept my gift. You really do not know how long it will take you to reach Aizawl. It is very far, I want to make sure you are fine along the way. Once you reach, if you so much wish, do a bank transfer and that’s all. If you reject a donation, you must accept a loan” Mr. A.K. smiled, and as he stood at the door waving goodbye, there was something almost paternal in his attitude. There was, before all, trust. And the trust of a stranger is a privilege and responsibility. It is a beautiful gift that must not be misused at any rate.
The invisible hand of the underground groups kept on interfering implicitly and subtly, without revealing its face. Like a skillful phantom puppeteer it never obstructed us, just contented itself with shaping our way. We walked out of the Assam Rifles headquarters with bellies and wallet stuffed. Half an hour later a most unusual sight materialized behind a curve – a white pick up loaded with chairs, tables, vegetables and people. Certainly, there was room for two more humans and one cat. We jumped up on board to Thanlon and, to our delight, driving the slow road through the jungle was as pleasant as walking it. Hours later, when the crescent moon rode confidently in the sky, the pick up pulled over in the middle of nowhere. A group of masked, armed shadows demanded a conversation with the driver. Squeezed into the open rear of the car, we held our breath for a few seconds, wrapping scarves around our heads and hiding in between the cargo. What if they see us? No, its too dark, its impossible…But, maybe they could hear us….they could hear our thundering heartbeats racing… Or maybe the driver would mention that there is a foreign load in the pick up… There was no time for more terror-struck monologues, and probably the shadows would not have cared about us at all. But we were glad that once reignited, the engine did not turn off until Thanlon.
Second (and last) encounter with Assam Riffles, Thanlon
If we had even dare to think that we had left Assam Riffles behind, we would have proven more than wrong. The phone line had extended its influence all the way to Thanlon and upon arrival at night we were greeted by a joyful committee in military uniforms. “Good evening!” – they said – “We were expecting you!”. A delegation of soldiers and villagers picked up our backpacks and brought us to the house of the chief. After brief introductions, we were taken to the most beautiful house in town for shower and rest.
We slept like babies, the three of us, nested in a corner of a wooden house decorated with tiny flags and smooth curtains separating the rooms. When we woke up, the house was busy. There was an air of excitement. As soon as we entered the living room we were invited to the garden. There, overlooking the endless sea of mountains stood several lonely chairs that somebody was carefully arranging in rows. We were urged to join the chief’s family and some military personnel on the improvised stage, and to produce our best smiles for a formal photograph. “No tourists have visited our town since British times” – said the son of the chief, “ït’s a photo for the archives…Now, let’s go to the house for tea”.
That day, and the following ones, we drank many cups of tea and posed for many photos. Sitting on a wooden bench we travelled without moving from the living room, while people of all ages and their stories came in and out of the door. Handshake, our names, our countries, that was the only constant. Policemen, school children, tree-loggers, soldiers, father Francis, the commander of Thanlon; everybody brought a piece of the Manipuri puzzle and put it on the table in front of us. The rumour of the underground groups gained shape. Tribal conflicts, hatred, blood, burnt houses – all lay hidden in the shadow of the mighty jungle trees. Now, the rifles were empty, but the bullets were still kept in pockets. Unofficial tax was apparently extorted from the villagers. Occasional tragic brawls and shaky deals with the government and the armed forces kept the precarious peace. And a residue of sticky fear refused to fade away. But despite all of that, everyone insisted that “it is safe here nowadays”, as if following an untold ritual, where by exclaiming their wish, peace would stay on their land, and inhabit the endless mountains, and never fade away again.
But it was not only armed skirmishes that ignited the forest. The jungle burnt also with the physical flames of fire. Smoke rose up from the hills, leaving behind deforested patches. Axes logged down old trees. Peoples poverty exploited by other people’s greed never spares nature. Ginger, planted on the cleared slopes by the local villagers and bought for pennies by merchants travalled far across the world bringing wealth to middle men and hardly the possibility to send their kids to school for the producers. Timber companies hungrily bought wood on a ridiculous prize poisoning the minds of tribal villagers with promises for wealth and better life. The market had already clutched its claws over this remote corner, fueling the turbines of consumerism with ‘smart’ business deals. And the trees shed leave-tears for a changing world had destined them to slide down into the abyss of fairy-tales. Yet only father Francis clearly understood the potential devastating effect of all that, but who would listen to a man with a stable job and no children to care for? Joyful, good-tempered tree-loggers invited us for a walk deep in the jungle where they boosted they cut down giants larger that a meter in diameter with mere hand axes. ‘Beautiful trees in magic forests’ – they said – ‘You have to hike with us. Working there makes us whistle and sing.’
But amongst all of the visitors to the house, it is two soldiers, A. from Assam and A. from Nagaland, that we will never forget. Having heard of Mr A.K. kindness towards us, they said they could not be less, and felt the need to show the regular soldier’s generosity as well, handing us one more bunch of cash “for the journey”, which we could only reject – enough to have borrowed a loan, but this was too much! They tried to make us reason, in the most powerful way of all: “When you find along the way, back home in Europe, a person from India like us, you will most certainly remember our gift, and show them a helping hand in return. Invite them for a bottle of water on our behalf”. Generous deeds, inspire further ones, and we wished that all the foreigners in Europe had such anonymous angels trying to send them good luck through a travellers caravan, knowing that, unfortunately, it’s not always kindness and trust what outsiders find there. A. and A. were lead by that beautiful gentleness that often runs through the veins of humans and we can only dream it might one day free itself from the yoke of prejudices and prevail.
Several days later we crossed a newly constructed metal bridge into Mizoram.. We are requested never to write about how we got from Thanlon to the bridge, and were kindly forbidden of taking photos along the way, let alone of the faces that revealed the story of the Manipuri jungle. But little did we care about photographs, for the sea of mountains had gifted us safe passage, and allowed a taste of its mysteries to the careless wanderers, everything thanks to having taken the wrong road from Manipur to Mizoram.
If you feel like reading a bit more about magic places and, at the same time, give us a virtual lift along the way (now direction home) you can pass by our Roving Stall and download the first book of travel stories and fairytales that we have written along the way.
It’s right here. — > Download Book in PDF
And you choose the price!