Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Let me show you the world in my eyes...

We now have a dear woman, Rani from Sri Lanka, who comes to clean 3 times a week (and boy does she clean, and iron, for which I want to kiss her feet) and stays later one of those days to watch the kids and let us go out (a major, major luxury as far as we're concerned!)

She has long, long black hair with a little curl to it, dark glowing cinnamon skin, and while I am used to thinking of myself as somewhere between short and average, next to the Indian, Sri Lankan, Napalese and Filipino folk I am a giant! Most of these people are tiny in comparison to Americans who grew up with good nutrition. I tower over Rani, but she makes up for it in personality, and is stubborn as all get-out about putting things away on the high shelves.

When she comes in it's like a whirlwind, shaking out rugs, scrubbing and washing everything in her bare feet. At first she tried to stop me from doing any sort of work, but I explained that we should be a team and clean and tidy together (here she looked at me like a big dog contemplating a small one) and made sure she knew that the kids are not excempt from helping either.

She is a grandmother, who tells stories endlessly in a singsong voice about her past, her relatives, things in the news that affect Sri Lankans, and so forth. Her world is a much smaller one than mine, but very rich in relationships. The kids both love her. She calls Thomas "Tom-see" or "Thomas-see". While all people here love children, Sri Lankans have the reputation of being especially gentle and loving to them, and I have seen this in my daily travels.

She is also a terrible enabler who thinks all English (pretty much all Caucasians are considered "English") women should lie down in the afternoons at a minimum so as to not strain their delicate sensibilities.

I actually took a nap with Thomas the other day.

Completely inconceivable!

Of course, she also just might want me out of the way while she's trying to clean.

I badgered her into letting me watch her cook Sri Lankan cuisine. At first she tried to have me go to the store and pick up what she needed but I realised that having her go with and tell me all about what she was getting (and ask about the other unfamiliar fruits and vegetables ) would work out far, far better for me than to come home with all the wrong ingredients. At the store, despite having a bad leg, she refused to let me carry the basket, so I bought only what she said we needed for the meal, deciding to come back some other time for heavy things.

While she cooked for us for the first time she patiently took me through the recipe for Sri Lankan Chicken Curry as I carefully wrote everything down.

The resulting curry not only made our house smell amazing, it was gobbled down by everyone including the kids!

The next time I will cook it and have her correct the mistakes I make. Here is my best approximation of what she did:

Rani's Sri Lankan Curry

Take one chicken, remove the skin if desired, and cut it up into medium sized pieces. (to take up the spices madam, if not cut there is no tasting good madam.)

Put the pieces in a large bowl and wash the chicken with salted water. Drain.

add the following:

2 or more coursely chopped red or green chili peppers
1 large yellow onion, chopped into small pieces
1 "large spoon" (tbsp?) hot powdered chili. Super, damned hot. That's the one.
1 tbsp powdered coriander
1 tbsp powdered jeera (don't know what this is, but it smells good)(edited: it's cumin)
1 "small spoon" (tsp?) salt
1 coarsely chopped tomato
2 tbsp tomato paste
a serious drizzle of sunflower oil (she called this "a little bit")
6 (or so) cloves of chopped garlic

Mix it all up with your hands, then transfer it to a large skillet and cook over medium heat. Add boiling water as desired when the chicken is almost all the way cooked through to make the amount of sauce you'd like, or let it cook down for a "dry" version.

Serve with Basmati rice and Naan or Parantha bread (so, so tasty!) to dip in the sauce.

If you have leftovers (it is a whole chicken, after all) be warned, they will be spicier the next day!

I had bought the Basmati rice, sunflower oil and also a bag of the chili powder without worrying about whether I already had some at home. Rani found me out and was indignant about my wasting money. "We'll eat it eventually" I protested, though I gave her the extra bag of chili powder to take home, earning forgiveness and gratitude in spades.

Rani cooks on two old hot plates outside of her little maid's room, feeding not only herself but often her daughters and other relatives who live in the area, walking to each one and dropping off their dinners in reused grocery bags. She grows many vegetables in pots on her doorstep, which she adds to her cooking.

Rani was asking me about the US. "It is very hot there, Madam?"

Some parts are hot, but not where we are from. I tried to describe the geography of the Pacific Northwest and realised that I was being too specific. So I pulled up a map of the US on Google. I could tell from her face that she'd never seen it before. I backed out a bit and found one of the world, showing her where Sri Lanka is, then Dubai, then the US, so she could see how big and how far away it is. I pointed to the northern states, saying they were cold, and the southern states, saying they were hot, showed her where D.C. is, for where the president lives, and California, for where they make American movies. Then I found some photos of the kids beneath the tall evergreens in our back-home backyard and some photos from camping to give her an idea of how different it is.

Our home in the states was pronounced "Very good, very beautiful Madam."

I think so too.

She definitely has a small world mindset though. The first day I picked her up to bring her to our villa, in an effort to communicate her honesty and trustworthiness she told me stories about people stealing things off her porch; a bag of rice, for instance. She proclaimed this must have been done by "Pakistanian, madam, Pakistani very naughty people, very naughty."

"You don't like Pakistani people?" I asked with a carefully neutral voice.

"I think these people bad," she said.

"Oh," I replied, "You know, our gardener Ajas is Pakistanian, and he is very nice. We like him very much and he is kind to our children."

I let that cook, figuring that if there was going to be a problem, best to find out about it early.

When we got to Gecko House Ajas was there with his bicycle. Rani immediately went to him. "Hello brother," she said to him, and I introduced them to one another, Ajas smiling as they shook hands. A Pakistani Muslim and Sri Lankan Christian, apparently there will be peace in our household, at least.

On the drive home on that first day, Rani asked me "Are Americans good people, madam?"

How do you answer a question like that? I hesitated, I hope not for too long. "Yes, I think so" I told her. "I think they try very hard, and are good and caring inside." I also hastened to add, "There is always someone in every country who is bad, but I think most people are good."

She seemed content with that answer. I had already pleased Ajas the day before when he asked me about George W. Bush. "You like him, madam, yes?"

"Not so much," I told him. "I do not like what he is doing with Pakistan." (Here Ajas looked both surprised and gratified) "I do not think he should send military into Pakistan without their permission. It is not his country, so he should ask before doing such things. I do not think most Americans approve of this." I thought Ajas' face would split from his wide smile. Every day we talk for a little bit, and I hear about his family. He is the only gardener amongst his siblings, 10 brothers and 3 sisters. I told him his mother will go straight to heaven. He was tickled too, when she called him on his mobile while he was here, and that I got to see that his mother made time to call him.

Our little household is becoming a home.


Jean said...

Geez, Natalie. If Rani insists that you curl up on the comfy couch with a steamy novel, then do it. She probably thinks you're trying to horn in on her time and her turf by insisting on helping with the cleaning.

Take advantage of the good life now. Things will be different when you get back to the good old US of A.

Carol said...


I sent you a message awhile back and haven't heard from you yet. Hopefully I'm doing this right. I miss you and would love to chat. Do you have e-mail yet? Give everyone kisses & hugs for me!

Love ya babe!
Carol C.

tami said...

I just read this post... How did you find Rani? Also, i can't remember her name but do you think it is possible to get a hold of someone similar to that lady that showed you around when you first got there? I know you are on vacation but when i read your blog i gotta post the questions as i think of them....

Natalie said...

No worries...Rani was a friend's maid who was looking for more work. Not exactly legal to share maids, but extremely commonplace. You can go through a service or by word of mouth or check advertisements on Expatwoman, etc. Especially when people are leaving, if they liked their maid they will be looking to find placement for her so she can stay in the UAE with a new family.