Tag Archives: new experiences

Out and About

I break apart a banana chip. “Good girl! Good boy!” One crumb goes to Dedalus, and the second to Icarus.
“Wooooo,” I say to Dedalus.
In answer, she makes the burbling trill that is the parrots’ approximation of the English “Hello.” So does Icarus, always hopeful for a treat.
“Silly girl! WOOOOOOOOO.”
This time she makes the correct noise, and delicately accepts her banana chip due. Next to her, Icarus starts doing flips, clambering around and around the axis of my finger. Humans like that trick.
“Beggar,” comments cmoore, the owner of the caique parrots.
I take pity on Icarus. “Can you FLIP?”
He does, but pauses hopefully upside down before completing the turn.
“C’mon, you can do better than that. FLIP!”
This time he makes it in one smooth motion, and I give him another piece of banana chip. The piece is a bit bigger (they’re hard to break when the slices are thick), and while he takes it with his beak, he immediately transfers it to his left foot and nibbles it, perfectly balanced on the other foot.
When he’s done, I ask both parrots, “Can you FLAP?”
They don’t always distinguish between flip and flap, but this time both sets of wings flutter for a moment. I treat them both before moving my hand up to transfer them to my shoulder. Dedalus flies off at that point, but Icarus starts “surfing,” rubbing his head and beak against my shoulder and the fabric of my collar. It tickles.

Over the past half-week, I’ve played with parrots, eaten half a mango, examined lemons growing on a tree, went to my first-ever Zumba class, and harvested organic baby spinach (while wishing I’d brought a t-shirt). You would never guess that I’m in Massachusetts — at least not until I look out the window and describe the lingering foot and a half of snow from last week’s snowstorm, or mention that the spinach was grown in a hoophouse. I also hauled my suitcase for more than a block over uneven ice, helped shovel cmoore’s driveway from the snow the night before last, tried and liked tempeh (tempeh is a fermented soy product in the same general family as tofu. I’d had it before, but only in college dining halls, and feel that no food should be judged by how it’s prepared in a dining hall), and went snowshoeing for the first time. (Snowshoeing is awesome. It’s rather unfortunate that Philadelphia mostly doesn’t get enough snow to ever do it.)

I am on vacation. It’s been five days since someone last said to me, “Don’t get smart with me!” (Not that I’m counting.)

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy my job — in fact, two of the main reasons I enjoy it are exactly the same reasons I’m enjoying this vacation: the people I get to hang out with, and the things I get to do. Working where I do, with the students I teach, is an education. (I usually try not to let the students see just how much of an education it can be some days. Doubtless there are people who can pull off naivete without loss of street cred, but I don’t think that I’m one of them.) And not just the students; many of the opportunities we arrange for our students are things I’d never done before, either.

I hadn’t even heard of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology or Esperanza College before getting this job, and now I’ve visited both of them. Last month we went to a trauma center with some of the Healthcare students, and got a really good presentation on gun violence, and the realities of gun violence. (It was a bit gory, but only in the form of a powerpoint presentation, and there was a nice mixture of personal-to-the-audience and this-is-how-it-is and young-man-can-you-please-lie-down-on-this-gurney-and-we’ll-explain-to-the-class-what-we-would-do-if-you-came-in-with-multiple-gunshot-wounds. I found the whole thing fascinating, even the gory parts. Hey, what can I say? I’m a writer. I trade in words, and I trade in information. Knowledge is valuable currency; you never know when it could come in handy.)

A few weeks ago we visited a law firm, and while that presentation was less interesting, the snacks were excellent, and the trip was worth it just for the view of snow-covered center city Philadelphia from an 18th-story window. In March I’ll be one of the lucky staff members who chaperones a group of students to Puerto Rico for a week over Spring Break. (And while I don’t really feel comfortable asking the community for money again when everyone was so generous about Zambia, I do need to raise $400 towards the cost of the trip, and I would be grateful for any of that that doesn’t come out of my stipend. It’s a wonderful opportunity for our students, for whom the trip is almost free. If you would be willing to contribute, the link is here, or I won’t turn down personal checks.)

Which is not to say that I’m not wholeheartedly enjoying this chance to hang out, laze about, and not have to interact with my students for a week.


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Not a post for the squeamish

I killed a chicken this morning.

I was lying awake in bed, looking at the amount of light filtering in through the little window and the big curtain, and wondering if it was time to get up. I had, in fact, decided that it probably was, but had not yet extracted a hand from the mosquito net to check my phone and verify this.
There was a loud squawking from somewhere outside my room, and the sound of Moses having a discussion with some people whose identities I could not quite ascertain.
Me? I can’t kill a chicken!”

I figured that this was as good a time to get up as any, so I did, but by the time I emerged from my room, there was no sign of a chicken, or, in fact, of anyone but Moses. I figured that whatever show had been going, I’d missed it, so I proceeded to boil a guineafowl egg to supplement the banana scone and peanut butter I was having for breakfast, and lamented the fact that I had not bothered to walk to the market yesterday to acquire more mangoes.

As I was finishing my breakfast, Beauty showed up, and then Luyando joined her as I was washing the dishes, and the subject of the chicken resurfaced.
“I can’t kill a chicken!”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I just can’t!”
“Where is it?” asked Beauty.
“There, in that room.” (the storage room)
“You kill it, and I’ll do the rest.” Motion to indicate pulling out feathers.
“Moses, do you want me to kill your chicken for you?” I participated in chicken butchery at Mboole, but the chicken had been dead and plucked when we got there. I’ve felt for several months that I ought to buy a live chicken and kill, prepare and eat it while I’m here, since it’s the most readily available form of chicken, and while I’m an unrepentant omnivore, I’ve never killed anything larger than a mouse. But I haven’t seen any for sale at a point that I needed a chicken, and it’s a lot of meat for just one person, and the feathers are somewhat intimidating, as is the whole concept of acquiring a live chicken in general.
You? You want to?”
“I’ve never done it before, but there’s a first time for everything.” I will admit that I take a great deal of pleasure in breaking people’s expectations of what I can and will do.
Luyando broke in, “Where?”
“There, where Beauty is.”
“On the shelf?”
There was a great deal of squawking and struggling as the chicken was found and removed from the storage room, but as the its feet were tied together, it didn’t have much chance. Luyando took it outside, Moses went in his room, and Beauty got the best of the bad lot of knives from the kitchen of the wooden house.

Then she turned and offered it, handle-first, to me, and drew her other hand across her throat. “You will do it?”
“Er, okay.”

I took the knife and went outside, where Luyando had the chicken restrained, one foot on its wings and the other on its feet. I grasped the head and commenced sawing the blade across the chicken’s neck.

It made absolutely no impression, and the chicken lay there calmly, looking at us. I went inside and traded the knife for one of the good knives I got for my birthday. It still didn’t do much.
“Close,” Luyando said, indicating the hollow where the neck met the head.
I readjusted my hold and moved the knife there. It still took a surprising amount of work, although I’m not sure why it should be surprising, given how tough village chicken are to chew, but the knife sliced cleanly. The chicken lay quiet as the blood began to splatter, only cawing and struggling when I had cut a good way through the neck, when the knife was blood-soaked, just before I severed the spine. The head suddenly swung loose, connected only by a bit of tissue, and I let it go to flop next to the body.
“Like that?”
We watched as the muscles twitched aimlessly, and I bent to wipe the blade of my knife on the thick grass.

I took my knife back inside and added it to the pile of dishes. As I finished rinsing, Luyando took the limp, feathery body inside and deposited it in a bowl under the sink to wait for the water to finish boiling.

Later, I watched Moses flop the body about in the bowl of water, pulling off feathers.
“I’ve never seen this done before,” I commented.
We talked a bit about chicken in the States, how meat comes in the grocery store, frequently unrecognizable. How there are kids who grow up without ever seeing the animals their food comes from.
“I can’t even imagine that.”
“What do people do with the feathers? Just throw them out?”
Moses nodded and turned his attention to yanking out tailfeathers, and the conversation languished for a bit. Then, “I have never done this before. It will make me not want to eat chicken.”
“Then what was the point of me killing it?”
“I can’t make it alive again!”
“Why have you never done it? Is it a woman’s job?”
He nodded. “If a woman were doing this, it would be done already, and it would look nicer.” He indicated the stray feathers he had missed, lone and sopping, like some sort of bizarre goosepimpled combover.

He butchered it as I wrote this. I think it’s in the fridge now; all traces are gone except for the small bit of blood among the plants under the trees, and three black feathers on the rocks next to the house.

It was both easier and harder than I expected. Physically harder, and I can see how the Dutch kids might have had a traumatizing experience while attempting to slaughter their chicken, and needed to resort to breaking its neck. But emotionally, psychologically, easier. My hands were completely steady holding the chicken’s head, and as I washed my knife afterwards, and at no point did I feel shaky the way I did after (badly) bludgeoning the mouse to death with a broom handle.

I think it’s a good thing to know where your food comes from, the meat as well as the plants, and to participate, at least occasionally, in that process.


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