Post #547 Travel Tales – Bujumbura

September 4, 2017 at 1:06 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

It’s been a long time since I wrote about my travels and the foods I enjoyed, and for whatever reason, I got to thinking about one of the African cities I spent a few weeks in during the early part of the 2000s.  My two teammates and I had a short trip to Bujumbura in the Republic of Burundi at the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika.  I’m not going to say much about the details of the trip, partly because time has clouded some of those details, but also because I’m not certain what details I can share without getting in trouble.

During the time we were there, the civil unrest that typified the country and was centered around the capital city was in full swing.  As Americans with quasi-diplomatic status, we were under a strict curfew.  Wherever we were at sundown, that’s where we were staying until sun up.  So it was best to be back at the hotel by sundown.  Additionally, we weren’t allowed to use any vehicles except embassy vehicles, so if we wanted to go anywhere outside of work, we had to either walk, or schedule a driver.  Apart from that, it was pretty easy work.  We were there to replace the computers and train the staff.  There were four computers, one and a half staff, one part-time officer,  and the place closed at noon.  We were on our own during the afternoons.  There were three of us.  I could have done the job by myself.

The hotel were at was very nice.  It had its own restaurant, a wonderful garden and walking trail, a large pool, and wildlife walking the grounds unconcerned.  We saw mostly birds, but once in a while there was a mammal of some kind causing a stir.  We were there during the Spring, so the temps weren’t outrageous.  We were treated well.  Since we were in the center of the city, there were several places to go eat and have a drink if you knew where to go.  Sundown was fairly late, so the curfew was seldom an issue.  The city’s power grid went down around 11pm, but the hotel had its own generator.

Breakfast was easy at the hotel.  You just had to make sure you gave yourself enough time in the morning.  It was mostly bread and fruit, right up my alley.  Lunch could be problematic.  There were no restaurants nearby, and the closest store of any kind had only raw ingredients.  One time, I bought a small bag of pistachio nuts and spread them over a desk while I worked and munched.  I ate probably five before I saw a small green worm inching out of the bag.  I’m not afraid of eating bugs (as many long time readers of this blog will know) and The Rule (see post #3) makes certain I don’t turn up my nose at anything.  However, I will say that I prefer my bugs to be cooked.  So I swept the nuts into the trash along with the worm, and went hungry for the afternoon.

There was a restaurant directly across the road that billed itself as a Chinese restaurant.  I was a frequent visitor, although the whole team went often.  It was standard fare, but cooked in a manner that was familiar yet unique.  I’m sure it had to do with the type of fresh ingredients that were available.  They had one dish that once I tried it, I was sold on it, and it was the only thing I ordered from there after that.  It was called Beef with Three Onion and it was served with rice.  But it was so much more than that.  In its basic form, it really was thin slices of beef and three different kinds of onions, but its flavors went so far beyond that.  The sauce was thick and deep and rich.  The beef was aged perfectly and cooked to just the right point.  Even the rice was cooked to a point where every single grain stood on its own.  Everything together was sublime.  It started with caramelized onion slices, then the beef is cooked in them.  Just before serving, whole scallions are stirred into the pan so they just wilt then the whole thing is placed over rice and topped with french fried onions.  If you’re wondering how I know this, it’s because since then I’ve played and tested and recreated this dish on my own so that it tastes and looks like what I remember.  Everyone I’ve served it to has liked it, too.

There were places outside of our area to go to and the officer we worked with made sure that he took us to several of them.  One particular Saturday late afternoon we spent on a mountainside at a restaurant veranda eating pizza and watching the city.  We weren’t too worried about the curfew since we were with the officer so we got see the beginning of a spectacular sunset.  The pizza was really good.  It was hand tossed, irregular shaped, and grilled over an open flame.  I had a cheese and prosciutto pizza but everyone else got adventurous with their toppings.  The mozzarella cheese was fresh made and delicious!  And anything grilled over open flame when done correctly is going to be good.

Eating at the hotel restaurant as often as we did, we got to be friendly with the staff.  They loved us, of course, because we tipped.  And they got to practice their English skills.  From them, we learned about a local specialty called banana wine.  We talked about it at work and the locals there praised it, while the Americans were mixed in their reactions.  Eventually, one of my team found out from one of the hotel staff they his grandmother made the stuff, so my teammate ordered a bottle, and overpaid, of course.

Banana wine, as near as I could figure out was mashed banana with a little water added then placed into sealed bottles and fermented for a few weeks.  I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I never asked because when the bottle showed up at our table, it contained some of the vilest concoction I’d ever seen.  It looked evil, and smelled worse.  And for the first time since I’d named it, I told The Rule to F-off.  I wasn’t drinking it, I wasn’t tasting it.  My other two team members each poured a small glassful and sampled it throughout dinner, but there was still plenty left in their glasses and in the bottle by the time we’d cleaned our plates.  Eventually, the guy who’d bought the wine donated it to the servers at the restaurant.  You’d a thought we just gave them Christmas!

After that, the already great service we’d been getting was turned up several notches.  Whatever we ordered came fresh, hot, and plentiful.  The hotel chef was a good cook, but he knew his audience and kept the standard fare.  Burgers, fried chicken, etc. and the inevitable french fries.  They had higher scale entrees but we were more interested in saving money so we seldom ordered them.  About the third time we were eating dinner at the hotel, one of the team asked for some ketchup for his fries.  I don’t always use ketchup on my fries so I didn’t ask for any, and the other guy didn’t hear or didn’t care.  BUT,  when the server brought out the ketchup, it was in a very small metal dish, and was a scant tablespoon in volume.  I mean, not nearly enough to dress the fries on the plate.  So, the guy who ordered it dunked one or two fries into his ketchup, when the other team member asked if he could have some.  The small amount of ketchup swung to the other side of the table where it disappeared.  The second guy, with no thought whatsoever, demolished the ketchup forthwith, even to the point of wiping the small metal dish clean with his finger and wiping it onto a fry.  The first guy who had actually asked for the ketchup but never ate it remained silent, although I saw his eyebrows go up a bit.

So the next night, we’re at the hotel restaurant again.  I’ve ordered a pizza, and the other two have ordered their meals.  The one guy asked for ketchup when he ordered so it came with his dinner.  Without a word, the other guy reached out for it, whereupon the first guy clamped a strong hand on his wrist.

“Order your own,” he said in a calm, deadly voice.

I, naturally, snorted Pepsi out of my nose.

PS – One other story I wanted to relate but isn’t food oriented.  The first day we were there, we were introduced to the Marines guarding the post so they would know who we were, and that we were part of their responsibility for a few weeks.  They immediately asked us if we had any old clothes we were interested in donating to their cause to take care of locals.  A couple of days later, we were riding to work and going through a large crowd of people.  My eye kept getting pulled in one direction but I couldn’t figure out why.  Then, I figured it out as we were passing a kid about 12 years old.  He was wearing a tshirt from the college I graduated from.  I recognized the colors which is why I kept looking in that direction.  On our last day there, I handed over every piece of casual clothes I had except what I’d be wearing home.


1 Comment

  1. Website owners

    Post #547 Travel Tales

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