Week Nineteen: Cardamom Morning

DSC082402016, Wadi Halfa, Sudan

The doors clang open. Or maybe shut.  The group is awakening for our first full morning in Sudan. None of us have slept well in the small hostel with rooms with metal “prison” doors.  I am not being dramatic, these heavy steel doors actually lock from the outside.  But, it doesn’t much matter as I am so excited to see more of this country I have been anticipating for so long.  I always seem to be ready quicker than the others. There seems to be an ingrained fear inside me of being late or having people wait on me, so I always make sure I pack up quickly and am ready to move. But, clearly others would be a while. I go out onto the front stoop and look for the woman and her daughter, who I noticed making coffee yesterday, hearing female voices from the side of the building.

The cinder block building was already heating up and I considered whether I should put a scarf over my hair.  I didn’t want to, but was still unsure of the rules here under sharia law. Perhaps I could have a coffee without it.

The woman is busy and does not smile or look up at me. She sits in a colorful plastic chair and guards her flame rising out of a small pile of coal in a metal pot.  In a dented tin can with a long handle, she dips boiling water out of a pot, places it on the rack above the flame and adds scoops of ground coffee. I love the ritual of coffee whether at home or in new places, but Sudanese coffee may be in a league all of its own. In addition to being a strong and robust brew, it is set apart from the typical Turkish coffee by the array of spices added as it boils. The scent of cardamom, ginger, cinnamon – maybe other spices – unlocks memory and nostalgia for places and people in the past. I think of Sweden and winter baking.  I think of cooking elaborate vegetarian stews in a big suburban kitchen on “dates” with a new friend.  I remember a lost friend who would always give me ginger tea for upset stomaches. I am nearly overwhelmed with regret of words I never said, things forgotten.

Shyly, I approach her and speak the English word, coffee.  I smile, as it seems the only thing I have to offer. She nods and points to the spices. I nod back.  We wait a few minutes for the water to boil. As we wait, her daughter darts nearby, delivering small, steaming glasses of coffee to the men sitting on the stoop.  When they finish drinking, she carries a small tin tray of empty glasses back to her mother and drops them in a larger pot of boiling water behind the chair. She also hands over the bills and coins, which her mother wraps in a pocket in the folds of her dress.

My coffee is ready and the daughter presents me two glasses on the tin tray. She takes my bill and gives me two coins in return. She grins at me and looks at my blue eyes and light hair.  I return the smile and her grin widens. I feel we have shared a tiny moment of connection as she laughs, points at me and says something to her mother. Mother finally smiles. It is good and beautiful to see.

I step out into the morning with the fragrance of my heavy memories, the bittersweet taste of ancient journeys, and the urgent heat of a woman providing for her daughter distilled into the spicy cups.  I squat against the wall and try not to burn myself as I pick up the hot glass and attempt to sip the coffee without severely burning my tongue or my fingers. There was a trick to this…but even 22 days into the trip, I still have so much to learn. I glance at the men in the corner who are elegantly drinking their tea with no problem.  Their voices murmur and mix with birdsong. I am in love with the morning and content watching the donkey carts and motorbikes pass by. The daughter hurries out with a plastic stool for me to sit on. She is shy now and she only smiles when I figure out that she wants me to sit.  As my friend joins me, one of the men in the group nearby also brought us a plastic stool. He refuses to keep it, though we try to give it back. But, he insists on hospitality. We are strangers to him. In this place I feel a stranger to myself. I feel immense gratitude. He continues his conversation. He remains standing; facing the rising sun.

This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.


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