How we got mistaken for terrorists… twice, Manipur – rebels, clans and stags, Myanmar – here we come!

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Ima Market (Mothers’ Market), Imphal

16.11

MAP_SilcharIn the morning we have the chance to meet our benefactor and his whole family. It turns out he is the uncle of the men whose door we knocked on yesterday. The surrounding other 3-4 houses, with the belonging land which is quite vast, also belong to their family – they are in fact rich Brahmans. Our guy is the eldest of all and this is the reason why they take us to him so he can decide how to proceed. He looks young and has lived 20 years in Canada where his wife and sons still are.

He have returned to his hometown in order to split the property among the family, build a clay house in the forest and live secluded spiritual life in it. He is rich and influential and thus has on hise mind a few projects to launch: one of them is to create business for his son, the other to build a house for his children who were born and raised in Canada. They don’t want to come back to India, but he thinks that someday this might happen after all.

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The Svami who eats mainly leaves

His opinion is that they have to work like crazy in Canada even if they have money and here in India they could live just by the property they own and won’t have to work even a single day. The contradiction here is that though he now wants to give up the worldly life, before 20 years he had left for Canada in order to achieve something, but now he wants his son to forfeit his perspectives there. His spiritual ideas are also very eccentric, namely he wants to build his personal hut and enclose it with a high wall so nobody comes to bother him. He wants to also buy different animals like birds, deer, tiger etc. and live with them. He also plans to give all of his wealth and properties to his children.

This plan is supposed to happen till the end of the next year (2016). He repeats all the time he is not religious but spiritual and that in his eyes all living beings are equal – he says that the sun shines on everyone equally regardless of their religion or ethnic identity. Seven years ago he stopped eating cooked food except paneer (type of Indian cheese) and now eats raw food – mainly smoothies made of the leaves he picks from his garden. Together we made a taster-like trip around all the bushes and trees around the house – I admit that the tulsi was very refreshing 🙂

Of course he is against causing harm to any living being and that’s why he eats only leaves, fruits, nuts and flowers as he says is being advised in the ancient scriptures. Root crops such as potatoes and carrots are not included in his diet because in order to eat them one has to kill the plant. On the topic of eating cooked food he says that God created all living beings with the ability to eat their food without any processing or cooking and it is absolutely possible for the human being to eat without cooking. I admit that his arguments are strong. He has done something very revolutionary for the region where he resides – he has split his property equally among his son and his daughter – I say revolutionary because here in India the girls never gets anything.

This stirred up discontent among the people in the community because now all the girls in the area want a cut from their father’s property. But he is really proud of his decision. He has sent his son and daughter to study for two years in a spiritual school in Bengal. He also has a scar left on his forehead from his tilak which was engraved – this is strange because usually the tilak (sign on the forehead) is made with clay or natural paint – it’s the first time we see a permanent one. Inside the house there is a small temple of Krishna and Rada, but our friend speaks often against the temple system and the divinization of the murti (small statues of deities) which surprised us a lot.

After eating semolina halva for breakfast we hear that all the neighbors had thought yesterday that we were terrorists and came at 11 p.m. yesterday to take us to the police, but our host stopped them from doing so. Now we have to do a small tour around the other houses that belong to the family for the people to see us and make sure we are just ordinary travelers. This one has never happened to me before – in a town with 50% Muslim population and many illegal emigrants from Bangladesh the people to think that we the Europeans are terrorists! They said they had watched the news about the terrorist attacks in Paris and thought we could be dangerous… The human logic is sometimes really genius-brilliant! 🙂

We do some laundry, have some lunch and it is time to go. Our friend, whom I described as somewhat crazy person, is in fact very normal and a really nice guy. He stops a rickshaw and pays it for us so rapidly we barely notice. We thank him for the great hospitability and part our ways. The rickshaw leaves us in the center and we take another one to the outskirts. We walk then for a kilometer or two, but there are still houses everywhere. Assam and Bengal are the most densely populated states we have ever been at. A guy who is going to the airport takes us 2 km. out of town. Then another one takes us for 4-5 km more. Then things get slow. The road is terrible and there are very few cars and trucks passing by. 30-40 minutes later it starts getting dark. The area around us doesn’t seem appropriate for camping, but I have decided to not get depressed because of this. The feeling that something/someone helps us all the time is now stronger and that’s why I can’t allow myself to doubt and worry.

Soon a guy stops and he looks educated. He is from Assam and is a principal of a school which is 15 km away. He tells us he had met a French traveler before and sheltered him at the school. Then he asks us where do we plan to sleep tonight and when we say we are looking for a place for the tent he asks us if we wanted to stay at one of his classrooms. Of course we agree immediately.

I still can’t wrap my head around the magic force that moves us on the roads and how everything fixes itself up in the last moment. It is indescribable 🙂

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The Baptist school

We arrive at the school. Several people bring two wooden beds in the classrooms and then invite us at dinner. If you think we are just in a normal school where everything is usual, you are wrong. In India you can’t spend even a few hours without something strange, crazy or unexplainable crosses your path.

So we find ourselves in a Christian Baptist school and the director is a Muslim converted in Christianity and founded the school with help from the US. His father worked for some missionary and he was the first to adopt Christianity, but his mother (the grandmother of the principal) couldn’t “betray” her religion and is still Muslim. Of course she was living a happy life at the Baptist school. The wife of the director is from Manipur and is born Christian. The two of them are maybe the only Christian couple in the region – most of the people here are Muslims. The pupils are about 900 and most of them are also Muslim, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone here.

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The owner and manager of the school

17.11

We have to get up before the classes have started and to start hitchhiking immediately. We have to pass 250 km passing through the mountains and we’ve been told that the roads are in bad condition. Our destination is the last Indian state we will be visiting for this journey – Manipur.

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Inside the Christian school

We have 25 km. left to reach the border and exit the overpopulated Assam. Then we head to the mountains inhabited by Manipur tribes. We are eager to see this state because it seems it will be exciting there – at least as much as Meghalaya. What we know about Manipur is that: there live tribes that fight for territory; the whole drug traffic from the Golden Triangles passes through here to the rest of India; this is not a very safe place. Christians and Hindus are in equal proportion here and the main tribe is the Meetei people. We are about to enter the debris of the uninhabited Manipur 🙂

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Scenery in Assam

We go on the road and we start what is to be the most terrible hitchhiking experience in India. We wait for twenty minutes and a car takes us for 3-4 kilometers. There are just villages and houses on the road and the 25 km. that separate us from the last Assam village named Jiribam seem impossible to cross. For two hours we change three vehicles and pass just 10 km. The road is terrible. I don’t know what kind of Zen you will need to hitchhike 200-300 km. around Assam.

MAP_JiribamFifteen kilometers before Jiribam we strike oil. A truck with two guys from Manipur passes by us, but then waits for us at a police check-point a little bit further down the road and takes us. We don’t even dare to ask where the truck is headed to, terrified by the thought the driver will tell us to get off after 2 km., the people inside don’t ask us either… We reach Jiribam and here they tell us they actually go to Imphal – Manipur’s capital and are OK to take us to there.

 

 

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Inside one of the trucks

We start climbing the mountain slowly. The road gets much better here and we enter a thick, beautiful jungle. Every 10-15 km. we see bamboo houses with straw roofs that remind us of Laos. The locals also resemble the people from Laos and Thailand and dress the same way. We pass often through military check-points and it is obvious that the military people are alert. Though everything else seems silent and calm. The villages are mainly Christian, with Baptist churches and not very populated.

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On the road to Imphal

At a certain point the driver says that we will reach Imphal tomorrow and this time we aren’t shocked at all. Our experience in India has taught us that crossing 200 km. with a truck usually takes 2 days, so we lie down inside the broad cabin and watch at the jungle and sleep a little bit. Of course we stop here and there all the time. We stop to load bamboo, to eat, to arrange documents, to change the tire, to go to toilet, to buy vegetables etc. In the evening we reach a small village and we ask the locals to pitch our tent in the yard of something that looks like a saw-mill in the open. The terrain is upland so there are not many flat places, but luckily the saw-mill “materializes” next to the truck. The weather is warm and we sleep well. The driver tells us we will leave at 3 a.m.

18.11

We set the alarm and at 3:30 we are ready with the luggage, but there is no movement inside the truck – our friends sleep like dead. Only the snoring of a pig living in the sty next to us breaks the silence. The weather is cool and we take out our sleeping bags and lie on the wide boards of the saw-mill. Around 5 a.m. the drivers wake up. We hit the road. I sleep through all the morning and wake up when the truck is stopped for a check. The soldiers start checking our documents too and when they see the Pakistan visa they are somewhat worried. They start walking nervously around. Then a person with a higher rank comes and starts asking us questions. When they see we are just travelers they calm down and excuse themselves by saying that times are critical now and many Europeans have joined ISIS and that is why they are checking us so extensively. My jaw dropped – this is the second time these days that we are mistaken for terrorists.

We continue driving through the jungle and everything constantly reminds us of some place in Columbia full of drug-cartels. The impression gets stronger when we see soldiers with Kalashnikov guns in their hands and the strange face expressions of the locals. At noon we descend from the mountains and 15 km. before Imphal we say goodbye to the truck-driver who goes to a repair-shop to fix his tire.

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Women carry water

Then a car takes us immediately and we are in the capital of Maipur in no time. The weather is cloudy and the city doesn’t seem very attractive. The scenery consists of shabby old buildings and grayness, but at least the dirt and the madness aren’t present. We go to an Internet café and then head to our couchsurfing.org host. It turns out he lives outside the city in a green neighborhood with pine forest next to it.

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A hut in Manipur

When we arrive we are flabbergasted. Several big building that look like barns and a wide yard with a statue of dragon in the middle. One of the so called barns is for us – all of it. Inside it we find two beds with nets against mosquitoes and a big table. In the barn next to us lives another guy – an amazing traveler from Spain who doesn’t use money while traveling – he has just 200 euro left for the next few visas. In the third building lives our host named Milan.

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The headquarters of UFO

There is also a smaller house that serves as a kitchen. In it there is a hole in the ground where the fire is set and everything is cooked on it.

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The kitchen at UFO

The toilet and the bathroom are just two cloth screens in the forest. Later we get to know that these are the headquarters of UFO (no alien shops here though – this stands for Universal Friendship Organization) and our host is the secretary. This is a local organization that teaches young people to the principles of non-violence and peace and at the same time solves the armed conflicts that arise between different tribes. The members of the organization also try to breathe new life into the ancient traditions of the tribes, train young people martial arts and have a very sophisticated codex that regulates the moral principles of the people, their way of life and even what they eat. The founder and the teacher of UFO died in 2006 and his followers believed that he would resurrect and didn’t cremate him nor buried him till today. The body is kept somewhere in Imphal. The organizations has 2500 members and around 200 centers around Manipur.

MAP_ImphalWe spend the rest of the day chatting with our host Milan and the traveler John. In two days starts one of the most important festivals for Manipur called Sangai and Milan invites us to stay and see it and well… in fact he said we could stay as much as we want 🙂 We decide to follow his advise and rest well before entering Myanmar next week. The fact that this place is great made our decision even easier.

 

 

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Our sanctuary at UFO

Every day Milan invites us to breakfast, lunch and dinner and at night we gather around the fire and talk endlessly. The temperatures fall at night, but the thick plush blankets he gave us saved us. We plan to start hitchhiking on 24-th and hope we’ll be able to cross the 100 km. to it in a day and a half. We feel excited of the fact that after half a year in mystical India, the mother of all wonders, in just a week we leave. The unknown lies ahead. We enjoy every day here in Manipur.

19-23.11

Manipurrebels, clans and stags

For the days we spent at UFO we understand some strange facts about Manipur – the land of jewels as it is translated. Shortly – the unstable political situation is due to the strong belief of the people in Manipur that they want independence from India and they had always been a separate country with its own culture, writing, language and culture and they became part of British India during colonialism. People are against all things Indian and are dead set to separate, though it seems that they cannot manage economically by themselves. Most of the population belongs to the Meetei people and are Hindus, because in 15-th century their king had adopted Vaishnavism. Today the young people try to resurrect their ancient religion, called Sanamahism that worships the sun god Sanamahi, and renounce Hinduism. All the signs in Imphal are in Latin letters or in Meetei writing, one rarely sees Hindi writing.

As a result of this many rebel groups formed. They now hide in the forests and all the time attack military people, kidnap political leaders, block roads, and kill people in cold blood. All the Meetei support these groups and even our pacifist organization likes them. For the first time in my life I can speak to someone who has tribe values, justifies killing and to him the value of the territories is higher than the value of the human life. We lead some long discussions on the topic, but with no result.

During our stay here the rebels have blocked the roads. Buses and other privately owned vehicles are not allowed to enter Manipur. Reading the local newspaper we get to know that almost every day a soldier or someone involved in politics is being executed. Other major problems are the inter-tribe territorial blood feuds. The main tribe Meetei that lives in the valley of Imphal has a conflict with the tribes Naga and Kuki that live on the hills and sometimes even with Meetei from the mountains. We hear that two-three days before our planned departure to Moreh which is at the border, students from Kuki tribe will block the main road and we will have to find another circumvent road which they told us is not very safe to travel on. That’s why we decide to leave earlier. On top of all this the drug and weapon traffic passes through Moreh which makes the area even more unstable.

Regardless of all this Manipur is a very interesting state and people are very hospitable to foreigners, so we never felt any danger during our stay and I think the state could be visited by all who want to see it.

The Meetei Tribe is divided in seven clans and according to their ancient texts every clan has certain skills and there are even instructions for what kind of fruits and vegetables the people from the certain clan should not eat in order to not spoil their skils.

In Manipur could be seen one of the rarest stags on earth called Sangai which is also the emblem of the state. We saw Sangai deer at the zoo which was located next to our organization’s branch. The tribe culture of Manipur is very rich and includes: myths, animistic cults, martial arts, theater performances and dances. Few people know that polo (the sport) actually originates from here. These days we learn a lot about Meetei Tribe thanks to our host who belongs to the diplomatic clan.

On 21-st the Sangai Festival begins. Its purpose is to promote tourism in the area as well as all kinds of arts and sports which are demonstrated for ten days in a row. It is very interesting and we go two different days to watch the programs. There is also a fair where traditional foods, reproductions of tribal houses and totems are been presented. Though the atmosphere is a little bit strange because of the high number of Special Forces with Kalashnikov, we really like it. People here don’t see many tourists so a lot of them come to take pictures with us or talk to us. We are famous for a day 🙂

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The Sangai Festival – Ras Leela Dance

 

Video of the Ras Leela dance

 

These days at UFO arrive more strange travelers and now we form a nice group of eccentric adventurers – an Australian who has traveled for half an year with a bike in Southeast Asia and India; a Siberian with a motorbike who has lived for four years in India; the Spanish guy Juan who travels with no money in Asia and us. As you can imagine the crazy stories around the fire tonight are extremely interesting.

Polo match

For the first time in our lives we are at a polo match – the traditional sport of Manipur. Here is what to expect if you visit one in Imphal:

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Polo match opening

 

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Traditional dance at the opening ceremony

 

Video of the traditional dance of the opening ceremony

 

At every three people in the public there will be one guy from Special Forces armed with Kalashnikov

Before the match begins some kind of guardee-clowns march, beat their drums and perform funny tricks

When two players collide they often fall from their horses

It doesn’t matter which team scores the public gets really excited

This match in particular is played on one of the oldest polo grounds in the world. The result was 7:6 for India, USA lost with just a point.

The polo nowadays differs from the one before because it has been adapted for the players to have less injuries and for the sport to be more playable and popular all over the world. In the traditional version (which by the way is still played here) the ball can be caught with a hand, but then your rival is allowed to hit your hand with his stick. The players are so good that they ride their horses hanging from the side and often there are brutal collisions, so the game resembles more of a battlefield.

For us Imphal is still a dusty and not very interesting town. It is quite small and has only one landmark – Khangla fort. What impressed us here is the central bazaar called Ima market.

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Ima Market

 

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A woman selling “fat” bananas

 

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Local street vendors

 

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Naga Chili – one of the hottest on earth

 

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Lunch at the market

 

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A woman selling betel

In three separate buildings which have local architecture there are cement platforms where thousands of old and not so old ladies sit and sell all kinds of exotic vegetables, fruits, household products and clothes. All wear the typical colorful skirts. It is very interesting place to visit. We felt like we are again in Southeast Asia. Here are being sold: eels, fermented dried fish and many unknown to us vegetables which we haven’t seen anywhere in India up to now.

24.11

In the morning, before we leave, each of us plants a mango tree. We are told that if we come back in let’s say 3-4 years we could eat from our mango trees as much as we want. This is in fact UFO’s tradition – each guest has to plant a tree upon leaving. Then they interview us and we hit the road.

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Planting a mango tree

After the week we spent here with this incredible people we are reluctant to leave. Milan who is one of the most hospitable people wishes us well and all of us spread in different directions – one on a bike, other on a motorbike, third with his thumb, forth on foot.

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Travelers from all over the world at UFO

We take a rickshaw and we are out of town. As often happens in India a young guy comes to us and starts persuading us that hitchhiking is impossible in Manipur. We barely manage to get rid of him and a few minutes later a mini-van stops and moves us 40-50 km. ahead to the foot of the mountain. Then a truck takes us to Moreh village which is at the border. We pass the last 60 km. very fast because the driver is driving like mad though the road is mountainous and has many bends. The truck is empty, the asphalt road is good, so at 4:30 p.m. we reach Moreh.

Milan had advised us to stay at a hotel named “Sangai Lodge” where they would let us pitch our tent. The main street in Moreh is full of shabby hotels, but we find ours pretty fast. On the second floor there is a vast space under the tin roof and the owner agrees immediately us to set our bivouac there. Milan has called him in advance to give him a heads up we are arriving. Then the owner insists that we use a small room there without paying him and we feel a little bit uncomfortable.

In the evening we cook together with the owner at his room – bamboo with potatoes and curry and one very strange vegetable. The owner is a really nice person and though he is working a lot to pay the rent of the building and also does the laundry and the cleaning all by himself, he didn’t hesitate for a second to accommodate us.

In his hotel we also meet a 60-year old Dutch guy who is making a two-month bike tour from Thailand, through Burma to India. He gives us sim cards for Burma and Thailand.

The night is warmer than the ones we spent in Imphal and we sleep well. This is the last night in our beloved India.

25.11

MAP_MorehMoreh is a busy border town or better said village. If in Imphal one still feels being in India and there are a lot of Hindu elements everywhere, in Moreh the feeling is like one is in Southeast Asia. The traffic is pretty heavy and cars and trucks loaded with goods from China circle around.

Moreh and the bordering Myanmar village Tamu are duty free areas and the Indians and Burmese are allowed to cross the border freely if they don’t exit the towns. This results in many Burmese people in Moreh and very cheap goods from China. Indians come here with trucks and load electronics and many other things.

The border itself is 2 km. from the center and as we walk we see at least ten different types of churches – Baptist, Adventist, Presbyterian and even Catholic. Obviously all churches have their branches in Moreh. Soon we go out of the village and we reach an iron bridge over a small river. On the other side there is a sign saying: “Welcome to Myanmar”.

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One of the dozens of churches at Moreh

We have to go back and look for the immigration office so that they put stamps in our passports. We have never seen such a border before. Nobody cares who comes in and who goes out or what people carry on themselves. Now we know why the whole drug traffic passes through here. Well it is true that there are two military checkpoints on the road to Imphal where they are supposed to check everyone, but when we got there the military guys treated us to tea and then decided to write down our passport data, but in the last moment changed their decision and we continued chatting and laughing.

We go back to the immigration authorities and see there are no other people – and thanks god! They are working so slow that it takes them 30 min. to put the stamps in the passports. They don’t check our luggage at all and then send us cordially. We reach the iron bridge again and with great excitement say farewell to India. We step on Burmese land.

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The market at the border

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