I’m homesick. Really homesick. Mechanical Saxophone Santa mannequins and the fabulous, disco, LED Christmas lights that dance around Aizawl, Mizoram’s capital, are simply no replacement for sitting around the kitchen table with my family, constructing a puzzle and listening to Charlie Brown Christmas and the sound of a crackling fire. We trimmed our one-foot Christmas tree here with lights and used my earrings for baubles, but I keep its lights off most of the time; it is too much of a reminder of our distance from home.
Our first two weeks in our new home city were, for me, filled with challenges, homesickness, and cultural adjustments. However, I write with hope on the horizon. New friends and new work have begun to transform my attitude towards Mizoram and our stay here. Kyle and I have shared many enjoyable meals with Kyle’s Mizo ‘family’, Pi Sanny and Pu Chhawna. Chhawna has begun giving me Indian cooking lessons, and Sanny has shown great care by relocating their coal bucket heater closer to me every time I move (the temperature drops to 5C at night and there is no central heating; it has been an uncomfortably chilly two weeks), and by plopping in front of me sixteen colours of nail polish when I looked bored. Their dog, Max, has also shown me affection, but mostly by rubbing the small of his flea-infested back on my foot.(Max and I at Pi Sanny and Pu Chhawna’s.)
I also volunteered my first day with the Baptist Church of Mizoram Relief and Development Wing. I will be working with the delightful Project Coordinator, Puii, on the Lydia Project—a program that provides marginalized groups of women in Mizoram with micro-loans, as well as training for how to use these loans in establishing self-sustaining businesses. Together, we spent my first day working on the annual report and removing fat cockroach eggs from inside the printer.
Puii kindly included in me in their office Christmas festivities, including choosing for me a Tupperware container with a pink lid to give at their gift exchange. I thought it was an odd gift, but when everyone opened their gifts at once, every single person unwrapped a Tupperware container of differing sizes and colours. They then proceeded to, all at the same time, hold them high in the air with both hands, faces glowing with great excitement, rotating to show their colleagues what BPA-free treasures they had unwrapped.
Two weeks ago, stepping off the plane into the, then, balmy air of Aizawl, it felt like getting glasses for the first time. After two months of being engulfed in smog so thick you can chew it (Pa Spani’s words), Mizoram is perfectly clear. Everywhere you go, your eyes are treated with stunning, mountain views of these Himalayan foothills, and layers of blue mountains recede far into the distance.
My first impressions of Aizawl city, itself, are skewed because, well, I was accidentally high. Our taxi driver had offered us plain paan (betel nut, betel leaf, and lye) and, understanding chewing paan is very much a cultural norm and bonding mechanism in the Northeast, we accepted it. To my surprise, my head started spinning. The world was turning and I was panicking as we zig-zagged through central Aizawl’s narrow streets, buildings on one side, cliffs on the other, cars and street vendors in between. My eyes felt four times their usual size, bringing my whole peripheral vision into focus. I found it easier to just close my eyes and wait the 15 minutes it took to pass. Since then, when paan has been offered in contexts that make it inappropriate to decline, I have removed all the inebriating white lye and have since noticed streaks of it smeared on every outdoor surface.
Aizawl is a city built on tiers cut into the mountains. Houses are built on stilts, making it a vertical city. It looks like it should be impossible.However, the tiers are narrow and, despite its beauty, Aizawl is most challenging to navigate on foot. In addition to the fact that you are always walking either up or down tiers and giant sidewalk steps, the sidewalks are often too narrow for two people to pass each other, you must constantly skirt crumbling pieces of concrete, watch for holes that reveal the ground twenty feet below, and hop over areas where the sidewalk is cut out to allow for nearly vertical steps down to the next windy tier. Kyle says that Aizawl is like an inconvenient, life-sized game of snakes and ladders. Some sidewalks are even constructed from two-by-four foot concrete slabs balanced precariously over a sludgy run-off ditch, with leg-sized gaps between each slab. Then add hoards of people shopping for Christmas. Sometimes you are forced to walk on the streets, putting trust in drivers who blast by when they catch a break from the terrible traffic jams. Traffic jams have become an Aizawl institution; the other day it took me two full hours to travel four kilometres by taxi and only fifty minutes to walk back, including at stop at the Om Om Tea Station. Getting around Aizawl is tough.(Aizawl taxis in a traffic jam.)
On Sunday we met a woman named Judy. As she picked tiny, red Bird’s Eye chillies off a vine, she said, “In Mizoram everything is small. The cars are small, the people are small, and the chillies are small.” For us, even the toilets are small. They are about two inches lower than in Canada, the UK, and the rest of India — low enough to make me think I have somehow missed when I go to sit down, prompting an “I’m falling!” adrenaline rush. And the staircases, with their little four-inch risers, keep us walking daintily.(Chilli delivery at Pi Zami’s fabric shop.)
Us being truly not small has been the source of entertainment among Aizawl residents. At 5’7″, I am head-and-shoulders above every Mizo woman and am also taller than most Mizo men. At 6’4″, we think Kyle may literally be the tallest person in the whole state. The reactions we get range from harmless comments such as, “you’re so high!”, to real bullying by young adults, who seem to have no qualms about gesturing towards our height and then laughing and pointing in our faces. Several times this reaction brought me to tears, and left us feeling completely alienated. One of our friends claimed that this behaviour is only cultural difference. However, if Mizo adults are able to show tact, surely the younger generation knows better. Thankfully, we have begun to develop thicker skin.(One of these things is not like the others.)
Our Whiteness has been another cause of great excitement. Thinking we cannot understand what they are saying, Mizos are constantly leaning over to their friends or children, lowering their voices only slightly, and, while still looking directly at us, they say the Mizo word, “Sap!” (“white person!”) repeatedly. Stares and “Sap! Sap!” are our constant companions. Millennium Centre – Aizawl’s prize mall – is the worst place for “getting sapped”, as we have termed it. Millennium Centre is a windowless tower stocked with the overpriced, bejewelled 80s garments made in China (why these are popular, I will never understand) and a teenager for every square foot. Gaggles of teens gather together to point and laugh while “inconspicuously” “whispering” our favourite Mizo word. We couldn’t possibly understand their message, could we?
In Aizawl, locality announcements are made on neighbourhood loudspeakers. Perhaps our situation would improve if the announcer could one day add: “Residents of Mission Veng! Please be aware that there are two saps in Aizawl! They may be going about their daily business! Do not be alarmed!”
Apart from this segment of tactless young people, Mizos are incredibly kind and will do anything to help you and to make your life easier. I have never before encountered such a generous group of people. I have learned some other things about Mizos, too. Mizos like to walk really slowly and they love to drink tea (we had eight cups the other day). Their social lives are of enormous importance and they are all incredible singers. Most Mizos are Christian, in a Christian society, which was evident immediately after alighting our airplane: a huge, white cross in front of the airport terminal reads “Thy Kingdom Come” and inside there is a special office for the Airport Chaplain. Mizos dress Western, but casually and in that quintessential 80s style. Often they wear what Kyle and I call ‘Coventry Suits’ – crushed-velvet sweatsuits for women and full track suits for men. Mizos are all genuinely interested in the answers to these same five questions, which they ask us in varying orders: What is your country? Where do you put up? How do you feel Mizoram? When did you arrive Mizoram? When will you leave?(We had tea here once.)
The past two weeks have been spent hotel-hopping as we have been searching for our own apartment. Our first hotel experience was the Chaltlang Tourist Lodge, the government-run hotel. We ordered their best room, a ‘suite’. Unfortunately the excellent staff did not reflect the decaying state of the rooms. The walls were covered in dirt and were cracked; grungy blue-and-white striped curtains hung to cover warped window frames; the ceiling was stained with monsoon water damage; the bathroom smelled like old, stagnant water; and the floor was covered by an unattached piece of thin, brown carpet that appeared black for all the hair all over it. This was all manageable. In India you just have to put up with things like that.
However, during our second night there, we were watching TV in bed and Kyle pulled back his sheets to discover a small, fat, dark-coloured bug sitting near his legs. He squished it. Hoping desperately our suspicions were wrong, I typed ‘bed bugs’ into Google. That beastie fit the description perfectly. With only superficial searching, we found piles of bed bug husks under that horrid, brown-black carpet. We sealed our suitcases, exhausted ourselves completely with back-to-back episodes of Downton Abbey, and slept that night with the lights on.
The next day we promptly moved on to the new Hotel Regency, a clean, quiet, austere establishment with excellent service. The only downsides were that it was rather expensive to stay there and they provided very tiny toilet paper rolls. We stayed for five nights or so in luxury before moving to the Synod Conference Guesthouse, our current location.
The Synod Conference Guesthouse is located in Mission Veng, the locality that is at the highest point in Aizawl, with the Guesthouse being the highest point of Mission Veng. We have a fantastic view of the hills. The Guesthouse is also inexpensive, clean, and our neighbours are all pastors. We have purchased two space heaters to make it cozy, as well as a coffee maker and are anticipating grounds to arrive in the mail any day now. Still, we hope to find an apartment soon so we have a place to call ‘home’.
After the bed bug and bolta fiascos, I thought that surely we must be done with infestations. Until one night, about a week ago or so, when I was trying to sleep and felt something crawling around on the nape of my neck. A little, black, wingless insect. I squished it. This was starting to feel like a pattern. Again, in hopes of false fears, Kyle check my hair for lice and found over 30 of their little, clear eggs attached to my hair shafts near my scalp. We assume they must have come from the orphanage as the children there get lice often. Kyle pulled out each egg individually, put them on the end of a bobby pin, and burned them in a candle flame, all the while singing the chorus of ‘Disco Inferno’.
In search of lice shampoo, we trekked to the street designated for pharmacies. There, we received only blank stares and red, paan-stained grimaces, reactions we are finding common among personnel in the medical profession in Mizoram. At the clinic, the receptionist just laughed at us—no one seems to know or care about lice—and, though we were excited to find perhaps the only lice comb in Mizoram, it is more effective for live lice than their hyper-adhesive eggs.
Thus, we continue the nightly ritual of egg picking and burning. Last night Kyle found 28. Tonight we will try our first, recommended home remedy: dousing my head in mouthwash.
We interacted with the medical profession again when we were due to receive our final rabies vaccination. The clinic receptionist directed us to that pharmacy street across the city, where we bought our vaccines without prescription. We proceeded to the Civil Hospital where we were injected with our vaccines by a man in plainclothes. (It is strange how far a doctor’s uniform goes in winning a patient’s trust.) The vaccinations were done sitting only four feet away from a man on a stretcher who was covered in blood, and after giving a fee of only twenty rupees (about thirty cents, or twenty pence), which a nurse shoved into a donation box with a yellow, smiley-face sticker on it.
What Mizoram lacks in its medical professionalism, it makes up for in its food. Frequently warned by Mizos about Mizoram’s terrible food, I have been pleasantly surprised, and have been thankful for the necessity to constantly walk up large hills. Plains Indian cuisine is readily available and Mizo food has proven much more interesting and delicious than expected. Most notably, I had the opportunity to try Mizo ‘fish fry’. Kyle and I were presented with a bowl of about fifteen silver fish (not silverfish, thankfully!), whole, about 6” long and with their glazed-over eyes blankly staring at us, like Mizo pharmacists. We ate the delicious creatures like fish fingers. Kyle and I could not bring ourselves to eat the heads, but our hosts swallowed them without hesitation. Hopefully one day we will be as hard-core as them. Even Mizo boiled pork was much more tasty than I expected, though I avoided the pieces that were pure fat. It was a win/win for everyone, as pure fat pieces are Mizos’ favourite.(A vegetable vendor at New Market, where many Aizawl residents get their produce.)
(This chicken vendor kept saying, “Mizo Man!” as I took his photo.)
There will be many more opportunities for win/win situations as Mizo Christmas feasts approach. As your own Christmas feasts approach, Kyle and I wish you all the very best in your celebrations. May they all be win/win (I would gladly eat your brussels sprouts if you’d eat my fruit cake). Merry Christmas! May the joy of the birth of Jesus and the sultry sounds of Saxophone Santa be with you all.