Monday, July 30, 2012

A Paint Splattered Struggle: A Look Back

Back to the good ole US of A. I can hardly believe that it has been three weeks and I'm sitting on my bed in Los Angeles again.  Feels like not much has changed from a month ago, and yet, almost everything has.  Even though I still don't have a good grasp on what I'll be doing for the next year, I do have a better picture of what it will look like, and I can honestly say I'm excited about what the next year will bring.  But before we go into all that, I thought I should divulge what went on while the past couple of weeks.

The last time I updated, I posted very briefly about what we were doing in South Africa, and the simple joys of just being back at Zitha surrounded by children and Africans I had met before.  As to what we were physically doing while at the village, it mainly consisted of, you guessed it, painting (I know I sort of gave it away with the title of this blog).  And to be frank, that's a lot of the work we were doing in Zambia too.  Seemed like this was one big painting trip - and I still have some random splotches of paint on my arm that I somehow missed with my frequent turpentine baths.  But it was an important part of getting things ready, and painting a drab gray room with white paint really brightens up the room, and makes it so much nicer to look at.

In South Africa, we were painting two rooms, destined to be preschool rooms in the interim while a real preschool with a cafeteria and classrooms is in the works to be built.  These rooms, originally designated as a chicken coop, will still be used for those in the future, but with the expansion of the preschool program from 30 to close to 100, more space was needed.  And since there aren't any chickens at the project yet, it was important to spruce up these rooms so that they could hold kids and look like classrooms.  Not only did we help to paint the rooms, but we electrified them, literally bringing light to their corner of the world.  With donations from the volunteers, some African astroturf, colorful plastic tables and chairs, and creative artwork from the children, the rooms looked super awesome.  I don't have any before pictures (you'll see that I tend to forget to take pictures of things), but here are some of the finished products.

The last day we were at Zitha, we held a health fair, providing free HIV/AIDS testing and counseling, organic vegetables from the garden for sale, eyewear, and passed clothing donations out to the children of the community.  I had the opportunity to conduct the HIV testing, using a new FDA-approved test that uses saliva instead of blood, and only takes 20 minutes to process.  It was something I wasn't really trained for, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to do so.  It also reminded me of how prevalent and pervasive the stigma against being HIV-positive still is in African culture.  Despite the countless efforts by many an organization and government to educate people about HIV and its transmission, it still is something that people are reluctant to talk about, much less voluntarily get tested for it.  And if the results show them to be positive, some still remain in denial, because to be HIV-positive not only impacts their own lives, but also those around them.  It's heartbreaking to see first hand how adamantly someone can refuse to acknowledge and accept their status, particularly when the test is right in front of you, and you know that they can receive the help that they need.  There were even some who got tested, and then did not even return to get their results.  Nevertheless, the whole fair was a success, and while it was an extremely long day for everyone, it was rewarding in the end, seeing the kids with their new clothes and staff with jaunty new baseball hats and sunglasses.

Volunteers planting trees
Zitha staff members
We're not all work and no play, and even though we did a good number of sightseeing on our way out to Zitha from Johannesburg, we also got the opportunity to visit the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) and do a night drive through a private game reserve.  The HESC specifically was started to help protect cheetahs, and boy did we see some.  I have yet to see one in the wild, but it was pretty awesome to see them up close, including the the rare king cheetah, which has a darker coloration and pattern than normal cheetahs.  As for the game drive, this was my first one at night, and we were blessed to have some up close and personal interactions with them.  I've never been that close to rhinos or lions - always spying them from way far away.  This time, we were close enough to touch.  There's something about being that close to wild creatures that is both awe and fear inspiring at the same time, being in the presence of that much raw power. It also has made me painfully aware of how terrible my camera is.  It's super old, and seems to like being more in video mode than camera, but it gets the job done.  Perhaps when I've saved more money I can buy me a new shiny one. =)
King cheetah with their distinctive coat
Rhino family browsing
Mr. Lion chilling on the side of the road
So we left South Africa via plane to go to Livingstone, Zambia, the home of Victoria Falls, and my soon-to-be-part-time-residence for the next year.  I really didn't have an idea of what Zambia was like, as I only spent a few days there last year, and found it to be welcoming.  I got to meet with Gilbert, the doctor I will be working with, as well as help with the final interviews for the additional staff we will be hiring for the program, including nurses, teachers, chefs, a social worker, and driver.  A lot of work needed to be done for the house that we would be working out of, and again, it involved painting.  Because this house would serve as a preschool, as well as a fully operational clinic, we needed to make sure that everything was up to par.  Unfortunately, no pictures, but seeing as I'll be spending more time there in the near future, I guess I can take pictures as I go, if I remember to.

Another project the Foundation has in Zambia is in the village of Manyemunyemu (say that ten times fast!).  They are helping to build and supply a local clinic, and we basically just went there to deliver some donations to the clinic, see how it was starting, and meet with the community to hear their input and let them know what the next steps would be for the clinic.  This particular clinic serves around 16 villages around the area, but it's continued open status is conditional on the building of a bathroom per government regulation.  The Foundation hopes to build a new one, and is looking to sponsor community members to learn to trade skills as builders, as well as provide materials to help construct the bathroom.  While we were there, we also took a tour around to some of the villages, and saw some of the community members we were helping.

View from the village
Dr. Gilbert seeing a patient in the clinic with the nurse
Water buffalo at Chobe National Park
So that is basically the whole of the past couple weeks.  We did another game drive slash river cruise through Chobe National Park in Botswana one day.  Then we took a day trip to Zimbabwe to check in on another project in a village called Lambo where the Foundation is helping to build a primary school.  For the most part it was pretty laid back for the last couple of days, in that we weren't doing a whole lot of physical labor, more just traveling around, relaxing, as well as planning and preparing for the new project and program to get started, nailing out details and stuff like that.

I will admit, I wasn't really quite sure when I left for this trip three weeks ago what I was expecting.  It was all last minute, even the job itself, and I thought that this trip would help to fill in the glaring gaps in the amount of information I had been given about what I was going to be doing.  Turns out, this trip was more to help supervise the volunteers, and get introduced to who I would be working with and what I would be doing.  Now, I don't have any more answers to the questions I had, and to be honest, I probably have more now that I've seen what the situation is.  But truthfully, I think that it's okay.  I can't pretend and say that I'm not scared about what this year will hold, or that I don't need to have these answers or details figured out.  I'm just not wired that way; I'm a planner at heart.  But I know, deep down in my heart of hearts, that God has this planned out.  That despite all the planning I do in my head for what and how I think things should pan out, things rarely go that way, especially in Africa and especially in public health.  I have to be able to let go of what I want to have happen, of what information I think I need to do my job, and simply trust in His sovereign plan.  You could drive yourself crazy thinking of all the "what if's" and I know my mind tends to go into overdrive when I don't know what's going on.

And now that I'm back in the States, dealing with waking up at 2:30am and jet lag, I can't help but still feel that bit of anxiety creeping back in.  Sometimes I think that every time I go to Africa, I feel like it's a break from reality, from real life, when in truth, that will be my real life, at least for the next year.  And seeing how frustrating things could be working with people who's idea of a meeting lasts 3 hours at the minimum and little care to time management, much the kind of efficiency that Americans seem to pride themselves on, I wonder if I am cut out for working there, if I can not only survive living virtually alone in a third world country, but thrive.  Yet, because I have faith (however shaky it may be) that God's plan is the best and rightest of any that I could even think of, I convince my albeit overly logical brain that it will be okay, that even though this may be an incredibly hard year, not only physically and mentally, but also spiritually, everything will be okay.

So I will prepare to live out of a suitcase for the time being, spend an inordinate amount of time in an airplane, have a truly fantastic time seeing pure joy on children's faces, and be amazed at God's grace and brilliant plan.  I continue to hope in what God has in store for me and take comfort in that.  I'll be stateside for the next few weeks, and then head back to start training staff and putting policies and guidelines in place before the program officially begins (hopefully) in September.  While I selfishly wanted to be home for my birthday at the end of August, I guess I'll just have to celebrate either early or extremely late.  But that is another concern for another time.  

To end on a perhaps slightly humorous note: Normally when travelling abroad, or anywhere really, your diet changes, usually depending on what is easily available or whatever the local cuisine is or whatever your wallet can afford to purchase.  But the most satisfying meal you eat, the one that you look forward to, is the first meal you eat when you get back home, or at least, that's what I think. As delicious as it is to eat exotic foods and try things at classy restaurants or hole-in-the-wall shacks, there usually is just that one thing you can't get while you are travelling, and it is that much more gratifying when you get your hands on it.  For example, getting In N'Out after coming home from college on the East Coast is awesome.  This time, however, after travelling over 24 hours to get home from Zambia, I had something different on my mind.  The guys who were volunteering had a brief discussion about this before leaving, stating something along the lines of Chipotle.  But no, not I.  The specific food I wanted wasn't steak or Chinese food or even a nice green leafy vegetable (something we really didn't eat that much of over there).  It was granola.  And not just any granola.  Nope, it was the granola I make at home, perfected over several batches and simply crunchy and golden and delicious.  So I made some yesterday.  Today, it's gone.  And it was oh so yummy.  The end.

Until next time...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The first few days...

As hinted at the end of the last post, I am currently beginning an exciting career opportunity that will require me to be traveling back and forth between the US and Africa for at least the next year.  The Meriwether Foundation (the same non-profit organization I went with last summer) offered me this opportunity to help start a similar nutrition and feeding program as the one I developed in South Africa, except in Zambia, in partnership with the local hospital.  A lot of the details are still to be fleshed out, but for now, I’m just along for this ride God has sent me on.

At this exact moment (so to speak), I am sitting at a lodge in South Africa, looking out into the forest, as a couple of giraffes chomp on some leaves in the distance, and I can't believe how blessed I am to be here.  This trip to Africa was rather last minute, as I did not even know my travel itinerary 4 days before I was supposed to leave.  The main purpose of this trip was to accompany 5 high school boys on a global awareness and service project trip, as well as get introduced to the local health professionals in Zambia that I will be working closely with, as well as nail out any details.  I arrived in Johannesburg Friday night, after a full 24 hours of traveling.  The next day was spent touring Johannesburg, with a little history lesson thrown in.  

I don't know how many of you are familiar with what happened in South Africa during apartheid, but I had only a cursory knowledge of it.  Most everyone knows who Nelson Mandela is, but what he actually did, and how epic a change he sought to accomplish is something that I didn't really even truly grasp until now, and I can't really even say that I've wrapped my head fully around it.  Seeing how the effects are still rippling through South African society and culture is mind-blowing, and hearing about the events that unfolded from someone who was physically there was incredibly humbling.  To see where the country currently is, and how much further still must be done for real progress, is truly heart breaking.

Memorial square for the first child shot and killed
Memorial museum for the children killed during protests
Because of the injustices done in the past by the whites, black South Africans are almost programmed to lack self-motivation and drive, which leads to problems when immigrants come to South Africa with business plans and practical and technical trade skills.  And this is the point in the story in which we find ourselves at. 

As part of the city tour of Johannesburg, we stopped by Nelson Mandela’s house, as well as a historical monument and museum in remembrance of the students that were killed as a result of their protest against the education act that instituted that Afrikaans (the language of the whites) be the primary language of instruction, despite the fact that neither the students nor the teachers were fluent or proficient in the language.

On a lighter note, we got to pet lions!!  Now lions have always held a special place in my heart, maybe because one of the first stuffed animals I got was a stuffed Simba, from The Lion King, or maybe because they are super awesome.  It turns out, they can also be super cuddly.  Of course, not in the wild, but in a game preserve slash zoo of sorts, they allow visitors to pet lions under two years of age, who have been acclimated to human presence.  Their fur is not quite as soft as it looks, but I guess it’s necessary for living out in the bush.

We also visited the Cradle of Life.  If that sounds familiar, think Angelina Jolie and that Lara Croft movie.  While it didn’t look anything like that, nor did I do any flying kicks or take part in any high speed chases, it was an interesting cave tour and look at the history of mankind from a purely anthropological and archeological point of view, seeing what some consider to be the birthplace of our race as Homo sapiens.

While Johannesburg is the capital, politically and economically, of South Africa, it was not our final destination.  A lovely car ride taking anywhere from 4 hours to the whole day would bring us to Hoedspruit, Acornhoek, and the village of Zitha in the northeast corner of the country.  On the way, we stopped at many a viewpoint of some beautiful, God-made, natural rock formations and photo opportunities galore.  These include the three rondevals (which are natural rock formations that look like huts on a mountain), potholes (not the ones in bad roads), and God’s window (an outlook overseeing the forest and river).
Three rondevals 
Once finally reaching our lodging for the next week, we settled in to our beds to begin a week of hard work at the village.  There were a number of projects that we wanted to finish, and having only 5 days to complete everything meant that we needed to make sure we had a tentative schedule of when we’d like things to get done and who would be responsible for doing each.  This would only be a guideline, seeing as the best laid plans often get thrown aside when things go awry because of delays or other unforeseen obstacles. 

I wondered every once in a while, over the past year, if what I had done this past summer, had made an impact, if the kids would remember me at all, or if I would simply fade in their memories as a random volunteer who came and went.  I think even in short term mission trips, what kind of effect did I have when I really only interacted with some of these people for a couple of hours.  Granted, this past summer was a little longer than that, but I hoped that the program I had help to plan and implement was still working, and that the people whose lives I had touched would remember just a little bit of me.

When we arrived at the village the first day, I was overwhelmed by the welcome.  Not only did the staff remember me, but they greeted me with open arms and warm hugs, calling me by name.  With the kids, I was not as lucky, but one did remember, and that was enough for me.  It was almost like a homecoming, that feeling of familiarity and comfort that I felt in returning to Zitha, and it has been a most rewarding week thus far.

As the days have passed, a couple of kids start to remember me again, even the games I used to play with them, namely chasing me around the Center.  I can even say that the programs operating out of the Center have grown, as well as the children.  The garden is fully providing vegetables for the daily lunches, like spinach, tomatoes, and onions.  An outdoor kitchen has been built, with a concrete floor and tin ceiling.  The people are just as wonderful and the children as full of joy as before.  

Tomatoes from the garden
Fruit trees my sister and I planted last year.  Mine is the one on the left.
New kitchen
Hopefully these pictures give you a good sense of what I've been up to for the past week.  I have been meaning to get pictures of the kids, but I've been busy with other things.  I'll be sure to get some before I leave!

I will be leaving South Africa to go to Zimbabwe and Zambia to see the other projects and find out more about the one that I will be working on on Monday, so if I don't send something out before then, I guess I'll be updating you from there!

Until then...

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Baking Exploits of the Unemployed

Hey all!!  It's been a while, but I thought that I would get this out.  There's been many an experiment in my kitchen over the past few months, outside of the ones already blogged on.  This is going to be one doozy of a post, so hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen - let's get started!

As you may know, I've been using the time I have as an unemployed individual to further my baking skills, as well as bless my awesome community group with snacks each week, which also means that I have a willing test group for all my experiments (insert evil laugh here... muahahahaha).  No really, it's been super fun trying out new recipes and just seeing how different ingredients in different proportions can yield such delicious treats.

First up, I decided to try to make puff pastry from scratch.  It seemed pretty straight forward, but I always balked at making it because it took too much time.  Well hello endless hours of free time, so I tried my hand. There's an awesome youtube video ( that gives step by step directions.

Here's the basic recipe:
3.5 cup flour

1 1/2 t salt
1 cup water
1 pound of butter (4 sticks)

1. Mix the flour, water and salt together to form a cohesive dough.  Let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
2. Pound out the butter between two sheets of plastic wrap to form an 8" square.
3. Roll out the dough into a 12 x 15 rectangle.
4. Place the butter square in the middle and fold over the corners of the dough to completely cover the butter.
5. Roll out the dough into a long rectangle and fold into thirds.
6. Rotate a quarter turn and roll out again into a long rectangle and fold into thirds again.
7. Refrigerate for 30 minutes and repeat steps 5 and 6.
8. Refrigerate again for 30 minutes.

It's kind of hard to understand all the folding, so the youtube video will help to see how it all works.  The purpose of the folding is to get the nice layers you like to see in a puff pastry, and the refrigeration keeps the butter nice and cold, so you get the wonderful flakiness.  Now puff pastry by itself is kind of boring, but pair it with some cheese or sugar and you have some awesome treats.

For cheese twists, mix together some freshly grated Romano or Parmesan, salt and pepper, a pinch of cayenne, and some Italian herbs or garlic powder (your choice).  Scramble one egg and brush over a rolled out sheet of puff pastry.  Sprinkle the cheese mix over one half of the puff pastry and lightly press into the dough.  Fold the other half of the puff pastry over the half with the cheese and gently roll over with a rolling pin.  Then cut into strips 1/2" wide and twist.  Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes or until lightly browned and let cool.

The other awesome thing you can make with puff pastry are palmiers.  These are flaky, sugary, delicious French cookies of a sort, and are perfect for a tea party or just to snack on.  Using about 1/3 cup, sprinkle sugar onto your work surface and place your sheet of puff pastry on top.  Then sprinkle another 1/3 cup on top of the puff pastry.  Roll out the dough into a rectangle, all the while pressing the sugar into the puff pastry.  When both sides have been completely coated in sugar, fold the outside edges into meet the middle, then fold in half again.  Using a serrated knife, cut into 1/2" slices, placing the cut side down onto a greased cookie sheet or parchment paper.  Bake at 400 degrees for 7 minutes, then flip over and bake for another 5 minutes or until golden brown.  Let them cool and have a decidedly sweet and crunchy taste of France.

On a healthier side, I've discovered the awesome-ness of Greek yogurt.  Yes, I know everyone is raving about how delicious it is and now it's become the new big food fad, but it really is fantastic.  Not only can you eat it straight out of the container with granola and fruit and all sorts of other things, but it makes an awesome fat substitute in baked goods.  I've had many a success with using it in scones, quick breads, pound cake, even muffins.  On a general note, usually you can replace half the fat with Greek yogurt, without drastically affecting the texture and taste of the finished product, and I've found this to be fairly accurate.  There have been too many times when I've substituted Greek yogurt, so I'll just leave you with one - lemon pound cake.

Pound cake is traditionally a cake made with one pound of flour, eggs, sugar, and butter, which is seems rather extravagant, and a bit heavy for my tastes.  And since I had some lemons, I thought I'd make a citrusy lighter version.


2 cups flour
3/4t salt
1 stick of butter at room temperature (1/2c)
1.5t vanilla extract
1.5 cups sugar
5 eggs
Zest from one large lemon

2 cups powdered sugar
Juice from one lemon (large)

1. Butter and flour bottom and sides of loaf pan.  Preheat oven to 350.
2. Mix flour and salt together.  Beat together vanilla, butter, sugar and yogurt together.  Add eggs one at a time and beat well after each.
3. Fold in flour mixture until fully incorporated.  Stir in zest.  Pour batter into prepared loaf pan and bake for 60-65 minutes or until cake tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean. 
4. Cool in pan for 10-15 minutes, then take out and continue cooling on wire rack.  
5. Mix lemon juice and 1 cup of the powdered sugar together.  Add remaining sugar until glaze reaches desired consistency.
6. Once cooled, pour glaze over cake so that it runs over the side (recipe provided above makes more than enough).  
7. Let cake set for at least 30 minutes before cutting and serving.

It's a pretty terrible picture, but hopefully you get the idea.  I'm really rather terrible at remembering to take pictures of the food I make, and when I do, I really just want to take the picture quick so I can eat what I made.

Now, not all dessert is meant to be altered.  Special occasions and birthdays are celebrations that are often accompanied by decadent cakes and delicious desserts that make us rue our sweet tooth.  I had the opportunity to make a cake for someone's birthday (by commission, which is super awesome too), and I had a blast decorating and plying my craft.  The one problem was that they asked for a chocolate raspberry cake, and as a vehement chocolate hater, it made it rather difficult to taste and see how the cake turned out.  Not to mention, I never realized how easy ganache is to make.  Nevertheless, I was proud to have a beautiful cake delivered (in a Costco box to boot).  So there you have the finished product - chocolate cake with raspberry buttercream filling, frosted with chocolate ganache.

As I continue along this behemoth of a post, might I just say (to you who are still reading) what troopers you are!  One last baking adventure to make note of, and one that is rather splendiferous, if I don't say so myself.  As an individual of Chinese descent, I felt that it would behoove me to learn how to make some Chinese baked items, as I have spent many a dollar on the goodies offered in a New York Chinatown bakery shop or the delicious stylings of 85C.  And, with the recent addition of some bamboo steamers, I thought, well hey! Why not try to make steamed char-siu baos?  And so, the experiment begins!

Following this basic recipe from, it seemed pretty straightforward, although rather time consuming.  Once the dough was rising, I got the barbecue pork (that I had purposefully bought from Sam Woo beforehand), and made the filling, adding just a little extra sauce to it.  Then, cutting off small balls of dough, flattened them out with my hands, placed a small spoonful inside, and sealed it up, only to let it rise again.  By the time it was time for them to steam, they had grown into huge monstrosities, which once cooked, had exploded into ginormous buns of delicious goodness.  Now, the texture of the bread wasn't quite what I was looking for, but they tasted awesome, so I wasn't one to complain.  Perhaps next time, I will not let them rise so much.  And I definitely need to add more filling.

So there you have it!  The misadventures of a bored baker with endless possibilities still to be discovered and tried.  Although the baking portion of this blog will be put on hold, due to divine intervention in the form of a bi-continental job between here and Africa, I know that there will always be time for fun in the kitchen!!