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"BLONDIE AND DAGWOOD" ECONOMICS

Readers of our travelogues probably think we spend all our days crawling through jungles and fainting atop temples. The truth is, we sometimes succumb to feeding frenzies of souvenir shopping. After selling our Hawaii house and most of our belongings, we said we weren’t going to burden ourselves again with "stuff." From now on, we'd collect experiences rather than things. HAH!Never underestimate the persuasive power of a carpet merchant! This Pakistani man in Peshawer charmed Lou into buying a 70-year-old Uzbekistani tribal carpet.

 

 

At the beginning of our ten-month trip through Asia in 2000, we valiantly resisted all souvenirs except postcards. We bought virtually nothing in New Zealand or Australia, and in New Guinea we bought only a few simple artifacts (net bag, grass skirt, some stone tools, a wood sculpture and 12 penis gourds) from the tribal peoples. Then we went to several of the world's best handicraft centers and our anti-shopping resolve dissolved. With so many bargains at hand, we began to act in accord with the "Blondie and Dagwood" theory of economics used by Blondie in the comic strip: THE MORE YOU SPEND, THE MORE YOU SAVE!

KNOW YOUR CURRENCY

We learned an embarrassing lesson in a Moroccan carpet shop in 1999. The plump Arab salesman was friendly and efficient - showing us 15 beautiful carpets, which we finally reduced to three for serious consideration. Lou asked the prices of the three carpets. The sales manager said 5,360, 6,780 and 7,800. When we didn't flinch at these prices, he apparently thought he could sell us a more expensive carpet, so he brought out a one-of-a-kind work of art. This carpet incorporated the weaver's life in a luscious red and orange woven diary. It was 14,500. We conferred privately. At 10 dirhams to the dollar, this was a bargain for such a fine carpet; we decided to offer 9,000. He responded with 13,500, and - after much-feigned hand wringing and good-natured bargaining - we reached agreement at 10,500 including shipping. What a deal! The sales manager congratulated us, saying that he showed such works of art only to people with exceptionally fine taste.

When we travel, Lou carries an American Express card, while Joan carries Visa. The shop preferred the Visa card, so Joan dug it out of her money belt and went into the office to pay. When she saw the amount in the upper right corner of the receipt, she nearly fainted. She hurried to Lou, pulled him aside and gasped, "I think we just paid $10,500 for this carpet!" Lou was totally shocked. The prices he had been quoted were in U.S. dollars - not in dirhams! For the rest of the story, see MOROCCO

UBUD, BALI

Ubud, a charming town in the hills of central Bali, was a treasure trove of beautiful handicrafts at incredibly reasonable prices when we were there in 2000. We valiantly resisted most of it, but did buy several pieces of handmade silver jewelry, a few batiks and ikats, a small wooden fertility figure from Timor and an old Garuda mask.

JOGJAKARTA, JAVA

Jogjakarta is the batik capital of the world and - since Joan spent 15 years as a batik artist - this city was particularly interesting to her. We toured a batik factory where many people were hunched over hot wax pots doing incredibly detailed work with tjaps (wooden or metal shapes for stamping wax) and tjantings (instruments for drawing with wax.) We bought seven beautiful lengths of handmade batik fabric for only 1.2 million rupiahs. (US$134)

Our shopping euphoria vanished that evening, when we learned that our samlor (pedal rickshaw) driver had waited an hour for us to finish dinner so that he could earn another 2,000 rupiah (about 22 cents) to pedal us back to our hotel. The man didn't even own his dilapidated samlor, but was renting it. He couldn't return to his home in the countryside until the rent was paid - so he would sleep overnight in the tiny bicycle rickshaw and hope business would be better the next day. We had just come face-to-face with the huge gap between the average U.S. standard of living and that of folks in one of the world's poorest countries. On the brighter side, another samlor driver who had taken us around to the batik factory that afternoon made a nice commission from our purchase and was able to take the evening off.

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND

This city is a great place to shop for antiques and hill-tribe handicrafts. Ferreting out handmade treasures became an adventure in itself. Sometimes we came away empty-handed. One day we clambered into a tuk-tuk (a motorized rickshaw that makes a tuk-tuk sound) and rode out into the countryside to an antique shop - getting drenched by a deluge in the process. The shop was a disappointment (expensive, pretentious reproductions) and when we returned to the tuk-tuk, we found the woeful driver staring at a flat tire. Stranded 17 km (10 miles) from town, we walked to a nearby four-star hotel - but the 500 bahts ($12.50) they wanted for a limousine ride back to our hotel seemed both ridiculously high (by local standards) and somehow not in keeping with our spirit of adventure. So we tied on our safari hats, put up our umbrellas and marched down the country road in the rain, trying to hitch a ride. No one wanted to pick up two farangs (foreigners), probably because few rural Thais speak English. But we managed to flag down a songthaew (a "bus" made from a small pickup truck, with a roof over two long wooden benches in back) and rode off with a bunch of uniformed, giggling school girls - in the wrong direction! Bang, bang, bang! on the cab window. We climbed out and hailed another songthaew going the right way. The fare back into the city was 15 bahts apiece - or a grand total of 75 cents for the two of us. Take that, four-star hotel limo!

Another day we had a more successful trip into the countryside - this time in a red taxi songthaew, for which Lou had to bargain mightily. There are no metered taxis in Chiang Mai, so hiring one is a shopping experience in itself. Sometimes, we'd flag down several in a row - Lou would show the driver a map, act out a few charades and offer a price. If an agreement could be reached, we'd hop in. Otherwise, we'd flag another one. That day, we hired a taxi for 200 baht ($5) an hour. Lou sat in the cab with a map and had a great time talking with the taxi driver, who spoke considerable English. Joan bounced along by herself in the back. Using Nancy Chandler's terrific map of Chiang Mai (she also publishes one of Bangkok) that shows the most interesting shops, temples, restaurants, hotels and sights, we managed to locate Studio Naenna in a residential neighborhood - down a small lane filled with food vendors and even an old elephant plodding along!

Patricia Naenna, a textile expert who teaches at Chiang Mai University, founded this studio to aid rural Thai women. It provides a marketing outlet so that weavers can remain in their home villages and won't have to move to town to find work. The clothing is all hand-woven and hand-dyed, then sewn into a few well-chosen designs based on farang sizing and preferences. For example (this may cause you to book the next flight to Thailand), a hand-woven, hand-dyed cotton, one-of-a-kind, tunic-length vest (styled somewhat like a Japanese kimono, but without sleeves and left open down the center) cost only 900 bahts. ($22.50) We were the only visitors during two hours at the studio, and a graceful young Thai woman gave us a tour of the outdoor, thatch-roofed dye area. Indigo plants were growing in the garden, bundles of indigo were drying in the yard, and indigo dye filled several big ceramic jars.

The colorful open markets were fun places to shop. We took three days of classes at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School (highly recommended), and one morning our class of twelve followed the three teachers to a food market. We wandered through crowded lanes lined with live snails and eels, slabs of uncooked (and un-refrigerated) meat and piles of tropical fruit: rambutans, mangosteens, longans, custard apples jackfruit and (very smelly) durians. Each student had the task of selecting one ingredient for that day's cooking class. Lou was proud of the acclaim he received from a teacher for choosing perfect Chinese greens and Joan was praised for picking lemongrass stalks that were not "sleepy." (Shown here are Joan - her hair recently shorn by an over-eager Bangkok stylist - and a fellow cook, about to enjoy the Thai food they'd prepared in cooking class.)

 

 

After two days of gorging on dishes we'd made at the school, we needed a break from both Thai cooking and Thai eating. So we took the day off. Although we searched diligently for a good non-Thai restaurant, we couldn't find one. Finally, we gave up and went into a Thai cafe. While we were eating, the Hong Tauw Inn's charming owner joined us for conversation. After we finished, he invited us up to the third floor kitchen where he gave us lessons in the preparation of more Thai foods. To be polite, we had to eat all the food we made - so we had TWO big Thai meals on our so-called day off!

Occasionally, our shopping hit the outer limits of our budget. Little did we realize when we flew into Chiang Mai that we would depart a week later with several works of Yao ritual art! The Yao people (also known as Zao or Mien) originated in southern China, and in recent years have migrated into the northern parts of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. We became interested in Yao ritual art at The Lost Heavens, an antique shop in Chiang Mai specializing in Yao paintings, textiles, jewelry and wood carvings. Once or twice a year the Singapore-born Chinese owner of the shop receives a message that some Yao artifacts are available across the border. He has to journey through the infamous opium-growing Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, and in the dark of night he takes a fast "long-tail" boat up the Mekong River towards the Chinese border. His contact helps him dock and accompanies him by lantern along the trail to the small village of Mong Hsu, where he quickly conducts his transaction and returns to the boat. The entire operation must be completed between dusk and dawn because the customs officials cruise along the river during daylight. These officials are really after opium, not antiques, according to the shop owner, but he avoids a lot of hassle (i.e., bribe-paying) if the deal takes place at night.

The Yao, along with other hill-tribe peoples, have endured a great deal of suffering and economic loss over the last century due to maltreatment by French colonists and later by the Laotians and Vietnamese. As a result, they've had to migrate - slowly selling off their treasured heirlooms and religious artifacts in order to survive. Yao ritual art has only become known in the West for the last few decades, as it was formerly protected within the community and used only for Taoist ceremonial occasions. Much of it has passed through Chiang Mai and Bangkok antique dealers, and now is in private and museum collections.

TRIBAL ART

We've been fascinated by tribal art for many years. Around 1978, Joan bought a water buffalo mask made by the Baule people of the Ivory Coast. She has several small female fertility figures, also from West Africa. Finding a few more pieces, including a starkly handsome Sengalese mask Lou found in Paris in 1999, has added a focus to our travels.

Two ancient wooden masks in The Lost Heavens simply knocked Lou out! The god of thunder mask has a sinister grin and was used by Yao priests to exorcise evil spirits. The other mask represents Lao-Tsu (who wrote the Tao Te Ching), and has a curved horn coming out of his head and a disarranged face that Picasso might have created; it was used by Yao priests to initiate men into the Taoist priesthood. The two masks - each about 200 years old - have so much energy they just reached out and grabbed Lou. Knowing that he could not "rationally" buy even one of them, he lay awake for the next three nights wondering what to do. He wrestled with the notion that he couldn't justify such expensive purchases. But his enthusiasm won out, and in the end he bought both of them!

When Lou bought the masks, the shop owner gave Joan her choice of several small 90-year old Yao carvings. She chose a pathetic little creature that's a dragon, lion, dog or perhaps a tiger. It has off-center eyes, a damaged mouth, missing ears and such a forlorn and helpless look she felt compelled to adopt him. A few days later, Joan was carrying him in her knapsack as we were about to board a flight from Thailand to Vietnam. The customs instructions stated firmly that antiques are not to be taken out of Vietnam. So there would be no questions when we brought him back from Vietnam, Joan listed the little antique on the customs form. She pulled out the pathetic bit of wood and presented it with the form to the customs official. The humorless official (who probably viewed it as a piece of worthless driftwood) shoved the carving back, ripped up the declaration form and made Joan fill out a new one. In retrospect, it's easy to understand the official's reaction. She was interested in the declaration of large amounts of foreign exchange and valuable antiques, while Joan's ratty, toothless, hornless, cross-eyed creature looked like it was a stray from the animal shelter!

YAO RITUAL ART

Like Lou, Joan also fell under the spell of Yao art - this time at another dangerous den of antiquity called Duangjitt Sala Thai. The Lonely Planet guide to Thailand mentioned that this place specializes in antique Thai textiles, Cambodian ikats, traditional artwork and fine silver jewelry of such workmanship and rarity that its clients have included Princess Diana, members of the Thai Royal Family and Elizabeth Taylor. We spent seven hours over two days in this elegant shop, located in a pavilion in the garden of a private residence. (Below, Joan is in the shop wearing an ikat tunic made for her in Ubud, Bali and an eight-strand silver necklace from Chiang Mai.) We sipped tea and ate mangosteens during a wonderful visit (by appointment) with owner Duangjitt Thaveesri and one of her daughters, Kachakorn. Both were very gracious and they genuinely seemed to enjoy talking with us because we shared their passion for Duangjitt's collection of Yao ritual paintings.

 

 

These paintings are rice-paper panels depicting Taoist man-like gods and their assistants, various super-natural animals and religious legends. When a master painter is commissioned by a wealthy patron to paint a new set of 17 or 18 panels, he must remain celibate and monk-like for the duration of the work, which is often done in a trance - typically assisted by opium. The panels are then rolled up and stored in special baskets, and only taken out for Tao religious ceremonies. In effect, a set of these paintings is a portable temple.

Duangjitt has a good eye for art and was an early discoverer of Yao paintings. In fact, thirty complete sets (now quite rare) have passed through her hands, and she has sold to a number of museums in the U. S., France and Japan - including the Smithsonian Institution. We were entranced by the lustrous colors, masterful lines, dynamic composition, and almost perfect condition of the paintings Duangjitt showed us but were embarrassed to be taking so much of her time, when we knew we could not afford to buy anything. But she graciously kept telling us (in quite good English) that it was her pleasure to share the work with us. She and her daughter are two of the humblest and most charming people we've met. (And two of the best salespeople, too!) As we were about to say thank you and goodbye, we mustered enough courage to ask about the price of two Yao ritual paintings. It was a large amount of money for us, but Duangjitt offered a significant discount. So we bought both panels! All four of us were so emotionally drained after this intense encounter with art that we were misty-eyed.

 

 

A footnote: Duangjitt told us a story about Prince Charles' visit to Thailand some years ago. Duangjitt's eldest daughter is married to a godson of the King of Thailand and her son-in-law suggested that the prince might like to see some of her collection of antique silver jewelry. Duangjitt's daughter, Chitlada, showed him several pieces of jewelry, but Charles was not interested. Rather, he pointed to the bracelets Chitlada was wearing - each engraved with the letter "C." She responded, thinking of Diana, that it was too bad that she did not have similar bracelets for him with the letter "D". But Charles said he would like to buy this pair for a friend. Chitlada realized, in retrospect, that Prince Charles had purchased the bracelets for Camilla, his long-time love.

HOI AN, VIETNAM

This town devastated what little remained of our shopping budget. It has rows of tailor shops with the latest fashion magazines, and bolts of fine fabric. An entire wardrobe can be made for one fourth of what it would cost in the U.S. It seems as if that's what we bought - an entire wardrobe. After months of trekking in New Zealand, Australia and Irian Jaya, you can see from the photo below that Joan finally had shed the ten pounds she acquired in Central Europe. A DONG (don't laugh) was our favorite tailor shop. The friendly manager spoke good English and the tailoring was done quickly and well.  

 

 

On our eight-month trip to South America in 2004, the best shopping was in La Paz and Buenos Aires. We also had fun in Oruro.

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA

The quality of handicrafts and bargains in La Paz was incredible. We didn't buy any of the dried llama fetuses for sale in the Witches' Market, but we bought enough woven textiles to fill five boxes to mail home - including blankets, shawls, caps, socks, masks. They made great Christmas presents. The quality was every bit as high as in Peru and the prices were substantially lower. (Every package we sent from Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina arrived in California three or four weeks later in perfect condition. Because a customs declaration listing the contents is taped on top of each box, we're careful not to send anything that might tempt sticky fingers during shipping - such as silver jewelry, leather jackets, antiques.)

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

Leather is the bargain in this city, so we went there planning to buy Joan a black leather jacket. We got it. And bought Lou one too. And bought Joan a second jacket in red! After returning to California, we saw similar jackets costing four times as much. (We bought capybara-skin gloves for Joan's sister in Bariloche - and lots of bittersweet chocolate for us. Yum!)

ORURO, BOLIVIA

A four-block section of Av La Paz (between Leon and Villarroel) has numerous shops specializing in the rental and sale of masks and costumes for Carnaval, festivals and parades. Oruro's fanciful Diablo masks are particularly renowned, and we found our way into the studio/shop of an accomplished mask maker, El Quirquincho - 4973 Calle La Paz. Despite our misgivings about their fragility - we bought two fantastic masks of ceramic, glass and metal, paying $14 for both! It took Lou an entire day to pack them for mailing. (The smaller mask is shown below; its fangs are made of mirror slivers, a serpent coils over its horns.)

 

 

DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS

BACKGROUND READING:  Shopping for Buddhas by Jeff Greenwald

UBUD (BALI) INDONESIA:

Oleh-Oleh : Monkey Forest Rd. (shop selling antique shadow puppets & artifacts from Irian Jaya and Timor) Telly Antique Shop, Hanoman St. (Balinese masks) Jani's Place: Monkey Forest Rd. (antique batik ikats) Studio 22k: Jalan Raya (antique & new batiks) Wayan's Shop: Jalan Raya (antique wooden puppets), Aget: Monkey Forest Rd. (handmade silver jewelry)

YOGYAKARTA (JAVA) INDONESIA:

Most of the batik workshops and large showrooms are along Jl Tirtodipuran, south of the kraton. Free guided tours of the batik process are given at many, including Batik Indah, Jl Tirtodipuran 6A.

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND:

The Lost Heavens Tribal & Primitive Art: 234 Thapae Rd. (66) 53 251555

Studio Naenna: 138/8 Soi Changkhian, Huay Keow Rd. (66) 53 226 042  www.infothai.com/naenna

Duangjitt Sala Thai:  (053) 242 291. By Appointment only.

Night Bazaar: The Lost Heavens; Under the Bo (both shops sell Southeast Asian antiques)

Fai Ngam (Handmade cotton & silk fabrics): Apt. E, Nimmanhaemin Rd, Soi 1, Muang. (053) 895-012

Sipsong Panna (silver jewelry, both antique & reproduction)

HOI AN, VIETNAM:  

A Dong tailors: 40 Leloi Street  www.adongsilk.com

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA:

Calle Sagarnaga (a street going uphill from Plaza San Francisco) is lined with shops and stalls selling musical instruments, weavings, alpaca sweaters, etc. 

 

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Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net