On May 12th, I set out for Leh airport from my guesthouse at 7 am to catch my morning flight to Guwahati. I had booked my AirBnB accommodations literally ten minutes before leaving, just barely managing it with the in-and-out wifi signal. I know by now that I prefer to have my accommodations booked before I set foot in a new place, at least for the first night. It saves time, energy, and potential stress, especially in a chaotic, big city like Guwahati. The guesthouse I chose (Shimzun Guest House) is owned by Chihan, who lives with his sister and nephew in a separate apartment downstairs (with some communal areas). He was happy to have me stay with them despite booking at the last minute.
I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at their home. It is spacious and cozy, located on a quieter side street off a main road, and my room is clean and bright. This was perfect because my plan was to use Guwahati as a home base before setting off to Ziro Valley. I just wanted to rest, write, read, and lay low for a few days—I had no real agenda for tourism in Guwahati.
Chihan’s sister cooks for the guests if desired, and damn, can she cook. On the first night, she presented me with a colorful array of vegetarian dishes, some very spicy (but I enjoy spicy food, especially in the heat), accompanied by steamed rice, which is very necessary for quelling the spiciness. She cooks traditional Assamese, Naga (as in Nagaland, another northeastern state), and South Korean food (veggie sushi on the second night!), and honestly, I think her cuisine is worthy of a five-star restaurant. I didn’t care to eat anywhere else after that first meal. I also met one of the other guests, Thinley (unsure of the spelling), a jovial Bhutanese man in town on business (he owns a natural spring water company in Bhutan and wants to expand to India). We chatted over breakfast, lunch, and supper, and I appreciated his company. He has a wealth of knowledge and good sense of humor. He even gave me a bottle of peach wine from Bhutan and one of his spring water.
In between indulging in the glorious food and lounging around with a good book, I researched how to get myself to Ziro Valley. It seemed no easy feat, but my permit for Arunachal Pradesh was emailed to me just before leaving Leh, and I was determined to use it. I decided to book my ticket for Itanagar (a 10-hour overnight bus ride) for the next night, before I lost my motivation. If I had not already had my permit, I would have visited nearby Shillong in Meghalaya instead, I think. It would have been a much easier trip and I was tending more towards relaxation mode than adventure mode as the end of my trip neared. After the overnight bus ride, I would have to catch a Sumo (a jeep) to Ziro, which would take four hours or so, and only depart at fixed times during the day.
This all seemed doable. After booking my homestay, I felt prepared for the journey.
It began when I boarded the shuttle from the Paltan Market bus terminal to the main station.The passengers heading to the main station crammed into the minibus, which took ages to plow through the dense traffic on the street. There was one guy hanging out the door whose purpose seemed to be to navigate this unyielding clusterfuck for the driver, or so I gathered from his shouting, various hand signals to the driver, periodic banging on the bus, and hopping on and off. We picked up people along the way, slowing us down even more (as an aside, I noticed that there was a disproportionately large number of bakeries and sweet shops, along with momo restaurants, in the city). I was feeling the first signs of uneasiness in my gut during this preliminary stage of the journey. We hadn’t even left the city, so this was a bad sign.
When we finally did get to the terminal, I found my seat on the bus, and we eventually started moving, a wave of relief passing over me. I thought it would be smooth sailing from Point A to Point B, as is reasonable to expect with bus rides—maybe a few toilet breaks along the way or a stop for snacks.
But this was not a reasonable bus ride.
First of all, this was not a fancy tourist bus. It was old, had no air-conditioning, and I was the only foreigner on board (in fact, I saw no other westerners on the streets of Guwahati). I have no problem with any of this in theory, and have experienced the same scenario in Thailand (being the only westerner on a non-AC bus, no big deal), but this was not like Thailand. This was Oz, and I wasn’t the wizard. That movie scares the shit out of me by the way, and I was pretty damn close to losing my shit on this ride. We picked up randos off the street every few minutes, making the sheer number of abrupt starts and stops maddening. Anyone who wanted on or off the bus along the way had the liberty.
Two hijras (“third gender” Indians) even got on at one point to work their mojo on the men on board (which seemed to involve sensual, but not inappropriate, touching—stroking heads and faces), and then hopped off with their collection of money. I quickly learned that the bus driver’s version of a toilet break was pulling over to the side of the road so that passengers (men and women) could do their business (not in a toilet, directly beside the bus).
I closed my eyes at one point to try to quell the ensuing madness, but nope, karma had other plans for me and a large insect flew into my face, down my shirt, and back out, which I can only assume was a cockroach. Thank fuck it was dark.
Oh, the fun doesn’t stop there. I had been holding my pee for a while and got to the point where it had to be done, so I asked one of the “cabin crew” about toilets during one of the random stops. He ran with me through a field of garbage and pointed out the worst squat toilet I have beheld and smelled so far. Again, thank fuck it was dark.
Throw in the incessant honking, passengers hawking bile through the windows (spitting loudly, by both men and women, seems to be a thing here in India), and the smell of garbage, etc., wafting through the windows, and you have the concoction for the most unpleasant bus ride ever.
I hate to sound like the privileged white girl who can’t even, but ten hours of this was more than I could take. I was on the edge of my seat through the entire experience, and not in a good way.
As you can imagine, I started to regret my decision to go to Ziro around this time and “get me the fuck off this bus” and other silent pleas were racing through my mind. Forget about sleeping. I can’t sleep on moving vehicles, anyway, so I had to be conscious for the whole ride. When the sun finally came up, a little bit of optimism resurfaced, but then I desperately had to pee again (despite dehydrating myself the whole trip), and my sprint for the one squat toilet in view at the police checkpoint turned out to be an even worse version of the one before. It didn’t even have a hole in the floor, so it was a swamp. I said fuck no and got back on the bus to hold out for longer.
I thought to myself “at least I’m not getting bitten by mosquitoes or flies” and saw in the morning light that I was not spared like I thought—I had little red dots on my hands and arms (and a few on my face). At least they didn’t itch.
I also assumed that some kind of announcement would be made when we pulled into the bus station in Itanagar, presumably the end destination. After we made a few stops in Itanagar and appeared to be heading out of the city, there were maybe only four passengers left on the bus. I asked one of the young guys, who could luckily speak English, where exactly we were going and told him about my plan to hitch a Sumo ride to Ziro. He told me I could just get off in Naharlagan, the next town, for the Sumo. He was heading to this town (his home) as well.
I think karma started to pity me, because this dude carried my big backpack over to a tuk-tuk driver and insisted on helping me. He turned to me and said I should use a toilet first before doing anything else, and when a public toilet was nowhere to be found during a quick street search, the tuk-tuk driver took me to his home (just down the street) to use his. His wife and kids were home and were probably pretty confused as to why this random white girl was using their toilet, but I was extremely grateful for this act of kindness. The young guy wouldn’t let me pay for the tuk-tuk ride, then took me to the Sumo stand, booked my ticket for me (I paid for this one, of course), and walked me to a popular local restaurant to eat breakfast. He asked me if I’d be okay on my own, and then asked one of the restaurant staff if I could sit there for a few hours, until my ride to Ziro departed (of course they said yes). He even gave them his phone number and told them to call in case I needed more help (BTW: the breakfast at Hotel Malabar was awesome, should you ever find yourself stranded in Naharlagan).
The good karma doesn’t end there.
Around half an hour before my Sumo departed, I decided to inquire about a helicopter ticket back to Guwahati from Naharlagun (after Ziro) because no way I was getting back on that bus again in three days’ time. Fuck that shit. I know it sounds luxurious, but I had read online and in my guidebook that a one-way ticket is 4000 rupees, which is maybe 50 euros, and takes just over an hour. Not an extravagant expense, and considering the circumstances, money damn well spent. A girl on the street (Bagra) asked me if I needed any help, and I explained to her that I wanted to book this ticket, but wasn’t sure where to go. She walked with me to the different transportation service stands to ask, and found out that we would need to go somewhere else in the city to book the ticket. I didn’t have time before my ride to Ziro, and she said it was no problem, she would find out the schedule, call me afterwards, and then book it for me if I wanted. I ended up not booking it yet because I was unsure about getting back from Ziro in time for the 8 am flight, the only ride of the day. I would have to spend the night before in Itanagar.
One thing that never ceases to amaze me when I travel is the kindness of strangers. I have been incredibly lucky to attract kind people to me in foreign places. This is one of the best things about travelling, and I think that travelling solo also plays a role.