Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Kaieteur, Unchained

[You can follow this story with pictures on my photo album, just like those picture books you used to read...and hopefully sometimes still do.]

Imagine Niagara Falls, only 3 times taller, virtually no tourists, surrounded by South American rainforest, and you have to hike until your toes have blood blisters to get there but you get to swim at the precipice of it when you do.  In short, forget Niagara Falls - I'm a Kaieteur Man!

Yeah, I'll bet you had no idea that one of the great wonders of the natural world is located right here in the heart of Guyana.  Kaieteur holds the dubious-but-legitimate title of largest (not tallest, but largest) single-drop waterfall on the planet.  Victoria Falls, far taller, doesn't count because it's got an extra little drop at the top, and we measure not just height, but volume too.  But who cares?  This place is fantastic!  Nobody knows about it, so it gets maybe a couple hundred visitors a year.  It's greatest claim to fame in the Western world?  Heart-throb movie star Channing Tatum visited this past year.  We checked the log book in the guest house, but he hadn't signed it.

The trip started off in Georgetown, Guyana's capital, where five of us PCVs and a Bulgarian woman also working in the country met our guide, an Amerindian originally from the Kaieteur region who has actually been to Washington D.C. to campaign on behalf of Amerindian rights.  Together, we loaded up our backpacks and foodstuffs into a bus and took a long, bumpy, miserable ride into the jungle.  The road was unpaved, dusty, lumpy, downright dangerous, and looked just like my usual route to site back in my Mali days (so of course I was feeling nostalgic and happy as a clam).  The difference between here and Mali is that while in Mali, you'll see a farming village every few miles, this road took us through a dense rainforest with only the occasional Amerindian outpost or gold mining camp to break up the monotony.  Even these rare glimpses of civilization were each limited to three or four houses, two or three bars, and at least one pool table.  I have no idea how they got a pool table that far on that road.

But if the pool tables could all make it, so could we.  We got to the town of Madhia, a large mining outpost-turned-city and met our motorboat captains.  Onto the boats we climbed and after an hour of winding down the jungle river, the sun began to set and no sooner did we pull our cameras out to fire away at the gorgeous landscape than the brilliant glowing golden sunset clouds opened up into glowing golden rain torrents and that was the end of our photo-taking.  It was also the last time any of us saw dry clothes for the next two days.  Apparently, the least waterproof part of my backpack was the bottom, where I'd packed all my underwear and socks – which is how I ended up with the aforementioned blood blisters.

That night, we parked on Amatok Island, yet another small gold-miners' compound.  We slept in our hammocks and mosquito tents, and woke up in time for some sunrise river-bathing.  At first anxious about the reportedly piranha-infested waters, we were assured that the rivers were so full of piranha food that there was no way they would be interested in eating us – that is, I thought, unless we came upon the one piranha who hadn't had breakfast yet.  Happily, the only things that were interested in eating us were tiny fish who took harmless little nips at our toes like the ones in those Japanese feet-cleaning parlors.

After breakfast was another couple hours of boating down the river, and just when I was getting antsy, we parked our boats, had a quick lunch of peanut butter crackers and watermelons, and began to hike.  We had begun our ascent on the far side of the mountain from where Kaieteur Falls falls from, so we had to climb over to the other side of the mountain to get to the Falls.  It was one of those great moments that I experience every time I do something awesome while travelling, when I could shout to one of the other PCVs I was hiking with, "Check it out: we're hiking up a mountain in the South American rainforest!"  It was even more satisfying when I could shout, "Check it out: I'm taking a leak in the South American rainforest!"

Three hours of climbing, tripping, sweating, getting eaten by mosquitoes, and imitating spider monkey mating calls ended when we finally got to the top of the mountain, followed the trail out of the woods, walked into a break in the brush, and found ourselves at the edge of the cliff.  Cerulean evening sky was painted behind brilliant green broccoli-covered mountains that rose over the river valley in front of us.  While in one direction, the valley stretched for as far as the eye could see as the river flowed between the  the steep mountainsides, the other way hit a wall only a few hundred feet from where we were standing at our lookout point.  That wall rose up 741 feet into the air over the river, and gushed water like Mother Nature's storm gutter.  It was the legendary Kaieteur Falls.

Kaieteur gets its name from a bastardization of the Amerindian word which means "old man," and was named when a local tribesman launched himself over the edge of the waterfall in a sacrifice to the gods to protect his tribe from their enemies.  So far, the sacrifice seems to be working.  The Kaieteur National Park borders only covered about four square miles until the last few decades when the government realized what a vital asset the region could be and closed it off to further development, as well as mining and logging, creating a pristine park that covered hundreds of acres of protected land inside a region which is mostly undeveloped anyway.

That is the real treat of Kaieteur Falls – the remoteness.  Like I said, Niagara this ain't.  We had a minimally maintained guest house which is run off of solar panels and whose fresh water supply comes from a rainwater catchment tank.  The last people to fill out the guest book were the last PCVs who visited the house, two weeks earlier.  We spent two nights, a day and a half, at the Falls and only 3 times did we see other travelers.  They came in by bush plane, landed at the airstrip a 20-minute hike away, and cautiously approached the Fall's edge before jumping back squealing with a mix of terror and delight at this unbridled exposure to real Nature.  They then retreated to a safer and more photogenic distance to figure out how to shoot their exemplary trip photos while trying their hardest to exclude the annoying group of PCVs whom they were probably assured would not be there, and certainly would not be lazily lounging in the river in the middle of their shot because we were too haughty and comfortable to move.  After 20 minutes, they were on their way, and we just kept swimming, exploring, and soaking it all in.

Of all the majesty and beauty of the place, the most memorable part of the trip for me was watching the swifts.  A little before sunset, a few dozen swifts began to congregate in the sky over the falls, sailing through the air in slow arcs, sometimes following each others' arcs, sometimes bisecting them, and all the while growing in number until a few dozen turned into hundreds, perhaps even thousands – too many to count anyway.  As I sat there staring at them, I began to see a geometry in their flight movements, and the slow lines of birds curving through the air became hexagonal paths where the lines would cross each other, like a giant airborne imitation of the seams on a soccer ball.  Sometimes the flock would divide like celular mitosis into two smaller clusters, only to slowly merge back together again.  They danced their ballet through the air, a seamless mix of biology and art, until the sun went blow the horizon and, three or five or ten at a time, they would suddenly break off from the flock and drop straight down with a heavy whoosh of air audible even over the rush of the waterfall, and then dive between the waterfall and the cliff face where they would set up their nightly roost.

The last morning began with an early-morning yoga-photo-shoot.  One of my fellow travelers and I went to the falls at 7am, while the entire area between the mountains is thickly enveloped in fog, and I took shots of her posed silhouette in the mist.  We were soon joined by the rest of the group and took one last swim in the river, before resigning ourselves to going back to civilization, work, and leaving the serene adventure behind.  At the airstrip, we got on our plane, which reminded me of the plane Baloo flew in Disney's Tailspin cartoon show, an early staple of my Sunday morning routine.  (I half expected the pilot to be a giant talking bear in a flight suit, but alas...)  We flew back to Georgetown, caught busses home, and I began my last month in Guyana...

Monday, November 5, 2012

Vote.

Vote.

I don't care who you vote for.  I don't care if you vote Red, Blue, or Green.  I don't care if you vote Libertarian or Liberace.  Whig or Tory.  Communist, Socialist, or Stalinist.

I don't care if you've carefully weighed every issue on the table and averaged out your opinions accordingly, or if you've decided that repealing women's suffrage is your main issue and you're using your next-door neighbor as a write-in.

I don't care if you base your decision on whether Barack Obama or Paul Ryan is cuter. (Let's face it, neither Romney nor Biden are even competitors in that category.  Besides, Michelle is my number one gal.)

I don't care if you subscribe to Congressman Akin's gynecological "shut down in case of rape" theory, or the continuing implementation of 80-year-old New Deal-ish highway repainting ideas.

What I do care about is that the U.S. has a pretty low voter turnout.  The 2008 Presidential Elections, that cultural landmark year which showed a 58% turnout, had the highest percentage since Nixon won in 1968.  So that's basically a little more than half.  A little more than half of the country is willing to go out of their way during their lunch hour or on their way to or from work to help, in principle if not in actuality, decide who will be the next leader of our country.

I find that figure peculiar, since a lot more than half of the people I know have one thing or another to complain about if you bring up American politics in the right way.  Well, almost all of them.  Now this may be narrow-minded of me, and please tell me if you think I'm wrong here, but it's kind of like a carpenter volunteering to help his buddies build a house, refusing to do any work, and then complaining about the poor quality of work done without him.  Or like being invited to a party and asked to bring some beverages, only bringing a 6-pack of Zima, and then complaining that there's nothing good to drink.  In other words, if you don't care enough to help make a difference, how can you justify complaining?

Now I appreciate that there are plenty of issues out there that nobody in politics is addressing.  We have two main parties that win almost all of the votes, and if they don't care about your cause, nobody important will, so why bother voting at all?  And let's face it, politicians are competitors, not unlike athletes or poker players or the popular kids in high school.  They will break their promises, they will switch their loyalties, and they will win you over in the end, if not by doing what you want them to do, then by not totally disappointing you.  And let's not forget the futility of the landslide Red or Blue states.  So really, what's the point?

The point is that in this age of rapid-fire information barrages and spontaneous idea slipstreams, the odds are greater than ever before that your ideas will be heard.  If one person uploads a photo on Instagram or a video on Youtube, users, media outlets, and friends of friends of friends all over the world can catch the virus and see your work.  Information gets out.  Nothing happens in a bubble anymore.

Which means that your vote matters.  Your opinion will be heard.  The tipping point could be anywhere.  One lesbian somewhere could decide that her girlfriend looks like Justin Bieber, or one cat-owner could decide that his cat looks like Adolf Hitler.  That's how you get websites like lesbianswholooklikejustinbieber.tumblr.com or www.catsthatlooklikehitler.com which attract weirdly huge numbers of people every day.  It's just that easy.

You could be overheard saying something in the voting line or on the bus ride to the voting line, or simply be seen in the voting line wearing a particularly provocative pair of shoes, and that could change one person's mind, and he could change another's, and on and on.  The right person might hear you make a really cutting zinger about tax plans and all of a sudden, your private joke is a Huffington Post headline.

I think I've made my point.  In case it didn't come through clearly enough...

Vote.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The New Pirates of the Caribbean...and Pictures!

First order of business...Pictures!  I posted a few from Guyana, then broke my hard drive so I lost a few dozen that I'd taken since then (and thousands of others...sigh), and then went out and took a few more pictures and posted them, so now you can view them all on Facebook right HERE!

Also, here's the latest of what we've been working on at the Imam Bacchus Library - a video I directed with some of our library regulars, right HERE!

But don't forget to come back to read the rest of this blog when you're done.  I promise, it's really interesting!

***

About a month ago, the world celebrated a holiday that I still can't believe exists, let alone is fairly widely known: International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  When I first heard of ITLaPD, it was in college, and I figured it was just some silly Internet meme thing.  I thought the idea was totally dumb, so in equally dumb protest, I decided that since I was a sort of pirate myself – an avid ignorer of online copyright infringement laws, who downloaded movies, music, and software faster than a clipper on the high seas – I would try to get as many of my friends as possible on board with an alternative International Talk Like Jake Day.  As a result, quite a few of them spent the day saying "dude" a lot, while mumbling their speech in as deep a voice as they could muster, and some even went as far as adopting the bouncy gait that apparently everyone but me knew I had.  It was, in my own humble and probably wrong opinion, the greatest celebration of Pirate culture I'd ever borne witness to.

Until now.

Enter Guyana, a nation that boasts not only friendly neighborhood piracy, but even federally-funded acts of intellectual property theft that have become one of the most controversial matters of state policy in quite some time.

In the first instance, we have a sort of Robin Hood-esque piracy, where folks steal from the rich/government, and giving to the poor, ie,, themselves.  Guyana is a country that has distinct rainy and dry seasons.  In the rainy season, it's a good idea to carry an umbrella around with you if you plan to be outside and there's more than one cloud in the sky – a rainstorm could come in hard and fast from off the coast in a matter of minutes, drench you through the knickers and down to the soul, and sail off before you even knew what hit you.  But in the dry season, well, it's dry.  The dirt cracks, the heat heats up, and the water runs out.

And when the water runs out, according to my landlord, the water company refuses to pump water out to their customers, so houses don't get any.  Perhaps the locals would be more sympathetic if there were really no water and the whole system truly had to shut down; but the water company, while only sending a sub-minimal amount of water each day to houses, if they send any at all, continues to charge each house the same rate as usual.  (It could also simply be a matter of too little pressure, but charging for water than nobody is getting is certainly grounds for anger.)

So what do the angry, thirsty locals do?  An independent water-piracy scheme that could easily be the basis for a less-interesting, low-budget sequel to "Chinatown."  Using household electrical pumps, they suck water right from the source and into their house.  When he told me about this, I was both mildly outraged and pretty amused too.  Where does the water company get off not sending us water?  Don't they know how bad people smell if they can't get a shower in this weather?  And if they really don't have water, then how are we still getting any?  And what will happen to them if all the local water-piracy starts to take its toll?  All I know for sure is that when I hear my landlord flip on the motor, I dash into the bathroom to fill my 30 gallon bucket and take a shower, just in case it's another 2 days before I can actually get a decent water supply.

My landlord warned me that this is illegal, and while virtually everyone here on the coast does it, I shouldn't tell anyone lest the wrong people hear.  Except if the government wants to crack down on local piracy, they have to first deal with their own state-sponsored-piracy hullabaloo.  In a scandal that was all over the local papers recently, the Guyanese government had been shopping around for the best deal on school textbooks.  They wanted the cheapest way to get the most students the best education.  After apparently very little research, half-hearted negotiation, and total disregard for federal law, Caribbean law, and the International Berne Convention, they decided that photocopied, pirated textbooks produced and sold by independant vendors around Georgetown, Guyana's capital, was the way to go.

Now, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I'm not really supposed to publish or publicly demonstrate my opinion regarding government matters or local politics, so I can only say what I've heard from others and read in the papers.  One common response seems to be, "Well there's a big !#%ing surprise!"  The government here has earned itself a solid reputation for being totally untrustworthy and irreversibly corrupt, although it seems to me that shady, under-the-table negotiations and public declarations of piracy are two different things.  I mean, let me be clear here, there have been recorded public statements and press conferences where state officials, like Cabinet Secretary Roger Luncheon for one, have said outright that their main priorities are giving their children a good education while saving money, international law be damned.  There have been claims from government spokesmen that the photocopied textbooks cost 1/10 the price of the originals, although allegedly that figure is based on little more than what the committee responsible for this whole affair gleaned by asking a couple local shops how much they charge.

Naturally, there was a lot of backlash when this story broke a few weeks ago.  Various publishing companies threatened lawsuits and boycotts, other countries wrote harsh indictments, and newspapers wrote editorials that basically amounted to, "I can't believe we seriously have to scold you for this.  What are you, Government, an idiot?"  Well, they might have a point.  Based on what I've read and people I've talked to, it seems that virtually the only people in support of this policy (yes, it was actually declared a "policy") are the ones behind it.  Even one local man whose opinion I asked said that it wasn't so much the actual piracy he minded – education is always a priority – but that the committee behind the decision didn't really do anything to negotiate with the publishers or distributors for a cheaper wholesale or at-cost contract.  They just assumed that buying pirated books for schools would be cheaper, so they went ahead with it.

One of the biggest criticisms against this policy, which to be fair has since been overturned by the Federal Court's coup decision to actually uphold the law against the politicians, is the example it sets.  Do the ends justify the means?  Should the government brashly declare that it will happily break the law for the good of its people?  And the irony at heart of the issue: what will the children learn from this?  There is already such a wide acceptance of copyright piracy in this country because of how few laws exist to prevent it, even legitimate general stores only offer bootleg CDs and DVDs.  In fact, many of the stores that sold bootleg textbooks have stopped doing so at the insistence of various publishers, but happily continue to offer the latest in black-market music and movie releases.

In a recent local newspaper article about a new multiplex movie theater that will be built in Georgetown, the focus was not so much about the theater itself, but how it would affect the local black-market DVD business.  Most of those interviewed were optimistic: bootlegs are cheaper, and a lot of people prefer to watch movies in the comfort of their own home, and aren't interested in braving the crowds and noise of a public theater.  The very fact that this article was written the way it was, placing bootleggers as the victims the way American independent stores are seen as victims of Wal*Mart and the like, implies that the outrage over the textbook piracy issue is hypocritical.  If the locals can do it and nobody hassles them, why can't the State?  And yet, despite rampant corruption and unreliability in the government, the Guyanese people still seem to hold their leaders to a higher moral standard.  At least they haven't given up hope.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Best of Chef Ablaye's Makeshift Fusion Cuisine

I think they say that necessity is the mother of invention.  I tend to misquote things like that pretty often, so I could be wrong, but since you're reading my blog, I assume that you're more interested in what I say than what they say.  In any case, necessity has always proven to be a powerful force in my creative process, and nowhere is this more evident than my cooking.  I began my education on the subject in college, using the best in canned and defrost-able goods to give myself cheap and tasty sustenance, but my true prowess over makeshift-cooking was forged in the Peace Corps, where limited ingredients and lack of certain nutrients forced me to stretch the limits of my palate's comfort zone to provide myself with a diet that wouldn't leave me bored, gagging, or malnourished.  I'm sure that my opinion of many of my "successes" have been tainted by limited variety and lowered standards, but I think that there are a few gems among my repertoire which some of you folks might appreciate too.  These recipes have simple ingredients, are pretty easy to make, and were mostly all made up as I was going along (so don't expect any kind of exact measurements, short of what I was able to eyeball at the time of cooking).  So for the first time in print, and just in time for the Jewish holiday season, I bring you "The Best of Chef Ablaye's Makeshift Fusion Cuisine."

PanJakes

The idea of an alternative pancake named after myself came about one day while I was in my village in Mali.  I wanted pancakes, but I didn't have any milk or sugar, and the clouds were gushing water like God's bidet, so going shopping wasn't an enticing prospect.  I could either make the blandest pancakes ever with flour, water, oil, and the one egg I had left, or I could break out my Mad Scientist Chef's Cap and improvise.  I took a look in my dry goods chest, and sitting right on top was one of the most versatile ingredients in the improv-chef's collection: dry-packaged vegetable soup mix, courtesy of Mom and her care packages.  Now, I am not a fan of brothy soups – I like to feel like I'm eating food, not drinking it.  These little 10 gram packets of soup powder with tiny nibs of dried carrot, green bean, tomato, and corn did not a meal make.

But lo and behold, I was able to find a few good uses for the stock after all.  One of them is to toss it into a pot with rice and water and make some vegetable soup-flavored rice, which is quite good.  Even more surprisingly tasty was my idea on that soggy and hungry day: make it into a PanJake!  I won't bother with the specifics of the recipe here, because if you don't know how to make a pancake, there are half a million folks on Google who will gladly explain it, and my recipe, at least the first time I made it, is precisely the same as any of them, only instead of sugar and milk, you toss in the soup mix and water.  No other spices or salt are needed, since the mix takes care of that.  If your soup mix doesn't come with tiny dried chunks of veggie, you should dice up some yourself to add flavor, and a few nutrients.

I will add that the second time I made my veggie-soup PanJakes, I tried something a bit different.  I used the same recipe, only with more flour, less water, more baking powder, and less heat under the frying pan.  This allowed me to make a thicker, fluffier PanJake, which could be cut in half and used as a flavorful sandwich bun - it goes great with tuna or cold cuts.  I've also since expanded on the idea of the PanJake to make it not just different sizes and consistencies, but different flavors too, based on whatever soup mix or other ingredients I have available: Cream of Mushroom PanJakes, Fried Tortilla-Style Curry PanJakes, Squash and Beef PanJakes (make sure to grate the squash very fine and either grind and cook or slow/pressure-cook the beef first so you can mince really tiny bits), and the other possibilities are only limited to your ingredients and daring.

Pumpkin Latkes

Well, these are basically the same as any other kind of latke, or potato pancake to you non Yiddish/German speakers.  What you're going to need first is a pumpkin.  I used a 1kg slice of pumpkin – about 1/6 of a whole large one – and that was plenty for a big lunch for me.  So if you want it to be a main course for the family, get one that's about 3-4 kg, or 6-8 lbs.  For the 1kg recipe, you also want a medium onion, some flour – I really couldn't tell you how much, but it might be around 1 cup  –  2 eggs, some oil, some garlic if you want (I didn't use any when I made this, but that's only because I didn't have any), salt, and of course, some sweet-yet-savory pumpkin-friendly spices, such as nutmeg, turmeric, coriander, peppercorn, and basil.

Grate the pumpkins, dice the onions, crack the eggs, drop in a few tablespoons of oil, toss in the spices, and mix the whole thing together.  Then, add flour until you get a consistency that's thin enough to glop into a pan, but thick enough that the liquid won't run around after you drop it in and turn into a PanJake.  There are two ways you can cook them now.  You can either do what I did and add oil to the mix and fry it on a dry teflon/non-stick pan, or you can keep the oil out of the mix and heat it up in the pan to fry the latkes in.  The problem with the latter method is that while it tastes a bit better, pumpkins seem to soak up oil more than other vegetables, so you're going to go through a lot of it, and my love-handles are showing a little too much love for that.  Either way, get the pan medium-high so that they have time to cook before they burn up, drop in blobs of the mix and flatten them out with a spoon or they will be much softer on the inside than the crust.  Fry 'er at will!

Cookup Rice, Jake-Style

This is my own version of a Guyanese dish which itself doesn't have any specific instructions, other than throw rice into a pot with a whole bunch of local ingredients like veggies, beans, fish, and some spices, and cook it up, all together.  It's simple even when locals make it, and mine is basically one variant based on my own years of culinary experience.  First, take rice and water and throw it in a pot, preparing to cook it the way you would always cook rice.  But before you put it on the fire, throw in small chunks of fish, curry powder (or similar spices that are used to make curry – I like coriander, turmeric, salt, plus some basil and rosemary) and coconut milk.  Coconut milk is actually one of the non-negotiable ingredients; it isn't proper Cookup without coconut milk.  If you don't have any fresh or canned, the powder works too but you have to wait until the water is hot before adding it.  If you want a bit more authenticity, soak some beans overnight and toss them in too, but I don't usually remember to do that.

While you're cooking the rice, chop up and sauté some other complimentary veggies like garlic, onions, eggplant, bell pepper, carrot, etc.  You want to cook them separately, because if there's one thing I learned while pulling kitchen-duty at Flo's house in Ireland (see my posts from May-July, 2011) it's that vegetables taste better when you roast them, grill them, sauté them, or do any damn thing at all to them besides boiling them.  You need to let them burn, just a teensy tiny bit so they can caramelize and release the sugars and richer flavors.  When the veggies are done, and just before the rice is finished, toss them into the pot so they can impart some of their flavor onto the rest of the rice, and wait for them to finish cooking.  Break out a glass of white rum and water, gather up some mosquitoes, put on the Hindi dance beats, and enjoy, Guyanese style!

Chef Ablaye's Chowder Philosophy

I said before that I don't like soup, but give me a good chowder, stew, cholent, or anything thick and murky, and I'm a happy man.  If I had to pick, I'd probably take a good cholent first to satisfy my Ashkenazic Jewish appetite, but the problem is that a proper cholent uses a lot of meat and barely, both of which can be scarce for Peace Corps Volunteers, and if you don't want to leave it cooking for the requisite 24 hours and use up all your gas, you might as well have a stew.  A stew is good too, but it strikes me as a cold weather food and I tend to do Peace Corps in very hot places.  Also, as I said, meat is rarely an option for me, and a stew without meat might as well just be soup, as far as I'm concerned.

That leaves my favorite fish and potato chowder recipe.  Chowder is perfect: quick to cook, cheap ingredients, and it uses one of my other favorite improv-cooking ingredients besides soup mix: milk powder!  That's right, milk that will never go bad, no matter how many miles there are between you and the nearest refrigerator!  (Just seal the bag or can, or the ants will have a nice picnic inside it.)  This is probably one of the easiest recipes I use: chop up the fish (remove the bones if there are any), chop up the veggies (which can be anything you want, but I like potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, maybe a tomato or two, and celery if I can find it), and put them in a pot.  Add water, but only enough to just cover the ingredients.  Add spices, like rosemary, basil, pepper, salt, and tarragon.  Boil until the potatoes are soft.  If the potatoes are done, you know the fish is done too, unless you cut giant chunks of fish and tiny bits of tater.  This is when you toss in the milk, or the milk powder, which I prefer to use since it's also a decent thickener.  You don't want to overcook the stuff in the pot or it will all fall apart and you won't know a chunk of fish from a carrot, so if everything's cooked and it's still too watery (as I said, I like it THICK), toss in some corn meal or flour and mix it really well.  And presto chango, you're a chowderhead!


Well, that's the best of what will most likely appeal to those of you who have ordinary folks who've never started a club with your PCV buddy called The Culinary Adventurers Club.  If you end up trying any of these recipes, let me know how they came out!  And if you have any good ones of your own that meet my criteria – cheap, stovetop-friendly, and yummy – send them to me as well.  Until then, as they say in Mali, na duminike!

Friday, September 7, 2012

How to Sell Education


It's September; which means it's Autumn; which means that as the season changes, the foliage transforms from verdant softness to technicolor crunch whose dry and crisp flavor matches the air, which chills the body, raising the goosebumps on flesh and the zippers on jackets.

Unless you're in Guyana, less than 500 miles from the Equator, where the only change in season is that it goes from hot to less hot (and a bit cool between 3 and 5 am), buggy to less buggy, and rainy to just humid.  But if there's one September constant between my native homeland of the U.S.A. and my current equatorial residence, it's that September is when all the little kiddies go back to school.

With school back in session, it's time to kick my work here at the Imam Bacchus Library into overdrive, and start doing some heavy-duty outreach work, convince students that reading will make you cool, and parents that reading will keep your kids smart and out of trouble.  Since my last posting here, I've begun the arduous task of learning how to become a movie director, and then teaching the head librarian here everything I've learned in the last month.  Taking a page from PBS's classic show "Reading Rainbow," we're basically recording our weekly Story Hour, where the library's director, Imam, picks a theme for the week, and then reads a few books, tells a few stories, and organizes some fun artistic activity for the Nursery-Primary School-age children who come in.  Meanwhile, the librarian and I film the stories, make cute little music videos out of the activities, and then try to wrangle the bucking bronco of video editing software, Adobe Premiere Pro, to make a short movie out of it.

Premiere Pro is a dense, hard to wield, and unfriendly program, and figuring out how to use it is the PC equivalent to navigating the great Labyrinth and battling the Minotaur, armed with nothing but some dental floss and a q-tip.  But once we've managed to wrestle some good production value out of it, the two-phase plan is to a) upload the videos to Youtube for the world to see what amazing stuff we're doing, and b) to start broadcasting them on the local television station, to help advertise the library, while sending out our message of the value of literacy.

Now that school is back in session, the summer regulars no longer have time to show up to the library anymore, so we're also going to start bringing the library to them.  On Monday and Tuesday, for example, we'll pack a truck full of books, head out to the primary school down the road a couple miles, and set up a sort of display fair, where we can show students firsthand what we have to offer, when many of them might not have come out on their own.  We have a whole list of other projects which we will try to begin to implement over the next few months before my contract here expires, but I'll save talking about those until we've started getting to work on them.

In the meantime, I'm going to take some time now to tell you about some interesting things going on in one of my other homes-away-from-home, Mali.  The news there is remaining steadily ominous.  We've got a fog ('cause it's the rainy season there now, get it?) of political uncertainty in the south involving interim governments and conditionally-rejected offers of international military support, profoundly disturbing reports of Islamist extremists sending the northern part of the country on a fast-track to becoming "the next Afghanistan," as the media is often fond of putting it, and no end in sight to a long-standing drought and regional food crisis.  While I've been reading the headlines often enough, and I'm probably equally informed about current events in Mali as I am about those in American, which is actually saying fairly little, I've definitely lost my inside grasp on what's been going on there since the Coup.

So I'm not interested now in rehashing what a 5-minute Google News search could tell you.  No, I'd rather let you know about some of the positive influences that are continuing over in Mali, despite these times of uncertainty which try even the noblest hearts.  There are dozens of great organizations, and I'm sure most of them deserve at least your awareness, if not your support, but today, I'm picking just one particularly cool project for this post because, well I have friends who work there.

The organization is called myAgro, and while it's only just a baby, at 8 months old, they've been making some really great headway, and influencing a lot of small-scale Malian farmers.  They do this through giving loans and establishing savings programs with local farmer who sign up for the program.  According to one of their recent performance reports, they have already signed up hundreds of farmers for their program, earned thousands of dollars in savings for farmers in their program (in a country where, for millions of people, earning just one dollar in a day can make the difference between eating today or not), and continue to run a weekly program to publicize the programs and educate and interview farmers and program members around the country.  As those of you who know me might imagine, this some-time farmer, radio DJ, and cheapskate finds a lot to like about myAgro!  And of course, the founder, Anushka Ratnayake, is an awesome person who I met a few times during my last stint in Mali.  And to quote my good friend and fellow Mali RPCV, Audra, who currently volunteers for myAgro while living in Chicago, "What is really interesting with myAgro is that in the midst of all of the Malian politically instability, their programs are offering solutions for farmers to create sustainable food security for themselves."  See, we're not talking about a charity here, we're talking about a capacity-building venture, a program that doesn't give away fish, but creates fishermen.

If you want to learn more about myAgro, peruse their website at www.myagro.org, or alternatively, you could just take my word for it and head straight to their Donate Now page.  Trust me, a few bucks on your end can go a long way towards some relief in a country that needs it, and setting good examples for sustainable agricultural methods which, if spread widely enough, will encourage positive and lasting change where it's needed.  That's right, for the price of one trenta-sized double-macchiato triple-mochaccino latte caffeine jug, you could help improve farming capabilities in the most fantastic country most of you have never been to!

Well, that's it for now, folks, but keep your eyes on the blog for the continuing adventures of Lower Merion, PA's favorite globetrotting blogger...