Thailand Diaries

The American author John Steinbeck wrote a line that left an indelible imprint on me. “People don’t take trips, trips take people”.

After yet another trip, as I download my pictures, dust my shoes, clean up my suitcases and unpack my memory, how small the world is. How similar we are and yet how different. The richness in our differences gives us numerous opportunities to learn and rejoice. This time around the trip was to quieten the mind and take the opportunity to reflect and renew. Much of the trip was spent doing nothing. Or just shuffling my feet to street corners and vaguely staring at the world go by.

Only that the world doesn’t go by vaguely, if the world happens to be Thailand! Its sights, smells, voices can be arresting to energise every pore. The world comes to experience ‘Amazing Thailand’ for that very reason. The land has much to offer. Especially so, if you are able to go past the richness that is on offer and dished out on a plate to anyone who lands there. To be able to transcend that richness is an ask, I must confess!

But beyond what lies on the surface, there is true pageantry to the soul. A wistful energy in the eyes and an authenticity in the smiles. Talking to people on the road will expose the smiles in their heart and somehow a certain unpretentious completeness in their way of life and livelihoods.

My Thailand Diaries are full of random scribbles and rapid notes. Deciphering them is going to take a while. Few pictures are here.  Over the next week, I hope to have at least a couple of blogposts up on my experiences.

As always, do let me know what you think! 🙂

Thailand Travel vendor

Thailand travel shopping

Thailand travel market

Scented Stuff

The slightest scent of business can get the best smile out and smoothest talk of the average Egyptian shopkeeper in Khan el khalili. He is glib, smooth and actually very nice. Amitabh Bachan, Shahrukh Khan, Rajiv Gandhi all figure in teaser lines as he befriends and then hold you down with options, smiles and a variety of ever decreasing prices and value. So much so that you wonder what hit you when you walk out with a painting you had no intention to buy in the first place. 

This is the average Egyptian trader at Khan el khalili for you. But then, the ones selling perfume are a different breed. Or so I think. 

One of them smelt ‘business’ when my friend and bought these nice little containers  of ‘scented oil’ that refracted a brilliant array of light into the ceiling. The artistic glass containers looked so beautiful that that my camera stood trained on them for a while. 

“Would you want to see the original? The best. No charge for looking my friend. Blah-blah and some more blah…” a voice asked from behind. 

In couple of nano seconds were walking into labyrinthine maze of dim alleys and dull doorless buildings. As one dark alley lead to another, we were following the man who was wafting stories of the revolution, of Mubarak and ofcourse of the ‘best original perfumes’. In one dark alley I asked myself if we should be doing this at all.  For a fleeting second the Pied Piper of Hamlin and the rats flashed before my eyes. 

In a seamless transition, fear began gripping me at every turn. We seemed to be taking too many turns. I feared a gun totting revolutionary or a burglar or some man who didn’t like my looks show up and demand something that I didn’t have or didn’t want to part with. 

But my fears weren’t even remotely justified. For now.  For, In a short while, we were lead us into a room. We had arrived. The room was filled with ubiquitous white plastic jars like the ones that you would find in a secondary school chemistry lab, a truck load of papyrus paintings and sundry trinkets.

And then the show began. 

He went on to show us papyrus paintings that would glow when he switched off the lights. Proceeding to switch off the lights. His booming Egyptian voice served as the background to the wonderful patterns in the painting that continued to glow. My fears of burglars, thugs and the general gent who didn’t like my looks returned. I didn’t even know who to call in an emergency.” What was the equivalent of the ‘100’ Police Helpline?” This and similar such assortment of thoughts caused every conceivable pore to pour beads of sweat. 

Every time he would switch off the lights, the company of darkness, the green illumination on the face of the Pharoh or some strange creature on the painting and his booming voice caused my heart to jump like monkey who was going through a behavioral scientist’s experiment on fear or motivation. 

He must have seen in me the epitome of a stoical face and a somber look. Seeing that he wasn’t making much of a headway with his paintings, he shifted to perfumes. 

His hands reached out and caressed one of those large white chemistry lab type jars. He opened one of them, dabbed some paper into it and announced, “Lotus Scented”.  

“Lotus scented”, he said. Again. Lowering his voice. As though it was the last  remains of a bottle the Pharoh dabbed on his favourite queen. To be honest, the aroma was exquisite. To say the least. As much as the aroma wafted through my nostrils, the fact that it came from a white plastic jar that could have well formed a classical part of paan shop paraphernalia, blew me. 

I was beginning to get impatient. Notwithstanding the aroma. All the sound and light show and the dim alleys had sucked out the explorers’ courage in me.  What if the next bottle he opened had chloroform in it, asked a cuckoo in my mind. I sweated more. 

At that exact moment he looked at me, and our eyes met.  And he said, “For this gentleman who doesn’t believe me, I have something special”.

By now, I was sure, he had chloroform. Or maybe cyanide. My thoughts were only getting worse.
He opened another plastic jar. Steely opaque white. And dabbed some on his wrist, inhaled it, savoured it, “the best I’ve got”. He truly seemed to relish it. 

He grabbed my hand in an ever so friendly manner and dabbed a few generous drops, and announced with a flourish “Hugo Boss”.  My eyes darted out and landed on the white plastic jar which was three fourths full. 

He repeated ‘Hugo Boss”. And like a mafia don, said “original”. 

My nostrils inhaled generous quantities’ of the air around and it indeed seemed like Hugo Boss.  But I was sweating and pulling Hugo Boss out of a white plastic jar seemed too surreal to be true. I said thank you and we began walking out. He was gracious in his disappointment and escorted us back to the main alley selling us stuff till the last moment. 

That night I slept fistfully.  The wide array of sensory experiences had left me both tired and soaked with ideas. 

In my sleep, the trader had complained to the Pharaoh that I had stolen his jar of Hugo Boss.  The Pharoh came after me, riding his bright green dog, and as he neared, his dog pinned me down and sniffed my wrist. 

I woke up in a fit.  

Shivering from fright, I reached for the jar of water on the sidetable. And as water soaked a parched throat, I realised that the wrist was smelling good. 

Quickly realising that it was Hugo Boss at work! I pulled the blanket over. Hoping that the blanket would keep the Pharoh and his dog away, I shut my eyes tight. 

Market. A real one at that!

I have a perfunctory snort of dismissal when anybody mentions shopping.  It usually feels like a ‘waste of time’ to travel, hoist all the body weight around go to a place and then choose.  That statement usually brings a howl of protests and a stern look of dismissal from the missus and her bevy of supporters which quickly cause my feelings to change!  

With that kind of disposition, the chances that I would go shopping in Cairo were as remote as remote can get. But throw in some history. Throw in some pieces of stories of culture and discovering a ‘way of living’ and am already in the car waiting for the drive to the market place. 

Khan el khalili in Cairo, is a market place that dates back to the 13 century.  And for that sheer reason, I went armed with a camera, open ears and a curious mind. 

Imagine an age old marketplace where you could practically get some of the most pristine stuff under the Sun. Stuff like Paintings, trinkets, spices, jewellery, perfume and the like. Narrow lanes that erupt from intersections and shoot into another maze of crowd, colour and cacophony to soak the senses. 

“It is crowded”, I say.  Only to be corrected that after the revolution and all the political instability the number of tourists have fallen starkly. “By as much as 75%”. Normal is when “there is no place to place your feet on the ground” I am told. 

The next I know it was a couple of hours later. It was such a feast for the eyes and ears. For one, it is home to some of the smoothest talking salesmen the world can ever see. Whatever they were selling. 

There is a lane for Jewellery. For clothing. For spices etc. And all of them have ever inviting people who do it with such ease and flourish that you could swear that they had come to your marriage! Or at least, bought you a drink. Or something close. 

The first look at me, got most of them to say, “Indian?” and upon hearing the affirmative “Namaste”.  Then followed the sweetest of talk laced with a countless “My friend” to sell you a perfume that was scented for the Pharaoh or the outstanding painting that you had no idea to buy. Or clothes. Or spices. Trinkets. Whatever. 

We were sufficiently warned of the need to ‘negotiate’ by almost every single person except perhaps the officer at the Immigration counter who had a rather businesslike approach and just stamped our passports. Practically everybody else asked us to negotiate. Such kind people they are. 

Here is a description of a deal, just to labour that point. 

The friend that I am with, is interested in Papyrus paintings.  “A thousand Egyptian Pounds for this wonderful painting” says a young man displaying a large painting which looks beautiful to me. He has deep eyes and a sing song accent that is adorned with love and decked with concern for the whole world.  They negotiate. The young man reels of stories of why he must sell at that price. Features. Benefits.  (If ever you need to the learn how to negotiate with charm, you must take lessons from here) 

Time and my friend’s patience wilt the price down from the 1000 he started with. At 600 Egyptian pounds, the young man lowers his volume and says, “Ok 550. But don’t tell anyone. I will lose all my respect amongst the traders here. They think I don’t sell for anything less than a thousand pounds”. 

“You called me ‘friend’ and quoted a 1000 pounds when we started”. My friend almost wails. “Ah, that,” the young man replies. “That is the ‘Enemy price’.  The price I am quoting is a ‘friends price’” and they go on.  

The persistence, and more than anything else, what catches my imagination the smoothness with which the soldiering on takes place with no forceful argumentative stuff that is so typical in similar markets!

My friend soldiered on.  It reminded me of an intricate chess game ever as I was clicking away at this chess board with Egyptian characters on display at the same store. Finally the deal was done. 550 Egyptian Pounds. For TWO paintings!! The money exchanged hands and we walked out happy. My friend was sufficiently chuffed and suitably thrilled. 

Until about half an hour later, when we were offered two painting for three hundred pounds. 

I didn’t know who was having the last laugh between them, but all the trade, commerce and  bright lights brought the smiles out in me. Markets indeed were in conversation!

My friend, for some reason, was in a deeply contemplative mood. Perhaps it was something that we ate during lunch.  

Collateral Damage

You have been reading the papers too. In the hurry of the morning minute. Somethings register. Many things dont. But today you are in the market. The missus has brought you here. By force. It doesnt take long for you to realise whats been lurking in the dark corridors of the mind.

That you are far removed from the reality of the real world.

You wonder if you are part of the burgeoning numbers of escapists. Not for long. For you know. Educated. Desk worker. Working out of cubicles cleaned by contracted organisations to the sound of noiseless air conditioners.

Lost in a mirage filled canopy of busy ness. In perpetual quest of aggrandisement of self-importance. All under the garb of work !! Attending meetings, making presentations, sending mail, seeking approvals and giving feedback ! ofcourse, all over many cups of tea.

Today, you hear the missus bargain with the vegetable vendor. In marathi. For obvious reasons, you feel safe in her company. You hold the bag. She bargains. Brinjal. Cauliflower. Onions. You hear the prices. And baulk.

You remember reading in the papers about inflation and such else. But arent quite prepared for this.

You remember going to the market as a young boy. Shopping for the family. At these prices, you think you could have bought out every chap out there. You are still reeling from the surprise. Of the prices.

And, you realise, what irks you more is how distant you are from the masses.You follow the missus. Shop after shop. Carrying that bag. Wondering, how people make a living at these prices.

The security gaurd who perhaps would make as much as your monthly grocery bill. The chap who cleans the car who perhaps would make half of that. The maid who mops the floor. The shop boy who fetches the product. You wonder.

The weight of the bag of vegetables isnt as heavy as the thoughts that run past you. You wince.

That night, long after your trip to the market, you are in bed. A book in hand. Reading lamp on. The book that usually sets some thoughts afire is miles away from a strand of a spark. Restless thoughts still roam the market that you went to.

You realise how fortunate and cocooned you are. You make resolutions about sharing. About awareness. About staying light. You feel better. Slightly.

The missus senses something amiss. You sense she has sensed something too. The air stays quiet. Interrupted by honks and wailing sirens faded by the distance. This city isnt called maximum city for nothing. Making a living despite all odds is what gets you by.

She clears her throat. And says, ‘you know in some time we can apply for a new loan’. You sit up. Half in trepidation. For you dont know where this is headed. ‘I have the collaterals ready’.

Your ears perk up. Like a deer who hears the rustle of dead leaves as the cheetah gallops towards it. “In some time the collateral will have enough value to make the bank chap sit up” …..

In the silence. You sit up. Half a tremor seeps through as you mutter ‘and what is that’

‘Two bags of cauliflowers. At current prices….’. Her voice trails.

You smile. Close the book. Say your prayer to the lord up there. And thank him for his large mercies.

The Market Dance

Not far from where we live is a market. Market… as in market. No. Not the stock market. And of course, me talking about the stock market, would be as neat as George Bush talking of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq !
This market seamless merges with the main road ! There are no barricades etc. So, one wrong swerve of a steering wheel would mean a bus ploughs into this market. Standing at the beginning of this market, this is the picture of the traffic on the other side.

A walk down this road introduces you to innovations and ways of life where nothing is taken for granted. Where there is a elbow room created from nowhere, that would put the best magicians in the world to shame !

And the different variety of things that you can set your sights on can have the best supermarkets in the world scooting for cover. And of course, lets not talk prices.

For getting the best prices however, there is a little ‘dance of an exchange’ that’s done with the seller.

Step 1: Ask for a price
Step 2 : Express surprise at whatever price quoted
Step 3 : Quote a fraction of what was quoted as buying price ( in confident tone )
Step 4 : ( Upon being refused ) walk away or make pretense of walking away
Step 5 : ( Upon being called back ) come back and start at step 2 !
( If not called back ) Go back and start confidently at Step 2.

Like many other things in life, the fine nuance this dance, is something that i sorely lack. Of when to start / stop. Expressing of genuine surprise etc occur like an aspiring untalented stage actor.

Many other times, i turn to the wife and express surprise at the price she closed the deal ! Inviting much dismay and irritation. And of course, a suggestion to walk around independently. To not understand that would mean an IQ quotient in the negative i think.

So. An aimless open mouth gaping at all the sights of the market results in a few pictures. And of course, this post.

Mountains of clothes. And every market day, there is a new sky scrapper that comes up. And disappears at the end of day. Again, at prices that would make you look for a atom bomb to drop on the branded stores just across the store ! ( ‘DIESEL’ says a T-Shirt. He sells it for Rs. 100/-. He looks at me, and says, ‘Use and throw sir’) !

Pic 6

And there are numerous other markets within this market. The exchange that’s happening here (pic 6) is that of tea ! Where a ‘vendor of toothbrushes & other oral equipment’ picks up his morning tea from a ‘vendor of Tea’ ! The tea vendor moves about with his flask in hand. As the corporate types would call him, he is a Business to Business B2B marketer !

And so you get fruits, ropes, baskets all within the same stretch. All beautiful to look at. All wonderfully made. And all being shouted about. There is so much of din that you wonder if anyone is selling ear plugs ! And then realise that it is music to the ears of all those who are serious about purchase !

And then you spot a flute vendor. Flutes ? In this market ? You wonder. But he has walked on. Flutes ! You think. That’s some music !

Its all happening here. Bangles. Trinkets. Hairbands. Food. Ties. Socks. Shoes. Belts. Handkerchiefs. Flutes. Toothbrushes. Caps. Washing powder. Groceries. Ropes. Fruits. Vegetables. Mosquito repellents. Nets. And sooooo on. And of course, tea.

And as the beads of sweat form on your forehead, you realise that there is just no limit to human enterprise. And that the lessons to learn are immense. And the first one the list of things to learn, is that dance !!

PS : This post was inspired by the Market Day meme at Strange Pilgram