Sunday, May 1, 2011

Nagaland - Part 2

(If you are reading this and have not read or viewed part 1, it is worthwhile to check it out before this posting else you will have no reference as to how I arrived here!)
View Nagaland - Part 1 <

Mon Town - Home of the Konyak

Only one hotel was listed in Lonely Planet, and it was full. Again, Nick and I were stranded. We had absolutely no where to stay and the sun was setting. The serious problem was not even the self-enforced curfiew. We had been warned by a local in the same jeep from Khonoma that things were going to be very, very unsafe at night for foreigners in Mon Town during the nights of Aoling. Youth would be sumbling drunk and extremely aggressive. Well that's just the greatest thing I've heard all year... I'm going to get the shit kicked out of me in the most remote place I could possibly be. Better try and stay alive and find a place inside...

The owner of all hotels in Mon Town on the left and the helpful local on the right
Thankfully, it was this same local that found us a connection to a possible place to stay. After being directed to several homes around the village, Nick and I arrived at the home of an old woman. It turned out this lady ran all three hotels in Mon Town... by herself! That's right, no front desks, no maids, no cooks, nothing. Everything was done by her and managed by her. We were in serious luck, as she had one room open for one night. Unfortunately, Nick would have to leave the next morning. Unfortunately, we had arrived a bit later than we expected that day and had no time to explore Mon Town together. But all was well in a hotel room with no warm water, broken windows, and no pillows, for sleep alone had never felt better. We were safe and sound.


The next morning, Nick and I parted ways as the sun rolled over the hillside of Mon Town. He had quite an adventure in store for him, especially with no ATM card and low batteries on his cell phone. He had a couple hundred miles to cover, scaling the borderlands of Nagaland and Assam all the way down into Manipur. Two days from now, his flight would leave from Imphal. If he wasn't on that flight, he was going to be stuck in the Northeast for an unknown amount of time with only the $200 in Rupees I decided to loan him for the sake of his good health, fortune, and progress. This was it. Maybe I wouldn't see Nick in a few days back in Delhi. There were a handful of scenarios I imagined, some of which made me worry for his life. All the same, of any of the members of the UC EAP program, I knew he was the most capable of getting himself out of a very hairy situation... unless military extremists assaulted the Indian military base where he would spend the night before his flight's departure.

Nick had spent the whole morning attempting to hitch a ride and finally found himself a spot in the back of a pickup. It was a prompt farewell. As I walked into the hotel I glanced back. He was gone. I'd found myself in that place before in Mumbai, Sikkim, and Varanasi, but nothing remotely close to the uncertainty of his transport and the grand set of consequences that weighed on his barge to Imphal. In a way, I envied the opportunity ahead of him; to feel the rush of fresh air as the truck bounced and slid through the muddy, unstable, unmapped switchbacks of the Naga hills; to let the excitement of the unknown force him to a search for the next transport to Imphal from his drop point in Assam; to be left to his own perseverance, especially in the absence of communication from the outside world; to dive back into the static of temporary military stalemate, residing with Indian troops in the only "hotel" for miles around the Imphal airport. Its an adventure that surmounts to an experience that will never be witnessed the same way again, and brings about a new understanding of what it means to be alive, safe, and in good company. I put all my good vibes his way and stepped back in the hotel.


With Aoling in full force, I had to make a choice as to where I would try to experience this holiday. There were three young Indian men that I met as I stepped back into the hotel. They said a very traditional musical dance was being performed in a small village nearby Mon Town. Again, good fortune had come my way in the company of Indian friends. But I soon learned that a "nearby" distance followed the Indian's standards.

After 12 km, the four of us arrived to find the village desolate. It had poured rain the entire way there, and I was completely soaked through my nearly waterproof jacket. The entire time I had been clutching my camera like a baby, not daring to check its condition with the risk of my wet hands damaging it. Yet at the end of our journey, we had escaped the rain only to be engulfed in a thick fog. Few buildings showed themselves, and one towered above them all. The church stood across a grassy field. It was packed with the local villagers and midway through Sunday prayer. We all decided to sit down and observe in the back queues for a short while.

Initially all was silent, save the priest, and almost every head turned at one point or another to observe us before darting back to their holy text. Then the energy turned full force. First, the priest raised his voice, chanting a portion of the Bible as loud as he could. This was followed by a roar of unsynchronized chants from every single person in the room, most of which simply closed their eyes and dictated from heart. Almost every window in the church was open. Fog funneled through every opening and a torrential wind roared through and amplified the chant of the attendees.

It's rare to see such genuine, passionate devotion to the Lord, or to any other God in that manner. The sight was frighteningly powerful, taking the breath from my soul as I watched this continue for another half hour in waves of silence and chanting calamity. I know this kind of practice exists elsewhere, but this was different. This wasn't Jesus Camp in my eyes, this was the power of a gospel put into the monotone voices of villagers, convinced that their lives were now supremely touched by the light of God. I had to give it to them, it had changed their society forever in a peaceful way. Yet I couldn't help but wonder, how would their lives had been without Jesus on this day of torrential rain? Wouldn't they have Aoling to celebrate? Its a shame that such a society as Nagaland has been stripped of its tribal practices, yet Jesus has provided them a route through life that involves loving each other as a whole instead of each others' severed heads.

As I exited the church, a heavy, repetitive thumping noise met my ears. My Indian friends and I walked along the outside of the church to find an old hut. It happened to be the past house of the chief, now turned into a meeting hall for the village. Young men and children had filled the room to present the only form of tribal behavior I would get to see of any Nagas, a massive drum carved out of an entire tree. The kids joyously slammed away, and I had time to catch a video of this.

These bones lay across the entire wall of the building across from the drum room, told to once house piles of human skulls within.

Though it wouldn't be the most resourceful experience of Aoling, the entire day was full of a cultural experience I could have never expected. 


I had a whole lot of surprises in store for me the next morning as I exited my room. The landlord was there, babbling away with a guide Nick and I had met the day before. As I approached them, the guide addressed me. "You try to go to Lungwa, yes?" I had only heard stories of Lungwa from Nick and others in southern Nagaland. This small village straddled the border of Burma and India, and was known for three very significant things: the site of several head huntings over the past 50 years, one of the last portions of the province of Mon to be civilized by the spread of modernizing society in Nagaland, and a chief who is still married to 10 wives and father to 20 children.

I had very little time and some talking to do. It turns out the guide was leaving in 30 minutes for Lungwa with a pair of documentarists, a translator, and an Indian driver in a Tata Sumo (Range Rover takeoff). All I had to do was convince the men I was worth transporting. I walked out onto the road again to find both documentarists standing by the car, impatiently waiting for their guide. I soon learned that Joe and Mario were filming a show that explored how globalization was affecting remote tribes of the world. They were attempting to visit several other locations just that day, and I was talking to them holding up their production. As the conversation went on, compassion overcame their impatience. I was going to Lungwa.

As we left Mon Town, there was a serious issue swarming my thoughts. Sure, it was unbelievable; I was getting a free ride out to Lungwa in good company. But the truth was I had no sure route back into Mon Town. Without a ride tomorrow, the whole trip to the Northeast could turn very dire. I was supposed to be in Mon Town the next day in order to give myself suitable time to acquire transport back to the Dimapur train station. But what if a car never even showed in Lungwa? It was 4 hours away from Mon Town, which made it impossible for me to even consider walking back. There was no internet in Lungwa and not even my cell phone with a Naga SIM card would work at the border, so I couldn't cancel my train ticket back to Delhi or rebook it for a day later. My rush of adrenaline from getting a free ride quickly diminished; I could easily become helpless in less than 24 hours.

A vivid memory consumed my mind. I was back on the train from Ajanta Caves to Mumbai, curled in a ball on my 1 square foot of floorspace. The sounds of a thousand snores enveloped my ears. I was miserable. I was helpless. And all of the sudden Fazal's voice came to me and an open hand appeared. As I rose from my little spot on the floor, I realized what I needed to do. This was the train ride all over again. This was India, simultaneously providing a one time opportunity of misfortune and good fortune. Joe's voice snapped me back into reality. "So Mario and I are wondering... as we've told you we're very welcome to help you with a ride out here, but we're also wondering... what your plan is to get out of here?"

Without a moment's hesitation, I answered. "I'll get a hitch hike back. I figure I'll get up early in the morning and just stand out on the side of the road." I think about how I worded this answer now. I must have sounded crazy! However, this was far from a crazy plan. This was a beautiful awakening. India was speaking to my soul, telling me that a plan was not needed, that the route home would show itself regardless of the circumstances. And with that, my mind relaxed. Helplessness shattered into the bright afternoon warmth of clear skies and a jungle road. I was feeling a different rush this time. I had just turned the page in the development of my patience, happiness, and love for the wild world I lived in. I pressed my fedora firmly onto my head, pulled my body halfway out the window, and lived.

The Last Head Hunter


Odyssey by Amethystium on Grooveshark

Upon reaching Lungwa, Mario, Joe, the crew, and I all stepped out of the Sumo and into the darkness of a massive hut. Only the entry way and a small skylight illuminated the interior as I squinted to observe details.

On my left in a dark corner sat three villagers around a small fire cooking their lunch. Their shirtless attire revealed chest tattoos. Their teeth bled crimson from betel nut addiction. Though initially they seemed unwelcoming, I was quickly met with a happy (yet disgusting) smile and a friendly wave. I furtively replied with a short wave before quickly diverting my gaze away to the adornment of animal skulls and carvings covering the walls of the hut. This place had some serious significance. It may have been a past place of storage for their wealth in human skulls. As we walked deeper, we were greeted by a man who started to talk to the translator and guide. Mario engaged into cameraman mode, documenting the conversation as Joe entered the scene. As I left them to their business and walked towards the entrance, a silhouette of a man engulfed the afternoon light. He walked straight towards me, holding a spear longer than his entire body, never lifting his gaze into my eyes. I was scared shitless, yet he nodded to acknowledge my presence, passed me by, and without a moment's hesitation continued straight into the scene Mario was filming. The translator began conversing, and an aura of excitement filled the air as he learned who the man was. "This is him!"

Though head hunting had been banned for the last 50 years, the most recent kill had been made only 8 years ago in this very village. There had been a dispute that involved stealing, and ended with the severing of another man's head. Lo and behold, this was the man. He stood steadfast with his spear in hand, and without a moment's hesitation began to tell his story.

A Naga shield
Decades ago, the man had become a peaceful farmer. The success of his produce one day brought the misfortune of a cheating villager. As the farmer went out that day to collect a harvest, he found the cheating villager stealing his rice. The farmer respectfully asked the stealer to stop, drop the produce, and leave. The stealer responded by mocking the farmer and continued the frisking frenzy. This did not phase the farmer, who again attempted to peacefully ask the stealer to stop. Yet nothing changed, and  several more annoying mocks and acts of ignorance later, the farmer lost control of his temper. He wielded his ancient Naga blade from his back, raised his spear, and dashed for the stealer. A chase began through the jungle. At one point, the farmer's fury caused him to launch the spear into the back of the stealer. The chase did not end there. The stealer was now scared for his life, still clutching onto handfuls of produce. As they dashed past the home of farmers good friend, he shouted for help. The friend immediately answered the call, snatched up his bow, took careful aim, and lodged an arrow into the leg of the fleeing stealer. Though the stealer now had a spear and arrow hanging from him, he still refused to stop running. The farmer chased him ever farther. As the stealer began to weaken, he flung produce here and there to lessen his weight and evade the enraged, retired warrior. After miles of running, the farmer caught up to the stealer who had emptied the rest of the produce into the jungle all along the way. No longer was the farmer a peaceful man. The stealer had brought back a warrior's fury. It was time for blood to be spilled.

Carvings upon the walls of a hut
As the man finished his story, I forced myself to hold my mouth from gaping open. Holy, shit. I had to agree with this retired warrior in one way: he had really tried to be a reasonable, peaceful man to this stealer. At the same time, I was thoroughly terrified at his ability to sever the head of a man still alive. The next question was expected immediately after from Joe and Mario. "How many men have you killed?"


A young man I met in the village. His father had made the rifle himself and had killed a Burmese tiger long ago to make the adornments of the ancient necklace around the young man's neck.

The Chief

We continued up the hill into the rest of Lungwa after shaking hands with the retired warrior and the rest of his friends. The Chief's home was next. It straddled the border of India and Burma and was full of unfortunate villagers heavily addicted to opium. As we entered, the men snapped out of their haze to drag three huge blue tarps out onto the center floor.

In a blink of an eye, the floor was covered in artifacts. Guns, blades, sheaths, necklaces, opium pipes, and more. All were ancient pieces of art that had been left behind by families long past. They were now pieces of souvenir for Mario, Joe, and I. And we reaped the riches! We were very willing to buy what Joe claimed could become an exhibit. “All you'd have to do is write these guys a check for a couple thousand dollars, and you've got yourself a spot in a museum” he said, and I agreed fully. These villagers had no idea how valuable these artifacts could be. They were tied down by the chains of opiate addiction, looking for a quick buck and a happy sale to a tourist and, of course, hoping to enrich the wealth of their chief.

Photographer - ArtisteInconnu of Flickr
He sat in darkness in a smaller room on the Burmese side of the hut. I said nothing to the chief and listened to Joe and his translator converse. I simply gazed at his appearance, quickly looking away if we were to meet eyes. The man had a Crocodile Dundee appearance, but held the soul of a man who had been a part of severe changes for Lungwa long ago. He was the connection to an old culture that was dwindling with the spread of modernization and new religions, and all the while he wasted away his life smoking poppy extracts out of a bone pipe. The British introduced opiates long ago, a poison that eternally weakened his village that was once the most feared in Nagaland. Again, it was a shame to see such acts of cruelty. This was the way by which an international superpower of the past had infiltrated and destroyed the village of Lungwa. They shattered the spirits of a people that had no business with an empire's endless greed. As the second hand smoke began to dull the light of my own shining soul, I rose, addressed the chief, and left.

The Edge

Leaving the chief's home, I stood on the border that runs directly through. India on my left, Burma on my right.

I had one last thing to do in Lungwa before Joe, Mario, and the crew departed to a hotel on the road 10 km out of town. There was a rock that the guide had told me about. It supposedly had Burmese and Hindi written on respective sides and sat on the highest point above the village. The translator and I, both young and wild in spirit, decided to race to the top of the hill and touch the rock ourselves. As we came running up the crest, I fell to second place as my eyes were overwhelmed with a view of a lifetime.

There was Burma, completely untouched by civilization as far as the eye could see. When I touched the cold pillar and ran my hand across the Burmese writing, I reflected upon just how wild my adventure through India had become. From Delhi, I had traveled by train over 3000 miles, hitch hiked another 400, and ran the last 500 feet to stand in a place that few could even conceive visiting. Many feared the Burmese junta. Others feared a Naga head hunter. But I had thrown these fears aside when I stepped in the Sumo. I had dreamed as a child of being a great explorer of wild lands where few would dare to go. As I stood gazing into the Burmese jungle, that wild man in my dreams became my reality. I was only ending the first chapter of what I intended to become an epic. Now if only I can find a ride home...

I hopped in the Sumo one last time with Joe, Mario, and the crew to get back to the hotel. As we rolled out of Lungwa, Joe turned to me. “Colin, do you know where your name comes from?” It's funny to think about your own name and its significance, especially when you only know it means “young hound dog” and nothing more. I soon found his question to be rhetorical. Joe was fascinated with ancient Irish tribes, He explained that particular names are significant to tribal Irish history. “Colin was given to a shadow warrior, a man who was never afraid to look back upon their own shadow and conquer it with the might of their spirit.”

I thought about this for the entire 40 minute drive down the switchbacks from Lungwa. Though it didn't help my situation for getting back to Mon Town, my mind was surging with the lessons I had learned in the last 24 hours. At this point, it didn't matter what I would do from here. Maybe I would get a ride tomorrow, maybe I wouldn't. I felt like I was living in an epiphany, that even though there was so much more to learn and experience in this world, there wasn't the slightest looming shadow to slay.

And with that state of being, good fortune came my way! Mario had been feeling a harsh cold coming on for days and was in need of medicine. That evening, their driver had to head back with the translator to Mon Town and visit the Chemist (a drug store in India). And so, with a fond farewell to both Joe and Mario, I hopped in the Sumo for a smooth ride back to my cozy hotel room.

The border, looking into Burma. The stone in the bottom left corner is a tomb, full of human skulls that have been buried away with the past practices of the ancient head hunting Konyaks
At one point, we were escorted to a tree where several skulls were preserved under the roots. Our guide, Joe, and Mario observed the flora of the tree to see if there were orchids growing wild on its branches...
and also spotted a skull!
Life brings a whole big mess of misfortune and fears. When those moments come, terrible feelings of helplessness and sadness follow suit. These ominous shadows have overwhelmed me time and time again, leaving me wondering how I will ever find a way to escape. But I've always found a way out. And realize that if you are reading this right now, I know you have the strength in yourself to bring about that momentous change in your life to escape. You have the opportunity to leave the shadow of your past fears and misfortunes far behind in the person that you once were. And there's one way to do it: get out and try! Conquer your fears, for they are only there to be conquered! Move past your misfortunes, for they are only there to be pushed aside! Its a tough road to follow, and failure to escape can easily come along the way. But when you find the end of this route, you will emerge anew, as tough as the earth beneath your feet, hardened by the lessons you have learned.

And I'll be right there with you.