My next book: Peculiar Encounters, More Travels in the Khasi Hills

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Howdy folks. So, I’ve got a new book here…it’s sort of a follow up to The Green Unknown, with more stories and adventures from Northeast India. For the moment, I’m making this available exclusively on Patreon. You can check it out here.

Here’s the introduction:

I’d like to begin this book by thanking all of you folks who have helped me out on Patreon. What you’ve pledged has contributed greatly towards getting my various projects over in India off the ground, so this work is a way of expressing my gratitude.

If you’ve read my previous travel memoir The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills, you’ll know that I’ve spent a great deal of time wandering in Northeast India in search of information on the region’s extraordinary botanical architecture. As I wrote in that book: “I came to Meghalaya first simply as a trekker fascinated by the natural and cultural marvels of a place unlike anywhere else, and then as an amateur researcher attempting to collect information about the state’s largely undocumented, though also sadly disappearing, living root bridges. These structures, which are trained into existence from the still growing roots of the ficus elastica tree, are exceptional because they are among the world’s exceedingly few examples of architecture which is simultaneously functional and alive. A root bridge can be both a useable, centuries-old piece of local infrastructure, and part of a growing, developing, organism. Visually, they seem like something out of a work of fantasy: a universal idea, and a mundane part of everyday life the world over, rendered here in a unique botanical medium. That they are so commonplace in certain parts of Meghalaya (though far less so now than they used to be), that the locals barely think of them as being worthy of note only somehow makes the practice of creating them all the more exceptional. I think that it is not mere hyperbole to predict that, someday soon, the botanical constructions of Meghalaya will be viewed as having a place among the world’s great architectural wonders.”

I set those words down going on three years ago. Now there is somewhat more information to be found on Meghalaya’s incredible village-made botanical infrastructure online, a few under-staffed local conservation outfits are working to preserve at least a fraction of the region’s living bridges, and there are a handful of Indian and international specialists who are interested in studying them. That said, the same basic questions I asked at the beginning of The Green Unknown remain unanswered. Here at the start of 2019, nobody can say with any real certainty how many root bridges there are, what their geographic range is, who introduced the idea of making them to the Khasi Hills, or how long ago they first made their appearance.

In only a few days from the time of writing I’ll be leaving my comfortable home in Newark Delaware and heading off on another long expedition to find out more about this incredible phenomenon.  I can’t exactly say how the weeks and months to come will color my impression of the practice of creating root bridges. Over the course of my travels in search of living architecture the only real constants have been that my previous assumptions about the subject have largely proven incorrect, while the subject as a whole has grown vastly more interesting, complex, and difficult to summarize, than I had once thought possible.

That means that even after this book is completed there’s going to be a whole lot more to tell about walking in the Khasi Hills. Thus, Peculiar Encounters has become the mid-point in a trilogy which I didn’t know I’d be writing until a few months ago.

Life takes us odd places.

 

I wrote The Green Unknown to give the reader a sense of the greater themes one encounters wandering unprepared in Meghalaya. That book was laid out topically, with specific chapters dealing with food, living root bridges, spiritual/religious practices, odd foreign cultural imports, etc., along with a few sections describing specific excursions that I took which I felt illustrated something greater about the Khasi Hills as a whole.

My goal for this book is to take the opposite approach; to focus on incidents and individuals rather than histories and cultures; to emphasize the counterintuitive, idiosyncratic, and just plain odd side of journeying in the Khasi Hills. Much of what I’ve included in this book are things a person visiting Meghalaya for the first time would not expect going in.

It’s always seemed to me that there is an image of the Khasi Hills that exists in a traveler’s mind, and then there’s the very different, vastly deeper, reality. In the mental Khasi Hills, southern Meghalaya is a romantic green place of endless rain, roaring waterfalls, steaming jungles, and smiling locals. I’m not knocking that image. One finds all of those things in spades in the Khasi Hills, and a visitor is well advised to seek them out. But the soothing, delightful-to-visit side of Meghalaya is merely an aspect of life in the Khasi Hills.

All places contain more than what one sees on the surface. If what one gets of the region is only a brief salubrious glimpse then the clashes of different ethnicities, the uneasy lurching of the ancient animist culture of the Khasis into the modern world, the endless multi-level political battles, and the thousands of daily struggles of the people who actually live in Southern Meghalaya go through all become obscured by the curtain of sheer undeniable loveliness that hangs over the hills.

But there’s far more to the Khasi Hills than a handful of overlooks, homestays, and postcard shots. None of this is to say that the waterfalls aren’t grand, and the rivers aren’t majestic. Southern Meghalaya is objectively beautiful, but I would argue that staying there, getting to know it, and trying to understand, at least to a limited extent, the lives of the people who inhabit the region, has only increased its beauty in my estimation.

 

In this book, like in my last, the names of (most of) the persons involved have been changed, though I’ve again made it my policy to use titles that one can really encounter in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Thus, while the person who I’ve named “Bounteous” in the pages below is really named something else, there are several Khasis I’ve met in the canyon country of Meghalaya who are in fact named “Bounteous.” It’s a surprisingly common name.

As for the events themselves, I’ve taken these from the journal entries I wrote during my travels, which in their raw state are cluttered and disorganized and, to other people, indecipherable (my handwriting is so poor that it has on several occasions been mistaken for Hebrew or very sloppy Tamil).

The one place where a certain amount of artistic liberty has of necessity been taken is in the dialogue. That said, in my journals I usually write down the gist of the interesting conversations I’ve had, and this includes recording striking turns of phrase. To give an example, there is a character you’ll meet later who is constantly saying that a particularly exceptional living root bridge is “not very big,” “not very high,” “not very beautiful,” etc.  This comes from an actual talk I had with the man while I was walking with him in the jungle. The conversation may have gone slightly different in real life, but his basic sentiment, and his repeatedly saying the bridge was “not” this, and “not” that, are true to life.

[Aside: By the way, I’m taking a voice recorder on my next trek.]

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Chapter from Peculiar Encounters

Howdy there

Here’s a (very short) chapter from my new book:

OLD JENKINS

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.