Let’s start with the first one:
My new favorite restaurant of all time: Restaurant Some Hotel Whose Name Currently Escapes Me. It’s around the corner from my hotel, Hotel Al Najaf. I’ve gone to Restaurant Some Hotel Whose Name Currently Escapes Me at least once a day since I’ve been in Dongri. Yesterday I went there twice, for both of my meals. Today, after I leave here, I’ll probably go there again, unless I can be convinced otherwise by some set of enticing aromas along the way. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because I’m not particularly hungry, and because I have shit to do first. Like this. Wait a minute. Let me begin:
All of the waitstaff at Restaurant Whose Name Currently Escapes Me by now know me, and I recognize them all. There is the head waiter, tall for an Indian, mid-thirties, best English-speaker in the restaurant, no beard, quick with a coffee at the end of the meal; there’s the severe-looking teenager, perhaps second in command, who holds a special place in my heart due to his instrumental role in creating the joy I felt eating there for the first time–he literally pointed at dishes I should eat off the menu until he’d constructed the most perfect meal I could imagine; there’s the googly-eyed tween who still looks at me with a mixture of awe and delight when I sit down, and who I catch smiling wildly when he busses my table, or brings the lemon water with which to wash my hands, or when I simply look his way–ever eager to serve; and there’s the rest of the bunch, too, but I don’t have all day here. These three are my Restaurant Some Hotel Whose Name Currently Escapes Me triumverate, is my point, and if you can love the people who serve you food and don’t speak your language and treat you graciously–people with whom you can barely communicate except via hand signals, but with whom you share a mutual respect, even camaraderie–then, fuck it, I do.
Especially you, googly-eyed kid. You’re the best.
Today I go in, eat a Muslim mutton dish, two rotis, bottle of water, coffee for dessert. Googly-eyed kid rushes to bring me the hot lemon water to wash my hands. I can’t help but laugh. Except I do help it, and I hold it in. The fans are whirring and I look out at the main street at the heat undulating in the crowd, sipping coffee, pondering my check. 97 RPS. Two dollars. For some of the best food I’ve ever had.
I tip big, as I always do here, and walk back to my hotel.
But today, it is some sort of Muslim feast, which happens twice a year, but whose name Google would not yield in five minutes of admittedly none-too-thorough searching. Anyway. It’s a big deal, this feast, and the streets in front of my hotel and to the west of it were washed yesterday in preparation, a fact which my hotel owner and I remarked upon as I stood outside smoking a cigarette last night, me thinking that somehow it had rained on our street, and our street alone. He laughed when I said this, set me straight.
Me: What’s going on?
Hotel owner: Cleaning the street for [insert name of festival]. Tomorrow. Very delicious food.
And this morning, from six to seven, I sat in my room smoking cigarettes and looking down as old holy men sat in front of large vats stirring large stews, while younger men began to organize the street–setting up benches and picnic tables–for the meal. I had no idea what to expect.
But then, walking back from lunch, stuffed silly, I find myself standing once more outside my hotel, where hundreds and hundreds of people stretching up and down the street are dining, laughing, talking, celebrating. I talk to the hotel’s right-hand-man, ask him why he’s not eating: “Oh, full, full,” he says, pointing to his stomach. “Me, too,” I say, pointing to mine. “I wish I’d known.”
Suddenly, a small child, Yassam, who is serving everyone their meal out of a big metal pot, calls out to hotel right-hand-man, saying essentially, “You want some fucking food, hotel right hand man, or what?” in whatever language they both speak, and hotel man once more points to his stomach, declining. But then a funny thing happens and Yassam says to me, “You want food?” in English, and hotel right-hand-man laughs and tells Yassam that of course I want food. My own nervous laugh says, “You bastard, hotel right hand man,” and I am immediately brought a plate filled with a glop of yellow curried deliciousness, a large roti, and some red-sweet deliciousness, the likes of which I’ve never tasted. Another man tells me that if I like it I can have as much as I want.
I am, in short, welcomed so completely and thoroughly to this holy feast, that my heart can’t help but quake a little bit.
Hotel right hand man leads me inside, gives me a chair, and I eat as much as I can with my right hand before hotel small child assistant leads me upstairs to a washroom, to wash my hands. I drink more water, thank everyone profusely, but explain that I am now so full and so about to explode that I really must rest for a while. I thank them. They say, “Welcome,” and they bid me adieu. I walk upstairs, lay on my bed, feeling fortunate, blessed, sated–mentally fellated.