Daylight reveals Shillong to be a colorful mountain town – brightly colored washlines, school children in white shirts and maroon sweaters, houses piled on top of each other, crisscrossed with power lines and lush overgrowth of mountain greenery.
I proceed to the downstairs bathroom to take a shower while Pamu and Sarah are at work – my first experience in Indian-style bathrooms. Many houses in the area simply have a knee-level faucet and large plastic bucket, so I am relieved to see an actual showerhead protruding from the wall. Yet while the floor is tiled, there is no area sectioned off for the shower – no curtain or sloped floor – just regular tile.
I look for a drain to make sure the water would be allowed out, but curiously, there is none.
How do you shower without a drain?
Alone in the house, I have no one to explain the mechanics, although I eventually notice a hole in the wall on the side of the bathroom farthest from the faucet. Without a sloped floor, it seems unlikely that the water will find the exit, and I have a temporary vision of flooding Pamu and Sarah’s house, but I later learn that is indeed the correct procedure. Without a curtain, there is no safe spot to leave one’s clothes. I have no choice but to open the window latch and perch my clothes near the open window, hoping first that they wouldn’t blow out, and second that no one could see in.
A friend of the family named Lorna arrives mid-morning to take me to a local museum. Our driver, one of the new rotating chauffeurs the family uses, arrives to pick Lorna and me up with either efficiency or impatientness in mind. You’d think we’d have said, “Downtown please, and step on it.” Two boys on bikes fly out of our way as we pass. A very old woman leads a bow-legged boy by the hand. A man is urinating on the side of the road, and children play cricket with rocks in the street as our car hurries past.
We are passed by more trucks, KEEP SAFE DISTANCE and SO FAR SO GOOD written on the tailgates.
As we drive by schools and government buildings, there is a sprinkling of India’s national flag. Adopted in 1947, it boasts orange, white and green stripes. National identity is not a major part of life in India however. Regional identity, including one’s native language, tribal ancestry and/or caste seem to be much more prominent in the life of the average Indian.
At the local museum we learn about the seven sister states of Northeast India – Arunchal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. As Meghalaya is close to the border with Burma, there is a strong Burmese influence in the population. We view life-sized profile busts of ethnicities, costumes, crafts, jewelry, weapons, musical instruments and a video of native dances including a man dancing with a large, colorful yak.
After the museum, we go to eat lunch downtown at City Hut Dhaba, ordering chicken kabobs with curried potatoes and the most delicious bread known to man, garlic naan (a soft flatbread like a pita). Most formal Indian meals are accompanied by naan, or bhatoora, a fried, fluffy flatbread. India is famous around the world for its spicy cuisine, usually drawing from a supply of market vegetables. Most of the population eats rather simply with rice as their staple food. Much of India is vegetarian, and chicken and lamb are the most popular meats. Indians are famous for their love of dairy products and kheer, a milk-based dessert.
An afternoon trip to Shillong Peak displays the hazy mountain city in all its glory. At 6,440 ft., the highest point in the state, it is eerily quiet away from the honking horns. Onlookers speak in hushed tones, pointing out favorite churches and government buildings easily distinguishable from the other landmarks.
The view reminds me a little of Rio de Janeiro, looking down on the city from the Corcovado Statue of the Christ. The questions of Jesus flip through my mind like a rolodex.
Where is your faith?
What is your name?
Who do the crowds say I am?
But what about you – who do you say I am?
Why are you sleeping?
Why should an unfertile fig tree use up the soil?
I listen, wishing the lyrics of the song were true and the all answers were blowing in the wind. But in the end, all I hear is silence, and in my heart I know, the answer to the last question is mine.
Read Next: Touching the Elephant
Or start at the beginning: read the full journey here.