There are times in a travel when the only thought in one’s head is “I’m tired”. Times when the comfort of a pillow or a full day of sleep are of no help whatsoever. Because it’s another kind of tiredness that bothers the traveller, it’s an overdose of stories, words and faces, an exploding archive of disorganized memories. For us there is one key symptom: hitchhiking exhaustion. If we ever stop caring about who would pick us up, and what’s their story, if a ride becomes mere transport and the only aim of the day is to reach a town before sunset, we know we have to stop moving, there and then.
And by the time we reached Shillong we were truly tired. We had had way too many adventures in the last few months and we wanted to find a place where nothing would happen. A bunker. A place to hide from the travel for a little while, a cozy room to write our book and where Burma, our cat companion, could freely jump around. We wanted to find a home. And we were not picky; a simple room and any sort of kitchen would do. But our enquiries met only neutral nodding faces or a strange type of mockery at hostels and guesthouses. We liked Shillong, its curling market streets and the hills around, so we stayed a few days in a mouldy dormitory, writing for the magazines that support our wanderings and asking around for rooms in the resting time. But there was none to be found. A guy from the family restaurant where we never missed breakfast kindly advised us: “don’t stay here, the rains are coming, go further to Sikkim, reach the mountains to hide”. But Sikkim felt too far, and Meghalaya so promisingly beautiful, that we decided to push for some more days of hitchhiking and hiking around its jungles. “Just a little more and then we will rest” – we thought.
We had gone to Meghalaya for its fairytale jungles and fantasized with lush green paths, forest villages and crossing the living root bridges that join them across rocky rivers and streams. We got to know that travellers gather in one of the jungle villages, called Nongriat, and planned a short detour, directly to the destination and back. Our aim was the forest but Cherrapunjee (also known as Sohra, due to some loss in translation during colonial times) was the nearest small town and the starting point of any treks down to the river, bridges and waterfalls. So we made our way to what we would soon come to know was “the wettest place on Earth”. Having lived in the UK for over four years, we doubted the truth or scope of the statement, but little did we mind whether it rained or sunned, the town was beautiful, cute little houses with colourful doors, neat roads and paths, flowers, a small market and a view of Bangladesh on clear days. We could not have asked for anything more. “Do you know any rooms or houses for rent around?” – we repeated our mantra without many expectations and with our route still fixed on the trek. “Yes, of course, I have a place if you like”. And there we stayed.
The place was simply that: a place. A concrete room with two broken windows and a leaking roof. An outdoor toilet shared with our two neighbouring families and a water tank. A broken bed, a hay mattress and an old wooden table, that we would later on discover was the kingdom of a thousand cockroaches. Shower, dish-washing and brushing teeth were all done in the same corner of the room that we jockingly called “washroom”, although merely separated by a sheet from the rest of the space. The bed, too small for both of us, was mostly reserved for Burma, while usually we shared some cushions on the floor. It was a place and, right then, it was our place. So we rushed to the market, bought a cloth to make curtains, a pot, plates and two cups, filled a rotting stove with kerosene and cooked one of our favourite stews with the Indian spices that we can hardly fine in our real home. We re-opened our couchsurfing account, signed up to Trust Roots and shouted to all four winds that we had a home. Burma, in the meantime, walked around all corners thinking to herself that we were absolute fools, for there is only one monarch in a house with a cat, and that’s a feline one.
Cherrapunjee (or Sohra)
The mist, thick like balls of fresh whool, rolled freely on the flat plateau, occasionally dropping sharply down the vertical slopes of the canyons. Somehwere, at an invisble distance below, waterfalls roared crushing in cascades of foam. For days the curtain of mist performed its ephemeral theatre shortly revealing different views of Churapunjee and then quickly wrapping them again in its opaque grey hug. All around, in a wild game of colours, blinking lightnings beat the drums of thunder storms. Under the shifting rhythm of the rain drops, life went like in a play of shadows. People, with carefully shaped gentle features, some marked with the carvings of age and worries, others youthful and fresh, strolled the silent streets or the busy weekly market. Covered with chequered cotton fabrics wrapped like aprons over their clothes, and with wide Khasi shawls on their heads, they looked for their way in the misty roads or around the stalls of banana flowers, bitter gourd, jaggery, pumpkins, pots and cutlery, tribal fabrics and Hindu sarees, fish, honey…
Through the bubbles of light floating in the giant cloud, day after day, we slowly discovered the village. One by one, we discerned neat houses with painted walls, tin rooftops and green gardens. Like mushrooms they popped up under the rain and many, still under construction, spoke of the sudden growth of Churapunjee in the past 20 years. Staring out of the window in what only recently used to be the last home in town, and in between casual chats with whoever passed by, like arranging a puzzle with missing parts, we picked up one more sad story of natural destruction. It was not simply out of choice that many had moved town in the last decades. Huge patches of jungle had been logged down, initially securing quick profit. The relentless rains typical for the area though, kept on pouring punctually, but there were no trees left to absorb them so the water gradually washed away the nutrients of the soil and turned many Khasi villages into humid deserts. Constantly soaked, but unable to retain the rains one of the wettest places on Earth was now a mad case-study of absurd paradoxes suffering chronic water shortages. Even in town people had luch yards, but no vegetable gardens, and more rain than they could drink but weekly water cuts. We wondered how many tropical and equatorial Edens were already nothing more than black and white pictures in old history books and if the growing deforested slopes of Manipur would soon follow the same fate. But we did not have much time to think. There were heavenly landscapes asking for our admiration, a space bigger than a tent requiring tidying, and a new pot and stove waiting for the vegetables stored in a corner.
We had two neighbouring families, all of us living in one single house that had been divided in uneven parts. The first family was a young couple with three children and so many visitors every week that we wondered if the house had inner corridors to hidden rooms to accommodate them all. Our landladies, mother and daughter, lived together next door as well. It’s the custom among Khasi people that the youngest daughter stays with her parents and inherits the major property of the family. A matrilineal society that, we would soon get to know, is not free from its own form of patriarchy. But we must confess that beyond their professions, religion and ages, and a bit of everyday life, we did not learn much from our neighbours. Untypically reserved for the Indian subcontinent, the people of Sohra seemed to us as beautiful as distant, like characters from a postcard that we could barely reach to. Although we shared space, toilet and water tap, and despite the fact that they would peep through our windows from time to time, we never sat together for afternoon tea, nor shared meals or went for a walk. It felt strange, but they were busy, and so were we. In the mornings we would clean and fix stuff around, till the room resembled something like a house. Every day we wold walk the pretty way to the market, and come back soon enough to cook meals that would last for lunch and dinner, never caring that we ate the same thing twice. And then we would write, or ty to do so, cursing ourselves for having started way too late, by the time kids came back from school and their concert of pop music and wild dance would spring from all windows and cracks so that nothing else than Bollywood could be heard in a hundred square miles.
We did not mind the noise so much, nor did we care having to clean all furniture of parasites for days, neither the failing electricity or the broken plugs. And although we never got used to the landlady or her friends opening the door without notice and watching us in silence while we cleant or worked, we found our ways around their funny manners (walking just in underwear at home proved to be an excellent repellent against sudden unnanounced visitors, after a couple of times they started to knock). Over the first week we chose our favourite market stalls, cinnamon biscuits from the nicest bakery, and found that an industrious neighbour cooked and sold puri and chana (bread and chickpeas) for breakfast, so we joined the row of customers every morning. Whenever we walked to town I dreamt of the many postcards I would send from the cute little post office with a violet door. After ten days we had figured out that the dubious filling schedules of the water tank, which was more often empty than full, were not only due to draught but also to the drinking habits of the man in charge of water pipes in town, who messed up with the taps from time to time. It took us just a while to admit that if not the wettest, Sohra was certainly amongst that sort of places where rain is as common as breathing air. But if ever the sun shone we joined the women doing laundry outdoors, rushing to add our few garments to their long lines of colourful clothes before the source of heat would hide again for days. And most of the evenings, when the elecricity failed and so the music ceased and the little dancers dispersed, we enjoyed in silence, with a hint of fear and a great deal of awe, the spectacular display of light and sound that only a major storm knows how to perform, happy that the leaks on the concrete rooftop dripped less than those in our tent.
A home is not such if one has no visitors. And we have to confess tha by that time, our 17th or 18th month of travel, we felt heavy the weight of hospitality. We had been welcomed to so many homes, gardens, rooftops or shops, we had shared so many floors, and had been lent so many blankets, that we had an urge to give something back. To host anyone that passed by. We had a house, or something like it and it should be shared with whoever needed shelter. But nobody wrote us requesting a space on our floor. And we kept on washing, cooking, writing, away from the travel and almost from the world till one morning. Loaded with heavy backpacks, standing on the main square and not even looking right or left…there they were. Daniel and Adi had just come down from a swirling sumo trip and had not even landed back on earth when they saw themselves walking out of town to the house of somebody they did not even knew the names of. With a smile, resembling the expression of a hunter that comes home with a rabbit for dinner time, I announced excitedly that our first visitors had arrived. Little did we know they would be our first and our last guests in that house.
We spent a few days with our newly found Israeli friends. Daniel is an artist and we would share ideas and dreams of financing our travels with postcards and crafts. Adi, who had long worked in permaculture, would tell us about gardens and farms. And the little room got lit up around simple meals and spiced tea. The neighbours dancing to their music, while we chatted till late at night. They stayed for a few days, and then went trekking to the jungle, promising to pass by on the way back. We stayed at home. Our travel budget by that time was as thin as a betel nut palm tree, and we had to write articles, send postcards and sit down to write a little book, while waiting for a couple of bank transfers from earlier jobs to arrive. We had a bunch of Euros and dollars “just in case”, but unluckily they could not be exchanged anywhere in town.
In the meantime, a new happy surprise had come by email. Kinga and Alberto, who we had met in China a year back, were considering a visit to the North East. We could host them and, if the transactions reached on time, join them to hike around, maybe get to finally visit the jungles we had come for. But our travel was any constrained to the area by the minimal finances, and we could not go too far from home, nor travel for too long. Rather than disappointing them, the situation apparently helped making up their minds, catch one more long train across Assam, a bus and a jeep, and come to our rescue with money to exchange ours and all the good energy they could gather after three sleep-less nights.
A twist of affairs
But no story is complete without a villain, the character that turns wheels or sets the game in motion with a single twist of fingers. We were still to meet the real version of a shadowy man we had long heard of: the brother. “The brother of the lady wants to talk to you” – had said the neighbour one day, while Boris was washing dishes with Daniel. “My brother wants to talk to you”, had said the lady. “The brother is coming soon from Bangalore” “The brother speaks good English” “The brother said you are leaving next week” The brother this, the brother that, his visit was announced, and an air of threat filled the place. Older brothers play an important role in khasi family life. They are the administrator’s of the sister’s property and key decision makers in the family. We did not know any of that and nobody would explain the nature of the brother’s visit, but it did not look like he was going to take us out for dinner.
One morning, right on the day when Kinga and Alberto were meant to arrive, the brother finally came all the way from Bangalore with a serious grin under a thick moustache. He was the owner of the only guesthouse in upper Sohra, and did not approve of anybody staying with us. “Tourists are meant to stay in hotels, not homes”. His sister had been foolish renting us a room at all, and not only we could not have visitors, but he wanted the room back to use it as a kitchen for his mum and would like us to vacate the property earlier than agreed. We complained first reasonably, then seriously, and finally angrily. Very angrily. If anybody has ever argued with me, he or she will know that I totally lose my mind when dealing with unfairness. And the standpoint of the brother not only felt unreasonable and stupid, but right at that moment, from our perspective, utterly unfair. We could barely think of ourselves as tourists, we really wanted a home to rest, and we had worked so hard to make it look nice… There was no meeting point, no room for understanding. We argued that we had an agreement, that just two more friends were coming and that one does not send guests to hotels, would he kick his visitors out of his home? “This is not your home, Missis, it is mine”.
Right at the time when our friends reached the house we found ourselves un-hanging the curtains, rolling the plastic carpet, filling our camping pots with cups and plates, breaking down our little den in the automatic sort of rhythm with which one packs when it’s time to start once again. We ate together the last portion of pumpkin soup, finished packing and walked away. On our way out of Sohra we crossed paths with a familiar face. “Where are you going?” We explained the drama of the day. “I told you, Meghalaya is not your place, move towards Sikkim and escape from the rain”. It was the guy from the family restaurant in Shillong, and we remembered his words, but there was still one place we wanted to see before heading west…