Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bahamian Baskets - Part 2

In the markets of the Caribbean, and many other parts of the world, it is natural and expected that you should negotiate and haggle over price. Hard. One night while aboard the ship the wife and I were seated next to a fun older couple from Houston during dinner, who told us about a hand carved wooden fish they bought in Jamaica. Apparently the haggling session the husband got into with the carver of the fish went on for such a long time, and became so exciting and elaborate that the neighboring shop keepers came out of their stalls, set up chairs and watched the negotiations.

I bought a basket in the Bahamas, didn't negotiate, and didn't even want to negotiate because what I really bought was a story.

Port Lucaya Marketplace.

The first place the wife and I saw Bahamian straw goods was in a small stall across a plaza from the building that officially served as the Straw Market. Woven hand fans on the door were the first thing to catch my attention and then I noticed the shop was full of hats and bags and other straw goods. We didn't immediately see anyone inside the shop, but as we walked in and older woman stood up from where she'd been sitting behind the glass counter and set down a piece of straw plaiting she was embroidering. Bingo! I was already hooked.

She smiled, welcomed us and let us browse. Whenever we lingered and looked at something she told us about the thing we were looking at and the process used to make it. She told us about the Silver Top Palm, how the pieces were collected, soaked, dried and plaited into the things we were seeing and was pretty much amazingly sweet and informative. Somehow during the conversation children came up and the lady said that her children had no interest in ever making these straw goods. The wife said, "Aww, well, maybe when they're older they'll be more interested." and the lady laughed heartily and said "My dear, how much older do they have to be?! I have six kids, the oldest is 38 and the youngest is 28 I don't know how much longer I can wait."

She tells us that four of her six children have gone to college and the youngest is currently going to BYU, half a world away in Utah. She's clearly proud of them, talks about their successes, but then wistfully says that it's because of their success that they'll never want to make these straw baskets even though it's these straw baskets that paid for all that schooling. She said that when they were growing up she worked three jobs. One job weaving dried palm leaves, one job as a server in a restaurant/bar, and one job "in a private home" as a domestic. She said she wove during that time with her sisters and that her sisters didn't plan things very well and would approach a task as "we'll work on this order 'till it's done". This meant that some nights they wouldn't get finished weaving their baskets and fans and purses until 5:00am and she would have to be at her other jobs by 7:00am.

There's this aura of serenity that older mothers have when they feel good and proud about how life has turned out for their children and grand children. But they only seem to be able to have it when they've really *worked* in their life. It's like there's some sort of ratio between quietly proud serenity and gnarled hands and a slight hunch. My Granny had it in her later years, especially when she talked about picking cotton with her siblings growing up as a sharecropper and then talked about the fact my dad had finally found good, steady work. And this woman in Port Lucaya had it too when she held up her straw plait and embroidery needle with twisted fingers and beamed about how her kids were helping take care of each other.

Done. I was done. Yes I will pay $50 for a basket, and there's not a chance I'm gonna sit here and try and wheedle you down about it. Heart strings tugged. Wallet opened. But we didn't buy immediately because this was our first stop in the first town in the first hour. So we said we'd be back.

Having worked retail for a good number of years, people who tell you they'll be back are full of shit. And who knows, I might have been too. I might have walked away and my feelings of connection and happiness and my insight into how success destroys traditional craftsmanship more rapidly than anything else in the world might have faded. But that's not what happened. What happened is that the wife and I walked into the Straw Market and the events of Part 1 occurred. My 9th grade English teacher had two favorite words "verisimilitude" and "juxtaposition" and let me tell you, juxtaposition is a good word to know.

I didn't take this picture, but this is her shop! Thanks internet!
So, you've read what happened next if you've already read Bahamian Baskets - Part 1, but the thing I left out, that's more relevant in relation to this post is the gratuitous copyright infringement we saw in the Straw Market. Now, copyright infringement ain't really no thing 's far as I'm concerned, and the infringement itself isn't the point. It's all about the story the existence of this infringement tells.

When there were baskets in the Straw Market they were plastered with the faces of Dora the Explorer, Elmo, Buttercup of the Powerpuff Girls, Disney Princesses (notably Ariel and Tiana), and Hello Kitty. Good god the amount of Hello Kitty.

Whole walls of small baskets just like this.

So what's the big deal? Or... My take away from the Bahamas:

You've got a whole country that's been living easy for a long time. Easy in the sense that personal needs are relatively few, natural resources and natural beauty is abundant, and there's "money on the ground". Because life's been good, life's been booming. Competition has gone up. Now a days it's not just one person with a motorboat looking to give tourists a trip around the island, it's 10 people with motorboats. There's not 5 stalls in the Straw Market, there're 50.

The families with skill and drive have fully embraced the Western middle class bourgeois ideas of education and middle management jobs for their kiddos and thus the highly skilled tradesmen are not passing on their trades. The lesser skilled, less driven tradesmen have become enamored with the quick buck and have moved away from selling personally handcrafted goods and more and more towards manufactured goods and trend jumping (hence the copyrighted powerfully branded characters on small baskets). For these lesser skilled tradesmen as competition has increased, the quick buck has slowed down and the monoculture of schlocky merchandise inherent in manufactured goods has slowed the quick buck down even further, all while their mediocre skills atrophy from disuse. Hence the overly aggressive sales attempts, and anger at sale attempt rejections.

I don't think there's a fix, 'cause I don't think there's anything inherently broken as much as it's just a situation where times are changing 'cause bourgeois job alternatives exist and will continue to draw away the driven. The onetime homogeneously poor culture is splitting. My prediction is that Bahamanian straw goods will never cease to be, but like saddlery in Europe and the US it will become highly specialized, expertly well done, stupidly expensive and sell mostly because of the story associated with the crafting of the good. The old straw markets will continue to sink down into the mire of sameness and decreasing profitability the more tightly mass manufactured goods and trends are clung to, and the result will be a consolidation of straw market sellers and a loss of individual merchant independence as more and more are forced to stop working for themselves and start working for others.

After spending the day in Freeport/Lucaya I went back and bought a basket like I'd said I would. The lady in the shop thanked us at least 10 times for coming back. Not really thanking us for buying, but thanking us for coming back. Like I said, people who say they're coming back are always full of shit. The basket's pretty beautiful. She called it a bread basket (but it's probably easier to describe as looking like a church's round offering basket) and said it took 12 days to make. Twelve days seems like a bit of an exaggeration, but I still think it was worth it for the story alone. The most interesting thing about the basket itself is that when the Silver Top Palm leaves dry they aren't all the same color. Some of them have a pinkish tinge, some have a yellowish tinge and some have a slate blueish tinge, so it's like a wheel of muted color, and I love it.


One more anecdote from the Bahamas before I go back to the irregularly scheduled programming of RPG related stuff.

The town of Nassau is located on New Providence island, and it's easy to handwavingly sum it up as a slum. I'm sure the accuracy of that statement is debatable, but the cruise line sure stressed that it was by making loud and frequent announcement regarding safety in the city.

Next to New Providence, across a magical, fairy taleesq strip of water, maybe a mile wide, lies Paradise Island. Playground of the super-ultra-mega-rich and location of the Atlantis resort/casino/mall/waterpark/dolphin experience. They advertise on TV all the time.

In the above picture, the thing that looks like a bridge connecting the two pink buildings is apparently a suite that rents for $25,000 a night with a mandatory five night minimum. This suite is apparently booked solid for the next two years. The resort has built its own pretend city next to a private harbor for multimillion dollar yachts and all the banners and advertisements are for Gucci, Versace, Cartier, etc. Boutiques of the aforementioned euro-glitz are conveniently located next to the art filled, sea themed wonder casino.

Instead of taking the official ferry to reach Paradise Island (which, beautifully used to be named "Hog Island" before given it's multi billion dollar facelift), the wife and I took a water taxi. This taxi dropped us off under a bridge amidst a mini straw market. As we walked past the stalls beneath the bridge, it was here that we were approached by the 6-8 year old girls offering us shell bracelets as "souviners".

The wife and I spent the day with the hogs on Paradise Island.

As we're leaving, and walking back to the under-bridge and water taxi, we pass through the fake city. Ahead of us are three women and their children. Walking, laughing and talking loudly, and we hear one woman say:

"Oh my god I know! I finally had to tell my husband to stop buying me rocks. My bracelet was just getting waaaaaaaaaaaay to heavy."

She shakes her diamond cuffed wrist. They laugh. To our right a family is being served dinner on the back of their yacht. There's a starbucks on the left. They only take cash.

As we get back to the bridge there's an even younger girl (maybe 4 or 5). Dirty. Ripped shirt. She holds up a shell bracelet and shakes it. A young woman (her mother?) sits on a bench near by and says "You deserve a souviner."

We get to the area where the taxis dock. One is leaving. There's a crowd of white people standing at a gate. A woman is yelling, "Oh my fucking god, the top of that taxi is almost completely empty! I can't believe you wouldn't let us board." The black man behind the gate says "The next taxi leaves in 30 minutes ma'am."

We wait by the dock for the next taxi. The water's super clear. The sea floor is carpeted in tires.

I never want to go back to the Bahamas.


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