27.1.15

Firebomb Macaroni the Rhinoceros Beetle

Following up on the Big Five post, I have actually seen a "Little Five" list, where each of the traditional Big Five is replaced by an insect that contains it's name (ex. I believe "ant lion" replaces Lion).  One of the replacements showed up on our back porch this morning:  The Rhinoceros Beetle.

These little guys are not too commonly seen, and this is the first I've seen in Burundi.  I have no idea how he wandered on to our porch.  They have an impressive horn, but are harmless dirt diggers, and Maggie plucked up the courage to hold him.

The kids loved seeing him, and decided to name him.  Ben wanted to name him Fire.  Maggie wanted Bomb.  I suggested Firebomb.  And then Maggie suggested the last name Macaroni.

So we present to you Firebomb Macaroni the Rhinoceros Beetle.




11.1.15

Revising Africa's Big Five

Here's a post that badly needs a bunch of images, but our limited bandwidth is prohibitive.  Maybe I'll add some later, when I'm somewhere else.

We are looking at traveling to Kenya in a few months, and planning on taking the kids on a safari, which should be great, especially as they will be quite a bit older than last time, and more able to enjoy it.

If you have ever looked into safaris, then you are probably familiar with "The Big Five".  Everyone wants to see "The Big Five".  Tourist trinkets are often emblazoned with "The Big Five".  Different parks are valued on whether or not they can boast all of "The Big Five".

What is the Big Five?  It is lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and cape buffalo.  Why those?  As we understand it, it is a historical list from the days of big game hunters, because these five were the hardest to bring down on a hunt.

And we have adopted this list for game viewing.  The problem is that we are not trying to kill these animals.  We are instead deriving pleasure from watching them, which everyone should agree is quite another thing.  Therefore, we would like to propose a new list.

Elephants, lions, and rhinos are cool.  No doubt.  Even when not killing them.  The leopard however is elusive.  So elusive that we have decided that it is imaginary.  Even if it is not, so much disappointment is born by not seeing a leopard that it seems a bad fit for this list.

So the leopard is out.

Cape buffalos are ugly.  And mean.  And travel in herds.  So you can't get close enough to enjoy their ugliness, but they are easy to find.

So the cape buffalo is out.

Replacements?  We would like to submit the hippo and the giraffe.  Both are incredibly iconic.  Both are items of the earliest childhood imaginations, and seeing them in person does not disappoint.  And they are big.  So our revised list goes like this:

  1. Lion
  2. Elephant
  3. Rhino
  4. Hippo 
  5. Giraffe
You will not be disappointed.  At the same time, we would like to submit a couple other lists, because completing lists adds a certain satisfaction to almost any activity.

The Big Five Birds:  Africa's birds are truly awesome, and though you might not ponder it ahead of time, you should anticipate a good time seeing them.  The list:
  1. Ostrich
  2. Secretary Bird (huge 4 feet tall cockatoo-looking white bird)
  3. Grey-Crowned Crane (stately and 5 feet tall)
  4. Flamingo
  5. Stork (you can choose which one.  The Marabou stork is very iconic and stately, but kind of in an ugly way.  The Yellow-Billed Stork is a favorite of ours.)
And last, The Cute Five:
  1. Dik-Dik: these tiny antelope are about knee-high and always found in pairs
  2. Rock Hyrax: this little gopher-looking guy is the closest relative of the elephant
  3. Bushbaby: nocturnal tiny primate with giant eyes
  4. Meerkat: because of the Lion King, which really is an inescapable allusion for all safaris
  5. Warthog: it's cuteness is controversial (as in, Rachel disagrees), but when you see a little line of them running with their tales straight up, I think you'll agree.  And again, the Lion King.
So, forget the anxiety of leopard hunting and the disappointment of the Cape Buffalo and settle in for a safari list that truly satisfies.

2.1.15

Merry Christmas 2014

Can't believe the Christmas season is almost over again.  I wanted to share a few glimpses of our Burundi Christmas with you!  It was really a lovely month and we enjoyed the lack of commercialism, if not the lack of available stores to pick up last minute gifts in. :)

1.  The Christmas Tree.  I bought it at a garage sale in 2012 and this year we were able to assemble all 9 feet with our vaulted ceilings!  It was pre-lit but all the lights were burned out, so we restrung it. The kids really loved helping decorate the tree this year.  We'll collected a huge collection of ornaments from all over the world, and all through the last 35 yrs of our lives (ok, 35 for me and less for everyone else).

2.  Christmas cookies.  Cut out sugar cookies, molasses cookies, Russian teacakes, and thumbprints.  Only thing missing were PB kisses.  Thanks to Eric's sisters, we had lots of cookie cutters and sprinkles for my little helpers to assist with.  

3.  Wrapping paper.  I forgot to put any on the container, so I wasn't quite sure what to do.  Not for nothing am I the child of a teacher, though.  I found some brown paper that had been used to stuff a package, and we make some star shaped potato stamps.  Potato stamps, above mentioned cookie cutters, and tempera paint = afternoon activity PLUS gorgeous wrapping paper. :)

4.  One week before Christmas, we picked up a special suitcase in Buja!  Our moms had put together 50 lbs of gifts and treats to make our Christmas more special.  It arrived just in time with a group of visitors.  On top was a handmade tree from Shar the quilter.  There are little ornaments that the kids can pin on every day.  Hanging up on an extra curtain rod in the kids' room.

5.  Traditional Christmas Nutcracker puzzle.  I think Eric has put this puzzle together over 50 times in his life.  He can do it in about 30 min or so, all 500 pieces.  The kids actually really enjoy puzzles too, and with some help of putting like-pieces close together, they could start to enjoy a long standing McLaughlin tradition.

6.  The first gift of Christmas: a package Aunt Mariah sent in October.  We opened it Christmas Eve morning and enjoyed new shirts and puzzles for everyone!

7.  Christmas Eve dinner.  This followed the Christmas Eve service at our house but unfortunately Toby was throwing up the whole time so we didn't have time for picture taking.  Dinner at the McLaughlin household has always been snacks on Christmas Eve.  Here in Africa (also in Kenya) we save foods all year to bring out for the special snack meal.  Triscuits, summer sausage, cheese, hummus, juice and Sprite...Yum!

8.  Christmas Eve gifts.  We all got to open one gift before bedtime.  Maggie opened a Lego friends set and was totally excited....
... I thought I picked a Lego set for Ben to open as well but whoops!  It was actually a box of cereal.  He was no less excited to find the Lucky Charms. :)

9.  Christmas morning Lego assembly.  A classic from my own childhood.  With no adult help, Maggie assembled all 369 pieces.  And then did Ben's set for him too.

10.  Later on...We opened a few gifts on Christmas but then saved several to open one day at a time, which lasted us until New Year's Day.  It was great to slow the pace and the kids enjoyed a special gift each morning instead of all at once.  Once all the cereal had been opened we had a veritable American breakfast feast!


11.  And finally, Happy 9th Anniversary to my best friend and husband.  Carlan had the kids over for dinner so Eric and I could enjoy a dinner of Thai food to ourselves.

Merry Christmas and Happy 2015 to all!

27.10.14

Soup Revolution

Several years ago while I was staying with my mom in Phoenix, she served me a super yummy Thai Shrimp soup.  I found out that she had gotten a soup base recipe from a magazine like Better Homes and Gardens or Healthy Living or some such place, frozen the base into small batches, and could pull a bag or two out at a time and make something like 15 different recipes from the base.  Sounded interesting, so I copied down the recipe and tucked it away.  I had more or less forgotten about it, when it was rediscovered with the arrival of my cookbooks in the container.  I mixed up a big batch of it last August and canned it in batches, and let me tell you it has revolutionized my life.  Perhaps that’s a dramatic statement, but for a working mama in Burundi who sometimes comes home after 5pm and has no instant meals or takeout available, this is big.  The soup took probably less than 2 hours to prep and cook.  The canning took a bit longer but people who live in locations with constant electricity could freeze instead for a faster process.

So when I need a quick meal, I open up a jar of the soup base and add basically anything we have in the fridge and voila, instant meal.  I’ve added leftover beans and rice, cooked sausage, spaghetti sauce, enchilada sauce, quinoa, noodles, cooked chicken.  It’s tasty by itself too, but nice to add some more “hearty” ingredients.  The kids like it, so in my opinion there’s nothing NOT to like about this.  

Here’s the base recipe (and in my opinion, all quantities are relative...for example, we don’t have celery so I left that out.  Maybe I added extra carrots, who knows) (and of course, all ingredients cut to your desired size):

1 lb carrots 
1 1/2 lb onions (3 medium)
4 stalks of celery
2 cloves garlic
1 lb cabbage (1/2 head)
3/4 lb green beans
1 1/4 lb zucchini (3 small-med)
2-28oz cans tomatos (or about 8 cups diced)
6c chicken broth
6c water
2 bags baby spinach
salt and pepper to taste

Cook carrots, celery, onions, and garlic in water/broth (use 12 qt stockpot) until soft
Add cabbage, green beans, and tomatos, simmer x10min
Add zucchini and spinach, simmer additional 10 min
Freeze/can in 2c portions, makes 28 cups (although I used 4cup portions, better for a family sized meal)  

It also ends up being a very thick soup, and so I’m able to add 2-3 cups of broth to every 4 cup portion for a more regular soup consistency.  You could add more broth ahead of the freezing/canning, but I like the fact that it’s kind of a “space saver” thing.

Some of the recipe suggestions for additions include:
Minestrone (add kidney beans, cooked pasta, parmesan cheese, basil)
Mexican Chicken (add chicken, corn, cumin, lime)
Greek Fish Stew (add potatos, fish, dill, feta)
Thai Shrimp (add rice noodles, shrimp, snow peas, coconut milk, lime juice)
Southwest Chili (add ground meat, chili powder, cumin, black beans, salsa)


Really though, the possibilities are endless.  Looking forward to many variations of this soup in years to come.  If anyone has other low-prep/all natural ingredient/probably vegetarian recipes they love to whip up, feel free to share!  We’re not really organic-y type people, but our life here necessitates such. :)  Unfortunately, most of the low prep stuff or “prepare ahead and freeze” recipes involve a lot of meat (hard to get here) or things like “one jar of alfredo sauce” or “one container of cream cheese.”  Sigh.  Miss those....

26.9.14

Back to School

Well, I finally have a kindergartener in the house!  Sept 8, Maggie packed her backpack and headed off on the long 2 minute walking commute to Kibuye Hope Academy.  She joins 7 other kids (3 other kindergarteners) for school from 8:45-11:30 and 2-3p each day.  It's a fun chance to have four different teachers in variety of subjects, like science, math, and language arts.  The afternoons are French and either PE or music (the class I teach…music, not PE).  She of course is loving it!  We are still deciding what to do about school next year in the US, but for now this is a great option for her.


The 2014-2015 Kibuye Hope Academy students
 Not to be left out, Ben seriously wanted to go to school this year as well.  But being the only 3 yr old, there weren't any preschool options.  No problem.  My mom brought out some workbooks and so Ben has "school" with mom or dad maybe 2-3 times a week for about 10-15 minutes. :)  He likes to practice his cutting, drawing lines/starting letters, and playing a new Memory game from Mimi and Bapa.  Quite the little student.  And he gets to come to music classes on Wednesday afternoons as well.

Just for completeness sake, a picture of Toby.  Not even close to going to school but cute anyway.

22.9.14

Eric's New Music Compilation


Dividing my songs into albums is fairly easy, at least up to now.  The songs come from a easily definable period of my life.  Last time, it was our two years in Kenya.  This time it's our life in France.  Next time, it will probably be our first couple years in Burundi.

It took a little while to get this done, since we were still very much suitcase-living, up until a few months ago.  But it was nice to unpack the instruments and recording gear, and put these songs into their current form.

Free.  Very much free.  Share it.  

Hope you enjoy.

14.9.14

Goodbye, Grandma

On Friday, we dropped my mom off at the Bujumbura airport after three wonderful months.  It was very sad to see her go.  Three months is a long time but I can honestly say it was WONDERFUL for us, and for the kids (and hopefully for her, too).  She was a tremendous help with the kids and with help around the house, especially after our house helper got sick and was out for about 6 weeks.  Eric and I were able to spend a little more time at the hospital or doing administrative tasks while she spent time with the kids.  There is a big Grandma-shaped hole in our hearts right now, and we're hoping we somehow can fumble through the next months without her.

At Maggie's ballet recital
Breakfast in bed for a special birthday!
Birthday crepes and ice cream!
Ben loved to cuddle with Grandma

She worked on lots of sewing projects for me!

Grandma cleaned out her classroom and brought all the extra craft projects for the girls…big hit!

8.9.14

Ballet Beauty

We recently had some friends come and visit, Logan and Julie Banks.  They spent 6 months at Tenwek while we were there and had a son the same age as Maggie, so we got to know them pretty well.  Logan is a family practice doc with OB experience who is looking for a long term hospital to work at.  He and Julie came to check out Kibuye.  It was so wonderful to see them again.  Julie is not medical but jumped into volunteer work with enthusiasm…she was up for anything and everything!  One of the best things she did was volunteer to teach a ballet class for our girls.  Oh my goodness, they were over the moon with excitement.  Miss Julie brought over tights and leotards and every day from 3-4pm they would have their classes.  So much excitement!  What our girls lacked in grace and coordination they more than made up for in enthusiasm. :)  The weekend before they left, Julie planned a little recital for the parents.  They all got dressed up and did their hair/"makeup" together.  Maggie took this VERY seriously and so there are not a lot of smiling pictures but she was very focused on her pointing and positions.  So thankful that Julie's gifts and talents provided such a special and joyful experience for our little ones.






5.9.14

Crafty Mama Part III

My mom's time with us is coming to a close (boo)…and there were a few projects that I wanted to finish before she left.  Mother-daughter-wisdom-imparting and all that.  First off, I finally finished Toby's stocking!  I've blogged about this before, but since my mom made a Christmas stocking for me when I was little, and Eric's mom made a stocking for him, I thought it would be fun to be able to make stockings for our kids, too.  They are all different: Maggie's is felt, Ben's is cross-stitch, and Toby's is needle-point.  None were completed for Christmas #1, but all for Christmas #2.  The boys' stockings (and Eric's) hang to the left and the girls' hang to the right. Ah, symmetry. :)  It was fun to do Toby's stocking, never done needlepoint before, and I think it turned out great!  My mom helped me cut it out and sew the backing on securely with a machine.  Eh voila!

All three proudly displayed on our new mantle.

The other project I've been thinking about for awhile is canning.  Our power has been off a TON and so even though we have freezer space, I'm constantly worried about the state of things in the freezer.  I had put some canning equipment on the container but had never tried canning before, although my mom has lots of experience.  We tried a batch of pickles which basically turned out (not quite vlasic, but not bad).  Then our dear house helper Salvatore has been sick for the last month so I have done a lot of scrambling to get meals ready, make spaghetti sauce, bread, etc.  (again, SO glad my mom is here right now).  Fortunately he is back now, but his absence inspired me to put away some "emergency stores."  We mixed up a giant vat of spaghetti sauce and another one of a vegetable soup base.  And here it is, yielding 5 quarts of spaghetti sauce and 8 quarts of soup base.  All the jars sealed so it was an exciting evening. :)  Some days I feel a little bit like "Little House on the Prairie," although honestly we're a long way from that.  Nice to get in touch with my pioneer self!



2.8.14

On Stories, Sagas, and Wingfeathers

I started reading at the age of 4, and have been in love with stories ever since.  When I start reading a new book, I generally devour it in several sittings.  I’ve been known to read entire books in the airport bookstore during long layovers.  The seventh Harry Potter?  Read the entire thing in four sittings at Barnes and Noble (yes, to be fair, since then I have purchased the book so I’m not just free-loading off of B&N’s free books and comfy chairs).  My favorite books have always been fiction, usually fantasy literature, and more’s the better if it’s an epic series.  I guess the appeal is the new world to be explored and discovered, a story about heros and rescues and justice and love and hope (with a little bit of magic and swordplay and impossible creatures mixed in).  A world where good DOES conquer evil, where the good guys win, where hope does not disappoint.

What changes a book series from good to great for me is the grand “aha!” moment at the end where I discover that all along, the author was leading me down a path to reveal a grand destination.  From the first page of the first book, there was a specific ending in sight and at the end, I can turn around and look back at the path, look back at all the little clues and seemingly insignificant details scattered along the way, and they are all pieces of a whole that fit together.  JK Rowling nailed this with HP.  Christopher Paolini (Eragon) not so much.  I enjoyed his stories along the way but was left very unsatisfied at the conclusion of the book, too many loose ends and not enough resolution.  Robert Jordan and his Wheel of Time series may or may not have done this....he rambled so much that he lost me along the way.  

I recently finished a new series that I began reading in 2008.  Generally, I prefer to start reading a series after it’s been completed so I don’t have to wait for the newest books to come out (although rarely has this worked for me), but I started Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga as a blog reviewer just before the first book was officially released.  The fourth and final book in the series, The Warden and the Wolf King, was just released last week, six years later.  Long have I enjoyed Andrew’s songs and songwriting.  I would expound on why, but his website actually says it better than I could:  

“Peterson’s most loyal fans in fact, tend to be those who find resonance with the “glowing ache” that permeates his body of work. But it’s never been the ache of hopelessness or despair. Instead it’s the ache that comes from deeply loving something that has been lost, and from daring to hope that it will one day be restored. It’s the recognition that any pain we now feel is somehow inseparable from the joy that was intended for us from the creation of the world. And it’s the undying hope that that same pain is also a promise, a forward longing, a deposit of the redemption and restoration of the greater joy that is yet to come.”  


Now, if that doesn’t inspire you to listen to his music, I don’t know what will. :)  His books actually feature more of that same “ache” as his music.  He starts out a little goofy in book one (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness) but matures as a writer and really hits his stride by book three (Monster in the Hollows).  And by the time I set down the fourth book, I was extremely satisfied in how cohesive the story was, how bits of story from book one were revisited and elaborated on to play a major role on book four.  I set down the last book with tears in my eyes.  If you like books like Narnia and Harry Potter, give the Wingfeather Saga a try.  It’s my free and unbiased opinion.

18.7.14

Family Visit

We recently had the once-in-a-lifetime (probably) chance to spend three solid weeks together with my family--my mom, my brother Eric, and his wife Haidee.  Since Eric and Haidee have gotten married, we have spent something less than 48 hours together, and that was before Toby was born.  So when Eric emailed and said they were thinking of a visit this summer, I knew this was going to be a special time!  They spent the last 2-6 years in Japan teaching English through the Lutheran church, but now are transitioning back to the US for grad school and such.  SO they had more or less a summer vacation, 2-3 months worth of time off.  And since my mom just retired this May, she had plenty to time to visit, too.

Everyone arrived on a Friday night flight with all their luggage, and we spent a few days in Buja on the front end, celebrating Mom's retirement, shopping, and playing!






Then we headed up to Banga on Sunday morning, the village where we had done our language school.  Despite none of our plans working out (we had grand plans to show them the lovely singing at church, which for some reason was cancelled, and also to stay in the nicer guesthouse with generator electricity, which was full), they got the "real deal" experience of what life in Banga is like, complete with walks down the hill to mealtime, and power outages at night.
Lunch at the Banga Guesthouse!

Banga countryside

Finally, to Kibuye for 2 1/2 weeks of talks, games, food, and fun.  It was wonderful.  We took a couple of trips to Kibuye Rock, the waterfalls, and the Source of the Nile River.  Also Eric and Haidee were able to come see our work in the hospital.  Otherwise, we just hung out at home and enjoyed ourselves immensely!  

Kibuye Rock conquerors!

Tea party with the girls
La source du Nile
Congo River Basin
Karero Falls
4th of July potluck!
It was a special trip and while we were sad to see Eric and Haidee go, my mom will be here through September, hooray!

24.5.14

Sabbath, Part the Second: Wendell Berry Poems

Since moving to Burundi, we have come to enjoy the in-country presence of the Miller family, who live in the capital and work with the same medical school as we do.  They are extremely gracious hosts, who continue to house us when we visit, but always in a way that we never feel like we are being a burden.


Joel and I enjoy talking books.  Several months ago, he loaned me “A Timbered Choir” by Wendell Berry, a poet/author from the American South who, for decades now, has spent his Sabbaths wandering through the rural hills around his farm and occasionally writing poems.  These are bound into a couple volumes.  He’s an old man now, and the aging process comes out in the progression of his poems throughout the years.  But with that kind of ritual, Sabbath walking for over 30 years, he has a lot of wisdom to share.

He speaks of trees, friends lost, the passing of time, birds sitting on high branches, invisible in the “at-home-ness”.  He speaks of the songs he hears all around him, and his own song that he tries to sing.  He speaks of rest, and his attempts to practice it.

Sabbath observance often feels frustrated by the imminent demands of parenting.  But Rachel and I usually understand one another’s need, and try to carve out a little time for solitude each Sunday.  

So lately, that’s where one could find me during that brief interlude, sitting outside on a log with a copy of the psalms and Wendell Berry’s “A Timbered Choir”, slowly reading, savoring the words, watching the branches move in the wind, trying to embrace the image of a day to come, when our rest is made complete, thanking God for the way he continues to transform and lead our lives.

“And I, through woods and fields, through fallen days,
Am passing to where I belong:
At home, at ease, and well,
In Sabbaths of this place
Almost invisible,

Toward which I go from song to song.” (-W.B.)

20.5.14

Sabbath, Part the First: Resting and Rhythm

Never is the routine of normal life more appreciated than after traveling overnight abroad with three small children.  We are back from Greece, where we had a wonderful time working on credentialing, seeing friends, and enjoying my parents’ company.  And now, the quieter, steady life here at Kibuye has returned.  Obviously there are lots of challenges to life here, but lack of routine is not currently one of them.  

Walk to the hospital, walk back.  Each day of the week has a set program, and they roll by reliably.  The kids know the routine for the most part, and that helps.

My enjoyment of this sort of surprises me.  Ten years ago, I would have feared that such a pace would be boring.  There are probably lots of reasons for that, and I imagine the greatest reason is that our phase of life includes three small kids, which certainly makes a quiet steady life schedule more desirable than the alternatives.

But there is another thing, which is my growing appreciation of the role of Sabbath.  I guess it began when Janet Tang gave us “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly” by Marva Dawn, back when we were in the US, and I read it around the time we arrived in France.

I think, prior to that, I would have said obedience to the Sabbath meant 1) having enough days off from your regular job and 2) going to church as often as possible.  Dawn challenged this by defining “rest” a lot more logically, as “not working”.  Shocking, I know, but to stop from all that is work (catching up on emails, catching up on housework, running errands, reading preparation for work or some other commitment...) meant something that I think I had rarely experienced, which highlighted how much of my identity rests on what I accomplish.

So we rest.  We stop.  And we celebrate.  Our family watches a movie together every Sunday night, while eating popcorn, pickles, and assorted luxury foods for an informal dinner.  The kids love it, and it separates this day out as special.

It’s been about a year and a half since we started this, and I think another element that Dawn mentioned is starting to come to pass:  the rhythm of life.  She argues for the importance of every seventh day, that it is a rhythm for which we are created, and that it’s observation will ring true.  As with any discipline, this grows with time, but more and more I’m coming to appreciate this.  Throughout the week, the sense of the Sabbath gone and the Sabbath coming inform the emotions of the moment.


More to come...

7.4.14

How To Make Your Own Passport Photos - Optimized

One of the unexpected areas of expertise we have developed is in the area of passport photos.  We have of course needed them for keeping the passports updated, but in our lives, they are needed for many other events: long-stay visas, visas that you need to buy before arriving at the border, even lots of official documents such as driver's licenses still use a "bring your own passport photo" policy where we live.  I have at least 4 passport photos in my current passport, associated with various visas.  So we keep several on hand, just in case.

When I was in college, I went to a Mailboxes, Etc, and paid about $13 for two passport photos.  They were awful and the source of many a border guard's amusement for the next ten years of travels.  Thankfully, digital photo technology has progressed to a more convenient and less expensive way to fill this function.  So here are a few things we've learned about efficiently creating your passport photos:

1.  Chose a big blank background and shoot a bunch of photos with a "more than you think necessary" margin of blank space around you.  You can always crop later.

(1a.)  For newborns:  All three of our kids had their first passport photos taken in their first week of life.  Method:  Put a white sheet on the bed.  Swaddle the kid up tight, and lay them awake on their back on the white sheet.  Fire away.  Choose the one (and there will likely only be one) with eyes open and both ears visible.

2.  Load the picture into Picasa or editing program of your choice.  Crop with a square dimension.  Aim to get the total head height about half of the total picture height.  Err on the side of a smaller head if necessary, because these things are often cut further when getting used.  This is a further reason to give yourself a generous white margin at the outset.

3.  Whiten the background.  We just learned this one, as the Burundian visa office's scanner was having trouble with our off-white/greyish background.  It can't be too white.  The Picasa "highlight" function works well.

4.  Make a JPG with a 2x3 grid of your square photo.  This will come out perfectly in a 4x6 photo as 6 standard size passport photos.  Alternatively, Picasa's collage function works well in a grid if you set the collage size to 4x6.  Save photo and print.  VoilĂ !  Six photos for about 28 cents.  Here's our recent one (Rachel got spot 6 because she's the most likely to travel again the soonest.)