Our flight from Santorini to Colombo, via Athens and Doha, left fairly early, so we got an early start to the day and spent most of it in transit. We had a few hours in Athens followed by another few hours in Doha, until we finally arrived in the capital of Sri Lanka at around 5am local time the next morning.
Much of our time in Colombo was spent with Ian at the office, so not a ton of interest happened. We did, however, eat plenty of good food and explore the city a bit. One particular evening we took a walk up to the old Dutch hospital, which has been repurposed from its original colonial function into a sort of events space, with a number of restaurants and bars in the various courtyards. Our walk took us by the Galle Face beach as well, which was jam packed with locals flying kites and wading in the sea.
After a week of various office goings-on we took off to the north for the weekend before our flight to India. We settled on Negombo, as it is slightly different from Colombo, yet still near enough to easily reach the airport for our morning flight out. We spent two nights in Negombo, with much of it spent walking around and not doing much in particular. We ended up walking all the way down the beach to the center of Negombo, some 4km. The Sunday market was going on at the time, and we happened upon it, much to our pleasure. It was very cool to see the myriad and unidentifiable exotic-to-our-eyes produce gathered and sold, and there were acres of fish drying on the sand between the market and the shore. The smell was pretty terrible, but it provided for a cool view at least.
We ended up at the Negombo jail, as Google Maps provided some good reviews of the place. We thought that it might no longer be in use, and maybe there were tours or something, but it turns out that a few people on Google just wanted to leave a review for some reason. It was fairly cool to see the building, we guess, but certainly not some place to seek out. We tried walking through the entrance, but the confused guard indicated that we probably didn’t want to do that, so we turned and left.
On Monday we headed towards Hyderabad, in India, for another of Ian’s office visits. However, an issue with Oona’s visa came up and we had to separate at the airport in Colombo, planning to meet up later that night in Hyderabad. As it turns out, the Indian E-Visa is only allowed at several entry points in India, among which Madurai (where we had a layover) is not. The online E-Visa form is not entirely clear as to what they mean by your entry point into India, so we put Hyderabad (which does allow E-Visa entry), but, rather predictably in hindsight, they actually mean the very first point in India that your plane lands, as that is where you go through immigration. So anyway, we needed to cancel Oona’s tickets and book her on a slightly later flight through Chennai, which does allow E-Visa entry. Ian continued on their original flight, and arranged a taxi to be waiting for Oona later when she arrived.
All turned out well with the brief separation, and we were reunited again at the hotel in Hyderabad. Again, most days consisted of Ian working from the office, but we did manage to get into town and visit some of the sights. The Charminar was chief among them, and we planned to visit the nearby Salar Jung museum as well, but Ganesha had different plans. It was the beginning of Ganesh Chaturthi, a ten day festival which honors the Hindu god, and the museum was closed. So, we gave up on that idea and instead got some biryani, which Hyderabad is famous for. Indeed, the biryani was fantastic, and quite unlike biryani gotten anywhere else.
Long has Northeast India been on our list of places to go, so we figured now would be a good time to check it out, considering the direct and easy flights between Hyderabad and Guwahati, the capital of Assam. Not content with just staying near the city in Assam though, we booked further tickets to Jorhat, a smaller town east of Guwahati, to explore the rural areas a bit more.
The flight from Guwahati to Jorhat was some 35 minutes of cruising just above the clouds in a Bombardier Dash 8. The landing sequence was particularly beautiful, with the muddy Brahmaputra river standing in stark contrast to the verdant rice paddies and tea fields surrounding the town of Jorhat.
Assam is the largest tea producing region in the world, and that was part of the reason we were there. We only had a long weekend to spend, but made the most of it by renting a scooter and getting out into the countryside to explore a bit.
On the way through town to get to our hotel it was evident that this particular place sees very little tourism, especially in September. We didn’t see a single non-Indian the whole time we were there, and we were constantly the subject of much attention. Our hotel was reasonably comfortable, and the Jorhat train station and neighboring spur track were in full view of our window, much to Ian’s fascination, with repeated gettings-up in the middle of the night to watch trains go by and pontificate about their logistical underpinnings.
We decided to visit some tea plantations on Saturday, and so off we went, riding out into the lowlands surrounding Jorhat. The information on these places is surprisingly sparse online, owing to the general lack of tourism that they attract, we suppose, so we found some random ones on Google maps and figured we’d go check things out in person. The traffic outside of Jorhat is much more manageable, so it was quite pleasant to ride out there, although the roads devolved into little more than rutted out dirt paths in many places around the tea fields. First on the list was the Gatoonga plantation, which we concluded was perhaps the most “developed”. Boy, were we wrong. After some 45 minutes of riding, we found our way to the Gatoonga plantation by asking many a confused local; they all knew the way though. We eventually came upon a factory in the fields which was apparently the processing plant for the leaves. We figured that would be a good place to start, and pulled the bike up to the parking lot, much to the absolute bewilderment of a handful employees going about their business. Eventually we got the point across that we’d like to visit the factory and see a bit of how things worked, which didn’t seem to clear anything up for them, and a member of the higher management of some sort came out to chat with us. His English was considerably better, and he explained that we could not visit without first getting clearance from some regional supervisor, who himself would need to request the clearance from even higher up the ladder. Typical Indian bureaucracy, we concluded. However, the manager was happy to show us a bit of how the factory worked, and suggested we come back after five o’clock for a more thorough tour, somehow circumventing the aforementioned required permission.
At this point it’s worth mentioning that daylight hours are severely skewed in places such as this on the periphery of India. There is one time zone in India, which is UTC +5.5, which is more or less optimized for the big commercial and governmental centers of India, like Delhi and Mumbai, but getting this far east of those places means the sun rises as early as 4:18am on summer solstice. Likewise, sunset is predictably very early as well. With that in mind, a tour at 5pm would be after sundown, and we figured it would be best to get back to town by that point, and concluded that maybe we’d skip it.
Nonetheless, we did catch a glimpse of how a tea factory works before heading out into the fields again. While we were pretty certain that there would be all sorts of hoops to jump through in order to officially visit the fields as well, they’re de facto public property and easily explorable on one’s own.
As we made our way along the dirt roads bisecting the tea fields, we saw the workers gathering their haul for the day. Armed with huge woven baskets to be filled with leaves, their calloused and discolored hands deftly plucked the leaves from the low-lying bushes, slowly filling the baskets. Many of them wear wide brimmed hats, which double as lids for their baskets, to shield their heads and shoulders from the punishing mid-day sun. The tea pickers in Assam earn extremely meager wages, totaling less than 100 rupees (~$1.5) per day. Their living conditions, largely dictated by the will of the white man for so many generations, were perhaps the reason that many of them glared at us. We do our best to observe unobtrusively, and aren’t your typical tourists angling for the best shot with top-of-the-line cameras, but the stares of the farmers conveyed either shock or outright hostility at the sight of a couple of westerners riding through town. Nevertheless, the farms are beautiful, and not your everyday scenery. We stopped off at a few places where the farmers weren’t in the interest of not disturbing them. We made our way through countless fields belonging to the Sangsuwa and Moabondha estates, one totally indistinguishable from the next, until we reached highway 715, which we took back towards Jorhat after a stop at the Socklatinga tea gardens. Again, we asked about visiting the factory, but the guard, totally stupefied, shook his head, so we were left with walking around the fields themselves, which the guard seemed totally cool with after asking him.
We eventually made it back to town, utterly exhausted from the day’s activities, and covered in a thick layer of sweat and dust from riding through the sweltering heat on dirt roads all day.
The plan for Sunday was to head out to the famed Majuli island, which seems to be the main attraction in the area. Majuli is served by about ten daily ferry trips across the mighty Brahmaputra, at this point swollen by the recent monsoon, encompassing much more of the neighboring floodplains than usual. The ferries are long and narrow wooden affairs, packed to the gunwales with passengers, cars, scooters, and whatever else they might need to carry across. We made it to the makeshift terminal on the muddy banks near Jorhat, and caught the 10:30am ferry across to Majuli after the crew secured our scooter to the top of the boat. Loading the cars on was a sight to behold, as even the smallest mistake would send your car and you over the edge of the boat and into the swiftly moving river, never to be seen again. Nevertheless, no such incident occurred while we were watching, and the drivers and crew expertly navigated the cars and trucks up small, makeshift ramps made of driftwood or whatever repurposed material they could get their hands on. The boat would rock back and forth quite violently after each car was loaded, and we eventually took off, in awe at the overall functionality of everything that just happened. The current is extremely strong, so after untying the ropes from the dock, the boat is pushed out into the river with surprising speed and power. The captain needs to constantly steer into the current, and adjust engine power to let us meander downstream until eventually making the crossing and ending up at the desired spot. The trip over takes about an hour, but the trip back, as it’s mostly upstream, takes two.
We were packed in the bowels of the boat with all the other passengers, a tense hush covering everybody, no doubt caused by our presence. Eventually somebody broke the ice by offering a handshake and asking for a selfie. As we covered last time we were in India, selfies with foreigners are apparently still a big deal here. After getting a picture with just about everybody on the boat with just about everybody’s phone, the mood was palpably lightened. There was little common language, as English knowledge this far out is pretty limited, but we talked and laughed and learned a bit about each other as we made our way across the river.
The people of Assam, and northeast India in general, are very diverse. There are hundreds of ethnic minorities dotting the landscape in various villages, and the cities and towns are a veritable tapestry of different facial features, skin tones, languages, and customs. The Indo-Aryan Assamese people are greatest in number and influence, but differ substantially from the people who populate the rest of India, but along with them are numerous other minority tribes, ranging from the Austroasiatic Khasi people, to the Indo-Aryan Bengali people, to the Sino-Tibetan Bodo people, with many others in between. Several of the people we spoke to on the boat trip over belong to the Mishing tribal community, and taught us how to say a few phrases in their language. The Mishing facial features, like many other Sino-Tibetan people, are much more East Asian than South Asian, and the rice paddies of the Yunnan or the streets of Shanghai would be just as befitting a backdrop for our new friends as this ramshackle boat across the second largest river in India.
Once we finally reached the other side, we were asked for a few more selfies before finally bidding farewell to our new friends, left to explore the island on our own. We rode through the main town (quite small, really) and out into the rural surroundings. It was quite like going back in time, in many ways, as most of the villages have no power or running water, and the traditional houses dot the shorelines and floodplains, built on stilts and navigated to by canoe. The people here were a far cry from the plantation workers we saw the day before. Everybody was smiling and waving, and even the groups of stern-looking men gathered around the many streetside carrom tables would erupt into shouted greetings when we rode by. Despite the rather squalid (by western standards) living conditions of the island, the people seemed quite happy with their place. Perhaps because they weren’t driven to toil away in the tea fields for an insubstantial wage; or perhaps solely because they led a simpler life, where subsistence fishing and farming were the tasks of the day; or maybe something else entirely, but they were definitely happier than the plantation workers, and we felt selfishly satisfied that our mere presence brought a smile to many of their faces.
After several hours of riding around Majuli and exploring its various dirt roads and tiny villages, we were sufficiently beat, and headed back to the ferry terminal to catch the last ferry across to Jorhat at 3:30pm. After several more selfie requests inside the boat on the way back, our seat neighbor commented on our celebrity status. We struck up a conversation and talked with him for the remainder of the trip. His English was far better than most people we ran into, owing to his Catholic education apparently. He had visited a number of places all around India, but particularly in the northeast, and he was also quite well-educated, working as a meteorologist at the Jorhat airport. We had a good time with him, and regretted that we didn’t suggest going out for a beer or something, as our conversation was both enlightening as well as entertaining. His signature laugh, a full-bodied, head-back guffaw with an accompanied clap is not something we’ll forget.
We finally got back to Jorhat long after dark, and the streets had been entirely taken over by Ganesha Chaturthi partiers. The traffic was a snarled mess as the people actually needing to go places had to compete with massive trucks every hundred-or-so meters carrying Ganesha statues and deafening sound systems, blasting their own special variety of music to the accompanied cacophony of a sort of impromptu, ad hoc drum line. Those not involved in the drumming were dancing feverishly in the crowd to the pulsing lights emanating from elaborate arrays surrounding the statues. The movement of the dancers was rather haunting, with quick, jerking jabs and lunges, somewhat reminiscent of the possessed in The Exorcist or the zombies from World War Z. What’s even weirder is that most of the revelers are stone sober during Ganesha Chaturthi, as consuming alcohol or any other intoxicating substances during the festival is frowned upon, so apparently their manic shaking is brought on by religious fervor alone.
From our visits to the tea plantations themselves, we gathered that the place to buy tea is actually at the shops in town, as none of the plantations or factories have the facilities to sell tea since they are strictly of a productional and distributional nature. There are a few shops in town though, our favorite of which is Tea Traders, a small, family-run outfit with a modest storefront, but they were very welcoming, and all told we ended up leaving with over two kilos of assorted varieties of Assam’s finest. Surely enough to last us awhile.
We eventually made it back home and collapsed from exhaustion. The following day we took off towards Mumbai via a layover in Guwahati again. The flight from Guwahati to Mumbai is surprisingly long, at 3.5 hours, which again reminds one of the sheer size of India, and the relative isolation of the northeast.
Mumbai, again, was mostly work-oriented, but as seasoned visitors of the city, we had a list of things we wanted to do while there. We visited Bombay Canteen again, which we think has even improved a bit since last time we were there. The food was fantastic, and the drinks are slowly edging their way into the realm of legitimately creative and delicious. The drinking culture in India is not exactly a refined one, and the microbrew and craft cocktail scenes that do exist leave a bit to be desired. We also visited Bombay Canteen’s sister restaurant, O Pedro, a Goan affair in Mumbai’s quickly growing BKC neighborhood. O Pedro was decent, but the cocktails were a step or two behind those of Bombay Canteen’s, and the food was just not that impressive.
We had a very late flight out of Mumbai, so we spent some time on our last day doing a bit of shopping. We hit up Crawford Market, like last time, but this time in search of spices. We were talked into visiting Spice King, the solitary spice market inside Crawford Market, by one of the market touts. It’s a nice little shop, with friendly proprietors, but it’s clearly aimed at the tourist, with heavily marked up prices. We managed to talk them down a bit, but still overpaid fairly handily. Either way, we were happy with the product and the service given, and paid a small fraction of what we’d pay in Europe for such things. So now we’re pretty flush with a handful of exotic spices, with Oona ready to try her hand at her very own masala chai mix at home. We visited a few other places, including the Zaveri Bazaar, where Oona bought some beautiful gold earrings from a jeweler. We finished off the day with a stop at Sardar in Tardeo, which is still the got dang best pav bhaji you can find probably anywhere in the world and is well worth a visit, despite the long lines. After dinner we finally headed back to the hotel in preparation for our 1:50am departure.
The flight home was via Paris, with a several hour layover in the perennially awful Charles de Gaulle airport. They didn’t lose our bags this time, but it was still a nightmare making it from our arriving plane, via a 10 minute bus trip half way around the god forsaken airport, a poorly orchestrated and way longer than necessary security check at the terminal, followed by several other thoroughly useless bureaucratic hoops to jump through and another inter-terminal bus ride to finally arriving at our departure gate, with our three hour layover nearly totally consumed by the previous antics. Nevertheless, we finally made it home, and are happy to be back in the north, just as summer is turning to fall.