Monday, February 14, 2011

Carved Delights

A constant buzz filled my ears as I wound my way through the stalls. Chickens clucked in the dirt, waiting to be plucked and stuffed into giant woks and served with nsima (the local version of a corn porridge). I had eaten enough of it to find it palatable, only as long as it came with the ever-present tomato and onion sauce that was found everywhere in southern Africa.
 And thank God I liked tomatoes, as the small fruit were one of the few things that were prevalent. Onions and eggplants were also readily apparent in little triangular hills on top of rickety wooden stalls or worse, balanced precariously on a piece of plywood resting atop an over-turned bucket. Mixed with rice and the luxury of salt and pepper, a feast was to be had any night.
For protein, beef seemed always to be tough and pork non-existent, so beans and peanut butter filled the niche. A rare treat of fresh fish infused my vegetarian style diet, but I grew lumpy on the starchy staples that were my fare. Always a good reason to dive into Lake Malawi to swim off a meal or two.
While I did pick up our staple tomatoes to fill our backpacking larder, this shopping trip was centered on a more cultural note. Leaving the greasy stands and piles of glass coke bottles behind, I walked further into the market in search of wood carvings. I did not need the Bob Marley tapes, and while tempted by local tinny music blaring from ancient ghetto blasters, I walked on.
This is where I fell in love. Wooden carved bowls, figures of men, tables, and of course the famous chief’s chairs. They were exquisite and I wanted one of them all. The detailed facial features carved into the dark hardwood were incredible. Elephants, zebras and a wide variety of other animals carefully decorated the backs of chairs. I had no idea how I would be able to narrow down my search for the perfect table, but the first challenge was to not look interested.
A white face amongst a sea of black stands out pretty obviously though. “Sistah, sistah!” were the calls that followed me as I sauntered down the long line of wood carvers’ stalls. Their wares were lined up on the dirt, but their perfection was not marred. My eyes flicked from the intricately carved women balancing parcels on their heads, to ferocious lions snarling their threats. What to choose, I pondered?
Bartering was part of the business though and I stealed myself to try and drive a hard bargain. Who was I to kid anyone though. If you paused too long in front of a stall, a young man would jump up and put a giraffe in your hand and throw a price in your ear. A sparkle of an eye would have the salesman encouraging you to sit in the sturdy luxury of an enormous chief’s chair, no matter that it would have to be transported back home to Canada. My mission was one of the delicate tables that had caught my fancy though. Three long legs carved from a single piece of wood were entwined in the middle and served as a tripod for a flat, round top. I had to have one.
I walked up and down the stalls, lingering here, smiling at a seller’s antics there, but returned to a little stall with some beautiful tables that called to me. The smell of money was strong on me and I casually asked the price of a table with elephants circling the perimeter of its surface. Valiantly, I attempted to feign surprise and shock at the inflated prices, but secretly would have paid whatever number of kwacha was demanded for the artwork. Having shown interest though, now I was committed.
After a small amount of numbers were thrown back and forth, we finally came to an agreement. Done with haggling, I beamed at my new table and small chief’s chair that had been thrown into the deal. The chair would be a wonderful souvenir for my young cousin back home, but the table was all mine. I counted out 600 kwacha (the equivalent of about $60CAD at the time), while the seller gathered up cardboard to package my purchases in. With newspaper wrapped around it all, I headed to the post office, filled out umpteen forms and mailed my precious souvenirs home, hoping that I would find them in one piece when I eventually made it there myself. 


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