Thursday, July 30, 2009

News Flash: House Update

Well, we actually saw a stove, refirgerator, and new 100-Liter water heater in the house! It's such a relief. There's still a lot (and I mean a lot) to be done, but for the first time in a while I have hope that Andrea's work will not nix the deal for lack of progress. It really will be down to the wire getting everything in the house ready, and may require us to live in it while the property is still being finished for a short while. At this time, that seems perfectly acceptable to me.

I called Irene to let her know, and she will drop by for an inspection some time today to approve or deny the request for more money. Keep your fingers crossed until then!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What's in the Pantry

I imagine most of the readers of this log know of my love of food. I consider myself a pretty good cook, and am probably even better at eating. Life in Kigali has changed the way I do both. Tonight I'll go over availability and touch on other issues later.

As you might imagine, The selections aren't the same here as in the US. Many of the foods we are accustomed to finding in supermarkets are much less available or simply unheard of here. Most types of breakfast cereals, crackers, tortillas, canned soups, almonds, and tahini spring to mind. Many foods are available, but only at a terrible price and with lower quality, such as my beloved bacon, most types of cheese (notable exception below), oatmeal, any kind of meat or poultry or fish, ice cream, pasta, and bread.

On the other hand, fresh fruits and vegetables are usually quite cheap. In fact, many are not only inexpensive, but of the absolutely highest quality. I've never had such good avocados as here. The tomatoes are really excellent as well. We love regularly eating fresh pineapple, mango, papaya, mandarine oranges, and a great local fruit called "tree tomatoes". Local potatoes are very good and cheap, though they come with a lot of dirt on them, which is different from the sterile-appearing ones back home. Local cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, and onions are cheap and good as well. Roasted salted peanuts are plentiful and sold everywhere, even by guys carrying buckets full through just about every neighborhood. All of the above are grown by very small farms, usually with hand implements only, and totally organic. Notable exceptions are those not grown locally such as apples, grapes, and lemons, which are usually imported from South Africa.

Cheese is great if you like the local Gouda, which we do. It's available absolutely everywhere, and it's cheap. It's quite a staple of our diet. It melts well and makes for a good macaroni and cheese, which is Zoe's favorite. Yogurt is pretty good as well, and very available, though different from home and not quite as cheap. Milk either comes in the Parmalat-type stay-fresh boxes that don't need refrigeration until they are opened or fresh. We've only found fresh milk from one brand so far, and almost only in whole milk. We do have one store that carries it in nonfat, but not always. It's very good, but we have had it spoil within a day of purchase a few times. It doesn't cost much more than in the US, but only comes in 500 mL bags (about an eighth of a gallon), which can be inconvenient. Incidentally eggs are fairly cheap and all free-range organic, since there are no industrial poultry farms.

Wine is universally expensive and mostly not exceptional, though I'm told this is in the process of improving. Beer is cheap if you buy local. The two big local brands are Mutzig and Primus, which are both fairly good. I believe they are both owned by Heineken but brewed here. Also brewed locally is "Guinness Foreign Extra," brewed in Ugunda but of course licensed by Guinness. I think true beer snobs would likely be appalled at these 33 Cl (11 oz.) bottles, but I'm not. I think it is very palatable and the price is right. As far as spirits, there is pretty good selection of gin and whiskey, less of rum and vodka and others, but the price is always awful. Bottled water is everywhere and not very expensive but we prefer to boil and filter our own.

NOTE: I still don't have any idea about the house. I've been told again that everything will come tomorrow. I honestly don't know how much longer this can go on before the deals fall through. I'll let you know when I do.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Construction update

I know that yesterday I said we would have some news one way or another. Well, I was wrong again. Maybe tomorrow. The house looks a little better than yesterday, which is nice. Still no kitchen. Patience.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Construction Issues

Well, watching and waiting on the renovation of our house has been good for teaching us a few lessons about patience and about how many things work here in Rwanda.

As you may have read in an earlier post, we have a contract on a house about a block from our current temporary furnished apartment. We like the landlady immensely. She is Rwandan, married to a Belgian (though he died a few years ago), who has settled in Spain since the war. Senora Eugenie is very outgoing, and switches from Spanish (directed towards me) to French (Andrea) to Kinyarwandan (without noticing it). We think she likes us too, as she has had several offers on the place but only considered ours seriously because she wanted a real family to live in her house.

During the war, she and her husband and their adolescent sons actually had to take shelter in a cold storage room in the very center of the house to stay safe from gunfire. So, as you can imagine, the house was worn pretty heavily in 1994. Fast forward to just over a year ago: Senora moved back to Kigali, with the notion of fixing the house up in a few months for rental, then returning to Spain. It was still in pretty crude shape the first time we saw it nearly two months ago. All the while, she's camped out in there, making it work for her.

Then we made a verbal agreement with her, and asked her to negotiate directly with Andrea's work since they pay the rent directly. In these sessions she admitted that she has run out of capital to buy materials and pay her workers. She requested a full-year's rent in advance in order to make it liveable for us. Andrea's work agreed to 6 months immediately, 6 months when we move in August 15th. The up-front payment was insured so that they will get the money back if it's not ready on time.

Well, last week, she waved me down as I passed by the property to tell me she's out of money again and needed 2 months more rent paid in order to finish.

This really floored us, since this place is far from what we would consider ready for living. In fact, Andrea's Operations Manager (Irene) came up to respond to the request and pointed out that 3 items had been completely done from a list of 15 we all agreed were necessary for occupying. Several of the remaining 12 were started, but not completed. For example, the shower surrounds, stove, fridge, kitchen cupboards, drapes, closet doors and shelves, etc. had all been chosen and (she says) paid for, but were not on sight or installed. The exterior was about 1/3 painted, and the interior not even close to that. the driveway was just over half done. And so on.

So Irene and Senora agreed on Thursday that the best way to demonstrate that she is capable of finishing on time is to come back on Monday (tomorrow) for a return inspection to show how much of this can be done in a short time. An audition of sorts.

Senora then had the unenviable task of lighting a fire under all the workers to go harder even though she would still not be paying them. And she had to get everything that has been bought into the house at least, if not installed. In record time.

The lesson in patience -in fact- is being taught by her. She has lived away from Rwanda long enough that the pace of the local workers drives her even crazier than it does us. Another particular of the local trade is that it seems as though half the work done seems to be undone in a later step. Ceramic tiles laid on the main entry staircase have been cracked or smashed by carelessly bringing ladders or heavy equipment up them with a few drops along the way. A wall that has just been painted completely beige gets sprayed yellow while putting the finishing touches on the nearby handrail. We're told this isn't a problem, they'll just paint the column again. Drop cloths or taping to avoid this? Just not the way it's done here. Same goes for paint all over the tile floors: "Don't worry, we'll get someone to scrape that up later."

Well, Zoe and I stopped by to check in this morning, and it is looking better. The painting is all done with the exception of the room Senora is sleeping in. The curtain hardware is in the house, and a sewing machine for the drapes themselves. The yard and retaining walls are being cleaned up a little. It looks a lot more ready. But still no real kitchen, no closets, no showers, unfinished driveway and guardrail in the high play area. We are so close, and yet so far. For all my questions about the progress on these issues, the answer is, "Manana." Tomorrow. I sincerely hope she understands that it is either tomorrow, or never for us. We really don't want to lose this place. It seems perfect for us. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Son of Zoe-isms

-Zoe's pronunciation of "spoon" = "tchoum"

-Tomato or potato in Zoese: "Table"

-Lately, she likes to call us over to the window shortly after sunset, and say, "Look, Mommy/Daddy, the Lights of Kigali!"

-Now she refers to herself not only as Little Cat, but also Baby Dolphin. She frequently will ask us to (pretend to) feed her fish, "dolphin food," and speaks in a squeaky chuckle.

-One sign that she's an expat in Africa: when she hears a truck engine from our back window, she will comment that "the generator turnin' on." Related: last weekend, after a few days of several-hour power outages, when we turned on the light in our bedroom, she looked up at it and said "We have power now for lights. No generator."

-Frequently she will demand that we, "Talk about it, Zoe's placemat," meaning she wants us to tell her more about the plastic world map placemat she uses. This phrase has come up quite a bit after the few movies she has seen, "Talk about funny people in movie again." Also in a few favorite books, on pages that have detailed and busy illustrations, simply pointing at the page, "Talk about it."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Literary Stuff


While in Thailand, Zoe and I went to the resort's library: a small, beautiful lending library of books in 5 or 6 languages. I did not find any sign indicating lending policies, and never saw a librarian. There was a sign outside indicating to remove shoes before entering, and we did.

I should explain a little background here. When we were packed out of New Orleans by the movers, we discovered that we had far too many possessions, or -more accurately- possessions that were far too heavy for the regulations allowing for overseas shipment of a family our size. We still don't understand how this occurred, since we were moving out of a 2-bedroom apartment that I have never heard described as large. We don't have bowling-ball collections or a lot of tools. I suppose one of the factors would have to be the large collection of reference books we have both collected in our professions. And our other books didn't help either, as we don't like to get rid of books we like, and I've built quite a collection of books in my "to read" files, but have never had time. So we had to cull more than 1500 pounds of household goods from our shipment to go to a storage unit in Minnesota, and that included 18 boxes (I believe) of books. I'm told that one box will come to Africa, and we have no idea which type of books they will be: cookbooks, novels, Zoe books. The irony of the situation drove me crazy: I would finally have time to really read like I want, and no books.

Back to Pimalai. Thanks to our siesta times, I had finished my historical whodunit. I knew I'd have a lot more time on my hands, so I picked up another one at the library, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House, and immediately was hooked. It's a nonfiction account of a murder in a locked English country house in 1860. It was a sensation that captured the attention of the whole nation and served as the model for countless fictional mysteries by writers of the time, such as Dickens and Wilkie Collins, as well as later writers including A.C. Doyle, Agatha Christie, and the like. Suffice it to say that when we left, I took the half-finished book with me. For mystery fans, I don't think I could recommend it highly enough.

Since returning to Kigali, I have read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a serialized novel directly and openly inspired by the details of the murder. It was a really wonderful read. I had never heard of Collins, and have since read of him that he was a friend and contemporary of Dickens, and that they were often compared. I have read a few Dickens novels and novellas, and do like him, but have always had to work a little to get involved. This was not a problem for The Moonstone. It was a fun and captivating work from the start, and plotted with impressive complexity. Kind of cool how I happened upon a book in a resort library that opens me up to an era and style of writing that I likely would not have read on my own.

Since leaving the United States about 7 weeks ago, I have read:

  • The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Crediton Killings by Michael Jecks
  • The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
  • O Jerusalem by Laurie R. King
  • The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  • The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (loved, loved it)
  • Tom Clancy's Op-Center: State of Siege (actually written by ____, I do recommend it as purely mindless action, though admit it is horribly written and with a strangely anti-United Nations agenda, quite sympathetic to the terrorists. Kind of like watching a Stallone movie).
  • and I am now firmly into For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.
  • I have also read about half each of The Expat Expert by Melissa Brayer Hess and Patricia Linderman and of Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift's food book How To Eat Supper: Recipes, Stories, and Opinions from Public Radio's Award-Winning Food Show.

When I look at a list like this it really amazes me, since last year I probably read three books total. It's hard to gather momentum in the five minutes before you fall asleep a few nights per week.

As far as the Children's Fiction Department, Andrea, Zoe, and I have read about 30 books cover-to-cover at least 10 times each. I wish to God I was exaggerating. We usually read two books at nap time, one or two at bedtime, one or two in bed in the morning, and one or two or more throughout the day. And now Zoe's nanny Consolee is doing her share as well. Somehow Zoe is the only one not totally sick of any of these, though she does take little breaks from each occasionally.

By the way, I have been able to buy a small cache of paperbacks from someone's moving sale (hence the Tom Clancy), and Nakumatt, our local "department store," does carry a rack of Penguin Popular Classics (hence The Moonstone), so we do have a handful of unread books to go. I have a feeling that any of you who come to visit will be bringing in a few books, whether you know it yet or not.

NEWS FLASH: At lunch today, Andrea brought home our first package of mail since arriving here. We get a DHL bag (mail only, no books or CDs usually) delivered from the Washington headquarters of Andrea's work about two or three times per month, and my Father's Day gift of a subscription to Time magazine began with the first issue. It was from a week ago, but it's still news to me, and I gobbled it up during Zoe's nap. And much more importantly, Zoe got three new books, including her first one here in French! We have read it to her no less than 15 times so far, and it hasn't been out of the package for more than 3 hours (again, no exaggeration necessary). Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Next Week in Our Story (Part 2 of 2)

So I guess I have been procrastinating the second half of this post. I was pretty pleased with the first one, and have been telling myself that the second should be better, and it has been a little daunting. Nonetheless, if I don’t get something on this subject out soon, it will likely not happen at all, so here goes.

The rest of the daily ritual

After Zoe’s (and sometimes my) long nap, the next step usually involved finding something to eat. Years ago, when Andrea and I visited Bangkok, we found street food incredibly good, safe (at least we were never ill), fresh, and cheaper than anything in a vending machine in the US. However, we were on the (rather large) compound of a 5-star resort. That’s not a complaint, but an observation that everything around us was pretty expensive, other than breakfast, which was included. So Zoe ate a lot of banana milkshakes (more like smoothies, no ice cream), and I ate appetizers and salads to keep the prices down. We went to the library a few times, which I will describe later. We went to the front desk to look through the bootleg DVD catalog. We watched a couple movies over the week.

This was the beginning of the low season, and so the place was relatively empty. So everywhere we went, the young Thai men and women adored Zoe and wanted so much to cuddle her or hug her or pinch her cheeks or to get her to say “Sawatdee Kha” back to them. It was a bit reminiscent of Eloise: Zoe and I were like beloved orphans living at the Plaza. By this time in the day, of course, we were rejoined by Andrea, and we were even happier. It was so fun for us to reunite that it intimidated Zoe a few times, and she would just stay silent and shy for awhile. This daily schedule was broken a few times (to my relief) of note.

Then one day Zoe and I were generously invited to participate in the team-building activity of the retreat: a half-day's Thai cooking class at a school nearby. We rode there in the back of a pickup truck with a canvas cover and benches, which Zoe found very adventurous. Then we had a little instruction before diving in with making 5 dishes: Tom Yam (a delicious, chicken soup with really bright fresh flavors and ingredients), glass noodle salad, Pad Thai (the national noodle dish), chicken with cashews, and Penang beef curry. Zoe helped us with prep work (she was in charge of tearing herbs), and took turns cooking. It was really hot, and the ice-cold beer and water flowed like wine. Surprisingly to us, we were on the last trip back to the resort. Every time another bus or pickup was going back, we asked Zoe if she'd rather go back or stay and cook more. She chose well, in my opinion, because we ate very well indeed, and will likely be able to reproduce some of these another time. We also left with a souvenir of a very cheap and very sharp Thai knife. I have accidentally bent the blade several times, but it goes right back and is still really sharp somehow.

The other "excursion" for us was actually within the resort. Zoe and I were again invited to have lunch with the retreat in order to see where they spent their days and to see Andrea some more. We took a shuttle up to the top of the hill where Pimalai's premier restaurants -and views- are. It was good to see some of Andrea's cohorts. It was good to have lunch with Andrea. It was good to eat some incredible food. And it was great to enjoy the views. Then we went back, napped, etc.

The Big Breakthrough

Somehow while we were there we discovered that Zoe is a really confident swimmer. For those of you who have seen her in the water, it is not astonishing news. But during this trip, she went from being pretty good at following drills in swimming lessons to really putting it all together in practice. And she deserves all the credit. I suppose it helps that we swam at least once every day we were there.

One of the last afternoons, Zoe and I were splashing around on some of the steps leading into the pool when she had the idea to jump from the steps, pushing off, and to swim underwater to me. The first time she did this I was about 4 feet away, and astonished. I lifted her up and told her how great that was. She responded by jumping out of my arms and pushing back to the step. She immediately turned around and did it again. I think we could have continued in this manner for a few days without eating or sleeping if it had been up to her. I gradually stepped back a little further from the steps to about 6 feet away. And I gradually started more practice with kicking and moving her hands, but she just likes to be underwater and moving. When Andrea met us and got in the water, we kept going, but also swimming underwater from Mommy to Daddy. It was really a rush for all 3 of us.

All in all, a great week. To learn how the trip back to Kigali went, read the first few paragraphs of the first Thailand post in reverse order. One notable difference was that we had several hours in the Addis Ababa airport, and actually had fun. We went for breakfast then did a lot of duty-free shopping (a lot of looking, a little buying). The Ethiopian duty-free ladies love Zoe and gave her a stuffed animal/backpack that she loves. Then we came home, and now we are all back to the present!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Independence Day!

Because my birthday is July 3rd, I have always been a little oversensitive to the name of our national holiday in July. Calling it "The Fourth of July" has always seemed a little silly. Whenever people would ask me about my birthday, I nearly always hear the reply of "Oh, that's the day before the Fourth!" I doubt very much that people born on December 24th hear "Oh, that's the day before the 25th!" It just seems like we have a national holiday to commemorate an important and specific event, and not just because it's an arbitrary date on the calendar.

Anyway, enough of my silly rant. It is my blog, after all, so here's where I get to say whatever harebrained idea I find interesting.

So we had a really fun time celebrating my birthday last night by going to a pizza / pasta restaurant in Kigali that was really wonderful. It is run by an Italian guy who has been here for many years, and is really a fun place. The pizza was really unusually good, and reminded me very much of Punch, near my folks' house in St. Paul. This is meant as a high compliment. And Andrea and Zoe gave me a couple of good Penguin Popular Classic paperback books (which are worth a mint to me as we have no books here), and a real food processor! It was made in Kenya and seems pretty good, though I haven't used it yet.

This morning we slept in a little and then went to the US Embassy where a cookout is held for U.S. expatriates annually. We ate hot dogs and hamburgers, drank beer and talked with other Americans. Zoe got her face painted and got to run on the lovely lawn. That has to be the best grass in Kigali. And the compound walls are the thickest, as well. Zoe even picked up a few trophies of the day: a white balloon with blue ribbon (Rest In Peace), a small US flag, and a pinwheel of the Stars and Stripes. She thinks the world of them, and who can argue with that. Then the ambassador read a statement from our president, that ended with "Have a great Fourth of July," or some such thing.

The photos were taken after Zoe's nap later in the day, on our porch. We couldn't bring our camera in to the event due to security concerns.

Friday, July 3, 2009


With my apologies to our friend Jane on my plagiarizing the title of this post, I hope to make a recurrent feature of things Zoe says that I find interesting. Today's issue will be simply pronunciation in Zoese:

  • "Bottom" = "Bobbin"
  • "Doing" = "Doodin"
  • "Stuff" = "Tuff"
  • "I" or "Me" or "Mine" = Zoe. Example: "Zoe not get Zoe's balloon. Zoe get Zoe's flag."
Also, she has given us code names: "Not Zoe. Little Cat. Dat not Daddy. Dat Goat. Dat not Mommy. Dat Big Cat."

And, lastly, she was pointing out something in the kitchen, and announced that it was not there. Then she quickly added, "Zoe just makin' joke."