Thursday, April 29, 2010

Avocado Tree Update

Several months ago I wrote of the great tragedy involving the death of our avocado tree. Well, happy times are here again. Although all the lower branches were brutally cut off and burned, the upper branches were left on the tree. This didn’t do us much good because the tree branches were too high to get the avocados from so we could only pick up a few from the ground. Last week, it was rather windy here. So windy that one day a massive branch from the avocado tree fell down, raining avocados. All of a sudden we had more avocados then we knew what to do with. We kept some for ourselves and gave away a bunch. Slowly, the avocados began to ripen. First there were 3, then 5, then 7, then 23, then more ripe avocados. And one must move quickly when an avocado becomes ripe lest it become over ripe and turn into mushy green gross stuff. Over five days four people ate something like 18 avocados (four because Stefano and Clara were out of town). One meal alone featured an astounding 6 avocados. That’s a lot of avocados. I like avocados, but unfortunately, I think I like avocados the most in the community. Imagine eating avocados for five straight days with every meal when you really don’t like them. Imagine eating avocados for five straight days with every meal when you really do like them. It has been a test of creativity and trust in the California sponsored avocado website to come up with new and excited ways to present avocado at every meal. I have enjoyed testing the culinary boundaries of avocados and I have quickly learned there is so much more than I ever imagined to this delicious fruit…Avocados: they are more than guacamole!

Let me share with you some of the culinary delights of avocados: 
-rolled in cornmeal and fried (my favorite),
-in a pie mixed with lemon juice and sweetened condensed milk (reminiscent of key lime pie)
-soup (not so good, I felt like I was drinking Spock’s blood, a sort of Vulcan Vampire)
-cooked with tomatoes served over rice
-in potato salad
-in deviled eggs
-rolled in sugar and fried
And of course
-guacamole

Monday, April 19, 2010

Meet the Community

It has been several months now since I dedicated one blog to introducing you all to my community member Tomas and I figure it is time to tell a little bit more about my other community members. 

I will start with Lydia since I have known her the longest. Lydia is a year younger than me and is from Vancouver, Canada. Being Canadian, she is, of course, very nice unless someone (like an Italian for example) tells her that Canada is just an extension of the United States. She doesn’t think it’s a funny joke (even though us Americans know it’s not really a joke ;)). I will say this about Canada: their postal system is far superior to ours. It has taken three months for one package from my parents to arrive here. In that same time, Lydia has received 5, yes FIVE packages from Canada. I wish the U.S. were really an extension of Canadian postal system. Lydia studied kinesiology at University which means that when she came here to Aru she was a qualified physiotherapist. When we first arrived here in December she was told she could have her own physiotherapy clinic at the Canossian run health center. She was very excited to get started and to see the clinic take shape. One week later she was still waiting for the door to be opened. 2 months later she was still waiting for a fresh coat of paint. In fact, her clinic opened about 2 weeks ago, four months after it was first proposed. In Africa is takes all of four months to put together a room with a bed and a desk. This ordeal was an incredible test of patience and a wonderful cultural learning opportunity for Lydia. Now her clinic is up and running and she is bringing physical therapy to the people of Aru. Lydia has an abundance of energy for all things, she is always willing to go for a bike ride, a walk, a hike, a run, or play with the neighborhood kids. Her energy is so abundant that she doesn’t even take Sunday naps, whereas I look forward to my Sunday nap with great anticipation all throughout the week. There is, of course, much more to say about Lydia, but I think that is adequate for now!

Next, I will attempt to describe Stefano. Stefano is my age and hails from Brescia in Northern Italy. He came to Congo for one month last year and after decided to leave his lucrative job in the construction sector and spend a year in Aru. He is in charge of various construction here including a new convent, the library (which I will set up once he is finished building), and other small projects such as building a brick oven for the bakery. Stefano, like Lydia, possesses boundless energy and he is often zooming about from one place to the other on one of our many bikes. However, unlike Lydia, Stefano has an almost uncanny ability to take naps. He falls asleep on the couch in about 2 seconds. One day, he actually fell asleep in the brick oven he is building at the bakery. That’s right, he fell asleep in an oven. That is talent. Stefano also eats a massive amount of food. For the average meal, he probably eats about 4 times the amount I eat. He has a large first helping, then a large second helping, then a massive third helping, and the finishes by eating whatever is left on the table. When I had malaria I ate one piece of bread per day. When Stefano had malaria he ate like a normal person. That’s how we knew he was sick. Stefano is also a very talented photographer and musician. He loves to make videos of himself and the community cooking, eating, washing dishes, etc. and then shows them to us. During these videos we usually die from a combination of boredom and laughter- they tend to be about 20 minutes of boring daily life activity interspersed with 5 seconds of absolutely hilarious happenings. It’s the closest thing we have to watching to TV. Other than video making, Stefano has offered the community many other entertainment ideas. For example, shooting spit balls at the world map on the wall (in the dark no less because the power was out). I could go on for some time about Stefano as a source of entertainment, but suffice it to say our community is greatly brightened by his presence.

Now on to Clara. Clara is Superwoman. She cooks, she cleans, she drives the tractor, she feeds stray cats and children…she does it all. Clara is also from Brescia and after her experience in Aru last summer decided to leave her career as a veterinarian and come to Congo for an indefinite amount of time. Besides her official task of running the farm, she is always doing something or another around the house. She cleans things I would never think of cleaning and does chores I would never think needed to be done. Our house is now clean and tidy because of her. Clara is also a wonderful and experienced cook. She is able to make amazing meals from nothing. Last Sunday the only food we had was 6 small tomatoes, a few potatoes, a bit of fruit and leftover meat (the gross meat that I had refused to cook the day before). From these meagre ingredients she made a fantastic feast featuring two kinds of pasta, a delicious potato and meat pie, and a fresh lemon cream tort topped with fruit for dessert. It was a miracle. It’s really a wonder we survived 2 months without her.

The last member of the community is Matteo. He is from Treviso in Northern Italy and joined up for one year after spending one month here last summer. Matteo is like the UN. He is very busy here, but I’m not entirely sure what it is that he does. I see him going here and there, but I don’t know where he is going or what he is doing. I feel the same about the ubiquitous UN vehicles that drive up and down the country all the time. Matteo is trained as an electrician so he fixes our broken electrical stuff and all the broken electrical stuff of people around here. He does various odd jobs and finds himself quite busy with…whatever it is he does. Matteo tips the scales of the community for those who like to nap (me, Stefano, Tomas, and Matteo) versus those who do not nap (Lydia and Clara), although he has yet to fall asleep in the oven or while working on the solar panel on the roof.

So that’s my community for now. Since I am here for 2 years and everyone else is here for one, I will have an entirely new community in the future. Even those who came several months after me will depart long before me, so you can look forward to a future installment of “Meet the Community.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My First African Wedding

Remember in high school when one of the teachers got married and you got the whole day off of school so that all the other teachers could go to the wedding? Neither do I. But here in Africa, this is what happens.

Last Saturday one of the teachers from Aiti got married. Since I am also a teacher from Aiti I was invited by default (I actually have never met this man and don’t even know his name, but I was at his wedding). The church ceremony took place at 6:30 am, sadly I slept through mass that day, so I did not get to see it. The reception was at the more civilized hour of 1:30 in the afternoon, although this being Africa it did not actually start until 3:00. Luckily, I had shown up fashionably late (and yet at the same time unreasonably early) at 2:00 so I only had to wait around for an hour. But let me start at the beginning.

As I mentioned, I slept through mass last Saturday morning, but my early rising community members informed me that the marriage of an Aiti teacher had taken place. Even though my class had been cancelled several weeks earlier for another wedding, I naively assumed that my afternoon class would go off as usual.  I set off to school at the regular time only to be intercepted by the other English teacher who informed me that there was no class because ALL the teachers were going to the wedding. He invited me to come along, a suggestion to which I readily agreed. So off we went over hill and dale to another part of town to join in the wedding festivities. We arrived and were seated with the other Aiti teachers. I quickly noticed that all the teachers were wearing the same shirt, or a dress from the same material for the lady teachers. Apparently, Aiti teachers have some kind of wedding uniform that I knew nothing about. By pure luck I was wearing the correct color scheme. However, the lack of the Aiti uniform did not make me feel like I stuck out so much as being the only white person there did. So anyway, as I have mentioned the bride and groom were about an hour and half late so we sat and chatted and waited for them to show up at 3. The reception was held in a tent made out of branches and tarp with flowers and greenery decorating it. The bride, groom, and family sat in the middle on couches and the rest of the guests were arranged around the center, facing inward on plastic chairs. When the bride and groom arrived they were greeted with singing and danced their way into the center of the tent. The reception began with prayer and then the cake cutting. Just as in America, the bride and groom cut the cake together and feed each other the first bite. Then everyone else gets a small piece. After the cake it was time for the feast. Gigantic bowls of the African staple food foo foo were brought out along with rice, beans, and bitter green stuff that is kind of like but not nearly as tasty as spinach. And here is where I ran into my first social difficulty. It is, of course, impolite to decline food. However, foo foo is, shall we say, not my favorite food. In addition, I was not feeling so good with what I eventually found out to be a second case of Typhoid/Malaria. So I really did not want to eat. What to do? I worried about this for some minutes and finally decided to go up to the buffet line, but only take a drink. This strategy only sort of worked as several people asked me why I didn’t eat. I gave the excuse I wasn’t feeling very well, but I fear they saw through this fa├žade and know that I do not like their beloved foo foo. Well anyway, after the feast it was time for gifts. And here is my second social difficulty, and this was a major blunder. What kind of person goes to a wedding without a gift?! I mean, come on, what was I thinking?! The gift giving is actually a really fun part of the reception because everyone dances up to the table, gives the gift, and dances away. Everyone else is dancing and singing along and it makes for a jovial atmosphere. The guests are called up by groups: the bride’s family, the groom’s family, the teachers, and so on until every one is called. So when the teachers were called, I was in a bit of a pickle, not having a gift and all. I was saved by the kindness of the other English teacher (the one who had stopped me along the road and asked me to come along to the wedding with him); he palmed me a 500 shilling coin (something like 25 cents) and I joined in with the teachers in the gift dance. 25 cents may seem a paltry sum (and in fact, it is), but here the thought is truly what counts. Many people are not able to give more than a tiny coin, but the important thing is to give something. Rest assure I was not the only one to give a small coin. The gifts were quite typical of weddings: money and household items and such. After all the guests had danced up to the gift table the festivities were over and I made my way home.

It was great fun to participate in a wedding and I hope I have a chance to go to another one someday…I wills surely not forget a gift a second time. Much of the wedding was very similar to American traditions with the cake cutting and feast. But a more important similarity, as in any culture, is that weddings are a time for communities to be together, enjoying each other’s company and celebrating a joyous occasion. Sure, I had my awkward moments with being the only white person in sight, not knowing the name of the bride or groom, not eating, and not bringing a gift, but still I am so happy I was able to share in the occasion and I feel like I am a little bit more a part of the community here in Aru.