We knew little about Assam and nothing about Nagaland and Manipur before we arrived at Guwahati airport to begin this adventure. I can now report that tea estate pickers don’t look much like the ones on the Dilmah ads – it’s clearly hard work – and rock music is alive and well in Dimapur! The Jumping Bean café would not be out of place in student Wellington. The best food I had in three weeks in India was in a small café called Maihang in Kohora village in the Kaziranga National Park. And the genuine Assamese breakfast at Village Weaves, Golaghat was another delight. Especially as the 20-year-old son of the family declared that his favourite writer was Christopher Marlowe. Now that was a surprise!
Finding ourselves in mainly Christian Nagaland close to Christmas (Baptist and Catholic churches are everywhere, not to mention Santa) among people who speak English, dress in western clothes and look quite different from other Indian people with their mongoloid features was a complete surprise. Arriving at night this hilltop town was ablaze with lights (it was close to ChristmasJ) and we first spent time at a local event watching families at play and listening to local rap singers! And it was a relief, as a fair-haired westerner at Kohima’s night carnival, to invite just the startled gazes of small children rather than the intense sales pitches of the touts we encountered in all the main tourist places we had visited in previous weeks.
British involvement in this area is not admirable. Indian people are generally very polite when speaking to visitors who looked like ‘Britishers” but will be more candid if pressedJ We glimpsed a new version of 19th and 20th century history that will need some reading to flesh out. The war museum in Kohima is a must to visit.
Rohan, David and their team of locals looked after us well and we always felt safe despite the strong military presence here. Only the sub machine gun held by the “men in black” lookalike guarding a minor politician at the Hornbill Festival was a bit of a shock! Learning a bit of the complex politics helps explain the presence of security forces and tourists are either welcomed or ignored. We never felt at risk anywhere we went.
Dealing with Naga-Indian bureaucracy was interesting but never threatening with Rohan to assist. We needed to fill in a form (no surprises there) to pass a border but first find the relevant official. We even had our temperature checked for Ebola protection purposes between Nagaland and Manipur by a man in a shop front ‘office’ with a hand held thermometer and the ubiquitous ledger to record our names, ages and state of health.
The Hornbill Festival provided a vibrant, colourful, extremely well-organised opportunity to see how people used to live in tribal times but Kohona Tribal Village with its forts, spectacular terraced fields and forward-looking local organization was a wonderful way to see how Nagas are managing their lives today.
Riding an elephant, seeing rhinos and wild buffalo in Kaziranga Park, leopards in a conservation centre and grazing mithuns in the Nagaland forest were special wildlife moments.
India Trail is a fledgling business with great intentions about bringing tourists from India and the rest of the world to Nagaland to benefit local people. You need a bit more patience and respect for local life than in more developed centres but it’s worth it. Our accommodation was fine; the bathrooms were good (anyone who has already visited India will appreciate this!) and we ate in a variety of places, from the Hotel Classic’s silver service in Imphal (also unexpected!) to waiwai in tiny Gusto, with its Calvin and Hobbes cartoon wall, in Kohima.
We are from New Zealand, so one of the very best things about our trip into northeast India with India Trail was the opportunity to spend several days with people who actually live in India. Our wonderful fellow travellers came from Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai (though everyone still seems to call it Bombay), Nashik, Goa… so the regular opportunities to hear about life in India: over breakfast and dinner, while travelling long distances in comfortable vehicles, or sitting on an elephant at dawn, were superb moments to get behind the tourist veil. And we have made some new friends.
Rohan also organized other travel for us in India so we are grateful to him for our itinerary and our stay at the eccentric Anglo-Indian Fairlawn Hotel in Calcutta/Kolkata, which was brilliantly sited for walking access to the city centre.
All in all we have some great memories of this trip and now have a better understanding of a part of the world we hadn’t even heard of three months ago.
Thanks Rohan – we had a good time.
– Diane and Douglas White, New Zealand
Photos: Mark D. Abbott, Bangalore