The excitement of being so close to India, perhaps, kept me up from 3 am. On the forward leg my friend in Imphal, KB Singh, had made stay arrangements in the Moreh Trade Centre. This time I decided to go on to Imphal and requested him to meet Fr. Joseph, Director of St. Thomas Seminary in Imphal, and ask for a guest room in the seminary. He did that and confirmed the arrangements to me. The distance from Kalay to Tamu, the border town is less than 140 km and that from there to Imphal is just over 100 km. Factoring in the time required to process papers at the two borders, the last of the expedition, and the one hour time gain as I crossed into India I expected to be in Imphal by 1 pm IST.
I had not had dinner last night as I had decided to snack on a few things I had with me. The mental exhaustion had put me to bed early, but I paid the price of having to get up early too. Breakfast in the hotel was sparse, but I was hungry. With breakfast out of the way I requested Myint Hsuang, the government official who was accompanying me, to place the tick marker on Myanmar, which he gleefully did. Then it was time for a photo session, with the hotel staff pitching in too.
The road from Kalay to Tamu has over 60 bridges, very few of them permanent. Most of them were temporary steel girders with either steel sections placed across or wooden sections topped with tar. Some of them were in urgent need of replacement while a few other critical ones were already under replacement leading to short diversions. On the way we passed the Tropic of Cancer. As we reached Tamu we dropped by at the office of the Ministry of Transport to hand over the temporary license plate of the car and make necessary entries. After that Thein and I went to the market to take a couple of photocopies while Myint and Aye dropped in to make booking for their return to Mandalay. In the market I dropped into a shop selling beer and other essentials. The young boy in the shop started quoting prices in Indian Rupees; which seemed to be the norm in most border towns where the stronger currency was in demand. I picked up a few bottles of Myanmar beer and paid for them with the remainder of the kyats I had on me and also Indian Rupees to bridge the gap.
The Customs formalities were completed first, where the Carnet was stamped after which the car was examined for the details mentioned in the Carnet such as make of the car, year of manufacture, chassis and engine number. A huge tree in the compound had been uprooted in stormy weather a couple of weeks before. Fortunately it had not fallen on any of the buildings. The Customs staff told us how they felt the tremors following the massive earthquake in Nepal. Work at the immigration was completed by Aye and the visa was cancelled with the exit stamp on it. It was time to move across to India over the Friendship Bridge. I took leave of the trio who had been my travel companions over the past five days. I feel that the number should be reduced to just the guide in case self driving trips have to be promoted in Myanmar.
I eased the car on to the steel bridge at Tamu at 11.15 am and continued onwards to the Land Customs Station in Moreh where it was 10.15 am. The Customs and Immigration officials had not yet reached the office. In a short while both teams arrived and I first got the customs formalities done. They recognised me from the earlier visit and over friendly talk completed all the formalities smoothly. The computer and applications for immigration were not working but the process was completed manually. Once I was through all that, one of the immigration officials told me that it may not be possible for me to get through to Imphal as there had been simmering tension in Pallel over the past week following the death of a woman in a civilian firing incident. I immediately became apprehensive but decided to push on till the Pallel gate, which was closed following the incident, I was told. Worst coming to the worst I would seek refuge in one of the army camps en route, I told myself.
The Moreh to Pallel route is mountainous region with sharp winding and climbing roads. There was not a soul on the road, except cattle and the Ford Endeavour, till I reached the first army check point, about 10 km from Moreh. All vehicles have to be parked in designated areas there for thorough search. While waiting for the search of the car one of the Assam Rifles men confirmed that the Pallel Gate is indeed closed. He suggested an untarred diversion through a few villages that could take me beyond Pallel. He asked me to confirm that from the last Army check point at Tengnoupal. The person deployed to check the car asked me a few questions about the trip and I opened a couple of boxes in the car for his inspection. Signalling the end of the inspection he made the statement, “people like you will not do anything which is against the interests of the country”. Their responsibilities are huge and I appreciated that. I was given a small paper token on which details of the car and the search were entered. I was told to present them to the two army check points ahead.
Army personnel were out in large numbers on route marches. Only broken down trucks were on the road this day. At the second check point I presented the token and after inspection the two army men waved me on. Tengnoupal is the highest point on the Moreh – Imphal route. It was cold there when I parked the car at the checkpoint and got out to enquire about the alternative way to Imphal. The army men asked me to enquire from the drivers whose cars were being searched. None the drivers was cogent enough with their responses, but one woman gave me directions to move through the untarred road from there on a 30 km diversion. She also warned me not to take the route in case I was short on fuel. I was pondering the alternatives when a Guardian Angel appeared. One of the army men who was watching me from a distance came up to me and told me that I would be permitted to go through Pallel if I told the personnel manning the gate that I am a lone tourist in the private vehicle. I thanked him profusely and distributed copies of my book before leaving the check point.
Pallel was 24 km from the Tengnoupal check point. With prayers on my lips and some anxiety in my mind I motored on. As I neared the Pallel gate I saw a long queue of trucks, tourist buses and taxis. A closed truck was moving ahead of me. I followed that closely avoiding the queue. In a short while the closed truck stopped and the rear door opened. That is when I realised that it was an army truck. Armed men exited from the truck and it moved a bit further, which gave me the space to manoeuvre the car between the queue of vehicles and the truck. When I did that I got to the Pallel gate which prevented the vehicles from moving beyond that point. As I approached the gate no one stopped me or asked me any questions. I moved smoothly through the gate and took the Imphal road. I was surprised because I had been told that not a single vehicle was being permitted through. My passage was too smooth to accept that I was passing through a very tense area. If it were not for the heavy army presence and the absence of vehicles on the road there was nothing to suggest that anything was wrong.
When I was approaching the Pallel area with anxiety, my prayers were interrupted by a phone call. It was my Godmother from Bangalore. It was a total surprise. Lily Ammayi asked if all was well and I told her that I would call her back since I was driving through a difficult area. She wished me safe transit and confessed that she had connected by mistake. I feel that it was His intervention and not any mistake. The rest of the drive to Imphal was smooth. I dropped by at a fuel station to tank up and asked if there was any restaurant close by to have lunch. It was 2 pm; I was off my estimated time by an hour due to the checks and stoppages en route. I had a lovely non vegetarian combo meal of fish curry, dal, mixed vegetable, rotis and steamed rice at the Classik Hotel. I was hungry as hell and did not bother about the waiters who were watching me wolfing down the meal, disregarding the ‘manners’ they have come to expect of guests who patronise the hotel.
Network is congested in Manipur. I could not get through to KB Singh after I had cleared the Pallel gate, as he had directed, but did so when I was at lunch. He gave me directions to reach the St Thomas Seminary, which I reached without much ado and found Fr Joseph waiting for me. He was happy that I had made it back safe and in good health. Later the priests of the retirement home told me how they and Fr Joseph had kept me in their prayers throughout the expedition. I was truly moved. KB Singh came by to the seminary and we spent some time with Fr Joseph. We were joined by a couple of other elderly priests too. KB Singh had arranged with ISTV, the local network, to interview me. They arrived and the interview and videos were done over the next 45 minutes. After a lively interaction with the elder priests, the oldest of who was 90 years old – yet another Fr. Joseph – who had spent 57 years of his mission in Manipur, KB Singh and I spent an hour or so in my room discussing how our lives had panned out.
Once Fr. Joseph announced dinner I said goodbye to KB Singh who had been a major source of support for my travel through Manipur. Dinner consisted of fried fish and curry, dal and soupy salad. The food was extremely tasty. Fresh Kerala plantains, Palayamkodan, that are grown in plenty in the area, served as dessert.