Written in our room on Monday 9th December
On the morning of 6th December we were up at the crack of dawn to catch a shared “Sumo” jeep at 6.45 am for the 3 hour trip back down the mountain from Kohima to Dimapur. This was never going to be a comfortable journey as the drivers cram in as many passengers as possible to maximise their return. There were 12 people in our Sumo including the driver, so no-one could move an inch once we had crammed in.
Unfortunately heavy traffic in Dimapur extended our journey to 4 ½ hours which meant we missed our booked train (with comfortable A/C seats) to Jorhat. A difficult hour ensued with us lugging backpacks up and down the dusty platform trying to work out alternative options. Really, almost no-one at the station spoke any English and we felt very alienated in the face of the blank stares of hundreds of local travellers. We finally realised at the very last minute that we were on the wrong platform so after running up and over the footbridge, literally jumped onto the moving train as it pulled out of the station. Other passengers helped pull us onto the train and as it was crammed, we stood with our backpacks in the space between 2 wide open doors – this was real Indian rail travel! Eventually people got off and we were able to sit on the hard bench seats of 3rd class.
Guess what? After around 2 hours the train broke down!! We waited in the middle of the Assam countryside for around an hour and a half for a replacement engine to be sent. It wasn’t too bad as some of the Indian passengers were friendly and chatted with us before asking for the inevitable selfies. Instead of arriving in Jorhat at lunchtime as planned, we eventually pulled into a different station in the dark at around 6.00 pm. Luckily we found a friendly taxi driver to take us the last 20 km to our lodgings in Afreen’s house.
Afreen is busy working around NE India but since arriving we’ve had a lot of help from Asuruddin Ali who is a friend of the family. He kindly set up WiFi in the house for us, helped us organise our laundry and has sorted out any problems we have had. We are also being well looked after by Afreen’s housekeeper Jamila and her daughter Shabana who make us the most delicious homemade breakfasts and dinners. On the first evening we had freshly picked wild fern shoots and khar which is an Assamese specialty green dhal. Many of the fruits and vegetables used in the dishes and pickles are unknown to us. Yesterday Jamila cooked us crispy river fish steaks redolent of garlic, cardamom, cloves and coriander bark. Breakfasts have been sticky rice with curd, fresh cream and jaggery, or fresh, hot and crispy puris with a potato and tomato spiced dhal – absolutely mouthwatering! It is the best food we’ve had since coming to India and as we’re not doing very much, we may well put the few pounds previously lost back on. We’ve also enjoyed Jamila’s fantastic sweet pickle made with Jolpai fruit, these are also called “olives” in India although they don’t look or taste anything like the olives we know! This pickle is so great we have been talking with Asruddin about exporting it from Assam to the UK. We reckon we could all make a lot of money in this venture!
Of course, the main purpose of coming to this area was to visit the green and beautiful Majuli Island – the largest river island in the world, in the middle of the mighty Brahmaputra river. Our plan was to travel across from Jorhat one morning, stay overnight on the island and return the following day. As we have discovered travel plans can be complicated by our lack of local understanding and language, we did a trial run the day after we arrived. All went well, although in common with our previous experience of India, we hadn’t appreciated the massive size of the river and the fact that the ferry took over an hour to cross, so we returned in semi-darkness.
We duly booked a hotel room on the island and planned an early start. However, we have been totally scuppered by the political situation in NE India. We’ve discovered that today and tomorrow are both general strike days in the area, with many citizens on the streets protesting against the government’s “Citizenship Amendment Bill” which is religion based and will have a heavy impact on the different communities here. Consequently we have been advised both by locals and through the UK foreign office not to go out in the streets of the city. As the only route to Majuli goes through Jorhat (and no taxis or rickshaws are operating) we have had to cancel all our plans and resign ourselves to being pretty much stuck in our room for these 2 days.
Asuruddin told us on 10th December that the bill has been passed by the lower house of the Indian Parliament. If it’s also passed by the Upper House, this may spark further demonstrations as many people in North East India feel the legislation is threatening to their culture and way of life. Although we recognise this is an extremely important issue for the people of Assam, it has also been super frustrating for us. However, the reality of travelling as opposed to being on holiday is that you can gain some understanding of what’s going on around you; so we are trying to be philosophical and mark it down to experience.
Anyway, the day after tomorrow we fly down to Kerala so are looking forward to putting these couple of days behind us and settling down to a few more nice days (weeks!) on the beach.