Thursday, 26 May 2016

Meghalaya Diary: Experiencing the world's rainiest places on a dry day

One of the cool things we have begun to do (and highly recommend to others) is combining outstation weddings with extended vacations. After R’s wedding in Delhi followed up with a visit to Kashmir last November, this March we attended Conscience Keeper’s ex-colleagues S and D’s wedding in Kolkata, and then headed out to Meghalaya.

Happy Streets on Park Street, organized every Sunday
Fun Sunday morning with K, S and my nephew and niece
At S and D's wedding in Kolkata. Wore one of my brightest orange UP silk sari, which seems loud but looks gorgeous when worn. 
We didn't know anyone at the wedding, so we occupied ourselves by taking selfies

What a beautiful, awe inspiring place it turned out to be! It was as off season as it can be – the abode of clouds as “Meghalaya” is described to be – was enjoying its dry spring spell, before thundershowers take over in April. In a State that hosts the wettest regions in the world, we didn’t experience a single downpour, or even dark clouds for consolation. The expectations I had built after reading Chasing the Monsoons almost a decade ago, would almost have come crashing down, if not for the green and quaint countryside, spring blooms and pleasant weather. And the wonderful natural marvels – limestone caves and living roots - that was quite a discovery for me.

We were picked up at the Guwahati Airport and drove directly to Shillong. I was surprised to find that there was only one entry toll, and the roads were well maintained (unlike South India, where we find tolls every few hundred kms). Along the highway were fruit shops that sold fresh produce – their pineapples were the juiciest I had ever tasted!

We spent the first day in Shillong at the charming Aerodene Cottage, mostly nursing an allergic cold that I had picked up in Kolkata. In the evening we set out to find a homoeopathy doctor who can prescribe me some medicines (Dr Bhattacharya in Police Bazaar, to whoever needs to know). The shop was shut, so we wandered around the streets. It’s a popular hangout joint dotted with street food stalls and restaurants. Mostly, its meat – ethnic Khasi food is predominantly non-vegetarian with lots of pork and beef – so we vegetarians were at a loss. We finally dined at City Hut Family Dhaba that offers a mishmash of cuisines, and that might be the reason it comes so well-recommended, because frankly the food was not great. It was quite late by the time we left, and the local taxi drivers demanded Rs250 upwards. Mercifully, one honest driver let us hop in a shared taxi, and we reached the hotel paying only Rs20. (Sigh – Bangalore auto drivers brotherhood network is vibrant even in the North-East)

Aerodene Cottage, Shillong
Everything is small and white and sweet and light in Meghalaya, including the inside of the dining room at Aerodene
A bright spring morning at Aerodene

Elongated onions

Elongated lemons

The next morning, I woke up feeling absolutely fine. My cold had disappeared. This is what fresh, clean air – a rarity in our big cities – does to our health. After a lip-smacking breakfast of the softest parathas, we headed out to Cherrapunji, 3 hours away. On our way we stopped by Umiam Lake that offered us breath-taking scenery. We sailed on a speed boat and then hung around the cafĂ© for a while.

Umiam Lake

We then headed to a couple of waterfalls, which scarcely had any water, but it was easy to imagine how majestic it would be during the monsoons. We didn’t really mind – dry waterfalls doesn’t attract tourists, and going by the few we encountered, and the lessons on Swacha Bharat we were forced to give those trash throwers and those urinating in public, we were grateful to not see many. We visited the caves, and it was a good idea to get a guide who helped us through the darkness. Late evening, we attended the evening bhajans at the imposing Ramakrishna Mission up the hill.
One of the waterfalls we crossed on our way. It would be roaring by June.
The stream that feeds the waterfall

On top of the waterfall
Inside a cave near Cherrapunji. The caves are very well maintained with parks and shopping areas built around it.
Limestone stalactite. In a Kumaon cave, it was described as the hair of Lord Shiva!
Ancient fossils

We stayed at the Sainika resort, that reminded us of Minnie's Haberdashery from Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. I wasn't very impressed with it, and found their insistence on serving dinner in our rooms quite puzzling. I later wished we had stayed at the Cherra Resort, who also ran the Orange Roots restaurant near Sainika that served, of all things, rasam for lunch! Turns out that the owner's father was from Madurai, and mother from Meghalaya, and the chef was trained in Bangalore!

Sainika Resort
Rasam for lunch in the middle of Cherrapunji
The next day we trekked down some 3000 odd steps to reach the double decker living roots bridge, a natural marvel built out of tree roots. Going down turned out to be more challenging than climbing up - my fear of heights was worsened when my knees started rattling like a sewing machine. But the effort was worth it. The pristine sacred grove, the natural pools and the ancient trees brought alive the scenes from Avatar!
Everything one needs for the trek is here
More Yo!
On our way to Living Roots bridge. This one is a steel bridge.
These bridges are built naturally from living trees, like in this one. It takes about 8 -10 years to build one.
Super strong!

A smaller living roots bridge along our way
Sacred grove
Finally, our destination: the double decker living roots bridge
Natural pools near the double decker living roots bridge
A couple of six year old had a good time teasing us as we climbed our way back those 3000 steps. In the last leg, Conscience Keeper challenged them to a race - and he won! (What a lovely end to the trek!)

DAY 4: Mawlynnong and back to Shillong
ON our way back to Shillong, we took a detour and visited Mawlynnong, the cleanest village not only in India but in Asia. The destination was great, but the journey was even better, with rolling meadows and lush green hills and dense jungles along the way.

At Mawlynnong, a village that has become prosperous after it became known as the cleanest village in India. There are many homestays frequented by tourists around the globe. A great success story for rural tourism.
Stone quarrying seems to be everyone's favorite pastime. Around every twist and turn along the highway, I saw families out in the sun, hammering away. It didn't make for a pretty sight.

Surprisingly, Meghalaya is comparatively clean and free of trash, but tourists do try to do their bit to litter the place.  
This Sprite bottle (above) is the result of a bowling attempt by a 10 year old boy.  
The local people are well groomed and well dressed. Many women prefer to wear their ethnic dress, pinning the choddar over their shoulders. Most of them are soft spoken and shy, and communication is often a problem if they don’t speak English. Despite them using the English script, I could barely pronounce any words in their local language (which also explained how our army friend from Shillong gives his instructions in Hindi using the English script). 75% of the State are practicing Christians, which explains their use of English.

The inscription is in English, but I wouldn't understand it without the translation below

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