Picky Judy's Picks: Temple bells and tagua nuts
When Block Island’s historic New England feeling begins to feel a bit too stifling, I take a trip to East of the River Nile. That tiny shop on Chapel Street transports me to South America, Northern Mexico, Nepal or India, or anywhere else shopkeeper Ron Munschy has traveled in recent years.
The shop is crammed from ceiling to floor with treasures, many of them fair-trade items chosen during his winters away from the island. And Munschy, the lanky, long-haired shop guru, has a story surrounding each of them.
Last winter, he traveled to India and Nepal. I could tell how much he enjoyed his trip by how excited he was about his Tibetan singing bowls, which Munschy found in Nepal. The bowls are a brass color but are made of seven metals, hand pounded. The pestle-like stirrer is actually used to turn the bowls into musical instruments. To demonstrate, Munschy swirled one around the outside of a bowl and created a harmonic sound that filled the shop. Another nice aspect of East of the Nile is the fact that the merchandise comes in a wide range of prices. The large singing bowls, for example, are $275, but smaller ones go for $44.95.
Pocketbooks and bags in bright colors hang from a vertical display. Some, from India and Nepal, are only $14.95; hand-embroidered suede bags from Kashmir sell for more. You can uncover a camel wool rug or a hand-embroidered silk and wool one from Kashmir. There are Buddhas of all sizes and Tibetan temple bells or “tingsha.”
Munschy has not abandoned Central and South America for Asia, though. He has added to his collection of handmade goods from the New World this year as well as introduced new items from Asia.
I was particularly entranced by tagua nut carvings from South American rainforests. The tagua nut tree is a palm, and its nut starts out with a gelatinous husk that hardens with age. After Munschy told me about the nuts, I looked them up online. One World Projects explains that these nuts are found inside a cabeza, the Spanish word for head, that takes three to eight years to mature. When a cabeza ripens, it falls to the forest floor, cracks, and the nuts fall out. The nuts are known as “vegetable ivory” for their color and texture. At East of the River Nile, I found tagua-nut-carved creatures of all kinds, from elephants to hummingbirds, perched on the shop shelves, and if I didn’t have a kitty that sweeps knickknacks off shelves, I’d buy a zoo of them.
Members of my family, friends and guests go to East of the River to find gifts for birthdays and house visits. My son brought small, carved birds to his future in-laws in Germany when he first visited their home in the small city of Bielefeld. I find inexpensive, unusual earrings for friends (and for myself as well). Stretchy bracelets with carved turtles are very affordable, and most wearable, especially for nature lovers.
Many of us missed the T-shirt shop Munschy managed for many years a few doors up on Chapel Street when it closed. There, Block Island logo shirts could be bought inexpensively, and as an extra, on a day when business was slow, you could have a chat with Munschy as well. But East of the River is a far more interesting place to browse and buy. And Munschy, known in my house as “Rasta Ron,” is almost always there to cheer you on.