There are public buses from Shillong to Smit, but one needs to hitch a ride further to Laitlum. Since it was my first day in the state, I did not want to experiment. I hired a taxi from Police bazaar to Laitlum after a good bargain. After arriving from the metropolis with all the madness of traffic, pollution and work tension cluttering my mind- this drive was refreshing. I stopped the car at almost every kilometer to capture the beauty of the place with my not-so-good camera. The bamboo trees and terrace lands with potato farms all yet added charm to the otherwise beautiful scenery. To add to the pleasure of the drive, I was having a good conversation with the driver and there were atleast 50 passengers hopping on and off at every stretch and all getting excited about meeting a foreigner (Yeah… That’s what they called me!).
Smit is an old rustic town and the cultural centre of the East Khasi hills. A road flanked with well groomed pine trees lead to the Raja’s palace. The Raja or the head of the clan is called ‘Siam’ and he lives in the same premises. However, the wooden palace is used only on special occasions- those like Nongkrem festival etc. where there will be tribal congregations. This typical Khasi styled wooden house is said to have been constructed with zero iron nails and only wood for all joints. Although I met the Siam, he did not seem to be a photo friendly person when I seeked permission to photograph his little children. There isn’t much in this town apart from this house.
After a small stopover, we drove to Laitlum valley- about 5kms further from Smit. It was an offbeat drive through the rarest stretches of countryside. We passed by a lot of school kids who were on their way to school. Few were happy waving at me while a few were busy pranking at their pals as they walked. It was a flashback of typical childhood days in a rural setup. There were a couple of school teachers in my backseat, chatting happily with me and patiently waiting in the car while I would get down to take photos. Overall, it was a very pleasant drive until we reached the Laitlum gate. While the driver wanted to sit back in the car, he asked me to enjoy the view and return.
I was the only person amid the green scintillating valley until I walked down and saw 2 boys cleaning the pristine place. They had already parked aside 4-5 sacks full of waste. When I spoke to them, they told me that they came here every morning before leaving for school to pick up plastics left behind by the previous day’s tourists. While it was a heartfelt respect for these boys for doing their bit to save earth without having any expectations of monetary gain, it was a subtle slap on my face because I too represented the tourists who unmindfully damage the same earth in the name of enjoyment.
I walked down to the cliff and stood in amazement at the beauty that the place beheld. While I was standing on the brink on a large flat rock, it felt like I was the only person in the whole wide beautiful world. The gentle winds kissed my cheeks and the chirping bird was a welcome guest. There were several waterfalls flowing down the valley gracefully at a distance… Then there were a few villagers who appeared to be popping out of the deep valley beneath. They seemed to be friendly and told me that their village lied down there and they had to climb up each time to meet their basic life requirements, trade their farm products etc. There is a cable car made of bamboo which will be dropped down and pulled up for old people and goods but it is by foot most of the time. I grew curious and my feet dragged me down the stones that were laid on the path to the village. The beauty of the 360 degree greenery and the fresh air had already cleansed my mind off half my worries and tension by the time I clocked the distance to the village. There is a small stream, a church and a few huts in this little fairy tale village nestled deep down the valley. And the villagers I met on my way enriched me with the simplicity and content of life. After a good walk down the beautiful valley of Mawkeynrew, my tummy had started to call out for me. I savoured the plantains offered to me by the villagers and unwillingly decided to climb back.
Once I reached the top, I finally sat down at a small hut like stall that had opened by the time at the valley gate. Her little son helped me with a cup of lemon tea in English before running to school. The lady there could not understand anything other than Khasi language and I didn’t know that. In spite of the language barrier, we both became friends who communicated with hand signs. She cooked maggi noodles and Jadoh with chicken curry for breakfast while I was eagerly waiting for my first Khasi meal. Jadoh is a traditional Khasi meal where rice is cooked with chicken blood instead of water. It was one of the most relishing and sumptuous maggi noodles I have ever had..! What made the meal so special was not that I found it in a No-man’s land or at an extremely low price. It was something that I would travel back again all the way for the humility and dollops of warmth the meal was served with.
She cut a pomello fruit and mixed it with chilly powder and packed it for my road.. With a heart full of gratitude, I bid goodbye to this Khasi friend of mine!