Monday, January 31, 2011

The beginning

Can I just say that the internet in Haiti is an interesting experience?
First, you have to catch it when the electricity is on, which is only at random times each day.
If you're lucky.
It is also very slow.
So here we go!

The trip to Haiti is convoluted and full of opportunities for error. I spent Friday on planes and in airports. My life that day seemed to run in three-hour increments. It started with an early rising, 4am, and meeting my fellow traveler, Ashlin, at PDX. The first leg, to Chicago, I was squished between an elderly couple. His wife spent some time running through the litany of dear husband's ailments and surgeries. I can't recall all of them, but there were four hip replacements, five hernias, cancer, Coumadin and Crestor and so many others that I was surprised he was still kicking. I almost forgave him for the coffee breath he wafted in my face every time he turned to look out the window.

The flight from Chicago to Long Island was delayed. When we finally boarded, I sank into the front window seat with relief. Handsome young thing in the aisle seat and I exchanged triumphant sidelong glances as the last passenger boarded without usurping our middle seat. Too soon, it turned out. A chic young lady dashed on at the last minute and asked, Is it okay if I sit there? Our sidelong glance was disappointed. CYT proceeded to fall asleep on my shoulder. When she awoke, very embarrassed, she confessed that she had imbibed a couple of beers while waiting for the flight. She then plugged in her iPod and sang out loud for the rest of the flight.
Which was kind of like sitting next to myself.
Only more annoying.

The rest of the trip to Fort Lauderdale was fairly uneventful. We found a nice Haitian porter to load up our six humongous bags and bins and caught the shuttle to our hotel. Our driver was also Haitian. Apparently, there is no lack of Haitians in Florida. We did our fair share in supporting Haiti's economy right there in FL. Tips rule! Lisa was waiting for us at the hotel. By the time we arrived it was 11pm and we had to be up again at 3am.
Good times.

After about one hour of sleep (note to Lisa: I do not snore. You heard yourself, ina dream!) and a nice hot shower, we went back to the airport with our (now) seven humongous bags and bins and various carry-ons and accoutrements. Check-in was very unique. No security on this one. Baggage overages cost around $500. MamaBabyHaiti sent lots of supplies with us, as it is the most efficient way of getting them there.

So, here we are.
Me, looking decidedly worse for wear.
And feeling it, let me tell you.
Lisa, my intrepid world traveler friend. 
Ashlin, a young thing with a big vision. 
And the mighty propeller, of which there were two. And I'm happy to report that they kept spinning all the way to Haiti! 
The airport at Cap Haitien is not a place that I would recommend arriving alone, or without people to meet you. The porters are crazily aggressive and demand their five pounds of flesh. Our people shepherded us to the waiting car and we got out of there without too much damage. Driving through the city was an adventure in itself. Roads are full of potholes, often just mud and rocks. People just hang out on the sides of the roads, watching as you drive past. Motorbikes, spewing fumes, and taptaps, the ubiquitous pickups crammed full of people, are the main sources of transportation.
I cannot say that Haiti is a joyful place. The glances that followed us were not friendly or even curious. I sense a lack of purpose, of any kind of thought for what happens beyond this moment in time. Cap Haitien itself is dirty and smelly and I can't imagine living in such a place. It is the second largest city in Haiti, but does not look very big from the air. There are no street signs and every road looks the same, differing only in the degradation of the surface.

We are in the village of Morne Rouge, which is green and tropical and has a certain beauty, if you can get past the cement and trash and the knowledge of the poverty and lack of enlightenment that hides behind every wall. The problems on this island are so immense and so ingrained into the psyche of its people that it boggles the mind. I've been reading everything I can get my hands on about Haiti. Knowing the history does lend some measure of understanding of the Haitians' plight, but it does not offer an easy solution.

I need to go to bed. Hopefully, tomorrow we will have electricity again and I can introduce you to the amazingly wonderful people who are manning this birth centre. Till then, nighty night, and say a "thank you" tonight for your clean water and your 24-hour-a-day electricity and all of the other trappings of civilization.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Things that made me happy yesterday

Vacuum-sealed apricots, milk chocolate and cinnamon chips.
I got great deals on them and figured they would hold their quality better this way.
Did I mention how much I love my vacuum sealer, even though I paid more than I could have if I'd waited another six months for the Screaming Penny deal?

Oh, and the eggs off in the northeast corner?
Fifty cents a dozen at Grocery Outlet.
The checker was very surprised when I told her that many foods were just fine after the expiration date, eggs included.

Little Jeff stayed and played with me for a while last night.
The furnace is broken. Lucky for us we have a wood stove.

My second bag is almost packed for Haiti.
It's a monster. I'm going to have to abandon my principles and rent a cart at the airport.
Unless I can find one that someone else has abandoned.
A cart, that is.
Not a principle.

Today is our 31st anniversary.
I'm going to hustle around as soon as I post this and make Jeff one of his favourite dinners.
And work on my apology list.
It's quite long.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Culinary mysteries

All things in life have a learning curve.

I can pinpoint the very day that my culinary education began. Well, maybe not the day, but the occasion and the year. It was 1967 and our family had moved to New Zealand a few months earlier. I was eleven years old and I think I had nursed a hankering to cook for some time, but my only experience prior to this had been making butterfly cakes for a Brownie badge. Butterfly cakes are a staple at any English child's party and I loved to eat them. If I recall correctly, I mostly watched while Mum made them. I don't think she really knew how to teach her skills to someone else. I always felt a bit guilty about that badge.

I digress.

For some reason, Mum relented and let me make dinner.
Actually, it was probably Dad's idea. I can hear him now: Else, just let her try!
Mashed potatoes, good New Zealand sausage, peas, and gravy was on the menu.
My favourite foods.
I remember well the feeling of satisfaction when dinner was finally cooked and ready to serve. To coordinate the preparation of all of the dishes so that they were ready to eat at the same time seemed a task of monumental proportions.
Do you recall that feeling?
Do you still ever get that feeling?

Over the years, there have been a few mysteries in my kitchen.
The first one was beans.
My only exposure to beans for the first twenty five years of my life was what we English call baked beans. Pork and beans to you Americans.
Beans on toast.
I ate it for lunch almost every day during high school.
Some innovative Kiwis, back when pizza parlours were new to the country in the 70's, put them on pizza.
I thought it was delicious.
Canned spaghetti was another favourite topping.

Fast forward to the second year of our marriage.
I received a Betty Crocker Cookbook  as a wedding present and I used it frequently. I discovered that a) Jeff loved refried beans and b) you could make your own.
In my defense, it was before the word  Rosarita entered my vocabulary.
In our early days of extreme poverty, my darling husband would eat a plateful of my homemade refried beans and call it delicious.
Then, my best friend gave me some white beans. I boiled and boiled and boiled them and they would not soften. I mashed them anyway and Jeff ate crunchy refries for a while.
Never complaining.
I discovered later that old beans just never do soften, no matter how long you cook them.
They make good filler for bean bags, but seriously, how many bean bags can one person use?
Lesson #1.
Don't accept gifts of old beans, no matter how good a friend offers them or how broke you are.

The second problem with beans happened to me a couple of times before I figured out it out. For some reason, the beans again would not soften. This time, though, it was because I had added tomatoes while cooking them. The acid had caused the seed coating to toughen and the beans never got tender.
Lesson #2.
Never add salt, acid, or molasses (calcium) to beans before they are fully cooked.

My latest little quandary occurred last night. I started some potatoes cooking before I started piano lessons in the afternoon so that Jeff wouldn't have to wait very long for his dinner. I brought them to the boil and then covered the pot and turned off the element, thinking that by the time I was ready to finish the corn chowder the potatoes would be mostly cooked. To my dismay, when I came back to finish the soup I could not get those little diced potatoes to soften. We finally ate the soup with slightly crunchy potatoes. I dimly recalled having the same problem at least once before, so I decided to do a little research.
Google to the rescue!
"Potatoes won't cook" yielded the answer.
Slight heat pulls the starch from the potato and sets it on the surface of the vegetable, preventing any further cooking. One way to get around this is using red potatoes, which have less starch than other varieties.
Lesson #3.
Don't parboil potatoes.

Now, if you want to read a rippingly good culinary mystery, try Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy the Caterer series. Nice clean stories with delightful characters, lots of murder and mayhem, and terrific recipes to boot.

And if you want more information on cooking beans, because there is more to it than meets the eye, go here.

You can thank me later.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pink becomes her

This was taken by a fourteen-year-old young lady of our acquaintance.
She has an unusual eye for perspective and editing.
To say the least.
Her photos are art more than portrait.

I wonder what she will be doing in five or ten years?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Packing it in

So here's the thing.
I'm flying on Southwest to Florida.
Lovely Southwest, which still allows two 50lb bags for free.
But IBC, the Haitian airline, only allows one bag up to 60lbs and one carry-on bag of 10lbs.
Extra baggage charges are outrageous.
If you can think of an easy solution to this little dilemma, let me know.

My first plan was to use the ancient Samsonite bag that Jeff found in the shed.
It was very heavy, so I ripped out the insides and packed it tight.

I have some angst over this suitcase. It traveled with me to the US over 30 years ago. Some Kiwi friends let  me use it on the condition that I sent it on to the real owners, who also lived in the US. During those early years of marriage it always seemed to be a little beyond my ability to ship it. After a few years it was just embarrassing. So there it sat, year after year, my secret shame.

Believe it or not, this did close, but I was afraid for the big bottles of precious meleleuca. And it only weighed 42lbs. No way was I going to miss out on 8lbs of cargo space!

So out-out-out it all came.

Next attempt, a big duffel bag donated by Brenda.
Thank you Brenda.
[That's the other thing.
These bags will not return from Haiti, even though we, hopefully, will.
Delta, our returning airline, makes you pay for bags.
Boo Delta!]
It has no wheels, but that is a good thing.
Wheels are heavy.

So, first, the vacuum packed blankets.

And all the plastic bottles, well padded.

Cans of formula for the orphans.
Layers of bubble-wrap, just in case.

Lots more donated supplies, covered tidily by cloth diapers.

Packing soft things into the side pockets.

Time to weigh in. 
My toes are reluctant to step on the scales.
I normally don't insist, but it was time to be strong and ignore the phobia.
Hooray! Less than 50lbs, so here we go again.
Did you think I'd let you see the scales with me on them?
Ha! Think again!

Stuffin' it in, baby, oh yeah!
And finally, the piece de resistance, a plea to the TSA inspectors.

I don't suppose it will do any good, but, the good Lord willing, I will still be trying to change the world on my deathbed.

Finally, fifty pounds on the nose and room to add personal belongings from our carry-ons before the last flight.

This bag has been delivered to Lisa, who leaves for Florida on Friday. We will meet up in a week.

Now I need to find another bag and start all over again.
Yay for me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Aussie answer to rice krispie treats

I recently invested in a five gallon bucket of high-quality, non-hydrogenated, expeller-pressed coconut oil from Tropical Traditions. It is non-organic, although the well-reputed manufacturer claims that organic farming practices were used in its production. 
Knowing of my habitual frugality, my friends would be astounded at the price I paid. 

Coconut oil has gotten a bad rap over the years. During the Second World War, the Philippines was occupied by Japanese forces and America lost its supply of tropical oils. Companies rushed to develop alternate sources of cooking oil and that's when Crisco came into being. Hooray for Crisco! Yes folks, that's when we got those lovely trans-fats that were supposed to be so good for us. Since then, mostly due to  the marketing tactics of those same companies,  "tropical oils" has become synonymous with "bad for you". 

There are a lot of claims made concerning the healthful benefits of coconut oil. The molecular makeup of the saturated fat causes it to interact differently with our cells than other saturated fats and, although some scientists disagree, does not appear to contribute to heart disease. Something to do with long-chain fatty acids, about which I had a very long discussion with Jon tonight and, trust me, you do not want to get into it. It contains nine different fatty acids, including lauric acid, many of which have beneficial properties. This article was presented at a lauric oils symposium in 1996 by Dr. Mary Enig, who has since headed up a number of studies on the adverse effects of trans-fatty acids. She calls coconut oil an important functional food and her findings seem to be plausible, although we shall see after Jon the Scientist has reviewed it.

So, while all of those things attract me to coconut oil, I use it because it is very heat stable and is excellent for frying and cooking, producing minimal harmful byproducts. At room temperature it is a solid and is slow to oxidize, thus excellent for storage. 

Have I bored you yet?
Sometimes I get in a little over my head!

What got me going on all of this is that I discovered a new gluten-and-dairy-free recipe.
Chocolate Crackles.
Coconut oil serves very well in some recipes as a substitute for butter. This favourite recipe of Australians actually calls for coconut oil, although I suspect of the hydrogenated variety, which is probably pretty unhealthy.

So....(breathe Susan) it is.

Chocolate Crackles
4c crispy rice cereal
2/3c cocoa powder
1c powdered sugar
1c coconut (optional)
2/3c coconut oil.

Mix dry ingredients. Warm oil in the microwave just till melted and stir into the dry ingredients. Press the mixture into greased muffin pans or paper cups. Refrigerate till ready to eat.

The original recipe calls for 1 1/4c of coconut oil, but I think being hydrogenated makes a difference, because the amount I used was plenty.

Chocolate twice in a row.
I must broaden my horizons.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Twenty-nine candles and a recipe

A few days ago, I found a couple of packages of pencil-shaped cake candles for 50% off at Safeway.
I thought to myself, Self, you have been re-using the same dilapidated candles for about ten years now. Don't you think it's about time you treated yourself to some new ones?
So I did.

Serendipitously, we had Jon's birthday dinner on Sunday. 
Shepherd's pie for dinner and his favourite chocolate-cherry cake with whipped cream filling and chocolate buttercream frosting for dessert.
You're salivating aren't you?
Admit it.

I hefted the cake out of the fridge and retrieved the new candles from the drawer.
Annie said, What, you got new candles? in a "what's the world coming to?" kind of a voice.
Then my girls swapped stories about how they save their candles to use again and how all their friends think it's weird.
I was so proud.

And then Jon blew out all of the candles in one breath without spitting on the cake.
I think.
And I was proud all over again.

You want the cake recipe, don't you?
Yes, yes, please say you do!
It's the easiest cake in the world to make and everyone loves it. 
Except for the grandkids, who pick the cherries out. 

Easy Chocolate Cherry Cake
I box of dark chocolate cake mix
1 can of cherry pie filling
3 eggs
Mix all together. Bake in two 9"round pans or a 9x13" pan at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

That's it. People will think you're so clever. 
My favourite filling is whipped cream. 
Ganache is great for the frosting, but the buttercream is also divine.

Come to think of it, it's also delectable if you eat it straight out of the pan.
Right, Sam?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A diversion or two

Diversion #1:
Things have been a little heavy around here lately and our baby will be leaving in a couple of days. 
That's all the excuse I need to show you some more baby Elsie pictures.
So here you go.

She's never so happy as when she's naked.
It has been my job to collect her, all slippery and rosy and contented, from the shower every morning.
Which goes just fine until I attempt the first item of clothing, then all hell breaks loose.
She may look angelic, but the babe is a tyrant.

An adorable tyrant...

...who is just about ready to sit unassisted...

...and loves to look at books with her cousin.

Diversion #2:
Do you see the new button on my sidebar? Hip2Save? If you click on it, you will go to freebie heaven. They post so many freebies and good deals every day that I have trouble keeping up with them. You will find free samples, guides to deals at chain stores, giveaways, smashingly good buys on all kinds of online purchases, and links to good coupons. 
For example, yesterday, I signed up for a year of Bon Appetit magazine for Sam for only $3.99. And today, Annie went to Office Depot whilst on her travels and got me 5,000 sheets of printer paper that will end up costing only $5.97.

The other site I am recommending lately is the Screaming Penny. You can sign up for daily emails and find all the best online deals right at your fingertips. It's a great way to find gifts and household items. This week, I bought two pairs of Crocs for $6.97 each with free shipping. I also ordered three dress shirts (regularly around $50 each) for Jeff from Macy's for $10 each.

Perusing these sites takes a little effort, but is worth it if you can be discerning about your purchases.
I may never set foot in a mall again.

That's about all the energy I can muster for this soggy Saturday.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Why am I still awake?

I am going to hate myself tomorrow.
I took a late nap this afternoon.
No, wait, it was yesterday.
I woke up and thought it was morning and wondered what day it was.
I hate that feeling.

Then I ate some Harry and David's Chocolate Gingerbread Moose Munch right before bed.
Which wasn't as good as the White Chocolate Cranberry, if you must know.
The more menopausal I become, the more ingesting sugar in its purer forms before bed does not agree with my need for sleep.

So I got up.
And here I am.
Thinking about walking the hills in the morning and hoping that Barb is similarly insomniac tonight.
I am a Bad Friend.

But today, my Mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.
And she is, as of today, residing in a lovely care home in a rural part of the Waikato.
The great, blessed part of this story is that my long-suffering sister was inspired to have Mum spend a week in that very same care home just two weeks ago. She and her husband were busy moving their belongings to their home at the beach, to which they will retire in a few weeks. Mum's reaction was mixed, depending on who was listening and the time of day, but the last few days she had been talking about wanting to move in there.
As opposed to If I go into a home I will die, which had been her former mantra.

So today, she was visited by a doctor and as my sister observed her answers to his questions, it was apparent that Mum has no concept of the passage of time or orientation to reality. And Mum was very pleased when the doctor told her he thought she should go to the home today and not come home again.
She left her house without a backward glance and didn't even take her purse.
This is my mother who never left her home without checking every electrical switch, double-checking the locks, and then circling the outside of the house to look for open windows.

As Anne said, she and her husband were more sad than Mum.
We have been dreading this day for years. Mum has been getting more aggressive and uncooperative in the months since she has been home. Every conversation I have had with her has left me feeling like a bad daughter and frustrated with her peculiarities. My poor sister has dealt with the brunt of everything.
But today, Mum was back to her sweet self.
We had a loving conversation, mother to daughter.
It was good.

When Anne and John took Mum to the home, she was hugged by a caregiver and then she went to have a snack with her old friends. After talking to the director for some time, A and J went to say goodbye to Mum (Mum is all about the goodbye, hugs and kisses etc.) but when Anne tapped her on the shoulder Mum said Oh, are you still here?

We don't know what changed for Mum this week, but I believe it was divine providence. Maybe my Dad (who was a saint and loved Mum perfectly) has some pull in the afterlife.
I like to think so.

Then why am I crying?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Haiti, here I come

Ever since Columbus set foot on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, the land has been witness to a constant barrage of atrocities. The Spaniards were the first to exploit the wealth of the land, mining for gold. The infectious diseases they brought with them (along with ill-treatment, malnutrition, and societal disruption) caused almost total annihilation of the native Taino people and black slaves were brought in for labour.

The western half of the island (now Haiti) became a haven for pirates and was settled by French buccaneers. Hostilities between the French and Spanish were eventually reconciled in 1697, the French taking the western third of the island and the Spanish taking the rest. Saint-Domingue, as it was then called, was very prosperous under French rule, producing sugar, coffee, and indigo. It was also known as one of the most brutally efficient slave colonies.

A hundred years later, inspired by the French Revolution (and with dreadful irony) the slaves revolted and Haiti's history became even messier. Despot after despot ruled the country, corruption became a way of life, and human life became the cheapest currency. The fertile land became despoiled of its richness as the poor masses cut down the forests for fuel, causing desertification of 98% of its original forest cover.

Other nations, such as the USA and France, have dabbled in the political arena to no apparent good. For two hundred years, the land of Haiti has known no relief from coups, oppression, corruption, and natural disaster. Last year was the worst year in a long run of very bad years.

In spite of Jeff's covertly (and not-so-covertly) dour looks;
in spite of my Bishop's cheerful warnings about the dangers in Haiti and the Dominican Republic;
in spite of dear Lori's frantic pleas every time the subject is raised (Don't do it Sue, don't do it, it's dangerous over there, you'll be killed!);
in spite of Jon's strict admonition You should not go to Haiti...

...I am going.

Plans are coming together. All my plane tickets are purchased, although I'm a tad concerned about that 30 minute plane change at Chicago Midway. A young lady who also lives in Oregon is going to be traveling with us. I suggest taking a gander at her website; she is quite the girl. I wish I had been as focused about my purpose in life when I was eighteen. Makes me feel a bit late to the party.

Friends at church have been donating supplies for me to take to the birth clinic. I plan to take a suitcase full of supplies and a carry-on for my clothes and shoes. My new push is for powdered formula for the malnourished babies at the orphanage nearby. They are fed on beans and rice twice a day. It makes my heart hurt to compare them to all of our babies who are so full of mother's milk and good food and will probably never go hungry a day in their lives.

If you are interested in the birth clinic and their vision, go here to see their website. I just reread Desiree's blog post that she wrote as she was leaving Haiti last March and it made me cry.

I fully expect this experience to be life-changing.
I hope it is in a good way.
I hope that I will want to go back and stay longer.
I hope that when I return my preoccupation is not unbearable to my friends and family.
I hope that someone will be lifted because of my efforts.
I hope that some day mothers in Haiti will not have to live in constant fear for their children's lives.

And I hope that you, my friends, will follow my exploits and pray for me, my friends, and the people of Haiti.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sleepy Saturday

You know it's a grey day when your camera flash goes off outside.

My friend, Barb, and I walked on slightly icy streets this morning.
It made for an exciting hour.

The most excitement I've had so far today.
Although, I hold out high hopes for the evening.
We have had a rare dinner invitation. 

I went out to get the mail and look for some colour.

Hello, Mr. Pukeko.
I love you all year long.
Hello Harvey.
Nice to see you're still on the job....
...keeping that eagle eye out for any interlopers.
Little Tibetan prayer rock, or some such mumbo-jumbo.
The concept is a bit new-agey for me, but it's a bright spot.
Grey, grey, grey.
But I love my little bench.

This huechera is a sweet spot of brilliance in every season.

Hello Mr. Gnome, hangin' out with the huechera.

Ah, there it is.
My super-duper mailbox, foiling the mailbox thieves.

The perennial bed at the street.
I will post pics of this next summer and you will be amazed.

Back home again, past the brave wee flag, yet proclaiming freedom to all who pass.
And yes, the sky did get bluer as time went by.
More blue?

And the shiny blue bird bath, which still has a modicum of surface ice if you look very carefully.

Now, I think I will have a little nap.
All this excitement plumb wore me out.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Just because

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I think that one of the most insidious concepts being pushed upon us, by the world at large, is that our value as a human being is defined by our physical beauty. Thus, we spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about and attending to the shape of our body, the symmetry of our face, the colour of our hair, the shine on our nails, and on and on it goes.

My greatest heroes, the real, live, breathing ones, are mostly beautiful of soul and very imperfect (by the world's standards) in their appearance. And while I often bemoan my wrinkles, my extra pounds, and my aching body, I cannot let that be the focus of my life, because there are so many other things that are important to me. 

That little rant being over, I cannot help myself with this baby. 
She is physical perfection.
I shall have to spend a disproportionate amount of time, as this baby girl matures, reminding her that "it's better to be nice than pretty".

So, bear with me, the doting Nana, while I share the joy.
I think her personality, which is very sweet, shines through.

Too much?