I used to be a tourist for a few years before I gave up that particularly arduous task to be a traveller instead. Don't let me bother you with the difference between the two, albeit to let me say that they aren't the same, and that when I became the latter, it felt like being home. Ironic, that travelling to me feels as comfortable and as natural as being home.
Yes, I do take in a few 'touristy' places, I don't deny that. But there isn't a point to a new place if you don't get lost, if you don't linger or walk about or try be the 'local'. My opinion.
Meghalaya, literally, the abode of the clouds, was where we headed after a very long journey of over 15 hours in a rickety old bus which kept throwing us a feet high every time it landed in a pothole (which was roughly every 4 minutes!). That got us to Assam again and like always, I hated being in the plains. Right when you get down, willing your damaged bones to lift themselves out of odd positions in the deep seat, you are surrounded by drivers from the shared taxis pulling your bags off you to get you to take their cabs.
An aside on these shared taxis. I gather that a lot of the North Eastern states have these, owing to the hilly terrain that make it almost impossible for buses to ply more frequently. These shared cabs are usually Tata Sumos or even, as I discovered in Shillong, Maruti 800 cars. There are buses but most are barely held together by dust and some bolts and can take several more hours than the cabs. If your group is large, you can hire a whole cab, like my friends and I did last April in West Bengal. Or like ma and I did, you can squeeze in with a few others. They are fast and they are cheap. We paid just Rs 140 each from Guwahati to Shillong, that's about 100-odd kilometres.
I slept the whole way, so apart from a few huts and winding roads when a jolt jerked me awake, I did not see much. Shillong is a nice enough town, a little too crowded for my taste, but nice nevertheless. After the cold in Nagaland, it was a welcome clime, though we still had to have our sweaters and gloves on in the evenings. Ma found her curds in the hotel we were staying in and was happy. I recommend Hotel Magnum in the centre of town, within walking distance of every shopping place, friendly staff, inexpensive.
Walks and souvenir shopping happened. I watched TV a bit, spotted a Cafe Coffee Day, felt all warm about it and went in to drink the bad coffee. The Ward's Lake very close by was beautiful, crowded, but with a gentle breeze, nice paths and many pretty flowers and people.
Ward's Lake, Shillong
The next morning we met Sudip Das, a former boxer and our driver for the next two days, a rotund, boastful but friendly man who just would not stop talking, not even when I took to just grunting in response. There's one habit I seem to have picked up from dad, or maybe it's because once you are a journalist, you always stay one; I tend to be able to start talking to just about anyone. This is more so when I am travelling. This habit has led to some wonderful story swaps, but in rare cases can get to my nerves in the end. With Sudip, it started out enquiring about the local sights and the culture in general. He took off from there and ended up telling me his entire story including how he eloped with his wife, about his kids, where they study, what they study, what he eats, what music he listens to...you get the picture. Ma has threatened murder the next time I open my mouth like that!
Meghalaya is where the clouds are supposed to be within your arms reach. I am told you can almost walk into one of them. Owing to the very heavy rainfall, there are impromptu waterfalls that spring up along some routes. We were there in the dry winter season though, and didn't see any.
Shillong has many pretty churches, colonial buildings and parks to see. The best idea is to walk around. There is also the Shillong Peak, a few kilometres from the town from where you get a bird's eye view of it. It was fairly a clear day when we got there and in the distance we could see a tall snow capped mountain. It was the first time ma was seeing a snow capped mountain and she was absolutely overwhelmed. I remembered the way I had gasped when I saw them the first time in Himachal Pradesh. The sight is nothing short of breath taking. She loved it so much. The sparkle in her eyes overwhelmed me as well.
The drive around the local sights takes you around more winding roads and tall pine trees. I absolutely loved the fact that everybody maintains lane discipline on the roads. Nobody even honks! For someone loathing Bangalore traffic, that was something I couldn't stop marvelling over.
The Elephant Falls was a steep climb down. We munched on some local ground nuts and trudged down. There wasn't much water, just a cute kid passing time blowing water bubbles and smiling shyly.
A lot of road side stalls sell pickled chillies, some of the hottest in the world
It was then time to head to Cherrapunjee, a childhood dream of mine. Ever since I read about it in school, I had wanted to go to the wettest place on earth. On the way, a very hot rock star friend of Lizzie's called up to offer advice. He didn't sound anything like a rock star (I don't know how they are supposed to sound, but he sounded too normal) which I had to convey to her immediately. I did.
East Khasi Hills district is what you drive through to reach Cherra, or Sohra, as it is known locally, a distance of about 65 kms from Shillong. We turned a corner and came upon a huge bridge. And that was the first sight we had of Cherra. I stop my words here on that. Try as I might, I could not explain how much it took my breathe away. As I later texted to a friend, I do not think I believe in a God, but if there is a God, I am sure he lives in Cherrapunjee. Seasoned though we are to Ghats and hills, ma and I actually gasped at the sheer beauty of the rolling hills. Even if you have to travel from across the world, it is worth it. Put that on your bucket list. I checked it off mine.
There are many places to visit there, local spots that a good driver/guide will take you to. We went to an eco park from where you can see into Bangladesh, a couple of air miles away. There are deep valleys, villages with four houses and a school, ravines and snaking rivers. There are the bluest, clearest skies and millions of shades of green. There is beauty that surpasses nearly everything I have ever seen. We go to Nohkalikai Falls, the world's fourth tallest. More superlatives and more indescribable beauty there. We have ready to eat noodles, take pictures, buy fresh cinnamon (famous there for the flavour).
Next up are the Mawsmai Caves. Is it fair, or legal, to have such beauty anywhere, I wonder. The 150 metre cave is well lit these days. You have to crawl, bend double over and heave up boulders and limestone stalactites at some places. Again, I refuse to describe it with mere words and do it injustice. Without contest, it is the best place I have ever been to.
Nohkalikai Falls, the fourth tallest in the world
The next day we head to Mawsynram, which for a year or two, got more rainfall than Cherrapunjee. It is a distance of 71kms from Shillong and we leave early; there are sleepy villages, tiny flakes of snow line the roads along the way. The place was absolutely disappointing. There is just one place, the Mawiymbuin Cave, with a Shiva linga and a long 4.5 km cave that supposedly opens in Bangladesh at the other end. The drive is beautiful and we stop often, but it is a waste of a day. Go instead to what is dubbed the cleanest village in Asia where there are root bridges as well. We didn't have time to go.
It was then over, the trip. An uneventful taxi ride back to Guwahati (I didn't speak a word to the driver), a horrible night's stay at a hotel where I lost my temper and was seething for half a day, some more shopping and a dusty ride to the Guwahati airport later, we were on the flight back. I finished a book, ma got some sleep. Daddy was there to pick us up. I sat in the car groaning at having to be back. The December breeze was nice and warm, compared to the previous two weeks when we had shivered. But the autos were soon in plenty, everyone was honking, there were too many lights everywhere. It was the plains again. And as always, I absolutely hated to be back from what was one of my best trips ever.
We did a lot of this, staring into the distance, marvelling at such beauty.
I can't wait to go back and embrace the North East fever.