WILD AT HEART

Susan Nathan ven­tures deep into an­i­mal-filled jun­gle while vol­un­teer­ing in In­dia’s Megha­laya

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - One Travel Perfect Day -

IT is late af­ter­noon and the road has pe­tered out. To reach our des­ti­na­tion, a re­mote vil­lage in the In­dian state of Megha­laya, there is no op­tion but to trek through a jun­gle that is home to ele­phants, boar, leop­ards and tigers, black bears, snakes, spi­ders, ticks and leeches.

Dusk falls early so we have to hurry. Af­ter a brief­ing from Mike Nam­pui, Megha­laya’s hon­orary wildlife war­den, we head off, pre­pared to stand dead still or leap down a cliff, de­pend­ing on the in­struc­tion. We are warned that an­i­mal at­tacks on vil­lagers are not un­usual, but our guides are armed with guns, which is com­fort­ing.

Megha­laya is one of In­dia’s north­east­ern states, and its cap­i­tal, Shil­long, was the cap­i­tal of Bri­tish As­sam from 1874 un­til 1972. Known as the Abode of the Clouds, it is one of the wettest places in the world; thank­fully, now is the dry sea­son.

We are here with the Sci­en­tific Ex­plo­ration So­ci­ety of Eng­land, and are an eclec­tic team of 11 vol­un­teers. Some are spe­cial­ists and oth­ers are sim­ply en­thu­si­asts. Our main ob­jec­tive is to un­der­take re­search into a strain of malaria present in Riang­maw and Lang­mar, two tribal vil­lages cursed with the dis­ease, but with­out any med­i­cal sup­port. We also plan to con­duct a range of other sur­veys, pro­vide aid and have fun.

It has taken four days to reach this re­gion, trav­el­ling from Kolkata by plane to As­sam, bus into Megha­laya with a stop in Shil­long, a four-wheel drive through the West Khasi Hills, beaten-up jeeps on rough tracks and, now, trekking through the jun­gle. The veg­e­ta­tion tan­gles and thick­ens, now and then open­ing to af­ford a glimpse of the earl­y­set­ting sun on the awe­some moun­tains. Quickly it’s dark, the only il­lu­mi­na­tion com­ing from our head torches. We hurry, care­ful not to trip over vines as the sounds of foot­fall, the oc­ca­sional voice and shriek­ing crick­ets fill the oth­er­wise silent jun­gle.

Af­ter a few hours, we hear the omi­nous roar­ing of a wa­ter­fall and we slide down a slope to a river. The only way ahead is across two foot­bridges; one is put to­gether with a few saplings, the other with rick­ety bam­boo slats, which some of the team ne­go­ti­ate with trep­i­da­tion.

One more steep in­cline, and silently, in pitch dark­ness, and with­out a sin­gle wild an­i­mal con­fronta­tion (un­less you count a few leeches), we en­ter the vil­lage of Riang­maw. A con­tin­u­ous thump­ing echoes eerily through the huts and the trees, too dull to be a drum, and there isn’t a soul to be seen. It feels as if it is the mid­dle of the night, but it is only 7pm. Soon we stum­ble across the source of that eerie sound. It’s a vil­lager thresh­ing rice in a wooden vat with a large pole. Fig­ures emerge from the dark; women draped in kyr­shahs, a type of sarong worn over one shoul­der, the men in West­ern-style dress. ‘‘ Khublei ,’’ they say softly. Hello.

The vil­lagers are from the Lyn­gam tribe, and look noth­ing like In­di­ans from the sub­con­ti­nent. Though there is much de­bate on their ori­gin, the con­sen­sus seems to be that they are a hy­brid of the Mon-Kh­mer peo­ple and the Sino-Ti­betan fam­ily. Sirken Ron­grin, the head­man, wel­comes us with rice beer, an in­te­gral part of any cel­e­bra­tion.

We sleep on the floor of a long­house and next morn­ing wake to learn that an ele­phant tracked us through the jun­gle. We ban­ish the thought as glo­ri­ous sun­light bathes in gold the ba­nana trees, the thatched roofs of the vil­lage dwellings and the dis­tant moun­tains. Long­houses are con­structed on stilts from bam­boo and have raised plat­forms for sleep­ing, but the largest, and only con­crete, build­ing is Fa­tima’s Church. All the vil­lagers are Chris­tian, their an­ces­tors hav­ing been con­verted from an­i­mism by mis­sion­ar­ies dur­ing the time of the Bri­tish oc­cu­pa­tion.

Women approach us as we wan­der through the vil­lage while the men stand awk­wardly be­hind, of­ten with a baby in a sling. This is a ma­tri­lin­eal so­ci­ety where chil­dren take the mother’s name, and in­her­i­tance is handed down to the youngest daugh­ter. How­ever there has never been a head­woman.

Mean­while, our tents are erected and the team gets to work. Curious vil­lagers ar­rive be­fore our doc­tors set up the malaria clinic in the empty school. With the aid of trans­la­tors, blood sam­ples are taken which will be pro­cessed in Eng­land by John Davies, our ex­pe­di­tion leader. Vil­lagers also re­ceive a gen­eral med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion; this is pop­u­lar as the near­est doc­tor is an eight-hour jun­gle trek away, and rarely in at­ten­dance. At the other end of the school­room, some vol­un­teers run a nu­tri­tion clinic for chil­dren who are weighed and mea­sured. Names ring out in an ode to Chris­tian­ity: Basil­ica, Peace­ful Mary, Use­ful, Method­ius and Boni­face. Moth­ers feed their ba­bies, and a de­light­ful chaos reigns as men settle anx­ious chil­dren, and Florentina, the school­teacher, brings or­anges.

A den­tal clinic is also un­der way. Vil­lagers ar­rive with red be­tel-nut smiles but are re­luc­tant to sit in the chair. Most of their teeth are rot­ten and, as one man asks, if his teeth are taken out, what would he eat with? None­the­less, some painful teeth are re­moved. Other vol­un­teers re­pair the wa­ter sys­tem, doc­u­ment the flora and fauna, and re­search the vil­lagers’ daily life and cul­ture.

The ba­sis of the Lyn­gams’ sub­sis­tence is paddy rice. They use the slash and burn method, which re­quires leav­ing the jhum (fields) fal­low for many years. Un­for­tu­nately, the jhum re­treats from the vil­lage, and is at present 5km away. Fam­i­lies stay out there to scare away ele­phants, boars and deer, which dev­as­tate the crops; as leop­ards and tigers also lurk, vil­lagers sleep in tree houses.

Keen to spot some of th­ese an­i­mals, four of us brave a night in a tree house. The fam­ily elects to sleep in straw shel­ters on the ground while we gin­gerly climb the bam­boo lad­der. The struc­ture is made of wo­ven bam­boo and bal­ances on the branches of four skinny tree trunks and a long bam­boo pole. There are gap­ing holes in the sides and the floor, and the flimsy struc­ture wob­bles per­ilously. There is just enough room for us to lie side by side. It’s al­ready dark and stars glim­mer through the gaps as we watch for an­i­mals. Noth­ing do­ing. Like the fam­ily be­neath us, we go to sleep.

Sud­denly we are wo­ken. ‘‘ Quick,’’ whis­pers our guide. This is it, we think, a wild an­i­mal at last. ‘‘ There’s a por­cu­pine out­side.’’ The tree house nearly col­lapses with our laugh­ter. Over the next few days we con­tinue our work, swim by a wa­ter­fall, ex­plore caves full of black spi­ders, chat to a com­mando group which is search­ing for rebels, take tea with the vil­lagers and en­joy tra­di­tional singing and danc­ing.

Then it’s on to Lang­mar. We trek through jun­gle and grass­lands and, af­ter two hours, spot a mass of colour in the dis­tance. It is the vil­lagers; they’re singing, and their voices ring out in har­mony across the lush un­du­lat­ing hills. We’re of­fered gourds filled with rice beer and are led through an arch gar­landed with plants and a sign of Wel­come. (Good­bye is al­ready on the other side.)

Drums and pipes haunt the vil­lage as no­mads play mu­sic from the Lyn­gams’ an­ces­tral re­li­gion. Their songs cel­e­brate death, and their del­i­cate dance steps are in­ter­rupted as they throw back their heads and guz­zle rice beer. A live chicken is sac­ri­ficed in our hon­our. The sac­ri­fi­cer slowly draws out the in­tes­tine, swamps it with rice beer and holds it aloft with his eyes closed. He hands it to Barn­abas Ajim, the head­man, who reads it like a horoscope. Hap­pily it’s long and clean which au­gurs well for our time in Lang­mar. Long-held tra­di­tions from an­i­mism un­der­lie the vil­lagers’ prac­tice of Chris­tian­ity. For in­stance, goats may be sac­ri­ficed to ap­pease spir­its who ag­i­tate from the jun­gle, and be­fore mar­riage a chicken’s in­testines are read to pre­dict the suc­cess, or not, of the ap­proach­ing part­ner­ship.

The af­ter­noon is filled with singing and danc­ing de­pict­ing the daily life of the vil­lagers and, to cap it off, we’re pre­sented with a pig that is slaugh­tered for feast­ing. Vats of rice beer ap­pear and the vil­lage men, who usu­ally do not drink, make the most of the cel­e­bra­tion. I meet Al­bi­nus, whose arm, mauled by a leop­ard, is a mess, but he was lucky. His fa­ther and aunt were killed by ele­phants. It’s a com­mon story.

The sur­veys and aid un­der­taken in Riang­maw are re­peated here with the in­clu­sion of ren­o­vat­ing the one-room school. Mike Nam­pui, who is also a tal­ented graphic de­signer, out­lines an­i­mals and fruit on the walls, which the team fill in like a colour­ing book.

Work is in­ter­spersed with re­lax­ing be­side our tents, search­ing for wild an­i­mals (they re­main elu­sive), and pass­ing time with the vil­lagers. We make an amus­ing show of learn­ing Lyn­gam dances round the camp­fire. On Sun­day we’re in­vited to a ser­vice in the derelict bam­boo church, but af­ter singing 40 hymns I am beg­ging for the sac­ri­fi­cial rit­u­als of an­i­mism.

Too soon it’s time to leave. With about 50 men, women and chil­dren from the vil­lage, we be­gin the trek back to our jeeps. This time it’s day­light, and our group winds its way through the jun­gle like a large snake. Sud­denly, the rounds of Lon­don’sBurn­ing , which we taught the vil­lagers around the camp­fire, fill the moun­tains with per­fect pitch; they have re­mem­bered ev­ery word. It would be a brave an­i­mal that dared to pounce.

Check­list

The next SES ex­pe­di­tion into In­dia’s north­east (Na­ga­land and Arunachal Pradash) runs from Oc­to­ber 31 to Novem­ber 20. More: www.ses-ex­plore.org. For per­son­alised ex­pe­di­tions to In­dia’s north, con­tact John Ed­wards: tiger­moun­tain­in­dia@hot­mail.com.

Pic­tures: Susan Nathan

Work in progress: From left, a tree­house of­fers pro­tec­tion from wild an­i­mals; girls from Riang­maw; one of many rick­ety foot­bridges, top; a vil­lage long­house, above

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