Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Thursday, January 12, 2012
I was about to make rice and beans the other days when I realized that I was out of beans. This sparked off some decidedly grumpy rummaging through my shelves for what food I did have, and some moody contemplation about how easy it is to keep a variety of food in the United States with fridges and stores that regularly sell food—as opposed to the small family owned stores here that sell dry goods, supplemented by whatever happens to be sold on the road that day. And the thing is, I have no reason to complain—I had (outside of rice and live animals) considerably more food on hand than any of my neighbors and could have made a number of meals out of it.
There’s always a huge contrast between ‘need’ and ‘want’, particularly when you’re living around people who show up how little you really need. Malagasy food culture in my rural area is almost entirely subsistence agriculture—people work with their rice from seed to field to cooking pot, and supplement vast quantities of rice with smaller side dishes of whatever is nearby and in season—boiled leaves, fruit, egg, or milk for example, but rarely more than one side dish at a meal. It certainly would gain points from any local foods movement adherents (though not environmentalists, as rice fields are cleared from forest areas and frequently sprayed with strong pesticides, when the farmer can afford it).
Anyway, I made a list of all the food that I had in my house of few days ago, out of curiosity:
Food bought locally:
The weevilly stuff will be consumed after sifting and yes, bleach is a food—I filter and bleach all the water I drink. It tastes like pool water, hence the Crystal Light.
From an American perspective, this is probably the amount of food you’d bring on a weekend camping trip. From a rural Malagasy perspective, it’s a boggling variety of snack food (not enough rice to make a real meal, of course). So the question I always ask myself is—do I feel grateful for the food I have, or wish for food I don’t? I predictably try to do the former and frequently end up doing the latter—I’m grateful that I have clean pool water to drink but man! Sometimes I wish it were orange juice.
And by the way—I made banana pancakes that night, topped with honey. No complaints there.
The number of unpleasant drunks and earsplitting “discos” in my town spikes during holiday parties, so for Christmas and New Year’s I opted to briefly flee town for safety in numbers with other volunteers. Christmas was quiet and pleasant—Secret Santa, Love Actually, and a nice Christmas seafood dinner at a hotel. Pretty American, minus the heat (It was NINETY at EIGHT in the morning the other day, and that’s not unusual).
New Year’s, though, ended up being a mixture of Gasy and American, and a lot of fun as well. One of the volunteers in my region just left this week for home, and some of us spent New Year’s at her site with her wonderful (and wonderfully protective) host family to say (a very temporary) goodbye.
Malagasies generally stay up until midnight the night of the first, not the thirty-first, but they were willing to humor us and do both. It’s a chore to stay up late when there’s no electricity, but happily the matriarch of the family brought over a pick-me-up drink—equal parts coffee and condensed milk. We were placidly playing Hearts and having our hair braided when, shortly before midnight, we realized we had to do SOMETHING to mark the New Year. We explained the tradition of the midnight ball drop our very confused hosts, who humored us by finding a slightly deflated soccer ball. (One volunteer suggested dropping a chicken off the roof and was vetoed, though I regret to say not entirely on humanitarian grounds—we thought the roof would cave in.)
So at midnight we stood in the yard in total darkness, counted down from ten, and threw the soccer ball up in the air. One of the volunteers, who had previously served in
The next day, we got up early to see the village patriarch shoot off his gun. I’m not sure how this tradition got started, but he shot off some blanks to announce the New Year. Then, after some rice cake and more condensed milk coffee, we went to milk cows. I think the cow owner may have just been allowing us to come along for entertainment purposes, but he was very nice about it. These are not, naturally, American dairy cows—these are hardscrabble grass fed Gasy cows with very large horns. To milk them, the farmer went to their night pen the evening before we milked to close the calves off in a separate area. In the morning, he let the calves into the main cow pen one at a time. Once the calf found its mother, he looped a rope around the mom’s hind legs, pulled the calf off from feeding, and milked into a gourd that had a hole cut into it. Once this was full, he poured it into a bucket on the other side of the fence. We all tried our hand at milking, with some minor success.
Then it was time to cook, and everyone in the extended family brought dishes to a big makeshift tent where the elders made speeches to the parting volunteer.
The day after New Year’s, we went out to the family forest before we left—a lightly cultivated area with mango trees, cassava, sugarcane, pineapple, and coconuts, which we took turns finding and eating. The kids went hunting for cicadas (also to eat, though after cooking) and chased people around with the bugs. All in all, a nice New Year’s with good people.