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Strawberry hills forever

Sohliya and Ritiang villages in Meghalaya aren’t just growing superlative strawberries, they are also trying to script a new kind of tourism — adventure-soaked stays in semi-forest farmhouses but sans frills, writes Rahul Karmakar.

india Updated: May 15, 2009 23:04 IST

SOHPETBNENG ISN’T just any peak. It’s the navel of heaven, where once grew a botanical bridge — umbilical cord, rather — between earth and God’s abode until sin severed it. So believe the nature-worshipping matrilineal Khasis, who trudge up the hill once a year hoping to be spiritually cleansed.

Like most peaks in cloud-kissed Meghalaya, the 1,545m Sohpetbneng sited 20 km from capital Shillong, has an eye-satiating view. And, Khasi mythology maintains, it ensures spiritual bliss. Sohliya and Ritiang villages nearby make no such claim, but their ambience is no less ethereal. Except, of course, the part gravel, part poorly tarred 6 km stretch off the Guwahati-Shillong Road at a market point named Umsning.

“Would you like to lord a semi-forest farm for a day or two?” asked Shillong-based social entrepreneur Deepak D. Laloo. “You’ll have a modest two-room farmhouse with basic amenities like cooking gas, electricity, running water. But you’ll have to bring your own rations in a vehicle with high ground clearance.” And, he warned, there’s no TV, no mobile phone connectivity unless you trek up a mound within the 40-acre farm to catch a tower faintly, and of course, not a single soul around after dusk to spoil your secluded stay.

Forest, farm and fruits

I HAD met Laloo at one of many events his group, Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum, organises. In his Police Bazaar office the other day, we recollected our first meeting at a festival of indigenous wines. We discussed wines from local berry-like fruits — Sohiong and the aphrodisiac Sobhrap. The discussion ended with a debate on strawberries. “Mahabaleshwar produces the yummiest strawberries?” the incredulity was apparent on Laloo’s face. “You’ll change your opinion if you taste the Sohliya variety!” And he packed me off to his Sadu Farm to savour the fruit, straight from the plantation.

Farm caretaker Jorsing Marngar looked quizzically at my small car, thought awhile and hopped in. “This way, please,” he said, pointing to a dirt track. As the car wobbled wildly, I realised why Jorsing was eyeing the car suspiciously. Ahead was a river. “I think this car will make it across,” he said, adding, “This is river Umran, and its flow can sometimes be too strong for cars like these.”

I did to the 800cc what many wouldn’t to their SUVs. Skidding, sliding, bumping, it somehow managed the steep, rocky incline beyond Umran. The goose pimples vanished after another 600 metres through a wooded driveway that took me to a two-tier bungalow. “We could’ve built a bridge, but driving through the river accelerates the adrenaline besides keeping unwanted elements away,” retired government officer and Laloo’s friend Adelbert Paswett, who showed me around the farm, said the following day.

Howls and chirps

THE FARMHOUSE had the basics to be cosy. “The idea was to have a log cabin minus the logs, where we could spend weekends away from the city sights and sounds,” said Paswett. Night descended on Sadu with howls from yonder, buzzing of insects, and breeze-induced rustle of leaves as the temperature dropped. Dawn broke with an avian orchestra, the tempo shifting gears rapidly from adagio to allegro and back again, a pleasant departure for someone used to waking up to the honking of cars.

None of the birds were visible on the chestnut and diengngan (a wild local species) trees flanking the farmhouse. The trees, however, yielded a variety of orchids, but of them being Blue Vanda. “The rare Red Vanda has vanished from Meghalaya,” said Paswett, adding the Risoh Conservation Society he and Laloo floated has been trying to save whatever’s left.

The sloping strawberry stretch was some 300 yards away. The blood-red, organic fruits that Paswett plucked were simply out of this world, just as Laloo had claimed. “There has been no looking back after strawberry was introduced in these parts 10 years ago. Every season from February-May, a village is being added to the strawberry growers’ list,” said my sexagenarian guide, teaching me how to pick the juiciest ones from the shrubs.

The bulk of the villagers — 56 of 67 households — Sohliya sited 3 km from Sadu were strawberry farmers. Of them, 35 also grew organic tea on either side of the strawberry season besides traditional crops such as ginger, bay leaf and broomsticks. “Some 15 years ago, we diversified into tea,” said headman O. Lyngkhoi. “Then we discovered strawberry, and thankfully so.”

In Meghalaya, a grin of contentment is sometimes referred to as a ‘strawberry smile’. The people of Sohliya — and Umsaitsning and Nongkya villages — beyond a hump know they have had to cultivate this smile the real hard way. The fruit is not paying — a panet or plastic box of strawberries comes cheap at Rs 50 — much, but they are banking on what it could translate into with city slickers yearning for a quiet, agro-forestry break.