Saturday, December 26, 2009

Writing a Ticket to Freedom

So one day I decided to become a writer. I haven’t started yet, but it sounds like a good plan – I can make my own hours, work wherever I like, and spend time with the people I love. Over and above the positives, the decision was also spurred out of exasperation – the realization that I’ve been working in a not-so-glamorous desk job, where the effort-to-fulfillment ratio is no longer working in my favour.

So what made me think I could do this? You see, I have a history of this kind of behaviour, of making a decision and then diving in wholeheartedly. If I had a motto it would have to be “do it or bust”. About to graduate high school, I decided to go to a private university. When my parents couldn’t afford the tuition, I landed a scholarship and studied abroad in South Africa for six months. After university, I decided to move to California – it sounded nice and sunny. I had no job, no contacts, and just enough money. I took a road trip and when I got there I decided to stay. I needed a job so I decided to work in Advertising – I had been thinking about it since attending a presentation about it at a Career Fair. It sounded interesting so I got out the Yellowpages and called every listing until I landed my first job. After seven years I decided to move back to South Africa, I missed its natural beauty and the raw feeling of being on the edge of the world. It was calling my name.

So after living in South Africa for four years I’ve found myself looking at my path here and feeling a little disappointed at my achievements. Before the move to SA I was full of romanticism about my new beginning. I would travel, see new things, meet new people, focus on life – not work. I guess all the freedom was just a little overwhelming because at some point I crossed the line back into familiar territory – work, work, work. The trouble with being a good worker though, is that it doesn’t just take eight hours a day – it takes almost all of them. You can’t be a good worker unless you’re passionate, and you can’t be passionate if you’re waiting for 16:59 on the clock to start packing up to go start your day. The worst of all, you can’t think about beautiful things when your mind has been cluttered with appointments, politics and the boardroom shenanigans of the Corporate Empire.

So I’ve decided that by becoming a writer I can focus on being the person I want to be, and have time to think, to dream of lovely life. Time to actually have the experiences I dream about – traveling into the unknown to the Transkei, up the West Coast, to the Karoo, the Overberg, Mozambique, Namibia and beyond – and most of all, the small nondescript towns in between that no one ever talks about but which leave you with a true feeling of a place, its gritty history and the people who have built it through generations of time.

I’ll explore all these places through meeting the locals, eating new foods and through rough-and-tumble camping. I’ll focus on other activities at home, too – I’ll finally learn to surf and overcome my hesitation to dive in the freezing Atlantic – I’ll catch my first crayfish. I’ll kayak the ocean and small, mellow lagoons. I’ll climb mountains and learn how to take beautiful photography. I’ll teach myself the art of cooking and pastry making. I’ll become a better mountain biker – no more falling on the downs because I’ve squeezed my brakes in a panic! I will no longer be afraid of baboons in close proximity. I’ll sample fine local wines, braai with friends and listen to the ocean through open air on the night breeze.

Being a writer sounds just great. I just have one question I’ll need to answer before I can begin. – I wonder, “What I should write about?”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Handbag Mania

For people in the know there’s a code phrase in Manhattan’s China Town, “Gucci, Prada, Coach.” Whispered on the streets, these three little words act like a magic spell that transforms the neighbourhood into a Handbag Heaven. Chinese women, like pied pipers, lead streams of bewitched shoppers into secret locations found in various places, some through navigating the basements of buildings, some hidden as closets at the back-end of storefronts, and sometimes even in the backs of a vans. In broken English, the women rush shoppers inside these dark rooms, the doors locked shut and finally, after a moment the lights are switched on to reveal walls filled with designer handbags – some fake, some real – at an affordable $35+ price (approx. R300). It seems like such a good deal that after just one experience you might be hooked. On a recent trip to New York my best friend transformed before my eyes into a once-off fake bag “dealer,” buying multiple bags to fill orders for friends around the country.

Under normal circumstances any modern woman would tell you it would be risky to follow strangers into unknown locations and unthinkable to pile into the back of a van. No rational person would willingly be locked inside a dark room in a place unknown to them, especially not in dodgy China Town. The risk seems higher when you consider that most of the shoppers are tourists on holiday in New York and do not know the general environment well. Nonetheless the prospect of scoring a designer handbag – even a counterfeit one – seems to wash all these worries away. The experience brings an undeniable rush of adrenalin to fashion lovers, afterall you’re getting an amazing bag at the fraction of the price – you’re getting away with it!

Sometimes known as “Counterfeit Alley,” Manhattan’s China Town has had an on-again / off-again love affair with the faux-bag industry. In 2004, 17 men were arrested in a sting operation when smugglers offered to pay $1-million to undercover agents posing as corrupt customs officials in an effort to ensure clearance to shipments of containers full of knock-off bags manufactured in China. The trade seemed to retreat for a while and the level of secrecy about it increased but lately business has picked up and to anyone looking, it’s not too hard to see what’s going on. Perhaps the levels of vigilance were relaxed too much – just this month the NYC Police Department launched a crack-down campaign after a long undercover investigation, seizing $1-million worth of counterfeit handbags and watches, and closing down 30 business stalls. In part, these legal actions have undoubtedly been propelled through pressure from the legitimate designer industry which is an important tax-paying stakeholder to cities around the globe, and which has a lot at risk if their interests are not protected. Louis Vuitton handbags are among the most popular fakes in the world, and the company has put significant funding and legal support in place to aggressively protect its interests. In 2004 the company had already employed a 60-person dedicated anti-counterfeiting team and achieved 1,000 arrests. Currently the team is still hard at work unfortunately demonstrating the persistence of the problem. Even under this level of scrutiny the trade has never been eliminated, perhaps due to the enormous demand among consumers.

In the US, selling counterfeit handbags is illegal, but buying isn’t. Research shows that even the wealthy, who are just as likely to buy the genuine article, purchase these goods. The phenomenon is so great that ladies who live in some of America’s nicest neighbourhoods push Avon and Tupperware aside in favour of hosting a Purse Party in their homes. These facts are worrying to the luxury design-houses since they suggest that counterfeit goods now have the potential to steal real market share and do greater damage than previously thought.

Beyond the impact on sales, industry advocates propose that there is some evidence that the counterfeit handbag business – just like other industries in the underground economy – supports other illegal activity and causes negative social effects, like human rights abuses within the manufacturing sector against child labourers and the proliferation of unsafe working conditions. It has also been identified as a funding mechanism for crime rings and even terrorism. Others argue against the design industry however, and propose that the prices for legitimate goods are inflated far beyond their fair value especially in places like South Africa where the price for goods can easily be in the thousands of Rands, making the a legitimate items far outside the reach for most.

The debate around these fake bags covers complex and wide-ranging issues and certainly leaves us with a lot to think about. Some will be motivated to purchase a fake bag because it’s inspired by high fashion but is available at an affordable price. Others will look at the decision not-to-buy as a way to do something positive for the world. Whichever way you look at it, only one thing is certain – the counterfeit handbag industry is tenacious and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon, so we’ll have plenty of time to consider whether or not to “fake it.”