“… the driver knows the way, to steer the taxi to the village off of the sand-paved road.” I think that’s how that tune goes, right? Anyway, as I post this Thanksgiving edition, I realize my choice of food for tonight’s dinner may reflect the wrong holiday: pork sausage slow cooked in sauerkraut. I’m reminded of a phrase from one of my favorite holiday films: “You do what you do, I do what I do.” Anyway, even though I am seven hours ahead of America’s east coast, I am days ahead for celebrating Thanksgiving …
Last weekend, I celebrated Thanksgiving as traditionally as possible. My friend and fellow volunteer, Briana – and her host family – were so gracious to host seven PCVs and our German volunteer friend, Franzi for a pre-thanksgiving dinner this past Saturday afternoon. Briana’s site is in a village that isn’t too far away from mine. Since I was eager to help with the cooking, I met her in town at the grocery store on Friday after school.
The walk to town was particularly sweaty, considering the temperature (remember that it is summertime here), humidity (remember where we are on a map), and amount of weight I was lugging: clothes, toiletries, and sleeping bag for the weekend, plus the makings of a green bean casserole and three dozen freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. I knew it would be some time before I would be eating dinner, so I grabbed a couple of hard-boiled eggs from the fridge to eat on the way.
When I got to town, my shirt was thoroughly soaked with sweat. I dropped my bags at the parcel counter (a small room that serves as a baggage check, that is common at stores here, as many people don’t have a car to lock up their belongings in while they shop), and I went inside to find Briana.
As per usual, there were folks inside the store that I knew. Today it was one of my colleagues from the school: Intermediate Phase (that means “middle school”) teacher and village neighbor, MK. She was there with her eldest daughter, whom I hadn’t met before (and promptly forgot her name). I’m sure my sweaty, huffing-and-puffing appearance left an impression.
I told them I was looking for another volunteer, but they said they hadn’t seen her. (We do sort of stand out due to the color of our skin, but as it was a Friday afternoon and it is officially tourist season, there were more white people roaming around the store than I am accustomed to.) After I bid them a nice weekend, I quickly found B in the dry soup mix section. (By the way, all soup mixes around here are dry. There are no cans of soup, condensed or otherwise.)
We took our time crossing items off of her list. Since Turkey wasn’t available, we had to settle for four whole chickens. (We were cooking for 18 people, after all.) We went through the checkout, loaded up her big, zippered grocery bag, and made our way out of the store, around the back to the parcel counter.
I normally tip the people who attend the parcel counters one to two rand (a whopping 12 to 25 cents USD), though I’m not sure it is customary in this culture. It must be a very boring and thankless job, and I figure it can’t hurt for them to remember me and take extra care with my things. But today, in addition to the money, she got to sample an all-American culinary delight: chocolate chip cookies made less than 24 hours earlier using the famous Nestle’ Toll House recipe. I don’t think her face was capable of smiling any larger.
We carried B’s huge grocery bag – each of us holding one of the handles – as we walked to the taxi rank, just a short distance down the street. She quickly found her taxi driver. Naturally, we were waiting for more passengers before we could leave, so she took the opportunity of the additional time to pick up a few more fresh vegetables from the vendors on the street. I guarded the loot.
While I was waiting, Shawn – another of the local PCVs – saw me and ran over to chat. He explained that in hindsight he wished he would have done what I was doing and stayed Friday night at B’s, too. His village is further away from town than Briana’s, and it would have saved him a trip the next day. We discussed the latest Peace Corps gossip and how we were excited to be eating a real Thanksgiving meal. B came back with some spinach and a couple of cans of cool drink (the South African name for soda or pop), and Shawn was on his way. Soon, we and our taxi headed out of town.
When we got to Briana’s, we were greeted by her host family: a gogo (grandma), brother, sister, nephew, and some others. In all the confusion of unloading the bags and me being introduced to the family, we forgot to pay the driver. Of course, he didn’t forget. A little embarrassed, I paid for B’s and my fare.
Then, we unloaded the groceries. As her site doesn’t have electricity, I found myself loading up her host family’s gas-powered refrigerator. I think it is supposed to be a chest freezer, actually, but they weren’t running it cold enough to deep freeze anything. It uses a tank much like you would use for a grill in the US. Chickens, beans, cookies, and other groceries went in there. Everything else not requiring refrigeration went in Briana’s room, which is situated in another structure just outside the main house.
Before long, it was getting dark. Briana boiled some cubed beef with some vegetables and prepared some couscous. We ate dinner and turned in early. I realized that if I didn’t have electricity, I would probably get more sleep.
Then again, I woke up several times throughout the night from the noises on the corrugated metal roof. Either a bat or some other kind of rodent was squeaking around up there a lot. I think I could have slept through the noise if it wasn’t for B’s cat jumping up there and making some louder pouncing noises. But once I was awake, it seems all I could do was listen to the animal noises. This made me thankful for a thatch roof at my house.
I took some of my awake time to email some folks in the States. I decided to give up when I realized I was nodding off while typing on my BlackBerry.
The next morning we were up with the sun at 5am. B was going for a run with her host brother. I took the opportunity to bathe and prepare for the day. When she returned, she bathed while I went for a walk around her host family’s property with my camera. Then, we made breakfast: veggie-egg scramble, topped with grated cheese and diced tomatoes, with a side of home fries. (Who says you can’t have sophistication without electricity?) B made a list of all the food we had to make and we decided roughly what order it would be produced in. We had B’s one portable stove top (connected to a gas tank) and the host family’s small oven and range at our disposal to make this happen.
Shortly after we started preparing food, Shawn arrived. Apparently, his unscheduled stop more than half-way to town from his village irritated his taxi driver. But Shawn – in his usual happy-go-lucky demeanor – was unperturbed. Our kitchen crew had just increased in size by 50%, and we immediately put him to work. In the meantime, the three of us were keeping tabs on the whereabouts of the other volunteers via our BlackBerries.
In between various food preparations, B and Shawn started the host family on making decorations. Since our Thanksgiving traditions are thoroughly foreign to these folks, I think the Americans took great delight in showing the South Africans how to outline their hand on a piece of paper and then color it to look like a turkey. Before long, it became an expectation of all the day’s guests to create one, and I, too, was sitting at the dining room table outlining my hand … something I don’t believe I’ve done since elementary school.
Michael and Katrina showed up in the midst of decoration creation, and jumped right in. Cooking also continued with our enlarged workforce, and the next thing I knew, Franzi, Diana, Vanessa and Susan had arrived. This is when it really started to feel like Thanksgiving. I discovered that the arrival of folks from a distance with these distinct food aromas in the air are all I need for it to feel like Thanksgiving. Luckily, this works anywhere in the world.
We were still in for a few more hours of preparation. I managed to get a burn on my finger while we were improvising a chicken gravy from the juice/stock that ran off of the first two birds (we could only fit two in the oven at a time) mixed into a cream-of-chicken soup mix. While it was boiling, it spit up at my hand and landed a nice little blister on my right ring finger. (Boo hoo!)
While we were finishing up the food prep, the frisbee came out in the front yard for a little more American fun. It was nice to take a break from the hot kitchen and bake in the hot sun in the yard with an international circle of frisbee throwing. There was a thought of trying to play some flag football with a rugby ball to really set a Thanksgiving mood, but it just never seemed to get organized.
Then, two tables were arranged end-to-end on the long front veranda of the main house and the table was set. I was still spending most of my time in the kitchen, seeing many of the dishes through to their completion as an assistant to each dish’s creator. Shawn carved the first two birds.
When we finally set up the buffet line, we had:
- carved, roasted chicken
- mashed potatoes (garlic and plain) with gravy (that may or may not have been a bit lumpy)
- sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping
- homemade applesauce
- green bean casserole
- cheesy rolls
- creamed corn
- green salad
- beets (not my favorite, so I left them for everyone else to enjoy)
- spaetzle covered in melted cheese (thanks to our German friend, Franzi)
There was also plenty of Coke, Sprite, and Fanta Orange and Grape. (I hope I didn’t forget anything, as everyone worked hard in their preparations.)
After dinner, Briana took us all for a walk. The route we took was her everyday journey to the school she works. It is a beautiful walk, and had it not been for the looming clouds, I would have taken my camera. Had it actually rained, I wouldn’t be kicking myself over that decision.
We returned for cleaning up all the dishes in the little bit of daylight we had left. Then came dessert and a rousing, candle-lit game of Banana-grams (a spelling game that can be played in a fraction of the time of a standard game of Scrabble). For dessert, we had:
- apple/pear crisp
- chocolate chip cookies
- store-bought cake (thanks to gogo)
The party moved to Briana’s room for the volunteers to just spend some quality time together. Really, we just talked, but it feels good to just hang out with people in the same situation (for the most part) that you are in.
The next morning, Briana made some really delicious banana pancakes. We packed up our stuff and (somehow) easily found a taxi back to town. After a quick stop at the grocery store, we scattered back to our respective villages, and back to what now seems a fairly routine life. And in that respect, I think even the journey home parallels the holiday process one can find themselves in the States.
Though I’m sure it isn’t quite what you are doing for Thanksgiving, all-in-all it was quite a feast and lives up to everything you could expect for a Thanksgiving celebration so far away from home. And I’m thankful for it.