The Narrow Road to Magic Land

Well, another decade fired from the barrel. It has startled us, as loud noises and milestones do, into a moment of reflection. So as is the custom we will toast with both camps: here’s to the glass-half-empties, for all the loss, the people missed, the health diminished and the chances squandered; and here’s to the glass-half-fulls because, after all, it is a big, beautiful kaleidoscope of a place in which we live. But either way, the most jarring thing to reflect on is how ten years has gone by so fast!

Here at Kebe and Fast we have a theory that multiple realities co-exist and that time-lines are cut and spliced so that, for example, when we arrive back in Bali it is as if we never left Bali. It is the same whether it is Chemainus or Chiang Mai, Bangkok or Bangalore, each place is its own river, and we merely slip into the separate streams and merge with the current, in both senses of the word. (An image comes to mind: inner-tubing down the River of Song in Laos, through a landscape of karst mountains, enterprising locals proffering cold bottles of Beer Lao on the end of a long bamboo pole).

Already on this trip there have been the usual sequence of reality shifts. Now we are in Bangkok, in Udom Suk, our neighbourhood of choice, out of the airport and absorbed through the membrane of heat, noise and colour which is this mega-city. It’s 1 p.m. here, but 34 hours since our bodies have seen a bed. At the base of Udom Suk metro station is the rabbit hole of Udom Suk market. We escape from the interminable roar of Sukhumvit Rd traffic, amplified by the metro’s brutalist concrete cavity, into a paradise of form and food. There is fish, split in half and dried into flat mirror-images. Cobs of corn are steamed and stacked in stray rays of sun, just so. Everything from prawns to papaya are displayed as if in a gallery. For my money, the local markets are the true masterpieces of Thailand. But today, for now, not even the mounds of mangoes and piles of pineapples, or the endless varieties of home-made delicious dishes are able to entice us. Our mission is elsewhere.

khao soi

For weeks, our long-anticipated first meal has been pondered, and the unanimous decision was that it be khao soi from the lady in the food court of Paradise Mall. Khao soi is a creamy coconut milk based chicken curry soup topped with crispy noodles and fermented cabbage, and is a signature dish of northern Thailand. Somewhat surprisingly, in the Thai capital it isn’t that easy to find, but one of the best, most authentic, is at the Paradise Mall. We walk through the market, turn left onto Udom Suk Rd., and ask around for a “songtaew” going to Paradise. The songtaew – a pick-up with two benches in the back – quickly fills, and takes off for the 15 minute trip.

We have written about the Paradise food court before – it is basically a traditional Thai market cut and pasted into the lower level of a shopping mall. All the wonderful things about typical street stalls are there – in the comfort of air conditioning! Even in our just-landed, jet-lagged semi-functional state, muscle memory takes us straight to the khao soi stall. Except it’s not there! Grinding gears in the brain try to make sense of this clearly-impossible turn of events, and we leave, and return, and leave, and return, as if just giving reality a second chance to correct its mistake will make it so. Alas, no amount of fretting, pacing and arm-flapping will bring back the khao soi lady, and we settle for a (terrific) roti and massaman curry from the Muslim stall.

jaipur commute
Jaipur commute

The same sense of compartmentalized time-lines happens again, a few days later, when we arrive in India. In a taxi, at night, hurtling with horn blasting through Jaipur streets, the city takes us in as if we had never left. Our penthouse in Raja Park is waiting, the door is open; we have always been here. But even so, some things are quirky, hinting that – like the odd give away when you are dreaming and looking for clues that you are actually in a dream – this isn’t what it seems, time has elapsed. Like: why is there a baby pram in the living room?

For us, the Jaipur equivalent of a khao soi at Paradise is a caju kari at Capsicum, a restaurant just down the street. As well as having the world’s most insanely-rich cashew curry, Capsicum serves tandoori roti with just the right soft flex and charred crust, and a veg biryani packed with whole cardamon, clove and pepper corn, its mound of saffron rice nurturing the delicate gravy-covered pod of vegetables within. We set off into the cool of the night salivating, and on the dusty street exchange greetings with all the local denizens, back-lit by the pell mell headlights of scooters and cars : the wary dogs; the cows at the garbage pile; the balloon sellers on bikes. But – how can it be – the Capsicum is closed! Men are actually carrying door frames, benches and bits of the restaurant out the door! It is explained, with a head-waggle: “They did not pay their bills!”.

business in the city

Ah well. Like Bangkok there is so much great food around that we can’t be despondent for long. Unlike Bangkok, we have actual work to do here. The next day, armed with spread sheets and a quaint resolve to stick to our budget, we start on the rounds to put in the orders.

Much is a straight-forward selection from ready stock. This is especially true at our screen-printers, where a minimum custom order is well beyond our means. They know us so well by now that we are chauffeured, with few pleasantries, straight from the head office/production center to the warehouse. It is always a “fingers crossed” moment for us, hoping there will be a good selection of over-stock.

At the end of the day, we are pleased. The important things – table cloths, napkins and T-towels – were plentiful. Curtains and bathrobes, of which we still have a good supply (and have other sources for), were very picked-over. We also end up with an unexpected haul of 100 pot holders. Just because.

The custom orders are much more difficult and time consuming. At one point we have decided on a new line of indigo-patterned duvet covers. They are beautiful, and come in at a good price-point. But after handling the material, our hands are blue. On reflection we agree that, since either we or our customers will have to hand-wash the duvets multiple times to stabilize the dye, and even then there is the risk of some unfortunate staining incident, it is better to abandon that idea. Fortunately there is a stunning – but more expensive – alternative. We have had the kashis and ajirak block printed fabrics before, and are confident about their quality and wash-ability. So instead of the indigo, we will have a new line of duvet covers made from them.

We hand-pick all the material for out blouses and kurtis, which can be a frustrating procedure since we are often dealing with remnants. As much as we would like to believe it when we are told: “No problem. I will get enough of this for 50 pieces. Next week.”, it is just as likely that the entire shipment will be held up for a month because that pattern is finished and the order is five pieces short. So each scrap is measured, and an appropriate size, design and quantity sticker is attached to it.

In the case of our shrugs – which are basically shawls with arm-holes cut in – there is a different challenge. The shrugs are two-sided, made with salvaged Bengali saris from the last 30 years. The saris arrive at the warehouse in massive bales, neatly folded. The problem is that a sari is 6.5m long, and has at least three different elements to it: the border; the main pattern; and a 1.5m “pallu” at the end, the most ornate bit that is thrown over the shoulder. When the bale is opened the neat squares that we are looking at could be any of the above, and the usable part could be something completely different that we absolutely don’t want. Stonewashed pink with a swastika pattern, say. And then we need complimentary saris for the two sides. Random choice, as is the method if we don’t do it ourselves, throws up a bell curve of results: some wonderful; some hideous; and most acceptable if you have no other options. So we sort the now hydra-like saris into broad colour groups, choose a mate for each, tie them together, and hope for the best. The old Bengali saris are really a fantastic fabric resource, and one that isn’t easy to find. Our supplier had made two jacket designs from the retro saris for another buyer, which were very cool; the few pieces which are left we will also include in our shipment.

After all the decisions that had to be made with the custom orders, our last business call in Jaipur is relatively easy. This are a manufacturer of jute rugs and “dhurries” – block-printed canvas mats – and we made their connection last year. Alas, they have too many products that we like, and so, as usual, we walk away with the sugar high of having spent way too much money on beautiful things.

And suddenly we are back in Bali! Jaipur, the desert-encroached city in western India, part Silk Road part choking disaster, becomes a memory floating along on a nearby but unattached plane. Here, in contrast, the reality knob has been turned violently to the high end of “green”. It’s the rainy season and we are a handful of degrees south of the equator; that means that the fecundity of nature is in full unfettered throttle.

In this area of the island around Ubud, the land is scored by precipitous ravines channeling the run-off from a 3,000m volcano, Gunung Agung. While much of the fertile land between the ravines has been given over to rice farming and development, the ravines themselves are wild and riotous. Occasionally a road is forced to cross one. Hell-bent on just getting it over with, the road throws itself over the edge, zigging, zagging and strewing potholes indiscriminately. It leaps the river with a minimum of width and engineering, and hurries as fast as possible up the other side.

As potentially hazardous as they are, these ravines are among our favourite places. Huge trees drip vines almost to the road, a mass of fern and fronds and epiphytes on every surface. Small rivulets spill from the cliff side. The light dims as you descend from cool, to dark and finally, at the bottom, to spectral, where crouching carved stone guardians anchor the bridge span, in recognition, perhaps, of just how fraught your limited incursion here is.

We typically choose a number of different places to stay around Ubud, and this year is no different. One place we have passed through but have never stopped in is Sideman (pronounce the “e” as “ah”). Sideman is beside a river in a wide valley on the lower southern slope of Gunung Agung, the highest volcano on Bali. While the east side of the river, which a few years ago was small shops and guest houses, is now mostly pricey resorts, on the west side things are decidedly more down-market. There are, for example, only two or three small warungs (“restaurant” would be a generous translation) in our neighbourhood, and we are a rare enough commodity that the lovely owners want a “selfie” the first time we eat there.

Gunung Agung

At the head of the Sideman valley is the dramatic cone of 3,031m Gunung Agung. Just two years ago the volcano became so active and unpredictable that at one point the international airport was closed, and 200,000 people were evacuated from the area. Although Sideman was outside of the 10 km maximum danger area, it was still classed as “zone 2”, since highly toxic gas emissions called “pyroclastic flow” were projected to sweep down the valley should an eruption occur. Fortunately the rumblings subsided, but a reminder was served about the power behind the cone. The fact remains that Indonesia is a volcanic archipelago, and the largest explosion in human history, Mt. Tambora, happened in 1815, just three islands away. That, in turn, was nothing compared to the most gigantic blast ever, Mt Toba on Sumatra, 70,000 years ago. That explosion, 1000 times more powerful than Tambora, caused mass extinctions around the planet, and may have reduced the global human population to fewer than 20,000 individuals, judging by genetic extrapolation.

Nevertheless, in the weeks spent within sight of Gunung Agung, we dwell less on our potential annihilation than on the awe-inspiring experience of being so close to the volcano. Sometimes the astonishment index goes off the charts, as when the evening light brushes the volcano’s rim, dying it and a few long strands of cloud with sunset colours. In the forground a farmer in conical straw hat is herding ducks through the maze of emerald rice fields. The terraces are striated up the hillsides, which are fringed with palm, tulip, and tall, ivory-barked cepak trees. A column of white egrets decides on a trajectory so inspired that even the Russian judge flashes a perfect 10. And then the evening gamalan music from the temple begins… We have a name for our home, which we approach after leaving the bustling road, crossing the first ravine where the whitewater rafters are, over the hill and into the second ravine: Magic Land.

Magic Land
hand knotting

Thank you for reading! The website is undergoing changes this year, so stay tuned. Our 2020 sales schedule has been finalized, and is updated on the homepage. If you visited us at one of our pop-ups last year, you are aware of the new line of hand-knotted wool rugs that we are carrying. Four of our sales this year will be only rugs (with a small number of tables of other goods!), and the rest will be the regular full set-ups, but with more space devoted to the rugs. At this point we have around 150 beautiful wool rugs from Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Nepal, and more are coming, so I will be endeavoring to post them on the website in the coming days.

We wish you the very best of decades, and look forward to seeing you during the course of this year!

Katheryn and David