A Travellerspoint blog

How I Met Santa in Belize: A Story

Even though I didn't want to...

sunny 93 °F


Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

Francis Pharcellus Church in an editorial for The (New York) Sun, September 21, 1897 The story of Virginia...

...but he's not what you think.

Jay Travels
Blog author: How I met Santa in Belize

My First Meeting with Santa

I knew him only briefly, but a few years later, his story still haunts me.

“Just call me Santa”, he says, “everyone does.” But personally, I preferred not to. Lacking another name to call him, I just didn’t use one. Later, I knew his real name was Alvin, but I still secretly thought of him as “the last mutineer”.

I first saw Santa in the Super Market which is just a small store though certainly larger than when I had shopped there seven years ago. Being so small, I could not help but hear everything he said at the counter while I was wandering the aisles. I perversely tended not to interact with gringo types that didn’t speak Spanish, so I essentially put him out of my mind.

Where am I and what am I doing here?

A small Spanish-speaking village, Sartenejo, Belize had previously resisted the invasion of snowbirds, ex-pats, and thrill-seeking young tourists– though unfortunately not the fundamentalist missionaries– that the rest of Belize had not. Last time I had been here, I’d only seen three gringos and each one had been a missionary. As I would soon find out, things had changed since my last visit.

I had just arrived by boat– the charmingly named Thunderbolt– that morning. I was headed to Caye Caulker, but my first stop in Belize was nearby Corozal where I could catch a boat to my destination. However, the Thunderbolt now made regular stops in Sarteneja so I decided to stop there to see how it was holding up under the increasing tourism to this Central American country.

The tentative plan…

Just one night in Sarteneja to take note of the changes and then with two more boat rides, I’d be in Caye Caulker the next day. There, I would look for a place to live for the next three months. I wanted sun, solitude and the slow island pace while I processed the two-year round-the-world (RTW) trip I had just completed. I needed time to adjust and wanted to do some writing to help the process. Last of all, the arm I had broken in Tanzania was still weak– a daily swim would be good therapy.

I also needed to come up with a plan for what to do now that my RTW had been completed. Yeah, I really needed an epiphany. It just hadn’t happened yet.

First, I need a place to stay…

After I took a walk around Sarteneja village, the cool morning air was gone and it was uncomfortable walking around with a backpack on. I had planned to check out a new backpackers camp just outside town, but halfway there I stood in the middle of a dirt road surrounded by tropical jungle feeling the sweat run down my face and the small of my back. I decided I didn’t want to stay in what more than one review described as a mosquito infested place.

In addition, I didn’t like the idea of partying travelers telling drinking stories in the evening while getting drunk in order to have more stories to tell. I was reluctant to continue on. I traveled on a budget by choice, not necessity. With only one night here, I decided I wanted to stay in the village and have access to food and locals. So I’d spring for the more costly hotel.

While still standing in the middle of the dirt road, I called Fernando’s (the only hotel in Sarteneja at one time) to see if he had an opening for one of the four rooms. He did. So I headed back to civilization. Fernando agreed to knock the tax off the room price, but I still thought I was paying too much. Well, that was one thing that hadn’t changed…

Time for food and drink…

After a quick shower and a change of clothes, I headed out to stock up on water and get some food. That’s why I was in the Super Market when Santa came in to confirm his two cases of beer and bags of ice would be delivered in the afternoon. I enjoy a drink, but my experiences with ex-pats is that their activities often revolve around alcohol. Even more reason not to pay him any notice though his full white beard below his red sunburned face is an attention-grabber in tropical Belize. I winced at how hot a beard must be in the hundred degree heat.

I buy some water and then head to just about the only lunch place in town– Liz’s Fast Food. Ten minutes later, I had a double order of salbutes in front of me. One order of four cost $1 Belizean dollar which means a double order was just one American dollar. I was about to bite into my first fried masa round with shredded chicken and cabbage and a smidgen of chopped tomato for color when someone loomed over me. It was the bearded guy from the store.

Santa introduces himself…

“Do you mind if I join you?”

Yeah, I did. I have a rule about not speaking English in Spanish speaking areas…and I preferred hanging out with locals over yakking with other foreigners. But I didn’t want to be rude.

“Sure, have a seat.”

“Everyone calls me Santa, what’s your name?”



“No, it’s Jay. J-A-Y.”

And then without my asking he starts telling me about his name. He works as a Santa Claus back in the States during the holidays, so that’s what people call him. I look at his sweaty red face, a large bumpy nose suggesting age and too much alcohol and try to imagine a child sitting on this lap.

The questions begin…

Then the usual conversation follows. Where are you from? What are you doing here? How long are you staying here?

I have been traveling for two years and still don’t have a home– just my brother’s address in Oregon that I use for a mailing address and for travel insurance purposes– I find myself struggling for answers until I give in and briefly tell him my a bit of my story. When I finish my plate of salbutes, I am ready to get going. I need to find a place to live.

I decide to stay in Sarteneja…

Since checking into Fernando’s, I had been mulling over the idea of staying in Sarteneja instead of Caye Caulker– it would be quieter and cheaper. And maybe best of all, I could swim in the ocean everyday. Though an island, I knew I wouldn’t be able to easily find a place to swim on Caye Caulker. A daily swim would definitely speed up being able to fully use my right arm again. So, l wanted to use the rest of my time to find out about the rental options before heading to Caye Caulker. If I could find something in Sarteneja, I’d stay. And it would be nice to avoid another pricey night at Fernando’s. I’d need to make a decision before the Thunderbolt made its early morning stop the next day.

“I know a place you might like. My wife and I stayed there for a few months before I started building my house in the jungle.”

So far, I’d seen two places that I didn’t like at all, so I agreed to go with him and take a look. When we arrived, M. (the landlord) obviously didn’t understand anything Santa was saying. So I took over in Spanish- properly greeting her, introducing myself and explaining I was interested in renting. M. gave Santa a sharp look and a wave of her hand letting him know he needed to leave so she could negotiate a price with me. I barely noticed when he drifted off as I was already anticipating a good haggle.

Settling in…

For a week, I didn’t see Santa again. After his departure, M. and I had agreed on a the monthly rent. I transferred my bag from the hotel to my new digs and immediately caught the afternoon boat back to Corozal with a list of items to buy that were not available in Sarteneja. Mainly, a small stove and some kitchen basics– a pot, pan, flatware, bowls, etc.

When I finally saw Santa again, I was fully settled into my place on the edge of the village. Each day in the morning, I wrote. Then I would swim just before sunset followed by a stroll around the village as it cooled. Since I was cooking for myself, I didn’t usually go into the village during daylight.

On my way home from my evening walk, I had just left the few village lights behind me. Due to the darkness, I concentrated on the barely visible unpaved road to avoid tripping on potholes and rocks. Almost home, I heard someone call out from the side of the road. I squinted my eyes to see who it was and to decide if they were talking to me.

Ah, it was Santa.

Santa says ‘goodbye’…

Santa said he was glad to run into me. He was leaving for the US in the morning. We chatted a bit and he tells me more of his story. He told me that in the summer, he worked for a building supply store as a consultant. He advised people with their remodeling and construction projects. Knowledgeable about laws, permits, codes and materials, he enjoyed the variety. Best of all was being Santa Claus for two months around December.

“At one time”, he said, “I worked in a historic lighthouse and wore a uniform of the time period”. He would show people around, explain how things worked and tell stories of the past. He knew I was trying to decide what to do next and was trying to inspire me to find work that was meaningful and would give me joy. Because his jobs gave him time off to come to Sarteneja for months at a time, he was able to work on the house he was building. Since he was still living in a tent and keeping his food in a cooler– I thought his progress on the house must be pretty slow.

Something in common…?

Once again, our 1970’s anti-war politics came up in the conversation. I was telling him some of my more unusual jobs– archaeologist, bat researcher, ESL teacher, social worker, trainer and job counselor for migrant workers and political activist. He asked me more about my political work and I briefly told him of working with Vietnam vets on the agent orange lawsuit. There was also gathering health data on “atomic vets”, those exposed to atomic fallout in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and from the atomic testing in the South Pacific atolls and the Nevada desert areas. Related to all this was my anti-draft work, doing public speaking in tandem with Vietnam veterans.

Santa made a joke about his political activities that I didn’t quite get- but apparently, he had spent some time in jail for them. But it was late and time for me to go. He said that he thought I was a person he would like to keep in contact with and asked for my email. He told me his email address and I sent him an email right then from my android so that he would have mine. So now, I knew his real name was Alvin; He said he was infamous and would learn more if I Googled his name.

Four years later…

That was over four years ago. I have never heard from Santa. Each Christmas, I think of him wearing his red suit and being a professional Santa. I briefly think I should email him a “Merry Christmas”, but I never do.

Now that I am thinking about moving back to Sarteneja, I consider contacting him. Unfortunately, I have a new android phone and he is missing from my contact list. So I Google him. I didn’t need to remember his last name because I knew his story from the last time I Googled him. At that time, I had found a picture of him modeling a historical uniform in front of a lighthouse. There were also dozens of newspaper articles, government reports and even a few books that told his surprising story. I knew I’d find him again by just Googling “last mutineer”

Once again, there were the same articles with a story that had lacked closure when I had looked him up the first time. However, this time I found there were some new articles…maybe one would have an answer to the remaining mystery.

Why Santa was infamous…

Alvin- AKA Santa- didn’t just spend some time in jail. Originally charged with 23 counts, his lawyer plea bargained for a reduction to just two at ten years each. In the end, the judged granted the two terms to be simultaneous for a total of ten years.

It was 1970 during the Vietnam War. He and a co-worker/friend were seamen on a merchant ship headed for Vietnam. The ship was loaded with 1,750 tons of torpedoes, rocket mortars, missiles, arms, bombs and napalm for the Vietnam war. It was all part of the plan.

Santa’s story…

Alvin was 20 years old and had a pregnant wife, so he needed work. While looking at jobs at the Seafarers International Union Hall, he met Clyde. He and Clyde were both against the war. In fact, Clyde was working on a plan for when he got a job on a ship that would fit the situation. He and Alvin became friends and eventually partners.

Alvin and Clyde met often to work on the plan. Finally they both had positions as crew on a ship going to Vietnam. Just a few months later, right when the SS Columbia Eagle was nearing the coast of Vietnam en route to Thailand, Clyde and Alvin took the captain hostage. They proceeded to hijack the US flagged merchant ship.

In addition to handguns, Alvin and Clyde claimed to have a live bombs hidden on board. The cargo included 3,500 500-pound bombs and 1,225 750-pound bombs, so the threat was believable Under Clyde’s order, the captain had 24 crew put into life boats and cast adrift.

Using the captain and the remaining 15 crew members, Alvin and Clyde successfully redirected the ship to Cambodia. U.S. Coast Guard destroyers pursued them, but after 36 hours the ship made it safely into Cambodian waters. Prince Norodom Sihanouk granted them sanctuary. Originally prepared for the possibility of death, they were now hoping to receive asylum and a hero’s welcome in the ‘neutral’ country of Cambodia. It was an exhilarating experience.

From hero to traitor…

Two days later, everything changed quickly when a military coup disposed Prince Sihanouk. The new Cambodian government threw the two mutineers in jail. in exile, Sihanouk claimed that Clyde and Alvin were CIA and had brought weapons for the coup, so the new government retained them. While on the prison ship, young Alvin had a breakdown. He was transferred to a mental hospital in Phnom Penh and then eventually sent back to the US for trial.

In the meantime, Clyde (with Alvin’s support) escaped with another prisoner, a U.S. military deserter. They disappeared. No one knew what happened to them. And that was the mystery. I knew where Santa was, but what about Clyde?

The mystery is solved…

But now as I review Alvin’s story again online, I find some new postings with additional information. His missing friend was finally found and brought home…for a belated funeral and memorial. The two missing prisoners had run into the jungle and joined the K.C. (which later became the Khmer Rouge) as Freedom Fighters thinking they would be fighting for the right side. Instead, after a short while they were executed by the Khmer and their bodies left in the jungle.

Based on some local stories, investigators working on a book of the mutiny were led to human remains buried under a tree. When questioned, locals remembered two foreigners that had been shot in the head and buried there. It might be Clyde and the other escapee.

Eventually, DNA testing confirmed one of the last mutineers had died in Cambodia. His family would finally have the answers to what had happened and could provide him a buriel. Closure on the mystery of Clyde...

Alvin barely got my attention when we met, but as my brother commented when I finished telling him about some of the people I had met while in Sarteneja– Santa had to be the most interesting.

Final Notes:

I have plans to return to Sarteneja soon, so I finally contacted Santa to see if he was still around. I felt I should tell him about this story and wanted to discuss it in person. He didn’t seem to remember me (but thought he’d like to continue the conversation) and due to various difficulties, he wasn’t sure yet if he would be able to make it to Belize this year. So, we may or may not have contact in the future. However, in creating links to this article, I found more recent information– a 2019 podcast by CouragetoResist.org of Al talking about his experience for the first time in nearly 50 years ago. To hear podcast, click here...Alvin participated in another podcast series by Working Class Crimes (crimes committed based on beliefs): .Listen to the series..

Posted by jaytravels 04:07 Archived in Belize Tagged belize last_mutineer Comments (0)

The Leaning Tower of Pisa: In Photos

Piza, Italy

sunny 82 °F


A brief stop in Pisa, Italy…

I make an unplanned stop in Pisa, Italy. My create-it-as-I-go itinerary did not include Pisa, yet a stop there would avoid an arrival in Vernazzo (Cinque Terre) late at night. And by staying the night in Pisa, I could have an early arrival in Vernazzo. So, seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa was inevitable!

Unfortunately, after seeing the tower and a glimpse of the town, I wish that I had been able to stay just a little longer. Why? Because on my walk back to my hotel, it seemed to be an attractive town with interesting features. But, I barely even had time to see the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa before it became dark. My roundabout walk back to the hotel was pretty much in the dark, thus I have few photos.

Seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa…

After finding a hotel and unloading my backpack, I went straight to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is a big surprise to see a big field of grass with people wandering around (not many, because it is late in the day). All the pictures I have seen show only the tower.

The tower is a freestanding bell tower, but it is not alone. Three white marble structures stand in the large open grassy area called Piazza dei Miracoli (or Piazza del Duomo). The other buildings are the Pisa Cathedral and the Pisa Baptistry. The Leaning Tower of Pisa (but it was not leaning at that time!) was built after the cathedral and baptistry. Nearby, there is also the Camposanto Monumentale, a cementary.

The tower, as usual, was undergoing repairs. Therefore, no one could climb up the 269 steps to the top. Similarly, I did not enter the other buildings because I had arrived so late in the day that visiting hours were over. Soon after my visit to the Piazza dei Miracoli it was dark, so these are my only pictures.
It was leaning…
…so I fixed it!

The Baptistry of Pisa.

The Cathedral of Pisa.

A closer look at the cathedral.

The cathedral had some lovely decoration.

The baptistry and cathedral were next to each other.

The marble walkway around the cathedral had artistic water drains.

At the base of the tower: workers on the never-ending project to clean and stabilize the tower.

Some details on the tower.

The three buildings in a cluster.

Across the grass piazza, a row of souvenir stalls.

So, why does the Tower of Pisa lean?

The answer to why this originally unexceptional bell tower (campanile) leans is very simple: the soft ground cannot support the structure’s weight. As a result, it started leaning during the construction in the 12 century (construction started in 1173) and became worse throughout construction until its completion two centuries later in 1372.

Will it ever fall?

The answer can only be ‘hopefully not”. The tower has never actually fallen for two reasons. The first is that its center of gravity is within its base. The second relates to the first, the gravity is kept within its base due to years of engineering and constant repairs with a team of engineers that monitor the incline. Thus, despite its lack of ground support and a mass of 14,500 metric tons, it has survived in its leaning mode for over 800 years through earthquakes and storms and even war. In fact, a war between Pisa and Genoa delayed construction for ten years and thus may have aided the problem by allowing the soft alluvial ground to settle more.

Only in 1990 did the inclination become critical at 5%. Thirty million euros were invested in straightening efforts. It was never fully straightened (all that money only made a 1.5% correction), but the inclination was decreased, so that its center of gravity was more secure. It also helps that the early engineers modified the tower design to the shape of a banana.

Interesting note: As of 2013, the tower is straightening– or at least moving backwards which decreases the inclination.

Why was the tower built?

The tower is part of a white marble complex (tower, cathedral and baptistry) built on the Square of Miracles to showcase the power of Pisa. At that time, Pisa was one of four Italia republics ruling over the Mediteranean Sea with sailing and trading industries (which included lots of piracy and looting).

The tower was a common additon to a Catholic church, or in this case a cathedral. The top of the tower houses seven bells which weigh 10 metric tons. Swinging the bells with a rope was viewed as adding to the leaning problem, so the ropes were replaced with electromagnent hammers.

If you go there, you may be lucky enough to climb the 269 stairs (eight floors) to the top for the reward of a tremendous view. Alas, I was unlucky. During my brief visit in 2004, it was closed. I believe they were cleaning the intricately carved marble facade.

So, it’s only famous because it leans?

Well, besides its engineering history, there is one more thing. In 1600, the experiments on gravity by Galileo Galilei became famous when he used the Leaning Tower of Pisa to demonstrate that the mass or weight of an object had no influence on the speed when falling to the ground.

If you want more interesting details and comprehensive information on everything related to the Leaning Tower of Pisa (facts! history! tours!) check out this site...

Posted by jaytravels 01:45 Archived in Italy Tagged pisa_italy Comments (0)

The Freedom of Şalwar: A Story

Letting go when you've already lost control...

sunny 94 °F


My day begins in a quiet courtyard…


My travel attitude is flying high this morning. When I hear the knock at the door of the courtyard, I am finishing a pleasant breakfast in a pretty tree-shaded brick courtyard with a small water fountain all surrounded by a garden of colorful flowers. I would like to stay here and relax in this quiet setting, but I am ready. I am excited even though I hate leaving this comfortable setting for the outside heat.

Without many clothes to choose from, I am wearing my quick-dry clothing which respectfully covers my arms and legs in this Muslim country. The pants and shirt are light and do dry quickly, but the synthetic material does not breath and I have heard how harsh the sun is at Ephesus, the famous classical Roman ruins in southern Turkey.

The iconic Library represents the excavated site of Ephesus in Turkey

My tour to Ephesus…

Scrambling into the mini-van parked in front of my hotel, I am pleased to see the group is small. I am not a fan of tours, but while I was in Istanbul, I arranged for two tours to make the best of my short time in Selçuk. When I realized how big Turkey was, I had to adjust my travel attitude to see as much as possible during my 3 week vacation. Today’s travel plan is a tour is a full-day at Ephesus. The next day I would take a similar tour for just a half day to Pamukkale to see the travertine formations and without returning to Selçuk, catch a bus directly to Fethiye for four days of sailing on a gület along the Aegean coastline.

I look forward to the half-day tour to Pamukkale where the major attraction for me is a chance to go swimming. Today, however, would be walking in the heat among dusty ruins. I nod at some of the other travelers and grab a single seat by the window.

It is early and there is not much conversation. I pull out a book to review some facts about Ephesus. After a few quick stops at various hotels to pick up the remaining people, we are on our way. For awhile, we ride in silence, but once we are well down the road and out of the town, our tour guide starts his introductory talk with “Good morning, so everyone is going to Pamukkale, right?" Without pausing, he says into the microphone, "First we will be stopping for lunch and swimming at a spa."

”How could this have happened…?

What? NO! I raise my hand to get his attention and let him know I am on the wrong bus. Everyone is stretching to look at me as I blurt out that I am supposed to go to Ephesus. The guide just nods and says, “I will talk to you in a few minutes.” then continues summarizing the tour itinerary for the group.

My heart is beating fast as I watch us get further and further down the road. How will this affect my plans tomorrow? I have pre-arranged transport from Pamukkale to Fethiye the next day. How will I get there now? I arranged these tours only because I needed to break up the trip to Fethiye. Selçuk was on the way and everyone said I must see Ephesus. My carefully arranged plans are in a shamble.

On top of it all, I am furious that I am going to Pamukkale without a bathing suit. I love water and have been looking forward to that swim. I barely listen as he continues with the details about our long stop for lunch and a swim that I will not be able to take. And instead of the anticipated half-day tour, it is all day with a late return. My travel attitude has taken a plunge!

Are my plans ruined…?

My frustration and silent anger permeate the small van. I don’t want to affect everyone else’s travel attitude, but does this mean I will have to skip the pre-paid tour to Ephesus? I have to be in Fethiye by tomorrow evening. Already furious that my plans have been ruined, I realize that I cannot even get my money back.

When the tour guide finally comes down the aisle to approach me, he ignores my concerns. I try to tell him how this will affect my travel plans for tomorrow and that I will not even be able to enjoy a large part of the tour since I have no bathing suit in which to swim. Obviously, he is not going to do anything. We are miles out of town and there is nothing I can do either.

I am not happy…

I sit in my seat fuming: angry with the agency that has obviously mixed up my carefully planned itinerary; angry that the longer tour to Ephesus is contrary to the half day plan that would allow me to take a bus to Fethiye in time to board the gület that sets sail in the early morning; and angry that the tour guide does not even seem to care.

As the van continues to hurtle down the road, I barely notice the scenery. My thoughts are a continuousc angry loop. Angrily staring out the window with my arms folded tightly against my chest, the others happily chat around me. I know I need to let it go and improve my traveler’s attitude or the whole day will be ruined, but I cannot. I am further disheartened as we veer away from a village with a small street market onto a private road leading to the spa where we will have lunch and a “refreshing swim”. Yeah, right.
A quick glimpse of a market from the bus where I am trapped.

When the van stops, we are told we will be here for two hours. We are in front of an overpriced, modern resort that could be anywhere in the world. Based on experience, I can guess that lunch will mostly likely be an attractively displayed buffet of mediocre quality served up to multiple busloads of tourists. My anger flares up again.

This souvenir stand at Ephesus humorously advertises their genuine fake watches.

I make a decision…

Suddenly, I make a decision. Without hesitating, I swing my bag over my shoulder as the others walk up the steps to the spa entrance and I head back down the dirt road to the village. If I cannot swim, I will at least have a good lunch and see the village. Maybe I can find a place to have spicy köfte (meatballs), an ayran (yogurt drink), juicy ripe tomatoes, oily black olives and good crusty bread instead of bland “continental dishes” with dried edges in warming pans.

Walking helps me release my anger. I am alone on a dirt road walking toward a Turkish village in the hot blinding sun. I start to feel the sense of adventure return. To hell with the tour! I will wander the village and see what I can discover. My steps quicken and my mood is already improving. My traveler’s attitude is back!

Walking along the dusty road in the ruthless sun, it seems like a long way to the village but it only takes about ten minutes to arrive at the outskirts where a small market is set up inside a large tent. I walk through the entrance and I am disappointed to see that it is primarily piles of jeans, plastic containers, children’s toys and miscellaneous household goods.

While traveling in Central America, I often bought small items in the market just so that I could interact with the women and practice my Spanish. Obviously, there is nothing that I would want here and–as just as I have seen in the markets of Instanbul and Şanliurfa—the vendors are all men.

The small Turkish village mosque near Pammukale

The beautiful ezan calms me…

As I walk out the other end of the tent, I am suddenly distracted. A mid-day call to prayer begins. It seems to float on the air around me. I pause for a moment and close my eyes to let it flow through me. The ezan is not pre-recorded and the local muezzin has a beautiful voice full of poignant passion. As if compelled, I am drawn to join the villagers who are responding to the ezan and cross a dirt plaza to where there is a small, modest mosque.

Just before I get to the mosque, I step aside and I tuck myself against a wall out of the way so that I can watch the men and women walk by. I pull out my camera which is smaller than the palm of my hand. I switch it to video so that I can record the voice floating over the village praising Allah and inviting us to do the same. As the last chanted word drifts over me, I slip my camera back into my pocket.

Women wearing şalwar…

While I am deciding what to do next, on the other side of the plaza I see three women happily walking side by side with their arms companionbly linked. They are laughing and enjoying themselves. As they get closer, I realize that what I thought were long flowered skirts are actually voluminous şalwar (pronounced SHAHL-vahr) the baggy Turkish pants with a loose crotch almost down to the knees. I had planned to buy some in Istanbul, but my days were so packed with activities that I had never found time. Today, I unexpectedly have several hours free. Without a second thought, I approach the women.

I greet them politely in my limited Turkish. They hesitantly greet me back and discreetly look me over while exchanging curious glances with each other. I point at their flowered pants and say, “Şalwar?”. They smile and nod in agreement, repeating şalwar, şalwar. “Şalwar nerede?”, I ask as I point toward their legs and then mine.

They understood immediately that I am asking where I can buy some şalwar. With approving nods and smiles, they turn and point down the road to the other side of the market tent I had walked through earlier. Just beyond the tent, I can see a scattering of vendor stalls shaded by squares of brightly fabric. I thank them and head in that direction.

I go shopping…!

The first group of tables has fabric and clothing, but no şalwar. I look around until I spot a woman whose husband has a table. I approach her with a greeting followed by ‘Şalwar?’ She directs me to the next row. At first it just seems more of the same—stacks of white underwear, knock-off jeans, t-shirts and bundled athletic socks.

Then I spot a rack of flowered clothing. Yes! It is a rack of şalwar, but my excitement falters as I suddenly wonder whether or not I can find a pair to fit me. As an American, I am much larger than the village women. They tend to be shorter and though they appear stout, it is mainly due to the many capacious layers they wear. Even in this heat they wear more than one pair of şalwar and a sweater or two over the other layers.

The saleman isn’t very helpful…

When he sees my hesitation, the male vendor comes over and pulls a few off the rack to offer me. The first pair has huge purple flowers with white centers. Just the right kind to make my butt look huge and shout “look at me!”. I shake my head.

Next, he holds up a garishly pink pair. Their special feature is a tiny patch pocket sewn on one side. He indicates the pocket and says something that I take to be a recommendation of the pocket’s usefulness though its size suggests otherwise. I shake my head again. Sensing I am not going to be an easy sale, he shrugs and returns to folding men’s pants on the nearby table.

I start to look through the other options hanging on the rack. I want the cool comfort of these pants, but the big flowers and clashing color combinations just are not appealing. Then I see a pair I can live with. A tiny flowered print in shades of brown, yellow, gold, with a touch of green on a black background. Dark enough not to draw the wrong kind of attention (to the size of my butt!) and practical for traveling (no visible stains if I sit on a dirty bench). I pull at the elastic waistband. Will they fit me?

I need some girlfriends to give me advice…

Glancing around, I notice a small cluster of women looking me over as they walk by. I hold the chosen şalwar up to my waist. “Evet?”, I ask. They break out into smiles and eagerly walk over to me. I cannot follow what they are saying in words, but it is clear they are eager to help. One is looking at the rack for other possibilities— she waves the pink ones with the pocket at me. She thinks the pocket will be handy for a cell phone.

At the same time, another lady steps out of sight and then quickly returns with a piece of wrinkled newspaper. After placing the paper in the dirt by my feet, she motions for me to stand on the newspaper and try on the şalwar over my own pants. Her thoughfulness touches me.

They all surround me for the sake of modesty as I hop on one foot and then the other to pull the şalwar on over my own pants. Like any woman without a mirror, I look to my girlfriends to advise me. I turn around as they consult with each other and pull at the pants to check the fit. They all agree these will do. I take them off and when I have them in hand, the vendor heads toward me and the women start to move away to continue their own shopping.

I make my purchases…

As they walk away, I quickly ask them how much the şalwar should cost. In low tones, they tell me the anticipated price and the absolute maximum I should pay and then cheerily call hoşçakal (goodbye from those leaving). I respond with güle güle (goodbye when staying) and thank them. Then I quickly bargain with the vendor for the recommended price. Score!

After my purchase is finished, it is time to rejoin the tour group. I cut back through the market tent to avoid walking in the searing sun. While passing a table, a display of scarves catches my eye. Not long gauzy fashion scarves, but the practical square scarves the village women who helped me had been wearing to cover their hair. I stop to look and quickly find one that compliments my şalwar —a large square of pale brown bordered with yellow, orange, and white flowers with green leaves. There is also a pretty crocheted edging of yellow, brown, green, and white. No bargaining necessary, it is mine for a few cents.

Rejoining the tour…

I arrive back at the spa just in time to catch the bus. The chatter has a grumbling tone to it. Apparently, almost half the tour group did not even go swimming because the water was very muddy and unattractive. Those that did swim say it was too warm to be enjoyable. And as expected, there was an abundance of food, but it was disappointing. No one is very happy…except me.

The terraces of Pammukale in Turkey

Experiencing freedom at Pamukkale…

Later at Pamukkale, I find a restroom and change into my new baggy pants. They are much cooler than my quick-dry pants that are light, but synthetic and hot. I remove the long-sleeved quick-dry shirt I am wearing which is already soaked from sweat. I fold the big square scarf to use as a shawl over my sleeveless top for modesty.

As I step back outside, the breeze that did not penetrate my traveler’s clothes cools me. My rayon challis şalwar softly move with the breeze, the low crotch an effective airway. I love them instantly. I feel free and relaxed like the paragliders flying overhead. My worries about schedules and plans evaporate just like the layer of sweat on my skin thanks to my new şalwar… and my temporary village girlfriends who took me shopping.

Posted by jaytravels 20:35 Archived in Turkey Tagged turkey Comments (0)

Searching for Stitcher in India: A Story

Packing Light Leads to Adventure...

sunny 93 °F


Packing for my trip to India…

For my five-week trip to India, I have a brilliant plan for packing light. As soon as I arrive, I will have some clothes made in India; hopefully, some light and loose Shalwar kameez for the hot weather. Shalwar kameez have three pieces: pants, tunic and scarf. I get the idea from several blogs and websites that indicate this is the clever thing to do. Definitely smart for someone coming from Seattle because no local stores have light summer items for sale in October.


So, I pack only one outfit consisting of baggy black rayon pants, a black sleeveless t-shirt, and a very light ¾ sleeve, wine-colored jacket to wear over it for modesty.

However, now it is day eight of travel and I am still rinsing out the same clothes every night. Packing so little doesn't seem such a good idea anymore and to make it worse, I am now hauling around several pounds of fabric that takes up more space than the anticipated clothing. Have I made a mistake thinking I could have clothes made in India?

My Indian hosts provide suggestions for getting clothes made in India...

One week before, on my first morning in Delhi, I am enjoying an Indian breakfast of aloo curry with poori with my home-stay hosts. I ask them for ideas about obtaining some appropriate clothing. I am already hot in my baggy pants and light top (at least, it had seemed light in Seattle). They suggest sources for both fabric buying (to have clothes made) and a ready-made shop.

Based on my hosts' suggestions, my plan is to start with the nearest Fab India, an Indian-based store specializing in Indian fabrics and fashion that might actually carry ready-made clothing for a woman of my size (referred to as ‘traditional build’ in the Number 1 Ladies Detective series). Hopefully, I will find something there to plump up my wardrobe until some shalwar kameez can be made. My host gives me directions to the best market for fabric. He assures me that my hostess’ seamstress will probably be able to sew it up for me.

First I look at ready-made clothing in India...

With directions in hand, I grab an auto-rickshaw and go in search of Fab India wondering what I will find. As soon as I see the colorful window displays, I am hopeful. As I enter, I goggle at the silks and cottons in brilliant hand-dyed colors. There is a whole section of gorgeous saris. They are irresistible to foreigners who will most likely never wear them after they return home,

Alas, none of these are for me due to my, ahem, traditional build. A saleswoman pointedly directs me to a smaller, less colorful section in the basement. Despite the limited choices, I finally find a long cotton kameez in a peach (or is it creamsicle orange?) and a cotton dupatta (over-sized scarf) in cream with a border of flowers in the same peach color. A second cotton dupatta in wine with gold and black enhances my black baggy pants and wine jacket that I am wearing. Hurray, two outfits! But I still wanted some traditional shalwar kameez that would help me blend in and keep me cool in the Indian heat.

Then I shop for fabric...

I take a second auto-rickshaw ride. Getting out at a street that is closed off to all but foot traffic, the driver points me in the direction of the market and I start walking through the lively crowd around me. A young Indian woman walking along side bravely initiates conversation with me. When she finds that I am in search of fabric, she volunteers to help me.

Anju wears tight jeans, a sweater, and running shoes for her day off from work. In her hand, she holds a list of items she needs for celebrating Diwali and performing puja (prayer ritual) that night.It is not possible to stroll in a crowd of rushing people. So, Anju grabs my hand and confidently plunges through the crowds and drags me along. The first fabric stall has nothing to catch my eye so she takes my arm and guides me to another stall where I find a pretty white and pale green pre-packaged set.

Prepackaged fabric sets make it easy to get clothing made in India...

From my stay in Little India in Singapore a few years ago, I know a set includes three pieces of fabric. One piece is for the pants, the second for the tunic or kameez, and the third is for the scarf or dupatta. The three pieces are usually of a similar color theme, but not necessarily the same print. In fact, to my Western eyes, some sets barely have anything in common to pull them together. Not exactly prints and plaid combinations, but some are similarly jarring to my Western eyes.

The set I like has a pants fabric that is mostly white with a tiny pale green pattern and the tunic fabric is predominantly a darker green print with some white background. The sheer filmy scarf is a combination of the two prints that only requires hemming at either end to be ready for wear. Anju is pleased with the price she is able to negotiate for me—just 350 rupees. I am smiling too.

After a few more fabric stalls, I find a deep red fabric set that I think will be more practical for traveling and cooler evenings. The pants are a wine color with just a slight vine pattern; the wine tunic has a leafing vine pattern in green with slightly sparkly gold flowers; and the already hemmed scarf has a similar green leafy vine pattern with flowers and a similar sparkly gold accents.

Anju can not establish the lower price she feels is appropriate so we move on to some other stalls. By now the crowds is thickening and becoming more frantic. I am getting a bit tired. After all, it is my first day in India after a late night arrival. I decide to go back and buy the wine fabric for 600 rupees.

Shopping with Anju for Diwali...

With the second transaction complete, we can now focus on Anju’s list for Diwali. She works her way quickly through the thickening throngs as she picks out sweets for boxing up, a stainless steel cup as a gift for her boyfriend, and the hard sugar, flowers and fruit for the puja offerings.
My head is constantly swiveling as I try to take in everything. The upcoming holiday of Diwali has enlivened an already lively market. As she efficiently leads me through the maze of the market, we learn a little about each other.

Anju is chatty, friendly and delightful. As she answers my questions about what I see and tells me about her boyfriend who later will meet us for tea— she feels like an old friend. I wonder if I will regret not accepting her invitation to her puja the next day. Later that night, after a heartfelt goodbye, I return to my home stay ready to make arrangements with a seamstress the next day.

No seamstresses available to get clothing made in India...

As it turns out, my hostess’s seamstress is unavailable. One tradition of Diwali is to acquire new clothing for the occasion. Several more calls yield the same answer—too busy with their regular customers.

I had only reserved my room for two nights, so the next day I move to a hotel in old Dehli. In an area with crowded streets and hundreds of tiny businesses, the hotel is down an almost deserted alley. In this historic market area, I am sure to find a seamstress or tailor who can sew up the shalwar kameez while I arrange for an extended trip through Rajasthan.

Before starting my search, I ask the desk clerk at the hotel. I'm in luck! He comes from a family with a business in fabric, so he knows some ‘stitchers’. He gives me a few names with nearby addresses. Hailing a bicycle rickshaw, I go off with my bag of fabric in hand only to find that all the tailor shops are closed. I find a few fabric places open and asked the occupants if they know a seamstress, tailor or stitcher. Mostly I get a shaking head instead of the affirmative head bobble common to India.

One sympathetic woman wants to help me and calls her own seamstress. But just like all the others, her seamstress is taking the day off for Diwali. Another woman observing my inquiry at the entrance of a fabric store takes me by the hand. Speaking non-stop in Hindi, she leads me down the street around several curves and a few corners and finally into a back alley until we arrive at the "stitcher’s" shop. Unfortunately, it is the same shop I had visited previously and found closed.

Putting aside my disappointment, I spend the rest of the day exploring the Red Fort, wandering through the alleys of Old Dehli and discovering scrumptious street foods.

Still looking for the illusive 'stitcher'...

Four days later, I arrive in Jaisalmer. I had spent the previous days traveling and visiting more forts with no free time. By the time I check into my hotel, shower, and change—it is already dark, but I have a mission. I head out in search of a tailor. I have given up on finding a seamstress (female) even though I have been advised as woman not to go to a tailor (male).

After several inquiries, I find the owner of a fabric store who says there is a ladies’ tailor nearby. He tries to give me instructions, but he does not know the exact address. A young man on a motorcycle pulls up and greets the owner and his son. The owner says something to him in Hindi.
The next thing I know, I am hopping on the back of the motorcycle. As I look back to thank them, the fabric store owner and his staff are grinning widely at me. I realize too late that I am spraddling the back of the seat instead of sitting side-saddle like a proper Indian woman. But I laugh out loud at my mistake. It isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last that I have done something culturally inappropriate without thinking.

I wave a last thank-you to the shop owner. The motorcyclist darts his bike into the foot traffic and weaves among the people who fill the unpaved streets; not many other cyclists or vehicles are present. After just a few minutes, he makes a sharp turn and suddenly stops at a dark corner. Pointing toward a light down the dark street, he says “Ladies’ tailor.”

I walk down a dark mysterious street...

What am I getting into? I thank the motorcyclist and head toward the lone light wondering if this is a good idea. The narrow packed-dirt street is almost completely dark and fairly deserted. There are small alley ways leading off into even darker parts. The road is quiet and pretty much deserted, but I see two women in saris walking toward me. I think they have come from the place with the lights. So I ask them “Ladies’ tailor?”
Yes, yes!", they say and wave me on to a vague point behind them.

"Shukryaa," I gratefully tell them, but I walk down the dark street with trepidation.

At last! A Ladies' Tailor...

It is indeed a tailor’s shop. And there are pictures of women’s clothing items on the sign…a sari, churidar (leggings) and a beaded chori (tight top for wear under saris). I climb up the shakey cement block steps to the open door-- three slim dark-haired men of three ages turn to look at me.
Later, I find out they are brothers. Only one speaks some English. I am offered a wooden stool to sit on. I am offered tea. They each look at me expectantly. I explain that I need two shalwar kameez stitched. They ask if I have fabric and I reassure them I do. They show me some pictures. I point to the baggy pants with a simple knee length tunic.

Do I know my measurements? No, I will need to be measured—by a woman, I say firmly again remembering why I am to avoid using a male tailor. They tell me to return in the morning. Their sister will measure me. I repeat that I only have one day in Jaisalmer. They reassure me they can do it. Just come early…between 8 and 9 in the morning.

Washing my one outfit one last time...?

On the way back to my hotel, I stop and buy more tissues and Ayervedic cough drops for my lingering cold. At the hotel, I have some soup in the hotel’s open rooftop restaurant. Afterwards, I want to go straight to bed, but I have to wash my clothes so they can dry overnight and be worn again tomorrow. I am exhausted from my cold and from traveling without any breaks and so looking forward to my new clothes.

In the morning, I realize I don’t recognize anything in daylight. Hopefully I can find my way back to the shop. The brothers have given me a card, so I suppose I can show it to people for directions if necessary. When I find my way back without any problem, it is with relief.

Presenting the fabric to the stitcher brothers...

Inside the shop, I find the three brothers already at work. I show them my fabric. They all look at what I have brought. One brother rubs it between two fingers and indicates that it is nice fabric. I thought so too when I bought it, but have since discovered that it is not cotton after all and that it will not wear well. The fabric will pill over time, but I no longer care, I just want two shalwar kameez to wear instead of a bulky bag of material in my pack. I want to be able to fall into bed at night instead of washing my clothes when my feet hurt and I am exhausted.

Waiting for the stitchers' sister to arrive...

I am given the wooden stool to sit on again. This time, I do not take the hot chai offered as I just had several cups for breakfast. The older brother leaves and the middle one makes a call. I cough, blow and sweat from what I suspect is more than just a cold and watch them at work while I am waiting for something—I think for the sister to arrive so that my measurements can be taken.

There are five sewing machines in the crowded little shop. Only one is a modern electric. The others are powered by broad foot treadles. The youngest brother is standing at one; balanced on one bare foot, he uses his other bare foot to pump the treadle. He is skillfully feeding the material under the machine’s footer. I also sew and recognize that he is nonchalantly making something right before my eyes that would take me all day. He moves to another machine and still standing, he does the fine stitching around the arms and neck.

Then he passes the item to the other brother who uses the modern electric sewing machine to finish all the seams with a binding stitch. The younger one stops working on the new piece he had picked up and takes the completed tunic back from his brother. It now needs the final pressing with an iron. He seats himself crossed-legged on the uneven cement floor in front of some pieces of cardboard covered by a worn and stained cloth and starts to press the seams flat with a heavy iron the size of a toaster.

The 'sister' arrives...

The middle brother suddenly looks up and greets a man who has just arrived and is parking his scooter by the steps to the shop. The new arrival is introduced to me as Jatan, a friend who speaks English. He owns a shop in the old city of Jaisalmer on the hill above us. He is also a guide (of course, isn’t everyone I meet?) and is available.

"Have you been to the fort?", he asks, followed by a bombardment of other questions. Have you seen the palace?...the market and shops? Do you plan to take a camel ride into the desert? Perhaps you want to buy some scarves? Jatan hands me his card and possibly due to my lack of response to his business proposals focuses on what the middle brother is saying to him. Apparently, Jatan has been called here to help with my transaction.

Choosing a design for my shalwar kameez...

Amidst my nose blowing and more sweating, Jatan asks me about the style I would like. He sketches a design and says this will be how the pants are made. They consist of wide gathered legs sewn to a girdle of fabric with a drawstring waist. I can have a drawstring or elastic waist, but the elastic will cost extra. He looks at me to see how I will take this.

I had been told the previous night that stitching for one outfit is 200 rupees and for two it is 400 rupees. It is so cheap; I did not even try to bargain. I am sure that I am their first non-Indian customer and that 200 rupees is their standard price. Elastic is 50 rupees extra. I mentally do the math; the total cost for two outfits will be 1,400 rupees or about $30 US. That’s fabric and stitching for 2 pairs of pants, 2 tunics and 2 scarves. What the heck. I think I can afford the elastic.

He pulls out a measuring tape. I reach out and take it from him. Giving him a wise look, I tell him I will do my own measurements. With a smile, he shrugs and tells me what I must measure. He writes down the circumference for my chest, waist, upper arm, and the distance from waist to floor. He crouches down and holds the end of the tape for the last measurement. I am surprised – and relieved – there is no request for an inner leg measurement.

Mystery of the inner leg solved...

Later, when I see how the pants are constructed, I understand why no inner leg measurement was necessary. The pants crotch consists of a gusset and the pants legs are gathered at the top and stitched to the girdle. The crotch hangs very low—somewhere at mid-thigh. The intent is that there is no vestige of a human shape between my waist and knees even though the tunic will cover me from shoulder to knees. The baggy style also provides added comfort in the heat. Having completed our arrangements, I thank the brothers and their friend and head out to start my day of sightseeing.

Time to pick up the finished product...

At 8 pm, I arrive at the little shop. The brothers are working on other orders. I see scraps of my fabric on the floor. They look a little guilty and immediately regroup in a team effort. The pants are done, but the tunics need more work.
Middle brother starts the seams, the other does the seam binding. While the second tunic receives attention, younger brother sits on the floor and starts the pressing. After watching this efficient flurry of work for about 30-45 minutes, I exchange 450 rupees for a stack of neatly ironed and folded clothes. They are pleasantly lighter than the bag of fabric I delivered in the morning.

Will they fit? How will they look?

Back at my hotel, I am grateful for the large mirror above the dresser. Both outfits are the same, but the fabric of the deep red one is a bit heavier—just right for the slight evening chill at the rooftop restaurant. I turn my back to the mirror and hold up the huge pants with their gathers and pleats. I clearly see how the crotch is designed for the first time. Egads.

I slip them on. Without looking in the mirror, I hold up the tunic and slip it over my head. I add some dangly earrings of red crystals. Only then do I turn to the mirror.

I go to dinner in my new clothing made in India...

I eat dinner on the hotel’s roof top restaurant. In spite of my sniffles, I feel pretty. My shalwar kameez is a simple design. A plain round neck, sleeves that cover me almost to the elbows, and pants with voluminous gathers that when hidden by the tunic appear simply as loose dress pants.

But the dupatta…the dupatta is what makes the outfit. When draped Indian style from the front to hang down my back, it reaches to the back of my knees. It is sheer and floaty and…well, for me, feminine. The hotel clerk, the waiter, and later, my driver all express their admiration. I finally feel like I belong in India in a way that learning bits of Hindi did not quite achieve. Best of all, I don’t have to do laundry tonight and I am looking forward to wearing my pretty green shalwar kameez the next day.

Posted by jaytravels 18:51 Archived in India Tagged india indian_clothing Comments (0)

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