The original plan must have started off some 20 years ago, when my granny would tell me stories of the Nagas and their kings and princesses who were known to be extremely beautiful and brave too. Itchy feet that I was born with, I wanted to go and see them, the Nagas, for myself, even back then. I grew up a little and school introduced me to Cherrapunjee, the place where it rained the heaviest in the world. I grew up some more and made friends with people from there, including an amazing, and crazy, woman called Lizzie, one of my best friends today.
And then came a trip that combined things that were nearly on top of my bucket list, Nagaland and inserted as a bonus, Meghalaya. That's where Cherrapunjee is. A lot of planning, GChat conversations and text messages later, by which ma had also decided she would come, the tickets were finally booked. Given my recent love for train journeys, we were to do the onward trip aboard the Guwahati Express and then take a bus to Mokokchung, Lizzie's town, the name of which I had to repeat and memorize last year.
Huffing along with my (by then) monstrous backpack and dragging along ma's equally large suitcase, we boarded the train, made the necessary 'we have started' calls and settled in. It was December 8, just after 11.30 pm.
The next two days quite dragged by, though pleasantly, I must say. By next morning, I was up and chatting with a Bengali college kid and his mom, staring outside, having lots of time to indulge in day dreaming, and reading. Really reading, without any distractions, without deadlines, things to do. After a long while, it felt like a real holiday already and I read Agassi's autobio 'Open' , fuelled at regular intervals with the railways' version of tea and coffee (though after a point, both began to taste the same). Ma and I talked, listened to music...did nothing...
The two full days and three nights trip crosses a lot of the country and every station, vendors would come in with the local delicacies. Having nothing much to do, we hogged on very thin rotis and some amazing curry at Malda and ate bowls of mishti-doi and rosagollas in Bengal. We crossed New Jalpaigudi (NJP) late in the night and it brought back several memories of last April and our Sandakphu trip. The last night was spent talking to a Assamese boy about politics, ethnicity, languages and how he did not want to go back home.
Yummy rosagollos in the train
Guwahati was dusty, just another city. After a much needed cleaning up, we set out exploring the town on a cycle rickshaw. There isn't much to see, we are not the museums and parks sort of people, ma and I. But I was mighty excited about seeing the mighty Brahmaputra, the only major 'male' river in the country and one that causes so much havoc every year with floods in the region. From where we saw it, it didn't look too mighty.
Having read an article about Assamese cuisine in a travel mag, I was again gung-ho about finding a restaurant. After some exasperated looks from ma and some 70 Rupees for a rickshaw ride, we arrived at Khorika, which promised some authentic fare. There isn't much for the veggie, but we tried a banana flower dish, papaya mashed into something and boiled vegetables, with some fragrant rice. I liked only the first; ma laughed at all the trouble I took to come eat something that we make at home!
Assamese cuisine at Khorika restaurant, Guwahati
What can be a little unnerving in the north east is how early it gets dark in the evenings. By 4 pm, it begins to look like 7ish in the rest of the country. I had seen it before in Chicago, but for ma, it was the first time and tended to be a little disorienting.
Some shopping, some frantic packing and hurrying later, we had the Inner Land Permit (ILP) that Lizzie had sent and the tickets to Mokokchung, on which my name was spelt 'Teepo'! All Indian citizens, apart from those from the region, need an ILP that is issued only very close to your arrival date. Though our permits were not checked, it is mandatory that you carry these. Foreign nationals need a Restricted Area Permit.
We were finally on the way to Mokokchung, nearly 400 kms away from Guwahati, the commercial centre and a major entry point to the entire North East. We would be almost 4,000 kms away from home.
Sometime at dawn, I opened my eyes and like in a dream, I saw a simple, traditional Naga village home built on long stilts, barely visible amidst the thick mist that hung over lush green fields. No, I know for sure it was not a dream. I peered through the window and saw more homes and fields. And suddenly, there were the hills, some of the greenest, tallest I have ever seen. We were snaking along to the top of one mountain and then another and then the next one till I lost count, and lost all thought except one where I was, as always, overwhelmed by the sight of mountains.
A series of overwhelming moments was only just beginning. There were the Naga people to meet and the Naga hills to see and fall in love with...