The bus ride was less like hell and more like purgatory.
It turns out I was armed with higher tolerance on the way back from Ziro than I had on the way there. To my surprise, the same "punk kid" ended up being my Sumo driver from Ziro back to Naharlagun. This coincidence made me smile, and, once again, his driving skills proved solid. Once we arrived, he shouldered my backpack and took me directly to the bus stand. We exchanged a handshake and then parted ways.
I bought my ticket for the 6 pm departure and made my way back to Hotel Malabar restaurant to eat and kill some time, having the same delicious meal: parotta, which is a flaky flatbread made from maida flour, served with a boiled egg sitting in sauce, and a bowl of potato and chickpea curry, which they happily refill.
The staff was pleased to see me again, and the place was just as bustling as before. Even though I sat myself in the corner, I drew plenty of attention from the restaurant-goers and several people approached me for small talk and selfies, which I indulged. After my meal, I drank my chai and read my book for about an hour and a half before heading out to catch the bus.
This time, I traveled with Network Connections instead of Deep Travels, which ended up being the better option. The bus could hold fewer passengers, but was more open and less claustrophobic, i.e., no second tier of sleeper cabins overhead (and no dirty feet hanging over me). Knowing what to expect from the journey (multiple stops, shitty squat toilets, etc.) made it easier, and I actually think I dozed off a few times after pulling my hoodie down over my head and scarf over my face. The driver didn't stop as often to pick people up along the way, and we reached Guwahati more quickly than I expected, rolling into town around 4 am.
Well, that wasn't so bad.
Since I had told Chihan I would check in at 6 am, and didn't want to wake him beforehand, I had some time to kill. I met a girl on the bus (a PhD student in geology) who recommended that we go sit in the waiting room at the railway station until I checked into my guesthouse. She didn't have to join me, as she was returning home and could have done so at any time, but she was more than happy to keep me company.
And so we sat in the station and had a nice conversation over hot chai. We talked about some of the differences between India and the west, which seems to be the main subject of many of my conversations here. We took a cab to the guesthouse (it turned out she lived basically around the corner), then parted ways and exchanged emails to keep in touch.
After about 20 hours from Ziro, I'm back to Guwahati safe and sound. The hospitality and courtesy I have experienced in the northeast has blown my mind. Although each place I've visited has yielded its fair share of kind folks, this region (Assam and Arunachal Pradesh) has really set itself apart. I wish I had more time here to visit the other neighboring states (e.g., Meghalaya, Nagaland), which would offer their own unique culture and experiences, but alas, I will have to settle for another time (if I choose to return). I always find it difficult to decide whether to return to a place I enjoyed or to continually seek out new destinations.
One of the things I love about travelling is that my concept of time becomes lost in the transition from place to place. It dawned on me that my trip is nearly over.
Time is sneaky like that.