Friday, November 26, 2010

Food For Thought

When I joined the Peace Corps I knew that I would be finally learning to cook some meals on my own. Always living at home, or at college, I never was in a position where I had to cook my own meals. Of course I could handle the basics like spaghetti, scrambled eggs or other easy fixes. I had even made a cherry pie and banana bread one time. But I guess whenever I made something I followed the directions and measured everything out. If I was fixing oatmeal and the box called for ¾ cups of oats and ½ cup of water, that’s what I put in.

However, living on my own and fixing meals on a regular basis—for the need to survive—has taught me I can bend the rules a bit when it comes to cooking and even experiment. Now when I make my oatmeal, I don’t measure anything. I eye the amount of water I put in to boil. I know how many oats I will need to add to the water to get the oatmeal the right thickness that I like. I sometimes laugh when I think about me measuring for such a simple meal like oatmeal.

I’m finding that cooking is teaching me patience as well. It takes a lot of effort some days to cut up all the vegetables, or to make the tortillas from scratch. Always having the food served to me, never made me appreciate the work and time that goes into making a meal. Even on the days that I’m tired I find that taking the time to make a good meal can help make me feel better in the end.

So what am I cooking, and how does it work? Well I’ve started off with simple things. Instead of buying box macaroni and cheese which is very high in sodium, I now make my own macaroni and cheese and find I like it more than the boxed kind. Then I started adding basil for some color and additional taste. I sometimes make garlic bread to go with this. And since Texas Toast and other popular garlic breads aren’t available here in Samoa, I have to buy garlic cloves (I didn’t know what they were a year ago) and add the chopped garlic to butter in order to make my garlic bread.

I cooked rice for the first time in my life. It sounds like such a simple thing, and after I had done it, I stood there and looked at the rice and told myself, “I really never had done this before, unbelievable!” It was just so easy. I never knew that you had to rinse rice before cooking it either. I use the rice to put into my tortillas or eat it on its own. One time I even added it to some left over spaghetti. Since I’m normally cooking for myself, all that matters is that I like it.

These tortillas I keep mentioning are actually really good. They are better than any tortilla I’ve bought in the stores back in the U.S. because these don’t tear apart when you fill them. They are so moist and soft. They remind me of a taco shell from Chipotle! It does take a little time to make them. All that is required is flour, olive oil, salt and milk. First I kneed the bread and then it sets for 15 minutes before I separate it into small round balls and then they set for 20 minutes. After they set, I use my rolling pin (an old glass Sprite bottle) to roll them out and then they each only take 1 minute to cook on the stove. Sometimes I go all out and fill them with beans, rice, lettuce and cucumber. Other times just rice, or sometimes I eat them by themselves and just put a little butter on them. Recently I’ve found that stir-fried vegetables are really good inside as well.

Stir-fried vegetables are another thing I had never made before but now I love. First I put a little oil in the pan and then add garlic, onion and then put green beans and carrots, and sometimes cucumber in to cook. I add all kinds of seasoning. When some volunteers left back in August, they left me with all of their spices which I now use on a regular basis. Sometimes I add cumin and basil to the vegetables, as well as salt and pepper. It helps make my house smell like a home and really makes me feel like I know how to cook.

Salads are also something I’ve always enjoyed, back home and now here. I normally just put carrots and cucumber in the salad and then use an Italian dressing. I am a huge fan of hard boiled eggs (as is most of my family) but I haven’t fixed any here yet, but soon!

I’ve also done my fair share of grilled cheese sandwiches and tuna melts are my new favorite. I like to top them with cucumber and use whole grain bread! I also tried sweet corn one time last January, but it didn’t even come close to the great taste of Michigan’s sweet corn, so I haven’t done it since.

Since meat is rather expensive here and sometimes hard for transport and storage (do to my small refrigerator), I have never cooked meat in my house. I normally eat with my neighbors a couple times a week and am able to have chicken at their house, or splurge on a hamburger when I go into town.

I cook all of my food on a two burner electric stove, which makes me feel even more accomplished. No oven, no broiler, no microwave, just two small burner tops. It requires me using a fair amount of aluminum foil—say aluminum Mom—(inside joke), in order for me to keep things warm. For example, when I’m doing tortillas, garlic bread or French toast, since I can only do one at a time, I stack the finished food in the foil as I do each tortilla or piece of bread individually.

Sometimes I forget how easy a microwave was. There’s a microwave in the Peace Corps office’s kitchen that we can use. Just last weekend I bought a bag of popcorn and popped it there. I actually had two bags so I brought the extra bag back to my house. This week I was trying to make life easy for myself and performed an experiment. I tried to pop microwave popcorn on my stove top. I got my largest pan as warm as I could and then put the bag inside. Unfortunately, nothing happened. Yet I was so determined to have popcorn that night that I got out my kernels and vegetable oil and did it the old fashioned way. It tasted just as good, but just required a couple extra steps.

Breakfast has become one of my favorite meals; in part, because it’s still cool in the morning and I find it more enjoyable to eat when it’s 84 (normal morning temperature) as compared to 94 (normal afternoon temperature). I was always a big cereal fan back home, so I’ve continued the trend here. There are a handful of Kellogg’s cereals to choose from at the stores in Apia, but they are very expensive. However, there is one cereal called, Weet-Bix which is reasonably priced and happens to be my new favorite cereal in Samoa. It’s not just my favorite —it also claims to be New Zealand’s number one choice for breakfast cereal. It’s 97 percent whole grain and I love to cut up a banana to mix with it. It’s not uncommon for this to be my lunch or dinner if I’m in a hurry or just too tired to cook something “elaborate.”

Other breakfast food I enjoy: I mentioned oatmeal, which I add brown sugar to. I also enjoy eggs or French toast. Back in December and January I was doing a bunch of pancakes from a Betty Crocker box, but I’ve found that French toast is easier and cheaper. I also enjoy a few crackers. The crackers here in Samoa come from New Zealand and they are much thicker than the crackers in the U.S. They are really good to spread peanut butter or jam onto for a snack or with a meal.

And now I must mention my biggest food addiction here in Samoa: peanut butter! Peanut butter is reasonably priced. I always was a Jiff person back home, but since Jiff isn’t sold in Samoa, I’ve switched to Skippy. I eat peanut butter almost every day, and sometimes several times a day. It’s actually something I’m trying to get control of. Because it gets so hot here I keep the peanut butter in the refrigerator, which makes it easily accessible throughout the day. As I mentioned earlier, it’s great to spread on crackers for a snack, but is also great to eat straight from the jar. Yes, that may sound bad, but several other volunteers do it too from what I hear. It must be a real weak spot amongst volunteers here. There’s just something about the taste which is comforting and tasty and very addicting. Even when I wasn’t eating it just from the jar, if I would spread it on crackers, when I was done I would dip the knife into the jar and take a bite before sticking it back in the fridge. Now I have a new rule that I can’t eat it unless I’m sitting down and it can’t be from the jar. Believe it or not, but there’s something less appealing about eating peanut butter from a bowl as opposed to the jar itself, so this has helped me cut down on the amount of peanut butter I’m consuming. I was going through a jar a week (16.3 oz), but now I can make that last me two weeks!

As I mentioned I eat with my neighbors a couple times a week. I’ve enjoyed introducing some of these food to them, and my buddy Milo, likes to come over and watch me fix the food from time to time. One night I took a big tossed salad over there and he devoured it—a 12 year boy who loves salad! I think it’s been a part of the Peace Corps experience for me to learn more about their foods and for them to learn more about mine. Food seems to be universal language that brings different cultures together all around the world.

I hope you have a better idea now of what types of things I enjoy cooking and how I go about it. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m feeling much more confident than I was a year ago at this time. I’m still here to write about it, so I must be doing something right. Below I’ve typed up a list of some of the things I get at the store and the prices in Samoan Tala and then the U.S. equivalent based on an exchange rate of $2.42. And now before I close, I have to confess one more thing that I’ve fixed from time to time. My mom wouldn’t be too happy with me because it has raw eggs in it. Yes, you’ve probably guessed right: cookie dough!!! Except, after I make it here I don’t have to feel guilty about eating it raw, considering I don’t have an oven to bake them in!

Food / Samoan Tala / U.S. Dollar
1 Liter of milk = 3.80 / 1.58
Oatmeal (750 g) = 6.40 / 2.64
Crackers (375 g) = 3.00 / 1.23
Potatoes (2 lbs) = 2.10 / .86
Carrots (1 lb) = 3.08 / 1.27
Eggs (1 doz) = 5.80 / 2.39
Rice (3 lbs) = 4.70 / 1.94
M&Ms (46 g) = 2.70 / 1.11
Coke (355 ml) = 2.50 / 1.03
Kellogg’s Raisin
Bran (15 oz) = 17.00 / 7.02
Bananas (15 small) = 2.00 / .83
Papaya (1 large) = 3.00 / 1.23

Bananas from the market. Smaller than the kind you find in the States, but the same great taste.

A healthy omlet and French toast.

Grilled Cheese and "Sweet Corn."

Spices make food taste much better!

This is what my kitchen area looks like while I'm preparing for a dinner for five guests!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Shadow Visits & a Birthday

I’ve often thought it is a unique situation that I’m in: I have never owned or rented my own place back in the States, yet here I am living for “free” in another country and with a view of the Pacific Ocean! And this living arrangement also allows me the chance to entertain, and that is what I’ve been doing more often than not, this past week.

It began last Friday, November 12th, when four of my friends from the Peace Corps came out to my house to celebrate my birthday a few days early. I planned a meal of spaghetti, stir-fried vegetables and garlic bread. My guests were Kaelin, Cassie, Jenny C. and Jenny M., all from my group, 82. There is always a rumor going around the office that my site is so remote and hard to get to. That may be true, but nonetheless, the girls made the trek out to my place to help wish me a happy birthday. They were given a lift from the host family of Jenny C. I started to laugh when I saw them arrive—four girls wearing dresses, jumping out of the back of a pickup truck. It was great to see them.

Jenny M., who happens to be a great cook, had made me a chocolate cake. I gave them the tour of the house and then we started dinner. I kept commenting to them how nice it was to have other people in the house; sometimes I forget how alone I am out here. We turned on some music and had a nice visit.

Dinner was wonderful and I am still amazed at how much I can cook on my little electric, two-burner stovetop. We all had seconds and got really full. Then I remembered we still had cake, and I had made some chocolate pudding to go with it. My dad had sent some candles in his birthday package so the girls lit them and put them on my cake. I was saying goodbye to a long year that had so many ups and downs, so after they sang to me, it was then time to make a new wish for a new year. Each birthday I often wonder what the next one will bring.

We cleaned up all the dishes as we complained about how full we were. As we were doing dishes I mentioned how having them there with me and then the smell of the cake, really helped it feel like my birthday. Because I’m from Michigan and 40 degree weather is common by the middle of November, I’m still getting use to it being in the mid 90s on my birthday here in Samoa.

The following day, Saturday, I had more visitors come out. The Peace Corps office had asked a bunch of volunteers from my group to host one or two members from Group 83, who arrived in October. They were visiting us for a few days for a shadow visit. Peace Corps wanted them to experience what life is like for a volunteer on a typical day, since they themselves will be heading to their own villages next month after their swearing-in.

I hosted Mike and Danny. They arrived on Saturday on the bus and for the second day in a row I gave a tour of my house! We spent some time visiting, but in all honesty, I really thought they would get bored out here for their three day visit. Most of us volunteers had discussed this beforehand. As much as we enjoyed the company, our lives are pretty simple compared to the lives we lived back in America.

Despite the slow pace of life in the village, I think the visit was a good opportunity for them. We took a walk through my village and they got to have all the kids stare at them since they were the new attraction. I cooked dinner the first night. On the menu: homemade macaroni and cheese with vegetables and garlic bread.

Sunday was slow as always, but we made it to the Catholic Church and then toonai (the huge meal after church on Sundays). We ate toonai at my neighbor’s house. I had gone down to the store early in the morning to buy chicken to give for the meal. Whenever I eat at my neighbor’s house, I always sit with my legs crossed on the floor. I’ve gotten a lot of practice with this the past year and my legs have been toughened up for long periods of sitting. As I watched Mike and Danny grab their legs as they fell asleep, it reminded me of the days mine use to hurt. I can’t remember when they started feeling better for me, but as the months went by, they gradually got use to being crossed for up to an hour at a time.

Sunday afternoon was spent relaxing at my house. It got up to95 degrees that day and I wanted to lay down for a nap but my bed just feels too warm in the afternoon, so I put a towel on my floor and slept there for about an hour. In the evening I introduced the guys to the card game, Phase Ten. Danny won that and then it was time for bed.

Monday was school and Mike and Danny visited. Monday was my actual birthday, and the kids and teachers had found this out. They all sang happy birthday to me at the end of the day in Samoan and English! I received a couple of carved kava bowls from one of the students in year eight. His dad had made them, but he had been telling me about them the whole week before. I could tell how proud he was to give them to me. He also had his sister who is in high school make a card for me. I wish he had tried to make the card himself, but at least he had the thought.

Danny and Mike got to meet my teachers and see the kids. I explained some of the projects we had been working on this year. Our final exams were last week so this was a slow week at school, but I had a couple of kids read to them.

After school on Monday, Danny had to make a phone call and I wanted to call home as well. As the empty bus headed back out of the village we climbed on for a lift out to my area where I get a cell phone signal. We each made our calls before making the walk back to my house in the hot sun. That evening we went over to my neighbor’s house again for dinner. They had a huge meal prepared for us and had made a birthday cake for me. I’ve always appreciated receiving a birthday cake each year, and I think it’s something that Americans come to expect. But these past two birthdays in Samoa have really given me a chance to pause and realize some of the sacrifices others are willing to make so I have a special day.

Birthdays aren’t normally celebrated by the typical Samoan family. Everyone knows when their birthday is, but there aren’t normally cakes and ice cream or balloons. My neighbors don’t have a lot of money and for them to have a birthday cake for me really made the day extra special. As I sat there with them, Danny and Mike, it was a perfect image that reflected my own life this past year. I thought about Mike and Danny and related to them, knowing how I felt a year ago, sitting where they were—legs sore, trying to grasp the basics of the language. But then I looked at myself and how I had changed this past year and it was really a special moment that helped illustrate how comfortable I have become here since my last birthday. After they sang to me and we ate the cake, we played some cards before Danny, Mike and I went back to my place.

Danny and Mike left on Tuesday morning. It was great to have all the company, and especially during my birthday celebrations. I’m glad I was able to share my experiences and routine with some of the new members and I hope it helps give them hope that things do settle down and become normal. Those first months were the hardest, and most challenging, but I’m so happy I was here for my 26th birthday!

Danny listening to a student read, Six Ducks in a Pond.

Mike listening to a student read during his shadow visit.

Celebrating my birthday!

The kava bowls given by Kolly from year 8, as a birthday gift

Me in front of the birthday sign my mom sent all the way from Michigan. She has hung a birthday sign on my birthday since I was young!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Secret Garden

The kids took a picture of me
under the waterfall.
I can still remember when I was a child and would play out in the back yard digging holes and trying to build little rivers and streams using the garden hose. I asked my Dad on more than one occasion how we could build a pond. Before I was old enough to know better, I thought that just involved pouring water into a hole for so long that it would eventually stop saturating into the ground. I never mastered that and remember asking my Dad to get some plastic at the hardware store to keep the water in the “pond.” I remember he picked some up and I made a small pond and was very pleased with the experience.

There are also other occasions where I had a fascination with streams and water pools. I can recall visiting our local landscape nursery and always admiring the decorative fountains and trickling water pools they had on display. When I was in 4th and 5th grade I use to love digging trenches out on the school playground after a heavy rain, allowing the pools of water to flow like rivers around the playground. Going to play miniature golf as a seven year old was less about hitting the ball down the green turf and more about walking over bridges and amongst waterfalls that made up the landscaping. And during summer visits to the shores of Lake Michigan, I have fond memories of building sand castles with moats and little streams. All of these memories came flashing back this week as I set out on an adventure to the “Secret Garden!”

It all began on Wednesday. A group of boys who normally hang out in my room well after the bell rings at the close of school, were still lingering around and wanting to play a vocabulary game they enjoy. By that time, I had decided I wanted to go for a walk since it was such a nice day. I asked the boys if they wanted to go with me. They hid their school bags behind the bushes in the front of my house and we were off down the road. Along the way they would stop and break open an o’o, which is a germinating coconut. It has the texture of a sponge, but is a pretty tasty treat.

After walking for about 10 minutes, we reached the first of many streams that lead out of the mountains around my village. At first we were heading for the stream to get a drink of water, but soon we found ourselves walking into the thick brush, and away from the road. The kids were fast on their feet as they walked over the slippery rocks without any trouble. I, on the other hand, searched for a walking stick to support my clumsy body and slowly maneuvered around, and over the rocks which had water rushing over them. The rocks that weren’t under water were covered in a slimy moss and made the trek extra adventurous. One of the boys noticed my lack of abilities in walking up a river and gave me a steady hand.

We only went back up the stream about 50 yards before the kids found what they were looking for. It was a beautiful little waterfall that poured into a deep water pool. They all jumped in without any hesitation while I sat on a rock nearby. As I looked around that’s when those childhood memories struck me. I thought about how ironic it was that I spent so much of my childhood dreaming up how to build a fantasy world of waterfalls, streams and pools in my back yard, and here these kids had grown up with this all of there lives.

The first thing I wondered, was how they viewed it. To me, as a 25 year old who grew up in the middle of the flat corn fields of Michigan, I thought it was pretty darn awesome that these kids have this kind of a “playground” just minutes from their houses. The next thing that went through my head was what dream worlds do they want to create for themselves if they already have something like this.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned on going swimming anywhere when we left my house so I didn’t have a suit, and because I hadn’t put mosquito repellent on and we were in the “jungle,” I was getting swarmed by all sorts of mosquitoes. After letting them swim for 20 minutes we decided to head out with the plans of coming back on Friday, and me wearing my swimming suit so I could cool off as well.

Friday morning, they all showed up at school asking right away if I was going to go to the river to go swimming. I said yes and I could tell they were pretty excited. So after school on Friday I prepared myself for our adventure. I had my mosquito repellent, sun block, water, swimsuit, and camera. After we arrived I was happy to see my walking stick from Wednesday was still safely hidden in the tall grass for me to use. Nonetheless, I managed to slip and fall on a rock and almost brought Milo down with me.

Friday’s visit was more impressive than Wednesday’s, due to the fact that on Wednesday night we had a torrential downpour that lasted a couple of hours and thus the river was flowing with a much greater force than earlier in the week. The boys were walking up to a ledge and jumping into the deep pool. I took a plunge and they all laughed. I worked my way over to the waterfall and sat underneath as the water came pouring down onto my head. It made for a nice back massage.

While I was sitting under the waterfall, I felt something dangling around my head. I turned and looked up and one of my students had draped a vine down the face of the waterfall and was prompting all the boys to climb up. The vine could have supported one boy, maybe even two, but not four! In the process of me telling them to get down, they came down—in a huge pile—and fell on to me. Luckily everyone was alright and I made it clear there wouldn’t be any more swinging from vines.

As we were in that pool I kept looking up and wondering what was at the next level above us. That water was coming from somewhere much higher than where we were. There was a safe path around the waterfall that we decided to explore. The boys charged up the hill without any trouble and I brought up the rear. Saulo from my year seven class was one step ahead of me. Saulo is one of my strongest students and has fairly good English. As we were climbing up a steep part of the hill he was giving me commands as to which branches to grab.

I’ve been teaching the kids a number of vocabulary words this year and some of them have been really challenging. As we continued up the hill Saulo made my day when he used one of the vocabulary words in the perfect context. The word was hoist, and as I was looking for my next step in the slippery mud with ants running down my arm, he yelled out, “Grab here and hoist yourself.!” It was nice to know that even under these conditions he was able to recall vocabulary words.

We all safely made it up the hill and found another pool of water from another waterfall. This pool was about twice as large, although much too shallow to do any jumping into. I took a few pictures of the kids and had them take one of me. The bugs were horrendous so we decided to head back down. We revisited the first pool of water for a quick cooling off and then headed back out to the road. I was more careful on my way out and managed to stay on my feet.

As we gathered near the road I tossed my walking stick into the weeds in the hopes that it would stay hidden for my next visit. I felt a bit like I was hiding the key to the Secret Garden. Although most everyone in my village has swam at that same waterfall at some point in their lives, I still left with the feeling that it was something that I had discovered all on my own. Perhaps that’s because it helped to make one of my childhood dreams come true, of having that place where streams rushed over rocks, and waterfalls emptied into deep pools below.

As we walked back in the hot Samoan sun, our suits and shirts started to dry. I was so glad that I decided to go for a walk this week and so pleased at where it ended up.

The boys swimming in the pool below.

Saulo is my student who knew the vocabulary word, "hoist," during our river adventure.