Thursday, May 14, 2009

Idol Thoughts


It was time to get stoned.

Really stoned. Not the kind of exploding-seed-mexican-weed-out-back-of-the-high-school-dance kind of stoned, but the kind of stoned that can only come with... actual granite. While definitely harder to keep lit than it's illicit counterpart, granite offers many benefits, the most notable of which is its legality. Granite really is the only way to safely get stoned in India. I should backtrack a little... A few months back, Laurel and I went shopping in Fort Cochin, which is on an island in close proximity to Ernakulam, where we are firmly ensconced en famille. It can be reached by bridge or ferry, and we always opt to take the ferry. It's a 3 rupee, 15 minute ride on a dilapidated diesel-powered tub. One of those ocean-going disasters-in-waiting that always makes you grateful when you see the destination dock appear, as this means that there is less of a likelihood of your demise being touted in one of those headlines you always see: "Overloaded Ferry Capsizes, Hundreds Missing".

Fort Cochin is an odd little place. It's heavily geared towards the tourist trade, and flower-shirted, fanny-packed, sunburned travelers in various stages of morbid obesity are routinely disgorged from the cruise ships in order that the local merchants may prey upon them like so many oily-haired silk-shirted Venus fly traps. "Come into my shop sir! Special price!!" Here, it is not uncommon to see plastic being passed off as precious stones, and metal purported to be silver that will turn your skin green before you even leave the shop. You see a lot of white people here, more so than in Ernakulam across the bay. There is a lot of yoga tourism that happens here, and the streets are crawling with drawstring-panted, tank top-wearing European backpackers hoping to achieve some form of enlightenment on their 2 weeks away from their Dusseldorf cubicles. Turning left from the ferry dock, it's a couple of kilometers to the unfortunately named "Jewtown", home of India's oldest synagogue, where merchants lie in wait for prospective targets as the tourists run the gauntlet of cheese, dodging prodigious piles of goat poo along the way . Historically, this was a center for spice trading, and a lot of trade still goes on here. However, the vast majority of shops cater to the needs of the tourist. Carved elephants, bronze bells, silk scarves, and bad jewelry are the norm. Anything that is capable of collecting dust and proving to the neighbours that one has actually travelled to India is for sale here.

One of our missions on this trip was to collect some art, and the unfortunate reality is that Fort Cochin is actually the best place to go to shop for certain items. There are some antique stores in Jewtown that are actually quite amazing. Room after room of old (and in many cases, not so old...) carvings, boats, and even portions of entire buildings are on display. All items are fixed price, thus denying us the pleasure of haggling. On one trip we bought a few pieces and arranged to have them shipped home, and on that trip we spotted a cool looking Shiva lingam, which is a carved stone item used in ritual worship. They come in various sizes, and the one that caught our eye was about 20 inches tall, and weighed several hundred pounds. When we asked about the price, the sales person looked at the sticker attached to it. The sticker does not actually show the price. There is a hieroglyphic written on it that indicates the price only to the staff, and not to mere mortals like us, despite having read "The Da Vinci Code". She clicked her calculator a bit and calmly told us "575 US Dollars. Shipping extra". We liked it alright. Just not at that price....

A few days later, we told our friend Gee about this (are you starting to discern a pattern here?), and he said that he had a friend who was an architect, and that this friend would know where these carvings are produced locally. A week or so later, armed with suitable information, we drove out of town a few kilometers and then pulled over at the side of the road where a small carving business was set up. A corrugated tin shack served as an office, and there was a ragged blue tarp that tried its best to keep the sun off the couple of dusty shirtless men who were engaged in chipping away at some granite. Gee had some words with the boss in Malayalam, and the long and the short of it is that we commissioned this fellow to custom build the Shiva lingam for us for less than half the price they were asking in the "antique" store, with a nicer finish to boot. Emboldened, we also ordered up a great relief carving of Ganesh, a 4 tier butter lamp with base, and a stone kitchen grinder like the one we had seen in use in the notorious goat biryani episode. It would all be ready in two weeks. We were so excited, we naturally had to go and have beers with all the money we saved.

One week after that, Gee drove us out to the even more remote quarry where the work was being done. The Shiva lingam was too big to be done at the roadside workshop, so we made the trek about 30 km out of town. Several men, again under ragged blue tarps, toiled in the midday sun carving bits of temple, columns, custom stone stairwells, and of course, our lingam. It was an eye opener, to say the least. These guys work hard. It's dusty, hot, and I'm not sure what kind of medical plan is in place for the repetitive stress injuries that must certainly come with the job of whacking stone for at least 8 hours a day, every day. Satisfied that the stone work was well underway, we turned and headed back to Cochin, excited about the prospect of having fabulous hand carved stone art in our garden. It really made me think twice about my own work, which, even though it usually involves not much more than lengthy lunches and the occasional mouse click, still somehow gives me cause to complain vociferously. Note to self: get real...

Now all we have to do is get it home. Will a granite Shiva lingam fit in the overhead carry-on bin?

6 comments:

stiliano said...

very nice post!!!!

Jeremy said...

Hey guys I left you a comment on the last post cause I messed up but check it out.
Jeremy King

jcree said...

I guess I should pull out all of the seats before I come pick you up?

Rob Bailey said...

No Julie. We're shipping all that stuff. Just make sure the car is tuned up and idols properly...

Murray A said...

Here I thought you had an insight into the disappointing decision in tonight's American Idol!

Rob Bailey said...

Is there ANYTHING about American Idol that isn't disappointing? It should b re-titled "Everything That Is Wrong With America". Don't get me started. I hate pre-fab "talent" almost as much as I hate processed food.