It's always been the same; wherever I go people I talk to are quick to warn me about the dangers ahead, usually how barbaric and treacherous the people of their neighbouring state/country are. Normally, upon crossing the line on the map into the new territory, involuntarily slightly wary from the tales, I find the people to be almost exactly the same. You see, generally speaking arbitrary lines of division don't actually incubate significant differences between groups of people.
In most cases the lines don't greatly restrict freedom of movement so culture remains very similar even if the nationality of the soil has changed. And even where a border has been heavily controlled and cultures haven't mixed over the years, people are the same the world over, the skin colour and shape of facial features change a bit, but they all want the same stuff. Also, as I'm finding, they generally don't mind helping others find that stuff either, provided there's enough of it to go around. And sometimes when there isn't.
In India, people have been very quick to warn me of the dangers of the North East States, with vague references to terrorism. All of the seven states east of the Siliguri corridor campaign both violently and non-violently for varying degrees of autonomy from India. Assam in particular is a hot spot for guerilla activity, due to it's porous borders with Bhutan and Bangladesh. Every time I mention that I planned to head into Assam, Indians I spoke to would tell me to be careful, that people there are not like they are in the rest of India. I was very surprised to find that they were right. It seemed as though immediately upon crossing the Assamese border there was a different atmosphere about the people around me, they would openly instigate cheerful conversation or wave excitedly at the sight of me. It was obviously some kind of ruse to rob or murder me.
The scenery changed significantly too, suddenly there were slight undulations beginning to appear along the road, giving me some variety to my cycling again as I first tackled small hills then steeper climbs and enjoyed some cooling airflow over my sweat soaked body on the way back down. I absolutely despise climbing mountains on my bike and question the sanity of anybody who deliberately takes part in such acts, but after a couple of thousand kilometres of India's interior, completely flat as it is, even I accepted that cycling on flat ground is really boring.
I routed myself through a couple of tiger reserves, hoping to see a tiger. Hoping also not to be mauled by a tiger. I noticed there were still people working in the fields either side of me though and this comforted me. They were my tiger buffer, they'd be torn apart and eaten long before a tiger got to me. I didn't see any tigers, thankfully they're pretty much all dead due to massive, systematic destruction of their habitat and wide scale poaching. I didn't see any Rhinos either. I did see an elephant, but it was being ridden by a man to transport a load of palm trees, it's front legs shackled lest it should be stirred into a charge by the romantic notion of freedom.
Although it was still impossible to find a place without people, and those people still crowded around me like I was the messiah, it was suddenly ALMOST peaceful. The number of trucks plummeted meaning not only was it quieter, but the roads were in better shape too. I could almost FEEL my blood pressure returning to an acceptable level.
On one occasion the highway petered out into a twisty route through small villages. With a drop in population I was confident I could camp in relative peace here, so I rolled into a village which consisted of four farmhouses and a school yard. I approached a farmhouse and gesticulated my intentions to the owner, to my surprise they responded in pretty decent English that it was fine to camp outside. Of course, these were Assamese people, and I knew to be wary. I set up my tent and was somehow still swarmed in people while I brewed a cup of tea. I made one for the guy I'd spoken to before as well, in hopes that he had some power over the murderous tribe and would at least ensure me an honourable death in repayment. Eventually the crowd thinned out and I was left alone. I lay under my mosquito net and enjoyed nature.
I'd never actually seen fireflies before so I thought it was just my eyesight glitching up when a few of them started to appear as it got dim. The luminous yellow/green glow flickering and drifting around in front of me was pretty awesome to watch and as the sky got darker they blended the silhouette of the ground and the tree line into the static glow of the stars. I turned my head-torch off and watched natures canvas develop In the darkness. Occasionally a car or bike would whir past on the highway but now, at last, without blasting their horns. All was good in my world again. But these were Assamese people and I knew my peace would be short-lived as at some point they would return to cut my throat and rob me.
Sure enough, within the hour my peace was shattered by lights moving towards me across the field and the sounds of multiple motorbike engines approaching. The mob was here to make an example of me.
“Hello brother” Said a voice (again, in pretty decent English) in the dark
“Good evening” I replied
“Word got round that there was a foreigner here and people are really happy. Do you need anything?”
“Erm, nope, I'm fine thanks, just reading my book, then I was going to go to sleep”
“OK, excellent. We just wanted you to know you will be completely safe here, and are very welcome.”
“Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here”
“If you'd like, you can move into the school? It might rain”
“I think I'll stay here, but thank you for the offer”
“Ok then, it's there if you need it. Goodnight”
We all shook hands and then the mob left me in peace.
Due to the threat of terrorism, the north-east of India is heavily militarised. These military people weren't like the Gendarmerie of Turkey or the armed police of central Asia, sitting around with pots of tea playing cards. They were properly kitted out, with little tin hats and everything, cruising around in armoured personnel carriers or bunkered in to foxholes with sandbags and camo netting. Even in the city centres. Between the cities on the highways, I would see two or three patrols, daily, of between ten and thirty men, marching either side of the road, automatic weapons held ready for business. The large towns I stayed in all enforced some kind of curfew at night and military checkpoints were everywhere. I wondered if I should have actually taken the UK government travel site seriously with regards to the “threat of terrorism”, but their tendency to er on the side of caution has long since left me undeterred.
One grim night near Kohima, sopping wet from the rain, I asked at a lodge if they had vacant rooms. They didn't, so the manager came to point me to another place. Instead of merely pointing, he walked in the rain, to the next, which was also full. The manager joined us to walk to the next, which again had no free beds, that manager and another member of staff joined my entourage and we continued on. Eventually we found somewhere who asked for 800 for the room, the first manager spoke to him in Hindi and all of a sudden the price was 300 so I happily took it.
Despite the locals attempting to scalp me at every opportunity and the distinct lack of wildlife, I really loved the North East States of India. It's what I was hoping the rest of the country would have been like. My mood improved significantly since moving away from the mainland. Even Guwahati was quite a pleasant place to explore for the evening and my run-in with the long, bent arm of the law wasn't even enough to really damage my enjoyment. Moving on to Nagaland and Manipur, things just got better.
As I continued through Assam, the people warned me of the dangerous savages that lived in Nagaland, the next state. In Nagaland, I heard terrifying stories of the people of Manipur. When I told people in Manipur I was going to Myanmar, they in turn feared for my safety. I just nod and agree to be careful now. Maybe I'm just lucky. Or maybe selling fear is a multi-million dollar industry and we all play our role in it like mugs.
On my first night in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, I visited an internet café to get my fix of home. Upon leaving I was offered a glass of home brewed rice wine from a group of men sitting on the floor using a computer box as a table. I happily joined them but it didn't take long for the topic of Manipuri independence to come up. It dawned on me that I had stumbled directly into the headquarters of the terrorists themselves. I felt distinctly uneasy as my hosts explained to me how the British had first stripped the independence from the kingdom of Manipur in 1891.
I couldn't believe it, I thought I was safe and had grown complacent, but the warnings were true. We talked about the prospects of Manipuri independence and the history of the region, but my brain was distracted with the image of my poor family having to watch jihadi style videos of my beheading on the internet. I agreed with most of what my captors were saying, partly to try to keep the peace, but also because it was presented logically and it would seem the only counter argument is hundreds of heavily armed men with little tin hats in town-centre foxholes. They let me go free after telling me how happy they were that I'd come, I left feeling good and questioning whether I should have been so fearful, then I remembered I was drunk and that they were definitely terrorists.
This final, chance event was one of my last interactions with the people of the North East States of India and will, I'm sure, stand out as one of my favourite moments on this trip. An amazing chance to meet great people, who welcomed me warmly and showed me a lot about their local culture and their struggles against their perceived oppression. Their attitude to the situation, past, present and future, was incredibly positive. As is their behaviour and action in trying to fight for change. They even let me keep my life. Which was real nice.