The Market

First of all, I want to thank you all for reading this blog and for your kind and supportive comments. I’m glad many of you are finding our experiences both informative and entertaining. That’s really the whole point of this blog, to entertain our friends and family. It’s also a good way to KIT.

KIT, or “keep in touch.” I used to write that in people’s yearbooks in junior high.  “KIT! Have a good summer! Stay sweet!” How did we manage in those days without the internet, texting and Skype? I guess we didn’t actually KIT much back then.

Second of all, many of you have inquired as to whether or not I ever got my luggage back. Thankfully, I did. The airline, Royal Jordanian, found the bags in Amman and flew them to Aqaba via private charter. Apparently, our luggage got freshly baked cookies AND warm hand towels. WTF?!

Those rogue bags arrived in Aqaba two days after we did and Bret’s lovely colleague,”Marty” picked them up and dropped them off at our apartment. Wasn’t that awesome of “Marty?” He really is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to reveal his true identity.

Unfortunately, I was passed out cold when Marty brought the bags by. It was the middle of the afternoon and Abby and I were dead asleep. In fact, that particular day, Abby and I slept from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. I remember waking up, wondering where I was and who this baby belonged to.  Then I wandered into the kitchen and stuffed myself with more Snack Maamoul. And then I thought: This has got to stop.

By the way, nothing was missing from our bags. My fears about the guy peddling our stuff on the street in Amman was totally unfounded. That guy probably took one look at my wide-leg linen pants and was like, “Well, these are a hot mess.”

Okay, SO, I want to tell you about the food in Aqaba.

First, a little history.

I love food. I especially love fresh, healthful food, although I do have a mean sweet tooth and can polish off a pint of ice cream in a matter of minutes.  I’ve already inhaled a whole jar of Nutella since we’ve been here. In my defense, Nutella is the DEVIL.

But most of the time, I try to eat healthfully and provide nutritious meals for Abby.

Bret, however, is on his own. I’ve given up trying to get him to eat well. He sticks to meat, white bread (or more recently, pita) and coca cola. He also likes butter, potato chips and noodles.  Oh, and ice cream. He likes that too.

As for me, I eat pretty well: Several pieces of fresh fruit every day and salad and steamed or sautéed veggies. I usually eat fish about twice a week and I love beans and whole grains. I’m not a big fan of soda (or, pop, if you live in the midwest). I drink mostly water with occasional glasses of fresh juice or iced tea. I do drink coffee every day but sometimes it’s decaf. I know, I’m perfect.

Back in L.A., I was a frequent flyer at Whole Foods and the local farmer’s market. I derived great comfort just wandering through the aisles (or stalls) of fresh, organic food.

Health food stores are so quaint, aren’t they? They all seem to smell the same and their aisles are never large enough to accommodate full-sized grocery carts. It’s just adorable.

When I was young and single, I used to go to Erewhon which is a health food store much like Whole Foods, only smaller. I’d get a cup of pumpkin red lentil soup and then spend an hour meandering through the aisles, leisurely picking out organic trail mix and nontoxic household supplies.

This brought me great comfort and calm. Even now, as a relatively busy wife and mother, I enjoy going to Whole Foods. I don’t luxuriate there like I did at Erewhon when I was an unemployed actor in my 20’s. But still, Whole Foods is a kind of sanctuary for me. I’m safe there. Nothing bad could ever happen in a place where everything is organic, free-range, grass-fed, wild-caught and devoid of any toxic chemical known or unknown to man. There would never be a chemical spill at Whole Foods or an accidental overdose. Overdose of what? Gluten-free waffles?

Here in Aqaba, there’s no Whole Foods. There isn’t an Erewhon, either. But there are several vegetable markets — the Brits call them green grocers. Isn’t that cute? The first vegetable market we went to here was the big one in the old section of Aqaba. The old section of Aqaba is mostly locals and is a bit rundown. Most of the tourists and expats hang out in the newer part of town that has more upscale shopping. The central veggie market is pretty amazing though. It has also stalls where you can buy bulk spices, olives, cheese and freshly roasted nuts.

We buy certain essentials at the Safeway in town: household goods like dish soap and a broom, bottled water, some produce, and some dairy products. Safeway also has every kind of snack food you can imagine (except Munchos, Bret wanted me to tell you). They do have Tostitos though.

Safeway here is the same Safeway as the one in the States. Sort of. It has the same red, swish logo on the sign. It also has a small produce section, a dairy section and a bakery. There’s even a meat department, complete with a wild-eyed butcher who slams his enormous cleaver down on a side of mutton. He’s like a bloodied Judge Wapner trying to silence two squabbling roommates.

I think he’s actually performing a show, depicting the life of the crazy, lone butcher of Aqaba. Like the reenactments of the old West at Knott’s Berry Farm. He dons an apron and performs a Sweeney Todd show at noon, 2 and 4 every day. It’s very loud and draws a crowd of curious and slightly uncomfortable onlookers.

The point is, Safeway is good for basic sundries, but for the fresh fruit and veggies, the veg market (or green grocer!) is the place.

The first time we went to the vegetable market in Aqaba, I was forced to come to terms with my own bias as a “wealthy” American. You see, I’ve grown accustomed to the organic Disneyland that is Whole Foods (or even Ralph’s Fresh Fare) and this market in Aqaba is…different. I don’t say that pejoratively, mind you. I like the market, even though I’m still a little intimidated by it. Let me explain.

First of all, it’s hot. Aqaba is in the middle of the desert so temperatures typically soar way into the 100’s in the summer (today it was 108, for example). But for some reason, the Shwe market feels at least 10 degrees hotter than the rest of town. Like a freshly picked gardenia or unpasteurized dairy, I’m extremely sensitive to the heat.

Bret keeps saying I’ll get used to it, but I won’t. There have been times the heat was so intense here, I thought I was going to die. I get really dramatic and start swaying back and forth, threatening to throw up or faint, or both.

Abby, of course, remains adorable and pleasant even when her enormous cheeks turn bright red and sweat drips from her face. I force her to drink bottled water until Bret has to intervene.

“She’s had enough, babe,” he assures me as Abby gulps from my giant water bottle. “I don’t want her to dehydrate!” I shriek, making my tourist status even more obvious. “We’ve only been out here for three minutes,” Bret reminds me in a calm voice. “Dehydration can happen in the blink of an eye,” I snap. Bret shakes his head as Abby, now bored with merely drinking the water, dumps it into her lap.

So, anyway, it’s hot here. And the veg market is even hotter.

The market itself consists of several outdoor stalls which are basically partitioned areas covered with cloth tents. Each stall is filled with crates of fresh fruit and vegetables. There are also tiny shops that sell fish, eggs and sides of goat, lamb and beef. The place has a distinct odor of raw animal carcass, cumin and fresh dirt. Trucks constantly rumble in and out on the street in front of the stalls, delivering more produce.

And the market just teems with people, mostly older women in full chador. There are also men in floor-length tunics and some of them wear the red and white keffiyehs or hata (head scarves).

The old women fascinate me. They have weathered brown skin and dark eyes. Sometimes all I can see are their eyes because the rest of them is covered with a black robe and headscarf. They have gnarled hands and they don’t speak, not even to the vendors. There’s a lot of gesturing and nodding.

Bret admitted to me a few days ago that when he sees a woman in full chador, he assumes she has no sense of humor. He said he realizes that that’s a product of his own prejudice and some of those women could be real riots.

I know what he means.

Whenever I see a nun wearing a habit, I have the same thought. I assume she’s a real bore who would be furious if I made a fart joke. She’d purse her lips and try to hit me on the knuckles with a ruler. But what if that nun knows some really great fart jokes? My own prejudice has prevented me from ever finding out.

I admit I’m afraid to test these waters with the old Muslim broads in full chador. They’re small but they look like they could kick my ass. Anyone who wears a black robe in this kind of heat can survive anything.

But back to the market.

The first thing I noticed were the goat carcasses hanging in the shop windows. They weren’t just carcasses, they were bodies. With the heads still attached. With fur on their ears and faces. But their bodies were completely skinned and gutted. A few goat heads (sans bodies) lined the bottom edge of the windows.

I felt faint. Those poor goats. Just hanging there. They had faces and eyes and soft little ears.

But then I remembered that I eat meat. I eat hamburgers and chicken and lamb. I eat baby sheep!? What’s the matter with me? But it tastes so good. I even eat bacon sometimes. Sweet little Wilbur. How could I eat him?

At Whole Foods, the meat was always displayed in neat compartments in a giant refrigerated case. It looked clean and fresh and didn’t resemble an animal at all. It was easy for me to forget the fact that it was once a sweet little animal with feelings and a soul. Shame on me.

There’s nothing subtle or neat about a dead goat hanging by its ankles from a metal hook. It repulsed me. It saddened me. It reminded me that I’m a hypocrite. If I care so much, why don’t I stop eating meat? I don’t know. Something for me to consider. Or maybe just something to accept. Those goat bodies are brutal but at least they’re honest. This is where meat comes from, Marj. Like it or not.

We didn’t buy any goat that day.

Instead, we browsed the barrels of fresh fruit and vegetables. We bought some zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, a small pumpkin, some carrots, onions, bell peppers, plums, peaches, apples, kiwis, and bananas.

And it cost 3 JD, or $5. I thought the guy had miscalculated.

He hadn’t. I was stunned.

There are also these guys who sit on plastic boxes just outside of the actual stalls and sell fresh greens and radishes. I asked him in English if he had any kale and he shook his head and said, “No English.” I shrugged and said, “No Arabic.” He smiled and said, “Salad?” I nodded. He picked out several bunches of fresh greens for me. They smelled amazing and I paid 1 JD for them, or $1.40.  At Whole Foods that same purchase would have set me back about $55.

We also bought a kilo (or 2.2 pounds) of fresh chicken breasts for 4 JD, or about $6. That night, Bret made roast chicken with potatoes, carrots, onions and bell peppers and it was heaven. It was lovely to have a home-cooked meal after eating airplane and mediocre restaurant food for almost a week. I was haunted by those goats, though. I’ve been vegetarian before. Could I do it again?

Bret and I make weekly trips to the veggie market for all of our fresh produce. We buy a few things at Safeway too, like peaches, plums and bell peppers. Overall, the fruits and veggies in Aqaba have proven to be exceptionally fresh and flavorful. The plums are especially sweet.

There are some things I have yet to find here: sweet potatoes, avocados that aren’t brown and shriveled, really fresh broccoli (although they have cauliflower and it’s awesome), fresh blueberries, raspberries or kale. It’s funny how you get sort of desperate for something when it’s suddenly not available. In LA, for instance, I could go several weeks without thinking about kale, but now that I don’t have access to it, I’m worried that maybe I’ll die without it. I’m already planning to stock up on kale chips when we come home for Christmas.

This brings me to a point I want to stress to you. Don’t take anything for granted. Not even something simple like your toenails. Be grateful that you have those toenails, or if you live in Los Angeles, easy access to kale. Or fresh food in general. Aqaba is a nice city, despite quirks that an American like me isn’t used to, but lots of places are a lot less nice. Millions of people in this world go hungry every day.

I’m not trying to bum you out. I’m just asking that you be grateful. For whatever you have.

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7 thoughts on “The Market

  1. Great writing. “You got talent kid”(said with gravelly SamSpade voice) BTW a kilo is 2.2 pounds. Sounds like Schwe is a place I want to see and photograph in person. Keep up the great writing. It could turn into a book.

  2. Hi ^_^
    I am Balsam; Jordanian. Nice blog ^_^
    Sadly it will be a bit hard to find what you look for in Aqaba; since these fruits and vegetables are not produced in Jordan and need to be imported; so they are rarely fresh; but; if you want them bad I guess you can find them in Amman or Irbid; larger variety; especially in Carrefour. they have all kinds of foreign foods we don’t grow..
    About the Hijab and long dress covers (Called Jilbab if colored; Abaya if black; also differ in material) ; as a Muslim covered woman myself; it is part of our religion to cover up when reaching puberty; some choose not to; some choose to dress in between; some choose to follow basics; and some are more strict and cover their face as well; it is up to the woman to choose; and depends on the depth of her beliefs; Hijab is not to be forced; but to be accepted and from one’s own convection.. anyway; you get used to it quickly enough; so; when it is hot; it does not bother as much as someone not used to it might think; on the contrary; look at it as if you are wearing an umbrella at all times; no direct heat to your skin and no dehydration.. and;to answer an earlier question you had; speaking for myself of course; I would feel naked without it.
    By the way; Aqaba is the hottest place in Jordan; other places have moderate to cool temp; but is very nice in the winter; does not get very cold nor does it get any snow like the north!

    • Thank you for the explanation about the hijaba and the Jilbab. I’ve heard of Abaya before but I didn’t know there was a difference between the black ones and colored ones. Sometimes the Jilbab are so colorful! I find them very pretty. I have a friend here who is a local Aqabawi and she also said the hijab helps keep her cool when it’s so hot. It makes sense.

      I’ve since learned the produce here is very seasonal. They had delicious sweet potatoes from October to mid-February and the broccoli has been much fresher with the colder weather. Right now, strawberries and pomelos are in season and they’re so delicious! We went up to Amman in early March and bought several containers of blueberries and raspberries imported from Chile. They were expensive but delicious! We’ll get plenty of blueberries when we’re home in the States this summer.

      Thanks again, Balsam!

      • You are welcome ^_^
        Seasonal products.. I miss that. now in the spring you have nice variety of red fruits, and couple other things; i don’t know if you are familiar with them; many cultures aren’t: green cherries and green almonds.. you have to try them!

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