Six Gulab Jamuns

July 15, 2009

My in-laws first caught a glimpse of the fruit of their endeavor twenty seven years ago. July 13.  Fractal’s birthday. Back in the USA, we would have brunch in suburban Atlanta, or stay at a North Georgia cabin. His family and my family would get together.  His mom would bake Syrian nutmeg cake.  I would bake marzipan cake. My mom would prepare appams, sweet Saturn-shaped pancakes made from fermented rice flour, that he craves for whenever he smells the aroma of her cooking.

Wanting to do something special, I decided to make something sweet, gulab jamuns, one of Fractal’s favorite desserts. Fried dough balls immersed in sugar syrup. Even though it could take a few years of life off his arteries, he might experience some culinary nirvana if I make them right.  Since it was my first try I bought a packet of Instant Gulab Jamun mix to make the job easier.

Pour the contents in a bowl, add half a cup milk, and knead the dough.  Roll it into small golf balls.  Before frying the dough balls, you make the sugar syrup.  300 gms of sugar dissolved in 200 ml of water, the sucrose quota prescribed for a happy birthday.

I cut calories by adding less oil and sugar, and more water.  The result.  Mushy gulab jamuns in watery syrup.  I tried two and couldn’t eat anymore of those turgid dough-balls.  To my surprise, Fractal ate six gulab jamuns.  He wanted more.  Glad that Fractal’s focus was on the thought behind the creation, rather than the quality of the dessert provided me some relief.  When a man insists that the jamuns are good even when they actually taste like uncooked dough (immersed in water) is when you know that the man loves you more than gulab jamuns.   Lesson Learned: no cut in sugar and oil next time.

I wanted to share some of the fat and calories, so I gave the rest of jamuns to our neighbor, but without explaining what they were.  I thought it was self-explanatory.  Some dough-balls in a syrup.  The next day Diana asked me why I put mendezzi (locally made fried doughnuts) in water.  When she tried to scoop one from the bowl, it crumbled into pieces.  Like a cell in a hypotonic solution.  Yum! Without knowing what exactly they were, Diana told me that she was confused on the method of eating them and ended up throwing them away.

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The fish

July 11, 2009

June 20, 2009

Seated under the luminous afternoon sky on the woven pink palm mat, my neighbor Diana sat across her friend Sandra rocking little Pam on her lap near the thatched gazebo.  I stood on the grass near the intricately handcrafted mat looking through the Minolta binoculars eyeing the Broad-billed Roller perched high on the pine tree.  Wak, wak, wak!  The deep raspy call caused Diana to look up from her conversation and study what I was watching.  Amused that I would spend time observing an ordinary bird, she asked me whether there were any birds in America.  I informed her that there were numerous birds in North America, but the Broad-billed Roller is a native of East Africa and the only one I had ever seen in the US was at the African aviary of ZooAtlanta.

Diana invited me to sit and talk to her about America.  Thinking that I’m not used to bending my knees to sit on the ground, Diana nudged her stepdaughter Paulina to bring a wicker stool for me.  Sitting on the small stool with my legs stretched out, I waited for Diana’s questions.

Do you have trees? Mango trees? Jackfruit trees? How about geckos? Are there mosquitoes? Do women breastfeed? Do you cook on a sigiri (compact charcoal stove)? Do you eat fish? Do  you have the kind of fish we have–the one with breasts?

Keeping a straight face with the last question was a mammoth task.  Unsure whether I heard her correctly, I reiterated her question.  She nodded.  I asked her whether she was mistaking the “fish with breasts” with a mammal.  “No,” she insisted.  Then she added, “women don’t eat those fish, but men eat them and become stronger.”  Wondering whether scientists discovered a new species of animal with fish and mammalian characteristics, I googled “fish with breasts” in the search engine and discovered that there is indeed a fish with legs and breasts in America–in Sekiu, WA–but it just happened to be a wooden statue that welcomed tourists to the small fishing village.

A couple of weeks ago we took our first trip to the intoxicating capital city since our arrival at site, the first real break since trying to move to the village for the last two months.  Determined to make the most out of the trip to the All Volunteer Conference in Seeta, about 10 miles in the outskirts of the capital city, we embarked on the two hour journey a day early to the bustling city center.  Kampala.  The world of noxious smoke, the white & blue taxis, the marabou storks, the trouser-clad women, the cell phones, the high-heeled shoes, the men in denim shorts, Game (Uganda’s Target), the cappuccino, the crisp dosas, the Chloride Exide solar outfitters, the African horn bills.  Kampala, the city on seven hills, really sits on at least hundred hills when you’re a pedestrian visitor exploring the concrete jungle.

If you happened to find a hotel on Kampala Road, the one that showed us the naked guy running away from mob justice, then you are also that unlucky one to find out that the city never sleeps.  Getting advice from an elderly Indian hotel employee on the evils of cohabitation and watching his relief when he learned we are married reminded me of my concerned parents worrying that we might land into trouble with the police when we check into a shoestring hotel traveling as the white & brown team in India last year.  Those cops on raids, the safe guarders of the moral compass, might mistake us for a white dude on LSD visiting the sandy beaches of Goa and picking up a local girl to attain enlightenment.

The next day when Fractal attended a meeting at the Peace Corps office, I spent an hour nervously holding my arm out for the Peace Corps Medical staff who wanted a blood sample.  Hesitant in pricking me more than once, the three nurses, on my insistence, took turns drawing my viscous blood.  “Are you drinking enough water?” they asked.  The next several hours Fractal–also quite a paramedic–reminded me to hydrate myself.

Over the falafel sandwich and the cheese burger (Fractal’s first in years) and a mango & passion fruit smoothie, we caught up with our host sister Michelle and her husband in the food court of Garden City Shopping mall.  “We miss your mother,” we tell Michelle. We talked about our desire to visit her mother after we move to our new place.  She told us about her work at the state-sponsored television network, his video production takes, their daughter’s birthday party.

After the three and a half hour visit, we boarded a taxi for the hour odyssey to the Hotel Kabeka in Seeta.  Welcome to the alien planet of hot showers, tiled floors, running water, porcelain bathtubs, indoor toilets, and complimentary conditioners; despite the shine & shimmer, the varying heights of the stairs with its unaligned rails was somewhat precarious.  Someone used different tape measures that were several centimeters off from one another and just didn’t think anyone would notice the poor calculations.

The next few days the veteran volunteers taught us about organic gardening, healthy nutrition, creating newspapers in their schools, traveling in Africa, planting trees, and sanitizing water.  During meals volunteers talked about their trials, tribulations, likes, and dislikes of working and living in the pearl.  A few new volunteers shared frustrations about settling into their sites, and others from our group shared how thrilled they were when their sites turned out to be better than they thought.  Some discussed what more they would bring if they were coming to Uganda as a new volunteer.  Camp towel, skirts with lining, stainless steel knife, and flip-flop Rainbow sandals.  A talent show and a cultural show entertained the nights.

Rejuvenated and enriched after the three-day conference we got back before sundown on Sunday.  Ready to find a welding generator to finish the rest of the work in the house.  Ready to move to the village.  Ready to start the work we came here to do.