Monday, September 15, 2008

Shamefaced re-entry onto the interweb

Blogger informs me that my last post was at the end of April, and that it’s now…September. Hm.
So, what’s been happening in the intervening months? Well, I’ve been helping the new education group with training and otherwise enjoying my new “job” (quotes because there’s glory and perks, but money is not one of them…although my transport does get refunded for official travel, which is pretty sweet) as Peace Corps Volunteer Leader for the ed sector. I taught English for 5 weeks at the face-to-face teacher certification extension program that I’ve worked at before, and had a super time. My hair’s grown out from Hillary Clinton-meets-Heather Locklear-meets-Village of the Damned to...slightly less so. I’ve celebrated one year in country (!), one year until it’s time to go (!), and the new group’s swearing in as real official volunteers (I cried). I painted my back yard (pix to come). And I’ve even written a couple of entries.
I’m having a good time, but I miss you, home people. Keep in touch, and I’ll try to do better too.

Cooking with Blair and Liza

September 1, 2008

One of the highlights of having Liza on the island for Face to Face is that we make dinner together almost every night. Liza is a pretty ideal dinner collaborator: catholic in her appreciation of all vegetables except bitter tomatoes, which we both know are gross; willing to indulge my own aversion to cooked cabbage; enthusiastic about onions, garlic, salt and Jumbo; happy to chop and wash up; and not too picky about a little dirt that might have gotten on the food from its time in the fields (or on my floor). After almost 5 weeks, we’ve gotten our nightly meals more or less down to a science. Want to know the X easy steps to cooking a Blair & Liza special? Of course you do.

1. Send whoever’s not teaching to the market. Buy some combination of tomatoes, garlic, tomato paste, onions, eggplant, squash, and sweet potatoes. Make sure the tomatoes end up on the bottom of the bag.
2. Wait til evening.
3. Unpack the grocery bag. Be surprised yet again that the tomatoes have started preparing themselves.
4. Chop an onion.
5. Fry the onion.
6. Chop the garlic.
7. Decide you should really put in 2-3 more cloves. Chop those too.
8. Add the garlic to the onion.
9. Add whatever the other person has been chopping while you’ve been taking care of the onion and garlic. Fry some more. Add salt.
10. Add water.
11. Squeeze something (tomato paste, moutard, peanut butter, exciting stir-fry sauce from home or Kombo) from a bag into the pot.
12. Add lentils, beans, or soy bits.
13. Wander out into the backyard. Toss vegetable ends and washing water over the fence. Pick some moringa.
14. Add moringa to the pot. Figure that the stems are probably good for you. Add salt.
15. If you are cooking beans, wonder when they will be done.
16. Wait for the beans. Talk about work, what we should cook tomorrow, and what tv-on-dvd we should watch tonight.
17. Taste a bit. Wonder when the beans will be done. Add salt.
18. Repeat steps 16-17 until you’re too hungry to worry about the degree of tenderness of your legumes. Decide it’s done.
19. Put the pot on the floor. Fan and stir until you’re too hungry to care if it burns your tongue a little.
20. Eat. Wonder how you will finish the pot between just 2 people. Add salt. Fan.
21. Get down to the last 5-8 bites. Bully each other into finishing, or dig around for your Tupperware. Stow Tupperware in the jibida, where you will bump against it as you scoop water out the next day, causing you to wonder what thing you don’t want to deal with has entered your jibida.
22. Do the dishes.
23. TV time!

What’s a 10 Day?

August 24, 2008

When volunteers get together, conversation tends to revolve around a few topics. These include: food, esp. food you have recently been unable to avoid eating, and random American items you have received in the mail/discovered at the Lebanese grocery store/inherited from another volunteer; work, esp. random delays and hard-to-read situations at work; and the home environment, esp. attacks thereon.

So, the minutes from a typical PCV meeting might read something like this:
1. Recent encounters with unknown parts of an animal
a. Description of the food bowl arrangement and the parts
b. Speculation on which parts of which animal these might be
c. Acknowledgement that, all said and done, it’s protein; that our family sacrificed to give it to us; and that we are ungrateful burger-eaters
d. Resumed dwelling on parts’ grittiness/sliminess/chewiness
e. Fearful looking forward to Tobaski
2. Which is grosser, palm oil or gristle?
a. Palm oil’s smell
b. The way palm oil makes other things smell
c. Discomfort experienced in getting both options down
d. Anecdote about other volunteer who is reported to enjoy one, the other, or both
3. Where to find taco seasoning
4. This Thing with This Guy at Work
a. The project You wanted to do
b. This guy at work (choose from options below:)
1. Amazing, hardworking, kind to animals
2. Sweet guy
3. Nice enough, but a little vague
4. Gives you the creeps for reasons you can’t pinpoint
5. Raving jerkface
c. The confusing conversation you had with (b) about (a)
d. Sighing over cultural communication styles, gender roles, perceptions of time, and the number of damn proverbs you’re expected to know in the course of (c)
d. A technological problem (can involve any of a-d, as well as at least 2 of the following: a part that is missing and only replaceable in Banjul, with the blessing of the appropriate permanent secretary; a part that has been violently misused, possibly by yourself; a part that it is no longer possible to pretend is not utterly busted; instructions in German, Swedish, or Spanish; erratic power; power that gooses you every time you touch something connected to an outlet; people with technical know-how and authorization who are not there.)
e. The project that maybe you are working on doing, you think
5. The hole in my back fence/front door/roof/floor
6. Ants
a. The way they can put holes on your floor
b. The ones that bite vs. the ones that just go after your sugar
c. How scary it is that the ones who just go after your sugar can chew through 2 ziploc bags to get there
d. The private area that recently got bitten by one of the ones that bite
e. Plans for extermination

These conversations also tend to have similar structures, eg:
1. anecdote
2. response anecdote
3. generalization about the host culture
4. observation on how odd we’ve become in x months of service.
Another popular trope is rating things from 1-10. I myself have rated travel days, roadside sandwiches, compl├Ętes, skin conditions, thunderstorms, experiences on malaria medication, markets, tacky purses available in said markets, and bowel movements on this scale.
We were talking about an overall mood rating the other day, with some people saying a 5 was just fine and others saying you should be at least at a 6 or 7 most days. The 5s responded that that was all well and good, but sometimes you just missed things from home and that wasn’t going to go away, though a good bean sandwich could help lessen the ache, and that moreover, it was ok to have that ache in the background. Anyway.
Conversation then turned to what a “10” day here would be like. I had trouble coming up with something I could fit into a day (can I work on a book with Lala and take a long walk around the rice fields and make pancakes and canned-meat bacon for breakfast, salad for lunch, and curry for dinner with a volunteer buddy, possibly with a beer afterwards and have a thunderstorm and enjoy the presence of little kids without feeling hassled and go to the beach and read a whole New Yorker…and arrange for it to be 75°F?) especially given my usual distance from the beach and the usual temperature upcountry.
Also, the activities (and the food) are important in a great day, but sometimes I find that they’re not entirely connected with how I feel. A 10 day, I think, is one where I’d just feel good all day. Not to say that hanging out with people and making curry wouldn’t be big contributing factors to feeling good. But there’s always other stuff going on in my head and body and immediate neighborhood that makes me feel buoyant one second, exhausted and cranky the next. I’ve had 10 half-hours, 10 mornings, 10 evenings…but a whole 24 hours? (I’m happy to report the same experience with the other end of the scale; with the possible exception of last year’s Day of Dysentery, I’ve never had 24 hours of straight 0 or 1 here.)
In any case, I got up to an 8 or a 9 last Saturday, thanks to some confluence of people, activities, adequate sleep and overall good health. So what did I do? Taught classes, marked some papers, opened the library—and had customers!—for a couple of hours, made mosquito repellant cream with one of the other tutors, made chili and watched Ugly Betty with Liza. And, it rained. So what made it so good? I guess plenty of stuff to do, work that I felt good about and felt appreciated for doing, good people to do it with, food, weather, and some time to relax and watch commercial-free tv.
Well, duh.