Story — Happy Birthday To Me

Back in the late ‘90s, I was just starting my traveling career.  I had spent several weeks traveling through Europe learning my tasks with a coworker.  Now, I was getting off an airplane in Antananarivo, Madagascar ready to start the first leg of a multi-week tour through the middle of Africa by myself.  I was nervous because I wanted to do a good job, but also because even though I was scheduled to visit six other cities, none of them had confirmed yet.  As I walked out of the plane onto the tarmac, I was met by three official-looking men in suits.  I was in a tshirt and sweatpants so I could be comfortable on the flight.

“Are you here for the Olympics?” one of the men asked me.

I was startled because the Olympics had been the previous year so I didn’t know what he was talking about.  “No.” I replied, and all three looked disappointed and walked away.  Still puzzled, I went to the baggage claim area where I saw a young man holding a sign with my name on it.  I was relieved.  He was my expediter who would assist me in getting through the red tape of entering the country.  I wasn’t a diplomat, but because I was traveling on an Official passport rather than a tourist passport I was afforded a few perks sometimes that I always appreciated.

Once at the hotel, I called my contact within the country to let them know I had arrived and all was well and we made plans to meet for dinner in a few hours.  The dinner went well, and I was introduced to a few African dishes that I’d never heard of before.  One was a rice dish that was similar to a gumbo in ingredients, but slow cooked over an open fire and wrapped in leaves.

The Olympics puzzled was solved when he explained that the Francophone Olympics were being held that week in the city and that since I was one of the few white people deplaning, and I was taller than average, they just assumed I was an athlete.  I felt flattered because at the time, I was in my late thirties and not in the best shape of my life.

The trip started well and continued along the same vein.  I received confirmation for the next leg of my trip which turned into a pattern.  Each post confirmed while I was at the previous post.  It was a little nerve-wracking but I managed.

One morning I woke up and realized it was my birthday.  I was thirty-nine!  Birthdays never meant a whole lot me so I wasn’t unduly put out that I was alone in a foreign country where no one knew that it was my birthday.  Just another work day.

When I got to the office, I found out that they would be closing at noon for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games.

“I’m really sorry, Joe,” my contact said.  “The tickets for the ceremonies were distributed weeks ago, before this visit was planned.  We don’t have a ticket for you.”

“Oh, that’s okay.” I said.  “I can use the time in the hotel room to catch up on paperwork and things.”

When it came time to leave, I shared the van with another TDY-er who was also staying at the same hotel.

“What are you doing for lunch?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No plans.  Why?  Got something in mind?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “How’d you like to try a local restaurant nearby?  We can walk to it, and the food is excellent.”

“Sure,” I said.  We made plans to meet up in a few minutes after we had changed out of suits and dropped off our briefcases.

I’ve talked about this city with friends who have been there and we’ve had different experiences.  They recall the city being clean, spacious, beautiful.  I remember walking on dirt roads, a pall of dust hanging over everything, and the streets being so crowded with people either walking somewhere or begging that sometimes the van couldn’t move.  I was required to keep the doors locked at all times and the windows up.  So I was interested where this walk would take us since I had not been out walking in the city at all during the few days that I’d been there.

We walked down the driveway and turned right on a road that can only be described as rocky.  It wasn’t far, only a few blocks before we turned right again.  We had to negotiate our way around some truly monumental mud puddles scattered about, but finally he led us to a house.

The final barrier was a two plank “bridge” over a ditch of open sewage; no hand rails, but solid boards to walk on.  The ditch was only a few feet wide so it wasn’t a huge challenge, but we did opt to take it one at a time.  He went first.

Inside the restaurant, it was like being in someone’s home.  Tables were set up around the house in a studied pattern meant to maximize space and provide privacy.  The place was empty due to the Olympic opening ceremony.  We had our choice of tables.

“I’ll order for us, if you trust me,” my coworker said.  “There are things you don’t want to eat.  I’ll order us large bottles of Coke.  It’s safe since it’s bottled at a plant and you’ll want enough to last the whole meal.  The soup I’ll let you know about when it arrives.  It has to be steaming hot or we won’t eat it.  Don’t touch the salad.  Do you eat meat?”  He continued at my nod.  “I’ll order us a couple of zebu steaks.  It’s good, tastes like beef and is really inexpensive.”

He continued in that vein for several minutes, but I only half-listened.  I was staring at the architecture of the house and the decorations.  They were almost stereotypically African.  It seemed that the restaurant had a large tourist clientele even though they weren’t in evidence today.

Our bottles of Coke arrived with hot bread and honey on the side.  I love bread and I love eating bread in every country I go to.  Each country does bread differently.  This loaf was huge, round, and covered with seeds.  It was delicious!  I don’t normally eat honey; I don’t care for the flavor, but this stuff was different for some reason and was the perfect complement to the bread.

Our soup arrived, hot and steaming, safe to eat.  It arrived in a bowl large enough to toss a salad in.  One bowl for each of us, it had some mysterious meat, a bunch of leafy vegetables, a wonderful broth, and spaghetti noodles.  I ate some of it, but if I’d eaten the whole bowl, I would not have eaten anything else for the rest of the day.  Amazing flavor, though.

When the salad showed up, my colleague spoke briefly in French and waved it away.  I thought it was particularly wasteful in a land of drought and poverty to not tell them before-hand to not bring salad.  They would not have wasted food that way.

Eventually, the main course arrived.  There was a huge slab of meat, a sizeable dollop of what I thought was mashed potatoes, and steaming corn on the cob.  I don’t ordinarily eat corn.  I like it okay, but as a kid, my mom served so much of it that I just grew tired of it and never really developed a passion for it.  I was going to ignore it, but my friend told me to try it.  It had been grilled with savory spices and was oh-my-god good!  The mashed potatoes weren’t potatoes at all, but some other root vegetable that was faintly sweet, and topped with a slight sprinkle of salt.  It was good, but filling and I didn’t eat a whole lot of it.  The meat, on the other hand, was some of the best I’ve ever had.  It was cooked well through, was juicy, tender, and had a flavor like nothing I’ve had before or since.  I ate almost the entire slab, and I don’t eat a lot at any single meal.  This was too good to pass up.

When the lady came to take our plates away, I asked her what meat it was.  She smiled and beckoned me to follow her.  I thought sure that I was going into a meat locker to see the carcass of the animal they’d just hacked our steaks off of, but she led me to the back door and pointed to a field where a large steer was placidly eating grass.  It looked like a big ole longhorn from Texas.



When I got back to the table, dessert had arrived, two tangerines.  I was full to the back teeth so I just put them in my pocket.  My colleague did so, as well.  We paid the equivalent of four bucks, and he got irritated at me for leaving a tip.

When we crossed the plank bridge to get to the road, we were “greeted” (read that, mobbed) by three small ragamuffin boys holding their hands out.  I didn’t want to give them money, so I put a tangerine in two of the outstretched hands.

Turning to my colleague, I said, “Hey, let me have a tangerine for that last kid.”

“But I wanted it!” he protested.

I’m sure my disbelief and disgust were showing on my face; I’ve never been able to hide my emotions very well.  “They’re just kids,” I said.

He handed me one of his tangerines and the three boys scampered off to enjoy their treat.

All in all, it was an experience to enjoy and to never forget.  One of the most unusual birthdays I’ve ever had.

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