10 February 2014

Let the Good Times Roll (Part 3ish)

After an initial flurry of activity when I first came back, work has been quiet. Too quiet for my liking, to tell you the truth. My family often asks me what I’m up to, and I feel guilty that I never really have a good answer. But the truth is that life in the field is very often boring and monotonous. We are still waiting for word from our donors (and it already February! This is a bit scandalous), so in the meantime I’m just spinning my wheels and designing impossible yoga sequences. Sure, the pregnant lady and dudes who can’t touch their toes and those professing various and sundry knee and back problems can to Bird of Paradise! It’ll be fun (I kid. I would never. Well, not right away. We’re building up to it.)!

Happily for both my sanity and my students’ bodies, I’ve found something new to interest me: cheese. Now, rather than searching for asanas to promote shoulder health and tighten the core (I would go with Utkatasana, Ustrasana, or, if you're really tough, Tittibhasana), I am spending far more time researching farmer’s cheese that I would be willing to admit to anyone in the office. This includes the self-same colleague who put me on the cheese war-path to begin with. This individual, who was raised in as a MK (missionary kid. It’s like the secular version of a military brat) in Uganda and has spent no small amount of time in DRC, brought with him an ice cream maker. The man understanding the cravings of field life and is prepared. Unfortunately, he also manages not the most experienced. He bought from milk from a local farmer. It came to our door at 7 am on a Sunday, unpasteurised, unseparated, still warm – straight from the utter to your compound! Prior to purchase, my colleague had solicited a number of suggestions about how to treat the milk so that we didn’t all end up tossing our cookies clear across town. The responses spanned the gamut from don’t boil at all to boil for 30 minutes, separate the cream first, don’t separate the cream, etc., etc. The first suggestion struck us as unsafe, while following the latter seemed like it would result in no milk at the end of that experiment. We ultimate went for a 5 minute boil, unseparated. To our surprise, the milk promptly balled up and turned into cheese. I was not, at first, brave enough to try it. Lucky, both my colleague and the cat have more adventurous stomachs. After waiting a few hours to see what would befall them (nothing, it turned out), I gave it a go. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant - nice texture, crumbly without dryness, but it wanted for salt.

Heady with unexpected success, we decided our next step would be to make our own mozzarella. Basically, managed to stumble a few steps despite ourselves and determined we were ready for the cheese Olympics. As anyone might have been able to tell us, mozzarella is a bit beyond our reach. You need citric acid and rennet (which can – huzzah! – be vegetarian). However, I have determined that we can attempt ricotta and what purports to be a very nice farmer’s cheese. There is a whole wide, pungent world beyond Goma cheese!

For what it’s worth, we also did manage to get the milk to boil without clumping and eventually tried our hand at ice cream. It was…well, only our first time, so unmitigated disaster is probably too harsh an assessment. That said, it never managed to set beyond the soup stage. It was also shockingly artificial-tasting (the vanilla here is suspect, despite our proximity to Madagascar) and took on a sickly green hue, on account of the old m&ms someone had scrounged from somewhere to share. Well, like I said, it was a first effort only. My gastric future looks bright.

Over the long winter break, the brave and foolish few who remained actually became quite adept at entertaining ourselves. We played a range of board games printed in more languages than we could keep up with – Clue in French (Cludo) was not too much of a stretch (though not a man or woman on my team had ever seen the film. I was astounded and vowed to download it as soon as the internet would support such action. So…never) and (on the more random end of the scale) Settlers of Catan in Portuguese and the Amazing Labyrinth in Russian (the randomness of the games in my house gives an indication of how varied our staff has been over the years. Luckily, the interwebs have been strong enough to support a search for the English translations of the rule). I was also introduced to ‘African rules’ pool, in which a scratch on the eight ball, does not result in a loss. I was suspicious that they just made up pity rules for my partner because I’m so awful.

I also took advantage of my housemate/boss’ absence to paint the bathroom full of fish. It’s not my best work, for sure, but it’s also not all bad, considering I’m using oil-based house paint cut with nail polish remover and applying it with my one eye shadow brush. Desperate times and all that.

More recently, the American contingent of my NGO decided that it was our patriotic imperative to watch the Super Bowl. I am not yet prepared to relive the experience it in any great depth. That shit was painful. Sufficed to say that we spent the better part of two weeks figuring out how to watch the game with no luck. Finally, Sunday evening at roughly 8pm (there’s a time difference, but even so, there wasn’t a second to loose), we were able to marry a television with a receiver. We sweet talked to the head of security at the standard bar into letting us crash between the magic hours of 1am-5am – he, too, was an American and understood. Our Dutch country director took a bit more convincing, but we finally got her on board (by promising not to tell anyone. Sssshhhhhhh!). This was how I found myself at one am in the deserted expat bar, animatedly explaining to a trio of gamely interested Italians about the down system and extra points and then, suddenly, we switched to safteys….then then punts….and then interceptions…and then I got really quiet for a long time. The other Americans picked up my explanatory slack – they were less invested than I – on why there were so many pauses and how a lineman nicknamed Pot Roast could possibly count as a professional athlete. At least the Mexican guy not only knew what was going on, but shared my despondency. Who knew that the Doncos were so popular south of the border? Anyway, the less said of that debacle, the better. At least I won’t be pining for football in the coming months, now that I’ve had my snootful.

The most common diversion, by far, though, are house parties. They usually occur on Saturday nights (Friday night, you see, is ‘happy hour’ at MONUSCO House, so no one would come to a house party, and all the other nights we’re pretty much just hermits). Even these have a sort of anticipatory sameness. MSF will have the best booze and the most restrictive guest list (no UN). Enesco (a UN contractor) has the best food and often the weirdest vibe (they seem to invite a lot of…prostitutes?). Solidarité is super fun, but the dance floor is bitty. Cesvi…hasn’t hosted a party since they got their piglet, and you can’t really blame them. The missionaries and other Christian orgs never host anything resembling a party and don’t mingle with the secular NGOs.

It’s almost like there is an approved soundtrack for when more than five expats get together. I hear the same songs at every house party we go to, over and over again. In one night, I heard Gangnam style no less than three times. I have to admit that I was impressed at how well the Egyptian peacekeepers knew a dance created by a South Korean pop start and made viral in the US. I suppose I shouldn’t have been. Of course, as whoever happens to be the self-appointed DJ gets drunker, the music selection tends to get more esoteric. Bollywood standards, Lebanese hits, Australian 80s classics, French or Italian house music…we’re usually at the mercy of the sobriety of the host. Most the us are game to dance to anything though, so we usually soldier on until 1 or 2, when our legs are about to give out and we have to make it back or be late for curfew. Ours is at 1. We…mostly respect that.

Really, implying that we’re limited to house parties or MONUSCO is unfair; there are myriad places we go to dance. After the MONUSCO happy hour closes shop at midnight, we almost always wander over to the townie disco (Champagne Club – the name is misleading) and join in a terrifically popular line dance that is strongly reminiscent of the Electric Slide. Champagne can be hit or miss – the music can be utterly undancable (on good nights, it features Congolese music (for which they are justifiably famous and sounds like a bachata by way of Jamaica), hip hop, and, very weirdly and consistently, Summer Lovin’.), there can be prostitutes everywhere (MONUSCO is not supposed to go to the clubs, for obvious reasons, though that never seems to stop them), and the guys, national and otherwise, can get really aggressive. With the Congolese, the only thing that seems to work is telling them you have a boyfriend. Simply saying no with escalating levels of intensity NEVER works.

My favourite place to dance, though (aside from my room, where I prefer to rock out in my socks and headphones after a particularly long day) is in the empty pool of Hotel Royal. The Hotel is on the outskirts of town, so the stars are almost painfully bright. In the pool itself, people mill and smoke and generally exude ineffable European coolness in the shallows, while dancing is confined to the deep end. The less adventurous tend to take up perches on the side of the pool, just dipping their toes in the maelstrom of movement and music. The more we drink, the more precarious is it to make the transition from one side of the pool to the other. We probably should just pour out the beer and made a slip’n’slide.