From Vignettes to Vacation

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.imageimage

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.image

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.image(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 Typhoidimage

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.

And now I have an obsession with hand washing.

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.


Chasing History Through Mizo Archives

–with guest blogger, Kyle

Today is ‘Missionary Day’ in Mizoram, a day to commemorate the Welsh, English, and American missionaries that brought Christianity to these hills.  But while today’s holiday holds a special place in the calendar, you could say that every day is missionary day in Mizoram. They’re bonafide superstars: stone memorials of their visits rise up along roadsides, schoolchildren’s sports teams are named in their honour, and their portraits hang above hospital rooms.  Even their hair clippings are preserved behind glass in museums.

So, on this locally, historically auspicious day, this blog hopes to answer the kind friends and family who have recently written to ask how my own historical research is going in Aizawl.

The Mizos are unique amongst India’s peoples because of the speed and extent of their Christianization. In 1901, nearly no one in the Mizo tribe was literate or Christian; in 1961, nearly everyone in the Mizo tribe was literate and Christian; and today, Mizos command India’s second most literate and second most Christian state.

Playing connect-the-dots with these kind of milestones, conventional history writing here in Mizoram usually turns the region’s past into one of triumphalist progress. Mizoram’s first British missionary! Mizoram’s first Mizo Christian! Mizoram’s first school! Mizoram’s first airport! Each are draped in bunting and trotted out for readers to applaud. It’s a pretty simple formula for history-writing: take some missionaries, plunk them at the centre of the story, and then identify the path of least resistance between a nineteenth-century Aizawl (where Christianity, writing, and Western medicine were unknown) and the city’s Upper Bazaar Road today (where a state archive towers over a Christian church and a street packed with biomedical zombie-pharmacies).

I’m on a different mission altogether. I want to find out what happens if we instead turn our gaze downwards to look at all the potholes in the path. Why, would you look at all those potholes. Look at all the accidents that happened and all the sparks that flew when two radically different cultures hit head-on in Mizoram! By changing our focus so, we let the story get a whole lot more messy…and interesting. And the best way to do this is to give those poor missionaries a well-deserved break, and to let the Mizos themselves onstage. Indeed, Mizos have been waiting in the wings of their own histories for far too long. How would Mizo history look if we told it looking over the shoulders of Mizos rather than of missionaries? What would it look like if we refused to take the rise of Christianity, writing, and Western medicine for granted?

In a sense, I’m trying to wander back down the old narratives of history-telling in Northeast India, armed with a flashlight and some Doxycycline, and led by an historical Mizo tour guide (wide-eyed himself at finally being invited into the story). In one hand, the flashlight is to suss out all the alternative pathways and historical dead ends that haven’t yet been explored. In the other hand, the Doxycycline represents a medical focus: a key theme over the last hundred years is health, since both the Mizos and the Christians had religious traditions and institutions that centred around healing, and made respective, often competing, claims about it. I’m hoping we reach some conclusions that will shake up not only the old narratives of Mizo history, but also established ways of history-writing in general.

In Mizoram, at present, I have three key research targets.

Key Target One is the State Archive of Mizoram. This is the state’s primary archive for all things political—a one-stop-shop for all the British Raj documents. If you interrupt their heated game of Bridge, the smiley archivists who work there will even bring these documents to you speedily.

Key Target Two is the Presbyterian Synod Archive. This is the main Presbyterian record centre—just a five minute walk from our place. Interestingly, most people who visit this archive do not know how old they are, and that’s actually why they visit. The Presbyterian Archive always has a good guess, working off scrupulously kept historical Baptism records. Patrons can thus leave with a freshly invented birthdate, stamped, sealed, and gifted them by the Presbyterian Church, and can then go on to apply to whatever bureaucracy it was that required a birthdate of them. (I am, unfortunately, all too aware of my own birthdate, as I turned thirty—thirty!—me!—this week: a day to be forever marked in infamy in Mizo history, for Lindy and I went for horrifying, all-body oil massages…but more about that in Lindy’s next blog). Right now I’m just in this archive for their early missionary publications, and for their giant bookshelf of Mizo history books. The archivists like me because I brought them Christmas cake from the famous Zote Bakery—proud makers of “baked disappointment” (or so say Lindy and I), but impossibly popular across the land. Ingratiated thusly, the archivists now always make sure I’m served the same tea and treats as Synod employees, three times a day.

Image(A Betty Crocker brownie star-cake on my birthday–the opposite of baked disappointment).

Key Target Three is in the south of Mizoram, the Baptist archive in Serkawn village. Lindy and I hope to travel there in February, and have plans to hike the nearby Blue Mountain—the tallest in all of Mizoram!

Image(The Baptist archive in south Mizoram)

So far, research in Mizoram has often felt like a slog up a never-ending Blue Mountain. The first four weeks here were a tough trek indeed, imperilled by great potholes filled with lice, Christmas songs, and intestine water—more or less in that order. The foreignness of Mizoram gripped us like a Mizo man gripping a styrofoam cup of Christmas intestine water: a death-hold that doesn’t let go. Only in the last two days have my archives and libraries truly flung open their doors after the holiday season. It’s actually been a breath of fresh air to get back to work in their dusty halls. With another conference presentation looming on the horizon, it couldn’t come too soon.

Many thanks to you all for your notes over Christmas and for my birthday, and for your most kind inquiries into how research is going. I really appreciate hearing from you. It’s so good to be back at it. For Lindy, too, the return to work has been truly rewarding, and these days I often feel that one of us is studying Mizo history while the other one works to change it for the better. But I’ll let her tell you all about it—and about our massages—next Paratha.

Pigs, Puans, and Patience: Christmas in Aizawl

Mizo Christmas was a whirlwind of horror and hilarity and left us utterly exhausted, but with smiles on our faces. Image

Kyle and I spent Christmas Eve with Hope Ministries, an English-speaking church we had attended the Sunday prior. Hope Ministries is a small church that we associate with friendly people, terrifying promises of required spontaneity, and an inordinate amount of waiting. Like their Mizo-wide renowned leader, Mini, the church is enormously charismatic and evangelical. I cringed in fear as, with pride, Mini explained to us that their church is like a family, meaning they can call on each other at the last minute to preach or lead worship. In Coventry, Kyle and I attend a stiff, regimented, Baptist church, which suits our shy personalities well: we like it very, very much.

When we reached the church on that first Sunday, we were greeted by two sweet women who showed us the sofa and brought us tea. Then we waited in boredom for over an hour. Add another hour, and this is the same way our Christmas Eve started. We were due to visit a nearby orphanage to drop off some warm clothing, but our scheduled driver did not to show up. We waited, and waited, and waited some more, until another person finally stepped up, sending us on our terrifying, seatbelt-less way.

The orphanage is large. It houses about 500 children, as well as an additional 1,000 recovering addicts and people with disabilities. Throngs of children rushed up to us to shake our hands and practice their English (“Hello! What is your name?”). The compound was beautifully lit up for Christmas and was sprinkled with colourful balloons. It all looked ship-shape. Thinking back to the orphanage in West Bengal, I was impressed by the fact that these children had mattresses to sleep on. I chuckled at one section of the boys’ dorm which was occupied by six or seven little boys, completely naked in their beds with their little belly buttons sticking out. This was their punishment for wetting their beds the previous night. The place was buzzing with activity (exemplified by a huge trophy case, jammed full) and the occupants were full of smiles. The smaller children were sleeping peacefully and, while I knew it was good that they had a warm bed to sleep in, it brought tears to my eyes to know that they would never have a mom or dad. Somehow this was easier to take in West Bengal, where there were only twenty children there, and the director knew the personality of each.Image

The people in the mental health area (‘The Flower Garden’) were also in good spirits. A lady wearing one, long earring asked me what I got her for Christmas. When I suggested a hug, she suggested my glasses.

Later, when we were about to leave, a large group of recovering addicts came a-carolling and gave a beautiful performance in Mizo for the compound’s receptionist.

However, Kyle and I witnessed some things we found problematic. Shortly after we arrived, Kyle saw an adult man—a leader—side-punch a little girl, throwing her several feet out of the food line she was standing in. She must have been in great pain as she sulked back into the line with her head down. Later, during the tour of the Flower Garden, we saw a violent mental health patient who was chained (yes, with actual, giant, metal chains) to his bunk bed, which was enclosed in a tiny room with barred windows and a padlocked door.

We were, of course, deeply disturbed to see these things and felt entirely helpless. We have been trying to analyze the situation, starting from the philosophy of Shantaram‘s Linbaba. If you try to intervene for improvement in India, particularly as an outsider, you will inadvertently upset India’s balance and make things worse. For example, if we blow the whistle and publicize the chained man’s situation, the orphanage will likely lose funding, causing 500 children to miss their breakfast. While we see truth in this line of thought, Kyle and I don’t think the philosophy can stop there, lest it be a recipe for apathy. We think that change is also possible, but you often have to use the Indian system, changing realities from within. You have to live and suffer with those you are trying to help. For example, Kyle faced a similar situation when he lived at the orphanage in West Bengal; the kids sometimes suffered brutal, abusive corporal punishment—far beyond a simple spanking. But, having lived there and gained credibility with the leaders, Kyle was able to ask one of the worst offenders to stop. And, indeed, she did. However, if we had said something at the Aizawl orphanage that night, we would have simply embarrassed the abuser and likely caused him to lash out more as, evidently, he struggles with anger and power problems.

These are our thoughts. However, we are still processing all of this and know that generalizations are dangerous to make and there is certainly room for exceptions, particularly in India, where everything is flexible and fluid.

Christmas Eve dinner took place at John’s house. Having volunteered as the replacement driver to the orphanage, John wasn’t able to start cooking dinner until after we returned at around 8pm. And so we spent some more time waiting. We waited for two hours. By the time dinner was done, we had fully run out of conversation with those around us and had resorted to watching Hindi cartoons.

Dinner was delicious chicken biryani (a baked saffron-rice dish), served with what we thought was salad. We took nice, big portions and after one bite we realized that it was actually Bird’s Eye chilli chutney. Bird’s Eye chillies are one of the hottest chillies in the world. Afraid to offend, I swallowed that flaming ‘salad’ piece by piece, tears flowing from my eyes, my whole brain pulsating from the intensity, and my stomach filled with lava. Even the Mizos were gasping and sucking cold air through their teeth. Kyle also ate a heroic quantity and luckily managed to hide a sizeable portion underneath his pile of chicken bones. We probably should have been tipped off by the chutney’s tiny serving spoons and the big bowl of raita (yogurt with cucumber bits in it) sitting beside the chutney bowl.

After dinner, at around 10pm, we went to Coffee Nite, a huge outdoor concert put on by the Salvation Army, featuring all the Mizo stars. Christmas Eve is celebrated in the same way we would celebrate New Year’s Eve, by bringing in the next day with pomp and celebration. Thinking about our breakfast appointment at our friend Chhawna’s the next morning at 8:30am, we warily followed Mini to the VIP section in front of the hoards of people. John promptly fed us a chocolate bar.Image

The most notable performance was by a singer called Andrew. He must be famous because at the announcer’s mention of his name, one woman from our group got so excited that she started screaming fanatically like an enamoured teenager. Andrew descended from the top of a darkened building next to the stage in a large box, lowered by a crane. He was wearing some sort of golden armour, which excited Mini. “Just like the Greeks!” she shouted to us. The crowd went nuts. Andrew started dancing in his box, which started shaking and jiggling and looking entirely unsafe, particularly considering we are in India, the land of corner-cutting. His transition from the box to the stage was comically disastrous, as the box did not seem to entirely lower to the ground, making his exit extremely difficult. All the while, he was trying to rid himself of his gaudy costume, which he succeeded in, apart from his golden wrist-guards. The spotlight operator also seemed to get very confused at this point and was waving the spotlight all around, only occasionally managing to focus on the de-robing fiasco. Amazingly, we actually knew Andrew’s hit Mizo song as we had recently heard it on repeat in a restaurant for about forty minutes straight.Image

We left Coffee Nite at around 1am and, as expected, were totally exhausted on Christmas Day. Kyle and I do not plan to carry on this late-night tradition into our Christmases Future.

Chhawna made us a delicious, Christmas morning breakfast, us women donned our puans (the Mizo traditional wrap), and marched down the hill to church. Sanny, embarrassed by my ratty flats, made me wear her four-inch heels, which made me a whole foot taller than the average Mizo woman.Image(Christmas breakfast in Mizoram is a little different than my family’s traditional sticky cinnamon buns.)

After a drawn-out service in Mizo we shared the traditional, Christmas, post-church snack, chang ban: crushed rice cooked into a jelly-like paste, wrapped up in a banana leaf. We ate it with a lump of kurtai, sugar cane juice boiled down over a fire into fudge.Image (Chang ban and kurtai.)

Image(Kyle and I with Drs. Chhawna and Sanny and their daughter, Rempuii.)

Chhawna has a massive sweet tooth, but is also diabetic, making his temptation for sugar stronger. After explaining to us how very much he loves chang ban and kurtai, he snuck around to a table behind Sanny, where she had temporarily put down her kurtai so she could sip her tea. Chhawna popped the kurtai into his mouth and disappeared. We find this behaviour from a fifty-year-old man rather comical. Sanny just rolls her eyes, laughs, and continues to try to control his sugar intake, while Chhanwa tries to find any way he can to sneak sugar without her knowing (including pretending to innocently look at the beautiful view from their patio, all the while stuffing his face with mouthfuls of candy).

After church we returned to our place for a well-needed Christmas nap, followed by our first mug of real coffee in over a month. As a true coffee lover, it has been an uphill battle (literally, in hilly Aizawl) to get a decent cuppa. Our small victory on Christmas was a true joy. Mizo coffee is the same as in West Bengal—Nescafe instant coffee mixed into hot milk, with a couple tablespoons of sugar added. The day I found a coffee maker in an abandoned corner of Aizawl’s Millennium Centre mall, my eyes bugged out, I snatched it up, and hugged it all the way home. For weeks until then, the typical response to my inquiry for a coffee maker was, first, an index finger pointed at a water kettle and, second, the same index finger pointed towards the nearest industrial-sized Nescafe dispenser.

However, now that we have a machine, we have no beans. All the way across town there is a single, rather-dead coffee shop, The Coffee Place, which serves cappuccinos made with real espresso. They don’t make real, regular coffee, but the taste of espresso is pretty close. The problem was their tendency to play obnoxiously loud Christmas carols about snow and home, which would invariably reduce me to embarrassing, public tears. Two days before Christmas, though, we walked the hour it takes to get there, braved the carols, and I nearly dropped to my knees begging the barista for a few grounds for our machine for Christmas day. So on Christmas afternoon, we enjoyed a good, strong cup of coffee with sugar and ‘fresh’ cream, which tastes delicious but for some reason does not need to be refrigerated. Image(Puzzle, coffee, and gifts.)

Afterwards we exchanged gifts. We did all our shopping together on December 23rd. We walked the streets and, when we saw something for the other person, they would wait outside the shop or scurry off to buy a surprise in the meantime. It was a ton of fun. We wrapped the goodies in shiny, colourful pieces of beyond-thin wrapping paper, slapped on tags that said ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Best Wishes’ (the only gift tags available), and topped our gift pile with our one-foot tree. Among other gifts, I got Kyle soan papdi, a flaky, Bengali sweet; a bottle of taboo Mizo port, which tasted like gin mixed with grape juice crystals and which, after our two sips, was dumped in the toilet; and an elbow brace for his swollen ‘Researcher’s Elbow’. Kyle, among other things, gave me lots of Indian sweets; a bottle of white nail polish, which he used to give me a French manicure on my birthday on Sunday; a beautiful, new puan; a round hairbrush which, two days later, I got so wound up in my hair that it took Kyle two, painful hours to remove and left me dripping in oil, missing half the chunk of hair; and Mizo, beaded earrings. Image(We used my earrings as Christmas tree baubles.)

ImageImageImage(Baking soda is a hard-to-come-by commodity around here. My face is now so exfoliated.)

ImageImage(Doing laundry on my birthday in my new puan.)

Image(Zo port wine is terrible.)

Image(Kyle just dumps things in the toilet if we don’t like them. This was instant upma.)

On Christmas evening we wandered around from house to house, trying to find anyone we knew that wasn’t at church. We ended up at Judy and Mahminga’s house, puckering up at the taste of gooseberry wine, while watching Fast and the FuriousImageImage(Christmas disco lights are extremely popular in Mizoram.)


It was all topped off with precious phone calls home on Skype (pronounced “Skypee” here).

The next day, Boxing Day, is the celebratory feast day for Mizos. Everybody gets together at their church and, together, prepares a feast for that afternoon. On arriving, the sight of Christmas carnage was truly a shock for my protected, urban, Western, vegetarian-when-it’s-not-impolite eyes. An enormous, one hundred kilo hog was skewered from his bum through to his mouth and was hanging there, open-mouthed with his tongue sticking out, just outside the church entrance. Men with long, flaming sticks were charring the pig to burn its hair off, while other people were continuously scraping off the charred bits of skin. When I turned to enter the church I had to walk around an enormous, severed cow’s head, sitting in a pool of its own blood on the pavement, eyes open, with its tail draped over its forehead. The cow’s skin was laying in a heap beside its head. On the other side of the church entrance was a big, blue tarp on which a man was using all his force to hack at various cow parts using a giant machete. A group of men stood around and watched. Kyle said he saw one man pick splattered meat parts off another man’s jacket. Image(Chhawna, Rempuii, and I walking to the church, equipped for vegetable chopping.)

ImageImage(Kyle scraping the pig.)

Typically my stomach is strong, but the sight of this gore made me uncharacteristically nauseous. My chest and throat started to warm up like I was going to “lose my parathas” and, as I made for an escape, a little kid scampered up to me and shoved a piece of cake into my hand. I held it to my mouth and nearly gagged. By this point Kyle had already taken a bite of his cake and warned me against trying it; he had deduced that it was the same cake from Christmas celebrations the day prior and that the icing had since gone rancid due to lack of refrigeration. I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to regain my composure while trying to find a way to inconspicuously dispose of the cake.

The rest of the church was busy with members working together efficiently on the various required tasks. One room was dedicated to boiling rice in massive vats, another area was for plucking chickens, a smaller room was used for dumping chopped meat into vats (which included a bowl full of organs, later to be auctioned off), one station was for tea and rotten cake service, and a huge room was for peeling and chopping vegetables, which is where Kyle and I fit in. We enjoyed the next couple of hours peeling potatoes, slicing onions, and topping-and-tailing bitter gourds. It took days for me to get the potato-coloured stains of my winter-dry hands.ImageImageImage(Stirring meat.)

Image(Peeling potatoes.)

Image(Bitter gourds.)


We took another afternoon nap and then returned to the church for the feast. Around the church there were at least ten serving stations. We had rice, dal, boiled pork (Chhawna swears it tastes better when the whole pig is boiled together), curried beef, boiled greens, boiled bitter gourd, boiled egg, homemade French fries, and chilli chutney (taken in reasonable quantities this time). As I was walking away with my plate full, a lady handed me a styrofoam cup full of green liquid. I assumed it was vegetable water as Sanny had served us cabbage water the day prior. But, of course, it could not be anything tame at a Mizo feast. It was intestine water. After tasting one awfully offal-y, strong, salty, bitter sip, Chhawna kindly traded me his cup of dal for my pig intestine water. We both thought we’d got the better deal.Image(The feast. Note the styrofoam cups of intestine water.)

Chhawna explained to me that the older generation loves to eat the organs and unusual parts, but the younger generation is losing its taste for it. This was disappointing for me to hear. Although I have a hard time eating these parts (it is simply not what I was raised eating) I think it is fantastic and smart to eat and enjoy every part of an animal, including the water in which it is boiled. This has to be an improvement on the fussy, Western way. That said, I certainly enjoyed Chhawna’s cup of dal a whole lot better.

We ate our Christmas feast with our hands, sitting on low benches, and topped it off with salty lemonade. The lemonade tasted good, but unfortunately salty drinks still remind me of Dengue Fever.ImageImage(Our friend, Hosa, pouring lemonade.)

After the feast we “did roaming” and ended up at Pi Zami’s eating fruitcake while watching music videos of a clearly homosexual, middle-aged, Mizo man with bleached-blonde hair. In every video he would wear flamboyant clothing and awkwardly stand and sing in different green-screen locations, while tapping his leg with his hand, out of time. Without our saying a word, Sanny began to justify his appearance by telling us that he is actually a very good husband to a woman and is also very good at knitting. He is also now our favourite Mizo singer, next to golden-wristguard Andrew.

We escaped another Mizo church service by using Chhawna and Sanny’s convection oven to make Christmas shortbread cookies. A decent metaphor for how India works in general, our whole baking experience was drawn out and compromised by a variety of roadblocks, but the product turned out pretty good in the end. The blender didn’t work, the sugar granules were too big, we sifted flour using a pasta colander, we had no measuring cups, I got grease on my trousers, and our baking sheet was one centimetre too big to fit into the oven. But the shortbread was delicious!Image(Grinding sugar.)


All of this happened in three days. Needless to say, we did a lot of sleeping during the days thereafter and are about to start the cycle again, as tonight we wait, wait, wait for midnight with Hope Ministries and tomorrow we feast yet again to celebrate the new year.

To all of you, a happy new year, from Kyle and I! Kumthar chibai! Image(Us today, on New Year’s Eve.)

PS I am pleased to report that Kyle and I think we have eradicated my lice! Twice we have completely saturated my hair with fine, Italian olive oil and are elated that yesterday’s nit count was down to a measly three.