Sunday, January 29, 2012

Buying in Bali

“Somebody grab me a Coke in a bottle!”

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Outside the temperature is pushing 90 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity hovering at the same digits. At just eight degrees south from the equator, Bali has virtually one weather report – hot with chance of rain. The moist heat wraps around you like one of the warm towels the wasp waisted Thai Air flight attendants hand you before serving you breakfast on the flight over. One can’t get much further away from Cleveland Ohio in January than the Indonesian Island of Bali – in fact, fly any further and you’re headed home again – the place is literally on the other side of the world.

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The guy demanding the Coke is my friend Larry Collins and we are shopping.

Larry and his too good for him wife, the Balinese born Rai (pronounced rye – like the bread) together own City Buddha - a shop in the hip Coventry Village neighborhood of Cleveland Heights. They are on their yearly buying mission for the store and I and my sweetie Sara Holbrook have tagged along. This isn’t your gum popping teenage girl “Shop til you Drop” T-shirted excursion – it’s a whole new ballgame when the professional shoppers you are cohorting with are not metaphorically christened.

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The two have notebook pages of items they need to replenish back at City Buddha – saris, carved skulls, bracelets, rings, drums, bandanas, Buddha busts, hair ties, incense, goo gaws, tchotchkes, trinkets and sundries. These lists, along with Skype calls back to the shop and discerning eyes for anything new propels this duo through the thick heat. There is no one location shopping here – we travel to and fro across the countryside on motorbikes stopping in and visiting the supplier network that Larry and Rai have set up over the years.

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We pay a call on the “skull guy” the wood carver whose shop is located on the road that climbs up to the island’s volcano. On a return trip to the area, one of the recurrent downpours turned the road into an instant river threatening to wash the Collins’ motorbike down the hill. Luckily Larry and another man were able to chase the thing down before it disappeared over a cliff.

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Larry whips out his pda and starts checking his orders from last year, conversing with the shop owner in Indonesian or maybe Balinese – I don’t know which – I just know it’s pretty incongruous to see this short and stout Jewish guy from Cleveland blithely chatting away in the strange tongue.

“How did these sell last year?” Larry asks Rai. This is how it works – Larry staring at his list or the small screen in his palm occasionally shouting out to his wife for clarification of language or the attributes of a potential purchase and Rai – much more often than not – tossing the info back from the top of head. “These sold out before the summer,” or “we still have a bunch in the warehouse.”

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One impression that dawns early is: This is work.

We’re not on some souvenir hunt – we are restocking an entire store for at least a year. Supplier after supplier we park our motorbikes outside and Larry and Rai place their orders, scope out new items, haggle over prices and endure the random weirdness that crosses one’s path in a third world country. Sara and I do our best to try and stay out of the couple’s way. We become experts at reading their behavior like a pair of zoologists chronicling the hunting techniques of komodo dragons.

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If Larry doesn’t sit down we only have a few minutes before we move on. If Larry sits and Rai is browsing the shop we have fifteen, twenty minutes, if they both sit and start looking at lists and pdas we have thirty to forty-five minutes. Sara and I learn to wrap our own shopping around this rubric ducking into adjacent shops while keeping our eyes on the door of the place Larry and Rai are working. Sometimes one of us stations themselves on the sidewalk while the other explores in order not to hold the show up when our hoists decide to move on to the next destination. Time is of the essence – except when it is not.

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The concept of time is a bit more fluid here in Bali. Deadlines and appointments just don’t carry the same weight they do in the west. I blame this on the lack of winter, cold weather teaches one to move quickly. To finish a task before you freeze your butt off. Whether the job is getting from one building to another in frigid air or getting the grain in the silo before the first frost winter is a demarcating line that can only be ignored at grave peril. Well – at eight degrees from the equator there is no Winter – no Fall, no Spring – there is a rainy and dry season (we’re here in the rainy season – see floating away motorbike above) but they are a poor excuse for real seasons - Seasons which distill a sense of time and urgency that the lovely people of the tropics don’t seem to possess.

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So, working with a deadline as Larry and Rai do is a recipe for frustration. As quaint and beautiful a tropical paradise like Bali can be – trying to conduct business there within the miasma of a bureaucracy devised by a people with no concept of exigency can be a hair pulling experience. This phenomenon is not solely Balinese – Sara and I have seen this same laissez faire attitude in Morocco and Borneo – leading me again to think it has something to do with cold weather.

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Even so, during the week and a half that we spent with Rai and Larry they ticked off a good portion of their to-do list and by all reports they’re still going strong. Minor setbacks in the form of a nasty fall Rai took on a wet tile floor in a multi-tiered market (liability does not exist in Indonesia) – the insane madness of trying to re-title an automobile – the creeping of a Chinese firewall into the Balinese internet – a neighbor’s dead chicken – minor-league copyright infringement – power outages –and disappearing drivers notwithstanding – this year’s excursion looks to this outside observer as heading towards success.

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In fact, it was so much fun Sara and I are already plotting our return visit next year.

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