Coming back down.
Jiribam to Sutarkandi
After recent days of climbing dirt roads to traverse the humid Manipur jungle it was a relief descending to the relatively more civilised town of Jiribam, crossing into the Assam region.
Immediately the tone changed.
Up in the mountains i felt we were unwelcome, there was a constant sense of paranoia and uncertainty. But as we descended it returned to the India that is known and loved, the busy, the chaotic, colourful, charming and overtly friendly atmosphere for which this huge country is infamous.
Suddenly any moment we stopped to have a drink, check a map or take a rest, a crowd would gather in a heart-beat. Questions, photograph requests, bike poking, or just big smiles and interested stares from an ocean of faces. When you stop there is no-one around, when you look again you are surrounded.
That night we stopped quickly to enquire at a guest house. Pete runs up the stairs to ask for a price, returning a minute later to find Scotty and i surrounded so densely he can’t see us, he just knows we will be in the middle of that huge throng of people.
It is so much fun.
This quick crossing of the Assam region, on route to Bangladesh, is a taster of things to come in the weeks ahead across India.
We reached the city of Silchar where we planned the route across Bangladesh. Although Manipur is behind us the fun is still yet from over as Bangladesh has seen inter-ethic problems in recent weeks, with petrol bombs and attacks reported in Dhaka and more recently in the north. We were refused Bangladesh visas at first, but a little creative writing from Scotty managed to get access to enter over the land border, an excellent result. Now all we had to do was get across.
We rode towards the north-eastern border of Sutarkandi, unsure whether they would accept foreigners, but the alternative was a 300 km cycle south.
Today is the holiday of Holi or ‘festival of colour’. We bought some powder first thing and before we know it were getting clouted with the stuff. People flagging us down, placing a mark on our foreheads before chucking the rest over us.
We are now constantly get flagged down by people who want our photo, although it disrupts any progress it’s impossible to say no so we stop and suddenly there are 30 camera phones and flashes everywhere.
Every one is so nice and accepts us into their own Holi celebrations. Before long we are covered head to toe in colour. A regional TV/radio team pull over and thrust 8 microphones with big fluffy covers in our faces, ‘what is your motto?’ they ask. ‘What would you like to say to the people of India?’, ‘thank you for having us’, we reply.
As we approach the border the fun festival feeling recedes slightly. There are road barriers and people on loud speakers shouting. These are marches and political agendas we should stay well clear of. The fervour makes an uneasy feeling and everyone staring with stern faces as we pass through with faces lowered.
We arrive at the border, wearing serious expressions but covered head to toe in coloured dust. Not getting in would mean a huge detour and we would have to pass through Dhaka, which the FCO advise against.
This border was the most excruciating.
Leaving India required a customs man to slowly fill In a huge dusty book that may never be reopened. We watched the slow movement of his pen as an hour passed by.
Next an immigration man did the same, the book was searched for and found. This time he entered all our details wrong, we watched him do it but he wasn’t a fan of feedback so we were just spectators until he realised and start again. He began again, at such a slow pace even a snail would be embarrassed.
We sat and stared out the window as the sun slowly dropped from the sky.
Lastly, the military post did the same procedure. The armed man asked us to take a seat, then plonked his rifle down on a table with the barrel facing right at us. We all subtly stood up and found a reason to sit elsewhere.
With the third book finally done, then checked again by his superior for no particular reason, we were released.
There is not a single other soul crossing this border, but it has taken 2.5 hrs just to leave India.
With the sun fast fading we walked across a barbed wire laden bridge to Bangladesh.
This new country had a very similar attitude to admin, although at least this came with the amusement of tens of children and adults watching our experience as they peeped through windows and around doors.
As I’m finally about to get stamped they realise that I have left India on my Australian passport and (for unimportant and boring reasons) my Bangladesh visa is in my British passport. For some reason this is not acceptable and suddenly I’m in trouble. Why? No one seems to know. But it appears crucial. Although they don’t know why.
Having come so far, it seems I’m about to be sent back to India. A long discussion begins, raised voices, pleading, it’s all gets quite aggressive.
Suddenly, a most unlikely saviour comes to my rescue.
The man realises a solution, gives a smile, then staples both my passports together so they become one Super Passport.
My once duel-nationality, was now more of a hybrid.
We sit and watch more dusty books filled in twice more, and we are in.
Sighs of relief are short-lived, with the remaining light fading we race on into an ocean of paddy fields.
Leaving the jungle.
Making friends is easy, losing them is more difficult.
When you know you are in India.
You cannot argue with that.
Barak River, Silchar.
Selfie. Smiling optional.
Suitably dressed at Indian immigration.
Crossing the border.
Subtle Bangladesh border negotiation photo.