At a certain point, the road ends at the threshold of Meghalaya Highlands. Myrrh and is worn out. Makes us dive into hooks against hooks.
Some of those, after the eminence of the border of Meghalaya with Bangladesh, we noticed at the surface how much the temperature and humidity had increased and how the vegetation had thickened and become entangled and tropical.
We hardly pass by other vehicles. However, 80km and 2h30 after the morning departure, we find ourselves in a new traffic nightmare.
The Dawki River flows below. Impatient drivers and passengers leave their cars. They descend and climb the ramp again, hoping to understand what was generating that chaos. Some, more proactive, even bet on solving it. In vain.
In her contagious peace of mind, Sharma processes the new reality and communicates to us the recommended procedures. “It will take a while to get out of here. Anyway, the bridge is close. If you don't mind, you'd better keep walking.”
Already half-saturated from the trip, we didn't hesitate. We retrieve our backpacks and set out on our way. We are the only Europeans around. Our sudden appearance surprises the natives. It evokes successive comments, invitations for conversations and, of course, for selfies.
With Dawki in View
The forest opens up. It gives us a glimpse of a foggy floodplain. In the distance, to the south, the river and its bed, which the dry season had made to wane, served as a base for a multitude of wandering black figures, like a colony of ant colonies in disarray. Immediately, we saw the canyon in which the Dawki flowed, tight and verdant, before spreading out into that unusual immensity.
A fleet of handcrafted rowboats occupied the shore here. Some of its owners sent tourists on board, others waited or left. Still others took advantage of the interregnum to wash themselves on the Dawki with an almost religious vigor and zeal, indifferent to the hurls that their fellow rowers on duty did them.
All that fluvial bustle intrigued us. Caught by the spell of the exotic unknown, we forgot that Sharma was certainly looking for us.
We come to the entrance to a large iron bridge with a military profile over the Dawki. Two policemen dressed in mustard uniforms and imbued with a mission spirit alert us to the fact that the bridge is a border bridge, strategic and that, as such, we could not photograph.
But, we are armed with documents from the Indian Government. They attest to us as more than tourists. They validate a necessary exception, with the promise that we would only shoot from the bridge, not the structure itself.
We move forward. We peek at the action below and upstream through the rusty grill. Fishermen in the shade of conical hats alternate shooting and collecting their lines.
On the way to… Bangladesh
Pleasure boat passengers spot them and wave enthusiastically. Until the police approach us again. “Sorry but people are not wanting to understand why you can and they can't. We've already tried to explain, even because your machines are much bigger than their cell phones.
Even so, two or three boring ones don't let us go. If you could speed up your work, we would appreciate it.
We accept the restlessness. Despite the agents' almost military posture, the four of us ended up laughing together. After which we finish crossing the bridge and follow the foot of a steeper slope than the opposite one.
We thought that there we would find the customs infrastructure. This has not yet been the case. We fear we are entering Bangladesh and getting into trouble. Even so, we continued.
In a shady corner, the road reveals to us the place where the river left the gorge, the threshold where, in an unexpected meander, it surrendered to the sandy and vaporous vastness that we had glimpsed from the top of the opposite bank. In our minds, the India was left behind. Otherwise, what is the meaning of the police, the notices and the barrier on the military bridge.
A Surreal Beach Frontier
Onward, the most exuberant bathing mob we have ever witnessed filled a surreal beach. Detached from it, a military man with a whistle and a baton at the ready, tried to maintain an order that we failed to understand.
Even though we were reluctant, we made our way towards the river, soon, through the crowd that was strange to us.
The women wear their best attire: bright and shiny saris, hijabs e dupattas to match long salwars, some with pendants tikka ou maang tikkas to adorn the heads, in sets as exuberant as the Hindus.
Men, in turn, share a fashion that has been stripped of the traditionalism of other times. Only one or the other wear tunics kurtas ou thobes and wear matching Tupi skullcaps.
It's not that rivers or water or India nor to Bangladesh who, in addition to the Dawki, share the imposing Ganges and Brahmaputra (which unite in Padma), among others.
We intuited that what led all those people to gather there was the fact that they lived and refreshed themselves on the emblematic frontier, similar to what they were (is it still?) the incursions from Elvas to Badajoz, from Vila Real de Santo António to Ayamonte and so many others along this Portuguese-Spanish streak outside.
The Rocky Magnetism of Zero Point Jaflong
The place that welcomed them became known as Jaflong's Zero Point. Jaflong became popular in the minds of Bengalis as a hill station idyllic surrounded by rainforest and tea plantations and the predominance of the Khasi ethnic group, the same one we found in Shillong and the rest of the state. Meghalaya. That is, until greed sets in.
The alluvial plain of the Dawki and Goyain rivers hid a lode of stones. Not the precious stones that we would normally assume, mere common stones.
In those parts where incomes are so meager, the natives realized that if they extracted and crushed them from sunup to sundown and sold them to be transformed into cement, they would profit much more than their previous activities.
This financial stimulus attracted thousands of spontaneous miners who occupied state land and even part of a nature reserve. They opened ditches and disemboweled the landscape to the point of forcing the Dhaka government to intervene and forcing the reforestation of various sectors of the destroyed area, far from recovering it in its entirety.
All this had passed and continued to pass a few hundred meters downstream. There, at the Zero Point, only the soap used by some washerwomen installed on pebble islets stained the Dawki.
The flood of incoming visitors from India and from Bangladesh, he was filled above all with color, with good mood and with selfies and family photos, some taken with simple smartphones, many of them in charge of professional photographers who roamed the area to impose their services.
With the aim of attracting more customers, one of these entrepreneurs maintains, on the water, a scenic yellow-toned armchair, next to sellers of postcards, peanuts and salads chat of grain, of paani puri and others.
Far from inviting or providing baths, the Dawki only wets the feet of visitors. Some stay by the inaugural meters. Others venture almost halfway through the shallow stream. The lateral movement of vacationers continued, however, limited, which brings us to the military with a baton at the ready and to its intriguing functions.
Singh & Kumar, the military duo with the order's mission
As a border line, Jaflong's Zero Point was guarded. We later noticed a camouflaged checkpoint, elevated on a platform made of pebbles.
Two Indian soldiers, Man Mohan Singh and S. Saj Kumar – took turns controlling the events from there and, from the riverside, the population's wanderings. Both one and the other seemed to identify without difficulty who was coming from the India and from Bangladesh
We got into a conversation with S. Kumar. This one, swells when seeing its redoubled protagonism. He ignores the expected military common sense and modesty and authorizes us to photograph him both with us and alone. We asked him what he controlled, after all, with his whistle and bat.
Kumar, an ethnic Tamil soldier, displaced from southern India, explains everything in detail: “Do you see the little hut over there? And that big rock? So, the boundary is an imaginary line that comes from above, passes through the rock and flows inwards to the other bank. What I have to do is prevent the Indians from going over to Bangladesh and the Bangladeshis to the Bangladeshi side. India. "
Both he and Singh took the mission seriously. As soon as a popular crossed the intangible frontier, the military whistled, raised the baton and decomposed it. If the offense was repeated, they aggravated the reprimand with threats of expulsion. That's how it started out with us too.
But when they found out about what we were and what we were doing, the guards started to ignore the incursions we forced, increasingly transgressive, there yes, already in Bangladeshi lands.
A unique Earth in times
Originally the territory of the Indian province of East Bengal, Bangladesh emerged from the painful Partition of India August 1947. It was one of two new nations (the other being Pakistan) hurriedly created to accommodate the many millions of Muslims with no place in India, the fruit of growing incompatibility with the Hindu majority.
Years passed. As the military assures us, "apart from the problem of illegal emigration of Bangladeshis to the north which India fails to control, we have a relationship if not cordial, at least acceptable."
It was, in fact, that we would choose to classify it after a good part of the afternoon spent among Hindu “neighbors”, Christians of Meghalaya and Bangladeshi Muslims.
Shaken by several hours under the tropical sun and by all that bathing commotion, we find ourselves ecstatic, hungry and thirsty. We returned to the road where Sharma was waiting for us. Through our air, the driver immediately intuited what we wanted.
Minutes later, we are seated at a restaurant table in the shade of an areca palm plantation. Even spicy explosive, we devoured the menu thali fish that, at that late hour, were still served to us. We went back to the car. We ended the day exploring more of the rugged, verdant and Indian domains upstream from the Dawki.
More information about Meghalaya at Mesmerizing Megalaya and on the Indian tourism website Incredible India.