That night I became terribly ill.

For the next 24 hours, my life consisted of stumbling between my bed and a concrete outhouse.

Up until then, I had enjoyed extraordinarily good fortune, stomach-wise, during my travels in the Khasi Hills. Even after years of visiting the remote villages of Meghalaya, I still hadn’t picked up a genuinely incapacitating illness.  But my luck ran out in Mawpdai.

There were several possible culprits. It might have been something I ate for dinner.  It might also have been a tainted dose of betel nut, known in the Sohra Khasi language as ‘kwai.’

‘Kwai’ generally consists of a fresh betel leaf chewed in combination with a hunk of dried areca nut. The leaf is quite fragrant, and has a pleasant taste, while the nut is earthy, bitter, and, when chewed in the proper dose, mildly narcotic, with a similar potency to coffee. The other ingredients are often supplemented with a gnarly, mouth-burning dollop of slaked lime, the purpose of which is to facilitate the quick transmission of the intoxicating compounds of the areca nut into the blood stream.     

Kwai is highly addictive and is eaten non-stop by the Khasis. Thus, areca nuts and betel leaves are both some of the most economically important crops in the lower, warmer, altitudes of the Khasi Hills.  And kwai has the advantage of being a delicacy that both the rich and the poor can partake in. An affluent member of Khasi society can call upon a poor person, and the poor person need not feel embarrassed when all they can offer their guest is kwai. This makes the mild drug inescapable in the Khasi Hills. Wherever one goes, one sees Khasis with red lips and darkly stained teeth, the result of lifetime addictions.

While I certainly don’t recommend forming a habit, I do enjoy occasionally eating kwai. The warmth that comes with a moderate dose is quite pleasant, and I like the taste. But most Pharengs, I gather, do not, and tend to find the experience disgusting and its appeal mystifying. The Welsh poet Nigel Jenkins in his book Gwalia in Khasia (a rare example of an English language popular work on the Khasis from before the tourism boom)memorably describes the sensation as being “like a desert exploding in the mouth.”  Non-kwai chewers also often note, quite correctly, that the stimulant’s effect on Meghalaya’s collective oral health has been catastrophic.

But regardless of whether it was what made me sick later on, I ate far too much kwai that day. This was due to my being invited to go watch a political rally by Bah Wonderful, the teacher from Mawpdai. We spent the evening walking a few villages up the road to a large football field that had been converted into a venue for district-level politicians to come and make speeches. On the way, we met a group of Bah Wonderful’s friends, all of whom offered me kwai. I was on dose six or seven when it occurred to me that I might be overdoing it a smidge.

But in my defense, I was distracted by the spectacle of local politics.

In a few days elections would be held for the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), an entity that specifically deals with traditional governance in the three districts of Meghalaya that are majority Khasi. When Bah Wonderful and I got to the field, a rally was well underway. A stage had been set up, and local officials were giving speeches that were being blasted out of giant speakers. In front of the stage were about three hundred PVC chairs, of which perhaps two thirds were occupied by folks from nearby villages who looked mighty bored. At the back of the stage was a large Congress Party banner, identifiable by the party’s symbol, a white hand. In front of this sat a line of officials waiting their turn to speak. They looked bored too. There was a detectable lack of enthusiasm hanging over the whole affair.

As we stood behind the ranks of PVC chairs, Bah Wonderful offered me another dose of kwai, which I absent mindedly accepted.

Then I asked him if he was a Congress supporter.

“No,” was his firm reply.

“What about the BJP?”

“Definitely not!”

“Do you support any party?”


“Why are we here then?”

Suddenly, the opening notes of the 1980s classic Thriller burst out of the speakers.

“Watch this,” said Bah Wonderful.

A skinny effeminate fellow in a fedora emerged from behind the Congress party banner and broke into Michael Jackson dance moves. He was quite good, and for the first time someone on stage was getting a genuine rise out of the audience, though what moonwalking had to do with Khasi traditional governance is anyone’s guess.

“Look! They have a dancing man!” Bah Wonderful shouted to me over the blaring music.

“I see that. Do you know him?”


“Does he make you want to vote for Congress?”


We stood watching for maybe a minute longer.

“I think you’ve seen enough of this,” said Bah Wonderful.

We left.

(Apparently, Congress held onto the most seats in the KHADC elections, and so could claim an anemic victory in the Khasi speaking part of the state. However, in the neighboring Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council (JHADC), Congress lost rather badly. Perhaps there they didn’t have a dancing man.)

After Bah Wonderful and I got back to the village, his sister-in-law Christine, whose house I would be spending the night in, presented me with a lovely dinner consisting of local vegetables, cucumbers, eggs, boiled spinach, a few chunks of boiled beef, and a great heap of rice.

I attempted to assail this Mount Everest of meals in Christine’s kitchen/T.V. watching room while surrounded by her relatives. Rather awkwardly being served well before anyone else, with roughly ten times as much food as those around me were later given, I ate slowly. My appetite wasn’t huge, though even if it had been, I couldn’t have hoped to consume a fourth of what was in front of me. I’d have to work my way through the meal strategically if I wanted to avoid offending Christine’s extended family.

Fortunately, my hosts were distracted. WWE was on the T.V. Some sort of bizarre all-female cage match was going down. Fit ladies wearing practically nothing bitched at one another and then bounced all over the place before pretending to beat each other up, much to the fascination of my Khasi companions.

The people watching the spectacle with me were not your stereotypical WWE fans. Christine, for one, was a pretty, reserved, middle-aged schoolteacher. With her were her mother and mother-in-law, along with her grandmother, who was still fairly nimble but must have been well up into her eighties. All of these women sat politely transfixed as the half-naked Westerners on the T.V. did their thing. Christine could barely take her eyes off the screen. She repeatedly clicked her tongue whenever one of the wrestling women pulled a dirty trick, which was constantly.

As the attention of my hosts was fixed on the all-female combat spectacular, I downed as much food as I thought I could manage. My strategy was to eat as little of the rice as possible. Rice makes up a huge proportion of any Khasi meal, so if one can maneuver around the carbohydrates, one can avoid filling to capacity early on. This is difficult to pull off if your eating choices are being closely observed, but fortunately I had a bevy of shrieking WWE Valkyries on my side.

Eating around the edges of the mountain of food, I finished the eggs, the spinach, and the cucumbers. But I avoided the beef. Something about it seemed iffy. One doesn’t often encounter beef in the Khasi Hills, not because the locals don’t eat it, but because it’s expensive, being rare in the rest of India due to the dietary restrictions of Hindus. In Meghalaya, one mostly gets it in dried strips or little preserved chunks.  But at Christine’s house I was being served whole, unpreserved, pieces of beef. This meant they had probably been laying around for a little while. Most Khasis in the villages don’t have access to refrigerators, and even if they happen to, the power supply can be so irregular that the appliances are of limited use.

One of the grandmas managed to pry her attention away from the WWE match. 

“Have more rice?” she asked.

“No thank you,” I replied.

“Eat more!”

I put my hand on my stomach.

“I’m getting full.”

The grandma stood up and went over to inspect my plate. She pointed to the rice mountain.

“Eat!” she commanded.

The thought of shoving more rice into myself was enough to make me sick. But the pieces of beef were small, and there weren’t many of them.

“OK,” said I, putting one of the chunks of beef in my mouth and hoping this diplomatic compromise would conclude the issue.

It seemed to. The grandma turned back towards the cage match as what appeared to be a pair of Hispanic lesbians tearfully declared victory.

The beef was good, but it had a strange, sweetish, aftertaste.

I went to bed with a full stomach and high spirits. The plan for the next day was to walk back down into the valley of the Umngi and then try to reach a village called Sarin, where some very fuzzy information I had received years before indicated that there might be a living root bridge.

I fell asleep looking forward to the challenges of the Umngi gorge.

Stomach illnesses are one of the mundane though acute risks that come with this sort of travel. I simply didn’t have the option of avoiding village food. Not that I would want to. Generally, my issue with it is solely a matter of the quantity, not the quality.

As for the odds of picking up something nasty eating a homemade Khasi meal, it’s hard to put a figure on it. My experience has been that, overall, eating Khasi village food is less of a health hazard than eating, let’s say, street food in Delhi, or the kind of stuff you get in that city at ultra-low-cost joints catering to foreign budget travelers (places where the lack of sanitation is almost viewed as a selling point by slumming Westerners). Most Khasi villages are blessed with extremely clean spring water coming directly out of caves and aquifers, which means that one doesn’t have to avoid, for example, freshly washed lettuce.

Still, villages are villages. They tend to be swarming with children, and children the world over are filthy little creatures, God bless them. Any food you eat in a Khasi village has a solid chance of having been touched by many small unclean hands. Such is life.

Like in every village before it, I had to take a risk in Mawpdai. 

And that night the risk didn’t pan out in my favor. Whatever I’d contracted, it was the sort of stomach ailment that Imodium couldn’t hold back. By dawn I was badly dehydrated, and the mere thought of food made me nauseous. Sarin was out of the question; I could barely walk more than a few hundred paces before having to retreat to Christine’s outhouse.

I have vivid memories of that outhouse, having spent so much time in it. It was an admirably clean little concrete building, and I did my best to keep it so, feeling truly fortunate at being provided so lovely a toilet to be sick in. The outhouse had been built directly into the side of Christine’s home. Beside it was a large concrete cistern full of gray, murky water leftover from washing clothes. The already soiled liquid was meant solely for flushing, there being no need to waste precious spring water to accomplish that task. Sitting on the edge of the cistern was a jug made from a yellow plastic bottle that had been cut in half, a tool for getting the leftover laundry water out of the cistern and into the toilet. As for the necessary ablutions, an old children’s schoolbook made of rough cheap paper had been provided. But I chose not to avail myself of this; I hadn’t lugged a huge roll of toilet paper all the way from Guwahati for nothing.

Since there was no chance of moving on, I had to ask Christine if I could spend another night at her home. She was clearly not enthusiastic about the idea of housing a pale, sick, puking Phareng, but I didn’t take it personally. She grudgingly agreed, so at least I knew I’d have a roof over my head for the next 24 hours.

Later that morning, Bah Wonderful came around and bluntly enquired: “Where will you go if you can’t eat?”

It was a good question. Without being able to get any calories in me, I’d barely be able to walk out of Mawpdai. Trying to swallow a single biscuit made me wretch. I was also going through water at an incredible rate, puking more than I was drinking. I’m proud to have not gotten a single particle of vomit on Christine’s floor, but it was not for lack of effort.

Now I had to face the fact that, if this kept up for more than a few days, the trek was over. With this realization, my heart sank. Lying in bed in Christine’s little guest room, I concluded that my original goal, to walk entirely across the Khasi world, was likely no longer possible. Unless my condition rapidly improved, I was beaten.

The tempo of outhouse visits slowed down after a while, though I didn’t feel much better. I think there just wasn’t much left in me. Then, with a final, explosive, vomit, I had the sense that I was now as empty as I could be. I still wasn’t comfortable, but feeling like a deflated balloon was better than feeling like a volcano that was about to erupt. 

The idea of lying in bed in a state of dehydrated despair for the rest of the day was morbidly tempting. For a while I did just that, and seriously began to contemplate falling back to Shillong and getting a nice, moderately upscale hotel room with Wi-fi and satellite T.V. to recover in for however long it would take. But before making any plans I needed to get some sense of just how messed up I was. If my condition did not improve, I had to consider going to an emergency room. While this might have just been your typical stomach bug, I had to face the fact that it might also have been something serious like Dysentery or the first wave of Typhoid.

This was an awful frame of mind to be in. But lying around probably wasn’t going to improve it, so I decided to do something useful with my free time: laundry.

I had no idea that this would bring such amazement to the good people of Mawpdai. Due perhaps to my fuzzy mental state, my thinking was that I would be able to attend to the task of cleaning my clothes in relative privacy, and that this would be relaxing.

Far from it.

The first thing I did was to ask Christine if she had a bucket, and perhaps a bowl or a pan that I could fill with water. She did, though she asked me why I needed these things. When I told her that I was going to be washing my clothes she took great interest and insisted on following me in order to observe firsthand how the Phareng does his laundry.

I sat out behind Christine’s house on a stool proportioned for someone about 40% my size. Filling up the plastic bucket with water and then pouring in a little bit of eco-friendly laundry detergent designed specifically for backpackers, I slowly went about doing what I set out to do. The goal wasn’t to get 100% of the grit and sweat out of my clothes, but only to render them moderately presentable. As long as my socks didn’t stink and my shirts didn’t have big sweat-salt deposits on them, I’d consider my field-laundry session that afternoon a major success.

Submerging each article of clothing in water, I gave them all what I thought was a perfectly adequate once-over with a brush and then wrung them out. But as I put my shorts in for a quick dip, I began to hear little feminine titters from behind. At first I ignored these, but they soon grew louder. People were gathering down the street. Looking in that direction, I saw an old lady with several children in tow staring back at me, while many small heads peeped out of the windows of nearby houses.

Apparently the Phareng doing his laundry was a big hit in Mawpdai.

A crowd developed at my back. Christine and much of her extended family were all standing there, curiously examining what I was up to, critiquing each laundry-cleansing maneuver in a running commentary. Judging by the many giggles and sighs, they didn’t sound too impressed with my performance. But they were too shy to intervene, even when I made what they thought was a critical mistake.

But finally, they could stand my ineptitude no longer. The straw which broke the camel’s back was when I set down a bunch of my dripping, semi-clean clothes onto the un-washed concrete beside the bucket.

I jumped as a metal pan clanged down next to me.

“Here!” said Christine with a combination of gruffness, humor, and pity.

“Oh,” said I. “Thank you.”

I put the pile of wet clothes in the pan, and then went about scrubbing a shirt. This was apparently incorrect.

“Don’t you know how to wash clothes?” asked Christine.

“Well, yes…but since I’m walking so much they get…”

“Wait,” She disappeared into her house and returned a minute later with three plastic containers.

“Use these,” She said, and then filled the extra containers partway with water and arranged them next to me.

“Oh,” said I, not entirely sure what Christine had in mind. “Thank you.”

To recap, now I had a large bucket, a metal pan, a pot, three plastic containers, along with a considerable audience, to help me wash my clothes.

This was a peculiar situation. All the containers I’d been given were meant to serve a very distinct purpose. If I used a bucket incorrectly, I’d risk humiliating myself even more. But I’d also reveal my extreme laundry incompetence if I asked what to do with the containers.

Picking up one of my black Walmart tee-shirts, I held it in front of me as I pondered what to do next. But I was still too tired and sick to think clearly.

I shut down and sat blankly holding the dripping article of clothing in front of me while my audience whispered in anticipation.

Finally, I dropped the shirt in the bucket.

This was wrong. Christine sighed with disappointment. I had failed.

“Don’t you wash clothes in U.S.?” she asked.

“Yes, but…with a machine.”

I put a few more drops of the environmentally friendly laundry detergent into the bucket. 

“Don’t you have powder?” asked Christine, looking askance at the tiny bottle of laundry soap.

“No, but I have this. It works. Sort of.”

“Wait,” said Christine, turning around and heading back into her house.

She soon came back out with a great big bag of decidedly non-environmentally friendly washing powder.

“Use this,” she said.

I put up a half-hearted objection, trying to explain that I didn’t need my clothes to be spotless. But this was a losing battle. The ladies of Mawpdai were experts when it came to washing clothes, and they were well aware of what I also knew deep down to be true: that the environmentally friendly soap wasn’t doing that great a job.

The laundry powder was dumped in one of the buckets, and I wound up re-soaking all the clothes I had been working on. Hopefully, having given in to so many of Christine’s demands, I would be allowed to finish my work in peace.

Again, a fool’s hope.

When I took a shirt from the soapy water, dipped it into a container of clean water, and then proceeded to wring it out as well as I could, it occasioned a veritable gale of laughter from the spectators.

Christine had seen enough. She now deputized her attractive twentysomething niece to show the Phareng how real clothes washing is done. The young woman came up next to me and then, with palpable expertise and precision, started pulling my soaked, soapy, clothes out of the bucket and quickly dipping them in each of the containers that had been arranged, moving from container to container, giving the clothes brief inspections along the way to make sure that they were getting progressively less soapy. At the last stage, the woman forcefully (she must have had incredibly strong hands) wrung out each bit of clothing and hung it on a clothesline. Here, I couldn’t help but admit, was someone extremely well versed in the ways of doing laundry. I learned a thing or two from her.

Still, it was terribly embarrassing having a beautiful young woman washing my filthy socks with her bare hands while a whole damn village looked on. All things being equal, I probably should have just waited until I reached a fast-flowing stream. Those always make laundry so much easier. You just put your shirt under a waterfall, and you’re done.

I managed to eat breakfast the next morning without puking it back up. It wasn’t a huge meal, but it had enough calories in it to make me feel up to catching a shared jeep outside Mawpdai and taking a short ride to Mawsynram. Another good night’s sleep or two, and maybe I’d have enough energy to take on the next big challenge of the trek: the walk down into and out of the grand canyon of the Umiam River.

As Bah Wonderful and I walked to the road next to Mawpdai and waited for a vehicle heading east towards Mawsynram, it was hard not to feel a little disappointed that I wouldn’t be trekking all the way across the Khasi World. Still, I told myself that it would have been silly to view the whole expedition as a failure simply because I took a vehicle for a few kilometers in the middle. Doing the whole thing on foot was, after all, just a sort of psychological goal. What really mattered was what I found along the way.

But then I noticed that every vehicle that passed by was heading west, towards Balat.

We had been standing around for a good long time when Bah Wonderful said: “I’m very sorry.”


“I forgot that the district council election is going on. I think the parties have bought up all the local vehicles to take voters to the polling places. You might have to wait a long time.”

Ninety minutes later. No vehicles heading to Mawsynram.

Bah Wonderful had a class to teach. He apologized again for the lack of transportation, said goodbye, and then turned around and went back to his village.

I stood there alone for a while as many a vehicle went by in the wrong direction. Then a shared jeep came up from Balat, heading east. It was packed solid with district council election voters returning home. The driver did not stop. The next vehicle to come up from the west, this time a taxi, was just as packed.

Getting to Mawsynram was going to be trickier than anticipated.  But there were plenty of villages along the way that were within walking distance. Just hiking down the road, stomach be damned, was getting awfully tempting. 

Another hour passed. I still wasn’t decided. My stomach was a long way from normal. But hanging around next to Mawpdai wasn’t helping. Looking down at my smartphone, I saw that there was a large village I had never heard of called Phlangwanbroi about thirteen kilometers down the road, two thirds of the way to Mawsynram.

“What the hell,” thought I, and started walking towards it.

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