Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Domestic Life

Nothing about running a household here in Africa is easy. There aren't any easy meals. You can buy dry rice and beans, oil, fruits, vegetables, eggs, sugar, bread, flour, tea, and coffee. The rice and beans have to be soaked, the vegetables chopped and cooked. There's no bagged salad, frozen meals, Wendy's frosties, pre-made pie crusts, pre-made pasta sauce, sliced bread, granola bars, soup, chocolate chip cookies, lattes, string cheese, yogurt smoothies, or any of the other things I'm realizing made up the entirety of my diet in medical school. On the other hand, one of the true benefits to living here is the tropical fruit. I have never eaten such delicious mango, banana, pineapple, litchi, and papaya. They're little fruity miracles, fresh and sun-warmed right off the tree. There has been many a night Kevin and I stuffed ourselves with pineapples and mango and called it a dinner!

I tromped to the outdoor market a few days ago in search of food. Since the onset of the rainy season, the collection of thatch huts that make up the market have been swimming in a sea of mud and muck. As I waded through the stalls, my feet sank up to the ankles in sludge (Thanks to Mrs. Harvey for the cute galoshes. Boy was I grateful for them right then). I stopped to buy some onions and tomatoes. Women called to me from their stalls, “Senora, don't you want some couve? Amiga, don't you need garlic?” I lingered by the spice man's stall. He has little packets of powdered spices laid out in a rainbow of colors along with bouillon cubes and dried bay leaves. The intermixing smells of all of them is intoxicating. I always pause, but never know what to buy. I don't know their Portuguese names of the spices or how to use them. It could be curried crack for all I know. I recently bought some “chicken spice” that smelled good. I assume that it's for chickens and not somehow made from chickens, but I haven't yet tried it out. On the way out of the market, men were hawking pineapples from the small mountains of produce that lined the main entry. Other men were roasting ears of corn over tiny charcoal fires. I took particular note of this since I hadn't seen corn eaten here yet. I dragged my galoshes through the giant puddles in the streets trying to get the mud off on my way back to the office.

Back at home for lunch, I searched for the avocados and mangoes I had left on the counter that morning. Not finding them, I asked our new empregado if he had seen them. He proudly opened the door of the freezer and shown me that he had frozen all of our produce. I was at a complete loss for words. I guess that might seem like a good idea to someone without the personal acquaintance of freezers.

As Kevin and I tried to make dinner that night, I was discouraged by the sight of the melting fruit disintegrating in front of me. We were also boiling some corn we had excitedly bought from some street children earlier. “Can you eat it?” we had asked them eagerly. They looked at us with surprise, curiosity, and a touch of disdain, but replied “Yes, you eat it.” “Who are these stupid people?” their eyes seemed to say. I was so excited by the thought of some yummy corn on the cob. But as we continued to boil it, we noted something odd. It was still rock hard. “How long does it take to boil corn?” Kevin asked. I was pretty sure it didn't take more than 10 minutes. Since neither of our mothers was around for us to ask, we decided the best course of action was to keep boiling it. After half an hour, we poked it with a wooden spoon. Yep, still rock hard. We boiled it some more. After three-quarters of an hour we decided the corn was not going to get softer. But what can't be improved with butter and salt, right? We pulled it out to try. Definitely very hard and oddly chewy. I was mentally running through possibilities. Was this type of corn only good for making meal? Was it infected with some weird fungus with neurotoxic properties? So far I wasn't experiencing any ill effects, but I voiced this concern to Kevin. Kevin, by now used to my starting sentences with “I remember they told us in medical school about this weird but lethal fungus/poison/bacteria/disease...” noted that it tasted like popcorn and kept munching complacently. I caved and opened a bag of Valentine's M and M's Granny gave us before we left. I had carefully guarded them during our voyage from prying airport security officers who wanted to know “why I needed a whole backpack of candy on the airplane.” Turns out I needed them for just such emergencies.

We have a friend here who has been working for FGH since it started. She's a Nurse Practitioner from a small town in Tennessee (and therefore knows what good corn is) and has lots of African experience (ex Peace Corps). I asked her what the deal with the corn is. She told me that it is indeed, “just really hard for some reason. But you can still eat it.” She related a similar experience of boiling corn for an hour in confusion before giving up and eating it. At least it's not a neurotoxic fungus.

An aside from Kevin: One thing that will always be fabulous about domestic life in the Moz is the fruit. I could, and usually do, eat between 3 and 6 mangoes daily. Until recently this fact accounted for a considerable part of my waking hours. However, thanks to a lovely gift from Mr. and Mrs. John Egerton of Nashville, Tennessee, I now have my life back.

They gave us a mango slicer. Everybody's got one of those apple slicer thingies, right? That you push down over the core? This operates on the same principal, but only extracts the one giant seed in the middle of the world's greatest fruit. Before you'd spend no less than 10 minutes delicately slicing the Prime Meridian, peeling the skin back like the petals of a lily, and then making a mess of your entire face trying to eat a mango like an apple. That's not to even mention the fibers that get stuck in your teeth. Now I just push the all the best meat falls perfectly on my plate.

Our first experience with this device didn't go so well. We'd purchased a half dozen ripe mangoes, but had decided to dine with friends at the last minute. The mangoes had to wait. The next day, Lara tried the mango slicer on a now very ripe mango. The result could only be described as a mango smoothie. We'd abandoned this technology like Beta VHS until I was faced with a dozen fresh mangoes to slice. I decided to give it a chance myself, and now I am grateful: what would have taken me a half hour was done in 3 minutes.

I know a lot of people who are addicted to Africa, and the reason is plain and simple: mangoes. They are a coy fruit, promising so much flavor but requiring an incredible effort. Men are turned to mindless drones, forever searching for the dissection technique that will yield true. Do yourself a favor before your next trip here: pick up a mango slicer.


Blogger Laine said...

I am wondering if the diet there gives you more energy. The monkeys living on fruit always seem so energetic.

January 30, 2008 at 1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason the corn in Mozambique is so hard is because it is 'field corn' not 'sweet corn'& the farmers have left it on the stock too long. We grow & pick our own very early & it almost tastes like the real thing.
I agree mangos are great--only problem the season here only last about 2 months.

February 11, 2008 at 11:07 AM  

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