09 January 2014

Rockin' around the mango tree*

Happy New Year and belated Holidays! I trust that they were full of good will and cheer and the proper amount of snow and spiced wine (I started writing this before North America froze over). Given that I have – through my own fault, my mother would be quick to remind me – I found myself once again overseas during the holiday season, I thought I could write a helpful guide based on my experiences. Without further ado, here it is:

So you’re not going to be able to make it home for the holidays and are bemoaning how a white Christmas or lavish New Year’s Eve is only in your dreams. Never fear! Embrace this as a chance to escape all of the crass commercialism everyone is always decrying and get back to the true meaning of Christmas. And what better place to do that than a dusty African warzone?

As a quick aside, let me assure you that the dust is not to be taken lightly. We’re in the midst of the dry season, and the clouds of dust are so thick as to practically be opaque. In the early evenings, it’s less that the sun sets than that it is smothered by a wave of red-hued darkness. All of this rusty dust floating around makes me suspicious that Bunia is, in fact, Mars (I’m mostly just making this link because the photo is amazing. Also, it has transpired that it is Canada that is Mars). At the very least, it would be a decent stand-in for it. Take note, Hollywood. For my part, this just means taking an extra hit on the inhaler and looking at the bright side – I’m trying to conceptualise it as red snow and Bunia as a beachy winter wonderland. Having to use the headlights during the day to see through the clouds is a bit like seeing a tastefully decorated house through a blizzard. Yes. Lets’s go with that.

At any rate, as the weather outside is frightful, let’s turn our attention indoors. A fire would be categorically undelightful in this heat, but a general lack of power means that candle light is! Commence your decorating efforts by rounding up all of your extraneous old wine and beer and Amarula bottles (we don’t drink that much, really, but you could never tell by the décor) and stuff them with candles, regardless of fit. Tinfoil makes for a great bottleneck stuffer and does really nifty things when the candle eventually burns down. Just be sure when placing your fiery bottles to maintain safe distance from the paper snowflake Christmas tree (after all, what is Christmas without even a cursory call-back to pagan winter rites?), construction paper ornaments, scrap cloth garlands, and any drunken revellers who might be traipsing through (more likely a hazard at any given New Year’s Party, but still something to take into consideration). Believe you me – once your colleagues and friends (assuming they haven’t all fled the country to spend the holidays with their family like a sane person) feast their eyes on your homemade Christmas flair, they’ll be moved to commend you on your creativity. Never you mind if they somewhat undercut that by noting that only very young children make such things in their country. Is it not the same in the US?

Be sure not to neglect your office in favour of your house – after all, you’ll going to be one of only a handful of staff left, national and expat alike. You might at least enjoy it! For example, prior to his departure for the season, one of my colleagues somehow scrounged up a proper, if somewhat bedraggled, fake Christmas Tree and placed it in the piyote. Unfortunately, his festive gesture is somewhat undercut by the sensation that the brassy plastic bouquets that normally adorn the piyote are not reacting favourably to this Charlie Brown interloper. With their garish pastel colours and hand-sized blooms, they feel vaguely threatening – less like they’re complimenting the tree, and more like they’re strangling it as retribution for encroaching on their territory. I could have sworn it was a fuller fake tree before we put it in the piyote.

Moving on, nothing says Christmas like Christmas cookies. The act of baking traditional sweets has something of a magic quality. It not only puts both the baker and the consumer in the spirit (so much spicy sweet deliciousness!), but manages to suffuse you with the warmth of family traditions observed, transports you in time and space to the very best memories of Christmases past. Put another way, you can cook to cope with the stress and then have something scrumdiddlyumptious with which to eat your feelings! Truly, a win most epic. Pro tip – it’s even more fulfilling if you have somehow managed to pilfer you mother’s original copies of your family recipes completely by accident. Besides, it’s not like she needs them, right? She’s been making these cookies for so many years you can reasonably expect that the recipes are seared into the back of her eyelids.

One caveat to holiday baking in your particular warzone – approach the endeavour with a certain degree of flexibility. In this, allow Mary and Joseph to be your spirit guides – what, no room at the in? No worries – that barn looks reasonably sanitary for a new born (I told you this guide was about reconnecting with the true meaning of Christmas).

Let us take, as our first example, the case of Sugar. Unless you are some kind of, Aruvedic, anti-sugar, gluten-free-vegan-low-glycemic index heathen who hates joy and probably puppies (or a diabetic, in which case, three cheers for putting your health first!), your holiday baking requires heroic amounts of sugar in an exciting array of non-standard iterations. Karo syrup, say, or the powdered variety. But you’re living in a dusty backwater where they don’t even have real butter or non-powdered milk (and yet there are goats everywhere. Explain that one to me) and for all intents and purposes the only thing in your pantry is sugar in the raw (in many ways, my larder is super healthy. Processing be damned). ‘Tis the season for some creativity.

While you can’t make corn syrup (maybe some of you could. I am not that crafty), you can fairly easily substitute a simple syrup or honey for the Karo. Powdered sugar is also super easy to make at home, provided you have a blender or a food processor or even a coffee grinder. If you have none of these items, you can always turn to the old standby of a mortar and pestle. Even better if you have jumbo-sized one where you hug the mortar between your thighs like a cello and pound that sugar into a fine dust in ambitious quantities. Note – cleaning the mortar and pestle before and after the process is critical, lest you end up with cassava-flavoured (though pleasantly green- tinted) powdered sugar and weirdly sweet greens. If you don’t manage to clean the M&P sufficiently, cross your fingers and hope that the Christmas spirit will lead people and ants alike to pretend not to notice. Also, don’t be too fussy about a slight grainy-ness to your dishes. If any one does happen to comment on the unconventional texture of your icing because they were raised by blunt Dutch wolves, you can blame the sugar and not the dust. Trust me – it’s better this way.

Likewise, some of your recipes might call for eggs to be beaten to various levels of stiffness. The equipment you have on hand will once again determine you success in this undertaking. If you have beaters, great! Go to town. If not, you might have to use a whisk. Assuming you have one (note – you could always make a whisk out of sturdy and twigs. Make sure to clean them well and then soak them in something acidic and natural. Lemon juice is a good option.), be prepared for a whisking marathon. Beating those buggers to stiff peaks could take nearly an hour (assuming you stick with it. My estimation of an hour has all the authority of the owl in the tootsie pop commercials who claims it takes three licks to get to the centre.) For that reason, I suggest not attempting to mortar sugar and hand-beat eggs on the same day. It’s not worth it! Unless, of course, your Christmas gift to yourself is Michelle Obama arms. In that case, hats off to you and your beautiful buffness.

If, for whatever reason, your brand new (okay, so that might be a bit of a stretch. Perhaps gently used and recently installed would be better?) oven gives up the ghost (or possibly was never properly hooked up to your gas line in the first place, despite repeated requests to the house manager to get it fixed before Christmas as you might have some baking to do on the horizon…), pan frying your cookies is…not an acceptable alternative. What will emerge is certainly edible and not altogether unobjectionable – something like a sweet flatbread – but it is decidedly not a cookie. In case, you know, you were wondering about this sort of thing. I do it all for you. You can work around this oven issue by simply rolling the cookies out at home with the nearest bottle of alcohol (Captain Morgan’s gives some interesting underlying patterns that really add something to the cookies come decoration time), covering them in both plastic wrap and a damp towel (the dust will not be stopped!), and taking them to bake at the neighbour’s. I suggest further leaving some as compensation for the use of their facilities and fuel. Besides, it’s not like you need them; you have all that flatbread, remember?

If the final step of your cookie preparation, like mine, is icing, don’t lament you lack of colour options! In addition to the soothing minty green of the cassava base, look around for inspiration. A splash of wine makes for a nice rose of mango juice a cheering shade of yellow. Just roll with the flavour punches as you carefully paint bowties on your gingerbread men or trees strewn with garland that looks suspiciously like the border on a rum bottle.

No Christmas post would be complete without some description of the associated services, as, despite the yellow-journalistic yammering of the War on Christmas fear mongers, this is a decisively religious holiday (though I am fully aware that it does not belong exclusively to the devout among us. I even find it charming that this can be a time for everyone, well, many people, to come together with the biological or chosen families and enjoy one another’s company or hate their guts, as the occasion demands). So be prepared to engage in marathons of praying (which I had tying as prying and, well, there was that, too) and singing (here I typed that as sinning, which might have been much more interesting) with your colleagues, as well as comparing Christmas notes across cultures.

Prior to departing for your holiday in the field, be sure that your iPod or computer or what have you is well-stocked with a diverse catalogue of Christmas music. You never know when you’ll be called upon to save the office staff from Didie in finance who only had one song, a Swahili version of Silent Night, that he plays on repeat for days. Be prepared, though, for some of your more eclectic or decidedly American songs to be received with a bit of a chill. ‘So this also is a Christmas song?’ your German colleague might ask, tone heavy with suspicion. The songs that put such a dubious note in her voice will most likely be selections from Tran Siberian Orchestra and Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer. I know, I know – you can well understand the doubt about some of TSO’s work (though who knew that The Nutcracker is not a thing in Germany or seemingly anywhere in Western Europe) but GGROBAR? That is a CLASSIC. But take heart – it is likely this very song that will lead to your Dutch boss requesting to copy your Christmas music.

The cookies are baked, the candles lit, and your playlist has run its course several times over. What’s the next step to keep the festivities going? Watch a Chrismas movie, of course! Be sure to make your selection carefully, however, and plan in advance: given your woefully limited bandwidth, odds are very high that you will only be able to download one, and even that will take several days. Try to hide your shock when you international team is only familiar with the most recent of Christmas films, including Elf, The Holiday, and Love Actually. Instead, offer cheerful synopses of some classic alternatives (insufficient merriment in this endeavour will get It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol declared ‘too heavy’ to watch on Christmas). Might I be so bold to suggest Miracle on 34th Street? Everyone will be terribly charmed by the cherubic Natalie Wood, though you might suspect that the story is a bit lost on people whose versions of Santa Claus arrive on the 5th or 6th of December on a white horse, accompanied by scores of persons in black face (from coming down chimneys, obviously. But if you ever want to fall down a racially uncomfortable Christmas hole on Wikipedia, go ahead and Google Black Pete).

As a final kernel of wisdom for your bush Christmas, I urge you not to rely on the input of one person only when searching for Mass times. Like as not, s/he will give you partial information with a totally deceptive air of authority, resulting in you finding yourself at a cathedral outside of town at 7pm for a service that started at 6:30 and is in Swahili, not French. Asking someone at this service will likewise prove futile – why would they know when another service is, as they’re already at one – and send you to a second cathedral, with the service still in Swahili (though with excellent music) and a caution that it is going to last until midnight. If you are will to continue church-hopping (it’s a little like tapas hopping, if you time the Communion services just right) with a French friend, be prepared for him to demand a French service, all while making snide comments about how it doesn’t matter to you, as you wouldn’t understand either one (just because you cannot understand his incomprehensible Brittony accent, don’t let your French skills be crushed). If you are lucky, you will most likely end up at the small church you normally attend just as the service is beginning. While you won’t be able to sit with your friend, and the incense will be so thick that you’re worried you’ll either be smoked out or stoned, the music will still be good and it won’t last for 3.5 hours (let’s hear it for European priests!).

For New Year’s, you’ll just rightly be inspired to pick up some celebratory champagne, but somehow the only bottles you can get are 100USD or more, even at the ramshackle alimentacion across the street. Unless you are really into New Years or independently wealthy (which, you’re working in the humanitarian sector for the purposes of this post, so…hahahahahaha), I suggest you stock up on the standard box wine and instead track down some other decadence (real butter is an excellent choice. You’ll find that it is only available at Janvier’s stall, and then only Mondays. It is sold out by noon and costs nearly five dollars for two sticks. But so rare a treat that it’s worth it!), bake some more cookies and make ‘spinach’ samosas (for which you will probably have to use suspiciously sweet cassava leaves in place of spinach and make the dough by hand, which is what my colleague explained all good Bunia women do), and go to party at a French NGO. Select your NGO strategically – perhaps select the one just across the street from the blow-out party of Bunia (a Masque! With a 7 USD cover charge! That’s how you know it’s posh) just to be sure you have a back-up option.

The the party you ultimately attend will not be substantively different than any other expat bash - some finger food , lots of drinks (no champers, though someone was sharing tequila by the capful. It was the dude who owns the bar. Go figure), and lots and lots of dancing. It’s likely that the only concessions to New Year’s Eve will the candles (fun but misguided, especially given how much everyone was imbibing – I did warn you about the drunken revelers early on) and the countdown, in French of course.

Make sure to clean your face beforehand and apply a tastefully understated perfume in preparation for the kiss-athon that accompanies midnight. Not that way, you sauce-pots. On the cheek, three times (right left right), just as when greeting. Bonne anne! Kiss, kiss, kiss. Happy year! Kiss, kiss, kiss. It will take ages. Try not to stay out too late, as yours is one of the only NGOs with a curfew and you have Mass in the morning (for which you Mass buddy will abandon you, prompting an interesting discussion about Holy Days of Obligation. Apparently they don’t have them in France? I find that…hard to believe. He promised to confirm with his mother.)

So to you I offer my cyber kisses and best wishes for a very happy 2014. May it be all that you deserve.

*Alternative titles considered for this pose include:

Miracle on Avenue de Libération, Grandma Got Run Over by a Moto, Baby, It’s Bunia Outside, and Away in a Piyote. While reading, I strongly encourage you to hum along with your favourite carol (it’s still technically the Christmas season, so I feel like I’m in the clear). May I suggest that holiday classic, Honking Horns (only slightly adapted from the original version of Jingle Bells). You know how it goes – Dashing through the dust, in a battered Land Rover, over the bumps we go, coughing all the way.