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.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's much worse going in your current direction than the opposite, since in Australia all the Christmas songs are about snow and cold weather so we're used to the cognitive dissonance.