Sunday, February 3, 2013

Across the Khasi Hills: Sunday / Getting Back to Assam

A tree, the canyon wall, and jungle, in hazy sunlight. This was taken on my way back up the endless stairs.

The next day I woke up to the sound of falling rain, and seeing as how I had just completed a huge hike the day before, in which I walked for around ten hours straight up and down never-ending ancient staircases, I decided to take it easy. This was my last full day down in the canyon, and it too was an adventure, though of a different sort.

The day before, I had inquired to the caretaker about going to church on Sunday. I wasn't sure what their arrangements were: I had seen a church in the village before, though it had been padlocked, and looked a bit run down. My ability to communicate with the villagers had been limited. Their Hindi was about on a par with mine, though I had difficulty understanding their accents, their English was widely variable, and my Khasi is..well...non existent (except for "Khublei" meaning hello, thank you, goodbye, and such). 

But, after having a slow breakfast, and reading a bit, the caretaker came in at around 9:45 am and said: "Chalo, Church."  And so, there I was, following the caretaker and his family across the village  At the time, I had thought that Church was going to be held up in Tyrna, and that I had a 90 minute to two hour walk ahead of me. But, as it turned out, a priest who had come down from Laitkynsew was going to conduct mass in the Nongriat Village Church...This I only learned after packing a whole bag's worth of hiking supplies. Still, I wasn't complaining. 

Up until this point, I hadn't even known what sort of Christians the people in Nongriat were. Presbyterians are the majority in Meghalaya, however, in this particular area, the people are mostly Catholic. Nongriat is 100% Catholic, and I think I can unequivocally say that it is the single most Catholicism intensive place I've ever been...It's odd, seeing as how I've been a practicing member of the church of Rome all my life, that the most Catholic place I've ever been should be at the bottom of a canyon in the middle of a jungle in the far northeast extremity of India....then again, when isn't life weird.

The Catholic Church in Nongriat.

The priest was a certain Father Anthony, from, like many of the Catholic priests in India, Kerala. Evidently he had learned to speak functional enough Khasi to do a full service and sermon in the villager's native tongue.  Working alongside him were two nuns, one, Sister Theodora, who was a Pnar (Pnars being, at least in her opinion, a subset of Khasi), and another nun, who's name I never got, from Tura in the Garo Hills (the opposite side of Meghalaya, a region I have never visited, but want to). 

I have to say, the big difference between a mass at my church back in Delaware, and this one Nongriat, was that here they sure liked dragging it out. My God: they kept at it for about three hours straight. In all fairness, I think there was some sort of special function going on, but still...that was one endless stretch of church, I'll tell you. There were about 45 minutes where Sister Theodora was trying to get everyone to sing the hymns perfectly... they never got it quite to 100%, and so Sister Theodora finally had to give it up. Still, their singing was way better than the music at my Church (the music at Holy Angels Church in Newark DE is just abysmal).

Mass...with a Khasi kid looking just like any kid in church...I had some photos that were technically superior than this one, but I think this captured the scene much better, despite being out of focus...I spent many of the three hours being stared at in awe and amazement by small Khasi children.

Psalms in, English, Hindi, Assamese, Tamil, Angami...non of them are related to the language of the Khasis. 

As far as I can tell, Nongriat devotes itself totally to religion on Sundays.

After the "Nearly-never-ending-Nongriat-Mass" was over, I was talking with Father Anthony. I got the feeling that, despite the fact that foreigners in Nongriat are not all that uncommon, he was still pretty surprised to see me in church. 

At one point, the conversation turned to the topic of the other villages in the area, and I received a piece of information that I found quite interesting. In Father Anthony's estimation, Nongriat simply isn't that far from civilization (as in, a mere 2 hour, straight uphill, walk from a road-head). Apparently, there is a trail from Nongriat that leads much deeper into the jungle, towards villages much more remote. Now, a few days before, I had searched for a trail leading roughly south, into what I knew to be a very large area of uninterrupted Jungle (by Khasi Hills standards)...I hadn't found one, but then again, Khasi Villages, however clean they may be, tend to be confusing to navigate in. But, according to Father Anthony, there are much more remote villages on the trail out of Nongriat, and ever since I heard that, I've wanted to go see them.

Anyway, I also wound up having a wide ranging conversation with Sister Theodora (the other nun did absolutely nothing but grin and make jokes), and then I was invited to lunch...However, before that, Father Anthony had to go a administer communion to a couple of the terminally ill people in the village...though he asked that I tag along. The next 2 hours or so were, well...intense. We wound up visiting the house where the wife of the caretaker of her relatives had contracted some sort debilitating nervous disorder, and was lying nearly comatose in her bed, clearly not long for this world. Still, despite this, her family seemed perfectly happy to have me come and visit with Father Anthony. 

After much administering of  communion, we all sat down to a giant lunch..yes, with more pork, though also quite a bit of chicken, and loads of rice and dhal and leafy was quite nice really, and I certainly didn't go hungry.  And after that.............

More church!!! I've never spent so much time in church in one day...though this time the program was shorter, though I was sitting next to sister Theodora, who (politely, mind you) insisted I sing along, despite my not knowing Khasi...I did my best, though usually the renderings of Khasi sounds on the hymnals didn't seem to correspond in any way with the actual sounds the Khasis were making.

This next dose of Catholicism lasted a mere 90 minutes, after which Father Anthony and the nuns had to make the 2 hour hike back up to Tyrna. There was much joking about how, with my long legs, I would take only half as long to make the same hike. They invited me for lunch the following day, at the Catholic church next to the Cherrapunji  Holiday Resort in Laitkynsew. I had every intention of going, but, unfortunately, I was too late getting up the Endless Stairs, and had to get to Shillong that afternoon. Still, if I'm ever back in the area, which is likely, I'll try and drop by. 

Once they left, I went back to the guesthouse and relaxed for a while, not expecting much more to happen that day....

The Nongriat Guest House at night. When you approach from the Nohkalikai Falls side of the village, the guest house is the first light in the darkness of the noisy tropical night. It's not a swanky place, not by a long shot, but it's a fine spot to come back to after a long day in the thick, sultry, spider-filled jungle.

Dinner! Usually I'm not into food photography, but this is a special case. This whole bounteous feast was prepared with only one person in mind. You can see on the bottom plate huge chunks of solid pork fat. Though, far be it from me to complain, it was a very tasty meal, and I wish I could have finished all of it (as it was, I think I might have been able to shove about 25% of it into me, though I did my level best).

After dinner, I was thinking I would just go to bed, so as to be well rested for the long hike out of the canyon. However, my plans changed when the caretaker came up to me, and asked, as best he could, if I wanted to come with him, to "Mary". What I thought he was saying was that he wanted me going to see a marriage, or perhaps drop in on a marriage party. So, being not quite sure what I was in for, me and the caretaker crossed the darkness of the village  and would up back at one of the houses I had visited turned out it was "Mary's" house.

So, we just visited for a while...he had a bunch of whiskey or something, but I wasn't in a drinking sort of mood, so we wound up playing "Ludo" with the caretaker, his brother (I think...sometimes establishing who was related to who and how was simply guesswork). I had never played, or even heard, of Ludo before, but I guess the Khasi Hills were as good a place as any to learn. Anyway, they did their best to explain the rules to me is Khasi, and there was much comedy involving teaching me numbers. I've heard that Khasi is actually a fairly simple language to learn, and probably after a month in Nongriat you'd know a good 200 or so words.

Silly kids in Mary's house...for people who don't like kids, the Khasi Hills must be simply horrific....

I wish I could have gotten to know the people in village better. The fact is, in situations like this where you have a communication/cultural barrier, it's just par for the course that it will take a while for the ice to melt. When it comes right down to it, I'm far from a social butterfly, and the Khasis tend to be very friendly,  but in rather a shy sort of way (obviously, there are exceptions, and the culture varies from village to village). 

Playing Ludo. That's Mary to the left there. Yes, here the limitations of my little point and click camera are quite are always difficult to photograph, especially when there's not much light and they're moving all over the place...I really wanted to get a good shot of the inside of Mary's house that night, but fate was against me. Still, it gives you a sense of the scene. (I really do need to invest in a better camera one of these days....hope hope).

Needless to say, the Khasis kicked my ass at Ludo. 

The next morning, I woke early, and found that it had not rained for more than twelve hours. I decided to take just one more hike in the direction of the hybrid bridge, in order to see what the course of the Umkynsan looked like after there hadn't been any rain for a while.

An unusually moisture free view upcanyon.

In the Khasi hills, the water seems to drain off the rocks almost as quickly as it does in the American West. The result of this is that, like in an american canyon, watercourses can go from being raging torrents to being almost dry in a very short space of time. The difference is, during the monsoon season, the bottoms of the canyons can be in flash flood mode for days and even weeks on end.

Looking in the general direction of Bangladesh, from the hybrid bridge, upstream from Nongriat. The day before these rocks had been under many feet of white, foaming, raging water. 

Looking back up at the hybrid bridge from the stream bed.

After that brief excursion, it was time to go back to the guest house and pack up. I paid my bill, which was reasonable, gave my hosts a tip, and was off, fully intending to return. 

The way back up, as expected, was a slog. Lugging all my stuff up the endless stairs was no picnic, particularly in the ungodly humidity.

On the way up the endless stairs, looking towards a long slope. I'm reasonably sure that this was what I had climbed two days before on my long hike up to the Nohkalikai Falls Viewpoint.

A view from near the top of the endless stairs.

Still, the advantage of walking up really steep inclines is that, no matter how bad they are, one always makes rapid progress. The hike back up the endless stairs was tough, but it didn't last long, though I was so badly soaked in sweat by the time that I reached Tyrna that I did have to change my clothes.

After getting to the top of the endless stairs, my next task was to hike to the nearest intersection and flag down the first taxi heading to Cherrapunji.

You know you've gotten somewhere when you can see Bangladesh...yes, a tad fuzzy, but you get the idea.

My first thought was that I would return to Cherrapunji, and spend the night there, but as it so happened, the first tourist vehicle I flagged down was headed all the way back to Shillong, so I wound up, earlier than expected, leaving the canyons and mist behind...though I suspect I'll be back soon. There is, at least looking on Google Earth, a huge and nearly unexplored region of deep canyons to the west of Nongriat....some day I  intend to get out there. 

What else is there to say? I made it uneventfully into Shillong, where all the hotels were rather pricey...I wound up in a rs.700 broom closet in Police Bazaar, having a beer and watching Raam Lakhan (Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Madhuri Dixit, Amrish Puri).

I was back down in Assam the next day. And that's that...

This blog post is dedicated to: My Trusty Umbrella, which saw me safely through many miles of wet jungle. It now rests in a house on the banks of the Brahmaputra.

Honorable Mention: My Trekking bag. I didn't like it at first. It had too many damn straps that got hung up on things. But now I can't live without it.

Back across the wide Brahmaputra, from my girlfriend's porch.

So, that was Meghalaya. I'm going to switch gears now and do some posts on my Trans-Deccan explorations from Hyderabad to Bangalore. Stay tuned!!!!

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