On a Quest for Tea Cups When I Discovered Olives, Cheese and Nuts

How much Turkish Delight can one get in a scoop?

How much Turkish Delight can one get in a scoop?

On my last day in Istanbul, I turned the corner from the Galanta Bridge and discovered the Egyptian Spice Market.  I needed to find these cool looking tea cups I saw at my hotel.  They had wide grooves for your thumb to balance a hot cup of tea so that the hot liquid wouldn’t slip onto my lap.  The restaurant staff said to go to the Egyptian Spice Market which has been around since 1664 – you can find anything you want.

No kidding – this market was packed with everything under the sun for sale:  nuts, cheese, Turkish coffee, olives, and of course spices.  Every section of the place that took more than an hour to traverse through was a reminder of the unique aspects of Turkish food that made each one of our meals in Turkey so special.

Our first stop was a shop that sold fresh slices of goat cheese cooling in a see-through case.  Phenomenal chunks of cheese decorated our salads every day and I only wish I could’ve brought back buckets of cheese to the U.S.

Goat cheese galore!

Goat cheese galore!

And the olives!  My husband and I gorged on them throughout our trip down the west coast of Turkey.  They melted in our mouth.  Every region had their own special olives and the owners proudly displayed them in jars with their signature labels on the front.  Prior to coming to Turkey, I always thought there were two kinds of olives: green or brown. I discovered so many different types of olives, each distinguishable by taste and texture.  Now at this market, the colorful olives, glistening in olive oil, sat in buckets as the vendor stood over them bellowing out prices.

DSCN3434 When we turned the corner, I smelled morning coffee.  Several stalls in a row sold fresh ground coffee and my husband fought to get in line for a bag. Then another row of stalls that sold nuts and more nuts.

And what about the tea cups?  The outer perimeter of stalls featured cups, saucers, tea pots and anything handy in the kitchen.  “No, I don’t want to buy 100 of them,” I said as clerks pushed for me to purchase in bulk.  I flashed a picture of my unique tea cups, but no one seemed to know.

Too many nuts to choose from

Too many nuts to choose from

I almost gave up when I spotted the special thumb-grooved tea cups on a bottom shelf and while I was at it, I bought a beautiful tea pot to go with it.  Arms loaded with our bounty from the market, we were now ready to go to the airport for the long trip home.  I was sad to say good bye to my market that was a refreshing reminder of every special food I ate throughout my trip.

Finally, I found my prized tea cup!

Finally, I found my prized tea cup!

 

At a Tibetan Market Where Yak Leather and Chicken Carriers are Cheap

4370_001Booths lined the perimeter of Barkhor Square.  At such an early hour of the day, Tibetans were setting up their wares, stacking items in a haphazard way as early-bird shoppers perused the merchandise.  One booth sold everything metal:   pots, pans and utensils in every imaginable shape and size, stacked one on top of the other on the ground, spilling out the sides and front. Another sold everything plastic:  buckets, containers and plates.  Other booths sold meat, vegetables and grains like barley, a Tibetan staple.  At one stand, a vendor called out prices while locals picked up pieces of imported fruit, smelled them and placed them back carefully.

I wanted to buy everything, even the things I had no imaginable needs for—a metal carrier for a live chicken, a barley sifter, a three-foot prayer wheel, a yak leather belt—anything for such cheap prices.   Instead, I bought a set of prayer flags for ten cents, twenty of them strung together, rolled carefully and wrapped in the daily Chinese Communist paper.  The flags would remain in my backpack until I reached the highlight of our Tibetan journey—the Mount Everest Base Camp.  There, at the highest destination at 5400 meters above sea level, we would string the prayer flags with the rest of the flags from other visitors, travelers and pilgrims.

Prayer flags

Prayer flags

I couldn’t bargain too hard when I knew the Tibetans relied heavily on purchases by foreigners, and competition was fierce with so many stalls selling similar items.  The owner’s wife was squatting behind the booth, delicately gluing tiny pieces of coral and turquoise beads onto metal jewelry boxes while her toddler played with a mini set of prayer flags, fanning them out like paper cutouts.

When I turned around again, a beggar woman with a small child in tow pressed up against me, her dirty palms gently prodding my arms.  She was possibly the same age as me, perhaps younger but it was difficult to tell from the permanent creases on her forehead and her tired eyes.  When she opened her mouth to plea for money, I noticed her gums were black and most of her teeth were gone.  She was poor.  And not poor like back home in Vancouver.  Even the beggars I had encountered in Beijing were never this disheveled.  This Tibetan beggar’s clothes were so shabby and covered with large holes that at first I thought she had mistakenly missed the armholes when she put on her shirt.

I felt embarrassed and ashamed for the exotic ideas about Tibet that had held for so many years.  All I had seen so far was suffering, squalor and oppression.  It was almost too much; poverty crowded my vision wherever I turned my head.   With my clean clothes, wad of cash in my money belt—more than any of them would see in a lifetime—and a passport that could take me to practically any country in the world, I was always going to have more, always going to be ahead.  My fingers would never be caked in mud, with lines of dirt making their permanent place under my nails.  And I didn’t know if I should feel pity, relief or guilt.

I had grown up in a middle class neighborhood in east Vancouver, a popular hub for newly landed Asians because of its affordable housing.  I always had enough growing up, but our family couldn’t afford too many luxuries, like annual vacations or new clothes.  While my elementary school classmates showed off bright crisp clothes in September, the price tags clipped the night before, I wore hand-me-downs.  While the other kids took piano lessons, I taught myself a few bars on my fake piano:  a wooden desk etched with keys. At dinner, my mother would urge my sisters and me to eat the vegetables that lingered in our bowls:  Be proud of what you have.  Some people don’t get enough to eat.

Now I was in a country where the class divisions were poor and poorer. These were the people that my parents had used as a bargaining tool to get us to eat our horrid spinach.

I slipped a few yuan in the beggar’s hand.  She nodded and carefully folded the bills, which disappeared in the tattered folds of her clothes.  Then she was gone.  And I was left with guilt that I couldn’t do more for her.

This is an excerpt from THE SAME SKY.  For more excerpts, click here.