Saturday, July 23, 2011

Balancing & Vices

Two entries in two days? What the what? Truth is I wanted to write about all of this, but it didn't seem like the various topics went together, so I split them up. Internet was crap last night so I decided to wait. Either way, here is another entry for your reading pleasure.

I have been finding it very difficult lately to balance certain aspects of my service here, namely being able to eat my own cooking and not offending Ugandans by doing so. This has felt lately like it translates into a bigger issue of not being sure how much of my American-ness to insist on holding on to and how much to let go of. I will start by saying that Northern Ugandans are some of the most welcoming, kind, and happy people I have met before. They have made me feel at home since arriving here and seem to genuinely care about me, which I don't doubt at all, but I also don't want to take it for granted. They can also be pushy and have little tact about certain things. I will go on to say that I don't prefer Ugandan food to, say, my own cooking. During homestay I was pretty miserable on the food front and merely picked at what was in front of me (if you know me, you know that picking at food is a completely alien action). I was so excited to cook for myself again when I got to site. I tried out a lot of the recipes in the cookbook, I posted pictures of my creations on facebook, I even gave recipes to my family and friends back home, urging them to try out what I'm making. It was the best thing ever, except that to not eat at the college every day is somewhat of a sin. My college is not wealthy, I've come to find out, comparing it with other institutions I've visited and hearing the stories of my friends' schools. The school is even closing two weeks early because we can't afford to feed the students anymore. There is only one dish ever prepared and served; posho and beans. Posho is maize flour mixed with boiling water and can best be described as a dry, dense version of grits. It's much smoother in texture than grits, but unfortunately has no butter, cheese, salt, or pepper mixed in. The beans are simply boiled. I have eaten at the college several times, but usually prefer to duck out and eat left overs or something at my own house. This has drawn attention and "playful teasing" in the form of telling me I'm not Ugandan enough, that I need to learn to love the food since I'll be staying forever, and that I need to understand the reason for the limited diet is the poverty level of the country. (Although I feel like some pretty poor places in the world have come up with some amazing culinary creations.) I know that I'm supposed to be integrating into the community and sharing culture, and I had a discussion about it with my principal the other day. It was very informal; he's my neighbor and we were standing in our yards. I told him that I had tried almost all the Ugandan foods I'd ever heard of, even the white ants that were brought to me. I told him that I had not refused to try anything since I've been here, and that I thought I was pretty brave to begin with, moving 8,000 miles away from my family to live in a completely foreign culture simply to try to help and learn, something almost none of my friends back home would do. He told me it wasn't enough, that trying foods wasn't enough, that I had to love them, and that when I don't eat their lunch they are sad. I asked if he'd ever tried something he didn't like, and he just laughed and asked what kinds of foods we had in America that he wouldn't like (they call all of our foods "snacks" by the way, we don't eat real food). I tried to come up with the scariest, weirdest things I could think of to make my point: lobsters, crawfish, oysters on the half shell, ceviche, sushi, tofu, seaweed salad. Not having ever seen any of these, none of this even made sense to him, let alone got through to him. I get frustrated that it's so easy to criticize me and my culture when they are here at home, and the phrase "don't judge someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes" is completely lost on them. I have tried to offer food to people here, things I cook that I want to share. They just look at it and laugh and tell me I eat only snacks, and that I should eat their food. I'm trying to figure out how much I should give in and how much I should be like "this is something that's important to me, let me eat my goddamn spaghetti, will you?" It seems stupid to be this concerned about food, and that I should just give up, but for some reason it's bugging me.

Secondly, vices. I have developed three of them: reading, cleaning, and planning trips. I guess all three of those things were present in my "real life" just not to the extent that they are here. Cleaning is actually super necessary because bugs will move in and take over if I don't sweep (including all the corners and up the backs of doors) on an at least daily basis, mop the whole house weekly, and never leave dishes out overnight. Spindly spiders, little robotic jumping spiders, and ones that look like they are straight out of Arachnophobia. I swear a producer of that movie was like, "Oh hey, I've been to Uganda, and they have some creepy ass looking spiders hanging out up in the north. They're little, so they seem like they'd be harmless, but man do they give me the willies." I actually had a little jumping spider living in my room for a while, mostly up on the ceiling. I watched him attack a fly one afternoon, and then found the dried up corpse on the floor later that evening. Since he was earning his keep, I left him alone. Somehow sadly, when I returned from my weekend in Gulu he was gone. His much bigger cousin stopped by the other day, but was gigantic and much too close to my bath towel hanging on the wall, so he got the boot. Or more accurately, the flip-flop. Also in my menagerie are flies of all shapes and sizes, bees the size of a baby's fist, wasps that come in to explore my house, centipedes as thick as a finger and eight inches long, praying mantises - both minute and enormous, the tiniest gd gnats that can fall through mosquito net weave, and mosquitoes ranging from Florida sized to looking like they flew out of Jumanji. Geckos live in my house too, and other than occasionally startling me if one jumps out from behind a curtain, I really don't mind their presence, because they eat the bugs, and are cuter than them too, even though they poop everywhere.

I have read 43 books so far, in under 6 months. Whoa. Granted two of them were Harry Potter and eight were A Series of Unfortunate Events, but that is still a lot. I swear every other conversation somehow relates to something I've read and I am starting to feel like an ass hat being like, "Oh yea, that's somehow related to something I read!" I'm like Hermione, sheesh. If anyone wants to send me Harlan Coben books, The Survival of the Sickest, or anything else you've enjoyed, I'll love you forever! (Shameless plug: also, see my wish list for other, fun, package ideas! I heart mail!)

I heart planning trips. Danielle and I used to sit around our apartment with Expedia pages open on our computers, trying to figure out where to go. We looked at London a million times, Italy, the Caribbean, but we never went anywhere except to visit our families. Now that I'm over here and am a stone's throw from crazy ass places like Rwanda and Zanzibar, and am in the company of people who are excited about traveling too, we're planning trips that are so totally going to happen. Climbing Mt. Sabinya, for instance, in a few weeks (the mountain that straddles the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda), and hiking Mt. Elgon a few weeks after that. I love looking forward to things in general, and looking forward to these small milestones instead of that looming "21" on my wall (as in, 21 months till I'm done) makes this experience much more doable and enjoyable.

9 comments:

Tim Curtin said...

Uganda is definitely ghettoer than Indonesia, but I feel you. It's rare/impossible for an American to prefer Indonesian food to American food, but we mostly don't have the option of cooking (no chance for us boys) because we all live with host families. Some people have found that one of the challenges is NOT spending too much of their monthly allowance on (actual) snacks.

Indonesians and Ugandans seem to have a similar attitude about foreign food: if it's not their staple (rice here), it's just a snack. It's a cute attitude as long as they aren't being priggish about it.

If it means anything coming from someone in Asia, I say don't feel bad about eating your own stuff. You've given up a whole hell of a lot to do what you're doing and you shouldn't feel pressure to give up the food you like as well. Who cares if they feel mildly put out and think it's somehow fair to guilt you? It's not your job to lie or make yourself suffer. So make your spaghetti and hold your head high!

Tango said...

I think anyone should be appreciative that you are THERE in the first place and trying new things and not try to give you a hard time. You should come up with something like that you have a food allergy...so you can eat your spaghetti in peace! You are my most adventurous friend and I can't imagine anyone else I know just dropping everything "snackwise" and fully adopting a Ugandan diet. They should let you keep some of your culture, because you are clearly appreciating other aspects of theirs!

elizabeth said...

Omg Nora! I think I actually DO have an allergy - to Ground Nuts, or Ugandan Peanuts. The first time I ate them my face got super itchy and my mouth got all prickly, so I talked to medical about it and they were like.. oh no, AVOID THEM. Of course it's g-nut season now and my neighbor is harvesting them and actually gave me crap/made fun of me, as if I was lying. I don't think they understand allergies here, if someone has one they just die. I've been buying imported american peanut butter over here, more expensive but no reactions to it thank god!

Thanks Tim, it does mean something coming from Asia. I'm thankful I live on my own and am able to cook for myself (the guys here had a hard time with it at first too!) so I should keep that in mind!

Jen said...

Liz, I've been pretty nervous about how I was going to handle food in my host-country since I applied - I'm a bit of a picky eater but will always give something a try. I'm glad to hear you're giving serious consideration to sticking to your guns. I agree with Tim - but I'm not in country for another 50 something days :P

Tango said...

In school we learned that if you're allergic, you may have a mild reaction the first time, a slightly stronger one the next time, and the 3rd time is super serious...so try to avoid them at all costs!! And if you do start feeling the slightest bit tight in your chest or your tongue itches or something...go find an epi pen! <3

Tija Leigh said...

You just described my last 4 months in Botswana! Exactly! Including the vices! (Not to mention that my organization serves the same meal, different name, every day... although we eat worms instead of white ants!) If it helps at all, you are not alone!

Jen said...

Trip planning is not a vice. It is an outlet and it is even better when the trips actually happen. Just keep thinking about Eurobash 2013!

peaceofuganda said...

m with jen! planning trips; it's not a vice it's a virtue! viva la africa 2011-2013, whooo

goodlifechoice said...

Hey Liz! It's Heidi, the Rwandan person for snapshots of service. Jut came back to your blog after awhile. I too have taken to planning trips. In fact, a group of us are headed to Uganda around Christmas. When you're ready to come to Rwanda let me know if there's anything you need.