We are about to walk to Mahminga’s to return the laptop he lent us because we told Chhawna, who told Sanny, who told Mahminga that we are going to Kuala Lumpur today.
Well, it’s true. It’s time for a vacation.
Why I am a Cat Person (Well, One of the Reasons)
This timeline describes my first, full day in the office at the beginning of January, volunteering for a branch of the Baptist Church of Mizoram, a program that gives revolving micro-loans to small groups of poor women to help them start their own businesses.
8:45 AM: Vegetable curry and tea at D’Jer with Kyle.
9:30 AM: I reach the office in time for devotions in Mizo. Every morning, all of the building’s offices meet together to read the Bible and pray.
9:52 AM: Hriati treats the whole staff to choco tea. Delicious!
10:09 AM: Our project staff wander downstairs to the project office where I will be polishing up the annual report for an upcoming funding audit.
10:15 AM: Hriati disappears into the kitchen to make tea.
10:20 AM: We drink red tea, no sugar or milk, with kurtai (Mizo sugar cane candy).
10:30 AM: I finally begin to do some work on the report.
10:55 AM: Power cut. I had forgotten to save and I lost my work. Power cuts happen at least once or twice each day in the office, so I remind myself to be better about saving.
10:56 AM: Hriati and I take advantage of the power cut to talk about the spa, triggering a whole lot of giggling.
11:06 AM: Power’s back and work resumes.
11:55 AM: Hriati goes back into the kitchen to make rice for lunch.
12:30 PM: Lunch is served: rice with takeaway potato curry, beef liver, and beef intestines. A typical office lunch.
12:50 PM: We drink tea with milk.
1:00 PM: Everyone goes back to their desks.
1:02 PM: Hraiti invites me to join her on a walk to visit a woman who has photos for her dad.
1:20 PM: We arrive at the woman’s house. We chat with her, hold her baby, pet her old dog named Faithful, and admire her fluffy bunnies. She offers us tea, but we decline.
2:00 PM: We arrive back at the office and I start working.
2:05 PM: Manawii brings everyone red tea.
2:10 PM: A yellow dog wanders in to the office and I happily pet it as I work.
2:15 PM: The dog disappears and I look for it. It is peeing all over the floor under an adjacent desk. Manawii and I rush to clean up the mess, scolding the dog and shooing her out.
3:00 PM sharp: The whole staff vacates.
This was a very relaxed day for me, but I’m sure my office days will become much more arduous when, in the springtime, the office hours extend to 3:30 PM.
Why I Feel Guilty About Going to Kuala Lumpur
After a bit of work with the Baptsits, the past several weeks have been solely dedicated to working at my other volunteer position, for an organization that gives education scholarships to the children Mizoram’s poorest people.
One part of my work involved doing home visits, with a translator, to interview families of scholarship recipient children. Our objective was to assess for the organization’s management the families’ living situations, to learn about their way of life, and to find out what the scholarship means to them. We did home visits in the mornings and my afternoons and evenings were filled with report writing.
It was a privilege to gain insight into the lives of Mizoram’s poorest people, to see their homes, and to share tea with them. These people live shockingly difficult lives. They work all day at menial jobs–standing near the main market to sell belts all day long or walking door-to-door to sell a few vegetables–and earn Rs.200 ($3.50 or 2.75) per day if they are lucky. Their earnings have to stretch to feed their large families, to pay for gas to cook with, to pay for transit, and to pay for rent. This leaves new clothes, any form of luxury, and the possibility of saving for the future out of the question. Their houses are relegated to the lowest elevations of Aizawl, while the houses at the top are reserved for the well-to-do.
Displayed on the wall at my final home visit was a two-by-three foot photograph of the scholarship recipient and his family photoshopped in front of an image of Kuala Lumpur’s twin towers. When I saw this my heart got caught in my throat for a moment. In a couple weeks Kyle and I would be jet-setting off to that exact place to see those exact towers, a destination this family can only imagine travelling to. And the money it is costing us to get there! If we instead donated that money to the family we would transform their lives; they could put their son into the best schools, get adult education for their grown children, start up a business, and maybe one day make enough money to travel to Kuala Lumpur.
That night Kyle and I went to the Curry Pot and spent Rs. 300 on a delicious, nutritious meal. It’s hard to stomach your food when, though very cheap by Canadian or UK standards, it costs more than a poor, dual-income family makes in a day.
I do know that the children’s education scholarship programs are making a big difference by ensuring good education for the children and by taking financial pressure off of their parents. I am so happy to have the opportunity to help. Still, I continue to feel guilty about the disparity in our wealth. I imagine this is something community workers deal with a lot, so I realize it is something to get used to.
The day after we completed the scheduled home visits, the couple who founded the scholarship fund arrived from New York State for their annual program checkup. At ages eighty-one and eighty-two, they are truly inspiring. They trek annually to one of the most remote and forgotten parts of the world, they are generous, sharp, and kind, and they are somehow even more energetic than I am. I spent most of an intensive ten days with them, meeting volunteer staff, interviewing dozens of candidates for the college and university scholarship program, and simply learning from them everything that I could. And I did learn a lot, including secrets of the pharmacy business. We worked hard, even on Sundays (a ‘no-no’ in Mizoram), and some days from 9 AM to 9:30 PM.
My volunteer experiences of the last few weeks have been fascinating and enriching. My work with this organization will continue into the springtime as I hope to, among other work, follow up with graduates to learn of their success stories.
Why Pharmacists Aren’t Pharmacists, or What the Medical System is Like in Aizawl
The entire duration of my work with the scholarship fund couple found me calculating my meals carefully with respect to my proximity to a washroom. I had diarrhoea–eleven days of it–and I had it bad. This is a shared experience among Western travellers in India. But usually it only lasts for three or four days.(I took Cipro at one point, an antibiotic for Traveller’s Diarrhoea, but what I have wasn’t interested.)
Then the stomach cramps hit. Gut-wrenching ones. Ones that would fold me over, make me sweat, and lift the breath out of my chest. Ones that brought on a low-grade fever and kept me from work for two days. This had to be more than Traveller’s Diarrhoea. The voracity and tenacity of my problem had Google screaming, “E. coli! E. coli!” And it made perfect sense in our context. All it would take is one person to improperly wash their hands after the bathroom–easy to do with a lack of both toilet paper and hand-washing facilities–and then shake my hand before tea. But Google also warned that if a person’s stomach cramps are positionally influenced (which mine were), she should be sped off the doctor.
So on day nine of the diarrhoea and day three of the cramps, Kyle accompanied me to the Aizawl Hospital. We arrived at the emergency ward just before 8 AM. Reception had not yet arrived for the day, so we were instead greeted by drawn-out stares and a lack of guidance from various, uniformed medical staff. We sat and waited in the hospital’s dim, dusty waiting room, listening to a propagandistic Mizo song and absentmindedly watching two men move tall, skinny cylinders of compressed gas from their truck and into the hospital using a small dolly. After a few minutes, the man with the dolly cut the corner and knocked loudly onto the concrete the cylinder they had been using as a doorstop. Not only did the cylinder land inches away from a sandal-wearing man’s vulnerable feet, but it may have also ended our wait by combusting right there in the waiting room. The man with the dolly picked the fallen cylinder back up, jammed it back up against the door, and continued his work. We left.
While Civil Hospital is old and run down, it is at least situated in the sunlight rather than in a dark alleyway like the Aizawl Hospital. We wandered into the Casualty Ward–an unfortunate interpretation of ‘Emergency Ward’–and a big man ushered me in and coaxed me into reluctantly announcing, red-faced, in front of fifteen sapping nurses that I have an unstoppable case of diarrhoea. He directed me to the Outpatients building and said they would open at 9 AM.
We joined one of three large queues in front of a large, closed scrolling door at the entrance of the Outpatients building. 9 AM passed and the door was still shut. 9:10 AM passed and the lineups were growing. 9:20 AM. 9:26 AM signalled the glorious sound of the floodgates were opening. All of the patients gruffly shoved passed each other and flowed into the building. Standing dumbfounded amidst a flurry of action, we determined eventually that patients were sorting themselves into a men’s line and a women’s line. Feeling bad for anyone with physical disabilities that might slow them down, Kyle and I joined the women’s queue. After about ten minutes I found myself face to face, once again, with the big man who told me that the Outpatient building would be open at 9 AM. After taking down my symptoms, first name, age, marital status, and religion (“Christian, yes?”) and paying him Rs.10, he gave me a registration card and directed me to a ‘medicine doctor’ on the top floor.
No lift in sight, we slowly climbed six flights of stairs and were about to broach the seventh when we realized that by ‘top floor’, the big man didn’t really mean top floor. He meant the top floor that was being used, of course. So back down we went.
I passed my registration card to the attending nurse and she pointed me to a skinny, gym bench where patients sit in a line and wait. The patient nearest the nurse is asked to enter the medicine doctor’s room, and when that patient stands up, everyone else on the bench slides down–again, a system favouring the physically able. Eventually I was the closest person to the nurse and she introduced me to a nice, South Indian doctor. He had me lay down on an uncovered table, placing my head on a previously white pillow, so dirty it had turned brown in the middle where hundreds of heads must have laid before mine. I put my head there and the doctor poked at my stomach for a while, asking about my ‘motions’. Although he seemed knowledgeable, he overlooked the possibility of travellers’ weaknesses, and ordered tests for Typhoid (though I am vaccinated) and gallstones. He also prescribed a mountain of medicines to cover, without a diagnosis, a range of stomach problems. He is, of course, a ‘medicine doctor’.
We ventured first to a pharmacy where we were served by a heavy-lidded woman with crumbles of red betel nut stuck on her lips. A peculiar funk was in the air. After having interviewed a pharmacy student earlier in the week, I finally understood the complete incompetence of Mizo ‘pharmacists’ to do anything but dispense medicine. It is because they aren’t pharmacists! In Mizoram, pharmacists go to university to get a license to sell medicine. They open a shop, teach their unemployed friends and family members how to dispense medicine, and then take off to be a drug rep or to teach pharmacy classes or to open a private clinic.
The medical laboratory was just across the street. Their building sported a sign that indicated Genesis is the only lab in Mizoram that is ISO 9001: 2008 certified; this was both comforting and disconcerting. I plopped down in front of the receptionist and showed her the doctor’s order. She took my name (‘Melinta’) and Rs. 450. And then she took out a needle. I was so shocked by the reality that I was about to have blood drawn by a medical receptionist, in the lobby, in front of at least five strangers, that I didn’t have the mind to ask her to at least wash her hands first or apply gloves. She drew the blood, leaving a nice bruise, passed the sample through a curtain to the lab, and gave me a soggy cotton ball to hold on the bleeding site. The good new is, I don’t have Typhoid
Mizoram Health Clinic was our next target–I needed an ultrasound to rule out gallstones. “Come back after three,” they said. So we walked to a different ultrasound clinic. The staff stared at me, stared at the doctor’s note and just said, “Mizoram Health Clinic,” as scribbled onto it by the doctor for guidance. I explained the situation. “Come back after 1:30.” I could not make it down their green-painted, dusty stairwell without completely breaking down into frustrated, humiliated tears at the culmination of the day’s medical experiences.
I still have not had the ultrasound done and, since I was given no diagnosis, I have not been following my diet of pills for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I am getting better, on course for E. coli poisoning. My appetite is coming back and I can even go for moderate walks again.
Why There is a Torn Pair of Underwear Glued into my Journal
We were stumped as to what to do to celebrate Kyle’s thirtieth birthday. A milestone! We had to do something special. The problem is, there’s nothing to do in Aizawl–really. The options were going for a walk, going to the ‘5D’ theatre where you watch a movie and get water thrown on you, sit around, or go for a massage. I’d been informed (well, I misunderstood, really) that massages are a popular couples activity in Aizawl. So, with significant trepidation on both our parts, we booked it. We would be getting a sixty-minute, full body, aromatherapy massage, together.
After stuffing Kyle with excessive quantities of kurtai, brownies, and pancakes made from a Betty Crocker box, we packed off to Irene Spa. Despite the place having the ambiance of a typical Western spa–peaceful and clean, with sounds of classical guitar filling the air–Kyle was so nervous I could almost hear his knees rattling together.
We were lead to our beds, which, to our surprise, were in separate rooms although I booked a couples massage. I caught a glimpse of pure terror in Kyle’s eyes as the masseuses swept us apart.
The masseuse kindly showed me my towel and my disposable panties. What kind of massage was this going to be?? My thoughts leapt to the next room, and as soon as the masseuse had gone to prepare, I snuck over to see Kyle. His ‘disposable briefs’ were identical to my disposable panties. And my giggling began. I got changed and was still trying to control an oncoming giggle-fit when Kyle popped into my room in a complete panic, fully dressed, with a pair of black ginch dangling from his index finger. “My disposable briefs broke!”
At this point several employees wandered back and were wondering why Kyle was standing at my doorway, holding his disposable panties, talking with me–totally red-faced with laughter and robed only in a small towel and my own disposable panties. Kyle showed the masseuses the briefs and, after Kyle acted out the situation in mime, the masseuses were giggling too. Poor Kyle. They got him new panties.
Then we disappeared into our separate rooms, getting a massage ‘together’ for an hour. I continually had to remind myself that, “I am an adult,” and that laughing at Kyle during a massage was inappropriate and probably offensive. I practiced breathing deeply.
The massage was good, given by a very tiny but very strong woman who used her entire body weight to massage me. The thing is, the massage was much more comprehensive in terms of ‘full body’ than I expected. She massaged with oil my stomach, my hair, the tips of my toes, my eyelids, and, oh yes, my butt. She massaged my butt by creating a wedgie on one side using the disposable panties, and then massaged away. This brought on a great new spell of laughter to suppress, thinking about Kyle being given a wedgie and a butt massage in the next room.
And while this was shocking and awkward for a stiff sap, the awkwardness intensified by fifty fold when my masseuse removed the towel from my top half and started to thoroughly massage my breasts with her hands. My eyes grew as wide as saucepans but I forced them closed. Was my masseuse playing a culture trick on me? Was she trying to see how far she could go, making me believe that, “yes, we do this in Asia. This is normal.” No, it couldn’t be. This was way too invasive to be a joke and the consequences too high for her if she got caught. So it was real! I just kept my eyes closed until it was over, forcing still the twitching corners of my lips, itching to burst into gales of laughter at the obscenity of the situation.
Kyle and I met afterwards in the steam room, dripping with sweat and sandalwood oil, and shared our traumas. Kyle had just endured an oily butt massage by a strange woman on his thirtieth birthday. I had just had my breasts tenderized. It was a memorable thirtieth birthday, indeed.
If in India my muscles ever feel tense again, I suspect they will suddenly relax at the prospect of returning to Irene Spa for a full body massage.