Sunday, June 26, 2011

Negotiating a Teapot with an Uzbek

I noticed a gathering of tents, hanging textiles, loads of people, and sprawling carpets and pottery on the lawn during my walk home after visiting the Kazakhstan Central State Museum on Saturday. The market was a monthly bazaar that features regional artwork and crafts. THIS was what I envisioned before coming to Kazakhstan. I am also a sucker for quality indigenous crafts and well-preserved antique and artisan items.

First, I purchased a beaded necklace for my mom – it has her name written all over it. The artist had some beautiful crystal pieces. The adjacent vendor sold communist era paraphernalia – CDs, postcards, medallions – you name it, they had it (in red). I bought a few postcards for a friend who collects them.

As I passed one pottery vendor's station, I had an "it" moment. Amidst all the bowls, pots, laddels and other pottery items, towered a tea set that included a teapot and four cups. The teapot is a figurine of an Uzbek woman and includes a painted head (teapot lid), braided hair, and physical features. The "body", cups, and serving tray are painted in a traditional Uzbek, blue, green and white arabesque motif. It reminds me of a teapot I purchased with my sister in Beijing two years ago, but had that special Central Asian flare. For whatever reason, when I saw the teapot, I smiled. I had to have it! So, I bought it for 5,000 Tenge ($34).

One issue major issue: at the time, I only had 3,500 Tenge. I negotiated with the vendor and his sister in Russo-English to pay 3,500 Tenge and return the next day to pay the remaining 1,500. Some particularly interesting points of our negotiations to share…

1.     The sister was willing to accept Dollars, Tenge or Euros. She mentioned several times, "we'll take whatever you have. You're American…you have dollars on you…we'll accept that, no problem." She bluntly declared, "we'll take anything."
2.     At one point, the sister proposed I leave 3,500 T with them and return the next day to retrieve the item and pay the remaining amount. I said I would rather pay in full and I do not feel comfortable leaving the teapot there with 3,500 T. The brother immediately responded that I can take the teapot now, leave 3,500 T and return in the morning to pay the remaining 1,500. He feared that if I didn't at least have the doll, I would not return in the morning and he would not make the sale. To him, he wanted, and probably needed any sale that he was willing to take the risk of me not returning to pay the remaining amount in the morning (after all, there was no collateral so I could have easily not returned Sunday morning).

I realized these vendors were not only desperate, but their willingness to accept all forms of currency suggests that they are able to easily convert and/or use the currency. I could understand the use of the Russian Ruble, but not the Dollar and Euro. Then I started thinking.. Given that the Tenge is the official currency of Kazakhstan, and neither the Dollar or the Euro hold official status in the neighboring countries, both currencies are probably used in illicit, transcontinental drug and criminal networks. Certainly, most people living in a community village in Central Asia are not interested in acquiring Euros or dollars, and it is highly unlikely that pottery artists desire compensation in a foreign currency. Logically then illicit, underground criminal networks, where capital and people are highly mobile, is an acceptable environment for foreign currencies. It is not uncommon for illicit trade networks to include many industries. For example when I was in Panama City, I remember speaking with a journalist who mentioned that Colombian owners of new apartment complexes are believed to be part of Colombian drug and criminal networks. Just as the Colombian drug dealers also own real estate, Uzbek, Tajik and Afghan drug smugglers may also use the pottery industry. After all, it is a lot easier for opium to traverse national boundaries if packaged with pottery.

Granted, this is all unconfirmed speculation on my part. I can't help but feel that I indirectly patronized the illicit Eurasian opium network. Maybe. Either way, I love my Ferghana Valley tea set.

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