Finding where it hurts!

In the souks of Fes:

Vendor: 60 dirham!
Me: This dirty little thing? It’s even got a crack in it! 5 dirham!
Vendor: Tsk tsk. OK. 50 dirham!
Me: 10, final price!
Vendor: No. 15.
Me: Two for 20.
Vendor: Keep looking.

I finally found my haggling groove back.. it’s only taken almost two weeks. I admit I’ve gotten a kick out of hearing the following:

– “You are killing me!” (younger man with better mastery of colloquial English there!)
– “Please. You are hurting my family.”
– “You are my first sale. Insha-llah! 10 more dirham”
– “You are a tough woman” (got that right, mister!)

ps: 5 Moroccan dirham at time of haggling was about US $0.61. Heh. I really wasn’t that interested in it. I wanted to find that bottom line. Looks like I found it.

I do have a weak spot though. Men old enough to be my grandfather… my traditional roots show. In my upbringing, they should be taken cared of by their families, not dragging out their wares day in and day out. I am well aware some of them do so by choice, whether it’s the life they know and want to keep or for the company they have around them, but that particular demographic is my Achilles heel.

Middle-aged and young vendors? Bring. It. On.

Kazuri Beads

A couple of girls invited me out on a morning trip to visit Kenya’s famous Kazuri Beads factory.

Background: Started by expats, the company boasts hiring hundreds of women, with an emphasis on single mothers. Their clay beads are made by hand, each hand rolled and pressed to shape before being painted and baked. The company also makes pottery and hires men for the more strenuous work such as digging and treating the clay and pressing the larger pottery pieces into shape. The company is a member and participant of fair trade organizations.

I went in without any background. It was a last minute invitation and I had really come for the ride.

The factory is in the outskirts of Nairobi, making the drive almost as interesting as the destination itself. It is in the popular Karen district, the same Karen featured in Out of Africa. In fact, the factory itself is on the grounds of the estate.

A guide came up to greet us once we rolled into the car park. We were walked through the grounds in a sequence that followed the process of the bead and pottery making process. We started a pit where the clay was being dug and mixed. The guide walked us through the pressing process and the large machinery they had for creating workable clay.

The first building, the women were shaping clay into beads. They had trays with the mold of the bead shapes and sizes they would roll into. The men had molds for jugs and pottery. They had a pottery wheel but it felt to be primary for demonstrations than as a regular method of making pottery.

The first thing that struck me upon entrance to the factory was the sheer amount of people working. It didn’t overwhelm, but it surprised me. There are enough people to fill multiple villages. All had a spot set up at her station, one even had a cellphone cradle between all her bead rolling tools. All the beads were handrolled, with wooden molds to ensure consistency in size. That these were all still hand-made when machines could have done the work is a sad testament to how cheap labour still was.

The second thing that struck me was that all the managers were men. That obvious fact threw me off. Given all the documentation about hiring women to give them a chance, I saw many employed women, but a very obvious glass ceiling. I don’t know how I felt about that. I was disappointed. At myself for even being surprised, and at Kazuri for taking it only part-way in giving women opportunities. A respectable job is better than none at all, but a job with no advancement sent a very mixed message, in my opinion.

We got to the main hall just after the beads were taken out of the furnace. It was morning, so the beads had baked overnight, strung on metal rods and hung in racks. The beads were being taken out, stripped off the rods onto a large table. Women crowded around as the beads cooled, to sort and divide the various designs. Their clamour echoed through the building, between the morning gossip, the clacking of the beads onto the table.. the cheerful ding made me think of it as Kazuri’s version of the trading floor.

Our guide walked us through the hall where some of the women were stringing the baked beads into ordered designs. A large white board showed all the current orders and the country of destination. Some women had individual instructions of the pattern. Everything was handwritten. Given the Americans are no long teaching cursive and penmanship, it was mind boggling to see everything still written down.

Our tour ended at the obligatory gift store where we found surprisingly few selection that we Westernized women would likely wear. The staff was fantastic, though. One of the girls in our group asked for broken beads that they would have discarded, offering to buy them, for a mosaic she wants to make. They came back with kilos of them, and gifted them to her.

Borough Market: Outdoor Whole Foods

I’ve tired of hearing so many people rave about the Borough Market only to sheepishly respond that I’ve never been there. Now I understand the appeal.

It’s unusual to me.. Its fascinating history doesn’t reflect. Architecturally, it’s surprisingly uniform in style, if not in layout, and orderly, despite being grown over time, not as a planned market.

DSC_0008 One of the oldest markets in London, it pre-dated the railway tracks that now shelter it. It sits on the southern bank of the Thames, a very convenient location for boat traffic. It wasn’t hard to imagine what a bustling market it must have been back in the day.

The market is largely covered. A corner extended outside, but was partially sheltered by the railway above. Clearly gentrified, the entire market was furnished with green fencing and doorways. A path is marked to keep pedestrians walkways clear.

The products featured felt both varied and monotonous. There were quite a few bakery stalls, featuring very similar breads and pastries,  even though they tried to carve out a niche: I am French inspired! I am organic! I feature potato dough! Fresh produce was surprisingly sparse while  displays of jams and oils and other non-perishable products rather established. I found only a handful of seafood stalls, disappointing given the proximity to the water (and the lack of good ones near my residence).

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While some things are reasonably prices, the other half the stalls felt expensive. £6 for two small Portuguese egg pastries! Loaves of bread are cheap, individual pastries, expensive. While I do favor artisan vendors, I’d be hard pressed to be convinced that I should come here instead of the closest market to my home.

Personally, I prefer the crowds and smells of a wet market, even the sticky wet floors. This one, I felt, was yuppified. The vendors weren’t even shouting. Or mingling, for that matter. Maybe I came at a wrong time.. that I should have come during the traders’ hours, not when it’s for the pedestrian customers.

I’m a sucker for any market, though.. and I walked away with a full carrier bag. Souvenir double oven mitts, a loaf of rosemary bread, potato buns, chocolate, a mesh sack of mussels. Guess what I’m having for dinner tonight. My first homemade mussels.


Thai Craft Fair – Support Fair Trade

I am a huge fan of the Thai Craft Fair, held generally twice a month on a Saturday in Bangkok. The fair features artisans throughout Thailand. While they have a lot of regular vendors, they currently are doing a rotating theme featuring each general region of the country.

The wares vary from paper lamps, silk scarves, wicker baskets, silver jewelry.. a lot of the typical souvenir shopping products. And the products at the fair generally are slightly more expensive and much better in quality. Given that the association promotes fair trade, sustainable development, and business management, I’m all for paying for a good cause.

Kinokuniya Bookstores

Dad and I passed a Kinokuniya bookstore in Tokyo. Dad, excited, declared that it is a very famous bookstore. I didn’t bother popping his sense of discovery. He said he must go. I skeptically arranged to find him there after running an errand next door, wondering why he would care to see a bookstore chain.

Meeting up with him fifteen minutes later, he sheepishly said “all the books are in Japanese.” And, no, Dad can’t read Japanese.

I do agree with Dad, though. Kinokuniya is a fantastic chain. Outside Japan, that is. It is one of the stores with the most extensive English book inventory in its retail stores throughout Southeast Asia. Even in English-speaking Singapore where Borders has presence I found myself gravitating toward Kinokuniya for my shopping. For those of us avid readers living abroad, that accessibility is important.


As it goes in a majority of Asia, you need to haggle for your prices.And I’ve learned there are different styles depending on where you are.

I grew up in a Taiwanese household. Haggling is a loud, competitive, sometimes even insulting sport. The players treat it almost as a competition, to see who can hold out longer. And whose bluffs to really call.

I learned really quickly it doesn’t work in Thailand. Not when tourism is a major economy and not then the Thais maintain a culture of smiles. Instead, I recently finally discovered that silence is the biggest tool. Mixed with a little of Thai language attempts, the effect is far more, well, effective.

Me: *pointing* Thaw-rai? (how much?)
Merchant: An-ni… 150baht.
Me: *pretending to think* How about 60 baht?
Merchant: Mai dai. (can’t do) 100 baht.
Me: *pretending to think*
Me: *pretending to consider*
Me: *pretending to calculate*
Me: *getting a bit ansty and trying not to show it*
Me: *resisting the urge to shift weight*
Me: *really contemplating either walking away or paying 100 baht*
Me: *just about to decide to-*
Merchant: *pats my forearm and lower her voice* OK. 50 baht.
Me: *whipping out the wallet with alacrity*

Money and luck?

In a recent transaction with a marketplace vendor, I fell into a friendly light mixed-Thai-English conversation. She probably gave me the most opportunity outside language class to practise my Thai, mixing English to help me and gladly answering my questions of how to say specific words or translate expressions she zinged out in her thousandsylabolspersecondspeaking.

Somehow, by the end of the transaction, she had the impression I was a successful wealthy American (??)… and took my bills and flapped it over all her merchandise in her stall, high and low. I asked what she was doing and she said “spreading the good fortune.”

So when does good fortune come to this good luck charm- me?