Crossing the steel WWII bridge, one of many small bridges the British had constructed to fight the Japanese, I feel the sudden jubilation of finally being in India, having wanted to visit the sub continent for many years. Strangely enough, I also have the sensation that I would, in fact, miss Burma. Second time round I have made peace with the country, made peace with the overhang of darkness and without the must see tourist sights dragging us here, there and everywhere, the last four weeks in Burma allowed more time and space to connect more with people and place. I feel I learned a lot from Burma.
The Indian Immigration border point is a circular, camouflaged hut in the middle of a field, patrolled by rifle wielding Indian army soldiers in full combat regalia. We are welcomed formally yet warmly and hand over passports. In the middle of the form filling (all carried out by the soldiers) an Army General comes to visit us, a handsome middle aged man with a handshake that turns my right hand in to a rasher. He informs us of the exact coordinates to both the ATM, the market and the mini van company: we have requested all three as we feel, with so much momentum, we can make the 4-8 hour bus journey to Imphal, the capital city of Manipur.
Before we continue we meet a group of Indian women who are sadly turning back from their attempts to cross in to Burma with their car. Their plan is to make to Europe overland, through Burma, China and the ‘Stans’. She explains both the ‘dream’ and the ‘rationale’ of their deed, the former been something that has incubated in her imagination for years the latter been a statement about women’s freedom to move throughout this world. We exchange emails and note the women’s Facebook page ‘Women Beyond Borders’.
Following the General’s directions we locate the bus terminal, a small wooden house with a mini van parked outside. This is the home of the ‘Indo Myanmar Road Self Employer Van Owner Drivers’ Association’ IMRSEVODA for short I’m guessing! A family offer us seats and cold water, a few moments later a local man working for Medicins San Frontier at the next door AIDS centre, acts as interpreter. He explains that we cannot travel to Imphal today because of a bandh ( a state government imposed ban on travel as well as a curfew), explaining that tomorrow’s Independence Day will also rule out travel, he recommends we either stay in Imphal or head for Churachandpur, another town in Manipur.. Given the ‘tensions’ and ‘security’ situation in Moreh he also advises us to move on, if we can. We concur.
After thanking this man for his much needed help and advice M and I head for the bank and an ‘ATM’ that does not exist, or at least does not exist now as a result of all the disruptions to the communication infrastructure of this part of Manipur, owing to landslides and flooding. Before really knowing how we got there M and I are sitting opposite the bank manager in his office. He explains the communications conundrum, explains that the bank does not exchange euro (we have 50 Euro for such times), nor does it exchange Myanmar Kyat ( my sure bet!), nor is it possible to withdraw funds using either an international credit or debit card. I momentarily wonder if this place is actually a bank then I consider doing a Kaiser Sosse style elaboration of my situation to garner sympathy by using the office paraphernalia as prompt. My flight of fancy is abruptly cut short with the manager’s statement in that so familiar Indian lilt ‘this is not Europe, this is India’. At the very moment the last syllable leaves his smiling mouth, the power fails and we are left in momentary darkness. I search for Killian’s shoulder, I find it and the back up lights come back on. We are now joined by a young bank clerk who looks uncannily like a young Benicio del Toro and a balding middle aged man with a lot of golden rings and a golden medallion peering out from a unbuttoned flared shirt. I paraphrase by saying ‘ I am in a situation where I cannot go nor can I stay’. I feel it adds to the Bollywood style Usual Suspects live script now playing out. All three look intently at me and then start speaking a language that does not sound like Hindi. After a couple of minutes the bank manager asks me how much Myanmar Kyat I have. Earlier Em had handed me a plastic sandwich bag containing our last remaining Kyat. I count 68,500: the notes are crisp (and therefore attractive, I hope), thanks to a functioning Monywa ATM, used what seems like a month ago. Again the three men huddle. ‘Benicio del Toro’ answers a few quick fire questions and whips out a smart phone which he uses as a calculator and I urge my mind to be convinced he is garnishing exchange rates. Periodically he glances over my shoulder. I look around to see what he is reading from and I see Em entering the room: ‘Is everything ok?’ she asks. ‘Yes, I think so, but maybe not’ I reassure her. She informs me our minivan is waiting outside. I introduce her to the three men as my wife. They all smile. Em leaves with Killian, I wonder what he thought of all this. The bank manager, his eyes on me (I see him now as a solutions man), breaks in to monologue again ‘ One has now two options. One can go to the market, which is quite a walk away and exchange the Myanmar Kyat at a slightly better rate than what my friend (medallion and rings) can offer. The difference is debatable but will rest somewhere around one hundred rupees’. The ‘ees’ part of rupees hits my ear like a sweet song. I shake the hand of the bank manager and thank him profusely and start to follow ‘medallions and rings’ out of the bank. Across the road I spot a white mini van and Em outside calling me. I lift a hand to indicate two minutes and disappear in to an unassuming pan shop on the same street as the bank. Behind the counter ‘medallion and rings’ counts out the 3,400 rupees that saves our asses and I hand over the Kyat. We shake hands and I leg it to the minivan.
The van is like a miniature mini van, three people could be comfortably seated at the back seat and two in the front. Both the interior and exterior of the van has a squeezed look about it. L, M and G are wedged in the back beside two elderly ladies with Beckett-like wrinkled faces and warm smiling eyes, they do not wear sarees, but rather the traditional dress of, I am guessing, one of the 15 groups of Naga hill tribe peoples that veer in and out of statelessness in this area. The driver, a brusque moustached man in his early 50’s, ushers me in to the front with him. I emit a sigh of relief and have the words ‘This is not Europe, this is India’ echoing profoundly in my mind. I explain to L all that has happened and assure her that we are making a solid and wise decision to head for Churachandpur, as Moreh does not seem like a place we could stay (or leave from!) She smiles and tells me we are actually going to Imphal. At that moment we pull up to the side of the road and an local woman joins us. She sits in with me in the front. I try to shape my body like a banana, so as the driver can reach the gearstick unhindered but the driver gesticulates to me that I should lift my right leg over the gearstick thus having the gearstick between my legs. My right foot almost on the clutch. The driver smiles, Em giggles and we embark on a five hour escapade that sees this little van brave post landslide spirals of mountain road with distinction.
Every time the driver pulls the gearstick to fourth gear he hits my testicles. It is a slight tip but enough for me to recoil. I am grateful fourth gear is seldom used. On the mountain, the fact of the gearstick resting between my legs actually enables me to be distracted from the frantic thought of the mini van plunging in to the deep frondescence that, after a month of rain, shimmers below. In places the road verge has collapsed entirely, in others the might of the land sliding has shifted the road, and it is at these junctures where JCBs are hard at work creating narrow mud ramps as bridges. At one point in the road trees are removed from the middle of the road; the rust soil surrounding lays a metre thick.
These are not our only stops en route to Manipur’s capital city. The military are everywhere and it is quite clear from the sheer consistency of checkpoints that we are in an occupied and militarised area. A traffic jam forms at a major checkpoint high on the lip of the mountain with a panoramic vista of dense uninterrupted forest plains. Here the mini van is literally stripped bare by the 32nd division of the Assam Rifles. Soldiers in khaki combats and balaclavas and AK 47’s strung over shoulders are everywhere. A pair of wooden camouflaged watchtowers overhang a small line of street stalls.
At the side of the stalls a stone plaque reads ‘Assam Rifles – friends of the hill people’. In a misled and not-so-sophisticated attempt, perhaps, to win the hearts and minds of the locals. In this part of North East India we will learn that there are many indigenous groups, who traditionally coexist in a territory without proper boundaries, but since independence circumscribed in an uncaring meta-state that cannot contemplate the ‘loss’ of resource rich lands to the frivolous claims of the true guardians of these lands. Personally I begin to reflect on the experiences of this journey thus far in relation to the land and the people. Wherever I have experienced indigenous peoples the land they live on has either being worked and stewarded in step with nature or it has being totally destroyed by outside influences namely the state/market axis; predominantly, this takes the form of brutally all-mighty extractive industries. Land left in the rightful patronage of people who both respect and understand the natural balance and the interdependence of all its intricate parts, will thrive and enrich what grows out of it: both the human experience and the soil itself. There is nothing that benefits anything in the stripped bare extractivism that we increasingly witness in the present era. Except, that is, a very tiny minority of ultra-rich people that further increase their financial wealth. For what? The destruction of mountains, rivers, lakes, forests? Are we fucking insane?
We arrive in a locked down Imphal. Although it is only 7pm or so, most of the shop fronts and bushinesses aligning the streets are shuttered. A curfew is in place as protests over the murder of a student, as well as a continuing political inertia, resulting in a logjam over the issue of the Internal Permit System for the area, has served to stoke tensions in the city and wider region. People from other parts of India see the North-East as a viable relocation destination, the North-East does not even see itself as a part of India which partially explains the conflict.
We end up camped in Hotel Imphal for a couple of days, the only other guests being an extended missionary family from the United States, and a couple of Sikh bikers. It has been 12 hours of non-stop travelling, that has brought the four of us from Burma across the border in to India. We are shattered. The children, trojans of the road, go crazy in the hotel lobby: they see the tiled floors as an activity centre and scream, slide, screech and gallop around the place as if possessed. At first I work myself up a little over decorum in hotel lobbies, and then think ‘Feck it, they deserve this bit of a blowout after such a herculean crossing for such small limbs’.
When the dust finally settles and we are fed and washed I reflect on how much of a day it must have been for them and amaze at how well they handled everything that came their way, from crossing disaster areas on bamboo rafts, to being asked to pose for pictures with machine gun wielding soldiers.