The Bridge to Burma

On Wednesday, Kyle, our friend Taia, and I hit the road eastwards to escape the hubbub of Aizawl city life. Nine hours of hairpin turns in a Sumo truck named Pony-O took us to a town called Champhai. The journey was rough; I coped with only by use of headphones mended with thick wads of packing tape, Rufus Wainwright’s album anthology, and a determined sense of adventure.

We arrived in Champhai in the late afternoon, our Sumo seats littered with piles of wrappers from Cadbury chocolate bars, Wai Wai instant noodle packages, and Haldiram’s shahi mix snacks.

We were completely unequipped for the significant drop in temperature from Aizawl’s roasting 35C. The rainy season had hit Champhai full-on and the humidity was through the roof, making everything perpetually damp. When the one sweater I brought got drenched from a sudden monsoon storm (which left me hiding in a poultry feed shop for shelter for nearly an hour), it never fully dried for the rest of our trip.

Champhai is a beautiful place. It is Mizoram’s third largest town, with a population of about 20,000. The town is settled around a rare patch of flat land (phai, in Mizo), which is used for wet rice cultivation. June is planting season, and we saw plenty of farmers up to their knees in small, rectangular lakes, planting bright green sprigs into perfect rows. At night we could see the entire town’s lights reflected perfectly in the fields. A few small hills emerge from the plains, giving the landscape a stunning uniqueness, and providing convenient, elevated places for farmers to live.Image

It doesn’t take long to explore the entirety of Champhai’s city-centre; it is rather limited. Due to Champhai’s close proximity to the Myanmar border to the east, shops are filled with curious Myanmarese food products, identified by the curvy, loopy Burmese scripts. A thin line of vegetable vendors serves the town from small, wooden stalls lining a main road, and the internet café consists of one, dusty computer tucked into the corner of a room, moist with humidity, where the shopkeeper had to install Mozilla Firefox before we could attempt to use the internet.Image

Champhai is poor – much poorer than Aizawl. The roads are poorly maintained, many of the buildings are crumbling, and the people dress much more simply. Again, due to being nearby the border to Myanmar, Champhai is a centre for drug trafficking and alcohol smuggling, the latter also being illegal in Mizoram, a dry state. During just a few minutes of observation over tea from OK Restaurant in the centre of town, Kyle witnessed several drug deals, out in the open (next to the beef-intestine soup vendor), one of the dealers evidencing his addiction with deep, crater-like track marks on his legs.Image

I spent a single day exploring Champhai and hiding from its torrential rains, while Kyle and Taia went on an expedition to Kelkang village (pronounced KALE-kang; if you say it any other way, locals will not understand you). They were off to conduct interviews about a curious revival that took places in the 1930s.Image(Pu Pianga’s wife shows Kyle how to do the traditional weave.)

The next day we set out for Zokhawthar, the village which borders Myanmar, a bumpy hour and a half southeast of Champhai. Interestingly, Zokhawthar is only one half of the village, as the village actually spans fluidly across the two countries, conjoined by a bridge over the Tiau River, which acts as a natural border. The Myanmar side of the village is called Rihkhawdar.ImageImageImageImageImage(Just lookin’ at Burma!)

Locals can cross freely between either side. The bridge is painted half brown and half red to distinguish the exact point of crossing into the next country.Image

The bridge is the portal to India for thousands of economic refugees from Myanmar’s Chin Hills – the hills that span the Western fringe of Myanmar. They come in search of employment and a better life, blending in with Mizos perfectly as they are ethnically the same. In fact, once Chins learn the Mizo language, nobody can tell the difference. Life is still economically difficult for Chins in India, as they have no recourse to government services and are not permitted to obtain permanent employment without an Indian citizenship card. This means minimal wages at manual labour, and high costs for any medical services and the like. But still life is a little better in India for a lot of Chins, and they are waiting it out, hoping that soon Myanmar with democratize and they can go home.ImageImage

It was only by a misunderstanding that Kyle and I were able to set foot in Myanmar. It’s not something foreigners are typically permitted to do. Taia crossed the bridge to speak in Mizo to the Myanmarese border guards, but Taia misunderstood their patchy understanding of Mizo to be consent for Kyle and I to cross over. We were elated. We tentatively crossed over to the red side of the bridge, relishing the moment, and then onto Myanmar soil, but in a matter of seconds the border guards quickly communicated that there had been a misunderstanding and that we needed to return to India immediately. We dragged our feet a little, rubbing Myanmar soil into the soles of our shoes, and then headed back to safety on the brown side of the bridge.Image(Kyle and Taia.)

Zokhawthar village itself is tiny and muddy, and offers little to see apart from the border crossing. Most of our time in the village was spent lounging with jovial Indian policemen, wandering the dirt roads, and then later watching World Cup while drinking the ice-cold Dagon brand beers that the police officers ironically gave us. Dagon beers, which confusingly feature a picture of a roaring lion, contain a surprisingly high 8% alcohol and are as sweet as cider.Image(Zokhawthar police.)

Image(Children playing in a typical Zokhawthar street.)

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After a night of hoping the noisy, squealing roof rats wouldn’t crash through the bamboo-thatched ceiling and onto our heads, a Sumo jostled us back to Champhai, and then the following day to Kelkang, for me for the first time.Image(Zokhawthar Tourist Lodge.)

Image(We had our rice breakfast at this tea stall.)

Image(Drinking sweet tea while waiting for our Sumo back to Champhai.)

We had dressed up for Sunday evening church and arrived at the massive, concrete building just in time. As a reflection of the 1930s revival, Kelkang is currently experiencing a revival, which is so far represented by a lively church service every, single evening since June 12, 2013. The whole village of about one hundred homes attends.Image

Mizo church services usually accommodate a tame circle of ‘dancers’ in the centre of the church during worship time, walking in rhythm, round and round, singing the swooping Mizo hymns with their arms out and eyes closed. But I had never seen anything like Kelkang. It wasn’t just that the entire church packed itself into a dancing circle to enthusiastically praise God, but it was the fact that a dozen or so members – mostly women – seemed to be possessed or overcome by the Holy Spirit. Some were heavily convulsing as they danced; some were doing hip-hop style moves with their eyes closed, dancing into the pews; some were flapping their arms up and down like birds; many people were yelling; and at the end, when the music stopped, several women grabbed onto each other to stumble around the dance floor, appearing to be pushed and pulled in every direction, and then ended up falling down onto the concrete floor, convulsing and shaking for a whole half hour afterwards while the sermon was being preached. It was completely out of my comfort zone, but fascinating to see.Image(Pre-service, people were already dancing as everyone was arriving.)

Everyone transformed back to ‘normal’ after the service was done and, since the advent of foreign visitors to the village is extremely rare, every single villager wanted to shake our hands, each offering us a gigantic smile. It was quite fun, actually; the crowd felt innocent, good natured, and genuinely pleased to make our acquaintance. A hoard of children surrounded our truck as we pulled out, yelling, “au revoir! Bye Bye! Chibai!Image

Only six days after we arrived in Champhai, we made the long return trek to Aizawl. We arrived back, feeling as physically wrecked as after our initial arrival in India, and when we rolled into Mission Vengthlang, our neighbourhood, we were flooded with that feeling of ‘coming home’.

It’s hard to believe that now that we’ve finally acquired the feeling of home, it is nearly time to leave. We have nine days left in Mizoram – nine full days of wrapping up, packing up, and tying up loose ends. Neither of us can believe that it’s almost goodbye and neither of us are really quite ready to go.Image

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Reluctant Entymologists in a Blog about Bugs

–with guest blogger, Kyle

Our adventure to Lunglei began as any good adventure should: with our caravan pulling over to the side of a dark, jungle road, cranking up an ABBA track, and having a jungle dance session with the Baptist Relief and Development Programme Director, an eighty-two-year-old white man, a Mennonite, and two anti-drug-trafficking police in camouflage, one armed with a handgun. When ‘Mamma Mia!’ ended, we all piled back into our respective cars in reverent silence. It was probably the first time such a group had danced to ABBA on such a jungly road in the whole history of the world.

Though the town of Lunglei is only 150 kilometres from Aizawl, the windiness of the roads and the danceableness of ABBA ensured that the drive took nearly six hours—like leaving Vancouver at lunch to reach Abbotsford by dinner. The roads were woefully windy, the music dangerously danceable.

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Our mission to Lunglei was varied and meaningful. Lindy had her scholarship programmes to check up on, and fiery inter-NGO conflicts to calm down. I had archives to raid and old people to interview. But I don’t want to write about any of that here. I just want to tell you about bugs.

Lunglei has a way of catching you off guard. Take the following sentence, one actually spoken by our friend Pu Dawnga there while he reminisced about sleepovers in rice-field huts. Tell me, in his sentence, at which point Lunglei catches you off guard:

“You wake up in the morning to the sunrise, the birds chirping…the cool, fresh air…finding the traps…eating the liver…eating the intestines…”

Perhaps it was by the liver, but surely Pu Dawnga had you by “the intestines.” When we first arrived in Lunglei, the bugs seemed innocuous enough, not unlike the preamble of Pu Dawnga’s story, with the happy birds chirping and whatnot. For instance, each night a great grid of grey moths—hundreds of them—would politely order themselves on our outdoor wall in front of a fluorescent tube of light, all lined up in neat little rows as if they were enjoying a drive-in movie. And devout mantises, like tiny green monks from bug monasteries, would show up here and there, privately praying their prayers and not really bothering anybody too much.

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But then we get to the part of Pu Dawnga’s story where we learn how birds chirping can quickly turn into a steaming plate of jungle intestines.

It was in our hallway that I saw the first spider, though at first I couldn’t believe my eyes. In my peripheral vision, it looked like a black, big, severed hand, and about that size, too, floppily pulling itself along. In goosebumpy horror, we scanned the hallway. There was another—slightly smaller, maybe the size of a hockey puck, with longer, thinner legs, but a chunkier body—by the other door. We slept that night with our lights on. I wore a Virgin Atlantic eyeshade. Lindy just kept her eyes open the whole night.

The cockroaches in our room seemed so much smaller after that. Besides, (1) a love for God and, (2) a love for each other, the third and final pillar of our marriage is that, (3) Lindy kills all cockroaches and Kyle kills all spiders. I got the short end of the stick in Lunglei. Literally, I had a short stick, the end of which I held every time we went anywhere in our compound. At one point, I had to kill one of these spiders (a third one, still giant) and this battle, I imagine, has since entered into Lunglei folklore. By the end of it, there were splinters of sword in my hand, and the dragon lay in a slain mess on the floor, and I won the gorgeous damsel’s heart, too.

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We continued to be terrified for the rest of our stay. Once, at night in our little, yellow room where Lindy slept on the left side of our mattress-on-the-ground and I on the right, Lindy had a dream. The setting of the dream was our little, yellow room, and, in the dream, Lindy was sleeping on the left of our mattress-on-the-ground. She awoke (in the dream, not from the dream) to see the gigantic floppy spider perched atop my back, like a pet but from hell. She screamed (in the dream…and also not in the dream), “Kyle! It’s on your back!” At that point, her nightmare ended, but mine had only just begun, as I leapt up from bed and tore around the room for the light and my sword.

The rest of our visit was a strange mix of delightful company, delicious dinners, and abject horror. We spotted a single bolta—those gigantic yellow hornets that haunted us way back in December’s West Bengal. Sawmtea, Pu Dawnga’s youngest son, would walk in after dinner holding two horrendous beetles: “Which do you want to challenge the praying mantis?” And, at some point, someone handed Lindy a monstrous locust, which slowly began to wriggle out of her death grip.

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Sawmtea’s complete fearlessness of things which we feared completely taught us that fear can be, in part, informed by culture. While all Mizos laughed off our spider encounters (through their smiles, they’d even inform us that those spiders sometimes ate bats, and that their fangs packed a poisonous punch), the Mizos were nonetheless jaw-droppingly terrified to see Lindy’s iPad photograph of her holding a cute and fluffy little caterpillar back in Canada. Our friend Ngaka—a twenty-year old guy—said he would “run a kilometre” if confronted by such a monstrosity (the caterpillar, not Lindy – Ed.). Another fellow, who I hadn’t seen in years (and whose name, to be honest, I’d completely forgotten), shook my hand, told me how happy he was to see me again, and promptly asked if I remembered that caterpillar we’d once seen in Darzo village. For me, that memory was only slightly less dusty than his name, but, for him, that caterpillar had turned into the stuff of lore.

When we finally left Lunglei, having lost much sleep and gained much character, we thought we’d left the bugs behind. But that’s the thing. You haven’t left the bugs. The bugs are hiding in your mouthguard case.

For the past year or so, I have worn a mouthguard at night. It stops me from grinding my teeth when I have bad dreams about terrifying things, such as, say, cockroaches. So, when we got back to Aizawl, I was just continuing a nightly ritual when, without really looking, I opened up the case, popped the fitted guard in my mouth, and closed the case. The next morning, I opened the case to put the guard back in. There was a Lunglei cockroach in there. (You can tell a Lunglei ‘roach because, when Satan created them, he made them a much lighter brown, backs striped and moist). The cockroach was a bit dazed and hungry, wondering where his delicious plastic mouthguard had been the previous night. I gagged. Lindy ran to my aid and got rid of the beast. That ‘roach had ridden all the way back to Aizawl in my mouthguard case, gorging himself for six windy hours on the microscopic, mouthy molecules on the mouthguard that I had just had in my mouth the whole night. I’d even kissed Lindy goodnight. And thus, when you leave buggy Lunglei and think you’re safe, think again. The door might just hit you on your way out, and by “the door might just hit you,” I mean you’re basically gonna have a cockroach in your mouth.

Nowadays, back in the north of Mizoram, we’ve not totally escaped the bugs, though they are much diminished in number. Perhaps terror drains southwards. Still, the other day Lindy did have a dead cockroach in her mouth: pieces of it fell out of an instant coffee machine into her cup, and she’d chewed some before she realized it wasn’t lumps of Nescafe powder, but thorax.

Another day, she found the lumpy carcass of a fat praying mantis, big as a mouse, dropped off at our front door, no doubt a gift from one of the friendly local cats whom we feed Thai Canned Fish in Tomato Sauce (50g).

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And another day still, I started finding these metallic-brown stick bugs all over our house. I pointed out the massive infestation to Lindy, who only rolled her eyes and told me that her father had once noticed a similar infestation when Lindy lived back home.

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But most recently of all, while Lindy was checking on our laundry drying in the sun, I heard the telltale, wavering pitch in her voice that denotes Major Bug Problem.

“Come quick!” she called. “Something terrifying is laying eggs all over my dress!”

I’m sure in that moment that we both thought back to the lyrics of that fateful roadside jungle dance party.

Mamma Mia. Here we go again.

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