a brief sojourn in Nagaland
My some-time traveling companion Matt loves the ocean, lives for it in a way. And can’t bear to be away from it’s presence for too long. But its’s the mountains which call to me. Too long in the flat lands and l start to get restless, grumpy — especially when bike touring. So grinding through hot, flat Assam l was continually teased by the hazy contours of the highlands to the north. The eastern extension of the Himalaya/Tibetan plateau in Anarchal Pradesh. A state which, due to its proximity to the contested border with China, was for all intents and purposes closed to me. It is possible to get a permit to travel there — but you’re expected to have a guide, and an itinerary, and a group. Some one more adept at hoop-jumping and subterfuge, could no doubt have arranged the paperwork — but l, who, find even the day to day bureaucracy of presenting my passport while checking in at hotels trying, didn’t even make an attempt.
Locked out of the Himalaya ( actually think its a different mountain range — but obviously the work of the same massive tectonic uplift) by meaningless power struggles over imaginary lines — l did the next best thing, and pushed east toward the hill country of Nagaland. It’s hard to describe how happy l was to find my self climbing again (and steeply!) after a month or so in the flatlands. The Hills began literally at the state line, and with them a new ecosystem, and culture. So l spent the next couple of days winding my way upwards, through a strange sort of mixed forest, palm and bamboo, and pine and rhododendron, with a few cactus thrown in. Arriving in a world where all towns and roads perched on misty ridge tops — taking advantage of the only semblance of flat ground.
The hills aren’t particularly high, but on top is a truly different world. The Naga are indigenous tribal people (most of india was colonized by people from Persia long ago). Formerly fiercely fractious and by some accounts cannibalistic, they were converted to Christianity by american missionaries in the 1800s. As a result tribal practices like facial tattooing, ear stretching ( and head hunting) have largely died out. Some of the older folk, especially in rural areas sport stretched ears, using the holes more like pockets than adornments — carrying tobacco pouches, rolls of money, and other goods. And in the north most people wear bead and tooth necklaces. But as you travel south, things become more developed, and peoples clothing more and more western. Unlike most of the country I have been traveling through, there are (christian) churches everywhere.
The Assamese (proud of their reputation for hospitality) had warned repeatedly that the Naga were “tribal people” implying that their ways were crude, that they were backward and unfriendly. Which of course wasn’t the case. Though the culture is of course different and (refreshingly for me) more reticent/less intrusively curious. It is also the only place in India ( that l know of) where people carry guns as a matter of course — all old bolt action rifles, and forest foods are a normal part of every day fare. Indeed the only difficulty for me was that being a vegetarian is neigh on impossible — Bamboo shoots and boiled cabbage the only vegetable matter available, and greasy meat soup with white rice being the standard meal. Fortunately I’m pretty flexible with my eating — putting hospitality before habit — so lot of unidentifiable bush meat made its way onto my plate, toothy jaws and all.
Being people of the jungle, the Naga are the only folk l have encountered thus far who wern’t particularly surprised that l sleep alone in the forest, and other wise travel by myself. Thanks to its topography and isolation, Nagaland is sparsely inhabited enough, that l was able to camp most nights. Which, odd though it may sound, so much more pleasant and comfortable for me than an hotel, or homestay. And being able to sleep outside made my time in the mountains even happier. So I was not excited, to say the least, when one of the bearings in my bottom-bracket failed catastrophically, and my peddling clunked to a stop. Unable to continue (and heading as usual for the middle of nowhere) l made a temporary bushing out of bamboo, to replace the now shredded pieces of metal — and limped 100k or so to the nearest big town. Which unfortunately was back in the flat lands.
Naturally the part l needed was unobtainable, as were bearings to fix it. But with the help of my friend ratz as translator, a motorcycle mechanic as middle man, and a machinist (who l never met), I made a bushing to the proper specs, and with that and a healthy dollop of grease, my bike was back on the trail — headed once more toward the misty highlands.