Beyond the hills, only hills (Mizoram)

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The bridge jingles metalically under the weight of the pick-up. Ahead, beyond the hills, lie only hills. А dryish stream run through too wide river banks, like a child dressed in her mother’s gown. We cross from Manipur to Mizoram, one of the smallest and least populous states of India. It is mid-March, and with still more than two months to go before the clouds of monsoon hide the skies, many creeks only dream of being rivers. On the dirt road, a ball of dust rolls towards us and brakes down. Squeezed like sardines in the trailer and on scruffy worn off seats a group of young faces covered beneath hoodies, sunglasses and bandanas wave and show thumbs up. Is there an underground gig in the jungle we are about to miss? ‘We are going to attend a Christian conference in one of our Mizo churches in Manipur’, somebody from the crowd explainss as we drove off in the opposite direction. The tireless enthusiasm of foreign missionaries had perhaps imported a certain outfit along with the words of the Gospel. Less than half an hour later, after a short ride up the hill, we reach Khawkawn, the first of a trail of villages perching proudly on the mountain top. We are about to find out that in Mizoram no settlement is built in the skirts of the hills. As if afraid of the shadow of the slopes people preferred to build their homes high on the steep ridges where the sun lingers longer.

Mizoram_youth in pickup

Mizoram_checking the map

Before sunset we are already exploring the interior of one of the local houses, chatting and rolling biri with our hosts; brother and sister in their twenties, teachers in the local school, who like football, basketball and Alice in Chains, dressed and looking far more urban and fashionable than our patched travel clothes would ever permit. After that night, as if taken by a new pace of the travel current, from Khawkawn to Kawdungsei, to Ngopa, every morning we wake up and each evening we fall asleep in a different home of a new neighbouring village. Transported by our hosts from kitchen to living room to school to hospital and back home, we let ourselves go. Carried and treated like valuable stones of exotic origin, we slide through the everyday life of random people. Morning tea, kids get ready for school, mid-morning tea, rice and dahl for lunch, after lunch tea, and a walk around town, occasionally being allowed to cook some foreign dinner; and in each and every home, curious visitors and photographs. Moving through Mizoram, and walking the same range of desolate jungle hills stretching from Manipur and skirting by the Burmese border feels easy and light. No tension creeping to the surface, no stories of burnt houses, no armed groups, no Assam Riffles. And still the same faces, languages, tribes, beliefs…is the air on top of the mountains clearer or somebody had cast a dark spell over the villages on the other side of the bridge?

First village_view

First night Mizoram

The parallels between the neighbouring states are endless. Just like in tribal Manipur, the cross of Christ, enthusiastic and youthful, shines brightly in the centre of Mizo social life. Here though, besides for merging with indigenous culture, and burying their tribal beliefs, the Church, along with preachings on righteous life, brought about education to the villages and the proliferation of English language and, probably unwillingly, it seemes to have emitted the signals of a foreign lifestyle. Missionaries first came from Britain in the 19th Century, and later on from all corners of the anglophone world. Baptists, Methodist, Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventists… all Christian paths to the divine gather in the hills of Mizoram. And a strange blend of selected remnants of traditionalism, religious morals and happily imported vision of western culture thrive in a piece of land ironically unheard of in the West. On the top of the same range of hills we walk through mixed realities: traditional tribal dances and Christian rock bands share the stages in schools and community halls. Locked between Myanmar, Bangladesh and China, hidden in jungle vines, Mizoram feels remotely familiar but ultimately alien.

First village_bamboo dance

First village_bamboo dance 2

A drum beat sets the rhythm. Boys squatting on the floor clap horizontally long bamboo sticks, closing and opening squares of air like the mechanism of a green machine, while girls skilfully avoid the bamboo ‘clutches’ jumping neatly their dancing feet above. The traditional bamboo dance plays undisturbed by our curious eyes while a group of youngsters practising outdoors asks us to join, giggling out loud each time that Marta´s clumsy moves get caught by the sticks. A few hundred meters beyond a group of kids runs towards the village desperately searching for a way to fix their punctured football. Their mothers and grandmothers, sitting on the floor, laugh at such trivial worry and turn back to their looms. Dance and woven fabrics are amongst the elements of local culture that Mizo value, protect and transmit from one generation to the next. The local head of one of the 700 branches of the Young Mizo Association, in whose home we are dining tonight, explains that their mission is to preserve local culture and religious values at the same time. We walk together around the village, visit the doctor and the pastor, and are invited to join a gathering at the local church school for the end of term celebrations. From all the children songs and youth performances we watch, one digs a place in our mind. On the stage a desperate youth sings crying to the skies for help, someone translates that he has been infected with AIDS. To his rescue, two characters emerge from behind the curtains. The first one, his hooligan friend, a neighbourhood rock star sliding on the wrong path. The other, a young missionary with sunglasses, showing the way to salvation. The conflict is resolved after a couple of songs, with all characters following the pastor on the “good path”. Dark and light, good and evil, an never-ending dichotomy lip-sang for an audience of five to fifteen year-olds. We are explained the performance is meant to raise AIDS awareness, but we cannot fail to wonder whether we had missed “part 1” where the illness is explained, or if they actually meant “church awareness” instead. Outside the school gates, the group of football kids still wanders around looking for a ball, while their mothers have shfted from looms to cooking pots.

Mizoram_right path

Mizoram_bible

By the time we reach Ngopa we feel quite at ease with Mizo hospitality, and ready to chat around with whoever welcomes us. But we cross the tea-planted slopes, the first houses, the village centre and keep on walking without making any friends, being always directed towards the only hotel which hides behind the the last curve at the very end of town. The hotel, a state-owned tourist lodge, is a sleepy concrete building spacious enough to host a whole Indian wedding, but silently telling that no such congregation has gathered around for quite a while. We get a ten-bed dormitory for ourselves and Burma finds her place on a worn out sofa, while the sun peeps through the curtains, in a beam of dust. The manager, either out of true kindness or laziness, decides that the hostel’s restaurant is self service this time and we are welcome to use the kitchen or, even better, can also join him for dinner cooked by his wife. For seven days we visit and are visited in rotating order by his family, someone who claims to be a neighbour, children selling ice-cream and young guys with motorbikes that help us carry the market shopping and teach us how to cook vegetables we had never seen before. We walk and sit around, enjoying the hills while munching fresh cinnamon straight from the jungle trees. But Mizoram, we would soon discover, is not all bees and roses, not just sugar cane and aromatic spices on fairytale hills.

Ngopa

Ngopa_tourist lodge

Bordering the ‘golden triangle’, an area of South East Asia well-known for opium and heroin production and having had an official ban on alcohol for many years, the state keeps painful thorns in its garden. Many of the beautiful and magic villages and cities crowning the hills bleed with needle wounds. In Ngopa we sadly and slowly come to know the reasons behind the widespread AIDS preventing campaign educating from billboards and street signs as well as church and school performances. The friendly local youth that gathers to play music in a nearby church, sometimes composes rock tunes in the name of Jesus as if hoping to redeem their ‘wrong-doings’. They all explain in private, first one and then another, that their friends might be very nice, but we should be careful with them because they are hooked to heroin. They warn us of invisible threats while hiding marks on their own arms. All of a sudden, some of the smiling, welcoming faces of people we drink tea with, begin to bear the marks of addiction but never to pose any threat to us. The export from Myanmar easily passes over the desolate mountains and rushes widely available through Mizoram on its way west.

Mizoram_mountains

‘The Mizos want to be just like Americans and they love foreigners’ – we heard many times before crossing to the other bank of the river. ‘They have good roads and developed cities, there is no war there…’ But isn’t the grass always greener on the other side? In the North East of India, being geographically isolated means that material progress and infrastructure development are certainly important topics; in Mizoram maybe even more so than in other places. ‘Our state is quickly changing.’ – explains a friendly doctor stationed in one of the villages in the mountain – ‘Only few years ago, there was no electricity, no TV-s, not even mosquito nets in many of the villages…Tropical fevers were common and the water sources often contaminated. And you will see yourself, don’t listen to Manipuri, most of the highways are still just dust tracks…but anyway things are slowly getting better.’ Hitch-hiking these roads, alternating patches of sandy soil and asphalt, we often listen to a common refrain among the locals that shades light on another recurrent topic in the North East – separatism. The Mizos, probably just like all tribals in the area, see themselves as different from the ‘mainland’ Indians. Occasional brawls and pub-like violence between the two sides are not unheard of, both in Delhi and Mumbai, where North-easterners go to work and study, as well as in their part of the country, where some Hindu communities had settled. Greater autonomy and independence, many Mizos feel, would certainly make a lot of sense. Almost entirely tribal, much more homogeneous than any other of the ‘seven sisters’ states, Mizoram had a strong sense of underlying unity. ‘We might be different tribes, but we are all Mizos and we speak the same language’- people often maintain. Mara, Lai, Hmar that shared the same jungle for many years, had previously fought their claims for autonomy, but now seem to sit comfortably together under the umbrella of Mizoram. In recent past no new-comers, forced by whatever circumstances, had arrived to look for their own place within the fragile ethnic balance of these part of the hills and risk kindling any fires of mistrust. And still, for the moment, the battle for sovereignty seems to be over, and people speak of it as something that rests together with their grandparents and looms in the living rooms. Our drivers often throw statements in a similar vein: ‘ It is more convenient to be part of India for now. On our own, who can we turn to? Bangladesh, Myanmar, China? Delhi is far and less demanding than Beijing’ – summarises a young engineer on a speedy drive to Aizawl.

Mizoram_Aizawl

All roads lead to the capital. A stream of Jeeps flows into the city and despite the traffic jam on its only main street, Aizawl automatically shines with a spark. A paradise for Escher fans, houses hanging on the mountain slopes, colourful markets, flowery balconies, tiny food stalls and shops, all connected by endless steep staircases and cork-screwing streets. Young people sit together in cafés near their colleges, and visitors from the countryside seem to gather around the markets, the banks or the hospital, collecting fabrics, pensions and prescriptions. Aizawl is the place, where everything converges. In a fantasy land, residing with the idyllic normality of slow-paced life on the hills, God, sports and drug trafficking all sit on the table eating rice and watching popular western programs to the tune of tribal dance. In the corner of the room the riffles of nationalism gather dust and rust. And meanwhile, as the days and months roll, Mizoram goes on carving the shapes of a curvy road plunging up and down the hills.

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Boris, Marta and Burma roam the world at a speed of a snail. Two humans and one cat that found their way to India overland.

4 Responses

  1. manish
    | Reply

    so evocative of mixed and missed destinies of tribal/indigenous futures. Thank you Boris, Marta and Burma for this tale from the hills- I liked this set of lines ending the post a lot “In a fantasy land, residing with the idyllic normality of slow-paced life on the hills, God, sports and drug trafficking all sit on the table eating rice and watching popular western programs to the tune of tribal dance. And in the corner of the room the riffles of nationalism gather dust and rust. And meanwhile, as the days and months roll, Mizoram goes on carving the shapes of a curvy road plunging up and down the hills.”

    All best wishes and travels

    • Roving Snails
      | Reply

      So glad you like it… Mizoram is surely a special place…

  2. krishna
    | Reply

    hi Snails :),
    Inspiring to read your journey regularly. I dream of travelling like you to unknown places and experiencing things. Your story pushes me further to that dream. How are you approaching strangers for accomodation ? If it was a hotel, i know its quite easy… just pay and stay as long as you can… But how are you approaching people for accomodation and food.
    Another question , how long are you planning to stay in India. What is your next destination (country).

    • Roving Snails
      | Reply

      Hi Krishna! Since we carry a tent and a camping stove, we do not usually approach people directly for accomodation, and never for food. We do sometimes ask for safe places to camp and are offered fields, yards, rooftops, and many times living rooms. Other times, people find us walking around or hitchhiking, are intersted, and invite us home. And other times, we just find a spot to camp by ourselves.

      More or less that’s it.
      Happy travels!!

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