Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only...

Tripoto

A friend she is, who came all the way from Delhi to tea town Dibrugarh to stay at my Homestay by the tea Garden...What follows is an epic road trip...

Homestay by the tea garden, Dibrugarh, from where our journey began

Photo of Homestay by the Tea Garden, Dibrugarh, Lane 6, Seujpur, Dibrugarh, Assam, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

NIGHT 1

It would be our first night two-gather. A night pregnant with passion, with possibilities. After all, the ingredients that brew a romantic rendezvous were all there. She and me were in the middle of a forest, not just any forest but a rainforest, in a beautiful old chang bungalow. It was a dark night, and if there was some light, it came from the cluster of glow worms flying in circles. And it was a silent night - if there was any sound, it was from the owls and the crickets and the croaking frogs. The stars above were so big, so blue and so three dimensional that they looked like fluorescent blue berries hanging from a tree branch, almost tempting you to jump and pluck. On my Bose Bluetooth speaker, soft rock ballads by the Scorpions. I had on my hand a glass of Old Monk and she, a bottle of Breezer. Add to it all, we were not just sharing the room but the bed too.

Groovy roads as we travelled through this green corridor

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

Krisha and me had been driving all day from Dibrugarh on an assignment - she doing the photography for a few travel stories I was writing for magazines like Lonely Planet and National Geographic. She had flown all the way from New Delhi simply because I was here in Dibrugarh and the plan was to explore a few places around.

I had not seen much of this part of Upper Assam and eastern Arunachal Pradesh and was actually looking for an interesting travel mate - a good traveller would always surprise you with perspectives on a place that may not occur to you. So when she wanted to come, I was only too delighted.

I had known Krisha for five years now. This high-fashion but low-profile photographer had come to meet me first when I was the Editor of Air India's inflight magazine Subh Yatra (earlier called Swagat and Namaskar). She was keen on doing some travel photography for the magazine.

I instantly liked her. There was something very quiet about her demeanour, something very measured about her movements, something very whispery about the way she spoke and something very subtle about the way she dressed. Did she really operate in the high voltage, glitzy, and flamboyant ad and fashion industry!? I found myself wondering.

One look at her portfolio, however, and all doubts disappeared. The images she captured - mostly with foreign supermodels for global brands like Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Prada - had so much drama, art, and yes, fashion, that I couldn't tear my eyes off. It wasn't just about creativity, handling a hi-tech DSLR also required technical skills, and this simple unasuming woman sitting in front of me had it all.

Our association continued when I became the executive editor of Harper's Bazaar (Bride), the fashion magazine, where I roped her in to do some shoots for us.

It was not like we always talked shop. After a point in time we had become friends enough to go out for coffee at CCD or a movie. Sometimes she would drop by at my office and it was always a welcome break.

It was comfortable being with her; she had this incredible ability to calm you down. A benign presence in my life, she was non judgemental about all the good, the bad and the ugly that I ended up sharing with her. And when we said our good byes with a hug, it took an effort to part ways. I was fond of her, and I guess the feeling was mutual.

The plan was to drive across bridges and rivers, deep into jungles, within rainforests, around lakes, up on the hills, between tea gardens, stopping by at monasteries and villages, eating their food, with no fixed destination, the journey itself becoming one. It was gonna be like a road movie. With vast vistas of panoramic greens in this untamed Arizona of the East, the drive - just she and me - would be full of kuch kuch hota hein moments! Or so the incurable romantic in me liked to believe. I wouldn't mind a cute little fling along the way, you know.

Tea gardens on either side of the road rolled out like a carpet till infinity

Photo of Muttuck Tea Estate, Lahoal - Duliajan Road, Lahoal, Assam, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Let's get lost in the forbidden mountains of Arunachal Pradesh," I texted her from Dibrugarh. "Yes, lets disappear from the face of the world!" she texted back from Delhi.

The morning she landed at Homestay by the tea garden, Dibrugarh, we hugged like long lost friends. "Oh my! Can't believe I'm here finally at your house! Never thought I will see you, Nishi, here in Dibrugarh!" she said.

I checked her into her little red room.

"This is your room, ok. Hope you like it," I said. "And the geyser switch is here, that's the AC remote; and if you need more towels, lemme know, ok." I was fussing over her to ensure she felt at home.

"Nishi, I am not just another guest ok," she said, straightening up, her hands on her hips. "Just chill. I will be fine!"

"All right then. Freshen up and then come down for breakfast with my mom."

Soon she was downstairs and instantly striked a rapport with mom. "So aunty, let me help you," she said taking over from mom whatever she was cooking.

"Sweet, she is," my mom would tell me later. "Is she married?"

"Yes ma, and has a child too!" I said, leaving her delightfully surprised.

"She doesn't look it at all," mom said.

I was glad mom liked her.

I kept the Red Room at Homestay by the tea garden, Dibrugarh, ready for my friend

Photo of Homestay by the Tea Garden, Dibrugarh, Lane 6, Seujpur, Dibrugarh, Assam, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

By evening, we went to meet a conservationist, an authority on the Joypur (also spelt Jeypore) Rainforest, some 63 km from Dibrugarh town. Soumyadeep Datta, who runs an environmental activist group called Nature's Beckon, gave us a good perspective on the forest. Rainforest, as you would know, is a multi-layered evergreen forest where it is perpetually dark and wet as sunrays cannot peep in through the dense foliage.

Soumyadeep Datta who runs an environmental group called Nature's Beckon, is a well known author

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

The guy had written a number of books on the forest, the medicinal plants that grow there and animals and birds that are its residents. It's also the home to India’s only ape, the endangered hoolock gibbon. Both of us were suitably impressed by his range of knowledge on the region.

"But why are you writing all these books in Assamese? Why not in English?" Krisha asked, one of his books on her lap. "You will reach out to a worldwide audience then and that would include me!"

"Because I first want the local people, people who live in and around the forest, to be aware of the importance of this forest. Only when they know, they will protect the forest," Dutta said. "If I write in English, people from outside will know, right, but they will not do anything to protect the forest. They will come as tourists, journalists and researchers, do their bit and go away. If there is no forest, they will not come. So the first thing is to protect the forest and hence written for the local readers."

Krisha and me looked at each other. This guy made sense. I also noticed that Krisha had several other questions for him and I liked her intelligent curiosity.

Spot the butterfly

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"You can go on the forest route," Dutta suggested. "There are a number of national parks, forest reserves and sanctuaries, one after another as you go from Dibrugarh towards Roing in Arunachal. "Kaziranga and Manas are not the only forests in Assam worth a visit. The jungles this side are more dense, more raw, richer with flora and other life forms and are a gold mine for birders, wildlifers, botanists, and researchers," he said.

"Nishiiiiii... I'm so excited," Krisha exclaimed once we were out of his house.

"Yeaaaaaaa!" I responded.

Early next morning much before mom could step in the kitchen, she was already rustling up some breakfast for everyone. Packing in a few pieces of clothes, off we drove towards Duliajan where we would be met with a member of Nature's Beckon who would escort us around.

Sights along the way

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Stop, stop, stop!" Krisha exclaimed suddenly, startling me. What happened! I wondered. I pulled up by the roadside, switched on the parking lights, even as she quickly climbed out of the car with her tools of the trade. Standing bang in the middle of the national highway 215, she started shooting, totally oblivious to the dangers of moving traffic. On her wide angle frame were the lush green paddy field slashed in two by the grey road that stretched out to infinity.

Paddy fields

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Hey, careful ok," I shouted, keeping an eye for any high-speed vehicles to alert her.

In an above-the-knee frock, the hem of which kept blowing away with the wind, and white sneakers on her feet, she made for an interesting spectacle, as curios cars slowed down to see what was going on. It was a joy watching her handle the camera - now bending down, now on her knees, now standing at an angle, her shoulder length hair doing the Salsa.

"Done, lets go!" she said finally, and I drove on, speedometer not more than 60 kmph, a leisurely speed that allowed us an eyeful of the incredible scenery all around - the gardens, bamboo plantations, distant mountains, rivers, village ponds, forests... Krisha was quiet as she rolled down the car window to breath a lungful of the unadulterated air that cities like Delhi never offered.

Tea garden leaf pluckers with their bamboo baskets

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Thank you Nishi," she said, all of a sudden, holding my left hand that was resting on the gear knob.

I knitted my brows together.

"This is really a beautiful part of our country. I would never have come here if you weren't there. Thank you!" she said earnestly.

We stopped wherever she thought there was a photo op. At times I would suggest her a photo angle: "Do you think there is a picture in there!" and she would be like: "Oh yes, didn’t notice that!"

Like that we kept driving, wherever the highway was taking.

"Lets go off the road and check out this village," I suggested spotting some mud huts.

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

An uneven road led us to a few huts scattered here and there. It's a Bodo village - the tribal community that demanded Bodoland.

Seeing a few women in one particular house, Krisha said she wanted to take their pictures. "So pretty they are," she said. I spoke to them in Assamese but they were shy. Wrapped in a self-woven wrap-around called dokhona that covered them from chest to ankle, they made a sartorial statement that was at once traditional as it was global.

Krisha trained her cam on them, but they stiffened up.

"Nishi, keep talking to them na. They are so conscious," she said, and so I tried engaging them in a conversation.

Yes, the women said, they have their cows, hens, pigs and grow rice for meals which they have mixing with salt, mustard oil, nimbu, mirchi, dry fish chutney, herbs and veggies. All organic staff.

"No dal?" I asked.

"Dal is very costly," one of them said.

It's also costly to buy sugar. I realised that when they offered us tea laced with salt. And it tasted good! Damn good.

The Bodo woman on the left is the mom-in-law of the woman to your right

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

There were bamboo plantations all around their house, bamboo fence marking their compound. "Such open spaces they have! They definitely live a better life than us," Krisha said, contrasting it with her three-bedroom Gurgaon apartment on the 26th floor.

We said our byes and drove on, Krisha's eyes alert to anything interesting enough to be photographed. I saw that along with her DSLR, she was shooting a lot with her phone as well.

"Why do you use the phone sometimes to take pictures?" I asked.

"It's easier when I have to do quick shoots," she said.

"But what phone is this?"

"Galaxy S10. It has a very very good camera. I stopped using iPhones for shoots," she explained.

"Really? Samsung guys should make you their brand ambassador. A professional photographer endorsing their phone!"

An hour and a half of non-stop driving and I said: "Let's stop for tea, no,".

"Do you get coffee here?"

"Krisha!" I said in mock anger, "you don’t ask for coffee in tea country, ok."

"But I am a coffee person," she said, "never mind, I will make do with tea."

It's actually very hard to get coffee in this region. Locals would not even know how to make a cup. Our cook at the Homestay would make you the finest tea, but when it came to coffee, he had been a disaster.

I pulled up by a small market.

"You will have to wait. Let me finish my breakfast," a woman at the tea stall said, as she sat on the floor with a plate of bora saul (rice), jaggery and curd. Typically grown in Assam, Bora rice makes for an excellent breakfast cereal and needs no cooking. Just dip it in water for a while and it becomes soft enough to eat. She ate with such relish that both of us felt hungry.

Meanwhile, we noticed an elderly man, hat on his head, looking straight at us.

"Do you stay around here?" I walked right upto him and asked.

"Yes," he said. He was equally curious about us.

He belonged to the tribal Mising community, he told us, and that he was a retired Assam govt. official.

"These guys weave very colourful cotton mekhela (two piece saree). I will gift you one ok," I told Krisha. "Whenever my wife wears one in Delhi, everyone appreciates it."

"Really? I would like one," she said.

Soon enough, as is the common practise here, he was inviting us strangers to his home nearby. With nothing much happening around there and in their lives, outsiders are an entertaining time pass.

His was a bamboo house on stilts. Even the floor was made of bamboo. That's how the community made their houses (on raised platforms) as they mostly lived by the river and flooding was an yearly ritual. Building a house above the river works to prevent waters from flooding their houses.

The elderly Mising couple welcomed us to their traditional house

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Look, we have guests," he announced, as his beautiful old wife came out wearing a wrap-around and a smile; palms joined into a namaskar. They showed us their drawing room. But what kind of a drawing room was this? It was actually a kitchen, and a very large one at that. A wood fired earthen chula occupied centre place. That's where friends and family gather as they cook, eat, drink, discuss and gossip. In winter, the kitchen kept everyone warm too. The woman offered us bananas from their backyard. Krisha had quite a few of them.

The old man called his youngest among his three sons, a Christian missionary worker. Many of these tribal communities had turned into Catholics or Protestant, missionary organisations tempting them with free and better education and life.

All three sons live in separate houses but within the compound itself. "Dad likes to live in his traditional type house," he said, "ours are modern houses."

Krisha got up from my side to sit right next to the cute old couple in a wooden bench. "She is sooooooo cute," she said to no one in particular, and couldn’t resist planting a big peck on the cheeks of the old woman.

Really spontaneous with her emotions, this Krisha, I thought, as she held her hand like she was her own grandmom, finding it hard to leave her.

It's the people that make a place and this side of the planet is all about slow tourism, not about sights to see and things to do, not like a "Europe in 10 days" package. It's green and green everywhere - paddy green, tree green, tea garden green, moss green on the ponds, mountain green, rain soaked green, bamboo green, forest green...

"I'm going green-blind!" Krisha joked.

We talked at certain stretches and at times nature silenced us, lost in the cinematic panorama rolling out.

"Look look look!" we would go everytime one of us saw something striking, like a pretty house, like a couple of women riding cycles in traditional wear; like a quaint church; or like a villager carrying a giant fish on his shoulder.

Sights like these drew Krisha's attention

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

And thus we landed in oil town Duliajan where we picked up our escort to guide us around. Duliajan is where crude oil is extracted from deep inside the earth and then sent via massive pipelines to Asia's first refinery (founded in 1901) in Digboi and to Barauni refinery in Bihar. We saw a bridge over a marshy land, but a bridge not made of concrete, but entirely of oil pipelines!

The bridge made of pipelines through which the crude oil is transported to refineries

Photo of Duliajan Oil Town, Assam, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Krisha see," I said pointing to few rusty old abandoned oil tankers. "This will be so good for one of your fashion shoots,"

She turned towards me, her eyes lit up: "You know what, I was thinking exactly the same thing!"

"Why don’t you do some of your fashion shoots here then!?"

"It will cost a lot to bring models, etc, down here. But I will try convincing my clients," she said.

Our escort first took us to an isolated village called Namphake, within Dibrugarh district itself. Incredibly, in this nowhere land right next to the Burhidihing river, there stood a grand monastery dipped in gold. Early residents of this village migrated from Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand to settle down here. They still speak their own dialect amongst themselves and in Assamese to outsiders. We fell silent as we sat under the shadow of the large Buddha-in-meditation statue till the time a lively young monk - shaven and saffron - joined us to chat. He was just 22 but his level of maturity and knowledge on Buddhism was impressive.

One is surprised to see such a ornamental monastery in the middle of nowhere

Photo of Namphake Buddhist Monastery, Namfake Road, Dihing Kinar Bangali, Assam, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"So would you stay a monk forever?" Krisha asked.

He said he wasn't sure. "I'm at an age when one is likely to get distracted. But I meditate a lot to keep my mind off women and other material attractions," he said.

Later Krisha would tell me that this guy wasn't likely to remain a monk forever.

"Take my word," she said with confidence.

"Why do you say that?"

"He is very articulate, smart and media savvy," she said. "And have you noticed how longingly he was looking at your Elantra?"

"But I really like him," she added.

This sleepy village comes alive during Baudh Poornima - a time when a big mela takes place with lots of international visitors. There is a three-room guest house there.

Namphake Buddhist monastery

Photo of Namphake Buddhist Monastery, Namfake Road, Dihing Kinar Bangali, Assam, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

This done, we were now off to the famed Joypur rainforest, a part of Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. Driving along a nice but narrow road that cut through a dense woody jungle, our escort suddenly told us to stop. Now what was there?

That was when we saw it: A tunnel made entirely of tree branches. We followed him only to find ourselves awestruck - like Alice in Wonderland. The tunnel led us to a narrow wet track with plants, flowers, leaves, creepers, and trees the likes of which I had never seen before. And sounds - of birds and beasts - the likes of which I had never heard.

I looked up and all I could see was a canopy of tree branches and creepers knitting into each other forming a natural roof - the sky had simply disappeared.

Photo of Jeypore Rainforest, Lakhipathar Block, Assam, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Hey, careful," I warned as Krisha tried balancing herself over a fallen log that acted like a bridge over a little stream of water. I extended my hand and she held it and crossed it. Guided by our escort who had by now become our friend, we walked further through the green tunnel until it became very dark and maybe even dangerous to go on. There would be snakes and there would be leeches and there would be insects and who knows, even carnivorous plants.

"What a forest! Never seen something like this," she said, taking her time to do the shoots, the unusual subject with no sunrises and sundowns presenting her with a new photographic challenge.

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

It was 4 pm now and we were hungry. Our guide took us to RG Family Dhaba somewhere around Namrup, a little town with a big fertiliser plant. Lovely mud and hay and bamboo place it was with a open veranda sitting: As usual I had my boiled bamboo shoot pork and rice and Krisha being a vegetarian, had dal soured by elephant apple, and rice.

I had heard about a forest lodge inside the rainforest and I asked our escort if we could stay the night there. He didn't answer. Instead he made a call. "Yes, you can," he said after the call, and guided us through a gate that announced, Joypur Forest.

Ferns of the forest

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

A little more driving down the road, and we were entering a massive iron gate to a grand old isolated chang bunglow.

"It's like one of those horror movies, no," Krisha said, "where a family moves into a beautiful but ancient house only to find it's haunted!"

"Totally, man!" I laughed.

Our escort left after handing us over to the caretaker. Thankfully, he didn't look like one of those hunchbacked, crooked, one-eyed caretaker with an oil lamp they show you in these fear-flicks. Ours was a decent one, but he was the only one who lived in the bungalow.

There were just three rooms meant for forest officials. But we were given only one.

What would be Krisha's reaction when she knew we were sleeping in the same room and yes, on the same bed? She, somebody's wife; me, somebody's husband! Would she have a problem? Would she be awkward?

Krisha trying to balance herself on an uprooted tree trunk

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Beautiful!" she said instead, much to my relief, scanning the room and the large king sized bed with her eyes. If she was awkward, she didn't show it. To make her comfortable, I came out to sit in the large wooden balcony overlooking the river, giving her the woman-time she needed. It was almost like we were doing a very routine thing - sleeping in the same bed as if we were a much married couple.

Would the night throw some sensual surprises?

Knock, knock! I knocked. And when I got no response, I pushed open the door. There she was on the bed, already in a see-through nightwear and talking on the phone. It was for the first time that I saw her in very private bedroom wear. She looked desirable.

"You hungry?" I asked moving towards the wardrobe. She put a finger to her lips. She was talking to someone. Who was it? Her hubby? She probably wouldn't want him to hear a male voice. Would she tell him that she was sharing a bed with a man in a forest bungalow?

"Were you talking to your boyfriend by the way?" I taunted when she came to the balcony to join me later.

"Why?"

"No, the way you were whispering on the phone..."

She laughed. "That's my hubby!" she said, sitting directly opposite me. Oh, I wished, she could have sat nearer! It would have been nice to put my arm around her shoulder.

It was just about 8 pm, but it was already like midnight. Quiet and still. If it was a great place for romance, it was also a perfect place for a bunch of friends sharing ghost stories.

"This is the kind of place where ghost exist, you know," I teased.

"So you have some ghost stories to tell?"

"I have and this is one," I started, she all ears.

Our first place of stay, the Forest Lodge

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"So it was in the 70s and my dad was travelling one night by an Ambassador from Dibrugarh to Duliajan through one of these forest roads when at some point he was stopped by a woman asking for a ride. She wanted to go to her village a few miles away,"

I paused for effect.

"Go on," she prodded.

"Well, the woman sat on the back seat while my dad was at the front along with the driver. Dad was talking to her randomly and when her destination came, dad turned back to inform her. But what the hell! Where was the woman! There was nobody in the back seat! He and the driver looked at each other in horror following which they drove like maniacs, fear fuelling the car through the rest of the journey."

She was suitably spooked out for when I wanted to tell her one more story, she said: "Bus ho gaya. This is enough!"

"This place needs some touristy infrastructure, don't you think? At least a hotel. One has to stay at least for a night to soak it all," I said changing the topic.

The bungalow we were staying in is basically meant for forest officials. We were lucky to be staying here as journalists.

"But that will ruin its raw character, no," she said.

"At least a few homestays would be good."

"Why don't you open one?"

"Now, that's food for thought," I said.

By now I was on my third peg of Old Monk and she on her second Breezer. We were quiet for a while. "Let me take you far away..." the Scorpions continued wailing.

"I so needed this break, Nishi," Krisha said, as if she had just woken up from a reverie. "I was so dead stuck with my work!"

"Even I needed a break badly. Thank you for coming!"

"You make for a great travel partner, you know," she said. "You're really chilled out!"

And I was like: "You stole my line! I meant to say the same thing to you!"

Our eyes met. And stayed locked. For a little more time than necessary.

"The point is," I said, looking elsewhere, "to quietly absorb it all in without cribbing about anything. And the good thing about you is you can eat or sleep anywhere and it's a joy to watch you!"

She smiled and raised her bottle: "So here is to many more adventures and travel!"

Just when we were warming up to some intimacy, something that shouldn't have happened, well, happened.

She started yawning.

"I'm sorry but I am so tired, I think I should go to bed," she said.

"Yeah, you look tired. It has been a long day," I responded.

She got up from her seat, came around me, bent down and planted a fullsome kiss on my cheeks. And then off she went to her, I mean, our, bedroom. "Good night!" she wished.

Now what? I wondered aloud after she was gone. Was this the end of all hopes?

Well, I took a walk outside the bungalow, my mobile torch showing me the path in the deep dark, and then explored the little market where shops were downing their shutters one by one.

I returned to the room to find her sleeping on the extreme edge of the bed, all covered up by a white bed sheet. I quietly crept on the bed and slept, as faraway as possible, on the other edge of the bed.

It felt a bit weird. There she was with her back towards me and me, my back towards her, a white ocean of a bedsheet separating us. Soon I dozed off. Later deep in the night, I woke up for a loo break and looked at her. She was sleeping exactly in the same position she started with. She looked cute. I felt like turning her around to cuddle her like a teddy bear. But did nothing.

Nothing happened that night.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Our journey continues as we set out for the Golden Pagoda, where we would spend the second night two-gather. Will it throw some sensuous surprises?

Night no. 2

I couldn't but notice how neatly she was folding her panties that she had just picked up from the washline in the back balcony. I was also amused. You would be too when you see that one of these fluorescent coloured cotton triangles had a Winnie the Pooh imprint on it, another had Hägar the Horrible and the third, Dennis the Menace! She caught me looking.

"What!?"

"Nothing," I said, biting my lower lip to contain a smile. "You are bloody cute!" I muttered, and made for the door.

That was the morning after the uneventful night, as we packed our bags for our second day's road romance. But wait, our Krisha had work to do: A massive tree that looked like it was from the dinosaur era was the subject of her attention. With a bulge around its circular trunk the primitive tree looked pregnant and was balding - there were hardly any leaves.

"Doesn't it look like those Baobab trees in Madagascar?" I pointed out.

"It does," she said, her eye on the viewfinder, "that's why I am taking its pictures."

The tree that caught my photographer friend's attention

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

The next subject that caught her photographic attention, however, was a human being.

You see, we sauntered into a nearby house only to be greeted by a bushy black moustache framed against the door and shining like silk. The moustache belonged to the ranger of Joypur Rainforest. It was so prominent that all his other facial features - ears, eyes and nose - blurred in the background. The lush strip of hair over his upper lip gave him an evergreen look, which was why we were surprised when he said that he was retiring next year.

"Really? You don't look that old!" I exclaimed.

"Yeah," Krisha agreed. "Your skin is glowing!"

"It's probably the forest living," the Ranger laughed, revealing a set of teeth Colgate would be proud of. Pearly whites are unusual this side of the planet where every second person's dentel story is inked in red on jagged, uneven surface - a result of chewing raw betel nut that grows plentifully here.

"Finally I will get to live with my family!" the Ranger said.

"Meaning?" I asked.

"All my work life I had been posted in forest areas, away from the family who lives in Jorhat town," he explained.

"See, that's another secret to his youthful looks!," I bluttered. "No wife, no kids, no stress!"

Three of us laughed.

"There is character in his face," Krisha told me in an aside. "I want to do some portraits."

We requested him to come outside and Krisha went click click click; while I puffed, puffed, puffed.

The Ranger of Joypur Rainforest in his manor

Photo of Jeypore Rainforest, Lakhipathar Block, Assam, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

Our destination for the day was the mythical sounding Golden Pagoda. This Burmese-style Buddhist temple in Namsai district of Arunachal Pradesh is 74 km away from where we were now.

But first thing first: Let's have some breakfast. A grandma looking woman was dishing out puri sabzi in a tea stall. This little forest village was slowly coming back to life as kids walked their way to "English medium" schools. I looked at the few houses around. Like Krisha suggested, it wouldn't be a bad idea to invest in one of them for a homestay.

But then what I witnessed next didn't make it a good idea either. Something crazy happened.

Monkeys. One. Two. Three. A dozen. And then in hundreds. They were coming from the jungle, in ones and twos, some with their babies, stomping over tin roofs and jumping on electrical poles. They march-passed confidently, with a swagger, with a mission, feeling powerful with their staggering numbers. It was like a never ending parade. As they crossed the road balancing on overhead cables, they looked down at us humans, as if with contempt, disdain, as if we were their slaves. Seen Planet of the Apes? It was like that.

They were on their mornng raid, intruding into kitchens as if they were the owners, wolfing down all the food, throwing utensils everywhere, and creating mayhem all around. Residents made their usual noise, but these were royally ignored.

"They have destroyed our villages. They have damaged the tin and hay roofs of our houses," the old woman sighed. "You can't grow anything here. They have an entire jungle to themselves but they still prefer to come into the village area."

"Can't you stop them?"

"You cannot," she said. "If you injure one of them, they will come back with their gangs to take revenge. They remember faces! "

This was unbelievable. Living at the mercy of the monkeys! I lit up another cigarette.

Soon we were on the highway, slo-moing through a stunning tunnel of trees flowering purple on either side. The road was narrow and there were no dividers but it was smooth and traffic free, the entire road all ours to monkey around. I rolled down the window to blow away a lungful of smoke.

"Don't you think you are smoking too much?" Krisha said, looking at me annoyed.

"Yes, I am," I admitted guiltily. "This will be my last till lunch, ok."

"I am keeping a tab," she said.

All through the journey, we followed the good old way of asking people around. The patronising tone of that firangi woman dictating "go right' 'go left' on G Maps can get irritating!

"Is there a village nearby?" I asked someone on the road who looked like he belonged there.

He gave us an elaborate description of the interesting villages and their tribal residents. "Alright" I said, and drove off.

"Shouldn't you have said 'thank you' to the guy?" Krisha admonished."Oh, yes! Forgot!" I said, and pressed the brake paddle hard - suddenly, impulsely - to a screeching halt. Then in full throttle, I reversed, about hundred metres or so, to where the man was standing.

"Dhonyabad," I said in Assamese rolling down the passenger-side window.

"Hobo, hobo (fine, fine)," he said smiling and waving his hand.

Krisha threw me an indignant look. "Now what was that!!? Are you crazy??"

I looked at her puzzled. Oh, yes! What I just did was dangerous, but said nothing. The road was butter-smooth and when my eyes fell on the speedometre, I was like WTF! I was driving at 140 kmph.

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Are you fine with this speed?" I asked, breaking the long silence. "Or should I slow down?"

She said nothing.

We drove on, stopping by for some pictures, not too many words exchanged between us. And when I was about to lit the next ciggie, Krisha, in a qucik move, dragged it out from my lips.

"Enough!" she barked. "Sorry but I had to do this. This is too much smoking. You said you wouldn't have one till lunch time!"

"Sorry, sorry, sorry," I said, touching my earlobes, my hands off the steering. And amped up the audio system to song away the unpleasant vibes that had been trapped within the car confines for a while. It was one of those tracks from Sound of Silence:

"Hello darkness, my old friend

I've come to talk with you again..."

That immediately perked her up. "This is my favourite!" she said singing along.

"Wanna hear some Assamese?" I asked after a while.

"Yes, of course!"

And there it was, Jitul Sonowal. This guy had brought in a completely new flavour to Assamese music in the 90s, combining local language and instruments with wailing rock guitar riffs. "He was all the rage till the Jubin Garg, the guy who crooned Ya Ali for the movie Gangster, appeared in the scene and stole his thunder," I informed her. One particular peppy track got her grooving so much that she asked me to play it on repeat mode.

"moromi logori, asa buku juri

najaba atori, duronile..." the song went.

"What does it mean?" she asked.

"Its a love song basically," I said, "telling his lover not to go too far away..."

"Lovely!" she said.

"Yes, good music, great drive and I have you by my side - what else do I need!"

She turned sideways to look at me, narrowing her eyes, and turned away.

"Wah, aur ek baar dekho na like that," I teased. "It was cute!"

She ignored me and and began humming along, me finger-drumming on the steering.

"Assamese villages are so clean!" Krisha observed, as we drove by yet another roadside settlement. "They may be poor and living in mud huts but they keep them so neat and tidy... so unlike villages in UP or Bihar."

"You're right," I said. "Never realised."

Mud huts along the way

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

Sometimes we drove for miles in absolute silence.

"So Krisha, say something!"

"You say! You are the one full of stories!"

"Ok then. Since we are about to enter Arunachal, lemme tell you a story from the region," I began.

"It was election time and I am talking about the 70s, my dad was sent to a remote tribal village in Arunachal - he was a govt. polling officer. He had carried a Prestige pressure cooker to cook his own food. At the end of his tour, he thought he would gift the cooker to the tribal chief in whose house he was staying."

A guy from behind was honking too much. I slowed down to let him pass and continued: "Nobody had seen a pressure cooker in their lives and the entire village gathered - dad was giving a live demo on how to cook rice on a cooker, placing it on a wood fire. The curious villagres, standing in a circle, looked at it keenly."

"But what happened next startled everyone. The whistle blew making a loud hissing sound. This f%$#@&g frightened everyone so much that they took out their bows, arrows and spears and hurled them at the cooker."

"They were angry at my dad: 'What is this dangerous thing you are giving!' It took dad long to convince them. 'You can cook pork in it, you can cook rice and dal in it very fast,' dad tried to explain."

She laughed.

"Are the villages still like that?"

"Some interior villages, yes, still untouched by civilasation," I answered.

"Here's one more from Arunachal," I continued.

"So a Doordarshan cameraman - a friend of mine - from Dibrugarh went to cover a festival deep inside Arunachal. He was staying at the house of the village chief. As per tradition, the chief wanted to offer him a parting gift. But my friend had little idea what the gift was!" I recounted.

I paused for a while, my eyes on the rear view mirror, allowing another highspeed vehicle to take over.

"So what was the gift?" she asked impatiently.

"The chief gathered his wives in his room - and he had 36 of them - and asked my friend which one he wanted for the night!"

"My friend was like lost for words. He didn't know what to do - he had just been married. But again if he refused, the tribal chief would take offence!"

"So what did he do?"

"He randomly pointed out to one of them and she escorted him to one of the several huts. My friend told me he slept some distance away from the woman and just chatted with her."

"But now it was the girl's turn to take offence. 'I'm so ugly or what! You don't want to do sex to me!'" she had snapped, in typical Arunachali Hindi."

"Oh my! This is hilarious!" Krisha was amused.

The road was leading us through yet another forest. Spotting a signboard that indicated Dihing Patkai National Park, I slowed down. An arrow mark pointed to a road inside the forest.

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Shall we drive in?" I asked.

"Yes, lets check out!" That was what I liked about Krisha as a travel partner. She never said no to any adventure.

I steered right and found ourselves driving through a dense jungle that was almost closing in upon us. We saw a few young men and stopped to chat with them. There was a wedding in the village, they said, which was why they were chopping tree branches, bamboo and banana leaves: The first for firewood, the second to erect a pandal and the third to serve food to the guests.

"Now that's an eco friendly wedding!" Krisha commented.

It was a long drive through the kaccha road, at the end of which we found a Ranger's office and a forest bungalow.

We followed the same route back to the highway and stopped for tea. A few kids sitting not too far away were looking at Krisha and giggling away to glory.

Photo of Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, Digboi, Assam, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"What's making you laugh?" I asked them.

They pointed to her legs.

It was my turn to laugh now.

It was the stylised torn pair of jeans Krisha was wearing, revealing quite a bit of skin on her upper legs.

"Mera paas paisa nahin hein naya jeans kharidne ke liye," Krisha said addressing the boys and making a sad face. "Can you give me some money?"

This made them laugh even harder. Everyone in the stall couldn't but join in the infectious laugh riot.

We were getting closer to the Golden Pagoda and asked for directions. Someone suggested a short cut that passed through a few villages. The unpaved road was very uneven, but at least we would get to see the villages from close quarters.

"Ouch!" Krisha cried out, reaching out for the handles, as the car rumbled over a rough patch.

"Sorry," I said.

At times the Elantra made strange noises, stones and pebbles hitting the car bottom.

"Man, I need a SUV!" I announced.

"Yes," she said, "Buy a Range Rover."

"When you come next, I will ensure I have a Range Rover, ok!"

Our speed was reduced to 20-30 kmph, but it was a pace that allowed us to be in synch with the laid-back rural lifestyle.

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"What are these that I have been seeing everywhere?" Krisha asked as we drove past a typical structure with a gate.

"Oh, that's a Naamghor," I said. "Vaishnavite saint Sankardev set up these socio-cultural-spiritual institutions all over Assam. The first one was set up in Majuli," I said. "His idea of reaching out to God wasn't through expensive pujas and elaborate rituals, but through kirtan and music and culture and dance - he gave us Satriya, now one of the......"

I would have gone on with my lecture, except that I spotted a wine store finally and pulled up. When I made the payment, I knew we were in Arunachal. How? Because, a bottle of Kingfisher Strong came for just Rs 65 (Rs 100 plus in Delhi) and a bottle of Old Monk for just Rs 180 (Rs 330 in Delhi). That's tax free/subsidised alcohol in Arunachal where I had seen youngsters kindle bonfires no, not with kerosine or petrol, but with bottles of Teacher's Highland Cream.

Moving onward, we noticed that the facescapes were gradually changing - the facial features of the people were more accentuated, harder, and eyes were getting narrower. You also know that you are in Arunachal when people are more comfortable speaking to you in heavily accented Hindi than in Assamese.

I was expecting a border gate somewhere along where inner line permits are issued, but there was none. Without any hiccups, we crossed the Assam-Arunachal border.

"Let's celebrate the border crossing," I said grandly, opening a bottle of beer with my teeth. Krisha cringed. Would she be ok with it - me drinking and driving? I was wary specially after the cigarette incident. But she said nothing.

"Here take a sip," I handed her the bottle.

She took it, had a sip and then returning it, said: "Somehow I never developed a taste for alcohol."

It was about 4.30 pm and we found ourselves driving into a crimson sunset. "Stop, stop, please!" Krisha said, urgency in her voice. The ball of fire was fast disappearing behind the distant hills. She quickly climbed out of the car, camera in hand. But, by the time she got the cam rolling, the sundrop had completely disappeared. In a matter of seconds, that massive red ball just vanished.

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Oh!" she sighed, "I missed it!"

Upset, she stood looking at the direction. Her disappointment was so apparent that I felt like doing something to placate her; and ended up slipping my arms around her hips from behind, my right cheek on her left. "I will get you better, bigger suns tomorrow, ok baby," I cooed. It was almost like I was pacifying my lil daughter over an ice cream that just melted and fell off before she could lick.

Krisha turned around to face me, her arms around my waist now, and locked her eyes on mine, as if she wanted to say something. Then suddenly realising the reality of our spontaneous reactions, she withdrew as quickly, pulling her eyes away, a little awkward.

The mythical Golden Pagoda must be somewhere around, but we couldn't spot any indicators. Nor could we spot a soul to ask for directions. It was twilight now, and finally when we did spot someone, this was not what we hoped to hear: "You left it 10 km behind!"

"No problem," I said to myself. Driving 10 more km is no chore in these super smooth tarmac. We U turned and finally saw a board that announced the Pagoda's presence. How could we have missed it! It was so prominent. Turning right, we went uphill and there it was: A magnificent structure glitzy in gold flowering high up through the darkness.

Photo of Golden Pagoda, Namsai, Namsai, Arunachal Pradesh, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

There is a resort right next to the Pagoda and I went inside the reception area. Yes there were rooms.

"We will need your wife's I card also," the reception guy said.

"Sure," I said and went looking for my 'wife'.

"Hi Mrs Baruah," I shouthed. Krisha looked at me quizicaly.

"The receprin guy needs my wife's i card! You have any?"

"Oh," she smiled, and gave me a voter icard.

We were checked into one of the cottages, but one look at the bedroom and I was kind of disappointed; not by its decor or ambience, but by the bed: It had twin beds; two separate single beds. So near yet so far away... If I had hopes for a red hot night, well, time to water it down.

We freshened up and off we strolled towards the pagoda, bathed in warm yellow glow and looking magical. Visitors from South Asia were quietly strolling around the sprawling complex, monks chanting within the shrine, some simply sitting on the floor, others admiring the awesome architecture. Rs 3 crore was spent by Arunachal politician Chowna Mein to build this pagoda on a plot provided by the state government.

Our cottage near the Golden Pagoda, our resting place for the second night

Photo of Namsai, Arunachal Pradesh, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

It was then Krisha realised something that made me lose it: She forgot the camera.

"This is stupid, Krisha. This is just the time to shoot, na," I said. "How can you forget, yaar!"

"Shit! Shit!," she blurted out. "Can you please, please get it?" she pleaded, holding my hand.

Our resort was a kilometre away and would take quite a bit of walking to get the cam, but still I rushed, for I needed those images for the story. I went all the way, walking fast and furious in the dark, and when I returned with her DSLR, I found Krisha standing outside the gate of the complex.

"Phew," she sighed. They have closed the gates. Can't shoot!"

This was f^%$ing frustrating. It meant we would have no night images of the Pagoda. More frustration was in store when we made for the meditation complex only to be denied entry. There was a Vipassana meditation camp going on inside.

What happened next, however, was a bit unexpected.

"Oh my god! This is unbelieveable!" Krisha cried out.

"What?"

"Look who is here!"

And I turned to find a monk in saffrom walking towards us. Whoa! This was the same young monk we met and chatted with at monastery the previous day.

He smiled at us.

"How come you are here?" Krisha asked.

"I am here to help the Vipassana participants. If they require anything, they indicate by signs," he said, the security guard now opening the gate for him and for us too.

"You know what," Krisha told me, "I really wanted to meet him once again after I left Namphake. And see how he appeared here!"

The tallest bamboo statue of Buddha in the world

Photo of Golden Pagoda, Namsai, Namsai, Arunachal Pradesh, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

But for him, we would have missed the tallest bamboo statue of Buddha in the world. Forty five feet in height, a team of 50 artists from Myanmar worked for around two years to complete the statue. It was indeed grand.

"Vipassana is a very difficult meditation, but its a life changing experience," our 22 year old monk said. "You have to remain silent for more than a week. It is hard in the first three days - they cry, they cannot sleep, they lose appetite, but with the guru's guidance, slowly they manage to empty the dustbins their minds have become."

"I will definitely come back here to do this next year," Krisha said.

Finally we were walking towards our cottage, cutting through a dark patch of road. Its rare to find this kind of absolute darkness these days - a luxury actually - in a well-lit world. It was so peacefully quiet that we didn't want't to knife the silence by talking. We whispered instead. It was that kind of quiet and dark that romantics thrive in. I felt like holding her hand, but hesitated.

The resort next to the Golden Pagoda in Namsai, Arunachal Pradesh, where we stayed

Photo of Namsai, Arunachal Pradesh, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

Once at our cottage, we sat on the steps leading to our cottage. It was a beautiful day, the night, punctuated by vintage Victorian pole lamps, gorgeous. The temperature was just right. And the air carried the fragrance of the forest. It was almost as if the elements were conspiring to build an amorous ambience for a sizzling session.

But just then her phone rang, and she moved some distance away to talk.

"That was Amar," she said returning to her seat.

"And what was he saying?"

"He isn't well, and the cook also didn't turn up today,"

"Tell me more about Amar!'

Krisha, in fact, spoke very little about her family. It was only some months ago that I found out to my surprise that she was not only married but had a 4 year old daughter too. Somehow she always gave out the impression that she was single - not a wife, not a mother.

"Amar is a typical good looking Punjabi. He lets me be!" she said. "He misses me when I am away. He thinks I dont know the ways of the world. That's why he keeps calling me to check."

"That's sweet." I said. "Was it a love marriage?"

"Actually we were class mates in school. We had been friends since class 6 till he proposed. He is stiil more a friend."

"And your in laws stay with you?" I asked.

"No, but they keep coming."

"You get along with them?"

"Not really. They think I am the one responsible for taking their son away to live in another house," she said. "Besides his folks are very gossipy, and I don't like these; so I do my own things and stay away. I'm sure they keep gossiping about me a lot!" she laughed.

I had another sip of my Old Monk.

"Accha, you tell me what you aren't telling: what's happening in your life? Are you going to be permanently stationed in Dibrugarh or are you going back to Delhi?"

"Well...." I began and bared it all. I rarely talk about my personal issues to anyone. But like I said before, she was the only one I felt comfortable sharing it all.

"Hmmmm," she nodded thoughtfully. "That's a lot happening there; lot to sort out!"

It was a heart to heart, friend to friend conversation, rather than anything romantic and before we knew it, it was 2 in the morning.

"Hey we should go to bed, yaar!" she said, getting up.

"Yeah, you go. I will do one last smoke and come," I said, coming to terms with the fact that the night was unlikely to throw any seductive surprises. With two separate single beds, she was way too far away to roll over for some skin-on-skin intimacy. Or was it my age? Too old to try too hard? Losing my seductive prowess?

Not that I was desperate. But it would have been nice..., you know! We had a great day and we could have done with some red cherry on the pudding by night. Some desert.

Anyway, nothing happened that night either.

....................................................................................

But don't lose your interest, dear reader. You have read this far, sure I am not gonna disappoint you with an anti climax.

I have one more night to make it happen!

.....................................................................................

What happens on the final night? She and me in a small cottage by a roaring river in Arunachal Pradesh...

Night 3

I woke up to a sensory feast. On my nose, fragrance of shampoo; on my ears, a woman's wordless hum; and when I opened my eyes, I was greeted by a face - fresh-from-the-shower, hair dripping water.

That was Krisha coming out of the bathroom in a short white cotton frock, two black dots marking her braless bosom. Sitting on the edge of my single bed, moisturising milk between her palms, she nudged me on my back with her elbow.

"Uttho!!" she urged, lifting and resting her right foot on the edge of the bed. In the process, the little frock slipped down her thigh to reveal quite an eyeful. Without attempting to cover up, she started rubbing the liquid luxury down her dusky skin right till her toes.

Needless to say, I was wide awake by this time.

"It's 9 am, Nishi! Get ready!"

"What?? Oh shit!" I said sitting up with a start.

"Yes! We got to move," she asserted.

Making my way to the bathroom, I winked: "I can help you with that by the way! I'm a good masseur!"

"No need," she said sternly.

"Your loss," I shrugged. Inside the bathroom, I did more than just brushing, bathing, shaving, the works.

Once out I saw her through the window - what was she upto now?

Oh, she was shooting something. The branches of a coconut tree had become the nesting heaven for hundreds of weaver birds as they flew back and forth, blades of grass between their tiny beaks, and knitting them into nests. It was a priceless sight. One of the branches was lying flat on the ground with several abandoned nests hooked onto it.

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"You can take them to decorate your homestay," Krisha suggested.

"Good idea," I said, stepping out of the room to pluck about a dozen of them.

"Wait, let me take a picture," she said as I posed, flaunting my delicate but precious real estate.

During breakfast a family with a little daughter next to our table smiled at us. We got talking.

"Where are you from?" the woman asked.

"Delhi," I said.

"On a holiday?"

"Yes," I said.

"What about your kids? Left them there?" the woman was curious, assuming of course that we were a hubby-wife pair.

"Yeah, they are with their grandad's," I told them.

Krisha threw a look at me, an impish smile on her lips.

Photo of Golden Pagoda, Namsai, Namsai, Arunachal Pradesh, India by Nishiraj A. Baruah

The Golden Pagoda shimmered in the morning sun. There he was again, the young monk, strolling around the grassy lawns. But this time not by co-incidence. Krisha had requested him the previous night for a photo session; and our man in saffron was already there waiting for us.

But what followed was hilarious!

THE MINI MONK: Was he posing for our camera? Or was he deep into meditation?

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Just sit here as if you are meditating," Krisha instructed him. He obliged, as he sat below the large Buddha idol, eyes closed. Krisha went about shooting him from different angles.

"Ok, we are done," Krisha told him, shoot over. But our monk remained seated on the granite floor, back straight, eyes sealed, a picture of calm. Maybe he didn't hear her. "Hi, you may get up now," I said getting closer to him. But nah, the monk refused to move. We looked at each other. Did he really lapse into some kind of meditation? What to do now?

We waited. And we waited. But the monk showed no signs of coming back to life. We had a journey ahead and we needed to move. Still it wasn't nice to leave him just like that without saying our 'byes' and 'see you laters'.

"Kiya kare? Lets go," I said, leaving him finally.

We were now on the road to Roing, a hill station in Arunachal. This is a place I had always recommended our Homestay guests to visit. It was supposed to be very scenic and I was keen on exploring it myself. I also have a friend there who runs a river side accommodation called Mishmi Hill Camp. I called him and he said he would keep a cottage ready for us.

The road onwards (NH 13, from Tenga Pani to Roing) was easily one of the sexiest in the world, a bit like the iconic Route 66 in the US, as if tailor made for Harley Davidson riders. In fact, lot of international bikers take this route - I know this because many of them fly in to Dibrugarh airport and stay at our Homestay before cruising off on their motorcycles.

Our Hyundai Elantra flew like a butterfly on these roads

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

The monk had recommended a few scenic places en route to Roing where we could stop by. We also made our own little discoveries. Spotting colourful garden umbrellas by the riverside, we stopped at the mouth of a bridge and went offroading downwards - not sure if our Elantra would be able to rough it out on the rocky roadless terrain. I drove slowly until we were right on the grassy river bank. And lo and behold!

There were tables and chairs and gazebos. There was a bar, there were boomboxes. But there was nobody.

Parking the car under the shadow of a giant tree, I walked around to find a small room where someone in nothing but an undie was sleeping. Knock knock! The guy woke up. "Sorry," I said, "but what is this place?"

Turned out it is a very popular place for tourists and locals alike. Complete with psychedelic lights and a bamboo bar counter, the place comes alive by night when DJs and live bands come and perform. "Sometimes the entire place is booked by corporates or for bachelor parties, anniversaries and birthdays," the young man said.

I could only imagine what a lovely ambience it would be by night with the river gurgling by, moon and the stars above, gentle river breeze brushing your skin like satin. The Socials and the Olives of Mumbai and Delhi? No match!

"When I launched it, I invited my entire village. They had never seen a bar or a disco and they didn't know how to dress up. Some came in their traditional best, others in suits and ties," he laughed recalling.

Yes, that's the ambience of the bar we happened to discover along the way

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

I looked around for Krisha, but she was nowhere in sight! I moved closer to the river and there she was right on the river, her jeans all rolled upto the knees, camera in hand, balancing herself on the pebbles and shooting. Two teenage boys sat like lovers close to each other, their eyes glued to a mobile phone.

"Look at their hairstyle," Krisha said climbing up and pointing out to their green hair dos. "These places are so cut off from the world, yet people here are so fashionable," she observed.

It was nice and sunny, lazy and laidback and one could just lie on the grass all day long.

Our next stop - Ranaghat - was even nicer. The pebbled riverside was full of families. Two little girls were having a blast splashing water on a small natural water pool. The daddy kept a watch. Elsewhere, another dad and his two little sons armed with sophisticated fishing rods were angling. I cast my eyes around. A woman was using a unique contraption to trap fish in it. Some distance away, smoke rose up the air. A small group of picnickers were cooking.

Photo of Ranaghat Bridge by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"People here definitely live a better life than in metros," Krisha concluded.

"Yeah. Best things in life come for free," I thought out loud.

We were sitting on a huge rock, our bodies touching, watching the river flow by, life flow by. The incredible scenery overwhelmed us into silence. It was a tender moment, dainty and delicate, far removed from the world we knew, and I felt like sealing it with a kiss. Freezing it for the future as a memory to mull over. But I hesitated.

Unique ways to catch fish

Photo of Ranaghat Bridge by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Don't you think we should keep moving?" I said, at last.

"Let's sit na, some more time, please," she begged, gazing far out into the distance.

Before setting off, I wanted to pick up a few masterpieces by nature. The problem was not the price - like I said, the best things in life come for free - the problem was relating to their weight. They were too heavy to be loaded, transported. But nothing would stop a determined me. Krisha came running to help. But nope our combined strength was not enough. "Leave it madam, let me do it," a man rushed in, as he and me managed to lift and slip the weighty pieces of art into the car boot. The car buckled under their weight, but sure these rock sculptures by the greatest artist in the world were worth its weight.

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"How far is Roing?" I stopped to ask someone manning a pan shop.

"This is Roing!" he said.

My face fell.

Roing? Really? Seriously? The highway took us to a crowded market area and then out of it to a traffic free road. Where were the hills and the mountains? Where was the scenic beauty? Where was the hill station I had heard so much about?

Roing turned out to be just a plain looking town. And come to think of it, I had been sending all my guests to this 'scenic' place! Roing is actually a flatland from where one can start climbing upwards to the snowfields of Mayodia and Anini in the Indo China border. Well, I had no idea.

What came as a redeemer, however, was my friend Jibi Pallu's Homestay: Mishmi Hill Camp.

A powerful sound hits you the moment you enter the campus dotted with pretty hay huts across a grassland. It was so loud that one had to speak louder to be heard. It was the sound of a savage. Fast. Furious. Violent.

It was the language of river Deopani flowing down below. Forever fighting against the rocks and the boulders that had been obstructing its flow.

Inside our cottage, the double bed was sufficiently narrow to reduce the gap between two sleeping bodies. Good. You need that kind of close contact for a night of passion, a night of action.

We had a late lunch under a gazebo and settled down for a siesta. If I was looking for a skin- tillating experience, well, no hurry. We had the entire night to ourselves.

By evening, we were sitting under an umbrella when we saw two quick footed construction workers of the camp descending down to the riverside. "Where are you guys going?" I shouted.

"Fishing," they said, "for dinner!"

"Wait, wait, we're also coming," I said turning towards Krisha with a would-you-join-me look.

"Yes, lets, go," she said and we followed them.

As we negotiated our route over the jagged uneven bed of rocks and stones, Krisha stopped suddenly and shouted from behind, "Nishi, you move on. Let me just sit here!"

"You ok?" I asked, trying to make myself heard over the growl of the river.

"Yes," she shouted back.

These workers born and brought up by a river were experts as they used a bamboo fish trap for a quick catch. They guided us back to our Camp through an easy, shorter route.

"Nishi, you have to get me something from the chemist!" Krisha said once we were back inside the camp.

I knew at once what it was.

"I know what you want," I said. "I will get it."

But lemme be doubly sure!

"Whisper, right?"

"Yes," she said. She looked fragile, as if in pain, the little-girl sparkle in her gone.

"Just lie down on the bed, ok. Don't move around. I will be back soon," I said and rushed out, bundling up the two workers thinking they would know the way to the nearest market.

It turned out, the two had rarely sat in a sedan before! They looked at the interiors amazed and awe-struck: The array of switches and buttons, the million blue dashboard lights, the rear-view camera screen, the way the power windows were rolling up and down by themselves. It was amusing, and I surprised them further by pressing a button that 'like magic' made the sunroof over their heads slide open!

"Bapre! Ki gari!" they exclaimed.

One sat at the back, the other next to me. They were like kids in Disneyland!

Whisper wasn’t available at the chemist. Stayfree was.

About to reach the Camp through a winding downhill road, one of my passengers suddenly screamed: "Let me out, let me out, please!"

The urgency in his voice had me alarmed. What happened!?

"Nothing," he said, "I will just go walking from here."

"Oh, accha," I said pulling up, while he struggled to open his door.

"Like this," I said, unlocking the door.

It was only after driving some distance away that his friend sitting next to me explained his sudden exit: "Actually his head was spinning. Not used to car rides, no."

I handed Krisha the packet. She took it quietly and went to the bathroom. I walked out. The bathroom was too close to the room for comfort. She wouldn't want me hearing the embarrassing trickle on the pot...

"You good?" I asked when she came to join me in the veranda.

"Yup," she said.

She brought her camera along and connected it to her MacBook Air. Yes, let's check and sort out the images she had taken all these days.

"Wow, this will be great for a centre spread," I said, looking at a wide angled frame.

"And this will work as a lead image - the headline will come here; intro here and the text can start from here," I said referring to another, thinking like a magazine editor that I was.

We relived our journey as one spectacular image after another - which only Krisha could have shot - slided by on the screen, making us remember the little incidents and anecdotes around them.

The sad orphan!

Photo of Road romance: She made for a perfect travel mate. If only... by Nishiraj A. Baruah

"Awwww, look at this...So cute," she said pausing at the picture of a sad looking motherless kitten. "Cute like you!" I added, pinching her cheeks.

She pinched my cheeks back, harder.

"I will send you the low-res files by mail, you do your sorting and send back. I'll edit and send the hires images," we talked shop. Just then one of the workers appeared.

"Dada, come to our room. We cooked some food, just try," he invited.

In their little room, they treated us to fried bamboo shoot and yes, small freshwater fish from the catch of the evening - all done on woodfire.

In a cottage little away from ours, a few young couples were chilling out. One of them came up to me: "Hey you got ciggies?" I gave him one. "Come join us," he invited.

"She aint well, you know," I said, pointing to Krisha, "so we are just keeping it low!" They were Marwari tea planters from Tinsukia district and regulars at this Camp.

The river flowing with ferocity howled away below. It was our last night two-gather - the last time probably we were sharing a bed. If things were to happen it had to be tonight. Or never.

But then oh, she was in the middle of her periods! She might not be up for it. Never mind, at least I could just have her head resting on my chest, I could run my fingers through her hair, or maybe we could just lock our lips - those little expressions of affection. We had a great trip and wouldn't it be nice to celebrate its end with a liplock at least, no?

Lying next to her face up in the narrow bed, I stared at the bamboo ceiling, as she settled for the night, her back to me. How was I supposed to make a move?

"Hey, cutiepie turn over no. Let me cuddle you and sleep!" I found myself saying.

"No, Nish, I am not feeling well," she said, moving an inch away.

"Cramps?"

Yes, she said.

"All right. Good night. Sleep tight. Don't let the bed bugs bite!"

"Good night!" she sighed.

Of course, it was disappointing. She came all the way and we had been bonding over the day and sharing the bed by night - three nights in a row and yet....

Women! So difficult to understand. I got up from my bed and drank some more Old Monk!

Next morning the owner of the Camp called.

"Aare stay back one more night. This will be on me. No charges!" he offered.

But with no bloody promises, no f%$#*^g hopes, no mother f%$#*^g expectations, I politely declined. Didn't wanna suffer another night of nothing.

Later Pulu, the owner, took us to a photo gallery inside his campus. The pictures on display were unearthly. Exotic flowerscapes, snow fields, mountains lost in mist and mythical yeti like animals. All shot after arduous treks by travellers from England, Germany, France and the US. It was Pulu who organised these treks. He has guides to escort; Roing just a base camp.

Back on the wheels, back on our way to Dibrugarh, I drove in silence.

"You so quiet?" she asked.

"Nothing," I said, "just focussing on the road!"

A long pause.

"You wanted to make love to me, na?" she said turning her head to look at me.

"That would have been nice," I said, "it would have been the icing on the cake!"

"Sorry I disappointed you!"

"Ah no, your company was good enough, you helped me see things which I couldn’t have seen myself." I said, adding, "Our work assignment got done too!"

She looked at the road ahead for a while, lost in thoughts.

"Maybe I am not ready...Maybe it will take me a while..."

"I'm sure your marriage is rocking. That's why you weren't keen," I said. "Why should you stray really!"

"Actually you're right. Amar is great guy and he is great on bed. He is a full blooded Punjabi after all," she said.

"And honestly I haven't been too close to any guys. Amar is the only guy I have slept with," she continued. "And you're the only man I have gotten this close to!"

"Well, you better stay away from me then," I joked. "I'm not good for your marital health!"

"But you are creative, more like me," she said. "Amar is an IT guy, he doesn't have too many interests."

"Oh certainly you don't want your man with too many interests!"

She laughed.

And thus, our drive landed us at a landmark bridge, which at 9.15 km is the longest in India. When Dhola–Sadiya Bridge (also called the Bhupen Hazarika Setu), over river Lohit opened a year ago it was quite a tourist attraction with everyone flocking there. Connecting northern Assam with eastern Arunachal Pradesh, the bridge had a market nearby, but there was nothing now.

Krisha's next plan was to visit Majuli, one of the largest freshwater islands in the world.

"Come na with me!" she said.

"I have to complete a few stories; got deadlines," I lied.

Without the possibility of any sizzling chemistry between us, I wasn't quite upto going. And I was too lazy to work hard on building one.

Reaching Dibrugarh, I helped her get into a bus to Jorhat from where she would take the ferry across the Brahmaputra to the island of the Vaishnavite monks.

"Bye," she said, hugging me.

"Bye and stay safe," I said petting her back.

Our eyes met for a moment. I might be wrong but I thought I saw droplets forming in the corner of her eyes.

Will I travel with her ever again?

I don't think so.

.....................................................................................................

PS: So dear reader, my apologies. I made you go through thousands of words, but nothing happened! I tried, you see!

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