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A day in the village market

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The hunt for the wild orchid

I’m not a morning person. At least that is what I told myself at 5 in the morning, when Pa told me “its time”. The night before, over dinner, he had mentioned something about a morning walk and repeatedly told me to not stay up late… but we never listen now do we? 😀 Anyway… sure enough, the next morning I was up at 5. To be completely honest, I can probably count the number of times I’ve woken up this early and I’m pretty sure I’ve told myself, more than once, that I should do it more often 🙂 The Sun was still contemplating a few more winks and the birds were being their usual flamboyant self.

The most remarkable things about mornings, besides the sunrise and general chill in the air, is the lack of traffic. Surprisingly, the first shops to open are always the paan and cigarette stalls and after that come the tea and sweets shops, called “dairys”. The local bus stop is probably the cultural hot spot in most localities, with its assortment of drunks, delinquents and street dogs scurrying with their latest nick from the local butcher’s. Thing is, that is the usual scene in normal human hours. At 5, its a barren wasteland and this my friends, is where we found ourselves. Now I know what you’re thinking… wasn’t this supposed to be a morning walk? Oh but it is 😀 Turns out, the place we’re going to is Laitkor, a fair but not too distant village South of Shillong.


Laitkor, is famous for Laitkor peak, that offers a panoramic view of Shillong and is home to the Doordarshan Network TV Station and the Airforce’s RADAR Station that can both be seen from any part of Shillong. It was also the place where Bor Sing, a prominent king of The Nongkrem Kingdom died. I remember spending most of my childhood and even adolescence in the surrounding forests. This was my home. The bus ride, took us up National Highway No 44, all the way to the base of Laitkor peak. Again, I was confused. Where was this walk that we talked about? Maybe, we were going to one of my uncles’ home for tea… maybe… maybe… I was think too much… and before I knew it, we were in the woods. Did I mention that Laitkor is also home to the government forest or “Khlaw Sorkari”? The forest is primarily tropical evergreen/semi evergreen in nature, primarily composed of various kinds of pine and berry trees. I’ve been looking for English names for some of these trees but its a bit of a dead end. Maybe my khasi readers can help me out with one… The Sohphie Tree. The fruit is a kind of berry, about an inch in size and dark red when ripe. The berry is mostly made up of a large seed encased in a hard shell, that’s coated in a carpet brush like fruit. There are two kinds, the small sweet variety and the large bright green version. These trees are found at the very core of the forest, usually in moist or damp areas surrounding a water source. Surprisingly enough, the pine trees form a protective shell around the berry trees, probably from the cold. There are also various kinds of vines and creepers and lianas, a strong woody kind of vine associated with Tarzan. Another treasure that these forests boast of, is their collection of various kinds of Orchids and the one we were looking for today is called the Pleione. Pleiones are seasonal orchids, used to living in an environment that has both a wet and dry season. In the spring, the plants start their new growth from the base of the previous season’s pseudobulb. When the growth is a few inches high, a single bud or two, emerges from inside the growth on a short stem. The 3-inch wide flower opens to reveal narrow, sparkling sepals and petals surrounding a trumpet shaped frilled lip. In the species, the color range is restricted to pink, white and yellow.

While the Pleione is a beautiful flower, we did not pin the entire hike’s success on a single flower… we had, ulterior motives. Ladies and gentlemen, let me take this opportunity to formally announce that we were now… on a hike and there were two other things that we wanted to see. The first is a stream that we visited years back.

I remember this being a haven for birds, porcupines and certain less pleasant, as my cousin would call them, creepy crawlies. The stream meandered through a valley that was filled with dense undergrowth that was equally matched by a darkness perpetuating tree top cover. As we snaked down the side of one hill after the other, I could help but have a moment of fear laced with doubt. Doubt, that the valley actually existed and fear, if man and urbanization had ruined it in some manner. I had seen traces of recent fires and drunken debauchery and sounds of nearby woodcutters seemed to shatter the suspension of disbelief’s hopes of taking flight. We soldiered on.

The sound of an owl hooting is would give any self-respecting horror enthusiast a fair dose of goosebumps but in this case I wouldn’t have asked for anything better. The forest had finally opened our ears to the sounds of its universe… and it was good 🙂 It takes a while for you to remember a memory, when its standing in front of you. You take in the nibbles first, the streams of light flowing down from the treetops, the soft gurgling of the stream, the tiny little birds that you can only hear but not see…we had found it… our own paradise.

 

The ground was filled with bright red hollies and the air carried faint traces of pine and wild mushrooms. Our friendly banter was now reduced to a hushed whisper. It truly felt like holy ground. It took us a while to decide that it was time to get going and it is only then that one remembers why it was so long since we came here. You see, there are only two ways out of this valley. One is the way we came from and the other is a sheer drop. Our little stream, as you’ve probably realized, takes a sudden dose of steroids. Thing is… we didn’t realise that till it was too late. How the hell were we gonna get of this one??? Word of the wise… when in doubt, trust the roots. If they can hold a 30 ft tall tree, they can hold you… no matter how grossly overweight you may be 😀 Also as a personal note to self… must learn to take photographs when hanging precariously from ledge, so you will have to trust me when I say… it was precarious. As we were approaching the end of our journey, we realised two things. One… where the hell were all the birds??? Sure we heard them but we’d been in the thick of it for hours and we were yet to see one miserable Bulbul, forget getting a glimpse of any royalty. The second, was that we were yet to find any orchids. Strange. The answer to the first question came along soon enough, in the form of locals carrying hand held catapults.

Another bit of info that may come in handy… locals are a suspicious lot and when encountering one, make sure you ask them a redundant question… for eg. “Are you taking a walk in the woods?” or “Are you out bird hunting?”.  You see khasis have a belief system that maintains that suspicious folk walking around in the woods might be kidnappers or cultists, a myth that grew out of the Thlen(snake worship) story.

Now, that that mystery had been solved, we were free to look for the orchid. It was close to noon and still there was no trace. Our stomachs were rumbling and the clouds were settling in. Maybe one out if three isn’t so bad and there’s always another day… With heavy hearts we climbed the last hill towards civilization. And then, it happened. First one, then another and another and another. Orchids as far as the eye can see, on every branch of every tree… orchids! And best of all Pleiones everywhere! It was probably best that the flowers were on the top most branches but I really wish we had brought a couple of buds home. The rest of the journey was taken in the slow, drawn out attitude that is synonymous with hunger and aching muscles. As we strolled down the last stretch of the forest, we saw a sight that would stay with us for a very long time. Birds! of all shapes and sizes, feasting on wild berries and soaking in the winter sun.

The sun was contemplating a few more hours of play, the clouds were dancing in the skies and the birds were being their usual flamboyant self.