Friday, February 22, 2013

Hanging Out, Making Jokes, and Eating Fruit

I still haven’t completely figured out the timing of jackfruit season, if there is a specific season for jackfruit, but I’m pretty sure it’s happening right now.  Over the past several weeks, at least a couple of times each week, some of my female neighbors have been bringing jackfruits back to our compound, and then all of the kids, and some other women, gather round while someone starts hacking up the fruit and distributing the pieces.  They have also started inviting me to these jackfruit-eating parties.  Okay, it might be a bit much to classify it as a party.  We just sit in the courtyard on plastic chairs eating fruit for half an hour, but I have to say that I have been enjoying it.

Jackfruit - I don't have any good pictures, so these are from Google
So, maybe I should start by explaining what a jackfruit is, since I had never seen one before coming to Uganda.  A jackfruit is a massive fruit (Wikipedia tells me that the biggest ones can weigh up to 80 pounds, can be 3 feet long, and can be 20 inches in diameter) with hard, prickly, green skin.  We don’t eat the skin.  People here usually use a little machete to hack the thing open.  The inside contains a bunch of thick, rubbery strands that are sort of a pale yellow color, and fairly large pods, which are a darker shade of yellow, are interspersed with these rubbery strips.  The pods, which contain the seeds, are also sort of rubbery and very sticky, but they taste good.  Some people have described the taste as a cross between a banana and a pineapple, or just as a tart banana.  In any case, it’s pretty sweet.  So, to eat the pods, you need to dig them out of the fruit, which is sometimes a little difficult, because they are attached to the inside of the skin and to the rubbery strips.  So, getting to the good part can be some work.  It’s usually worth it, though, and hacking into one usually becomes a big event, because, unless you think your stomach can handle eating pounds of candy-like fruit, you need a bunch of people around who are also willing to indulge themselves.

So, for the past few weeks, I have been taking part in the jackfruit-eating extravaganzas in our compound.  In fact, yesterday morning, as I was leaving for the office, the woman who cooks, cleans, and helps to take care of the kids inside the compound pointed to a bit jackfruit lying beside her and announced to me in half-English and half-Luganda that, when I got back from work that evening, we would eat it together.  And we did.

What it looks like inside
As might be imagined, I often become the topic of conversation during these little gatherings.  I don’t mind it, because the ladies always joke in a very good-natured way.  Some subjects include the length of my hair and the fact that one of the women says I should cut it off so that she can have it (I think it might look a little weird on her, though), the types of fruit I eat in the USA, and the offer that, once I produce children (that’s how it’s phrased here), I can bring the kids to one of the ladies for childcare.  She said that I just need to bring along money, milk, and some other Luganda word that I didn’t catch.  Oh, another favorite topic of conversation is the slow and meticulous way that I eat.  Most Ugandans shovel huge amounts of food into their bodies in short amounts of time (Dad and Luke would fit right in).  I can compete as far as the amount of food goes, but it takes my about twice as long to finish it.  Jackfruit is an even more extreme case, because I eat sweet things very slowly and don’t like to eat a ton.  So, I always request a small piece of jackfruit, which ends up being at least twice as big as I would prefer it to be, and which is roughly the same size as, if not smaller than, the piece the little four-year old girl gets, who is like an eighth my size.  And, while simultaneously dancing around the compound and firing seeds into the waste pile with the velocity of a spitball aimed at a teacher from the back of a classroom (important note: I never did that), she finishes her piece before I’m even halfway through with mine.

The pods that you dig out and eat
But, I think the most amusing conversation happened about two weeks ago.  One evening, as I was starting to eat dinner, one of the women knocked on my door.  After putting my plate down and eventually opening the door, I saw that she, some other women in the compound, and the kids had just cut open a huge jackfruit and were starting to dig in.  After protesting a few times, saying that I was already eating dinner, I gave in to their persistence, left my rice, beans, and veggies to sit inside, and came out and ate some jackfruit with them.  Eventually, the conversation turned to the fact that I still don’t have a wife (not an uncommon topic).  “John, when are you going to get a wife?  You need someone else in your place to chat with, so that you won’t eat dinner so early.”  (It was like 7 pm at this point.)  Then, they started planning the whole thing for me: “You will go back to America, find a kazungu (rough translation, a pretty little white girl), and bring her back to Uganda.  Then, you will have your wedding, we (the women in the compound) will be maids in the wedding, and then we will dance all night at Nabisere (the nice hotel just outside of town).”  So, it’s all set up.  We just have to, you know, find the kazungu…

So, why am I going on and on about eating jackfruit?  Well, I was filling out this report form that I have to periodically submit to Peace Corps this afternoon.  (By the way, the annoying form didn’t save correctly, even though I told it to save like five times, and I ended up having to fill the whole thing out again.  Not that this is relevant to our current discussion…)  One of the questions deals with integrating into the community, and I realized that, without even thinking about it, that is basically what I’m doing when I go outside and eat jackfruit with the other people in the compound.  Admittedly, it’s pretty easy for me to get lost in my work, to spend all day at the office and then come home, either to do a little more work or to just sit in solitude and relax.  I’m not saying that sitting in solitude is a bad thing.  In fact, true to my introverted self, I usually really enjoy it.  I’m just saying that, from time to time, it’s probably a good thing to break out of this cycle of work plans, schedules, and solitary relaxation, taking an opportunity to hang out with the people around me in a completely unstructured and unassuming way.  Of course, there are still differences between me and the other people sitting in those chairs, but, while I’m sitting there, I feel like I am becoming more a part of this tiny community within the compound.  This post isn’t about something any deeper than that.  We’re all just people, hanging out, making jokes, and eating fruit.