Nothing symbolizes the difficulties of traveling quite like the fish on my plate. It’s a dead fish, a tilapia.
There are times on the road that one meal’s disappointments can push you to the brink. It’s the little things that are often the last straw, that propel us the furthest into madness.
After two weeks in Kenya, I hadn’t had any time to myself, and I was starting to feel the psychological exhaustion that I’ve only ever felt while traveling. My scheduled had tempered a bit, and I was sleeping well, but I hadn’t yet taken time to regain my footing and purge the travel grime that was clogging the machinery in my head. Friday night I stayed at work late, not working but instead doing my eighth worst favorite thing in the entire world: waiting for Final Cut to upload a video to YouTube on a slow internet connection. So I walked home alone, planning to meet up with friends later. On the way I stopped at Fang Fang, a Chinese restaurant on the corner. Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous, and the menus seem virtually the same everywhere outside of Asia. Sweet and Sour Chicken it was.
I hadn’t actually eaten Chinese food in a long time – not since I was in China for a little over a month. I brought back something sinister that soured the idea of introducing anything from the Middle Kingdom into my digestive tract. But I figured after three years, it was time, and with a name like Fang Fang, it had to be awesome. I carried it home in a black paper bag, which like most paper bags in Kenya, was actually made of plastic. After inhaling it with a spoon while listening to an Alanis Morissette cover of Green Day’s Basket Case, I wasn’t in the mood to go out. So I hung back, missing a 3D movie and karaoke. And I slept for nine hours.
When I woke up, I laid around for a while then finally went into the kitchen where I found Murage, Wangari, and Koi. Koi was making pancakes. My first pancake was room-temperature. Koi had put it on a plate with a knife and fork and I didn’t realize it was intended for me. So I fiddled with my phone trying to figure out why Facebook wasn’t working, until Wang told me my pancake was getting cold. I should know by now that when something is served with a knife and fork, it’s probably for me. But I took my pancake and folded it up and ate it the Kenyan way. Then I ate another. The carbohydrates put me to sleep, and it was after emerging from a 4-hour nap that I encountered the fish.
I’d slept away most of the day. Unable to decide what to do or whom to call, I decided what I really wanted in my life at that moment was beer.
I ducked through the door on the gate, tiptoed over the muddy patch on the dirt road, through another gate manned by a guard in a green cap, trudged over the rocky pavement, let an old lady unknowingly lead me across the sandbags marking the pedestrian trail through a construction site, and finally came out on James Gichuru Road. After darting across the busy street, looking right and then left (and as I do in every Brit-influenced place, panicked once in the middle of the street and frantically looked right and then left just to be sure that overnight the Kenyans hadn’t decided to start driving on the right side of the road), I came to a small shopping center with a restaurant called Kengles and frequented by expats. I sat down at one of the plastic tables in front of a television airing a tennis match between Venus Williams and the Maria Sharapova and ordered a Tusker beer. The menu offers Kenyan versions of the typical dishes found in any American restaurant: burgers, nachos, wings. I decided on the tilapia. I took out a copy of Time magazine and read about my president’s latest failings.
You’d think that eating, the most basic human necessity besides sex, beer and sleeping, would be the easiest adjustment abroad. Everyone has to eat, and as long as you have an open mind and money to pay for food, there shouldn’t be any problem. It always is, though.
The thing about Kenyan food is that it’s really, really good – I just don’t know where it is. I’m used to three meals a day, minimum, and snacks in between.
Kenyan mornings, like mornings most places, start with bread. Sometimes it’s chapatti, sometimes sandwich bread. Sometimes there’s butter or honey. There’s often fruit. But then lunch times rolls around, and there’s not any. There used to be Oscar, a university student who cooked at home and then rode up to the media house on a piki piki to sell generous lunch plates for 100 shillings (~$1.17 USD). But he moved away.
The samosa guy still comes around noon with bags of chicken, beef, and egg samosas. They’re 30 shillings (~ 35 cents USD) each, so I usually get three. That’s two more samosas than each of my coworkers. And I have to get there early, before he sells out. The rest of the day includes munching on bananas, apples, roasted peanuts, cookies, and potato chips, which are called “crisps” here, which for some reason makes me giggle every time I say it. (I can call fries chips, but I just can’t manage to call chips crisps).
So in spite of eating a diet composed of 75% carbohydrates, 5% chocolate, and 3% beer, my pants are getting too big. The thought of a nice fish with vegetables was making me salivate.
The waiter brought silverware, a fork and crooked knife, four napkins, and a bowl of warm water with a lime in it.
“It’s for washing your fingers,” answered my handsome and politely amused waiter in the green vest.
“Strange,” I thought. It’s fish, not baby back ribs.
I went back to the dispiriting Time article I was reading about Gitmo and the improbability of my country ever having a leader capable of righting its wrongs. Then the waiter arrived with a huge platter of fish, rice, and vegetables. As I cut into my fish with the flimsy, crooked knife, I met resistance and realized that successfully consuming this tilapia would indeed involve my fingers.
I had completely forgotten that fish have bones.
That’s what three years without traveling will do to a person, especially an American who grew up in a world of seedless fruits and boneless, faceless meat.
My first encounter with fish bones was in France, at Monsieur and Madame Pons’ house in Hérouville Saint-Claire, the last stop on the tram from Caen. I managed to eat that insufficiently small and scaly black fish Madame Pons flopped on my plate, but not without a lot of effort. It got easier as time went on, and for a while I was traveling so much that when I ate American fish, I was disappointed about the lack of bones. Talking about fish bones was one of my things. Imagine the voice of Girl-You-Wish-You-Hadn’t-Started-a-Conversation-With-at-a-Party from Saturday Night Live:
“There are countries, Seth, where the bones are in the fish. They’re just like, there. And they eat them. People die, Seth. They die. And we don’t even put mayonnaise on our French fries. Look around at all the global warming.”
At least this time I was eating alone so no one could witness my complete breakdown of Western manners. I clumsily picked my way through the fish’s delicate skeleton, surreptitiously pulled tiny bones out of my mouth and added them to the graveyard accumulating on the corner of my plate. The ones I didn’t get, I washed down with Tusker. I hope I don’t die.
There was meat left, but I don’t know if it was okay to eat it. The eyes were gone, or seared shut, but underneath the fish’s cheeks there was some more meat. But I don’t know if you can eat a fish’s cheeks.
In spite of wanting another beer, I left the restaurant, feeling slightly accomplished and yet desolate at the same time. Not knowing what to do, even with something as simple as a fish, when you’re alone in a foreign place is both exciting and terrifying. Next time, I’ll eat the cheek meat and get a second beer, just in case the cheek meat kills me, I’ll be nicely buzzed when I go.