We tend to spend a lot of time here lamenting the things we don’t have – reminiscing about the way things were in our home countries, complaining when things are different; even if the difference is minuscule or inconsequential. So sometimes it’s worth reminding ourselves of the things we wouldn’t have learnt, wouldn’t have considered. And how we have developed; not just our skills but in ourselves.
For example, on a quiet Sunday, comfortable in the air-conditioning of our apartment while the African sun beats outside, I am roasting sweet potato in the oven for lunch. I’m intending to mix it with some quinoa and zucchini so that it will be on hand all week. We don’t have another fresh fruit and vegetable delivery until at least Friday, so I can’t just rely on my standard baby spinach salad to go with my lunchtime fish. And I’ve already done a few days of fish and plain rice.
Back in Oz, it was a rare day where I would play the old Google recipe game for a weekend lunch (or weeknight dinner) – but here, it is standard practice. Google the ingredients you have (in most cases, vegetables), and see what comes up. Parsnip and eggplant roasted together? Sure. Shrimp and eggplant curry? It exists – most deliciously. Eggplants are always plentiful here for some reason. Never have I eaten so much eggplant in my life. It’s actually strangely versatile – it can be added to curries, roasted with lemon juice or in a Mediterranean tray-bake, or even fried until the smoky flavour kicks in. The Googling also requires you to be somewhat creative with the ingredients; for it’s a rare day that one actually possesses all the items on the recipe list. A good friend who is leaving this week to go back to the States for good, commented the other day how much she was looking forward to being able to make a dish without omitting any of the ingredients.
Lunch, and even meals, back in Oz, were satisfying, but based on convenience. Most weekends, the husband and I would discuss what we wanted to do for lunch, with the usual result of him making the trip to the bakery to buy some fresh bread so I could make us a salami and cheese toastie. Sometimes with avocado if they were ripe (and not $4 each). Here, it is not unusual for our lunches to be vegetarian (inconceivable for us back in Oz), and I am constantly amazed at what you can make with seemingly nothing in the cupboard/fridge. Rice = Veggie fried rice. Tinned artichoke = some kind of cheesy antipasto wrap. Zucchini & basil = bruschetta.
I’m quietly proud to be living this simplified version of life, where we don’t have everything available to us all the time, at any minute of the day or night. It causes one to become more resourceful and get used to the basics of living. It also takes the pressure off having too much choice – decisions become based on what’s available, what’s doable – a lot less stressful than the world where EVERYTHING is an option. When we first arrived on the island, we brought across with us many of my beloved kitchen appliances. Unfortunately for anyone from outside the US, the electricity on compound is not only US plugs, but also US voltage, rendering my hairdryer completely useless. Eventually we managed to ship across a transformer to convert the voltage. This works fine for the better quality appliances, but perhaps unsurprisingly, our $20 rice cooker could not handle it, and promptly died. After avoiding rice for a few weeks (“I don’t know how to cook it!!) I finally bit the bullet and cooked a pot on the stove. It took a few go’s but I got the hang of it. And who knew, but it’s easy. White rice, brown rice. All the rices. And although I can’t deny the convenience of a rice cooker, strangely enough, it’s not a necessity.
New and unusual situations always bring surprises, both subtle and absurd. Who knew that the husband and I would become the sort of people to drink Perrier and eat fried plantains instead of chips or roast potatoes. Or that eggplants would become a staple of our diet. Or that sweet potato and baby spinach were commodities as precious as gold. This week at work, one of the guys I work with asked me if I liked mangoes. I confirmed that I do. He then produced a teeny tiny mini green mango from a black shopping bag. I was dubious – where I come from, mangoes are as large as two fists and the colour of a tropical sunset. But when I put the mango to my nose and inhaled, the scent was the sweetest, sweetest, mango-happy smell I have ever smelt. For the next hour until I finally ate it, I would put it close to my face just to breathe it in. It’s the simple things.
Yet one of the nice things about the simple things, is that they cause one to appreciate the world’s luxuries. Like peanut butter. What would I do if people didn’t bring back Australian peanut butter for me on their return to the island (thanks Blakey). Of course, I would cope. Like the rice cooker, I could live without it. But sometimes it’s just nice to have a processed, energy-dense treat!