Friday, April 29, 2016

Experiencing The Angami Tribal Culture In Touphema Village

Every nook and corner of Nagaland is blessed with abundant natural beauty and we would have a tough time choosing the best destination in these hills, Touphema however, has stood out in the crowd by being a self sustaining village. The local community took onus to develop the village and are responsible for making it a tourist destination. They decided to construct a resort for tourists to come stay and understand more about their tribal culture.

This village is now considered as a model example and other villages too are following suit. This excellent initiative by the Angami tribe is very efficiently run by the local community. The land was donated by a villager for constructing this Tourist Village and this self funded resort has 12 cottages with each clan from the village sponsoring one cottage.

They have done a wonderful job of providing Ethnic Angami model huts with a fire place along with modern amenities and is a perfect place to experience an age old culture. The huts are aesthetically done giving it a very traditional Angami feel. They are made of wood with thatched roofs and once you enter, there is an area to light a bonfire. The huts do not come with a lock and key and instead have huge wooden logs that are used to lock the door. The room has the softest mattress, pillow and an amazing quilt. Once tucked in you are guaranteed to sleep like a baby.

Right behind the cottages is their grand and traditional authentic dining hall which is beautifully decked up with artifacts and jewelry. The large traditional Angami kitchen setup which houses a massive fire place is surrounded by livestock, pulses, grains and handwoven baskets. The large wooden tables are so inviting to sit on and have a meal. The lengths that the community has gone to give a true and authentic Angami experience is truly commendable. Skulls of Mithun, Naga spears and axes adorn the kitchen wall.

The pathway outside the huts is dotted with cherry blossom trees and a host of lot more trees and bushes. The entire area is filled with grass and of course the entire picture would be incomplete without a huge nursery with the colorful flowers swaying at the gust of the wind.

Now coming to the part that we loved and spent most time in the tourist village is a sit out facing the green valley providing unadulterated views with the magnificent orange sun setting in the background. It has a massive tree trunk that has been converted into a coffee table. Sipping a cup of hot tea on a cold evening made us want to stay back here forever.

We had  arrived at Touphema around Diwali and on the eve of Diwali we had an in-house bonfire symbolically celebrating the festival of lights. These little pleasures in life make for some great memories.

Around the resort is Touphema village museum which is a treasure trove of exhibits belonging to the Angami tribe. The galleries are dedicated to earthenware and wooden utensils that include a massive and all natural rice pounding table showing the different stages of the extraction process. Moving on, we saw hand knit woolen shawls, jewelry, head gear and beautiful ornaments. Then comes an extensive collection of guns of various sizes and the iconic axes, swords and spears.

The most amazing exhibits are the chairs made of buffalo horns and elephant bones. We have to give it to their creativity and smart usage of natural products. It houses an impressive massive elephant skull with ivory tusks and their most remarkable exhibit was the wooden tobacco pipe that had intricate engravings on them. Majority of the artifacts displayed in the museum have been collected from the families living in the village.

Right opposite the museum is a massive log drum on display. The log drum is a massive musical instrument made from a single chuck of tree and is very intriguing. In earlier times, the log drums were used during war- to announce the approach and retreat of an enemy forces. The drum is played by a group of men using wooden dumbbells.

If you still want more out of Touphema, fret not, starting from amazing and true village walk experience to interacting with friendly locals it is truly amazing to see how self sustained the villagers are. They breed their own livestock, grow as many trees, fruits and vegetables in their garden and all in a very organic fashion. Their respect for nature is a lesson that everyone should learn. A beautiful church at the centre of the village adds more charm.

A small pathway led us to the old village which is right behind the resort. On the way do checkout the warhead tree on which war trophies in the form of enemy heads were displayed once.The entrance to the old village is where the warhead tree is accompanied by a small compound wall made of stone slabs. Do stop by the demon, thunder stone and husband wife clutching stone.

As we walked into the secluded old village we were greeted by the Angami people with broad smiles and a cup of chai. It was amazing to see massive bamboo baskets that are used as storage containers being hand woven. We saw how labor intensive, time consuming it is and the high skill set required to weave just one basket. The road leads to the old baptist church near which lies the Husband and wife rock. The villagers were gearing up for a wedding in the nearby amphitheater and it was a very pretty sight. Do take a walk around to appreciate the architecture of this

Among many very first experiences, our first hitchhiking experience happened here. Driving or riding in your own vehicle though has its own perks but it takes away the experiences that a backpacker can completely relate to. Hitchhiking being one of them. These experiences make you meet new people and strangers instantly become friends. Even better, it makes you trust people more and brings back faith in humanity. People in these hills are very kind and helpful. The person who offered us a lift was more than happy to drop us to the tourist village. He made sure he drop us right at the reception and not just at the entrance of the property.

An ideal duration to stay here would be a minimum of two days as you could soak in and cover the entire village by foot. The kids in this village are not camera shy and are more than happy to pose. Watching these kids play made us realize that here all kids play football without any gender specific games. It was a relief to see that girls were not stopped from playing so called boys games, in fact the girls were better at scoring goals. Point proven it is all in the mentality of the people rather than how educated and well read you are.

It was at Touphema tourist village that we were introduced to exquisite Angami cuisine. They serve all vegetarian lunch and it is surprising to see the extent of vegetarian delicacies that were prepared. We were served dal with spinach and local herbs adding a lot of flavor. The vegetable curries were simple and organic- pumpkin, squash and potatoes blended with local herbs made for great accompaniments to go with dal. However, the one dish that completely stood out was 'Boiled beans and bamboo shoot,' the aromatic after taste of bamboo shoots lingered in our taste buds for a long time.Another must try would be their spring onion pickle blended with Naga King Chilli.

Their breakfast is simple but wholesome with omelette bread. jam and locally procured honey with a cup of tea or coffee. You would be amazed to taste the unadulterated mountain honey. Irrespective of the generous quantity of honey you consume in one sitting, you never feel like you have had an overdose of sugar rush. It is such a blessing to stay in rural India where the FMCG companies are yet to take over and replace the natural products with adulterated factory made ones.

All remote villages in Nagaland have one lone bus that leaves from the village to the nearest town early in the morning and returns to the village on the same day. These buses provide an excellent opportunity to travel with the locals and freshly felled bamboo, livestock and ration gives you company in the bus.

Locals here understood that connectivity was a big hindrance in their daily lives as there were no public transport services available even though the village was only 41 km away from Kohima. It was then that  the village community decided to pitch in and buy a mini bus so that they could commute to the capital and return the same day. All 600 families pitched in their savings in 1985 and bought a bus that runs till date and they try and accommodate everyone on the way.

Early in the morning you can spot villagers waiting for the local community bus to arrive. It was such a lovely sight to see villagers have lengthy conversations with each other and exchange pleasantries. As soon as we all boarded the bus and before the journey could commence the people in the bus came together and offered prayers for a safe journey.

If you are reaching Touphema from Wokha, then keep in mind that there is only one bus that leave from Wokha to Kohima daily between 6 to 7 am. If you miss the bus, taxis are your only hope. After a one hour bumpy ride in a shared taxi to Botsa village and hitchhiking a 4 km steep ghat road we reached Touphema tourist village.

If you want to have an even more awesome time in Touphema, visit during "Sekrenyi Festival" which is a purification festival held in the month of February. For reservations contact 9436832075, 8014926733. Each cottage is priced at Rs 2300 per night per couple while breakfast lunch and dinner are priced at Rs. 200, 250 and 350 respectively per person plus government taxes.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Wokha Village, Best Kept Secret Of Nagaland

Wokha, a tiny town, around 150 km from Dimapur is a perfect hill station vacation destination. The lush green valleys around which the town is settled, the age old churches and the beautifully constructed homes dotted across the road decorated with colorful nurseries makes you want to settle down in this town forever.

We hopped on to the bus at Dimapur that leaves for Wokha via Kohima and takes you through picturesque valley, virgin wilderness and through roads dotted with bamboos towering over several meters on either side. Though the roads are terrible and bumpy, the slow moving bus stopped at several fruits and vegetable shops en-route so that the villagers could make purchases. After crossing Kohima the bus stops for breakfast too. (It was our first time that for a 150 km ride the bus stopped for food break, says a lot about the condition of the roads!)

En-route our bus had a flat tire and while the driver and the conductor worked on replacing the tire, we were able to see the kindness of North Eastern People. Most of the cars that passed by offered to drop stranded passengers to their destination.

While almost everyone got down at Kohima barring very few locals, we were the only non locals in the bus and we also got a taste of the much talked about North Eastern hospitality. A random conversation with a fellow passenger ended up with a generous offer of inviting us "total strangers" to her home for a cup of tea. We were introduced to the family and the environment was so positive and cheerful like long lost friends catching up. We were treated to the most awesome fruits from their organic farm and we swear by our travel that those were the best papaya we ever had. In the mean time, they had figured out a place for us to stay and were kind enough to drop us there. There would be a few people who you would meet only once in your lifetime but would be great friends and be grateful to them forever.

Exploring any place by foot is the ultimate joy a traveller longs for. We were wandering around Wokha and stumbled upon a Baptist Church and it seemed like the entire town of Wokha grew around this church. It was very soothing to hear the church bells echo around the green valley.

The S.M. Baptist English school is one of the oldest schools and Shanjamo is the man behind S.M who was the first Naga to visit USA to study Christianity. This school is set amidst a pretty scenic location but it was indeed sad to see that the state of the school was in shambles. The window panes were broken and antique crumbling wooden benches were lying around that seemed fit only to be used as fire wood. While we are no advocates of city style schools which are ore of a money making model with their fancy AC classrooms and sometimes a trip to NASA, there is no doubt that schools in Nagaland are in dire need of upliftment. If the government schools could be in better shape providing good education, clean water, food and toilets and a playground for the kids to enjoy a carefree education, the private institutions today would not be charging such exorbitant fees.

As we were walking by we came across a humble and beautiful home for children- 'Morning Star Children's Home' run by a lovely couple Mr and Mrs. Benjello. This kind couple have converted their home into a children's home and are taking care of seven children. They gave us a tour of their lovely home which is exceptionally sparkling clean and all the rooms were beautifully decorated. They were kind enough to offer us to stay with them completely free of cost and spend time with their family and children but unfortunately we were not able to do so. We learned a very valuable lesson that we should not be self centered and help the lesser fortunate in whatever way possible and most importantly not expect anything in return. Apart from education, Mrs. Benjello teaches the kids the importance of hard work and being responsible. This has resulted in them setting up a wonderful nursery for their home.

We had read about the Tokhu Emong festival that happens in Wokha District and without much information, as soon as we got our permit for Nagaland we decided to head to Wokha. While the Hornbill festival is more famous, this festival makes you truly understand the tribe better and the difference in cultures across various tribes. A festival that should definitely not be missed.

The best part of Wokha apart from her natural beauty and the Tokhu Emong festival is the Serrano Restaurant between Public garden and Police point. This excellent restaurant emotes the absolute love and passion that the chef and owner Mr.Gilbert has for food. The restaurant has a small library and a small setup for music gigs. We tried an authentic Naga delicacy 'Bentsu Honoso,' grilled chicken with Bentsu sauce accompanied with boiled vegetables, chutney and a bowl of rice. This dish is relatively mild in spice but the chutney made of red chilly that come along is very fiery. We were told that the chutney was made of local chilly and not the popular ghost chilly. Needless to say the dish tasted excellent. Though Nagaland is a dry state the mocktails served in this restaurant can easily make you forget alcohol. We tried 'Guava Spice' and 'Oriental Spice,' while the former has a taste of green chilly and tabasco sauce the latter is a mix of worcester sauce and black pepper. A good meal for two would cost between Rs.400-500. The best part about the restaurant is the open kitchen which is sparkling clean.

Nagas love rice so much that they relish this stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The sheer number of rice hotels that serve only rice with varied curries are standing testimonies. People like us from South India had a very tough time to find a single hotel that would serve anything else apart from rice for breakfast.

Another thing to keep in mind is Sundays in Nagaland resonate a total Bandh like mood. Even the Nagaland State Transport buses do not ply and the private taxis too are off the roads. Sundays are more like National holidays. If you are backpacking across Nagaland, it would be a good idea to travel on other days.

How much ever one reads about short days in North East, experiencing it is a very different ball game altogether. The day begins very early and the sun sets at 4.30 pm along with the businesses and the town too calls it a day but for one or two paan shops. Our biological clock instantly adapted to the environment and we would have diner by 7 pm and crash by 9 pm, a healthy lifestyle almost impossible in city life.

Wokha village has very recently been exposed to tourism and there is only one very bearable stay option- 'Tourist Lodge.' The rooms are in terrible condition and there is nothing fancy. The place is not even basic but fortunately they provide clean sheets and thick quilts which is must as the mercury level drops significantly post sunset. The restaurant serves basic and ordinary local food but let all of this not discourage you as the views of Wokha valley from their sit out is mesmerizing and over compensates for the shoddy stay. We were very happy to stay here for 3 nights as we prefer places that are not touched by commercialization and hold natural beauty and charm.

Keep in mind thought the distance is only 150 km from Dimapur, the road condition is pretty bad and depending on the traffic and the narrow lanes of Kohima the duration of the journey is determined. The bus will easily take a minimum of anywhere between 6 to 7 hours to reach. The first bus leaves from Dimapur at 6.45 am. Also, if you have big rucksacks like we had or suitcases you have to climb atop the bus and secure your baggage. It would be a good idea to keep your permits handy as there is a check-post before Kohima where you may be asked to show your permit.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Doyang- Great Migration Of Amur Falcons

If solitude is your cup of tea and you want to enjoy Nature at it's best without any disturbance then Doyang is the perfect place. This beautiful village in remote parts of Nagaland is a bird watchers paradise and is visited by lakhs of Amur Falcons during the winter months. These incredible migratory birds have chosen this fertile land for roosting, embarking on a marathon flight from East Asia to Siberia via North East India covering thousands of kilometers. Only a handful of homes are dotted across the hill and this is one of those rare places to enjoy wilderness. The star lit sky and massive reservoir built over Chubi river on which the Doyang hydro power project sits is a picturesque destination.

An early morning walk on deserted roads with a foggy view of the lake, mist on the leaves and the melodious chirping of birds soothing our ears, we could not have asked for a more blissful morning. It was an awesome experience to hear callings of various birds and the one that grabbed our attention was the call of a racket-tailed Drongo. For the next three hours, all that we could hear was out and out bird calls and we had fun identifying as many birds as possible. The best sight that unfolded that day was a massive flock of juvenile Falcons whistling past us. They were flying really low and at great speed that in a split second they vanished. This region is not only good for bird watching but there are also plenty of colorful butterflies.

We went about exploring the place on foot and it made us feel like we were marooned on an island and left to fend for ourselves. We sat by the longest bailey bridge in India, Chubi Bridge, hours went by and no words were spoken and in this state of peace we could very clearly hear the oars of a boat slapping Chubi river and then slowly fade away.

After a long walk, we headed to an ordinary tea shop with an extraordinary view. Silence is truly golden and it being such a rare occurrence in our busy city life, we were truly able to appreciate and realize how valuable, serene and enjoyable it could be. It was a perfect setup for relaxation of the mind, body and soul- enjoying views of placid river, mountain vistas and sipping hot cup of tea. In the entire stretch of 5 kilometers, we came across only 2 other homes and 1 tea shop, this speaks a lot about how remote this place is.

The roosting site of the falcons is very close to the next village after Doyang. On the way to the roosting site is the watch tower which is entirely built with natural resources and is a lovely little spot to spend hours early morning and evening to watch these magnificent birds fill the sky and prey on dragon fly and other insects. It is a pretty sight to see hundreds of them sit on high tension wires. It seems as though they have completely taken over the village.

After much struggle we made it up to the roosting site and it was an experience like none other. Doyang is India's own Masai Mara as we got to experience the Great Migration Of Falcons. We were amazed to see millions of Amur Falcons turn the deep blue sky grey. It appeared like we were witnessing a scene from fantasy movie 'The Mummy' live. Any direction that our heads turned to, we saw several millions of these birds hovering in circles. Like the sky is lit by stars in the night, during evening the sky was lit by amur falcons. It was such a majestic and overwhelming experience.

These amazing little raptors take one of the longest migration routes of all birds (The Marathon Migration) traveling a total of 22,000 km a year from East Asia to Southern Africa and back. These birds migrate over sea even during night. It is during this migration that they halt in North East India to replenish their energy levels. During this brief stay of 3 months they help the North East farmers by acrobatically feeding midair on swarming insects that destroy crops. These birds fly over the Indian Ocean en-route Africa and cover a whopping distance of 4000 km in 3 to 4 days. It is still unclear as to what route they take on their way back.

Doyang, home to the largest congregation of Amur Falcons, until recently was more known for hunting these birds for their meat and for selling them in the market. While these tiny little creatures do their best to help humans we show our gratitude by mercilessly hunting them in the thousands for their meat but now these same birds are considered as the pride of the state thanks to the conservation efforts.

We reached the roosting site where a group of self proclaimed conservationists act as the governing body and care takers welcome you. These unemployed bunch of youth run a big con here. A big warning to any wild life enthusiast who plans to visit this place to see this incredible feat is that there is absolutely no administrative body here or any set of rules or regulations. They reminded us of the local colony goons who come to your doorstep to collect chanda during festivals. In the name of conservation and volunteering for a noble cause, they gain your trust and claim there are no fees or charges but only a voluntary donation of any amount of your choice. After making the donation we explicitly asked if there was a guide fee? For which the answer was "No, We Only Collect Donations." They gain your respect but beware this is nothing but a big trap.

When we were done with our tour and on our way back to exit point, out of the blue we were informed about a "Mandatory Guide Charge" of Rs.400. We were taken aback and started questioning the difference in statement before and after the tour. No where did it mention that visitors are charged any fee and they themselves explicitly mentioned the same. On reaching the exit point 7 guys ganged up and demanded that we pay these charges and if this was not enough, they had the audacity to ask Rs.200 more for "Camera Charges." This lawlessness and fraud ruined an amazing experience! After too many questions, the "Camera Charges" disappeared all of a sudden but guide fee remained. Since it was very dark and we were a lone couple we had no other option but to pay the ransom. The point here is not about Rs.400 but the fact that we traveled over 3000 km to have this experience and if the hooligans get used to this who knows what they might do next?

We agree that any wildlife park or sanctuary are entitled to collect Park, guide and camera fee plus the usual other charges. However, the tourist is always made aware and provided receipts for the same. And later on there are no hidden charges. In this instance we were welcomed grandly and they projected a 'No fee' picture explicitly and later on we were asked to shell out for charges that suddenly appeared without any receipt. This is a sure shot example of swindling money from unsuspecting travelers and for this reason alone we had an issue. These lovely folks also provide food and lodging at the roosting site, do try out at your own risk! This instance is no exaggeration and this is exactly how it happened.

The best time to visit the roosting site is early morning 5 to 8 am or evening 3:30 to 5 pm. It is a solid 15 to 18 km distance between Doyang and the roosting point. It is impossible to walk this path as it would be pitch dark and very cold both early in the morning and post sunset. Also, note it is thick jungle area and populated by wild animals especially elephants. So one has no other option other than to hire a taxi. The availability of these taxis are scarce and way too expensive. We coughed out Rs.2000 for the 20 km journey.

In spite of being just 30 km from Wokha, reaching the beautiful village of Doyang in itself could be a big challenge due to bumpy roads and no tarmac just gravel and sand. Still it is well worth a visit as we were greeted by absolute pristine and pollution free environment. Maybe the challenges in reaching this remote place is a blessing a disguise as  the pristine beauty of the place remains intact. Commercialization would ruin the natural surroundings and it would not take much time for it to completely get polluted ripping away the natural habitat.

For a traveler who depends on public transport, shared taxis ply in this route but are packed to full capacity. It is highly unlikely that one might find empty seats. There is a lone bus that plies in this route which leaves from Pangti village to Wokha at 5 am and returns anywhere between 2 to 3 pm. Nonetheless, the experience of travelling like a local is much better than the comforts of a luxury car or hired taxi. The connect that you feel with the locals makes you instantly a part of the place and of course you meet more people, make some amazing friends and learn more about their lives, the challenges they face. The simple task of traveling like the locals teaches us a lot and the most significant being that it makes you a much more humble person.

There are literally only a handful of very basic stay options here as fortunately, commercial tourism has still not caught up here. We stayed in 'The Falcon Pass' homestay. They have two basic rooms with 3 beds each and a common bath. Each bed is let out at Rs.400 per night, lunch and dinner is also arranged from their kitchen and is priced at a very reasonable Rs.150 per person per meal. During our stay here we got to taste awesome fresh water fish and country chicken. When you stay at falcon pass do ask the host to prepare omelette which was yummy and more like their signature dish. The best part about the place is that it has a very charming sit out over looking the reservoir. It is an off beat destination in the middle of nowhere and ideal for unwinding. They can be reached at 9612888376.

Spot Our Homestay Right In Between The Two Hills