Thursday, December 20, 2012

I Can’t Hear the (Jingle) Bells

Name that tortured musical theater reference.

Christmas spirit in Manokwari.
There is nothing so disorienting, I think, as seasonal jetlag. Culture shock you expect, the feeling – absolutely accurate, in this case – that everything’s different, nothing’s familiar, and you’ve slipped into a whole new mode of being. If you lit a bonfire of all the page that’ve been written just warning foreign-exchange participants about culture shock, you’d melt the polar ice caps right there. (And those handbooks are so inane, on balance you’d still probably be doing the world a favor.) Neither is this the normal, what time is it now jet lag, which hits you like a brick when you get off 24 twilight-zone hours on the plane and find that instead of 8pm it’s 7am and you’re supposed to be just starting the day, not crashing from exhaustion. Drink some coffee, give it a week, it wears off. And finally, this is not what happens when you ship off Florida for a week in February, soak up some lovely warm rays, then come back to cold snowy reality. No, this is much sneakier than that. You don’t notice it at first. It’s August, hot and sticky in New Haven. you hop a plane to Bali, where it’s hot and sticky, then to Papua, more of the same. September: still hot and sticky. October: even hotter and stickier, ant season. Halloween passes, no falling leaves, candy, or pumpkins to be seen outside of the vampire-themed CSI episode on tv, and that airs too late at night for you to watch it anyway. November: still hot, mango season. Thanksgiving passes with hardly a mention, especially since with the flu you’re in no mood to try replicating the usual apple pie. December: rainier, mosquito season, hot, and sticky. It feels like August. It absolutely does not feel like Christmas. The carols playing around town sound as out of place as that time they were playing Jingle Bells in a store in Java in (actual) August a few years ago. The (fake) trees popping up around town look totally alien, and mostly they’re red or white and sparkly anyway. Understatement isn’t done out here. There’s photos of snow showing up on facebook, but as far as I’m concerned I could be looking at last year’s albums – there’s nothing immediate about them. So here I am, having spent my summer in New Zealand’s winter, now still feeling summery in Papua, and while I know intellectually that it’s the holiday season, it just feels wrong. (Hanukkah may as well not exist; the nearest menorah is roughly 1000 miles away in Australia. Though the whole foods-fried-in-oil thing is certainly going strong out here. I wonder if I could make latkes.) I went snorkeling at the local beach this weekend for god’s sake, how can reindeer and one-horse open sleighs be anything but ridiculous?

Me & Randy at Pasir Putih, post-snorkeling.
I got in the Christmas spirit for about three minutes when I listened to the Messiah on my laptop the other day; with the a/c on full blast, when the opening bars of the Symphony came on I could shut my eyes and almost think I was in my parents’ living room about to decorate the tree. But I listen to the Messiah too much at other times of year, so it didn’t last. My last-ditch effort was to make gingerbread cookies on Sunday with Reni and Virgine. A few years ago I typed up all my mom’s old recipes for a Mothers Day present, and the file’s still on my computer. Lucky for me all the German Christmas cookies rely primarily on Indonesian spices – go a few hundred miles west of here and you hit the province of Maluku aka the Spice Islands, which until fairly recently were the only place on earth where cloves and nutmeg grew, and ginger’s as common as garlic and soy sauce in the food here. Light brown sugar and molasses were not forthcoming, so I replaced them with a mixture of regular sugar, gula merah (palm sugar), and a little bit of water. The biggest hurdle was butter. What sort of former Dutch colony doesn’t have decent butter? The kind that’s called Indonesia. The closest thing around was Blue Bell margarine. I died inside a little (okay a lot) to bake with margarine, but you make do with what you’ve got. Also, there’s no measuring cups out here – you use drinking glasses and normal spoons  and say close enough. And you know what? Aside from being strangely pale, with little gooey bits where chunks of palm sugar melted over the top, those cookies were damn good. Not saying they made it feel much like Christmas, but my host family liked them, the ones I brought to the office disappeared before lunch time, and I’m giving them to my language consultants too. I got some strange looks trying to explain gingerbread houses, but not as strange as when I tried to tell Ibu Marice about how in America, Santa Clause lives all the way up north, where a factory of tiny people make toys, and then a bunch of flying deer, one of whom has a glowing red nose, pull his cart around the world and lands on top of houses for him to sneak in through the fireplace and give the toys to good children, but ashes to bad children, because he has a list of who’s who. Tell me that’s not downright bizarre.

Yes, that's a jar of krupuk udang in the background.
In other culinary news, I had a flash of brilliance the other day when Ibu Min brought home a loaf of sliced white bread from Hadi. I had Virgine and Reni light the stove, then mixed two eggs, some sugar, pinch of salt, and cinnamon in a shallow bowl. There was no fresh milk in the house, so I used the powdered stuff they give to the kids, which worked. A little melted butter in the pan, and voila: French toast. I’ve still got some Nutella that I just couldn’t bear to eat during my Two Weeks of Tropical Disease Hell, so that got slathered on top. Big hit all around; best breakfast I’ve had in ages.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my homesick daydreams at this point mostly revolve around the food I can’t get out here: good Italian salami and red wine and prosciutto and Nica’s sausage-egg-and-cheese on a roll and olives and big juicy tomatoes and rye bread and ma po tofu and spaghetti with pesto or meatballs, tomato sauce, and pecorino romano. The other day it was the tacos my dad used to make from an Old El Paso spice packet when I was growing up. Other common themes include long hot showers, sofas, and jumping into snowdrifts. But mostly prosciutto. It’ll be good to get home. But first I’ve got a week left here, then two weeks in Borneo. I’ve already looked up the best Lebanese restaurant in Kuala Lumpur – lots of Middle Eastern immigrants and tourists there, should be good – and plan to get my hummus-pita-and-kebab fix when we pass through on the way out to orangutan country. I am so looking forward to that hummus.

Gingerbread a la Papua
3 ½ glasses flour
1 small spoon baking soda
1 ½ sm spoons ginger
½ sm spoon cloves
½ glass “butter”
½ glass sugar
1 egg
½ glass palm sugar, chopped fine
A little water

  Measure flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, and cloves into bowl. Beat butter, white sugar, half of the palm sugar, and egg until light and fluffy. Add the rest of the palm sugar and the water, beat until well blended. With spoon, stir in flour mixture. Mix by hand until well blended and smooth. Cover the bowl and refrigerate several hours.
  Preheat oven over a medium flame. Place circles of dough on a greased cookie sheet. Bake 10-15 min, until golden.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

At least there's fresh papaya.

It’s the rainy season in Papua. which means that instead of raining once or twice a week it rains nearly every day, starting usually in the late afternoon or evening and continuing into (or resuming in) the night. The downpours can be spectacular, sheets of rain pouring down alongside thunder and lightning, roaring so loudly you can’t hear the tv even with the volume turned up high. The upside is it’s cooler now than it was in October, particularly in the evenings; the downside it it’s way more humid, and the other downside is that it’s hard to record my Wamesa speakers when it’s raining hard on a corrugated tin roof, which sometimes cuts the elicitation sessions short. A glorious sunny morning can turn ominously cloudy in the space of half an hour, though usually if I’m home by four I can stay dry. And a deluge often means a power outage too, though that seems to happen roughly weekly regardless of the weather, usually for no obvious reason. I keep my headlamp and reading light well-charged.

And rainy season is also flu season, and everybody in the house got it, from baby Rifky to Ibu Min, my landlady, to me. The whole house rang with coughs, and I spent a week in bed with a fever, a splitting headache, joint pain, and barely enough energy to get up. In the first four days I managed to read the last three Harry Potter books, if that says anything. The only thing worse than being sick with the flu is being sick with the flu abroad, and the only thing worse than that is waking up at 2am, in the middle of a power outage, with the rain pouring down outside, realizing you’re going to throw up, and stumbling to the bathroom with a clip-on booklight clutched in your hand to find the toilet in the dark, then not being able to turn on the air conditioning even though you’re sweating half to death because the power’s still out. Yeah, that sucked.

In any case it seems pretty certain it was just flu – it would take one awfully lucky and prolific mosquito to give the whole family dengue, and when I Wikipediaed various tropical diseases and their symptoms that’s what fit the best by far. (Fun fact: pretty much every tropical disease on earth has exactly the same set of symptoms: fever + headache + cough + body aches + possible petichial rash + occasional digestive distress equally describes malaria, dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, typhoid, flu, and mild food poisoning. As far as I can tell the only difference is the relative timing of all that, and how likely it is to kill you.) But now I’m (finally) back on my feet, though still coughing along with everybody else and as a result getting an inside look at Indonesian home cough remedies. I don’t recommend the lime juice with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce).

On Saturday night Virgine decided she wanted to make spaghetti (and was very disappointed to discover she’d bought linguine instead), so we headed out back to the kitchen with the pasta and a jar of sauce. We set the spaghetti to boiling, then started chopping some garlic, shallots, and chiles to pep up the sauce. I had to convince her that beef broth, soy sauce, and lime juice were maybe not the best additions, and that no, we really shouldn’t add Worcestershire sauce instead, even if it is European. The compromise was bakso (Indonesian meatballs) and peas. Once everything was chopped I went inside to put on bug spray, and when I came back in Virgine was frying the shallots, garlic, and chile on high heat, and as I approached to pour in the sauce before the garlic scorched I got a lungful of what felt like mustard gas, which sent me hacking and gasping outside for fresh air. No gentle sautéing here. But if you ate around the bakso, the end result was pretty delicious. And then I spent the night puking it back up.

Nope, not food poisoning. On Sunday I was fully sick again, feverish, achy, malaisical. I finally dragged myself out of bed and caught an ojek downtown, and on the third try found an apotek whose lab was open on a Sunday (for the record: Felicia’s, just past Café Lee on the road towards the Polres). For 20,000 rupiah ($2) they pricked my finger, smeared some blood on a slide, and 15 minutes later had the verdict: Malaria.

Me, George Clooney (he caught it in Darfur, way nobler than me), and probably everyone else who’s set foot on coastal New Guinea for any length of time. I wasn’t expecting the test to come back positive, given that I take anti-malarial pills every day specifically to avoid it, but I hit the jackpot and found a malarone-resistant strain. In all fairness I always knew that was a possibility; my NSF grant application even came back with a note suggesting as much. So I talked to the in-house doctor, who took my blood pressure and asked me about my symptoms and gave me a few prescriptions along with a lot of instructions in high-speed Indonesian, the upshot being that I have no idea what strain of malaria I have (other than not falciparum, which is the more dangerous one) or even what meds I’m taking (the baggies have dosages on them but not names), just that they sounded familiar at the time and they seem to be working. I was one of a few people there for the malaria test at the time. The whole thing seems pretty routine: feel crappy, get your finger stuck, take some pills, feel better, catch it again next year. Kind of a Papuan version of strep throat – it sucks for a while and you don’t want to leave it untreated, but you’re gonna be fine. (Not to belittle things – some people do get falciparum, don’t get medicine, have bad luck, and get awfully sick. But at least here in the city, if you can afford the $13 for the test and pills, that doesn’t seem to be the norm.) When I got home and told my host family they nodded, asked if I’d gotten medicine, told me to eat something (which is their response to pretty much everything, including ‘good morning’), and invited me to a party next door. I declined and watched X-Men: First Class on tv instead. And now here I am lying in bed, reading the December 3rd annual food issue of the New Yorker on my Kindle, and exquisite torture given that not only am I thousands of miles from all the wondrous things described therein, but also too queasy to enjoy them even were that not the case. Thanks anyway, Calvin Trillin, but let’s save the mol for later.

Two weeks since the flu first hit me, I am so sick and tired of being sick. It’s not even the sick itself that sucks, it’s the endless, soul-crushing boredom bore of mild fever and achy limbs, coupled with a vague dread of those godawful doubled-over-in-the-bathroom-retching moments when it really does get bad. I wake up, read, play Pocket Frogs on my ipod, read some more, have a little rice for lunch, nap, maybe read on the front porch for a change of venue til the hard bench gets too uncomfortable, play solitaire on my laptop, some dinner, watch bad tv, go to bed, repeat for, well, two weeks now. It’s killing time between pills and naps and waiting to feel normal again. There’s good moments, those times after a stretch of nausea or headache when just not feeling awful feels wonderful, but mostly it’s neither, just endless dragging blah. I’m so ready for it to be over.

On a more fun note, just before I got sick I finally walked the other direction down my road, away from town and the university, and discovered the forest. (Not ‘discovered’ really, I’d been told it was there, but I’d never seen it before.) First of all, about two houses down from mine is a building with a sign out front advertising the International Potato Center. What that is or why it’s here I have no idea; the lights were off and a sign on the door said ‘close’. (I do so love bad Papuan English.) Five minutes farther down the road is the entrance to the forest, ‘Hutan Konservasi Taman Wisata Gunung Meja Manokwari’ (Conservation Forest Leisure Park Table Mountain Manokwari), which the sign rather aptly declared to be the lungs of the city, with hydrological functions (funksi hidrologi dan pari-pari Manokwari). The paved road turned into a wide dirt path, with smaller paths branching out into the trees. The road was far enough away that the only sounds were the birds, the cicadas, and the gnats swarming around my head. (Note to self: next time, don’t forget the DEET.) At one point I heard loud flapping above me and looked up to see a pair of hornbills flying low into a tree beside the path. Salamanders darted back into the trees from their sunny patches on the path as I approached. After about half an hour’s walk I made it to the Tugu Jepang after which my street is named – a memorial for Japanese soldiers who died in Papua during WW2, not something you often see in the western hemisphere. The memorial itself was kind of run down, with missing tiles, graffiti, and discarded candy wrappers strewn around the base, but the view of the city was good. I took a few photos, decided it was way too hot to be out, and hiked back home.