The Gang of Five

It all began with a small group of traders who appeared from nowhere on the steps of my hotel. One was from Borneo, two from Sumba, one from Timor and one from Java. I called them “The Gang of Five.” Justin dubbed them “The Five Pack.”

We started with this small, but intense, group of traders who we connected well with and found interesting and valuable. Our first five or six meetings were great. I got to know the group a bit, began to understand their individual trading styles and the quality of their pieces, and we could goof around. I found out who spoke English better then they let on by teasing them and making jokes. I was surprised how many got the humor. When I told them they need to wake up from their dreams and give me real prices, they loved it.

the-gang-of-five-java1Often, whoever just made a good profit on a sale, would go out and buy sodas, water and energy drinks for everyone. It was sweet and funny, but I couldn’t help but wonder what I paid “too much” for.

First we met in the hotel lobby, next, we met in the hotel parking lot, and the third time we met down an alley behind an abandoned motel. The gang had already set up for us (or set us up), so their head guy, Vandy, had to lead us in by car. We weren’t sure if we were on a treasure hunt or about to be mugged. We didn’t run and in the end we bought some stunning old tribal pieces that I still treasure.

david-necklaceWe continued to meet at the hotel or in the alley every few days for the next couple weeks, choosing the prime, affordable pieces until my trip was over. Two months later, we picked up where we left off. This strange mix of traders continued to bring me great pieces. They seemed to have had a bit of a falling out, but they tolerated each other for a good trade.

Somehow, the word that I was in town and buying leaked out, and on my last evening at the hotel, the entire parking lot of the hotel was full of sellers, peddling mostly bad copies. Mind you, there was only room for 12 cars, but a lot of people arrived in each car.
The experience and quality devolved from discovery to disaster. Over 30 hungry sellers vied for my attention and money, and in the end, I bought little and enjoyed it even less.

I must admit that I’d been warned about things like this getting out of hand. I had even seen it happen in Sumba, but I thought I had this under control. Perhaps I’ll listen more closely to my friend’s advice in the future. In the meantime, I will meet the gang again next trip, but I will work on the choice of venue.


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Having journeyed to the Far East and Asia over 20 times in the past 20 years, I’ve been intrigued and inspired by the ingenuity, craftsmanship, balance and human spirit that have gone into the making of those works I have seen and collected.

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