Christmas in Meghalaya

January 8, 2016

After Kochi, we visited Kovalam, Varkala, Kollam, Alleppey, Munnar, Athirapally, Wayanad, Mysore, Hampi, and Southern Goa…so much to write about!  However, I am going to skip ahead to the near present to tell you about our trip to North East India over the Christmas holidays.  This was the one part of our Indian adventure that had a fixed schedule.  We had purchased our tickets to fly to Guwahati before we even left the US, as we were joining our good friend, Gavin, on a trip to his parent’s hometown, Shillong.  We had been greatly looking forward to our reunion, as well as an introduction to his family and a part of India that is less visited by many travelers to this country.

Our morning journey from Goa, involved almost 2 hours to the airport, a 1 hour flight to Mumbai (which turned into almost 2 hours as we circled the crowded city waiting for permission to land), then a 3 hour connecting flight to Guwahati, finally arriving at 9 PM to only to begin a grueling, 3-4 hour taxi ride on a winding road to the hill town of Shillong.  Despite our late arrival, both Gavin and his parents, Anita and Phrang, were still awake to welcome us into their beautiful home.  We were instantly comfortable, as they treated us like family.  The children had their own bedroom and bathroom in the house, which included a 4-poster bed with gauzy curtains, that was immediately claimed by Princess Stella.  Dan and I were in the “casita”, a separate room with ensuite, a mere 10 feet or so from the main house.  The children were most ecstatic about all of the Christmas decorations, including a big tree that was awaiting their assistance in trimming.  Gabriel kept running around exclaiming, “Mom! Dad! I feel the Christmas spirit!”.

Shillong is the capital of the North East Indian state called Meghalaya.  It is one of the few parts of the country with a large Christian population, due to the early success of missionaries, mainly from Wales, Scotland and Ireland.  Like most of the North East of India, this is also a tribal region with distinct cultures and languages.  Hindi is not the lingua of the locals here, who speak khasi instead. There is also a distinct difference in the facial features of the people in this area, which have more similarities to South East Asia, than a resemblance to either the North or South Indian faces we were more familiar with. Most notable was the difference in terrain (high hills/plateaus and pine trees), and the dry winter weather. We were finally putting to use our jackets, fleece and thick socks! Many of the older traditional Shillong homes are built of wood slats or cold concrete, and lack good insulation.  Thankfully, this was not the case with Anita and Phrang’s home, but fireplaces and space heaters made a big difference for both warmth and coziness factor.

This was the first time in our trip in which I did not have to plan our day’s activities, and it was an exquisite relief!  Our days and evenings were filled with new and enriching experiences, thanks to our wonderful hosts.  One of our most memorable days was when Anita and Phrang threw a Christmas party in their home, for about one hundred-fifty orphaned boys and girls.  They have organized many a donation for these less fortunate children, becoming patrons and generous contributors to their orphanages.  The party was a great opportunity for these kids from 1 to 18 years of age to play games, watch a magic show, have tea and sandwiches, then eat a fully catered buffet dinner in an elaborate curtained tent, watch “The Snowman” animated movie, and each receive a wrapped present.  Dan and I were deeply moved by the hard work and generosity of so many in planning this special event.  The children were very well-behaved and thankful, many individually approaching us to shake our hands, look us direct in the eyes, and wish us a sincere “Merry Christmas”.  Later in the night, they stood together and sang us Christmas carols, including a song with lyrics something along the lines of, “Christmas is a time for love, and a time for family,” which nearly left me in a pool of tears.  Both Dan and I found it hard not to lose our composure in the midst of so much goodness, sincerity, charity and sadness for these sweet children.

The following day – Christmas Eve, we embarked on a very, very strenuous hike.  This “walk” was much harder than any of our 6 hour journeys in Jordan had been, as it involved over 6000 stairs.  We basically walked down a steep staircase, over 3000 steps into a canyon, legs shaking almost the entire way.  Toward the bottom, we crossed two narrow, steel-cable bridges over turquoise waters, streaming over gigantic boulders, to arrive at our final destination: the famous living bridges of Meghalaya!  The local Khasi villagers have been patiently weaving and directing the growing aerial roots of living banyan fig trees into sturdy natural bridges (a process that takes about 15 years).  It is said that these are self-renewing and are thus far stronger than any manmade construction.  Here, we could catch our breaths, enjoy a picnic, and watch all the other intrepid trekkers who had made it this far.  However, it was hard to completely relax, when you knew that the only way out, was back up!  It was brutal!  My bum knee was a constant painful reminder of my age and aging.  As I tried to keep to a rhythm and stared only at each step in front of me, my back became more hunched, a limp set in, my heart thumped and my breaths were deep and panting. I felt twenty years older.

Although tired, our drive home was full of Christmas cheer.  We passed several processions of people in biblical costumes (nativity roles, angels, and Santa Claus), singing carols as they paraded.  We were inspired to run through our own list of Christmas songs, belting out the chorus’ out of tune, and probably driving our driver crazy.  We arrived home just in time for Christmas Eve dinner, featuring burritos!!!  Anita is a cook extraordinaire, and prepared multiple meals to remind us of home.

“Christmas is for children.” There is no doubt.  Stella and Gabriel made sure to supply our day with plenty of excitement and glee.  We had a lovely morning of gift opening by a toasty fireplace, being thankful for the wonderful hospitality that had been bestowed upon us.  It was a day of leisure, although Anita and Phrang, the ever-ready hostess and host, followed our delicious Christmas dinner of turkey and traditional sides, with an evening of family visitors for tea and mulled wine.

The next day, we embarked on another trekking adventure, having not tortured ourselves enough with the previous hike.  We had been invited to village Pius’ village (a family friend).  Once again, we found ourselves walking up and down thousands of stairs, as his scenic village, Nongtraw, is in a deep canyon of farms and forests, with a lovely river that runs through the bottom.  We were graciously welcomed with hot tea, hard-boiled farm fresh eggs, a bowl of black beans and slices of a taro-like root vegetable drizzled with local wild honey.  Pius’ extended family and neighbors joined us at the river, where the children dipped in the cool water, and the whole village became industrious while we lazed.  Everyone except us was either bathing, washing their clothes, or chopping food and preparing a group feast.  I felt guilty and useless, but didn’t dare offer my chopping assistance, once I saw the curved medal blades that they were using.  Here, we were spoiled again with a picnic of local ingredients – radish salad, herbs and lettuces, a brothy soup with dark greens, a potato-like course, curried chicken, pork fat cubes (a popular staple), and an enormous pot of rice.  Tea was made from some kind of bark or root, and heavily sugared.  We left well-satiated to begin our upward and out journey.  The local children can literally run up the hill, covering a climb that took us two hours in 40 minutes or less.  As we panted up the hill, we were passed by an 80 year old woman in socks carrying a bundle of wood on her back, strapped to her forehead!

The next day, we visited the boys orphanage to drop off some gifts for their coming New Years Eve Party, and say our farewells.  The boys seem well taken care of, and have a great camaraderie between each other, but it was still shocking to enter their cold dorm rooms, and imagine what their lives are like.  Many of these children are not completely orphaned.  They have either parents or extended family who are simply too poor to take care of them.  I was told that when many of them become adults, they do return to their village and relatives in order to help contribute to family expenses.  They had just received the needed donation of a school bus, and were able to join us on a quick excursion to the nearby Sacred Groves.  In this region, there are many “sacred” forests, which are special plots of land believed to be inhabited by ancestral gods.  There are many monoliths (large stones) around the countryside that also represent this animist-like belief.  In the Grove you are not allowed to eat, cut trees, or remove anything from the forest, without serious spiritual repercussions.  Everything is meant to remain as nature intended, without man’s influence.  We were expecting to find a place of peace, but with over 50 young boys, running amok in the forest, Dan and I were reminded of “Lord of the Flies” instead.

That night, I treated myself to a house visit from a native masseuse.  I never knew I had so many pockets of pain in my body until then!  This burly woman was able to detect every little knot in my muscles, and used both her strong hands, and some medieval wooden torture tool to rub them out.  I think she was determined to knead my body into putty.  This included a shockingly painful face and scalp massage.  She seemed just as stunned as I at stress points around my nose and mouth and skull, areas of tight muscles and stress that she was unfamiliar with.  The treatment was followed with her giving me a steam bath with hot wet towels. I have never been worked over with such intensity in my life, leaving bruises on my bum, but I think she helped me!  The next day, Stella and I continued our pampering with a home visit to get a pedicure and manicure, all for about $12.

On our last day, we tried to take it easy, but couldn’t help ourselves from slipping in a visit to the local market bazaar, and to the region’s best museum about the local cultures of the North East.  Our main goal with the market was to purchase some sturdy cloth bags.  These are draped across the forehead for locals to carry their groceries, which won’t be how we use them, but they have a nice thick strap. We were guided through the bazaar’s maze of shops by Deng, the family’s main house maid.  As short as Stella, but quick as a sprinter, we fought to keep her in our line of sight as we dodged fellow shoppers and people transporting enormous goods by sheer ox-like strength.  I couldn’t resist clicking photos, and Dan left wishing we had more time to spare to people watch and shop.

When it was finally time to say our goodbyes, Stella and Gabriel were dragging their feet, impeaching us to stay.  They were so comfortable and happy in Anita and Phrang’s home, that they never even wanted to go on our many excursions.  Here, we met not only Gavin’s immediate family, but many of his extended family, joining in a Christening party for a cousin’s baby boy, and learning how to play the popular Indian board game, carrom. We are very thankful for our trip to this part of India, which will leave us many fond memories.  Special thanks to the Roy family for their abundant generosity, and for inviting our crazy family into your lives and making us feel at home.

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  • Reply Poppy (& Grammy) January 9, 2016 at 4:39 am

    By far…my favorite post of yours! We are so happy that you all are experiencing the joy, love, compassion, and yet some pain and consternation along your journey. You are blessed to have connected with such loving and generous friends (new and established). Travel Safe knowing that you all are loved from many different directions!

  • Reply Grammy January 9, 2016 at 6:19 am

    I agree with Poppy, I so enjoyed reading all about how you spent your Christmas. How wonderful to spend it with such wonderful people. Christmas is all about family and to see your happy faces and knowing you were enjoying everyday filled my heart with much joy. Contine to be safe, enjoy every moment and hope to hear from you soon. Hugs to all.

  • Reply Julie j January 10, 2016 at 9:26 am

    I’d really like to see a picture of you all carrying those bags on your foreheads please?? What a wonderful, exhausting, & generous way to spend the holidays. The hikes look gorgeous!

  • Reply Sheri g January 10, 2016 at 11:10 am

    Sounds like a Christmas you’ll cherish forever . The kids are so cute in the Christmas photos! Hope your knee is a bit better Sarah.

  • Reply Lisa January 11, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    Those hikes/treks look so amazing.

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