Last weekend the embassy’s language lab sponsored a shopping trip to Kerdasa, a city on the other side of the pyramids. This was intended to make, or allow, us to try using our burgeoning Arabic. Ron declined, but I opted to go.
There were about 14 of us in two shuttle vans. I was chatting with the women in my van and found that most had been in foreign service for 15-20+ years. I was the newbie. They all expressed surprise that this was our first post and then reminisced about their first posts (not all fun, happy stories – things were very different in the 70s for spouses – one said she was required to get her husband’s signature/permission in order to work, buy a plane ticket, etc., and this was in Asia, not the Middle East; luckily the foreign service is now much more family-friendly).
The vans trundled through the city streets and I was in look-out mode, watching everything around us, however I had forgotten that I tend to get carsick in backseats. Half way there, I was curled up, covered in cold sweats, practicing my Lamaze breathing, and wondering whether I could get my shopping bag out of my backpack before puking on my camera. I was surrounded by “mothers” so everyone was very kind to me and luckily we arrived without any alternative need for my shopping bag. I fell out of the van, very happy to be back on dusty but stable ground.
Kerdasa is a very small town but is apparently known for its gallibayas. In the main street, there were shops upon shops of gallibayas in a huge assortment of colors, fabrics, embellishments and trimmings. One of the language teachers had reviewed with us typical shopping phrases, colors, numbers, etc. and we had a 4-page hand-out for reference. They split us into groups and we wandered off. We were all a bit hesitant to try our Arabic (and as usual, all the shopkeepers spoke English), but we did make attempts and when one of us wanted to make a purchase, the teachers “helped” us bargain – which really meant we stood back and let them bargain for us. Bargaining is very big here, although not in large supermarkets and stores. They say that typically if you get ¼ off the asking price, it’s a good deal for you.
I was dazzled initially by all the frippery around – it was like being in a Bollywood costume set (though I do realize those would typical be full of Indian dresses), but I did get into the shopping mode and bought a shawl that was hand-embroidered by Bedouins (Ron added, Bedouin children), and a deep blue gallibaya shirt. The prices were great and the choices were huge. Some of the gallibayas we saw were so elegant you could wear them to a formal event. Others were light cotton, still extremely colorful, but less adorned and sexy and more typical of what women would wear around the house (the Egyptian housecoat).
I was able to use my color-knowledge, but my numbers are weak so I have to practice them. There are so many steps or layers to this language-learning thing. First, it’s learning a new alphabet and being able to recognize the letters, next it’s memorizing reams of vocabulary, then it’s being able to correctly pronounce words (a slip of the tongue and you’ve asked where the pigeon is, not the bathroom), and finally (which is what I realized at Kerdasa) it’s being able to recognize words when they’re said back to you – active listening. My poor little brain was emitting puffs of smoke by the end of it all.
As we were getting settled back in the vans, grabbing water from the children selling bottles, we heard a man’s voice over a loudspeaker. I didn’t think too much of it as I’m getting used to hearing the call-to-prayer several times a day, and since I don’t (yet) understand what they’re saying I wasn’t listening closely. Our teacher told us that Kerdasa was such a small town, with a very close community, that they didn’t use newspapers, but instead relied on word-of-mouth, and when something of timeliness needed to be reported, they used the loudspeaker. The man was apparently announcing the passing of a local townswoman and telling folk when the viewing at the mosque would be later that night. So here was this old-fashioned small town using modern loudspeakers to keep everyone informed. Amazing.
Carting away our happy purchases, we drove on and ate lunch at a great outdoor restaurant called Andrea’s, where they cook the bread in outdoor ovens and flowering trees arch over the walkways. I managed to feel carsick on the way home too, so I was less-than-chatty and practically rolled out of the van so delighted to be let out at our front door. Being “chauffeured” around certainly has its benefits, but there are times I do miss being a driver. So now, in addition to hand-cleaner, sunglasses, SPF, a cell phone and money, I will also always carry Dramamine.