Saturday, November 28, 2009


Meetings, real internet, pad thai, air conditioning. Wow, the big city.

We're here until Tuesday, when we head up to Zanzibar. Whoo!

[ETA photo of Trevor enjoying his free breakfast: note anti-malaria pill in foreground!]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy happy!

Happy Thanksgiving!

When I left the talent show last night, the turkey had just started thawing in the sink. If it's not still a cube of ice, and if the cat didn't maul it in the night, we'll have a proper Thanksgiving dinner some time!

Just like your great aunt, I'm bringing jello salad with fruit entombed in its wiggling depths. I don't even eat the stuff, but that's something I need to see on the table or else it just isn't Thanksgiving. I suspect that most volunteers will sneak into the kitchen at some point today to add their one special thing. We're happy to be here, but today we're all missing our own people.

Green bean casserole may be the next best thing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Seeing as how I had to coerce people into signing up for the Provincial Talent Show (highly coveted beds at a guesthouse if they agreed to perform), I was a bit afraid that the show itself might reflect its somewhat involuntary nature.

However, I seriously underestimated the burning urge PCVs have to unleash their creative spirit before an audience of their intoxicated peers. We had an amazing roster of singing, dancing, poetry, pirate jokes -- and even a Zam-specific demonstration of carrying massive amounts of water atop one's head without spilling a drop. Even the newbies braved the stage.

The winning act, a rewrite of that Alainis Morisette song that unlike the original used actual examples of irony, made me laugh so hard I cried-- a great way to spend an evening, for sure.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The art of delegating

I was a little nervous about turning over control of the provincial Thanksgiving dinner to a trio of volunteers, because even though I have absolutely no interest in planning or cooking, I do remain a steadfast control freak. (Something else I inherited from my mom. Thanks, Mom!)

However, I've been thrilled and even a little astonished at how well things have worked out so far. The PCVs planned carefully, set limits, budgeted, and collected more money than they thought they'd need. They even made an advance trip to the market to arrange for one of the seller ladies to travel to the border to buy all the vegetables they'd need and negotiated with her to throw in a substantial amount of freebies because they spent so much.

Even yesterday, they had set a dessert deadline and told people when the kitchen will close to go into Thankgiving mode. Of course, last night I read in the Thanksgiving issue of Better Homes and Gardens (thanks, Michelle!) that you're supposed to start thawing your turkey five days in advance, and I'm pretty sure ours (thanks, Lusaka staff!) is still in the freezer.

There are always a few little glitches, right?

Bag it

I never realized how essential plastic zip-top bags are to my daily life until I came to a place with limited plastic food storage and an abundance of creeping creatures that want at my leftovers.

Friends have generously mailed us enough baggies to hermetically seal everything we own, but just like in America, Trevor and I hoard the new ones and continue to scrub and reuse the same ratty few until they finally give up. They become odd little family heirlooms: that one giant bag with the red zipper!

If we're this sentimental about plastic bags, imagine how much other useless junk we have in our house.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ticket for an airplane

Another Only-in-Zambia moment today: the travel agent and airline don't take credit cards, so I'm walking over to the hardware store the travel agent operates out of (why not his actual travel agency, I do not know) with a sack of cash to purchase plane tickets for our upcoming train-up, fly-home trip to Zanzibar.

We chose the destination largely because anything that sounds so exotic has to be interesting, right? (This is also the reason we (ok, I) picked a grad school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, over Ohio. The method seems to work most of the time.)

A week from tomorrow, we board the train for the 50-hour trip to Tanzania. I know it seems like we're taking a lot of holidays lately (because we are). This is because we're using up our remaining vacation days before our PC-issued end-of-service travel ban begins in January. We're soaking up Southern Africa because pretty soon we'll be on a jet plane coming home.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Today I'm sending out buckets and buckets of Happy Birthday wishes to my mom. I wish I was there in person to take her out to the Indian buffet for lunch, but it's her own darn fault that I'm not, because she's always encouraged me to travel far and wide and believe in myself and dream big and push myself to my greatest potential and never take no for an answer, and now look where it's gotten her? (And me.)

A zillion miles away and amazed with every single moment. Thanks, Mom.

(I owe you lunch.)

A tribute

Although I am a zillion miles away from home, I did celebrate my mom's birthday by indirectly paying tribute to her considerable skills as a hostess when we hosted friends for brunch. (Brunch! What idiot invented brunch? Too late for breakfast, too early for lunch!)

Anyway I was proud of myself for pulling off two quiches, spicy roasted potatoes, lemon poppyseed muffins, and fruit salad in a kitchen the size of an airplane restroom, with an oven that requires propping shut with a metal bar, and around the quirks of the Zambian electrical supply.

Sadly, I was completely put to shame later in the evening when we went to the house of some other friends, who cooked for five times more people, supplied a fridge full of beers and softies, held their party at a reasonable time of day, and (most impressively) projected movies on their living room wall.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mango season

Mangos have gone from being a coveted commodity to the zucchini of Chipata. When Richard came over for movie night, I caught him sneaking some into the bucket of them we already had.

I spent a good half hour this morning slicing up mangos to freeze, but of course didn't even make a discernible dent in the bucket. Mangos have a giant pit inside and produce a frustratingly small amount of edible pulp, and though you can suck more of it off the seed after slicing some away, this leaves annoying mango pulp strings caught between your teeth all day. Also I ate so many that I now have a bit of a belly ache that no doubt will continue until there is not another mango in sight because unfortunately I seem powerless to resist them.

Still, I love mango season.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My purpose in life

I get carsick and my language skills are not even mediocre (especially in Nsenga, a language I have never studied but is commonly spoken in the southern part of Eastern Province), but I realized today that I do play an important role in visiting the sites we're developing for the volunteers who will arrive in February.

This morning I stood in the yard of one of the houses that's under construction, gazing out over the heads of every person assembled to discuss modifications we're asking them to make, and I realized that my job is to Be Big, so that we demonstrate to the teensy little villagers that they shouldn't build one of their hobbit houses for their forthcoming Enormous American.

Who knows? Maybe the volunteer will be a runt. But where I come from, I'm average.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


The tape-adapter thingie I use to play my MP3 player in the PC cruiser is dead, so on our multi-hour drive down the province to visit some new sites, Clement and I listened our way through all the tapes I could find in the glove box.

Bob Marley went around several times before I finally had to switch to the Pixies. Clement listened politely until Black Francis had been screaming for quite a long time, at which point he asked me, "Is this rock and roll, or what?"

We were distracted by giant piles of mangos along the road. We stopped so I could buy a shopping bag full for the equivalent of 80 cents. When we got back in the car, Clement popped out the tape and tuned in his favorite radio station, which was playing the Muzak version of the love theme from Titanic. Honestly, that's one of those songs that makes you wonder: why do they even need a Muzak version?

Monday, November 16, 2009


I wrote my 600th post this week. Woo!

Sunday, November 15, 2009


This weekend included a super-long bike ride in the blazing sun (Trevor and Richard) and some serious lounging by all of us at the weekend home of Richard's friend.

Many of the material comforts we enjoy in Americaland don't exist here, but there is an abundance of cheap labor. At home, the only time we get overtly "waited on" is at a restaurant. This guy's place was swarming with staff that made a fire for us to sit by, moved the chairs around when we wanted to shift from the sun into a shady spot, brought a thermos of tea and whisked away the empty cups afterward, and squatted down to receive instructions from the boss.

While it seems pretty luxurious to get waited on hand and foot, the three of us whiteys agreed later that it also made us squirm. It was kind of refreshing to come home and cook our own dinner, even though (as usual) I let Trevor wash the dishes.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Go Coffee!

As regular blog readers know, for Trevor and me, a big quality-of-life
issue here in Zambia has been the search for decent coffee. There's
something so demoralizing about starting the day with a nasty little
cup of instant after having been spoiled by fragrant and delicious

It's only fitting that as we enter the final quarter of our time in
Zambia, we've finally sourced what may be the best coffee I've ever
had, in Americaland or elsewhere. It comes from northern Malawi and is
sold as a health drink-- in fact, the packing (which, inexplicably, is
adorned with a Nike swoosh) advises consumers not to drink it for
pleasure but to take advantage of its restorative properties, advice
we happily ignore as we sip much more of the brew than is probably
recommended. This is made easier by the fact that the beans come in
1kg (2.2 pound) sacks that invite overuse.

The best part of all for these two proud University of Missouri alumni
is that the coffee is named for its home region of Mzuzu.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Holy mother of invention

One of the unexpected benefits of living in Zambia is the way it forces you to solve problems with minimum resources and maximum creativity.

Because I wanted to avoid a return visit to the local veterinarian, who is afraid of dogs, this week I got my first practice in amateur animal medicine. Blood, pus and guts are normally things I avoid, but Sophie needed her stitches out and won't roll over and show her belly to just anybody. It took several days of chasing her around with fingernail clippers and disinfectant swabs, but I finally plucked out all 12 of the blue fishing-line stitches.

The experience left me feeling slightly nauseated but also pretty proud of myself. It turns out that MacGuyver veterinary care is surprisingly interesting and weirdly fun.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Change of season

While it is officially now the rainy season, it might be more telling to call it the Giant Insect Season. Since the rains have started, we've watched thousands of inswa (flying termites) swirl out of their holes in the dirt into the sky (people collect them in bowls to fry up: a seasonal delicacy!), we've become maniacal about taking our malaria pills against the hordes of mosquitos, and our house is swarming with 2-inch cockroaches, scorpion spiders, and black segmented millipedes bigger than gummy worms (and not as pretty).

Trevor collected a bunch of bugs in a plastic container for observation, then released them into the yard (well, the roach met a shoe pretty much immediately). Later, our visiting friend plucked that same (unwashed) container out of the sink to make a salad. It was the kind of moment where you wonder, should I say something and make her want to toss her cookies and/or salad? Or shut my big trap and tell the internets later?

She seemed to enjoy the salad. I didn't try it.

Monday, November 9, 2009


I didn't even agonize over it this year, but just went ahead and bought myself a Christmas tree on the first day I saw them at the grocery store.

We're sitting here in shorts as the rainy season gets underway in all its 100-percent humidity and giant cockroachy glory, so I decided not to wait for the holiday spirit to arrive but put the darn thing up, festooned in a wimpy little strand of lights, tinsel I brought back from Americaland last year, paper flags and cocktail umbrellas Michelle sent, malaria test slides, and a bunch of styrofoam letters we deemed sufficiently festive.

It may be quirky, but it's beginning to look (a little) like Christmas.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Mt. Mulanje was spectacular and shredded the skin off my feet (note to self: no hiking in homemade socks!). More details (and photos, I hope!) to come.

The 6-day hike itself was miraculously uneventful (great weather, good food, excellent company, no injuries), and because nothing in Africa is ever easy, the drive home included:

-- a dead battery when we returned to Richard's truck
-- a region-wide diesel shortage that resulted in our buying fuel on the black market and later siphoning from the spare tank using garden hose and a 5-liter jug
-- a clogged fuel filter that Richard changed (in 10 minutes!) on the shoulder of the highway between Blantyre and Lilongwe
-- being buzzed off the road twice by the four-Hummer entourage of (we believe) President Dr. Bingu of Malawi (we passed them back when they stopped to pee beside the road)
-- a driving rainstorm that began just as I started my shift behind the wheel
-- a drunk guard at the border who required a little, uh, convincing to open the gate
-- eleven (count 'em: ELEVEN!) police checkpoints

Normally I'd be put out by the so-called hassles, but I welcomed any reason to extend the trip by a few more minutes, even if it meant standing by the truck watching diesel drip into a jug while rainstorm-hatched termites swirled into the dusk air.

It was that good.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Traveling companion

If you're planning a 6-day hike on Mt. Mulanje, I recommend that you take along an authentic Englishman, who can be counted upon to provide endless entertainment by talking funny, as well as to interrupt every afternoon's exhausting uphill slog by suggesting a proper tea break.

I've stopped on many a hiking trip for a handful of granola and gulps of water laced with powdered drink mix, but there's something utterly refreshing and civilized about waiting for the water to boil, respecting the alchemy of the tea leaves, adding the milk, and enjoying the scenery over a steaming mug.

It doesn't hurt that you get a thunderbolt of caffeinated energy to blast you along those last few miles.