I’ve been hogging the same spot in this cafe every afternoon for the past three days. Overlooking the dark waters of Borsola Beel with the afternoon sun streaming in, sipping some very passable cappuccinos and Assam tea. I absently watch the hip and urban of Guwahati stream in and out to the beat of some really good Bollywood indie tunes.
Breathing in the familiar scenario, I think back to the last 2 weeks I’ve been on the road. Making it from Rangoon to Guwahati. I think about me. And how I have never known this side of me to exist before.
I left Kohima for Mon around mid-morning. Lucky to get a front seat, the shared jeep wound up the mountains passing through many Naga localities and villages. A Naga village entry is marked by a gate in the tribe’s distinctive signage. Deciding I couldn’t go any further, I broke the trip in Mokokchung, another hill town spectacularly located like Kohima however way smaller. Small enough not to have any internet cafes nor did the guesthouse have any wi-fi. It hail stormed that night and the heater proved itself useless. Next morning, jeep was supposed to leave at 6.00am but left at 7.00am and I had been waiting/freezing since 5.30am at the stand. To be honest, all I wanted to do by this stage was get on a bus and go back past Kohima to Dimapur and catch a flight back to civilization. I wanted to be back on flat land, in clean clothes watching my daily soaps.
This had to be the muddiest, filthiest shared car I have travelled on this entire trip. Luck didn’t continue from the day before and I got a back seat. Left middle window was broken and cold air pierced through to the back. I covered my entire half body in my shawl pretending I was in an oven.
The 8-hour ride from Mokokchung to Mon was the worst. Rain and hail from the night before made the road slippery and we got stuck many times in the mud. Sometimes the jeep slipped off right to the edge of the mountain road before the barely 23-year old driver pulled through. I still can’t make my mind up whether the driver was that good or that reckless but we made it to Mon by 3.00pm! Every time, he pulled through another rough patch, we all cheered as if it was World Cup finals.
Mon, the last remote town of Nagaland serves over 30 hill villages spread all over the area. They say Mon is the reason one comes to Nagaland. The only guesthouse in town was closed when I reached there dragging my bag all the way up a small climb. I sat waiting on the stairs till a young girl came by who opened up a room. Basic. No running water. No heating. And electricity went out periodically (My brain just blew itself looking at the room). There were no restaurants in town so you were at the mercy of the guesthouse’s kitchen which was only open when aunty’s niece came over twice a day (and you only get what you get). Now ‘Aunty’ is a woman after my own heart. A 70-year old Naga woman who runs 3 establishments in Mon thrashing the widely accepted thought that Naga people can’t run businesses.
Sitting in the room with no electricity, no water and nothing really do since I had already explored the town, I felt a strange helplessness dawn in. I don’t know whether it was the cold, or the fatigue, or being so remotely and completely cut-off from everything but I really, really didn’t want to be there. All I wanted to do was pick up my bags and get out of there. The mountains, the Nagas, the village in 2 countries, nothing was appealing to me. I just wanted to get out. At any cost.
And I couldn’t. No matter how much money I had in my wallet then, nothing could’ve have gotten me out of Mon that day. Or the next. I have built a life around exit plans and a career on sneaky exit clauses and the one time, I really needed to exit from a place, I couldn’t. The ‘guesthouse’ really was a couple of rooms on the 3rd level of a building. There was nobody else there that afternoon. Dinner was over by 7.30pm and I was sitting in my cold room again by 7.35pm. No way I was having a bath because the water in the bucket was colder than a running glacier. Aunty and her niece didn’t live in the building and left after locking up everything.
Though the next day was Sunday (and even the street dogs disappear on Sundays in Mon), Aunty managed to hook me up with a driver and a ‘guide’. Guide was a young local boy who was a graduate and had come back home from the city and was now spending his days waking up at 10.30am. The arsehole of a driver drove back into town just after 1pm and said he was hungry and couldn’t complete the whole day. I said but the deal was for the whole day! He didn’t budge. I talked to his boss on his mobile (who was really supposed to take me in the first place. Said he was sooo sorry but he would make it up tomorrow.) So we got off. I paid the guide who went his way. Did I mention everything was closed on Sundays? So with no food, electricity and nothing to do, I sat staring at the wall contemplating the point of this trip.
Nagaland, so far wasn’t what I had expected. It’s not like I haven’t done remote before. The Amazon in Peru, Konya in Turkey but this time it was different. I felt like I wasn’t seeing much. Things were not blowing my mind (apart of the state of guesthouses). I wasn’t connecting to the whole thing like I used to. This place was out of the guidebooks. Even Lonely Planet only has half a paragraph on Mon. As a solo traveler, you depend a lot on the guidebooks, the blogs, the forums and this place is way out of the traveler path.
Perhaps I was a changed person from the last time I was on the road but I have never affected by remoteness, isolated-ness in my travels before. The worst part was being helpless to do anything about it.
Next day went to the ticket stands. I was going to cut this Nagaland leg short. I just couldn’t hang around there anymore.
You can certainly get into Nagaland but Nagaland doesn’t make it easy for you to get out. There was no way, I was going back by the death road I came from and the only way to get out of Mon then was via Sonari, a small filthy bordering town of Nagaland and Assam, 3.5 hours away. To get out of Sonari, I had to wait another 7 hours for the one only night bus which goes to Guwahati, Assam’s capital – 17 hours away (with the nearest airport). Naga driver didn’t want to go into Assam (another state) so dropped the last 3 of us at the checkpoint – another hurdle. Got into a rickshaw with 6, yes 6 people for a 15-minute ride to Sonari. I hung around Sonari for a good 6 hours waiting for my bus, really acquainting myself with it’s 2-street town.
The 17-hour night bus pulled into Guwahati at 8.30am the next morning. First thing after getting a room, I had a shower. (Actually I viber-ed Suruj first who had panicked her brains out!)
Now sitting in this familiar cafe surrounding catching up with myself, I think back to the mountains of Nagaland. The most wow moment of my 10 days of traveling through the remotest part of India? Had I overreacted in Mon?
Maybe it was the constant traveling to get to Mon and then the disappointment of not finding what I was after?
Maybe it was the elements; the cold, the no water, scarce food, no wi-fi?
Maybe I had changed?
Maybe I was getting too old for adventures?
But as I shift through the photos for this post, an ironic smile on my face and a very, very old cliche’ comes to mind – It’s not about the destination.
Something I had forgotten. It was never about where I was going. It was about being on the road. It was about being out here. It was about taking risks. It was about reminding myself again that there are no ends.
It was about collecting stories; like the chemist guy who let me nap in his front chair in Sonari, the Bihari hardware store owner who talked building sanitary ware to the moon and back on the bus, the guy who fell asleep on my shoulder, the little hut owner who offered us tea in the middle of the nowhere, the army checkpoints, the kid that told his sister I was there to get her and scared the living daylights out of her, sitting in an opium den, staring straight in the eye of an ex-headhunter, the Naga taxi driver who called me didi making sure I got on the right bus…
It was about the journey. Always has been. I just forgot.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ― Ernest Hemingway