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.
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.
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.
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.(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.(Just lookin’ at Burma!)
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.
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.(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.(Zokhawthar police.)
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.(Zokhawthar Tourist Lodge.)
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.
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.(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!”
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.