a new letter from sher!

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January 27th 2009
Published: January 27th 2009
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i came home from a looong day at work and find this waiting on the island in the larson kitchen to my pleasant surprise! enjoy -b

27 December 2008

While you at home are enjoying what we might deem as a "traditional" holiday season, Justin and I are celebrating the season island style. This year our Christmas tree was a coconut palm decorated with paper ornaments and snowflakes. We had quite a time explaining snowflakes and how they felt to my host brother and papa. Snow really is a magnificent entity: how it melts on your bare hands yet can stick to the ground, how sometimes it can form balls but other times will not. My host papa was baffled when I told him snow was soft because he had thought it was hard like ice. When he pressed me for more details, the best simile i could come up with was to compare it to a flower falling down. It's good practice for my Bislama to try and articulate such abstract things.

For Christmas Eve Day, we walked to Justin's host family's village. Earlier in the week, his mama had stopped by our house in the midst of one of my first Dutch-oven baking trial and errors. Our yard is full of papaya trees, a fruit that neither Justin nor I care much for raw. So, I was trying to make "Papaya Bread" kind of like pumpkin bread. She came and knew just from looking at the fire that the cake was burnt; and she was right. However, when the edges and bottom were removed the middle was quite good. So good, in fact, that she asked me to come bake with her Christmas Eve. We made three recipes of Papaya Bread! Many of Justin's family's aunts and neighbor women heard that we'd be baking and stopped by to check it out. In Vanuatu culture, knowledge is treated as a most valuable treasure, so the fact that I knew a different recipe and was willing to share it was a big deal. One woman who came late (just in time to taste test!) shyly asked me how I prepared the papaya, did I cook it or mash it or cut it or what? It's an interesting undertone to have during questions and answer, especially for me when I want to make information shared and available to anyone interested. Baking at the other peoples' houses always poses interesting challenges, especially here. Rarely do you have all the ingredients, so someone may walk half an hour to the store for sugar or follow a chicken around until it lays an egg. Also I am brushing up on my "eyeing it" skills, especially when trying to measure using, quite literally, a cup and a tablespoon.

In the evening, we went to church with Justin's family. The service was a time for singing and they had talked us into sharing one of our Christmas carols. Their favorite, that we both can sing, is "Jingle Bells;" not exactly the most religious Christmas song on record, but we belted it out anyway. And they clapped. And as we walked home down the white coral road in the dark on Christmas Eve, we giggled at how an old song from our childhood cold become a novelty and the talk to the village in another country.

Christmas Day we spent with my host family. We walked to their house in the morning for church (they go to a different church than Justin's family) at 8:00 a.m. They had gifts for us and we opened them to find (surprise!) a new island shirt and mother hubbard dress. This time, they were made of two different fabrics. We sweated through church in the morning (who brought tin sheeting to Vanuatu and s tarted building roofs with it?) and then sat outside on mats in the church yard (which is also the bank, post office, and public phone yard) for lunch. Christmas constitutes one of the special occasions for which you kill and animal for meat; this time: beef. The cattle here are slaughtered, cooked, and eaten all within a day, so having meat requires a special occasion and a big crowd of people. With our beef (all of it cooked with hot stones in banana leaves; tastes similar to roast) we had taro, laplap (also made of taro), rice, cabbage and tin fish salad.

After lunch, Justin and I used the phone to call home. During the middle of one marathon phone conversation (just picture my extended family lined up for the phone), I handed the receiver to Justin and jetted for the bathroom. As I was crossing the yard covered with mats and people eating heading for a bamboo shack built around a hole in the ground where I was about to hoist up my new island dress and mark my territory, the sheer difference of where we are and how we are living really hit me. Here I am, talking on the phone with family and I can picture the exact crock pot that is holding the beanie weenies at Grandma Larson's house and I know that right next to that is a tray of crackers, salami, and cheese, and everything sweet is on the round dining room table, and so on. But to begin to describe every little nuance that shapes daily life here seems impossible. The contrast of hearing familiar voices in an exotic place is almost fantastic.

Anyhow, we spent the afternoon at the church as well, waiting for Father Christmas who came to Maewo by boat. The kids all got small gifts of candy and a popular brand of chips here called Twisties (they're kind of like Cheetos meets Funyons, and, in case you're interested, some are chicken flavored). That night, we sat on mats under the gorgeous stars at my host family's house and storied on with some kava.

The next day was family day. I assume because Christmas Day is mostly spent at the church, they designate this day to be a time for family. Justin helped my papa and uncle kill a pig (meet two days in a row!) and my sister, mama, and I scratched coconuts for the laplap. The coconuts are scratched and then "milked" over the cooked laplap to add a layer of sweet cream. Usually, the dry coconut flakes are tossed to the chickens. I mentioned to my mama that in the states you buy the dry coconut for baking and she was interested to know more. Since we had some down time while waiting for the laplap to bake, we whipped up some simple coconut cookies with the dry coconut (so sorry chickens). It really makes my day to find mutual interest in baking among the women here.

The afternoon was quite hot, so my two brothers, sister, and a couple cousins went for a swim to beat the heat. We went to a waterfall that we have been frequenting quite a bit and they showed us another pool along a new trail. Hanging with the locals definitely has its' perks when it comes to finding the best swimming holes. One place even had carved itself into a natural water slide.

After we cooled off, we headed back to the house. My papa's two brothers and sister and their families all brought food they had been preparing that day over to my family's kitchen. We spread banana leaves out on the ground to set the trays of food on. The women get the task of divying up the food for the men and children. The spread was similar to the day before, with the addition of a special laplap called nalaot. This one uses only the deep purple taro (taro can range from white to purple, with shades of speckled ones in between) topped with roasted coconut. The process for preparing the taro for nalaot is different too as instead of grating it, the taro is beaten with a heavy wooden stick against a huge heavy slab. Quite a feast!

As we unwind after Christmas celebrations, we continue to cozy in to our new house. The cat has made herself quite at home on my mat, but I suppose it is okay because she quite often kills a rat. 😊 Justin's beans, garlic, and other seeds are growing well and we've learned some tips for protecting new shoots from the torrential rains; mainly just covering them with coconut palms. Our "small house" (bathroom) now has a candle (thanks to the Brock's stocking stuffers) and a little jar with matches, more for the smell factor than for kicking back and reading, though I suppose you could...

Thanks for staying tuned in to our adventures abroad! We are enjoying every tidbit of news you send our way as well. Until next time- enjoy the familiar comforts of "home!"


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