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.
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.