The Island with a Natural Light Bulb
‘It is better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times’, it is as though this ancient adage has been fundamental in inspiring the folks at ChaloHoppo to visit less or unexplored places and properties in the North East of India. These ChaloHoppo guys, strive to set up camps and take people to witness the raw magic that nature plays in this part of the country and I chose to be a part of one such camp. As G.K. Chesterton quotes, ‘the traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see’, thus, we(like minded people who attended the camp) as curious travelers, decide to visit places that we believe should be in the diaries of every traveler. Of all the places I have visited in the North East, the one where I recently slept in a tent remains a fond memory.
Nongkhnum Island is 15 kilometers from Nongstoin, the busy little town where we stopped for lunch at the ‘River Side Restaurant cum Guest House’. The restaurant is financed by SBI under the Prime Minister’s Employment Generation Programme (PMEGP). Post lunch, we headed for the island and observed that the road that leads to Nongkhnum is in a deplorable state, making it difficult for cars to pass smoothly. Nevertheless, once we reached the much talked about island, the road that led to it became a thing of the past. The island is surrounded by three magnificent waterfalls just a thirty-minute hike or a boat ride away. We saw a stunning sunset during our hike and walked through green valleys, and sat on rocks with lichens, a natural indicator of little or no pollution. Nongkhnum Island is ostensibly said to be the second largest river island in Asia after Majuli. Whether it is the second largest river island or not is still under speculation, but it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful islands we had set foot on. Supported by the local residents who aren’t fluent in English or Hindi, in this sparsely populated island comprising of nine villages, we pitched our tents and set up our camp, while being served hot local food that the kind villagers cooked for us. Usually, the lack of knowledge of the local language causes hindrance in communication, but here at Nongkhnum, language was never a barrier; we don’t know what brought the villagers and us closer to each other. Was it the music, the varied cultural experiences, the food, the vigor to explore new lands or merely the shared awe of breathing the same unpolluted air? We don’t know the answer yet. The local people generally earn their living by selling charcoal and sand, some are farmers while some end up getting government jobs, but that is a rarity, other than that, employment options are limited here. The ChaloHoppo guys helped a few of them set up food stalls for the campers, and recruited them to work at the campsite, thus encouraging local involvement and employment.
The sound of the Kynshi River that flows through the island and its green and blue water is a pure joy that could mesmerize anyone. The entry to the island is through a narrow bridge followed by a short walk. Enveloped with grasslands and trees on all sides, Nongkhnum is a perfect picnic spot for any nature lover. The natural beach that this island boasts about is so clean and pristine that you can lie down and sleep for hours wondering why isn’t this place taken as an example to promote the famous Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign)!The ideal part of our journey was our night stay. It’s freezing(not literally) in the night; luckily, we were provided with warm sleeping bags to combat the cold. Lighting a bonfire and sitting next to it, with ‘Tenny and Boi’, a band that came down all the way from Sohra( Cherrapunji) to join us wasn’t the only highlight of the night. Well, a place that is gifted with nature’s best ingredients had in place a starry night where, if you are a star gazer, it will become your research area, and if you simply love looking at the sky, it will be a delight. The sky suddenly makes you realize how tiny one is amongst all the constellations looking down at you.
As I aforementioned, a traveler sees what he sees, and so did we. We noticed holiday homes around, that had no guests. We saw the villagers lit the campsite with burning torches (Flambeau) and the only light that was present apart from the bonfire or the torches was the night sky. Suddenly it dawned on us that the darkness was not unique here. We realized how everyone in the village is used to this darkness. And it struck us hard that seventy years have passed since Independence and the nine villages that make up the island aren’t electrified. The houses don’t have a single light bulb! Indeed, it’s a privilege to sleep under a starry sky but it is undeniable how important and convenient electricity is. So, as I packed my stuff the following day and said goodbye to one of my most memorable camping experiences in the North East, I sincerely hoped that the government would soon take notice of the unavailability of electricity in this island dominated by stars that act as a natural light bulb for the villagers of Nongkhnum.