Thursday, November 8, 2007

In Dimapur by Jon Hartmann

I was fast asleep when I felt something begin to shake my feet which were hanging off the edge of my bunk. It was the Hijras, a tribe of fancifully dressed transsexuals native to train stations across India. Even in modern day their supposed power over fertility and future marriages is believed to be true. It was my turn to pay up. Shifting his weight to his right foot under a sequined sari and lifting a henna painted hand, I, in my undying quest to live as an Indian, crusaded for a two rupee piece within my pocket. Rolling back under my railroad issue wool blanket, I fell asleep as the train again rattled itself up to speed along the tracks.

Three to ten hours later I still couldn’t quite sleep and sat awake in the open boarding gate of the train as it shambled deeper into the Bengal. Looking out into the moonlit countryside a thousand small fires dotted the fields, to each a few mildly cold and hungry sugarcane farmers. Sobering; a sea of candles.

The train would slow down and pass by these crossroads where the inter-village roadways happened to cross the railroad. The roads in between the villages have sprung up as an effect of jeeps burning the pathways into the dusty soil rather than by the government construction, as with railroad crossing gates along these roads. The train now began to slide by one of such stations and I looked on at the collection of villagers in jeeps and mulling around on foot and bikes waiting for the train to pass. It was a strange mix of moonlight and firelight that was cast upon the faces of the grey-shawled and jagged toothed farmers making the midnight journey from one village to the next. Strange how even in the dark, I could see their yellowed eyes look back in some askew nutrient deficiency, not accusingly, but in question.

I arrived in Guahati Nagaland expecting elephants and sugarcane, to find a starving urban setting not unlike old Delhi, apart from the greater East Asian presence. I strafed my way through stifling sidewalk crowds and quickly into the nearest restaurant. I hadn’t seen another westerner in weeks, excepting the three other Caucasians I was traveling with. Guahati was unsafe at night, it’s a city ruled by petty gangs and territory lords, full of prostitution and struggling farmers. I ate some ice cream and wandered back to my hotel, treading on stamped sugarcane rinds and old newspaper the whole way, walking in the electric shadow of run-down high rise apartments festooned with adds in Hindi. People here mysteriously have a pastime for snapping photos of any foreigner. Long after the women had been forced to retreat indoors I still remained outside rather unsafely as gangs began to gather and light their trash-fires in alleyways, chewing betel. An Asian phenomenon, a strange stimulant in the form of a tooth-hostile nut served with red dye and pickled sugar wrapped in a leaf. You can immediately recognize a betel chewer by their red and eroded teeth and highly receded gum-line. They’re mostly the shadier members of society and simply the bored. As I saw the traffic and families all but disappear I knew it was time to be getting back to my hotel room.

The room was spacious, empty, and stained heavily with betel, everywhere, the walls, the shower, bed sheets, couch. I presumed the couch to be the least of all evils and slept there for a hearty six hours, in full dress as I had taken to after a month of living out of a train.

Showers are a curious thing. Everyone in India enjoys a hot shower; however, in a single building, rarely is there a room with more than a minute and a half of hot water. It has become a custom to fill up a bucket with what hot water exists and then to use a smaller ladle to spoon said water onto yourself and wash with the aid of a 5-rupee packet of soap, available in the bazaar, when you do choose to bathe.

The next city I traveled to was Dimapur, north of Guahati. The city is significantly friendlier and less corrupt. Interestingly and unbeknownst to me somewhat of a pirate culture exists in Dimapur; the name itself indicates a more east Asian or Singaporean origin and this is also apparent in Dimapur’s system of ports and river markets.

At one point during my stay in Dimapur I decided to eat something. I had a powerful hankering for some Indian McDonalds, the Maharaja Mac or something to that effect doused in masala mayonnaise. I and my Afghan friend Montazer set out in a rickshaw journey not soon to be forgotten. We asked the driver if there was a McDonalds around he could take us to, and he nodded fiercely with one hand on his moustache and the other on a framed picture of Siva. This particular rickshaw needed to get a running start before the engine would go into gear or even start. So we all got out and ran with the rickshaw into the road, all the while amid fierce traffic oncoming in all directions. The rickshaw sputtered to life, our driver gunned the throttle, and the floor shook fiercely.

The next stop, though it was a McDonalds, was not what we were expecting. The mascot of this particular eatery was a clown but it was more swollen and scarecrow like, in 2D sign form wrapped with Christmas lights, as was the entire ceiling inside. Three steps inside and we were nearly choked with the thick cigarette smoke in the air. It was almost hazy; the sheer amount of smoke created a foggy atmosphere, but we were hungry. The restaurant itself reminded me of kind of a typical cheap Italian restaurant in the States, particle board tables with checkered tablecloths, mirrored ceilings, low light, and fake plants in every other corner. Except there were no Americans, or Italians for that matter, but Nagas, all very Asian and very surprised to see a white boy of questionable origin accompanied by an Afghan in their local hangout. We strode through the mood lighting and over to the table in this strange opium-den – pizzeria – lounge fusion of a restaurant. The food wasn’t particularly amazing and I knew nothing on the menu, so the first chicken item I saw, I ordered, and it happened to be some strange pile of shredded chicken on a bun. I think we must have been the first people in months to order anything other than beer; we were graced by two very dusty bottles of coke.

Nagaland is a place of extremes, or maybe just opposing generations. Opposing generations in that the generation of parents right now still appreciate Naga culture, still believe that the piles of caterpillars I saw for sale in bazaars actually held medicinal power, that it’s still proper to have tea, and to keep a Naga-spear above your fireplace.

At one point I walked through a bazaar deep in Dimapur. The entire block had been set up around probably what is a square quarter mile of bilge or cesspool water for the lower residential section. It was almost a story down in a sort of swimming pool affair except the water was more of a jersey –green than the ideal swimming color. And no one would dream of swimming here. This bazaar was typical in that it was all narrow alleyways covered in halogen light and cheap cloth. At one point I began to smell probably the most powerful odor I’ve ever smelled. It was a Naga fish market. There was sort of this hangar affair in the middle of the bazaar where no shops were around; so, dangerously curious, I went inside and almost immediately felt the need to vomit, even breathing though my mouth the smell still penetrated my lungs and created kind of a gagging feeling. There were shelves upon cabinets and desks covered in fresh fish and eels, freshwater stingrays, everything you could conceivably eat out of the local river, all rotting in the unrefrigerated glory of this fish-hangar. I was immediately greeted by a scaly young man, scaly in that he was literally covered with fish scales, and he urged me to look over his fine selection of moderately fresh produce. Underneath the tin roof halogen globe lights were hanging down the center aisle, casting yellow-red light. It baked the smell somewhat.

After only under 10 minutes, I hurried quickly back out into the market, carefully avoiding stepping on the piles of caterpillars being hawked by street-vendors. I ventured back to the cesspool market, and stopped to look out for a minute. The sky was grey and seemed to hang closely above the high rises bordering the square pool. All along the cement walls, holding the pool now below me, were painted Coke ads, where rats scampered over the heaps of trash decomposing at the pasty green water’s edge.

There was sort of a basement feeling to the surrounding bazaar, closed hallways full of fading clothes and discarded cookware, the occasional shady-stalker after your wallet, as occasional as a patch of natural light, or a glimpse out to the pool. Outside I noticed it was beginning to get dark, as less light fell through the tangled jumble of power lines creating a canopy over the street-tops, in-between the stained high rises.

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