I chose correctly.

Arriving in Kshaid a few hours before sunset, I made contact with the village headman and was given permission to stay the night. The headman then directed his nephew, WonderousStar, to guide me to Kshaid’s community hall, which would be my home for the evening.

Community halls are an important part of the geography of Khasi villages. Every significant settlement needs one, as they are the buildings in which the village government conducts public meetings. But since there typically aren’t meetings every day, the halls are often vacant, making them a convenient, unobtrusive, place to sleep if one happens to be passing through.

The halls generally consist of only one large room, big enough for gatherings of the whole adult population of a village. The buildings are made with hot weather in mind, and having long, well-attended, contentious, debates inside them presumably makes them even hotter. Accordingly, the halls usually have high ceilings so that this heat will rise to the top of the room, and large windows to allow outside air to enter.

The Kshaid community hall was a typical example. At the front was a raised area with a podium, in front of which were about two dozen long, low, locally handmade wooden benches. These are a standard piece of furniture inside community halls across the Khasi Hills. I was glad to see them; putting about four side by side made for a more comfortable bed than sleeping on the concrete floor, and there was no obvious arrangement for stringing up my hammock.

The problem was that the benches weren’t made to precisely the same specifications. Some were inches higher than others, and a few tilted on their supports. As the night progressed and the air outside grew chill, I spent a good half an hour placing every bench in the hall side by side and finding which four best fit together to make a bed. The sounds of the benches dragging across the floor echoed loudly in the room, and far over Kshaid and the Sohra River Valley. The occasional perplexed villager peeped in through the windows at me, though they were all too shy to offer advice. Dragging the furniture around was tiring work, but as cold darkness settled over the hills, it kept me warm.

As I finished up writing the day’s journal entry, I could see my breath, and my hands had gone red with cold. While it was not tremendously chilly for, let’s say, a Delaware night in the middle of winter, it was very unusual for it to get that cold in a place like Kshaid in early March. It was just my luck that Meghalaya happened to be shivering through record low temperatures.

I woke up around sunrise following a freezing night in the community hall. As the first red rays of light began to shine through the cracks in the windows, I unzipped my sleeping bag and sat up. The little pocket of warmth that my body had created dissipated immediately. Outside, a few chickens could be heard, but no insects, and no people. I wondered if there had been a frost.

But with the sky lightening, it was time to get moving. WonderousStar had told me the night before that if I followed a stone trail below the lowest houses in Kshaid, I would shortly come to a living root bridge. But he also told me that if I kept walking beyond the living bridge, I would eventually reach a metal span that crossed the Sohra River which was, in his estimation, “very beautiful.” Being groggy, hungry, and having a long way to go that day, I viewed reaching the “beautiful bridge” as strictly optional. After all, I wasn’t slogging all the way across the Khasi Hills to see metal bridges, even if I didn’t doubt for a second that the one below Kshaid was beautiful.

The stone pathway down into the Sohra River gorge was, thankfully, easy to follow, even as it descended at a near vertical inclination. But as it plunged to the riverbed through an extensive swathe of broom grass, little voices began to follow me into the valley. Turning around and looking up the steep slope I had just climbed down, I saw a group of about a dozen children from Kshaid clustered on a rocky outcropping, staring back at me.

At first, I tried to ignore them, but soon their little voices started to echo down to me.

“What is your name!?” various little boys called out. This question, I gather, is what young children in some parts of Meghalaya are instructed to ask Pharengs upon first meeting them.

I didn’t answer and pressed on as fast as I could. After my rough night, I was in something of a surly mood.

“What is your name!?” the young voices called out, again and again and again.

“Patrick!” I yelled back as I pressed on down the trail, hoping that, maybe, answering the little devils uphill would shut them up.


“What is your name!?” the same voices shouted down after about thirty seconds.

“My name is Patrick!” I yelled back, steadily getting crankier and crankier (and being reminded of the character from SpongeBob SquarePants, which only made me even crankier).

“What is your name!?”

I didn’t reply.

“What is your name!?!?”

No answer.


Khasi children can be damn persistent. I had thought that a few minutes of silence would cause the young folks to give up following me, but sofar they showed no sign of losing interest. Apparently, the back of my head was endlessly enthralling. Down and down the trail they came after me.

“What is your name!?”

I turned around and saw that the kids had gained on me. Then I stopped. The kids stopped too and went completely silent. We noiselessly stared each other down for a few moments. Then I turned back around and pressed on. But when I moved, the kids followed. With my back turned, they all talked loudly to one another, but the moment I faced them, they hushed.

This was getting creepy.

I tried to pick up the pace a bit.

“What is your name!?”

On the verge of losing it, I turned around. The kids hushed. Then I walked uphill a few paces making scary noises. The kids all started giggling and ran away. I turned back around and pushed on.

Peace, finally.

“What is your name!?”

Despite having descended at least 200 meters into the gorge, the hyperactive children were still close behind. Turning around and pretending to chase the little devils might have scattered them for a few moments, but it also convinced the kids that I was playing with them, which had an energizing effect.

Now I resolved to go down the trail at a brisk pace and try as hard as possible not to acknowledge the giggling horde behind me in any way.

As the broom grass and morning sun gave way to shade and areca palms, my new strategy seemed to be working. The kids had been quiet for a few minutes. A hope rose in me that I had finally left the irritatingly inquisitive little people behind.

And then:

“You are a boy!” a high-pitched voice echoed through the hills with inexplicable urgency.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to this.

“You are a boy!!” the voice repeated.

“Yes, thank you,” said I.

“You are a boy! But he is a girl!”

Youthful titters in the jungle behind.

“You are a boy! But he is a girl! You are a boy! But he is a girl! You are a boy! But he is a girl!” screamed many young voices.

I said nothing and walked on.

Those kids pursued me at least 300 meters lower in elevation. Just following the funny Phareng gave them more exercise than a reasonably fit person in the U.S. gets in a week.

But finally, as the areca palms transitioned to a large bamboo forest, the children gave up. I guess I just wasn’t quite interesting enough to follow all the way down to the bottom of the valley.

As WonderousStar had promised, the trail did indeed lead to a small living root bridge. This was a pretty, gently sloping structure about 15 meters in length, which crossed a minor rivulet that crawled along the bottom of a stony ravine and met the Sohra River not far downstream. The root bridge had been functionally abandoned, the path now crossing the ravine over a new concrete span that ran directly parallel to the living structure, with only a few meters separating the two.

Still, the tree that formed the living bridge appeared entirely healthy. Judging from the places where thin young ficus elastica roots were being wrapped around wooden posts and along bamboo poles, the structure was being actively maintained by the people of Kshaid. The concrete bridge appeared perfectly redundant.

Later that morning, I asked WonderousStar why the root bridge had been replaced.

“I don’t think it was necessary to do that,” he told me.

The river was close now. The bamboo forest had gotten noticeably cooler in just the last few minutes, and the rays of sun shining through it were few and far between. Then the bamboo opened up, rocky cliffs appeared ahead, the river flowed below me, and I came to that day’s discovery.

Spanning the Sohra River was not a living bridge, a metal bridge, or a bamboo bridge; it was all three at once.

The hybrid structure crossed the Sohra at a point where the little river was constricted into a narrow, bare-rock chasm. Upstream, the river poured loudly through a stony cataract, falling in a series of cascades over smooth granite boulders, while downstream the white foaming water emptied into a wide, breathtakingly clear pool.

The bridge itself stood maybe fifteen meters above the water at a place where an impressive piece of living architecture had clearly once existed. Directly across from each other, next to both ends of the bridge, were large, full grown, ficus elastica trees. It looked like the living bridge had fallen, and then had been replaced with whatever materials were close at hand. The result was a structure that was unique even for the Khasi Hills.

Several rusty steel cables crossed the gap. But, in order to walk across the bridge, what one stepped on was largely bamboo, a material that could be sourced directly from the area adjacent to the stream. The walkway, along with the handrails on either side of the bridge, were made from bamboo tubes set down lengthwise, and then tied together using fibrous ropes of the same material. The bamboo would, presumably, rot in short order, but it could also be rapidly replaced.

To these two materials was added a third: roots from the ficus elastica tree on the western bank were being trained out across the hybrid structure. One of these had reached all the way to the opposite bank and had taken hold in the soil there. Much of the rest of the bridge depended, structurally, on this living strand. Were the ficus root to die and not be replaced with steel or bamboo, the bridge would fail.

Other, thinner, living strands were also well on their way across, and were gradually creating a bridge that was more ficus than metal or bamboo. It would still be a stretch to call this a true living bridge, but perhaps one day, after the roots have grown for years and years, rather than a hybrid, there will once again be a magnificent Jinkieng Jri crossing the Sohra River below Kshaid.

Here’s hoping.

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