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The Return of the Sword: A Tale of Betrayal and Loss

Buying a Sword

Biss reluctantly agreed to the deferred gratification, and I joined him in looking through the internet's offerings. Before too many years had passed, I was on a six-month trip through South East Asia, and I remembered what I'd told him. I met a man named Adam in southern Thailand, and he told me about Lake Toba in Indonesia. I hadn't considered whether to leave the Malay Peninsula if I went to Malaysia, but his description of the huge caldera with a lake in the bottom roused enough interest that when I needed to cross the Thai border for visa reasons, I kept going south and eventually ended up in Penang, a jumping-off point for a hydrofoil catamaran leaving from the main dock.

I didn't realize until my return journey that the morning seas were calmer, so I enjoyed the trip without the torment of queasiness. Once I was in Medan, a dingy flat industrial city on the eastern coast of Sumatra, I began to make plans to go to Lake Toba. I wanted to see the fabulous land Adam had described, and as well, I'd developed a desire to have a sword made by hand in the village where Adam had stayed. He'd found out about the tukan bissi, or blacksmith, too late in his visit to have a sword made, but he assured me that despite his crude forge, the man was very talented and could make anything.

At least as much to have a reason to go to the village as anything else, I decided to fulfill my promise in Sumatra, where Biss might get a sword and I would have a good story. I found a room in the Romland guesthouse inside the caldera, walked through the villages under the greenery-draped walls of the slumbering volcano, and looked for the tukan bissi. Adam had shown me on a map that I needed to walk no more than a few kilometres, but it was closer to five when I asked for directions and someone told me that I'd gone too far.

I walked back a kilometre and found an overly eager man who seemed like he would have liked to be a hawker, for he accosted me on the road and called over his friend whose father was the tukan bissi. With them in tow, I went to the blacksmith's house to see his facilities. As Adam had described, two pipe-style bellows led to a simple brick-lined pit for charcoal, or perhaps coal. The blacksmith used a heavy homemade hammer and anvil, which was merely metal-covered wood driven into the ground and kept in place by heavy pounding. I told them I would return the following day to meet the tukan bissi, and the hawker indicated that he would be joining me then. I decided to avoid him when I returned, so he wouldn't sour any deal I struck with the blacksmith.

Adam told me the man was willing to make him a short dagger-actually a kris, a wavy-bladed dagger in the Javanese style-for forty dollars, so I was hopeful of a good price. I didn't go to see the blacksmith the next day, however, because I wanted to avoid the hawker. As well, it was raining so I went exploring in the opposite direction.

Two days later I skirted around the edge of a wedding party on my way to the tukan bissi's house. The small road was nearly blocked off with a tent and there must have been at least two hundred people, of all ages, running around if they were children and sitting and chatting if older. I passed through, ducking under the open-sided tent, and not far from the wedding I found my tukan bissi. I expected that he might be at the wedding, and that I might be sent back to scrounge through the crowd, but my luck held and he was on his front porch. I began to talk to him but he said he didn't speak English and called a local boy to interpret for us. Before long other people crowded around and offered him advice in Indonesian and made jokes about the procedure.

I showed him a picture of a sword I had downloaded and we compared lengths, largely by waving our arms around. When we began to discuss price, however, we ran into problems. He asked me how much and I responded with berapa, or my rough Indonesian approximation of the question "How many?" When he balked at stating a money figure, I eventually suggested 400,000R, or 40USD. From what Adam had told me I figured I was close to a price we could agree on.

The tukan bissi countered with two million Rupiah, or 200USD. I told him I couldn't spend any more than 1 million on such a frivolous item, but the afternoon didn't end there. We sat for another twenty minutes while another interpreter explained how difficult stainless steel was to procure and how the antique piece the blacksmith was going to use had come from Holland. The main argument I felt they should have been making was about the labour that must go into a sword, but labour was so cheap that they were trying to boost the price by reference to materials. Statements about how difficult it was to procure stainless steel were unconvincing, given that I ate off such utensils every day, so I thanked him for his time and left. The interpreter suggested that I would come back after I slept on it, but I told him I never sleep deep enough for two million to be possible.

I wasn't overly disappointed, for I wasn't sure what to expect anyway, but I walked away a bit stiff from having sat cross-legged on the cement porch for over an hour while we bargained. Otherwise, I'd had a good time working through the details of the sword and it clarified what I thought my friend wanted.

I told my Batak friend Olga about my sword experience and she said that 400,000R was enough for the job and that they were probably trying to take advantage of me. If so, their bargaining technique didn't have the desired effect, for I decided that Biss would have to wait for his sword a bit longer.

I wasn't finished with Indonesia and swords, however, for word had passed about the strange foreigner who wanted a Japanese sword made by hand in an Indonesian village. Once I was back in the guesthouse and was talking with the staff about my dinner-for I was starved-the owner, an Indonesian man married to a Dutch woman, approached me and asked if I were the Canadian he'd heard had been trying to buy a sword. He told me the tukan bissi was his relative and he offered to show me some swords the man had made for him. He pulled them out for me and I admired the weight of the two short swords and the carving on their hilts and scabbards although they weren't really what Biss had wanted. He said he would sell one so I offered him 400,000R, but it was also far short of what he expected. The dickering ended until I took it up after dinner by asking him to suggest a price. He said more than a million, but that was far over my budgeted amount. He and his wife were always discussing money problems, so likely he saw a chance-like the other Indonesians in the villages-to make up the shortfall by using tourists.

I went into town by ferry a few days later, and when I was in the market I saw a stall selling knives made by local blacksmiths. I tried to get a sense of their prices when I stopped by earlier on my way to buy oranges, but the seller had been reluctant to close the deal with a local who wanted to buy a machete-style sickle. He was waiting for me and my interest in local prices to go away. When I returned, the large knives, more like small machetes, were 40,000R, or 4USD, and the smaller were 10,000R. I couldn't help but wonder what a local would pay.

In the end, all the wheeling and dealing in Indonesia left a bad taste in my mouth. The prices, although more than fair market value in North America, were hugely over-inflated, and that, combined with having to carry it through a few countries back to Thailand made me reluctant to undergo the hassle.

I have documented my Thai trip in How to Get to Bangkok: A South East Asian Travelogue 2005 - 2006, but the sword I discovered in a northern Thailand market is only a footnote in that book. The Sunday night market in Chiang Mai is famous for travellers and sellers alike, and many tourists will plan their visit to the area so that they arrive in time to peruse the hundreds of small stalls which spring up along the main streets in the centre of the city. Although I was mostly at the market for the snacks and the people-watching, I stumbled upon a sword that I thought Biss would like.

The stall was run by an old man and although he was selling several other items, such as carvings and fabric, I only saw the swords. We were alone amongst the smaller stalls outside the main city gate. The tourists normally mill around on the main streets and care little about those who had arrived late or are out of favour and have to set up outside the city wall. Because the old man was anxious for a sale I didn't feel rushed as I took each sword out of its sheath and examined its metal first-by bending it slightly and watching it spring back-and then its shape.

I knew from tempering metal that only soft steel will refuse to return to its initial shape, for its long crystals are nearly as flexible as rubber, although in a much narrower range. Once steel has been tempered, however, the shock of the abrupt cooling paired with the intense heat of the forge prevents the crystals in the steel from growing longer. They end up short, and brittle, which is why highly tempered metal, like that in razorblades, snaps when it is stressed too much. A perfectly tempered sword should be able to be pushed hilt to tip and spring back to its initial shape. I wasn't about to demand such a test of those in the market, however, for if I broke one of them I would be paying for a sword I had willfully damaged. Instead, I sighted along the blade to ensure the sword was straight, and then I grabbed the blade with a hand on either end and bent it gently. Then I sighted it again. If it weren't tempered at all, it would retain a slight bend. That would not be enough to cause the seller grief for it could easily be bent back, and I would have learned what I needed to know.

Some of the blades were thinner than the others, which wasn't problematic and in fact added to their authenticity. They were obviously handmade, and although they were a bit rough, the makers had added extra features. They each sported a Thai-style dragon's head on the hilt, or naga, although some were missing the red eyes made from plastic beads. The sheath was made of wood, and was banded by a thin decorated metal, rather like they had salvaged it from metal food tins, and there was a string wrapped around and tied to the sheath as though someone could sling it on their back.

Once I had selected one for my friend, I spent a few minutes discussing prices with the seller. This was one of the occasions I was happy to have a bit of Thai, for I at least knew my numbers and could joke around as I bargained. He was a better seller than I was a customer, however, for he soon convinced me to buy two. Together they were quite a bit cheaper, and that way he had less to carry home as well. I don't remember what it would have cost to buy just one, but for two I only paid twelve dollars each. Before long I was walking down the street with both swords wrapped in newspaper. I wasn't sure I wanted a sword, although it had some appeal, but I had taken the time to pick through the offerings to find another one that satisfied my standards in terms of its metal and condition.


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