The Bali Shipment

bali-goods2-010The last time we blogged, we were in the S.E. corner of Sabah, Borneo, waiting for an Indonesian visa and a boat to take us to Tarakan in Kalimantan.  The purpose of this was to make a more direct – although less-travelled – route between the Philippines and Jogjakarta in Java.

If “Tarakan, an island city in Kalimantan, Borneo” sounds intriguing and exotic in a Joseph Conrad way, the reality is a bit more mundane.  Notable moments came when our boat docked and the cabin door was opened – and we were stormed by an invading force of motorcycle-taxi drivers.  They barged through the first row of passengers, including us, in their haste to secure fares for the long ride down the pier to customs and immigration.  Welcome to Indonesia.  We,borneo-map of course, walked, and once there had to smile and mime our way through an inspection of Katheryn’s bag which turned up two suspicious items: tampons and a bag of black peppercorns.  Both, apparantly, unknown in the world of the (male) inspectors.  Our verdict on Tarakan? Nothing exciting.  Although all we did there was spend an evening wandering around finding food, accomodation, and a ticket out.

The ticket was for a flight, ostensibly in the morning, to Surabaya, Java.  Surabaya, known as the “necessary evil” of Java, is a massive city on the central north coast through which everything passes.  Our plan was to go straight to the station and take the 4 p.m. train out, but our Lion Air flight being 5 hours late put paid to that.  We were forced to arrive after dark and 013spend an overnight.  Nothing unpleasant happened; still I can’t say I hold the place high in my affections, and we were thrilled to be rolling out in the morning into the lush countryside of central Java.

We gave Jogja a chance.  We spent days wandering the markets and shops by foot and becak, yogya-004and went by motorbike into the surrounding villages.  We found painters and potters and sculptors and sewers – but apart from discovering a great big stone monument called Borobudur, it wasn’t what we were looking for.  We had better luck in Solo, a more conservative, less touristy city nearby, known for its massive textile market.  There we bought a few samples, and one superb piece: a copper batik chop. If we go back, it will definitely be for Solo rather than Jogja.

Back in Bali, and for the first time since leaving Vancouver we are on familiar ground.  We have a little Honda motorbike, a room booked in Ubud, and it’s time to get down to work.  OK, this is bali-goods2-007the fun part of the job: scooting around a stunning tropical island, meeting friendly craftspeople and giving them lots of money for beautiful things.  Then again, there are the torrential deluges which periodically catch us out far from home…

The first stop is our Timorese friend Victoria, and her great collection of tribal art.  We were sold out of her coconut tree masks before the end of last season, so this year we are getting more.  I will put a price list below, so anyone interested in reserving a specific piece can email us, and we will give more details and set it aside.  Victoria bali-goods2-003also had some new masks which caught our eye.  These come with the metal stand.

Next we dropped by Wayan.  Of all of our contacts, he is one of our favorites.  Like most Balinese, he seems to take life as if it was a ripe mango dropping, pealed, into his open mouth.  Yet for all of that, it 023hasn’t been as easy year for him, and the stress shows.  He is our umbrella and Balinese banner (umbal-umbal) man, and apart from running the shop he and his uncle do most of the sewing.  With a young family he is struggling to make ends meet, so our order, the biggest ever with him, came at a welcome time.  Apart from the whimsical banners (if you want rainbows, order now!) we are buying his hand-made 2m diameter patio umbrellas, as well as smaller decorative table top ones.

Southern Bali – from Ubud to Denpassar to Kuta – is an unbelievable road side shopping experience of small and medium-sized producers.  Apart from the sheer quantity of inventory, what is almost as stunning is how much dross there is.  After awhile you get repetitive craft 031disorder, and just can’t look at another identical coconut Buddha, and you wonder who can possibly be buying all those tacky maiden-in-a-rice-field paintings.  The same is true with the cast stone sculpture.  There is so much of it – and a lot of it isn’t bad – but the trick is to find a small business you like, and who does quality work on site.  After MUCH looking, we met Gus, who had beautiful pieces, and was able to walk us through the process in the workshop behind his tiny store front.

It’s similar with the metalwork.  We are buying lamps this year for the first time, and we 049sourced out Jero, who we like for her enthusiasm, and who makes everything in a small family business out back.

The last items we are shipping out of Bali are not easy to find; they aren’t in every second shop on the road side.  Maybe that’s why we love our New Guinea pieces – they were a lot of work!  One memorable day, trying to re-find a small shop with these amazing necklaces on the edge of Denpassar, we spent 4 hours fighting unbelievable traffic bali-goods2-011through the city.  I am crazy enough to consider city driving in Asia fun – you aren’t constrained by rules like “stay off the sidewalk” – but this was exhausting (literally).  We finally bailed out of the humidity and pollution to a small restaurant, who gave us some directions.  Back on another 6 lane horror show, after negotiating another chaotic intersection, my prized progressive lens glasses made a suicide leap out of my shirt pocket into the middle of traffic.  Miraculously, after we pulled over and ran back, they were still alive – until the last truck taking the corner scored a direct hit.  And we never did find the shop.

But now I know where it is, and we spent a lot of time with Kadek, and her near-neighbour 001Andi.  The necklaces are all wearable, but also come with the stand, and are displayable works of art.  Andi’s shields come from Jayapura, Irian Jaya, and could also conceivably be used in a skirmish/raid/war with your enemies.  Perhaps better just put them on the wall.  Kadek’s necklaces, she is honest enough to tell us, are made by her in Bali, in the Irian Jaya tradition – except for one style.  These elegant sculpures, called Kalabubu, come from Nias, off the coast of Sumatra.  Kadek is an expert, but she says people here lack the skill to reproduce them.  They are as smooth as bone or horn, which is what they look like, but they are actually polished discs of coconut shell, with a brass clasp.  She only had two, and we are keeping one bali-goods2-019for ourselves…

I am currently putting the new stock up on our website.  Please check it out by going to http://www.kebeandfast.com, go to “our store”, and look for these goods in “jewelry” and “arts and crafts”.  Below is a sample of what we have.  If you find something you love, please contact us by email about details, delivery and payment.  You can reach us at: sales@kebeandfast.com.

Terima Kasi,

Your Foreign Devil Correspondents

bali-goods2-006

Coconut tree mask from West Timor. @ 1m tall. $200

bali-goods2-004

Wooden mask with stand. @1m tall. $180

dec-13-ipod-005

Bali banner (umbal umbal) colours. 5m tall. $15 each, 6 for $50, 10 for $100.

022

2m diameter waterproof patio umbrella. Available in yellow, teal, white and purple. $180.

016

Table top umbrella. Available in orange, white, yellow and purple. $35

032

Cast stone bust. 53cm on stand. $90.

028

Buddha bust. 36cm on stand. $35.

034

Cast stone Boddhisattva bust. 32 cm. on stand. $35.

050

Metal and polyester standing lamp. 30cm tall. $35.

051

Metal and polyester hanging globe lamp. 23cm tall. $35.

002

Wooden shield from New Guinea. @1.3m tall. $120.

004

Wooden shield from New Guinea. @1.3m tall. $120.

bali-goods2-012

Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $150

bali-goods2-014

Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $85

bali-goods2-016

Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $120

bali-goods2-023

Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $75

bali-goods2-018

Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $85

bali-goods2-027

Irian Jaya style shell neck lace. Including stand. $75

bali-goods2-026

Kalabubu necklace from Nias. One only. $250.

EL NIDO: Sky Blue Sea

El Nido: the name means “The Nest” in Spanish, and comes from the previously-dominant economy of this little town – the collecting of swallow’s nests.  It is actually the swallow saliva that is so highly prized for the main ingredient in that species-destroying delicacy, bird’s nest el-nido-photos-008soup, but “bird spit soup” sounds like a harder sell.

Tourism has long since overtaken bird spit in this town, but both industries rely on the same resource:  towering limestone cliffs.  The cliffs hem the town on one side (and are full of the caves from where the swallow nests are taken), and crumble away into Bacuit Bay to form a spectacular archipelago of karst islands.  It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world – and that’s without even diving into the gin-clear, coral-filled water – but, in truth, we had serious reservations about coming here.  Several good friends had been to El Nido before us: Martin and Blair almost 20 years ago; and Michel and Christine 2 years ago.  For Martin it was such a peak experience that he said he would actually kill us if we were on Palawan and didn’t go; Michel qualified his enthusiasm because of the tourist-saturation of Nido, and much prefered Port Barton for its authenticity.  Having followed Michel and Christine’s advice and found a perfect little world in Port Barton, (see the last blog) the question was whether to leave it for the big bad unknown of El Nido.

el-nido-photos-005While we were staying on Albaguen Is. outside Port Barton at Michael Damaso’s fabulous little resort, an interesting route to El Nido presented itself.  Instead of backtracking to Port Barton and the hideous road we had come in on, we could (in theory) cut 3 hours off the trip by taking a barca to the small town of San Vicente, and continue by bus from there.  We decided we owed it to Martin, and packed up, with many deep sighs.  The first 2 stages went according to plan: Michael’s boat took us as close as the low tide would allow to the Vicente jetty, and we waded in the final 20 meters, and a mini-bus dropped us at “junction”, where a Nido bus was supposed to pass at 9 a.m.  2.5 hours later, in the middle of a downpour, the bus finally showed up – packed.  Along with the 6 others waiting there we gamely piled in: in rural Asia there is no such thing as too full.  Katheryn took our hand luggage and was able to getel-nido-photos-006 some ways down the aisle.  I was the last one on, and carrying our 2 packs I was stuck in the door with the conductor.  With one arm I had to hold the packs, and with the other myself, from falling out the open door.  As the bus charged and banked into the mountain curves, it was like doing one-arm push-ups, and I resorted to (literally) using my head to brace on the door frame.  Katheryn had her knees up around her ears crouched on a rice sack when I had a chance to glance back.  She gave me an encouraging thumbs up.  Just before the “unbearable” point I had the conductor climb onto the side of the careening bus, in the pouring rain, and I leaned out with one hand and passed the packs to him, and he with one hand grabbed them and threw them on the roof.

Half of whether you like a place depends on the the place you stay, and El Nido didn’t start off elephants-003brightly.  But we put in the effort and ended up, in my opinion, with the best deal in town: the Hotel View Deck.  The owner, Rudi, is building his guest house on a property overlooking the the town and the bay, right across from the huge cliff where the swallow spit is harvested.  I say “is building” because although our cute suite was complete, he was still pouring concrete in a lower one which – his laugh is a little anxious – he has pre-booked for the high season starting in just 3 weeks.

The thing to do – and we almost never do “the thing to do” – in El Nido is take a boat tour.  The choices,  A, B or C, go to different spots around the bay and the islands.  After our rainy travel day, the morning dawns clear and sunny, and because we like Rudi we let him sign us up for tour A.  It is the cheapest tour – about $25 each including lunch – and the only one to go to Martin’s must-see place: the small lagoon on Miniloc Is.  I am a self-righteous, el-nido-photos-011pretentious snob when it comes to taking tours, and my mood isn’t improved when our promised boat load of “6 or 8” becomes 10, and then 12.  Then a large middle-aged German with his delicate teenage rent-a-girl gets on.  And then another Old Fart/young Filipina couple.  16 in all.

Our first stop is the small lagoon, and since it is the first stop for all “tour A’s”, there must be 8 boats like ours at anchor.  Over the side we go, masks and snorkels donned.  Like spawning salmon we head for the narrow cleft into the lagoon, the snorkelers, the swimmers, the waders, and the ones who should just be naturally-selected out of the gene pool, paddling with inflated plastic rings under their armpits.  Given that only one swimmer can go through the cleft at a time there is a line up, made worse by the natural-selectees holding up the process, so pleased with themselves that they have made it that they stop in the opening, completely oblivious.  Once inside, however…

el-nido-photos-019Once inside, however, is a place so sublime it evaporates my resistance, it transcends all our meager human clamour.  Vertical limestone walls, jungle-draped, eroded into fluted stems, enclose a pool of liquid opal.  We swim across the space into a scallopped recess, climb over a low natural barrier and slip into an emerald bath, floating on our backs beneath a hole of aquamarine sky.  For the first time we are alone, and get a glimpse of the proprietory magic you, Martin and Blair, must have felt 20 years ago.

I don’t know how long the rest of our boat had been waiting.  We are, probably by a long way, el-nido-photos-024the last ones back.  Next our outrigger glides, over a slide-rule sea, to our lunch spot on a small beach.  Small but perfect.  The water changes from Tanqueray to Bombay Sapphire as we approach, with a morel-shaped rock formation set there just for implausibility.  Our debonair boatman, Aleo, builds a fire against a cliff wall, and throws on chicken and fish.  By now our boat has bonded, although the neck-less one with his butterfly-on-a-pin makes everybody a bit queasy.

After lunch our boat cruises to a bay off Miniloc Is., which Aleo describes as a snorkeling spot.  The fun comes, however, when he jumps overboard with a scrap of lunch leftovers, and literally feeds the fish.  In the swimming pool water he is engulfed el-nido-photos-056my scores of chevron-striped Sgt. Majors.  I soon join him, and for the first time ever I laugh underwater, through my snorkel, as the gregarious fish nibble at the scrap in my hand, then my hand, and then the glass in from of my face.

In the end, we just can’t argue with a landscape this spectacular.  We had a great time, and give El Nido a thumbs up.  We just should have come 20 years ago…

For the full impact, feel as though you are there experience, watch this:http://youtu.be/ZXLVHI-_yAk or go to our flickr page (http://www. kebeandfast.com link at the top) and view the set as a slide show.

el-nido-photos-030 el-nido-photos-051

MANILA: PALAWAN: BLUE COVE

port-barton-blue-cove-071

Travelling by air is a disorienting, magical phenomenon, like the experience of a baby: earthbound and drooling along the floor one second, she is suddenly heaved up into wieghtless flight in an unfocused world of rapidly approaching and retreating parental googly eyes the maniloa-and-palawan-009next.  One minute we are in Keith’s Volvo, at night, crossing the Arthur Lang bridge to YVR; the next is amid a stampede of luggage trolleys to a taxi stand in a Manila morning , and guttural Tagalog as our driver shout-asks directions in the crunched, run-down side streets of Ermita.  Like the tumbling baby our squealing pleasure is enhanced, concentrated, by a soupcon of mistrust and unfamiliarity, the fear that accompanies abdication of control.

We have never been to the Philippines before, so unlike our usual first port of call, Bangkok, there aren’t the deep patterns of recognition to fall back on.  We are in the Philippines now partly because our neighbourhood in Bangkok is underwater, and partly maniloa-and-palawan-0191because of the above: in 30-odd years of travelling around Asia, neither of us has ever been here.  There is a faint voice of justification that prompts us, unconvincingly, to search for new goods for the business.  But really (admit it) we just want to go to a beach on Palawan.

Manila certainly isn’t Bangkok.  Our cabbie from the airport, between watching a video on his dash,  instructs us, as all cabbies will in the next couple of days, to lock our doors.  First impressions: concrete squalor unable to hide behind the drag-queen tones of paint; street business where survival is the only bottom line, like the pervasive tin and wire Xmas ornaments lined unfestively in front of crate-like slums; jeepneys; basketball.

Why basketball, in a nation of short people?  And what lurid imagination came up with the manila-0071jeepney?  Both, I expect are the unforeseen products of American military-industrial imperialism.

The Spanish were the first Western Imperialists here, going way back to Magellan’s round-the-world voyage.  He claimed the islands for God and Spain, and took a spear to the head and died for his troubles near Cebu in 1521.  For 478 years Padres pounded Catholicism into the natives, and did whatever it took to confine the spread of Islam (a home-grown specialty), keeping it sequestered in the distant backwaters of Mindanao.  The heavy tread of the Americans arrived with a fleet of warships in 1898.  Having ill-advisedly declared war on the Yankee upstarts, Spain took a spanking, and manila-0094ended up at the bargaining table in Paris selling Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico to the Americans for $20 mil.  About one waterfront mansion in West Van.

As soon as the Americans had wrapped up concessions for agriculture, mining and military bases, they let the Filipinos have a spin at democracy – keeping one hand firmly on the steering wheel.  The benefits were mutual: in return for exploiting the country’s resources and using the massive Subic Bay and Clark’s bases for bombing the shit out of the Vietnamese, the Americans provided employment for more than 100,000 local prostitutes.

Hence basketball: give the colony a sport that they will never beat you at, and they will just maniloa-and-palawan-012play on the street with lower hoops.  And jeepneys: leave behind a huge mess of expendible equipment, and the Filipinos will expend the length, put in benches, tart them up to make them absolutely unrecognizably American, and bus people around the country.

Manila has the reputation in the travelling community of being one of the armpits of Asia.  No one would say that it is pretty, but there is also no denying the energy and utter uniqueness of it.  Manila is a cocktail of Jersey City, Caracas, and Jakarta.  Shaken, and stirred.

Two days in Manila, especially through the prism of sleep-deprived jet-lag, is enough, and a one hour flight takes us to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan.  From 15 mil. to 150,000. From manila-0011“jeepney” to “tricycle”.  If three-wheeled passenger conveyences in Asia are as distinct as dialects, the tricycle is a language of its own.  Someone took a 155 cc Honda, and fastened a boat prow on it.  Then they put a bench beside the driver, added a flat roof and a cereal-box of a windshield for an amoured-car look, and pronounced it Good.  The airport is pretty much in downtown Puerto, with a few blocks of streets levelled off for the runway.  A crab-like line of tricycles out the main door will take you anywhere you want to go for a buck.

Our first choice of lodging in Puerto is Lonely Planet’s designated favourite: Casa Linda.  Casa Linda isn’t bad, but with a plain room with rattan walls fetching nearly $30, my instinct tells me we can do better.  But at 2 in the afternoon it’s stinking hot, the air is sticky, and a cloud the colour of eggplant is coming at the city like a rolling pin.  I leave Katheryn with the bags, and go out to troll a few options.  It’s not looking good, and I am about to give up, but decide to give one last place a try: Color Mansion.  I dismissed it the first time by because the sign procliamed it could do birthday parties and weddings, and I had visions of stuffing in earplug after earplug while screeching children played “tie-up-little-brother” on our balcony, or rum-filled maudlin uncles discovered the Celine Dion DVD for the videoke machine.  But with no parties booked the room was great, and we were the only guests of a delighful family.

We woke up in the morning and decided to go to Port Barton.  Actually we woke up, made a coffee, watched Al-Jezira, and then suddenly decided to madly pack and leave.  A tricycle to the depot got us to a beefed-up jeepney, and soon we were lumbering through central Palawan.  For having spent only 3 nights in Asia, by the time we left the paved road, it felt like we weremanila-0051 getting way out there. The lingering rainy season made the last 1.5 hours into Port Barton a challenge for the driver and the bus, fish-tailing through slick ruts and yawing suddenly at perilous angles, leaving us leaning over jungle-covered ravines, planning routes of escape.

From 150,000 to 1,500.  With a journey like that, it’s easy to see why people don’t want to leave Port Barton.  Although it might also have something to do with the sweet town, palms fringing a beach the colour of Brit Ekland’s hair, and turquoise waters in a bay full of islands and coral reefs.  Oh, did I mention the volcano in the distance?

port-barton-blue-cove-058-copyI know I mentioned the rainy season.  Every day we have to disappoint Alan, who has got a lock on our (eventual) outrigger trip to the island reefs.  The boat guys greet the jeepney when it arrives, and their little collective decides who is who’s.  We are Alan’s.  But every morning the clouds are gathering, and sooner or later they bind together in sheafs of rain, and we don’t want to pay the (fairly steep) price for an overcast snorkel.  Finally enough is enough, and we sputter off in his barca, returning before the afternoon rain.  If our trip was any indication, the coral in the Philippines is severely stressed.  Beautiful in patches, it still lacked critical mass, and we saw none of the larger species of marine life that indicate health and abundance.

The only other foreigners on our jeepney from Puerto Princesa were a French couple, Ivan and Patricia.  On a boat trip they took, they stopped at a small resort on an outer island – Albaguen – port-barton-blue-cove-070-copy1and liked it so much they decided to go out for a couple of days.  We tag along.  If you dream of escape, dream of Albaguen.  I don’t need to tell you; you’ve already got it in your mind.  The rotund and gracious owner, Micheal, started it up 4 years ago, having returned to the Philippines from America.  His parents in New York thought he was crazy.  Now he and his wife preside over four thatched cottages on their perfect bay.  With their staff, and a Korean family who arrive later, the population soars to 15.

We have just come back form Albaguen to Port Barton now.  On the barca, our prow pointed to Port, we decided to scrap our plans and go back to Albaguen tomorrow.  Because we can.
port-barton-blue-cove-014-copyport-barton-blue-cove-068

A note to our new blog followers:  the regulars know: for lots more photos go to http://www.kebeandfast.com and click the flickr link at the top of the home page.  For amazing videos of the places we have been, check out Katheryn’s videos: http://youtu.be/9M_R-vv8YGs     http://youtu.be/O6iECo3dU-w   http://youtu.be/dm8VecrLxsY  http://youtu.be/xXLWbYyoxng .  These and many more can be found on our youtube channel: just go to youtube, and search for kebeandfast.

Bali: Cremation Slide Show

cremation-0051

This is a visual blog.  We have just been in Ubud, in Bali, and while we were there saw the cremation of three members of the royal family.  Below is a brief description of the event, but please, after you have read it, go to the link to our flickr site, open the “Bali Cremation” set, and play it as a slide show.

In Balinese culture a cremation is a very public and elaborate send off, and is so costly that even families as wealthy as this will hold bodies for over a year until the funds and the astrology are all aligned.  Multiple cremations are common, but must be of the same caste.

Public preparations started a week before the event, with the construction of enormous papier mache floats on a side street beside the royal palace.  First two pagoda-shaped towers were made (one of which was to hold two bodies), and then three massive black bulls. Each was constructed on a platform of thick green bamboo.  These would be carried by crews of 50 strong men on a procession of about a kilometer to the cremation ground.

On the day of the procession crowds started to gather in the morning, and the mood was festive.  Members of the family posed for pictures as a gamelan orchestra played in the audience hall beside the floats.  By early afternoon all the preparations were complete, and the floats – bulls first – set off down Ubud’s main street.  People lined the streets, including one young girl anxiously waiting with her iphone in her hand.  Each bull was followed by a gamelan orchestra and a crowd of onlookers.  But it was no sedate and stately procession.  The crew carrying the floats ran with their figure from side to side, sometimes even going backwards to fool any evil spirits that may be following.  Spectators had to be nimble to avoid getting crushed.  It required huge effort on the part of the bearers, and when the time came to turn the corner into the cremation ground the fire department was there to give them a welcome dousing with water.

When all three bulls had arrived, they were taken off off their bamboo rafts and hoisted with a great struggle onto the raised cremation platform.  Meanwhile the women of the families had been assembling at the site.  They had brought elaborate offerings, exquisitely arranged and carried on their heads, to accompany their relatives into the fire.  There was a moment of excitement when the towers arrived, partly because only a super-human effort from one side of the first crew prevented it from toppling over as it turned into the area. They were so tall – 20 m – that the power lines along the route had to be disconnected, and much of the town was blacked out.  The towers were pulled up to a tall platform with a ramp on one side, down which the coffins were carried.  The coffins were then paraded around the bulls, and as with the rest of the ceremony it was a celebration, and not a somber event.

As this was happening, the backs were hacked of the bulls, and set aside.  Then the bodies were taken out of the coffins, wrapped in white cloth, and one was placed in each of the bulls. The offerings from the women were then accepted by immediate members of the families, and piled on the bodies.  Then the black backs of the bulls were re-attached, and the platform was cleared of people.

In the old days, piles of wood would be heaped on the pyre.  Now it’s done with natural gas.  With the burners in place, the priest lit sticks of incense, handed it to family members, and the ignition was begun. This is where, visually, it got stunningly beautiful.  I kept as close to the fire as I could – there was no crowd control, and it was up to you to keep away from flying bits of burning embers.  The fire roared ferociously through the bulls.  When much of the idols had been consumed, bundles of straw offerings were thrown under the bellies, and the fire around the corpses kept hot.  Near the end, when the bellies had been burnt out, gas flames were directed on whatever remained.

While the bulls were still dramatically smoldering, it was the turn of the tower.  The fire started at the base raced through it until it was, well, a towering inferno.  In the end, the fires were finished surprisingly quickly, and the crowds, with little ado, started to depart and make their way home.  When all is cooled, the ashes will be gathered and sprinkled into the sea.

I thought the ceremony was a breath-taking insight into the Balinese attitude to life and death.  True, not everybody here can afford such a send-off, but as an expression of the ideal it was magnificent.

This is where you should go: http://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet/sets/72157626087203220/  The bigger the srceen you have the better.

Wonders of India: The Warehouse of Mr. Negi

New block-print duvet design

New block-print duvet design

We come to India to work.  No, seriously, we do.  It’s just that one happy part of our business is going to great places and buying beautiful things.  One of our favorite places is the warehouse of Mr. Negi.

antique mask from MahrashtraMr.Negi, a native of Siliguri (the jumping-off point in East India for Sikkim- see the last two blogs) used to have a tribal art and antique business in Nepal, but was forced to leave three years ago when the Maoists made life too difficult for non-Nepalese.  He moved his entire collection to a warehouse near Delhi, which is three delightful levels of dusty treasure of all descriptions.  What drew us to him originally was his Tibetan doors, and he has a substantial assortment of architectural oddities including totemic water buffalo gates and Tantric prayer shrines.   We can’t possibly haul such big pieces around in a moving shop, but we couldn’t resist two amazing masks.  One is recent, and from Sikkim: red-faced Mahakala, who turns the wheel of life and death.  It was used in temple dance festivals there.  The other is an antique from Maharastra. That is all Mr. Negi knew about it and we couldn’t find out wood-bowlanything more from the internet, but it’s an obvious masterpiece.  These are the only two we have.  If you would like to put in an offer on either, the starting price is listed below.

If you came to our sales last year, you might have noticed a large hand-carved bowl on the scarf table that we used for display.  We only had one, and we could’ve sold it many times over.  This year we have lots, in three sizes (which being individual hand-made pieces, vary.  The one pictured here is medium. Large are roughly 30″ to 36″ in diameter , and metal water potssmall are 12″ to 18″).  Prices for these and other things are also listed below.

On the topic of containers, we are also stocking far more of these old metal water jugs.  We sold out before most people had a chance to see them last year.

New in the store are two things (among many others) that caught our fancy: a very elegant display bowl carved from a single piece of wood, (approx. 20 inches high) from Nepal, and a curious figure that could be used as a “grump” receptacle.  Mr. GrumpsHad a bad day?  Is your kid having a bad day?  Well, transfer that negative energy to “Mr. Grumps”, and everyone will feel so much better!  They are from Nepal, and approx. 12 inches tall.

It would be far too exhaustive to post all of our new goods here. I’ll try to get more up on the web site.  Wood and metal objects, however interesting, aren’t our main business, and we have increased our selection of scarves (if you can believe it) and started a new line of duvet covers.  These we are very excited about, since they take hand block-printing to a block print designnew level.  We found Vikram in an exhaustive search of Sanganeer (the block printing capital of the world).  We were actually trying to find a legendary screen-printer, whose name we had and lost, who made designs like no one has seen before.  We never did find him, and decided to give up when we came across Vikram.  Vikram has a small production unit and only displays outside of India at the Maison d’Object juried show in Paris.  Katheryn nearly bit her arm off keeping our selection down to six designs.  The beauty of Vikram’s pieces is that they are all reversable, having a complimentary pattern on each side (as are the pillows).  All the sets are queen size, done on high-quality cambric cotton.

This year’s trip to Delhi was made all the more pleasant by the presence of our friend Boris.  We met Boris in Burma in 2005, and always get together with him in Bangkok where he has a business designing and producing décor goods for Europe.  With the drop in the value of the Euro, and the general economic down-turn on the continent Boris decided to come to India to see what could be sourced here.  He came with us to Mr. Negi’s, and loved the stuff, but since he requires uniform production on a much bigger scale, it wasn’t for him.  Then we accompanied him to Moradabad which is a city about four hours east of Delhi where much of the country’s metal work takes place.  Most of the goods weren’t what we were looking for, but we found tiffinwhere two of the things we love in India are made.  One is a stainless steel serving bowl with an electric-plated copper coating, which is given a hand-hammered finish. We have admired them in good-quality restaurants all over India.  The other is the “tiffin container”.  It is the “Indian lunch box”, a masterpiece of simplicity consisting of stacking stainless steel bowls which hold the curries, rice and rotis separate, and are all held together by a clamp which acts as a standhandle.  Now, what we could do is start producing our own line, and even have the stacking bowls done in different colours.  The question is are the Gulf Islands ready for it?

Price list:

Antique Maharashtra mask $460.

Bhutan Mahakala mask $250.

Wood bowls Large $75; Medium $50; Small $35.Mahakala Mask from Bhutan

Metal water pots $50.

Mr. Grumps Statues $40.

Stand carved from single piece of wood $180

Our shipment from India is just being finalized.  If you want first dibs on any of the above items, drop us an email, and we will hold them when they arrive in Vancouver in April.  Then we will arrange to have them shipped, picked up or delivered.  Shipping from Vancouver is extra.

We wish everybody all the best in the New Year,

Your Foreign Devil Correspondents,

David and Katheryn

Yuksom and Gorkhaland

mantra-detail

Sikkim has terrain as difficult to traverse as almost anywhere in the populated world: snowy passes and wild jungle-covered slopes plunging down to fast -flowing rivers.  Imagine it in the 17th C.  Then imagine the scene played out in a remote valley when one influential Buddhist misty-mountain-hdrLama and his small retinue completely by coincidence run into another respected teacher from the same school in Tibet!   They probably went off in different directions, in different years, and here they are in Yuksom.  Then who should appear from the only place that neither of them has been in the last few months, but another bearded lama from Tibet!  This, they all agree, is a very special sign indeed.  The local chieftain is happy to host and flatter his unlikely guests as they confer and chant and beat drums into the night. Finally all is clear: there will be a Buddhist Kingdom, the chieftain will be the Chogyal, the first ruler, and it’s capital will be Yuksom.

Yuksom today probably looks as unlikely a capital for a kingdom as it did in 1642.  It’s a dzo-portrait1beautiful town, just not very imperial.  The little traffic that there is on it’s one street has to make way for the dzo (yak/cattle hyrbids).  Each of the three wise lamas established a monastery there, and over the course of several days in Yuksom we visit all of them.  There isn’t all that much to do, which is one of the pleasures of the place.  The town is the starting point for Sikkim’s best-known trek – hence the pack-dzos – but we are far less ambitious than that.  The closest we get to mountaineering is the hike up to Dubdi Gompa, one of the three monasteries. It’s a delightful climb up through orchid-draped forest, and once again, as in Pemayangtse (last blog), a friendly local dog – wild-orchidsBuddy II – volunteers as our guide.  The main hall is locked when we arrive, but a monk calls the attendant on his cell phone and he lets us in.  Afterward we chat on a bench in the sun with the monk, who points out  a hill where the original monastary was.   It moved down here, the story goes, because of harassment by Yetis.

Gompa #2 is on a hill at the top of Yuksom’s main street, and #3 is a little further out of town at the spot where the first Chogyal’s coronation took place.  As per usual a new dog – Buddy III – shows us the way there.  We pass the small lake – draped with prayer flags – where the water for the ceremony was drawn from.  The “throne” itself – a stone bench – is massive-sacred-pineoutdoors under a massive cryptomeria pine.  With forests of prayer flags, moss-covered “mani” stones, some deserted temple buildings and Buddy III giving us “walkies”, it’s a wonderful afternoon.

It has turned rainy in Yuksom, which makes it easier to leave.  The only jeep out of here departs at 6:00 a.m. and follows a tortuous route through Tashiding and Legship to Jorethang.  Jorethang is on Sikkim’s southern border at only 600m and after the highlands it feels almost sultry.  It’s a brief blast, however, as we climb into the next jeep going to Darjeeling.  The distance is only 21 km, but it’s the back-door route to India’s best-known hill station, and the journey takes 2 1/2 hours and climbs 1700m.

fog-for-flickrThe first impression of Darjeeling is disappointing: a clogged, cachophonic street where we are dropped, grotty, smelly butcher shops and a grey, soupy cloud enveloping everything.  There is no way to make sense of Darjeeling from a map, since “up” and “down” are the important directions, but with a vague lead we have  of a recommended hotel near the “T.V. Tower”, we head off “up” into the fog, and eventually stumble across the Tranquility.  For the first time this trip we need to wear everything we own, and Katheryn even puts socks on her hands.  Sometimes the cloud parts and reveals glimpses of the valley and Jorethang far below, but mostly it is like being on a set of Jack the Ripper.

Virtually every business in Darjeeling pronounces itself as part of Gorkhaland.  We are officially in W. Bengal, the capital being Calcutta, but that it as foreign to here to Ethiopia, and everybody knows it.  There is a lot of antagonism to a perceived Bengali imperiousness, and for thirty years there has been a simmering conflict to form a separate state.  Things were more spinner-for-flickrviolent in the ’80’s and ’90’s, but even now there are two protest marches that we come across, and the ransacking of a separatist’s house that could possibly ignite  strikes and stone throwing.

Over the course of a few days in Darjeeling we make the acquaintance of A.K. Lama, the head monk at Bhutia Busty Monastery, and he directs us to the Tibet Relief Center, where crafts and rugs are hand-made.  But apart from that and fading snatches of the once-glorious British Raj there isn’t much to keep us here and we head down the mountain to Kalimpong.  It is there we come across the best British anachronism yet: the Himalayan Hotel.

Kalimpong sits on the easiest access route between Tibet and India.  In 1904 the British wanted to consolidate their control over this strategic territory, loosely controlled by Tibet, so they sent Col. Francis Younghusband and a small band of soldiers to the border to instigate an “incident” which would give them the excuse to retaliate and annex it.  The problem that after flopping around in vain for some time and finding no opposition, Younghusband set off up the himalayan-for-flickrroad to Lhasa.  His firepower routed Tibetan horse troops at Xigatse, and he created an international incident by matching into Lhasa unopposed. The translator on that adventure was David McDonald, who built himself a bungalow in Kalimpong which became The Himalayan.  Over the year this fusty sitting room of stone and Himalayan oak has hosted the great mountaineering expeditions of Mallory and Irwin, Hillary and Tenzin, and an almanac of personalities and explorers.   Add to that  Kebe and Fast, who speak in studied snooty tones and drink G&Ts below the deen-dayal-for-flickrsigned photo of Alexandra David-Neel.

You know where to find more great photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet

And be sure nor to miss Katheryn’s latest video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5fM9aeQoq8

SIKKIM: Under Kangchendzonga

khangchendzonga-5

The border crossing into India is another of those little outposts which you feel represents banishment for the official working there.  Mr. L.A. Wadhia fusses irritably with the

Katheryn crossing the border

Katheryn crossing the border

“wrong”  answers on our forms (Port of Disembarkation?; flight number?):  he has the inner numbness of someone who has spent far too long taking what he knows to be ridiculous, seriously.

The stamp is officiously given,  and we are ushered by a hovering tout from there into a jeep (actually the Indian version: the Tata Sumo) going to the town of Siligiri, and then directly into another to Gangtok, Sikkim.  The good thing about traveling by jeep is that they fill up at the departure point, and don’t (usually) stop for additional riders until the destination.  The bad thing is the passengers are squeezed in tight, and except for the front seat have a limited view of the scenery.  Wejungle are, unfortunately, right in the back, and the scenery, as we ascend the valley of the Testa River, is amazing.

Sikkim is an Indian state tucked up between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan – how  can you go wrong with that?  With China demanding expensive and restrictive conditions on travel to Tibet, and Bhutan imposing a $200/day/person fee on a visit there, Sikkim appears to be our only oppurtunity to explore the area.  A special permit is required to enter Sikkim, but we obtain that relatively hassle-free at the border at Rangpo, while our jeep waits.  From there the road slithers dramatically onward and upward.  Rays of sun dice through a lush jungle of tree ferns, giant bamboo and flowering broad-leaves, and the river is frothing white far below.  winding-road-gangtok-to-pellingGangtok should really be approached by horse-caravan slowly ascending the ancient stone-paved trade route; we are 100 years too late for that.  The constant low-gear jostling to overtake crawling diesel lorries around dusty washed-out hair-pin corners may diminish the romance, but the trip from Siligiri now only takes five hours.

One hundred years ago Sikkim was an independent Buddhist kingdom ruled by a dynasty called the Chogyals.  The British had duplicitously lopped off territory including Darjeeling from their southern flank, but the Chogyals held their own against pressure from China, and the Raj, until Indira Gandhi’s India banished them in 1975 on the instigation of the now-majority Hindu population.  We are sitting in the garden of a hill-top monastery while a monk tells us this history. He is ethnically a Bhutia, who along with the Lepchas migrated from Tibet and brought Buddhism with them.  There still is, he says, a lot of resentment against India over the banishment of the Chogyal, who is now in Bhutan, and tension between the Bhuddist and Hindu populations occassionally flares into violence.  Like many of the “Tibetans” we talk to, he makes a face when we ask if he has travelled in the rest of India, and waves his hand as if getting rid of a bad smell.

And it really feels – especially with the permit formalities at the border – that we are in a gangtokdifferent country.  Gangtok, we concur, is the most pleasant Indian state capital that we know.  For one thing it is spread along a steep ridge at 1700 m, and from our balcony we have a clear view of the presence that dominates this entire state: Khangchendzonga, at 8,208 m the third highest mountain in the world.  Gangtok also has that most blessed and rare feature in a country over-run with vehicles and bullied by drivers with an incessant hand on the horn – a long pedestrian mall at the center of town.  But even better, the people are without exception sophisticated, kind, friendly and charming, and it doesn’t take long before we are in love.  Many Bengali tourists come up here from the plains for a cool-weather vacation, and where there are Bengali tourists there is great food.  Every masala dosa, every hot tandori roti taken with a view out across the valley – after the basic fare in Nepal – is a rapture.  It takes four days before Katheryn is able to walk the steep streets without wincing from her back injury, but we are happy to just rest up here after what seems like a lot of hard travel.

group-shot-of-the-flower-giving-kidsThe view is great from Gangtok, but the place to go for the real vista is Pelling, 110 km away, which means 6 hours by jeep.  One again it’s a mad spaghetti road through jungle and mountain, but the highlight has to be the rest-stop in Ravangla, where a group of kids run after us shouting “Auntie, Uncle, wait!”, and press bouquets of marigolds on us.

We get a room in Pelling where we don’t even have to roll out of bed for a sensational view.  The morning coffee on the balcony is perhaps the most spectacular we have ever had.  As if that wasn’t enough, a 1.5 km stroll deity-at-pemayangtseaway is Pemayangtse Gompa, one of Sikkim’s oldest monasteries, built in 1705.  The “Perfect Sublime Lotus” Gompa is probably as close as we will come to Tibet for now, so Marguerite, this one is for you.  There is no photography allowed inside the main gompa, but the walls are covered with 300-year-old paintings of deities, gurus and demons from the Nyingmapa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, and energetically-depicted statues of  Buddha and the Rimpoches are behind glass at the back.   The wooden floors are worn smooth under our bare feet and the smell of butter lamps and incense permeate the timbers.  By the thin light of the deeply-recessed windows we climb a creaky staircase to the upper level, where a deep drum interspersed clashing cymbals has been playing since we entered.  The drummer is in a room behind a curtain, so we sit on a ledge in an adjoining room and feel the vibrations pulse through the walls, the floor and ourselves.

buddy-and-chorten-at-rabdentse-ruinsThe second capital of the Chogyals is now just a ruin that can be seen on the spur of a hill just below the monastery, and we make friends with a pretty dog in the grounds who seems to want to guide us there.  Much of the route is through a forest reserve, where massive climbing ferns 10 feet high cascade down to the path.  Only thick stone walls remain from the old capital, but with soaring views in all directions including, of course, Khanchangdzonga you understand why they built here.

All of India is on one time zone, and as far east as we are it gets dark early, around five o’clock.  And at 2100 m, in November, when it gets dark it gets cool.  We get dressed up for the evening in long johns and down jackets, and head out to our new-found favorite tongbaplace for a tongba.  “Tongba” is a large pile of fermented millet served in a wooden tankard.  Hot water is poured on top, and the milky, slightly sour potion is sipped through a bamboo straw.  Tongba is found where ever Tibetans are throughout the Himalaya and it warms, rehydrates and gives a mild alcoholic buzz.  We find a delightful Tonga spot in Pelling, called the “Step Down” restaurant.  A dark stairway descends off the road into a room made out of rough planks with three rickety tables.  The only window has no glass, just a curtain of aging cloth.  The kitchen fills with locals and laughter and warm light, and our matron brings us the big wooden tankards with, possibly, the best tongba we have had yet.  The power fails and candles come out and I’ll happily take the Step Down any day.

For all of the latest videos, go to youtube and search for kebeandfast to see all the choices.

There are lots more great photos – and this time I’m not joking – by going to: http://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet

very-patient-traveling-companiongangtok-cyber-cafehdr4-khangchendzongapemayangtse-wooden-prayer-wheel

NEPAL: FOR THE LOVE OF PAVEMENT

heavy-burden-for-an-old-lady

bufs on the road

The unstoppable force of India collides with the immovable mass of China and Nepal is the balloon squeezed between the two.  The pushing continues:  the Himalaya are still fracturing upward and the government is still simply fractured by the impact of it’s giant neighbours.  The China-supported Maoists won an election in 2008, but intractable issues with the India-backed Congress Party made governing impossible, and the only hope was that a new constitution would lay the groundwork for a return to normalcy.   Now the negotiations over the constitution are in a deadlock, there is no functioning legislature, and no end is in sight. But actually, most people barely notice.

Sure, civic functions like garbage collection are sporadic;  the plastic bags of refuse discarded on the street when we arrived are still there days later, mashed into the potholes by traffic and picked over by dogs, cows and crows.   Our friend Malik ringsexplains that the garbage collectors are from the villages and in the Maoist camp, and if they don’t want to work no one will make them, and they have all taken two weeks off for the holiday of Dusain.

Our timing, in that regard, is very fortunate.   We arrive at the tail-end of Dusain, and our jewelery-makers are drifting back in from the villages,  so our orders can get started.   Everybody knows about the increase in the price of gold this last year;  the same is true of other metal.   Copper, tin and zinc are all more expensive, and silver had increased 50%.   This means we are buying a lot less silver jewelery, and a lot more copper, brass, and  “white metal”  (steel, aluminum, and – Malik shrugs his shoulders – whatever they have).   We still manage,  of course,  to get some extraordinary pieces, including lots more styles of rings,  and some very dramatic Afghani-style cuffs.   And singing bowls.   Our most popular bowls last year were singing-bowlsthe antique  “thado-bhuti”,  which come from the Tibetan border regions and are,  according to the famous Tuladhar brothers,  Ishwor and Suman,  up to 100 years old.   We spend a morning in an ancient room in the old city of Kathmandu with Ishwor,  each one of us in turn handling the bowls and making them sing and selecting from his stock 30 of the thado-bhuti,  based on their tone and quality.   They will be a little more expensive than last year,  but if you pre-order from us now we will reserve them at the old price.   Drop us an email if you are interested.

When all our orders are done,  Malik suggests we make an outing to Nagarkot,  which is a village on a ridge outside of Kathmandu with a glorious vista of the terraced foot-hills set against the snow-capped Langtang Himal.  We leave the city dark-peakson the road that leads to China.  Now it is a horribly dusty construction zone of constant pot-holed diversions – but soon it will be Nepal’s only four-lane divided highway.   Geo-politically,  you could probably read something into building a free-way to China, and leaving the road to India – the one we will take tommorow – to rot.

Kathmandu holds a special place in our affections, but it is still a noisy, polluted Asian city, and we are craving something a little less frantic.   Rather than head into the mountains – the destination of almost all of this year’s bumper-crop of tourists – we journey down to the plains to an area of forest and rice-fields bordering India known as the Terai.   The famous destination here is Chitwan National Park,  home to a dwindling population of tiger, elephant and one-horned rhino.   I have a disabling aversion to group tourist activities,  so I am confined to the hotel while Katheryn has a wonderful time riding group2into the park on the back of an elephant named Circli,  even though her party doesn’t see any major wildlife.   What we can both do, however,  is rent bicycles and explore the beautiful surrounding villages where the rice harvest is in full swing.

If the main road from Kathmandu to India – which takes us by Chitwan Park – is bad,  the road east across Nepal is legendary.   Granted,  much has been paved since the bad old days,  and the journey has been reduced from unbearable to merely uncomfortable.   We decide to take two days to do the 440 km,  breaking half- way at Janakpur.   We leave Sauraha early the first morning,  advised that the best way to get from the village to the main highway is by horse cart.   That seems reasonable,  except that no horse carts appear,  and we are forced to make bad puns about falling into a trap.   Eventually a curious pick-up driver stops and we negotiate a ride with him.   Getting transport mid-route is always a bit of a risk, since buses  generally arrive full, and carrying our luggage as we are it is difficult to get on and hope to secure a seat.   Janakpur is waiting-for-our-busalso an unusual destination, and after flagging a couple of buses to a halt and getting no satisfaction we decide to go 20 km the OTHER way,  to the major town of Narayangarh, and hope to get something from a terminus.   Instead we are dumped at a noisy junction in the middle of town.   It always happens,  though,  that when you simply throw yourself into the sub-continent,  you are taken care of.   Someone asks us where we are going and leads us to a Nepali-labeled hole of an office,  and someone else sells us a ticket to Janakpur,  leaving at 10.   There is enough time to go for a bite at a simple place next door,  and Katheryn gets entertained by a young girl intent on dancing for her while simultaneously reciting the English alphabet.   Then someone grabs our bags and runs off announcing our bus has arrived.   The bus is packed, but two seats are cleared for us,  and with our bags in the aisle getting climbed over by the standing passengers we head off. Only the last part of the trip, 7 hours later, is really bad.  That’s  when the pavement has disappeared and we are bucked off our seats as the driver takes on the potholes as if they are trolls in a video game.  Then again,  Katheryn reminds me of the part where the rest-stop is just the side of the road,  and she has to squat partially-concealed by some bushes as a group of curious cyclist ride past.   Or the part where she has to hand our bags out the window to finally get stowed properly and wrenches her back in the process.

And so it is, with Katheryn barely able to walk in the morning, that we prepare for the next leg,  to Karkabitta,  on Nepal’s eastern border.   The bus packed-busoriginates in Janakpur at least,  but at first glance it doesn’t inspire confidence.   It’s been twenty years since anyone cared what the interior looked like, and the cushion on our wooden plank bench is so ragged I pick up the whole thing and change it with another that is marginally better.   We are right behind the driver,  which allows Katheryn to brace herself on the wheel well,  but the speakers from the stereo are six inches from my head,  and we spend most of the trip wearing earplugs.   It’s not everybody’s idea of fun,  but it’s what we do,  and I love the fact that we are in a relatively remote and beautiful part of the world surrounded by people who accept our presence here with so much hospitality,  and there is a price to be paid for that privilege.   Katheryn, as always,  maintains her sense of humour, and coins two apt phrases:  ” He’s got balls of nerves”  as the bus holds the ribbon of asphalt for as long as possible against oncoming traffic;  and the immortal ” For the Love of Pavement!”

Be sure not to miss these videos of the experience:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YF3pdGGMUsk;  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JY_9P1-0xcw; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfY_eIA94I0; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IxYz1Lwbpc; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JP6ZGem87Oo.  Or just go to youtube and search for kebeandfast to see all the choices.

And there are lots more photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet

BANGKOK: PLEASE KEEP CLEANING

kathmandu-skyline
The sprawling city of Kathmandu outside my window, a crazy quilt of flat-roofed five-story buildings lapping up against the green hills surrounding the valley. But it doesn’t seem any more real than any number of places we have been in the last few aubry-st1weeks. If I stop to think about them, I can re-create every sensation of a gusty wind tossing falling elm leaves across the street where my sister lives in Winnipeg; or the last serving of summer on flat-calm English Bay as Michel drives us to the airport; or the humid smell of the stairwell of a cheap hotel in Bangkok enhanced by long-haul flight sleep deprivation. That is the nature of the moment: it slides back into the glass and becomes a memory even as you raise it to your lips to taste it.
As anyone who has prepared for a long trip and has to sub-let their place knows, the title of this blog isn’t only about the quirky sign in that damp, spit-stained stairway in Bangkok. In fact, Katheryn started the clean-up almost as soon as the sale season ended. Sometimes it seems like the best part of the trip is when we have checked our bags and are through security and are at the departure gate and everything is DONE! In the same way that there is a Law of Nature that states you will fill all available space in your pack, you will also fill all available time before you leave. I call it the Law of Just Enough; ten minutes before Michel arrives to drive us past the last bit of summer on English Bay, we are still sweeping floors and shutting drawers.
But then we are boarded, and we taxi, and we are filled with that marvelous rush of our-747power as the jet engines thrust our nose into the sky. The landing gear retracts and the next few minutes are the “Bardo” of air travel – that in-between state described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead – where the noise of lift-off has gone and the aisles are quiet since the flight attendants are still buckled down and even the babies are too surprised to cry. We bank to the north and point out all the territory we spent the last six months covering – the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island on the left; Bowen and the Sunshine Coast on our right. Within minutes we are over Cortes and Marina Island. The pilot flies low and dips his wings; Brent, did you catch it? For the next 16 hours flying time we futilely chase the sun. There is an unbelievable amount of mountainous frozen wilderness on the flight path from Vancouver to Bangkok.
It is midnight local time when we land in Bangkok. We have traveled 15,000 kilometers. Both these facts are meaningless to my body and my brain, which have only one insistent command: find a bed. And so it is, after sharing a taxi from the airport with Heidi, a woman from Kamloops heading to Bhutan to go trekking, that in bangkok-nepal-2010-0071that deliciously pungent florescent-lit humidity sailing on the strength of a third, or fourth wind, I am commanded – politely – to continue cleaning.
The last time we were in Bangkok, of course, the streets were a battleground between soldiers and protesters. Many people asked us before we left how things are now, and we honestly didn’t know. It doesn’t take long on our first morning to notice one casualty – tourism. Hotels are empty and businesses are hurting. Over the next few days the feeling of a battered and bruised city is re-enforced. There is a recurring pessimism in the people we talk to, more deeply troubling coming from a culture ingrained to put on a smiling face. There is a lack of the vibrancy that we love; bullet pock marks in the buildings and even piles of sand bags are still there, as if there isn’t the energy to clean them up, or a sense that to do so is futile. In the north there had been record rainfall and here in the city people are bracing for the coming – real and metaphorical – flood.
What can you do? : don’t spit; keep cleaning.

Check out these videos of the trip:Vancouver to Bangkok via Hong Kong

A quick Bangkok minute

And apologies for the delay in sending our the first blog: several upload attempts failed due to poor connections in Nepal.

BANGKOK: Saturday 10.04.10

On Saturday night an extraordinary and heartbreaking scene unfolded on the doorstep of our Bangkok neighbourhood, resulting in a clash between the army and “Red Shirt” protesters that left 21 people dead and over 800 injured.  We left the area about an hour before the violence occurred, and I strongly encourage you, if you can, to take a look at the video that Katheryn put together: Bangkok riots 10.4.10

We had been out of Bangkok on the island of Koh Tao for the last two weeks, but that blog has been superceded by the drama of recent events.  Because of the upcoming Songkran festival, when transportation can be difficult to book, we decided to return to Bangkok last Friday.  Unknown to us it was also the day the Red Shirts planned to stage their “biggest ever” rally, and has been the case throughout these protests, it resulted in traffic gridlock hell.  It also resulted in something the Reds had not tried before: the occupation of the downtown shopping and business district.  Whether this was the final straw for a government that some viewed as weak for not cracking down on the protesters, we don’t know; but things changed on Saturday.

The normal morning tranquility of our little riverside enclave was disturbed by two black military helicopters doing repeated forays low over the rooftops.  Never mind: our plan was to go in the opposite direction of the blockades to Jatuchak Market, on the north side of town.  It soon became clear, however, that the situation wasn’t normal, as the traffic on the street was backing up, and no buses were running.  No problem: can’t let a little protest get in the way of our shopping.   We go with plan II, which is to walk to the amulet market and buy the fun little acrylic Buddhas for the shop.  Coming back, loaded with 50 Buddhas, we have to cross Ratchedamoen St., on which the protesters have been camped for a month.  Well, we think, may as well see what’s going on…  

We are well within the Red’s territory when two falangs (foreigners) hurry across the street to intercept us.  In a surprise move, one pulls out his badge and says he is undercover with the Thai police.  We’re packing a lot of Buddhas; could this be a bust?  In a heavy German accent he informs us that we should not go any further, it is too dangerous: clashes have occurred; tear gas and rubber bullets have been used; and a car bomb has gone off.  Good reason, we think, to go back to the hotel.  And get the cameras.

We have followed the situation in Thailand closely over the years, and we have a good feel for a dangerous situation, and a well-developed sense of self-preservation.  We approach the area cautiously, from the back alleys to the north.  In my case, I have been coming to this neighbourhood for almost 30 years, and I know it well; but I have never before seen heavy armored vehicles in the square by Wat Bovorniwet.  The military have bottle-necked the access to Tanao, the street on the east side of the world’s favourite back-packer haunt, Khao San Road.  The soldiers look stylishly futuristic in a game-boy kind of way, clad in hi-tech body armor.  For all of the latent violence represented by their equipment, there isn’t a feeling of hostility in the air.  Locals are in the street, and some bring the soldiers food in take-away containers.  Tourists from Khao San walk through the military lines taking pictures; many of the soldiers take photos of themselves and their buddies with their cell phones.  Katheryn even has a young guy offer her part of his dinner.

There is a no-man’s-land on Tanao St. between the military and the Reds where even the most brainless of Khao San backpackers doesn’t go.  However, by taking a back alley we end up at the Burger King at the junction of Khao San and Tanao, in the Red Shirt camp.  We linger for a while, but the sun is down and it’s getting too dark for pictures.  We walk to the front line of the Reds, facing the military 50 paces away.  Unlike the soldiers, all they have, it seems, is flags and sticks, but they too seem fairly relaxed.  When someone hands us face masks for protection from tear gas, we figure it’s time to go.

It’s a surreal situation, walking up Khao San.  All of the businesses at the Tanao St. side are shuttered, but further on more and more are still open, proving once again that if the world were ruled by tourism it would be a happier, stupider place.  There are two large restaurants facing each other across the road, playing loud music, with full tables spilling out onto the sidewalk.  Both have arrays of large screen T.V.’s, and all of them are showing the same footage from this afternoon: the fighting a few blocks away.  We stop, and soon all the passers-by, Thai and falang, are clustered watching the scenes of tear gas and truncheons, while the diners at the tables continue with their fettucine.

An hour later and a little farther away, we ourselves are having dinner.  Over the ambient noise of the street and the rustling of leaves in the nearby temple, we hear the popping which from a distance no normal person would believe is gun fire.  And a louder bang, again muffled and dismissable.  The helicopters are still flying, but without lights; in the night they are ominous moving waves of sound.

In the morning the city awakes to the tragedy.  There is still a lot that isn’t clear, but it is obvious that the decision to displace the protesters by force was a poorly conceived, badly executed operation.  Perhaps, as some claim, the Reds fired first.  The bang we heard was a grenade fired at the soldiers.  The military claim they didn’t use live ammunition, but the shutters and walls around Burger King are pocked with holes.  17 civilians and 4 soldiers died Saturday night, most from head wounds or asphyxiated by tear gas.  The official count is 858 injured.  The military claim it stopped the operation to avoid further civilian bloodshed, but eyewitnesses report complete confusion and disarray.

And yet, after all of that, there is still a degree of normalcy in the city.  The Reds are still entrenched, and the army is licking its wounds.  That life goes on is a testament to the resilience of the Thai people.  Ultimately it is that strength of character which will get this country through the current morass of polarized political petulance that it is in.

Page 1 of 4
1 2 3 4
X