Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Truth, Friends and Strange Food

There is a great children's book about travel entitled, "Parcel Perkins Notebook Presents: The Search for the Giant Stone Monkeyhead" by Dan Graves. Dan grew up in the Midwest like us but must have spent time in Ecuador because that is where the book is set. The heroine is a young girl who sees a giant stone monkey head (which hasn't been seen by her village for a long time.) It disappears so she decides to go on a quest searching for the meaning of the visit by the giant stone monkey head. Her grandmother tells her that, "the legend is that the gods gave it to our ancient ancestors to show them truth." Parcel's father says, "legend has it that our ancestors made it welcome new friends and scare away enemies." Her older brother and sister tell her that, "The legend is that space aliens left it there to protect us from caiman (crocodiles) and to teach people how to cook strange food."

I have decided meaningful travel, like a quest, is about all three - finding truth, making friends and trying strange foods. We find out about ourselves and others as we encounter new cultures, new ways of doing things. We make friends along the way or remain a tourist, a sight seer staying within his or her own comfort zone. And we try strange food - because we have to - hopefully.


After our stay in the house, after being introduced to Fijian cooking and local tropical foods, we came back to the boat and began looking around at the markets to see what we could find. Sisi ate off the land around her house, she purchased very little. There aren't seasons here the way they are in the midwest. Tropical fruits and veges grow year round. Things on trees like mangos and breadfruit have a season, but papaya seem to grow continuously. Pineapples become ripe in November and last through Christmas. Sisi had a simple garden plot where she would put in a couple egg plants, a pumpkin patch (winter squash, not pumpkin), a patch of taro for leaves and another patch for the taro roots. There were banana trees in her dad's yard. She had a coffee bean bush. And coconuts dropped everywhere. She made coconut cream daily which she used in everything. She even made her own cooking oil (coconut oil). She or a close neighbor grew everything she ate except garlic and onions. She thought spending $2.50 was a lot. She didn't have a chicken so she didn't cook with eggs much. The staple protein in her diet is tuna or mackerel - which is inexpensive since it is fished and canned in Fiji.

Then we met Tanya and Oran from Israel (S/V Renatta - also a Tayana 37). They didn't have a working frig either. They canned all their meals themselves in used jars (not canning jars). They purchased items just for the jar for canning. When they were hungry they opened a jar and poured it over rice or worked a meal around fresh produce. They said if I canned my own meals it would change my life. They told me how to keep cheese un-refrigerated, they showed me the drying rack they made for drying fruit, they used ghee instead of butter. They made their own jam. They dried bread instead of buying crackers. They ate tons of fresh produce. They had so many great ideas. They are truly an inspiration. So I made the decision that until we could really afford to modernize our frig (so that it ran on a lot less power, was completely re-insulated and had a drain installed), I would use it as dry storage. Now that huge space in my kitchen would be used again, rather than having a large space that simply grew mold. I cleaned it out and filled it with large canisters of flour, pancake mix, dry milk, oatmeal, rice, sugar, coffee beans and bulk herbs and spices.

Then I met Eshwini, an Indo-Fijian. Eshwini makes traditional Indian food (we became very good friends - more on her later). All the grocery stores are owned by Indo-Fijians thus they stock traditional Indian foods. Eshwini went shopping with me at her favorite store. They were well stocked in spices, ghee, tinned meat as well as everything else for sale in Savusavu. Eshwini showed me her favorite brand for Haldi powder (tumeric - used in dahl), Masala (graham masala - used in curries), Gheera (whole cumin seeds - used in dahl), ground coriander (used with masala in curries, especially with meat). She picked out a ghee and gave me a recipe for halva - an Indian pudding made from fine couscous, ghee, cardimon, sultanas, milk, and sugar. She introduced me to many delicious new foods like Sisi had. Tanya introduced me to many new methods of food storage that worked well on a boat.

After that, for a week or so, I simply felt overwhelmed for a while. I couldn't cook anything. I baked a lot of bread. We ate a lot of sandwiches.

On the boat we had eaten through most of the provisions I bought in New Zealand. Fiji is supposed to be one of the best places in the South Pacific to provision. It is much cheaper than either Australia or New Zealand and has more well stocked stores than Tonga, the Solomon's, Vanuatu, or many other South Pacific islands. We had decided to travel north for our next hurricane season rather than south to Australia or trying to get all the way (8,000 blue water miles) to South Africa. So we needed to stock up here. So I pulled out the lists of meals I had compiled in Mexico. Then I made an inventory of what I found in the stores. There is one large produce market and about 6 grocery stores in Savusavu, 3 of which are larger, well stocked. I spent two days going through every item I thought we might purchase at each of the six stores. I made thorough lists.

As I looked through my previous lists of meals and thought about what I had found in the stores I just hit a wall. Of the 25 dinner meal ideas we had on our list from Mexico we could make about 3 for a reasonable price here in Fiji. As we travel farther from the U.S. and the 'western world' fewer and fewer foods that we are used to are available. And the things we used to call staples (olive oil, tomato paste, pasta, mayonnaise, peanut butter, dry beans or canned beans, fresh meat, cheese, yogurt) have become so expensive that we must ration them or not buy them at all. In New Zealand we could get most everything we were used to eating, but in Tonga and Fiji all those things are imported and the locals don't eat them. I didn't get enough molasses before we left New Zealand and even though there are sugar cane plantations here which produce molasses as a by product - it all gets sold for use in making rum and none is available here to purchase. The locals don't eat it. 

Another issue is that we no longer use our refrigerator or freezer. We have been living without a refer since New Zealand, but in NZ we could leave things in the cockpit and it was cold enough at night to chill them. In Fiji's warm tropical climate, we couldn't stock fresh meat or fresh produce or fresh dairy. If we bought meat, yogurt or cheese we ate it that night. If we bought produce we had to eat it with in a couple days (some things lasted longer - but precious few.) We had to shop very often just to make regular meals. And what would those meals be?

I knew that local foods were very cheape. I had to learn to cook with tropical foods - Fijian and Indian. I needed more than 3 meals up my sleeve. I needed to decide what to provision. We were going to winter in the northern Solomons and Papua New Guinea staying mostly remote. It had to be on board or we wouldn't get it.

It took a number of experiments and consults with my local expert friends before I mastered anything. I poisoned us with taro leaves more than once (we didn't get sick just irritated mouths). After a month or so I managed to expand our repertoire to include dahl (made from yellow split peas), beef curry (made with canned corned beef), lots of fresh juice drinks and smoothies (from every tropical sweet or citrus fruit available) and we no longer care if what we eat is a "breakfast food", or "dinner food". We ate fried green plantains for breakfast for the last couple days simple because we were given a ton of plantains. They taste just like french fries and are great with ketchup (you can purchase Heinz Ketchup here). As the plantains ripen like bananas we made smoothies or boiled them in water (they tasted like canned peaches). We began to eat anything someone gave us and try to remain open to new tastes. We tried everything inexpensive if I could figure out how to prepare it. There is very little canned fruit available and almost no canned veges. Everyone eats fresh.

Pictured - breadfruit, taro root, plantains, green tangerines, coconut, egg plant and lemon grass.  Foods we have tried Not Pictured = taro leaves, tropical spinach, bok choy, cassava, papaya, kumquats, pineapple, soup sop, mango, jackfruit, passion fruit, lemons, limes, okra, long beans, and others unremembered.

 We did know that in the remote Solomon Islands, the locals would be happy to trade produce for trade goods. So we began to relax a little with provisioning. We added a number of very inexpensive meals (dahl, curries made with anything, fried rice from left overs, etc.) to our routine and kept a few old ones (spaghetti with marinara sauce and beans and rice.) We bought lots of trade items instead of stocking up on canned produce. And we gave up a number of things that are just too hard to keep alive or purchase (yogurt). We bought lots of dry milk.

And so we'll let you know how it all works out as we leave our beloved Fiji behind.


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