“I married Isis on the 5th day of May, but I could not hold on to her very long. So I cut up my hair and I rode straight away, for the wild unknown known country where I could not go wrong”
– Bob Dylan, opening lines to “Isis”, from the 1976 album, Desire
On the plane, as we were cutting through the dotted clouds above northeastern India, I began to get what could be called ‘mountain-twitch’. I sometimes get it when I get close to mountains. My foot starts tapping even though there is no music; my fingers start bouncing on my knees; my nails get bitten, and I even begin disgustingly picking at my beard. I fiddle with the little straps on my watch and blink a lot while my eyes dart around, looking for the highest peak. I got this sensation – this twitch – bad in Himachal Pradesh, and I felt it coming on again as we descended into Assam. But it wasn’t the Assamese hills I was twitching over (indeed, I was to find that Assamese hills were few and far between); it was those of Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state I would later unknowingly-at-the-time and accidentally sneak into without a foreigner’s permit. These were hills I hadn’t seen yet, but had only imagined in my imagination. The road to Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh didn’t sound any better than the road to Tabo, Himachal Pradesh, but I was determined for some masochistic reason to find out for myself as to its level of upkeep.
Several days ago, before I left Calcutta, my old roommate David said that I should be careful while in the northeast, that I should be weary of kidnappings, and that roads and general government services were not as vast and well maintained as they were in other parts of India. I listened to his advice, but had to see for myself as to its validity. I was to find his mentioning of kidnapping preposterous, as I met some of the most welcoming and hospitable people on the planet on this trip – some of whom warned me about the possibility of landslides on the road to Tawang. They showed me pictures of hillsides completely wiped away, covered roads and buried cars. I’d heard that it had been raining a lot recently in the northeast.
Even before descending the plane, I looked out the window and thought, “Wow, look how green it is.” The ride from Guwahati to Tezpur the following morning was one of the greenest rides I’ve ever had. Rice fields as far as the eye could see, topped with tree-covered low-laying hills in the background, all weaved together with the black telephone lines that ran along the road. Kids splashed together in the brown waters while rain fell down upon them. Umbrella’d families of farmers would be dispersed among the fields, only their legs sticking out from under their colorful rain-proof coverings. Cows chewed on grass while acting as roadblocks and we passed a sign for a cheap whiskey that read “Pleasure Wine”.
My destination was Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, but I should have done my research before coming, for the permit into the state turned out to be trickier than I had anticipated. I thought I had done my research, but I found out that I really hadn’t. I needed to get an Inner Line Permit again (I had one for Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, but it had expired so I needed a new one) to visit Arunachal Pradesh. I thought I could get one in Tezpur, but I was told by a chap running a transport stall at the bus stand that I couldn’t. He said that the office in Tezpur only issued permits for Indian nationals. He said I could either go back to Guawahati (um, no.) or go on to Itanagar, which itself is in Arunachal Pradesh. I didn’t understand how I was supposed to get a permit to enter Arunachal Pradesh from a place that was already in Arunachal Pradesh, but that’s what he told me. He seemed to know what he was talking about. I wasn’t thrilled about the added trip, and it might make going to Tawang difficult, as I didn’t have a ton of time, but I tried to embrace the curve ball of a new situation and just enjoy the fact that I was in Assam. It rained all that afternoon, and when it stopped it began to get hot – one of the reasons why I wanted to go to Tawang in the first place was to escape the heat, never mind the spectacular views from the 4,100-meter Se La Pass. I was to carry a wool sweater, wool socks, and thermal underwear all through Assam with me, never using any of it once.
I walked around Tezpur in the rain until I was soaked – only then I bought an umbrella. I walked down the quiet Sunday streets, observing the rickshaw wallahs with their plastic coverings above them. Women in saris and sandals scuttled about while their umbrellas wiggled back and forth on their shoulders. Bor Pukhuri Lake was a rich jade green while raindrops fell on its surface, rippling the water just enough to ruffle the floating lilies. Nearby, the mighty Bhramaputra River was flowing quickly by, carrying green debris with it; the sky looked like it could have been Montana. I don’t know if I’ve even been in a greener place. Hawaii is green, as is Washington State, but this place is simply exploding with greeness. It’s everywhere: the hills, the trees, the plants, the leaves – everything.
By lunchtime I hadn’t decided where I’d go the next day: Itanagar or Jorhat, Assam. Itanagar sounded cool, I guess, and if I wanted a permit for Arunachal Pradesh then I’d have to go there anyway, but Jorhat sounded good, too. Plus, it would open up the possibility of visiting perhaps several other states: Nagaland, Manipur, and Meghalaya. At afternoon naptime, I was leaning towards Jorhat, simply because I didn’t want to deal with the formalities of Indian formalities and form-fillings. I’d miss the mountains, but the drive to Tezpur got me excited about continuing through the wet and soggy landscape of Assam. Plus, I’d always wanted to visit the northeast, so perhaps this was my chance to see more of it than just one town in the mountains. Tawang might have to wait.
After lunch I went and had tea across the street at a little tea stall run by a little old sari’d lady. I drank my tea and noticed a group of three rowdy tattooed boys sitting across from me. After tea they approached me and asked the usual questions. They asked me if I was free and I said “yeah” so we made for a nearby park and chatted. They told me they were in town for a training and we exchanged Facebook courtesies. They were friendly enough, but I also didn’t feel like having the usual conversation – I’d had many already and would have many more before my journey was through. After taking my leave I made my way around the lake we were sitting at, then found some beer, then the Ganesh Mandir Ghat on the north bank of the mighty Brahmaputra River. I was bombarded with “hello”s and “what’s your name?”s and “You’re coming from?”s by a group of little kids playing football in the street just before the mandir honouring the elephant-headed Hindu god of prosperity and good fortune. Their English was pretty good, so I spoke with them for a bit. Naturally, they asked about my family.
“Your brother?” they shrieked.
“No brother,” I replied.
“Your sister?” they howled.
“Yes, one sister.”
“Sister name?” they all said at different time, not simultaneously.
“Natalie,” I said.
“Natalie,” they all replied slowly, chorus-like, in unison, as if practiced. I reminded myself to tell my sister about it. She’s not exactly a fan of kids, but this was pretty damn cute.
“Play football with us?” they pleaded.
“Sure,” I said, “I’m just coming”, which, in Indian English, means “I’ll be right back”, which, everyone knows, means nothing. I made my way to the Ghat where a skinny beadie-puffing boatman was shuffling passengers across the Brahmaputra, the mightiest ‘male’ river in India (apparently all other great rivers in India – the Ganges and the Indus – are all female), according to some fellow ghat-goers, for a fee of 50 rupees a head. People came up and dipped their hands in the brown water, washing their faces, their kids’ faces, their kids’ kids’ faces. One guy dumped a bag of what looked like ashes into the river. They drifted away slowly away from the sunset that changed from blue to purple to violet to pink, all in a matter of minutes, and then back again.
I got back to my dingy guesthouse room and turned on some music. The first song to come on shuffle was Tim Franklin’s “My Endless Ocean”, the opening lines of which are quite simply “I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not afraid.” I sang along and hummed to myself the string arrangement I wrote years ago that I’ve now since half- forgotten. Great song.
I called my roommate, Akash, to check in and let him know where I was.
“Dude, where is your stupid ass?” he barked as he picked up the call.
“Hi honey. Miss me?”
“Shut up. Where are you?”
“Tezpur. Change of plans. Heading to Sivasagar.”
“What? What happened to Tawang?”
“Too much hassle. Can’t get the permit here in Tezpur like I thought.”
Next on the playlist was “The Funeral” by Band of Horses. I turned up the volume, pushed my headphones further into my ears, turned out the lights, lay back on my bed, pulled back the curtain, looked at the night sky, began tapping my foot and felt a great sense of peace wash over me like a warm wave. Then it was Grant Valdez’s “Antithing”, which you’ve never heard of because we recorded it in his flat in Seattle years ago, then Sun Kil Moon’s great cover of Modest Mouse’s “Never-ending Math Equation”, which has one of my favorite lines in music: “I’m the same as I was when I was six years old.” There was more Tim Franklin (“13 Weeks”, which I love; “Desensitised”, which is all-time) and Band of Horses: “if I am lost it’s only for a little while”, from “Monsters”. Last was The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”: “Turn off your mind and float downstream”.
“OK,” I said as I closed my eyes.
My room was a plastic board’s separation away from the dining area of a dhaba-like restaurant, and next door was a travel agency called “John Travels”. I had to come all the way to Tezpur, Assam to see it written. Across the street was a tea stall, and next to that was the bus stand. I decided to catch the 6:30 AM bus to Sivasagar. I didn’t want to deal with another Indian bureaucratic nightmare in the form of a form, one covered in illegible signatures, stamps and seals. I’m glad I stopped in Tezpur, but I’m also glad I left in the morning.
It was pouring down rain in the morning as the bus pulled out of the bus station. Rolling through the now-closed-for-the-season-due-to-rain Kaziranga National Park we saw two one-horned rhinos out in the green fields. Apparently Kaziranga is the only place in the world where these great creatures can be found. A great silence cam over the bus as we passed them. I sat next to a Bhramin man who said he was going home to Sivasagar. He had been in Tezpur giving puja, he said. I noticed the tiny strand of hair coming out from the back of his head as we passed a Wine Shop tastefully named “Tipsy Tipsy”. Crossing another river there was a riverside funeral pyre with a burning body atop a stack of flaming wood. Tea Estate labourers were out in numbers plucking tea that would get shipped to the UK, Germany, Iran, and other less lush parts of India.
In the rice patties, kids were playing, men were working, hoisting hoes into the air and then back down again into the rich soil surrounding their muddy bare feet and ankles. Women walked down long dirt lanes between rice fields, holding the tips of their saris as they strolled. Cows grazed with their tails wagging. The bus honked noisily while nervously passing trucks with “Good Luck” written in big graffiti-like block letters on their sides. Brick kilns and their dark smoke stacks dotted the green fields around them, and bamboo built shacks with thatched roofs acted as connecting points for clotheslines with colourful kurtas, saris and children’s underwear hanging on them. I couldn’t decide which drive was more beautiful, this one or the one yesterday to Tezpur. The earth looked like a big green sponge. In Chakrapani, there was a Ford dealership, which I couldn’t believe. “Welcome to Jorhat, the knowledge city of Assam” a sign said. I didn’t have the knowledge to figure out what that meant, but maybe I’d get it in Jorhat. I’m glad I didn’t get off there. It smelled of burnt rubber and tar and it did not seem welcoming nor interesting, though I did buy some ice cream at the bus stand. It was getting hot. Outside Jorhat, we crossed a river where men were shovelling mud underwater. They were up to their waists in brown river water, shovelling thick, heavy, wet mud onto little mini floating barges. Several men stood around one barge while they piled shovelful after shovelful of mud onto it. It looked like gruelling work. Shovelling dirt is hard enough, but underwater? What torture.
A billboard of a gloved boxer punching himself on the head saluted us as we left. I later learned that a boxer from Mizoram had qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Room. These billboards were of him to wish him well. They were all over Assam, for some reason. A lot of outside Jorhat looked like it had been bombed. Rubble was everywhere, especially in front of shops and in people’s front yards. It looked like the place had either been attacked or was undergoing some kind of mass reconstruction. It reminded me of the shelling remnants I’d seen in Bouake, Côte d’Ivoire last year. I saw the first Baptist Church I’d seen since Kerala, and a fern growing out from the side of an old decaying building looked like it belonged in north Calcutta.
I rolled into Sivsagar and found the cheapest room I’ve ever found for 150 rupees. It was a dump, but it was a cheap dump. I had a headache so I took a nap. I walked to an Internet Cafe to write an “I’m alive” email to my folks. I got stuck there for a bit as the rain returned later in the afternoon. While stuck there, the owner of the interview cafe told me about Sivsagar and all the historic ruins in and around the city. He showed me an 86-slide PowerPoint presentation that had been created by the Archaeological Society of India, explaining all the different ancient ruins in the area from the former Ahom Kingdom. That evening I had a late dinner in a little hidden place where several people watched me eat with my right hand.
I got up early the next morning and walked around the centrally located Sivsagar Tank, as it’s called. It’s basically a huge reservoir in the middle of town with the famous Shivadol Temple at its banks. I did a lap around the tank, which was actually quite large. Walkers were out strolling in the humid, breeze-less air, while dogs chased little goats, nibbling at their legs and ankles. I stopped at the bus station to inquire about buses to Sorani, a smaller town further north, and it sounded like there were frequent buses making the two-hour journey. As for Nagaland, my plans were undecided. I wanted to go to Mon, or Mon Town, as many had referred to it here, but it was quite remote, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it back to Guwahati comfortably by the 17th or 18th. I figured I’d go to Sonari, then maybe Dibrugarh, and then maybe take the train back to Guwahati, if tickets were available. I chatted with some kids at the guesthouse in the evening, asking about distances to here and there. They told me that Mon wasn’t safe after dark.
The following morning, I rolled into Sonari around 11am after a swampy road travelled from Sivasagar. Upon reaching, I began walking in search of accommodations. I took five steps and was asked by a moustached man chewing paan on a bicycle, “coming from?”
“US,” I said.
“Welcome sir,” he said.
“Thank you, sir. Sir, any hotel?”
“Hotel Green View is there,” he said, pointing up the road. I began walking in that direction when, after another five steps, a kid on a moped stopped and greeted me.
“Hello sir!” he shouted.
“Hello,” I replied.
“Hotel Green View,” I said.
“Hop on. I’ll drop you.”
I jumped on the back of this kid’s moped with my backpack on and we chatted as we swerved through the little traffic on the town’s main muddy road.
“Sir, you’re from?”
“US,” I said.
“Oh great. Welcome, sir.”
“Thanks, glad to be here.”
“Sir, what’s your name?”
“John, and yours?”
“Danny,” he said, pointing to the tattoo on the back of his neck, which, sure enough, read DANNY above a second tattoo of bull horns. He dropped me off and wished me a pleasant trip. It was a nice start to my time in Sonari.
I woke from a nap and went out in search of lunch. This was the first time India where I had a hard time finding the meal. Where were all the little restaurants? After all, it was lunchtime – didn’t people in this town eat? I walked north out of town, found nothing and turned around. I got stares from passersby as I strolled along. Whispers of ‘foreigner’ came from huddled groups clumped together under caving overhangs and store fronts. I began to get a bit irritated at the level of difficulty involved in finding a meal. In my frustration, I stopped at a tiny place that had some plastic chairs, tables, and coloured pitchers of water on them. I had three disgusting puris dipped in some cold potato dish that had probably been leftover since morning. Afterwards, I wasn’t full but I wasn’t hungry – I just wanted something else to wipe the whole lunch from my memory. I blamed the starchy sensation on the roof of my mouth on the shitty lunch.
I began wandering down the road in search of I-wasn’t-exactly-sure: something I wanted to photograph, I guess. I walked down the main road for a bit until I found a side road off to the right, one with ringing cycles riding gently down its middle, lined with green trees and quaint little houses on both sides. I walked for a while, trying not to stand out but failing miserably. Everyone I met was very friendly, even the guys who would pass on their cycles then turn their head around to glare and me once, twice, even three times, often closely creating an accident out of their newly found curiosity. One woman smiled and we began chatting in Bengali. She smiled a red, betel-nut-stained smile as I exchanged greetings with her and took her photograph.
Another man did the same. His daughter who was standing nearby didn’t have any arms and she ran away when I pulled out my camera. I continued on, getting deeper and deeper into wherever it was that I was going. One kid had a fishing net setup in the river so that it would catch tiny fish when they came down the river. I stopped and watched him for a bit. It was times like this that I enjoyed being the watcher instead of the watched. One tiny, very strong pygmy-like gentleman who was also watching said something behind me. I responded, and next thing I knew he was leading me to his mud home which had recently flooded. There was water everywhere, so I had to take off my shoes and socks and leave them on a muddy bank. I rolled up my pants and stepped into the murky, possibly-leech-infested waters and followed my newfound friend further and further away from where I started. All the mud homes in the area were surrounded by water; women stood in brown, caked doorways holding their babies as water dripped down from the roofs. His house was inaccessible by foot, so we boarded a kind of makeshift raft that I guess had been made for just this purpose. I thought about the head-hunters and cannibals I’d red about in Nagaland, the next state over, though head-hunting, as I’d read, had been abolished, technically, in 1963. He captained the raft with two young girls, perhaps his daughters, over to his home. Another young man stood there and welcomed us as we approached slowly on the raft.
I didn’t really know what to expect, so I just kind of stood there and looked content, which I was. I took some pictures, made small talk as best as I could, then it became clear that I should be on my way. I think this guy just wanted to show me the flooding that had occurred. I certainly saw it. Water was everywhere. Who knew when it would recede? I wondered if the tea estate next door where they worked provided any assistance or relief. It began raining heavily, so I took my leave and found shelter under a nearby shop until the rain succeeded.
Walking home, another man on a motorcycle stopped near me and asked where I was from. I told him. We got to talking and he also invited me to his home. I hopped on the back of his bike and he whisked me off to his home nearby. I met his son, his wife, and a guitar was produced. We sang songs and chatted; his wife served tea. I wrote his son a letter, I sang the national anthem, answered questions about the US, and they gave me a traditional Assamese red and white gamucha – a traditional Assamese cloth that is often used like a towel or wrap. It was a very humbling evening. He dropped me off on his motorcycle afterwards. I couldn’t believe my luck. Just from walking around I was invited into two Assamese homes, one after the other.
I wondered: how many Assamese – or Indians, for that matter – wandering the streets of small US towns get invited off the street into American homes? How many are fed? How many are respected and treated with unbelievable kindness as they engage in conversation? I thought about Sureshbhai Patel, the 57 year-old Sikh grandfather who was visiting his grandson in Alabama. Patel, who was beaten to the ground by Madison police back in February of 2015 because he “looked suspicious”, ended up paralyzed in the hospital. Let me tell you something: you can be damn sure that I “looked suspicious” as the only white guy in town walking aimlessly around flooded tea estate worker’s homes with a DSLR slung over my shoulder.
In the morning, I made for Dibrugarh. The bus ride was a slow one through tiny villages, more rice fields, and minefields of stationary farm animals littering the road that created a mooing, barking, and baa-ing slalom course for the bored-looking bus driver. I got off in Dibrugarh and immediately made for Majaghat to wait for a boat somewhere. I didn’t really care where I went, I just wanted to ride a boat and be back to Dibrugarh in time for my train to Guwahati on the 17th. I had called my roommate from Sonari and he booked me on a train from Dibrugarh back to Guwahati on the 17th.
I had a late breakfast at a riverside “hotel” (shack) and waited there for the boat. I wandered around the area for a bit, taking pictures of the riverside and labourers working there. A boat came, people got off, some rice wine was unloaded so the captain of the boat could drink some before getting back on board and steering us to Majabari, a small plot of land on the other side of the river about 3 hours away. I met a fellow who helped me make some travel plans: he agreed to give me a ride on his bike as far as Semin Chapori, on the other side of the river where he lived.
The hills of Arunachal Pradesh above the Brahmaputra River
We rode Ling Road together on his bike from Majabari, through Somkong, to Semin Chapori, passing more rice fields, only these were set before the backdrop of the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh. The sun was setting, cows were grazing, children were cycling, women were strolling, and I had a huge smile on my face as we rode the 20-ish kilometres to our destination. Kalendro was his name, and he helped me find the only hotel in town, the Atithi Lodge, a dump of a place that robbed me of 250 rupees. That evening I went to get dinner, but found the whole town shut up at 8pm. Dinner was no longer being served at the place I wandered into. The restaurant staff told me to wait and it sounded like food would be delivered to my room later, but it would turn out that wouldn’t be necessary. A guy nearby who saw my predicament invited me to his home for dinner. Next thing I knew, I was on the back on his bike going down a dark dirt road leading to his home. His thirteen-year-old son greeted me in English, and his daughter was also quite proficient, too. She was a geography teacher at a nearby school. They served me tea and biscuits and we got to chatting and swapping family pictures. Dinner was served and it was a heaping pile of white rice, dal, a greasy pork dish and some shobji. After dinner they also gifted me two more traditional Assamese gamuchas, one of which was made there in their home. I was given a ride back to my hotel where I got a call from the English Language Fellowship program in the states. I was offered a teaching position at a university in Botswana, but I regretfully decided to turn it down. I quickly fell asleep in the humid, AC-less, windowless room.
I woke late the next morning. I was exhausted from all the travel, I guess. Perhaps it was catching up with me. I had breakfast on a plastic table across the road and was interrupted by yet another guy who wanted to know where I was from
“Which country?” he poked.
I told him. He smiled. I invited him to sit down. He sat. I invited him to have a cup of tea with me. He declined. He asked the usual questions before he gave me his business card. His English was pretty good. He worked for a pharmaceutical company. The corner of his business card read “The Care Continues…”, an odd tag line, I thought. The ellipses at the end seemed strange.
I caught a van to Jonai, then a rickshaw to the Arunachal Pradesh border where I was met with a lot of not-missed Indian officialdom and border-related formalities. True, I should have had my permit in hand before coming, but how difficult could issuing a one-night pass be? I was just going to spend one night in Pasighat and then head out. It’s not like I was moving there. Anyway, I waited around while these border guards scratched their heads and contemplated which of their superiors should be called. One of the guards smacked me on the shoulder while I was waiting. I looked up.
“Take it. Water,” he said, handing me a half-filled bottle of semi-cold water, a very nice gesture. But I didn’t get the permit, so I headed back in the direction from which I came. On the way, I met a guy named Amarjeet, a lawyer in Jonai. I told him about my border woes and he said that had a local person been with me, I would have got the permit. Oh well. I got a van to Silapatar and planned to take the ferry from Bogibeel Ghat back to Dibrugarh in the morning.
I reached Silapatar and checked into the Nepal Hotel. They required a photocopy of my passport, a reasonable request, one which was not adhered to by all the places I stayed at on this trip. I found a Xerox place, across the street from which was a wine shop. I bought a beer and took it back to my hotel room. It was hot, so I downed the beer, letting the cool piss-coloured liquid quench my thirst and cool my body and relax my mind. The power went out so the fan stopped spinning. I was told to visit the Likabali Mandir. A guy running a shop outside the hotel wrote the name of the temple on a piece of paper because I kept forgetting it. I had lunch near the train tracks, then walked to a nearby hotel where I was told I could use the restroom, was denied any access to any restroom, then walked back to the Railway tracks, made a phone call and found a bus toward the general direction of the mandir. Without knowing it, I had snuck into Arunachal Pradesh. Turns out this Likabali town is in AP. Who knew? I got off the bus, asked for the mandir, was pointed in a general direction, and began walking that way. I continued asking people where the mandir was and they continue pointing me along. I wound around through some gentle hills, the beginnings of the northeastern Indian Himalayas, and found the mandir along with a little viewpoint. It was hot, and I was exhausted, so I caught my breath, took a photo, and turned around.
Likabali, Arunachal Pradesh
Back in Silapatar, I had dinner in a little place where I met a guy who was so happy to meet me he called his sons and had them come and meet me. I had nothing else to do, so I stuck around. I chatted with his sons for a while, exchanging vital Facebook information and phone numbers. They owned a small fruit stall down the road, and the dad instructed the smallest son to go and get some mangoes for me. I hadn’t had much fruit on the trip so far so I devoured two of them on the spot. He kept saying, “I like your character,” simply because I had sat and chatted with them for an hour or two. He said that most other foreigners he met would not give them the time of day. He said he was grateful to practise his English, as he had not practiced in years. His sons also seemed glad to practice their question-answering skills in English, too.
In the morning I took a jeep to the Bogibeel Ghat about 30 kilometers outside of town. A little plot nearby where the soon-to-be-completed Bogibeel Bridge would be, the Ferry Ghat was a slapped together hodgepodge of wobbly tea stalls, roaming groups of pigs and cows, passengers awaiting to set sail, and trash fossilised into the wet, puddle-speckled sand. I saw a pig shit in the river, and nearby a woman was washing a pot in the river. I thought about the cup of tea I had just drunk from her tea stall. I caught a ferry back across the river to Dibrugarh under the cloudy monsoon sky. On the boat, men chewed paan and spat the red juice into the river. Others threw useless empty paper teacups into the river as if it were a giant flowing trashcan. On the bow, for some reason, were plants, and not some heroic figure or mermaid or something. There were several pots of plants sitting on the bow, guiding the boat. One kid sat on the bow with me. He had one very long thumbnail that was painted a violet purple. I sat on the upper deck with the crew and sipped tea and held up my little black umbrella over my head as the sky misted down a light rain.
Looking up at the Bogibeel Bridge
The boat was met on shore by whooping men in t-shirts, extremely eager to half-violently shuffle passengers into their Tata Sumos, as they were called. Elbows were grabbed, people were pushed, and the whole thing looked very stressful. I walked through it all, ignoring the “Sir! You’re going?!”s and called Pratik, a guy I had messaged last night on couchsurfing.com. He came down to the ghat, had a cup of tea with me, then we walked back to where he lived and worked: at the Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) site at the Bogibeel Bridge. He was a civil engineer from Assam. He told me about the bridge and how it was the longest of its kind in India, a double-decker, with the bottom for rail and the top for autos. He said the expected completion date was around Spring 2018. We walked into the HCC compound and men were walking around in hard hats.
“Yellow ones are for labourers and white ones are for officers,” he told me. He showed me his room and let me freshen up before lunch.
“People are going to be asking lot of questions about you,” he said. He was a cool guy. After lunch he had to get back to work, so he told me where I could get a bus to Dibrugarh Town. I was his first couchsurfer, he said. This was the first of two Couchsurfing cherries that I would pop today. The next one was with another cool guy who met me when I got off the bus. We jumped on his motorcycle and he took me all over Dibrugarh: tea estates, the Jaggarnath replica Temple, a forest, and his home where I had some tea, dinner, and an extremely needed shower.
He even dropped me off at the train station that evening for my train to Guwahati. But I got on the wrong train. See, there are two identical trains to Delhi that leave Dibrugarh on Friday evenings, one after the other, one hour apart. I got to the station early and got on the wrong one. I realised this when it was too late: the train was leaving and I had already put my feet up and was reading comfortably. I got off at the next station, Tinsukia, and waited for the right train. I could hear my roommate now: “you moron.”
After finally boarding the right train I read for a while then tried to get some sleep, but I was met with what would be my midnight enemy for the next six hours: snoring Indians. I was so tired I slept anyway, ignoring them all night. In the morning we reached Guwahati around 6:30am. I read some more at the station then walked to the Urubali bus stand where I caught a bus to the airport to meet my friend John.
At the Guwahati airport, I sat down and waited for John to arrive. A man sat down next to me, leaned over slightly to his left, raised his right leg up a little bit, and farted. I looked up from my book, looked around, checked to see I anyone else heard it, confirmed that no one had, then went back to reading my book. John and I headed to the small town of Gingia to meet Asha, a former AUW student of his. We had a great time with her in her town with her family and friends – three days of good company, good tea, and good food.
Assam was amazing. It exceeded all of my expectations, and then some. When I began the trip I joked with my friend Benita that it would be difficult for Assam to match the amazingness of the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh, but Assam has its own unique awesomeness. I’ve rarely met so many friendly and welcoming people so regularly and frequently. I’d never been invited into so many homes and felt so safe, so at home. Leaving the northeast was a bit bittersweet, as there was still so much more to see. The northeastern states surrounding Assam are still on my list. The plane back to Calcutta took off in the evening; there was still enough light in the sky to make out the ridgeline of the mountains in Arunachal Pradesh. I took one last look at the green fields and wondered when I would see that much green again. Coming home, I brought with me a new beard, six different Assamese gamuchas, none of which I’d purchased, all of which were gifts from Assamese I’d met along the journey, a kilo of tea, a now-fading sunburn, and a lot of unforgettable memories. Assam, from the bottom of my heart: thank you.