I’m just back from a furniture buying trip in India, my first this year, and my 17th buying trip over all the years I’ve been going there. India is one of the most fascinating and frustrating places to visit. Here are some of the useful lessons I’ve learned over the years, says Russ Parker of JUGs.
I go to Jodhpur in Rajasthan at least once a year, sometimes twice, to find new and recycled-timber Indian furniture, and special one-off pieces.
I love going. I love the feeling that everything and anything is possible there. And I look forward to the colours, the clothing, the festivals, the music, they all make going to India an incredible experience.
It is a pretty crazy country: the sounds, sights, and the apparent chaos. The smell of the place is not always nice but you know you’re in India! I have grown to love it (most of the time).
Now that I’m back, I’ve noticed that the weather’s improving in the UK, since we left for India 2 weeks ago. Spring is definitely kicking in here, but boy was it hot over in India. It was 38 or 40 degrees every day. Too hot really. It’s difficult to work, but you just get on with it.
It’s really hot, but you just get on with it!
While I’m over there I look for newly made Sheesham and reclaimed timber furniture at a couple of different furniture factories. To find the unique and unusual items I travel around and visit small dealers, to look at antique and unusual reclaimed pieces.
There are dozens of antique dealers in Jodhpur, all in a small district. They tend to have big outside yards, and there’s lots of activity. The workers in the yards often can’t speak English so I go round with a long time Indian friend who acts as my agent.
One of the local antique yards
I spend most of my time in the factories though. The boss starts about 10.30 to 11am, and works ‘til about 9pm every day. Mainly because it’s quieter after 7pm when most of the office staff have gone home.
The production workers in the factory are paid piece work. They work in teams of 7 to 10, and they carry on for as long into the day as they like.
Make it, stain it, sand it, wax it… They’re always sanding.
There’s always someone sanding in the factory
Most of the staff live in the factory – there’s about 100 rooms, the workers come from villages miles away, and do go home from time to time.
They all work 7 days a week, but there are lots of festivals, holidays, holy days – probably one a week for different castes – so they take lots of time off. They also get a day off at the dark of the moon every month, factory boss Dinesh tells me.
The working conditions are mostly pretty good, and definitely better than some of the alternatives, like working on the roads: you see lots of women working as hod carriers. That’s hard work.
After going to India for more than 10 years, I’ve become used to the culture and the chaos, so here are my top tips and lessons I’ve learned from navigating India and surviving:
1. The heat
It’s always really hot. My answer: Grin and bear it! Oh yes, and drink lots of water.
May in India is almost unbearable because of the humidity. The best time of year to go is February.
I love using the railways across this vast country. But then I’ve always travelled first class.
When you find your carriage your fellow companions always share food and want to chat to you, and to hear about the UK.
People are very helpful – once I was being hassled by some kids at Jaipur station – some other passengers intervened and told them to get lost in no uncertain terms.
Trains can be very crowded!
3. Taxis, Tuktuks and Rickshaws
Get a price before you get in a tuktuk or taxi. I expect the price to be inflated, but the prices are so small relative to prices in England, I don’t worry about it.
There aren’t many cycle rickshaws in Jodhpur, there are lots in Jaipur. I don’t have any qualms about using them, why deny them their living?
4. Cars and Roads
The traffic is relentless and chaotic in Rajasthan. Crossing the street is a nightmare! The trick is not to hesitate and go for it, and cars will avoid you. Hopefully!
My wife and daughter find this really difficult. They’ll stand waiting at the roadside for ages, usually until a friendly Indian helps them across.
I love Indian food. I’m not a veggie (but in India it is easy to be one), and I do eat meat there, usually chicken.
We’re very lucky as we get home cooked food every day in the factory as we eat with the office workers. They come in with their tiffin boxes which they bring from home, and share them with us and any other western buyers who happen to be there at the same time.
Kristy and I lunch with the office staff
I’m aware of how dirty it all looks, pretty much everywhere, but I tend not to have any qualms.
My daughter Kristy often accompanies me on trips, she says “I do have qualms. Be sensible. Don’t put your fingers in your mouth, and use lots of hand gel.” She never bites her nails in India she’s realised.
Most of the street food – like pakoras etc – is deep fried, so I think that’s safe to eat.
We definitely only drink bottled water though.
In India they have a strange relationship with animals. They don’t seem to like dogs: there are loads roaming wild in the city, but they happily let them hang around outside the factory. We do see a few as pets.
Dogs are one of the most dangerous things on Indian roads, after the drivers!
The factory workers feed a stray cat and her 2 kittens every day. Cows roam free and are harmless – they’re sacred, and everyone looks after them.
Cows are sacred in India
Using the toilet in India is always interesting. Off the beaten track the toilet can be just a hole in the ground, pretty filthy and disgusting. In the antique yards I use Indian toilets over western toilets every time: they’re not used to them and everyone misses!
Take lots of loo roll as Indians don’t use it, and hand gel for after.
India’s not as cheap as it used to be, as wages in the furniture and building sectors have gone up, but it’s still pretty good compared to the UK.
Wages have gone up. People are happier
People approach us all the time to offer services, sell you things, or offer help, but we’ve never been harassed, and I’ve never felt unsafe in India. One year during some local unrest we had to have protection for one trip, but other than that nothing has ever happened.
A rule of thumb: expect everything to take longer over there, there’s so many people involved in every process, it can be very slow. You have to be patient, I take my iPad and a book for those hours when nothing appears to be happening.
Many hands make light work?
I tend to tip where ever I go.
The Indian people I meet are all very hospitable, and are keen to look after you. Everyone has their job to do, and they are expected to do it. My daughter Kristy often wants to move something in the factory to take pictures, but they won’t let her – it’s their job not hers.
People are helpful and friendly
I’m happy to give my washing to the laundry wallah. Everything comes back the same day, neatly folded. It’s done by hand, and nothing has ever gone missing.
15. Dangerous driving
It seems like they don’t have any road safety rules, but it’s just that their rules are the opposite of ours. Cars, people, bikes already on the road, or roundabouts, must give way to those joining. If someone’s in your way, hoot and they move. They often drive on wrong side of the road, or between people, and other vehicles.
16. Indian people
Generally speaking, Indian people are fantastic. The first time I went, the factory owner took us everywhere, and I had a laugh with them. They kept saying to come round to the house. I did once. Meeting the family was a great experience. The staff in the factories tend not to get so friendly as it’s not their place.
Something that confused me for a while until I understood what it meant: shaking their heads from side to side means maybe, or probably no, as they find it hard to say ‘I can’t do that’ or to say ‘no’.
Workers taking a break in the factory
17. Reclaimed furniture
As they modernise India, they’re taking down old buildings and re-using timbers to make new furniture. So if they say it’s made from reclaimed wood, then it definitely is. I’ve seen lorry loads of timber turning up, that all come from old buildings.
As India modernises, lots of antique timber gets re-used
Indians are very inventive and creative – nothing goes to waste. And if you need something repaired, you can get it done almost immediately. I continue to be impressed by that. They repair everything, or make something new out of it: have a look at our rescued, recycled, reclaimed range.
We see lots of good recycled, upcycled items – like motorcycle petrol tanks turned into decorative ducks.
Decorative ducks made from motorcycle petrol tanks
19. Open All Hours
Something else I love. At 10, 11 o/clock at night, there are barbers working on the street, everywhere’s open. It’s vibrant. Everything’s happening all the time.
India is a fantastic place to visit and do business.
If you’re uptight or if you expect everything to be perfect you’ll hate the place, but if you can go with the flow, and accept their logic, you’ll love it, like I do.