Clouds are strange. We spend most of our lives underneath them, at their mercy for rain and shine. During the rare hours that we float above them, we cannot stop but marvel at the giant floating mountains of white and grey which we see but not touch.
Then there are the times when we are inside them. We become one with them. We can touch them. We can feel them in our breath and taste them on our tongues. We realise the vast nothingness that really is these clouds and yet alive and dancing all around us. Meghalaya not only lives up to its name, it forces one to see much more by hiding so much of it.
Walking Through Clouds
If you find yourself in that neck of the woods, make sure you head straight to Cherrapunjee. This tiny town, made famous across the world due to the incomprehensible amount of rain it receives through the year, packs a lot of surprises in an extremely pretty package.
We went out for a walk at 7am as has become our habit. The fresh, moist air has an immediate healing effect. The greenery can bring joy to even the dreariest of hearts. But the people. Where are they? Not a soul on the road. By the time we turn to go back to the hotel, it is almost 9. And still there is no one out. We try hard to find a chai shop (of which there are plenty here!) but nothing.
When we headed out for the walk, all we could see was white. Clouds had surrounded us from last night’s rain. Visibility was less than a stone’s throw. We had our own personal space in the middle of the town! We walked for long at a leisurely pace, alternating between sprawling green vistas and rickety lanes with interesting houses. The place is dotted with churches, old and new. We walked into a couple of them and it felt like time came and refused to leave. Eerie. Silent. Timeless.
The town remained covered in flowing clouds well into midday. People finally started ambling out into their porches at around 10am. Chai stalls started opening up serving steaming hot rotis and curries to morning shift workers at the cement plant nearby. Beaten and scarred SUVs start screaming past delivering weary night travellers and picking up fresh one at every corner.
The clouds were parting, giving way to life.
Walking Through Rocks
Caves across India are an unimaginative lot. Its like an entire country decided to be bad at having caves and made worse whatever little we did have. There are the religious ones at Amarnath and Vaishno Devi with lines upon lines of people matched to the rhythm of cacophonous Bollywood rip-offs dedicated to the gods. There are the limestone caves in Andaman Islands accessible by boat and are a disappointment beyond compare. There are the prehistoric ones in Karnataka with the names of visitors since the Neanderthal times etched on their walls. There are the multiple caves in the Western Ghats along the Bombay – Goa axis which frankly could fit any story you care to develop.
Despite all the high praise, I was entering the caves around Cherrapunjee with every expectation of being dismayed. Thankfully, Meghalaya delivered and in style.
The caves at Mawsmai are small but sufficiently interesting. There are a few tiny detours but overall, it is a pretty tame affair. Good for getting a selfie but little else. So I did.
The Arwah Caves were a much complex system. A signpost early in the trail indicated this was going to be interesting.
Goes without saying, we chose the rugged trail. Boy, it was fun! Fallen trees. Constantly climbing or descending through thick woods. Spiky branches. Giant hornets. Definitely recommended.
The cave itself is significantly larger than Mawsmai which meant we had long sections of the cave just to ourselves. Streams flowing underneath coupled with artificial light reflecting off stalactites made the scene interesting. Thankfully enough, they have not done a great job lighting up the place which means you could find a number of branches and take off on your own. Some of them end up in tunnels too dark to see in our flickering cellphone lights and we had to turn back. Others take you down the spider’s web of the cave system. Be brave. Don’t let your fear of small spaces hit you and you will be richly rewarded.
The most fun, however, is the solitary cave entrance near one of the living root bridges. The entrance is narrow, requiring you to contort yourself to some extent. It becomes pitch dark within a few metres and claustrophobia sets it. You reach a landing with a small ladder. You climb it and realise your eyes are getting used to the darkness. And then it hits you. Bats! Thousands of them! They notice the little light and start getting agitated. They are now flying around in dozens, feeling you with their invisible radar.
Nah. This is not for me. Walking into a swirling vortex of bats is not for me. We make an excuse about getting late and move on.
Walking On Trees
One of the highlights of traveling through the Meghalaya wilderness is, of course, the living root bridges. These wonders of fruitful interaction between humans and trees hold lessons for how we see our surroundings today.
But before you can land up on these fantastic bridges, you must traverse through the 3500 stairs going downhill through the wet, lush green forest of which these bridges and the people inside are an integral part of. We encounter villages with churches, schools, houses built on stilts and the same cleanliness that we had by now come to expect of all of Meghalaya. This being the monsoon season, there were very few people on the trail. It drizzled through the entire 6 hours that we spent walking up and down the forest floor drenching us to the core.
The bridges themselves are rather unremarkable. And that is, sort of, the point. The bridges have been constructed by giving direction to large rubber tree roots to go across the river instead of into the ground. Over a 80-100 year period, the roots take shape and grow stronger eventually turning strong enough for people to cross over them. Voila! You have a bridge across the river that continues to grow. It is alive.
Because these bridges are made out of the same trees that would anyway be present in the forest, they blend in entirely. Nothing seems out of place. The ingenuity of those who need them matches their understanding and respect of the bountiful nature around them. Their real beauty becomes apparent when one crosses the metal hanging bridges also created to handle the increasing load of people. The metal behemoths create a structure out of place and time, like an alien creation within this prehistoric jungle. The root bridges just allow enough space for a species to continue without affecting those around it.
Walking Without Garbage (or Honking)
Talking about Meghalaya without talking about the clean ethic they have adopted for themselves is a crime. Behind the delirious monikers like Cleanest Village in Asia (who ran that ranking?) is an unmistakable effort from everyone in the community to keep the place clean. The number of dustbins was staggering. The number of dustbins being used by people was even more surprising. We found dustbins on highways. We found them at waterfalls. We found them even in the caves.
This is not to say all is well. As well as the remote areas have done, they are getting under a lot of pressure from tourists throwing junk at random. The state does not have too many solid waste handling ideas which means a lot of the collected garbage just finds its way to a nearby dump.
Irrespective, what this tiny little state has achieved is phenomenal and we all have a bit to learn from them.
Being a road warrior, I must also note the incredible discipline I witnessed on the roads. Shillong is crowded and bursting at the seams. But pretty much everywhere else in the state, I encountered a level of discipline on the road I have not seen anywhere else. Honking is at a bare minimum (although can be reduced even more). People wait patiently. People give way. People line up single file. Traffic is fast but very well behaved. For that reason alone, I would love to go back there.
Rain. Clouds. Peace.