A Five Day Road Trip Across the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya
I hold my memories from Meghalaya closer to my heart. I carry them throughout the day. I think of the sunkissed hours when I wake up in the day. I think of gloomy skies and rolling clouds and carpeted hills when I sit down to enjoy my ginger-infused chai poured into a small porcelain cup Nathan gifted me. The moments of joy—where I dipped my toes in cold waters and bathed in shallow, flowing rivers come flying to me in my Colombo house.
Everyone knows this. Everyone—Nathan, Sahid, my sister, friends who are close and not close, readers and strangers—knows this. It’s no longer a secret that I love Meghalaya. It has reached the stage of annoyingness. I have this fear that often kicks in. That if I write one more post, one more Instagram caption, one more tweet, and one more Facebook post, throwing my love for Meghalaya into words, you—or, everyone who knows me—would come to ignore everything I write.
But sometimes, and by sometimes, I meant most often, I gulp down my chai and hide my writing fears. I don’t let the anxieties flow. So I put my words on paper—again, writing about Meghalaya. Because I, quite frankly, have more to say. I’ve already told many stories from this small state. They’ve gone to appear in this blog, our Instagram, my Twitter, but also in print magazines in the back of a plane seat that carry millions of people in a month. And if that’s not enough, I wrote about Meghalaya for my dream bylines. But I have more to say. More to share, treasure, and love.
Also read: The 12-day travel guide to Meghalaya
The pinewood forest
What do you feel when you lie down on the drying grass dotted with pine trees? Bliss.
I hold this close. So close. This moment. This hour. This pinewood forest blanketing a small hill, fading into a field dressed in wildflowers.
When I woke up this morning in Upper Shillong, cold hugged me. I wanted to wrap myself in the cozy hotel blanket and sleep for two more hours. But we had to go. We drove along the highway connecting us to Tura and Bangladesh. Armaan Malik played in the car. Soaring deodar trees waned into patches of blooming bushes by the streams, swaying in the cold Autumn air. Meghalaya is stunning all throughout the year, but October cloaks her in a different kind of beauty—the kind of beauty engraved in small embroidery flowers in a winter muffle. Trust me, it’s beautiful.
When the passing stream swelled into a mellow river named Kynshi, we stopped our car, lurched on a rundown, swinging bridge and balanced ourselves in a narrow muddy path connecting the fields of rice. We sat down on a hillock watching the occasional farmer. We had heard about Nongnah—or, actually Nongbah, where the wild horses are. But we went to Nongnah. Not this day. Not yet.
I let my life flow. When I turned 20, I dropped out of my state uni and started writing. I didn’t plan to be an independent journalist. I didn’t plan to have a blog. I didn’t plan to meet Nathan. We didn’t go on dates to find each other. I met him in a backpackers hostel in Colombo. When you let your life flow, it flows well. It glides and brings you happiness.
My travels are, often, a familiar picture of my life altogether. I let my travel flow. I don’t plan itineraries. I don’t mark spots I should see. If something speaks to my heart, I stop there and seek it, with my eyes and with my heart. I find similarities in Sahid. Perhaps, it’s a reason why we gel well together. In almost a year since knowing him, he has become not only my best friend and my somewhat Indian dad (as my extremely sarcastic sister puts it), but also the best travel buddy in my life—a title that no one else—I’m sure—will come to acquire throughout my life.
So when we thought of going to Nongnah, we didn’t just go to Nongnah, but we went to hillocks and hills and walked along the paddy fields and bathed in rivers. We stopped by small streetside stalls run by lovely Khasi women and sipped tea—their smoke disappeared into the thin air. Khasi men, quite shy, sat on small wooden benches, stomaching plates of rice. Worn-out blankets wrapped their small bodies, bringing solace in the setting winter morning.
The pinewood forest was just another stopover for me and Sahid. But for both of us, it brought peace. It’s the kind of peace pleated in a quiet corner in a busy coffee shop, playing jazz all day long.
I still remember how the warm sunlight flickered through the pine tree needles, slowly kissing my bare skin. I napped on the grass, looking at the patches of blue sky appearing through the pinewood jungle. There was nothing, except for the occasional hum of the breeze-stirred pine trees. At that moment, I was just a girl sleeping on a patch of grass in a pinewood forest in a faraway place. Nothing in the world mattered.
And if peace had a moment, that would be it.
The village meeting
On the same day, we reached Nonglang, only because we read about a homestay on someone’s dodgily put up online travelogue. To find Nonglang, you have to come to Mawkyrwat. It’s the district headquarters of South West Khasi Hills. When you are driving in the rural countryside of Meghalaya, Google abandons you. We can’t, don’t, and won’t complain. When google ditches you, you turn into human google. Sahid and I often stop our car, and peep our—or mostly mine—head(s) out of the window to ask directions from random strangers. These queries about road directions often turn into friendly banter and chance gatherings. Sometimes, teenage boys shy away and laugh. Kids would give us fresh fruits they had just plucked from the wild trees. Why would one need Google when strangers shower you with love?
To reach Nonglang, our human google reached out to about 20 strangers—perhaps, more. After reaching our community-run lodge, we left to see a park of monoliths. This monolith park was someone’s meeting place in the past. It resembles a giant gathering where Khasi rulers addressed the village matters. When we came to the meeting place, the setting sun stretched lazily over the far-flung hills, changing the skies from yellow to orange, red and pink.
Monoliths are megalithic stones. Hundreds of miles away in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, in Nartiang to be precise, another cluster of monoliths represent the victories of erstwhile Jaintia kings. In Sohra, the world’s second wettest place, tall monoliths dab the landscape. In Mawphanlur’s sacred forest, they sit by the places where village folks participated in animal sacrifices.
So on this day, this cluster of monoliths—what looked like a gathering of village folks in the ancient past—against the orange-hued skies painted a surreal picture. One that would cling onto my heart for many days and weeks and months and years to come.
When you eat well, you cry!
The next morning, we finally went to Nongnah. Our arrival in a Swift Dzire created a buzz around the village. Kids and old folks gathered to see us. An uncle talked to Sahid in soft Hindi, spoke of the waterfalls in opposite mountains, and treks him and his wife took in the bygone years.
Nongnah sits on a plateau, a forgotten village between the two towns—Mawkyrwat and Ranikor at the opposite ends. Each side, mountains, and hummocks rise high, touching the bare blue sky. The wind blows across the wooden shacks and small cement-built houses—their walls glisten with bright enamel. It’s an indication that they are painted afresh.
It was lunchtime. We desperately looked for something to eat. We sat down on a small wooden bench of one of the two haunts in the village. A young Khasi lady ran the stall. She brought us two plates full of plain white rice, a bowl of dhal, and two small pieces of fried fish, one each for me and Sahid. Another small dip filled chili chutney.
This chutney is packed with bright red Northeastern chilis. It blazes your palate and heats your mouth with the sapid, strong taste it carries. It’s so hot that it puts my spice-withstanding skills to shame. I grew up eating my father’s coconut sambal every day at home. For his coconut sambal, my father picks up a handful of deep red, dried chili and crushes them. He chops them with scraped coconut, Maldive fish flakes, and salt, and sprinkles a lime before he serves it with his stir-fried dry fish. My mother would often complain that my father’s sambal carried heat one couldn’t stomach. I agreed, but I loved his spicy sambal. For years, it trained me for any spicy food I came across in my humbly evolving food journey. Yet, when I finally mouthed a chutney made of northeastern chili in Nongnah, I realized I wasn’t quite trained enough for it.
In her essay for Vittles London on India’s forgotten Northeast and their food culture in the bustling national capital Delhi, writer Sharanya Deepak mentions that Northeastern mountains are home to some of the hottest chillies in the world. For years, raja mirchi from the jungles of Nagaland claimed to be the hottest chili in the world. Not anymore, but these mountains don’t kid when it comes to the peppery tang.
As I lunched with my chutney, it became so hot I cried. But the more chili chutney I took, the more I needed it. I think that is something remarkable about spicy food—or, at least about the relationship I have with spicy food. I love spices, the heat, and the piquant aroma they carry. I stomach them and long for them more than I do with everything else. My tropical island heart craves them often. When I spent a month in Sikkim, where food tasted brilliant but mild, I needed something hot to touch my palate. So I always nibbled a raw green chili or two along with my rice and roti. When an occasional love for sweets develops, I please easily with a piece of orange or butter cake, and sometimes an eclair finds its way to my mouth—the ones filled with silky-soft chocolate mousse.
If I cried because my food was spicy, it’s no secret that Sahid cried too. Tears brimmed our eyes. Seeing our tears, everyone around us burst into playful laughter. A smoking old man giggled. We ate more. We asked for more rice and more fish, and of course, a few more spoonfuls of chutney to shame us.
In Nongnah, chili warmed our mouth but they also warmed our hearts.
Always ask a stranger
On the way to Nongkhnum, we relied on many human googles to navigate our way. Once we stopped by a school to make sure we were on the right path. A group of tee-heeing kids sat on the school wall. They wore their football kits and gobbled up rice. Bare feet, I got out of the car, walked on the pebbled road to them, and asked for a picture. “Sure,” they snickered and kept eating.
I’m shy to ask strangers for photos. I’m shy to take photos of people, too. But I love capturing moments, even if they aren’t brilliant photos. This photo of a group of kids eating rice on an unknown road in Meghalaya is not brilliant, but one that would stay in my photo drives for years to come.
I turned 25
On the second last day during our five-day road trip in Meghalaya, I turned 25. We left for Nongstoin—the major town of West Khasi Hills. We found a lodge for the night, dropped our bags, and went for a long drive along the Tura highway. When we found a marshland below a forest ground, we stopped our car. A scarecrow and a small hovel nursed the fields.
On our way back, we parked the car and walked around the bustling night market in Nongstoin. Silkworms wriggled on bamboo baskets. Beehives decked the rickety wooden sticks fashioned into makeshift stalls. Khasi women sold fresh farm vegetables, orchard-grown oranges, and chopped meat using their sharp blades. We dined in a lovely family-run eatery, where the momma gave us company by sharing stories of waterfalls we had missed. The two young girls, who are probably her daughters or nieces, cackled for an hour.
When I came back and opened the hotel room door, I was truly taken aback. Balloons hung on my walls, and on the small coffee table was a medium-sized cake with smooth buttercream frost, and a note, wishing happy birthday to me. This was all a surprise Sahid had planned. I started my 25th with a frothy cup of milky tea Sahid made for me and ended it with a soft, frosty piece of cake he had bought me. I was happy.
Over the years, I have learned many life lessons. I have also learned many things about myself, both small discoveries, and big reveals, such as the fact that I seek meaning in life over material belongingness. Things that truly make me happy come enclaved with meaning and purpose and do not require overpriced luxuries. This small birthday surprise was truly a reawakening of this self-realization.
Over to you, Umiam
When we decided to head back to Guwahati, two days before my flight back to Colombo and a day after turning 25, we also decided to skip Shillong traffic. The capital city of Meghalaya, Shillong, carries a notorious impression of being a high-traffic city with narrow roads jammed with small, black maruti cars, passenger sumos and trucks.
When we headed towards Shillong from Nongstoin on the Shillong-Tura highway, we took a detour and drove on a countryside road, passing green villages providing vegetables to many parts of Meghalaya. We drove past farmers uprooting crunchy, fresh carrots gleaming in bright orange hues. We marched towards Mawlyndep, and stopped for chai and a packet of creamy biscuits in an assorted shop.
The road we took joins the beautiful Umiam Lake near Shillong. As we inched towards Umiam, the hill city of Shillong came to picture. Dimmed city lights freckled the city tops, and slowly faded into darkness as we came closer to the Shillong-Guwahati highway.
Two weeks ago on Facebook, Conrad Sangma, the Chief Minister of Meghalaya posted a viewpoint overlooking the sprawling waters of Umiam. It looked familiar, and after a few minutes, I realized we had stopped at the same haunt. When we did, dusk wrapped the thin October airspace in the Meghalayan mountains, and we couldn’t clearly see the lake that features in every guidebook from above. Now, this haunt remains a vague image in my mind. But Sahid promised me he’d take me here again, driving past the deodar trees, listening to birdsong and taking countless pictures of the serene Umiam.
When we finally hit the highway, we whizzed past the last bits of Meghalaya—fancy hotels, beautiful summer cottages, and roadside shacks piled up with bottles of chili chutney in Meghalaya’s Ri Bhoi District. “I want mirchi chutney,” I cried, “I’d get one for your dad,” Sahid told me.
We couldn’t get one. When I left the next day to board my flight to Chennai and Colombo, we couldn’t find a bottle of spicy chili chutney for my father. But I flew back to India in December. This February, when I returned home from my three-month trip, Sahid brought my father a small jar filled with spicy chili chutney.
My father often takes pride in his spice-tolerance skills, but Northeastern chilies don’t fall short. “This chili is very hot,” my father told me one morning when I was home. I saw him opening the lid for a chili, to enjoy his plate of hot white rice served with a handful of coconut sambal.
Most of the photos, especially those that have me, featured here are taken by my extremely talented friend, Sahid.
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