Quite a two week whirlwind tour through India! I think having visited Bangladesh first, as well as reading Shantaram, my view of India may have been completely different had I landed straight in Kolkata from Hong Kong.
The difference between India and Bangladesh is staggering. To give you some background, Bangladesh and Pakistan were part of India prior to 1947. Bangladesh used to be a rather prosperous area – in fact, the British settled first in Bangladesh. The British weakened the country by damaging Bangladesh’s cotton trade, the best in the world at the time. Bangladesh suffered a series of severe famines under British rule, from which they’ve never recovered. Then the British government created a partition between West Bengal (a province in India) and East Bengal (now Bangladesh), by using their differences in religion against each other (Hindu versus Muslim, respectively). In 1947, East Bengal gained “independence” as East Pakistan. However, things were even worse under the Pakistan government, which was based in West Pakistan. After a bloody civil war, Bangladesh finally gained true independence.
West Bengal was mainly populated by Hindus, and had all the manufacturing and value added industries, whereas East Bengal (Bangladesh) was mainly agricultural. Though the people in both regions were ethnically the same, spoke the same language, and followed the same customs, they became divided. The difference in quality of life stepping into India is like night and day – it shows what Bangladesh could and should have.
So now that you’ve had a brief history lesson… Onto our journey.
We stayed three nights at Cherrapunji Holiday Resort, a modest, simple guesthouse frequently holidayed by Indian tourists from Guwahti and Shillong. Extremely remote, yet we had delicious Karsi (the minority group that inhabits that regioin) meals, and great service. The owner, an Indian married to a Karsi woman, really exemplifies responsible tourism by not just making and taking the money out of the region (a lot of investors do in the tourism industry), but putting it back into the local economy. There was a nightly show put on by the local youths, of music, song and dance. A bit surreal sitting there during dinner at this remote hillside guesthouse, and watching an”Indian Idol” show of sorts. (I’ll have to post up the video later!)
Mike and I did some nice treks around the resort. Through local villages, where instead of being greeted by slack-jawed stares, we were greeted by smiling children yelling out “hello!” and waving to us from their almost Victorian style homes.
Another thing I should mention is that in the remotest hillside areas where various minority groups live, whether in India or Bangladesh, the missionaries were there! Back in the early 1900’s. Which is why the people in the hillsides speak excellent English, and are Christian. A bit unbelievable that they made it all that way, and set up this great infrastructure, mainly because I was always huffing and puffing to make it to these places.
A good part of the morning was usually fog during the monsoon
Bangladesh on the plains below
We trekked to the only living root bridges in the world. Amazing structures, they were engineered by the Karsi people, by taking advantage of a special rubber tree that is able to grow on giant boulders. They would lay down a betel nut tree to span a chasm, and as the rubber tree nearby grew, they would wrap the roots around the betel nut tree to strengthen the bridge. A bridge would take about 25 years to create.
OK, I’m out of internet time right now, as I have to head to the airport to pick up Per, but will continue the India chronicles later!