A while back I was watching a late-night talk show on which Tom Cruise was a guest. It was one of the episodes where they wheel out a portable kitchen counter and summon a celebrity chef, who bangs together a pre-conceived dish in a minute flat just in time for the credits to roll. As is common, once Wolfgang Puck or whoever got cooking, Tom Cruise naturally joined in to 'lend a hand'. I'm sure he was well-intentioned, but it became evident early on that, from the apprehensive and awkward way he prodded whatever was sauteeing in his assigned fry-pan, Tom Cruise is a guy who does not do much of his own cooking. And me on the couch thought, “If I am ever famous enough to go on Leno, and Wolfgang Puck is a guest the same night as me, I will grasp that spatula like a pro and totally own those aubergines and everyone on their respective couches will say, hey, will you look at that Scott guy, he really knows his way around a kitchen, he doesn't have a personal chef or anything, he's just a normal person!” and my books/albums/fitness videos will consequentially sell like hotcakes.
But in rural Uganda we are not just 'normal people'. We are the bourgeois: we are people who have enough spare time and money to care about things like 'anti-oxidants' and 'the blogosphere' and 'oscar-buzz'. As in,
“Hey, have you heard? The fruit of the baobab tree is absolutely packed with anti-oxidants. It is the next super-food. It is the next goji berry.”
“Really? Huh. That is good to know, because two baobab fruits are all I have eaten in the past twenty-four hours. Also, I live in a building the size of your guest bathroom.”
Anyway, this is all pertinent to when, at Lake Nkuruba Nature Reserve & Community Campsite just outside of Fort Portal, Uganda, Alanna and I decided to save a few bucks (literally, like, two dollars) and cook our own dinner the final night. There wasn't a public kitchen, just the staff one for the camp's restaurant, but we asked if we could use it to cook some pasta and Jane, the timid, smiling young woman in charge kindly agreed. She led us into a small chamber with a rough concrete counter along one wall. The counter had two holes in the top with bars across like prison windows. The walls were covered in probably an inch of soot. There were no 'appliances', per se, just a few metal utensils and a yellow jug, presumably full of cooking oil.
Now I do fancy myself as knowing my way somewhat around a kitchen, and I've done much cooking in less-than-lavish conditions, such as on camping trips and the like, and over our time in Africa Alanna and I have concocted some very good meals in all kinds of ill-equipped and unconventional facilities. But when I stepped into that room, all of a sudden I was Tom Cruise. Except I was worse than Tom Cruise, because I'm sure that, in a pinch, he'd at least know how to turn the stove on.
Jane was kind enough to help. After adding some fresh firewood, she used a small plastic bag and a few splashes of liquid paraffin (not cooking oil in the jug after all) as fire-starter. She then left us alone in order to split more logs outside. As we watched the plastic sputter and smoke over the firewood, it occurred to me that this is the way in which much of the food we'd been eating over the past months has been cooked – beautiful flatbreads, tender fish, intricate curries – all produced over what most westerners would identify as 'an incinerator'.
And there was more. We filled a pot and brought water to a boil (really quickly, I might add) and got our pasta cooked. But then, how to remove it from the flame? This was a problem. There were some oily pieces of cardboard folded into what seemed like potholders, but of course they'd just catch fire. The solution was easy: Jane, intuiting our helplessness, simply reached down bare-fingered and plucked the pot off the stove. I guess if you've been cooking this way since you were six years old, you can do that kind of thing.
For the fifteen minutes it took for our fusili to cook, Alanna and I alternated going into the kitchen to stir the pot with a fork. This solicited chuckles from Jane and the two other camp employees lounging outside – We weren't sure why exactly, but by now we're accustomed to mystery amusement on our behalf. Earlier in the day we walked down the road to a small town, and got some chuckles from a group of girls after we said hello, and I thought, why are you laughing at me? You are the one walking down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere with a big wooden bench balanced on your head! But that's the way it goes when you don't speak the language. Anyway, cooking in the kitchen, it wasn't until we'd gone and drained the pasta together (that was too funny) that the other woman, whose English was a little better than Jane's, informed us that it was of course the fact we were cooking together – that I was participating at all – that was amusing. She then went on a short, lighthearted yet still fairly serious diatribe against the frustrations of gender roles in Uganda, much to the embarrassment of the man present, who had to leave. “You go and iron all the man's shirts, and then he wears one for two minutes and fwit!– he throws it on the floor,” she explained. She told us how much she admired the way we did things. I said something to the effect of, “we cook together, we clean together, we laugh together...” and this garnered whoops of laughter and a high-five between the two women.
So the chuckles we get on the street are possibly just along the lines of, ha ha, look at that man and woman, walking down the street like equals, what a hoot! And if I were offended by that, well, I'd have to be a barbarian, wouldn't I?
We haven't wanted to jinx anything by saying so, but since by the time this entry hits the press we'll be in the air on the way home so I think we can put it out there – over all this time in Africa we have not once felt in danger or experienced firsthand any the criminality that is supposed to be so prevalent here. We've certainly been out and about, and I think Alanna and I both expected at least something, whether it be some bills disappearing out of a back pocket or a small border-post bribe. But over the course of the whole trip, we'd been getting by scot-free.
Until Lake Nkuruba Nature Reserve & Community Campsite, that is...
And we saw neither him nor the cards...
Note: his name may not be Aldrin. His name may be some other name that we misheard through a thick Luganda accent as Aldrin when we asked Jane what his name was. Adrian, maybe. We sure hope his name is Aldrin though.