|Proud to be British?|
Struggling to gather my thoughts on this sleepy Christmas morning after the vast consumption of rum and whiskey around the fire last evening, the many many songs and fireworks that filled our Christmas eve and now clouds my brain from thinking of a way to write about the last month. But with a big bowl of brinjal paneer and hot sugary tea, I can just hope that as I begin to talk, the memories will fill these pages.
Assam - from the start
Stepping off the train in India can sometimes be a real task, it can even make one wish you could stay on the train. We were however lucky enough to avoid the crowds and ever persistant rickshaw drivers this time we were greeted by the lovely Sanjay who was to become our number man over the next few days. So being whisked straight into Guwahati centre, we asked for a detour to the Post Office. We spent a frustrating hour watching an old man wrap our parcel in cloth, hand sow it, seal with red wax, puzzled and confused that this was the only way to send a parcel. But as so many other events in India have demonstrated, to try and make sence isn't always wise. So during this time, we bit our tounges and used our time wisely to find out who indeed Sanjay was. He is Phd student in entomology, with a great knowledge of all local wildlife and importantly a local to the small town Sathebari, just where we were headed. We parted ways at our hotel that evening, where Marc and I strolled the manic streets in search of sim cards and momo's. We fell asleep nostalgically watching James Bond and met Sanjay again early the next morning to travel the bumpy and thrilling sumo ride, 80km west of Guwahati to Sathebari.
The small town is known for its mass production of bell metal products. You may imagine some kind of huge rural factory, but this small town and the surrounding villages are home to hundreds of tiny cottage industries.
Hidden in the beautiful winding jungle tracks of the bamboo sheltered villages are small and humble workshops which would only be known from a distance by the rhythmic banging of the hammers on the red hot metal.
I shall not describe all the details of the industry in this part of the blog, as we discovered so much information over 3 days we have enough to write a small book, as well as not to be a bore to anyone not interested in reading this small book on bell metals. I hope I can summarise our experience and still retain it's value. For this bit is definitely worth while. Firstly we were openly welcomed in Sanjay's home and family. Nothing can start a journey better than to welcomed into somebodies home. He had built a new house for his family and it was almost finished. We were the privileged first guests. His ever smiling and laughing family brought such life at every moment we spent there. They were warm and friendly towards us and gladly fed us like kings and queens. As our first experience of Assamese people, we were overwhelmed with the naturally generous and humble nature of them all. In between our time in this lovely homely setting, and delicious meals, we walked around the villages together discovering the many hidden pockets of bell metal smiths. Each family/group of workers concentrate on a different bell metal product. As well as the bells/symbols where this industry receives its name, (which are used all over India, China, Nepal and Tibet for religious rituals and praying) to plates, bowls, goblets and raised platters like grand cake stands with pointed lids like a temples pointed dome. During each walk we tried to discover as many of the different makers as possible, and for Marc I think the bowl makers stood out on top. Not because their skill was better, as all the makers worked in an incredible rhythm together. Each with their own skill, they all dependent on the others accuracy and craftsmanship to carry on with the next stage of the process. The difference made by the bowl makers however was that they had a bow lathe. Yes oh the sparkles of joy that came to Marc's eyes whenwe saw the bowls being mounted onto a pole and the sight of a chisel came into sight. The bowls were almost complete when the turning process was carried out, it was purely used to get an even finish on the inside and rim of the bowls and to add pattern. We stayed at this place for hours. Bless Sanjay for not only his patience but his expert translating. Though I think as a local he enjoyed learning so much about the fascinating skills being practised by people in his own village. Sanjay also introduced us to Assamese wildlife. He knew so many birds and insects we were never short of something to ask him in between visits to different workshops. He even took us briefly into the forest to show us the great Indian bat, hanging like giant swaying fruits in the towering trees.
I have really rushed this experience and have not described half of the things we found out, for this a apologise but I feel it will be really important to give the topic the time and detail it deserves at a later point. However I hope a have conveyed that as our first topic of research to look at in the north east, this was a truly special time. Honest and passionate people surrounded us, and we felt safe and well looked after. Not always easy to find in a foreign place.
So leaving Sathebari filled with knowledge and positive feelings about this new area to adventure in we headed towards Kaziranga National Park where we found more than just Wild Grass.
A long stretch of busy and dangerous road runs through the area of Kaziranga, arriving late and weary eyed, we were happy to embrace the ambiance and calm of Wild Grass. Home to Manju, a great man with an envious beard, understood our desires to find true traditional skills and ways of life and let us gather our plans and relax at his resort. Whilst here we went cycling for the first time, and ended up on one of Marc's famous short cuts. Down through a village and onto the narrow earth paths parting the paddy fields, we wheeled our bikes along, and searched our eyes towards the enticing and frightening jungles. We waded through muddy streams and walked past the poo of the famous Kaziranga one horned Rhino. Gladly finding our way back to the main road, laughing how insane these clumsy foreigners must have looked to the locals, we made our way to a delicious road side restaurant and had our faithful friend - 'the veg meal'. At this point we both realised we felt a cold coming on and really appreciated our days rest here. We took time to read lots of books, drink tea and chat to all the tourists passing through about their times in the North East. We did one day decide to venture out on our first safari. After 10 minutes we were informed that a tiger was spotted with her cubs only a few metres from our where our small bungalow stood at wild grass. An exciting yet terrifying time begins for the villagers to discover the presence of a beautiful but fiercely dangerous animal taking rest by the homes, their families. As we exited the park, we didn't expect that our safari, on an exciting trail to watch in awe of the huge and incredible wild animals would we see the tiger passing us by, lying still and lifeless in the back of an open truck. One of the police/locals/park rangers, the stories kept growing and changing, shot the tiger. Her cubs whereabouts not known. Such a great sadness came over us for the rest of that day. Not just for the death of that great and rare animal, but a sadness that her death was decided to be the only option for her that day. I feel this experience began our introduction not only to traditional life, crafts and skills of these people but also their life living with the animals of the wild.
After a relaxing and yet endlessly eventful time in Kaziranga, we moved up the river, eastwards to Maujli Island. Majuli is a large river island nestled in the centre of the great Bhramaputra river.
Also a little Thank you to Richard Blurton for sharing his knowledge and contacts with us. Without this I am sure we would not of have the same wonderful introduction into the Seven Sisters - states of the north east and all the incredible people who we have consequently met and been looked after by. We have named this series of events 'The Blurton Effect'.