Taken for a ride


Until recently, the last time I remember being taken for a ride was more than 20 years ago. Then, I recollect being led to a perfumery off a dusty street in a province just outside Cairo. The driver that my wife and I had hired for the day suggested an excursion to this establishment which dealt with natural essences and oils of flowers, plants and herbs. So off we went.

I recall walking through the place and noticing a glittering array of natural perfumes, all priced per milligram or milliliter. And the prices were dirt cheap. Just imagine! Jasmine and rose for pennies. Lavender and Opium, a popular fragrance then, could be had for next to nothing. Or so I thought. And going along with the recommendations of the helpful salesman who was kind enough to offer my daughter a soda, we chose several different fragrances in average sized perfume bottles.

When the salesman then brought the bill for the nine varieties we had selected and which he had carefully packed in a small shoe size box, I was stunned. Our foray into the world of natural perfumery came to $2,800! How could that be, I inquired of our gracious host and salesman? He explained that each little bottle had a capacity of 50 milliliters, and when he added up all those milliliters at X amount a pop, that’s what he came up with.

Well I wasn’t about to pay $2,800 for nine little perfume bottles, so after a great deal of quibbling and haggling, we managed to reduce the amount to $400 and five bottles of perfume rather than the original nine. After all, he had been gracious to my daughter. And on the ride back to our hotel with $400 lighter in the pocket and the shoebox clutched tightly to my chest, I wondered why the nice man driving us about had casually happened to suggest this excursion.

Oh well, that was then, and for the most part, I have held vigilance since in various trips around different lands. But this last weekend it happened to me again. Déjà vu! A group of friends had suggested a dinner get together before everybody broke off for the summer. Sort of the last time reunion before each party set off on their own way.

I had suggested a fish outlet on the way to Dahban and Madinah where I was told the fish was fresh from the sea, the atmosphere was rustic and accommodating to families, and the prices were very palatable.

My choice was overruled by others in the party and especially the women who were not particularly happy about being in the outdoors in the summer, what with all the heavy cloak and drapery they had to put up with. Someone then recommended a fish restaurant in a five-star hotel that offered fresh catches of the day. To top it off, he added that it was in an air-conditioned environment and since he was a privileged member of this chain of hotels, we would get good service and at a good price.

At the restaurant, all the fish was stacked freshly on beds of ice. You make your choice, select the vegetables to go along with it, and tell them how you want it cooked. The prices were all posted next to the fish and veggies in units of 100 grams. There was a small salad bar with the usual sparse offerings of mixed pasta and vegetables that served as starters.

Since our company’s knowledge with different varieties of fish was limited to a few dishes, we let our friend who suggested this restaurant exercise his privileged membership and make an order for the group, and off we trekked to the salad bar. The selection was pleasant but not awe-inspiring. At our age, we hate to see waste, and for reasons of health and weight, we chose to drink water rather than those fancy sugar-loaded juice cocktails. And the dessert was wisely shared between couples.

It was when the bill came that we were stunned. As we normally go Dutch, each couple’s contribution came to an amount more than a monthly salary of the head of the household in most Third World countries! Naturally, we all forked up and paid, but in the parking lot of this huge complex facing Jeddah’s water fountain, we all took another look at the receipt. It was itemized and that helped explain some of the figures.

A carrot was used along with other vegetables to accompany one of the dishes. Looking closely at the bill, I noticed a charge of 1 carrot of 100 grams. The price for that single carrot was based on a SR 90 riyals a kilo charge for carrots, a figure that would cover the vegetable needs of most families for a week. And to top it off, the cooking charge for that privileged carrot and other mixed vegetables was tabbed at SR 235! This was independent of the charges we paid for the selection of fish.

And while I still hold on tightly to those five little bottles of perfume we had purchased over 20 years ago, unfortunately, the remains of that carrot have long been dispensed with.

The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena