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PROJECT HIGHWAYS
A Breast Cancer Awareness Drive by Survivors 

 A first hand account of the story so far

Dr. Ritu Biyani JosephHow many of us think ' Let me pack up and leave, I want to roam the world ' - All of us it seems! How many of us actually go ahead and do it- Very few !!

For some, the thought looks straight out of ' Alice in Wonderland'  but for some it’s the beginning of a world where you follow your heart and you can do everything you dream of. Landscaping your dreamscape becomes a mission.

One such vision, waiting to become a reality crossed Dr. Ritu Biyani Joseph in Nov. 2005. She celebrated five years of being a Cancer Survivor then. Her 14 year old daughter Tista Joseph had been with her throughout and is her strongest support. The mother daughter duo decided to take it forward in the form of a nationwide drive.

Dr. Ritu had been wanting to drive across India by herself, crossing the highest passes to the remotest corner and hold Cancer Awareness Camps.

In her own words ‘Through this roller coaster adventure drive I want to motivate cancer patients and survivors to drive on the HIGH>>>WAYS of life exploring their inner strengths and spirits. I want to instill hope in all to celebrate health and life specially those who are touched by this illness.

The mission is to conduct Awareness Camps on Breast, Oral and Cervical Cancers. Personal interaction and dispelling myths will be focal to the project along with teaching self examination and information/material dissemination regarding the disease to the far flung areas.’

During the course of finalizations, 30 year old Vandana Natu, a writer and a filmmaker from Mumbai joined them to be a part of the hands on gang. Thus began the journey with a germ of a thought and a vision – Project Highways

With support from Women’s Cancer Iniative – Tata Memorial Hospital Mumbai as sponsors and Cancer Patients Aid Association Mumbai as a support body the message started gaining momentum. Organisations like Ford Motors, Autocar & Hindustan Petroleum pitched in to do what they are best at – provide wheels (a Ford Endeavour Everest) and fuel the mission. A six month project which will culminate in the 3rd Asia Pacific ‘Reach to Recovery’ International Breast Cancer support Conference on 06/Nov/2006 at the Hilton Towers, Mumbai.

The ‘highway squad’ 

On the driver’s seat - Dr. (Mrs.) Ritu Biyani Joseph is spear heading this solo drive across IndiaThe ‘highway squad’  with the concept of linking adventure sport with an awareness campaign.  This 47 yrs old a dental surgeon, is an adventurer by heart, who loves challenges and never misses an opportunity to cheer other cancer patients. Has scaled mountains, Para-trooped and sky-dived and is an avid Photographer. In the past 3 years she has driven a total of 30,000 kms cross country in India & Bhutan. She is a cancer survivor herself and has completed 5 years of survival after being diagnosed with Breast Cancer in September. 2000.

Ms. Tista Joseph, 14 yrs old. Amateur photographer and Videographer / Navigator and adapted to travel in all remote areas like Leh / Laddakh / Kutch / Bhutan etc. Has keen interest in environment and wildlife & a great asset in conducting these camps. She has seen her mother through the illness and bonds well with families of suffering patients. Has decided to spend her entire summer vacation with the mission.

Ms. Vandana Natu, 30 yrs old. Professionally a writer and a filmmaker from Mumbai. Currently working on her book. She was diagnosed with stage 3 Breast Cancer in March 2005 and has completed treatment in Oct. 2005. Eight months out of treatment, wanted to reach out and connect to as many people as possible. 

The fourth member Ms. Ishani Roy from Mumbai, joined them for a period of 20 days at Arunachal Pradesh.

April 1st

No April fool this is! Chose the perfect day to start the campaign!!

On April 1, 2006 the trio got flagged off from Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai admist lot of cheering and support from the main catalyst Dr. Rajan Badwe (Surgical Oncologist TMH), Dr. Dinshaw (Director TMH), Devika Bhojwani (VP- Womens Cancer Initiative, Tata Memorial Hospital), Shubha Maudgal (Director New Projects - Cancer Patients Aid Association), Sunil & Manna Shetty and loads of friends and family.

An unscheduled 2 day halt at Pune was inevitable as both Ritu & Vandana had to shut shop/pack up respective houses and short circuit all long pending jobs as they would be out for the next six months. Them, having just met for the first time in February 2006, there were lots of interpersonal gap jumps to be made too, to avoid any faux pas.

The route and schedule charted out was -

he Journey so far...[as on - 27/06/06]LACHEN CAMP - SIKKIM

  • Departure - Pune - 04/04/06 
  • Distance covered so far - 13,800kms 
  • Heights covered - 15500 & 18,000+ ft above sea level
  • Routes - Total appx. 30,000kms 
  • Schedule A. [Duration - 3 months] : Pune (West Coast)  - Sikkim (North East)
  • Schedule B [Duration - 2 months] :  Remaining India (North - Leh - Laddakh - Jammu & Kashmir - Himachal Pradesh - Uttaranchal - Uttar Pradesh - Punjab - Haryana - Rajasthan - Gujrat). Organised Camps/ad hoc interactions - (done till now)

  • No. of camps - 67 appx. 
  • Attendance -over  13,000  people 
  • Highest Altitude camp - 12700 ft at ITBP post Sungatser, Arunachal Pradesh 
  • International Borders - China at Bumla, Arunachal Pradesh
                                   - Tamu Mayanmar crossed at Moreh, Manipur
                                   - Bangladesh at Dawki Meghalaya
                                   - Tibet plateu in North Sikkim, 
                                   - Nepal

As their Eastern element of the mission draws to an end fond memories of the journey so far will always linger around as if all happened yesterday. Here is a first hand account of the journey –

Maharashtra (04/04/06 – 06/04/06)

Lord ganapati blesses the crew –

Nothing better than an auspicious start. Ritu’s Father broke the first coconut and a small prayer was performed for everyones safety as the vehicle steered out of Pune at 8:00am on 04 April 2006. With blessings from Lord Ganesha at Ranjangarh around 9:30am, the ‘Highways’ got moving.

The first stop was at Ahmednagar at around 11:45am where a small impromptu camp was held for the families and employees of Rajdeep Group of companies. This was the foundation of all the camps to come. We showed only the symptoms and risk factors on charts here. 

Ahmednagar-Aurangabad-Akola was the route taken and a night halt at Akola closed the day.

Karanja Cluster -

On the way to Nagpur (05 April) just after a lovely lunch of Rotis and daal at a dhaaba, all were quite relaxed and looking forward to an early evening at Nagpur. Just as the reverie and aroma of the recent lunch was settling down, Ritu saw a group op around 500-600 women from the corner of her eyes, right next to the Highway. By the time her eyes could move around, there was a quick exchange of affirmation between Tista and me. It was like a pre planned automatic affirmative nod from both while Ritu swerved the car back to the group.

The next thing one could see was all three immersed in the sea of ‘molakarin sanghatan’ at the Highway in Karanja (Ghatge), Maharashtra. Again an impromptu camp which remains the biggest congregation of women in any of their camps till date. What was supposed to be a 15 minute invsion into their meeting turned out to be a full fledged 1.5 hours camp. With the help of Flip boards, charts and facts and figures – the risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and socials issues were explained to all.

Around 50 women came up with complaints of lumps and others problems. There was a lot of anger among them as they felt that most of the screening camps conducted by most people were highly ineffective as they were rarely followed up.

Nagpur

We reached the ‘city of oranges’ by 5:30pm and guess where they stayed--- Orange City Hotel!!

Vandana'  s dear friend, Mr. Hemanth Peshkar had arranged for the stay. Ritus dear friend Mr. Milind had arranged for the Sports Federation Team to meet and encourage them. Its so surprising how when everyday friends help you out in foreign lands, the bonds of friendship grow into respect and become more valuable.

After all were gone, the feminine side came into being and all three sat doing there work laced with face packs, blackhead removal strips and God knows what. Next morning (06/04/06) was refreshing and a late rising was evident. An early departure was a must as they had been instructed by families not to be on the roads after dark. A rule that would be very difficult to abide by. Ritu was woken up by a worried me who seemed to have some oozing from the secondary sutures of BCT surgery last June. Not wanting to take any chance we called up Dr. Badwe. He suggested that we go to the Central India Cancer research Institue in Nagpur and meet Dr. Ajay Mehta.

3 Coconut water and 2 hours later, all were out of the Institute reasonably relaxed as it was nothing serious. Just when we were to leave the city, Ritu asked Tista jokingly – Why is Nagpur so important in Indian Geography-- Tista rightly answered that it was the Zero Mile centre of India. That’s it!! We just needed a reason. Now the hunt for the zero milestone began and they finally left Nagpur by 12 noon after taking a proud photograph with the esteemed marker. So much so for an early departure.!!!!

We were soon gaining a reputation of being a very well meaning but a half mad team.

Madhya Pradesh - The Wild Side (06/04/06 – 09/04/06)

On the same day, kanhan Coal City and Pench Tiger Reserve (Seoni, M.P.) later we were at Kanha National Park. We were getting late so had to skip the ‘Pench Tiger Reserve’. Didn’t really know what was in there but boards like ‘Kiplings Court’ made us resolve (specially the die hard environmentalist Tista) to come back there later in life and give it its due.

We met Mr. Subhash his brother at the Kanha Pugmarks Resort. They were kind enough to help us in our mission by taking the worries of stay and food away. In the evening all plans for the forthcoming camps were discussed. Two camps were held in the next two days– Mocha & Khatiya villages were covered and people from the village of Kanha Kisli attended too.

Quite contrary to our belief (that Kanha being a famous National park with lot of tourist movement, the villagers must be quite ‘with it’ as far as their commercial needs and fulfillments were concerned) they were very simple and committed towards keeping Kanhas ecological balance intact. It was sad to see that a National park of this stature did not have its own resident doctor. The government was willing to pay appx 15-16,000/- pm for any ad hoc replacement but in vain as it had not attracted anyone to volunteer.

Our camps were met with a bit of a resistance in the beginning but as it progressed women opened up and were asking straight questions instead of the regular round about ways. Ritu had started improvising and adding local flavour to the interaction and all it needed was the first burst of laughter then it would sail smoothly. We were also getting used to group dynamics and modifying our talks as per the needs.

We spent one day venturing into the park and keeping in tradition with Tistas claim that ‘Big cats have plotted something against her’. She was sure of not seeing them even if she went to ‘Serengiti‘, we saw one and all “(including a sloth bear) but not the big cats.

Also saw ‘Baiga’ dance in the evening and slept early as we had a long day the next day.

Chhattisgarh (09/04/06 – 10/04/06)

After 2 days in Kanha we moved into Raipur in Chhatisgarh on 09/06/06).

A visit to the Bhoramdeo Siva stone temple built in 11the century AD (in the reign of Naga Vamsi kings) on the way to Raipur is a must. It is called the ‘Khajuraho of Chhatisgarh’. It was almost 3:30pm and there was hardly anything nearby except a small shop that kept peanuts and colas which saved the hungry souls.

Raipur was included in the itinerary only because Mr. Prakash met us in Tata Hospital Mumbai and insisted that we ‘pass by’ J. It was to be a stop over but it turned out to be much more than that as when we reached and met them, they all landed up at where we were to stay and we did an ad hoc camp.

A press meet in the morning was followed by lunch. Someone informed us that there was a lady who had cancer which had now recurred. We went to meet her. It was our first interaction like this. She was so happy to see us and insisted that once out of treatment, would definitely join us.

Orissa (11/04/06)

We entered the Badrama Ghats. They were our first ghats after the Sahayadris. Sahayadris were like home. After the regular clicking of milestones, we moved onto enjoying the greens.

But at around 12:15 pm on 11/04/06 in the Kanjipani Ghat, appx. 38 kms from Keonjhar, a truck hit us from behind. Not only did he hit us but overtook and harassed us for about next 15 kms by overtaking ,dangerously side cutting and not letting us go past.

Then began the long chase, ending up at Keonjhar District Police headquarters only to be told that we had to come back all the way to Kanjipani to file an FIR. Luckily we met Mr. Vijay Kumar Pradhan at the Kanjipani police station who helped a speedy filing of FIR.

After all this we sat back to take stock and found that the backdoor was badly damaged and the windscreen fully smashed up. It was impossible to continue like that as the car was packed! Then began the marathon telephones to the Ford company.

All at Ford from Mr Siva. To Mr. Rashid to Ms. Ravinder were extremely helpful as they quickly tied up with people from Jamshedpur (appx. 220 kms away from the accident site) to get the repairs done in the night.

We finally took a detour from our itinerary to land up in Jamshedpur at midnight minus the rear windscreen.

Jharkhand (12/04/06 – 13/04/06)

We were so happy to see the service engineer of Ford waiting for us at midnight and so oblivious to what was coming – 12/04/06 was the ODI cricket match between India and England.

With no car, no food, no sleep we began the hunt for a roof for the night. Three women, in the middle of the night, in an unknown city, were looking for a hotel. Not a single room was available! Never cursed Cricket as much as we did that day. Exasperated, the Ford Engineer – a young bachelor who was helping us find a place said ‘Mam if finally you can’t find a place, just come to my house and crash from the night. But I am a bachelor so you will have to excuse the mess’. We thanked him for the offer but found a hotel which had opened that very day!!! Didn’t even bother to check the rent rates…just took the room and dropped dead on the beds! For the record, the dinner comprising of tomato sandwiches took 1.5 hours to come!

West Bengal (13/04/06 – 17/04/06) Assam (18/04/06 – 22/04/06)

From Jamshedpur we traveled to Bholpur, Siliguri, Guwahati, Kaziranga, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and so on. Holding camps, staying with friends and Family and admiring nature.

On 20/04/06 a camp at Hathikhuli Tea Estate in the Tea garden near Kaziranga was conducted at a short notice. A lot of small camps took place when we just walked upto people and told them that we wanted to just talk to them. By now we had developed a better co-ordination and Dr.Ritu could handle diverse querries with ease. At the risk of some people getting annoy

Kaziranga told us that Tistas vision of becoming a whildlife Vet wasn’t just all talk, it had much more to what met the eye. She would spent half a day just chatting up with mahaouts learning about Elephants. Knowing that the best Elephant trainer & Mahaout in India was a woman named Parvati from the nearby village was a proud moment.

We got to attend the Ganesh Pooja too where 30 elephants mingled with people like it was a mela and they had come to visit.

Due to the geographical features Assam & West Bengal were two states we would be frequenting while completing the Nort-Eastern circuit as one has to keep entering and exiting these states often.

Arunachal Pradesh (22/04/06 – 24/05/06)

Arunachal Pradesh was a first for all of us. We entered Arunachal on 22/04/06 via Dibrugarh in Assam. Our fourth member Ishani Roy from Mumbai, who was to be with us for the next twenty days joined us here.

Ritu had been in touch with Mr. Prashant Lokhande, DC of Lohit & Anjaw districts AP for all connectivities. He and his Wife Dr. Chaitali extended all the support we would ever need in the whole state. Few times in life when you feel ‘wish I had studied more and done IAS or Medicine to bring about a change’ could be felt often when one was with this committed couple.

We stayed at Namsai for the first night followed by hectic next two days with 5 consecutive camps in Namsai, Mahadevpur, Lathao, Chongkham & Wakro. Being close to the Assam border Namsai & Mahadevpur had a lot of Boro & Deori tribes. The rest had more of the local Mishmi tribes.

The Deori tribes came all dressed up to the camp as they had to rush for the festival dances after the camp. Their hurry to leave was quite evident but as the interaction kept growing, they forgot all about it. Deeply engrossed they realised only in the end and they made their bus wait till the camp ended. To make up for the delay, they started dancing in the hall itself, not sparing all of us eithe. We all danced and were a big family.

All were welcome to come to the camp so we had a lot of people who suspected some kind disease came from far flung areas. In the course of these camps we saw cases of extreme deterioration of personal health including some with symptoms beyong imagination. A quick list was made and given to the DC who had promised us to follow up with anyone we felt needed assistance. The number of undetected cases make up for a lot of the missing statistics.

We got very little time to see the place but managed to see the Namsai Priyattisasana Buddhist Vihara and Buddhist Monastries at Chongkham (Thamoon Sutongpe Stupa). Unlike their Tawang counterparts these had a lot of Burmese and Thai influence. We did manage a quick run to the Parashuram Kund on our way to Tezu. That is one place you should go and sit for sometime and be with yourself. The river Lohit is an amazing companion for thoughts.

On 26/04/06 we had two camps. First at Loiliyang and then next at the district headquartes at Tezu. Tezu happens to be the district where the first sunrays of the millennium in the world fell in ‘Dong’. A tiny village by the name of ‘Kahao’ which is the easternmost village of India is a place worth a visit too.

Most importantly, our hosts Mrs. & Mr. Lokhande were based in Tezu. They were very concerned for us as the roads ahead were treacherous and seeing a lady drive, they wanted to provide us with a driver. We promptly refused as this was Ritus solo drive and she wanted to be truthful to it, come what may. Lots of discussions later it was finally decided to take his driver whom we fondly called ‘Thapa ji’ - not to drive but just to be there. Initially restless and shy sitting in the backseat Driver Thapa gradually started enjoying being driven by Dr. Ritu. As we found out later, he was loved by one and all and his ‘shut eye laughter’ was quite famous with Tista & Ishani.

Next morning on 27/04/06 we set out to touch the easternmost tip and ‘the land of the rising sun’ which was still a day away.

On the way to Quibang ‘Udayak Pass’ at 1544 mts was the first pass we crossed in this expedition. As the Ford Endeavour zipped past in the hills, it was the most thrilling experience as having a good vehicle in a difficult terrain is anyones dream come true.

The first night halt was to be at Walong curtsey 12 Bihar regt.. Walong happens to have a lot of historical value in the history of Indian Defence forces as the Chinese had managed to come till there and were fearlessly opposed by the Indian soldiers in the battle of Walong oct/Nov 1962. The War Memorial situated by the river Lohit says –

Asleep in the Mishmi Hills
The sentinel hills 
That round us stand 
Bear witness that 
We loved our land

Admist shattered rock 
And Flaming Pine
We fought and died 
On Namti Plain

O Lohit gently by us glide
Pale stars above softly shine
As we sleep here
In sun and rain

Penned by Mr. Bernard S. Douglas – DC Lohit district in 1965

On 28/04/06 the expedition vehicle wheeled onto the last motorable road in the north easternmost part of India – Kibithu. Across the fence were the Chinese peaks.

A camp was held there with the help of 12 Bihar regt.

Next back at Kibithu, on 29/04/06 they trekked for 3-4 kms to reach ‘Kahao’ & ‘Dong’– the last village on the eastern tip of India. It was a challenging trek. Nine families and a total of appx. Thirty people live there.

It was a proud moment to hold an awareness camp there. The families were extremely responsive and even invited all for a traditional lunch.

As if straight out of ‘Swades’, the tiny village had its own mini hydal and could take care of all its electricity needs. Manned by the locals, it made them extremely self reliant. 

On 01/05/06, a camp was organized at Walong by the Civil Authorities. Just before the camp we visited a mishmi (tribe) girl in her house. Her condition was a living example of apathy and how if not taken care of initially, small things like pustules can take a terrifying magnitude. After making sure that the Army and the Public health Agencies tie up to provide further relief to the young girl, the team moved onto Hawai for a camp.

Hawai is a beautiful town made on a plateu on top of a hill. Surrounded by mountains and the Lohit rive flowing down, its seems like a place straight of a story book.

Hayuliang was the next stop on 02/05/06 for the next camp followed by Tezu on 03/05/06 after which the mission headed for Roing in Lower Dibang Valley where a camp was held on 04/05/06. This was the first time the vehicle drove over dry river beds and through shallow rivers.

Lower Dibang Valley is famous for the scenic Myodia Pass and Hunli from where you can see Brahmaputra. It wasn’t difficult to find out why people wanted to come back there again and again. All slept light that night as the next day was a big day.

Getting up early on 05/05/06 all efforts were towards keeping Ritus nerves calm and maintaining an encouraging atmosphere as she was to put the vehicle into a boat herself, so that we could cross the mighty Brahmaputra.

Rolling smoothly over 8” planks, she managed it with finesse fit only for seasoned experts. The cameras got rolling and all danced and celebrated on the boat.


The team (Dr. Ritu, Vandana, Tista & Ishani) with vehicle on Brahmaputra

On reaching the other end, a very relieved Ritu got talking to the boatmen and in no time we were doing a camp for them. We had crossed Assam once again to get back into Arunachal.

Admist fun frolic and unplanned camps we reached Pasighat.

Pasighat saw the Chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh Mr. Gegong Apang pay a flying visit to the team at the Siang Guest House. He wished the team all the very best over a cup of tea and expressed his gratitude.

Pasighat, Rayang, Sille had three camps. Rayang was the smallest camp ever as it was over dinner that the host family expressed the wish that we take them through our presentation.

Ritu and me were presented with white blanket each by Mrs. Yamik Dulom - their LO from DMO office. She and her daughters had knit them. It was much later when we found out that a hand knit white blanket was the highest regard anyone could pay in the Adi tribe. The ADC Pasighat Mrs. Sadhna Deori helped them in their further contacts for Along.

Along camp was a short one as most of the participants were from the medical background and it wasn’t difficult explaining things to them.

Along proved to be the key to a treasure Island as it was the gateway to a place each and every member of the team will want to come back to.

Mechuka – 180 kms from Along is an unexplored heaven waiting to be discovered by the die hard travelers. Not for the faint hearted, the drive to Mechuka is a tough one. Surrounded by snow capped mountains and the distinct housing architecture make it a painted landscape. Not to forget the fluttering Buddhist prayer flags (Mompa population are in majority) and the ever so beautiful Gumpa. It could easily pass of as European countryside if it wasn’t for the Buddhist influence and oriental features.

Sad that it was a touch and go situation as we had only one and a half day to reach-see-go from Mechuka. Feeling guilty that we could not give back anything or do a camp there, we requested the ADC and the ‘Border roads organisation’ to help arrange something for us even though it meant reaching Along at midnight taking the trecherous road. He obliged. Camps at Mechuka and Segong were hurried but very productive.

Capital city Itanagar had organized a big camp through the State Womens Commission. It also gave and opportunity for the team to spend and evening with the Governor HE S. K. Singh. Another evening well spent was when the Lamas at Thuptan Gatsuling Gompa invited the team for dinner and cooked while sharing the daily life routine with them.

The team reached Tenga on 17/05/06. It was a poignant moment as Ishani Roy who had become a part of the team had to go back to Mumbai as her College was starting. Ishani and Tista had become close friends and to see them brave it, was heart wrenching. On 18/05/06 Ishani was safely sent back to Mumbai while the trio continued to Tawang.

Another significant destination was – Bumla on 20/05/06. With Tawang as a base and supported by the 5 Mountain Division of the Army from Tenga, the gang headed for Bumla. A snowbound area at 15,500 feet, Bumla was the highest pass the expedition had been to in Arunachal Pradesh. Another vital fact is that it is on the Indo China International Boundary. One can cross over and when one looks back, a bold ‘Welcome to India’ makes you heart swell up with pride.

One of the eye catching feature is the presence of Maratha Ground and a ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Marg’ at 12,400 feet in the middle of nowhere on the way to Bumla. The Maharashtrian connection made all smile and move on.

After a camp for the 5 Mountain Div. it was time to leave Arunachal Pradesh. It was a very emotional time for all. As the last of the hills were coming to and end and the Assam Plains were in view they just wanted to turn the vehicle around and go back to Arunachal. It seemed like home after spending more than a month there.

After a days break in Tezpur the journey continued to Meghalaya.

Meghalaya (25/05/06 – 31/05/06)

Meghalaya was another story. The team did 4 camps in Shillong. Shillong was mainly for the Army. Two at the Assam regimental Center then at 58 GTC followed by one with the Signals unit. The initial hesitation and the rank hierarchy vanished in minutes when Ritu started playing games actually meant for the basti and villagers and was soon realized that all you need to get across to people is a heart that wants to communicate, never mind the language, cast or creed.

Meghalaya is a goldmine of tourist attractions including Caving expeditions (a short visit to the Mawsmai caves illustrated the huge possibilities in this area), Living root bridges, the monoliths and not to forget the horde of waterfalls.

Noh kailikai falls surrounded by deep gorges in Sohora (Cherapunjee) happens to be fourth tallest in the world and we were there in the full bloom of monsoon. While we stood watching it, the fog which was seemingly sedimented at the base of the valley suddenly started rising, like an erupting volcano. In a matter of seconds the whole valley of deep gorges was covered in fog and visibility was very poor. It was time to leave and by the time they started the started the car it was all clear again. Playing hide and seek with nature has its own fun but this was something all of us will never forget.

‘Khublei Shibun’ is all we can say with gratitude.

A visit to the Sohora ‘bara bazaar’ (on Tuesdays) is a must too.

Nagaland (01/06/06 – 06/06/06)

Tsosinyu – Nagaland campMeghalaya was followed by a state none other than Nagaland. So rich in tribal legacy yet so unexplored.

The team did three camps there – one in Rangapahar near Dimapur with the 3 Corp, second at Kohima with 26 Assam Rifles (both co-sponsors to our project) and another in a village near Kohima called Tsosinyu. Rangapahar camp was a cakewalk as the populace knew hindi but in Tsosinyu (arranged by 26 Assam Rifles) we had a young Army jawan as our interpreter who knew Nagamese very well.

It was interesting to see him dressed in camouflage with a bullet proof jacket and explaining self breast examination to the local ladies. His ease with the subject matter and the openness of the villagers to ask frank questions through him was like an effortless meeting of different worlds.

After the camps a visit to the Naga Heritage Complex was quite an eye opener as we got to see life size habitat replications of all major 14 tribes of Nagaland in the most scenic surrounding.

A visit to the World War 2 - Kohima War Memorial (maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) seemed like a pre requisite to anyone calling themselves patriotic. We never imagined we would be spending three hours there, just reading epitaphs. Each one spoke of the supreme sacrifice in the language of the heart. Naik Ghulam Muhammads name made us all skip a beat as he was all of 16 years of age when he bravely gave his life for us on 14/10/44.

‘When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today’. - A soldiers epitaph

The above sentiments echoed not just in the World War II War Memorial but everywhere from the highest mountain passes to the lowest battleground

Manipur (06/06/06 – 15/06/06)

Manipur like Nagaland was a last minute entry into the itinerary, all thanks to Maj. Gen. E.J. Kochhekan GOC HQ, 57 Mountain Div. The camps there were attended by one and all from the uniformed to the civilians including the local population of Kookis, Meiteis, Tamilians, Muslims and others it showed them a different side of the state. A camp with just school children and another with the Catholic Medical Center were unique. The nuns and father made for an extremely inquisitive crowd. Peels of laughter and some shy glances apart, they seemed very keen on knowing more. The school children gave us a window to the future generation of Manipur. Ill effects of Tobacco etc were explained to them with visuals.

On 13/06/06 the camps were scheduled back to back in three different villages. Heavy rains delayed the first one at Senapati and it snowballed into a delay of more than two hours till the third camp at Motbung. People were agitated but waiting. The moment we got out of the car we knew we had to tackle it well. While me and Tista were setting up, Ritu just walked up to them and asked them to sing a song!! Yes…to sing a song out of the blue!!! They were startled but obliged and soon the angry crowd was singing hymns (Motbung has mainly Kooki Christians). It soothed everyone and we rolled into a very actively participating camp.

Ritu visited the Cancer patients at RIMS in Imphal. Meeting her was like seeing their own future – all hail and hearty and full of life with a mission. It is so different to meet a survivor than meet someone else who tells you ‘All will be fine’.

Ocassionally with Army protection but mostly on our own, we combed the roads to get a feel of the place. We were made to feel most welcome. Contrary to the reports one hears about Manipur back home, we three ladies felt much safer there than in any of the metros.

Apart from the camps, the floating islands I(the only one of their kinds), the INA museum (Indian National Army of Subhas Chandra Bose) and the war memorials became an integral part of the itinerary. A state so rich in heritage, culture and sports needs much more appreciation and backing to make it flourish even more and weed out unwanted elements.

The highlight of the Manipur visit was crossing the International Boundary over from Moreh into Mayanmar. It was another landmark as this was the second IB we touched in their journey.

Assam

On our way of Manipur to Siliguri we had a camp at Bokaghat (No. 2 Bohikua) in Assam was a true example of actually reaching out to the interiors. We had met Father Thomas on our way to Pasighat from Roing in Arunachal Pradesh. He invited us to do a camp in Bokaghat in Golaghat district, Assam. On 17/06/06 we went there and had a camp with the missing tribe. From collecting everyone to interacting with them (thanks to our interpreter Pushpa who translated everything we said into Assamese and Missing) to finally being a part of the song and dance ritual was quite and end to an empty Community hall when we had reached Bohikua.

Sikkim (20/06/06 – 26/06/06)

Sikkim was a dream…for all of us in its own way.

For me it was visitng one of the lovliest parts of our country.

For Tista it was like going back to her roots as her name is the name of the biggest river in Sikkim ‘ The Teesta’.

But for Ritu it was a walk down the memory lane and revisiting the most memorable and fond reminiscences. She was posted here as the first lady doctor in the field ambulance way back in 1982-83. A young 21 year old then, she was the apple of everyones eyes and from the Governor to the Lamas to all used to come to her for dental problems. In fact she even named her daughter Tista. Coming back to it all after 23 years had made her misty eyed.

The first camp on 21/06/06 was in Gangtok with the 17 Mountain Division defence auditorium. The next day on 22/06/06 we moved onto North Sikkim where a sleepy town of Lachen was the next venue. We reached Lachen to find only 4-5 people there. The Sarpanch (Mukhiya is called ‘Pipin’ here) said …why don’t you start, people will come!! By the roadside, with two chairs and 5 people we started explaining things. In the next 15 minutes a almost 70 people had gathered and a full fledged camp was underway.

After that was Chungthang on 24/06/06 where with the help of the Sarpanch Mr. Lhendup Lepcha and the 417 Field Ambulance we had a camp. The local populace was mixed, coming from Tibettian, Lepcha or Bhutia backgrounds. While addressing us, they kept calling Tista ‘the daughter of Sikkim’. It was a proud day for her. It is important to know how open minded the North Eastern belt is. During the Self breast Examination session, most of them would do it intently. In case of any problem, they would not hesitate to just go ahead and bare it all.

Gurudongmar lake, North Sikkim – 23/06/06That was soon followed by a camp for the 86 RCC ie. Border roads Organisation. On 23/06/06 we got out to see the real beauty of North Sikkim. Not wanting to see the usual tourist attraction we set out towards the origin of the River Tista. Crossing small towns of Thangu, Giagong we reached the Gurudongmar lake (the origin ‘Tista khangtse’ is 10 kms ahead of the lake). Situated in the Chholamo Cold desert and at a height of 17100 feet above mean sea level, the Gurudongmar lake is a breathtaking view. Surrounded by Glaciers and barren mountain tops, it has a story to tell. According to the locals there are two sides to it. One is that Guru Padma Sambhava had come here and with his walking stick it broke the frozen lake open. Another one says Guru Nanak came here and did the same hence the name Gurudongmar. Either way, its something all should see. A sudden jump in the height from 9000 ft to 18000 ft took me and Tista by surprise and we were sick in no time. Barely managing to take a few shots here and there and see the places by taking oxygen supplies.

After that we scaled a height of over 18400+ feet above sea level with the vehicle. It was a treacherous drive and it will be always remembered by the team not just for the difficult terrain but the way Ritu managed to keep herself physically and mentally fit for the drive as the vehicle was also showing high altitude effects by stopping on and off gasping for oxygen!!! As we started descending down Ritu had headaches and finally graced the oxygen mask while driving.

It was getting late and we finally couldn’t go to see the Deothang Glacier which is supposedly the one that melts down into Tista river.

Our North Eastern leg of the All India expedition finally came to an end in Siliguri on 25/06/06. We took a break on 26/06/06 to catch up with our documentation while our host Mrs. & Mr. N. C. Kar took pampered us while we worked.

Tista who missed out on 3 weeks of school by giving that time (apart from whole of her summer vacation) to the mission is all set to finally fly on 28/06/06 to Pune to resume school. She is torn between her school for her studies and the mission Project Highways is her and her mothers dream.

Tomorrow ie. 29/06/06 Ritu steers her SUV (Ford Endeavour) on the Highways of East Coast and West Coast via Murshidabad.