It’s been a long time since I’ve written.
In the last two months, I’ve visited ICOM (the International Conference on Missions), unpacked and repacked twice, spent time with friends, celebrated Thanksgiving, and generally spent a lot of time cleaning and trying to get back into a routine after PNG. Oh, and let’s not forget, we got to go to Papua New Guinea!!!
I want to talk about that experience and unpack some of the things I felt God showing me there, but not yet. Tonight, I’m feeling inspired to talk about one of the unexpected lessons I took away from our time overseas: health.
While our time in PNG was far from rigorous physically, we heard a lot of the health horror stories that can affect long-term missionaries, or nationals, for that matter, in the country. Bar far the most persistent threat is the sun, which beams down a lovely 12 hours a day. Thanks to the heat of the sun, PNG stays hot and muggy year-round, scarcely leaving the 80-90 degree F range (25-32 C). The heat alone means you need water, and lots of it! Some of the ladies in the office frequently holler “Water!” to remind everyone to drink plenty. The intense tropical sun means you also need good skin protection to avoid sunburn and skin cancer. I thought my 70 SPF would sustain me with a few reapplications for a day out on the water. Wrong! The sun has a great knack for finding unprotected spots and burning them anyways. Hats and clothing are a good idea if you are as pale as me, or if you’re taking Doxy to prevent malaria.
Then there’s the challenge of food.
Papua New Guinea is blessed to be a country with abundant resources. In Madang, where we stayed, there was no lack of choice for food. Thanks to the grocery stores (that’s right, plural!) in town, shopping for a bite to eat could also be fairly convenient. Our first week, for lunches, we bought what we might normally eat in the states: peanut butter jelly sandwiches. Unfortunately, the stores consist almost entirely of imported food from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. On top of that, the food that is imported is what they think the average national buy (read, what they will be able to afford). This unfortunately means food that is highly processed, containing little or no nutritional substance.
Now, truly, I don’t expect that the average Papua New Guinean shops as much at stores like these as we expats (short for expatriate) do. At these stores, I came face to face with one of my biggest shortcomings: I don’t know how to prepare much food without it coming from a can, mix, or box.
After a week of eating our peanut butter jelly sandwiches, I was pretty sick and tired. From what I could read of the nutrition labels, we were consuming an extraordinary amount of high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and manufactured goop. At the same time, I could walk through the market, marveling at the buffet of delicious fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish available for much cheaper than my grocery store bill: papaya, avocado, boiled peanuts, cabbage, carrots, coconut, onion, garlic, yams, taro, leafy greens, pineapple… What a shame, to be missing out on that array of food for something less that would crush my body in a few years!
Watching and helping my peers cook that month, I realized just how far behind I was in cooking knowledge. With a few ingredients and some spices from home, they could whip up delicious pizzas, tacos, salads, and a whole variety of dishes from around the world. Their grocery bills were much lower, and, to top it off, they were much healthier than we were in the states.
So, inspired, as I sometimes am, I resolved to learn to cook from scratch. My official goal was to cook nothing from a box for the next year, but I knew I would need to bend the rules from time to time (I am still a full-time student, after all). I am incredibly excited about this. November, while crazy, was a bit of a trial period for my resolution. I started buying more produce, and planning my meals around it and its shelf life. I also snuck more vegetables into the cheesier, starchier dishes (sorry honey). In a few weeks, following recipes came more and more naturally. This last week was an incredible success, which is what really inspired me to write this post!
The biggest factor in healthy eating, in my opinion, is planning. If you don’t plan, and then prepare, to have healthy, whole foods available, you will lapse back into the easy, packaged foods. I’ve experienced this in the past when I tried to eat healthier. I bought whatever produce and foods seemed good at the store and tried to figure out what to do with them after. Not only did I end up resorting to Hamburger Helper when my hodgepodge of food failed to yield something tasty, I also ended up letting a lot of it go to waste.
Kudos to you if you’ve stuck around with this post so far without giving up.
There is another factor that has stumped and frustrated me many times before: sifting through the piles of information and claims about what makes a “healthy” lifestyle. Really. It’s annoyingly hard when you know little to nothing. I can’t offer a lot of advice, but I will say that Ted-Ed has some great shorts available that outline general dietary advice as well as the science behind healthy eating. It was fascinating to learn and helped me maintain steam towards my goal.
Last but not least, a big piece in our personal health puzzle is exercise. When we experienced just how rugged PNG is, we realized we will in for a lot of difficult trekking during our upcoming first term. Of course, plenty of people had warned us about that, but we didn’t take it to heart until October. With healthy eating and nutrition already on my radar, I knew it was time to start working more intentionally on my strength and endurance.
So, to conclude a bit, I was really, really inspired to work on my health after our trip to PNG. After a month of intentional eating and semi-regular, targeted exercise, I have noticed that I am more energetic, less ill, and certainly stronger. My confidence as a woman and homemaker has risen dramatically. I am inspired to make more food from scratch and am finding that I love, love, love fruit! I think about hydration on a regular basis. I’m happier with my body, just the way it is, knowing that it’s not my shape or weight but rather nutrition that dictates my energy and mood. I am really looking forward to seeing what changes over the new year in my kitchen and in our lives as we prepare to live in Papua New Guinea!
Cover Photo: A plate full of yummy local food cooked for us by a national, including chicken, boiled green beans, pineapple, aupa with carrots, cook banana, and kaukau (potato).