Thursday, July 10, 2014

Moving On

I wrote this blog at the end of last year, trying to force myself through a transition that I was not ready to make. It's been nearly a year since I left Malawi, and I still dream about it and yearn for it. But now, finally, I feel secure in my happiness once again. Why? Because I took control of it myself and made it happen. This girl in December was at the beginning stages of that, but it has only been within the last few months that I have finally built up enough strength to say goodbye. So, 7 months later, I am publishing this final piece from my journey to Malawi and back. 

Note: I assumed this would be in dire need of editing after months of sitting stagnate in my lap top. But I have decided to leave it exactly the way it was when I wrote it at Christmas time. 

December 2013

Usually, I compose a 12-month review of my life with the passing of one year into the next. This blog serves that purpose though, with its in-depth descriptions of the last months I spent in Malawi. 2013 was an incredible year. I kicked it off with a Zambian safari, thrived in my job, experienced my first night dive off the coast of a Malawian island, traveled to Mozambique and swam with wild dolphins, rays, and whale sharks, completed a massive textbook initiative that provided new supplies for over 2000 Malawian secondary school students, flew to Asia and explored ancient Cambodian temples, SCUBA dove Thailand, and returned to America, surviving the greatest and most difficult transition of my life. I was reunited with my beautiful and silly nephews, my siblings, and my mom and dad and my dog, with American football, washing machines, and draft beer. I underwent surgery and hopped my way through November on one foot. Finally, I traversed the United States four times--once by plane, once by car, and twice via recreation vehicle. 2013 began magically, held months of anxiety and miserable goodbyes and illness, and presented extraordinary challenges and opportunities. It was painful and incredible. 2013 saw me safely across three continents, and spit me out into the United States of America. 

So, unemployed and seeking the next step, I find myself mulling over the past and the future. As I attempt to adjust to the abundant changes in my native country and my own personality, I find an inner struggle with the concept of “home.” Where is my home? Is it my born and raised state of California, my 2000-mile away high school island, my college city? Is it where my mother lives, or my father? Is it one of the places I have settled into and loved and left? 

Home became somewhat an obligation for me as an eager global gypsy. Always looking forward toward the next adventure, I neglected to foster a permanent community and instead turned inward and independent, choosing instead to focus on the task and location at hand. I accidentally became an “in the moment” type person, fully absorbed by my current projects and goals. What a wonderful gift! And what a hurtful trait. I have had amazing encounters and befriended intriguing and kind people. I have experienced more in my travels than most people get the opportunity to in their entire lives--but most of my life is temporary. My friends, my neighborhoods, and communities are spread across the globe, and my sense of comfort is rarely established. In the past ten years, I have resided in Alabama, Namibia, California, Spain, Louisiana, New York, Hawaii, and Malawi, have driven across the United States approximately thirty times, driven to Canada at least three times, and visited Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Mexico, France (three times), Italy (twice), Belgium, Mozambique (twice), Zambia (twice), Thailand, Cambodia, and passed through Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Qatar, and Korea. 

I find myself at a pivotal moment, having spent the last two years in yet another home before leaving behind the family, friends, and tiny world I carved out for myself. The United States were supposed to be home as I returned. I was supposed to find in them relief, comfort, and love. And there was the initial respite of a visit to my family, a reunion with my nephews, and many hot showers. I have found, however, that America is a terrible place to transition back to. After two years in my little village, the consumerism, materialism, waste, and the anger are shocking. The international disinterest, generational miscommunications, and virulent self-centeredness is disheartening. 

I have followed an unorthodox path for so long now that I’ve been terrified to assimilate to the American life I feel I should adopt. The anxiety of this transition has been physically sickening. I am maladjusted even 4 months following my return to America, persisting in reclusiveness, social discomfort, and anxiety. I feel only like a foreign visitor--a tourist entertained by strange local customs, a traveler pausing for rest in the midst of a long lineup of destinations. Most of my friendships have faded, and I struggle to communicate with everyone I encounter. I mourn the loss of my gypsy life. 

But maybe I have been looking at it all wrong. This idea of “home” has preoccupied me for so long, weighing heavily in my mind as the end of something great. The completion of my service in Malawi symbolized, to me, the end of my adventuring, the end of my freedom. It meant, on the edge of 30, that I would surrender my nomadic lifestyle and settle into a conventional life, with a real job, a car payment and a mortgage, and hopefully health insurance. These were the priorities I was trying to force myself to adopt. But these are not and have never been my focus. I can’t hide from myself the honest truth--so long as I could spend part of my time traveling, I would take daily spaghettios dinners, endless hours waiting on others at shady restaurants, a lifetime of washing dishes for minimum wage. I would sacrifice the entirety of my “retirement” and spend it bussing tables as long as I could keep my freedom in the meantime--exploring, moving, experiencing. Living. 

And why shouldn’t I? I have spent ten years living out of a suitcase. There’s no point in switching to dresser drawers now. 

Still, to move, one needs fuel. So, for my next adventure: graduate school. With just two years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars of debt, maybe, MAYBE I can eventually travel for work...AND get paid for it. 

Maybe America will turn into home. Maybe it won’t. All I know is that I need to come to terms with the fact that the end of my Peace Corps service was not the end of my lifestyle or my personality. It was, in fact, the beginning of everything--everything that comes next, everything I ever do, everything about me. I’m grateful beyond expression for the experience I had in Malawi. I’m so very thankful for the lessons it taught me about kindness, morality, patience, communication, the power of positive thinking, generosity, independence, community, poverty, gratefulness, illness, loss, motivation, stress, isolation, hallucinatory prescription drugs, friendship, heartbreak, work ethic, personal strength, sacrifice, religion, international relations, nutrition, danger, education, government bureaucracy, history, foreign aid, Malawian culture, and a number of other topics. The people that helped and loved and taught me have a permanent place in my memory...I can still feel their hands holding mine, hear their odi!s, feel their laughter, recite their advice and their stories. Now I have to make those lessons mean something as I let go and move forward, consciously working to overcome my current challenges in the United States and accomplish the goals I have set for myself. 

So, as we slip into the year 2014, I close the Peace Corps Malawi chapter of my story. 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 were all dedicated to applying to, getting clearance for, training with, working for, and readjusting after service with the US Peace Corps. 2014 is a new year, a new phase, and a new adventure. 2014 will lead to my next home, where ever that may be. 

I think back to the words of wise, witty, amazing role model Irene: You have been a Peace Corps Volunteer. YOU CAN DO ANYTHING. 

And I will.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Random thoughts on the United States of America after a 27 month absence and residence in a small African village:



  1. The stereotype that Americans are fat is more true than I thought. I couldn’t eat much for the first several days I was back in California because I was so intimidated by the sheer gluttony. 
  2. Americans complain a lot about being overweight…while buying items or doing things that will make them overweight. 
  3. American customer service is AMAZING. Actually, I would like restaurant servers to calm down and slow down. Take your time, man! My meals happen too fast here. 
  4. How is Twitter still a thing? John McCain tweets and I’m the one still whining about the hashtags and character limits? Unacceptable. I thought Twitter would sputter and die almost immediately. The moral of this story: do not take investment advice from me, ever. 
  5. Speaking of Twitter, I thought I was going to be very stupid upon return to America. But thanks to modern communications technology and the degradation it has waged on American English, my grammar and vocabulary are actually above average! 
  6. Miley Cyrus is disappointing. When the rest of the world looks at us, this is what they see: some rich white girl bent over and constantly licking things. I hold many American celebrities accountable for the sheer amount of sexual propositions and sexual harassment I’ve had to undergo in foreign countries. 
  7. When running in the mornings, I get to wear shorts and listen to music, and I don’t have to give thumbs ups or wave to anyone. I don’t have to stop and greet people; I don’t even have to smile at anyone. I also don’t have to deal with absurd heat (this season), rocky dirt roads, or loose guard dogs. No chickens scatter fearfully as I stomp toward them, and nobody looks at me like I’m insane, or tries to chase me down asking what emergency has caused me to break out in a run. I have the right of way as a pedestrian and have long, evenly paved, well-marked bicycle lanes to run in. It’s a great relief. It’s…pretty boring. 
  8. When running or working out, I am decidedly more aware of my jiggly parts in the United States. 
  9. Political discussions have lost sustenance. Issues have been reduced to angry “us vs. them” or “he’s an idiot” one-line comments. I thought this was bad before I left. It is worse now. 
  10. Sarcasm is hard.
  11. Ice cream is way too sweet. 
  12. I have yet to regain my California accent and I still accidentally use “special English” when I talk to strangers, enunciating and slowing down my speech. This has led to multiple people asking if I am British. This mainly worries me because it is clear that Californians have no idea what a British accent sounds like. I thought this phenomenon would fade, but it has been a month now and I am still accused of having "a strange accent."
  13. I can’t focus on conversations in public yet. There is too much noise, too many conversations, too many televisions, so much to look at, and so much new music. 
  14. People have asked me my favorite things since coming back to the United States of America. Here they are in no particular order: washing machines, football, good draft beers, broccoli, string cheese, granny smith apples, gyms, hot showers, boots, grapefruit juice, NASCAR, and ice water. Yeah…I was surprised too. 
  15. But seriously. WASHING MACHINES. 
  16. Reintroduction of lean animal proteins and green vegetables to my diet, along with proper sleep, has greatly improved my health. Go figure. 
  17. Since leaving Malawi, I’ve taken approximately 60 showers and 7 baths, gone SCUBA diving 4 times, been swimming in 3 swimming pools, had 2 Thai body scrubs and 2 Thai pedicures, spent many hours soaking in the Gulf of Thailand, and restarted first-world face washing routines WITH hot water. I think I finally feel ALMOST clean. 
  18. So far I’ve only driven on the wrong side of the road once! 
  19. New bras. So good. 
  20. I can accidentally swallow water while I’m in the shower and NOT GET SICK. Also, I can drink water at restaurants and NOT GET SICK. And I can eat salad or raw vegetables in the city and NOT GET SICK. Well, hello again, weight gain. 
  21. It’s really, really beautiful to not have to walk outside when I have to pee at 3 in the morning. And there’s even a flush toilet! With a sink! And an electric light! AND I DON’T EVEN HAVE TO WEAR SHOES. 
  22. I miss my little kitty. I didn’t realize the important role she played in my life of village isolation—as my roommate, my sister, my child, my entertainment, my protector—until I found myself without her. 
  23. I came back at a good time. Alabama is winning, the Saints are winning, the Broncos are winning, the Dodgers are winning, and Jimmie Johnson is setting NASCAR records. It’s because I’m back in the States and am unemployed and can watch sports every day, isn’t it? YOU’RE WELCOME, FANS. 
  24. I thought when I left Malawi I was done with overt questions about my life situation. But Americans are also deeply concerned by the fact that I’m 28, single, and childless. At least I haven’t been called fat since leaving Africa. 
  25. Mmm. Steak. 
  26. I find myself smiling and waving at strangers’ children in public. On an American level, I’m super creepy. I must overcome this habit. 
  27. I smile at everyone. It is not appreciated. 
  28. Even though I keep imagining them, I’ve seen no cockroaches, no mice, no centipedes, no scorpions, no snakes, no lizards, no birds, no bats, no millipedes, no slugs, no termites, and no wasps in my house or my bed. There was a tiny spider living on the edge of my bathtub and I checked every morning to make sure she hadn’t abandoned me. But then she did. 
  29. Bananas in America are tasteless and boring. 
  30. In Malawi I had developed a strange distaste for exercise. I had sweated unwillingly for two years and imagined I would never rediscover the motivation to work out again, an idea that saddened me and scared me—would I live out the rest of my days as a soft, squishy thing? But, it turns out that I just don’t like physical exertion when I am exhausted, dehydrated, unhealthy, unable to wear the clothes I want, and restricted to one single path. Comfort, apparently, is essential for endorphins. And man! I didn’t realize how much I missed endorphins until I reunited with them here in California. Endorphins are awesome and I am already addicted once again. ENERGY LEGS!
  31. I am glad I am back in the United States of America, if for no other reason than that a movie like Machete Kills exists in this country. I will see you at the movie theater on October 11.

Thailand

When I think back on my great Thai adventure, the memories come in waves of scent. After two years in Malawi everything in Thailand smelled dense, rich, excessive and overly sweet. It was amazing to me how repelled I was by the clouds of cologne on the train and the saccharine odor of ripe fruit and tropical blossoms. Even night-blooming jasmine turned my stomach but the heavy olfactory waves of cooking food, strong flowers, and rotting fruit were much more welcome than the artificial stinks of body sprays and department store perfumes, incense and aromatic oils, sweet-smelling body creams and spicy aftershaves, scented powders and antiperspirants. The overwhelming blend of these smells intended to mask the natural odor of the human body repulsed and sickened me beyond any previous experience with body odor or halitosis or sweat or rot or human waste.

I associate Bangkok with artificial scents on the train and in the mall, every crowd of people another mixed chemical replica of natural scents, a nostril-stinging mixture of pseudo musk, alcohol-tinted vanilla and jasmine, patchouli and primrose, ammonia-coated citrus blossom. I associate it with the oil-laden stink of McDonalds, with smog and constant cigarette smoke, with menthol cough drops and pink bubblegum and flavored coffees. I associate Bangkok with the panic attacks that followed the scent and crush of crowds, the constant noise of traffic and motorbikes, the heat radiating off the road and the buildings blocking the sky. It was a difficult transition, so much so that it became hilarious. Every aspect of this world was foreign and ridiculous after two years in the village, and we continued to laugh.





When I think back to Koh Tao, Turtle Island, however, I remember the fresh and natural smell of the Gulf of Thailand—salt and biology—and grilling seafood, hot curries, fresh basil, sautéing chilis, simmering coconut milk. There is memory of sweat and sunscreen, shadowed frog ponds and soil, coconut oil and cocoa butter, pina coladas and mojitos, unsweetened iced espresso, wasabi, fuel and smoke from fire shows, and the subtle scents of massage oil. I can still smell those ThaiAmeriMexi fish tacos and Chang beer happy hours. The dive boat for our SCUBA was a retired fishing boat, an antique with a distinctive smell that only exists in my memory: peeling paint, fuel fumes, wet rubber, salt, corrosion, white sunshine, seasickness, bottled air, Gatorade, and pineapple.








By the time I ferried back to the mainland, took a bus back to Bangkok, and rode the train to Sukhothai, my disdain for freshly blooming flowers had faded somewhat, and I happily absorbed scent of the poolside hibiscus and rose gardens, the wet organic smell of lily-laden ponds, and the moss thriving on the ancient Sukhothai temples. I definitely remember the full five-sense response to my first popsicle in two years—pomegranate--slurped up while riding a beach cruiser around the town and through the temple compound.





The Thai Elephant Conservatory in Lampang actually smelled very little like elephants, and instead was rich with the scent of low-hanging clouds, residual rain, steaming jungle, freshly-cut grass, moss, and wet earth. The elephants were bathed daily and their dung was immediately recycled into paper products, so I mostly smelled my own perspiration in the sweltering weather. Later came the scent of burning as the bus we jumped on at the end of the day labored up the hills leading to Chiang Mai.




Finally, in Chiang Mai, I found that a sense of smell is to be appreciated. My system had adapted once more, and I could breathe in with relish the aromas of turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, Thai basil, chili pepper, shrimp paste, onion, garlic, steaming pork, curry paste, pineapple, and coconut. Dad and I took a cooking class with a Thai agogo…I mean, yai, or grandmother, and used these foods in a private kitchen to prepare our own lunch. John and I researched the “berries” in our green curry and found them to be Devil’s Fig, or Turkey Berries, a relative of the eggplant. We all went for a spa day, where I was soothed with scents Thai beauty secrets: hot oil, clay, coffee beans, sea salt, coconut, cucumber, tomato, honey. We explored the expansive Chiang Mai night market, thrilled with an aromatic dinner of fresh spring rolls, northern Thai sausage, grilled sweet corn, pork dumplings, coconut water straight from the fruit, sticky rice, and deep-friend cicadas. From touring the mountain trails I can recall the scent of oxygenated water from its fall down steep cliffs, thick green growth, dew, and decomposing leaves. We visited temples thick with the scent of incense and flower bouquets. We shared fruit with strangers and lazed by the flower-wreathed swimming pool at the edge of a slow-moving river. 












Finally, back in Bangkok, there came the scent of monsoon. Dad and I were trapped in a farewell storm either intended by nature to keep us in Thailand or drive us out of it. We huddled under a bus stop shelter as we watched the water rise, expecting the storm to blow through at any moment. It didn’t. The water flooded the road and washed over our shoes in rainbow-glossed waves as buses waded through the lake. Within 30 minutes the water was a foot deep and we limped over the uneven sidewalk through the river and the pounding shower onto the train, where we shivered in the air conditioning. All of our belongings were soaked. My last real scent-memory in Thailand is wet clothing, bags, and shoes hanging in a humid hotel room as we willed it to dry within the next 10 hours before our flight to the United States of America. The next morning, with a mostly dry pack on my back, I found myself in the international airport in Bangkok. Suddenly I was on a plane, then in a bar in Seoul, then in another plane, a bus, and then, as if in a strange dream, I was in a truck on a California highway.

Siem Reap

Christina and I landed in Bangkok at two in the morning after two long layovers and some very long flights. After finally catching a ride and having our first Thai food in Thailand—dumpling soup from a street side stand at 3:30 in the morning—we slept hard. The few hours of sleep we allowed ourselves, however, did not prepare us for the city. Bangkok is a hugely populated, consumer driven, high-tech, noisy, busy city, like New York on steroids. For two girls fresh from the village the tall buildings, crowded malls, sidewalk-hopping motorbikes, surplus advertisements, traffic jams, blasting music, elevators, escalators, televisions, digital billboards, high-fashion, jam-packed trains, screaming children, and the sheer number of options of food were panic-attack inducing. Culture shock hit hard and it was with relief on our third night there that we hid in our hotel room with a block of cheese, some crackers, and silence.

The next day we fled. Conditioned to Malawian public transportation, we braced ourselves for a long day on a hot and overcrowded bus. As it turned out, however, our bus left on time, had air conditioning, and only had seven people aboard, each quietly napping in his own seat. There weren’t even any chickens on board!
We arrived at the Cambodian border within a few easy hours. We crossed with sweaty ease then leisurely strolled down the road until we found street food and a picnic table. As we slowly devoured giant chicken legs with chili sauce and noodle soup we negotiated our ride to Siem Reap with the loitering taxi drivers. We rode through the dazzling green Cambodian countryside past tiny stilted houses and far-reaching rice paddies. We stopped just once—for fuel, at a roadside stand. We arrived in Siem Reap in a light drizzle and fell in deep, deep love with our beautiful hotel.

After a beautiful breakfast of possibly the best coffee in the world, fresh fruits, Cambodian soups, fried rice, eggs, and pineapple juice, we ventured to our ultimate destination: the Angkor Temples. We dedicated three days to our exploration of these ancient ruins, but we could have spent weeks. We were awed and humbled by the magnitude of the history, the strength of the people who built these temples, the artistic value, and the forgotten power of the god-kings who commanded this intensity of worship and raised such religious fervor. Nature had taken most of the temples as her own, but rehabilitation and conservation efforts have protected much of this site, striking a near-harmonious balance between history, forest, and the tourism industry.

We spent three days walking and sometimes, tuk tuking, through the famed ruins and to the far reaches of the kingdom to isolated and forgotten jungle temples, exploring flooded paths in the rain, steaming in the green humidity, gulping down diluted Gatorade in the sweaty sunshine. We toured on foot, we toured by tuk tuk, we toured by elephant. True to our Malawian instincts, we even managed to do a little hitchhiking through a thunderstorm.





This was the highlight of my post-service holiday: simple travel with an easy-going friend, the joy of exploration, the exhilaration of discovering isolated temples in the jungle, walking through the warm Cambodian rain, eating delicious food, sleeping in a quiet and comfortable hotel in a safe and gentle nation filled with kind and happy people. We wished we could reach beyond Siem Reap and explore the remainder of Cambodia. 

Off-road Tuk Tuk Adventures

Sidewalk Tuk Tuk Adventures

Elephant Excursion Adventures


September 23, 2013

I’ve been back in America one week, and my feelings about this development shift every moment I am here. I know this: leaving Malawi and returning to America was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to make myself do. It was monumentally more difficult than leaving the USA back in June 2011, and I think I’ve narrowed down some of the reasons why: 

  1. This time I have not set off on a great adventure, into the vast unknown world. I traveled this time to unemployment, to complicated technology, to social pressures, and extreme consumerism—all things I find depressing and daunting. 
  2. Malawi is special. Its people are unique and beautiful, indescribably happy in the face of tragedy and despair. Judging from my American facebook newsfeed, I knew I was going to be facing a lot of complaints about shallow issues. I predicted that I could tolerate this, but I feared becoming one of the “ungrateful” while my Malawian counterparts were smiling through disease and malnutrition and death. What if I forget everything Malawi taught me?
  3. We don’t understand goodbyes in the western world in this day and age. Now, if you move from London to Connecticut, you’ll miss your friends and family, but you’ll see their pictures on facebook and chat with them on skype, text them or call them, perhaps visit them at Christmas. There is a very real chance that I will never see my Malawian friends and family again. My Amama, my adoptive family, my students, my girls, my kids…I had to say goodbye forever.
  4. I loved my job. I got to design my own goals, my own schedule, and my own topics, and I got to decide who to work with and how to go about it. And I was GOOD at it. I could witness and measure the impact of my project and I felt a sense of fulfillment. That combination is a once in a lifetime treat that I dreaded walking away from.
  5. I was overwhelmed with guilt in the end. I knew I could do much more for the education system in my area if I just stayed. I had the right ingredients: eager teachers, an established termly schedule, and a strong administrative support system within the cluster of schools; I was well-established and respected and finally able to engage in frank conversations about the problems in the schools; I had finally rallied support from surrounding communities that were willing to take more responsibility for the program. It was an education Peace Corps Volunteer’s dream, yet Peace Corps was not replacing my site with a new volunteer. I had worked hard to ensure my project’s sustainability, but the bitter truth was that it probably needed at least two more years to develop. No matter my excuses of exhaustion, I couldn't convince myself otherwise: to leave was to abandon the program to failure.
  6. I had to say goodbye to my Peace Corps friends. I was so scared no one back home would understand what I had gone through, and these people were the only ones in the world that definitely understood. They talked in the same “special English” and made the jokes and had the same complaints and worries. They were the only ones in the world who knew me.What if I never found that sort of community again?
  7. I felt stupid. After two years of simplifying my language, my vocabulary was elementary and my capacity for expressing ideas was rusty. I was completely lost when it came to current events in the world after two years without television, internet, or radio. Speaking to native English speakers was very intimidating.
  8. Mostly, I had no idea what to do next. Most PCVs had been job hunting already; they knew what state they were returning to, what they wanted to study, or what type of job they wanted to pursue. For me, I’m interested in doing so much that I couldn’t narrow it down. All I could do was panic about the future.

All these worries, combined with the stress of finishing all my projects, packing up my house, saying my goodbyes, and completing Peace Corps’ paperwork, made me physically ill. I became chronically sick in May and was given a stress-induced diagnosis. I started experiencing terrifying panic attacks and severe insomnia. My body ached; the day I left my house for good I couldn’t turn my head because my neck was so painfully knotted with tension. I was prone to teary break downs. I was sick all the time. I was sleepless and snappy.

In this blog and all other communications, I continued to focus on the positive. I did not want my family or my friends to think that I did not miss them. I did not think they would understand how I could be afraid of them. They expected me to be celebrating my homecoming while I was struggling to hide my heartbreak. There were hints of misunderstanding, insensitivity, and disinterest, not because the people I love don’t care about me, but because very few people could even guess at what I was feeling. I couldn’t match their excitement, and it made me feel like something was wrong with me.

From May to August I remained ill, with symptoms worsening the closer my departure date drew. The doctors assured me that as soon as I got out of Malawi and onto vacation I would find my body repaired, and I clung to that hope. In the meantime I threw myself into work mode, successfully dominating my interviews and my closing paperwork and crate day in Lilongwe as my departure approached, riding a wave of powerful adrenaline. The only aspect of my official preparations that I struggled to master was packing. So I gave everything away.

A gang of four of us departing the same hour got a taxi to the airport with our favorite driver, Tennessee. I watched out the window as the dry scenery spun by me. I thought of the day I arrived, 26 months earlier, exhausted from long flights and giddy with excitement and ambition. The future was limitless and exciting. This time, my tired body buzzed with fear.

We madly spent the rest of our Malawian Kwacha at the airport bar, tasting liquors we hadn’t been able to afford during our service but feeling no effect from them—we were already drunk on nerves. We laughed too loudly and too often, trying to mask our anxiety. I wildly looked around, trying to absorb everything, all of Malawi, but it was too late—it was just the airport now, just a single runway and strangers; my friends were far away in my northern village without me.

Jon and Christina and I all held hands as the plane took off for Johannesburg, and I watched the country grow small below me, until it vanished below the pearl clouds and remained only in my mind’s eye.

My saving grace was that I was getting an interim adventure—Christina and I were Thailand-bound! As we squeezed each other’s hands we thanked one another for agreeing to take one more last hurrah before heading to the states. We girls would complete a full circle of the globe.

And I could put off facing my fears for just a little longer. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Because I Can Post Videos Now

There are certain songs that have been played during my service that would elicit great outbreaks of public dancing--by Malawians and expats alike--in bottleshops, in mini buses, on the street. Here is a taste of the music that makes me Malawi (or South Africa or Nigeria or Ethiopia) happy.
Note: there is an official video for this one now which kicked out the original video and features a remix by Akon. This song is better. Sorry Akon.

My Last Village Meal

My hectic first night in Chintheche I fell off a bus and into village night-dark, my first impressions not one of sight but of sound and touch in the blackness. That night I was ushered into the Chinombo house, where I sat nervously and exchanged awkward conversation over rice. The most powerful impression of my village was these people; their kindness, their generosity, their welcoming nature—they represented what the next two years of my life would hold.

It was fitting that my last meal in the village was in the same home.

Mrs. Chinombo was adamant that I must have kandawoli, or cassava nsima, before I left, and, as usual, she insisted that I cook it. This resulted, as usual, in her cooking me lunch as I played with children and took pictures. What? Kandawoli is difficult to prepare, okay?

Cassava’s role on the Malawian lakeshore is very interesting. Some strains are safe to consume raw, while others are naturally laden with cyanide. The plants look identical to me, but locals know the difference by sight and, failing that, a tiny taste. The poisonous varieties are not wasted, however. This drought resistant crop is too valuable a food for Malawians to ignore. Instead, the tubers are processed using soaking, fermentation, and sunlight to leech the cyanide from the food. The roots are harvested from the base of the plant and soaked in water until they essentially spoil—the scent is terrible, though it becomes such a natural fixture in the village that eventually you fail to notice. When the tubers have fermented, they are arranged on drying racks in the sun. Once they are dried completely (and removed of all nutrients, essentially), the pieces are deposited into a large mortar and pounded into a very fine powder. If this process is hurried or if any of these factors are not balanced, you will have bitter cassava, a sure sign of low levels of poison.

Drying Cassava

One of my sisters pounding dried tubers. The plants behind her are cassava.
She does all her work with her baby on her back.

From here, as Mrs. Chinombo laughingly reports, I “fail to cook cassava.” Over a wood fire, water is boiled. The cassava flour is added bit by bit with constant stirring as the pot becomes unsteady and, in my case, tips over or spins or completely loses control (most women use their feet to hold the pot still while they use two hands to muscle through the quickly thickening porridge). With maize nsima I can gauge the texture fairly well, but cassava does not become kandawoli until the goop is allowed to solidify just right. I will never master this art.

Combining flour with boiling water

Stirring this takes real muscle!

As kandawoli firms up, it is coaxed into shape

Kandawoli Ball

A portion for adults, a portion for kids

Mrs. Chinombo prepared a feast for me—kandawoli, rice, usipa, beans, turnip greens, and sauce (kandawoli is BEST with beans!).  Kandawoli is served as a big ball on a communal plate in the center of the table, and diners pull pieces off and eat using their fingers. It is distinctive tasting, earthy maybe, and has a texture like tacky glue. It reminds me of grey tree sap, yet somehow I adore it. Did I always enjoy it or have I been conditioned to? I’m not sure.

The kids were allowed to sit with Mr. Chinombo and I as we discussed the various regional foods within Malawi. I mentioned a conversation I had had with a Chewa tribe native who called kandawoli and the Tonga people who eat it “disgusting.” Mr. Chinombo laughed and shook his head. “Those people eat mice,” he said, tickled. “This,” he stated, holding a ball of kadawoli in his fingers and looking at it with reverence, “this is real food. This is important food.”

And he is right. With its drought resistant nature cassava remains, literally, a lifesaver on the lakeshore as maize supplies run low at the end of the season. It is resilient and has few natural pests or diseases, and can survive the most lackluster rainy season, unlike the treated maize that the rest of Malawi relies on for sustenance. Fit to burst from food and contentment, I gave my plate to the eldest daughter, and she used the spongy sticky kandawoli to sop up the remaining sauce and sucked my leftover usipa. Nothing goes to waste.

Characteristic of a kandawoli lunch, I was full for days afterward.

The Amazing Chinombo Family