There were times, now sadly long past, when the jungles and canyons around Nongriat village would echo with shrieking gibberish. From the opposite side of the valley, a person walking to the remote settlement would hear this nonsensical cacophony building, rising even above the gurgling of the nearby streams and rivers. It was not a welcoming sound.
This would be made all the more unsettling when one arrived in the village. The loud rambling nonsense did not diminish at all, but the locals would behave as though nothing at all unusual was afoot. For them, the disembodied lunatic raving was evidently just one of the usual sounds of the jungle.
Personally, when I first observed this phenomenon, I wondered if I was not having an auditory hallucination, or if I was hearing some bizarre esoteric spiritual exercise (I thought it just as probable that the shrieking could have come from an extreme, newly-converted, protestant as from an animist.)
Only after several visits did I finally learn the source of the noise.
It turned out Old Jenkins was drinking again.
Old Jenkins had family in both Nongriat and Tynrong villages. He used to travel between them, and I’ve heard his ranting gibberish in both settlements, and along the jungle-clad paths between.
The man looked typical for the region. He usually wore a cloth around his head like a turban. His face was weather-beaten and wrinkled, and his teeth were long-corroded by decades worth of betel nut abuse. And yet, despite his manifestly hard life, he had the physique of a twenty-year old.
His madness, and apparently his alcohol abuse (in his case the two didn’t seem to be extricable), failed to prevent him from engaging daily in physical labor that would, where I come from, kill most people a third his age.
There were a few years when tourists visiting Nongriat would often have the disconcerting experience of walking down a lonely jungle trail, and then be startled by mad gibberish from the trees above. There Old Jenkins would be, high up in the forest canopy, shouting passionately at no one in particular.
I once witnessed Old Jenkins walk up to a French couple, who he then proceeded to mumble at and proffer a handful of old brown Jackfruit stems. The couple apparently thought this was some sort of fascinating Khasi tribal custom. They accepted, and Old Jenkins wandered off. I walked by in the opposite direction, and the last I saw of the couple was the pair bent over the Jackfruit stems in their hands, closely examining them as though they had been given an amazing ancient artifact.
(Aside: There are certain Khasi preparations that do call for Jackfruit stems. Perhaps this is what he had in mind?)
Then again, Old Jenkins had a habit of showing up unexpectedly. A friend and I were once sleeping in a small hut when we found, in the middle of the night, Old Jenkins sitting perfectly silent and still in front of our door, a mysterious hunched figure in the dark. The whole time he never said anything. Apparently, he wasn’t in one of his ranting moods.
For hours and hours, he kept up his silent vigil. This lasted well into the night, and I’m not sure when, or why, he left.
My friend didn’t sleep much.
I never found out what happened to Old Jenkins. The last few times I’ve gone to Nongriat, I haven’t heard his senseless rantings. I did get the impression the locals wanted to keep him away from the tourists, and I was told that his drinking was only getting worse. From what I gathered, he occasionally could get violent, and the combination of belligerent madman and oblivious tourist is a volatile one.
Whatever the specifics, all the news I heard seemed to point to his condition getting worse. I’ve not been back to Nongriat in the past few years, and I think it more than likely that Old Jenkins has since passed away.
But I’ll always be in his debt. My most vivid memory of him was during one night when I was sitting next to a campfire in front of Nongriat’s village guesthouse. It was late, and the fire was dying. Most of the lights in the village were out, and all the other guests in the guesthouse had gone to sleep.
I was thinking of packing it in myself, when out of the shadows of the jungle night materialized a short, hunched, figure in a turban. It was Old Jenkins, and his eyes glinted in the red light of the old fire. Without so much as a gesture of explanation, he came over and sat across from me, on the opposite side of the fire.
For a while, he didn’t say anything. But then he picked up a bay leaf branch, grunted at me, and then pointed to the leaves and the fire. I understood that I was to watch closely whatever it was he was going to do next.
Old Jenkins then commenced ripping the leaves off the branch and throwing them into the fire for my edification. The leaves burned brightly, with much crackling and whooshing as flares of burning gas shot out of them. It was fun to watch. Then Old Jenkins laughed and threw on the whole branch, which immediately disappeared in an impressive explosion of yellow flame.
It was from this demonstration that I learned fresh bay leaves don’t burn easily, but when they do catch, the oils in them light up vigorously and fragrantly. I’ve burnt them for personal entertainment ever since.
But, having thus demonstrated to me the flammable properties of bay leaves, Old Jenkins judged that his work there was done. He wordlessly stood up and disappeared back into the darkness.