Max Bearak and I are on a month-long journey through Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Meghalaya, documenting cultural and environmental transformation in the region. Max is a journalist with The New York Times based in Delhi. Look out for his articles with my pictures on the NYT’s World section in the coming month.
This is the first guest post on my blog – hope you enjoy.
December 17th, 2013
DIBANG VALLEY, ARUNACHAL PRADESH –
Ninety kilometers of a rutted road and a high mountain pass separate the nearest town from Hunli. The village, which rests on a lush, forested plateau in this remote part of Arunachal Pradesh, is a lonesome constellation of thatch and cane houses, Indian Army barracks and government outposts. A steep cliff abuts its farthermost edge, beyond which lie a dry riverbed and green mountains that rise in crisscross layers, embraced by a panorama of snowy, pyramidal, Himalayan peaks.
Hunli is the only settlement on the way to Anini, headquarters of Dibang Valley District, which is both the northernmost district in Northeast India, and the least populous district (out of 640) in the entire country. If not for the Indian government’s paranoia about Chinese encroachment into Arunachal Pradesh, there might not have been a road here at all, and Hunli could have remained the cluster of Mishmi families it was not more than a few decades ago.
Not knowing our eventual destination was Hunli, Himanshu and I left the fog-blanketed floodplains of Assam on a break-of-dawn bus to Roing, a town at the base of the mountains. Our plan was to meet Nino Dai there, before heading up the Dibang Valley. Nino runs a travel company called Donyi Hango, and had invited friends from around Northeast India to the Dibang, a river he’d never dipped his toes in, for a rafting and fishing expedition that he hoped would give him the knowhow to run future trips here with venturesome tourists. When he and I spoke over the phone, Nino had seemed excited at the prospect of having a journalist and photographer along on his reconnaissance mission, and he added an extra boat and equipment to accommodate us.
But bureaucratic hurdles lined the road to Roing. In Dibrugarh, Assam, where Himanshu applied in person for an Inner Line Permit (ILP), necessary for entry into politically sensitive areas like Arunachal, at least four separate desks had to “OK” his application, each at their own leisure. What apparently takes fifteen minutes at other permit-issuing offices took hours in Dibrugarh, causing us to miss a bus. My permit was also stuck in the purgatory of Indian officialdom, as the chap whose signature I needed happened to be on indefinite leave. It seems there isn’t someone else who can scribble his initials in the other’s absence.
Paperwork delays were compounded by the fact that Arunachal operates on the same time zone as the rest of India, despite being thousands of kilometers east of most of the country. The December sun sets before 4 P.M. in these far eastern reaches. And, as the Dibang Valley is nestled in a corner of India bounded by wide rivers with no bridges crossing them as of yet, ferry travel is unavoidable and their daytime-only schedules limit a traveler to mostly morning journeys. This jungle of government red tape, transportation time crunches and rudimentary infrastructure, on top of my own foolish and rushed preparations, made it inevitable that we’d have to catch up with Nino & Co. as they snaked their way through the mountains.
“We’ll be spending the night in Hunli. You can meet us there.” That was all Nino told me as he left Roing in his Tata Sumo, which was full, and wasn’t going to wait for Himanshu and I anyway. An hour later, his phone was unreachable. The next time I spoke with him was four days later.
Meanwhile, in Roing, the pickup truck delivering to rations to Hunli that we had arranged to sit in the back of decided to leave without us, and that too only ten minutes before we arrived. No matter, said the lady who employed the deliverymen, another truck will leave at 2. You’ll still reach Hunli by dinnertime. But it was 5, more than an hour into a particularly cold twilight, when Bhote arrived with his Tata 207. We loaded ourselves into the truck, in a state of denial that we were about to ascend 2000 meters in the bed of a pickup, in the middle of a December night, wearing light jackets.
After days of hard luck and bad planning (like only packing light jackets), we were saved from our own foolishness by an unexpected crew. Just outside Roing, Bhote picked up three teenagers headed for a road construction project in Anini. They were carrying six blankets and readily gave us two, saying something we hadn’t heard yet on this trip: “If you both are happy, then we’re also happy.”
Without the extra warmth, our trip to the Northeast would easily have veered down a frightening path, but with it, and with our lively and generous co-passengers, we tucked ourselves in, legs intertwined underneath the blankets, still shivering, but less. And as we emerged through Mayodia Pass, carpeted with snow, everyone was completely submerged in the blankets. Among the boxes of biscuits and instant noodles with us in the bed of the truck, we bounced down the road like so much human cargo under a soft cotton tarp – sacks of blood and bone on a mountain delivery run.
I will never forget that night. The soft light of the full moon cast long shadows through the forest as we careened around hairpin turns. One of the boys told incomparably bad jokes to his own cackling laughter (“Why do ghosts live on top of the trees? Because when they walk on the street, dogs will eat them!”) while interspersing lines from recent Bollywood hits (“Long drive pe chal, chal, chal”). When we reached snow at about 2000 meters, he and his friends were ecstatic (“Loouuudda, Kashmir mein pouhnch gaye hai kya?”) and when we stopped at a small hut about 65 kilometers along for dinner they were ravenous, eating two heaping plates of rice each where I barely finished one. We sat there, eating around a small fire, and through eyes reddened by the smoke I looked at those three kids and felt deeply appreciative toward whatever force had tied our fates together for that one night.
At Hunli, Bhote unceremoniously offloaded us. The blankets were gratefully returned to the friends whose names we’d never asked. Scanning the slopes of Hunli in the moonlight, we had thought we’d see another truck somewhere in town with rafts and such things, but we didn’t. Only then did it dawn on us that it was midnight in a remote mountain village and we might have to sleep outside. Too scared to approach the one house producing light and noise — a strange chanting in fact — we knocked on the door of an army quarters building and a groggy-eyed man told us there was a small government rest house down the road. It was only after twenty confusing minutes of trying to wake up a man who turned out to be a stand-in caretaker there that we roused him and convinced him to give us a room at that late hour (“Sir, please. We’ll talk to the caretaker tomorrow and promise there will be no problem. If you don’t allow us to sleep here, where will we go?”)
In the slanted light of the morning, Himanshu and I stumbled out into the village, now almost sure that finding Nino was impossible. As our luck would have it, the BSNL cell network tower was temporarily down, rendering our (and everyone else’s) phones useless. But Hunli proved to be full of friendly people, both local Mishmis and government transplants from distant corners from India. With the comfort of daylight, we approached the house that still emanated chanting only to find ourselves invited into the five-day long mourning ritual for a recently deceased young child, which involved drinking beer and rum through the morning.
After days of Nino-chasing, the sudden slowing of our pace gave us a chance to absorb our surroundings. While Himanshu was invited into another local family’s home, I sat down in a grassy patch and listened to the music of Hunli’s animals. Close by, a family of goats rustled in the weeds, their bleats alternating with the far off koo-ka-koos of a rooster. Faintly, the laughter of birds and humans mingled with the buzzing of a single truck unhurriedly rattling down the mountain. It’s those sounds that I still hear when I think of Hunli.
Days later, while sitting in a hotel lobby in Itanagar, hundreds of kilometers from the Dibang Valley, Nino finally called me.
“What happened man? We were in Hunli and didn’t see you,” he said.
“What? So were we! We stayed at the Circuit House that night,” I said, surprised by the notion that we might have missed Nino by just minutes and meters.
“Really? We checked there in the morning and didn’t find anyone. The caretaker wasn’t there.”
“Damn. We must have been asleep. We asked everyone in town if they had seen a truck with rafts and no one said they saw one. Didn’t you tell anyone that if they saw a random white guy they should direct us to you?”
“We did! You must have spoken to the wrong people. But anyways, the trip didn’t end up happening. On the very first rapid, all three of our boats capsized, including the big supposedly stable one that would have carried Himanshu and the photo equipment. We lost most of our tents and some of our oars. Everyone got wet, cold and scared and said that maybe we should try this again some other time. Sorry for the confusion. Hope you have a good trip to the Northeast.”
All at once, the dozens of mistakes I thought I had made in preventing us from catching up to Nino seemed like nothing less than divine intervention. Himanshu and I sat dumbfounded in that hotel lobby, giddily praising the machinations of fate. We practically skipped our way over to Baskin & Robbins for an impromptu celebration of what in retrospect was a fascinating, thrilling and one-of-a-kind trip to Hunli.
As I sat eating my ice cream and reflecting, it occurred to me that the absurdity of our tireless attempts to find Nino were what made us so giddy later. Plain luck had prevented us from reaching what we had, at first, wanted so badly, and instead saved us possible injury and certainly the loss of Himanshu’s camera. And so our journey to Northeast India began, with a surrender to the power of chance, and a story we had not expected to tell.