Upon reaching Sohra I gave myself three days to rest.
The 25th and 26th of February were cloudless and warm. These would have been good days for walking, but they were also fine ones for sitting around doing nothing. And that was something that I felt badly needed getting done.
Still, I couldn’t rest in Sohra for too long. The trek needed to be over and done with by the middle of March, now only a little more than two weeks away. The date of my living root bridge conference in Shillong was fast approaching. Skipping it to spend more time trekking was simply not on the table. If I failed to reach Jarain by the 15th of March, I’d have to end the long walk prematurely. This meant that even taking a few days off was cutting it close. But my thinking was that if I threw myself into the canyons ahead unrested, the chances of complete burnout were higher than if I allowed myself 72 hours to recuperate.
Thus, I was determined to relax…though that was easier said than done. I find it’s hard to switch off immediately following difficult, dangerous, interesting, travel. The first night back in Sohra, spent at a hostel called By The Way run by my old friend Heprit, I fell asleep practically the instant I closed my eyes, but before dawn the next morning I awoke and jolted out of bed with no idea where I was. After a few seconds, I remembered that I had returned to Sohra, and went back to sleep. But my dreams from then on were troubled and strange, frequently involving odd bits of Delaware geography jumbled in with features of the Khasi Hills. It turned out that White Clay Creek near Newark flowed down into Bangladesh, and that one could find Areca Palm plantations throughout much of Sussex County. Khasi student unions were protesting in Dover.
After so many days of not knowing where the next meal was going to come from, it was quite a change of pace to be able to go into a restaurant and order greasy tourist food. Likewise, after crawling through jungle canyons and stumbling into villages that had rarely seen more than a handful of travelers, suddenly being just another phareng among the never-ending river of tourists was a bit like straying into an alternate universe. Only days before, I had found myself being the center of attention of whole villages. Now, the people of Sohra, who live directly upon the Beaten Path, barely looked my way.
But this had its advantages. Constantly being an object of intense curiosity is exhausting, and I needed rest. During my time in Sohra I mostly sat quietly in the corners of restaurants, perfectly content to be ignored (except, of course, when I needed to order).
My energy began to return. Sleeping until nearly 1 PM on the 25th probably helped. By the end of the 26th I thought I’d be ready to start the next leg of the trek on the 28th. The way ahead would be tough, but that night, for the first time, it seemed like getting to Jarain on foot might just be possible after all.
On the 27th of February, a round of cold wet weather settled over Meghalaya. It started as a layer of heavy clouds that formed during the middle of the day. Slowly, the world around Sohra turned black and white as the sunlight faded. The temperature dropped, and then a drizzle moved in. The rest of the day was nothing but overcast skies and light rain.
When I awoke on the morning of the 28th, the sounds of the traffic out on National Highway 5 were muffled by misty precipitation. An icy draft crept in under the door. I could see my breath from inside my room. Out the window the world was hidden in a dark clammy fog; shadows with umbrellas drifted back and forth in the clouds; headlights and brake lights created moving patches of yellow and red. The rain was not heavy by the standards of Sohra, but it was steady, and it was cold. The folks outside all looked mildly depressed.
It was 6 a.m. I went back to bed.
The rain never stopped that day. Sometimes it poured until the streets were rivers and the corrugated metal roofs thundered, and sometimes the precipitation was a peculiar indeterminate substance hanging in the air, the particles of moisture too large to be considered mist, but not quite big enough to be called drops. On several occasions the temperature suddenly plummeted, followed by short spells of intense wind and white hail that blanketed the ground.
I still entertained the idea of pressing on until about midday. But the weather only got worse. By the afternoon, even if the rain had stopped, there wouldn’t have been time enough for me to get much of anywhere.
It was a day to stay put.
Later during that long soggy afternoon, my friend Heprit and I stood under the protective cover of the concrete balcony of the floor above my little room in By The Way. If I recall, we happened to be discussing the Eastern Front of World War Two when I noticed that the rain, while not ended entirely, had diminished to a soft drizzle. The sky directly above was getting lighter, though it was still overcast.
“Do you think the weather’s going to clear up today?” I asked hopefully.
Heprit looked up, and then off to the south.
“Why do you say that?”
Heprit pointed to a ridge that rises to the south of Lower Sohra’s marketplace. Behind this, the sky was black.
“That is where the rain comes from. If it is sunny there, it will clear, but if it is like how it is now…”
The dark cloud advanced from behind the ridge, and within a few minutes the streets of Sohra were rivers again.
Other than talking to Heprit and reading, the only thing to do on that sullen soggy day was to converse with the other tourists scattered around Sohra. Many of these were foreigners, the only westerners I crossed paths with during my long trek.
You might think that the sorts of foreigners who travel all the way to Sohra (and then usually on to the tourist area around Nongriat), would all tend to be eccentric, colorful, adventurers. But most globetrotters, even backpackers with funny hair and piercings and ironic stickers on their gear, are exactly the same people they were at home, just with different backdrops. That is to say: foreign tourists in Meghalaya generally stick closer to the averages of their cultures than to the extremes, even when abroad.
According to Heprit, in the not so long ago, back when all of Meghalaya was more obscure, the kinds of Pharengs who would darken his door were generally much stranger, interesting, and eccentric, than they were in 2019. They were people who worked harder than tourists in later years and were willing to risk venturing to places that they knew next to nothing about.
But eccentricity isn’t, in my view, an innately positive or negative quality. Simply being colorful doesn’t make you a better person. If everyone in the world was a deeply unique character, I suspect life would get quite unbearable in short order.
Case in point: I was sitting in a tea stall frequented by tourists in Lower Sohra when a loud German came in. He didn’t look at all atypical for an adventuring Phareng. He was bald and thin, with well-worn but expensive-looking outdoor gear. He’d pulled up on a mountain bike which he had been riding all over Northeast India. The bicyclist was soon entangled in a conversation with a British tourist and some local Khasi guys and was spiritedly explaining why he loved to travel. The Khasis were listening intently, fascinated, while the Brit looked simultaneously amused and mildly offended.
“Pain! Pain!” said the bicyclist, with wide eyes and much caffeinated gesticulation. “That is why I love to go abroad!”
“You love to hurt yourself?” asked the Brit, a plumpish middle-aged fellow with numerous piercings and lots of tattoos.
“No, no, not myself, though no pain, no gain, they say!” I had to note that the bicyclist was exquisitely sinewy and toned, clearly in absurdly excellent shape. “But hardship!” the German continued, “this is something that we’ve eliminated in developed nations. It’s something we’ve taken completely out of our lives.”
“So?” asked the Brit.
“So, I go to see it. To experience it, even if it’s only vicarious.”
“You go to see hardship?”
“Yes, that’s why I travel. To see what it is to suffer!”
“Do you really need to travel abroad for that? Can you not just go to some poor part of Germany?”
“In Germany we don’t have poverty, we don’t have suffering, like in India.”
“So, what you really want to see is unhappy people?”
“No, not unhappy people. Struggling people. Sometimes, when you see struggling people, you also see the truest kind of happiness: the happiness that comes from overcoming adversity. Struggle is life!” The bicyclist turned to the Khasi guys. “You must know what I mean.”
One of the Khasis stared at him blankly.
“I think…no…” stuttered the mystified local.
The German made a series of odd, pained expressions, along with a succession of vigorous but indecipherable gestures, as though he was working hard to find some other way to explain what he meant to the Khasis.
“Where have you gone to find struggling people?” I interjected, genuinely curious.
“Are you from America?” the German asked, picking up on my accent.
“I’ve gone there!” the bicyclist said with a big self-satisfied grin.
“You went to the U.S. to see suffering?” the Brit asked. “Overall, the standard of living is quite high, at least, so I’ve been told. I’m sure there’s exceptions…”
“Wrong! It’s a third world shit hole!”
The Brit now turned to me.
“Is that true? Is America a third world shit hole?”
“Well, no…not most of it,” I replied, feeling a little put on the spot.
“Don’t ask him, he’s American,” said the German. “I mean no offense, but you can’t really talk to Americans. Even when they are nice. And many of them are. I have to be fair. Many of them are. But they are also…please excuse me…I mean no offense, but they are very stupid! And when they travel, they always travel in groups, and they’re always looking at their fucking smartphones…their fucking, fucking, smartphones! Again, no offense, but Americans can never try to understand another culture…they can’t! Americans are just too…American. But America is a good place to see hardship! Every year, there are those hurricanes. When I saw the news about Hurricane Sandy hitting New Jersey, I just knew I had to go to New Jersey! As soon as possible!”
“Did you?” I asked.
“What did you do when you got there?”
“I travelled to all the places that were hardest hit. I saw the damage and the pain and the suffering.”
“It was great! Because I was really living when I saw the destruction! When I saw what happens to, excuse me, fat Americans when they lose their homes! I felt alive!”
At this the Brit laughed and shook his head.
“Do you go to war zones?” he asked. “There’s quite a bit of misery in those.”
“I get as close as I can. I travelled to the Golan Heights to watch the fighting over the border in Syria a few years ago,” the German said with an air of superiority. I think by this point most of the other Pharengs in the tea stall had decided that this guy was nothing but a loud obnoxious asshole. But the Khasis were still listening to him with their mouths hanging wide open. I don’t think they had encountered this flavor of Phareng before.
“But I come here to India as well,” the bicyclist continued.
“Did you go down to Nongriat?” the Brit asked.
“Yes, and it was fascinating to me to see the old men carrying heavy burdens. Sweating and walking up stairs. Living! That is hardship!” Now he looked at one of the Khasis. “You people live hard lives, carrying sacks up and down stairs all day, just like your ancestors! All of you people are so strong! You should be proud!”
One of the Khasi gentlemen smiled.
“You see, we Europeans, we don’t have this connection to the land,” the bicyclist continued. “We are a fat people. We live fat lives. Especially,” the German looked over at me with a mixture of pity and nauseating moral superiority, “Americans. So fat and lazy! So many processed foods! They don’t appreciate what it is to toil! They don’t know that life is only beautiful if one has struggled.”
At this point, the Brit turned around and no longer participated in the conversation.
“Yes,” said the Khasi. “Here, it’s a very hard life for the people.”
“But a good one! A strong one! You are a very strong people!”
“Thank you,” said the Khasi.
“But, you know one thing that I don’t like about this place?” said the German. “You’re developing. You’re building. Please excuse me, but you’re starting to grow fat, like the rest of the world. I even saw an overweight man in Shillong!” the German laughed, as did his Khasi audience.
“I’ve even heard,” continued the bicyclist, “that they’re thinking of building a road to Nongriat, so the men and the women won’t have to toil up the paths with the sacks. I’m totally against this!”
“Yes,” said the Khasi, “They are building a road. It’s very hard to live without one.”
“But it’s a much better life!”
“No, I don’t think so,” said the Khasi.
The German again made a series of odd, pained, expressions and gestures, as though he was going to press his point to the Khasis and try to convince them that a life of quaint but extreme discomfort was really to be preferred.
But then his tea arrived.
Late in the rainy afternoon, I met a pleasant twentysomething Swedish couple who were staying for a few nights at By The Way. They were, at least as far as I could tell in the short time I knew them, about as normal as Westerners can be. Their plan had been to go down to Nongriat that afternoon, but the weather had gotten in the way.
We exchanged some typical backpacker chit-chat, but when I happened to mention that I was from Delaware, their faces unexpectedly lit up. They had never met a person from Delaware before.
Initially, I assumed they were excited about my distinguished homeland due to the Swedish colonial activity that occurred there in the 17th century. It was, after all, the Swedes who first established Fort Christina, the settlement that would evolve into that glittering wonder of the mid-Atlantic, Wilmington Delaware.
But in this I was mistaken. My new friends had apparently not even heard of Nya Sverige upon the Delaware River. Rather, it turned out that the man’s grandmother always used to have a very tasty and exceedingly rare type of cookie at her house called a “Delaware.” The mere thought of this wonderous cookie sent the couple into nostalgic homesick rhapsodies and was enough to tempt them to abandon their journey through South and Southeast Asia and go rushing back to their native Scandinavia. They seemed to view me in a positive light from that point on simply by virtue of my tenuous association with their favorite sweet, and they were sad to see me go the next day.
And I never learned why the cookies were called “Delawares.”
That evening Heprit and I went to a little teashop next to By The Way which was crowded with a bizarre admixture of smiling properly dressed Khasi ladies and grungy, wrinkled-before-their-time European backpackers, most of whom were soaking wet, having just come up the road from Shillong on motorcycles.
These weren’t especially good conditions in which to conduct a conversation, so Heprit and I sat at a table back in a corner, the last free space in the shop, and quietly pondered the oddity of all that was before us.
And then a new Phareng stepped in, and the oddity quotient in the tea shop more than doubled.
My first thought when I saw the newcomer was T.E. Lawrence. He was a bright, blond, smiling, skinny white fellow, probably in his early twenties, peculiarly dressed in an incongruously spotless military outfit which I later learned was in fact the uniform of a low-ranking Laotian Communist.
T.E Lawrence scanned the teashop, beaming. Heprit, I suppose viewing his job as the man who deals with foreign weirdos in that locality, turned to the newcomer, though said nothing.
“Namaste!” said the oddly dressed Phareng to Heprit, pressing his palms together in a traditional Indian greeting that was totally inappropriate for the Khasi Hills. “Is this By The Way?” T.E. Lawrence asked in an accent which sounded like something out of a Monty Python skit mocking 19th century British Colonialists. It was disconcerting hearing it coming out of someone so young. In six words, the man had already shown that he was terribly high class, a very different commodity from most grungy-tough backpackers, and ignorant of the local culture.
“No,” said Heprit flatly, with an eminently detectable note of dislike.
“Well, then, do you know this Heprit chap?”
“Oh, then you’re just the man I wanted to meet!” T.E. Lawrence pulled up a chair, and then, without asking, went to the counter and paid for all three of our teas. The lady who ran the shop looked over nervously at Heprit as she took the money. Heprit hates when people pay for him.
“Danyavaad” T.E. Lawrence said in needlessly formal Hindi as he took three cups of tea from the shop owner. “I’ve heard so much about you,” he continued as he set down the teacups and sat across the table from us.
“What did you hear?” replied Heprit.
“That you’re an interesting fellow.”
This made Heprit visibly uncomfortable.
“Who told you?”
“I’ve read about you online. I’m a curator at several travel websites. Your name pops up quite frequently when a person tries to find out about, really, this whole region.”
“Heprit is famous,” I added.
T.E. Lawrence turned to me with an intense, wide, grin. I knew the look: it was the expression of a foreigner who has met another traveler who might be able to provide them with local information.
The conversation at that point moved to finding accommodation. By The Way was full, so Heprit directed the oddly dressed fellow to a hostel down the street.
“But can you tell me, dear boy, if there’s anything interesting to see around here?” the man asked.
“I don’t know. What interests you?” replied Heprit.
“Nohkalikai Falls is only a few kilometers from here,” I commented, trying to be helpful.
“I’ve had enough waterfalls. Every place with a decent hill or two has them. I just came up here to look around a bit. The travel literature on this area is quite scanty. Is there anything here that’s, you know, truly unique? Really outstanding? Really worth writing home about?”
“No,” said Heprit.
I laughed, and at the same time detected that T.E. Lawrence both fully sensed Heprit’s hostility and was perfectly unbothered by it.
“I can understand that” T.E. Lawrence continued. “I’ve been travelling in the Northeast for a few days now, and I can tell that there really isn’t much here.”
At that, the conversation dried up. T.E. Lawrence turned away from us and wound up talking to some mud-caked motorcyclists from Malta, though he soon grew bored with that conversation as well, and shortly walked, still smiling, out of the tea shop and down the street.
Heprit took a sip of tea.
“That guy is strange, man.”
By dinnertime, I had nearly forgotten about T.E. Lawrence. Now a cold, dense, depressing fog clung to the ground. But the weather forecast showed a clear day tomorrow. Looking straight up, I could see the occasional star. The rains had finally moved on, though the mist lingered.
The time to face the next leg of the great trek was nigh at hand. Setting the alarm on my smartphone for five a.m., my plan for the evening was to eat a quick dinner and go to bed as soon as possible.
Thus, I sauntered over to one of lower Sohra’s budget tourist eateries, Jem’s Café. When I walked into the small restaurant there didn’t seem to be any other customers seated at the establishment’s plastic tables and P.V.C. chairs. This was a good thing; I was in the mood for a quiet meal, something one can rarely enjoy in villages surrounded by legions of curious children and astonished adults.
And so I walked in, sat down, and was just about to order, when I realized that I was not alone after all. T.E. Lawrence was seated in a corner, smiling even as he scribbled in a notebook. But then he saw me, and, given that we were the only two customers in the restaurant, it would have been awkward to ignore him.
“Mind if I come and sit with you, old boy?”
There went my last quiet meal for the foreseeable future.
That said, sitting and talking to T.E. Lawrence turned out to be a valuable experience, if only as a brief glimpse into a life far more bizarre than my own. It turned out that the man dressed as a Laotian Communist had, or at least wanted me to believe he had, ulterior motives for his travels…though why, if one truly had ulterior motives, one would spill them to a perfect stranger within five minutes, is beyond me. My suspicion is that little of what he said about himself was true. How much he was aware wasn’t true is another question. I think the man was a bit insane.
When I asked him the usual backpacker boilerplate question of where he had been travelling up until this point, he related a genuinely interesting, if doubtful, story.
He said he had left his native Australia several years before with the intention of only being gone for a few months. However, he then claimed to have made several large (unspecified) foreign transactions in Hong Kong which he didn’t register with the Australian tax authorities. Rather than returning to his homeland to sort the matter out, T.E. Lawrence told me that he had decided to keep one step ahead of the law, and to simply keep travelling indefinitely:
“And make my mark on the world with my own hand, so to speak” he said, with the air of a person who might very well attempt to do just that. “So I went to China, and landed myself the most unjustly well-paying, imbecilic White Monkey job a person of my persuasion could drum up in short order. The company I worked for in China, they were a terrible, corrupt, totally worthless enterprise. Completely useless. All of their orders and shipments would go awry, and all the local officials had their hands in the cookie jar, but then again, the corrupt officials were incompetent too, and so were their superiors. It was really a terrible company. But that was where my opportunity came in: since they were such a horrible outfit, they needed a front man as their ambassador to the outside world. Somebody their business partners, and competitors, and foreign governments, wouldn’t expect. And, you see old boy, many companies in China that employ the services of white monkeys manage to select the least convincing white monkeys in the zoo: Eastern Europeans, Brazilians, people who often don’t speak a word of English. It rather tears down the veneer of legitimacy the company is trying to put across when they hire an English Language spokesperson who can’t speak English. But not me, old boy. I could more than make my employers appear cosmopolitan when cash was on the line.”
“So, you’re saying that this terrible company actually made a good decision in hiring you?”
“Certainly not, old boy. I made a good decision in applying to them.”
Personally, I’m not sure just how surprised I would be to find an insane upper-class Australian world traveler as the public face of a dysfunctional Chinese company. There was something oddly perfect about the idea, which gave T.E. Lawrence’s claims more credibility than I would otherwise lend them.
“And what was this company called?”
“They don’t exist anymore, thank God. And I wasn’t working for them for more than a few months. You can’t stay on long with an outfit like that. They were always teetering on the edge of oblivion, but then again that was why they were willing to pay me so much to be their public face! It was good while it lasted.”
He related all of this with an odd note of pride, as though the moral turpitude of it only added to the accomplishment.
The man went on to claim that, following his White-Monkey exploits, he had thrown himself into a whole slew of adventures across Asia, sometimes simply for the fun of it, and sometimes because he was running out of money and could apparently find no better way to replenish his coffers than by seeking out precarious situations.
He wanted me to believe that one of the first places he went in India was Kashmir, and that upon arriving there he had immediately attempted to insinuate himself into Islamic extremist organizations, something he claimed to have a knack for.
“You see, old boy, if you want to join up with the Mujahedeen, you simply pretend to be Christian. But a Christian with an open mind, though still devout. Then you dredge up the nearest mullah and get to talking with him about theology. Debate about the relative merits of Islam and Christianity. You pretend to put up some resistance at first, but then, slowly, pretend to let him win the argument. Make the mullah think he’s making a convert. Really sell it. Make him believe that he’s made you see the world in a whole new light. Act thankful. Then you’ve got him. When you’ve earned the mullah’s trust, that’ll extend to the Mujahedeen. It’s easy to become a part of the organization then.”
“But why would you want to join up with Islamic extremists?”
“For the challenge, dear boy!”
T.E. Lawrence had then gone from India back towards southeast Asia, apparently preferring to stick well off the more frequently visited circuits in the region, exploring its backwaters, and finding adventure. It was during this part of his travels that he acquired his eccentric garb, which he explained had been given to him by a former communist true believer who had thought, rather like the mullah, that he had made a convert. T.E. Lawrence claimed that he had been wearing it since.
“And why wear a Laotian Communist uniform everywhere you go?” I asked.
“Because, dear boy, when was the last time you saw a person in one?”
Finally, the man had wandered back to the west, entering Burma, where he claimed to have attempted to set up any number of illicit dealings in the Northern Shan state. He maintained that he was well on his way to maneuvering himself into the position of being a sort of go-between connecting shady Burmese government officials and tribal village leaders in possession of rare antiques with foreign buyers.
“I started off considering the drug trade, you see, but when you think about that for more than two minutes, you realize it really isn’t worth it. The middleman is always at a disadvantage. There’s danger on both ends of the supply chain. Every government in the world is on the lookout for unsophisticated traffickers trying to bring in drugs. The profit’s not worth the risk…if there even is any profit. But antiques, rare collector’s items, objects that only have worth because some scholar says they do, that’s where the real money is.
“You see, dear boy, if I come waltzing into Immigration with a brick of heroin, I’m as good as caught. But if I come in with, I don’t know, a five-hundred-year-old traditional hill-tribe wooden pipe, wrapped in local news-paper, with a price tag from some junk shop in Delhi that says five hundred rupees, immigration authorities won’t bat an eye. And that’s where the real money is: relieving the people in this corner of the world of their cultural heritage, so to speak.”
I couldn’t help but notice that, if this fellow had indeed found ‘the real money,’ it was strange of him to rely on public transport, wear one set of clothes, and eat at backpackers’ dives…it was almost as if he hadn’t done all the things he claimed.
That said, I certainly got the impression that the man genuinely intended to find cultural heritage to steal and somehow smuggle. He may not have been a true globe-trotting criminal mastermind, but he was at least a true aspiring globe-trotting criminal mastermind, and even that’s rare these days.
He tried to get me in on the act, putting forward the idea that the two of us should start smuggling rare coins, great stocks of which he claimed to have access to in Bhutan. However, that he was so desperate for a partner that he would want to bring in someone he had just met half an hour before did not exactly inspire confidence. I’d like to think that at first look I strike the world at large as someone who would make an expert smuggler, but I think the truth in this case was probably that T.E. Lawrence was full of shit, and most travelers wouldn’t have put up with it as long as I had.
The man belonged to an endangered species among Westerners in Asia: The unscrupulous, morally bankrupt individualist, unapologetically out to exploit the locals. A modern-day Harry Inglis. Of course, in the 21st century, one can’t get away with what Inglis did, and that’s just as well. Old school colonialism is, to put it mildly, not currently in vogue. And playing at one is probably not a good way to make money as a foreigner in the far east. Much better to start an NGO.
“But as someone who’s spent so long here, in this little state…what’s it called?” asked T.E. Lawrence.
“Ah, Meghalaya, yes, ‘the abode of the clouds’…I can’t imagine why, old boy, you’d spend so much time here.”
“I…rather like it.”
“But tell me dear boy, what sort of valuables do the villagers here keep from times past? What sort of physical culture do they have that a person of my persuasion might convince them to part with?”
As oddly interesting as the fellow was, I had no intention of encouraging him to linger.
“They have many yams. Lots of yams. So many yams. Much of life here revolves around…yams.”
“Ah…yams…well…I guess you have to go to a place to learn it’s worthless.”
And that was that. Soon after dinner, I said goodnight to T.E. Lawrence. I never saw him again. Later, I learned that he left Meghalaya after a few days, unintrigued by its yams.
Having done my good deed for the evening, I returned to By The Way to get a proper night’s rest, more than ready to seek safety in the jungle the next day.
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