Tuesday, July 27, 2010

You can look good, but you might go to bed hungry

The African market is a favorite of mine. I am always amazed at what I can find and at how things are sold. However, the Zwedru market is a mystery to me. I can’t help but wonder if the presentation and amount of items (lots of clothing and ‘bling’ in the front and sparse food in the back) says something about priorities or if it’s for some other reason that I have yet to learn.
As you enter from the main street you are surrounded by shirts (World’s Best Grandpa), jeans (with jewel studded pockets), high heels (to walk through the mud/sand/potholes/puddles in), women’s underwear (with pockets in the front?!), bags (with Barack Obama’s picture), soaps and perfumes, sunglasses, jewelry, and batteries. If you can make it through without spending all of your Peace Corps living allowance on these enticing items, you will eventually reach the food section waaaaaayyyy in the back. Here you will find a few ‘essential’ items that can somehow be put together to make a meal (not sure how yet, but I believe it’s possible). Without looking too hard, you can find rice (about 4 different kinds), hot peppers (which burn more coming out than going in), cassava, rice, onions, paprika, salt, rice, okra powder (the fresh okra has not been looking so fresh), oils (I think palm and peanut), a few fish (if you don’t mind swatting away some flies), and rice. I was lucky to spot some beans (I have no idea what kind but I bought them anyways) and a green leaf that I have no idea how to cook and is an acquired taste (we had it during training). Over ripe bananas and expensive plantains are around somewhere sometimes and rumors have it that pineapple and cucumbers are also here somewhere sometimes. I found homemade peanut butter pounded with sand that is supposed to be removed after pounding (still haven’t figured out how or why), but the removal process has not yet been perfected (Peter Pan Gritty)! If anyone has a recipe using these ingredients (other than rice and beans which has sustained me for 2 days now), please send it my way! I still have a lot of town to explore and hope that some of the Lebanese shops will have pasta and other hard to find goodies. In the meanwhile I will stick to my rice and beans and street food. I’ve taken to buying my lunch from a lady in town who sells her pre-cooked food out of a plastic bucket under a beach umbrella. Her specialty (ok, the only thing she sells) is cassava that is mashed up to a couscous-like consistency on which she puts hot peppers, oil and a whole fried fish (with little teeny weeny bones that are easier to just chew and swallow than pick out). She serves it to go in a plastic bag.I know where she shops for her ingredients! I’ve told myself that if I keep eating the hot peppers I will get used to them and not react in the ways I currently am. A surprise find this weekend was at the local ‘pastry’ shop.. spaghetti sandwiches! It is exactly what it sounds like…. spaghetti on a bun. Not only does this tempt my senses, it gives me hope that someone sells boxes of spaghetti locally!

Here is a typical Liberian meal (this was our first meal at the training site so its much fancier than usual!)...

... and here is my first attempt at local rice and beans. I gave some to the house maid and she said they were "good."

Ok, my multivitamins are calling….

Monday, July 26, 2010

Red Light District: The eighth wonder of the world

There is an area on the edge of Monrovia called the Red Light District. Yup, you guessed it, this is where you can find the only traffic light in the city. And nope, it does not work. Instead of an orderly flow of traffic following green, yellow and red lights, you will find a mass of chaos. And I mean a MASS OF CHAOS. Thousands of people going this way and that way and back this way, selling everything you can possibly imagine (so far the most memorable are animal balloons, Jesus stickers, blow-up dolls, ice cream and Barak Obama everything). Taxis, buses, wheelbarrows, motorbikes, tractors and pedestrians are all navigating through pots holes, puddles of mud, piles of trash, market stalls, and city traffic.
One of my first experiences of Red Light was while squished in the back of a taxi cab with 3 other people (and 2 more in the front seat) after a rain storm while the humidity was on the rise for the afternoon. Let me mention here that 6 white people squished into a taxi sticks out like a sore thumb in a place like this. It took us one hour to make it through the mile long stretch. This did not include the few minutes we spent on the side of the road after our driver thought it was a good idea to pull over and ask the police officer to chauffeur him through the traffic (thinking that because we were white he would be more than happy to do this- he was wrong. Instead, the policeman took his keys because we had 2 people in the front seat, apparently against the law. After one of us got out and went in the back of the station wagon, he let us go). We bought ice cream (called FanMilk) and knock-off Oreos (called Neros) to pass the time. I swore from that day on I would never travel into or out of Monrovia unless it was before 6am or on a Sunday! Oh… or in UN transport.

Happy Independence Mama Liberia

Today Liberia is celebrating 163 years of Independence. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been travelling for the past few days up to Nimba County, where she will be officially celebrating the day. She made several stops along the way to dedicate some buildings and visit the local communities (We were a little ahead of her convey when coming to Zwedru. The streets were filled with people dancing in anticipation for her arrival. I won't lie, there were times I imagined they were dancing in anticipation of my arrival :)).
Most of the shops were closed in town today, but I managed to pick up a few things I needed from the market (bread, over ripe bananas, rice and some palm oil). I dont expect any fireworks this evening, but I certainly do miss the smell of an Independence Day BBQ!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

My first first-hand account of Zwedru came via text message from another volunteer who arrived a day earlier than I. It read: “Zwedru is an oasis. It’s a pretty town, even saw a playground! That road from Ganta to here is shitastic. Wear a sports bra.”
She was spot on.
I left Monrovia yesterday morning at 5:30am and arrived in Zwedru at 6:00pm. The 12.5 hours included one vehicle switch, 3 market stops (for cabbage, plaintains, cucumbers and sweet potatoes), a lunch stop (rice and ‘beef’ sauce) and a bathroom break (a squat in the bush). The last 7 hours were on a ‘shitastic’ dirt road (thank God it wasn’t raining!), winding through a few towns, rice patties, and jungle-like forest (the trees and plants are awesome here). Then, almost out of nowhere, the road turns from dirt to tar, a sidewalk pops up on both sides of the road and the hustle and bustle of a large African town begins. There is a restaurant that serves pizza (but only when they have cheese, as I learned last night), a ‘pastry’ shop (food review to come), a town square which is actually a triangle (where the playground is!), UN police forces (on foot, vehicle and helicopter), and a lot more to still be discovered!
My work here is already proving to be something completely different than what I am used to and what I had ever expected. Although I am primarily working as a Peace Corps volunteer, my work with the WFP and UNICEF requires that I also work under UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia). It has its pluses (I get to ride in UN transport!) but it also has its minuses (I have to follow UN rules and regs). It’s something new to me and is another reminder for why I cannot compare this experience to the one I had in Zambia. Yet, different is not always bad.
I am living on the World Food Program Compound, located just on the edge of town. The compound contains the storage tents for the food rations, the town water tower, the guest house and those familiar trucks that you have probably seen on the news delivering bags of rice. The compound is up on a little hill, which gives me a nice view over town, but also makes it feel a little isolated (the barbed wire fence doesn’t help either!). There is 24-hour running (cold) water and electricity from 6pm (ish)-8am(ish). I have my own little bedroom with a bed, a love seat and a desk. There are windows on 2 walls which provides a nice cool breeze. It’s a perfect fit for me and I am starting to make it my own. There are 4 other bedrooms in the guest house (one is taken by another PC volunteer). The extra rooms are used for UN staff passing through town. There is a shared bathroom, a kitchen, a dining room and a sitting room (I saw a DSTV cable box but still have to check if it works!). There are some benches outside under some nice big trees….I hope to enjoy my daily morning coffee here!
The main WFP office is in town, about a 15 minute walk from here, on the UNMIL compound. I passed through yesterday and saw several offices for other UN organizations in the same building. Oh, did I mention there is a gym there as well? As a UN “partner,” I have access to all of the UN facilities, including this gym! While taking a quick tour of the compound, I ran into the head of the sub-office for WFP in Zwedru. Would you believe she is Zambian? We have plans to cook nshima and kapenta together after she returns from her next trip to Zambia! I can also touch up on my Nyanja skills since this Liberian-English thing feels hopeless right now!

A Second Scoop Goes Private

There are certain media guidelines that PC volunteers need to follow while serving out their contract. In the past there have been incidents where volunteers wrote things about their work, their counterparts, or even just the country they were serving in, and what they wrote was read by host country nationals which in turn affected the relationship between the PC and the host country. Also, Peace Corps requires that what we write is pre-approved.... which can take a lot time. So, in order to avoid all of that and more, I’ve made The Second Scoop by invite only. Please be mindful of this when you share things you read here! Also, if anyone you know would like to be invited, just send me their email address.