Phlangwanbroi was a place I knew nothing about and was deeply looking forward to reaching. Having trekked for hours up the road from Mawpdai with a stomach that remained uncertain, it was high time that I got some rest. A bed was my only goal that evening.
Judging from Google Maps, it appeared as though the outskirts of Phlangwanbroi were only a few hundred meters away. It was a large village, almost a town, with several huge, modern, Protestant churches, a collection of schools and colleges, and hundreds of houses. With such an extensive settlement nearby, I should have been hearing people and traffic in the distance.
Instead, all was eerily quiet as I walked through an expanse of dusty limestone flats bordered by bamboo thickets. No houses were in evidence. I wondered whether my GPS was putting me in the wrong place. It wouldn’t be the first time. But then I heard an odd rattling noise like something between an out-of-control shopping cart and someone on roller skates about to lose their balance. This was accompanied by the rising cackling of what sounded like several dozen kids.
Speeding around a bend in the road ahead came a bizarre sight: three distinct groups of little seated Khasi children blazing down the sloping asphalt towards me. They must have been riding on some kind of vehicles, but at a distance I couldn’t see these, and so the children looked for all the world as though they were sliding merrily down the road on nothing but their rear ends. It was only when they got closer, screaming joyously, that I could make out the three strange, simple, contraptions the children were seated upon. These were a common sight in Khasi villages that have access to long stretches of pavement: go-carts made of nothing but a few pieces of wood and some spare parts.
The vehicles now barreling towards me followed a familiar design. Two sticks had little metal rings attached to them, providing the jerry-rigged contraptions with front and rear axles. Both were attached to a longer stick that ran along the center line of the go-carts. Nailed into the top of this was an arrangement of smaller pieces of wood that provided seating for, on the most crowded vehicle, no less than five little boys. The front axles had nylon ropes tied to them and had been attached to the center stick with a peg that allowed the axle to be rotated slightly left or right, either by the driver pushing with his feet or pulling on the ropes.
But the steering system apparently didn’t work too well.
As the kids barreled down the road at full speed, they had the shocking experience of being confronted with what might as well have been a space alien mid-go-cart run. The kids in the front car, which had the largest number of passengers and so was going fastest, all screamed in unison. I couldn’t tell if this was in delight at going so fast, or in fear from being suddenly presented with a Phareng, or both. Anyway, they crashed.
The drivers in the two carts behind swerved to avoid the wreck, slowing themselves down by pressing their feet to the asphalt.
A bit concerned, I went over to the crashed go-cart and the pile of stunned young Khasis.
“Are you OK?” I asked the driver, an older kid who had the look of the mastermind behind this operation.
The kids all stared up at me, stunned. Then they grinned.
“WHAT IS YOUR NAME!” they screamed in unison. This question, I gather, is what young children in some parts of Meghalaya are instructed to ask Pharengs upon first meeting them. But the answer is evidently unimportant: before I had the opportunity to respond, the kids jumped to their feet and ran up the road, dragging their go-carts with them.
It was not long after the bend in the road that the outskirts of seemingly unremarkable Phlangwanbroi came into view. There was a huge concrete college building, a fair number of roadside tea shops, a selection of auto-repair joints, and plenty of surprisingly large, cheerily painted multi-story houses of the sort one sees in the moderately prosperous parts of the Khasi Hills.
In short, my first impression of Phlangwanbroi was of a fairly nondescript village well on its way to becoming a fairly nondescript town. It didn’t appear especially scenic. The Umngi was to the north, cutting a dramatic canyon that dropped off only a few hundred meters to my left, but from the road the gorge was invisible.
After approaching a few random people on the street and asking them about the headman, I was directed to the leader of the village council’s house. The man spoke limited English, but when I inquired if I could stay the night somewhere in Phlangwanbroi, he made me to understand, mostly with hand gestures, that I should wait in his living room while his wife prepared tea. Then he went out and started making phone calls.
After a few minutes, the headman returned with another fellow: a teacher in his late thirties who had studied outside of Meghalaya. This was Bahdeng, the man in charge of the Phlangwanbroi Tourism Society (who also bore an uncanny resemblance to Fred Armisen. The likeness was so striking that I made a special note of it in my journal that evening.)
“Do you get a lot of tourists here?” I asked Bahdeng.
“Oh, so many. Though…” he trailed off, as though the question had brought to mind a painful memory.
“What do tourists come here to see?” I asked.
“Now, mostly Hoolocks.”
“They are in the trees.”
“What are in the trees?”
“Hoolocks! Hoolocks!” he repeated with building excitement.
All I managed was a stupefied stare.
“Gibbons!” Bahdeng elaborated. “Hoolock Gibbons!”
“Ohh!” I exclaimed. Hoolock Gibbons are a small, bizarre, critically endangered (there may be fewer than 3000 remaining in their natural habitat) simian species, which are the only variety of wild ape native to India. They grow to a maximum of about three feet tall, with impossibly strong arms that are longer than their legs. Making their home in the forest canopy, they get around by swinging from branch to branch Tarzan style, sometimes bounding huge distances in a single lunge.
But they tend to be elusive. You’re far more likely to hear their otherworldly hooting in the distance than to actually clap eyes on one. But, having been fortunate to have seen several at a small wildlife preserve in Assam, I can confirm that they are fascinating creatures, and if you ever get the chance, their well worth seeking out in the wild.
Until my talk with Bahdeng, I had no idea that one might find a Hoolock Gibbon anywhere in Southern Meghalaya. While the sort of interesting large wildlife that is often associated with Northeast India does exist in the Khasi Hills, it is now commonly found only in very restricted pockets. Leopards, bears, monkeys, impressive reptiles, all can, theoretically, still be encountered in the region, but only if one knows exactly where to look. This is never close to villages. Khasis, I’m afraid, rather like to hunt. In most of the areas that I’ve trekked through, virtually all the large wildlife has been extirpated, though there are always rumors of distant redoubts of hungry bears, and the occasional leopard is still reported (though rarely confirmed).
“Where does one find these Gibbons?” I asked Bahdeng, wondering if he had ever witnessed them firsthand.
“In the forest,” he replied.
“Ah,” said I, a mite incredulous. “But don’t people hunt them?”
“Yeah, up until very recently they hunted them in this village.”
“Hasn’t the government banned that?”
“Yes, but what will the government do? They cannot patrol the whole jungle. But now, from the Phlangwanbroi Tourism Society, we have issued a notice to all the villages. We want to protect the environment. We have done an awareness program, to instruct the people of this area not to shoot the Gibbons anymore. And it is successful, but only to some extent. We’ll see if it works in the long term.”
“Then, are people still hunting the Gibbons?”
“Not in this village. But for us the big problem is that, during the dry season, the Umngi River is quite low. You can cross it without a bridge, just by jumping rock by rock. So, people from other villages will still come onto our land secretly and try to shoot our Hoolocks. This is bad. It is a problem of the people’s mindsets.”
“What do you mean?”
“For example, recently we tried to have a bird festival. We hoped to attract birders and other visitors to see what sorts of birds we have here in Phlangwanbroi. But nobody came. ‘Why have a festival just for birds?’ the villagers asked me. Because, you see, everybody is shooting birds here in Phlangwanbroi, so nobody came to that festival.”
The headman chuckled.
“But still we are trying to conserve our wildlife,” said Bahdeng in a hopeful tone of voice.
“What kinds of animals are in the forest near here?” I asked. “Other than Gibbons.”
“Bears are in the forest, but you will find that their population is decreasing. But you can still find them. In fact, there is one man in Phlangwanbroi whose eye is, like…” Bahdeng covered one of his eyes with a hand, and then made a grasping gesture with the other “…plucked by a bear.”
“Yes! Completely plucked! Plucked right out! Then that bear took the eye and ate it.”
“When did that happen?”
“Maybe, eight, or ten years back. So, bears are here. Monkeys are here, though very few. Then there’s wild boars.”
“How often do you see wild boars?”
“Not frequently. Their population keeps decreasing. Every Christmas, people will gather, and then they will go in the jungle and shoot some wild animals, often wild boars, and bring them back to celebrate the Christmas feast.”
“Haha! Merry Christmas!” chortled the headman.
“Yes,” said Bahdeng. “Every Christmas, to celebrate, there is a wild deer, or a wild boar, or some other endangered animal, shot for a feast. This is very upsetting for us tourism people. It’s not a good thing to celebrate any kind of festival by killing all the endangered wildlife. But we can’t totally stop this. We cannot follow the people into the jungle all the time.”
Just from the first few minutes of my conversation with Bahdeng, I realized that Phlangwanbroi was much more interesting than I had any reason to believe when I randomly decided to walk there. Had the district council election not prevented me from getting a vehicle in Mawpdai, I probably would have simply ridden to Mawsynram, gotten a hotel room, and vegetated, and to this day would not know that there are wild Hoolock Gibbons in Meghalaya.
Though Bahdeng seemed to find the attitudes of some of his neighbors rather backwards, he was nonetheless very enthusiastic about what his village had to offer the world. From the Gibbons alone, he had already made a strong case for why Phlangwanbroi was a place worth visiting.
So why did it feel like it had been months since he had seen a tourist?
Now I pressed Bahdeng about living root bridges in the area. The information I received, both from him and the headman, was a fairly decisive denial that there had ever been rubber trees planted in Phlangwanbroi for the purpose of creating architecture. There did not even seem to be simple ‘Pyrnondijroi’ like in the Nongnah region.
By this point I had concluded that Bahdeng and the headman were reasonably reliable sources, and their take was that root bridges had probably never existed anywhere in the Umngi Valley. But they weren’t completely sure. Villages on the other side of the gorge were well outside of their usual stomping grounds.
“It is possible, but I think it is not likely that you will find this in our part of the state,” said Bahdeng. “But I think, when you get to the next valley, the valley of the Umiam river on the other side of Mawsynram, then you will find more of these living bridges.”
From there we moved on to the subject of local spiritual beliefs. Bahdeng was a devoted Presbyterian, and so, by his own admission, not well versed in the esoteric details of Khasi animism, but he nonetheless had an interesting take on the traditional practice of designating certain patches of jungle, ‘Lawkyntang,’ or ‘Sacred Groves.’
“It’s a good thing, actually, if we want to preserve the forest,” said he. “For example, recently there was some construction work sanctioned by the government, to build a foot path. People from this village volunteered to do that work. So, some of the workers had been camping where the project was going on, and they needed to cut down some trees. Unknowingly, they cut down the trees of a sacred grove. So, in the middle of the night, they said that big huge snakes came there.”
The headman laughed heartily.
“Then the workers ran away, and the sacred grove was not damaged any more. We believe that if you take anything from a sacred grove, even unknowingly, bad things will happen to you. And it’s true, to some extent. Lots of cases like this have been reported. And once it has been announced that it is a sacred grove, no one will damage it. So, they are a good thing, because they help to preserve the forest. It is really the only effective way to conserve here. If the government issues a notice or declares a preserve, then nobody will care. People won’t pay attention. Everybody around will go and exploit the preserve. But everybody is afraid of getting the consequences of violating a sacred grove!”
“But do you personally believe that if you cut a tree down in a sacred grove, something bad will happen to you?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. But safer not to test it!”
Now that I had received the headman’s permission to stay in the village, Bahdeng informed me that I could pass the night in the Phlangwanbroi Tourism Society’s guesthouse.
As we walked from the headman’s home to the guesthouse, Bahdeng told me what he hoped his tourism society would accomplish. Despite having received so few visitors, he had high aspirations:
“You see,” said Bahdeng, “right now the livelihood of the people is going down. Mostly people in this village are farming broom grass. But this is becoming less profitable. The grass sucks all the minerals out of the soil. No trees will grow in those places. It’s not a good thing if everybody in the village is farming broom grass.
“So, to have some alternative for the people’s livelihoods, we have started tourism. From tourism, we have seen a big profit. If we do tourism, it will improve the economy, it will sustain our environment. It will also enlighten the mindset of the local people. They will meet some good people.”
“I hope so! But not all tourists are good people. Some are really quite annoying. You should be ready for the occasional idiot to show up.”
“Maybe,” said Bahdeng, “but with tourism, the people of Phlangwanbroi will no longer be strangers to the outside world. And they will keep on growing the local economy, and preserving their wildlife, for tourism. They will maintain their environment. But with growing broom grass, the environment is hurt, and our wildlife goes extinct, and over time the people only get poorer.”
Like so many of the people I’ve met in the Khasi Hills over the years, he painted a less than rosy picture of the long-term prospects for farmers in the region and saw tourism as a means of diversifying the economy. It was hard not to feel sympathy for his position. With all of the very real difficulties and annoyances that have come with tourism in the Khasi Hills, they’re a vastly lesser evil than poverty, extinctions, near-total deforestation, and cultural obliteration. That said, Bahdeng never wanted to hear (at least from me), that the tourists he hoped would visit could be anything other than smiling, inquisitive souls, who would provide Phlangwanbroi with both economic uplift and enlightenment.
So far, the tourists Bahdeng had met were all great people. He had yet to encounter any from that influential minority who are a giant pain in the ass.
They come later.
But it still wasn’t clear why so few travelers had ventured to Phlangwanbroi.
After walking across the village’s large football field, we came to Bahdeng’s guesthouse.
This was built into the side of the slope to the north of the village, right where the land fell away into the Umngi gorge. From the entrance it looked like an unassuming one-story concrete building. But then we walked in and I saw that it was far more spacious than it had appeared. Bahdeng and the Phlangwanbroi Tourism Society were certainly willing to put their money where their mouth was. We entered an airy, unadorned, living room, to the right side of which was a staircase that led down to a lower level. Partitioned from the living room was a large bedroom with tall glass windows that went from the floor to the ceiling and looked out over the vast Umngi gorge. Downstairs was a dining room and kitchen, along with a huge, echoing, bathroom that was larger than some of the houses I had stayed in.
Bahdeng had hired a local woman to cook dinner for us, and the rice and dal she served up was the first significant meal I had been able to eat for two days. Over it, Bahdeng interrogated me about Donald Trump and the state of U.S. politics in general.
I found both things hard to explain.
Fortunately, there was a chance to change the subject when I noticed several large kayak paddles and a pair of life vests resting against the wall behind Bahdeng. These seemed like odd things to have lying around in a village atop a limestone plateau, hours of walking from any major river.
“Do people do a lot of kayaking around here?” I asked.
At this, Bahdeng’s demeanor changed. He looked over sorrowfully at the kayak paddles, which I now observed were coated in a thick covering of dust.
“We can. Or…we have tried. At Wah Umngi there are good places to paddle, but only for those who are very experienced. But it is a long walk from here.”
“I’m not planning on doing any kayaking myself. The kind of places I’m used to kayaking in are flat, without much current. We don’t have mountains where I’m from.”
“Then you should definitely not kayak here!” advised Bahdeng in a serious tone.
“Did something happen?”
“There was…an accident,” said Bahdeng, glumly. “We had one kayaker from the U.K., Beth Hume. She went to lead an expedition to be the first to go down the river. She stayed here in Phlangwanbroi, and then went down to the Umngi with her boat. But she did not come back. She drowned. We never found her body. The rivers here, they may look calm, but there is always danger.”
Miss Hume’s death illustrates why Khasis have regarded large bodies of water as the homes of dark spirits and fearful creatures since time immemorial. As Bahdeng related to me, after successfully paddling down the Umngi for a few days, Beth came to a drop in the river marked by a waterfall. Having taken the proper safety measures, she went over the waterfall and down into a pool. But the boat got stuck in a violent eddy, and Beth found that she was not able to paddle out under her own power, so she abandoned the kayak.
Then she disappeared beneath the surface, and no trace of her was ever seen again.
Bahdeng looked sadly at the dusty kayaking gear as he related what had happened.
“That Beth, she is a very good person. It was a joy to have her here. Such a tragedy that she should die in that river. Why does she have to die there?”
Now the lack of visitors to Phlangwanbroi was starting to make sense. The place had gotten terrible publicity. Previously, the village had been seen as a promising staging area for kayakers wanting to access the wild, unexplored waters of the Umngi. But with Beth Hume’s death came a fair deal of press, and Phlangwanbroi’s tourism operation was suddenly on the map for entirely the wrong reason. The village was known for a time as a place where Pharengs go to die. Up until very recently, what came up when one did a Google search for Phlangwanbroi was news stories about death by drowning. Now the good people of Phlangwanbroi are much more reticent to cater to hardcore kayaking expeditions.
But Phlangwanbroi also has its Hoolock Gibbons. Several high-profile stories about the primates were written a few months after I visited, and now when you do a Google search for Phlangwanbroi the top results are about large hooting apes and wildlife conservation.
Sadly, I never caught sight of any Gibbons during my all too brief stay in Phlangwanbroi. But I’m glad that they’re there.
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