This post is part one of a series on the space we occupy as travelers and outsiders, and the contradictions between our lives at home and our lives abroad. These posts were written together weeks, months, or even a year after the experience, but they are presented here together and arranged by theme rather than in chronological order.
“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”
– Dagobert D. Runes
Cellphone light held precariously in my mouth, I crouch over the “map” I scrawled into my notebook, trying to keep it from getting wet in the nightly downpour in Bobo-Diulasso, Burkina Faso. I’m trying to find the legendary “chicken cooked in a bag” sold on a particular street in “Bobo” that my (all-knowing) guidebook told me about.
Stumbling around in the dark for another half an hour, I find Yacoub (18), and his father making the famed chicken under a tarp (across from the Hotel de L’entente on Rue de Commerce – in case you end up in Bobo), illuminated only by the wood fire under the chickens. We strike up conversation in my broken French as I wait for the chicken. By the end of my wait, I have not only a smoky, succulent chicken – the best I’ve ever tasted (one doesn’t realize how awful U.S. factory chicken really is until you try real organic free range poulet in Burkina) – but also a new friend.
The next evening, after having a late lunch with his family, we return to our meeting place. I help chop a few onions in a futile attempt to be useful as Yacoub tosses the chickens with spices, onions, and sauce and puts them in the parchment bags. He throws them on the fire to braise slowly. We sit and shoot the shit about girls, politics, and the effect of the economic crisis on the poulet business as the sun goes down. His father used to sell 30 chickens a night, but now is lucky to sell five.
Dusk turns to night and we learn about each other’s dreams – a house, becoming a father, a stable income. He wishes for a Burkina as a grand pays with full employment and better infrastructure, but without losing the conviviality – the ever-present greetings, the friendships, the family – the reason his French brother-in-law stayed in Burkina with his new wife.
We watched moped after moped zoom by in the moonlight as we waited in vain on our rickety bench for the customers who never came – talking, learning, and dreaming of another world within our own.
I have never truly gotten to know, let alone begun to befriend, a person like Yacoub – or the many others I have met like him – in the U.S. I describe this irony a bit here. But as I travel, I consciously – some might even say obsessively – seek out those people and places I have too often overlooked or felt unable to get to know in my own home.
The question that now looms is how to take this perspective – this curiosity – back home.