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June 3, 2009

Telling Time

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Indonesia – “A watch beginning at US$10,000!” I exclaimed. “The time piece,” I was corrected, “is an heirloom to be passed down through the generations.”


Sitting at a plastic table in a white plastic chair outside of an Indian kedai enjoying beef curry and roti, western people sometimes stop to have a chat and I invite them to join me. When they find I live here, they want the information on where to eat and the inside places to go. I always comply.


This gentleman, probably in his 30’s was dressed like any backpacker, cut off jeans and white t-shirt. A German who lives and works in Switzerland, he works as a watch salesman for Patek Philippe, a company I had never heard of. By the looks of him, I figured he manned a counter at the Geneva Wal-Mart.


“Who would buy such a watch,” I asked. “People who want to display their wealth but not in a garish way,” he said. I told him I don’t know one watch from the other and if I did I would assume he purchased it from the one of the many knockoff salesmen around town.


He informed me that some time pieces can cost into the millions but most price from $10,000 to $100,000. “Instead of purchasing a flashy car, a person might buy a watch,” he effused. I said I certainly wouldn’t, not in my income bracket. He told me that many people in my income area did purchase them.


I wasn’t eating in an outside café on Park Avenue, New York the Champs de Elleyse (or however you spell it) in Paris or Orchard Road in Singapore sipping $25 coffee. I was in front of a run down Indian coffee shop where my entire meal cost $1.50, if that. I wondered how he could possibly assume I could afford such a watch.


We changed the subject to orangutans and the local rehab center. I told him to be sure to meet Delima and the family and I hope he could also say hello to Ritchie. I think he was wondering how I could be on such good terms with the apes and began to look at me warily. My excitement in talking about them matched his when he spoke of watches.


He told me watches constructed in limited editions were more valuable. “Like Longaberger Baskets,” I asked. Not being from the states, he obviously didn’t know about the main collectable in our country.


I asked what happened if the watches didn’t work after the warranty.


“We will fix them,” he replied.


“For free?” I asked.


He looked at me like I was out of my mind.


The conversation went back and forth from orangutan gossip to watches. He travels a lot, he said. The watches are sold in stores with other brands and, yes, many people do buy them.


Delima gave birth in February; no, the kids aren’t named and they had to send the next oldest male off to another rehab center because he was challenging the dominant male, Ritchie.


This exchange went on for a few more minutes and I finally got a look at the watch he was wearing on his left arm that he was trying to cover with his right.


It was a Swatch, the same brand I was wearing.


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