A few days ago, I learned that I was mentioned negatively, prominently, and by name, in an article lamenting the state of affairs in the tourism sector in Meghalaya. If you read the article, and if you could figure out what the author was trying to get at (I had some difficulty), you’d know that I was doing a survey of living root architecture. What you probably wouldn’t know is that the project is not about tourism. What I am trying to do is to create the beginnings of a body of knowledge about the practice of living root architecture as a whole, documenting individual examples in a very basic way. I am currently in the middle of said project, which has meant trekking to dozens of villages between Mawkyrwat and Amlarem, trying to learn as much about this fascinating and unique cultural practice as I can.
I argue that it is important to document living root architecture for the simple reason that it is fast disappearing. That a piece of world history, an entire class of architecture, is rapidly going extinct in all but a few isolated pockets. This is something that the author attacking me fails to mention. It’s also something that that is not well known or understood except in the villages themselves. Almost all literature on the subject online leads one to believe that living root structures are all but invulnerable, but this is sadly simply not the case.
In virtually every village which once had living root bridges, even in those places which still have a significant number today, there were far more in the past. A wide combination of factors, which I am also doing my best to document, have led to the destruction of the majority of them. The author of the article, in a letter to me, informed me that this was unlikely. As a tourism operator, he will engage dozens, if not hundreds, of travelers who will all in turn have no idea that the practice is fading. This is one of the reasons why publicly available documentation on the subject is so important: The state of affairs when it comes to the survival of living root architecture is not good, and this fact is not well understood. That the bridges have all but gone extinct in the valley east of Mawsynram, that in the Katarshnong region they’ve mostly fallen down, that across all of Riwar bridges are badly scarred and structurally weakened by people gouging out chunks of the roots to extract latex, that even in the area with the highest concentration of living root bridges, near Pynursla, the river that a great many occur on is polluted and choked with trash, are all important facts that are barely, if at all, documented.
To put these facts out there is my aim. Tourism may be a side effect of this in certain areas (though probably not in those places where living root architecture has gone extinct) and I do believe that, over time, obviously with a fair mix of bad in with the good, tourism will be a net positive, and contribute to the long-term preservation of living root architecture. It provides a direct incentive for the locals to maintain their living root bridges, even after they’ve largely switched over to metal structures.
However, I find myself attacked for my “Philanthropic ways,” and supposed self-importance. I must say that I’ve never been compared to a missionary before. The author of the article seemed to be largely responding to stories written by others about my project, which employed rather dramatic language. I’ve never viewed myself, or referred to myself, as the “Savior of Living Root Bridges.” My hope is simply that others can build on what I’ve done to accomplish the more important work of studying living root architecture scientifically. I also stand by the argument that more public knowledge of the practice generally will allow at least a few fragments of it to survive into the coming centuries.
That being said, other people can do this work, and I wish they would: I’m fully aware that the task is simply too big for a single person. I encourage locals to document their bridges if at all possible. Walking across Riwar, I seem to have lost 30 or 40 pounds, and, quite frankly, I’m exhausted. Others need to come in to this.
It would be tedious in the extreme to answer in depth every charge that has been leveled against me in the article, however, suffice it to say that what was written about me and my conduct was a series of misrepresentations and downright falsehoods. A particularly grievous example was the author’s complaint that I did not inform the individual in the village of Padu of my project. The truth is that I couldn’t have: I hadn’t even thought of the project at that point. A cursory glance at my Gofundme campaign page online would have shown it didn’t even exist until the second half of 2015, close to six months after my visit to Padu.
But the most damaging thing about the kind of attitude being displayed here, that those who don’t adhere to the same theory of tourism management should be called out, attacked online and on facebook, and accused of self-promotion and ego, is that it creates a whole reservoir of bad blood. If too many tourists are a bad thing, so too are turf battles and public denunciations by tour operators. Arriving at a satisfactory solution to the problems presented by tourism would seem to be much harder when all of the tour operators are being set against each other and insulted. In my case, completely out of the blue, I was publicly accused of being “on an ego trip” in a Facebook post that linked to my project and was shared with hundreds, if not thousands, of people. The author apparently felt I shouldn’t have taken it personally. Calling someone names online is apparently all honest and constructive debate.
This has also been the experience of many of the locals who are engaged in tourism. The part of the article that made me feel the need to write a response (otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the time), was his criticism of the people of Shnongpdeng, who are according to him are not engaged in true “tourism.” I have made very close friends there, and know, even as an outsider, that trying to balance the positives and negatives of tourism is a thankless and endlessly complicated task. But in the end people need jobs, and an exploding population needs to be fed. For all its drawbacks, tourism can get that done. The people in Shnongpdeng are doing their best to steer a treacherous course forward, to make sure the next generation receive the benefits and don’t suffer the negatives of tourism. They are working very hard to make something good that everybody can enjoy. A little appreciation is in order. Criticizing them, and in public no less, for simply engaging in the pursuit of happiness as they best see fit is not a way to improve tourism. It’s a way to wreck it for everybody.
A modicum of tact can go a long way.
Thanks for reading my rambling.