Written and Posted from Hong Kong
I'm sitting upstairs surrounded by 7 happy babies, watching Aladdin for the hundredth time in a week, humming along to that song where Aladdin becomes Prince Ali and rides through the town on the monkey-turned-elephant. I look up in time to see the two directors of the volunteer program peering into the room, asking if they can talk to me for a minute. Flashback to that moment as a babysitter when I worried that maybe Mrs. Brenner KNEW that I didn't make her cute little boys brush their teeth before putting them to bed and THAT'S what she wanted to talk to me about. Except that no, she just wanted to give me a present for my 13th birthday (a candle! phew!). And this time, the directors just wanted nothing more than for me to cook a western meal for 25 people that night, people who included the babies in the room, babies who had, until that night, eaten a diet exclusively consisting of rice and daal. Why oh why didn't they just have a stupid candle for me?!
I settled on spaghetti and meatballs, a salad without lettuce, bruschetta, and ice cream and cookies. Typical Nepalese kitchens don't have an oven, so anything that couldn't be cooked over an open flame was out. And I was cooking for at least 25 people, so I needed big quantities. Big quantities at affordable prices, since we were talking about a meal that was being paid for by people who build orphanages and schools and finance micro-credit loans for a living. Except that it's impossible to cook western food in Nepal for affordable prices, especially if you want to make such exotic things as spaghetti! The total bill came to about $90, which is CRAZY-high by Nepalese standards. Then again, I ended up feeding about 35 people, which is CRAZY-lot of people on short notice, even by my standards.
The meatballs were a buff-chicken mix. Not buff as in, "hey, that shirt makes you look really buff" but buff as in water buffalo. Because in places where the cow is holy, the water buffalo is a tasty treat. The spaghetti didn't turn out quite right because the Nepalese household in charge of cooking the spaghetti didn't understand that you don't turn the water OFF once it boils and the pasta goes in (like you'd do with, say, RICE), but that you boil the pasta right there, IN the boiling water (oh the insanity!). The meatballs (all 70 of them) took forever to make because we could only cook 5 at a time in this teeny tiny little pan. But the bruschetta was some of the best that I've ever made, if I do say so myself, and the salad actually had real vinegar in it (and bonus!, it didn't make anyone sick, which is huge, considering it actually contained real raw vegetables).
The absolute highlight of the evening occurred when I walked into the kitchen at the orphanage and saw my Didi (Nepali for big sister) eating the entire meal in one big bowl -- spaghetti, sauce, meatballs, parmesan cheese, salad, bruschetta, all mixed together in an Italian-style jumble, complete with extra salt and a few chilies thrown in for flavor. She looked up at me from her bowl, spoon poised above what had essentially become a bowl of American-Italianized Daal Bhatt, and said, "ekdam mikto chaa!" which is Nepali for "very delicious!" I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she was totally and completely lying but I didn't care at all, not even one little bit, because half of the people who ate dinner that night had never even seen spaghetti, kind of like I'd never even seen daal bhaat before I started eating it twice a day, and there's just something about cooking your brother's birthday dinner (minus the cake) in a little town outside of Kathmandu, using a teeny tiny pan and one burner and no power, that is the kind of thing that makes you realize that the world isn't so big after all, and that sometimes home is only as far away as an overpriced jar of green olives and cooking dinner for an impromptu hodgepodge family.