Friday, March 30, 2012

A 30-Minute Hop

There is something deliciously satisfying in shuffling around the house in a pair of slippers, sweatpants, laplap (wraparound skirt), sweatshirt, and a hot cup of tea—and not be pouring sweat like Yanke Dam! About a week ago, I arrived back in Ukarumpa, moved into a new house, made friends with the resident dogs, remembered there is this thing called altitude (Ukarumpa is at approx. 5,000 feet), and dove into several days of linguistic software workshop. Now that the whirlwind seems to be dying down, I’m glad to curl up on my couch (bundled up of course—because I can!) and treat you to some pictures of the trip up to Uka.

Last time I arrived from Madang, I rode the Hino for over 6 hours, bumping over the mountains and swerving the potholes.

This time, I took a 30 min flight in the Kodiak. It was, to put it mildly, pretty awesome.

Here's a view of Madang. The Pacific Ocean is at the bottom of the picture.

In the co-pilot's seat was a very excited boy who revealed to me that racing outside during school hours to see the plane fly overhead is a practice common to all aviation families. (It was slightly difficult to maintain discipline when I had the overwhelming urge to do the same thing...)

 Most of the flight was skimming the tops of the mountains and pushing through clouds. But, I was delighted to have a clear view of the Ramu Valley and the large river running through it.

Mountains, mountains, mountains... no wonder it takes 6 hours by car! You might not be able to see it, but there is a tiny village on the right-hand side of the strut, about halfway up the visible mountain range.

Here is Kainantu, the closest town to Ukarumpa.

Ukarumpa itself!

The Aiyura airport, where we landed, and I gladly encountered the glorious temperatures of Papua New Guinea's Eastern Highlands.:)

I will now be in Ukarumpa for the next five weeks while the POC students are in their village living portion of the course. Once they are finished, I will travel back to Madang for a week to debrief them and grade their various assignments. Then it's back to Uka! Thanks for joining me :)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Reflections of a Human Buoy

Right now, I thought to myself, I feel like a submarine captain looking for underwater mines. I surfaced to check my bearings and adjust my mask and snorkel before I returned to my rounds. I was swimming laps around the children’s swimming rope, trolling the sea bottom for any dangerous debris or sea creatures that would hinder the children’s afternoon. Within a few minutes, they would all arrive—a Hino-load of children and their parents, ready for the weekly conditioning swim in Nagada harbor.

A pool and the ocean--how awesome is that?
Last course, I was joining the hordes of students in a migration around the 1000 meter rope to reach a mile. Now, I was perfecting the art counting to sixteen in speeds comparable to a computer’s processor, picking out bobbing heads and colorful goggles in a 360 degree span innumerable times over the two hours. In other words, I stood at the children’s 25 meter rope.

In addition to my flawless counting skills, my simple addition was polished into a well-oiled machine as I soon was able to rattle off the personalized number of laps each child had completed, how many were left, what was required for lower-level prize versus the upper level prize, as well as who the nearest competitors were every time every child reached the end of the rope. Impressive, no?

More cool things found in the water: ships (and a tiny outrigger canoe)
Lest you think that I only honed my math skills, I also engaged in search and rescue missions (lost goggles are a serious thing), practiced water weightlifting (less-confident children still swam laps…attached to my arm), considered opening my own pediatric office (sunscreen, water, Twisties, and bandaids—come one, come all), and refined my zoological expertise as I monitored their numerous acquisitions (“no, you can’t squeeze the sea cucumber right here” (they excrete a sticky, goopy, stringy white mess everywhere in defense against eager 8-year-old hands) and “please put the starfish back in the water now” and “why don’t you put your hermit crabs back on shore?”).

Meet Jack. He and his cousin Sam are the POC school mascots.
And then there were the swimming field trips, like to Coastwatchers or Madang Resort, where we took the children to a real, honest-to-goodness pool where  there was no seaweed to swipe at their legs and silt to be churned until the water was black. Of course, without a rope the greatest entertainment became tackling the teacher, until I and the other adult each had at least five children wrapped like squids around our arms, legs, and torsos as we towed them through the water. Perhaps the greatest feat of those occasions was when we hollered “time to go!” and then attempted to leave with the same numbers of children, bags, towels, water bottles, sunscreens, hats, shirts, shoes, goggles…

Yes, these are definitely a skill set found only in the very highest echelon of navy sailors.... or in the daily humdrum of a human buoy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ovens? Oi Vey.

There is nothing quite like the smell of fresh bread. This past weekend, I wandered into my kitchen after skyping with my family, following the tantalizing odor of crispy crusts and perfectly golden loaves. My housemate was frowning at the cooling rack. “Our oven has done it again.” She turned to me, pointing to the rolls, which had darkened past mahogany. “And they were only in 20 minutes!”

My Oven. (What photo did you expect when I blog about ovens?)
Some people might think that cooking (or baking) from scratch is the hard part… but, I am inclined to think it’s the cooking (or the baking, in this case) that causes the most problems. Let me introduce you to The Oven.

By far the most common oven here is the gas oven, which, as its name suggests, derives its baking abilities from burning gas. It is only the very fortunate, however, who have an oven with a working lighter (much less one at all). And so, those of us in more humble circumstances rely on the simple match. What’s it like to light a PNG oven? I thought you’d never ask.

You will now join the ranks of world-class contortionists as you as you kneel on the floor (in your skirt) and simultaneously strike your match (inside the oven so it doesn’t burn out), switch on the gas (above your head), flick on the starter (down in the corner), and finally strain back into the far recesses of the oven and aim the match (now flickering hungrily at your fingers) into the burner where gas is currently emanating out in great quantities. Remember—all striking, switching, flicking, straining, and aiming require atomic-like precision. Repeat approximately 20 times (PNG matches tend to snap or disintegrate when they are struck against the matchbox). Once it catches—and it catches in a whoosh—then dart out of there before your body adds to the fuel. Congratulations! You can now start baking.

Because it is gas, regulating the temperature in the first place, even after you have made your Fahrenheit-to-Celsius-conversions is not guaranteed, so watch those muffins carefully! After all, there isn’t much you can do when your oven spikes in temperature such that your French bread welds to the bottom of the baking sheet and when you pry it off, half the coating of the now-buckled pan comes with it. (That pan no longer lives.)

This all presupposes that you have heat in the first place. It is hard to bake when the oven is stone cold. Now, in my experience, this results from one of two reasons. Either A) It just does. Especially when you turn the heat down (just slightly) while baking six pumpkin pies, and the friendly oven simply zaps any and all flame. Now you must repeat the above paragraph, and, if you are lucky and caught it soon enough, your bare arm must now traverse the lava-like oven interior. Battle scars, anyone?

Or, B) the oven runs out of gas. Then, your banana cake develops layers, just like the Grand Canyon or tree rings, telling about growth patterns… (That was the weekend we decided building a fire was easier than managing our microwave and so joined the students in their haus kuks (outdoor cooking helter).)

But, despite these trials, here I am, once again kneading another batch of dough.

After all, I love the smell of fresh bread.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Biscuit Basics

Before I came to PNG, my knowledge of cracker-type foods was limited to cheese platters, nursery snacks, and nauseous stomachs. However, the twice-daily tea time of Papua New Guinea has been expanding my horizons. There is a world of biscuits that you’ve never encountered!

Some of the biscuits we eat daily (alas, the Cream Crackers are missing from the photo)
Beef Biscuits—With enough salt and spice to make you think you’re eating the Dead Sea, beef biscuits are the staple of PNG tea time! As you can imagine, when beef biscuits are advertised by a smiling bull crossed with the Incredible-Hulk, you know they definitely got kick! They also have some intense packaging that helps you burn calories before you eat…

Due to those astronomical salt levels, I can only eat these in small quantities—but all that sodium does make them rather effective in helping increase salt levels of dehydration victims on hikes.

Beef biscuits also have a lesser-known cousin—the chicken biscuit. What do they taste like? Have you ever eaten a chicken bouillon cube spread on a cracker? That's how.

Australian Bush Biscuits—These are as close to plain graham crackers  as you will get in PNG, but with a thicker, firmer crunch, almost like those animal crackers you could buy in their circus boxes. Spread with peanut butter, they can make a tasty breakfast or a delicious base for your graham cracker cheesecake or pineapple crisp. Personally, I find them especially delectable dipped into a cup of hot milo (malted hot chocolate)

Cream Crackers—Smaller than the others, cream crackers have a hint more of butter flavor which almost satisfy your Ritz cracker cravings. In the village, I used these as dessert!

Wopa Crackers—Plain and dry, think of wopa crackers as Saltines…without the salt. Spread with peanut butter and jelly or tuna salad, they can be a filling meal. Their packaging suggests they’ll make you super strong (PNG version of Popeye’s Spinach), but I think it has to do more with the quality of teeth required to break the cracker into chewable pieces…

Cuptea Crackers—Sort of like Bush biscuits, these are thinner and smaller, with their main claim to fame being their shape--these crackers are round. It doesn't take much to amuse us.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Going Bananas

Living in this country wears away at edges of your life and perspective, softening and molding a person to better fit into the pattern of existence in Papua New Guinea. POC is the place where many of the students begin to discover this… and in ways they didn’t expect, some of which may seem rather crazy.

Take, for example, breakfast. Have you ever noticed how typical American breakfasts consist of a combination of eggs, meat, cheese, or box cereal? Well, they do. But, if you chose to eat those four ingredients with any regularity for this morning meal, you would soon find your other meals could only consist of Maggi Noodles (the equivalent of Ramen) in order to balance your budget. (In fact, whenever I’m offered any of these four items as the main entrĂ©e, I feel like a royal guest!)

So, we have to look at other options. Homemade granola is super tasty—except most recipes use oats, which happen to be in short supply in this country currently (we run out of ingredients regularly here…). Even such gargantuan resources as aren’t particularly creative in coming up with oat-substitutes that are actually accessible here (they are either extremely exotic grains, like flax or wheat germ, or they posit outlandish ideas such as “grind up 15 cups of almonds” or “include sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and other nuts for a healthy, nut-filled base.” Yeah right. At that expense rate you’d practically be eating diamonds for breakfast.)

Making yogurt is also good idea—until you realize that it uses a lot of milk powder, which is also currently not available in this country. So what do we actually have that doesn’t break the bank? Flour, for one. So, we make things from scratch like muffins and French toast and waffles and pancakes and biscuits and bagels and variations on rice pudding and cream of wheat and grape nuts and bread soufflĂ© or kropsu (an oven pancake). Yes, flour is a great staple…but more than flour, my breakfast diet is often revolves around one lowly ingredient.

See the bananas? They grow everywhere here.
The banana.

The banana is a staple of PNG life—and the country is home to dozens and dozens and dozens of different kinds, each with their own slight variation on taste (all of which are far better than the imported brand common to the snow-bound state of Minnesota). They are divided into two categories: banana kuk (cooking bananas or plantains) and banana mau (eating bananas). Both are extremely tasty in their own way, and our current overflowing abundance of bananas has led my housemate and I to do some breakfast experiments.…

We mash them and freeze them and chop them and dice them and blend them and liquefy them and carry them on hikes and feed them to babies. They come in green and yellow and white and red and black, ranging in length from your little finger to your forearm, and the bunches can be taller than a child. We stand in the kitchen and scratch our heads and try to make banana cobblers and banana spread and bananas rolled in peanut butter and bananas in smoothies and roasted bananas and baked bananas and fried bananas and banana fritters and banana crisp and banana bread and banana muffins and banana cake… and then, for some variation, we cut up a papaya or a mango or a pineapple and add it to our fruit mixture…but always with a base of bananas.

Yes, some things are slightly crazy here. But then, it’s rather acceptable to just go bananas.