Dazed, Disoriented, and Dyspeptic
12 February 2008, 07h30 EST (GMT-5)
Security Detail in Imphal
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Travel, it is commonly said, expands the mind. Well, by the end of my trek to Asia to captain UNICEF Team Canada at the 2008 International Tent Pegging Championships, my head was fit to explode.
The championships were to be held in Imphal, the capital of the Indian state of Manipur, in the remote north-east corner of the subcontinent and in the shadow of the Himalayas. I had travelled for three days from my home in Toronto via half a dozen flights before finally arriving, dazed, disoriented, and dyspeptic from too many curry-based breakfasts.
A gaggle of men in fatigues sporting machine guns came forward to receive me at Imphal's airport. Well, I thought, at least I brought my sword.
Manipur borders on the brutal dictatorship of Myanmar, and the state itself has been in the grips of an armed insurgency since 1958. As a result, international visitors need special clearance from India's intelligence service to enter the region, and a halo of armed guards surrounded me throughout my stay. The troops of my security detail were friendly and beaming, but their forefingers were never off their triggers.
The drive to the competition grounds was still more menacing: Imphal's traffic seems governed not so much by laws as by anaemic suggestions that serve only to provoke the population to defiance.
Vehicles regularly drive on the wrong side of the road, directly into oncoming traffic; swarms of ramshackle scooters, belching clouds of acrid smoke and carrying entire families balanced on the handlebars, dart around the cars and trucks; pedestrians and livestock meander heedlessly amidst it all. Yet, by some unfathomable miracle, it does not end in a daily catastrophe of twisted metal and broken bones.
I arrived at the grounds in time to take in the final stages of India's National Military Equestrian Championships, which had been scheduled to precede the International Tent Pegging Championships. The stadium was filled to overflowing, with those who had been unable to obtain seats perched on the walls or pressed up against the gates.
I was keenly aware of what I was witnessing. The finest cavaliers from across this country of more than a billion people and of more than three millennia of cavalry history were engaged in the final stage of an epic clash. It had begun a year earlier in villages and cities scattered across three million square kilometres, and it would end here, with the selection of two professional national teams, who would contend against the rest of us for the world championship of a sport their country has regularly dominated since the days of Alexander the Great.
It was unutterably intimidating.
I retired to my hotel and collapsed into bed, falling asleep almost before my body struck the mattress. Outside, a cordon of troops kept a protective watch over the building. I must confess that I was less worried about the possibility of meeting insurgents on the streets, than I was about the certainty of meeting my fellow tent peggers on the field of honour.