WILD AT HEART
Susan Nathan ventures deep into animal-filled jungle while volunteering in India’s Meghalaya
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.
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: email@example.com.
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