What to do with 10 lbs of rice?

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29 June 2011

What to do with 10 pounds of rice?

Dedicated readers of this blog will recall that, a week or two ago, I managed to get my computer completely soaked with rain. As part of the salvage process, I was told that the best way to dry it out was to allow it to sit for several days in a bag of rice. So I went to the store, bought a 10-lb bag of rice, smothered my computer with it, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Several days later, I fished it out, cleaned out the rice, and found that it…mostly…worked. It boots, and the screen and mouse work flawlessly, but only about 3/4 of the keyboard letters work. I’m currently debating the pros and cons of a separate keyboard vs taking the thing to a repair shop. We will see.

In the interim, I have 10 pounds of perfectly edible rice left over. Which is a LOT of rice (especially considering I’ve never bought or cooked rice before in my entire life). It seems wrong to just dump it, and I think it will be good practice to cook it, eat it, and figure out some good recipes for it. Better to try and fail here, where I have 35 restaurants within a 5 minute drive, than to start my learning curve in Burkina Faso, where that is dinner regardless of how nasty it is, right?

Right.

So starting…today…ish…I’m going to be cooking a whole lot of rice dishes. If you know of any awesome but simple recipes (I doubt I have a stupendously laden spice cabinet in Africa, and meat is probably the exception rather than the rule?), let me know. I know the Thai do good things with coconut milk and peanuts, but I doubt I can get coconut milk there. Maybe I could use condensed milk instead?

But I digress.

According to the bag, 1/4 cup of rice has 160 calories in it. I estimate there are 25+ cups of rice in the bag, so that’s…(160*4)*25=…approximately 15,000 calories, or about 7-10 days’ caloric needs, in one bag. And that’s if I ate nothing but rice.

In short, I’ll be eating rice for awhile.

So start sending me your favorite recipes, and I’ll get to cooking (both on the stove and the grill, just in case I don’t have an electric cooking utensil in Africa), and I’ll let you know what work best and what doesn’t work at all. It should be fun!

I hate Jersey Shore

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28 June 2011

I hate Jersey Shore

Depending on your viewpoint, it is either my curse or my blessing in life that I tan easily. Very tan. Extremely tan. As in “look-like-I-fake-bake-and/or-spray-on-regularly-because-white-guys-aren’t-supposed-to-be-that-dark” tan. I don’t need sunscreen, I rarely burn, and I don’t get freckles, I just get really, really ridiculously tan. I think it’s the Cherokee genes from my grandfather, but I could be wrong.

Sometimes, it’s a blessing: I routinely have attractive women comment on how tan I am and ask what my secret is (although for some reason they never seem to like my answers of “nothing” or “genetics”…), and I can usually spend most or all of a hot summer day in the sun without sunscreen and without fear of frying.

Usually, however, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. I don’t like laying out (which is required if you don’t want your underarms and sides to be creepily pale while the rest of you closely resembles mahogany), I don’t like being drenched in sweat, and I *definitely* don’t want to have the wrinkles and crow’s feet the Old Man had before he died, so I usually try to avoid getting too tan in the summer. In fact, I havent really let myself get tan since about…oh, 2000, I think. But I’m about to spend two years in a tropical Sahel environment, where the sun is ubiquitous and a tan is inevitable, so this year I’ve just let nature run its course.

Unfortunately, a few things have changed since 2000, and one of those is the rise in popularity of the “guido” look. I have very blue eyes and very white teeth, so with my current tan all I would need to do is put some product in my hair and make a kissy face at a camera and BAM! – I would look *just* like a Jersey Shore wannabe. It’s extremely irritating. I hate that show, I loathe that type of person, and I don’t really like being tan, so right now I feel like I’m stuck in some stupid costume that I can’t take off. And there’s nothing I can do about it.

So thanks, MTV, for ruining yet another one of life’s small pleasures. This one goes out to you. I appreciate it. Really.

20 minutes till work, or, why I blog

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28 June 2011

20 minutes till work, or, why I blog

As I write this, I’m sitting in the parking lot outside of the cafe, waiting for 20 minutes to pass so I can go to work. A thunderstorm has just passed, and it’s about 20 degrees cooler than it was an hour and a half ago. I’m listening to Buddy Holly on my iPhone as I write.

In short, it is an utterly mundane, interchangeable moment. I could be 19, 25, or 33. I could even be me at 40 or 55 (although I certainly hope I will be doing better by then). There’s nothing special or memorable about this day – even though it has in fact been quite enjoyable – and in a week or two I doubt I can even remember it.

This is why I’m keeping this blog. Although my days in Burkina Faso will no doubt be incredibly packed with interesting experiences and sights at first, over the course of two years they must eventually become mundane. Boring, even. And if I don’t write them down, they’ll be gone.

And when I’m 60 and I would give anything to have just one of those days back again, I will deplore that loss more than anything. So I write this for me now, and for you the reader, but also for my future self (Hi, future me! I hope this archaic file format isn’t giving you too many hassles! Also, you ROCK, dude!). May he/I appreciate the effort.

Side note: a friend and I spent all morning working on French vocabulary today, including body parts and some common verbs. All afternoon, I’ve been naming various body parts en français sotto voce. MUCH to the amusement of the two teenage girls watching me from the adjoining booth. It was highly embarrassing…

Heat and food

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24 June 2011

Heat and food

For some reason, when it’s hot I eat a lot less. Maybe one meal a day, maybe less. It’s not an attempt to maintain a beach body or anything (HA! yeah, right…); I’m just…not hungry. I don’t know why it happens, but it’s an observable phenomenon. I know a couple other folks who feel the same way. Maybe it’s some sort of biological thing that someone with more degrees than I wants to describe?

Oddly, though, my desire to exercise isn’t diminished at all. Yes, I sweat until I feel sick, and yes I get very very hot, but that doesn’t really bother me. This mystifies me, because when I exercise in the winter, nothing disgusts me and puts me off the whole idea quicker than a hearty sheen of sweat.

But between the heat-induced lack of eating, the incessant mountain biking, the endless diarrhea, and my utter distaste for rice, potatoes, lentils, and beans, I should be set to lose lots of weight in Africa. Maybe whether I want to or not.

I know this doesn’t sound like a terribly profound or insightful concept, but it’s about 97 today, it’s 3pm and I haven’t eaten yet today, and the idea of food is repugnant. So you could say it’s on my mind. They can’t all be models of literary genius.

Speaking of Africa and models of literary genius, I’ve been browsing lots of PC Burkina Faso blogs lately, and here are a few of the better ones. Enjoy!

Why I will be watching what I eat

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23 June 2011

Why I will be watching what I eat (Part One in a series)

Today’s horrifying food news is brought to you by the UK, where a man is paralyzed and almost died after eating improperly cooked pork. Specifically, he got a very nasty form of meningitis, and will never fully recover – he has to learn how to walk again, and he will have to take antibiotics for the rest of his life.

And he has no one to blame but himself: he bought the meat, he cooked it, and he ignored his body’s own warning to stop and kept eating. This isn’t a case of some sloppy restaurant kitchen damn near poisoning him to death, or of some food manufacturer lettingexa a ray die in the soup; this is just plain old-fashioned stupidity.

It’s also a good example of why I will be extremely careful about what I eat while in Africa. Yes, I want to try new things. No, I don’t want to give offense by declining this or that improbable local “delicacy”. But there’s a fine line between “rude” and “intelligent”, and I fully intend to err on the side of caution. Especially since diarrhea is already the unofficial pastime of the Peace Corps as it is. I see no need to add to the problem.

Oh, and if I seem to have forgotten this very sage advice at some point in the future, and I start blogging enthusiastically about my love of bloody rare warthog chops or what have you, PLEASE remind me of this. Seriously.

Thanks.

FAIL

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22 June 2011

FAIL

Note: since my computer is still recovering from its recent soaking, today’s post is being written on an iPhone, in HTML, which is a remarkably tedious process. Please forgive any flaws in links, etc. I will correct them as soon as I have access to a computer again.

Yesterday, Foreign Policy published their annual ranking of failed states.. For those who aren’t familiar with the paradigm, a “failed state” is a nation whose governmental, social, and economic order has degraded to such a point that its citizens are perceived to lack most or all of the privileges and protections normally afforded by citizenship[1]. This can happen for any number of reasons: social (the gradual dissolution of Somalia), political (
the ongoing woes of Zimbabwe under the erratic leadership of Mugabe), environmental (the effects of the 2010 Port-au-prince earthquake on Haiti), or even a combination of many factors (Afghanistann). The term is so prone to overuse and academic obfuscation that it’s sometimes unclear just what does or does not qualify as a “failed” state[2], but in general the term implies just that: a state that has failed to fulfill its end of the implied social contract between the governed and their government.

As you can see from the Foreign Policy link, there’s a strong correlation between a country’s recent geopolitical woes and its rating on the Failure Index. No, it’s not a 1:1 comparison (for example, Japan remains rightly low on the list despite a listless economy and the devastation of the recent earthquake), but in general, the worse off a country is doing in the news, the more likely it is to rate high on the list. Especially if the bad news continues for more than a year or two.

A convenient test of this is the US coming in at 134, or about on a par with the UK. Like we would expect, it’s only surpassed by countries like Finland, Denmark and The Netherlands: smaller European states with more or less homogenous populations, long traditions of stable governments, properous economies, and plenty of social benefits.

On the other hand, Egypt (which has had a hard year to say the least) comes in at an 86, just ahead of Colombia and Lebanon, but well behind such traditionally conflicted places as Angola and the West Bank. Again, given Egypt’s recent history, general outlook, and current woes, this seems about right.

So what are we to make of Burkina Faso ‘s score of 88? Obviously, it’s not up to Western standards, but we wouldn’t expect it to be. After all, if Burkina Faso had a score comparable to that of, say, Germany, I would expect a lot more of you to have heard of it. On the other hand, that 88 isn’t too dissimilar from China, Indonesia, or Egypt, and all of those countries are perceived as rising powers. So is 88 good or not?

It’s hard to say. Objectively speaking, Burkina Faso is a very poor place. It routinely ranks near the bottom of the Human Development Index, it has very little in the way of resources, and it is bordered on two sides by nations that are currently undergoing at least some level of internal strife. On the other hand, Burkina Faso has a long tradition of stability, it has has an excellent relationship with the international community, and it is not in the habit of living beyond its means.

So while that 88 seems bad at first, it’s actually pretty good. Yes, Burkina Faso would do better if it had more, but all in all it does pretty well for what little it has. Much better comparably than Egypt or China, who have much longer traditions and vastly more resources.

Unfortunately, real life isn’t quite as clean and neat as our societal passion for Top 10 Lists would lead us to believe. While it’s true that some countries are demonstrably worse off than others and that some probably even merit the dreaded sobriquet “failed”, there’s just no incontrovertible way to determine which states are worst off and which are the most failed. It’s like trying choose whether chocolate cake, apple pie or crème brûlée is the best dessert: all have their merits, all have their drawbacks, and no single dish is clearly or even comparatively superior to the others. If you’re poor in Haiti or you’re poor in Somalia, life sucks; if you’re wealthy, well…you probably spend most of your time in the US or Western Europe.

It’s also worth noting that, as with most (all?) rankings, there are a number of commonly-introduced biases inherent to the system that make the value of such a list to be questionable at best. Foreign Policy is a respected publication that is edited and written by talented, experienced, conscientious folks, but even they aren’t free of nationalistic bias. Being primarily Western born and overwhelmingly Western educated, they tend to have a Western viewpoint: they value economic and political factors over intangibles like strength of family or closeness of the community, they place an emphasis on strictly quantifiable data, and they absolutely have to put everything in a ranking somewhere. I’m not saying they’re wrong to do so; I’m sure their methods are models of consistency and adherence to the latest science, and are far better than the alternative. I’m just saying that national ranking like this are like Wine Spectator points or critical movie reviews: regardless of how experienced the writer is, they’re still human, and this is ultimately just their opinion. You don’t drink points, you drink wine, and you don’t live in a country because of some magazine’s arbitrary rating system.

So don’t get too fussed about that 88; I’m certainly not, and I’m the one going there.

__________
[1] A failed state has several attributes. Common indicators include a state whose central government is so weak or ineffective that it has little practical control over much of its territory; non-provision of public services; widespread corruption and criminality; refugees and involuntary movement of populations; sharp economic decline.
[2]While there’s a general consensus on obvious disaster areas like Somalia and Haiti, there’s much disagreement otherwise. Some authors think Pakistan counts as a failed state despite its nuclear weapons, while others think Turkey and Iran count, despite being the dominant powers in their respective regions. In short, it’s a remarkably fluid appelation.

Summer solstice

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21 June 2011

Summer solstice


Today is the summer solstice. In theory (astronomic reality means it changes slightly from year to year), this is the longest day of the year. Because of that, ancient peoples all over the world devoted a seemingly inordinate amount of time and energy to calculating the exact date with surprising accuracy. Indeed, any number of absolutely massive ancient monuments like Stonehenge, the pyramids, and the Sumerian ziggurats were all oriented in such a way that identifying this day was made far easier. Crap TV channels like History (I hate that name) try to make this into some mysterious and mystical phenomenon, but the reason was actually very practical: once the days start getting shorter, you have a finite and entirely calculable number of days left in the growing season. If you want to harvest in a timely manner and not lose 40% of your crop to an early frost, today is the day your countdown begins. And if your society is 98% composed of farmers, that just might be a subject of interest. It’s either that, or

OMFGALIENRUNWAYSANDANCIENTRADIOS!!!1!

I’m going to buck the obvious trend here and go with option #1, but what do I know?

Sadly, this day loses more and more of its significance the closer you get to the equator, because the length of the day varies less and less. In Trondheim or Murmansk, this is the happy time, when snow and ice are reliably gone for at least a few weeks, and the sun rises at 3am and sets at 11. In Quito, Kigali, or Singapore, however, today is probably of passing interest at best, since neither the seasons nor the amount of daylight received ever really change.

Burkina Faso isn’t quite on the equator, but it’s getting down there. Their seasons are really more “the rainy season”, “a cooler month or two after the rains”, and “the hot season”, and the amount of daylight received per day doesn’t change by much more than an hour or so throughout the day. So I suspect today is of nominal importance. But I could be wrong.

On a side note, one nice perk of going to Burkina Faso in mid October is that, just as I’ll be readying for my night to begin at 6 when Daylight Savings ends, I’ll get to jump back to summertime day lengths. Sweet! Also, it will be “the cool month or two after the rains”, so I’ll get there at the optimum time to ease in gently and work my way up to full heat. Unlike the current class of trainees, who arrived at the peak of the hot season and had to go from zero to 110% in one fell swoop. Better them than me?

But I digress.

Either way, this day has always had a lot of personal importance to me, since it’s my half birthday. It’s also the day I got out of the hospital after my brain surgeries. So it’s something of a “life begins anew” kind of day for me. I celebrated last night with friends (dinner and a rare video-gaming session), and while I’m not doing anything special today, I *am* just a little more aware of the date than usual. I’m also slightly sad, because the days get shorter from here on out.

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