Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Only In Sudan: A Quest for Injera

I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again.

I repeated this to myself over and over while I waited for the stranger to call another stranger to give me directions to a strange place. Not very smart, I know, but I still like to consider Khartoum a relatively safe place where one can go a little off script and come back with a story to tell. So here it is.

Hankering for some tibs firfir and having duly purchased the exotic sounding chili pepper from the Ethiopian church street vendors, all I needed to be on my way to an authentic Ethiopian meal was the injera.

I asked a few people where I could find it and eventually, the answers downsized from the ambiguous “Anywhere” to “Ethiopian places” to a slightly more convenient “Eldeim”. I was given vague directions which I thought I could navigate, having a finite area to work with that did not involve straying too far from my usual route.

I looked up the first location (Souq Eldeim, last left on Street 15 extension) and saw no sign of a market, bustling or otherwise (my bad for not checking Google Maps before I left the office). I then went to the second location (second left turn after El Ghaali Gas Station “right on the road”) and saw nothing. No restaurant, no shop, no nothing. I continued down my usual route and stopped at a place with a sign written in Amharic. Good a place to start as any, I figured. 

Trying to park off the road without disturbing the people waiting in the street for a ride while avoiding scratching my car on the rickshaw that had been flagged down simultaneously by two women was an #OnlyInSudan moment. Moving on, we politely smiled and tried to avoid squashing each other in a me-get-out-of-half-open-door, woman-not-getting-in-rickshaw-without-agreeing-to-price and other-woman-just-wants-out-of-heat-will-pay-rickshaw-anything and normal traffic dance.

We negotiated our way around each other, and I came face to face with “This is all I’m paying” lady. Thinking I had to start somewhere, I asked if she knew where I could find injera and I pointed at the Amharic sign, asking if they sold any. That’s a restaurant? It’s a beauty salon, she said.

“You want injera? Start your car, I’ll take you to a place!” she declared, barely waving away the rickshaw driver who had already welcomed his next fare, the more accommodating shade-seeking lady.

“I’m a fortune teller” she said, “I read coffee and water and other things”.

Bloody hell, I can’t roll my eyes while driving and I don’t know how this is supposed to go. What are the follow-up questions to fortune teller, I wondered.

“You want injera on a Wednesday, that means you have a zaar” and said something about boxes or containers.

“I honestly don’t have any idea what you are talking about.” First of all, I really didn’t (and still don’t) and second of all, I wanted to change the subject – witchcraft, sorcery and possession are really not my forte.

She got the hint and told me that she was looking for a job and was going to give me her phone number. She’d told me her name as soon as she got in the car and directly asked for mine. However tempting it was to say any made up name I could think of, she *had* told me her name – fair’s fair – so I told her mine. This resulted in her punctuating all her sentences with a resounding “Tagreed!” as I cringed with the familiarity of it all.

Names are powerful. We all know that (my buddy even wrote this blogpost on the subject). I remember watching Beauty and the Beast, back in the day and Gabriel never said the name of the child because to give someone your name is to give them power over you. (Yes, I was actually thinking all this in the car, before saying my name out loud). But I gave her my name because in my mind, lying would be worse (I’m pedantic like that).

So, we got to a place after a failed fishing attempt (“I know someone with heart trouble and we need medicine” “Go to the Salam Center – they’re free” which she dismissed with a simple, “Ah!”) before she got out to call the friend that she had come to visit who was going to lead me to the injera place. This is when my litany started.

I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again.

She called her friend and they asked me to stay inside the house while they got the injera for me. Remember? That’s what I set out to buy. Even I had slightly forgotten at that point. I told them that I just needed the directions. Come on in, they insisted, have a cup of coffee. I really need to get back to my kids (bless their hearts for all the alibis and excuses they have given me over the years). It’s really close by, they insisted. Then I can drive there fast and head home, I replied.
They conceded the round.

I got the directions and guess what? The injera lady literally lives on my street! So I went inside her house (wondering for half a second if that was a smart idea), waited amongst a couple of sleeping cats while she poured, folded and bagged the goodies and I went on my merry way.

Lunch was delicious. Alhamdulillah.

I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again. I will not let a stranger in my car again.

Yes, she was very helpful. Yes, she got me where I wanted to go. I guess my problem is that I prefer sorcery and possession, or any mention of either, in books and movies. Water? Boxes? Zaar? Kindly maintain a safe distance. Thanks for everything!