There is only one bus to Longleng a day and it leaves Mokokchung at half past noon. I am getting the feeling that I am venturing into a remote Naga village. My maps don’t show it. The journey, they say, is about four and half hours.
I am finding that in travelling through Nagaland the journeys are often just as interesting as the destination. Firstly are the breathtaking hills and valleys. Secondly, the experience of travelling with locals enables interaction and observation of local cultures. Most importantly, the road infrastructure is so bad that nothing is predictable. Something is always happening.
The bus leaves at about one with not more than twenty passengers. There is a woman travelling with her child all the way to Longleng. As is common in these parts, the child is carried on the back and wrapped closed to the mother by a shawl. Women will carry their toddlers this way at all times – while negotiating steep slopes, shopping in the markets, working in the fields or doing household chores. Even young girls carry their siblings this way. They do not feel the strain of the task or the responsibility. It comes naturally to them.
It is a slow ride to Longleng. I see forest cover most of the way. Where some settlements exist, cultivated slopes break the monotony of forest cover. In many cases, I see a cluster of undulating slopes dotted with bamboo huts set right in the middle of surrounding forests. This may be a gross simplification but Nagaland combines the wildness of Arunachal Pradesh and the beauty of Meghalaya.
Often Indians, by which I mean those outside the North East, think of Nagas as uncultured and dangerous people. It may be a thing of the past. I am finding that they are more cultured than the people of many other states. When it is time to get off the bus, there is no rush either from the conductor or from the passengers. Passengers will take their time. The luggage will be unloaded one at a time. The conductor and other passengers help in unloading a television set. A short conversation and then farewells are exchanged. The bus will wait as other passengers walk up to it to board without any hurry. Life here is definitely laidback. When the conductor requests a man to put out his cigarette, the request is promptly honoured.
We stop for a considerable time at the village of Changtongya where women are selling delicious lychees at reasonable prices, where shops are selling machettes, knives, saws and other scary instruments that would be out of place in a city. Upon leaving Changtongya the bus veers off to the left by a dirt track going downhill. The road thus far has been bad but it ought to be considered good in comparison to this dirt track to Longleng. We are moving at snail’s pace. The bus is rattled continously. Soon we enter a narrow valley through which a muddy river is flowing swiftly. We cross it by a bridge and enter Longleng District.
The remote town of Longleng is a busy place this weekend. It is the scene of a State Road Show happening today and tomorrow. I am here to see it. We pass many government vehicles and a convoy that seems to be the Chief Minister’s. I see some cultural groups of neighbouring villages packed into buses on the return. This rare burst of traffic on this bad road has made it worse.
‘Am I too late to catch the highlights of this Road Show?’ I begin to wonder. There is no time to wonder. Something has just happened. At a narrow turn, our bus has to pass another bus coming the other way. In the process, our wheels are stuck in mud. The buses are too close to each other. The other bus suffers scratches. Sidelights are broken. The mirror frame is bent. Both buses are now stuck. Then something wonderful happens.
Had it been Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, a heated argument would have started and tensions would have risen. Nothing of that sort happens here. A few men get down from the buses. They survey the damage, analyze the situation and offer solutions. Not a single word is spoken in anger. No abuse is thrown. Soon the problem is resolved. License plate numbers are noted, phone numbers are exchanged and we are on our way.
It is not long before we come to another narrow turn. Once more our wheels dig into muddy tracks and refuse to move. Worse still, the bus is leaning into a tree trunk at the edge of the forest slopes. We are truly stuck this time. Men get down, a few words are spoken and one of them takes out his machette. The action is swift. In under three minutes, a single man cuts down this tree trunk of six inches wide. It is all done without any fuss, as if it’s child’s play.
Any respectable man of the countryside, will carry a machette, locally called dao. It is a sign of hard labour and responsibility. This machette is a wonderful instrument. Its blade is narrow at the handle and broad at its edge. Because of this, it has two sharp points. One long edge is sharpened. The short edge at the end of the blade is also sharpened. The long edge is used for chopping down trees or cutting through undergrowth. The short edge is used to split bamboos into strips, to peel barks off tree trunks or even as an improvised hoe. So this multi-purpose instrument is all a man needs to make use of forest resources. The machette is carried in a wooden box with an open slit through which the blade is dangled. The box is strung into a belt and worn at the waist.
The tree trunk is pushed aside and we are on our way to Longleng. The bus stops before Longleng once more. A few youths get in. One of them starts groping through my backpack. I question him but he seems to understand only Nagamese. He is wearing a badge and dressed in plain clothes. He is one of the student volunteers for the Road Show. These youths are checking the luggage for security risks.
When its time to move on, the engine refuses to go any further. It groans and stuggles to find its youth. It splutters incoherently. The driver is unable to understand it. The gear box is stuck. After some minutes, the engine box is opened and the conductor prods the engine with a rod. This works wonderfully. The engine gives in, revs up to a noisy grumble and pulls us towards Longleng.
When I reach Longleng it is almost sunset. I find that there is only one lodge in town, the Omega Lodge. It also has a restaurant and that too is the only respectable one in town. I did not expect Longleng to be so undeveloped in terms of tourism. The lodge is full and the restaurant is closing. At an open ground, the crowds have gathered for the Road Show. A singing contest is underway and the crowds are cheering for their favourites. The Road Show can wait. My main concern now is to find accommodation for the night.