Whenever and wherever I travel, I'm always drawn to the lures of a local market. More than the prospect of souvenir hunting, it's the opportunity to engage in a banter with local merchants and see the various kinds of products on display that excites me. It's like going inside a living museum without having to pay any entrance fee.
Such was the case with Khan el-Khalili, Egypt's renowned souk or market. In many respects, The Khan (as it is now often called) is a microcosm of Egypt. It is loud, frenetic, grimy, seductive, kitschy and exotic all at once. In 14th century, long before there were environmentally-controlled malls in Cairo, merchants began trading at what was to become the city's first commercial center. Ever since, the Khan has been constantly used for selling goods and there is no waning today in its significance as a center for trade.
Our hired taxi driver dropped us off at a very busy intersection. Sharon, Rochelle, Nabil and I dodged cars as we crossed a street from where the looming Al-Azhar mosque stands and into a busy sidewalk leading to Al-Hussain Square at the edge of the Khan. We've barely set foot on a narrow alley with plenty of shops when a shopkeeper saw us and eagerly invited us for a look - the first of many.
"Just look. I have beautiful scarves for the lady". Mind you, these merchants are skillful in sweet-talking. I'm just glad we've armed ourselves to bargain well. Any visitor not prepared with bargaining tactics will end up paying more for an item. Nabil was looking to buy a set of hookah to bring back to London while both Rochelle and Sharon were stocking up on scarves to bring to Uganda, their next destination. Meanwhile, my eyes were simply fixed on refrigerator magnets for my collection back in New York.
From one shop to the next, we inspected, bargained, then inspected some more and bargained some more. What we did was basically get a price of one item from different sellers without showing obvious interest and then start bargaining at half its quoted worth until we reached a price we deemed fair. It worked! At the end of what was just two hours in the souk, our energy was drained and we sought for the taxi to bring us back to our hotel. This was our last day in Cairo and I'm leaving at 7:30 AM the next day so I really wanted some rest.
Of course, it's not just a simple goodbye for all of us in our group. Later that evening - our last night together - Waleed drove us in his car (while the others took a taxi) into the hip Mohandiseen district and settled for a table at Deal's, a resto-pub popular with the younger, football-loving crowd of Cairo. There was a big match between Egypt and Mozambique that evening so the patrons were even louder as we bid each other goodbye and thanked Waleed for helping run the trip smoothly for everyone. Ma'asalam Egypt!