This is the story of how I came to carry a 8.2 pound metal hippopotamus on board five flights from South Africa to Alabama. It is a story that begins, in a roundabout way, in North Africa, but I’ll get to that part last.
I learned to haggle in the winding passages of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I had been told all my life that it was extremely rude to haggle. But the Turkish travel guide I read on the airplane was quite clear on this point: it would be rude not to haggle. So I did what I normally do in uncomfortable situations and entirely overthought it. I memorized haggling tips and picked at the partially comprehensible Turkish-language keyboard of the lonely shared hotel computer into the prime hours of jet lag.
Few places on earth can prepare you for Istanbul’s old city. The layers of history pile on each other in ways much more haphazard, strange and lovely than any textbook can explain. The Hagia Sophia, where the Ottomans (sometimes more pragmatist than the usual narrative allows) decided to keep the church and just cover the blasphemous frescoes. Rebranding, they might call it now. Where actual Vikings carved something like “Erik was here” into the floor while passing through. The wasp-waisted towers of the Blue Mosque, where enterprising vendors will try to sell you special socks to wear inside, even though any socks will do. Unless they have holes. Check for holes. If you go into the basement of the souvenir shop next door, you might discover an actual Roman cistern where rich-smelling water drips slowly down rows of dozens columns each wider than your embrace. If you are rich, you can stay at the Four Seasons, located in a renovated Turkish prison. If you are not rich, you can at least go drink at their bar and read the English language newspapers (how I’ll miss the International Herald Tribune) before retreating to your more modest lodgings.
Istanbul is the first place I ever really heard the call to prayer. You don’t so much hear it as become suffused by it, the symphony of muezzins calling the faithful over loudspeakers both tinny and rich bouncing off old and new buildings, into corridors and breakfast nooks. I was there once during Ramadan, when every kind of food cart lines the streets just waiting for fast to break and lines to form – a joyful end to the day, when twinkly lights are strung between trees and poles.
Then there’s the Grand Bazaar. It’s almost Orientalist by definition to write about this place: The exotic array of goods! The seen-it-all merchants! The foreign scents and foods! I prefer on the whole to think of it as a mall long predating Victor Gruen’s great and terrible idea without the baggage of urbanisms old and new. It is, fundamentally, just a place to shop. More to the point, it is a place for foreigners to shop. It is a place where the shopping is both exactly and totally beside the point. Visitors are not just shopping for goods – they are shopping for a very particular experience of shopping for goods. The Grand Bazaar may still occupy its original warren of tunnels and side streets, but it’s clearly a performance of a specific version of itself conceived by and for others.
In this respect, it is sadly like Doha’s Souq Waqif, which is “fake” in the sense used by the late Umberto Eco. Doha is accelerating at a pace where the hyperreal is only an event horizon. In a place like this, there’s no point in seeking authenticity. But they’d like to sell it to you anyway. The Souq Waqif, as various promotional materials are happy to tell you, is in fact a centuries-old site for trading. They are less likely to mention that the site was abandoned, then burned down, and then reconstructed to look authentic so that this former village might claim a soul, or at least a history, as its armies of indentured laborers busily erect all manner of temples to commerce and excess. As Eco writes, “The industry of the Absolute Fake gives a semblance of truth to the myth of immortality through the play of imitations and copies.” Check.
You can buy good saffron here, the Iranian kind not allowed in the United States, for reasonable rates. If you do your research, you can even bring this home through customs. Also there are a surprisingly large number of vintage radios in gorgeous bakelite cases, so miraculously preserved from the elements that it seems possible to tune into broadcasts from World War I. And of course the Souq feels real, whatever that means. It feels as real as the chocolate fountain at the Intercontinental Hotel’s sumptuous dessert buffet. Trying to pin down its realness is entirely beside the point and, besides, may distract you from small children sticking their hands into the cascading sticky goo.
At the Grand Bazaar, I dickered over, walked away from and ultimately purchased a bracelet ostensibly made of silver and amber. If you like old things, as I do (records, radios, paper newspapers), then you’ll appreciate my interest in amber. In retrospect, it is clear that the seller did too – and despite my best efforts, I surely overpaid. Still, it was fun to negotiate, and I like the bracelet (though its silver content was, at best, wildly overstated). On another visit I made the mistake of displaying too much interest in a piece of fabric I thought I’d wear as a skirt. It’s now an overpriced table runner for those biennial occasions when I might need to dress my Ikea tables up to impress someone else.
I mention my time in Turkey because by the time I met the hippo I fancied myself a bit of a haggler. I’d even negotiated over white gold in Dubai with an impatient man who swatted away my tourist Arabic until a Lebanese friend who wasn’t about to give me any false compliments congratulated me on my score. Then I met my match.
By the time I got to South Africa, I was well into my 30s. I considered myself very experienced in international travel. I was also supervising a group of high school students – something that for a time took me all over the world to enviable destinations where I would normally stay in the hotel at night failing to navigate the hotel’s useless Internet connection while hoping that the students didn’t roam the streets of Santiago, or Athens, or wherever, and get me sued.
Capetown is magnificent, but the trip had some hiccups. First, although the hotel we stayed at was called the Ritz, I am sure that it was not one of “those Ritzes” in the same way that the “Diplomat Inn” down the street from our house in one of Montgomery’s sketchiest neighborhoods is probably not where the actual diplomats stay. Second, it had never been explained that we would be given the opportunity to climb around on Table Mountain. This would have been fine, except that I ended up getting the privilege in a skirt. With the added weight of my personal computer, which I could not leave in the room because of a wave of thefts reported at the conference hotel. I would very much like to return to Capetown. I would not stay at this particular Ritz again.
When you take students to these unending debate competitions (ten days, if you can believe it, with two debates a day – you drink all the bad coffee just to stay conscious), there are precious few moments to enjoy the company of other adults and actually see the city. I treasure the afternoon I got to explore the Parthenon by myself, taking pictures of anarchist graffiti in the streets below and getting to know the many feral cats of Athens. In Capetown, an old friend and I seized the chance to escape for a few hours to a local market. The people at home need souvenirs, and I always want to buy one thing for myself to remember each adventure.
The market was set up in a square, densely layered rows of stalls selling all manner of crafts – tiny paintings, florid textiles, preposterous wooden utensils, every possible thing that could be made from metal bottlecaps. We turned a corner and I saw the hippo in a collection of animals and objects made of scrap metal. I’ll admit that I fell just a little in love. My first misstep.
Of course there is a backstory. Like many morbid children, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt. Some of my most formative early memories include seeing artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb at the National Gallery in the 1970s and then discovering a beautiful copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead in my grandfather’s library. When we were children, our parents entertained us with the story of William, the Met’s famous hippo. I was primed to like the hippo.
I loved his rusty and pointed exterior, his wide eyes, his comic nose, his heft, his rounded belly. I joked to my friend that he was so heavy I could probably use him as a deadly weapon. I picked him up. I was, in short, a mark. But I would never buy such a thing. I had a ton of luggage and an excruciating trip home. Still, just curious, I asked the sculptor for the price. Strike two.
To this day, I can’t remember the price he quoted me. And it gets fiddly in other countries, because no matter how good you are at doing exchange rate math in your head, in these moments the stuff begins to seem a bit like monopoly money (I still have an ATM receipt somewhere from the time I withdrew 10,000,000 in Turkish lira). I do remember that, to be polite, I offered him exactly half of the price. Which I thought would end the deal, because he would go higher and give me a chance to walk away. It did not. The students made fun of me.
I wrapped this unwieldy thing in a sweatshirt and ran it through every metal detector and bomb swabbing apparatus from Capetown to Atlanta, via Johannesburg, Frankfurt and Heathrow. At every stop it was pulled aside for inspection, muttered over in cadences which I did not always understand but seemed to sum up to: “Can you believe this giant metal hippo?” He now sits by my fireplace. I named him Rand, after his birth currency and to remind me that money in other countries is actually real.
I think I know why my parents forbade me from haggling. It has to do with a giant and ornate birdcage made of metal and wood that was a fixture in my many childhood homes. This is a birdcage that my mother populated with a stern-looking stuffed black vulture. She would often produce it at parties or use it as a prop to burst in and scare groups of children during sleepovers. Anyone who knew my mother will remark, unprovoked, on her unusual sense of humor. She once let a gaggle of pre-teens watch Psycho after midnight, allegedly unsupervised, bursting in at the crucial moment with a knife. I lost a lot of friends that evening.
She was a military wife. This included any number of activities: complicated dinner parties, herding children back and forth between continents to visit family, worrying about a deployed spouse, negotiating the commissary system. It also meant that sometimes she would go with other military wives on vacations organized to both enrich their lives and stop them from going quite mad. When we lived in England, she went to the Soviet Union and came back singing the praises of the Winter Palace while complaining about how difficult it was to acquire Coca-Cola there. I still have a stash of kopecks from this visit.
When we lived in Spain, she went with other wives to Morocco – a short hop across the Strait of Gibraltar. I know this because one night when I was old enough to split a bottle of wine with her I finally asked about the birdcage. Evidently she, too, had been raised not to haggle. One key difference: she had not done her homework on the matter. One key similarity: the homework did not, in the end, make much of a difference. Evidently she admired the birdcage in the market, picked it up, showed it to friends. Until her death she claimed that she did not make an offer. She did, as she pointed out, cling to every penny in those days (and long after).
The first part of the transaction is lost to time. The second is a matter of record. She and her friends turned and walked away. The proprietor, enraged at what he perceived as a broken deal, chased them through the market with the birdcage as they fled. She was in her early thirties at the time, with two young children at home, inconceivably far from the small town of her birth with no grasp of the local language or custom. I imagine her fear at that moment, the sharp thrill of being scared and lost in another country, the worry of coming home with something so extravagant. In the end, she paid the man. As I did, without the chase.
The birdcage is lost now, a bit of debris stripped of pedigree and set loose into the broader waste stream that absorbs death and the stories it splinters. The bird is also gone – a story for another day, attached to another and similarly painful loss. I can’t say I’ve learned my lesson.