Cherrapunjee: a world I never knew existed.

This blog post is written from a place I could have never thought existed; a fairy tale-like place, which can only be reached via a three hour hike down a valley. This village and its people are famous for their Living Root Bridges; man made bridges that have existed for over 500 years to support the locals to get around what is said to be the wettest place on earth. At the top of this hike is a village called Cherrapunjee; an incredible and unique place with beautiful people who welcomed us into their community and culture. 

The journey here

A couple of days after we completed our time with The Dalai Lama and after some hairy taxi experiences in Bangalore, we landed at Guwahati airport in the North East Tribal States of India. But careful, the locals don’t really call it India. After spending a few days there I could see why; it’s nothing like the rest of India. Nothing like anywhere I had ever been or imagined existed; a completely different world! 

As we landed, Tom turned to me in amazement, “Where have you take us, Anna?” I just laughed, as I didn’t really know. I’d taken the recommendation from a friend who gave a descriptive review of the place that just stuck in my head as somewhere we needed to go. So here we were. 

The five hour journey from the airport to Cherrapunjee, was like a little teaser; giving us a taste for some of the diversity and breathtaking beauty of this part of the world. At times we’d pass through areas that felt like a combination of tropical Queensland, or the jungles of Thailand, then we’d come to these great, open, rocky, dry valleys that reminded me of the landscape around the Grand Canyon in the US. We’d then come to windy, wooded areas that made me feel like we were driving along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. 

And it continued… mountain ranges, steep, green valleys that had no bottom. Wide open spaces that reminded me of the Scottish Highlands and for Tom, the north of Whales. We eventually arrived to this quaint little town cute little town, which would be our little base for the next five days. 

A unique culture

I hadn’t really done much research on this place and have now discovered a new race of people. Khasi, are a tribe of people belonging to this particular area of Maghalaya. Their ethnicity means they are closer in appearance to people from a South East Asian background than Indian. The Khasi tradition uses a matrilineal system, where children take their mother’s names and the youngest girl in the family is considered the landowner. A bit different to what you’d see in other parts of India. 

There is a strong focus on social inclusion in the Khasi culture; the community helps each other out. Subsequently, despite there still being obvious poverty in the area, there were no beggars; no one who seemed to be left to fend for themselves, no sense of desperation. It was funny actually, at times you’d see a bunch of kids and teenagers all walking together. Some of the young teenagers would have babies strapped to their backs. I wasn’t sure if they were the mother, the sister, the friend or what, but it just seemed like everyone was family in Cherrapunjee.

During our time in this unique place, we also experienced the friendliness and openness of the people and they were definitely not camera shy. We had lots of people; both young and old happily allow us to film their smiles and day-to-day comings and goings. There was nothing expected in return, just a conversation about where we’ve come from and what we think of their community. One afternoon, we came across a bunch of kids playing in a front yard. They very confidently struck up a conversation with us in perfect English, asking us all sorts of questions and requesting we sing Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus for them. We managed to distract them with our camera and got out of that one.

Some friends we met…

We met Heprit on day one of our stay in Cherrapujee. Heprit runs the local backpackers and takes his role pretty seriously. He pretty much took us under his wing from the moment we arrived. I think he does this with all his guests. For the rest of our stay we were drinking tea with his mates, eating eggs and toast at the local general store, riding on the back of his scooter to see all his favourite spots, including the lookout point to Bangladesh and generally just hanging out.

Heprit is proud of the dreadlocks he learnt to create by a French backpacker about 18 months ago and has the best music taste ever. Over the course of our stay we were serenaded to the sound of the Doors, woke up to Disney tunes and received a mixture of blues, reggae, jazz beats and a bit of Sinead O’Connor thrown in there just for fun.

When we explained the project and what we were doing, he got straight onto making suggestions and introductions with people he though were unique and interesting. Subsequently, one Sunday afternoon we found ourselves piling into his mate’s van and going to meet John Sing, a local man who is said to be 114 years old. 

Things just don’t seem like a big deal in Cherrapunjee. No one seemed to bat an eye that here we were; two foreigners sitting in this man’s house drinking tea and arranging a time to ask him a whole bunch of questions about himself and his life. He was happy to oblige. As he sat there rugged in his wooly jumper, red beanie and converse trainers, I laughed to myself at the surreal-ness of this moment, but feeling so happy that our trip was taking us to places like this to meet people like John Sing. 

Losing his mother quite young, Mr. Sing was raised by his Dad and his brother. He had very little in the way of formal education but has worked his whole life and received his education that way. Even at the age of 114, he does his bit around the house that he shares with his youngest daughter and her family. He explained that he’s never touched alcohol and that he made this decision very early on. In his words, he’d see people drink, have a good time, drink some more, then get into fights. It just wasn’t for him. 

Mr. Sing has outlived three wives, whom he had four children with and now has an extended family of around 90 people. Pretty impressive! When I asked him about love, he replied, simply that to love others, you have to love yourself. Wise words from a man who has experienced a lot of love and lost love in his 114 years of life.

Keeping it real

What I loved about our time in Cherrapunjee was the simplicity of life. Life didn’t need to be complicated for people to feel they had what they needed. In fact, Heprit, really brought this message home when he did his own Ubuntu interview with us. When asked, what he fears, Heprit answered, very emotionally that he’s scared he will change. He’s worried that with more success or more people suggesting he should do this, or expand that, that he will become more focused on money and lose the heart of why he runs the backpackers; to meet and hang out with travellers from all over the world and give them a unique experience. 

Earlier we’d asked him whether he’d thought about providing food for his guests. He was adamant, that despite the fact that providing food would mean he could charge more and earn more, if he provided food, he’d be too busy and “…wouldn’t be sitting here hanging out with you guys, would I?” Good point!

I love the simplicity in this attitude and the attitude of a lot of the people we met in Cherrapunjee. It reminded me of the importance of keeping things simple and to do what you love and enjoy, maintain a good community of people around you and to top it all off, thrown in some good tunes and you’re sweet!