Thursday, 14 June 2007
Alex Horne – 14th June 2007
With Costa Rica safely notched up and two free hours before our next more tangible commitments, Owen and I decided to return to Edgware Road, scene of our most glorious achievements to date back in January. ‘We’ll do a quick sweep’, we thought, ‘and get the Middle East done’.
With just Qatar, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to find, how could we possibly not? We’d probably even have half an hour to spare at the end to drop in on Ahmed from Somalia and sniff a bit more of that expensive perfume…
An hour and a half later we were sitting in a café called Palms Palace, puffing away on a shisha pipe and wondering where it had all gone wrong.
We’d found plenty of foreigners. Everyone knows – and insists on telling us – that Edgware Road is THE PLACE for Middle Easterners. Unfortunately they weren’t the right Middle Easterners for us. Normally I wouldn’t be all that picky but it is a bit frustrating when you go into every single travel agent, news agent and iron agent (well, mongers, but they’ve got to update that word soon) on a street, only to be greeted by people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya and Lebanon. Exactly. I’m glad you understand.
We spent a good twenty minutes in one particular café, painstakingly explaining why we absolutely had to meet someone from Qatar in the next forty five minutes, only for the gentlemen in question to finally shake his head incredibly slowly, mutter ‘no, no, no’ under his breath, and trudge back into his kitchen. It was only later that I realised my t-shirt probably didn’t help our cause. It’s a hard garment to describe but it’s basically an advert for ‘Tulip’, Denmark’s most popular brand of Spam, and features a picture of a pig snuffling away in a tin of the processed ham product. Not all that appropriate in a Halal eatery. Those pesky Danes and their inflammatory imagery!
So with time running out and another afternoon of opportunity slipping through our fingers we found a table outside the Palace, just two doors down from the Oud perfumery, and bravely ordered ourselves a pipe, thinking we’d at least having something to talk about should anyone sit next to us.
No-one sat next to us.
And we couldn’t really cope with the pipe.
Shisha pipes, for some reason, don’t have instructions printed on the side so if, like me, you don’t even really know how you smoke a cigarette properly, an enormous glass and metal pipe is a distinctly daunting prospect.
Not that I was going to appear daunted in any way. As soon as it was deposited before us I grabbed what I hoped was the correct nozzle and gamely sucked away. The water bubbled. I felt pretty cool. It didn’t taste too bad. ‘I could get used to this!’ I said.
Two minutes later, the waiter (igniter/piper/flame thrower?) returned and lit some charcoal on a tiny tray at the top of the pipe. ‘Now its ready’, he smiled. ‘Of course’, I replied calmly. At least in a couple of weeks the smoking ban would arrive and I’d have the last laugh.
Actually, that’s not fair. It was actually this very waiter who finally saved our – not bacon – erm, day. We’d obviously told him what we were doing and asked him where he was from at the first opportunity (to which he confusingly replied; ‘No, I don’t have this idea’ then later, reluctantly, ‘Lebanon’). But after serving us some fairly solid Arabic coffees he somehow salvaged the situation, saying, ‘do you want to meet someone from Oman?’ then letting us do just that.
As it turned out, the only other people sitting outside the café, three tables along from us, were two cousins from Oman; one, Adnan, the First Secretary at the Embassy of Oman - so useless for us, but the other, Hamed, a bona fide Omanian living in London!
Unfortunately, he didn’t speak much English so what followed was less an interview, more a frank exchange of facial expressions, but we did learn that he likes the apple tobacco best, it’s exactly the same here as in Oman, he smokes it whenever he feels like it and he’ll normally get through a pipe in about half an hour. What more could you possibly want to know? And anyway, we were just glad to get any return from a difficult afternoon – especially since by now we were both feeling quite dizzy from a combination of smoke and coffee that our sheltered British lives hadn’t really prepared us for.
Now then, just one hundred more countries to go.