The road ahead was as dark as anything I had ever seen. It sort of disappeared into nothingness beyond the point where the bike’s headlight could reach. The road was well paved but narrower than normal, wide enough to fit little less than two small vehicles at once. The maize farms on both sides, with their dense tall crops and big leaves, made it seem like the road was bound by high walls on either side. I had not seen a vehicle or house or even a streetlight for over 20 minutes. As I started thinking more about it, boundless darkness seemed to flow in and shroud the road in front of me. The loud, creaking chirp of cricket and other nocturnal insects from these farms only added to the eeriness of the entire setting. The decision to continue riding to Mawlynnong on this road from Pongtong, at this late hour, dawned on me!
It was the close of third day of my solo ride across the state aptly known as the abode of clouds, Meghalaya! I was riding on a Royal Enfield Classic 350CC and had targeted to reach the international border town of Dawki before dusk and call it a day. But a delayed start from Cheerapunji and the scenic ride through the valley meant I was not going to make it to Dawki before dark.
The fog sweeping across the hills reduced the visibility further and made it more difficult to ride. I then decided to cut the ride in the next possible place, find a shelter for the night and proceed to Dawki next morning. I arrived at Pongtong junction, to the last road side eatery that was wrapping up for the day, and was told that the nearest available homestay/hostel would be in Mawlynnong, 17kms away. With its Asia’s cleanest village tag, Mawlynnong, was certainly on my list to visit after Dawki the next day, but it looked like I had to now do it the other way around, Mawlynnong first and then Dawki. I thanked them and rode on the Mawlynnong deviation from Pongtong, only to stop after a kilometer. The road ahead was pitch dark, almost invisible. The bright option of my bike’s headlight could pierce only to a little extent and brighten just that area. I contemplated my decision to continue on an unknown road in such darkness. It was indeed thrilling to ride into the murk with no clue of what is ahead. But being alone in an unfamiliar territory made me a bit skeptical. It was of course kicking to take a risk but I could not afford to be foolish. I returned to that shop at Pongtong and went back to the counter to check again. They looked bemused at my questions of safety on the Mawlynnong road at this hour. After few more minutes of unfruitful search on the snail-paced internet and hundred questions and answers within myself, dissecting the reactions from the man at hotel counter, I finally decided that I was going to ride the 17kms to Mawlynnong through that invisible road. I was going to be the rider in the dark!
I could see nothing beyond 6-7 feet in front of the bike. Even if some broken down vehicle or an animal or if anything appeared, I was going to crash into it. I had no clue on how the road lay ahead and the fog cover made it trickier. I felt like I was on some sort of reality show where I was to find my way out through a challenge. The dropping temperature was not helping either and made it only difficult. Glow of fireflies was the only calming presence in that entire setting. I was not sure if it was the fear or the cold or the uncertainty, I needed something to stop my mind from overthinking. I resorted to singing. The bike’s thump was muffling the singing and I sang louder knowing that I wasn’t being heard. Finally after 20 minutes of riding through that abyss, that seemed like forever, I arrived at a junction and saw a car parked by the road. The road split at that point without any signboards and considering the internet connectivity did not work, the people in the car were my only hope to guide on the route to Mawlynnong. I stopped next to the car and tried seeing through the raised windows for some help. There was none! I turned right after applying all the theories on geography and directions but mostly on a gut feeling!
The town of Mawlynnong had long slept by the time I arrived in what resembled its main junction, the diversion on gut feeling had paid off! A thatched shed at the end of one road, what seemed like a restaurant, was the only place that seemed to have some presence. I walked into it to find the caretaker placing the chairs on top of the tables to sweep the floor and close for the day. A man in his 40s, with a muffler around his neck, sat on a chair in the corner sipping some hot beverage. Both looked at me like they were least expecting someone to show up at this hour.
‘would you have a room for tonight?’ I asked the caretaker of that place hoping for an affirmative nod.
‘sorry, Mawlynnong full today, no place’ he expressed his pity for not being of help.
I was confident on his response of the little town being filled up for the night and I stood little chance of finding a place even if I went around knocking every door. Even if I found, they would only be pricey apartments that went unsold and I could not afford them for sure.
It didn’t take much thought to place my next request to the restaurant caretaker, ‘can I sleep on the floor here tonight? I have my sleeping bag, will roll up in the corner and be up before you open the restaurant in the morning’
The caretaker had no qualms about it and the acceptance was evident on his face just until the only other person listening to our conversation interrupted. The middle aged man was listening to my request as he finished his hot beverage and walked up to me asking, do you want to go to my house?. I was sort of taken aback and bewildered at the offer but his tone and mannerism did not have a speck of guilt or suspicion.
‘I have two homestays here, but both are full. So I give you the guest room in my house, me and my family live in that house’ he briefed his offer.
I was soon parking my bike on the house porch and following him into his house, towards the guest room. As I walked through the living room, I could hear two little kids giggling from one of the rooms and a female voice telling them what seemed like ‘go to sleep’.
The man opened the doors of an adjacent room and walked me into what would beat an above average hotel room on any given day. Mostly filled with furniture and goods, but spacious enough room with a window next to the bed, and a cot with a puffy looking mattress, well covered with a pretty mosquito net, that made it look like a tent, was what awaited me in his guest room! I was grinning at my luck!
The lady, my shelter provider’s wife walked into the room with a big smile on hearing us and enquired if I have had my dinner and if I would need anything to eat. I politely denied. They showed me the way to washroom, gave me a set of fresh blankets and asked me to make myself comfortable before wishing good night!
As the hot water from the shower warmed me up, I could not believe the incidents that had happened in the last one hour or so! I had just gone through what seemed like a cinema script! This was an evening of nourishment and reinforcement. First, it toughened me as a person with that 20kms of scary and risky ride through the darkest of the roads, through a heap of uncertainty, then it underpinned the belief in humanity. I had heard of stories where people tried to take advantage of unwary outsiders in a touristic place. Here I was recipient of a family’s warmth in all its innocence and purity. I grew up learning to think twice before letting an unknown person enter your house, and here I was, laying on the warmest mattress in the world in the house of a family that I had met on the street on a cold evening, couple of hours back. Probably these are the sort of experiences we all live and strive for! Probably these are the sort of experiences that we all travel for! Probably these are the sort of experience that need to be shared with the world to make it a better place!
I woke up to a rain soaked Mawlynnong next morning and was wished good morning with a hot cup of coffee and breakfast by the lady. The giggling kids were now packing their school bags and their father sat at the corner cutting vegetables as I finished a heart filling breakfast.
I freshened up, got set to leave, saddled my bag onto the bike and walked up to the man enquiring how much did I owe him for the bed and the breakfast. ‘You stayed in my guest room, we don’t charge our guests. Next time you come, stay in my home stay and pay me then. Now have a happy journey!‘ He smiled and shook my hand! Mawlynnong had just become the warmest village too!