The mushroom bugs

I’m not a big fan of bugs.  It’s not because they’re creepy or gross (though they certainly can be), it’s mainly because they eat my vegetables and sting me all the live long day.   My mortal enemy, the mosquito, is a bug.  But some are good, like ladybugs, who eat other bugs.  And the honey bee is amazing and the bumblebee is adorable.  But termites, well, termites are in a class by themselves.

I wrote this other post over here about them, so I won’t go into all the helpful things they do.  Instead, this post is about the glory that is the omajowa (oh-ma-yo-va), the giant edible mushroom that these tiny termites grow this time of year.

“Omajowa” is Herero for “mushroom” and is the name most Namibians use for these things.  In Latin, it’sTermitomyces schimperi.  In German, Termitenpilz.  In English, extraordinary.  A termite mound will sprout only once a year, if at all, but often with legions of these fungi, enough to feed the foraging folks who find them, and their family, all for free.  Only rain is needed.  And those crazy little termites.  They actually cultivate them, in an underground fungus garden from which they feed.  And for some reason, between December and February, the fungus gets out of control and shoots skyward.

So when a “weather expert” told us shortly after New Year’s that the rain was gone – what we got til then was all we were going to get – I wanted to punch him.  Instead, with memories of last year’s long days of drought and the realization that we hadn’t found a single omajowa this year, I cried.  No joke.  I take the rainy season just that seriously.  But someone took pity on us, and after three dry and depressing weeks the rain came back, and that is when I found this:

It may not look like much, but after a few years of rainy seasons in this country, I’ve learned to pick out white blobs at the bottom of termite mounds, no matter how obscure they might be.  If you want mushrooms, you learn.  And that wee white bit at the bottom left of the mound, turned out to be this little dude, not even open yet:

And around the back, these guys were pushing up through dirt so hard we needed a shovel to get them out:

All in all, we found 13 mushrooms on this mound.  I was so terribly excited that I ripped my shirt on the acacia trees while running back and forth from mound to car – first to get my camera, then to put it back and get a shovel, then back to get the camera again, then once more to load the booty.  Due to my bumbling, I’m afraid Jay ended up doing most of the work. He didn’t seem to mind though, omajowa are worth it.

Since we had more work to do on the farm, lunch had to wait, but still I searched for mushrooms.  The hunt is half the fun – your senses, along with your heartbeat, pick up a notch knowing that they could be lurking around any corner.  So about an hour later, when more were spotted, we scooped them up in triumph.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERABut these aren’t just pick-and-run mushrooms; you have to carefully wiggle them out.  Beneath the ground is a chunky, yet fragile, stem that’s perfect for battering and frying.  And bonus points if you get the tail, too.  It’s too hard to be palatable, but it’s weird and, therefore, worthy of acknowledgement.

the tailAnd so with another 8 loaded onto the truck, enough for a feast for us and the entire farm staff, the world felt right again.

The rain has continued on and off since then, at least enough to keep the mushrooms growing.  When we found the record for this year, 25 on one mound, we had to lay some of them out to dry.  Two meals a day of mushrooms (incomprehensibly, Jay draws the line at breakfast) was not enough to eat them all before they expired.  The all-time record though, was a couple of years ago.  One mound, 36 mushrooms.

And here’s probably the biggest I’ve ever found:

So the termites have confirmed their spot on my acceptable bug list, and though they would improve their rating should they start eating mosquitoes, there they will remain as long as they keep making mushrooms.  Because without the omajowa, life in Namibia just wouldn’t be as much fun.

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An ode to rain

Rain is a precious thing in Namibia.  It’s precious in a lot of places.  But I grew up surrounded by water; every season was a rainy one.  Sunny days were the golden nuggets in the world of the perma-cloud.  However, here it is the sun, the sun after sun after sunny day that makes one depressed.

Crap

In case it’s not obvious, we’ve been stuck in a dry spell.  It gets hot early, before we’ve even had breakfast.  The plants wilt although I water them everyday and Jay’s horde of chocolate turns to goo, that is if it even had the chance overnight to solidify.

It becomes the first question folks ask in greeting: “Hi, had any rain?  How’s the wife?”

Then, they compare measurements: “Yeah, we’ve had 100 mms so far.”  They COUNT.  They have little books in which they record and date each precipitation, no matter how small.  I saw such a book not one time in my American years.

We always wished for a white Christmas back then, now it’s a wet one.  But we didn’t get a wet one.  We got a scorching hot, dry one.  It made for good swimming but with the whole farm staff on vacation, our thirsty orchard of citrus, papaya, and olive trees ensured ours was not a restful and relaxing holiday season.

But no matter how merciless the sun may be in its spotless blue sky, I never give up hope.  I check, maybe too often, for those cumulus clouds and whether they are up to something.  I look for other clues like a bullfrog chorus at night or if the flowers don’t open in the morning.  Maybe if the sugar pot has declumped or if the moon is near full or if the tortoises are on the move.  But nothing is a promise and it seems more like luck than anything if yours is the sky to fall.  The neighbor can be flooded and you can still be Farm Death.

Please, please, please, please…

So, I calm my heart when the thunder in the distance turns out to be an old truck lumbering by.  Or that first raindrop on my head was only a bird with a lame sense of humor.  I wait patiently(ish) for the temps to fall, the plants to perk up, and the wild mushroom scavenger hunt.  I look forward to the coziness when the cats huddle around or hide under the blankets when the thunder is overhead.  And the feeling of being small, which is unusual for me, and the comfort that nature is taking care of things for a while.

The rain never lasts long here and you never know when it’ll be back so I always try not to piss it off.  I don’t turn my back on it, but rather watch the land drink.  I hold in my sarcastic remarks and try not to curse the laundry I left on the line.  I even try to accept the consequential mosquitoes.  Which does not mean I cannot still squish them, it just means I accept them as nature’s worst idea ever.  I also try not to get too excited, as if I were gloating.  I wouldn’t want to be rude.

So when the drops finally graced our parched life today, I simply joined the lumps under the blankets, watched it fall, and hoped this year will be a wet one.

Let’s compromise

This series of posts may periodically be updated as I think of more things to compromise on.  Please, visitors, add yours at the bottom.  I’m sure you could find one from your own life.

CATS

Good:  Coming home to cats lounging in the sun beams.

Bad:  Coming home to a present from the cats, a headless mouse which has actually been hiding there behind the chair for three days and is starting to smell and collect bugs and/or maggots.

Compromise:  Fewer mice = fewer cobras/puff adders/zebra snakes = safer cats and happy me.

DOGS

Good:  The dog likes to keep me company when I work on the computer.

Bad:  The dog has periods of toxic gas emissions that smell like a foot died inside a carton of milk that you forgot about in the trunk of your car last summer.

Compromise:  If I happen to be having a day of gas emissions myself and don’t want to take the blame….

 

WINTER

Good:  No mosquitoes.

Bad:  No moisture in my skin to the point it may just dry up and fall off.

Compromise:  I can use the fancy skin lotion that normally just sits in the cabinet and which, with its sweet smell, probably would attract more mosquitoes to me.  Oh, no wait, everything attracts mosquitoes to me.

FOREIGN LANGUAGES

Good:  I get to learn foreign languages.  Although, just one would have been ok.

Bad:  I get laughed at a lot.

Compromise:  I get to learn humility, patience, and sign language.

WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

Good:  When a wildlife conservation organization and a cattle ranch can be neighbors.

Bad:  When a cheetah released from the organization preys on the neighbor’s calves.

Compromise:  That’s the million Namibian dollar question.

This is my cow. I named her Cow. I managed to bring her back to health when she was much smaller after she was attacked by a cheetah. Most calves do not survive. This year, 2 years later, she’s going to be a mom!