The Real Kebe and Fast Blog: Season Opening 2019

Greetings to all blog subscribers, this is Katheryn and David coming to you from the first day of our first big sale of 2019, in Nelson, B.C. Apologies for those who have received rather cryptic blog posts from “Kebe and Fast”. We have just revamped the website, and it appears something (possibly in their default program) has been sending generic blog pages from our site. Our tech swat team is looking into it.

The season has started smoothly considering the scale of the logistics involved. With the Bali and the India shipments arrived and sorted, and all the Persian rugs we could carry (over 50), we were confident of putting on a good show in Nelson. Yesterday was a gruelling set-up day, and apart from a few glitches (“I thought you packed the duvet covers”), everything got done.

We have shifted this year to a greater emphasis on the rug portion of our business, given the success we have had with it on a smaller scale over the last two years. As well as the wool hand-knotted tribal/Persians, which you can see an assortment of on the Rug Sales link on our navigation bar, we have some other beautiful varieties we picked up in India and Bali.

Again, apologies for the mysterious blog posts. We look forward to seeing you all during our travels this summer!

  • June 13 – 16 NELSON , Hart Hall (old Anglican Hall) 501 Carbonate St @ Ward St
    Thurs – Sat 11 – 6, Sun 11 – 4
  • June 19 – 22 WARFIELD Community Hall, 900 Schofield Hwy
    Wed – Fri 11 – 6, Sat 11 – 4
  • June 26 – 29 DUNCAN Mercury Theatre (map)
    Wed–Fri 11–6, Sat 11–4
  • July 3 – 6 SALT SPRING IS. Farmers’ Inst. (map)
    Wed–Fri 11–6, Sat 11–4
  • July 11 – 14 GABRIOLA IS. South Community Hall
    Thurs-Sat 11–6, Sun 11–4
  • July 18 – 21 MAYNE IS. Agricultural Hall (map)
    Thurs–Sat 11–6, Sun 11–4
  • July 25 – 28 GALIANO IS. Galiano South Community Hall (map)
    Thurs–Sat 11–6, Sun 11–4
  • Aug 1 – 4 PENDER IS. Islands Community Hall (map)
    Thurs–Sat 11-6, Sun 11–4
  • Aug 8 – 11 FULFORD SSI Community Hall (map)
    Thurs–Sat 11–6, Sun 11–4
  • Aug 17 – 28 ROBERTS CREEK Sunshine Coast, Masonic Hall (map)
    Daily 11 – 6 EXCEPT both Mondays 11–4.

Asian Sourcing 2018

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!

Jaipur intersection

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.

cutting blocks in Sanganeer 

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

Anant arrives at the marriage hall

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-

screen print table cloth

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.

rain

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

Anggi

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.

bronze Buddha head

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

Goa Garba spring

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!

Full Circus

The first time we were in here, 15 years ago, Battambang was just a sleepy backwater in western Cambodia.  The Khmer Rouge had only pulled out of the town five years before, infrastructure was basic, and the road to the Thai border was infernal.  Still recovering from the atrocities of that period, Battambang looked a lot like it did when it was a colonial French outpost.  In 1996, a group of survivors from the refugee camps, along with their French drawing teacher, formed a group to help children deal with their trauma through art. Their organization, Phare Ponleu Selpak, “the brightness of the arts”, has grown into a campus which supports a school for 1000 local children, as well as departments for visual and performing arts.  It is best know, however, for its circus school, which stages popular shows which fund the NGO.

All the shows are choreographed and performed by PPS students, and are of such a high caliber that the circus now has an international touring season.  There is no better place to see them, however, than in the “big tent” on their home turf in a suburb of Battambang.  The walls of the tent are open, letting in fresh tropical night air and the chirping of cicadas, and the crowd – mostly foreigners, but also locals and school groups – are already won over.  With an orchestra of gamelan-like percussion behind them, the jugglers and acrobats can do no wrong, and have fun playing to the receptive home crowd.  It’s a memorable experience, by any measure.

The light is low in the tent, and any photography has to be at a high ISO.  I was shooting at 6400, trying to get a fast enough shutter speed with a narrow aperture.  Fortunately in this shot the acrobat stayed fairly still, allowing the definition of his muscles to be as sharp as possible.  The orchestra musicians were also extremely photogenic, and I like the tension between the convoluted male torso and the beautiful young woman out of focus in the background.

The Spirit of Survival

Kathmandu, Nepal, March 9 2016

Almost a year ago, on April 25, a massive earthquake hit Nepal.  For a more in-depth account of our experience there, see my recent blog: Nepal with relief (http://kebeandfast.com/blog/?p=1233).

In Kathmandu we stayed in an apartment in an interesting area of town called Kishibu.  It was with very mixed emotions that we returned there.  On one hand much more remained intact than we had feared.  On the other much was gone: I got lost directing the taxi to our place when we arrived, only to spot the apartment through a gap in the buildings that didn’t used to be there.  It was the same when we walked around the neighbourhood: people went about their daily lives as if nothing had happened, but on nearly every corner there were signs of the disaster.  One of our regular routes took us along the banks of the Bishnumati River, and by the old Indrani temple, which I loved for the small erotic carvings tucked up in the eaves.  The temple was quite seriously damaged, and these buildings in the compound, which were administration and pilgrims’ accommodation, had almost entirely collapsed.  Still, people came to preform  rituals and leave offerings, holy men lounged about, and kids played in clear spaces.

I spotted these kids playing cricket through a ruined archway, and when they saw me they gave me a big wave: I took this picture a second to late, missing the gesture, after I waved back.  All the same, it captured for me the tragedy that had happened, in the destruction all around, and the incredible resilience of the Nepali people for carrying on through it all.  There is also the symbolism of looking through a tunnel, of a dark and difficult journey that has yet to be completed.

Stop and Get Stamped

This is the border between India and Nepal at the town of Sunauli, and like all the other crossings it is not a very attractive place.  Nationals of the two countries don’t need to check in with customs or immigration, and wander back and forth at will across the dirty, noisy, chaotic frontier.  To make things worse, a political dispute had closed the border to commercial traffic, and although a temporary resolution had been found, there was still a huge backlog to clear.  The line of trucks waiting to cross into Nepal started 13 km before the border.  If you are heading into Nepal you most likely arrive here by bus, and get dropped in the turmoil of a market 200m from customs.  Immediately touts will tell you it is 2 km, and try to con you into taking their rickshaw.  The walk is short but unpleasant, dodging truck exhaust, garbage and hustlers.  Keep a close eye on your belongings.  It is so easy to miss the Indian immigration post that they employ a pleasant young man named Raju to look out for foreigners, and make sure they don’t walk straight into Nepal.

We arrived in Sunauli after dark, which made the scene even more surreal.  There are no street lights in this remote and poor part of the country, so everything is back-lit by the headlights of trucks and motorcycles.  I hesitated to have my camera out for security reasons, and because just walking up the road required a lot of concentration, but when we dropped our bags for a few minutes at the Indian immigration window I took a few shots.  For this one I stood in the middle of the road, with one truck behind me lighting the sign, and one in front back-lighting the figure who is right on the international border.

Rice-ography

rice-ography

The rice terraces at Jatiluwih in central Bali cover 19,500 ha., flank the slopes of a volcano, Gunung Batkaru, and are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Even so they are not particularly easy to find, especially if you are trying to get there on your own.  For one thing, the volcano, a useful landmark, tends to disappear in clouds before noon.  Directional signs are few, villages blend together indistinguishably, and roads leading promisingly in the right direction twist and turn, become one-ways, and bear no relation to what they look like on a map.  Even so it is well worth the effort.  Jatiluwih is a magical landscape.

I took a lot of pictures of Jatiluwih.  The problem is choosing a favourite.  By the time we got there the clouds had rolled in, and at times it was raining heavily.  Even though the landscape is lush and green, most of the paddies were newly flooded, and the water under the overcast was dull.  With the beautifully-abstract geometry of the terraces, it became effective as a monochrome.  Apart from an unfortunate line of telephone wires, the only mechanical element in the picture is a “mechanical buffalo” a tiller with paddles for turning up the paddy, which becomes a nice focus of interest and scale.

Too Tightly Wound for Surin

Crossing into Thailand from the little-used border town of O-Smach in north Cambodia lands you in the middle of nowhere.  Once we made it to Surin, we hired this driver to take us to a hotel.  I chose the caption as a play on the line about Martin Sheen’s character in Apocalypse Now, and given the wars and unrest that have afflicted this area for the last half century, it isn’t so far-fetched.  During the American war in Vietnam, many displaced Vietnamese refugees crossed this border, and settled in Surin.  Northern Cambodia was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge fanatics, and Pol Pot died in a village nearby.  Most recently, Thailand and Cambodia fired at each other here, and it is only recently that the O-Smach border was re-opened.

The aviator glasses and Mao cap give the driver a distinctly aggressive edge, which is enhanced by the schizophrenic dual mirror reflection.  The harsh mid-day light outside catches the streaky windshield and makes the background suitably abstract.

The Architecture of Places

This is the roof of the grand old Kuala Lumpur railway station, taken from an over pass on the south side.  The station was once recognized as one of the masterpieces of British colonial architecture in Malaysia. The style it is built in, popular in the late Victorian era called “Indo-Saracenic”, epitomizes the romantic British notion of what the Far East should be: Moghul “chattris”, or towers, Moorish arches and exotic crenelations, supported by the good solid industry of wrought iron girders and steel rails.  It is now somewhat sad and neglected, having been sidelined in importance by the KL Sentral station, a few hundred metres away.  It isn’t even serviced by a metro station, and the way to get there is through a complex of utilitarian overhead walkways over a smelly canal.

Like many of the shots I take in the middle of the day in Asia, I changed this one into monochrome because of the harshness of the light. It is also particularly appropriate for architectural shots. I like it that the old colonial chettris frame the famous Petronas towers in the background, and other high-rise symbols of Malaysia’s “Tiger” economy.  The low ceiling of threatening clouds gives a feeling of weight and oppression being unsuccessfully held off by the pointy bits, old and new.

Human Sin

We are now in Bangkok, at the end of this year’s season in Asia.  Endings are a time of reflection.  Looking back on our photographic record of the last four months is to see a time and a place bisected by our experience of it, our movement through it.  The collection of pictures also develop, metaphorically, an image of the photographer.  I have chosen a set of my favourite photos from this trip, and in this series of mini-blogs I want to present them in no particular order, with the caption I gave them, and a brief description of where and what they are.  All the pictures are on my photostream: https://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet/, and I will be adding these ones to a special set as I post them.

A monk helps a woman preform penance.  This was taken at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, on a sweltering day, so being doused with water would not be the worst thing in the world.  Angkor is, perhaps, the most extraordinary ancient site in all of Asia (there are more pictures of it to come), but it is also overwhelmed by tourists.  We had just come from the grandest of the temples, Angkor Wat itself, and had bought fresh green coconuts to get re-hydrated.  Behind the souvenir and snack stalls was this small local temple, where village life was going on unaffected by, and unknown to, the millions of foreigners all around it.

I like this image because of the story implicit in it.  There is a power and gender and cultural dynamic at play that is challenging to the viewer.  I like the water splashing off the steps, and I find intriguing the woman standing in the shadows.  To me she personifies judgement, the need to maintain the status quo by making sure her own rigid morality is maintained.

Nepal With Relief

On April 25, 2015, a massive earthquake hit central Nepal, and the destruction, particularly in the Kathmandu valley and the mountains to the north and east, was widespread and devastating.  Having left Nepal only one month before the earthquake, and with many people we knew living or travelling there, Katheryn and I watched the news coming in with dismay.  Like many others, we felt compelled to do what we could to help.  Our biggest contribution to the fund-raising efforts was a benefit sale put on at the Community Farm Store in Duncan, with the incredible help we received from all the people there.  2016_03_09_00_28_01That event was very emotional for us, both in terms of remembering the personal loss of friends in the earthquake, and by the outpouring of support and the basic good will and humanity of all those who came by.

The response to the disaster from the people we knew in Nepal was also nothing short of spectacular.  Without exception, often in very difficult circumstances, they gave shelter, brought supplies and helped rebuild the lives of those who had less than them.  For example Arif, who is the son of our friend and jeweller, Malik, rented a truck, and with the help of his friends loaded it with tarps, roofing and supplies, and took it to hard hit villages where 2016_03_14_02_12conventional aid would never get to.

I am sure that it was the story of this kind of grass-roots involvement that touched a chord with many that we talked to.  In addition to the benefit sale, we had set up a fund-raising web site, and through the two we were able to send about $8,500 to Nepal.  Some people who helped us had an agency or cause in mind, and since the Canadian government was matching donations that went through certain established organizations, we earmarked about $4,500 in that way.  Many, however, wanted their contribution to go straight to Arif, without the bureaucracy and overhead costs of conventional channels, and so the remainder of our funds were sent directly to him and others we knew there.  Throughout our summer sales we kept a donation pot at the front table, and with the exceptional generosity of a certain woman on Galiano Is, and so many others throughout the year, we had an additional $1,400 that we set aside to distribute ourselves when we went back to Nepal.

It is now March 2016, and we left Nepal a few days ago.  It was an eventful three weeks for us, and there are just too many stories to tell.2016_02_15_22_30

We knew it would be a different kind of a trip this year, so instead to flying straight into Kathmandu it seemed more appropriate to approach it slowly, giving ourselves time, perhaps, to emotionally  2016_02_16_02_53 acclimatise.  This involved a lengthy, often gruelling, 23 day journey from Rajasthan in western India through Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to the Nepal border at Sunauli, and then onward to Kathmandu via Tansen and Pokhara, in total taking 10 local buses and one train.  It may be the last of the big overland trips for us through India; there have been many, and they aren’t getting any easier.  But it did give perspective.  For instance, approaching the Nepal border late in the evening, there was a line of 2016_02_24_05_25_01trucks parked at the side of the road starting at the 13 km mark.  It didn’t seem possible that they were waiting to cross the border, but sure enough, 13 km of trucks with supplies were back-logged on the Indian side.  The worst part is that this was a distinct improvement from the situation just 2 months before.  Then no traffic was crossing this border, or had been for 4 months.

The region of Nepal adjacent to India, where we crossed the border, is called the Terai, and the people who live there, who have much in common with their Indian cousins, are the Madhesis.  Finally, after many years of stalemate, Nepal adopted a new constitution after the earthquake.  The Madhesis, however, were aggrieved that in proportion to their population they didn’t get as many constituencies as they deserved.  The government argued that 10’s of thousands of 2016_02_16_03_00_01Madhesis were actually Indian citizens, prodded by the Indian government to take advantage of the lax immigration laws between the two countries, and therefore India was loading the voter lists.  If the Madhesis had the number of seats they wanted, the government said, it would effectively render Nepal a proxy state of India.  The Madhesi response was to block the southern border crossings to India, through which perhaps 90% of goods – including food, fuel and medicine – arrive.

For all of the devastation caused by the earthquake, from the people we talked to, it felt like that 4 month embargo was the real spirit-breaker. 2016_02_25_20_44 The 1,000,000 residents of a capital city were reduced to cooking on open fires, and lining up for 3 days to get two liters of petrol.  The cost of all basic goods soared, and tourism, a major money earner, dried up.

2016_03_14_01_57_01It was in this context that we arrived in Kathmandu.  Probably the most remarkable thing was how normal it looked.  Traffic clogged the street, pedestrians bought vegetables from markets, porters tumped bales of goods to shops, holy men in saffron robes sat at shrines, and life went on apparently uninterrupted.  On this hand I say to anyone who is thinking about visiting Nepal: GO! There is absolutely no problem in getting whatever you want, and they need you!

On the other hand there are gaps, in people’s lives, and in the physical city, which will take a lo2016_03_09_00_28ng time to recover.  Almost at random, it seems, buildings have disappeared.  You can see the outside wall of a four-story apartment that never used to be an outside wall.  Ancient temples have collapsed, or are fissured by cracks, and many, many 4X4 beams have been toe-nailed into the street to support fragile walls.

Everyone you talk to – and, indeed, everyone you pass in the street – has a horrific 2016_03_13_00_43story to tell.  Mostly it is done in the Asian way, smiling, so as not to offend you with their tragedy.  Some are odd: so many people left Kathmandu in the aftermath that, contrary to fears of famine, stores stayed open, and supplies didn’t run out.  Many stories are similar: everyone was afraid to go back in their houses, fearing the hundreds of tremors which still shook the city, so they would run inside every few days to wash, and sleep out in the parks with everyone else under tarps in the rain.  A few are beyond horrific: our cargo agent, a woman called Sujita, saw a 5 story apartment near her home collapse, in which 74 people were killed.

We stayed in the apartment of Shushilla, who we met last year, in an interesting area of Kathman2016_03_11_21_54du called Kishibu.  After the earthquake we talked to Shushilla, a teacher, about what could be done with our fund raising money, and she suggested a local private school which was helping children affected by the disaster to get a good education.  Not really knowing what to expect, we went down with her to the Bright Fields Academy one morning.  They had been notified of our arrival, and had selected 5 children as candidates for sponsorship, and had prepared a brief prospectus on each one.  Dutifully each kid, aged between 5 and 10, was marched in with a parent or 2016_03_11_21_55guardian, all looking like there was absolutely anywhere else they would rather be.  For us it was also strange: our funds were limited, and it was like being asked to decide which of these children would prosper, and which would not.  Feeling uncomfortable with the process, we asked whether we could just help the school in general.  For whatever reason, the school thought that sponsoring an individual child was the way to go; so we asked some questions, said good bye, and walked back, confused, with 5 kids’ futures in my clipboard.  Talking over the situation with Shushilla and others, we decided that the best solution might be to not pay the entire package for one student – which is all we had funds for – but to pay just the tuition portion for two.  But we still had to decide: which two?

It was one of the events which brought home the magnitude of the disaster: these 5 children had lost parents, or the parents had lost houses and incomes.  Telescope that out to the rest of the school, the neighbourhood, the city, the country.  What can you do?  We chose two kids, Naina and Shambu, and felt badly for the others.

With the rest of the aid money we had left, we made an excursion with Malik and Arif out to one of the2016_03_12_22_41 villages where they had brought roofing and building materials.  They were keen to show it to us.  It was just an hour outside of Kathmandu, but down a road more suited to a 4WD than their little sub-compact Suzuki.  And this was a nice clear day in the dry season; Arif had gone with his friends and a rented truck after an earthquake when it was raining.  The truck driver had refused to go down the road, but they paid him more money and he took his chances.  Some 25 families live in 2016_03_12_22_02the village, and every single building was damaged.  Most were typical, attractive two or three story brick Newari homes.  In one the complete front third of the house had collapsed, and an elderly couple were living in the remaining open rooms, closed off with tarps.  In another only the front wall remained.  The more fortunate could still salvage a single story, with the corrugated roofing enough to keep them dry; others only had makeshift shacks of corrugated 2016_03_12_21_57iron.

Malik had decided it best not to tell anyone in the village, Dhum Besi, that we were coming; otherwise he thought everyone in the area would show up for a piece of the hand-out.  Nepali people are always hospitable to foreigners.  When the families of Dhum Besi understood why we were there, everyone wanted us to come to their home.  After I had done the tour, I was waiting for Katheryn in a room with a special treat, a bottle of coke.  It’s a small village, I thought, she can’t be far.  Not wanting to miss out on welcoming a guest, however, she was shown to a house well down the mountain, much further than 2016_03_12_21_52anyone had counted on.

When she had climbed back up, it was time to give what we had.  This amounted to about $15/ household.  Once again, we felt overwhelmed by the scale of the need, and our insignificant contribution.  Dhum Besi was comprised almost exclusively of one caste, who were farmers and metal workers.  When the group was gathering for the hand out, another family of a lower caste arrived, and made the case that they should also be included.  Members of the metal worker caste objected, and Malik had to smooth things over, diplomatically ruling that everyone present would be included, but no one else.  I gave the money to the headman, and the crowd applauded.

On the way back Malik said that the village was disappointed.  They felt they didn’t have any warning, hedhum said, and would have put on a meal and a proper ceremony.  Still feeling inadequate about the size of our donation, we asked what $15 would buy for a family.  He worked it out: at its most basic, food for two weeks.

Between our fund raising responsibilities and visiting, we still had to do our business purchasing.  In anticipation of an increased need for revenue in the country, we had set aside a larger budget for Nepal.  2016_03_09_04_13We found that very easy to spend.  In addition to the jewellery we always buy from Malik, we also have the double-knit, fleece-lined sweaters from last year.  Then, just walking down a street, Katheryn saw a kurti (blouse) that she liked in a storefront.  It was our kind of place; the owner, a young woman named Sita, designed everything herself, and her father Dol did the sewing.  We made an order with her for 150 pieces.

Since we had bypassed Delhi this year, and the wonderful warehouse of Mr. Negi, we searched for a few interesting things in Kathmandu, and found Tibetan boxes masks, and other assorted rarities, at the aptly named Handmade Collection shop.2016_03_10_00_34

We also went back to Lal Babu for our felt slippers.  You always know, when a Nepali doesn’t 2016_03_11_01_37enthusiastically say how good things are going, that they are going bad.  Like many others, it has been a hard year for Babu.  He simply closed for 3 months during the embargo, since there were no workers, supplies or shoppers.  When he came back to re-open, his landlord wanted the lease money for that period, even though he had had no revenue.  At least his stock was undamaged.

Although not a commercial product, one of our regular stops over the years has been the quirky wine store set in the wall of the American embassy.  We have developed a relationship with the manager, and he has been very good to us, giving us great deals on 10-year-old French wines, because 2016_03_14_03_09the label is damaged.  When we were mentally ticking off our Kathmandu connections after the earthquake, we came to the wine store and felt a shudder.  All of those bottles on the shelves!  It was bad, it turned out, but it could have been worse; they lost about $34,000 of stock, but no one was hurt.

Nepal has long been a favourite place of ours.  Even before the earthquake it ranked among the poorest countries in the world.  This seemed odd because the people never thought of themselves as poor.  The roads were crap, nothing worked, and the power was out for half the day; life could be hard, but there was a deep equanimity, maybe coming from the scale and 2016_03_14_02_09majesty of the land itself, that put things in perspective.  A year after the earthquake, that admirable resilience is still there, but the spirit is fraying at the edges.  It is easy for us; the hardships are only a temporary inconvenience.  When we said our goodbyes it was with a nagging guilt that there was so much more we could have done, and we would tell our gracious smiling hosts: “There has been enough bad luck.  Now things will get better”.  But it was said more as a reassurance to ourselves, and they knew it, and they would agree because it would be impolite not to.

On our last night we packed up, and then went out for a bite to eat around 9.  In our part of town this is late, and we were lucky to find a small restaurant with the light still on, selling momos and noodles.  A few duckfriends and family were at the three tables inside, winding down with whiskey and water.  At one point the family duck was brought in to be fed.  Naturally conversations were started, and the usual subjects were touched on.  Then one of the men brought out his phone and said:”I have some videos of the earthquake”.  And there he is, on the small glowing screen, that shows him holding his phone while the room shakes, and his family are thrown screaming into a corner.

Too often the news cycle spins us a different disaster every week, and there is certainly no shortage to choose from.  The people we met in Nepal understood this, and accepted the help we were able to give with gratitude and dignity.  The need for help was starkly apparent, but never was2016_03_09_04_31 there a hint of grasping or self-pity.  Our experience only increases our affection for this special place.  Often we had to end our conversations with the assurance that we would continue our support when we got back.  We hope to do this, and next year return with the ability to help, in whatever small way, however we can.  And may it be, contrary to expectations, a better year for Nepal.

2016_03_13_00_49As usual many more photos are available at our flickr site: https://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet/.  Here are a few:

2016_03_14_02_36 2016_03_14_02_39 2016_03_13_01_32 2016_03_14_01_57 2016_03_14_01_58 2016_03_13_00_47 2016_03_12_21_31 2016_03_10_01_48 2016_03_07_03_34_012016_03_13_00_56 2016_03_13_00_45 2016_02_26_19_32 2016_03_09_00_34 2016_03_14_01_56_01 2016_03_13_00_55_01

Page 1 of 7
1 2 3 7
X