The one thing I knew heading into India was that Holi Festival was starting. It’s one of the biggest festival for much India. The Hindu festival is celebrated over five days, which includes lots of colorful dyes. We decided to head to Imphal, the main city, for the first day of it. The state of Manipur is one of seven tribal states in the small northeast corner of India. A large oval-shaped valley runs in the middle of the state and Imphal is in this valley. The valleys flat plains are home to most of the Meiteis of the state, which are the Hindus. In the surrounding hills of the rest of the state you find the Naga and Kuki tribes with the Nagas being the largest. Since 1964 there have been many separatist movements, which have resulted in a lot of violence throughout the years between rebel UG’s (underground groups) and the Indian government/army. Much of the tribal hill areas have been filled with conflict as well.
Groups have many objectives, including wanting a sovereign state, the state broken up into two, or to combine parts with surrounding states (mainly Nagaland). Because of the history, the state has become very militarized and flooded with police. Everywhere you look there’s guys with assault rifles. The road from Moreh to Imphal snakes its way up over the hills and down into the Valley.
It was so nice to have some scenery after everything being so flat for a while. The road leads along the high ridges around narrow valleys. We only made it about ten km out-of-town before we got stopped at a large checkpoint. The route is well used by smugglers bringing in opium and weapons from Myanmar. They were pretty serious about no photography, but I managed a few shots of the search we were given.
A young soldier went through all of our cases and searched every pocket. He was a friendly guy and I think he was pretty interested just to see what we had in our bikes. A guy in an office wrote down all kinds of information from us and asked lots of questions about the details of our travels. He to was friendly and joked around with us. Making our way through the hills to Imphal we had a few more checkpoints to stop and show or passports. A couple of times there were whole squads of soldiers marching along the roads. We were pulled over at a viewpoint when a group of about twenty-five marched down the hill past us. Then once they had gotten just past us an old truck came and backfired right next to us. The soldiers dropped to their knees and got in position with rifles ready. It took them a couple of minutes to cool down. It was obvious that they’re prepared for shooting and it’s probably not that uncommon for them. Another rider I had talked to that came through a month before was stuck in Moreh for three days before getting a military escort to Imphal because of violence going on. We were lucky to hit it at a time of calmness. Steve and I ended up getting a room at the Hotel Imphal, which was pretty fancy. They gave us a discount so it only ended up being about twelve bucks each. The best part is it included a big all you can eat breakfast buffet. The couple of days we were there some VIP guests (mainly government and police) at the hotel. After kidnappings and violence aimed at these people throughout the years, there’s a huge security presence now. We had at least fifty police/security surrounding the hotel and keeping guard at all times.
They also hung about outside the gate in groups with their large assault rifles. It was a strange feeling, but not threatening at all. For the time we were there the hotel had concerts and a food festival every night out back. Around the city there are armed men at every corner and on every street. Little white jeeps buzz around full of camo clad dudes with guns slung over their shoulders. The night before Holi starts there is some traditional burning ceremonies, but we weren’t able to find any. All the celebrations are spread out in different spots and it’s hard to get good information from the locals on where to go. Ask ten people and get nine different answers. We managed to find a street where they had the dancing going on. It’s a traditional dance where people hold hands, form a line, and dance their way around in a big circle. It has something to do with the sound girls finding a boy, but mostly just looked like a lot of fun.
They took us into the line and we had to show off our goofy awkward dance moves. As the night wore on it became packed full of people and the chain got so long it doubled on itself. The little kids were so cute. All the young boys were more interested in talking to us then talking to the girls. The next day we went for a ride to see what kind of festivities we could find and ended up getting adopted by a few local guys who gave us an awesome day. We met on the side of the road when we were asking around for advice on where to go. There english wasn’t great, but they gave us a good time filled with strangeness.
They took us to a temple where they were celebrating with lots of chanting, singing, and dancing. They use big drums that get a body shaking beat going. Everyone was in white, yellow, or orange. An old guy had a super soaker type metal contraption that he would suck up and fill with purple dyed water and spray all over everyone.
Steve and I got painted a nice pinkish/purple. We never really knew where we were going all day long and just went with it. The guys were catholic, but still celebrated Holi. They took us to look at an old tiny church, stopped and had a snack and bottle of rice wine in a dark dirt floored backroom of a house, and to a service being held in a small catholic church. It was the funniest most awkward situation. All the nicely dressed people in the church turned to see the group of us walk in covered in paint and baby powder. The look on their faces was priceless.
There were some exchanges back and forth between our guys and a few people in the congregation, including the priest. It was such a funny situation to me and I couldn’t stop smiling. I wanted to burst out laughing at the ridiculous situation they brought us into. It was unclear why they had brought us there. We left there to a small school where they were playing games outside. There was well over a hundred people, and unlike the church, were excited to see us. Steve and i ended up getting in on one game. Pretty much they have a short pole with a clay pot on top, you get blindfolded a ways away from it, spun around a couple of times, given a long stick, and then have to try and break the pot. I failed miserably and ended up way away from it chasing kids around with the stick. It reminded me of playing marco polo in a pool. I couldn’t see anything, but just chased after their screams. Steve somehow found his way to the pot and smashed, which received a huge roar of excitement and applause from the crowd. He had to of cheated. After this they had both of us introduce ourselves and tell about our trip on microphone over the speaker system. Then they wanted so badly for me to sing them a song. I usually only bust out my angel like voice for drunken karaoke, but they got a treat. I sang a little bit of “I will always love you”, and told them how much I loved all of them. The love was flowing and hopefully it covered up any bad feeling that me terrible voice may have given them.
Before we left a bunch of little kids came up for an autograph on pieces of paper. It was so cute all of them getting the courage to come ask. They would run back to their friends and show it off. We then made a stop at the Hare Krishna temple, which was really pretty inside. It was strange, it seemed like our guys just practiced all religions.
I guess their just covering all their bases and hoping that one of them turns out to be the truth. Every temple or church we went to throughout the day they got down and prayed at. Before delivering us back to our hotel, we stopped to see some of their family members. They were all so friendly to us. When we said goodbye, they told us not to go outside at night because it’s very dangerous. It seemed they actually cared for us. We didn’t tell them we were out wandering at eleven o’clock the previous night. The best relationships in traveling are the ones where nobody wants anything from the other person. It’s a lot of fun meeting and being taken around by locals, and makes it feel real and heartfelt when they don’t want anything from you in return, just your friendship. The next day Steve had to get going since he’s on a tight schedule. He plans on needing to be in England by May. I’ll probably still be in India/Nepal. It was great having someone to ride with for all that time, share the experiences with, and make it through the ups and downs. I only went a short 40 km away to Loktak Lake.
It’s to the south of Imphal and the biggest lake in NE India. The german couple from our Myanmar group had talked about some coordinates for a good camping spot, but I really didn’t know where I was going. It ended up taking a long time to get to the lake because of Holi. One of the things that goes on is the young kids blocking traffic to extort money out of drivers. They either hold hands across the road to make a human rope or hold a real rope across. Usually the teenage girls are the ones linked up and it’s pretty easy to get by them. Eventually at the last second they will let go of each others hands and open up for you. None of them want a broken arm. The couple of times they managed to stop me they gathered around and asked for donations with puppy dog eyes. The kids with ropes proved to be a bit tougher, but usually if you just drove at it like you weren’t going to stop they would drop it at the last moment. Around the lake there had to have been twenty of them to navigate. I explored for a bit and just when I was starting to think about finding a place to camp I crossed paths with the German and Swiss couples. They were heading to the spot they had coordinates for. The timing was absolutely perfect. Just ahead we climbed a steep road to a hilltop with amazing almost 360 degree views over the lake.
Who knows where I would have ended up, but pretty sure it wouldn’t have come close to as good. The area was perfect for all of us. When we arrived a few local kids followed us up the hill and the brave ones came close to my motorcycle. Kids are always drawn to my gun that I got in Myanmar.
These ones were no different and I gave it to them to play with. Not only are the adults obsessed with guns in Manipur, but the kids are too. You see them riding around on scooters with big fake assault rifles that look fairly real. If you did that in America you’d be shot fifteen times in a heartbeat. Most of them have some toy gun, but my wooden one intrigues them. They get really into it with the scope.
I turned my back on them for a couple of minutes and the little turds made a run for it. They liked it so much they stole it. I told a young guy who was up watching us and he wasn’t happy about it. We went on a walk down the hill and he talked to a couple of people. One was a policeman and at first i thought we were reporting it. Eventually the guy took a bike ride and came back with the gun. It’s just a fun cheap toy and I’ll probably give it away at some point, but not like that. The sunset over the lake was beautiful from our campground. The sun first disappeared behind the hills in the distance, which led to fifteen minutes of sky changing colors.
In the morning I walked down along the lake shore and watched the daily life take shape. I was talking to a nice guy and made a comment about wanting to take a boat out on the lake. Minutes later we were pushing off from shore and paddling our way out. He took time out of his day to take me out for a tour of the lake.
It was a lot of fun and he wasn’t looking for any hand-outs. The side we went out on was full of fish farms, guys in their small canoes fishing with nets, and people building natural fish ponds out of the natural lake weeds and vegetation. There used to be many houses built on the lake, similar to Inle Lake in Myanmar, but the government had most of them taken down. A few homes still exist out in the middle. My buddy told me they have to get a permit from the government.
In the afternoon I made a trip into Moerang, the small village before the lake, to get some food. It was a gauntlet of kids and ropes. They would mob whole sections with rope after rope. Eventually I heard a local honking a short tune with his horn that would get the kids to lower the rope. It really worked, and on the way back to camp made it in half the time. Holy festival was in full swing in Moerang with groups of people, each from a different village or clan, going all around to different places.
Each group dresses in a certain color clothing, like orange, pink, or white. They have a big thing on a pole that proudly displays who they are. Drums and other small musical instruments and are taken with as they go into different areas to “put on a show”. It’s quite the scene when they really get going and you can feel the energy coming out of the circle. Each place they go people donate money to them. I was flagged down at on such gathering by a mob of orange. They took me inside a courtyard for their performance and proceeded to cover me in purple and pink dyes. The bike even got some fancy new color.
I bumped into a few other groups and they were always eager to have me watch. A drummer from another group was very proud to show me his drumming solo. After making it through the maze of Holi, I found my tiny little food shack. The day before I’d found it on my way in. It looked a bit funky, but the sweet google eyed lady made some bomb curry. She served up a bowl with a broken up samosa covered in curry for ten rupiah (15 cents).
I ate a few each time I went. She would always give me little treats as well, like chapatis with soup or sweets. On this afternoon she also had a giant bowl of these fresh block cookie type things that were amazing. I’d tried them before, but always after they sat on the shelf for a week. They were warm and melted in your mouth with cinnamon and other flavors. It was ironic, I was telling her where I started from and then looked up to see an old picture of Sydney right above my head.
It was usually tough to leave because she kept refilling me with sweet milk tea. Stuffing the belly never cost more than a dollar. Down below our camp at the lake there was a big area set up for the sports festival. From what I gathered talking to lots of guys, there are groups of non-Hindu that want to form their own festival and identity. One they were playing was the ancient game of Kang. I think it’s where we got the idea for shuffleboard. Theres a group of women at each end dressed in pretty outfits and each group has their own lane.
They take turns throwing a big fat rock at a marble down at the other end. A good size crowd surrounded the action and big cheers went through the field when a woman would knock the marble off.
Loktak was a beautiful pit stop for a bit, but it was time to make a move north towards Nagaland. Holi wasn’t quite as big as they celebrate in some parts of India since it’s a mix of religions, but it was still a lot of fun. Much of my clothes won’t be forgetting the Holi Festival anytime soon with pink splattering all over them. I packed up camp to a beautiful sunrise.