Coming out of the hills and into the state of Assam is like entering a new country. It felt like coming into India from SE Asia for a second time. Everything became colorful and vibrant, loud and confusing, and new flavors and smells called out to me in the humid air. In Nagaland I attracted large crowds that surrounded me and looked in awe, but in Assam it was different. It’s much more like the rest of India in that there’s no concept of personal space. It’s tough to have any when there’s a billion plus people crowded into the country. Culturally, it’s a foreign idea to them and everything is in your face. In SE Asia the locals would crowd around, but keep a space between my motorcycle. They definitely respected my stuff. In Assam the people are dying to grab all over it and fiddle with my stuff. The first town I came to, I could hardly enjoy my food because I had to keep running out and getting people off of it. They would just come up and start climbing on it without realizing how heavy it was, and most of their feet can’t even reach the ground when they sit on it. Finally I put a little message for people on the seat.
There are the random times when it can be annoying, like when you’re hungry, tired, or feeling sick, but most of the time I have a lot of fun with it. If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be a famous person and tracked by the paparazzi, then go to India and ride a motorcycle around. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have your every move studied by a hundred people, then go ride in India. It feels like a combination of being a zoo animal and George Clooney.
Pulling off onto the side of the road usually ends up in a scene like this, which was in a small village in the state of Meghalaya.
They don’t really say much of anything to me, and me eating a snack was the most fascinating thing they’d ever seen. Word spread quickly, and before I knew it, the entire road was blocked off by the mob of people. Finally the police came through with their AK-47’s and long sticks yelling and intimidating people out-of-the-way. They didn’t kindly ask anyone to move, and it was more like, “move now or I will beat you down with my stick”. They were friendly to me and made a nice escape path. When I pulled into a hotel in Assam one evening, I was immediately besieged by everyone who got word of my arrival. In the morning it felt like everyone was waiting for me and word got out quick that the white guy had appeared again.
As I got ready packing up, they intently watched every little thing I did. They really love taking pictures too. Sometimes I’ll have over twenty people all taking cell phone pictures of me at once. They all want a picture with me as well. First they want a group picture with me and their friends, then a couple of individuals with each of them. Every day the people of NE India take pictures of me with groups of guys and girls, shy girls who are afraid to get too close, babies, young kids, old people who can barely stand, young men who try and look tough for the camera, business men, and everyone else who sees me.
It’s funny to think about all the hundreds of pictures out there of me with random people. Coming out of the hills from Nagaland I was stoked that my bike made it through the terrible roads unscathed. After all the slamming around, everything seemed to be in good order, but I was hearing a strange noise from the rear end around my panniers. Luckily I’d been needing to pick up a new bolt so I stopped at a small store, and that’s when I realized that I hadn’t made it down unscathed. Both sides of my pannier frame had welds that were completely broken off. My ammo can on one side was just barely hanging on, which is what was making the clanking noise. A nice guy led me down the street to a welding shop. After a couple of minutes, I think half the town showed up.
It’s a muslim area and another experience to crush the myths and misconceptions. I’ve traveled through the muslim countries of Indonesia and Malaysia, and met with nothing but kindness. Being an American I’m greeted with open arms and curiosity. Most of them are excited beyond belief to meet an American. It’s easy to understand the views that some people have about the muslims when 95% of the news is shedding them in a highly negative light. Fight the urge to believe everything you hear and discover the world for yourself. Develop your own point of view. CNN doesn’t know everything.
The owner of the shop helped me get the frames off, and while he was welding everything back together, his bothers and other random people brought me cookies, drinks, and other snacks. One guy gave me his sunglasses. I gave a young boy the hat I’d been given by the preacher’s son in Tuensang. It was way too big for his little head. The guys helped me fix a couple other things on my bike as well, and once everything was put back together, they didn’t want any money.
It was their pleasure to help me out. They wrote me a nice message on the motorcycle and gave me a warm send off. Down in the low plains of Assam the temperature and humidity rise quickly. I didn’t really have a plan at this point, but knew I wanted to see some rhinos at Kaziranga National Park, so I rode in that direction. In the late afternoon I was going through the city of Jorhat and at a stop light a friendly found local guy struck up conversation. He wanted to help me with anything he could. My bike had a few countries worth of gunk coating it and he had a friend with a shop that washed bikes, but first he wanted to take me home and introduce me to his family. He wanted so bad for his parents to see me and I couldn’t say no. I followed him through small side streets until reaching his gated house, which also serves as housing for young college girls. His mom, dad, brother, and a friends welcomed me in with massive smiles. They all spoke english and had such a good energy about them. Rambo, a massive saint bernard, was chained to the porch and wasn’t quite sure about me and I wasn’t too sure about him.
We shared a look, but just when I thought we had an understanding, he started barking at me with slobber flying everywhere. We hung out talking in the living room for a bit before the mom served me and my new friend a feast. The entire table was covered in different kinds of curries, roti, fish and other meat, rice, and vegetable dishes. I ended up at their house for the afternoon until the sun was getting low and ran out of time to go get a wash, but I didn’t care one bit. I had decided to head for the national park so I could go in in the morning. The mom presented me with a gamosa, which is common in Assam as a way of welcoming a guest. It’s a beautiful red and white cotton scarf with traditional hand-woven motifs, called gosa, around the border. Literally translated from Assamese, it means “something to wipe the body” (ga=body mosa=to wipe), but it’s much more than that. It might be the most significant symbol of the Assamese culture. They’re used in many important ways in their daily lives and in ceremonies. The gamosa is used equally by every one no matter the religious or ethnic background.
Little did I know, this little piece of cotton would come in very handy in the future, and would help save me. We said our goodbyes in the driveway while all the young girls that lived at the house stared and giggled on the balcony.
They led me out-of-town and we hugged goodbye. I was feeling great at this point until I realized I had a two-hour drive ahead of me and there was 30 minutes of sunlight left. I try not to ride at night, unless I’m drunk on a beach with a bunch of Thai fishermen. The worst part is it was main highway full of huge colorful crazy trucks. The pollution was thick and the driving conditions terrifying. It was definitely some of the scariest riding I’d done. I think I’d rather ride through a war zone than on a highway in India at night. Kohora is the main entrance to the park and when I got there I just sat on my bike for a while, happy to be alive. There’s a couple options for the park. You can’t drive yourself in, so it’s a choice between a jeep ride or an elephant ride, which all leave around sunrise. Up the opposite side of the highway the tourism department has cheap rooms. I found a dorm that I had to myself for a little over two bucks, and had one of the coldest bucket showers of my life. Tickets are bought in the same area. At four in the morning I drug myself to the entrance and where the tour starts. I really hate having to do things as part of a tour, but seemed like the only way to see some rhinos. The guides are waiting with the elephants.
The babies are so cute. Like anywhere I’ve been where they use elephants as a tourist attraction, the guys aren’t very nice to them. They all carry sticks or hooks that they poke and hit them with. It seems like sometimes it’s for no reason at all. Seeing this makes me want to grab a branch and start beating the guy over the head. It really leaves a bad taste in my mouth and feels like seeing a guy beating up on his kid and I’m just standing there not saying anything about it. The Indians all told me the elephant ride was way better than the jeep, but I think this is because they come just to ride an elephant. Looking back, a jeep ride all through the park might have been better. On the elephants, you just do a short loop through the very front of the park and don’t get to see anything else. Each group has a security guard with them and our was on my elephant with me.
He carried a gun that upon further inspection didn’t even work and had no bullets. The thing looked like an antique. In the end, I saw what I came to see. The park has the largest population of Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros. They’re such a cool animal with it’s armor looking skin. We were lucky enough to find a mother and her new baby.
There’s a lot done to protect these beautiful creatures, but poaching is still widespread. Poachers in go after the rhino horns, elephant tusks, and Indian Tigers. Poaching in Assam is a huge environmental problem in India and happens in Kaziranga National Park, Manas National Park and some other grasslands of Assam. 95% of the total wild One-horned rhino in the world are in this area, and they’re being killed at an alarming rate.
In the 1900’s sport hunting killed them off to near extinction and in 1908 there were only 12 individuals left in Kaziranga. When legal hunting ended, it was poaching that became the reason for decline. From 1980-93 over 700 rhinos were poached in India, and that’s just official statistics. There are some sanctuaries where the entire populations were killed off. The poachers use many terrible methods such as trapping in pits, shooting with rifles, electrocution, poisoning, and nooses. The goal of all this is to saw off the horn and leave the rest to rot. If the rhino’s lucky they will just shoot them with a sedative, saw their horn off, and spare it’s life. It’s unfortunate when you have to count that as lucky. You can see in a couple of my pictures a rhino that’s had it’s horn cut off. In 1993 rhino horn was removed from the official list of traditional Chinese medicine. Now they’re only sold in Vietnam where buyers believe the horn ground up into a fine powder can be a cure for cancer. There’s a story of a high-ranking official had his cancer cured this way, which has fueled the market. It’s a tough thing to stop when you have poor farmers living in poverty that face the opportunity to make enough money to support and give his family a good life. The amount of money people pay in Vietnam is ridiculous, and as long as there’s a market for them, they will continued to be poached. As soon as that market disappears, most of the poaching will disappear as well. Many local authorities turn a blind eye or are just flat out involved in the trade. Talking to the local people, it sounds like there’s a high level of corruption surrounding the issue. Some people can’t resist the temptation of greed.