Thursday, October 19, 2006

Handicrafts and interesting people.

I didn't think anybody was reading this thing, so I kind of dropped out for awhile, but after some encouraging words from a couple of people who said they enjoyed reading my travelogues, I decided to continue and conclude my trip to Indonesia.

Luckily I did not have any episodes with the porcelain god that night, I slept incredibly well. I woke up earlier than normal, and feeling quite well although I decided it would be a good idea to continue to be careful about what I ate for awhile, but that would prove to be difficult as the guest in a foreign country.

As is my usual habit, I skipped breakfast - I can't stand breakfast except for maybe a glass of juice - but I did stop and enjoy the gorgeous beach and watched the local martial arts group practice in the surf.

Today I was going to visit 3 factories and as luck would have it none of them were close to each other, they were scattered all over the island of Bali, and Bali is not as small as some people think. It is roughly 60 miles wide and 90 miles long at its furthest points. Unfortunately my agent, who hailed from a town near Jakarta, failed to consult anyone in Bali regarding our schedule, so instead of hitting all the factories in one area and then moving on we were hitting factories in 3-4 different areas every single day, which meant repeating visits to the same geographical areas over and over again.

The first visit was to a factory up in Tampaksiring, which is in the rice-paddy covered hills far above the hustle and bustle of Denpasar, the major city in Bali, and all the touristy areas down south. One thing you will notice quickly in Bali is the number of scooters and small motorbikes and the almost complete absence of sedans or any other 4-wheel vehicle that isn't a pick up truck or suv. There are few major roads in Bali with most roads, particularly outside of Denpasar and Kuta, being of the single or 2-lane paved variety. Once you leave southern Bali the island is very hilly and mountainous with winding narrow roads rising up into the hills surrounded by small villages and dotted with picturesque rice paddies. Those that could afford to buy a vehicle drove SUVs, I assume because of the hilly terrain and occasional absence of paved roads.

Tampaksiring is the handicraft center of Bali. There are numerous export showrooms and handicraft factories everywhere. Of course, calling them "factories" is a bit much, as most "factories" consisted of 20-50 artisans working in a single facility that more often than not was someone's modified house. I was told by my agent that this region of Bali was famous for its artisans, hence the prevelance of small export houses and trading companies. He said certain villages or families were famous for specific kinds of handicrafts - perhaps one village was famous for its stone carvings, another for wood, and yet another for decorative fabrics or metal working. You would find a family or village that excelled in whatever handicraft you were interested in selling or exporting and hire several of them to work in your "Factory". They would in turn refer their relatives and close friends to work with them, so it was kind of a unique experience, as many of the "factories" were simply extensions of one's family or village, with so many of the artisan(s)'s relatives and friends working with them. It is not uncommon to find "Factories" located in residential areas where the chief artisan and his family lived in the house at street level and simply constructed a second building behind the house for production. Imagine simply waking up, walking out your backdoor into the backyard, and opening the door to your workshop to work. It is not unlike some craftsmen we have here in the U.S., particularly those out in the country, who have built their workshops on their home property and simply work from there. People like my Uncle could relate. The only difference is that all the product manufactured in these cottage industries in Bali is for export.

The first factory we went to see was indeed an actual factory although located in a residential area. And it wasn't an industrial factory in the western sense, it was simply a small office with a large building in the back for production. Production consisted of re-working bamboo handicrafts by hand by roughly 20 workers, boxing them up and then sending them by truck down to Denpasar to be shipped out to Surabaya for transport via sea freight to the rest of the world. I was excited to see this factory as I had experienced numerous pleasant conversations and correspondence with the staff from this factory. Sure enough, they were as I expected, friendly as all get out and very genuine and serious about their business and their customers. It is always a pleasure to work with suppliers like this. Everything was fine and in order so we moved on.

We then had to travel all the way down out of Tampaksiring to another village that I think was located somewhere on the southwest portion of the island. The whole area was farmland dotted with the occasional home with a very busy road running through the middle of it. We did not see anything that looked as if some kind of production was going on. We must have driven up and down the same area 5 times before finally stopping in front of a locked gate - was this it?? My agent said it was. Nobody was there. We both speculated whether this was an actual factory or just a showroom, which was not acceptable for our purposes, we needed to see the actual factory. After waiting about 15 minutes a gentleman pulled up to the gate on a scooter and unlocked it. We drove into the driveway of what was obviously a private residence. My agent and I gave each other dubious glances.

Some other workers soon arrived and we were told we were waiting for the owner. We could not see anything that appeared to be production or storage of any kind. While no one appeared to live in the house, the rooms were set up like showrooms, with various products laid out for display. We began to question the workers - is this a factory? a showroom? or a packing/shipping facility? We got answers for all three, which only confused us more.

Finally an SUV pulled up and a young American guy roughly my age hopped out. He introduced himself and I suddenly realized that we knew each other. While we had never met in person, we had communicated with each other months ago regarding a number of factories in Bali. He was the previous agent in Bali, yet he was also one of our suppliers. I did not know this at the time, figuring he was only our agent.

He had been living in Bali for about 18 years. Like so many other stories I was soon to hear from other local expats, he came to Bali on vacation, a surfing trip with a bunch of his buddies. He liked the island, the people, and the culture so much that he decided not to go back. In order to make a living so he could stay, he started buying product from local craftsmen and would fly back to Hawaii and California to sell the products in flea markets. Eventually he got some regular buyers and then started hooking up with larger outfits in the U.S. He spoke fluent Indonesian although my agent said it was with a strong accent.

We finally got to the bottom of things. His company was strictly a trading company, they did not produce any of their own product. They sourced from several different local suppliers, did some minor re-work, and then packed and shipped things out. His previous packing/shipping facility was inadequate so he was moving everything to his showroom, which we were at. He was a nice guy and I had to admire him for sticking to his dream of living in Bali and finding a way to make it work.

Our third appointment was all the way back in Kuta, the crowded touristy area close to Denpasar and the airport. My agent was on the phone conversing hurriedly in Indonesian. He explained to me in English that the driver did not know where this factory was and the directions were too confusing so we were going to meet the owner of the factory at a recognizable location.

It was a freakin' McDonalds. Even in Bali you can't escape the golden arches and this location was very prominently located on a major road. Apparently we weren't the only ones meeting people there, as a number of people were standing on the sidewalk looking around for people they were supposed to meet. Because of the recent terrorist bombings in 2002 and 2005, there was considerable security at the McDonalds, since obviously many westerners dined there. Security was checking vehicles going in and out of the parking lot and I could tell the groups of people meeting others there made them nervous.

Finally a Jeep pulled up and a white woman with red hair rolled down the window and said something in Indonesian. I thought my agent was going to crap his pants. His jaw dropped to the floor as he stammered and stumbled his way over to the jeep. Apparently he had no idea that the woman we were supposed to meet was caucasian. He had been talking and dealing with her for months and never suspected she wasn't Indonesian thanks to her fluent skills in the local language. He told me her Indonesian was completely "native".

The owner of the factory was in fact a British National. When she was very young her father had gotten a position working near Jakarta on Java and worked there for many years. She ended up going to school in Indonesia. Eventually her parents moved back to the UK but she decided to stay in Indonesia. She graduated from high school in Indonesia and even gained her University Degree there as well. She had more Indonesian friends growing up than western friends. She basically grew up Indonesian and while she visited her family in the UK every couple of years she felt that Indonesia was more her home than the UK. She had been in Indonesia for more than 30 years, with more than 10 years in Bali. She had developed an interest in Balinese fashion and home decor and had developed her own export business.

We first went to lunch and they asked if it was ok if we ate local food, which I said would be fine, as a good guest does. We ate at an old-fashioned restaurant just steps from the water with open air rooms and all wood furniture. I had Nasi Goreng, which is basically a mixed fried rice dish containing shredded chicken, egg, fried pork crips, shrimp, a little fish, and some kind of green vegetable. It was absolutely delicious. The Balinese eat a lot of rice, breakfast, lunch, and dinner all consist of rice dishes.

After lunch we went to her factory which was - surprise - a house in a residential area with a building constructed in the backyard for production. The "factory manager" and his family lived in the house and the "factory" was basically a one room building with rows of sewing machines and a storage room for packing finished product. It employed about 30 people. The owner said in all the years she had been in business she had yet to fire anyone. Almost everyone was a relative or close friend of someone else and all were referred by someone else that worked there.

Everything was in order and it was time to head back to the hotel. My agent invited me to dinner that night and said he would pick me up around 7pm or so. So I had about an hour to check my e-mail and enjoy the waves and the view from the hotel.

To be continued.....

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