Tag Archives: Expat

Making Gumbo in Africa…

I don’t cook – I order.  It’s not that I can’t cook, mind you.  I simply choose not to. My poor husband has lived off of pre-made meals and take-out for the past five years, ever since my youngest child went off to college.  I am sure out of sheer desperation, he moved me to Africa so he would get a home-cooked meal.  Smart move, fella!  Clearly it has paid off.  Since landing in Luanda about three and a half weeks ago, I have cooked more meals that I have in the past five years!  Sadly, this is not an exaggeration.

Yes, the tide has definitely turned.  Right now, I have a huge pot of delicious chicken, shrimp and sausage gumbo bubbling away on my stove.  The last – and only – time I made gumbo, it was 1988 and Hubby and I were newlyweds living in Anchorage, Alaska.  One of our favorite couples was moving to Lafayette, Louisiana and we were hosting a large going away party for them.  Just like in Texas, everything is bigger in Alaska, and so this meant we were expecting about sixty people for dinner.  Clearly, I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew.

“I’ll make gumbo!” I declared to one of my friends, who was helping me plan the dinner.  “Are you sure? Have you ever made it before?” she asked, a bit too quickly.  “How hard can it be?” I said, “It’s just a big pot of soup, basically.”  Foolishly, I was not a bit worried about cooking for sixty people.  Even more foolishly, I was not worried about cooking Cajun food for real Cajuns.  Many of our guest were from Louisiana, and had eaten their share of world-class gumbo.  Word soon spread that a Texan, and a first-timer at that, was attempting to make this delicate and time-honored dish.

The morning of the party, a very large woman, whom I had never seen before, showed up unannounced at my door.  “I’m here to make the roux,” she said, brushing past me to head to my kitchen.  Dumbstruck, I followed meekly behind her and watched in amazement as she proceeded to work my kitchen like she owned it.  This gal knew a thing or two about Cajun cooking.  And, by her sheer size, I guessed she knew a thing or two about eating it, too.

She stood at my stove and stirred the roux for a full 30 minutes, saying little.  She was there to do a job, not make small talk. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the roux had reached a lovely golden brown – the color of a brown paper bag, by her description.  Her job was done.  She had saved the roux from certain ruination, and all was right with the Cajun world.

I have to admit, it was a good thing she showed up.  I would have given the roux about five good stirs and then moved on – or worse, gotten distracted and let it burn.  Quelle horreur!  That would have been a disaster of Hurricane Ike proportions!

I’m happy to report, both the party and the gumbo were a big success, but I have never attempted to cook a roux again.  The idea of another stranger showing up at my door was enough to put me off the idea.  Last week, on one of my marathon hunting/gathering sessions to multiple grocery stores, I found some Hillshire Farms smoked sausage – and did a little jig in the aisle when I did.  Finding American products here in Luanda is like finding gold!  And today, I came across some gorgeous okra at another store.  The seed was planted. I decided to give gumbo another try – but only after bolting my door and drawing the curtains closed.

Here are a few photos of my progress:

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The basic ingredients – not always easy to find here in Luanda, especially the sausage.
My roux after stirring it for thirty minutes over low heat.
My roux after stirring it for thirty minutes over low heat.
The finished product!   Dee-lish!
The finished product!
Dee-lish!

Cher, let me tell you, it was worth the wait!  Coo-Wee, this dang gumbo is so good, I think I will call it yum-bo! Paul Prudhomme would be proud! Bon Appetite!

© 2014 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Wine Tasting for Dummies…

Cat Pee.  Dirty Socks. Wet Dog.  Did you know all of these “notes” are present in some very fine and expensive wines?  We learned this and much more at a Portuguese Wine Tasting event held on Friday night in the community room of our apartment building.  Sure, I had been to wine tastings before.  And truth be told, I had probably consumed wines with worse notes than those previously mentioned – especially in college.  I wonder what notes are found in Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill.  Frat House?  Bar Bathroom?  No matter, I have finally outgrown the world of convenience store wine and, after our session on Friday night, am one step closer to knowing how to properly “taste” wine.  And no, just pouring it in the right glass is NOT enough.

After learning about the event, we were very excited to go and taste some great Portuguese wines.  We have been to Portugal twice and have come to enjoy the excellent wines there, especially those from the lovely Douro Valley.  When we arrived at the community room on Friday night, however, I was surprised to find that this was not just a “show up and taste” event.  The room was decked out with long tables set with an assortment of different glasses, a stack of handouts about the notes present in wine and other crucial information, plates full of bland crackers to clear our palates between tastes, large spittoons (that I was sure would go unused), and some very mysterious tiny, numbered bottles.  We took our seats and faced the large screen, obviously set for a slide show, and waited.  And waited.

The event was due to begin at 6:00 pm.  It was now 6:30 pm and most of the sixty-odd seats were still empty.  Shortly after 6:40 pm, our moderators, both degreed Portuguese wine experts, declared that the remaining participants, mostly Angolan, would arrive at some point.  This is Africa.  Even for such a high-falooting event, the start time is merely a suggestion.

Our moderators (I will call them Mr. White and Mr. Red) proceeded to run through a very detailed description of how our nasal passages and tongues work together to process tastes.  There were slides, pictures, and even a little game where we sniffed the contents of the mystery bottles and tried to decipher what they were.  Luckily, there was no Cat Pee involved!  About 7:00 pm, the remaining participants sauntered in and immediately began to talk amongst themselves, oblivious to the slide show and lecture going on.

Mr. White and Mr. Red struggled to keep control of the increasingly restless crowd.  Where is the wine, we all wondered? One-by-one we each got up to nibble from the plates of appetizers set on the bar, and checked our watches to see how much longer this was going to last. Finally, after an hour and a half of very in-depth discussion, the first glasses of wine were poured. Hallelujah! The addition of wine did nothing to improve our attention, but it certainly made for a more jovial crowd! As they say, ‘wine goes in and happiness comes out’.

We began with a lovely sparkling wine, worked our way through various whites and reds, and finished with a sweet, port-like dessert wine. Along the way, we discussed the notes detected in each wine and whether or not we liked them.  But…more education was clearly needed before we could be considered “qualified” to properly taste wine.  At one point, one poor misguided soul asked what kind of cheese would go with a particular wine.  “That is another class”, Mr. White snapped,  “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Really. What an amateur.

All kidding aside, and despite the slow start, it was a fun and informative evening and we met some very nice folks.  Of course, we bought some very nice wines as well and look forward to our next get-together.  In the meantime, I will do my best to sniff out the notes in any new wine I try.

But, at the risk of labeling myself as unsophisticated, if I come across a Chateau St. Cat Pee, I am giving it a pass…

© 2014 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Ellies, Kudus and Giraffes, oh my!

Thump, thump, thump, goes the bass.  Unintelligible words weave through the techno beat.  The music is  so loud, I can feel it in my chest.  Am I in a nightclub? A party?  Sadly, no.  I am sitting in my living room with the windows closed tight.  It is Sunday night at 10:30 pm, and the music from the Marginal is just warming up.  This will most likely go on for hours, as it has the previous four nights. No sleep for me, I’m afraid, so I’ll just write another blog!

Our third weekend in Luanda brought yet another unexpected activity – a safari!  Mr. & Mrs. Boss Man invited us to go with them on a two day getaway, which included a boat ride on the beautiful Kwanza River, followed by a safari and overnight in Kissama National Park.  We were very excited to see the park and river, but didn’t hold out much hope for the safari.  We had been on a “real” safari in South Africa a year ago, and were surrounded by hordes of animals of every kind.  After seeing the “Big Five” in such a setting, this was sure to be a letdown. Or at least, that is what we thought…

Angola is not Kenya or Tanzania.  Angola is still recovering from a twenty-seven year long civil war, which decimated the country and only ended in 2002.  As is the case with many wars, this war resulted from a power vacuum.  The Portuguese, who had ruled Angola as a colony for four hundred years, were forced out in the early 1970’s.  Their absence created a political vacuum, and rival Angolan factions fought for control of the country.  Neither side cared about what the war was doing to the country or the people, they simply wanted to win. Huge ships were sunk off the pristine coastline to disrupt the flow of goods.  Millions of people were displaced.  Over half a million civilians died.  Remember the photos of Princess Diana walking through an area filled with land mines?  That was here in Angola.

The people were so desperate during that terrible time, they used the “safari” animals for food and sold off their ivory.  Finally, after twenty-seven long years, the leader of one faction died and the other became the victor by default.  He has been president ever since.  Enough of Angola’s history-in-a-nutshell.  Suffice it to say, safari parks are very low on the priority list for this country.  However, one program has reintroduced these gorgeous animals into Angola. It was called Operation Noah’s Ark and it began in 2002 in Kissama National Park, only two hours south of Luanda.

Our transport for the trip, a specially outfitted jeep, arrived at our apartment at 6:00 am on Saturday morning, with a Spanish couple (I will call them Mr. & Mrs. Barcelona) already seated inside.  The rest of us crawled in and we began our journey south.  Along the way, we passed the same chaos we had encountered on our way to the deserted beach the previous weekend, including an impromptu roadside market that brought the traffic to a complete standstill.  Finally, we pushed though all of this and reached the open road.  Our first stop was a stunning overlook of a coastal area called Miradouro da Lua, or Lunar Landscape.  Formed by simple erosion through multicolored layers of rock, the result is nothing short of amazing!

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Miradouro da Lua
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What a view! The deserted beach goes on for miles in either direction.
Glossy Starlings with the lovely beach in the background.
Glossy Starlings with the lovely beach in the background.

After we had taken plenty of pictures, we hopped back into the jeep and headed to the Kwanza River Lodge for lunch, followed by a boat ride on the river.

Kwanza River Lodge
Kwanza River Lodge
Look closely and you will see a Goliath Heron
Look closely and you will see a Goliath Heron
A local fisherman
A local fisherman

Cruising slowly along the river’s edge, we spied monkeys and monitor lizards, as Fish Eagles soared overhead.  What a lovely, peaceful start to our day.  We had the river to ourselves, with only an occasional fishing boat in sight.

After the boat ride, we piled back into the jeep to drive the remaining hour on the dirt road to Kissama Lodge.  Hubby and I were seated in the back row of the jeep, which proved to be like a very bouncy roller coaster at Disneyland.  It was exhausting!  At times, we bounced so high that Hubby actually hit his head on the roof! We aren’t the quickest learners, but finally discovered that the seat belt is there for a reason. It really helped if we cinched it down tight.  One knot on the head is enough for anyone!

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Once we reached the lodge, we dropped our bags in our cabins and then headed out on a game drive. The top of the jeep popped up to reveal an opening, which enabled viewing from a standing position while still providing shade.  Very nice!

Jeep in front of a huge Baobab tree.
Jeep in front of a huge Baobab tree.

During the drive, we spotted a large group of ten to twelve giraffes, a large herd of wildebeests, two elephants, countless bushbucks, several gorgeous kudus, and a small herd of zebras.  There are over 150 elephants in the park, but with only a few jeeps covering the entire three million acre park, it is easy to miss them.  We were so impressed with the obvious health of the animals and the progress made in growing their numbers.  Here are a few of the animals we saw:

Hello, big fella!
Hello, big fella!
Giraffes and a Baobab tree.
Giraffes and a Baobab tree.
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A shy, little Bushbuck.
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Elephants. Hey, guys? Where’s the rest of the family?
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Zebras on the run.
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A beautiful Kudu.
Say Cheese!  A very happy Wildebeest...
Say Cheese! A very happy Wildebeest…

After several hours of near constant game sightings, we headed back to the lodge for a lovely group dinner. Mr. & Mrs. Barcelona proved to be a fascinating couple.  Both are biologists and DNA specialists.  He is primarily a researcher and she is working with the crime lab in Luanda, schooling them on the use of DNA to solve crimes.  Both also venture into remote villages around the globe. Their goal on these trips is to collect DNA samples (typically hair) from the villagers in order to trace their heritage and relationships with nearby villages.  What a very interesting life they have!

After dinner, we headed back to our cabins for a shower and a good night’s sleep – neither of which happened!  The lodge itself is situated on a gorgeous bluff overlooking the Kwanza River Valley.  Although it is a world-class location, the cabins themselves need a lot more work to be comfortable.  The electricity switched off and on all night and the water in the shower was ice cold.  But given the remote location, difficulty and cost for this kind of facility, we weren’t bothered by the less than five-star accommodations.  We just pretended we were camping!

View from the Kissama Lodge
View from the Kissama Lodge

The next morning brought another game drive and more sightings of similar animals.  Then it was time to head back to Luanda before lunch.  What a delightful weekend, and how wonderful to find a place like this so close to the city!  We will definitely be back again, but next time we will bring a flashlight – and some baby wipes!

© 2014 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Toes in the Sand…

There is nothing I like better than digging my toes into cool sand while relaxing to the rhythm of the waves.  Clearly, I did not do my research on Angola before I moved here, or I would have known that there are miles of deserted beaches, clean and beautiful, only two hours south of Luanda.  Mr. & Mrs. Adventurous (my wonderful neighbors) have done their homework and have explored these beaches along with a myriad of other wonders within a short distance of the city.  On our second weekend, they invited us to join them for a day at the beach – which turned out to be like none I had ever experienced before.

Imagine driving through continual chaos for over an hour and a half – people lined-up along a road choked with cars and motorcycles, where lanes and traffic rules mean nothing, to peddle their wares.  These items can range from brooms to electronics to fish, lobster, fruit…whatever.  And an occasional toilet seat to boot!  The sellers walk in front of and between the cars, oblivious to the danger of being flattened by a distracted customer, and look for any response from passengers or drivers.  I would have loved to take photos of this craziness, but did not dare pull out a camera for fear of having my window smashed and it snatched from my hand.  Yes, that happens here.  As I said, this goes on for an hour and a half…and then, suddenly you look out the window and see nature.  Angola as it was meant to be.  Beautiful, unspoiled beaches – just waiting to be explored.

We turned off the main road and our driver switched on his four-wheel-drive.  Good choice, as the dirt road quickly became a lesson in driving over enormous potholes and through deep sand.  The bumpy ride was worth every minute when the road opened up to reveal this:

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The only other people on this entire stretch of beach were a man with a few fishing poles set up, and a woman digging in the sand for some sort of small mollusks.  Later, a group of four or five Portuguese men showed up to frolic in the waves and then an Angolan man came by to ask for money.  He was not pushy about it, gave us his spiel and then wandered off.  Other than these few visitors, we had the beach entirely to ourselves for hours.  We took turns walking the beach to look for shells and just enjoy the solitude and peace of the place.  We ate our picnic lunches, drank some local beer called Cuca, and enjoyed visiting with Mr. & Mrs. Adventurous.  What a wonderful way to unwind, and so close to the city!

On our way back, we drove by several small rural encampments, where children played in the dirt while their parents tilled a garden.  Pigs, chickens and dogs were just part of the family and wandered freely.  We saw a table laid with baskets for sale right next to the road, but there were no people guarding the wares.  Mr. & Mrs. A, who were in the car in front of us, pulled up to the table – I assumed to buy a basket or two.  Instead, Mrs. A went to the back of her car and pulled out a bag filled with cookies, chips, juice boxes, etc.  No sooner had she retrieved the bag than a tiny, naked boy came running at full speed from somewhere behind some scrubby trees.  His eyes and grin were bigger than he was as she handed him the prize.  He grabbed the bag, and then ran to show his mother who was approaching from the same direction.  She waved her thanks to us and then we were off.  Another lesson learned – always carry something with you to give to these precious children.  You will absolutely make their day – and your own.

© 2014 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved

Now What?

Recalling our first week here, my first thought was, “Now what?” Months of preparation and worry had brought us here.  Organizing our stuff, making lists, shopping for essentials…I am really good at these things, especially the shopping part!  But the thought of getting settled into a routine, making new friends and finding ways to occupy my time was very daunting.  Little did I know that a host of angels lived in my building.  My husband’s boss and his wife – I will call them Mr. & Mrs. Boss Man – are a wonderful, gorgeous Canadian couple, whom we have come to really enjoy.  Unfortunately, they are on their way out of the country.  Another couple, I will call them Mr. & Mrs. Adventurous, are the kind of people who always find the coolest, off-the-beaten-path activities and delight in taking on a place at its roots.  Yes, they will be leaving soon, too.   Such is the friendship-life of an expat.  You make a friend and then they leave.  But, just as people are always leaving, there are also new people continually arriving.  Expats are an inherently friendly bunch, and know how to hit the ground running.  Never knowing how long you will be in a place makes you all the more anxious to get started exploring.  No time like the present.

That first weekend, Mr & Mrs. Boss Man took us out to a very fancy restaurant on the water called Cais de Quatro, a lovely open-air place with great seafood and sushi.  At night, it looks over the Luanda skyline, with all of its large, well-lit office buildings.  If you squinted a bit (to block out the building cranes and other eyesores), you could pretend you were looking at the New York skyline.  The food and conversation were both delightful, and we finally took a full breath and relaxed into our new lives.

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Sunday morning, Hubby and I went for a walk on the Marginal, a newly refurbished stretch of coastline in front of the main part of the city.  In a place where walking more than about a block is strongly discouraged, this little four mile walking area is a God-send.

View of the Marginal.
View of the Marginal.

Every one of the people we saw, except for the occasional guy passed out on a bench from a Saturday night of drinking, was just out enjoying the day.  Walkers, runners, bikers, roller-blading children, and couples with strollers were such a nice sight to see!  I was so worried that I would feel like a caged animal in my apartment complex – the “Cruise Ship on Land”, as the residents call it.  Our eleven story apartment building is connected to an even taller office building by a pool deck, complete with a bar area, grills and plenty of space to entertain large groups.

View of the office building from our tenth floor flat.
View of the office building from our tenth floor flat.
View of the pool deck that connects our flat to the office.  Not a bad commute!
View of the pool deck that connects our flat to the office. Not a bad commute!

The walk went well, except for the occasional waft of a terrible smell from large pipes emptying something-we-won’t-talk-about into the bay.  Smells are just part of life here.  I will have to put my American sensitivities on the back burner and just deal with it.  After the walk, as we were approaching the entrance to our building, a very agitated young man began yelling at us in Portuguese and walking quickly towards us.  Hubby picked up the pace and we managed to slip into the building just before we were intercepted.  Not gonna lie – that scared me a bit.  Hubby said there is usually a Tango Delta car parked out front (identifiable by a reflective strip on the car door), and that I can knock on the car window for help, if that ever occurs again.  Good to know.

The next week was spent unpacking my suitcases, getting to know some of the ladies in the building (did I mention they are angels?), and visiting a few grocery stores to stock the pantry.  When we came on our look-see visit one year ago (relocations take extremely long here, due to a cumbersome visa process), the grocery stores I saw were small, poorly-lit, smelly (I know, got to ignore this!), and more than a bit short of what I considered cooking essentials – that is, convenience foods.  I’ve never been a great cook, mostly because I am just lazy and would rather go out, and living in London just played right into that.  All of the grocery stores there have row after row of pre-made meals that are really delicious and very high quality.  After three years there, I could count on one hand the number of times I made a meal that required a measuring cup or recipe.  If it required a heat source (i.e. a microwave) then I considered it cooking.  Pure bliss!

The grocery stores here have improved vastly from one year ago, but the convenience foods have yet to arrive.  Folks, I gotta learn to cook.  This is not an easy thing for a fifty-something gal who is more than a little spoiled.  However, before you can buy food, you need CASH.  This place runs on cash, cash, and nothing but cash.  And the banks are not the place to go and get it.  As instructed, we had brought from the US our stack of clean, new $100 bills – strapped to our bellies in a money belt.  One morning, I grabbed five bills, took a deep breath and walked out of the building to the corner money-changer-lady named Luisa.

She sat on a chair, accompanied by a half-dazed boy laying across a motorcycle, and was dressed in yards of colorful African batik, with her head wrapped in a coordinating fabric.  I walked up to her, stuck out my hand and introduced myself.  She looked at me like I was definitely from out of town.  Just give me the money, she clearly thought.  I fumbled through my pockets and pulled out the bills, more than a little alarmed when she immediately got on her phone and started yelling something in Portuguese.  I had no idea what was happening, so I stood nervously, looking over my shoulder and waiting for someone to try and rob me.  Hello, you numbskull, I finally realized.  Luisa was holding the cash, not me, and she was not the least bit nervous.  After what seemed like twenty minutes, but was probably only about five, a young man came running up with a large bag full of cash.  There must have been thousands in that bag!  Luisa gave me the Kwanzas, I said a quick “obrigada” and headed back inside.  Mission accomplished.  We will not starve today.

The pantry was stocked, mostly from local grocery stores, but also through street produce sellers.  These ladies carry large buckets on their heads of wonderful, fresh avocados, tomatoes, bananas and the like.

Bananas anyone?
Bananas anyone?

You simply hand them whatever you want to spend and they fill up a bag for you.  I bought a bag of about eight beautiful Roma tomatoes for $2.00 – a real bargain as they would have been triple that in a store.  This particular lady, who was sitting cross-legged in the street, had a toddler nursing at her breast the whole time she was picking out my tomatoes.  She kept swatting at him, but he would not let go.  Kids!  What are you gonna do?

The rest of the week was spent learning how to disinfect the produce (my new best friend is bleach), fumbling through a few recipes found online, and then the week was done.  I felt like a local already – not!

© 2014 Cheryl – All Rights Reserved