Sunday, October 21, 2012

There is a Crocodile in My Freezer and Other Kitchen Adventures

It was the closest thing that looked like a crockpot.

My roommate had said we had a crockpot in the cupboard.

I didn’t see any other options in the cupboard.

It must be the crockpot. I threw in all the chili ingredients, flicked it on, and left for my day. What a perfect way to have dinner ready for the group of friends coming that evening!

It wasn’t the crockpot.

In fact, it was a humungous… rice cooker! That’s right. Thanks to our close proximity to rice eating nations, rice cookers in this part of the world are gianormous, and I had attempted to cook chili in our rice cooker. It started to dawn on me when, upon returning to the house, I found the chili cooking much slower than I had expected…
Rice cooker (left) and crockpot (right). They look alike, don't they?

But (cue heroic music), my pressure cooker saved the day! Faster than it takes to peel a pot of sweet potatoes (kaukau in the local trade language, Tok Pisin), it cooked my rice (since I now couldn’t use the rice cooker), finished up my chili and the potential entertaining disaster was averted! Let’s hear a shout out for pressure cookers!  (And, in case you are wondering, I did eventually find the true crockpot, and it has become an invaluable kitchen device.)

Hooray for pressure cookers!!
Yes, I’m proud to say that my pressure cooker = my friend. Why? Because, when I live at such a high altitude (5000+ ft), the boiling point is lower… but things take longer to cook. Combine that with needing to cook all my meals (and half the ingredients) from scratch and life taking longer in general, I’m very happy for this device that saves both time and dishes.

And, perhaps most spectacularly, it can cook pukpuk.

What’s pukpuk? A hapless guest asked that same question several months ago as he sat in our living room and cradled in his lap the bowl of sweet and sour deliciousness poured over his rice. “It’s delicious!”

“It’s crocodile,” I informed him.

Pukpuk: like this crocodile I encountered at the zoo in Australia.
The fork stopped halfway to his mouth as he stared at me. “It’s much cheaper than any other meat we can get here,” I explained, “and if we either cook it in the crockpot or the pressure cooker, it doesn’t end up so tough.”

He took another bite, chewing a bit more cautiously this time. “Well, it’s still delicious!”

And that’s why I like pressure cookers

… because how else are you going to cook crocodile?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

When Handshaking Becomes Aerobic Activity

How many times do you shake hands in a day? Or a week? Or a month?

Count ‘em up… do you have to use all ten fingers?

In Papua New Guinea, shaking hands is an important part of greeting or leave-taking, ultimately showing hospitality, trust, acceptance, relationships, and care. Thus, when you encounter a new group of people, it means that you shake hands with everyone regardless of gender and often including the children, down to the littlest babies!

When I was in Saidor village this past August, helping run a literacy course (described here), shaking hands was an important part of my daily routine. In fact, if I only count the four weeks of classes (and not the prep week), I shook hands nearly 1500 times!!

Think about it, 30 individuals x twice a day x 20 days of class = 1200 handshakes. Now add in the women selling food at the market or coming to visit around lunch time (say 4 women x 30 days = 120) plus going to church (25 people (on the low end) x 4 Sundays = 100). That makes for a conservative total of 1420 handshakes for the month of August!

Whew! Sometimes, I think handshaking should be counted as an aerobic sport!

Shaking hands is even incorporated into one of the choruses of a Tok Pisin (trade language) worship song. In Saidor, as soon as we heard these words being belted out, immediately, we jumped up from our seats and shook hands with as many people as possible (ideally everyone in the room) before the chorus ended!

Segan i go na segan i kam. Smail wantaim na amamas. Laikim narapela olsem laikim yu yet. Dispela pasin bilong God.

[Shake hands with others as they shake hands with you. Lift your countenance and rejoice together. Love one another as you would yourself. For this is the way of God.]

Today, I leave for a several-day village visit to the Markham Valley in Morobe Province in order to connect with the local people and (hopefully) visit with some church leaders.

And, of course, shake plenty of hands!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

We Bought a Zoo (Sorta)

I was minding my own business, sitting on the couch of my living room and typing away on my computer, when it happened. If my life had a soundtrack, eerie foreshadowing music would have started rumbling from the basses and maybe the shadows would have deepened slightly. My spine tingled like someone—or something was watching me, and as I slowly turned to look out the window, I found myself staring straight at a gigantic, 1000 lb creature, it’s breath fogging up the glass, eyes boring into mine, teeth big enough to take more than a little nick out of my arm…and only an 1/8th inch of glass separating us.

Rita, my haus meri, the national woman who mentors me with her wisdom, mothers me with her love, and generally helps us with our house work once a week, came darting back into the house. Her eyes were wide, and she clutched a basket to her chest!

“They won’t let me hang up the laundry!”

Stardust helping Rita with the laundry
I leapt up from the couch, shoved into my shoes, and darted out the door, snatching up a rope as I went.  Kodi and Buddy, our dogs, bounded protectively at my heels as I ran up to the invading creatures.

“You naughty horses!” Aski and Stardust, two very friendly equines, looked at me inquisitively before they turned to nose the wet clothes hanging on the line. “Go away!” I shook the halter at them, but they paid no attention. Laundry was far more interesting. Sighing, I haltered and tied one to the grapefruit tree while chasing the other one to the far side of the lawn. “It’s okay, Rita!” I called, “they won’t bother you!”

Aski's favourite position...looking in our living room window!
 For the past two weeks, my housemates and I have felt like we have bought a zoo as two of the horses on centre have moved into our yard for temporary medical treatment (an eye infection requiring 5x per day medication and a thyroid condition requiring multiple daily feedings). Our zoo might not have lions or tigers or giraffes roaming among the banana trees (much less Matt Damon…)… but even when I lived on a horse farm in Minnesota, I didn’t have inquisitive mares staring in my living room window!

Feeding time is especially interesting. It all starts with the cat, Emmy, who really really likes her food. In fact, she wants her food so much that she’s willing to attempt to dash out our front door and into our laundry room (accessed from the porch), which means cheating the mouth of Hades…err, Kodi, our rather cat-fixated guard dog. Once you body slam Kodi into the ground, utilizing every WWF move you know to free the cat from her jaws, then it’s time to feed the dogs.

Except, there are two hungry horses out there.

Kodi, Aski, and Buddy, current residents of The Ukarumpa Zoo
Two hungry horses who are, in fact, willing to eat dog food…. and chase away the dog to do it!

Once you have chased away the horses and freed the howling, panicked dog from under the house (where it has been in depths of despair watching these herbivores devour its precious dog food!) and managed to secure the other yapping canine from running around like one of those puny coaches at a wrestling match yelling “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” to egg on the horse vs. dog match of the century, then it’s time to feed the horses.

So, you haul the two large tubs of two specifically and specially formulated diets past the avocado tree, (which has had all its leaves ripped off by the Equine Landscaping Company) over to the water spigot (since the hose is cracked), and with one elbow fend off the food-crazed horses as you proceed to soak your skirt…err, I mean, the food, and then heave the sloppy, dripping, sloshing mess to designated spaces in the yard so the horses can each happily devour her copra without glaring evilly at her once-best-friend-but-now-dire enemy (the other horse). 

Meet Emmy, who will defy certain death for the possibility of a meal
(As they eat, then you return to the porch to find that Large Dog has chased away Small Dog to eat his food because half of her food was devoured by the horse, so then you put Small Dog in the house to eat his food (where the Cat has since returned), but the Cat is still hungry (or so it thinks) and thus chases Small Dog out of his food to attempt to crunch down some oh-so-tasty dog food…but Small Dog is a bit irritated about the whole thing and attempts to dissuade the Cat, all the while tripping the human who is trying to make dinner in the kitchen and clean up the vomited gecko left by the ever-hungry Miss Kitty.)

Repeat 2-3 times per day…. and that doesn’t include the medicine dosage routine!

Is there any wonder that we can stop traffic on the road as nationals (and expats!) crane their necks in amazement at our animal collection? I think we should start charging admission—just think of all the stories that we are fueling throughout the entire Aiyura valley!

Oh well. At least with our current zoo population, we don’t need to worry about mowing!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Grocery Shopping in Galoshes

The produce section of our market

What do you do at 7 am on a Friday morning? Do you sit at your table, drinking coffee (yuck! I still haven’t converted to the dark side), eating cereal (oh what luxury!) and reading a newspaper  (newspaper…you have newspapers?)? Or have you gone for a run around your neighborhood (probably wearing shorts, you scandalous person!) or maybe are already commuting to work (I bet you drive a car….woww….)?

Me? Well, today, you would have found me at our local market, just a five-minute walk from my house. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from 6-8 am, our national friends gather in one of the best markets in the Eastern Highlands (well, we think so, anyway). Every week, I grab my market bilums (string bags made from sturdy and colorful plastic), some small coins and bills (the sellers don’t often have change), and a pair of good sturdy galoshes (because this is Papua New Guinea and it rains here—a lot...and because "galoshes" makes a much more alliterative title than "mud boots")  to purchase the fruits and vegetables we adore for our meals.

All of this for less than $9 USD!
In fact, our weekly market shopping is where we purchase the bulk of our food for meals. You may have heard how our store has a limited selection or prices are sky-high for imported products… but here, in our market, it’s a produce paradise (and when a hand of bananas is only 50 cents or a fresh pineapple can be purchased for only 1-2 dollars, it’s a pocketbook paradise as well!).

As you enter the market, pause for a moment and savor the upcoming feast for your senses—fresh picked flowers line the entranceway, gorgeous wooden carved artifacts and a riot of color and pattern in the dozens of wool bilums (traditional string bags) are scattered in front of sellers on the basketball court, dogs and children race down the dirt-packed floor, darting under tables. Slip past other expatriate customers and begin to wander up and down the aisles, calling out moning! to your national friend standing behind a pile of gleaming tomatoes. Skip the apple—Snow White should have fallen for one of these beauties! Everywhere you look, tables are mounded with heaps of  beans (every color imaginable!), pineapples, strawberries, tomatoes, mangoes, green onions, red onions, capsicum, passion fruit, avocados, lettuce, cabbage, squash, tree tomatoes, pineapples, various kinds of sweet potatoes as well as English potatoes, ginger, carrots, zucchini, cucumbers, raspberries, broccoli, peas, string beans, peanuts, sugarcane, pitpit and other kinds of local greens, various other unidentifiable (but tasty!) fruit …and even hot donuts!

I'm walking home from market with yummy veggies!
Unlike some markets around the world that echo with vivacious bargaining, animated discussions, and role-playing rejections of over-priced products, this one is quiet, broken only by murmured greetings or soft asking of prices (which aren’t always advertised). In Papua New Guinea, bargaining or examining produce without purchasing are not accepted pastimes, so hone your skills at gauging size, freshness, and ripeness out of the corner of your eye. After a while, pull out your list and begin with your heaviest items (no need to squash the capsicum beneath the pineapple!).

Once your list is complete, hoist your bilum (or two) to your head and begin the walk home. (I know it looks uncomfortable, but actually, I find that carrying a heavy load in this traditional manner is actually much easier than trying to haul it home over my shoulder). All that’s left is to start your fruits and veggies soaking in bleach water (don’t forget to set the timer!), and you can get ready for the rest of your day!

Bleaching kills any nasty germs that might be left from the dirt or water

And that's how we go grocery shopping in galoshes.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

From Gutenberg to Silkscreening

In August 1456, Johannes Gutenberg, with ink on his hands and excitement in his eyes, pulled the last sheet of the Gutenberg Bible from his printing press, thus altering book production forever.

In August 2012, 20 men and women, with ink on their hands and excitement in their eyes, pulled their first sheets from their silkscreen presses, thus altering their language’s canon of books forever.

We were in the third week of a four-week literacy course in Saidor town, Madang province (read its summary here), and the participants from eight different local languages around the Rai Coast were getting ready to produce their own books of stories written in each of their tok ples (local language). I had fun documenting the whole process—come on a tour of book production without computers, printers, slick photoshop or word processing programs!

First, each of the students had to create and write a story or two in their own languages. They loved the oral storytelling part!

Putting it down on paper was a bit harder, but we took them step-by-step through the editing and refining process (write, read, edit...write, read, edit...write, read, edit) until the story they drafted was clear, accurate, and natural.

Then, they very carefully wrote their story on an A4 sheet of paper. This was to determine spacing, line breaks, and the final length of the story, as well as to help them practice their letter formation and finalize spelling.

I might be biased... but next step was my favourite part! Following a discussion of PNG art and culture, I helped them create their stories’ various illustrations. What shapes do you  think are inside a rooster?

Afterwards, they created their table of contents, verso page, title page, and cover. They also made tiny mock-up book to figure out the page numbers and see how the book would fit together.

Now they are all set to start writing (or cutting) their stencils. With dead pens in hand, they began the meticulous and hand-cramping process of scribing their stories onto the stencil paper. The key was to press hard enough such that when you held it up to the light, you could see pinpricks glowing through the letters... but not press so hard that you broke all the way through.

Hello! Welcome to my store—can I help you find something? In order to help them practice writing receipts, recording financial transactions, and working within their budget, we had them “shop” at our store to buy all the supplies for their silkscreening... and I was Madame Storekeeper!

In groups of four, the teams set up their workstation and began book production: 15 copies each. This is where silkscreening gets its name. See the fine-mesh screen? Tape your stencil to the backside of the screen and your clean paper below that. Now, when you slather ink across the front of the screen and pull your squeegee toward you in even, pressured strokes, the ink seeps through the holes of the stencil, onto your paper...hopefully forming letters. Watch out—don’t get ink on your clothes! Now, peel your paper off the board—and voila! A page from your book is complete!

What’s book production without some mess? Afterwards, everyone trekked out to the hose to scrub down their screens with good ole’ Klina soap.

But, the books still need to be bound! After they dried, the students quickly collated and bound their books.

Now it’s time to read!

I think Gutenberg would be proud, don't you?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Weather Report: Stars

A sunset at Saidor, PNG. Those colours are real.
I watch the moon rise at Saidor, Papua New Guinea. The sun has died in a brilliance of travel brochures. Coconut trees silhouette against fire until their fronds are streaks of India ink dripping from the branches. I can hear the distant thrum of the Nankina river, a 15 minute walk. It must have rained up in the mountains, but here the night is clear.

Sunsets in the tropics are like lighting a match—struck, flares, dies. Wisps of charcoal trail upwards, and I can see star-eyes glinting, blinking through the fabric of the sky. I crane my neck back—I had heard Orion was visible below the equator... a traveller from the north to bring news of home. But I can’t see him. Instead, I feel dizzy, spinning with motion sickness—why does the earth whirl so fast? The Milky Way wraps her arms around the sky, and I drop to grass beneath sleeping trees.

Can they dream
, I wonder, of worlds on the other side of the earth? Where pines replace buai and violets outlast the hibiscus? Where a 15-hour difference means my family sleeps when I sit awake?

When I was a child, my dad would pull out the telescope and walk until the house lights were hidden and the barest glow on the horizon came from the Twin Cities, 70 miles away. The sky was a bowl, tipped over the Minnesota prairie, and we would stretch on our backs, grass in our hair, marvelling at the promise of Abraham and the Andromeda galaxy. “Look,” he would say, out of the dark, “see that planet? See that nebula?” And I knew from his voice that he was smiling. The heavens declare the glory of God...

Now, in the darkness of Saidor, before our generator groans to life and lights flick on around the station, I can hear the guitars strum for evening lotu (worship). It’s time for me to go inside, but I break off another piece of grass, bend it in my fingers. Wait, look up, taste the words of David:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place…

Hemispheres dissolve, and I think of my Fathers, watching the stars.