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.

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.

Project Casa (Part 2)

June 20, 2009

We had been planning for the big day for the last month.  We rescheduled the work day at least three or four times in the last week.  After using much airtime & SMS the previous night to confirm that the people and the tools were available, we kept our fingers crossed hoping the welder, the power driller, the carpenter, the hammer power drill, the generator, the ladder, the driver and the double-cabin truck would still follow through the next day for Project Casa.

June 19, 2009

8:00 a.m

As I headed out to buy chapatis for our worker-friends, Fractal purified 10L water for them.

8:30 a.m

I arrived at the college to find the carpenter, the driver, and the truck. Fred, the carpenter, who was talking to the security guard greeted me, “tusaigaire,” (we’re pleased to see you) at the gate.  I greeted him back, & we went on a hunt across the college campus to locate the truck and the driver.

8:45 a.m

We found a college employee in the white double cabin truck,  which Fractal and I worked hard to procure to transport our crew of workers and tools at 9 am to work on the house, who informed me that he’s currently driving it and running an errand for the college.  He pointed to a single cabin truck and told me that I could take that.  When I inquired why he wasn’t using that one, he retorted that there was no fuel in it.  Before he drove off, he added that he would be back in thirty minutes.

8:50 a.m

While I texted Fractal to wrap things up at the house and come to the college, Fred called the driver and urged him to come to work.

8:51 a.m

I called the college estate manager to inform him the situation.  He assured me that the employee would be back in fifteen minutes.

9: 45 a.m

The driver John and the employee who took the truck arrived back at the college .

9:50 a.m

As Fred gathered his tools, he told me that the college electrician took the ladder and left it in the building that stored the water pump.

10:00 a.m

We drove to the water-pump building half a kilometer away from the main campus to find the ladder inside and the door locked.  John quickly thought and confidently assured us that his friend in F-town had a ladder we could borrow for free.

10:30 a.m

We finally left the college and proceeded to F-town that’s 2 km away to pick up the welder, the driller, and the other tools.

10: 40 a.m

As the welder Alex loaded his gadgets, I called Abrahim, the driller, who owned the hammer power drill, to check whether he was ready to be picked up.  He informed me that he was in Kampala, three hours away, and just took a taxi to get back to F-town.  After I talked to Abrahim, I made a quick call to Sam, owner of the generator, to inquire how much it would cost to rent the generator for two days.  He told me he wouldn’t charge any additional cost for renting it the next day, but would charge 30,000 USh ($15, high for 2 PCV’s on a meager budget) to pick up the generator from the village since we wouldn’t have the truck the next day. Then I turned to Fractal to narrate my calls to Abrahim and Sam, and we both concluded that we would need to cancel the welding and drilling again.

11:15 a.m

As we proceeded back to the college to drop off Fred, I suggested that we could still get some work, like sealing the vents in the storage and the changing the locks in the house that we commissioned the carpenter to work on, done.   We also picked up some bulky items in town that we couldn’t transport in a taxi and took them back to the village.

11:45 a.m

We reached our destination and offered some tea and chapatis to John and Fred.

12: 45 p.m-5:40 p.m

Reenergized Fred worked on taking out the inside locks, chiseling a bigger cavity for the new lock to fit in each of the three doors, and installing the new robust Mortise locks.  Fractal and I marked black dots on the walls for drilling holes–we wanted to make for the insertion of the hooks and anchors for the steel lines that would serve as a lattice for our mylar pseudo ceiling.  We also draped our six windows-frames with the three-layered no-peeping curtains; we anchored the bottom two corners and fastened the top two corners to a vertical pulley on each side that allowed them to be pulled upwards.

5:45 p.m

Fred, Fractal and I admired the colorful yellow, red, and purple curtains that added more color to the blue walls and silver heavy-duty Mortise locks that adorned the doors.  Fred and I commended Fractal on those fine knots he learned to make as a Boy Scout.  We thanked Fred for the more extensive work than he anticipated in installing the locks.

6:45 p.m

After John dropped us back, we headed to the trading center where we bought our dinner of Rolex (an omlette rolled in a chapatti) and cassava chips.

7:30 p.m

As I feasted on the Rolex, I told myself that Rome wasn’t build in a day,  and was comforted that some thing was done today.

Cinderalla Next Door

June 18, 2009

June 18, 2009

As I walk past six-year old Paulina who is bent over the sink in the middle of her second load of dish washing, she smiles pleasantly and replies quietly, “I’m fine,” when I greet her.  Her ebony skin glistens in the splashes of sun-lit soapy water and her small hands work methodically as she meticulously scrub each dish caked with remnants of the previous meal.

When I stop to ask her why she isn’t attending school today, she cheerfully answers that she would attend the next day.  Children who attend private schools are asked to stay home some days when their tuition isn’t completely paid.  Recently Paulina’s step mother Diana took her sick son Peter to another town for health care, which probably cut into Paulina’s tuition.

In one of our conversations, Diana confided that Paulina’s mother abandoned her when she was an infant.  Her father who’s a local butcher works long days to provide for the family.  In the vicinity of Paulina, Diana turns into a fairy-tale stepmother who constantly rebukes and commands the shy child.  Unhesitatingly devoting her energy to washing dishes, laundering clothes, watching her baby stepsister, and running errands for the family, Paulina, on the other hand, implicitly obeys her stepmother and helps her run the household.

Last evening when we returned home, we saw lonesome Paulina patiently sitting in the thatched gazebo and anxiously waiting for her parents.  Her father was still at his butcher shop, and her stepmother with her step-siblings went into town.  Hungry and left alone, Paulina’s eyes were constantly gazing the dirt road awaiting their return.

The young child’s plight kindled a desire to share one of the mendazzi (doughnuts) that we bought.  Under the orange-tainted sky as the Red-cheeked Cordon-blue returned to its nest in the nearby Thevatia shrub, Fractal and I–seated across the young Cinderalla next door with her mouthful of mendazzi–were glad that within a few moments a wide-toothed smile erupted across her face as she pointed to different objects and taught us their Lusoga names.