Sunday, January 27, 2019

We Have a Hedgehog and His Name is Hamilton

"What do baby hedgehogs eat?" I hear Grace ask.

"I have no idea," I say.

She gives me a 13-year-old look. "I wasn't asking you, Mom. I was asking Siri."

Well, excuuuuuse me. 

Contrary to what many may believe about our life in Tanzania, we don't live in the Serengeti; we live in a city of six million people. But we do have a rather enormous backyard, and it has brought us an interesting variety of wildlife: Chickens (not really wildlife, but certainly wild), tortoises, kingfishers, monitor lizards, bats, snakes, and hedgehogs. I got over the novelty of hedgehogs a long time ago....those things are loud when they want to be--like when a dog is trying to kill it. After many, many evenings of frantic barking and wailing hedgehogs, we got used to finding the poor prickly creatures and chucking them over the fence, just to get everybody to shut up.

But then my children found a baby hedgehog, which, according to my children, is apparently an entirely different category of hedgehog which shouldn't be thrown over the fence but needs to be brought into the house and fed and named and snuggled (as much as a creature with spines can be snuggled). The children's father immediately went along with this idea as soon as Google told him that this type of hedgehog will cost you about $200 in the States. He's always up for a good deal. The children's mother was not consulted, because she is the family's stick-in-the-mud.

So there you have it: We now have added Hamilton Willow Leo Medina into our family, which is a very long name for something that weighs about five ounces. Hammie now has his own, homemade, elaborate cage complete with a hamster wheel, even though he is not a hamster and may not like wheels. In fact, he showed very little appreciation for the cage, because while we were eating dinner he got out of it and got lost in my bedroom, which meant that there were four children crawling around the floor with flashlights while Mom was hollering, "I don't want a hedgehog to die in my bedroom so no one gets to watch AFV until you find it!"

And of course, this is all very confusing to Snoopy, who as a Jack Russell was bred to search and destroy small moving creatures and has, until this point, been encouraged to do so. But no one seems to listen to me when I bring this up. Siri is smarter than me anyway, so what do I know?

Saturday, January 26, 2019

It's Not Really About the Cold

The first five hours of the drive to Lushoto take us north through the flat savannah of Tanzania--shrub brush, miles of pineapple and sisal plantations, villages of stick-and-mud houses.

But after those five hours, we get to a junction where we make a sharp right, and the road winds another two hours up into the Usambara mountain range, where the town of Lushoto is located. We drive past waterfalls and rock formations, sharing the the curvy mountain roads with elderly women carrying enormous bundles of sticks on their heads.

Our family has a tradition when we make that right turn up into the mountains. We note the outside temperature, which is usually somewhere around 34 degrees (94 degrees Fahrenheit) and we make bets as to what the temperature will be when we hit Lushoto. This year the winner had predicted 24 degrees (75 degrees Fahrenheit), which is just about as luxurious as we could expect when escaping the heat monster of Dar es Salaam.

We say that the reason we love Lushoto is because of the cold, and that's why we've been there over a dozen times during our years in Tanzania. But there's more to it than that. Because we've never gone to Lushoto alone, but always with people we've called family during that particular year.

This year, Johnny busted open his knee one night while the kids were careening around in the dark, and we realized pretty quickly he was going to need stitches. Lushoto is remote town, and there's no 24-hour urgent care we could take him to, so we needed to wait until morning. But our friends immediately sprang into action, collecting bandages and painkillers and sticks to act as a splint. (In the end, one friend found a random pair of nunchucks in a shed, so Johnny had the most awesome splint ever invented.)

Somehow we keep going back to Lushoto, even though not all the memories are happy. Ironically, the only other time our family has experienced stitches was also in Lushoto, when Gil put his arm through a glass window seven years ago. Then there was also the time a different year when friends were robbed of their computer and camera while we were all eating dinner. Or the time when one teenager got typhoid, or the time when one family rolled their van on the way home.

But I think the common denominator each time has been that whether we are playing games or reveling in our long sleeves and drinking cappuccinos (not me--blech--but this is the highlight for my friends), or whether we are figuring out how to splint a seven-year-old's leg with nunchucks, life has just kept throwing us together with these people. And Lushoto kind of encapsulates that for all of us--the highest highs and the lowest lows--which in the end create these kind of bonds that usually only happen when you share blood.

One of these families is leaving Tanzania forever next week, and another is on their way to leave this summer. We're not sure how many Lushoto years our own family has left. So the bitter mixes with the sweet in the midst of all the memories. But that's kind of what makes memories stronger, isn't it?

Grace's birthday always happens when we're in Lushoto, and this year she found out she'll get to see Hamilton this summer.

These two...someday they'll get their own post. 

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Friday Night Dinner

Usually we buy barbecued ribs from our friend Frank on Friday nights, because they are awesome and who wants to cook on Friday nights?

But this week Frank wasn't cooking, and at 5:00 I lay there on the couch, thinking through my options. More than one of my children asked, What's for dinner, Mom? To which my gracious and loving response was, Food. 

Options at 5:00 on a Friday evening are limited. We could order pizza, but they can never find our house which means we have to meet them somewhere, and that's even if they remember our order in the first place. We could go to that street-food place that sells life-changingly good chicken, but even though it's only a couple of miles away, it's not good enough to battle 45 minutes of traffic and another half hour of waiting for it.

I sighed and got up to stare into the refrigerator for inspiration. But I shop on Saturdays and so there wasn't much much inspiration to be found. I remembered that my house helper had left a large pot of peeled tomatoes on the stove. Okay, I guess we're having spaghetti. 

So I started chopping up onions and throwing in spices, having done this so many bazillions of times that it's been years since I've used a recipe. Oh, and butter. If you didn't know that butter is the key to amazing spaghetti sauce, then I've just revolutionized your life. You're welcome.

I went to the pantry to get the pasta, but then I pasta. Which is impossible because I always have pasta. Always. I even checked under the shelves, thinking that maybe it must have fallen back there.

I slumped down onto a dining room chair, despairing of life itself. I could make pizza, but it would take too long for the dough to rise. Gil offered to run to a store and go buy pasta. But I weighed my options. I would rather go out and look for pasta than stay home with the four hungry children. I think I can find it in a nearby duka, I said. I could use a walk anyway.

I took my shorts off and put my skirt back on and put the water to boil on the stove. I walked out our heavy metal gate, and up the rocky path to the main road where I met a mass of Friday-evening humanity. Women--and girls--with babies tied to their backs. Children in uniforms walking home from school. Men in long white shirts leaving the mosque.

I walked along the side of the busy road, dodging motorcycles and bikes, scanning the tiny shops for the ones that sell food. I passed the guys who fix our flat tires and a shop that sells fifty pound bags of rice. I stopped at one duka that looked promising, but they only had soap and bottles of oil and soda. No pasta.

I passed enormous piles of pineapples for sale, gradually fermenting in the humid air. If I hadn't already bought three yesterday I would have picked up a few more. At fifty cents each this time of year, we do our duty in supporting the pineapple economy.

I peered hopefully into another tiny shop, but saw only notebooks and pencils. I almost moved on when my eye caught something in the corner--neatly stacked packages of spaghetti noodles. But I played it cool, not wanting to get my hopes up. Can I see the spaghetti? I asked the teenager manning the shop. He handed me one, and I inspected it carefully for bugs. Thankfully, it passed the test. I was back home a few minutes later, just as the water had started boiling.

Someday, I'm going to be really thankful to live in a place again where I can order pizza on a Friday night. But I imagine there's a part of me that will still look back wistfully on a night like this one.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Hot Sweaty Christmas Nostalgia

It's always hot in December, but this year, Dar es Salaam tried to kill us.

It's not supposed to feel like this until February! I grumbled into the sauna-like air. The whole point of a sauna is how good you feel when you come out of it. But Dar es Salaam is like one of those nasty villains in a Marvel movie who throws you in and locks the door. Now, go bake some Christmas cookies in there! she shrieks in that high-pitched monster cackle. And see if that doesn't turn you into the Grinch!  

Christmas is all about nostalgia, isn't it? Fueled by Hallmark movies and Thomas Kinkade paintings and everyone's perfect Instagram pictures. Crackling fires and children in sleeper pajamas and sparkling lights. You can say all you want that Christmas is about the Incarnation or the spirit of giving or blah blah blah, but actually, it doesn't "feel" like Christmas unless you get the nostalgia part right. Which is why Christmas is usually the hardest time of the year for Americans living overseas.

But then this funny thing happens once enough time goes by. You do the same thing enough times, even if you hate it, and one day you find your own form of nostalgia. The plastic tree held together by zip ties, the bizarre shopping excursions that include haggling over used shoes in an open-air market, the cans of Root Beer that appear in Christmas stockings. Suddenly you can't imagine Christmas without those things.

At our mission Christmas party this year, the theme of the gift exchange was food items that we usually wouldn't buy because they are too expensive here. So we cheered and laughed and fought over packages filled with tortilla chips and nacho cheese, s'mores ingredients, and--the most popular--a homemade cheesecake. Our family walked away with the package of bacon, and it was awesome.

We made gingerbread houses and took our worker's family to the water park; we made seven kinds of cookies that had to be kept in the freezer so they wouldn't melt. We went to the movie theater and saw "The Grinch," but my favorite part of the movie was the air conditioning. We had crepes and strawberries on Christmas morning, because strawberries are hard to come by. Gil gave me an orange-chocolate bar for Christmas, and I gave him a bag of Hershey's caramel kisses that were on sale (since normally they would have been twelve dollars). But our main gift to each other was running the air conditioner in the living room for the week before Christmas, because air conditioning is the Superhero against that heat villain.

It's never going to look like a Hallmark Christmas movie, but it's nostalgic just the same.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

13, 11, 9, 7

Josiah calls me into his room and points out a mass of mutilated millipede in the corner.

"I killed it," he says proudly.

"Um, great?" I say, as I watch millipede juice seep into the wood floor. "How did you kill it?"

"With the hammer," he says matter-of-factly.

"With the hammer?" I sputter.

"Yeah, I went and got it from the storeroom. And don't worry, Mom. I washed it off afterwards."

This is the kid who used to scream as if a velociraptor was in the bathtub when he saw an ant floating around in there. So I guess this is a step in the right direction. Um, congratulations, Josiah, on your first kill. As Aslan told Peter after he took down the Wolf, Never forget to wipe your sword. No problem; Josiah's already got that part covered.

Parenting is all about baby steps, People. Can I get an Amen? Baby steps.

I sure like these kids a whole lot. Here they are at ages 13, 11, 9, and 7.