29 October 2007

Would you like to see a menu?

When I was a boy I was extremely picky about my food. “No Dad, I want my toast sliced diagonally not in rectangles!” I would wine and complain.

When I was a boy and living in Malaysia I loved the omnipresent durian fruit but hated raw carrots. As a boy in America I would demolish fresh grown Indiana corn but completely ignored leafy green salads.

During my youth my father would tell me, “Someday,” he paused checking the likelihood of the ensuing statement himself, “Someday you’ll grow to enjoy this stuff. Just you wait and see.”

I scoffed at my father’s prediction and continued my distaste of salad into my teenage years in where, conversely I loved strawberries and cream ice cream. Then I connected a few dots of evidence and realized I was lactose intolerant. Then I didn’t like ice cream so much.

As a college student volunteering abroad in Thailand I craved spicy vegetable and noodle soup but altogether ignored any plate with fish on it.

Looking back on my history of food choices I see a common human trait, adaptation and change. Partially because of a personal multicultural and multinational background and partially due to the melting pot that is American, we are privileged to have the choice and variety to even cultivate these preferences.

The average Gambian, in particular those living in remote areas far away from any urban center, do not share the same privilege of choice that many Americans have. The lack of choice keeps the culinary dimension of adaptation and change in a muted state.

When I was a PCV in The Gambia I tried introducing my host family and friends to a number of Western dishes. Hesitant from the stories of past PCVs failing miserably in this endeavor, I stubbornly decided to give it my best shot anyways. Surely there would be something that would be good enough to warrant a change in Gambian taste buds. I tried everything from fresh salad to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Cliff bars to mashed potatoes, meals of spaghetti to chicken noodle soup, and was met by reactions ranging from quiet indifference to chocking and forced swallows of death.

My buddy told me, “That’s nothing. You know how my family always makes the sugary rice porridge? They make it so much I’m beginning to think they’re having a passionate love affair with it. So I think, this is one thing I can Americanize and they will still love. I made the same dish only replaced oatmeal for the rice and added cinnamon and fresh cut apples. You know what happened when I served my family? My little host brother took one bite and instantly threw it all up.”

With a passive acceptance of past failures and I decided that if I couldn’t change the food itself perhaps I could at least put an American spin on the presentation of a meal and pray for an agreement of the mouth and stomach. Fear of continued failure ran high as memories came flooding back; have you ever met someone who was picky about how their steak is cooked? What about their eggs or what goes on their Hamburgers? I knew I had better rely on an old saying, “Keep It Simple Stupid,” simple and it just might work.

So, when I was a PCV and wanted to celebrate Halloween I served my family watermelon scooped out of the round green fruit ice cream style. This was in opposition to the Gambian norm of eating watermelon sliced into wedges, but hell, I didn’t care, I was on a mission to force the acceptance of a new presentation. But that was not enough, I wanted to celebrate Halloween as an American, so I scooped out the inside, carved a picture on the side, stuck a candle in the center, and lit it up. Minutes later everyone in the compound was enjoying scooped watermelon illuminated from the soft glow of a “skull and cross bones” patterned light.

When I was a PCV, I didn’t forget some of the things I did as a boy to celebrate the fun of the holidays.

To all friends and family,
Happy Halloween 2007.

22 October 2007

Strangers from another planet

12 days of recapturing a lost life showed me a path towards a new one. Remnants of an old self which has become foreign met the new and the increasingly everyday, the resulting mix a brew that is ripe for reflection and divergent roads.

Jacob and Dan spent 12 days in The Gambia and I think for the three of us the time mixing three distinctively different lives grounded us in our shared history and then asked for assurance in the direction we were going in life. Jacob patient and calculating, working database support in order to plan for the future and take care of student loans. Dan keeping a sharp focus on the music industry, vying for that one opportunity that will allow his years of Cello and Guitar playing to shine. As for myself, well, I guess I would say I’m still out trying to prove to myself I am capable of the once unthinkable.

The details of trip are a blur now. We spent time in the urban area relaxing on the beach, met a lot of fellow PCVs over unsatisfying JulBrew beer, went to the top of Arch-22 overlooking Banjul, traveled the moon-like roads of the South Bank highway, hiked with Chad to a bluff that overlooked the Gambia River valley, broke fast with spaghetti, eggs, bread, and oil, cooked Chicken Domodaa on a charcoal fire, took countless trips into the busy Brikama market, brewed Attaya tea, had a beach party with fellow teachers from my school, saw Jaliba perform at a local venue, and sat out on a concrete floor and played with Amee and Buba.

Of course through all of this the three of us joked and talked about our past escapades and future hopes. For the first time in The Gambia I laughed so hard that my stomach cried out in pain. Refreshing. Despite our different paths in life we shared a commonality of life in ones’ 20’s. Slowly finding what brings joy to life but definitely still wandering the empty space between the stars. Our chats reminded me of some advice my Aunt has bestowed upon me, “Some times its best to remember that the master plan is usually unclear. To some extent, no matter our age, we are all winging it.”

During the visit I also felt very much on display of my adaptation and socialization into Gambian society. Having an outside view critiquing my actions there was a distinct sense that I was not giving nearly enough. The shell that protects me from going insane with being out of my element has perhaps become a bit too opaque and thick. It reminded me that overall I am an introverted person, uncomfortable in a situation with a lot of people that I don’t know. For that reason life here, where greetings, visitors, and socializing with anyone and everyone is expected, is difficult. Because of the shell it can even be difficult communicating with fellow PCVs, despite our shared cultural background.

Specifics of the shell? A case in point would be my attitude to strangers and children. Dan and Jacob repeatedly would greet and chat with strangers or children in situations when I would have given a Scrooge-esque grumble or passing wave. Our large car park is often a breeding ground for endless hours of waiting. Endless hours of waiting while bored Gambian 20-somethings start conversations about America, why Gambia is nice, and the gamut of typical greetings. Dan handled this situation with a calm and openness that has been missing in action from my being. My neighborhood street plays like a broken record of children screaming my name, and during their visit Jacob and Dan’s name. I’ve internalized this as an annoyance but Jacob smiled, waved, and kindly approached most if not all of the kids. These contrasts played out time and time again during the 12 days. Beauty in contrast? Hope for thoughtful results.

As a result I had to ask, have we become so jaded and tired as to hide ourselves in a blackened shuttered hole?


But don’t forget that the visit also brought laughter of abdomen burning levels, so here’s a simple little comic book collage featuring some highlights from the trip.

Featured: (from top left to bottom right) Dan pounding rice and peanuts for an evening dessert, Jacob fetching water from my open well, Carson and Dan posing for the camera after eating delicious Mango smoothies in Banjul, myself and Dan well on our way to being giddy, Chad, myself, and Dan after a long hike and weed whacking adventure to the “King’s Hill”, and finally Jacob and Dan being silly at the beach before digging into a plate of french fries which might have been their most enjoyable meal the whole trip.

06 October 2007

Ch. 23 Where a few mysteries are explained but the conclusions are left to the reader

In Thomas Mann´s book Tonio Kroeger, the protagonist goes through a series of definitive moments that shape his life. The moments are spread across his life but are described in detail, without showing the direct impact on Tonio. It is left to the reader to fill in the missing gaps of time and discern why the change was made.

These detailed moments of growth are the book´s leitmotif and are often highlighted when Mann writes, Damals, lebte sein Herz. This could be translated to, ¨At those times, his heart was truly alive.¨ The language isn´t done justice in the English translation and it should be noted that the surrounding text is what clarifies the phrase. When reading the passages in full the once vague phrase expands to include extremes of loss, pain, joy, desire, hope, and yearning.

I put the phrase on my Blog header before leaving home over a year ago. I never realized how much those few words would best describe my time in The Gambia...

To all those volunteers who have been beacons of friendship, kindness and understanding, and to the supportive people back home, you know who you are, my heartfelt thanks. 9 more months living the leitmotif.

* I know Ch.22, the previous post, was going to be the last for some time, but some mornings filled with emotion simply cannot be denied and they demand to find their outlet.

01 October 2007

Ch. 22 In which small details set up much bigger events

There is a garden worm which is desperately crawling across the road. Its head leaps forward, stubbornly demanding the rest of the body to follow. A push and a drag and the worm slowly moves to its ultimate goal. I look at the worm and it makes me realize that I’ve fallen in love once again with what keeps me going here, professionalism and determination to do our job. I realize that I’ve taken it to the extreme and am being hermitic with the idea, I realize I am not balancing devotion with breaks for the mind. (Es steht klar auf Deutsch wenn man eine Ganzheit sagen w├╝rde.

And then the detailed memories come back.

It’s the third grade and I still feel like a foreigner. The transition from an International School in Malaysia to a small midwestern Catholic school leaves me wondering why American schools are so rigid and made up of the same type of person. I can’t take it anymore so by the end of the year my parents enroll me in the local public school where I meet Jacob. Jacob invites me to his house for a birthday party sleep over and while driving to his house I wonder why he lives so far away I wonder how it is that we go to the same school. The home is filled with other students from our grade at the public school and I feel out of place as friendships and clear lines are already drawn for who is best friends with who. The day wears into night and I have my pajamas in a small backpack and I’m not sure if you’re supposed to put them on at a certain time or if I was even supposed to bring pajama’s to an American sleep over. I feel completely out of place and am happy that at least I was invited to the party.

Dan I don’t really get to know until high school. It’s early freshmen year I’m 5’9” and due to lack of self control and the availability of fast food I weigh 200 pounds. This affects my high school career. For those of us with low self esteem there are still welcoming people and Dan is one of them. Dan has had a few girl friends and I am of course jealous. We are at his house with our mutual friend Cameron and we talk about whether or not one can have an opinion on a subject, like women, without having had experience. For some reason we stand firm in our views and we argue to the point of shouting and spiteful tones and I wonder how we ever got so violent about a small matter. But we are teenagers, and we are merely growing up through misunderstanding and argumentation over points that will seem silly years later.

I’m in the Gambia and I’m thinking about these things as I go to the airport with a good friend of mine from a few villages away. We are going to meet our site mate at the airport to welcome her back from vacation. Other PCVs ask with confused faces why we are doing this and I wonder what ever happened to friendliness. We enter the airport climb the flight of stairs to the wonderfully air conditioned restaurant that looks out onto the airstrip. She and I are both fasting for Ramadan and all around us are people merrily eating from little frosted cups of strawberry, chocolate, vanilla and mint flavored ice cream. We become a bit delirious and talk about the health benefits and delicacy of a boiled egg sandwich and wheat bread and we both laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. We wait for the airplane and both agree that there are meals we will truly appreciate when we return home.

We wait for about 30 minutes and a restaurant employee walks up to us and informs us that if we aren’t going to buy anything then he’s going to have to ask us to leave. We stand up, sigh, and start our exit from the the air conditioned respite. I think that he might have had mercy on us if he knew we were fasting but then I wonder if he would ever even think to ask two foreigners if they were fasting. I want to make a point of it but my mind is too tired to even start the process of argumentation.

I settle for something simpler and reflect on the day. I reflect on this life that I’m living and I can’t help but be a bit nervous as to what Dan and Jacob will think when they arrive here in a few days. I can’t help but be nervous but I also can’t help but feel incredibly excited for the much bigger events to come.


Two of my best friends from childhood, Dan and Jacob, are coming this weekend. It will be a continuation of a story that has been now going on for some 15 years. I’m going to take this opportunity to take a break from blog posting and recharge my brain for writing. Expect postings again around the week of October 22nd-28th. Best wishes to all, Todd.