July 30, 2005

Mousetrap - 13

Weather, ’tis nobler in the mind
India Meteorological Department (Mumbai)
Ah, those weather bulletins on TV. Ah, those pretty ladies who always get in the way of the charts. But I digress. If, like many in this city after Tuesday’s cloudburst, you’ve become a wee bit more interested in the weather, you should bookmark this (hint: type in “main.htm” after the URL above, or you’ll have to wait for what is practically de rigeur on Indian government websites: a large graphic that takes ages to download, only to tell you to “click here to continue.”) The site features current forecasts, weather reports, satellite pictures, advisories, even special sections on cyclones and earthquakes, all laid out in a no-nonsense menu. No pretty weather lady, alas.

Connector Pro Bono
Karmayog
Ever since we started the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog (http://tsunamihelp.blogspot.com), a few friends and I have been working on the idea of a web service that helps NGOs, and the people who’d like to support them, to get together. So it was, in a way, disappointing to find a site that’s already doing that, and operating out of our own back yard, so to speak. Karmayog, despite its name, is not a site on spirituality. It focuses on Mumbai, and lists precisely what non-profits and charities are looking for, as well as what sponsors, donors and volunteers are offering. It also has profiles and category lists of non-profits, emergency numbers and other resources, articles and explanations of laws and government schemes, and more. (Thanks, Amit Varma.)

Mumbai ICE
In Case of Emergency (ICE)
Here’s an example we high cellphone usage Bombaywallas can well follow. Launched by the East Anglian Ambulance Service after the recent London blasts, the ICE campaign advises you use the acronym “ICE” followed by a contact name (for example, ICE - dad or ICE - Ravi) in your mobile’s phone book (not forgetting to tell the person you choose that you have nominated them. Then, should you – God forbid - be involved in an accident, and incapacitated, medics, the police, even a good Samaritan, can quickly inform the nominated person. Good idea, Mumbai? (Thank you, Aparna Dogra.)

A Term Opus
Internet Anagram Server
“Use Om, Rapt.” “More stupa,” and the perhaps most accurate “Use at prom.” Just four, including the title of this paragraph, of the thousands if anagrams I found for the name of this column. Started by Anu Garg, the chap behind the famous A.Word.A.Day list and site, this “I, Rearrangement Servant” ltes you type in a word or words, the finds you oodles of anagrams. Use the “Advanced” button to fine tune your search, for instance, if you’re looking for a message that anagrams your name, and want one particular word to appear in it. Gives you results in other languages too.

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Blogs of the week

This one’s for you
Mumbai Help and Cloudburst Mumbai
On a personal note, some friends and fellow bloggers and I are attempting to set up a resource centre, Mumbai Help. It lists emergency helpline numbers, rescue routes, safe areas, and similar information for this city. If, in the future, we do face a scenario like the one that resulted from Tuesday’s cloudburst, we hope that this site will be of help to all of you. We’re also going to put together news, links to news, and personal stories at Cloudburst Mumbai. Come visit, make suggestions, or join us.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 31st July 2005.

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July 24, 2005

Mousetrap - 12

If you love something, set it free
BookCrossing
BookCrossing wants you to free your books. And you do so by deliberately losing them. Leaving one in a train, say, or in a restaurant. But first, you register the book on the site and get a BookCrossing ID number, with which you label the book. Then, every time someone picks up the book and sees the label, they can log in to the site and record a journal entry for the book. And you get notified by email every time that happens, so you can “follow” your book on its travels, and read what other people think about this book that you loved enough to want to share it with the world. Just make sure it’s not from the library, hm?

Pink city
Mumbai Flamingo Bay
A home-grown site with its heart in the right place, even if it does layer on too many flashing banners and has a few pages that are, to put it kindly, clumsily written. This is a site with a cause: the migratory birds, including 20,000 plus flamingos, that spend the winter wading the nutrient-rich Sewri mudflats. Its founders think that the proposed Nhava Sewri Trans Harbour Sealink, which the powers that be have decided will run slap-bang through the middle of this area, will destroy this delicate eco-system. They hope to get the government to move the planned bridge a little further South, and to declare the Bay a bird sanctuary. There’s an online petition you can sign, some lovely pictures, and a message board where you can leave words of encouragement.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Website?
Twenty Questions
If, in the age of lightning fast PCs and the complex games they support, you sometimes yearn for simple, old party-and-picnic, pencil-and-paper games, hie thee, then, to this charming site. The version of Twenty Questions here is not just a dumb game that you figure out after playing it a few times. 20q.net learns, and gets smarter, each time someone plays it. Its creators call it “an experiment in artificial intelligence. ... Everything that it knows and all questions that it asks were entered by people playing this game.” So you’re not really goofing off on the net when you visit this site, see? You’re contributing to the development of artificial intelligence. The site also has those other faves, Hangman and Concentration. (Thank you Pooja Raut.)

Blog of the week - The Read Queen
Happenings of the Heart
Don’t get misled by the title. This isn’t a ditzy teenager blogging about her latest crush, her newest shoes or the handset Daddy bought her. Yes, she does SMS, and a recent post was about spectacle frames, but she also talks about aging, about being single, about old friends, about life in the city. That isn’t all. This lady - and yes, you wouldn’t dream of calling her anything but that after you’ve been around her blog a bit - is, quite frankly inspirational. She’s a single mother, she learned to swim in her forties, she’s performed with a dance troupe, she jogs, she can “conduct an aerobic class for as long as 90 minutes at a stretch.” And, you know what else? She’s sixty, and a grandmother.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 24th July 2005.

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July 17, 2005

Mousetrap - 11

T.P. Central
At Work and Bored
Slow day at the office? Boss not in town? Your monitor not visible to the world passing by? Sneak over to his site and sample the goodies available. The section called Goof Off Games alone can get you through the Monday Morning Blues. There are puzzles (my current fave is the Rickshaw Jam game), crosswords, jigsaws, and arcade type stuff. Then there’s a frequently refreshed jokes section, an area called The Virtual Chef, where you can copy and paste recipes to send to your mother-in-law, a horoscope, and even a cartoon section. The only caveat: since it’s a free site, be prepared to put up with garish banner ads, sometimes even an intervening “from our sponsor” page before you get to the goodies. Oh yes. Try the “Panic” button in emergencies. Enjoy.

The Power of One
One Word
Feeling a little blocked? Need that challenge to get the synapses moving? One Word might help. The site gives you sixty seconds to write whatever come to mind based on the one-word cue you are given when you hit the “Go” button. “it is not about learning new words.” the site says, “nor is it about defining words. the real purpose of this exercise is to alleviate our natural tendency to edit everything—and learn to flow.”

Bah!
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
Mouthful of a name, yes, but the site is a haven for sceptics. Its team puts the magnifying glass of science to claims of the paranormal, pseudo-scientific beliefs and fringe science. It hosts features, columns, sends its members a quarterly newsletter, lists useful links, and a hoax watch section that’s merits a bookmark of its own. Best of all, it has a sense of fun (see this for an example). A worthwhile side-trip is the Skeptiseum, also run by CSICOP, with its fascinating array of exhibits on UFOs, miracles, ghosts and spirits, and much more.

Boo!
Obiwan's UFO-Free Paranormal Page
If the previous site was not to your liking, you’ll approve of this one. “Serving you spirits since 1994,” they say, and offer you sections that include True Ghost Stories, a Ghosts and Hauntings FAQ, info on famous hauntings, and, of course, Ghostly Links. It even has a message board an other interactive features. You have a nice night now, hm?

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This week’s blogs
Two blogs for the price of one this week.

Arachnophilia
spiderblog
Talk about single-minded! This blogger, to take a wild guess, is kinda partial to spiders. This is a very specialist filter blog that exclusively links to pages, news items, pictures and all kinds of trivia about our eight-legged friends. No comments section, though, so I guess he isn’t looking for an audience. And, if I had my druthers, I’d like to see a bit more of the blogger’s personality coming through in the way of comments and opinions on the pages he links to.

Your time starts now
Jaldi Quizzing
A recent find, this blog, and a refreshing one. Once a week, on the average, Jaldi quiz posts about a dozen questions, including a set of visual-related queries. And when the next set of questions go up, the previous week’s answers are posted as well. My quibble here is that the blogger puts the answers right there next to the questions, so for the first-time reader who’d like to test her/his quiz skills, the fun is gone. It would make more sense, methinks, to put the answers into the comments. He also generously links to other quiz sites and blogs.

This column explores the wilder, wackier, weirder corners of the world wide web. Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 17th July 2005.

[Note: Mousetrap has moved to a Sunday slot, in the Science and Technology section of the new Review supplement, and is now also available here.]

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July 10, 2005

Mousetrap - 10

“It was a dark and stormy night…
The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest
“…the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” Named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who opened his book, Paul Clifford, with the preceding sentence, the Bulwer-Lytton contest asks you to write the opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels. Started in 1982, by a professor in the English Department at San Jose State University, the contest has a cult following on the net. It now features entries in various categories, aside from an overall prize. The archives from previous years should keep you occupied on many a rainy day, even if you don’t want to enter the contest.

How?
HowStuffWorks
If you’re the type that likes to find out how things work, this site lives up to its name. Articles range from the expected (how car engines or cellphones work), to the mega (how nuclear bombs work) to the ones that leave you more than a little worried (“how lock picking works”). Perfect when you’ve got little kids with inquisitive minds at home, but as the examples I mention may suggest, you better be the one doing the searching. (Thanks, Sailesh Ghelani.)

Gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
futureme.org
You know about time capsules, right? Where letters and artifacts are sealed off in a container and buried, to be dug up an opened at some future date? Well, here’s the net version. Write yourself an email, perhaps about what you plan to do with your life over the next few years, or theorising about what you will be doing at a certain date, and set it to be mailed to you at a specific date (the site lets you choose dates up to 2035. Then (A suggestion form the site: “we recommend using an address with some potential for longevity.” In other words, don’t use a work e-ddress.

Some of our best friends recommended this site
Black People Love Us
The fine art of satire. The site rips off the entire politically correct thing through this “home page,” allegedly the property of Sally and Johnny, two WASP stereotypes, complete with sweaters. Everything works together: the design is studiedly amateur, the photos could come off any throwaway camera, and the copy is exquisite. Be sure to read the testimonials page. And the letters, which, if they’re not total fabrications, are tribute to how well the site is done, going by the number of people who take it at face value. (Thanks, Vikram Joshi.)

Blog of the week – The buck doesn’t stop here
Blame India Watch
A reaction to the anti-outsourcing hysteria in the West, this blog links to stories that get all whiney about jobs and opportunities going east, and offers a counter view. The anonymous blogger behind the site has a sense of humour and the knack of putting his/her arguments into pithy one-liners, the better to show up the articles s/he links to. Unfortunately, it’s not a frequently updated blog, but it’s definitely worth a place in your RSS reader.

This column explores the wilder, wackier, weirder corners of the world wide web. Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 8th July 2005.

[Note: Mousetrap has moved to a Sunday slot, in the Science and Technology section of the new Review supplement.]

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July 01, 2005

Mousetrap - 9

Kaun Banega Timewaster
Quizilla
What colored lightsaber would you have? Which of the Greek gods are you? Which alcoholic drink are you? Which Harry Potter character are you? Visit Quizilla. Hundreds of user-created quizzes to hekp you find your place in the world. Perfect for the type of people who find it difficult to describe themselves in more conventional ways. The quizzes are rated for different audiences, so the more easily shocked readers of this column can navigate without fear of terminal scandalosis. You don’t have to be a member to take any of the quizzes, but you will have to go through a fairly simple registration page to create a new quiz or save data. Many of the quizzes also offer you cut-and-paste HTML that you can put on your home page, blog or networking site member page. Wouldn’t advise you to put this in your online biodata, though.

Face Off
The Perception Laboratory's Face Transformer
Want to know what you’d look like if you were Caucasian? Or East-Asian? Or if El Greco or Botticelli had painted you? Or even as a member of the opposite sex. Upload a full face picture to this site, and then let the face transformer loose. (You’ll need to have a java plug-in installed.) Here, for your viewing pleasure, is your columnist as an ape and as a Manga cartoon.



Blog of the week - Eye Candy
Drawn
Blogs are not just about words. And, thankfully, I found Drawn a while ago. It is a colloboration between a small group of artists who are not just from Canada, despite the Top Level Domain. As the name suggests, it focusses on drawing, illustration, art and cartoonisting, with links and resources that aim to inspire creativity. A great place for the artistically inclined to pick up on trends and developments, or just for ideas. Even the non-initiate will be blown away by the sheer variety of talent on offer. Go, gentle reader. Feast your eyes.

How do I love thee...
Wergle Flomp Poetry Contest
This page, and the contest, owes its origins to the well-known site, poetry.com. Poetry.com is, depending on whom you ask, a huge scam preying on poets desperate for recognition, a vanity publisher, or a wonderful contest site. The way it (and others like it) works is by running regular contests, the winners of which are selected to appear in a special anthology. Netizens noticed that everyone who entered seemed to get a letter saying they had been selected as a “semi-finalist,” and their poem would be published in a beautiful cloth bound book, which they could buy, naturally. Well, one of those canny netizens decided to test the hypothesis, and sent in a piece of gibberish, signed Wergle Flomp. Which was selected. Later, winningwriters decided to start their own contest, named after the fictional poet, half tongue in cheek, half warning to the innocent. You can see the “winning” entry off this page, and find links to other, ahem, vanity contests. And yes, this contest is genuine. There are prizes worth US$1,609 to be awarded this year.

Bad to verse
Nikhil Parekh
Is this man the worst poet in the world? You decide. He’s certainly a champion at collecting what he calls “prime ministerial/presidential/world leader/world organization accolade letters for his poetic writings on immortal love/anti terrorism/world peace/environment conservation/hiv-aids awareness/tsunami killer quake/several other heart-rendering causes.” As the recipient of one of them in January when, with some friends, I was running a blog that collected information about aid efforts for the tsunami-affected, I can tell you that he lacks not for enthusiasm and a thesaurus. Going by the sheer number of scans of form letters he has available, he certainly has time on his hands. And more to spare. His latest effort? “Longest poem on earth ... Only As Life. The poem measures a 1301 lines, 7389 words, 46257 characters. It is the longest in ‘pure poetry fraternity’ and 21st century on the planet, written in English language.” That last bit, i must warn you, is debatable.

This column explores the wilder, wackier, weirder corners of the world wide web. Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 1st July 2005.

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The Disorient Express

Peter Griffin loses track of time on the Barak Valley Express

The monsoon, like any sensible traveller, has paused for breath near Goa. A few hundred kilometres to the West, people wear tired expressions as they gaze at parched, cracked earth.

But here, in Haflong, in the North Cachar Hills of Assam, it doesn’t seem like there ever was a dry season. Water cascades down hillsides, lurks in the clouds that surround you, can be smelled in the carpets and the furniture, and ever so often, comes racing up the mountains as a passing burst of rain.

Getting here has been tiring.

Day One, a delayed flight into Guwahati, a busy afternoon, and an evening scramble through crowded streets to the station. My connecting train pulls out of the station a mere 15 minutes late. But almost immediately slows to a stop. And stays there for an hour.

I chat up one of the TCs. A large paramilitary contingent were boarding the train, he tells me, and hadn’t finished loading up. And they “asked” the driver not to start the train, and when he demurred, the uniformed gallants beat him up. The driver being too badly hurt to do his job, a substitute was being called in. This would take a while.

I seek out the train attendant. Would he be so kind as to hand out pillows? No, said the attendant. As per the rules, he was to distribute bedding rolls once the train had left the station. I point out that the one-third of the train was indeed out of the station. Just then the train shudders and reverses back in. The attendant, with a triumphant air, tells me that if he had complied, he would now, technically, have to take the bedding back.

Sigh.

Almost three hours behind schedule, the Intercity Express finally leaves Guwahati. And pillows and blankets are duly deposited on berths.

Lumding Junction rolls in after 3 a.m. I manage to roust out the chap in charge of the retiring rooms and grab a few more hours of sleep.

As my eyes close, I blearily noted that the eastern sky has already begun to lighten. Dawn comes earlier to these parts of India. So early, in fact, that the locals, very practically, run their lives by “Garden Time,” an hour ahead of IST. It isn’t 4 a.m. yet, but secessionist birds are already up and bustling in the trees that surround the station.

I wake to find that it had rained heavily, and was still drizzling in a quiet determined way. An overcast sky gives no hint as to the time, or even which way is East. I gallop to the next platform, where the train I’m here to write about stands ready to depart.

The Barak Valley Express travels between Lumding, three-and-a-half hours away from Guwahati (when drivers aren’t being beaten up), to Silchar, in the South, 214 km and – loosely – 12 hours away.

It ambles down the track in distinctly un-Expressy fashion. No longer a steam line, it is still one of the last few metre gauge lines in the country. The timetable I’d printed out off the Indian Railways website lists 15 stations, start and end inclusive. But we stop at that many in the first couple of hours. The timetable, as a result, seems to get further and out of touch with the time bubble the train travels in, serving only to keep track of the order of the main stops.

Sharing the cubicle with me are two Bengali couples, with a baby. They ask me the Indian Traveller’s Most Frequently Asked Question: would I be willing to “adjust” so that the baby could sleep? Groan. There goes the few catch-up hours of shuteye I was counting on. They proceed to add to my misery by taking out a large tiffin basket. I can feel the saliva fill my mouth – I had not had the time to catch any breakfast at the station, and this train doesn’t come with a pantry car. I try to bury my nose in a book as they chomp their way steadily through several containers of food. About an hour down the line, salvation arrives in the shape of an elderly vendor with tea and sweet buns. I wolf down two of each, burp, and fortified, take more interest in the scenery we’re passing.

Everywhere, bamboo muscles its way through the undergrowth, wrestling with creepers, reaching above other trees. Which accounts for the amount of cane one sees used, not just in baskets and the like, but entire villages roofed, walled and fenced with it. It’s as ubiquitous as cow pats are in other parts of non-urban India.

Speaking of which, you won’t see many cows. Goats are everywhere though. And instead of chickens scrabbling in the mud, one sees ducks in every pond.

When one sees human habitation, that is. Most of what we pass through shows no sign of being in any way tamed by the railway line that cut through it. Bird sounds abound, audible even above the clatter of steel wheels. The jungle comes right up to the tracks, on occasion reaching out a bamboo stem that rattles against the train walls as we pass. If this is still officially the dry season, I cannot begin to imagine the levels of greenness in the monsoon.

I think about my grandfather, who in World War II, already a man in his middle years, walked through the jungle to Assam from Rangoon, just ahead of the Japanese army. As a toddler, I would sit wide-eyed while he told me tales of monkeys and snakes, forests and streams. And, in later years, my gran would tell me of the physical wreck he was by the time he got through to Assam.

I peer into the thick vegetation, and my respect for him grows. I turn my eyes to the sky. Those were good stories, grampa, really good stories. And yes, I believe every one of them, including the one about the cook whose teeth grew back after he chewed the twigs the monkey gave him.

And yes, the army. Or is it paramilitary? Whatever. They’re everywhere. The larger stations have small squads of armed uniformed men patrolling the platform, peering into the train. Even the really small stations, the ones not on the time table, the ones with three waiting passengers and a goat, even those stations have at least one of them, usually in a sentry post by himself, insulated from the civilians around him.

The smells of the journey are wet ones. Wet earth, wet leaves, wet goats at stations. And the views, of hills and valleys, of green in more shades than I’ve seen anywhere except Kerala. Wildflowers fringe the long grass and bamboo. And at one stage, so close to the tracks I thought it was a large goat, I see a wild deer.

I break journey at Haflong, roughly mid-route. I am to get down at Haflong Hill, but the train stays put at lower Haflong for two hours. The locomotive has had it. A replacement is on it way. As at Guwahati, I do not learn this from an official announcement, but by asking around, my shrewd traveller’s mind being tipped off by, after the first hour, noticing that there was no engine in front of the train.
I flag down an autorickshaw. I have been told it should cost me not more than forty rupees to the Circuit House where i am to spend the night. The driver asks for what sounds to me like sixty. Fifty, I say firmly. The man looks at me strangely and says “thirty.” This place is a looong way away from becoming a tourist trap!

Haflong has little to offer the typical tourist anyway – just achingly beautiful vistas everywhere you look. Tea and toast consumed, I lean over the fence and watch the daylight disappear, hurrying West to give the rest of India its sunsets, my cigarette a glowing orange counterpoint to the lit windows in the valley below. And from the gloaming, several fireflies join in, flashing green-gold as they wander from flower to flower.

It is a perfect moment.

And I can tell no-one about it. The only cellphone service provider here is BSNL, and it does not allow other networks to roam on its frequency.

I go indoors to write soppy poetry instead, and nourish my outer self with a delicious river fish preparation, accompanied with thick-grained, soft rice.

Next morning, I wake at what, for me, is the hideously early hour of 7 a.m. Outside, it is bright and clear, and still. The further, higher peaks frequently draw their clouds more tightly around their shoulders and disappear from view. Visibility fades a little, and the view begins to get hazy. It dawns on me that I am actually walking in a cloud. The breeze suddenly picks up speed. With a sudden rush and a roar and a rattle, the trees begin to dance. Fat, cold drops of rain race toward me out of the haze. They clatter on the roof of the Circuit House like the ghosts of a thousand bureaucrats simultaneously typing reports on ancient typewriters.

I leave to catch the day’s Barak Valley Express for the second half of the journey. It is only an hour late.

The scenery from here on is more rugged. Wild bamboo fights for space with other trees. And everywhere there is the sound of running water.

The Barak river is a constant presence on the left, a muddy brown ribbon that undulates across the landscape, here, stirred to a what looks like great rafting white water, there, quiet looking but fast-flowing, joined at regular intervals by streams that tumble down the hillside on one side of the train, reappearing under us on the other.

The train shrieks through pitch-black tunnels that drip water, bursting through into the brightness of the evening on the other side. Young, high-spirited men shout into the darkness, their voices echoing back to the other compartments.

The long dusk segues unnoticeably into a brilliantly moonlit night. The river still glints beside us, a silent, silvery grey now.

I sleep. The train is running three hours late and I have an early morning flight to catch. The Barak Valley Express pulls in to Silchar a little short of midnight. I stagger out and find a hotel, with the help of a journo I had met at Haflong. I ask for a 5 a.m wakeup call. I bargain with a taxi in the morning. I get to the airport well in time.

When will I learn?

The flight was two hours late.


The information
The Barak Valley Express leaves Lumding at 7.45 a.m., and, allegedly, reaches Silchar at 8 p.m. the same day. The up train leaves Silchar at ??a.m. and reaches Lumding at ??p.m.
There is no first class or AC wagon. Just sleepers and unreserved bogies. The train has no pantry car, or official attendants. So carry your own food if you’re finicky. But you will not starve if you don’t. Every station brings vendors with varieties of channa, buns, boiled eggs (called “dim,” if my ears served me right) and of course, tea. And yes, plenty of fresh fruit – pineapples mainly, but also large yellow bananas and jackfruit.
Silchar is an important rail junction, and has an airport. From the Lumding end, however, your nearest airport is Guwahati. Be sure to plan connections with long gaps. Transport here operates not in Garden Time or IST, but in that unique time zone, As Long As It Takes.
Haflong, the seat of the North Cachar Hills autonomous district council, is a good place to break your journey. You can book into the Tourist Lodge through the Directorate Of Tourism, Assam, which you can contact at (0361) 2547102. You also have a choice of cheap to medium budget hotels, a market on Saturdays (I’m told you can buy rice beer!) and wonderful walks to be had every day.
Possible excursions from here include the bird watching centre at Jatinga, 9 kms away, and the ruins of the former capital of the Dimasa Kachari kings at Maibong.

Published in Outlook Traveller, July edition.



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