Here’s How a Tiny Northeast Indian Village Taught Me a Life Lesson
The setting sun casts a golden glow over the lush marshlands of Bangladesh. I’m on top of a bamboo watch hut in Asia’s Cleanest Village. A village with a few hundred people. A rain-fed stream gushes down through the subtropical terrain where both men and women come to take a dip. Tiny souvenir shops and house-turned-restaurants are scattered across the carefully-organized village premises, catering to day visitors from all over the world.
In 2003, a tiny village named Mawlynnong in India near the Bangladeshi border won the status for being the cleanest village in Asia. Mawlynnong is in Meghalaya, a state with rugged landscape, home to tribal cultures and a plethora of enchanting folklore. It’s ‘the abode of clouds’. Meghalaya, similar to its neighbouring northeastern states, receives a little number of visitors.
It’s August in 2018. The sun retires. Dusk sneaks up. The village tea shop bustles with waves of laughter. Men and women chat over a cup of piping hot chai. It’s like a modern world Starbucks but only better. In Mawlynnong’s Starbucks, the roof is thatched. It has no walls. Two wooden benches face each other, offering rest to hardworking villagers, or the occasional tea-loving outsider. I am one. A foreign outsider who loves tea. In India, chai, or tea, is a serious business. Communities come together for chai. Tea is cooked. Blended with spices. Its aromas tingle your nose buds.
Mawlynnong’s Starbucks is a one-woman army. A fifty-something woman gleefully welcomes everyone. The cashier. The barista. She’s all of them. In Meghalaya’s Khasi community, there’s matrilineality that persists. Unlike other parts in India, local markets are entirely or mostly run by women. In Meghalaya, meat-chopping gutsy women aren’t a rare sight. And fathers hold tiny infants and take their little girls to schools.
“Please don’t leave your plastic here.” It’s a plea to tourists.
“Please put your biodegradable into bamboo dustbins,” another sign says.
In Mawlynnong, tiny footpaths, spotless, connects the entire village. In the village church, kids gather to sing carols in the evenings. Cleanliness is a daily practice. Men, women, children, everyone come together to keep their houses and surroundings clean. Children sweep the footpath before morning school.
Mornings in the village are quiet, where kids dressed up in their polished school uniforms run to the nearby school. Science and math are taught in English. Everything else follows a similar pattern. Meghalaya was a British colony. It was once the Scotland of the East for Englishmen.
I chat with Sushila. She’s my host. A forty-something woman with two sons, she lives alone in Mawlynnong. Her sons study in Shillong, Meghalaya’s hip capital. Her husband too works in Shillong in a government job. She lives alone, but with visitors from all over the world, she’s never alone. Her home, now, is a hub where cultures come together. Her home is the birthplace of thoughtful conversations. She makes me sweet tea and offers me chocolate chip cookies.
To some people, Mawlynnong is a tourist trap. To some visitors, a wonderfully-organized, spotlessly clean, resort-like village is nothing but fake in the incredibly chaotic India. But to me, it’s a life lesson. Mawlynnong teaches me lessons my entire school life did not. It’s years and years of determination of a tiny, ordinary group of people. In our part of the world, in the subcontinent, policies aren’t practical. They merely exist on paper. In the brutally wonderful world of the Indian subcontinent, what we need is decentralized local initiatives. In other words, we need more Mawlynnongs. We need locally-run initiatives to make lives better.
Small steps, one at a time.
Practical tips: To reach Meghalaya, you can fly into Guwahati. At the moment, there are only direct international flights from Kuala Lumpur to Guwahati. As a responsible traveller, if you have plenty of time, I would suggest flying into Kolkata. There are direct flights to Kolkata from a number of international destinations. Taking a direct flight reduces the carbon emissions upto 50%. From Kolkata, you can board an overnight train. Reserved first and second class compartments offer a comfortable journey and a glimpse into local life.
In 2019, we hope to join more travel experiences that leave a positive impact. Will you join us?
This post was made possible due to a collaboration with Better Places Travel. BPT focuses on creating awareness about #positivetravel across the globe. All photos and opinions are entirely our own.