These are a few things that were done for Beth Hume in Meghalaya. They are not in any order of importance or chronology. They are also in no way the most notable. So many have been instrumental in the efforts For Beth. There are so many thanks due. What Manah said at the river while he prayed stands tallest among other phrases “Para Doh Para Snam”, “Siblings of the same flesh and blood”.
We are, indeed, all connected.
A Gathering of Friends and Family at a Bend on a River
Our fledgling beginner group of paddlers in Meghalaya has a date set, the 21st of November. Ian Vincent gathers us all at a play wave along the banks of the Umtrew river while the winter sun beats down on us. A large group of school children from the village of Umsning have walked to look at the paddlers on the river. The kids stand amid the boating gear strewn about. It is a sight not often seen for them and they are curious as well as excited. The bend in the river has a rapid, trees line the banks with shade and the sun dramatically illuminates the wave in the middle of the river. A few of the paddlers are in the water below and excited whoops from the students cheer them on. The atmosphere is festive and cheerful.
This is a little more than two weeks after the accident on the Umngi river that claimed Beth Hume’s life. Posts on social media from friends and family all around the world mourn her loss and many mention a singular point – that she celebrated her life. She also encouraged others around her to celebrate theirs. Looking at this motley collection of international kayakers, local enthusiasts and children of all age groups messing about on a river in a far flung location on a sunny day would be something Beth would have surely approved.
We made sure to bring out Beth’s kayak so that it would be a part of the day. If she were there, she would have surely been in the thick of it. Although, with the warm sun shining down, the playful currents going their course downstream and the smiles on everyone’s faces, i do feel she was.
A Festival in a Village on a Hill with Lakes
The target is a pink plastic top hat. The prize is chocolates, candy and a t-shirt. Dozens of children jostling, grabbing, shouting, running and laughing. All are at play, but none with the softer touch of pampered urban children. These kids mean business.
The plateaus of the West Khasi Hills roll past farmlands and a network of roads interlink scattered villages that nestle between meandering rivers and streams. A dirt track leads off from Markasa market and winds its way uphill. After a dusty and bouncy ride, Mawphanlur village comes into view. The tranquility of the gentle slopes is punctuated by the few houses around. The dwellings are far from opulent, and their simplicity in design almost seem apologetic for interrupting the serenity of the landscape. The lakes are cradled between the shallow valleys and reflect the skies above. Above the comparative bustle of the plateau below, this sparsely populated summit has an air of detached calm. The smiles on people’s weathered faces are genuine and warm. Time, it seems, stands still here.
The festival at Mawphanlur village celebrates initiatives towards developing responsible models of village and nature based tourism and is unique in it’s efforts and design. People from all over Meghalaya have come to take part as well as enjoy the activities and location. In these days of top dollar infotainment sensationalist extravagance, this event is in stark contrast. Simply put, it’s a beautiful village, people from all over have put up stalls and events, there are games and food on offer and it’s a beautiful day.
We planned a few games for the children in memory of Beth and we had an amazing time. Children, parents and other people gathered around the lake to watch and cheer on the young competitors. The games were simple and were a lot of boisterous fun for everyone. We started off with a flotilla of eager children in packrafts chasing the pink top hat which was perched on the head of a kayaker. Joe put his expedition paddling skills to good use as he had to paddle rings around the kids or face the consequences of being pushed over into the water. Max held his own until a pair of boys launched a hostile attack on his kayak and deftly snatched the hat off his head. They then shoved him into the water. We had to use throw bags a few times to fish out participants, dripping wet, but grinning from ear to ear.
Another game involved members of our team wearing Christmas hats and running away from the determined children as fast as they could. The children that grabbed the hats got the prize. We flung chocolates and candy into the crowd of swarming children which soon turned into a melee. Alarmed at the eager free-for-all that took place in front of us, we quickly switched games out of fear of someone getting seriously injured. The kids also had to capture balls flung in different directions and the sheer number and enthusiasm of the children made it fun to watch. A few hardy boys were winning an unfair amount of candy and we had to even out the games and held separate games for the girls.
Here too, we made sure to bring Beth’s kayak. It sat on a grassy knoll overlooking all the games and passing children imaginatively turned it into a slide, a see saw and an imaginary tractor or a plane that was mounted with, presumably, a machine gun and some device that produced sweets.
We gave out almost a hundred “Beth” shirts, distributed a few bags worth of candy and chocolates, got dozens of people of all ages into the packrafts and kayaks and put ear to ear smiles on the crowds of people watching. The only casualties at the end were the possessions of a slightly inebriated man who was determined to win the prized shirt and commandeered a kayak to chase a ball in the water. He capsized into the shallows and then remembered that he had a cellphone and camera in his pocket. He was suddenly sober after his unplanned dunking. We gave him a shirt for his A+ effort.
Jungle Engineering and Human Warmth
After the considerable but unsuccessful attempts by multiple rescue efforts spanning weeks on the Umngi river, we were told that the villagers had built a bamboo bridge at the falls. This was untrue. I suppose that we were conveyed this message for ease of description over unreliable mobile networks. What we did see was, in fact, a feat of jungle engineering ingenious in it’s construction.
A senior architect, when viewing photos of the bamboo structures, admitted that they “defy structural engineering rules and designs while expressing a deep and complex understanding of vernacular materials.”
In english, that means that they understand their bamboo like no one else.
What stood at the falls was a network of intricately interlinked bamboo bridges, scaffoldings, towers, anchors, ladders and suspended platforms. With this made, they could access several nooks and crannies above the waterfall, below, as well as into crevices and caves in and around the falls itself. No nails or other hardware was used. No tools other than machetes and knives were employed. These men wore little more than flip flops, cotton shirts and trousers working above the strong currents. There were no climbing harnesses, pulleys, polyamide rope, helmets, leather gloves, grippy rubber shoes, tape slings or carabiners. Just old fashioned grit, tenacity and a bucket-load of skill and tribal know-how.
This was done by a team of 18 to 20 men who camped by the river for almost two weeks. Such a monumental and incredible effort was put into motion when the Syiem (Tribal King/Chieftain) of this area had requested the people of the villages to come together for this particular cause. Without the word of the Syiem, such strength in numbers would have not been achieved. The villages at the ridge line high above provided the support of food and supplies.
A special mention is due for Bah Klip from Phlangwanbroi village. He was the leader and chief engineer of this complex construction. Bah Klip is 73 years old and has nine children of his own. He has helped several other families from the area who have lost loved ones on the same river. A former night watchman of the PWD building in Shillong, retired now, after decades of service. His skill and understanding of bamboo is what made the construction of the complex structure on the Umngi possible. Bah Klip and his efforts are a testament to his caliber of character and of the people of the region.
** It is important to note that these are only a few incidents that happened and there are an immense amount of people highly instrumental that are not mentioned here. The efforts of the various arms of the Government of Meghalaya, Traditional Heads and Institutions, Village Elders and Generous People were crucial to all efforts. If the future of Meghalaya is to be brighter each year, it will be because of people like them.
** For the full report with detailed events as they occurred and written by Beth’s team that was with her on that fateful trip, please click on the link below.
Umngi Team Full Report