Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lost in Bangkok

Usually when in Bangkok I make a visit to Chatuchak market. According to reports the market has been flooded and so is closed, but I will go and see anyway.
There are lots of markets in Thailand but Chatuchak Weekend Market is the undisputed king of them all. It's big - it covers an area of 35 acres, contains more than 15,000 shops and stalls, has over 200,000 visitors each day . The range of products is huge - handicrafts, art, antiques, live animals, books, music, clothes, food, plants and flowers etc... the shoppers are locals and tourists but there are also many serious importers looking for deals. Lots of these shops double as the Bangkok showrooms for craft producers and gift manufacturers, so it's a great place to find suppliers. But there are problems.. many tourists claim to be importers to try and get good prices on "samples", so they may not believe you are a serious buyer. Some shops are just traders, not actually manufacturers so they bluff. The most serious problem is simply getting lost, finding a shop you have seen before might be impossible. Anyway all this is just part of the fun. In any event this is a pretty cool place to do business, hip bars and relaxing foot massage places are stumbled on and you often find strange colourful people who just want their photo taken. Here's a few pictures to give you a feel:

So assuming I survive - more reports next week.
Take care, happy trading.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Here be Dragons

My friend told me on arrival at our China office that we were off chasing dragons this very night.. "what do you mean?" I said. "First they feed the Dragon with fireworks - so we look for big fireworks and then go."
So on Tuesday night we are chasing around the countryside village to village looking for dragons..
The tradition is like this: a village will put on a firework display to feed the dragon (and attract attention).. the dragon is the whole village carrying interlinking planks each with a lantern propped on top. They troop off along a route lined with well wishers shouting "xinnian hao!" which is like Happy New Year. We found two separate Dragons, one of which was at least a kilometre long. Maybe longer it went on and on.. why so long I asked. Apparently the dragon can control the weather and bring good crops for the year ahead. If you are part of the dragon then you are helping your village to succeed, so everyone wants to be involved. Practical and fun Feng Shui in action!


At the end of the route a truck load of special bead rolls awaits and an alfresco party takes place as the Dragon unwinds. Above, this being the year of the rabbit young girls sport rabbit ears.
I thought this must be a whole of China experience but I was told no this is special to this area. Just for a few nights around the CNY holiday dragons can really be found.. as they say on those old maps.. Here be Dragons.

Anyway with dragons in mind, soon it will be Mother's Day. Whoops that came out wrong. Actually next week's topic will be Angels - more in keeping with Mother's Day.

Friday, March 16, 2012

French India & New-Age wonders

This is a timely repost of a newsletter, a while back..
It's almost Mother's Day... so I thought you'd like to meet... The Mother..
Since the last newsletter from Delhi we have been to Goa and Chennai. Then we drove down the right-hand side of India along the Coromandel coast though beautiful peaceful country almost biblical, with palms and stretches of lakes replete with net casting fisher folk. Most un-Indian.
Finally we reached Pondicherry … forget everything you know about India. This is a town is place like no other. We arrived late in the afternoon, though the usual Indian city honks and hustle and bustle. Managed to find our little hotel on the edge of the French quarter of town. Basically a grand old Tamil house, central courtyard, rooms with high ceilings and monastic stained glass windows. It has been converted gracefully into a colonial haven of peace.
As dusk fell I took myself off for a walk around the tiny closed in streets. Almost immediately I came upon a fire ritual been performed by two priests on a slowly moving stage brightly lit and thronged by a fire-carrying crowd. I turned another corner and came upon an almost naked sadu blessing a mans new motorbike. Another corner and outside a street temple a huge pained elephant blocked the way, he was been fed by a queue of supplicants and seemed to be hugely enjoying the attention stamping his feet and waving his trunk.
I got a little lost in the grid of streets, but made my way back to the hotel to get my wife and Carlos.. they were both glued to the laptops catching up with work. Forget that guys.. you gotta get out here and see what’s kicking off.
By the time we set off (about 9pm) the place had reverted to an attractive, former French colonial town exuding a calm Mediterranean aura. What we saw were chic streets, elegant houses and ornamental gardens. All the street names are in French, policemen dress like gendarmes, and elegant French ladies cycle past on the way to evening rendezvous.  Honestly I told them.. really there was an Elephant and… but I could see they didn’t believe. 
Apart from the charming atmosphere what attracts many people to Pondicherry is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its strange new-age offshoot: Auroville about 15 km outside town. Auroville is a township founded by a French lady called Mirra Alfassa in the 1960’s with high ideals about no religion and no ownership.
It’s about all nationalities working toward a new world in peace and prosperity.  About 2000 people from 40 nationalities live here. Mirra Alfassa died in 1973 but her work and plans have continued, for the last 40 years they have been building a huge golden golf ball like building in the centre of town, it had finally been completed.

 In Auroville.
So the next day we took a taxi to see this legendary place, you had be impressed. They have a trendy little shopping complex full of giftware and clothing produced in Auroville, a slick brain-washing, sorry information centre complete with a moving video show explaining the ideals and history of the place. After the show you take a peaceful gardened walk to view a symbolic Banyan tree and to the view point to see the what they call the: Matrimandir – what we called the golf ball. You can only look from a distance, your not allowed in to view the crystal ball that the building contains at it’s centre.. that is unless you want to go further..

The place is calm and reflective. It’s well ordered and not the least bit pushy neither were we charged anything to be there.  But high ideals about no religion had obviously failed as the French lady had now become “The Mother” and seemed to be revered and her attributes and images adorned the place.  While we wished them well, there was just a slightly creepy feeling to the place. 

This is Mirra Alfassa... also known as "The Mother"
Since it's almost Mother's Day.. it seems apropriate to give her a mention..

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Incredible Indian Banking

They have a tourist advertising slogan in India, you will have seen it: "Incredible India"  as much as I love India a more apt slogan would be "Incredible (but oft infuriating) India"

The other day I visited a bank - where we have a old dormant bank account (long story), but there was a small balance that was worth withdrawing. In fact it's a tiny branch in a village in rural south Goa. There were only two cashiers and a line of  waiting customers sat on chairs along a wall like a doctors waiting room. An ancient framed sepia picture of a bearded Jesus decorated with a marigold wreath watched over us from one side and a wall mounted Ganpati elephant god statue from the other presumably to keep transactions honest. A cranky roof fan wafted warm air around, and piles of dusty journals lay piled randomly on a second line of desks behind the cashiers. It's 2012, but I felt like I just walked in to a 1950s Graham Greene novel.

Everyone turned to look at the Englishman. "Come come.." cried an amiable clerk from the second line and gestured to me to come round to the back office and sit on a little chair squeezed between desks. Everyone nodded to me and smiled, the cashiers swiveled round in their chairs to chat to me ignoring customers, who also smiled at me. 
I find all this faintly embarrassing, why should a white face drop in to top slot on the cast system so easily? It's not even as if I had a heap of money deposited, and what was there was soon to go. "I'd like to withdraw money from this account" I said waving my  cheque book (remember those). "No problem sir, I'll check the balance" - which he did on an ancient cathode ray screen - and helped me write the check the correct way, which was handed to cashier number one. Then what happened?

Pretty much nothing.. I watched my check being passed from one cashier to the other, each struggling to call up the account, then a patient customer would push a passbook in front of them and they got distracted, my cheque got shuffled around the place. I really didn't want to cause a fuss - especially since I'd just jumped the queue, so I waited. After half an hour the amiable clerk turned to me like I'd just materialized and said "can I help you?" 

This is what I mean about India, so charming but often so infuriating. 

 "I'm waiting for my money" I pointed out trying not to sound grumpy. He said something to number two in local language, who swiveled and promptly gave me a large well rubbed brass coin, cira 1900, with bank insignia on it.  "What's this for?" I asked, "it's in lieu of your money sir," 
By now I am getting grumpy, "I'd rather have the money" I snapped.  I sat rubbing my brass coin like a worry stone, and waited a while longer.. until the money finally arrived - which was ceremoniousness exchanged for the coin. 

Over an hour to get my cash. As I left the bank, I realized for all the antiquated bureaucratic systems in place, no-one had actually checked my identity, I could have been anyone with a stolen cheque book. But of course that would never have happened, not with Jesus and Ganpati watching.
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More travels next week..

Sound of bells on the holy mountain.

Just wanted to add some old posts from my newsletters, that were popular..

Anyway Bali, was pretty disappointing at first glance, my appointed agent, called Ringo met me at the airport and took me to a business hotel close by.  I have seen the film "Eat, pray, love" and this place looked nothing like the idyllic place that Julia Roberts seemed to float around. Some dodgy bars, a few very drunken Australian youngsters and scruffy shops selling magic mushrooms. Worse, when I stepped outside to explore, big well fed rats seemed to run free in the drains by the road.

It was still early evening so Ringo took me to the local wholesale market area, a cramped street lined with open fronted stores claiming to be exporters. I checked a few out and was not particularly impressed, although some beach jewellery  looked pretty cool. Ringo explained to me that the real production area for handicrafts was about an hour and half away. I went to bed not feeling particularly enthusiastic.

Next morning, as we headed out of the city, Ringo explained to me that Bali has a huge craft industry, which has been shaped in part by collaborations with Australian importers. Australia is only a short flight from here, and from the tourist industry has sprung a cool and designer lead gift industry. We started to climb to higher ground, past beautiful rice terraces, and Ringo told me about Ubud. 
Ubud is the craft zone, beyond the town of Ubud is Ubud mountain. The mountain is the market. 

As you climb up the mountain, on each side of the road are craft showrooms, each are specializing in different items, we passed a village of stone carvings, then wood carvings, then a row of outlets selling colorful kites, next a glass blowing area, then wooden recycled furniture, then bamboo items.. my eyes are like saucers.
Beyond the showrooms are workshops, with products being made to order, beyond the workshops is some of the most beautiful countryside you have ever seen.
We stopped to take in a vista.. two ladies approached selling tourist nic-nacs, Julia Roberts stopped here to take pictures they told me, in good English.
That was quite interesting, but what was more interesting was the quality of the goods they were selling, and the prices.

There is so much I could tell you, it would take all day. But to cut a long story short, the main event on Bali is Silver. One of the mountain villages is home to the silver market, buyers come here from all over the world, and it was the main reason I was here. The silver village is quite different, opulent mansions, stunning compounds, one even has Gothic creatures carved in stone rising like a giant angelic host from the roof of a palace like showroom. The silver-smiths of Bali are renown for their craftsmanship, and beautiful intricate designs.  There are big companies here, employing hundreds of artisans producing silver jewellery for the worlds biggest jewellery retailers.

But I'm looking for something quite special. Ubud mountain, the holy mountain, is the home of Angel Calling Bells.. Artisans have been making and blessing small silver clasps containing a sweet sounding brass bell for generations. Wear one and, with a good heart, the chances are you will attract the attentions of good spirits, angels even. On this sacred, stunningly beautiful mountain.. I want to believe.
Outside a modest but elegant house an old lady is placing small bamboo baskets containing incense and small piles of rice as offerings to the Balinese gods. Two or three baskets on the footpath, one in the branches of a tree, several at the foot of an empty stone chair. Each basket is prayed over, an incense stick lit and bell gently chimes to call the spirits and maybe bring good business.
The stone chairs are everywhere in Bali, often dressed in silk, and protected from the hot sun with ornate umbrellas or palm leafs. The hope is spirits will come and sit on the chair.  Sound of silver bells are in the air..

These bells have been huge sellers in Spain for the past year or so, and a contact tipped me off to the possible source. In an upper room in the modest house, I meet a family of silversmiths who tell me they produce many designs and yes they sell to a number of Spanish companies. A young couple also customers, Spanish speaking, tell me they sold over nine thousand in one year. interestingly they also told me that the market in UK, France and Germany was just starting. 

They have names, names of angels, and each is craft-made in 925 sterling silver and lovingly detailed. You can wear them like pendents, or just carry them in your purse. Very special, made and blessed on Ubud mountain. A delightful family, only the young son spoke English, but his father and grand-father came to shake my hand. 
A few days later I came back to do the QC checks and found the whole family sat on the floor in a shady courtyard carefully packing and preparing the order. The old lady I had seen making offerings smiles at me warmly like an old friend and offers me a glass of sweet tea.

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