learning to swim (a four-month update)

When I think about what these last four months have been like for me personally, the image of learning how to swim comes to mind. Don’t you remember?

We loved getting into the pool so as long as we had a neck to hang onto. But oh how we’re not babies anymore… What are those little, yellow submarines that fit so snug around my chubby, little Michelin arms? Mother dearest is so proud to see her tiny person finally splashing around on their own. She thinks we’re ready now. Where did my floaties go?! WHAT DO YOU MEAN THE FLOATY FAIRY TOOK THEM BACK? She jumps in, our entire bodies wrapped around the womb that so lovingly carried us, and suddenly those hands that are holding our entire lives above water starts to gently pry us off. What used to seem so fun just feels like torture now (or so the screaming suggested). She smiles at our poor little panicked hearts as we wale our arms back and forth like… well, I don’t suppose there is another animal quite like a human trying to swim. But after the frightened rage, the “No, no, NOOOOOO!!!!!!”, and the desperate cries to be saved… suddenly, we’re swimming.

All I’m saying is… whether you are actually learning how to swim or learning how do this Peace Corps thing like me, eventually we’re gonna get the hang of it. Then nothing can stop us from jumping in from there. It’s fair to say some people get it sooner than others. But be kind to yourself. You probably won’t look like Katie Ledecky, but at least you won’t drown. 

 
Love always,
Mel

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food in guyana: part 2

PAPAYAS: They’re called “papaws” and they are my favorite fruit. You know when it’s ripe if the skin is soft and yellow. At the market, they usually sell them a little unripe so that you can let it sit for a day or two before enjoying. The other day at the market, I scored a papaya bigger than my head for $500GY ($2.50USD) I was proud of my harvest as I saw other people buying papayas the size of softball for the same price. I’m planning on planting one of my own soon and in 8 months time, I hope to see these little pieces of heaven growing in my backyard.

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ESSENCE: It’s always the first thing I taste when I bite into a piece of cake. I can always tell when they use it. It’s similar to any extract you might use in your baking, except it’s not extract. I don’t know what it is, but like many things in Guyana, you don’t question it. It’s essence.

BURGERS: If you know me well, you know burgers are my love language. Nothing beats a juicy burger with a beer and fries, am I right? Burgers in Guyana are chicken sandwiches though, unless you’re in my house. Then of course, a burger (according to my 5 year old host brother Jeremiah) is a sliced hotdog slabbed between cheese, mayo, mustard, and ketchup in a bun. Sometimes it’s cheese and mayo. Sometimes it’s just mayo. And lots of it.

SEVEN CURRY: If cook-up isn’t your favorite food, then curry is. And my gosh, seven curry is a wonderful thing. Inside a giant water lily-leaf, this Indo-Guyanese delicacy consists of seven different types of curry. SEVEN. Served on top of rice is pumpkin curry, dahl curry, potato curry, bagee (spinach) curry, belanjay (eggplant), edoe, and catahar. You can eat with a spoon, but come on. There’s no fun in that. The first time I had seven curry was at Meena’s (a family friend and kitchen supervisor at the Psychiatric Hospital) wedding. It certainly was a day of celebration. One for Meena’s happily ever after and one for my tummy.

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PLANTAINS: I remember passing by plantains at the markets back in the States, but I never thought to buy them. That was my mistake because I eat these all the time now. When it’s the end of the week and we’ve gone through our groceries, there will always be plantains. I can always count on them. Unripe or ripe, I like them fried.  You can of course boil them with sweet potatoes, mash’em up (or leave in chunks), and eat with some salt fish. Either way, I think me and all of Guyana can attest a tribute to plantains for keeping us full on days we don’t have enough money to buy other things.

BELANJAY CHOKA: Yum. An Indo-Guyanese dish that takes practice to make. It’s quite a lengthy process, at least for a beginner like me, but it’s worth the effort. It’s roasted belanjay (eggplant) stuffed with garlic and mixed with tomatoes, shallots, and celery. One day I was gaffing (aka chatting) with two of my friends, Vido and Kim (vendors from the Corentyne that sell produce on the road), about how much I loved belanjay choka. At the end of our conversation, they generously gave me a few belanjays and a bundle of shallots to try making it myself. And voila! The recipe will be up soon so stay tuned!

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Love always,
Mel

split pea cook-up

Today, me and my host family worked together to make lunch. Mom made Split Pea Cook-up, my little sister smashed garlic and cut tomatoes like a pro, and I made seasoned-baked fish and a salad to go with it. It was a good Saturday afternoon learning from each other and sharing what we all love–food.

Like I’ve mentioned before, I’m learning recipes simply by watching. This is my first attempt to write it down so bare with me. Come, leh we go!

SPLIT PEA COOK-UP

What is cook-up?

Cook-up is an Afro-Guyanese dish made of rice, coconut milk, some kind of legume/bean, and any rank (aka meat) of your choice. People eat this on several occasions: a baby shower, birthday, BBQ, or just because. It’s a Guyanese home favorite. There are many ways to mix it up and make it taste how you like, but what doesn’t change is how delicious rice is cooked in coconut milk. So freaking good.

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup dry split peas (or use 1 can if you can find some)
  • 2 cups of rice
  • 1 2/3 cups of coconut milk (or 13.5oz can)
  • 1 cup of water
  • onions (diced)
  • 5 stems of celery w/ leaves (diced)
    • if you’re in America, use about 3.
  • 1 hot pepper (diced)
  • salt/all purpose seasoning (in Guyana, you can use cook-up seasoning)

Directions:

  1. I’ve never pressurized anything before, but that’s how people do things in Guyana. My host mom gave me these sweet directions to share with you: place pressurizer on med-hot heat, add about 1 to 2 cups of water into the pot, add your peas, cover with lid, and let it pressurize until you hear the first whistle. Host mama says it shouldn’t take long. I’m going to guess between 5-10 minutes.
    • Of course, if you don’t have a pressure cooker and don’t want to boil your peas for a long time, you can just buy the can.
  2. Sautee celery, onion, and hot pepper in some oil on medium heat.
  3. Add split peas.
  4. Pour coconut milk and water.
  5. Add rice into the pot with everything else until it is fully cooked.
  6. Add salt and all purpose seasoning to taste.

SEASONED BAKED FISH

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Ingredients:

  • 1-2lbs of fish (cut into fillets)
    • Sorry, I don’t know what kind we used… but the flesh was white.
  • 3-4 stems of celery w/ leaves
  • 4 tomatoes (diced, large)
  • 1 whole garlic (minced)
  • 1 lime
  • salt
  • soy sauce

Directions:

  1. Marinated the fish with lime, garlic, oil, and a little bit of salt.
  2. In a one or two large pans, bake the fish (skin facing up) at 450F (or 240C) for 20-30 minutes.
  3. While the fish is baking, cut your celery and tomatoes.
  4. Once the fish is fully cooked, add the celery and tomatoes to the pan.
  5. Lightly pour soy sauce onto the fish. I don’t use much because the fish is already salty. We don’t want to over do it so make sure the fish ISN’T drowning in it.
  6. Place back in the oven for another 10-15 minutes until tomatoes are soft.

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Enjoy!!!

Love always,
Mel

food in guyana: part 1

RECIPES: As I learn how to make several Guyanese dishes from friends and families here, I can’t quite figure out how to get the recipes because well, they don’t have any. In Guyana, you cook based on your memories from watching your mother and your mother’s mother in the kitchen. It’s the same way I know how to make Filipino food–you put this (pours the bottle for 10 seconds) and this (dumps unmeasured amounts of ingredients) and a little bit of that (it’s actually a lot) and then you stir it until it’s done! A lot of my work here in Guyana will be to write down these recipes and modify them for patients at the hospital so… I’m gonna have to figure something out.

SEASONING: There’s a lot of seasoning that goes into their simple cooking. Curry isn’t just curry. It’s curry seasoning, masala seasoning, chicken seasoning, fish seasoning, green seasoning, garlic seasoning, pepper seasoning, and any other seasoning you honestly feel like throwing in there. Oh, and don’t forget, aghee (also known as MSG). To be fair, Guyanese food taste delicious. And that’s not just the MSG talking. However, hypertension is a serious problem in this country. And although people are aware they shouldn’t add “salt”, they are not always aware that there is plenty of salt in the other seasonings they are putting in their foods.

CHURCH’S CHICKEN SANDWICHES: Wow, ok. Let me not be a nutritionist for just a quick paragraph. I don’t know what it is, but the Church’s Chicken Sandwiches here are… Gosh, I don’t even have words. Specifically, the ones in Parika (Region 3). I don’t pass through Parika unless I’m going to and from Essequibo (Region 2), but holy moly, biting into one after a long day of traveling is everything I need to forget that I’ve been on a bus and a boat for the last 5 hours.

CHIPPING: This is how you cut things in Guyana. You could use a cutting board, but as I like to describe it, most people cut things in the air. They chip everything under the sun effortlessly (and quickly, might I add) as they pull the knife upwards through the food into small, sometimes even pieces. It’s really an art and I’m not very good at it.

HOT PEPPERS: They are hot. Like the hottest bearable peppers I’ve ever come across eating. When you do cut the peppers, your fingers will burn. I don’t know the names of them, but they come in different sizes. A friend of mine ate a large pepper whole and from what I’ve heard, I’m almost sure his entire body was on fire. I’ve only ever cooked with the little, round red peppers that look like the tiny berries my cousins and I used to put up our noses when we were kids. Disclaimer: don’t put these up your nose. You’ve been warned.

BUGS: You will probably eat some and you won’t even know it. Mostly ants because they get into everything. I think I ate some this morning with my jam. I’ll live though.

ROTI: I love roti for multiple reasons. It not only taste amazing with pretty much all my favorite foods here (pumpkin curry, dahl, and belanjay choka), but it’s also a great way to make friends in Guyana. I’ve learned that telling someone I know how to make this round, flakey piece of doughy heaven is a perfect shoe into friendship. Instead of breaking the ice, you clap the roti.

CHEESE: It’s really oily and I think it’s cheddar (*update, it is cheddar). Other volunteers are pretty skeptical about it, but I don’t care what anyone says, I eat it everyday and it makes me happy.

VEGETABLES: Some things are called differently here: bora (green beans), belanjay (eggplant), calalu (spinach). People in Guyana eat vegetables, they just don’t eat them raw. My host mom in Essequibo was always shocked to see me eat our vegetables before we cooked them. To my knowledge, almost everything is thrown into a pot, stewed down, seasoned up, and then eaten with rice. Although this is a good way to kill bacteria, people are also killing the nutrients. There are ways to make raw vegetables taste good and I hope to show more people what I mean by this. Mixing different types of veggies together to compliment the sweet and the bitter, adding lime to make it sour, or maybe some peppers for a little spice–the possibilities are endless.

FRUITS: I’m not saying everyone has mangoes and coconuts and papayas and guavas growing right in their backyard (I certainly don’t), but someone has something and I can bet they’re more than likely willing to share with you. As a fruit lover myself, I’m in my own personal heaven here. Not all of them taste good (sorry, I’m not a fan of awarra), but trying new fruits I’ve never had or heard of before like soursop and sorrel have been one of my favorite experiences since moving to Guyana. There’s really nothing like eating a fruit right off the tree. Nothing.


It’s been almost three months since I’ve been in country and I’ve learned so much already; things in and out of the kitchen, of course. Cooking, however, continues to be my way of connecting with people in Guyana. Feeling like I belong here has been difficult at times, so I thank God for this way of being loved and loving others.

Love always,
Mel

dear guy 30

Let’s go back to when we started our application. The fear, the uncertainty, the bravery. The moments before hitting submit, are we good enough for this? We waited for a word, a call, a sign… wait, an interview?! Breathe.

Of course the video call doesn’t work. But here we go. These are my hopes and dreams… please, just like me! We waited again. And a little some more. The wonder, the doubt. But congratulations!!! You’ve been invited to serve… after you fill these documents, sign these papers, read these emails, go to these appointments, buy all these things, and get these shots. Got it?

After (for some of us) a year goes by, finally, we’re in Philadelphia. The cheesesteaks, the three little ghosts, the snow, the bus ride to New York, the sleepless flight.

Greeted by a hot, humid hug… mama, we made it to Guyana. But wait, our ferry isn’t leaving for another four hours?! Just. Keep. Smiling.

Finally, we reach Mainstay. Our first dip in the beautiful black water. Our first taste of rice and roti and pumpkin and curry. Our first feel for the next two years of our life. Yea, those five days were special. And on the last, we all felt it, didn’t we? This is where we are meant to be.

Now we’ve been here for two months. It wasn’t easy, but look how we’ve grown. So much has changed, even our pants size, and we’re still all here. There were times we didn’t know if we could, times we weren’t sure if we were ready, times we felt like we were done. But look! See! A million PACA presentations, memes, and coconut water bottles later… Today, we are no longer trainees.

So congratulations, GUY 30. We did it. We’re officially Peace Corps Volunteers.
I’m proud to call you not only my friends, but my family.

38, we came. And 38, I hope are here to stay.

Love always, Mel

new amsterdam and new expectations

I had this idea that I’d be somewhere in the middle of a green, luscious wonderland. I was fixated on taking a boat to work every morning, peeling cassava in my backyard with my aunties, eating everything right off the tree, throwing back in my hammock until the sun came down, and helping people live healthier lives in the meantime. That was the dream, right?

But that’s not the Peace Corps story I’m here to tell. This week, I’m in New Amsterdam to get a feel for my new home before I make the big move in April.

New Amsterdam is located on the eastern coast of Guyana with a population of about 33,000. This is where everyone along the Berbice have all of their fun and get everything they need.

There are 3 main roads–Waterside, Backdam , and Main Street–with other intervening narrow streets in between. The market is massive and it has every fruit, vegetable, and meat you could possibly think of. It’s open everyday from 6am to 4pm, with the exception of Wednesday when the market closes at noon. But even then, there are grocery stores and shops and stands and restaurants and plenty of people out on the road at all hours of the day to keep you busy.

I live in a beautiful blue, wooden house with a fun family of seven that I love so much already. My home has running water, electricity, wifi, a washing machine, and is conveniently located in front of an ice cream shop (yesterday, they served banana).

Instead of waking up to roosters crowing and cows mooing, I’m woken up by a moving city and Becky, our rude flightless parrot. Mornings are busy with breakfast, bathing, and mama bustling tired little booties out the door by 8am. So much of this routine reminds me of life back home.

In a lot of ways, New Amsterdam is unlike many towns in Guyana. I have friends in other areas where all you can see is bush, where buildings are much smaller and more spread out, where fruits and vegetables are not as abundant, and where people travel by ATVS because roads are rougher and places are harder to reach. But even so, New Amsterdam faces its own set of struggles–many that I see in the hospitals I’ll be working at.

In my experiences living in large cities it’s hard for people to get out of a restless routine and make the simple things matter again. Things like health and happiness. I see it all the time in the US. There’s also social and sanitation issues to consider, but we’ll get into that just now. Although New Amsterdam isn’t a big place (it only takes about 10 minutes for me to walk from one end to the other), it has what every big city has: big buildings that cut into natural things and busy streets that don’t slow down for anyone. I’ve always struggled to thrive in places like this and I wasn’t sure if that was going to work for me.

I was really afraid of how large my community is and the challenges I’d face trying to help it (let alone living in it) but one moment, one person, one thing at a time. I’ve already stretched my social capacity from talking to 5 people in a day to 50 so I’d say I’m getting there. Just 32,950 more people to go.

Sitting out on the veranda tonight, I started to realize that even though this is not the experience I thought I’d be having in the Peace Corps, it’s still going to be good and I’m still going to do well here. Why? Well, because I’m here for a reason and I refuse to let it unfold any other way.

Welcome to New Amsterdam.

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Love always,
Melanie

ready as I’ll ever be.

Just a few days ago, the other GUY 30 volunteers and I received out site assignment. For the next two years, I will be living in New Amsterdam in Region 6. It’s one of the largest cities on the coast of Guyana with about 33,000 people currently living there. Let’s just keep in mind that Guyana has a population of just 750,000.

I will be working at the New Amsterdam Regional Hospital, which has the capacity to hold about 300 patients at a time. My primary assignment will be to assist the kitchen staff with healthy food initiatives and help develop new patient appropriate meals. Other projects will fall into place as time goes by, but my main focus will be to see forth the nutritional objectives for maternal and child health.This is the part where most of us jump up and down with excitement, but I also think it’s normal to feel unqualified and worried at a time like this, right? Things like “Wow, they’re going to see right through me. How did I get here?!” and “Big city, small person. Not good.” have been running through my mind all weekend. 

Since moving to Guyana, I have been praying for faith to trust God’s plan and protection over me–faith to trust I’m enough to be here–and I guess as the weeks have flown by, I’ve felt uneasy and a little unsure of it all.

After I got home from training today, the last things I wanted to do was sit and anticipate what the next two years (or even the next week) were going to be like. I was desperate to stretch out the hours of the day so I asked my little host siblings and their friends next door if they wanted to walk with me through town. Nico (my 8 year old little host brother) led the pack across the street and to my surprise, brought us to the ocean.

Staring out into the sea as the sun began setting behind us, it was like finding hidden treasure. The breeze felt cool against my skin and my soul, and I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. I didn’t know the ocean was so near to my house, and in a way, I guess I didn’t realize how near Christ was either.


Being given a great opportunity doesn’t make me any less human. I didn’t suddenly become immune to hardship, anxiety, or fear. But I was reminded today that I’ve been given bravery despite those thoughts that try to cripple my potential, courage to stand tall before anything that’s bigger than me, and strength in every place I am weak.

And so, here’s to New Amsterdam and the next two years of the Peace Corps ahead of me. I’m ready.

Love always, Melanie