As I’ve travelled around the world I’ve collected all sorts of little things; things of my choice as well as things that have appeared unexpectedly, like stowaways, once the suitcase or old box is opened at the final destination. Hats, postcards, broken watches, things of clay and brass and masks. I’ve given some of them away to others and some have been broken or lost in the frequent moving.
A few have stayed with me and the older I get, the more precious they become. When I look at them or find them sleeping in the corner of a closet I am taken back to a time and a place. And often a good story. Recently, I’ve taken to documenting them and trying to improve my skills as a still life photographer. Its a different way of looking through a lens and one I’m not very adept at yet.
So to get the ball rolling…
This is a picture of a little porcelain tea pot made in the Soviet Union and which has seen its own fair share of travel. I bought it in a bazar in Quetta, Pakistan in early 2001. When things were still pre-911 and pretty cruisy in that part of the world. It was in a shop cluttered with similar items, where my wife and I spent a good couple of hours oohing and aahing at the gorgeous hand painted plates, cups and bowls. They had been expatriated from Afghanistan after the Russians had left about 10 years earlier. They were now being sold for a relatively small price in antique and junk shops all across Pakistan.
We had come to Quetta for some meetings and bought lots of carpets too on that trip. The low point of the excursion happened a few hours before we bought this tea pot. I decided to change about 500 dollars into Pakistani rupees and, as one does, approached a sidewalk money changer. He was an Afghan with a huge stiff olive green and black turban. In front of him was a small glass case displaying a range of currency notes (Russian and Tajik Rubles, Afghanis, Indian rupees and greenbacks) and piles of glistening silver coins. He worked the trade with his brother. I negotiated the exchange rate and then handed over the dollars. He laid them on top of his glass case and grabbed a huge bundle of Pakistani 500 rupee notes from his vest pocket. He counted out the amount. I kept my eyes on his hands and counted to myself. All good. He then handed the stack of rupees to his brother who started his own counting. I followed the trail and counted again. All good, a second time. The brother then handed back the stack to the main turban. A final time he counted them out, stumbled once, started again and arrived at the right amount. We shook hands after the deal was done. Off we went ready to shop.
It was only when we got back to the hotel that evening that we noticed that the stack of rupees came up a $100 short! We had not bought anything with that stack of rupees, keeping it as backup. How the hell had that happened? I had counted it with them 3 times. Sure he started over once but…
I pride myself on being an experienced South Asian traveller. I’ve lived in Pakistan for years, worked in Afghanistan and know the lingo. But obviously these guys were good. Somewhere in the ‘back and forth’ of counting their quick hands had reduced the pile by several tens of thousands of rupees!
The next day as we passed the place where we’d done business with them, it was empty. They’d moved on. I was angry but over the years I’ve had to smile. They say the East is full of magic and tricks! And that was a good trick, well executed!
At least we got the pretty Russian teapot to remind us of that day, those faces and the bazar of Quetta.