flat lands and boundless hospitality in Assam
Littered across the landscape of northern India are literally thousands of photos of me. With or without my ‘cycle’ as they call it here ( the pronunciation sounding something more like “sickle”), and often in poses of great familiarity with complete strangers. The images are mostly blurry and pixilated camera-phone ‘snaps’ — indifferently composed and poorly lit. None the less, the photographers seem universally thrilled with their work — insisting on showing me the pics (expecting interest/admiration). Sometimes, when a crowd gathers and everyone gets excited, — people start taking pictures of people they don’t know posed with me. And other times, particularly in rural areas, large groups of people — presumably without cellphones — will line up to be photographed (one at a time) by a friend or acquaintance so equipped — though it is unclear how or when they will ever see the photos.
If properly curated, a collection of the work of this informal paparazzi would be a fascinating socio-cultural document. I’ve traveled in other places where cell-phones were relatively new and high status. Places where my long hair, skin color, style of dress, or mode of transport stood out as much as they do here. But never before has the mere fact of my being, been enough to elevate me to celebrity status. For the record l have only been asked for my auto graph once, but the crowds that gather to watch with keen interest the banal trivialities of my day to day life surely put me in at least the same universe as brad and angelena and company (right?). A relatively quiet and shy person, l find the attention overwhelming at times ( especially when l am calorie deficient and accordingly ‘hangry’), but l have long since resigned myself to it, and do my best to receive it in the spirit with which it is given.
Indeed, people are truly so excited to meet me that they just can help themselves. Caught up in the moment, and coming from a different cultural milieu — it is only the worldly few who even realize that l might not want to shake the hand of every person l see, or tell every passing vehicle where l’m headed/from/etc; and temper their enquiries with apologies. As tiring, and frustrating as my (unearned) celebrity can be, it helps to remember that what all these people really want, is to give me something– if nothing more than a hearty welcome/good impression of their homeland. So in my (chosen) role of cultural ambassador, l smile, drink endless cups of tea, do my best to overcome the language barrier by learning in what order ‘the questions’ come, in this part of the world, pose for ‘selfies’ with anyone who asks — and redouble my efforts to get off the beaten track.
I left the mountains behind in Sikim — this part of India is dead flat, not even a suggestion of hills — which means that despite my lack of anything like a map (even google doesn’t seem to have much information on north-east India) l can navigate by the sun, following roads and trails almost at random. Though this audacious navigation method only works in this, the dry season — since for most of the year the landscape is a flooded morass of rice paddies and meandering braided rivers (running nominally north to south) all of which l get to cross on bamboo bridges, or unpredictable sand/cobble riding. In any case, the upshot of cycling by dead reckoning, is that l spend a lot of time in rice paddies turned cow pastures, and even more wandering around in tea plantations. Assam produces, depending on who you ask, somewhere between 70% and 90% of India’s tea, and 40% – 60% of the world’s supply — which adds up to alot of acres of handpicked shrubaries.
Of course the sort of trails l end up finding to follow, tend meander from village to village. Which means that, l’m never far from people, their curiosity and hospitality. Because the truth is, that the culture of hospitality is truly exceptional here. And were l not insulated by the language barrier l might never ride more than 20min without being invited into someones home. As it is, scarcely a day goes by without my being taken under somebody’s wing. And invariably, if someone invites me to a meal, the want me to stay the night, and if l stay the night they want me to stay another. So l have ended up spending quite a lot of time in places l might otherwise not have even stopped. I’ve spent nights sharing my hosts bed/mosquito net in a bamboo hut, and with my own room in palatial houses complete with servants. But the culture of deference/hospitality was the same in all cases. I was told on several instances that guests are like a god, or treated as such. And one of the principal signs of this was that l be give the place of honor at all times.
My throne, as it were — because if at all possible, that place of honor is a chair or stool. When there is only one, my foreign status secures it for me — indeed l can’t refuse it, and people get rather uncomfortable if l deign to stand. If there are more instruments of seating they are apportioned according to a complicated hierarchy which l never quite worked out, having to do with age, social status and blood ties. The only obvious factor being that women, whatever their age and relationship are always last on the list. Of course, the ladies of the house hold were usually occupied — preparing as much of a feast as they could muster on such short notice. Bringing water, and tea, pan/beetle nut ( an indispensable part of hospitality here) — generally trying to anticipate my every need.
For this independent and self-sufficient American — being served and coddled like this a bit is awkward and difficult to get used to. Cultural differences having the ironic effect that my hosts heroic efforts to make me comfortable to some extent have the opposite effect. Although the real reason for any discomfort was, that in my throne, l was on display. In some cases receiving a constant stream of visitors. Who were introduced and given a chair if they were deemed important — left to stand and stare furtively if not. Fortunately most of the parade of visitors didn’t speak English, so my host (s) got to answer ‘the questions’ for me. Leaving me to quietly observe the observers. Shake hands when so instructed, take tea when served, etc — putting me in mind of swift’s Laputaian “flappers” ( Gullivers travels).
I fear l am making it sound like horrible drudgery, this receiving of good will and generosity — which of course it isnt. While being a celebrity guest isn’t always the most comfortable, it is endlessly fascinating. I have been taken on walks to private tea gardens, and fishponds which capture the fish washed into the rice paddies. Was smuggled across the border into Bhutan ( for an uneventful picnic). Taken to cultural events, invited to weddings. Served local delicacies, Blessed by oracles and gurus. Welcomed and generally provided for in every way possible. Even in larger towns, when l’m generaly staying in a hotel. Someone often appoints themselves my host. Trying to escort me to meals, out on the town, etc. To the extent that on two occasions someone arranged ( without consulting me) to send ‘ladies of the night’ or in this case of the mid-morning, to demand entry to my hotel room ( though that’s as far as they got). Perhaps it was the language barrier, but they didn’t seem particularly versed in the art of seduction — resorting to crude gestures and naming their (depressingly low) price. And only leaving after the obligatory photo session.