DIY Coffee

In December, Kyle and I travelled to Kawnpui, our friend Chhawna’s childhood village. Kawnpui is an approximate three-hour drive through jungly hills from Aizawl, along a road that perilously snakes and twists along an almost-certain-death cliffside.

While I wanted to put my entire trust in our hired truck driver, I couldn’t help but doubt our safety when, not long into the drive, we saw a ‘Recovery Crew’ that was attempting to tow up a full-sized lorry which had tumbled down the cliffside. I shudder to think of the fate of its driver. We later passed a towering, gray, stone monument, on it engraved the names of dozens of victims that one particularly vicious corner had stolen from us. This drive was dangerous.

It certainly can’t help that drivers chew paan to stay awake (if you’re not careful, paan gets you high) and sneak little, plastic bags of hard homebrew that they buy when they stop without explanation at suspicious-looking shacks. Your nose stings a little when they get back in the truck and you helplessly grip your husband’s hand a little tighter.

Hired drivers are also on a mission to beat the clock to get back to their families. They race around hairpin corners, squeal their tires in haste, and ride their breaks into a pungent smoke when headlights surprise them on the other side of blind curve. Should they become aware of another vehicle approaching, drivers barrel towards one another, and then both slam on their breaks at the last second, narrowly avoiding head-on collisions.

Thank God we made it there (and back — the same experience, but in darkness and further haste) safely!

On the other side of the treacherous journey was a bamboo village, a charming family, and an orchard — the most beautiful, luscious orchard I could ever have imagined. The orchard breeze danced around us, among the orange, lemon, and towering betel nut trees, fragranced with the lively aroma of citrus. Softball-sized lemons fell to the ground from trees pregnant with heavy fruit. Ripe oranges hung from branches, contrasting beautifully against the blue sky backdrop, and when we ate the sweet oranges, they were warm from the sun. Bright green betel leaves sat on their bushes, waiting for us to taste their bitter-sweetness. Time disappeared in that beautiful grove and I will never forget its magic.

ImageDSC06973Best of all, there were coffee plants. Big, round, coffee cherries hung off the leafy branches in colours ranging from light green to bright red to deep burgundy. We sucked on the sweet cherries and delighted when white, slimy coffee bean halves emerged onto our tongues. This gave us an idea. DSC06955DSC06945We we greedily picked handfuls of ripe cherries and stuffed as many into our bulging pockets as could fit, and transported them back to Aizawl with a whole lot more care than our driver was taking of his passengers.DSC06959Back at the Synod Guesthouse, our old home, we peeled the beans out of their cherry coats and set them out on brown paper to dry overnight. DSC07083DSC07086After the beans had dried, we peeled off a thin, dry membrane to reveal the green bean beneath. We were surprised at how lightweight the beans were.photophotoHowever, we realized that there was yet another, extraordinarily thin membrane still protecting the beans from fully exposing their little, green selves. For days we scratched at that membrane, making sore our finger tips, and punctuating our conversations with, “ouch!” as tough bits of husk shoved their way a little too far beneath our fingernails. We never did fully manage to get that layer off by hand. DSC07117(Sometimes we could get all the membranes off.)

All of our peeling efforts were in vain anyways, since after we roasted the beans, we were able to do as little as softly blow on the beans and the featherweight husks blew away, effortlessly, in the wind. DSC07118(One last attempt to remove the thin, outer membranes.)

Roasting was a rather enjoyable process. We put all of the green beans into a cast iron pan, and agitated them constantly above a flame on a gas stove element for about ten minutes. It didn’t take long for them to turn a pleasing shade of golden brown, then darker, darker, and then start to pop and dance, the effects of the caffeine appearing to affect them long before it reached us. They quieted down for a time, now a dark, rich, chocolate brown, and resorted to quiet popping sounds, like bursting bubbles in a bath. Another minute and we removed them from the heat, put them on a plate, and rushed them outside to cool quickly in the winter air. We laughed at the irony as we gently blew off the husks. DSC07119DSC07123DSC07127DSC07138The freshly roasted beans needed to breathe for a few days, so we let them rest again on their brown paper bed, then moved them to a sealed container for storage until we could grind them. DSC07141A few days later, Kyle opened the lid to unleash that rich, deep aroma of roasted coffee. We had really done it!

It was only after we moved into our new house that we finally ground our beans. Kyle and I took turns putting all of our muscle-power into the mortar and pestle. Grinding coffee by hand was a much more difficult task than either of us expected; it took a long time.photophotophotoEventually we were satisfied with the grind, and excitedly poured our very own peeled, roasted, ground, Kawnpui beans into our prized coffee maker and watched excitedly as our homemade gold flowed into the carafe in perfect coffee-colour. photophotoIt was easily the most satisfying and life-threatening cup of coffee I have ever tasted. And it was delicious. photophoto

The Seatbelt Sign Has Now Been Switched Off

The romei, the mist of the Mizo hills, made for a turbulent landing. And with memories of Malaysian paradise lingering in stark contrast with the renewed challenges of Mizoram, our first week back was just as turbulent as our touchdown. 

We were back in our tiny, two hundred square foot, concrete room. Back to brushing our teeth with bottled water. We were back to an inescapable cold that chills our bones, even with our two Bajaj electric heaters contributing their best efforts to warm us. We were back to immersion water heaters and bucket baths, oatmeal and instant noodles, lumpy mattresses and backaches. The Synod Conference Centre Guesthouse did not even provided bedsheets or pillowcases to greet us — not for days.

We were back to getting sapped. Even in our own home. One of the biggest bumps that first week back involved an unsolicited fake shutter sound of a smartphone camera a mere foot from my face as I was climbing our guesthouse staircase. I felt objectified and angry.  

I also felt like sneezing. In the Kolkata airport queue days earlier, a man in a green, collared shirt turned around to face me and coughed a big, billowing cough directly into my mouth. So I got a cold. 

For months we had been actively trying to find a proper house to live in. One with a kitchen. One that wasn’t the Synod Conference Centre Guesthouse. We had people on the ground, sending signals through kinship networks and social networks. We had an ad in the Vanglaini newspaper. In return for answering the ‘five questions’ Mizos are wont to ask, we always probed for any knowledge of a house vacancy.

But families build houses to live in on land that they inherit. They don’t traditionally let properties. If they did, it wouldn’t be to foreigners whose grandfathers they don’t know the names of and whose fathers’ occupations are a mystery. 

This, in addition to a mass, economic migration of Mizo villagers to Aizawl — the big city — rendered all of our house-hunting efforts fruitless. Leads in the last three months ended in shared washrooms, filthy kitchens, prospects of major renovations, and distant locations. 

So, when Kyle’s friend, Taia, emailed him while we were in Kuala Lumpur, with news of a vacancy, Kyle and I were completely filled with doubt at the chance of it working out this time. 

It was within that first, turbulent week that I tagged behind Taia and Kyle, begrudgingly dragging my snotty, sneezing self out of our heated room and down the potholed hillside to look at the house. Taia introduced us to his friend, Hzuali, who had found the place.

We climbed up to the top floor to meet the owners. In front of their door sat five cats, sitting patiently, waiting for the sun to set. They turned their heads to look at us in a coordinated motion of passive curiosity, and I cracked one of my first smiles since our return to Aizawl. The owners escorted us to the floor below — our potential new home.Image

It was perfect. The suite was brand new, never before lived in. It had a living room with huge, patio windows that slid open to reveal a patio lined with potted petunias; a large office; a master bedroom with an attached ensuite; a storage room; a small room and washroom for the future Domestic Help (common practice for wealthy folks in India); a guest washroom; and, most importantly, a kitchen. It had everything. And everything was sparkling a fresh, clean white. It was also almost entirely furnished, featuring a bed, mattress, and linens; a gas stove and cookware; a kitchen table and chairs; built-in water heaters for the kitchen and bathroom; and even a washing machine!Image

The location was favourable too. The house was situated down the hillside in a quiet area, the sounds of singing Cicada insects filling the air. It was also only a fifteen-minute walk uphill to the market, a fifteen-minute ($1.20) taxi ride to my office, a thirty-second walk to Aizawl’s oldest and most famous bakery (the late founder was trained by the British and Welsh missionaries, themselves), and a two-minute walk from the nearest shop that sells eggs, oil, Lays American Style Sour Cream & Onion potato chips, and Aircel phone credit top-ups. 

Even the timing was perfect. In July — the month in which we plan to return home — the house will be occupied by the newlywed son of the upstairs owners. In fact, the house wasn’t actually for rent. Hzuali had just convinced them,  somehow, that they needed tenants to break the place in for the newlyweds. 

The five cats sealed the deal. 

When we went upstairs to drink tea and negotiate a price, Kyle and I had already decided to take the place, no matter what. We awkwardly tried to discuss an offer with Taia (mostly forgetting that everyone in the room could speak perfect English) and his eyes nearly popped out of his head when we suggested Rs. 20,000 ($356) per month. Too little, we assumed. We felt embarrassed. Taia suggested we ask Rs. 8,000 ($142). Impossible. So, at Taia’s request, we suggested Rs. 8,000 to the owners and they countered at Rs. 10,000 ($176). We suggested Rs. 9,000 at which point everyone giggled and we settled for Rs. 10,000. $176 per month! A third less than the cost of the Synod Guesthouse for so much more. The monthly price would even include electricity and water. And a kitchen. Elated, we waved goodbye to the owners and to the cats and looked forward to seeing them all again soon. 

Two days later, on  Valentine’s Day, we moved into the new house. We shifted with the help of Hzuali, her dad, her husband, Ding Ding, and their cars, and then spent the day with Taia, buying spices and mini fridges. Our home-cooked meal of rice and dhal that evening was simple but symbolic. It was a wonderful Valentine’s Day present for both of us. Image

(Pleased to say goodbye to the Synod Conference Centre Guesthouse.)

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(Taia installing the gas cylinder he had just had filled for us.)

We have since been enormously enjoying our new home, though with the move we’ve had to make some new adjustments. We learned that, since our former Guesthouse home is the property of the Presbyterian Synod — one of the most powerful institutions in Mizoram — we were privileged to have had an exceptional power supply. Now we have joined the rest of Aizawl in dealing with constant power cuts, six or seven times a day, sometimes lasting minutes, sometimes lasting hours, and always starting at 7:30am as we all get up to get ready for work. Kyle and I have made a game of it, recording on our kitchen chalkboard the highest time the microwave clock reads before inevitably being set back to 12:00 noon again. Right now the chalkboard says 16:13.

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(Cooking in our new kitchen during a power cut.)

We’ve also learned that the lower your house is on the hillside, the worse internet you get.  

However, power cuts and bad internet are easy trades for our ability to fry up Betty Crocker pancakes, make garam masala chai with milk on the stovetop, and boil baby pumpkins; or for the joy of befriending a talkative gray and white cat that never stops kneading, even when she’s walking on tile; or for the comfort of a mattress that doesn’t leave me sore in the morning; or for the luxury of sitting in a morning sunbeam on the patio, eating warm, fresh-baked bread from Hmingliani Bakery, smothered with cold butter and enjoyed with a cup of freshly-brewed coffee shipped just for us from South India. 

Life in Mizoram suddenly got a lot better. 
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K&L go to KL

Our much-needed vacation was an all round hit.

Kyle and I flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to meet up with our dear friends, Laura and Ian. They had been teaching in China for about as long as we’ve been in India and were also in need of a getaway. Together in the glorious heat of the Southeast Asian winter, we explored Kuala Lumpur’s friendly mish-mash of cultures, the delicious Malay cuisines of Melaka, and then went on to discover the delights of Singapore.

This was just the break we needed. Both Malaysia and Singapore are highly developed, yet still have the charm and uniqueness of being completely Asian. Basically, not only did we get to relax but we also got to discover. It was marvellous.

Instead of a descriptive travel blog entry, I have compiled a captioned photo album. Due to an extended row between Mizoram’s internet, Mizoram’s power supply, the technology at hand, and yours truly, the album is not posted on WordPress directly, but can be accessed by clicking on this link:

https://www.com/media/set/?set=a.10101507350519407.1073741837.13609235&type=1&l=fa50c58e9e

Enjoy!

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.
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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.)

Image

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.)

Image

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.)

Image(Success.)

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.

Saxophone Santa Plays the Blues

I’m homesick. Really homesick. Mechanical Saxophone Santa mannequins and the fabulous, disco, LED Christmas lights that dance around Aizawl, Mizoram’s capital, are simply no replacement for sitting around the kitchen table with my family, constructing a puzzle and listening to Charlie Brown Christmas and the sound of a crackling fire. We trimmed our one-foot Christmas tree here with lights and used my earrings for baubles, but I keep its lights off most of the time; it is too much of a reminder of our distance from home. Image

Our first two weeks in our new home city were, for me, filled with challenges, homesickness, and cultural adjustments. However, I write with hope on the horizon. New friends and new work have begun to transform my attitude towards Mizoram and our stay here. Kyle and I have shared many enjoyable meals with Kyle’s Mizo ‘family’, Pi Sanny and Pu Chhawna. Chhawna has begun giving me Indian cooking lessons, and Sanny has shown great care by relocating their coal bucket heater closer to me every time I move (the temperature drops to 5C at night and there is no central heating; it has been an uncomfortably chilly two weeks), and by plopping in front of me sixteen colours of nail polish when I looked bored. Their dog, Max, has also shown me affection, but mostly by rubbing the small of his flea-infested back on my foot.Image(Max and I at Pi Sanny and Pu Chhawna’s.)photo

I also volunteered my first day with the Baptist Church of Mizoram Relief and Development Wing. I will be working with the delightful Project Coordinator, Puii, on the Lydia Project—a program that provides marginalized groups of women in Mizoram with micro-loans, as well as training for how to use these loans in establishing self-sustaining businesses. Together, we spent my first day working on the annual report and removing fat cockroach eggs from inside the printer.

Puii kindly included in me in their office Christmas festivities, including choosing for me a Tupperware container with a pink lid to give at their gift exchange. I thought it was an odd gift, but when everyone opened their gifts at once, every single person unwrapped a Tupperware container of differing sizes and colours. They then proceeded to, all at the same time, hold them high in the air with both hands, faces glowing with great excitement, rotating to show their colleagues what BPA-free treasures they had unwrapped.

Two weeks ago, stepping off the plane into the, then, balmy air of Aizawl, it felt like getting glasses for the first time. After two months of being engulfed in smog so thick you can chew it (Pa Spani’s words), Mizoram is perfectly clear. Everywhere you go, your eyes are treated with stunning, mountain views of these Himalayan foothills, and layers of blue mountains recede far into the distance.ImageDSC06542

My first impressions of Aizawl city, itself, are skewed because, well, I was accidentally high. Our taxi driver had offered us plain paan (betel nut, betel leaf, and lye) and, understanding chewing paan is very much a cultural norm and bonding mechanism in the Northeast, we accepted it. To my surprise, my head started spinning. The world was turning and I was panicking as we zig-zagged through central Aizawl’s narrow streets, buildings on one side, cliffs on the other, cars and street vendors in between. My eyes felt four times their usual size, bringing my whole peripheral vision into focus. I found it easier to just close my eyes and wait the 15 minutes it took to pass. Since then, when paan has been offered in contexts that make it inappropriate to decline, I have removed all the inebriating white lye and have since noticed streaks of it smeared on every outdoor surface.

Aizawl is a city built on tiers cut into the mountains. Houses are built on stilts, making it a vertical city. It looks like it should be impossible.aizawl2DSC06566aizawlImageHowever, the tiers are narrow and, despite its beauty, Aizawl is most challenging to navigate on foot. In addition to the fact that you are always walking either up or down tiers and giant sidewalk steps, the sidewalks are often too narrow for two people to pass each other, you must constantly skirt crumbling pieces of concrete, watch for holes that reveal the ground twenty feet below, and hop over areas where the sidewalk is cut out to allow for nearly vertical steps down to the next windy tier. Kyle says that Aizawl is like an inconvenient, life-sized game of snakes and ladders. Some sidewalks are even constructed from two-by-four foot concrete slabs balanced precariously over a sludgy run-off ditch, with leg-sized gaps between each slab. Then add hoards of people shopping for Christmas. Sometimes you are forced to walk on the streets, putting trust in drivers who blast by when they catch a break from the terrible traffic jams. Traffic jams have become an Aizawl institution; the other day it took me two full hours to travel four kilometres by taxi and only fifty minutes to walk back, including at stop at the Om Om Tea Station. Getting around Aizawl is tough.Image(Aizawl taxis in a traffic jam.)

DSC06582(The flattest part of Aizawl.)

On Sunday we met a woman named Judy. As she picked tiny, red Bird’s Eye chillies off a vine, she said, “In Mizoram everything is small. The cars are small, the people are small, and the chillies are small.” For us, even the toilets are small. They are about two inches lower than in Canada, the UK, and the rest of India — low enough to make me think I have somehow missed when I go to sit down, prompting an “I’m falling!” adrenaline rush. And the staircases, with their little four-inch risers, keep us walking daintily.Image(Chilli delivery at Pi Zami’s fabric shop.)

Image(A Bird’s Eye chilli.)

Us being truly not small has been the source of entertainment among Aizawl residents. At 5’7″, I am head-and-shoulders above every Mizo woman and am also taller than most Mizo men. At 6’4″, we think Kyle may literally be the tallest person in the whole state. The reactions we get range from harmless comments such as, “you’re so high!”, to real bullying by young adults, who seem to have no qualms about gesturing towards our height and then laughing and pointing in our faces. Several times this reaction brought me to tears, and left us feeling completely alienated. One of our friends claimed that this behaviour is only cultural difference. However, if Mizo adults are able to show tact, surely the younger generation knows better. Thankfully, we have begun to develop thicker skin.Image(One of these things is not like the others.)

Our Whiteness has been another cause of great excitement. Thinking we cannot understand what they are saying, Mizos are constantly leaning over to their friends or children, lowering their voices only slightly, and, while still looking directly at us, they say the Mizo word, “Sap!” (“white person!”) repeatedly. Stares and “Sap! Sap!” are our constant companions. Millennium Centre – Aizawl’s prize mall – is the worst place for “getting sapped”, as we have termed it. Millennium Centre is a windowless tower stocked with the overpriced, bejewelled 80s garments made in China (why these are popular, I will never understand) and a teenager for every square foot. Gaggles of teens gather together to point and laugh while “inconspicuously” “whispering” our favourite Mizo word. We couldn’t possibly understand their message, could we?

In Aizawl, locality announcements are made on neighbourhood loudspeakers. Perhaps our situation would improve if the announcer could one day add: “Residents of Mission Veng! Please be aware that there are two saps in Aizawl! They may be going about their daily business! Do not be alarmed!”

Apart from this segment of tactless young people, Mizos are incredibly kind and will do anything to help you and to make your life easier. I have never before encountered such a generous group of people. I have learned some other things about Mizos, too. Mizos like to walk really slowly and they love to drink tea (we had eight cups the other day). Their social lives are of enormous importance and they are all incredible singers. Most Mizos are Christian, in a Christian society, which was evident immediately after alighting our airplane: a huge, white cross in front of the airport terminal reads “Thy Kingdom Come” and inside there is a special office for the Airport Chaplain. Mizos dress Western, but casually and in that quintessential 80s style. Often they wear what Kyle and I call ‘Coventry Suits’ – crushed-velvet sweatsuits for women and full track suits for men. Mizos are all genuinely interested in the answers to these same five questions, which they ask us in varying orders: What is your country? Where do you put up? How do you feel Mizoram? When did you arrive Mizoram? When will you leave?DSC06552(We had tea here once.)

The past two weeks have been spent hotel-hopping as we have been searching for our own apartment. Our first hotel experience was the Chaltlang Tourist Lodge, the government-run hotel. We ordered their best room, a ‘suite’. Unfortunately the excellent staff did not reflect the decaying state of the rooms. The walls were covered in dirt and were cracked; grungy blue-and-white striped curtains hung to cover warped window frames; the ceiling was stained with monsoon water damage; the bathroom smelled like old, stagnant water; and the floor was covered by an unattached piece of thin, brown carpet that appeared black for all the hair all over it. This was all manageable. In India you just have to put up with things like that.

However, during our second night there, we were watching TV in bed and Kyle pulled back his sheets to discover a small, fat, dark-coloured bug sitting near his legs. He squished it. Hoping desperately our suspicions were wrong, I typed ‘bed bugs’ into Google. That beastie fit the description perfectly. With only superficial searching, we found piles of bed bug husks under that horrid, brown-black carpet. We sealed our suitcases, exhausted ourselves completely with back-to-back episodes of Downton Abbey, and slept that night with the lights on.

The next day we promptly moved on to the new Hotel Regency, a clean, quiet, austere establishment with excellent service. The only downsides were that it was rather expensive to stay there and they provided very tiny toilet paper rolls. We stayed for five nights or so in luxury before moving to the Synod Conference Guesthouse, our current location.

The Synod Conference Guesthouse is located in Mission Veng, the locality that is at the highest point in Aizawl, with the Guesthouse being the highest point of Mission Veng. We have a fantastic view of the hills. The Guesthouse is also inexpensive, clean, and our neighbours are all pastors. We have purchased two space heaters to make it cozy, as well as a coffee maker and are anticipating grounds to arrive in the mail any day now. Still, we hope to find an apartment soon so we have a place to call ‘home’.

After the bed bug and bolta fiascos, I thought that surely we must be done with infestations. Until one night, about a week ago or so, when I was trying to sleep and felt something crawling around on the nape of my neck. A little, black, wingless insect. I squished it. This was starting to feel like a pattern. Again, in hopes of false fears, Kyle check my hair for lice and found over 30 of their little, clear eggs attached to my hair shafts near my scalp. We assume they must have come from the orphanage as the children there get lice often. Kyle pulled out each egg individually, put them on the end of a bobby pin, and burned them in a candle flame, all the while singing the chorus of ‘Disco Inferno’.

In search of lice shampoo, we trekked to the street designated for pharmacies. There, we received only blank stares and red, paan-stained grimaces, reactions we are finding common among personnel in the medical profession in Mizoram. At the clinic, the receptionist just laughed at us—no one seems to know or care about lice—and, though we were excited to find perhaps the only lice comb in Mizoram, it is more effective for live lice than their hyper-adhesive eggs.

Thus, we continue the nightly ritual of egg picking and burning. Last night Kyle found 28. Tonight we will try our first, recommended home remedy: dousing my head in mouthwash.

We interacted with the medical profession again when we were due to receive our final rabies vaccination. The clinic receptionist directed us to that pharmacy street across the city, where we bought our vaccines without prescription. We proceeded to the Civil Hospital where we were injected with our vaccines by a man in plainclothes. (It is strange how far a doctor’s uniform goes in winning a patient’s trust.) The vaccinations were done sitting only four feet away from a man on a stretcher who was covered in blood, and after giving a fee of only twenty rupees (about thirty cents, or twenty pence), which a nurse shoved into a donation box with a yellow, smiley-face sticker on it.

What Mizoram lacks in its medical professionalism, it makes up for in its food. Frequently warned by Mizos about Mizoram’s terrible food, I have been pleasantly surprised, and have been thankful for the necessity to constantly walk up large hills. Plains Indian cuisine is readily available and Mizo food has proven much more interesting and delicious than expected. Most notably, I had the opportunity to try Mizo ‘fish fry’. Kyle and I were presented with a bowl of about fifteen silver fish (not silverfish, thankfully!), whole, about 6” long and with their glazed-over eyes blankly staring at us, like Mizo pharmacists. We ate the delicious creatures like fish fingers. Kyle and I could not bring ourselves to eat the heads, but our hosts swallowed them without hesitation. Hopefully one day we will be as hard-core as them. Even Mizo boiled pork was much more tasty than I expected, though I avoided the pieces that were pure fat. It was a win/win for everyone, as pure fat pieces are Mizos’ favourite.Image(A vegetable vendor at New Market, where many Aizawl residents get their produce.)

Image(A beef vendor at the meat market, where you can also buy cuts of dog.)

DSC06606(This chicken vendor kept saying, “Mizo Man!” as I took his photo.)

There will be many more opportunities for win/win situations as Mizo Christmas feasts approach. As your own Christmas feasts approach, Kyle and I wish you all the very best in your celebrations. May they all be win/win (I would gladly eat your brussels sprouts if you’d eat my fruit cake). Merry Christmas! May the joy of the birth of Jesus and the sultry sounds of Saxophone Santa be with you all.tree