Monday, 19 January 2015

A Siang winter's tale

I have spent five of the last six winters in Upper Siang, Arunachal, and this time I am not there! I keep looking for a fire to warm my hands, legs and my back. Central heating or warm air blowing or warm clothes just doesn't do it for me. In the winters in Bomdo village, everyone huddles up near the nearest fire and chats endlessly, constantly reinforcing the thought that its cold indeed, "anchinga", they'd say. And when some days the sun is out, everyone squats in the centre of the village which is flat and basks and chats.

Some of the best conversations happen around a fire.
Early winter, in November, on sunny days we know exactly what to do. We visit the local swimming pools that are formed along the Siang river. Before November these pools are still connected to the river and later in the winter, these pools are too shallow. Imagine having a natural pool with beautiful rocks and sand with a verdant background you can dip in. My friend Gekut even makes a banana trunk boat in about four minutes and we sail on these pools on the boat. After the cold dip we pick up Taari (Halyomorpha picus, an edible stink bug) from below the rocks on the bank and make a meal of them!

Our private pool along the Siang river bank!
Most days, the cold wakes me up early and the first thing to do is to make a fire. Firewood comes at a premium, during field work, Roy and I would ask our field assistants to pick up dead wood and bring back to the camp. Also we had seven fast-growing neem (Azadirachta indica) trees that were planted about 8 years back, three of which we used over the years we were there for firewood. Each time one of the villager comes to the Inspection Bungalow, they would remark that we always make small fires, 'lakdi ka kanjoos' they'd say!  In return for making a bigger fire, we would ask them to send us some firewood and often they would too!

Woodstock! All their homes have firewood stacked up below their houses that are raised on wooden boles or cement pillars. 
We had to make do with limited firewood while the villagers pile up firewood through the years.
Cooking on firewood in the winter is fun too and we even made a double stove by fixing a broken stove with our main stove using metal wire. 
Almost every evening, my friend Roy and I start a fire and put water to boil in the sootiest blackest kettle you may have ever seen. A small walk to the nearest shop gets us some cheap friendly rum called 'Amigos', distilled and bottled in Arunachal. Hot water with rum warms our souls and we slowly cook and chat endless hours. The whole process of cooking takes more than two hours and by the time food is ready we are starving. Food tastes ambrosial; hunger tastes better than any elaborate recipe I guess. Anyone who visits the Inspection Bungalow we stay in, in the evening is treated as/with Amigos and food too, but hardly anyone comes in the late evening, since they believe that the bungalow is haunted, which works well for us!

The mandarin oranges fruit in December and we eat them by the hundreds. None of the fruits of trees around the village are actually sold anywhere and anyone is free to pick as many as they like. In the winter, I hear tiny kids climbing the orange trees right in front of the Inspection Bungalow or trying to and as a last attempt even shaking the trees and throwing stones at the fruits, stones which would often land on the roof of the bungalow. Gekut also taught me how to flick the peel in a way in which the peels fly like a frisbee and lands far; best to try this on a slope to watch the peel fly away.

Lot of activity happens in the village during winter since it is the best time to travel far from the village into the forests and camp and hunt since in this season, there is less rain, no leeches and no snakes. On the 31st of December we celebrate every year what folks in the village call 'waiting night'! They say that this night is spent 'waiting' for the new year and therefore the name. On this night everyone visits every home where there is a party and wishes them and there is also a lot of dancing. During one such large party, a person from the village who more recently shifted to Yinkiong town for a Government job, announced prizes for school kids who scored well in their exams. People celebrate 'waiting night' and 'waited morning' and 'waited night' the next day of the new year in groups with each person in charge of specific tasks. My task in the two 'waiting nights' I celebrated at Bomdo was to visit Yingkiong, the nearest town, 35 km away on a bike and bring back meat, alcohol and other goodies, not a simple task since it could be raining too and on the way back besides looking like a travelling salesman, there is the risk of things falling out of the bike on the hilly potholed roads.
Most kids love their photograph being taken but someone had scared them saying that when a photograph is clicked they will be trapped in the camera forever, so they don't look happy, especially the young ones!
The first morning of the new year is celebrated on the Siang riverbank and both men and women cook and drink while kids play on the riverbank and most of the men dare to bathe in the shallow parts of the Siang river. I've done this and its shockingly cold, that one dip packs the chill of the entire winter it feels like, but feels great after the initial jolt!


In the party the following night, there are also awards given from the money that is leftover from peoples donations from the parties; 'best dancer', 'best cook', 'best worker' and I am proud to say that I won the 'best bike rider' award of 100 rupees, since I rode back to the village with a very drunk person back from the river bank on the bike making sure he didn't tip over while riding! Every person who gets  these prestigious awards does return the money back so more food and alcohol can be bought for the party! This party is definitely worth the 'wait'!

The February rain showers are the coldest and even if one gets used to the winter chill, these showers still make you put bigger logs into the fire. The rains in the region often cause a landslide and electricity is unavailable, for sometimes months.

Sometimes taking photographs of raindrops is a nice way of spending time! 

During the winter rains when there is no electricity, we make a fire and read a book beside the fire, or play 'chilo' or 'sepak takrow' with a ball made from bike tube strands in one of the rooms. Gekut here is happy with his shot!
In February, the local raspberry fruits and we eat loads of them but they need to be carefully picked; if you are too greedy you are stung with the thorns of the shrub. Gekut and I often pick these berries and eat and accuse each other of being greedy or 'yeering'. Gekut would say 'No yeering baah', which translates to, 'you are very greedy', while picking off the best raspberries!

Few days in March are actually sunny and with the passing days it gets from warm to hot. Walking in the forests gets sweatier and more leeches welcome you and the weather; you realise that you already miss the winter chill. Winters are simply fun in the Siang valley.