Silent and opaque the night spreads its black curtain over the scarcely populated mountains. Like a candle in a dark room, Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, illuminates the distant hills in a gleaming aura. It has taken us many hours of swinging curves to cover the hundred and twenty km to the small town of Mamit and yet Aizawl lies just a couple of valleys away. We conclude that in hilly lands pigeons would be by far superior messengers than the post car. The paradoxes of the Indian North East, a lost piece of land balancing between the subcontinent, China and South East Asia, could probably be explained best with a single word –isolation. Political, self-imposed or geographical, it is precisely that which turns the region into a wonder box. The jungle thrives with a locally grown diversity. Heading to the nearby state border with Tripura, we can only dare to wonder how long it will take to cover the next few hundred kilometres and what will they be filled with. If only we could fly above the jungle trees! It would be at least as scenic as driving by the line drawn by their trunks and would qualify as the most practical way for travelling the area. Additionally, it would allow us to draw a reliable road map which in turn would spare many hitch-hikers a headache. Why doesn’t Burma have wings? If our travel at times feels like inhabiting a strange fairy reality, wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to have stumbled upon a dragon egg instead of a kitten? The line between dreams and reality gets blurred and we quickly fall asleep entertained by the image of a flying cat carrying us over the forest.
All roads lead to Tripura
Separated from Tripura, the third state on our way in India, by a narrow but thick belt of vegetation, we desperately try to reconcile the paper atlases we have at hand, google maps and people’s advices. When it comes to directions, just like on our way from Manipur to Mizoram, uncertainty prevails. There are many ways to Tripura, and just as many opinions on which one is the most convenient. We hitch a smoky, rusty bus, the only vehicle that dares to challenge the reality on the ground, and slide down the tricky hills. Unexpectedly, we reach a forest clearing in a valley, where a small busy market happily blares around. Ladies sit behind stalls of unknown fruits and vegetables, an ice-cream cart makes slowly its way through the crowd and a man roasting corn, as if on purpose, blows the embers and periodically covers everything in grey clouds. The bus pulls over under its own cloud of smoke raising from the engine and all passengers are kindly invited to join the market party and buy a live chicken or munch a snack. Markets always hold a charm of their own, and one hiding at the bottom of a tiny jungle valley has an unarming beauty. Suddenly, the sky darkens and big, warm drops pour down rushing to the soil. We jump back to the bus and watch the tropical world disappear behind a wall of rain.
Eventually, the sun rises again and as the water speedily evaporates we drop down at a village crossroad. Quickly surrounded by an inquisitive group of people, curious to know who are we and what brings us around, we immediately counter question them. “Where are we and what is the way to Tripura?” “Take that road, it is the shortest one and you will reach quickly the river” – proposes someone while handing us a plate with two oily samosas. “One problem only – adds a second one – maybe there is no bridge to cross over to the other side….”. We wonder how deep the river is, and hope to find someone with a raft, while somebody sketches lines on a paper, and improvises our itinerary thoughtfully measuring the pro-s and con-s. It seems that nobody has left the village, or crossed to the neighbouring state for a while. Thankfully, someone comes to our rescue with resolute certainty “No, no, no! Go that way! – a finger points a downhill road ahead – Once you get to the river, there is a new and nice metal bridge straight to Tripura!” Unfortunately, further clarification reveals disturbing details. It looks like there are no cars on this road, because for a while it turns into a narrow path. ‘But never mind, if there is a bridge, all will be OK’ – we are cheered up. “Listen, safety first – interrupts the voice of reason – go all the way up to Assam and cross to Tripura from the North. It is twenty-six hours by shared taxi only.” Unable to take a decision, we sit by an enchanted crossroad, which by now we are convinced, is the gateway to Tripura – regardless of which way we take, it must eventually lead always there. Clearly, we could even turn back and go opposite direction to Assam, but miraculously still reach our desired destination.
Finally we make our minds and, based on blind preference, take a road lighted generously by the soft afternoon sunshine. Quiet and solitary, its asphalt skin torn by many pebbly bruises, it runs down the hill under the gaze of the jungle and the chattering of tropical birds. Bellow, a lush valley embellished in haze breaks into the vague, bluish contours of Jampui hills, the desolate mountain range home to many Tripuri tribes. We walk in the shadow of the forest, attentive to each and every move in the bushes, visualizing in terror sharp-teethed big felines in a place where, we would soon learn, hardly lives anything more dangerous than squirrels, marmots and wild hens. To our relief, when the sunset clouds fade in colour we reach a village with bamboo thatched rooftops. Tired like our flattened shoe soles we readily accept an overnight rest invitation by a committee of local ambassadors who intercepts as we get to the village. Have they expected us or just improvised a welcome party? “Come to my house!” – we follow a young lady and sit in a living room in the company of her husband and a bunch of neighbours – a group of changing faces, all coming and going but somehow always keeping a fixed number. “Oh, you are heading to Tripura? My parents are also going there tomorrow and can take you.” – the grandparents in a corner of the room smile reassuringly . What a convenient coincidence! – we rub hands merrily – In the end, it’s true that all roads lead to Tripura! Careless, we fall asleep in the pleasant simplicity of the wooden hut, accompanied by the buzzing lullaby of mosquitoes and covered by the pale moonlight pouring undisturbed through the holes and cracks of the roof and walls. At dawn, without having to bother even thumbing on the road, we will get a lift straight to Tripura. A comforting end to a day that ominously promised a repeat of our Manipuri headless wanderings.
A slow pace to the weekly market
As the first light of the day breaks, we wake up and hurriedly pack our sleeping bags rushing to the street to join the company of the elderly couple that would bring us further. We wave a quick and thankful good-bye to our hosts but to our surprise, instead of in the back of a pick-up crowded with people and luggage, we find ourselves trying to catch up with the energetic pace of two grandparents hiking casually on a jungle path. Slowly waking up to the realization that we are not heading towards their garage we ask plainly “Tripura?”, supposing we have followed the wrong people. “Yes. Tripura, Tripura.” – they nod in confirmation. “Car?” – we try to keep the conversation going. “Six-seven km, bridge, car coming…” We pant confused behind them while crystal clear, a faceless voice of yesterday reverberates in our ears “But never mind, if there is a bridge, all will be OK”.
Soon the path merges with a lost road that suspiciously reminds us of the one we had walked yesterday. Why are we going backwards? The maps that the grandfather-turned-guide draws in the dust only complicate the matter and deepen our confusion, for they do not seem to follow the logic of the regional cartography. Waking up before sunset and hiking with a heavy backpack without a breakfast is acceptable only in the name of a higher goal, but roaming aimlessly in a random direction…The sight of an unknown village pacifies Marta’s morning temper and confirms the veracity of the map drawn by the triumphant grand-father. Tiny huts with palm-leaf rooftops give a bucolic touch to the view. Dozing under a strangely heavy morning heat the village is very similar to the one we had slept in. “Same, same” – responds the grand-mother to our observations. A tribal man sitting on a bench in front of an improvised bamboo church materializes as if out of a photo of an old colonial missionary book. “Welcome to our village!” – he greets us – “We are the Bru tribe, the poorest community living in the most underdeveloped corner of the most underdeveloped part of India” – he goes on with a slightly perceptible sense of pride. Often rural places, beautifully idyllic to our post-industrial eyes, suffer the consequences of their remoteness. Their poverty rarely bears the marks of that depressing misery characteristic for the shabby ghettos clustered around urban areas and easily deceives our senses, bringing us an air of peaceful simplicity. But that quietness is fragile. The restricted access to medical care, education and opportunities is certainly a scary social imbalance that we, the privileged passer-byes, rarely have to worry about. However, do people living in such places see their problems in a similar vein or are they more preoccupied with the lack of flashy luxury? Sunken into questions with no clear answers we finally reach the metal bridge, which we very well know by now, means that ‘all is OK’.
Finally…Tripura. But not yet the end of the path.
Excited, we cross over the river and sit in the shade of another Bru village, this time on the Tripuran side. “Food?” – the grand-father asks us pointing at a bowl of popular North-eastern dish – over-boiled rice with chunks of meat. “Is there a shop?” – breaking our vegetarian habits after just one-skipped meal does not feel right. “Shop yes, but next village.” – comes the reply. “Ok, no problem, when is the car coming?” – waiting for sometime is not an issue especially since Burma’s meowing has been suppressed by a piece of pork. “Car coming maybe next week” – the announcement cuts still the air. “This week car not coming.” Another old man, bare-foot and dressed in white, holding a black umbrella instead of a hat, joins the party, looks at us and smilingly urges us to go.“Next village, metal road, many cars” – we are explained. “Many cars today?” – it is important to gather as much information as possible.“Yes, yes” – comes a reassuring answer. “Next village how far?” – we try to fit one more piece of the puzzle. “ Seven- eight km. Up, up, up” – the second part of the sentence implies certain difficulties. “OK. Water?” – almost begging we quench whitish lips. “Yes, yes, water near” – and we all begin walking.
The village disappears behind us wrapped in an intensely green blanket of leaves. The promised water doesn’t seem to be anywhere around. Maybe it is in a big plastic bottle lying on the back seat of the car that didn’t come today but will be here next week. Just when the thirst is about to turn Marta into a wrathful tornado, things take an unexpected twist and anger dissolves into desperation. ‘Water!’ – the grand-father with the umbrella smiles cheerfully as he gets on his knees and starts slurping from a stream crossing the path. ‘Good water. Drink. Because next water..’ – we disbelievingly follow his hand stretching theatrically slow towards a house perching on the mountain top. The slope, hopelessly steep, glimmers in green. And we begin breathing deeply before making even the first step up. One foot in front of the other and then again, we slowly move up interrupting the youthful pace of the grandparents. As we walk we alternate moods of heavy physical struggle with undisturbed admiration for the landscape around. Vines, betel nut palms, bananas, tropical flowers, all sorts of vegetation cover the path in a hug of green. The cloak of tranquillity spreads over the hills. Or so we think until a flatter of wings and clucking of hens brings us into a different reality. A group of ladies hikes down the hill carrying a row of chicken tied to a bamboo stick. ‘Fast, fast! Market maybe finish!’ – the grand-parents urge us. Soon, people carrying fruits and vegetables, bags of shampoo and soaps, slices of pork,tires and all kind of random stuff pass by us merrily. Marta drops on the floor under the load of her backpack and the revelation that she is taking part of a Sunday market stroll. The straining walk to the end of the world is just a regular market day, the deep, pristine jungle is an alley to the vendors’ stalls. A piece of sugar brings her back on her feet. ‘Just only three kilometres’ – the barefoot old man adjust his umbrella, smiles and walks on.
Exhausted, soaked in sweet and dry like yellow leaves we finally meet the asphalt. 8 hours of walk bring us to the sound of cars. A pile of rubbish mark the end of the jungle. On a messy square taxi-drivers, merchants, little businessmen, café and restaurant owners and a busy crowd of buyers all share the same cloud of dust and smoke drinking tea and eating rice. Around us the life of Tripura begins unrolling, celebrating its market day with decibel even higher than those of the tropical forest. People in colourful tribal dresses and heavy with traditional jewellery, go after their daily chores like a walking exhibition of an ethnographic museum. We have reached Jampui hills, the land of the tribes than once spread all across Tripura, but found themselves pushed to its borders by the processes marking the separation of India and East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Thankful to our improvised guides we gulp big sips of tea and enjoy the feeling of being lost strangers in a stranger place.
A state in the North-East of India. The third smallest in the country. It borders Bangladesh to the north, south and west, and the Indian states of Mizoram and Assam to the east.
It has a population of 3,6 million and 30% of them are indigenous people (19 tribes and many subtribes). Bengali and Kokborok are the main official languages, followed in numbers by Hindi and many minority tongues. English is used for official purposes.
The capital of the state is Agartala, which can be reached by plane, by train (once a day) or by road (easily from Assam, and via Mizoram if one has a lot of time)
Jampui hills, the landscape of this part of the travel, is a hill area at 3000 ft above sea level, and 250km away from Agartala that serves as border between Tripura and Mizoram.