19 October 2009

2009-10-19: Rain and jacaranda blossoms


I was still awake in the early hours of the morning when I heard the first rain of the year. After getting a few hours of sleep, I decided to spend the day catching up on all the things I'd meant to do yesterday. I got acquainted with our household's new puppy; I caught up on blog entries and e-mails; I drew a picture of some jacaranda blossoms; I cooked egg-and-potato scramble for dinner; and I did laundry, unpacked, and cleaned my room. It was a productive day on the home front - exactly what I needed!

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Thanks to jet lag, I was awake at 3:45 AM to witness a milestone of the year. I heard a familiar sound outside my window: "Pit... pat... pit pat pit... pat pitpatpitpat pattapattaPATTA..." It was the first rain! Within a moment the drops increased and synchronised into a constant low drumming on the roof.

Last year the first rain was also at about this time, but last year it gave me pangs of apprehension, since my rain shelters were not even designed yet, let alone built. This year I can say "Bring it on!"

Well, not really. I still have a lot of work to do before the rain starts in earnest. But that's not usually for another month; the rain in October and early November is just showers. So I fell asleep enjoying the comforting sound of rain outside the window.

Unfortunately, going to sleep at 4 AM is not compatible with waking up at 4:45, which is what I needed to do in order to get to Makoka by 6. I had wanted to be there to work alongside the crew at MZ12 (even if I am the world's slowest hoer). But it seemed absurd that my alarm was going off, after less than an hour's sleep, in the pitch darkness and rain. "I don't really need to be there," I told myself, "they're doing fine without me," and switched off the alarm.

* * * * *

By the time I awoke for good, it was 9:30 AM. Oh dear. I've been here nearly a week, and I still don't seem to have grasped the concept of Central African Time.

All right, now what? I could go to Makoka, but I really wanted to catch up on those things I had planned for yesterday: writing letters and emails, catching up on my blog, unpacking, cleaning my room. Since my Sunday vanished into a miasma of jet-lag, I needed to turn my Monday into a Sunday. Makoka could wait another day.

I made myself some black tea with milk and sugar (Malawians drink tea in the British tradition), and was about to go back to my room when I heard the whining of an unhappy puppy. Valour, the puppy of the house, was chained to the front stairwell, and was bored.

Since I hadn't really had a chance to get acquainted with Valour yet, I decided to go out and play with him a bit. He was very happy for the entertainment. He tried to run in circles around my legs, then rolled over on his back and gently gnawed on my hand when I tried to pet him. As far as a three-month old puppy is concerned, most items are for playing with, eating, or both. I was both.

Valour has a fluffy short brindle coat, white paws, half-cocked ears, and a slender muzzle. He looks somewhere in between a border collie and a bull terrier, but is probably not remotely related to either; Western purebred dogs are surpassingly rare in Malawi, and Valour's ancestors are probably African all the way back.

I suddenly remembered my dog leash. Why, you may wonder, do I have a dog leash in the absence of a dog? I bought it as a strap for my duffel bag, and I had brought it with me to Malawi. It was just what Valour needed - it would be softer on his neck than the chain. He squirmed so much that affixing it to his neck proved nearly impossible. But once on, it suited him well. I attached it to the chain, and now he had twice as much room to run around! Very exciting!

I got Valour a bowl of water (which he would promptly tip over, no doubt), played with him a bit more, then went inside to do some work. I was glad to get better acquainted with him, and glad I could make his puppy life more comfortable.

* * * * *

For quite a few hours I sat at my desk catching up on blog entries, taking a break only to eat a quick lunch of beans on toast (another British custom that sometimes makes an appearance in Malawi). I made the meal more interesting with a dash of peri-peri sauce (Malawian hot sauce, which is extremely hot. The first time I used it, I had to throw my food away! Now I know to measure it out in micrograms).

When I finished the blog entries, there was still time to make a birthday card for my brother before the post office closed at 4:30. I already had in mind the subject I wanted to draw: jacaranda flowers.

In case you are unfamiliar with the jacaranda, it is a stately spreading leguminous tree with ferny leaves and, in spring, vast quantities of soft lavender blossoms. I grew up surrounded by jacaranda trees in Queensland, so I've always had a special fondness for them. They are common throughout tropical Africa, and can also be seen in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and many other places around the world (they are native to South America).

I took my umbrella (since the sky was still grey and cloudy) and went out in search of jacaranda blossoms. As it turned out, they were all over the ground! The rain had knocked many of them down, forming a beautiful pale purple carpet. I enjoyed walking on it, but I still had to find some intact jacaranda blossoms; I didn't think anyone would appreciate a drawing of rain-battered trodden-upon petals.

I walked over to the nice jacaranda tree with low-hanging branches in the carpark of the CCAP Church just across the road. I used my umbrella to hook a jacaranda branch and, with difficulty, reached up and broke off a sprig of blossoms. Now, I had only an hour to turn it into a birthday card, with the help of my chalk pastels...

Back at the house, I placed the jacaranda branch in some water in an empty Coke bottle, took it into the living room where the light was best, and set to work drawing it. Unfortunately I used the wrong kind of paper, and I didn't quite have the right colour of lavender, nor did I have the time to blend my other colours properly. But I drew something that was recognisably a jacaranda. Here's how it turned out:

I just barely had time to address the envelope and rush off to the post office by 4:30. Then I realised: Oh drat! The mail is picked up at 4:00, not 4:30. So all my hurry was for naught; the card would just sit in the box for another day. Oh well - sometimes it's good for productivity to have a tight deadline!

* * * * *

I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Internet cafe, sending emails and posting blog entries. When I emerged, it was a pleasant evening, with the air cooler and cleaner from the rain. On my way home, I saw jacaranda and frangipani blossoms on the ground here and there.

I also stopped to buy my first mangoes of the season: ten green mangoes for K50 (US$0.35). That's in total, not for each. I always laugh when I see the prices of mangoes in American supermarkets!

At home, I cooked enough egg-and-potato scramble for everybody. (This is one of my standby meals in Malawi; it's similar to what I might cook in California, but can easily be made with local ingredients). It was supposed to be enough for everybody, but I wasn't sure, so I made some tomato soup as well. That, along with bread and butter and mangoes, was dinner.

After dinner, to my amazement, I still had plenty of energy - despite having had only a few hours of sleep. Jet lag works in mysterious ways. So I washed a load of laundry*, completely unpacked all my bags, and cleaned my room from top to bottom. There had been a fine layer of gritty dust covering everything, but after sweeping and mopping and wiping, my room looked much better and I felt better.

* Laundry in Malawi is always done by hand; I don't think I've ever seen a washing machine here. This is how I do laundry at my flat: put a large tub under the bathtub faucet and fill it with water and laundry powder, then let the clothes soak. Return an hour later; swish the clothes around vigourously with hands to loosen dirt. Rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, etc. Carry tub to back patio; wring excess water from clothes one at a time; hang on line. Take down clothes the following day.

One of my last tasks for the night was to write my name in my new A4 notebook. It's a standard-issue school notebook, but I will use it for research notes. I labeled it thus:

Name:   Amber Catherine Kerr              
Subject:   Agroforestry                        
School:   UC Berkeley     Grade:   24th  

Wow, it felt so good to have my whole room clean and organised and thoroughly habitable. My morale was much improved, and I felt as though I had opened the door to accomplishing anything and everything else.

It was midnight when I finished all this. I really should have fallen straight asleep, but for some reason I stayed up for several more hours writing. I'm not sure what my body thinks it's doing, but since I was getting work done, I decided not to argue with it.

OK, now I feel as though everything is under control on the home front, finally. Time to tackle the research front!

Chichewa word of the day: = galu = dog


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