I tossed and turned on the bed at my homestay in Khonoma and finally sat upright.
Just the previous morning I had hitched a ride from Kigwema to Kohima, spent hours in search of a bus headed to Khonoma that nobody seemed to know anything about, finally landed at the NST Bus Depot in town and booked myself a seat in an afternoon bus heading to this small village I had heard so much about.
As the bus jostled to a stop in front of a beautiful church with dust clouds everywhere, I saw a small wooden board welcoming me to Khonoma, “Asia’s first green village”. I had heard plenty of this little obscure village some 30 kilometres from Kohima that had successfully converted from a hunting village to a nature conservation site. Reading high praises about Khonoma’s strong sense of community, I had somehow managed to make my way and see it for myself. But the day turned out to be quite different from what I had expected.
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First impressions at Khonoma
After I picked up my bag from the boot of the bus that was now completely covered in yellow-brown dust thanks to the wonderful roads of Nagaland, I went into the tourist information hut that sat right at the entrance of the village. The first thing I was asked to do was pay the “sustainability fee” that this village charges to ensure that Khonoma is as green as its title claims to be. First thought? My shoestring budget was not too happy to pay the paltry sum of 50 rupees to ensure entry to the village. I asked what this fee was for and got no clear responses in return, just a few vague terms like “sustainability”, “green village” and “environment” being thrown around loosely. But I convinced myself that it is probably (hopefully) going for a good cause and moved on.
At the information centre, I learned that due to peak season because of the Hornbill Festival, all homestays in Khonoma were booked and there was no room for me. I was asked to sit inside while the people at the centre made phone calls here and there to find someone willing to accommodate me. As I was sitting on a foldable chair in that small room, I noticed the big posters hung on the walls, detailing out the tour packages one could avail at the village. Guided walks like “paddy field visit” and “heritage walk” for a whole 1000 rupees sounded too commercial to me, and just an extended version of the Hornbill Festival where people who do not have the time to immerse themselves properly in a place’s culture pay for these short tours which are usually too planned out and made up and don’t really offer the real experience of the said place.
So, I decided to not take any of these tours which turned out to be…let’s just say not the greatest idea. I realized the tourism culture in Khonoma was heavily based on money instead of real experiences. Unlike Tandi in Lahaul, where my host took me on a leisurely stroll to through the village one day or later in Longwa, Nagaland itself where I received very eye-opening insights from my host into the tradition of headhunting, in Khonoma I felt information or experiences were only exchanged for money. My visit to the village’s fort, a tomb and the bird sanctuary they claim to have made to conserve the Blyth’s Tragopan, were all lined with guides asking me if I wanted a guided tour and then negotiating the price with me if I refused. To cut it short, it was way too ~touristy~ for my taste, period.
The Burmese girl
When I finally did get a homestay assigned to me after endless calls, I was taken in and fed some milky chai to help me unwind. What ensued next was a tour of the house and its members including the pig, the roosters and hens and the dog. Human creatures here included a husband, a wife, their daughter and…their other daughter(?) “This is Aki”, my host told me, “and she is from Burma”. I was very confused at this bit of random information that was thrown at me for no reason. What did she imply? That the girl was not their daughter? Or that she was like their daughter, but not quite? To this day, I do not know and I thought it would be too rude to ask so I never did.
From what I gathered was that they probably took her in when she was young (the whereabouts of her real parents are a mystery to me) and that they have fed her and educated her since and continue to do so now. But there’s a but. She does way too many chores in the house while the others are away at work. From what I understood, she was a young girl of 7 or 8 who was their house help who in exchange was treated almost like a child of the family. But the fact that this young, shy girl cooked and cleaned instead of playing hopscotch with her friends. Who am I to judge their business, I thought, but it made me uncomfortable nonetheless.
I knew my days in Khonoma were already over the moment I befriended the house dog.
With a heavy bias, I didn’t make much of the tour I was getting of their animals, all kept in small wooden pens and fed several times every day- only to be eaten ultimately, until I was taken to the back of the house where a beautiful dog with a shiny silver coat sat by her wooden kennel, tied with an iron chain to a pole nearby. I got excited at the sight of a furry friend and reached out to pet her only to find her whimper and disappear into the kennel. Disappointed, I went to bed.
The next morning, my host fed me a hearty breakfast and after telling me what’s what, she made her way for a meeting at the village’s women’s society. As she walked out the back of the house and passed the dog’s kennel, the dog leapt out and tried to get her attention – and to my surprise, my host didn’t as much turn to look at her.
I asked Aki if the dog was ever left unchained and she explained to me how the villagers are always afraid that the dog might attack and bite them so it’s a rule in their community to ensure all house dogs remain chained. Why do they even keep dogs then, I wondered out loud and the little girl replied, “to eat them”, nonchalantly. And that is when I learned what a sinking heart truly feels like.
I was no one to say what’s right and what’s wrong in their culture, I was merely an outsider, a visitor. So over the course of the day, I made relentless efforts to gain the trust of that poor dog who was so intimidated by a stranger’s sight. And when I eventually did, I regretted it immediately. The moment I would step out of the reach of her little chained radius, she would cry for my attention. If she saw me move past the window of the house, she would beg to be touched and played with. That night, as I went into the kitchen to grab myself a cup of water before going to bed, the deprived dog saw me and began a seemingly endless cry for love and attention.
I twisted and turned in my bed that night listening to the voice of her – and my – breaking heart, and decided it was time for me to leave.
The picture I had in my mind of Khonoma- thanks to the plenty positive accounts I had read online- turned out to be very different from the reality I experienced in the village. Though I had bare minimal interaction with the locals in my meagre one day and a half there, I felt like I learnt a lot. Maybe I rushed out way too quickly to give myself a chance to actually learn about the village’s beauty, or maybe the few unpleasant things I encountered marred my entire experience in Khonoma, but the truth is that I left disappointed. In my two years of travelling, this was by far the most uncomfortable I’ve felt at a new place. I may not have learnt much about Khonoma’s green initiative and their title of “Asia’s first green village”, but I was happy to get out of there as quickly as possible, only to find out that my journey would take a complete flip in the coming days and that I would experience Nagaland in the rawest, most beautiful and loving way possible…
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