Bringing Home the Groceries in Aqaba
Downtown Aqaba, Jordan, presented us with quite a different kind of shopping experience from the ones we get in American cities. It has more of a small town feel. Rather than having multiple big box stores to choose from, most were Papa-style shops. I might say mom and pop with an emphasis on mom as we see here in the U.S., but that is not the case in Jordan. You see, in Arab cultures, almost everything is run and done by men. In our visit, we didn’t see a woman proprietor. Women work as checkers, but almost every other job is done by men. However, more women are visible in the commercial scene than in past eras.
There is the occasional large department store, but for the most part, the shops are small and more specialized.
Click on the "Videos" in the menu to see a short video that complements this blog. You will see one of the largest grocery/department store in Aqaba. It’s called “Carrefour Market.” The city has two of them. The one you’ll see is the larger and is housed in Al Rahma Mall pictured here. Carrefour (Car Four) is French for crossroads.
In Arabic, “souk” is the word for market. It’s an area that may encompass several city blocks or a small group of stores in a neighborhood. It includes a combination of indoor and open-air businesses with a great variety of products. Wherever you are in Aqaba, you’re not far from a souk.
At the Carrefour Market, as well as outdoor markets, there is an abundance of fresh meats, including full carcasses hung in glass-door coolers, butcher cuts in refrigerated cases, and a variety of prepackaged sausages, cold cuts, and cheese as well.
Eggs are displayed on the shelves or on pallets. They are not washed before they are placed in their cartons. This allows them to be kept unrefrigerated without spoilage for a longer shelf life.
Since we are the spoiled ones, we prefer ours squeaky clean. Mind you, on the farm I washed eggs. It looks like I’ll do it again.
Newly harvested fresh produce from local farms and a large variety of imported foods fill the shelves.
If variety is the spice of life, you’ll have no want in the bodacious spice market. It will overwhelm your senses and empty your purse, but the experience will be worth it.
Carrefour has a large section dedicated to electrical and manual kitchen appliances and accessories for every room in the house.
Our host told us when he first arrived in Aqaba, the prevailing thought was, American appliances might not last very long because of the difference in the electrical system in Jordan. But after years of use, they discovered almost all lasted much longer than expected. With that experience, he recommended whatever electrical device you have, bring it. You may be able to get more use out of it than you think. Even if it goes bad sooner than later, you will get some good from it.
He also mentioned one exception: clocks. Because of the electrical power difference, they won’t keep accurate time. Not to worry, Carrefour has a large display of time-keepers. An alternative is battery operated clocks. They will do fine.
Any electrical device brought from the U.S. will have to be plugged into a converter that changes the voltage from 120 volts to 240 volts and the cycles from 60 to 50. This means you will likely need more than one. That will depend upon how many appliances you need.
If you want to destroy a 120v device, plug it directly into a 220v socket. When you do, this is what happens: You’ll hear a tsst sound and maybe smell something electrical. My beard clipper made that sound when I plugged it into a wall outlet that didn’t first pass through a converter. I hate it when the lesson comes before the class. Now, its new home is a land-fill somewhere in Aqaba.
There are some product brands you are familiar with, like Heinz, Tabasco, L’oreal, Pert, Fructose, Friskies, Kibbles ’n Bits, and many others. Of course, there are also many new ones for the adventurous.
Where’s the Miracle Whip? Carrefore didn’t have it!
Al, don’t let your exasperation show, there is another store a few blocks away that specializes in American products. When you return to Aqaba, see if they carry it. If not, place a special order. Surely they’ll be willing to help. Remember that Jordanian hospitality.
Most products are labeled in English and Arabic, making shopping very easy.
It is odd that pet food is available since Arabs don’t usually have pets, especially cats or dogs.In fact, the city is overrun with feral cats roaming. Maybe folks buy pet food to fed them. I don’t know. There is a dog shelter in Aqaba. You can read about it here on our friends’ blog.
Hospitality is everywhere. “Welcome, welcome” is on nearly everyone’s lips. If the saying from the Bible is true: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” there are a lot of friendly hearts in Aqaba.
Whether you like tea or not, many of the shop owners will offer it while you shop. We didn’t see a single sign saying, “NO FOOD OR DRINK.”
Mixed in among the shops in the souk are small restaurants serving a variety of quick foods including one of our favorites, falafel. It consists of ground chickpeas and spices rolled like a big Italian meat-ball or flattened into a breakfast sausage-sized patty, deep-fried and served inside freshly baked pita bread with chopped lettuce, tomato, and cucumber, and yogurt/tahini dressing. Mm-mm makes my mouth water to talk about it.
Here is a website where we bought our latest, but a search for falafel will get you others as well.
The vlog below should be linked to our blog on “Levantine Cuisine,”the blog posted before this one. It’s produced by our favorite food traveler, Mark Wiens. The first food he tries is falafe,l but he also goes to several restaurants. And makes you taste what he tastes by his descriptions and facial expressions.
While you’re out shopping, you are likely to also find a place that serves fresh-squeezed fruit blends with apples, bananas, pineapples, oranges, and some exotic ones too. You can watch the attendant work his magic and hand you the delicious, refreshing drink to go with the falafel. “Here’s a sidewalk table, let’s take a seat.” If you have been shopping a while, you’ll need the break to get re-energized to continue “just a few more blocks.”
Husbands, don’t miss out on this experience. You’ll be glad to be of service to your wife because she will need you to carry the great bargains she finds. It’s a great feeling to be useful.
The crowd is friendly. No concerns here. You’ll be glad you came.
It was late November and early December when we visited Aqaba. Even during the day, there was no need for us to wear more than a light jacket, and sometimes even that had to come off.
In the summer, most of the shopping is done after sundown because the daytime heat keeps most people indoors where it’s cool. This preferred evening-time shopping routine fills the streets and city sidewalks with the energy of all ages.
We were not very skilled in the cultural art of negotiating in the marketplace. Maybe we spent a little more than we should have, but it’s okay. That is a skill we’ll develop when we return. There’s probably an online class we can take.
Jordanians love shopping. They make it into an art form. Sometimes they will go into a shop and bargain a bit with the owner with no intention of buying anything. They only pop in to vex him.
The value of an item is governed by what you are willing to pay balanced against the sum of which the vendor is happy to sell. This subtle exchange is often viewed with suspicion by those from a fixed-price culture. The sale price is dependent on many factors, such as how many sales the vendor has made that day, whether the buyer looks like a person who can afford it, and even the moods of both the buyer and the seller.
Although bargaining is a big part of the culture, some places have fixed rates.
When making a purchase by either method, make it a sweet game.
- Shopping should be a delightful social activity, and haggling over a cup of hot tea is a courtesy you should never refused.
- Don’t let your arrogance show by accepting the first price mentioned. Slow down ya move too fast, Ya gotta make the morning last.
- Make your first offer below the price you wish to pay. In this way you will leave yourself some wiggle-room. Eventually you’ll come to terms.
- Don’t go too low with y0ur offer or your new friend may be insulted.
- Never lose your temper: if negotiations aren’t going to plan, simply smile and say ma’a salaama (goodbye) – you’ll be surprised how often these words bring the price down. Anita went back to a vender two hours after walking away from an item, and he met her at the door with a better price.
Shopping in Jordan can be a delightful experience. Like anywhere else in the world, you’ll find some good bargains and some not so good but all-in-all, like us, you’ll be glad you went.