Greetings from your intrepid decor sourcers, Katheryn and David, coming to you from a ravine in Bali.
We are now half-way through this buying trip, and most of our orders are in. Making the order, and paying for it, is the easy part: the hitch is in contract fulfillment. “Yes”, if you are a merchant, is the answer; always agree, and worry about the details later. In an attempt to make an end-run around the chronically-late completion deadlines of our goods, we decided to alter the normal schedule for this trip, and go to India twice. In theory, on the first trip we make the new connections that we have cultivated, get the orders in, ensure that the process is in motion, and then leave for two months. All the suppliers have assured us that they will be finished in 6 weeks. Then we go back, find that nothing is ready, but, because we are there, we can do something about it!
The first stage of the plan has been a success. After a few days of re-entry recovery in Bangkok we flew straight to Jaipur, India. For those of you familiar with us and our postings, you will know Jaipur as a cavalcade of mad traffic against a backdrop of pretty buildings. As India’s first planned metropolis, built by the progressive-minded Raja Jai Singh in 1727, the old city of Jaipur deserves the hyperbole that makes it the most visited tourist destination in the country. A city of grand colonnaded avenues interspersed with temples, palaces, and even a massive celestial observatory, all painted pink, plugged into the dynamic energy of an Indian bazaar, is something to see. But Jaipur is now the 10th largest city in India. And India has more people than all of North America, South America and Japan combined. Trying to emulate New Delhi, and take steps to modernize a very ad hoc transit model, Jaipur has been building a light rail commuter system. A good idea, but after 8 years only 9.6 km of line is working. The construction has exacerbated an already-dysfunctional traffic problem, and since the completed line serves so few commuters’ needs, more cars than ever are on the roads. The local response to the chaos at yet another transit construction tie-up is to view it as an unavoidable Act of God, and crawl along, using the car horn as a shield, as a weapon, as a symbol of defiance, out of boredom, or just as a habitual default setting. And in India, something else is always happening. When we were there, the fundamentalist Rajput wing, the Karni Sena, were taking outrage about a fictitious scene in a movie, Padmaavati, which, if the scene had existed, they felt would have been insulting to Hinduism and Rajasthani women. Buses were stoned, cars burned, and shouting protesters tied up the traffic further.
Into this backdrop, we spend an average of 3 hours/day getting around the city. One of the merchants with whom we have been dealing the longest is on the very opposite side of the old city from where we stay, and those hours in a car or auto-rickshaw are the source for many of the “yet another traffic snarl” videos and photos we have. Increasingly, however, we are doing business in the communities to the south of Jaipur – Sanganeer and Manasarovar – where the production sites are located. Sanganeer has, since the time of the founding of the city, been the center of the block printing industry. With hundreds of small scale “factories” it is where much of the hand-blocked and hand-screened textiles in India come from. But things are changing here, too. This last year the government moved to enforce environmental laws protecting Jaipur’s scarce water resources. The effect was to close down many of the small operations, and build a water treatment center. Our suppliers, they told us, weren’t affected, since they were plugged into the municipal treatment facility, but many others had left for villages further away.
Our main goal on this first India leg, apart from getting the established orders in early, was to scope out three new sources we had met last year. In particular we were interested in one manufacturer who had told us we could custom screen-print with them, and do a minimum order that wasn’t out of our league. The catch was that we had to use screens that were already made, but we could choose the colours. Katheryn put a huge amount of work into breaking down the patterns into the five screen components, and then playing around with subtle colour variations. We showed these to our new friend, Jitendra, and he assured us it could be done. With a mixture of hope and trepidation, we went out to the factory to meet the production team.
The first set-back happened almost immediately. We showed the manager, Raj, the break-down of the five screens. No, he said, there are not five screens: there are four. Taking away a layer from the design was like amputating a finger: where once there was a hand, now there was a claw. So it was back to the digital drawing board. On the next visit, the issue was the problem of matching the colour on our lap-top with the dye to be applied to the cloth. In typical old-school methodology, a group formed around the computer screen, and shouted opinions. One person took notes on the back of a newspaper advertisement with a coloured pencil. After a lot of negotiation, consensus was reached as to what the English name for each colour was, and how that translated into Hindi. Raj seemed satisfied, and we broke for chai.
The first results were, predictably, the colour equivalent of plugging a line of poetry into google translate. One of the samples was quiet nice, two we decided were acceptable, although nowhere near our original, and one was ghastly. In the next group huddle with Raj and the team, he came up with a what seemed to be an obvious solution: a pantone colour iphone app. Now, at least, we could talk the same colour dialect!
At that point another set of problems presented itself: our time in Jaipur was coming to an end, and the cool, often cloudy winter weather was preventing the samples from drying. We sent Jitendra the pantone numbers for the remaining four designs, and hoped for the best. In the meantime we had made contact with another merchant, Anant. We were standing outside of a warehouse in an industrial area of Jaipur when I had my first phone conversation with Anant. “What are you doing today?” he asked. “You must come to my wedding!”
With no time to get ready, and wearing the least-rumply travelers clothes that we had, we were by a long shot the most embarrassingly-under dressed people there. For that matter, even with a week to prepare we would have been embarrassingly-under dressed in that crowd. Nothing is too lavish for an Indian wedding, which is like Carnival in Rio meets the Oscars. Anant arrived on a white horse following a brass band, to which friends and relatives were energetically dancing. The whole lot, some 3000 invitees, were funneled through an eye-popping entrance hall – colonnades and chandeliers and huge neo-classical statues lit in pink and purple – into the vast quadrangle reception area. Three of the walls were lined with chefs in toque blanche serving everything from curry to creme brule. The wedding theme was from a popular Bollywood movie, evidently, from the costumes worn by the staff, involving mythical warriors and princesses. As the couple approached the central stage, the spear-tips of the warrior-actors shot forth firework fountains. A drone hovered, filming the occasion, as well as several long-armed cranes, and the footage was broadcast live on a gigantic screen at the front of the park.
And this was already day three. After a ceremony on the central stage, Anant and Ash ascended into a self-driving lotus/chariot – which also sprayed fireworks from the corners – and were
transported to the front stage below the giant screen. As shabby as we were, we received nothing but genuine hospitality as honoured guests, and were even given preferential treatment in the line to congratulate the newly weds. Many thanks are due to Anant for including us with his family and friends, in what was, with no exaggeration, the most lavish and spectacular wedding we have ever seen.
We could only hope, after that introduction, that we would like Anant’s stock well enough to make an order. As it turned out, any fears we had that way were misplaced. Anant, like many others in Sanganeer, does both screen and block printing. But rather than having to choose from run-of-the-mill ready stock, or fret that custom orders were beyond our grasp, here we were able to select our fabric, and get it made into the product of our choice. And his designs were lovely. Thus, once again, we blew the already-blown budget on some wonderful screen-printed bedspread and pillow sham sets, and cotton-filled hand-blocked quilts.
Every year we go to Jaipur thinking we are already fairly well stocked with Indian inventory, and every year we we get suckered by more beautiful products that our suppliers shamelessly foist on us. This year we have, without a doubt, the best selection of “meditation shawls” ever to hit our shores. They are really a small blanket or a throw, but are so soft and light that they are often used as a wrap while engaged in contemplation – of the inner truth; the first sip of coffee; or, perhaps, HBO. As well as the other-worldly loft of our boiled wool shawls, and the exquisite gossamer merino ones, we now have a gauzy double-
layered cotton shawl that is sturdy enough to sit on, but is also warm and snugly around your shoulders. We also sold out of round table cloths last year. That is unlikely to happen again, given the selection we found. Last year we tested out some indigo products: hand block-printed curtain panels; cushion covers; and 2’X3′ “dhurries”, hand-woven canvas mats. We are back with many more this year. Perhaps our biggest piece of luck, however, came with the company who supplies us with screen-printed “Madreama” table cloths. They are one of the companies that has such a large minimum production order that we will never be guaranteed to get exactly what we want; we have to rely on the over-stock in their warehouse. For the past two years the pickings have been slim. This year we struck the mother load. At their best, the Madreamas are the most beautiful screen-printing we have seen; this year we were spoiled for choice.
It is a sign of how fast Jaipur is growing that the once-sleepy airport now has a new terminal, and direct flights to many destinations, including Bangkok and Singapore. We took advantage of one of the many Asian “low cost carriers”, to fly to Bali via Singapore, and avoid either the long overland journeys we have been forever prone to, or the enormous urban sprawl of New Delhi. Normally the trip to Bali is highly-anticipated, a wonderful few weeks in gorgeous villas set amid a landscape of rice-fields, jungle ravines and atmospheric temples. Add to that abundant tropical fruit, great local food, gracious people, and lots of shopping opportunities, and we literal sigh with relief upon landing. This year, however, a great big volcano-sized unknown was thrown into the package. While planning the trip we decided to treat ourselves to two solid months in Bali, and had already booked accommodation for the first half of that when Gunung Agung, the 3142m high physical and spiritual axis of the island, became more active than at any time time since the last mammoth explosion, 54 years ago.
The situation was getting so serious that a major city, Amalapura, was evacuated, and 60,000 people were forced to leave their farms, homes and businesses in a 12 km exclusion zone around the volcano. Making sensationalist-sounding headlines, the international airport was closed for two days, and was over-run by a stampede of tourists trying to flee the island. We were in touch with a network of people here, as well as getting updates from a Facebook page monitoring the situation, and for a while, in the weeks before we came, it really did look touch-and-go. Lo, the owner of one of the villas that we had booked – the one closest to Gunung Agung – sent unsettling accounts of sleeping under a tarp because of the near-constant shaking of some 800 tremors/day, and instructed us to bring N95-rated face masks because they were sold out on Bali.
Even though volcanic activity had abated considerably by the time of our arrival, it was no surprise that our flight in – during the peak season right before Christmas – was half-empty. The reassuring thing was, as far as we were concerned, that apart from potential ash fall, the areas we started out in were well away from any danger zone. Businesses were taking a big hit, and tourism was way down, but apart from that everything was functioning normally. We moved from Ubud up to the north coast at Tejakula, and during that time never saw, much less heard, the volcano. Of course, that was due to the fact that Bali was having its wettest wet season in ages, getting 10 times the normal rainfall for December/January, an amount equivalent to 3.5 times what Vancouver has had this year. If there ever was any clearing around the big mountain, we were never up early enough to see it.
After Tejakula was when the potentially-exposed-to-a-volcanic-eruption portion of our trip took place. We travelled by motorbike around the northern curve of the island and down the east coast, passing many signs that had been left behind when the exclusion zone was down-graded from 10 to 6km. At Lo’s place – where 800 tremors/day had forced her to sleep outside – we met the caretakers, Gede and Wayan, and got the local’s take on the situation. I wish everyone could be like them; good-will would rule on earth, and angst and psychosis would be swept into the dark corners of the past. Of course there was no problem, they assured us, with the volcano like a symmetrical storm cloud dominating our view. A large ridge was standing between us and any lava and gas flow! And anyway, Gunung Agung was enjoying all of the extra offerings coming his way, and certainly wasn’t going to put a big booming end to that.
And so we luxuriated in the Edenic garden, the private pool, the fresh fruit off the tree, the winding path through the rice fields, and especially the dramatic presence of the looming volcano: sometimes it played peek-a-boo through the clouds; sometimes it was all full-on brash geometric cone; sometimes, hinting at an awesome power, it threw an ash and vapour plume a thousand meters into the sky. Of course nothing happened, not even the slightest of tremors, so common in this earthquake-prone country.
After our under-the-volcano experience in Culik, the return to Ubud meant back to work and orders to finish up. Having over-shot the spending in Jaipur, we intended to cut back in Bali: that, predictably, didn’t happen. Once again, the temptation of beautiful things proved too much to resist. Sourcing in Bali is much different from sourcing in India. Here, we deal with small street-side merchants, giving us much more flexibility in choosing products, unhampered by the foreign currency regulations and bureaucratic hoop-jumping that forces our hand in India. The long sinuous streets in and out of Ubud are lined with endless craftspeople; Katheryn brags that she can shop at 30 km/hr. Over the years we have developed many contacts, and have spread our spending net widely. Some places we have been dealing with for
several years: Anggi, who makes teak bowls, spoons and cutting boards: Lulu, who has a great collection of old original sarongs, which we have made into a variety of shirts, cushions and mats; and the Javanese sarong dealers in Denpassar. But there is only one merchant left who we met on our first time here, and who we come back to every year: Wayan. He is our “umbul-umbul” guy. An umbul is an elegant, elongated, tapering flag with a sleeve down the long side for a pole. They are set up en-masse in temple compounds, but also serve as attention getters or as decoration in private homes and gardens. They are our signature outdoor display at our pop-ups: 5m tall brightly-coloured gently arcing creatures, beckoning invitingly with a heart-shape fluttering at the end of a long tail. Wayan’s shop actually caters to the vast ceremonial goods economy on this most-reverential of islands, and apart from the flags, we also buy whimsical processional umbrellas from him, fetchingly-fringed, in one, two or three levels.
One of the most exciting parts of our sourcing expeditions is to find something with the “wow factor”, something that will make that statement of intent to the customer entering our shop. In the past we have had Tibetan doors, vast tribal wall-hangings made with metallic thread, large stone Buddhas, and even a folding altar from Bhutan. This year we have found beautifully-made large bronze goddesses, Buddhas, and a Buddha head the size of the great pumpkin. One of the goddesses is particularly important in Bali, where she is known as Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice. In India she is called Annapurna, the goddess of food, cooking, and the kitchen, over which she abundantly provides with the sheaf of rice over her shoulder. The other is Tara, the goddess of compassion, carrying a lotus in her hand. Here the bronze (an alloy of copper, tin and zinc) is heavily on the copper, to give the statues a wonderful green patina as they age.
Which brings us back to the ravine where we reside. Many centuries ago, the Balinese mastered the art of rice-growing. The rich volcanic soil from Gunung Agung, and many other smaller volcanoes, provided an extraordinarily fertile substrate, and the hard labour of terracing transformed vast areas of hillside
and valley for intensive agriculture. With an equatorial year-round growing season, the only thing that was needed was a water supply that could be depended on to flood the patchwork fields for planting, irrigate for growing, and be drained for harvest. A solution was developed as far back as the 9th C , an engineering feat so extraordinary it has been recognized by UNESCO as being of Outstanding Universal Value . The subak system of irrigation refers to a vast network of canals flowing from sacred water temples located high in the mountains. These continue to be managed and maintained by each community, and are intrinsic to the life, legend, and economy of Bali. The subak canals are everywhere, and we found a small cottage actually cut into the bank of the ravine through which one flowed. The cottage is an old traditional Javanese teak gladak, weathered by age. The surrounding lushness breathes oxygen, and is the home turf of a myriad of creatures, large and small, with whom you must make your peace. Everyday when we venture out it is a surprise to find that there is a world of asphalt and machines, and everyday we return to be submersed in a our verdant cocoon.
Thank you for lending us your time. Our website is being transfigured, and I hope that much will be available for viewing in the spring. Drop us a line, if you like, and we look forward to seeing you at one of our venues this summer!