Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Weavers' world - Khoma, Bhutan

Kathleen’s Blog—Western to Eastern Bhutan April 2012
The Weaver’s World

April 30 This morning we left Mongar and headed north by road toward Lhuntse, the birthplace of Bhutan’s royal family and home to some of the finest weavers in the kingdom. Along the way, our bus inched slowly around Indian road crews repairing the damage of a landslide. At 11 AM we left the coach at a suspension bridge and began a leisurely walk on a dirt road that followed the Kuri Chu, passing a cremation taking place alongside a new chorten festooned with prayer flags. We were heading to Khoma, a village famous for its weaving. Arriving at the village, marked by a water prayer wheel (chukor), we hiked up a steep path and immediately heard the rhythmic thumping sounds of weavers using wooden swords to pound weft threads into traditional backstrap looms.

Khoma has a long history of textile art; every woman and young girl is involved in weaving the supplementary weft-patterned kiras (traditional women’s dresses) like kushuthara, the most prized textile in Bhutan. Using her fingers or a pick, the weaver introduces an additional thread alongside a warp or a weft to make a design that seems to float on the surface of the fabric. To the untrained eye, the additional thread appears to be embroidered, but it is actually woven into the textile.

A kira is woven of three panels, sewn together to form a large rectangular textile that is wrapped about the body and fastened at the shoulders with a brooch (kera) and cinched at the waist with a narrow handwoven belt, called a kera.  Because of the complexity of weave, pattern, and color combinations, a fine textile can take up to a year to make.

Renowned master weaver Norbu Lhaden welcomed us into her traditional two-story wooden-frame house, which peaks in an open-flying roof under which food is stored. Leaving our shoes outside (a Bhutanese custom also practiced in many countries of Asia), we climbed a near-vertical ladder fashioned from a tree trunk up to her dark reception room, where weavers were gathering from the village to show the gorgeous silk and cotton kiras that they had completed this season. Norbu offered us a cup of butter tea while she talked about the weavers. “Our business is getting better, but we must depend on the traders who come from Thimphu to collect our textiles for sale in the capital. We sell our kiras for less money this way, as in Thimphu and Bumthang the shopkeepers sell them for much more than they pay us. We don’t make as much money this way, but we are doing well with our special orders.” (I’ve heard shopkeepers in Bumthang warn tourists not to buy textiles from the weavers in the east, saying their shop prices were better. Actually, I find prices in Khoma are well below what they are in Bumthang and Thimphu.)

In western Bhutan especially, fashion trends change from year to year, with the wealthier Bhutanese women demanding the newest color combinations or weaving designs, which keep the Khoma weavers busy during the winter when the demands of harvest are over. A weaver using the finest silk threads can ask up to $1500 for a textile that takes up to a year to make. If they work through an agent or middle man, they get paid when the textile is sold and then only a small fraction of what they would make if they sold the textile in the village or direct. Often, they must send family members to the capital to collect money owed to them if an agent is not honest.

As eastern Bhutan receives more tourists and the infrastructure improves, the weavers in villages like Khoma will undoubtedly derive more income from their exquisite textiles. However, one weaver lamented, “Sadly, we now make pieces for the tourist market. Instead of a three-paneled kira, we make one panel so they can use them as table runners, or use them as narrow wall hangings.” Fortunately, three members of our group purchased the most expensive textiles on display that day: three-paneled silk-on-silk kiras that had up to 24 different designs woven into the weft and warp. The weavers beamed when they knew that their extraordinary pieces were appreciated and that they would receive just compensation for their artisanship.

The Fourth Queen has launched annual competitions for the most innovative designs and complex weaves as a way to preserve Bhutan’s eastern textile art. But, as our group witnessed, weavers are guarded about their new designs and patterns. One of the senior weavers grabbed Norbu Lhaden’s latest kira, woven with innovative designs and complex colors, to study her work. A tug of war and lots of laughs ensued as Norbu tried to wrestle the piece back, joking, “She’s always trying to copy my designs!”
 Loaded with textiles, we made our way back to the main road, but looking up at the ridge we saw Aum Norbu and the weavers waving a huge yellow flag of thanks and appreciation to us for visiting Khoma village.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Cuba... and all that jazz!

Blog from Cuba – Far Fung Places May 2012
Dennis Keser, Co-principal of Far Fung Places

Sunday May 6 (Trinidad)
I had heard Trinidad was a “quiet, laid-back town” (it once thrived on the sugar trade but then declined), but as I discovered, it rocks!  At night in open squares street musicians play Cuban salsa while seniors dance freely in the cobblestone streets.

Our first night after dinner I took most of the group up to the town square to find some music. Just by chance on the steps of one of the churches, we found a salsa band that Bob Montgomery, a member of our group and a renowned American jazz performing artist, said was one of best he had ever heard. Three vocalists with powerful voices were backed by 10 talented musicians playing intoxicating music on drums, basses, guitars, trumpets, saxophones, trombones, all keeping beat to the maracas. Scores of shoulder-moving locals applauded when they heard Bob introduce himself and then begin to play. Seeing this 70-plus-year-old man with these young artists was marvelous––he soloed and jammed with the group until 11:30 p.m. Everyone including Bob was on cloud nine. We got back to the hotel at midnight, so energized by the music we could hardly sleep!

Monday  May 7 (Trinidad)
Tonight we had a wonderful dinner at Paladar Sol Ananada, an 18th-century fully restored one-story architect's house just off the main square. Paladars are local homes converted into restaurants that are sanctioned by the Cuban government.  Our group of 15 was seated comfortably in the main dining room at the owner’s family hardwood table. The dark colonial furniture, some made in Cuba and other pieces imported from Spain, added to the atmosphere. The owner had hired a local fisherman to bring in the catch of the day, a huge local fish that the family chef deboned in front of us. The owner also offered fresh lobsters for a few extra dollars per person. A group of strolling musicians entertained us during our meal. What a way to wrap up the day!

Tuesday May 8 (Trinidad to Havana) Today our coach driver got lost in the maze of narrow cobblestone streets of Spiritus and then got wedged in a corner trying to make a turn onto the main square. This is not surprising. These streets were built for horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and pedestrians, not 32-passenger buses! The vernacular architecture is charming: two- and three-story colonial buildings with wrought-iron grilles and verandas with potted geraniums. Freed from our tight spot, we continued to Santa Clara, where we stopped at the government-approved restaurant Los Caneyes for lunch; it was overflowing with tourists.  Afterward, we visited the mausoleum of Che Guevara, who is practically apotheosized in Cuba—T-shirts, books, films, and paintings of Che are found everywhere.  Before returning to Havana, we dropped into a non-touristy cigar factory, where hundreds of workers sitting in rows of wooden tables separate, roll, band, and finish thousands of cigars while listening to a “reader,” someone designated to read aloud newspapers or a novel to relieve the monotony of the work.

Our group stayed at the upgraded Hotel Saratoga, far superior to the Telegrafo where we had been originally confirmed. What attentive service at the bar, with quality wines for only 5.00 CUC a glass and the best rum I have found in Cuba yet, 12-year-old Santiago for 5.50 CUC. At today’s conversion rate, that is about $5.25 a glass.

Friday May 11 Today I asked the group if they wanted to see the Tropicana show or go to a real jazz club. Many hands shot up for a real jazz club—we had all attended the touristy Buena Vista Social Club, and now everyone wanted something less commercial. 

Before the show, we had dinner at a wonderful local paladar within walking distance of the Saratoga. Some in the group wanted to try healthy Creole food, like braised chicken in capers and raisins and other slow-cooked dishes in spices such as oregano and citrus. Others ordered and shared cooked-to-perfection lobster tails for only 20 CUC ($20). Sated, we all hopped into cabs for the oldest and best jazz club in Havana: La Zorra y el Cuervo (The Fox and the Crow).

We got there at 10:00 p.m. and had an hour to wait for the show, but the time went by quickly watching jazz videos from previous shows on a big flat screen.  You feel like you’re in one of those old San Francisco or New York clubs of decades ago—if you’re my age, you remember the underground and in-your- face jazz clubs of the ‘60s. The club was small, and smoking was allowed, but with the efficient ventilation, we couldn’t smell any smoke at all. The cover charge was 10 CUC and included one drink.  Compared to the Buena Vista Club at 65 CUC, this was a deal.

The band was amazing––Mary Rodriquez has a drop-dead-killer voice, a combination of Ella Fitzgerald and Janice Joplin. The stage was crowded with a piano player, six string bass players, a snare and conga drummer, trumpeters, and one of best saxophone players I've heard in years. They were young, brilliant, and amazing.

When I told the owner of the club, Arturo, that Bob Montgomery was with us, Arturo said he would be thrilled to invite him onstage. When the show started, we were all riveted to our seats. At the end of the third number, Mary Rodriquez announced that Bob Montgomery was in the audience, and she invited him to join her onstage.  They played “Summertime” and brought the house down––it was truly the best night of the trip. A once-in-a-lifetime musical and cultural experience!

Saturday May 12 We wrapped up our nine-day trip with a visit to Eduardo Choco Roca, Cuba’s most-renowned collagrapher.  We observed the techniques that he uses to make his textured lithographs, like applying the acrylic paints to a pressed board, then adding sand to create the texture. The painting is then put into a press, rolled out, and dried. He visits junkyards for scrap metal and goes to the beach to collect sand. This collagraphic style for which he is known is based on his struggles to become an artist.  

From foot-tapping music in the streets to underground jazz clubs to the creative home-cooked meals in the family-run paladars, Cuba rocks!