Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The forecast calls for 110 degree heat and blowing sand.

This brief post is pretty much exclusively about food. Look, I'm hungry a lot of the time in the village. I spend a lot of my private time thinking about food, like what combinations of foods might go well in burritos. Chocolate cake and buttery mashed potatoes, for example, with some cheddar cheese and strawberry jelly in there too. I have long, long mental lists of such combinations. But I won't subject you well-fed friends and family members to them. Instead, fruit!

The hot season has hit us early this year, or at least earlier than I was prepared for. By the middle of March, daily highs were spiking up around 110, a temperature you haven't properly experienced if you've never been without the stupefying relief of fans and air conditioning, or even the refreshment of refridgerated water. Everything here in Senegal is hot: the stifling dry air, the wind that brings no chill relief. The traditional heavily-sugared tea called attaya is served in tiny cups at a mouth-scorching boil. All the food is cooked and served immediately, also too hot for comfort. Even the water coming out of the rubinets or my filter never gets below the ambient temperature.

This season has its consolations, though. As I approached the center of Guinguineo's big weekly market a month or so ago, I was hit by a weak, unplaceable memory of delight. I looked around at the now-familiar offerings, the million stimuli of the crowded market: the gleaming polished cooking pots, the stacks of vegetables and bags of spices, the beautiful varieties of fabric available for sale, the man hawking radios, sunglasses, and black market medicines for everything from malaria to impotence. Something here was jumping up and down, demanding my full attention, smacking my senses around and registering as a weirdly emotional triumph. I had lost something and, I was being warned, I was about to find it again. The warning turned out to be a smell, and it was coming from a humongous moist pile of red and yellow cashew fruits just a few feet away. It was a smell I associate with my first days in Senegal, when my stage-mates and I first began to wander the streets and markets of Thies by ourselves, buying sacks of strange new fruits and fried street delicacies, tasting for the first time the sad stuff that passes for beer in this country, and beginning to realize that this place, Senegal, was turning into a new home.

Some would take this as a sign that being in Senegal has addled my brain, but I truly believe that the United States is a more backward and less happy place because it lacks cashew fruits. I guess we don't grow cashews over there, and the temperamental fruit wouldn't survive the trans-Atlantic voyage. It's a shame. To be perfectly honest, I can't be very specific about what cashew fruits taste like. When you bite into one, the juices completely overwhelm your taste buds and change the pH balance of your entire mouth for several minutes. You're not left with much sense of how the fruit actually tastes, except for a general impression of yumminess. You might be swallowing a quarter-cup of liquid when you eat one, but the cashew fruit experience will leave you deliciously thirsty, under the strange impression that it's sucked all the liquid from your mouth. Why I find these so addictive, I can't really know. But I can buy enough to make myself a little queasy with about 30 cents, and I often do.

If that doesn't sound tantalizing, then you can always opt for mangoes. The first ones came in around the middle of March this year. Even if I hadn't noticed their arrival, I would have suspected something was up: the ambient happy level just felt a little higher than it normally does around here. A dollar will buy you a little over 4 pounds of mangoes, enough to make your entire Senegalese host family happy, or to make yourself gut-wrenchingly ill. It's worth the pain, though. When I came home from the market in Guinguineo with the first sack of mangoes, everyone stopped what they were doing to watch my host mom dole out the goods. With her face half-covered in pulpy smeared fruit, Fama, my favorite four year old in the world, cried, "Aissa! The mangoes are delicious! God will help you for bringing us these mangoes -- He'll give you a good husband very soon!" I don't know about that, but in a place where no one ever seems to be getting enough of the right things to eat, where nothing we eat on a daily basis is even remotely delicious, the mango season is an annual miracle.

Of course I'm thrilled on a very simple level that mangoes and cashews are back in season. But their presence reminds me of something else, something that I actually never really forgot in the first place: I've been here for a year now. When we first got off that plane, the mangoes and cashews were filling the markets. Every time I see a stack of mangoes or a basin of cashews in Guinguineo, I think back to those first days in Senegal more than a year ago, at the end of February of 2009.

One of the perks (or dull responsibilities?) of being a year-in volunteer is that you might be asked to come to Thies to train the new stage of health volunteers, who arrived in country three weeks ago or so. In a couple of days, that's exactly where I'm headed. I hope I'll have time to update this blog -- I want to write about the amazing progress of the Hygiene Committee's latrine project and the two days I spent tramping around the bush looking for children under 5 to vaccinate against polio, helping out in a nation-wide program, enjoying myself, collecting stories, and getting way way way too dehydrated. But besides that, I'm excited to meet the new stage. I bet they're excited to be here, and I bet that their excitement is contagious. So times are good now.

Hope all is well back in the States.

Love and guts,


  1. Hi there...
    So cashew nuts are the seed from the middle of a cashew fruit? What does the fruit look like? Interesting! And the nuts are among my favorites.
    Too hot over there! The hottest day for me was 108 degrees in the San Joaquin Valley, near Bakersfield (apt name). The cliche is perfect: it felt like an oven and it was unpleasant to breathe through the nose (very dry there, fortunately).
    John McCafferty, Russian Peace Corpseman, '06-08

  2. Not related to food, but I sent you a postcard from New Zealand and wondered if it ever arrived?