Living, Learning & Loving La Vida Nueva

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas in Lesotho

Christmas changes as you get older; it's a well known fact.  And it really changes if you up and move around the world to a remote foreign country.  But, it also provides opportunity for new traditions, new reflection, and new joy.

It's not such a big deal here, the Christmas season.  One might see the occasional Christmas tree sparsely decorated with a string of lights and a little tinsel in a large shopping mall.  Finding lights hanging from roof tops, Christmas trees shimmering in the window of a dimly lit home, clerks dressed as elves, apple cider or peppermint Kisses would be an impossible task in this country.  For one thing, the vast majority of people who even have electricity don't have enough money to waste on decorative lights.  Homes aren't large enough to make room for a Christmas tree and stores are hardly focused on the upcoming holiday.  It is a holiday, of course. Things are closed, workers get the day off, people are visiting family and such; but, the big to-do isn't here.  If you are fortunate, your family might slaughter an animal and you'll have the rare treat of meat for dinner.  That's about the extent of the celebration.

Being the American I am, I can't bring myself to let go of the traditions I was raised with.  But, being the foreigner I am, I can't help but reflect on what Christmas is to me.  I love warm cider and a beautifully lit home on an old country road, but do I love it more than Christmas--the true meaning of Christmas?  Christmas is so much more than presents and lights, and it's much easier to see from around the world.

Growing up in a large family, we never did big Christmas.  We had our traditions, our gifts to and from family, our modest collection of special toys on Christmas morning from our parents.  And I like it that way.  I like doing the things that are special, the gift choosing, wrapping and giving.  But, I really like how simplicity helped remind me even as a child that Christmas isn't about the stuff that was coming, but rather the One who came.  We are able carry on many of the same traditions, small and special Christmas traditions with our children now, even here in the Mountain Kingdom.

I put out our few Christmas decorations on December 1st.  Kyle was pretty sure the stockings were meant to go on his feet.  I tried to explain that they'd be used on the 25th for gifts, but two year olds have very little concept of time.  

Not a posed photo
Before we moved last year, I started this project of making an advent calendar.  One of my favorite Christmas memories as a kid was moving the tiny bear from place to place on our advent calendar in anticipation of the 25th, where he finally found the tree in the living room, towering over a pile of presents.  So, I started stitching these little pockets to make a calendar for my kids.  I got all the pockets finished before I became deathly ill during my pregnancy with Ellee and that little project went on the back burner for months.  It never got finished amidst the chaos of our move (and my lingering sickness) in January.  My mom finished it for me and sent it in a package from home and I cried when I saw it; I didn't know she had finished it.  Kyle has enjoyed hopping the gingerbread man from day to day, saying "we're almost to Chris-miss."  Occasionally he'd jump a whole week, and say, "we're almost there!" before I tried to explain that you can't just time travel like that.  I don't think he got it.  Our other decorations are stockings and a small quilt hanging, also from my mom, and a pair of Christmas light salt and pepper shakers.  I hung the stockings by the door, as that was the only place I could find nails already sticking out.  Hanging things is a real pain here with the concrete walls because it requires a drill and there's not easy patch work...I digress.

Maseru Christmas decorations
I brought our advent calendar and stockings with us to Maseru.  We are here for the week celebrating Christmas with our new friends from Holland, our Unit Leaders from South Africa, and another family from America.  Our friends had decorated the little apartment we stay in behind their house with a few Christmas things to add to the Christmas spirit (and they think we're a tad bit odd, as Dutchies aren't so into Christmas like Americans. Still, they're humoring us......).  We also received via a package from home a Little People Nativity set which is great fun for both kids.

At least there is a decent stocking hanging spot in our holiday house.... :)
When we moved last year, we gave away nearly all of Kyle's toys.  That was really tough on all of us.  Little by little over the past year we've re accumulated things that are now very special to him.  He doesn't need anything, truly, and has so many more things than any of the kids we live amongst.  So, we bought him some pre-school-ish toys, Play-doh and Legos for instance, that I hope will occupy him for hours.  We also got him a new movie, snuggle socks, and a small bag of caramel popcorn for his stocking and a set of Curious George books for lazy days on the couch.  This is his third Christmas and each year just gets more exciting.  He is so thrilled by the smallest things and I love seeing the joy on his face.  He also loves watching Ellee open her new toys, and was very excited about giving her the princess Little People we bought for her.

The spread
Ellee girl has been in desperate need of some girl toys for the past couple of months.  I've been holding off until Christmas knowing we already had a few things for her.  I ordered her a stuffed lamb and a set of Little People and she also received a teddy bear, an outfit, and a few other shiny, fun toys from our Christmas shipment from home.  She had a "milk teeth" toothbrush and toothpaste in her stocking.  Alas, as she is still toothless, those will have to wait a while yet.

A very big thank you to our extremely generous "Uncle" who shipped us our Christmas presents all the way from the US.  Having a few things to unwrap and be surprised by was such a blessing to these parents' hearts.  It was very special to tell them that Lollee and Pops, Grammy and PaPa and Uncle Ric and Aunt Rachel sent them Christmas presents all the way from America.  I also got a box of 144 s'mores Poptarts, which is just about the best Christmas present I ever received.  

Today we made a fairly traditional Christmas dinner complete with turkey, ham, Stove Top stuffing (also an American import, very tasty), potatoes and gravy, cinnamon roasted winter vegetables and pumpkin & pecan pies and tiramisu for dessert.  Boukje and I spent the whole day in the kitchen and I didn't even think to photograph our spread.  I dare say it was just near perfect.  We had a full table, lots of kids running around, and two toothless babies in our midst.  It was hot and sticky with humidity, not very unlike Christmas in South Carolina oftentimes.  We had a great time and tried not to eat too much......... Well, at least I did; I can't speak for anyone else.

Certainly we miss home during this time, I miss the shops decorated for Christmas, the foods you can only get this time of year, the joy and generosity that comes with the season.  But, it is good to be here, to celebrate with others, to grow closer as a family and to remember that it isn't about gifts or tinsel... It is about Jesus and He is why we live here, He is why we live at all.  We are blessed beyond measure and my heart overflows with gratefulness for my Savior, my family, our supporters and our friends.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Food, glorious food!"

Have you ever been driving through the country in what seems like the middle of no where, looking at houses and find yourself wondering, "where do these people go to the grocery?" Well, if you were to drive through Lesotho and pass by Mokhotlong, you'd wonder that.  You'd wonder, "where on earth is the grocery store in this town?"  Well, the answer is, there isn't one.  There isn't one like you'd be looking for or even close.  Likely, those people in the country have a grocery within a half hour drive of their home, you just don't know in which direction.  Not here.  But, I'm okay with that.

The road from our house to the Basotho shop
We learned when we first came to Mokhotlong for a visit that there aren't any grocery stores here.  In fact, the nearest grocery store anything like I'm familiar with back home is about four hours away.  So, for all practical purposes, I have to have a plan when we are nearby a grocery.  I'm also trying to learn what I can buy here in Mok, because I want to support the local businesses as much as possible.  I figured I'd spell out what a normal shopping strategy looks like for me. 
Most people bring donkeys to transport their groceries, or they carry them home on their heads.  We bring Rocky because we've yet to master either of the other two forms of transportation.

First, I make a meal plan for however many days we have until the next trip to a grocery.  So, this past time, we were planning to stay put in Mokhotlong from Nov 25 - the week of Christmas.  That's a lot of dinners to plan for ahead of time.  So, I start with some favorites, trying to rotate some chicken, beef, and a little pork.  Then I try to throw in a few new things or things I haven't made in a long time.  I incorporate leftover nights and a few easy nights where Kyle and I might eat toast and grits (imported from home) and Jonathan can make some fake Ramen noodles (bleh).  I try to cook enough at dinner to feed Jono leftovers just about every afternoon for lunch.  Kyle sometimes eats leftovers or he eats what I eat - a salad, a pasta salad or a toasted sandwich and fruit. Breakfasts are almost identical every day; I eat cereal and fruit, Kyle eats oatmeal and Jonathan eats some combination of bread, meat, eggs and cheese.

Once I've got my meal plan for the month together, I get my cookbooks and start my grocery list.  I think everyone does this, am I wrong?  Then I  see what I'm missing in the cabinets and start to compile my master plan.  My lists are organized into columns because if they weren't, I'd never get everything....Produce, dairy, meat, non perishables, etc etc.  I am constantly thankful for my enormous fridge.  It isn't a matter of how much space I've got there, it's more a problem of how much space is left in Rocky after we've stuffed him full of everything else we need from the city.

The things we can get here are of course very limited.  But, we've found what we think is the best place to shop, a Basotho store that keeps a number of necessities in stock.  The first time we ventured out on our own in Mokhotlong for groceries, I couldn't even come up with a loaf of bread.  You can imagine my frustration in that moment.  But, we were directed to this store and I like it.  It is something like a fully stocked quick stop shop at a gas station back home.

Sorry it's blurry, I was trying to be discreet.  On this aisle you can see seasoning mixes, sardines, porridge mixes,  and oil.
Inside you can find a variety of canned goods, bread flour and sugar, a few baking goods like soda and powder, salt, oil and even cocoa (do you see I have all the ingredients to make brownies?).  They keep a decent amount of fresh produce including potatoes, tomatoes, green peppers, onions, bananas, apples, pears, sometimes peaches, sweet potatoes and butternut.  We buy our eggs there and loaf bread when available.  There are nappies (diapers) for the baby if necessary but I'm still doing cloth when possible.  They've got basic hygiene items like toothpaste and shampoo although admittedly, I haven't purchased shampoo up here because I anticipate it's formulated for a different hair type than mine... ;) 

It was a low day for produce.  I had to go to three different shops looking for bananas and peaches and ended up buying the latter from the back of a woman's open van.
They do carry meat but we've been strongly advised to purchase our meat in South Africa and bring it up ourselves.... so I stock up when we're at the grocery stores.  We can't buy cheese or butter up here, and I've found this has created a problem.  I'm afraid I've developed a sort of anxiety where I buy entirely too much cheese and butter in the grocery because I'm fearful of running out.  The cheese here isn't great at keeping for very long so we have to freeze it.  But, if you freeze cheese in block form (the only way it comes in our groceries), it is terribly crumbly when it thaws.  So, my helpful husband has the delightful task of grating all our cheese before we freeze it.  He doesn't so much mind my cheese anxiety purchases, because he loves cheese more than I do and he, too, would prefer that we don't run out.  Butter freezes well, thankfully.  

Jonathan's weary cheese grating hands.
We are buying fresh milk from a lady in town and pasteurizing it ourselves at home.  We get milk twice weekly and immediately put it on the stove to boil.  It's 10X better than the "long-life" milk that comes in a box on the shelf which is our only other option up here.  Typically, Jonathan and Kyle go out to get the milk and they often bring back some makoenya for us.  They are fried fat cakes that cost about 10 cents each.  A lady sits outside a shop in town with a big bucket of them and Jonathan buys a bag full from her.  We like milk days.

Makoenya ready to be devoured
There are a few draw backs to the grocery situation.  Likely my least favorite part is having to grocery shop the morning of a long trip home.  Last week we knew we had about a 9 hour trip to make that day, and I was at the grocery filling two carts with groceries at 7:30 AM.  We stuff three coolers full and hide non-perishables anywhere we can find space in the vehicle.  Another issue is trying to get things home without a mess.... like my bag of cake flour that got busted in the back of Rocky on the 2 hour super bumpy part of the road home.  Strawberries don't always fare well making the mountain climb, and I'm going to plant my own strawberry plants pronto.  Then, trying to plan the menu so that the short-life produce is used early on and the longer-life produce is planned for later in the month is a feat.  And hoping that the fresh stuff lasts as long as I think it will sometimes makes me a little nervous.  I'm starting to plant some things that I'd like to have at all times; so far I've got basil, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower and baby lettuce in the ground.  Next up are strawberries, zucchini, and chili peppers.  

My cherry tomato and basil plants
Of course, the best part is that I know every single day what is for dinner that night... and the night after... and three weeks from now.  It makes the day go really smoothly, I set meat out to thaw and start supper around 4:30pm.  That's certainly a perk of planning ahead. 

Before we moved here, I really had no idea what to anticipate as far as food options went.  Honestly, it is way better than I could've ever dreamed in the big stores.  We find a lot of familiar things like barbecue and alfredo sauces, sour cream, cottage and cream cheese, Lay's chips, Kelloggs cereal, even Oreos.  A lot of familiar brands are manufactured in South Africa so they don't come with import costs.  Some of the things we want but can't find, we have sent via generous family members.  Seasonings are sometimes hard to come by but I've found a number in the nicer groceries in South Africa.  I make all our doughs from scratch because there aren't pre-pacakged things like crescent rolls, biscuits, pizza dough, and the tortillas are unbelievably expensive when available.   In general, though, we are able to eat what is familiar to us and that makes life seem a lot less foreign.

Tonight we ate homemade pizza complete with pepperonis (imported via loved ones) and italian sausage I bought here, and a BBQ chicken pizza reminiscent of what we'd eat back home.  I also made a dessert pizza with peanut butter and Reese's pieces (also imported via loved ones).  Jonathan decided this evening that pizza is the second best meal we eat here.... next only to his beloved blackened chicken pasta.

So, there you have it, a glimpse at practical life in Mokhotlong.  Care to join us? :)