Monday, 8 February 2016 | 22 comments

The shape of an appetite

I am in Cote d’Ivoire for work, and was in Nigeria for 12 days before that. When all is said and done, I’ll have been bouncing around West Africa for almost a month.

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When we travel for pleasure, we happily suspend our routines in an excuse to eat out and explore local foods. These are the types of experiences that span beautiful, full-bleed spreads in food and travel magazines, whether it’s a high-end destination restaurant or stopping at a street food stall. Some of us even go on vacation because we want to eat something particular, want to spend an afternoon in a French café or walk down a street in Bangkok with the burn of chili on our tongues.

But when we travel for business (at least, for non-food-related business, I suppose), those of us who are hungry often end up disappointed.

Time is short, and seeking calories becomes a necessity, and, sometimes, a chore. Typically, you will find yourself in one of two situations. First, there is the particular brand of Corporate Hotel that specializes in overcharging for really bad food, dependent on its captive audiences of suits. This is not ideal, but at least you have something to shove down your gullet when necessity demands. Second, there is the quainter, smaller hotel, much more pleasant to stay in, but without the benefit of a restaurant with aforementioned bad, overpriced food, and requiring you to venture out and fend for yourself in the meager hours left to you at the end of a workday.

There are strategies, of course. I spent nearly a third of last year traveling for work, and I employ many. You can bring food, but that only lasts you so long. Getting to a market—any market, even a convenience store–on one’s first day after arrival can be critical. If expectations are managed correctly, and if you can locate a beer, some cheese and crackers can be a much less disappointing dinner than a dry $25 burger that you didn’t even want in the first place.

There might be places to eat out nearby, of course, but there are timelines to consider, as you don’t want to be walking home in the dark (alone, on an unfamiliar street, in Nigeria). Electric hot water kettles are god’s gift to travelers-for-work, and I do a little happy dance when I score one in a hotel room, especially in southeast Asia, where there are really good versions of instant noodles in supermarkets.

Today, tired and a bit overwhelmed with a totally open Sunday ahead of me, I went out walking, thinking that I might try and locate some provisions. My French is bad, but I can at least buy bottles of water and mangoes from the kiosks that line the road. I found a weird, West African bargain-basement grocery store that sells all expired or nearly expired shelf-stable foods. They had wine! I selected some dusty South African Sauvignon Blanc that has probably been on that shelf since 2010, and it slid clinking into my bag next to the mangoes.

Problems arise if you have a craving for something particular that might be a little dangerous. I become tactical. So you want a salad? Fine. Willing to risk the probable stomach bug—ranging from mild discomfort to really problematic—that will almost certainly ensue if you eat the raw veggies, either unwashed or washed with possibly dubious tap water, in the salad from the local place next to the hotel? Not sure. I bargain with myself: if you still want it tomorrow, then it’s worth it.

(That was yesterday, by the way. Today, I went back. I ate the salad. I am a ticking time bomb.)

Walking back to the hotel, a lady was frying up plantain chips at the entrance to the building, laying them out to drain on newspaper and salting with a liberal hand. After totally misunderstanding how much they cost, I paid an exorbitant amount for a big, oily, warm paper sack of them, the last thing to go in my shopping bag, resting on top.

Back in my room, I did emails (this is slow work on crappy wi-fi), read a book, dove back into more emails. When 5 PM rolled around, my stomach started rumbling. My room came equipped with an espresso cup and saucer, meant to be accompanied by the instant Nescafe provided to me. I separated cup and saucer, dumped a pile of plantain chips onto the little plate, and poured a tiny dram of white wine into the espresso cup.

Close the computer, open the windows: it’s happy hour. These are the rituals that keep a person going, something a little salty and crunchy, the zing of acid from some cold-ish (old-ish) wine, stepping away from the emails even when there’s no boundary between work and more work. It’s not a true cure-all for pangs of homesickness that might also roll around this time in the evening, but it’s something to fill the spaces that outline themselves so clearly in your stomach, which, when you’re away from home and your blood sugar is low, are sometimes hard to differentiate from those empty spaces that are etched even more clearly, just a little higher up in the chest.

§ 22 responses to The shape of an appetite

  • Mina E.

    Glad to see your current post.

    Reading this latest blog entry rekindles a once upon-a-time memory of serendipity experiences in West Africa.

    My home base was a youth hostel (meals included). These days, anyone can stay at a youth hostel.
    Even though everyone else was from another African country, we were all from somewhere else.
    I still remember the flavor of those evening conversations.

    Traveling north from Accra, Ghana to Kumasi before heading to the Ivory Coast and then down to the actual coast to its capital before returning full circle back to Ghana. If you come across a Vietnam food/restaurant in the Ivory Coast anywhere, your hunger for tasty veggies will be satisfied.

    Once-upon-a-time , a new friend from the youth hostel Ghana who was acquainted with ppl from the University of Ghana at Accra extended an invitation to several of us to visit a village celebration in Eastern Ghana that was the family home of her professor from California. Sometimes it does take a village.

    Many decades later, the genorosity of a stranger still comes to mind while visiting Togo. The yogurt cheese and a chilled, delicious apple for desert still comes to mind through the generosity of a stranger when several of us visited Togo and a Lebanese person invited us to his house for lunch.

    Is it a possibility to discover a college, a school, a teacher, a church, a family., etc. who might be able to introduce themselves to you……..and share a meal together ?

    Is it possible that the general locals where you visit have some sort of ‘sister-city’ with another location ?

    Could your employer provide you with a driver/translator during your African work assignments ?

    W i s h i n g y o u a l l t h e b e s t !
    Mina E.

    I wish you the best of everything ,

  • Chantel

    A beautiful piece of writing. I enjoyed the picture you paint so well.

  • Was just in DC for work for 3 days. Same same but different. Managed to not drink enough water / eat enough food that I made myself seriously ill. Now paying the price. Yep. Bonne chance, madame, avec la nourriture!

  • Loved your last paragraph about it being hard to distinguish the emptiness of the stomach from that of the heart. Your writing is so eloquent. Thank you for this beautiful post.

  • Traveling for work is survival for sure – I don’t miss it, but from afar, the memories aren’t terrible. Be safe, and I wish you many found bottles and plantain chip-like scores and non-toxic salads. :)

  • Chris

    This is a fantastic and touching bit of writing! Best wishes on your travels Sarah.

  • Beautiful piece. I remember those feelings too – in the Balkans. Oh, it was tough to be pregnant there! And that homesickness – and I tasted those plantains. Just lovely

  • Always beautiful to read your posts, Sarah. Stay safe and hopefully the wine will wipe out any potential stomach bugs.

  • Courtney

    a new post, yay!…
    your plantain chips evoke a much different experience than my little plastic bag, full, from Trader Joes. Hard-earned, and surely lovely with the “aged” wine. thank you. can’t wait to read more another day. safe and happy work travel.

  • Wow, just fantastic writing (I’m a new reader, even though I’ve heard of this blog many times before). This is so much more interesting for me to read and hear about than the usual gushing travel stories and the “oh, you just have to go”s. I really feel both the strange unease, or maybe just displacement, that can sometimes come from traveling (especially for work), as well as small pleasures, all entwined. Thank you so much!

  • Margit Van Schaick

    Sarah, your Scheherazade writing evokes so keenly the memories of past travels (much of it in Africa during Peace Corps time)–the quality of heat, sun, soil, monsoon rains, sky, the rythm of equal-time days and nights near the Equator, the smell, tea-houses, camel bells–as well as sharpening my perception of where I am right now, warm inside my home in Vermont, while the two barn cats are huddling together enduring the truly fierce cold temperatures of our current vortex. Thank you for making me feel so fully alive, despite the heart-ache that is part of the bargain, no matter where .

  • Jen

    I don’t think I’ve seen such beautiful, thoughtful food writing since I touched one of MFK Fisher’s books…pure genius.

  • I really enjoyed reading this; your articles always resonate with me. And I wanted to say that if your trips to South Asia ever include Nepal please drop me a line and I’d love to take you around to some of my favourite places to eat here in Kathmandu!

  • Hello,
    Oh boy! How awesome! I am off to buy some square blue plates! Love this post!
    Thanks

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