Sunday, May 31, 2015

Notes from the Equator

At the end of April, a colleague and I packed our bags and drove to the airport. Then came 2 long-haul overnight flights and 1 short-haul flight interspersed with lengthy layovers- 42 hours travel time in total, but who’s counting? We landed on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya’s third-biggest city, Kisumu. Right on the equator- zero degrees latitude. 

Sunrise on Lake Victoria

It was my first visit to Kenya, indeed my first trip to the African continent, but it felt like home right away. Maybe that’s because the project that I’ve worked on for over two years is based in Kenya, and so I work with Kenyans and for Kenya even when I’m in the States. As soon as I met my colleagues in person for the first time, it was like having an instant family there.

Kenya and India have many things in common- both are former British colonies. In Kenya, people commonly speak Kiswahili and the dialect of their tribe, but most people I met also spoke fluent English so it was easy to communicate. The country is home to a tiny minority of Kenyan Indians, and there are enough people of South Asian ethnicity residing in Kisumu that at least in the city I blended in and was often mistaken for a local. (It was different while doing field work in rural Kenya- there the school kids immediately called me out as a mzungu- foreigner.)

Sipping tea on the terrace
For a few weeks in May, I did get to live and work in Kenya as a local. We rented an apartment in town- a huge, lovely furnished terrace flat with a dozen large windows for the lake breezes to come right in. The weather was a total (and very pleasant) surprise to me. I expected to sweat it out on the equator, and instead, the temperature hovered between 68 and 78 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time I was there- basically my idea of paradise. I’m told that this has to do with the altitude, lake effect and the season of “long rains”, a season when thunderstorms come through almost every afternoon and leave everything lush and green and cool.

I chose a good time to visit. At other times of the year, the weather apparently gets much more sweltering and equatorial. After weeks of perfect temperatures, I landed in Atlanta on a 90-degree afternoon and said to myself, boy, do I have to go back to Africa for some cooler weather?

Breakfast: Spanish roll and white coffee
From Monday to Friday, we commuted to work, a forty-minute car or bus ride, half of it over dirt roads. I worked long hours, trying to make the best of the relatively little time I had there. Breakfast and lunch were served at the staff canteen, and the menu was the same every single day. 

Breakfast: White coffee (milk and water boiled together, with brown sugar and good old instant coffee stirred in) and Spanish roll- an omelet with peppers, onions and tomatoes rolled up in a chapatti. The other option for breakfast was mandazi- a huge donut like fried fritter but I never did try one.

Fruit salad

Lunch was ndengu (green gram/lentils stew), cabbage and sukuma wiki- sautéed greens. For meat eaters, there would be a meat stew and fried fish or chicken. Fruit salad came with chunks of watermelon and tropical fruits- pineapple, mango and avocado.

Spaghetti night
After work, we would often stop by the supermarket and pick up groceries, then cook a meal at home. We made spaghetti a couple of times, with cheese from Amsterdam, pasta from Italy (another colleague had just vacationed there), sauce with local ingredients, all washed down with South African wine. Another time I made chana masala and cabbage, and one weekend morning we made an elaborate brunch- pancakes with jam and omelets.

It is so much fun shopping in a foreign supermarket, where things are familiar yet different. I liked Kenyan tea- it is milder than the Assam tea that I’m used to, and in these weeks, I got used to drinking black tea- no milk, no sugar. And of course I had to check out the snack aisle and try Kenyan chivda and chilli-lemon flavored potato chips. 

Occasionally, we went out for dinner at different restaurants in town, for Ethiopian food, Chinese food and Indian food (they had the best paneer I’ve ever tasted). Indian food isn’t just found in Indian restaurants, it has a large influence on Kenyan food in general. Pilau (pulao) and chapatti and samosas can be found everywhere. I ate my weight in samosas, starting at the airport café at Nairobi! And one menu item I noticed in all bars and restaurants was chips, not the crisp packaged potato chips but what in India is called potato chips and in the US, French fries.

Ugali making in action
My favorite dinner, without a doubt, was when my Kenyan colleague had a bunch of us over to his bachelor pad for a typical Kenyan meal. If there’s a kitchen around, that is where you will find me, and it was no different in his home. I jammed myself into the tiny kitchen and tried to help. We made 4 dishes one after the other on a single burner- a meat stew, a vegetarian stew for me (soy chunks, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and onions). The third course was the must-have side dish in a Kenyan meal, the sukuma wiki (greens). Finally, he made the staple Kenyan starch- ugali, cornmeal cooked in water into a thick solid pudding. Chunks of ugali are broken off and dipped into sauces and side dishes and eaten.

Friday evenings after work we would go to a lakeside bar and watch the sunset over a Tusker and or Nile Special beer, or a spicy Stoney tangawizi ginger beer. Sunsets over Lake Victoria are spectacular and left me quite speechless.

Sunset on Lake Victoria

On the weekend, I went on a hike in the equatorial rainforest- we saw birds and monkeys, including a troop of baboons. Then we visited the family home of another colleague and his wife (a high school English teacher) who laid out a hearty Sunday lunch. She made a stew with soy chunks, carrots and onions and tomatoes, lentils, pilau (pulao cooked in stock), chapatti and cabbage. It was a pleasure to sit down to this big meal right after we’d been hiking all morning.

Lake Victoria is the second-largest freshwater lake in the world and dominates the landscape in this part of Kenya. I went out on a long boat ride at 6 AM to see the sunrise- again, a spectacular and memorable sight. There were beautiful water birds all around. But my favorite part was spotting the hippos. There is a herd of about 16 wild hippos in Kisumu bay and they are most adorable- those cute little ears! I saw a baby hippo and some adults. They snort and spout water and laze around in the lake. Hippos are also huge and territorial and they can move very fast and attack humans if they are annoyed, so it is best to coo at them from a safe distance, which is what I did.
Can you spot the hippos?
Kiswahili is a sweet language, the lingua franca of much of East Africa. During my time in Kenya, I learned a few phrases, apart from the all-important “food words” that I’ve mentioned before in the post. Asante sana (thank you very much), habari (what’s the news), karibu (welcome), hodi (knock knock), sawa (OK) and some Kiswahili slang thanks to one of my younger colleagues- I say mambo, you say poa. Oh, and kiboko (hippo)! 

Last week, I read a post titled 5 Things That Traveling Taught Me About Cooking and agreed heartily with what the author said. Here are 3 things that my Kenya trip taught me about cooking.

1. It is OK to eat the same thing again and again. What I saw of everyday Kenyan food was simple and humble with meals being much the same from day to day. And that is OK. Food is sustenance and not necessarily a big production in much of the world. I think I should stop worrying too much about serving something new and different every day. Lentils and sautéed veggies as the default meal works just fine. 

2. Simple ingredients can make flavorful food all by themselves. The home cooking and canteen food I tasted in Kenya was very minimally spiced. Even the local Peptang brand hot sauce tasted absolutely bland to me. Dishes got their flavor from basic ingredients like onions, tomatoes and carrots. At some point, I wished I’d thought to pack a small bottle of sriracha sauce and lime pickle, but honestly, eating this way was a revelation. I'm going to try going easy on spices some of the time and let simple flavors shine. 

3. Greens are good eats. In Kiswahili, the phrase sukuma wiki literally means to stretch the week, as in, cheap greens to stretch the more expensive ingredients of the meal. Sukuma wiki was my favorite thing about the food in Kenya. In the bazaar-type open markets, you can buy greens that are already finely shredded and ready to cook- 50 Ksh (50 Kenya shillings- approximately 50 cents) worth can feed a crowd easily. I loved seeing how easy it was to sauté them up and eat a big pile of greens at almost every meal. With the CSA boxes, I already have been eating more greens than ever this year, and this trip solidified my love for it.

I feel so lucky to be able to spend some time in Kenya- a beautiful land, home to beautiful, kind and friendly people. A lot of the people I know who work on African projects find themselves falling in love with the countries and the people in spite of the challenges of living and working there, and I can see why. Life is tough but people are tougher. I was very sad to fly out of Kenya and equally happy to land in Atlanta- which I guess is the mark of a successful trip. 

V, Lila and Duncan managed beautifully on their own, as I knew they would. The only thing I did for them was to stock the freezer and pantry with prepared meals. Since Lila’s birth, I hadn’t been away from her for even a single night, until I left for weeks. But V is an extremely competent Dad and she is old enough to understand where I am going and that I will be back. They went camping one weekend. Some cousins visited another weekend. V was even a "dance dad" and got Lila ready for her first ballet recital. With V's month long India trip closely followed by my own, we're all happy to be on the same continent and looking forward to enjoying summer together. And I hope you have a wonderful summer too!