Archive for February, 2015

Myanmar II – Hakha to Bagan

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

We left Hakha around sunrise to get an early start to what would end up being nine days without a shower, bed, or internet, and a diet that consisted primarily of ramen noodles. Shortly after Hakha, the beautiful pavement ended and we spent the rest of the week on dirt. We found few proper restaurants on this stretch, but on our first day we found a nice place called ‘Heaven Cafe’ in the village of Satka. The woman running it spoke some English and went off on her motorbike to get eggs when we asked to have some in our noodles, which was the only thing they sold other than coffee. Like all of the Chin villages we encountered, Satka was strung out along the road, which was following a ridge, so we enjoyed the view and the ambience of the little roadside cafe, where we were the only customers. We camped for several nights in a row, sometimes with beautiful views into the valleys below, and sometimes hidden in thick secondary forest. One night we were close to a stretch of road construction, and the bulldozers seemed to go all night. By this time, we no longer had a full moon so we had to use our headlamps, but we were careful not to shine them towards the road and went undetected every night.

Myanmar 2 - Chin State

One day, we were invited to stay in a village celebrating its Golden Jubilee, or 50-year anniversary. We had stopped to find lunch, and as there was no restaurant we were taken to the pastor’s house and fed there. A young woman who worked at the church happened to speak English and played tour guide. She explained what was happening for the Jubilee and invited us to attend the celebration and spend the night. She also took us to a funeral service for a young woman who had died the night before. We were still in our bike clothes and she marched us right up and into the house where the woman had been laid out in a tiny room, all her relatives around her. I felt so out of place and inadvertently disrespectful until the first person reached out to shake my hand. Then the next, and the next, and I found myself kneeling on the wooden floor, having just caught my first glimpse close-up of a dead person, a total stranger who had died after a long illness, leaving her 3-year-old daughter behind, while her loved ones welcomed us. I shook every hand that came toward me, hoping something in my posture, my murmured attempt at ‘hello’ in the local dialect of the Chin language, would show them my sympathy, my condolences.

Later our friend took us to the big tent where the Jubilee events were set to happen later that day, but we had barely come in when she and another young man told us we’d have to go – the headman of the village was worried that police might come out to the Jubilee from the closest town, Rezua, and that he might get in trouble if we were found there. They could call and ask, she said, and there was a chance they might say yes, but the village authorities were afraid. That was enough for us, and soon we were on our way, although we were sad to miss the celebration. When we got to Rezua we stopped to buy the basics, but nobody wanted to sell us anything. Instead, they wanted to give us things. We managed to pay for some eggs and condensed milk, but the rice and rum we hoped to buy were given to us by smiling women more excited to greet foreigners than to make a buck.

Myanmar 2 - Chin State

We were prepared to camp, but again it was very hilly, with every flat space occupied by a village. We asked a couple outside of their house for water, and then we asked if there was anywhere we could sleep. They smiled and gestured up the hill, and we rode on, uncertain of what they’d meant. When we got to the top of the hill, we found ourselves in the main village, and an old woman greeted us as if she’d been waiting for us. I joked that the couple must have called ahead, but there was no cell reception there. The woman led us to the house of a young woman who spoke English, who then brought us to a large house where an older couple lived. We would stay there, she said, and also pointed to a cistern out back, indicating that we should wash up. After so many days on a dirt road, she had a point. We cleaned up as best we could while remaining fully clothed, and also washed our bike clothes as we were now down to one outfit each. We made our ramen, then hung out briefly with the couple. They made no effort to communicate, but our beds were laid out in their living room so perhaps they were just going about their normal routine. We shared some chocolate and looked at family pictures, and then everybody went to bed.

The next night we stayed in another village just past Matupi, one of the larger towns in the area. Although there were police in this town, and a military camp nearby, Chin State overall felt so remote that I had lost my fear of the police, as long as we weren’t in big towns that had police stations. The headman of the village waved us down as we went through his village near sunset. Again, it was like they were waiting for us. He invited us to stay in another family’s house where we were served dinner. They ate after us, which made us sad as we would have liked to eat with them. (It also would have given us a better idea of how much food they had, so we wouldn’t overeat and inadvertently leave them with too little, which was something we worried about.) However, we weren’t lonely – the headman and two teachers, all of whom spoke fairly decent English, talked with us all evening. The headman told us his brother was a refugee living in New York – apparently he had angered the soldiers from a nearby military camp for protesting their destruction of a cross, and had to leave.

Before leaving us for the night, the headman brought out a big register book and asked us to write down our names and the date. He told us he would let the authorities in Matupi know that we had stayed there, and suddenly I was afraid again. “Are you sure that’s OK?” we asked. We had heard that local people often don’t know the rules related to foreigners, and we were worried he and the family who hosted us would get in trouble. We also preferred to stay off the authorities’ radar, just in case we weren’t supposed to be there. He said it was fine, though, and we didn’t really have other options. So we registered ourselves and hoped everything would be fine. With respect to the authorities in Chin State, everything was fine; with respect to my belly… not so much. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling feverish and sick to my stomach, and only felt slightly better in the morning. Fortunately the family had one of the nicest outhouses I’d seen in Myanmar, and with the help of some Cipro we were on our way.

Myanmar 2 - Chin State

We camped the next night with a few construction workers, and the following night we found a beautiful spot just past a small village where we’d stopped to refill our water bladder, fuel bottle, and flask. The woman running the ‘store’ didn’t seem to have a firm grasp of mathematics or business, so I tallied up the bill after coaxing the price of each item from her. David spent that stop trying his hand at the stick-and-wheel game that I believe was popular in the US in our grandparents’ generation, and is still ubiquitous in developing countries. It’s harder than it looks, but he provided great entertainment. We enjoyed more beautiful views on what turned out to be our last night camped up high.

Myanmar 2 - Chin State

Myanmar 2 - Chin State

The following day we passed through the large town of Mindat and saw our first tourist since Hakha. We also saw women with tattooed faces, an old practice – perhaps to identify them as members of the Chin tribe in case of kidnapping by other tribes – that seems to be dying out, as only older women had the tattoos. The night before we had climbed up to the highest point of our route through Myanmar, 2700 meters, and now we were on our way down. Unfortunately it was now David’s turn to feel sick and he couldn’t really enjoy the looping, paved descent. We cycled out of Chin State and soon started seeing Buddhist stupas again instead of churches. We stopped in a valley village to get water and camped off the road not far from some sort of temple blasting wailing tinky-tonky chanting music until past our bedtime, then starting up again before sunrise.

The next day we biked to Myit Chay, across the Irrawaddy River from Bagan, an area full of ancient temples and one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist destinations. A bridge crosses the river a bit to the east of Bagan, but crossing it would have added over 20 kilometers to an already long day. Plus, Bangladesh had taught us that where there are towns on two sides of a river, there is usually a boat. We started asking around, and sure enough we were told that we could get a boat in Myit Chay. When we got to the town, we asked some friendly men where we could find a boat, and they said to turn left, go for one or two miles, then turn right again and go for another one or two miles. Simple enough, we thought.

On our way to the river, we encountered a group of people wearing Bogyoke (“General”) Aung San shirts, and a big truck all bedecked with posters. General Aung San is considered to be the father of modern, independent Burma, and is well-loved by most of the population. Internationally, he is perhaps better known as the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the face of Myanmar’s democratic movement who was famously kept under house arrest by the military junta that ruled Myanmar from the 1960s until very recently. It turned out that the following day would have been General Aung San’s 100th birthday, and his hometown was nearby so they were preparing for a big celebration.

Next, we came across a parade of little girls on dressed up horses, young women carrying platters of fruit, and men driving oxcarts festooned with flowers. It was a procession to a Buddhist site – we’re not sure exactly what for, but we were the only foreigners – and the only spectators – so people stopped and posed for photos and waved and smiled. It was a couple of hours before sunset and the light was just right – I felt like we had stumbled onto our own private parade, done solely for the participants and just happening to have an audience of two, us.

Myanmar 3 - Bagan and Central Myanmar

After a mile or so, we asked a street vendor how to get to the river. The man gestured vaguely onward so we proceeded, but within a few minutes a man rode up to us on his motorbike and indicated that he would show us the way. Thank goodness for him, or we never would have found the river. For about 20 minutes we wound down tiny dirt paths through fields where women were harvesting crops, waving at us as we rode by. Eventually he turned off and pointed us to the last bit towards the river. We’d thought he happened to be going that way, or had a boat, but no, he was just taking time out of his day to show two strangers the way. We thanked him and continued on, and soon found ourselves at the shore of the Irrawaddy River.

A group of intoxicated young men were sprawled around a volleyball net, and when we asked about a boat they enthusiastically indicated that yes, they could take us. Nyaung-U, the main town near the temples, was directly across the river, and they offered to take us there for 5,000 kyat (~$5). But we wanted to go to Old Bagan – the main temple area, and a bit farther downstream – so we could see the temples from the water at sunset, and this seemed to confuse them tremendously in their drunken state. I thought it was a language thing, but soon a man arrived on a motorbike who spoke good English. He translated, and it seemed that they understood, but would charge 15,000 kyat to go all the way to Old Bagan. No problem, we said, let’s go. But then they put us on the boat going to Nyaung-U. Confusion reigned, and we weren’t sure we wanted one of these wasted men to pilot us and our bikes across the river. Then another boat arrived, and the boatman seemed sober.

He seemed to understand our request, so we pulled our bikes out of the first boat and walked to his. All seemed to be going well until one of the drunk men, who we nicknamed ‘White Skull’ for the logo on his t-shirt, hopped in. No, we said, we want to go with the other man, the one who is sober. So sober guy hopped in, and nodded solemnly when we indicated that he was to drive. White Skull fired up the engine, and again we pointed to sober man. Again he nodded, and moved towards the back of the boat, but when I looked back, White Skull was driving, grinning away. We figured he couldn’t do too much damage, and if he started to steer us astray we’d have sober guy take over. White Skull got us safely to shore, and we got our first glimpse of the temples as the sun set over the river. Then we biked to Nyaung-U – where we actually planned to stay – and found a nice hotel, one of the most expensive of the trip, but we didn’t care. Unbeknownst to us, another bout of GI problems was settling in, and we needed to rest.

Myanmar 3 - Bagan and Central Myanmar

Bagan was an interesting place, but due to being sick and exhausted from our crazy ride through Chin State, we spent most of our time there relaxing at the hotel. We got out to see the temples a few times, always on our bikes, and we joined all the other tourists for sunset at Shwesandaw Pagoda. Bagan is probably the most visited place in Myanmar, and we certainly saw more foreigners there than anywhere else in the country, but somehow it didn’t feel overrun. There were still monks strolling around, and local people seemed happy to talk to us. There was western food, which we appreciated with our weakened stomachs, and decent ice cream if you looked hard enough, and people hawking art and trinkets at the major temples. Still, Nyaung-U felt like a sleepy town that just happened to have a thousand or so temples scattered around it. There was an entrance fee of $20 for the whole site, but they only checked tickets at the major temples. At smaller ones we were usually the only tourists there, and gatekeepers would let us in to roam around while kids played soccer outside. We stayed one night longer than intended, waiting for our stomachs to recover, then rode out of Bagan, aiming for the coast.

Myanmar 3 - Bagan and Central Myanmar

Myanmar I – Tamu to Hakha

Thursday, February 5th, 2015

We arrived in Moreh, the border town between Manipur and Myanmar, around lunchtime. Our permits just had arrived by email, so we found a place to print them out (even though we had been assured that a copy had also been sent to the border post). Then we ate lunch at a typical ‘rice hotel’ – a common name for lunch spots in Northeast India – where we were approached by a man with a thermometer who told us we had to have our temperatures taken to ensure that we didn’t have ebola. They wouldn’t let us into Myanmar otherwise, he said. So we got our temperature taken and received a certificate indicating that we were healthy, and then proceeded to the border.

We had a little trouble finding the Indian checkpoint – it was a much bigger building than at the border with Nepal, but it wasn’t clearly marked and there were no other travelers there. Once we found it, we had to track down some officials, who, after digging up an ink pad and some stamps – apparently not a lot of foreigners cross here – checked us out of the country. We then rode through a no-man’s-land of burning garbage piles before crossing a bridge and seeing the sign reading “India-Myanmar Friendship Highway.” After all of the planning, reaching the Myanmar border felt particularly momentous. We parked our bikes on the street next to a steep staircase leading to the customs building. This was it – the moment of truth. Would they let us in? A bored-looking man in a blue lungyi (sarong) told us to sit, then fetched the permits that the travel agency, Seven Diamond, had sent to him. It all seemed fairly routine, like they let foreigners cross every day, which felt contrary to our experience getting out of India, just across the river. We began to suspect that the permit wasn’t even necessary and it was all a racket to squeeze extra money out of tourists. He stamped our passports and wrote in the 30 days we were allowed to stay. Nobody had appeared to collect our money and we thought we might be able to just leave, but he told us to wait for our ‘guide.’

Eventually a young man with a mouth stained red from betel nut appeared on a motorbike, and we were released into his care. He didn’t ask for money, just motioned for us to follow him, so we did. We rode a few kilometers to the border town of Tamu, where he said he’d show us to our guesthouse. We weren’t expecting this, and we asked if we had to stay there. He told us we were free to stay anywhere we wanted, but first asked for the $200 we owed him for the permits. We handed it over (two crisp $100 bills saved for this very purpose) and rode around the town, which consisted of a few blocks on each side of a T-section. With some difficulty we accomplished our tasks: changing rupees (we were told to look in the market but nobody there could help; instead we found an Indian man at a clothing shop called Mizo, on the main road about half a kilometer past the turnoff to the market) and getting a SIM card (there were lots of places selling them in the market, but we never could get the data to work!). We looked for a cheaper guesthouse, but only saw one hotel that looked so unpromising we didn’t even check. We went back to the first place, had dinner at a “beer station” (after months in countries where alcohol was hard to find, and rarely available at restaurants, we decided we were going to like Myanmar), and turned in.

Myanmar 1 - Sagaing Region

The next day we biked towards Kale, about 90 miles away. Myanmar uses both miles and kilometers (as well as furlongs, which refer to the length of a furrow in an agricultural field, and are 1/8 of a mile), and sometimes people use the terms interchangeably to refer to the same distance. This caused us a few navigational problems during our time in the country. We took a long lunch break, enjoying the leisurely feeling of this very relaxed country, and we didn’t make it to Kale that day. Near sunset, we went through a village and stopped to watch some guys playing chinlone, a local sport similar to volleyball in which small teams use their feet, heads, torsos – anything but their hands – to get a small rattan ball over a net. We made sleeping motions and gestured around, but people just pointed us down the road. We asked at several more places, following their outstretched hands; the place they pointed us to may have been an official’s house, but the people inside just stared at us. We had already gotten water, so we figured we’d test our luck and camp.

Almost every cyclist’s blog in Myanmar has stories of being discovered by the police and forced out of their campsites, so we knew we’d have to be stealthy. The area was pretty heavily populated, though, and all of the paths off the road led to fields and houses. Finally we decided to just strike out through an empty field, not following a path. We raced off the road when there were no cars coming by and crashed through the bushes; after a while we found ourselves in a harvested rice paddy with a couple of buffalo staked nearby, well hidden from the road. We pitched our tent and made dinner by the light of the full moon – we’d read on another couple’s blog that they never used flashlights when camping to avoid detection – enjoying the chirping crickets and comfortable site.

The next day we made it to Kale in the early afternoon. We met Guillome, a French Canadian traveler who had spent about a month in Myanmar. He’d been having a great time, taking boats and buses through Shan state and in the far south after crossing over from Thailand. He taught us that a hand waved vertically by your ear means ‘no.’ We had lunch (with beers) and dinner (with more beers) at a Chinese restaurant down the street from our hotel, where we were excited to speak Mandarin with the owners.

We left early the next morning and biked out of town, immediately beginning our climb into Chin State. The guidebook said some of the state was recently opened to foreigners, with the rest, presumably, still being closed. Seven Diamond, the agency that had arranged our border crossing permit, said that the capital, Hakha, which was about a third of the way down our intended route, was open, but that the other two towns we’d asked about farther down the road required a permit and guide. We figured we’d just go as far as we could and see what happened.

We climbed 2000 meters that day on a good paved road. Near sunset a young man on a motorbike passed us and asked, in his limited English, the usual questions – Where are you going? Where are you from? How do you like our country? – and invited us to stay at his house. We were thrilled, since the steep terrain meant camping would be difficult, but then he said his village was seven miles away. We were still going up, and we wouldn’t be able to make it by dark. So we promised to come to his house for breakfast the next morning, and, in the next village we encountered, asked at a church for a place to stay. David had barely mimed the sleeping motion and the old man was waving him in, pointing to a mostly-empty room.

We were a little wary of staying with villagers – we’d heard it’s illegal and that, while we probably wouldn’t get in trouble, local people who hosted us might. Since it was nearly impossible to camp, we thought a church might be a good bet as a last resort, since it wasn’t anybody’s home. Well, this church turned out to be attached to a home, and the family that lived there (presumably the pastor’s family) invited us to eat with them and later treated us to a sing-along concert that was crazy magical. Dinner was rice and some sort of green vegetable, cooked over a wood fire in the middle of the room. No chimney meant a smoky room, and the dim, battery-powered light coupled with the cooking fire and smoke and total lack of shared language made for a shadowy, quiet, sacred-feeling meal. This was the poorest family we stayed with on the whole trip, I think, and we tried to explain that we had our own food and didn’t need to eat theirs, but they weren’t having it. We then tried to share a plate of rice and not take much of the vegetables, as we’d had a good lunch, but again, no dice – they kept piling food on our plate and urging us to eat, and eventually, we complied.

Myanmar 2 - Chin State

Myanmar 2 - Chin State

The family consisted of an older couple, their son and daughter-in-law, and their three children, a teenage girl and two little boys, four and five years old. We ate in shifts around a low wooden table, sitting on tiny wooden benches a few inches off the ground. The girl ate last and alone, and as she did she occasionally burst into wild-sounding guffaws. Later I heard the same noise a few times in the middle of the night. She kept to herself, staring intently at nothing and not talking to anybody, and I think she must have had some sort of mental illness that affected her communication and behavior. The two boys were always by the side of their mother or grandmother, and the youngest, once he got used to us, kept sneaking big grinning glances at me. After the singing, they laid out a mat and a few blankets for us on the floor of the church room, then went to bed in a room next to the kitchen. In the morning they served us mugs of a hot cereal, and after efforts to convey our gratitude that could only fall short, we were on our way.

As we rode, we asked for the village of the young man from the night before, but we never found it. I do think I saw him though, out of the corner of my eye as we were descending, but it didn’t register until much later and I felt badly that we hadn’t stopped. However, later that morning we made another friend and went to church. After about ten kilometers we stopped in a village and tried to find a restaurant to supplement the cereal we’d eaten. A young woman who spoke good English took us to the only restaurant in town, but it was time for church and the owners didn’t have time to make breakfast for us. So the woman invited us to her house and made us scrambled eggs served with rice. We got out our coffee and had a nice breakfast. She’d learned English working as a maid in Malaysia, apparently a common things for girls in the area to do. She told us that some people are so poor that they don’t have enough food, so they send their daughters abroad to work. This unfortunately is often what happens when people get caught by traffickers and sold into an altogether different line of work.

This young woman had gone with an agent when she was 14 and worked for four years. Now she’d been back for a while – she was 23 – and was married with a 6-month-old son. She went to a different church than the restaurant owners, and we asked if we could attend the service. It had been years since I’d been to church, and I think the majority of my attendance as an adult has been outside of the US, meaning I rarely understand the services. Here, it didn’t matter. The Chin Baptist church just about converted me back to Christianity. Like the singing the night before, it defies description. We were both in a strange mental space – I’d gotten angry with David for not trying harder to find the motorbike man, and I think we were also just worn out from the road. I think our nerves were truly raw. Everything touched us, one way or another, and I was never far from tears those first few days in Chin State. Whether it was mystical chanting in a smoky room, our own attempts to sing Amazing Grace (at our hosts’ request – they were not impressed), the voices of a youth choir filling every corner of the chapel, a failure to keep a casual promise, or the beautiful contour of the road around the mountains, it just got to me.

After church we started riding again, up and up, and found a place to camp between bends in the road where the land had been cleared, probably for firewood to heat the tar used for road repairs. There was a lot of roadwork going on in Chin State – repairing the dirt roads from the landslides that must happen every rainy season, and widening and paving some stretches – with mixed-gender crews and entire families living in camps along the road. We were awoken before light by somebody firing up the tar fires, but he probably didn’t see us and we went back to sleep. The road crew arrived just as we were packing up, and when we started carrying our stuff up the sleep slope to the road, one of the men spotted us and rushed down to help us. The women all giggled at us from under their straw hats, no doubt wondering what on earth we were doing there, and we felt like the day had gotten off to a nice start.

Myanmar 2 - Chin State

Myanmar 2 - Chin State

We thought we might make it to Hakha that day, but people kept saying it was 20, then 15, then 13 miles away – too far to make it before dark. So we found a nice place to camp, but we hadn’t filled up our water bladder since we’d hoped to make it to town. We decided to use our water to make noodles for dinner and have breakfast in town; we were not happy campers the next morning. Still, the campsite was great – set well back from the road with a nice view of the surrounding valleys. We heard lots of gunshots from local hunters, and later we heard yipping and howling that was probably the local version of coyotes but sounded like tormented ghosts to me.

The ‘miles’ people had told us about turned out to be kilometers, and as we rolled into town early the next morning, we were frustrated to realize that we could have made it to Hakha the night before after all. A very kind hotel manager let us nap and shower in one of his rooms for free, and we also did some laundry. First, though, we ate a giant breakfast, and later a big lunch. It was getting later and later, and as we rode out of town around 4:00 David decided he needed to check email to set up some book events, try to arrange a talk in Yangon, and let our parents know we were alive. Of course the Internet place was down hill in the wrong direction, and by the time we finished it felt stupid to leave. So we ended up spending the night and had dinner with visiting World Vision workers, including an American who told us who had won the Super Bowl, days afterwards. David was thrilled; I wished we could have avoided hearing the news…

Back to India: the Northeast

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

A trip of this length and variety gets integrated strangely into the psyche and memory. Time stretches and contracts—Turkey feels more present sometimes than, say, Nepal, and I wonder if it’s because everything was so fresh and new then. Every event, each new place, person, or experience, warranted a reaction; we talked about it, processed, reflected, wrote. When we realized the other day that there was about the same amount of time remaining in our trip as we had spent in Turkey, we were both alarmed to realize how long that time seemed when we were there—and how it doesn’t seem like much time at all going forward.

Our points of reference for have become other parts of the trip, rather than our lives in the US. When I’m hungry, I’m just as likely to fantasize about Georgian katchapuri as a Mission burrito; the absence of alcohol in Bangladesh reminded us of Turkey; when we couldn’t find Internet, we reflected fondly on China’s ubiquitous Wi-Fi (though we didn’t miss its censorship). One element we find repeating from country to country is being able to predict what people are going to say to you and having fun pre-empting them. In Uzbekistan, we could tell somebody was going to ask us where we were from before they opened their mouth. In Russian, this question is boiled down to one word: “Atkuda?!”, often preceded by a grunt. This question was shouted out at us constantly, everywhere we went, with no greeting or follow-up, expect the occasional, wide-eyed “Ooh, America!” At times, weary of the constant “Uhh! Atkuda?!” I would beat people to the game, turning and yelling “Atkuda?” to them before they had a chance to ask me. This practice, which I called “Atkuda’ing” somebody, always resulted in everybody having a good laugh and distracted me from the weariness that long-term travel can create.

In India, the conversation was a bit longer and often included a photo op, and was played out many times a day with men on motorcycles who would roll up alongside us as we rode along the highways of Bihar, West Bengal, and the more populous parts of the Northeast. One day, in the flat plains of Assam, David “atkuda’ed” a pair on a motorbike, inverting the entire standard bike-touring-in-India conversation. Before the men could ask us questions, David asked, “Where are you from?” “Silchar,” they responded. “Oh, very nice. We liked Silchar. Where are you going?” “What is your name?” The guys answered politely and were put off for a moment, perhaps forgetting that they were the ones with questions, and they rode quietly behind for some time before pulling alongside us again and asking those very same questions back, as we’d anticipated.

India 4 - Assam

Auto-repeat conversations notwithstanding, we’ve enjoyed the Northeast immensely. It doesn’t feel like India—this isn’t to say we didn’t enjoy the “mainland” for its own merits, but I will admit that we’ve found the Northeast to be far more relaxed and comfortable than Bihar or West Bengal. Perhaps most striking is the population density. When we crossed from Bangladesh into Tripura, we immediately felt like we had more space. Agartala, the Indian border town, was laid back and friendly—I walked around by myself after dark for the first time in weeks, and was delighted to notice other women, with families and unaccompanied, out in the streets. Going out alone wasn’t forbidden in Bangladesh, but it was strongly discouraged in Bihar, and I’d just gotten used to not really leaving wherever we were staying after dark. In Agartala, I’d been running errands alone for about half an hour before I realized how novel it was to be out and about without David, especially at nighttime.

After leaving Agartala, we started climbing almost immediately. They were modest hills, around 200 meters, but as we rode higher we noticed in astonishment that we were the only people around—the hills were covered in protected forests and there were no settlements, just the occasional paramilitary camp. I should note that paramilitary is the term for government armed forces outside of the regular army, tasked mainly with domestic issues. In the Northeast, these issues are extremists, or Underground Groups (“UGs”). When we read the Lonely Planet’s section on Manipur, the state that shares a border with Myanmar, we learned that it is “… by far the most dangerous state in the Northeast.” It goes on to say that foreigners are only allowed in the capital city of Imphal, and even then you need a special “Inner Line Permit.” Fortunately we’d consulted more recent sources, which said that you no longer needed this permit. We also asked police and paramilitary we encountered along the way, who all bobbed their heads side to side and said “safe, safe” when we asked about the road ahead. Several people, though, cautioned us to get off the road before dark and to stay in hotels rather than camping. So we took their advice and spent a few nights in hotels of varying quality as we rode from Agartala to Silchar, the last proper town before Imphal, several days away.

India 3 - Tripura

One night we stayed at a guesthouse that advertised “fooding and lodging,” one of many amusing phrases we’ve encountered in India. And at that hotel we indeed felt “fooded” when we sat down in the hotel’s restaurant and within seconds, before we had a chance to order, plates full of rice, dhal, and vegetable curry were plunked under our noses, with a man vigorously wielding a ketchup bottle close behind. Another night, we were woken at 4:14 AM by dueling “music” emanating from nearby temples. Some other people in our modest cement cellblock hotel were also up, and we asked them what was going on. They shrugged. Still half asleep, David asked in distress, “How is this OK???” I consulted the Internet to see if there was a Hindu holiday, but found nothing. Fortunately, David remembered that he had an album on his computer titled “Natural White Noise for Babies: Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night,” which he’d downloaded when stranded overnight at an airport. We put it on repeat, and, like babies, we slept the rest of the night despite the high-volume performances down the street.

After five relaxed days of riding in Northeast India we reached Jiribam, the town on the Manipur state border. While the police at most other checkpoints had casually waved us through, this one stopped us and directed us inside a small hut on the side of the road. They got out a form, layered it with carbon paper and additional sheets, and filled out all of the details from our passports. We held our breath as they took down David’s information, as there was an error in his visa that had given us problems before. Nonetheless, they completed the paperwork without incident and called in a well-dressed man to stamp and sign our passports. A state stamp! This was new. The man directed us to report to his headquarters in Imphal, the state capital, but despite efforts to clarify I didn’t know if this was mandatory or a mere suggestion. We ended up not registering anywhere in Imphal, and nobody ever asked us about it as we rode to the border with Myanmar, so it must not be required. During the process they served us delicious tea and snacks—some of the best samosas we’ve had—and also called a hotel owner for us. We had heard there were no hotels in Jiribam, so we were relieved when they told us there was one. Well, it turns out there is an entire block of them, so we could have just ridden down the road and taken our pick. However, at 300 rupees (about five dollars) our room was reasonable, and we liked the owner, a young guy who spoke good English and thought our bike trip was crazy, but admirable.

We also asked the police about the road ahead—both about extremists and places to stay. They repeated what we’d heard before: the road was safe during the day, but find somewhere—with security, our hotel owner added—to sleep inside at night. I had looked at Google Maps back in Dhaka and plotted out distances between the towns that showed up on the map. It was 89 km from Jiribam to the first town, then 49 km and 64 km. The road was in bad shape, though, and we were happy to learn that there was a small town called Barak with a paramilitary station about 75 km away. So we made that our target and had a serene day of riding, first up a mostly paved road to the friendly town of Kaimai, then a beautiful 20 km descent, right at the perfect time for riding—an hour before sunset when the air is cool and the light is sublime—sailing downhill through bamboo-covered mountainsides.

India 5 - Manipur

When we got to Barak, we started asking around about a place to sleep. The townspeople immediately directed us to the paramilitaries, who were flustered at our sudden appearance on bicycles, without a word of Hindi between us. They called their commanding officer, who got up from his post-patrol nap and strode down the walkway in a blue Adidas track suit to meet us. He spoke decent, distinctly Indian, English, and invited us up to a little gazebo and asked to see our passports. He asked for our names and phone number, what we needed, where we were going, and whether we wanted tea or coffee. We told him we were on our way to Imphal, and he startled us by saying “That will not be feasible.” Soon, though, we understood that he was telling us we couldn’t go on that night. We agreed and told him that was why we had stopped in front of his station—we needed a safe place to sleep, and wanted to know if we could pitch our tent in their camp for the night. Of course, we could not camp, he said, and he wasn’t allowed to let outsiders stay there, but fortunately none of his superiors were on site, so he would gladly make an exception and host us. And host us he did—we had a delicious dinner, with chicken curry made just for us (he is Hindu, and a strict vegetarian), rice, dhal, and chapati. He brought out a bottle of whiskey and turned on the TV. We watched Bill Bilichek’s Deflate Gate press conference, and then Schwarzenneger’s “The Last Stand.” Or, rather, David stared blandly at the television, distraught over the Patriots’ scandal, while I told our host everything he wanted to know about the US. He asked whether we had anything like the caste system—social classes based on race, location, or income—and I was so excited to be straying from the usual “Where are you from? Where are you going?” conversation that I talked his ear off about how America is based on all these great ideals regarding equality, but that there are still huge problems around race, class, and inequality. It’s probably not what he was expecting. I also tried to use this opening to ask questions about caste, but it is still a big mystery to us.

India 5 - Manipur

We spent the next night in great luxury—we arrived at a small village near sunset, and after we found somebody who spoke English, we were directed to a nearby Catholic Church. We rode down a steep driveway past some friendly teenage boys playing soccer, and when we got to the church’s porch, a young man welcomed us and went to get “Father.” Father William appeared, beaming, and introduced himself. We explained our situation and he immediately led us upstairs and showed us to a room with two beds and a bathroom. It felt as if he was expecting us; the church has a few guest rooms for visitors, and we had one of our most enjoyable and comfortable nights in India. We had dinner together after Father William said grace—we felt lucky to receive a blessing from a priest, especially when he asked for a safe journey for us—and we peppered him with questions about Catholicism in India and the history and present status of the Northeast.

The conversation was greatly enriched by the fact that he speaks perfect English (as well as four other languages) and did his PhD on the socio-economic history of his tribe, the Mao Naga. It was another one of those surreal moments—who would have thought that we would stumble upon a penta-lingual Catholic priest historian in the middle of Manipur, a place we’d only heard of a few months before as we charted our route, described only as “green, mountainous, and dangerous.” Father William runs a school for children in his parish, which helps explain why so many of the young people in the area speak such good English (often they shyly say no if you ask whether they speak English, but proceed to answer all your questions clearly). It was fascinating for us to talk with this man who is so committed both to his Western-origin religion and to the preservation of his Naga culture. I read the last chapter of his dissertation, which helps explain how the two aren’t necessarily at odds; it speaks of eco-spirituality, invoking Christian principles to preserve the land, and also discusses how Christianity needs to adapt to the local context, both to bring people over to the faith, and to become more relevant and serve them better.

India 5 - Manipur

He never asked our religion; we both grew up in nominally Christian families, but are no longer practicing and if asked for one word to describe our religion, would probably say “agnostic.” Nonetheless, after nearly nine months in Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu countries—with the exception of Georgia—it felt good to be among Christians, something I never thought I would say as I don’t really identify with the faith. He showed us into his church, and while I feel and appreciate the beauty and holiness of mosques, temples, and stupas, there was something comforting in the familiarity of this church—the modest wooden benches, high ceiling, and alter, covered in traditional cloth but adorned with symbols I recognize from my long-ago church-attending days.

The next day, we gave ourselves a nice, slow morning, since we were ahead of schedule to arrive in Imphal—a rare occurrence that we savored. There was more climbing, but the road was in excellent condition and we made decent time. Still, we were 30 km short of Imphal around 4:00, the time we needed to start looking for a place to sleep. We stopped in a small village where a young man at a store told us the area was safe and that we could stay in the village that night if we needed. We then encountered an older man who said there wasn’t anywhere to stay in the village, but that there was a military post two km down the road. We proceeded to the military post, but it wasn’t very welcoming, set on a barren hillside behind rows of barbed wire with stern-faced soldiers at the gate. So, we did something we almost never do—we turned around.

As we approached the village for the second time, we stopped to greet a man and woman walking up the road. “Welcome,” said the woman, extending her hand. When we asked about a place to sleep, she pointed down the road and said there was a guesthouse. We walked back into the village together, where we again met the older man, who raised an eyebrow and asked why we hadn’t stayed at the military post, as there really wasn’t anywhere for us in the village. Normally this would have made me uncomfortable—I hate forcing myself on people, demanding hospitality, but there was something so relaxed about the place, the music wafting out of one of the houses, the welcome we’d received from everybody else. So we just smiled and let our new friend talk to him, and within a few minutes he’d disappeared, then reappeared with a set of keys.

He unlocked a room next to the market, and voila—two wooden beds, room for the bikes, the perfect home for the night. We spent the rest of the evening with our new friend and her daughter Tracy, who visited us, along with all her friends, before and after bible study. We’d landed in a Kuki village. As we learned later, most of the villages at the tops of the mountains in Manipur are Kuki, and they are Baptists. Tracy and her friends watched us cook and eat our noodles; they showed us their bibles, written in Kuki, and one of her friends shared that his dream was to preach the gospel. He asked us our favorite bible verse and I think our poor Christian credentials showed when we couldn’t answer. It was a lovely little town of about 190 people, with adults and children drifting in and out all evening. The next morning, our nominal host knocked on our door at 6:00 to say goodbye before boarding an auto-rickshaw to attend a meeting. Later, after another meal-with-audience, we bid our friends farewell and rode the rest of the way to Imphal.

India 5 - Manipur

In Imphal, we were hosted by the members of Pedal Attack, a local cycling group that hosts travelers through WarmShowers. David interviewed a few members, and you can learn more about their group here ( They took us all around, showing us Loktak Lake, the War Cemetery, and a local Hindu Temple.

After three days, we left Imphal for the final push to the border. We got a late start after changing money (we needed dollars for Myanmar, as well as rupees, which we’d heard you could change at the border), going grocery shopping, and getting a few bike parts from our friend’s store. We rode 50 km on the perfectly flat plain that surrounds Imphal, and then started climbing. At 4:15 and 1200 meters in elevation we found ourselves in another Kuki village. We asked some teenage girls at the local shop about a place to stay, and before we knew it we were sipping tea with them. They put us up in the shop owner’s house, and we made dinner as they looked on—they told us they only eat twice a day, at 8:30 in the morning and 4:30 in the afternoon, and that they weren’t hungry. Still, we felt a little strange eating in front of them, but they were busy texting friends and listening to music—we discussed Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and played music for each other on our smartphones. Afterwards, we shared some chocolate with them and went to bed.

India 5 - Manipur

Kuki people get up early, and so did we, but with all the farewells we didn’t get on the road until almost 7:00. We were further slowed by the many checkpoints as we approached the border with Myanmar. At several points we were required to dismount and hand over our passports. Data was entered, supervisors called, and then we were waved through. At the last point, we were subjected to a lengthy interview by one “Major Rocky”. We concluded that he must be terribly bored—in addition to our passport details, he asked—and recorded—every country we’d visited, interjecting his own commentary and asking extra questions. How did we like Indian food? Did we like Obama? So did he, but until recently Putin was the bigger man. What is our profession? Ah, environment! There are other ways to save the environment, in addition to cycling, no?. We met another traveler later who had a similar experience, though he was also treated to the Major’s entire regiment parading and saluting. We felt a little cheated.

In the border town of Moreh, we printed out our permit to cross the border, which had arrived in an email earlier that day. We had lunch, then crossed our fingers and cycled to the final checkpoint. Actually, it wasn’t that straightforward. First we were accosted by a man with a thermometer who insisted he needed to take our temperature to make sure we didn’t have Ebola (we didn’t). Then we had our passports inspected by another military official at the “land customs office,” and then we nearly missed the large white building by the side of the road, where upon our arrival a surprised-looking man, neatly dressed in a button-down shirt, rustled up some stamps and ink (he had to fetch a backpack from another room) and stamped us out of India, taking no notice of the extra “2” in the passport number of David’s visa. In another room we filled out a customs form, and then biked the remaining kilometer through no-mans-land to the bridge that would take us to Myanmar.

India 5 - Manipur

Photos from Northeast India

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

After leaving Bangladesh, we cycled through three of Northeast India’s states. Below are the best pictures from this two weeks of travel. You can also look through more pictures in the Flickr albums of each state with these links: Tripura, Assam, and Manipur.