–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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.