Thursday, 4 February 2010

31st October – North Lakhimpur to Ziro…

We woke, showered and loaded the jeeps. I tried an early morning call to Claudette but left a message on her phone instead. Shortly, back in the hotel, I was summoned back to the small shop where I’d just used the phone to hear a very relieved Claudette on the other end of the line. She’d heard about the 18 bombs in Guwahati on the news and had freaked out knowing that we were landing there at the time. The UK foreign office was giving no information to her as she was not a relative. She’d been in touch with my family and they’d got themselves into a bit of a froth. I assured her that we were all fine and well away from the area now.
Our Indian fishing companions arrived (four tea plantation managers) and introduced themselves: Billy, with his wife Alka and assistant Tazir, Sanjay, Dhiraj and Vikas. We then drove towards the hills and a place called Ziro, 140km away. En route we stopped for breakfast at The Tea Plantation Managers Club which sounded very grand. It had a squash court and an open-air swimming pool with concrete diving boards but it was all decaying now. I envisaged white-gloved waiters gliding between tables in the club room but Sanjay said the club members don’t support it much now and funds are not there to keep it in a decent condition. Nevertheless, we had a hearty breakfast and chatted together over tea in the morning sun. As usual I asked for some boiling water so I could make my own tea. This pricked the ears of the four tea plantation managers. I explained that I had bought some delicate white tea and green tea with mint blended together. Vikas looked suspiciously at the tea as I poured it and then took my cup and sucked in a mouthful noisily. His eyes narrowed and he just stared at me. I knew what he was thinking; “You’ve travelled to one of the premier tea growing regions of the world with this rubbish and you’re trying to convince us that it’s a quality tea”. He then examined the leaves with Sanjay and they noted that there were no ‘tips’ in it at all. I skulked away with my tea and sipped it alone, not wishing to draw any more attention to myself.
Our Assamese fishing permits arrived whilst we were at breakfast, well nearly all of them. Mine was missing due to me getting my Indian visa details very late to Billy who was arranging the permits. This was because of the ridiculous new Indian visa application process that has now been outsourced from the High Commission in London to a bunch of idiots (the deal for which was probably sealed with a sizeable bribe). The website was a complete nightmare and looked like it was designed by an imbecile. There were fields that asked for irrelevant information and then others that left one utterly confused. The phone helpline charged exorbitant per-minute fees and I knew that I’d be on the phone for hours with them and still get nowhere. To cap it all, the application process (which used to take an hour or so at the embassy) now took at least five working days to complete and one had to leave one’s passport with these cretins. Judging by the quality of their website I considered it too risky to trust then with my passport. As a result I paid for a guy in East London to ‘walk’ my visa through the system in a day or so. It was peace of mind but cost a small fortune. Anyway, I didn’t get my details to Billy until the day before I flew out to India. This delayed him being able to submit an application for my fishing permit and entry to Arunachal Pradesh. This meant that I was technically not allowed to enter Arunachal Pradesh and not fish either. I was in a pickle.
We hatched a cunning plan. It was decided that I would become Chris Oldmeadow and Chris would become an Indian local instead. This way there would be the correct number of ‘western anglers’ for the permits issued. Chris would now be called ‘kali ram miri’. His demotion and new low caste status brought howls of laughter from Billy and his mates and a host of expletives from Chris.
We left the club and drove up into the hills. It was slightly more comfortable than yesterday’s marathon stint but definitely more beautiful. At the Arunachal Pradesh border we stopped at the barrier so Billy and Tazir could approach the border guards and execute our devious plan. Chris slumped low into his seat in the back of the jeep and pulled his deerstalker down over his face to disguise himself as much as possible. We all looked nonchalantly around us, trying not to draw attention and hoping that the guards wouldn’t demand a closer inspection. Billy and Tazir did lots of chatting and gesticulating with the guards and they seemed to be counting at one point but fortunately no-one came over to check us out. The wooden barrier tilted up and we smiled and drove through. We’d done it! I was now technically an illegal and also fishing without a license. I quietly prayed that the penalties for both these crimes would be lenient should I be found out. Well, I could always insist that I was really Chris anyway and let him take the heat instead.
Arunachal Pradesh became more jungle as we climbed higher up the steep sided valleys. The kettle-boiling whistle of cicadas or crickets was incessant to the point where I thought I had tinnitus. We stopped at one spot to observe two working elephants dragging huge logs up from a river bed. Men were getting the elephants to align the logs up with two wooden ramps so the logs could be levered onto the back of a lorry. We stopped at a small hilltop village and bought sugar cane to suck on for refreshment. We also stopped to look far across the hills to mount Tawang on the Tibetan border. I was amazed to see tree ferns growing in the hills around us as I thought these were only indigenous to New Zealand.
We arrived at the market town of Ziro in the hills of Arunachal. It was a scruffy looking town but busy with people going about their business. Our hotel had no running water and was the most space-inefficient building I had ever seen. The hotel was a maze of landings, stairwells and corridors with only a few actual bedrooms in it. Without water, the toilets were inadequate to say the least and there was only a bucket of hot water to bathe with that was brought to our room.
We washed as best we could and then went for a walk around Ziro to see what was going on. Rup bought a cowboy hat and ghastly sunglasses that we assured him looked really cool. I had my haircut for 40 rupees (about 50 pence) that would have set me back a tenner at least in London. Things did seem really cheap so we stocked up on batteries, stringer rope and other odds and sods. A local market had fish for sale (no mahseer) as well as a host of strange looking vegetables and other foodstuffs. The women selling their produce had tattooed faces and large black discs inserted in their noses. Apparently, tribal feuding some years back had seen many women kidnapped and then disfigured by neighbouring tribes. We had to be discreet with our cameras as many of these women reacted aggressively to us taking pictures of them. We found a woman selling old stone necklaces that were seemingly of great value (according to her anyway). Phil and Chris examined the stones but were skeptical of their age. There was also a complete monkey skin for sale. Hunting was a common thing here and all the men had machetes in bamboo sheaths or rifles. Bob decided he was going to get himself a machete and disappeared into a shop. He emerged shortly after with a long blade wrapped in newspaper. It seems he would have to make his own sheath. We came across a strange shrine on one street with an inscription that read, “Here lies so-and-so, killed through no fault by my brother. I will lie here waiting for you”.
Back at the hotel, we had supper which was really very good for a kitchen without water: Chapatis, rice, dal, chicken curry and a few beers to wash it all down. The hotel had a sign forbidding alcohol but they didn’t seem bothered by the beers we were openly consuming. After supper I started to get my fishing gear together, unpacking the rucksack completely, reorganizing it and then repacking it for the rafts. I was so keen to start fishing that I had everything set up to get going as early as possible.
We had a long drive again tomorrow to reach the river so it was an early night for us all and my familiar battle with Rup’s snoring. Note to self - don’t sleep with Rup ever again.

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