Sunday, November 27, 2011

Material Gems of the Third World

    In an earlier blog, I wrote about how I have surrounded myself with memories of my travels in the form of artifacts- paintings, masks, carvings, and other travel mementos. For me the purpose of collecting such items is to remind myself where we have been and to revive memories of our travel experiences. A collector views such items differently however. They are judged by their intrinsic worth. There are wonderful works of art created in one place in the world only that are valuable for the labored and highly aesthetic craftsmanship that they require as well as the hours and energy and beauty that they represent. Such items can be expensive, even for Westerners, although they are surely not as accessible nor as reasonably priced anywhere else in the world other than the locale of their creation. Collecting can be a sidelight of travel for those with an interest in art or the possession of objects that no one else has. I would personally find my travel distracted by seeking out unique objects to place on my walls or my shelves in part because I would not want to spend the time shopping that this would require or endure the worry about getting them home intact and undamaged. Yet I understand people's desire to bring home objects of great beauty or unique design. For that reason, I suggest here a few places where unusual and talented workmen labor (usually at very low wages) to create rare objects. I encourage the shoppers among us to make sure that these artisans receive a fair wage for their efforts. Cooperatives where such objects are sold tend to have better quality merchandise and to pay the artists more equitably.

     Third World craftsmen are quite aware of the existence of collectors who visit their area. They often create rough and inexact replicas of the products of their culture to dupe buyers. Collectors need to become rather expert in evaluating the crafts they are interested in if they are shopping for value. As a person who collects masks for memories rather than show, I have no need to be an expert, yet I find that many places feature tourist masks worth little which represent only the desire of Westerners to bring them home. If you don't care about this or just want them to decorate a wall, no problem. If you prefer authenticity and talent, you have to be careful. Choosing from hundreds of inferior masks in the markets of Chichicastenango or Abidjan does not a positive memory make. Finding a mask maker in a little town in Borneo or Mexico who has just created a piece of work for an upcoming ceremony that has meaning for him and is unlike any other you have seen is exciting and meaningful. By the way, if you share my interest in masks and their place in cultures, you would not be surprised to know that West Africa offers the most extensive array of choices and the greatest variety of materials and forms. Papua New Guinea is next, followed by Mexico. Well-crafted masks may also be found on the islands of Indonesia, the specialty stores of India or Nepal, or anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
      There are many other artistic creations that are specific to certain places. The most varied of these are oriental rugs but information about the qualities that make a particular one valuable is definitely required so the collector needs to become a virtual expert to make a wise selection. Southern and central Asia are the most bountiful and productive places to shop for a rug with Turkey following closely behind. My favorites are Iranian tribal rugs but Indian silk rugs, the beautiful woolen pieces from southern China and Tibet and the intricate and delicate creations from Pakistan and the surrounding area are also lovely to choose from.

      One collector's item is even more convenient and more accessible than rugs or masks- woven goods. Weaving is a major craft in many countries and the variety of techniques enables the collector to specialize and find spectacular pieces of work in out of the way places. One example of this was my discovery on the island of Lombok of two distinct styles of weaving which were specialties of that area although they may be found in a few nearby cultural areas as well. The first was Songket Cloth, a style of weaving with silk or cotton woven by interlacing the cloth with threads of gold or silver. These pieces are generally used for fancy dress in places like Sumatra and Bali and Lombok and can be shimmeringly lovely. There is sufficient variety among them to make for a impressive collection. In the same area of the world, Ikat Cloth, a cotton based product which is colored by waxing part of the cloth before dipping it into colored liquid to make the pattern is one of the artistic products. It is a very intricate process which lends itself to producing unique and often very valuable and detailed examples. But fine woven goods can be procured all over the planet. From the market town of Tarabuco, Bolivia to the hill villages of Vietnam and Thailand and Laos, there are outstanding examples of finely woven materials, each style unique and interesting. I even discovered lovely cloths in Burma made by weaving a strand extracted from inside the lotus flower stem in the same way one would work with silk. The degree of care needed for this process is extraordinary.

     Another fine craft is lacquerware; the choice is between Vietnam and Burma. Both places feature very finely painted, detailed examples of this craft. Another place to obtain exceptional examples of fine lacquer pieces is Kashmir where papier mache is molded onto a light wood frame and incredible miniature painting is done by craftsmen using a rat's tail and gold paint to decorate their elaborate creations. And of course there is fine art as well which may be found anywhere by luck. For well done Batiks, East and West Africa and and Southeast Asia are the places to buy. It is good to remember that many of these crafts, while they may be rewarding to collect and show, are the products of families handing designs down from generation to generation for countless years. That is especially true for rugs. The collector is bringing home perhaps one or two hundred years  of accumulated experimentation and skill. That is valuable in and of itself.

 Bronze Tribal Figures from India

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Marvelous Markets of Asia

     I wrote some time ago about a few delightful markets in the Western Hemisphere but Asia hosts even more extensive and varied opportunities for the shopper and for the tourist in general than anywhere else in the world. Some cities are actually markets themselves or at least originated for that purpose. This is especially true along the Silk Road stretching over the entire span of Asia where caravans took a full day to travel from one market town to another. In Pakistan the route follows what is now called the Karakorum Highway, a rough and precarious road which curls precipitously through some of the highest mountains in the world. Peshawar was one of the stopping places along that path and continues to be a center of commercial activity offering exciting opportunities for the adventurous tourists. One might hesitate to explore the city at this time however. The path then heads up through the mountains but today that area belongs to the Taliban and their friends so a pleasant visit to Besham or Gilgit or one of the other old  Pakistani market towns is inadvisable. The situation changes after the Chinese border is passed. One of the greatest markets one could ever visit is not too far after that. It is the city of Kashgar where an amazing variety of peoples from miles around gather on market day to sell almost anything imaginable. One can see vendors making ice cream while youngsters watch in fascination awaiting their turn to taste their favorite flavor. At the next table there might be a man tossing dough artistically preparing Uygur noodles much as a pizza maker in Naples would work his magic. Nomadic Khyrgiz bring their horses or camels to market while countless carts haul hay or building wood or other goods to be sold. Knife makers and hat makers, shoemakers and barbers line the streets and stalls for miles. Tajik, Han, Khyrgiz, Uygur and Uzbek speakers bargain among themselves in this sprawling assemblage of stands and stalls and booths. It is a wonderful place to visit. Additional old towns from the Silk Road can be followed all the way to Xian, China's ancient capital. If one heads out toward the West through Uzbekistan, other great cities that were markets along the Silk Road like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent offer wonderful tourist delights.

      The first exciting market I encountered in Asia was the Night Market in Chang Mai, Thailand. It opens as the sun goes down and fills with locals and tourists buying just about every kind of cloth imaginable, munching the goodies displayed all over on tables, and just having fun and socializing throughout the night. Bangkok also has an exciting market which is thick with people every night. The most surprising market I came upon was on a trip in Southern China. We had just left Lake Erhai in Yunnan and were heading to the city of Dali when the traffic stopped and we were surrounded by carts and bicycles and pedestrians, all of which were carrying goods for a multitude of uses. The people there were Bai farmers, there were no tourists in sight and the grounds were full of piles of wood for building, tools for farming and cooking, piles of hay for the animals and hundreds and hundreds of animals for sale. It was unquestionably the most kaleidoscopic scene imaginable primarily due to the brightly colored dress of the people assembled there. The Bai use red as the base color of their attractive outfits. I was transfixed by the scene as I walked through the market but I was definitely as much of a curiosity to the people there as they were to me. There was not another foreigner in sight.

      In most of rural Asia, markets are held on specific days so one goes to site A on Wednesdays and Site B on Sundays. I was most aware of that when I was visiting Inle Lake in Burma. Everything on the lake is either floating or on a small patch of grassy land no more than a couple of hundred meters long. Each day when I left my hotel, our little boat went to one market or other each of which was the central trading place of one of the diverse minority groups that live there. The dress of the people changed from one locale to the next, the goods varied distinctly, and the market hopping alone was worth the entire trip. It was surely more exciting than any mall one might explore at home.

      Of course, large cities have more permanent markets organized by the goods which are sold there. In Karachi, for example, there is an entire market area where only dates are sold. Just imagine rows and rows of stands all selling the same item. I could not figure out how people made choices in such a setting but I assumed there must have been a method. A block or two from the date stands was a section of the market featuring just metalware followed by another that featured cloth. That's the way it is throughout Asia.  I especially enjoyed the wonderful food markets that abound on the continent. In places like Hanoi or Port Moresby or Manila; people assemble, interact and buy and sell in vast food centers. One can get close to folks in such places and learn something about their way of life almost as well as in their houses. That is probably why I love markets so. Asia is certainly the place to visit them.

Dumpling Steamer Sales, Kashgar, China

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Monuments to Man's Cruelty

     Along the travel path, especially in the Third World, there are a few stops that are unnerving but necessary and instructive for anyone who wishes to understand the full range of man's behavior toward his fellow man. These are evident but not customarily on the tourist itinerary, especially if that route is developed by an agent wishing to put the best face on his country and make his client's journey as pleasurable as possible. I won't try to list all of these sites here but I will mention a few that were extremely poignant for me.

     We can begin with sites of arguably the most horrendous event in recent memory by visiting any of the many concentration camps that still dot the countrysides of Germany and Poland and neighboring areas. I was able to visit Dachau during a stay in Germany and, a bit later on, Teresienstadt in the Czech Republic. Dachau was an extermination camp and provided an eerie reminder of one of the great crimes of history with its bare and depressing barracks and its multitude of ovens to remind one of the ten million or so who perished during the time the Nazis were in power. It is a place of prayer, a place of horror and a stark reminder of what man remains capable of at his very worst. A camp is a must stop for a tour of Central Europe but you will probably have to go a bit out of the usual route and make arrangements yourself for a visit.

      Another place the inquisitive traveler should surely not miss is the Slave Coast in Ghana where the imposing castles still stand that were once the homes of provincial governors who supervised the capture and sale of millions of Africans. In the courtyards of these buildings one can see where the next slave girl was chosen to be paraded, washed and sent up to do the bidding of the governor. One can visit the horrific circumstances where the victims where housed while they awaited transport to the ships that stood offshore prepared to take them to their death on the sea or to a life of captivity and servitude, the paths that these unfortunate people trod to make their way to the rowboats that would take them to the ships in deep water, the places where resistant captives were crowded into a contained, inescapable room and left to die of starvation or disease as a penalty for lack of cooperation. This was truly the place of no return. A trip to West Africa is not complete without a stop at such sober settings in Ghana or their equivalents in Senegal or Benin.

      Another great crime of separation and discrimination- and there are quite a few to choose from- is South Africa's experience with Apartheid. I do not need to describe here the repressive system of laws and abuses which characterized that period in the country but there are several places where one can get insight into what those times were like and how people suffered through them. There are museums in several cities in South Africa which depict the period but the most impressive memorial for me was the prison on Robbins Island off the coast of Capetown where many leaders of the African National Congress were held for countless years. The most famous resident of the prison was Nelson Mandela, the man who walked out of confinement to eventually lead a democratic and substantially forgiving nation. Listening to the descriptions of life there by the guides, former prisoners themselves, and standing at the entrance to the cell where Mandela spent so many years was a moving, incomparable experience.

      And then there is South Asia, most specifically the dramatic and relatively recent horror site called the Killing Fields in Cambodia where so many innocent victims perished under the rule of Pol Pot, the leader of one of the most appalling governments in history. What makes this place so vividly palpable and even overwhelming to the visitor is how naked the paths are where the visitor treads. On the fields themselves where innocent people were slaughtered and left often unburied are mounds of skulls and shards of bones which crunch under your feet. You are truly there. The prisons and the photos of that period are almost too accessible. It is surely another place for contemplating how constantly guarded we must remain to avoid such cruelty in the future.

     Sometimes we need to get well off the beaten track in order to locate the sites where killing and barbarity were the norm. An example of this is what remains of My Lai near the coast of Vietnam. In that place the all too familiar slaughter by American troops of a group of farmers living and working in a rice village took place. The bullet holes in the trees, the underground shelters where the people cringed as grenades were dropped inside, the statues erected to honor the victims, the modest and friendly guides who are descendants of the horror all testify to the events that transpired. This is not at all the only memorial to the warfare that took place in Vietnam but it is especially dramatic for Americans who served in the war and return to the site for deeply personal reasons.

     Should we visit such places as these on our vacations? Only if we want to grow into more sensitive, caring human beings committed to eliminating the possibility of more of the same happening on our watch. And only if we wish to understand the totality of human history including its underside. If we miss these sites, of course, we can always visit Somalia or North Korea or Darfur for first hand experience.

ETA Basque Demonstration, San Sebastian, Spain