November 2, 2016

7 days in Meghalaya

It is a cloudy evening at Sa-I-Mika resort, Cherrapunjee. I have just arrived at one of the wettest places on earth and not surprisingly, it is raining. It is my first visit to the North-East of India, and the view that greets me at the resort is unbelievably picturesque. The resort has no fence of any kind and seems to stretch endlessly in every direction. Quaint little cottages are spread out all over the property, in no apparent order. A narrow stream meanders along the hills below us. The skies are overcast and it seems that tonight the green hills will have grey clouds for company.

In the distance, an abandoned basketball court stands out like an eyesore amidst the greenery. The sun sets and zero-watt bulbs around the property begin to take effect. I am waiting for a group of travelers, and a guide who will be leading us on an offbeat journey across the raw and untamed state of Meghalaya. The wait is made bearable by the incredible view and the familiar sound of Led Zeppelin crackling through the speakers from the cafe behind me.

Now, I have done a fair bit of solo travel in the past, but the idea of trekking and hiking with a group of people that I was just about to meet for the first time, was still a bit unnerving. Almost sensing my discomfort, the owner's dogs---Max, Missy, Jango and Charlie came out to play(well maybe they just wanted the Parle-G biscuits in my hand). By now, the rain was showing no signs of stopping, and our decision to visit Meghalaya during the monsoons was starting to seem as sensible as buying caviar on FoodPanda.


It is almost nightfall by the time the group arrives. The initial awkwardness gives way to friendly conversation and it doesn't take long to realise that most of us are already on the same wavelength. The process is aided and accelerated by Tropical Orange Breezers, VAT69 and Dohkhlieh.

The next day, we set off to explore the breathtaking landscape that surrounds us. Cherrapunji, we have been told, has some of the most beautiful waterfalls in India, and so, we decide to explore and find out for ourselves. What makes this journey rewarding is the fact that there are no clear hiking trails here. Around every corner, we have slippery rocks and leeches for company. The grass along the way is still wet from rainfall the previous night. We walk along broken trails, each of us trying to find the shortest way to some area of interest. Every so often, there is a shriek of excitement, indicating that someone has either discovered a waterfall or 3G connectivity. Our first stop is Nohkalikai waterfalls, apparently one of the highest plunge waterfalls in India(thank you, Wikipedia) and it is an impressive sight. The hills surrounding Nohkalikai waterfalls are dotted with trees, and this greenery, combined with the midday sun emerging from behind dark clouds, and foaming white water from the falls below us provide the ultimate photo-op for those of us in search of that perfect picture for Chavara Matrimony. Life certainly seems a lot simpler when all you have to worry about are leeches, keeping your footing and looking good in photos.

With a light trek now under our belts, we prepare ourselves for a more grueling journey the following day to the Holy Grail of bridges in India--the legendary living roots bridges of Cherrapunji. To be honest, it is the main reason that most of us are here in Meghalaya. They say the journey to the bridges consists of around 3000 steep, man-made steps, a fact that will be confirmed later by wobbly legs and accurate Fitbits. Aware of the challenging journey ahead of us, we prepare ourselves by packing as light as possible and doing 5 full sit-ups. We set off with only the essentials---a waterproof jacket, good hiking shoes and fully-charged cameras. Our onward journey is mostly downhill. There is a persistent drizzle in the air. The hills around us turn a brighter shade of green.

We approach our first milestone, a suspension bridge that seems to have been designed by some disgruntled engineer. The bridge starts swaying wildly as we tread carefully across it; some of the planks on the bridge are missing. Looking through the gaps in the bridge reveal a river below us that has a remarkable shade of peacock blue mixed with Listerine and adjusted in Photoshop. We stop for pictures, though I am sure that no lens can do justice to what we are seeing.

Many, many steps later we find ourselves at the first living roots bridge. It is spectacular. The massive roots of the trees are intricately intertwined with some intervention from the locals, and grow almost naturally across from one side to the other. The entire structure looks like it belongs on a Lord of the Rings set. It is a simple reminder of the harmony that the locals enjoy with nature. Many, many more steps later, we find ourselves at our destination---the double-decker living roots bridge. We stay there a while, clicking cover photos, passport size photos and Patel shots, too tired to move further.

By now, it is late in the afternoon, and we slowly start our return. The journey uphill seems longer and tougher. The group splits up, each walking at their own pace, some cursing the steps under their breath. We make one final stop at a spot where the river has formed a natural pool of the aforementioned Listerine colour. The active ones go for a swim, and the lazy ones bask in the sunlight. Thereafter, for almost the entire uphill journey, we have a local dog for company. He sprints about 20 steps ahead of us, pauses for us to catch up, and then resumes dutifully. Soon enough we are back at the top; the dog is rewarded with Parle-G and we reward ourselves with Maggi. The waterproof jackets come off, they are soaking wet from the persistent rain. Trying to stay dry in Cherrapunji has felt like trying to keep a straight face while watching Takeshi's castle. We return to our resort, lie down under the stars and talk about life, the universe and everything else. That night, we go to bed with aching legs and sore feet, and wake up refreshed the next morning, with the satisfaction of someone who has just killed a mosquito with one of those electric bat thingies.

The next morning, we take some time off to recover and plan for the days ahead. Next on our itinerary is the village of Mawlynnong, famous for being declared Asia's cleanest village by Discovery Magazine in 2003(thank you again, Wikipedia). It is a fairly long journey from Cherrapunji, and we arrive at Mawlynnong around dusk. The tiny town is dimly lit. The houses are simple, and built almost entirely of wood. Small conical dustbins made of bamboo are mounted on poles at regular intervals. Shy children play on the streets with tattered footballs and makeshift toys.

We stay in small, secluded wooden cottages; the roads that lead us there are lit only by the full moon above us. It is magical. The next morning, some of us awake in time to see the sunrise from a strategically placed bamboo watchtower. The rest of the town is still asleep and quiet. Nobody is in any hurry. Time stands still. Mawlynnong is one of those rare places that has traded money for time, and we are starting to realise that this has been a worthwhile transaction.

The penultimate evening of the trip is spent in Shillong. Some of us go souvenir shopping, some go out to sample the street food, some of us venture out in search of Jadoh, a traditional Khasi dish(ok, basically Pork Biriyani). However, searching for the perfect plate of Jadoh in a dark, crowded, rainy Shillong market proves to be as tricky as looking for an Airbnb below Lingarajpuram flyover. We make do with some sub-par rice and pork curry, and promise ourselves that someday we will be back for the real thing.

The next day, we are at Guwahati airport, ready to leave. We say our goodbyes. Sunglasses start to get foggy. Mascara starts to run. It has been an incredible 7 days in Meghalaya.

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