Saturday, October 14, 2006

Turkish coffee, Rug Merchants, Cairo Mass Transit, and Mom

I remember when I was in Egypt how different shopping was as an ‘experience’. Here in the states, it’s kind of a disembodied experience. In most stores, you have in-experienced sales staff who are forced to interact with customers, and blather canned greetings and can I help you, or chase you out because they’re on your six the entire time you’re trying to shop leaving the more paranoid of us to think “Ah Ha, they’re really not sales people, they’re Iluminati spies…”

Well, in Egypt, in the bazaar, the sales approach is different. I was there almost 20 years ago. My mother offered me a trip to anywhere in the world as long as it was warm. My grandfather had fabulous pictures of Egypt and North Africa from his time in WWII (he was a flight mechanic crew chief who desperately wanted to be a turret gunner. Each pay period he would ask his CO politely when he could transfer out. They had no intention of sending someone with his level of expertise off to a meat grinder, and finally, one day the CO, out of frustration told him “Settle down, son, it’s a long war.” He never made it to the turret, however, he had amazing pictures and stories that I grew up with and never forgot.) My mom at the time was just learning Arabic. She had an amazing affinity for languages, as do all in our family. Anyway, I’m not much of a ‘lets go lay in the sun type’. I’m a history nerd, and easily bored, so I suggested Egypt. It was fateful, because it cemented her love of Middle Eastern culture, and she returned many times after, including doing a semester at Cairo University. So there we are, not in the Congo, but in Cairo, and one of our adventures was to check out the bazaar. I was determined to come home with a hooka, and very unmindful of any kind of danger. Tim would argue I still am. I would argue that the last 18 years have made me more aware, at least a little.

Anyway, the night before, she had met two guys in robes who were over from Kuwait to party in Cairo. They tried to get into the hotel room, but they gave me the willies, so I locked them out. Then I called security, and my ‘bell boy’. I had tipped him good with American my first day in town, so I always had someone I could turn to if I needed help. See? I’m not a total idiot. He persuaded them to stop the stalking and move on to some other target. The next day, my mom decided, let’s chill, go shopping, since the night before was quite exciting. So we hopped this bus. In Cairo, traffic dances to a chorus of beeps. The drivers all truck along, using this incomprehensible beeping system to telegraph action and motive to fellow drivers. And the busses never quite stop. They slow down. You jump on, you jump off. We do just that, wind up in the bazaar. All the while women are trying to sell us their young female children. I don’t know this of course, because all I know in Egyptian are “Shukran – Thank you”, “Aiwa – which is yes, and yeah, and hell yeah, all rolled into one.” And “Bakshish (bak-sheesh)- kind of like graft and charity– which is what folks ask for when they beg, and what you grease wheels with if you want a good experience). In the bazaar she finally explains what the women are doing. I think this is a little weird. Then we start to shop. First place, a rug merchant’s digs. Everyone’s sitting around this water pipe, smoking and drinking Turkish coffee. I LOVE coffee, but it is seriously hotter than hell. Doesn’t matter. If you shop, and are polite, you have to drink and talk with the shop keeps first. So we go ALL over the bazaar, drinking and talking. I think they were more friendly because we were two blonde women (my red brown bleached out the first day we were in the desert), and because my mom spoke the language so well, and was so enthusiastic about the culture. Thus, I learned here, prior to the Army gig, that drinking warm beverages in the heat helps climatize you. And, here, I learned to love Turkish coffee. I’m also a fan of dark, dark beer. When you can chew your beer, or your coffee, you know it’s been made spot on. The coffee puts me in the mood for adventure, takes the edge off the heat, and the journey continues.

So about the sixth establishment we were in, a jewelry store, we’re drinking and getting some cartouches made while we wait, the guy turns my mom on to a rug merchant who also deals in water pipes (hookas). So we head on over, drink more coffee with a guy who looks like Sala from Indiana Jones. After a bit the owner calls out and this lanky teenage boy appears, and motions for me to go with him. And what do I do? Set down my cup, get up, and follow. We go through this maze of adobe like buildings, down halls, through alleys, up several sets of stairs, emerge on a roof top, and go through another door. At that point it hits me that maybe I should not be doing this alone. Too late, though, I’m already committed. So in this room, thankfully, are hookas and not white slavers. This is Egypt, you know, not Syria. (Which she also visited. I did not join her.) The room is filled with pipes of all shapes and sizes, including the kind they use in the coffee shops that litter the bazaar; the bodies as tall as an average man, long pipes undulating like tentacles from their bronzed bellies. Like Goldilocks, I find something that is just right for my touristy twenty year old needs. I give the boy a pile of the funny money (the brightly colored, different sized bits of paper I am told is Egyptian currency). I then give him a good American tip, since I figure the rug merchant will take his cut from the native, and since I’ve learned the importance of bakshish (I know I am not even close to the correct spelling). We go back a different way, cut through two other establishments, including the kitchen of some kind of café/coffee joint, and finally wind up back at the rug merchants. After some more shopping, we grab some local food: pita, rice, spiced chicken (I think), and bottled water. I feed these two cats who emerge out of no where, sleek and skinny, and awfully friendly. We have more Turkish coffee, laugh about the room full of bongs (could have been a scene from a Cheech and Chong movie), jump on a bus, and head back to the hotel. Our guide is there, furious that we ditched him. I have developed a love for the coffee, and I have my water pipe in tow, so I don’t give a rat’s ass about the guide at that point.

Right before she died a few weeks back, my mom sent me the equipment to make my own Turkish coffee, along with the very fine powdered grains one must use in the brew process. I’ve been a philistine, making it in the automatic drip. Tomorrow, I’m pulling out the ibrik and the blend with the cardamom, and going native. I’ll raise a cup of the thick brew, and remember the good times. And the rug merchants.

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