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Great Banyan (India: Day Three)

Started: 2010-03-15 09:22:25

Submitted: 2010-03-15 10:33:30

Visibility: World-readable

On Tuesday morning, I woke up in Willy's apartment at Riverside Adventist Academy, Bagendoba, East Garo Hills, Meghlaya, India, sometime around local dawn, around 05:00. I tried to get more sleep without much luck; I presumed I must have ended up on Bankok time on my travels from Boulder to Bagendoba. I finally gave up on sleeping sometime around 06:30. I surveyed the surroundings in daylight and Willy fired up his propane stove to make chapati for breakfast. (Instead of having the flatbread with curried potatoes, we applied jam, producing something not entirely unlike a crepe.)

Radio Tower Hill
Radio Tower Hill

Willy lacked a hot water heater and suggested that, if I wanted something resembling a warm shower, I could wait until mid-day, when the roof-mounted water tank would function like a solar-powered water heater. In lieu of a shower, I washed my face, and we headed across campus to Willy's only class of the day, fourth-grade "environment studies". We reached the main classroom building a few minutes early, with enough time to drop by the teacher's lounge, where I studied the globes to figure out where my flight had flown.

Willy led me upstairs to one of the fourth-grade classrooms, where he introduced me to his class and asked me to talk about myself, how I got here, and what I did. I had trouble getting any feedback from the class to know for sure whether they understood anything I was saying, as I mentioned that I write software for mobile phones. Willy said I was a computer engineer, which gave me an opening to say that mobile phones have little computers inside. (I did not bore them with the details that I in fact facilitate communication between multiple little computers inside a single mobile phone. It occurred to me later that I could have pointed out that computers only work with numbers, but almost anything can be represented as numbers -- including voice. It fascinated me that I have a frame of reference with which to discuss my day job, since mobile phones are everywhere in India.) I mentioned Calvin, which Willy suggested would help his students fit me into their world view; Willy occupies an unfamiliar niche, being grown up but without a family.

Willy spent the rest of class going over the lesson, which centered on explaining the distinction between living and non-living things, and natural and artificial things. (I didn't really get the point, but I'm not in fourth grade either.) After class, we headed back down to the teacher's lounge and I met more of Willy's fellow teachers (all Indians from various places in the north-east) and I read a bit of India after Gandhi, which I brought with me for some light reading.

Willy's last responsibility for the day was speaking at chapel. We waited in an anteroom next to the platform during song service, then went out onto the platform. The principal introduced Willy, and Willy introduced me. I said a few brief words about being glad to be there and seeing what Willy enjoyed in the school, and sat back down. Willy talked about the Civil Rights Movement (mentioning that Gandhi's non-violence inspired the movement), tied in our mother's experiences as a child in the segregated south, and drew some lessons from the movement.

After chapel, we watched the children file out of their seats and Willy tried to identify various tribal groups represented at the school. We headed back to his apartment, where I took a warm shower and Willy worked on pumpkin and potato curry for lunch. (It didn't take me long to figure out that potato is "alu" in Hindi, but I didn't I didn't learn what pumpkin is.) Willy produced a package of loose-leaf black tea from the Garo Hills, which he was generally unimpressed by (being black tea, and all), but I made myself a cup and found it worthwhile.

After lunch, we watched the students prepare the grounds just outside the compound wall for rice paddies, then headed off on a hike into the Garo Hills. Willy took me down the dirt road running past the school, then off the road on a trail leading past immaculate, finely-constructed bamboo huts (which appeared to all be built on the same rectangular plan) up the hillside. At one point, the trail was being expanded into what looked like a jeepable road, but it wasn't clear how one was supposed to get a jeep onto the road. We crossed a saddle point between a few huts, and descended onto a small valley filled with terraced rice paddies and more terrain cleared for row crops. At the tail end of the dry season, the fields were fallow, waiting for the rains to flood the paddies. The best frame of reference I had, for rice paddies in rolling hills, was feudal Japan from Princess Mononoke. Willy chuckled at my reference to American geek culture.

Rice paddies, East Garo Hills, Meghalaya
Rice paddies, East Garo Hills, Meghalaya

We passed a spring where the locals were bathing; they eyed us curiously as we passed. We crested a hill and looked out onto a jungle-filled valley. In the afternoon light, even the constant haze caused by slash and cooking fires glowed; the distant hills receded into ethereal outlines and the nearby hills shone in the light. This was an India entirely removed from yesterday morning's rush-hour traffic in Delhi, but it was part of the India I had come to see.

Jungle hillside, East Garo Hills, Meghalaya
Jungle hillside, East Garo Hills, Meghalaya

Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, Willy turned me around to show me the Great Banyan Tree on the hillside. (He thought it was an Assam rubber tree.) It dominated the hillside, towering above the other trees, and draping aerial roots to expand its girth past its current three-meter diameter. It was hard to comprehend its scale, let alone capture it; I wanted a fisheye lens for my camera but settled for close-up shots that failed to capture how all-encompassing the tree was, and long shots that failed to adequately capture its scale. The tree alone was worth the price of admission.

Great banyan tree, East Garo Hills, Meghalaya
Great banyan tree, East Garo Hills, Meghalaya
Great banyan trunk, East Garo Hills, Meghalaya
Great banyan trunk, East Garo Hills, Meghalaya

We seemed to have all of the ingredients for the opening lines for the Moody Blues song "You and Me":

There's a leafless tree in Asia
Under the sun there's a homeless man
There's a forest fire in the valley
Where the story all begun

(At least for definitions of "forest fire" that include "slash fire". We didn't actually see any homeless men under the sun, but Willy was confident we could find them at Wednesday market.)

Jaeger with the great banyan tree
Jaeger with the great banyan tree

We headed back down the hill, circumambulated campus counter-clockwise, and crossed the foot bridge crossing the Didram River built from the trunks of beetlenut trees. As dusk fell, we returned to Willy's apartment, picked up his roommate Valentin, and walked back down the dirt road in front of the school to Jenny's house, a former teacher at the school and Willy and Valentin's adoptive parents in India. (Willy assured me that her full name was something longer and less Western than Jenny.) I was feeling jet-lagged and wasn't able to keep my eyes open during the preliminaries for supper. Once the food came, it was plentiful and delicious; the paneer was the best I had in all of my travels in India.

After supper, we headed back to Willy's apartment and went to bed, ready to head down from the Garo Hills toward the Himalayan foothills in the morning.

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