I sat in the wild-west border town of Tamu, Myanmar for four mind-numbing days. The $75USD permit required for crossing the border had still not arrived, even though I had applied over twenty days earlier. A claustrophobic existence festered within, as my day revolved around waking up, reading, writing, eating, and of course drinking my cheap, beloved Myanmar Beer (perhaps the only true love I’ll find on this trip). With 700 kyat remaining in my wallet and a piece of paper granting my release from monotonous boredom, I bid the Immigration Officer goodbye and stepped into another world.
“Ahhhhhhhhh, Andrew! You are Simon’s brother!” Proclaimed the random stranger.
“Nah, mate. I think you’ve got the wrong guy. My brother’s names are Leigh and Scott,” I replied, waiting for the generic sales pitch or request for money.
“Hahaha! No my brother. I am making a reference to the Holy Bible. Andrew is the brother of Simon Peter in the New Testament. Please let me buy you lunch.”
Unsurprisingly, the promise of free food led me down a small alleyway and into a restaurant where the rapid dismantling of other travellers’ presumptions – my only real reference - about India began. Firstly, there were no curries on the menu. Secondly, my own personal missionary continued to talk about God and His ultimate salvation for the people of North East India. It turns out that the region has quite a chequered history. India’s 1947 partition from Great Britain allowed the country to develop its own national, economic and social policies without the force of an overruling party. The spread of this newfound nationalism reached most corners of the country with relative ease, until a 20km geographical bottleneck between Bangladesh and Bhutan presented a symbolic blockage. The division between ‘Mainland India’ and ‘North East India’ has widened due to a general feeling of neglect from the mainland, with the North East barely hanging on, both geographically and politically. I found this scenario quite bizarre, but I guess this juxtaposition is reminiscent of mainland Australia’s attitude to those weird, socially obstinate Tasmanian’s.
I conferred my plans of cycling to the regional capital Imphal the next day, and my missionary friend advised me that the road “shouldn’t be blocked,” whatever that meant. My fist day in India was much akin to starting a new job. You know absolutely nothing, you know absolutely no one and you just wing it with the nervous energy hoping to be enough to get you to knock-off time. I was welcomed with steady inclines and a beating sun; no amount of nervous energy could save me from pushing. I was off the bike again, taking another break when an armoured convoy of military personnel drove past - six trucks in total, equipped with every gun imaginable. I knew border areas were understandably protected areas with a strong military presence, but the second time a six truck convoy passed I started to ponder if this was normal.
Again I was pushing my bike up another steep section when I heard, “very big hill, isn’t it sir?” What the fuck was that? I helplessly looked around whilst doubting my sanity, until I saw a beaming white smile and feverish head wiggle from an army solder, camouflaged by fauna and fatigues. It turns out that these guys are hidden all throughout the area, keeping an eye on smuggling and any potential rebel uprisings. Being completely ignorant for the previous 50Km, I pondered if some poor soldier had the unfortunate luck of seeing me pull out my own weapon of mass seduction when nature called? Poor guys, I’m sure it’s not what they signed up for.
The road to Imphal, India
I reached Imphal the next day and settled into the United Friends Organisation Guesthouse run by Sanji, who gave me an in-depth history of the unsettled times of the North East. It was refreshing to get a local’s perspective, as my pirated 2013 Edition of Lonely Planet’s India devoted 0.0004% of the book towards Manipur (less than half a page).
“Manipuris are famed for traditional dances, spicy multi- dish thalis and the sport of polo that they claim to have invented. Manipuris forested hills provide cover for rare birds, drug traffickers and dozens of guerrilla armies, making it by far the Northeast’s most dangerous state. Foreigners who miraculously manage to get a permit are required to fly in and out via the capital, Imphal. Even there safety can not be assured.”
The heightened military presence was a way to quell trouble, stop drug trafficking and suppress progress towards independence. As I walked around the city, a profound feeling of unease was felt on every corner. Not surprising for a city that chimes in at number 32 for a city most likely to suffer a terrorist attack. The constant sight of soldiers holding AK-47s would suck any charm out of the surrounding environment; not to mention the multitude of cows and rickshaws. It was a more profound feeling than when I was cycling along the Afghanistan border with tanks rolling down the street. On the day of my departure from Imphal, a local Maoist insurgency diligently issued notice in the local paper informing the residents to close their shops for 24 hours, siting ramifications for those who don’t. As I rode out, the streets were noticeably empty, and truth being told I was a little glad to be leaving.
I headed north and no further than sixteen kilometres and after stopping for biscuits, I was cordially invited to my first wedding. The five day long affair was winding down and the last day involved lots of eating and as I soon found out, lots of drinking. The hosts put my worrisome mind at ease about the threat of terrorism in Manipur and then began explaining more about Manipuri life. We sat in circles eating delicious food, and drinking cheap whiskey – quite a feat for a state that prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol. Perhaps Manipur’s evangelical religious ideology was starting to enthral me. As an Australian, drinking alcohol in a prohibited state, it felt like divine intervention had taken place and I really was drinking out of the proverbial ‘Holy Grail’. I couldn’t have thanked my hosts enough for their hospitality and I cycled out cementing my view that the nicest people are often found in the most hostile areas.