On my final two days in Meglahaya, I went on a mini safari in Kaziranga National Park, home to the world’s only group of one-horned rhinos. Alongside me on my excursion I had a Bengali couple and their teenage son from Kolkata. Mr Kolkata only had two bottom teeth and belched in my face during dinner. Master Kolkata was studying statistics at University but hadn’t got the sense he was born with. When presented with a boiled egg at breakfast, he stared at it in blind panic until Mummy Kolkata, a miserable woman with oily hair took it off him and shelled it for him.
For some inexplicable reason, our transport to the park was a 50 seat bus which had a good sizeable hole in the gangway so I could watch the road underneath as we sped along if I got tired of watching it out of the window. All went well for the first two hours of mostly ‘motorway’ driving (I use the term loosely as a ‘motorway’ here means yes, there’s sometimes a central reservation and demarcation lines but vehicles often choose to drive the wrong way into the oncoming traffic when looking to cross over onto the other side of the road, and undertaking is de rigueur), but then we bust the clutch and had to pull over onto the ‘hard shoulder’ ie the ditch. At this point, I imagined hours waiting for a mechanic or maybe even having to spend the night by the roadside but no, quite possibly the dirtiest man I’ve ever seen appeared out of nowhere in vest and flipflops (he was also wearing trousers), flung himself underneath the bus and ripped out the clutch. The driver then went off in an auto-rickshaw to the nearest clutch centre, got a new one, and dirty man put it in. We were back on the road in just over an hour.
Kaziranga was triffic; we did indeed see the one-horned rhino plus water buffaloes, wild boar and elephants plus a myriad of bird life. The park itself is lush with tall elephant grasses, glistening lakes and thick jungle. Our accommodation was a cluster of old colonial bungalows that had seen better days but the setting was glorious. In the evening we were treated to an outdoor Assamese dance demo featuring a clutch of doe-eyed lovelies and some men with long bongos and wrap around skirts. It was a bit Hi-de-Hi – lots of audience participation from people who had no place in show business. One badly coordinated Belgian boy made a complete hash of the lady line dancing routine but I saved his blushes by jumping onto the stage and sliding effortlessly into a flowing sequence that had hints of Pussy Cat Dolls and a big chunk of Zumba.
The next day we were up at 4.45am for a dawn elephant ride that got us really close to the animals. I had a numb bum at the end of the ride but was chuffed to have seen the wildlife at such close quarters. I was a little worried that the elephants we rode might not be happy and when I asked the Austrian man I’d shared the saddle with what he thought about their emotional state as they were a bit ploddy, he said he thought they had ‘dead eyes’ which bothered me for a bit but then I saw them later sans saddlery and they seemed to have perked up a bit and were having an elephant love-in. I would have liked to stay longer in Kaziranga but we had to drive back to Guwahati from whence I was off to Imphal in Manipuri on the border of Myanmar. ‘Manipuri is volatile’, it says in my guide book. There have been ‘decades of brutal inter-factional conflict’. Well, I do like to go out with a bang and it is my last stop before leaving for Myanmar so….
On the hour long flight from Guwahati to Imphal, I was sat next to a man who insisted on playing his itunes to the whole cabin at full blast. And what was his favourite tune? ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver, either a strange coincidence or people in the northeast of India really go for cloyingly sweet cowboy music. He also pissed me off because he kept leaning over and taking things out of MY seat back pocket – the menu, the in-flight magazine, and even the sick bag, although he didn’t use it, thank God!
At Imphal airport there were more soldiers, police and sundry militia than passengers. They looked me up and down as I got off the plane and then had a mutter to each other. Inside the terminal, I had to register myself with the police, tell them where I was staying , who my guide was and where I would be visiting. Of course, I had to make all of this up as I was clueless as to my forthcoming movements in Manipur. It seems the politics of exclusion is taking a firm hold in this neck of the woods. There are a myriad of tribal groups here who are concerned they are being marginalised by the influx of outsiders (Burmese, bangladeshis and the like) who are buying up land and taking the jobs. Just a couple of months ago a group of ‘terrorists’ torched a government minister’s house and seven young people were killed in the gun battle that ensued. Anyway, there were gun carrying troops on every corner and after 7pm the streets were deserted as a virtual curfew was in place.
On my first day here I somehow got involved in a funeral cortège that took up the whole pavement and spilled over into the road. The corpse – an old geezer, for I could plainly see his pasty dead face framed by a white muslin snood – was being carried on some thick bamboo canes by four men while all around a load of other men were chucking what looked like Rice Crispies over the body. I followed the procession down the busy main road for a while but when it headed right for the flyover, I left the mourners to it. Next stop, the Ima market, a vast indoor market run exclusively by women selling everything from live eels to purple carrots. These were gutsy, independent women who delighted in taking the piss out of me. ‘Hey lady, is it cold up there?’, I’m imagining their ribaldry consisted of – for the world is the same all over when it comes to jokes about tall people. Some funny lady even brought her own orange crate over to stand on for the entertainment of her fellow fish sellers. Oh how we laughed!
That night, Hema, one of the tour guides I’d met earlier that day knocked on my hotel door and asked if I wanted to go to a party. ‘Oh yes please’ said I. It was either that or watch ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ on the telly. I accompanied Hema up to the 5th floor of my hotel to the function room where there were flashing lights, hip hop and a fringe of skater dude types with their high-heeled, powdered molls, sitting around chatting and drinking cans of Kingfisher. Little did I realise that this was an illegal college disco and we were about to get raided. A group of about eight paramilitary with rifles and balaclavas burst in, stopped the music and turned on the lights. ‘Whose party is this? Tell us, now!’ the guy in charge demanded. But the organiser had got wind of the raid and had hightailed it. A very shouty soldier was berating one poor lad and jabbing his finger in his face. Meanwhile, his camouflaged cronies were going around the room menacingly, confiscating the beer and roughing up the punters. I had to resist the urge to stand up and tell them to ‘bugger off’. It’s times like these that I wish I had a machete.
Apparently, the young, inexperienced organisers had neglected to inform the authorities that they were having a bit of a do. Shame, as just a bit of baksheesh and we’d have been left alone to party on. I went back downstairs to R2D2, happy to have witnessed a bit of break dancing Manipuri style but disappointed I hadn’t had a snog behind the bike sheds.