Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"I've learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances." - Martha Washington

With 2011 fast approaching, I have to reflect on the year gone by.

In 2010,
  • In February, I closed Women's Work in Cold Spring after nearly four years in business in our former "hometown" it was a difficult decision to make.
  • In July, I accepted an invitation to go to Pakistan for a buying trip. From that trip, I opened up another part of the world to WW, bringing beautiful Sterling Silver designs and the potential for hand embroidery and leather handbags from gifted designers.
  • In August, I opened up a store in Sugar Loaf, NY where we were able to reach the Westchester/NJ market. Unfortunately, the long distance and my time constraints limit my efforts at that location and just over the holidays, we have decided to close that store.
  • In September, I went to Guatemala for a New World Craft Expo where I met El Sol Maya owner who has a team of women weavers and artisans from remote regions. From that trip, we now carry fair trade items from Mayan Hands, UPAVIM, recycled acrylic sign jewelry, recycled pewter jewelry from Honduras, and recycled inner tube bags from El Salvador.
  • From Guatemala, Goody Goodies now has a new line of fair trade friendship bracelets custom-made to say school names and slogans through Mayan Hands and El Sol Maya to benefit Safe Passage.
  • My new association with AAUW as member and co-chair of the My Sister's Keeper Initiative helps with WW's mission to bring the plight of women around the world to the attention of women in the USA, not only for awareness-sake but in an effort to empower women and girls to make a difference. AAUW's MSK initiative gave me an opportunity to give a Fair Trade talk at their Professional Women's Group meeting, help to organize MSK Celebration at the Poughkeepsie Plaza and GG was graced with an induction into their MSK Hall of Fame.
  • WW won recognition as "Best Boutique with Heart" from Hudson Valley Magazine
  • We had articles in the Poughkeepsie Journal, HVBiz, Hudson Valley Business Journal and Goody Goodies was featured in USAToday!
  • In December, we saw our Poughkeepsie Plaza sales double from last year, leading us to believe that our move to the Plaza was one of our single best business decisions to-date!

What does 2011 have in store? I'm not sure, but I am looking fore ward and looking forward to the possibilities.

I know I have insights into what makes me happy, what I've enjoyed working on and with whom I want to work.

In 2010, I have seen a huge jump in the level of confidence I have in the market, the products I carry, the loyalty of Women's Work supporters and thus, the competence I feel in continuing and continuing to grow the WW ideal.

While I never started WW in order to advocate Fair Trade, I see how I have defined FT and how ethically the ideal has defined me. Women's Work has become a platform for beautiful, well made, ethically and environmentally conscious products that are produced sustainably. I have grown to not only believe that all products should be made this way, but also to believe each person has an obligation to strive to live this way, to the best of their ability.

And so, in 2011, my presence will be all about hope - not a campaign slogan, not a flippant holiday greeting, but a genuine embodiment of positive living.

To paraphrase Paulo Coelho, "From the Greek - In Pandora's Box, Hope was the only thing that remained, because it was the only thing one could use to combat the misfortune that was scattered throughout the world."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Guatemalan Guides

All the way back from Guatemala, I cried and cried. I'd missed my family terribly and was happy to get home, but that wasn't it. I also wasn't crying because I'd miss the people and place because of all of the places I've visited, I knew I'd return.
I'm not quite sure what exactly has made me this emotional. Could be the fact that I was insecure about going on a trip without Peter. And returning with miraculously no problems, I was relieved.
In Pakistan, I went without Peter but I had the US government to guide me. The Pakistan Handmade crew totally held our hands from dawn to dusk.
But on this trip, aside from a list of suggestions for hotels, the trip was completely up to us. Up to us to manage where we were to go and what we were to do. I wanted to take full advantage so I tried to plan some activities before and after the Trade Fair. Some plans worked, but others didn't and I was free for the last two days of the trip. I wasn't worried, though. Something always comes along...and it did.
The Trade Fair was a great surprise. Taking my job very seriously, I worried I would only find the typical Guatemalan crafts - weaving, worry dolls and beaded keychains which would mean not purchasing anything, which would be counterproductive. But there was very little of that. There were beautiful, elegant, unusual crafts made from recycled materials. There were weavings that were delicate and different from any other weaving I'd witnessed in the past. There were countries that I had not found crafts from in the past, like El Salvador and Honduras. And so many interesting dedicated designers and artists that I again overspent, but happily devoted my days to walking the show.
During the first evening of the show, I met a vivacious and bubbly woman with the same name as mine (coincidence). She proceeded to pull information from me that I would never ordinarily give up. She was a lot of fun and a fast friend. It would be the next day that I would get to know her friend and companion on this trip, Shelley. Seal and Shelley have great jobs as buyers for a high-end, well established store in Santa Barbara. I was able to pick their brains about so many aspects of their business - a business I could only dream Women's Work would one day grow up to be.
Another coincidence is that both are fans of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency with Shelley having read all of the books and has a special place for them on her bookshelf next to Nancy Drew. What an honor! We would spend some enjoyable evenings together, so I was glad I hadn't planned anything in particular.
I would buy from four new vendors and have promised to look into products from several others. One of the businesses I was most impressed with was La Casa Guatemala. Sandra, who works for Casa, was telling me about how she would be working on Saturday to visit one of the women's groups who were graduating from an incubator project and would be giving them their certificates. I boldly asked if I could go along. She agreed! And off we went.
I emailed my family that I was once again going to an out of the way place with a woman I just met to meet with women producers - much like my situation when I first encountered the San. And as luck/coincidence/fate would have it, the encounter deeply moved me and I spent the day with my mind racing with ideas about how we could collaborate. Before I left San Pedro and the care of Sandra, I gave her my card. As she shared the card with the others, someone asked what the woman and the baby were doing. I explained about the ostrich eggshell and the San women I worked with. All of a sudden, Sandra realized something. Now, I had told her this story during the Trade Fair and I made her cry. She hadn't put two and two together until just now. Her boss, one of the most respected people in Guatemala for his craft development, had visited Botswana, visited the San Bushmen of the Kalahari. His step father was John Marshall - renown documentarian of Bushmen culture. It turns out her boss and I knew the very same people. Wow, was all we could say to each other. What a coincidence!
But there are no coincidences, just messages, signs that tell you that you are on the right or wrong track, that guide you toward a better understanding and in my case, validation that what I am doing is the right thing for me.
I think I was crying because I had the understanding that most people could only wish for--a life with meaning and a purpose.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

New World Craft Trade Fair, New Ground for Me

I’m in Guatemala for the New World Craft Trade Fair. The Guatemalan government is hosting buyers from around the world to meet nearly 100 businesses located here in Guatemala plus other countries in Central and South America. There will be someone from Cuba here! Now, that’s interesting…

I got in midday the day before the Trade Fair, this gave me enough time to check into my hotel and walk around the city. From the beginning, this trip to Guatemala has been intertwined with coincidence (and we all know I don’t believe in coincidences). I, frankly, have never had an interest in Central or South American crafts. Everybody’s doing it, but the connections just kept coming.

One was Alanna who now works for me. She had gone to Guatemala and was planning to volunteer with a group that works with children who live off the scraps they collect in the dump – Safe Passage. Alanna, I knew, was working on helping children in India who live off a dumpsite. Only after I had met Elizabeth Benjamin and her dad, did Alanna tell me that was the very project that set the India interest in motion. For one reason or another, she couldn’t go to Guatemala but instead stayed on to finish her degree at Marist.

Now, Elizabeth and her dad live in Garrison and had come into Women’s Work one day that I was working there. This would be one of the last times I would be staffing the store, it turns out, because shortly afterward, we closed that location.

Elizabeth’s brother, I come to find out this summer, went to the Millbrook School where the headmaster is a board member for Safe Passages. It was his influence that gave Elizabeth her impetus to volunteer, something she was determined to continue to do when we met. Her father was encouraging her to stay and work with me somehow (I was thinking sales person in the store, but John wanted us to forge another partnership where Elizabeth could live in the USA and work instead of in Guatemala.) John and Elizabeth’s mom were positioned to go to Botswana as Peace Corps volunteers when they found out they were pregnant with Elizabeth. Another coincidence and the one that brought them into the store since he had seen the Botswana Baskets.

So, when I went to Pakistan this summer, and one of the organizers told me he’d put me on the buyers list to take this trip to Guatemala, I said yes. I’d love to go, more, quite frankly, because I want to go on other trips and I will go on this one because there seemed to be a pull for me to be here. And after I decided to go, I decided to go to visit Elizabeth’s project, Safe Passage.
There was a board member in the area whom I had contacted. He responded with the Millbrook School email address. Now, Millbrook is a school we’ve talked about Macallan going to since she wants to be a Vet and it is the only high school in the country with a zoo. I brought Macallan to meet Drew because she wanted to learn more about Safe Passage for Goody Goodies. We had a few minutes to kill so we went into the building right next door to the Deans office, the Arts building. Of course she loved the arts program, she already loved the zoo and after this visit, she had convinced herself that new friends were what she needed. But then another of our favorite pass times came about – the Dutchess County Fair and another of her dreams came true, which was getting a coatimundi who would need much of her time, she wasn’t too disappointed that financial aid and the new school year was upon us too quickly.

So, here I am in Antigua, Guatemala. I don’t have my husband to help me navigate the streets. I don’t have my daughter to share in the shopping experience. I don’t have my son to draw my attention to all of the other things around me that doesn’t involve shopping or women. And I am free to do what I want all afternoon and evening.

I am not happy with my hotel. There are so many in this small city, all hidden away like secrets behind walled facades that only leave telltale signs, literally, some hand scratched, some in wrought iron, some within the windows that are too high for me to peer into. I recognized the names of some, and inquired about room availabilities. I knew one tha t John Benjamin recommended sits right next door to Safe Passage’s Antigua office was reasonably priced but was across town. As my bad directions would have it, I wound up on the very street. Tired and feet hurting from walking on cobblestones (always charming to look at but killer to walk on!) I was looking for a cab to take me back to my hotel. It had started raining with the sun shining (what we were told in Africa was called a monkey’s wedding) when I looked up at a building with some indistinct writing high above the door. This was Safe Passage and I was delighted to find Quinta De Los Flores right next door. They didn’t have any room until the weekend (my previous reservation) and so I’d have to stay put unless I found another place. But I left happy and validated that this trip is on a trajectory all its own.

I wonder why I’m here. I go to the Trade Fair this morning and I’m excited to find new products to complete my new vision of Women’s Work Shop in Sugar Loaf. All new ground this Guatemala, Safe Passage, and House Parties, but somehow I think they are fitting in quite nicely.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pakistan Handmade - Day 4, Lahore

This is our final day in Lahore. I wasn't able to meet with AHAN, a nonprofit organization that was well represented in the Expo until today. The team of designers that serviced their booth were all incredibly well spoken and knowledgeable about the design, origin, and capabilities of the many groups represented in this coop. I had interest in several products but because the entire business seemed so together, I wasn't worried about contacting them once I returned to the States. I knew they would not only be accessible, but responsive as well.

Before leaving for their workshop/offices, I was greeted by Steve, the manger of the Pakistan projects. I lamented having to leave in the morning to make a flight when I really wanted to spend as much time as possible working with AHAN. Angling for a way to drive instead of fly, I conveyed my disappointment at having to cut business short.

And it worked! We were able to stay until almost noon, when our guard and driver insisted we leave to meet the others back at the hotel in order to start on our 4-1/2 hour journey back to Islamabad.

But once we arrived at the hotel the other two buyers were no where, literally, no where to be found. Later, it turns out, they had to turn their phones off and hand them in while they toured a museum. Disappointing, because I got very little time with the AHAN team and as it turned out, there were a lot of questions I needed to ask with the products present.

I did get several charming videos that I'll try to upload. Really get the most from verbal descriptions rather than written, particularly since I had little time to get full backgrounds on product and know so little about the culture and the people.

I was so happy to see some furniture too - a chair that can be re-assembled so as to save on shipping.

There was a complete store here. That's what I came away with. If every sector of Pakistan were represented, there would be enough to stock a store full of beautiful and meaningful and worthwhile items from clothes, to jewelry, to housewares, to decor...something I am not able to do with products from Botswana or Southern Africa. Which brings me back to the idea I'm formulating but I haven't vocalized yet.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Border Crossing

Having never heard of this before, I went into the experience totally unaware, which is a good thing sometimes.
Word came down from above that we would be able to attend the ceremony. We rushed to get there in time. Seems our timing was always a little off. Our van equipped with driver and two guards made our way to the outskirts of Lahore. The markets, broken down buildings, overflow of motorcycles, people, domestic animals told us we were heading into the real Pakistan. I was thrilled.
Many sights could have been a marketplace in any third world country. Surprising how many women we saw here, unlike in Islamabad where few people were on the streets and even fewer women.
We passed a huge trailer stuffed to near explosion full of hay. While the driver and guards were pretty reserved, when we travelled like this, they were animated, obviously eager to help us understand their country and her people better. Their patriotism was heartfelt and I was proud for them.
As we approached yet another police blockade, so common I forgot to mention them, the driver and guards were motioned to get out. The lead policeman was patting down the one guard as he tried to explain something. I realized just before the policeman that he was carrying his gun. The cop became angry then and shouted for us to get out of the van. Our driver and guards shook their heads and stood between the policeman and the van. Later, we found out he didn't like that there was a gun and so he wanted all of us out so that he could frisk us all, but our guards said that wasn't proper, that we were all women and they wouldn't let that happen. So the gun was confiscated, with much talk between the men trying to reassure each other that the gun would be there when they came back to retrieve it. I don't think they believed it would be.
For a second, taller of the guards, the one who escorted me to the bank, kept turning around in his seat. Seemed he wanted to go back for the gun, but there was no one to walk us into the ceremony. We found out later, the other guard wasn't allowed near the border crossing - unclear why.

As we parked and started to get out, we could hear the loud cheers and cat calls. The World Cup in Africa was still going on and it seemed like we were heading to see a match of sorts. We were surprised to find stadium seating and the pomp and circumstance of a soccer match, but the game was who could kick higher, or strut faster, or salute with more flourish...if only our guard were with us to interpret, even in broken Punjabi, it would have helped. But all in all, the crowds, pretty much responded to the wishes of an elderly gentleman and a jovial court jester of sorts. Both waving gigantic flags and shouting for more.
The ceremony attracted thousands of Pakistanis, with a few of us tourists in the front bleachers to make it interesting. Women pretty much filled the stadium seats on one side while men filled the other. We were careful to wear conservative clothing and covered our heads with scarves. We wanted to show our respect.
But the crowds were plenty friendly. Even after the actual flags were lowered, folded and gates between India and Pakistan officially closed for the evening, the crowds that dispersed around us were not at all intimidating. For the most part, no one even glanced our way. Although, at one point, we passed three little girls who heard us talking. One girl spoke in her best Ameriken accent, "I do believe they are speaking the English" and they all giggled wildly.

As we looked around for the guard, whom I thought was very tall, but just average standing next to the Guards at the Gate (easily 6'8" and taller!), we spotted one of the stars of the Gate Closing. Other people were taking pictures with the other guards, so we didn't think it would be improper to ask if we could take a picture with him. He nodded yes when we asked him and we got some attendees to take our picture. Our guard had appeared by now and he got in on the fun. As we walked to the car, the crowds became quite dense. Out of thin air, I had the Pakistani Flag thrust in my hands. I tried to hold on but it's quite large and I wasn't really sure what I was supposed to do with it. It seems the young jester from the ceremony wanted to have his picture taken with me holding the flag! As the crowd got larger, more and more people were using their cellphones and their cameras to snap our picture. I gave my camera to someone who was able to get a few shots which I thought was hilarious! Hundreds of people now had pictures of me holding that Pakistani flag. Too funny! I had to get some pictures so I returned the flag to the gentleman and took pics of the people all around us. A man thrust his children at me, instructing his little girls to shake my hand. So sweet, really.
The entire encounter was so reversed. Here we were interlopers, voyeurs experiencing their ritual as strangers, but so welcomed into the fold. There was no animosity here on this bridge between countries. While India and Pakistan may truly see each other as enemies, in the USA, many people feel that way about Pakistan, don't they?
Our coming to this country would not be just about bringing opportunities to the women of this country, but it would be a sharing of ceremony, experiencing a passage of sorts and seeing for ourselves how alike we really are. Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist...no matter. We are all people crossing boundaries in and out of each other's lives every moment of every day. Today, the gate is closed, but tomorrow, it will open again, maybe not to so much fanfare (we are told, every night thousands come to watch the gate closing ceremony, but no one comes for the opening.)
One day, I'd like to come see that gate open. One day, I'll come back...One day soon.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lahore - Day 2

All four buyers started our day visiting Kaarvan, one of the nonprofit orgs. present during the Expo.
Their mission is to strengthen the skills and business capacities of women in low income communities so that they are able to successfully pursue entrepreneurial opportunities, participate more effectively in markets and thus, improve their economic realities.
Sounds in keeping with Women' s Work, don't you think?

Their offices were large with room for their basic staff, desks for their in field craft managers and work areas. There were the sample/pattern makers, candle makers and the only room with air conditioning, the accountants. Nice operation. We were surrounded by products in their conference room which brought inspiration for buying. We were also treated to a shopping excursion to visit their store in Lahore. A nice boutique, but unclear whether the lack of electricity was due to a power shortage or...?
I wanted to get some cash while we were out. I was to be escorted across the street by one of the guards. I would prefer someone led the way since I wasn't sure how to maneuver my way across the intersection, but he motioned for me to go ahead, but first, he said, he had to stop by the car. "I must get my gun." he mumbled. I wasn't sure I'd heard him correctly, so I watched as he concealed the gun and then nodded that he was all set.
Once at the bank, there is actually a lock on the ATM door. Interesting, but makes sense. I withdrew money, later to find out it costs me not only a lousy exchange rate, but an exorbitant fee for using an international ATM. Banks the whole world over, suck.
I returned to the Kaarvan shop, loaded up on items I wanted to price and get more info about for purchase.
Such a productive day. I was able to get a pattern made of my favorite wallet that I asked the team to have embroidered so that I had a matching set of bracelets, headbands, purse and tunic. I developed several lines of matching (not too matchy) clothing and accessories to be sent to the States for further fine tuning.
I left to return to the hotel where we were told we would be able to go to the India/Pakistan border crossing ceremony much to our surprise and delight!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Silver Site-Visit Lahore

During the expo, it became clear that I would work best with Amna Shariff, the sterling silver jewelry designer. Before we left for Pakistan, I had already started gearing up to create a line of ostrich eggshell and sterling silver. Her design sense - modern and simplified incorporated with cultural traditions was evident. I thought she could bring that melding of old and new to the San jewelry.
I wanted to create a line that would be higher-end and still in keeping with the origins of the materials. Ostrich Eggshell is the oldest bead, with the San women the last to be making them as part of their tradition. And working in Sterling Silver is a dying art in Pakistan. The preserving of both cultures seemed to work beautifully together.
Some shifting of schedules, flights, and accommodations were made, thanks to our very amiable hosts, Sue and Halle, and on Monday, I was off to Lahore.
The airport experience was harrowing. I had to be ready by 4 AM so I decided to catch up on emails, blogging and uploading pictures instead of sleep. We were checking out of our rooms at the Serena because we'd be in Lahore for the next two days, so I was packed and downstairs on time. KJ and Cecilia Foxworthy came shortly afterward. Our guard and driver (do we tell you their names or will they have to kill us afterward?) were ready, but no Phil in sight. Hmmm...what to do? Cutting it very close, we finally got a hold of Phil but would we catch the flight? We arrived at the gate, I had my pass, but no one else had tickets - or so we thought...I was told to go in so that I didn't miss the flight, but KJ said to follow them. Let's not get separated and something inside me said the same. So off we went with our guard who would negotiate for us at the ticket counter. Turns out the ticket I possessed had the other three's tickets on it, but not mine. The guard ( I feel funny not saying his name) laughed. "See, Cecilia, you should have just gone in. Now you're the one without a ticket." But soon, the ticketing agent found me in the computer and after printing our boarding passes, we were off. Go, Go, Go, we were told. But first, a very thorough frisking from the female security guard. Then another. We made it to the gate only to find that there was a 2 hour delay. Another passenger grumbled that the flights never left on time. We waited...Mechanical difficulties. Not a good sign.
Once on board, I had trouble with my seat - it was perpetually reclined. Hmm...I meditated hoping to dispel my negative thoughts and fears so that we could get to Lahore in one piece.
After a very hard, like we fell out of the sky, landing, we were finally there. The security team was there along with our drivers and off we went.
Through the city, guided by the driver, we were told about the different areas we would pass. The military state, the parks, the buildings much like Washington DC, even treelined streets with cars sprinkled amongst the schools of motor bikes. It was an interesting sight to see an entire parking lot full of motorcycles. They are very cheap, we are told, so everyone, anyone can buy them.
Once at the Avari Hotel, I rushed off anxious to start working with Amna. We were now over three hours late and time was a wastin'.
The temperature in Lahore on this day was 120 degrees Fahrenheit! Inside Amna's workshop it was that and more! We tried cooling off in her home but with a broken AC, there was no relief.
Her array of finished products, handcrafted findings and beads, and the men soldering, pounding, finishing jewelry was fascinating and so much fun! Amna pulled out treasures and we worked together to come up with new, fresh designs with the Ostrich Eggshell. Imagine having an entire silver workshop at you disposal - it was heaven...
But the heat was hell, so off we went to explore Lahore. I got to see Amna's jewelry exclusive to Kaadi ( very nice chain of boutiques), several other clothing stores and we got to go into the market (something I didn't think the guard would let us do, but there we were) shopping for sandals. The small store had walls lined with every type of sandal. They were less than $10 each and exquisitely embroidered with a stiff but comfortably flat sole. I bought a few for myself and found several I thought would fit Macallan - would she wear them, now that's a different story.
Amna, wonderful hostess that she is, introduced me to her friend, an artist. Little did I know, she was quite famous in Pakistan as a print artist in her own right, a professor of art at the university and on her way to Boston on a Fulbright Fellowship (along with her husband who received a Fulbright Fellowship for Mathematics as well). They would be leaving their beautiful home with glass walls that overlooked an interior courtyard garden for Boston in August. How exciting!
We'd kept our driver and guard on duty for far too long. We finally dropped Amna off at her home and I went back to the hotel with plans to meet up for dinner.
What a long satisfying day!
Now, this is the reason I came to Pakistan.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pakistan Handmade - Day 3

As part of the Pakistan Handmade program, the day after the Expo, we met again with the business owners. We would follow up and give positive critiques of the products the Pakistani businesses developed for the US and possibly to place orders.
I was interested in the possibilities of fostering these businesses primarily because this was truly their first exposure to the US market.
The buyers were divided into groups, making sure there was a representative from each venue present. I was in with Stephanie of World Finds' (wholesaler), Jean from SERVV (huge catalog retailer and wholesaler), Michelle from CharityUSA (another huge online retailer) among others. I felt very small compared to them. I only buy for my one store.
It was a great education to hear the buying process. I believe the buyers learned as much from each other as did the Pakistani business owners. The process used by SERVV was precise and thorough, starting with an application that is reviewed by board members. It could take six months to process an application and even then, there is no guarantee they will buy. The price is a big factor with some of the large orgs. since they need to mark things up 4 to 5 times. I didn't know that. I only mark things up 2-3 times but then my overhead is not as great.
I found that there weren't many orders placed, which must have disappointed the participants. I was able to place orders and order samples with a full commitment to move ahead in as a retailer. I was happy that I could at least do that. But then, I am so grateful for this opportunity. I have said time and again, I need producer groups that can make large quantities. Of course, I don't want to overwhelm the artisan and don't want to change their way of life drastically. The last thing I want to do is industrialize cottage industries. That's not my mission. But that's not what many of these businesses were.
This trip had me questioning my mission. I have long said that I want to open five stores throughout the country. I love setting up stores, creating marketing materials that enhance the products' value, connecting shoppers with products in a meaningful way. But as I sat in this room, as we helped these women to flesh out their businesses, talking about what we felt appealed to the US market, I was inspired.
I get requests from newly opened stores, newly formed orgs., stagnant businesses asking how to grow. I am asked how I got publicity, how I found my sources, how I wound up in Africa and now Pakistan. I see so many people questioning their life's path. Looking for answers.
I came home from this trip wondering what it all means.
Sure, I now had fabulous new products - that's the basis, the grounded element for the trip. But what was the reason it was offered, why did it come about? I have a theory. I'll share it with you in my next entry.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Pakistan Handmade Expo experience

I got to the Expo early. I couldn't wait. The booths were beautifully and in most cases, simply appointed, showcasing the items these women-owned businesses wanted to share with those of us working in the US market.
The first booth was beautifully laid out with many different home accessories and some handbags. The Craft Company's owner, Muna, was still putting some last minute touches to the booth. I apologized for being early - she said, no problem, I've been ready for over an hour.
I had a long talk, got background on her, how she got started, with whom she works, surprisingly enough, she oversaw mostly men. Women don't like to do the kinds of craft she produces. They think that cutting tile to make mosaics is hard labor. Interesting considering the San women I work with laboriously grind, sand, polish ostrich eggshell for hours/days to make their beads.
I wanted to speak to all of the women since I was, afterall, "working" for USAID. I took this first buying trip very seriously. But I quickly realized, by stopping to talk to each owner, I was committing to some sort of business dealing and I wasn't prepared, as is my nature, to hurt anyone's feelings.
As it was, after the expo, we would head out on site visits in other cities. I couldn't decide between Lahore and the silver jewelry designer and the more traditional crafts of the old city of Multan. I let Haale, our coordinator decide. She decided on Lahore. But last minute, I was switched to Multan since she thought the traditional aspects of these crafts would be better suited to my mission. During the Expo, women knew who was coming to their town, to their workshops. I was supposed to go to Multan.
But after meeting Amna and seeing her gorgeous jewelry, I realized how great this relationship could be. She saw it as well and asked that I be switched to Lahore.

There were other businesses I saw that appealed to me. I was surprised by the embroidery - not your mom's embroidery to be sure. There were several clothing lines that I could see in my store and after speaking with the owners, I ordered samples. Beena, looked just like my cousin MaLou. I instantly liked her and felt comfortable with her largely due to this, but as I inspected her handbags, jewelry and shoes, I could see the same sensibilities. I loved one bracelet's embroidery - a raised form with a striking glass bead to enhance the bold stitches. I decided to have her make that design on bracelets, handbags, headbands, and chokers.
Another woman had very simple tunic dresses with modern embroidery around the collar. Elegant, but simple. A bit young for my clientele, but flattering and I LOVED them all. I picked three different dresses, asked her to make samples in three sizes and in heavier fabric since we were now buying for winter and I was on a roll. Rubina was soft spoken and so her husband would chime in. What turned out to be eager exuberance, I first saw as dominance. Was this just another woman who was being suppressed by her husband. No, it turns out. She is a wonderful designer and really knew her skill. He was being helpful, or so he thought. There are worse crimes inflicted by men than wanting to see his wife succeed. I felt a great affinity toward them after spending some time with them.
Then there are the two Entrepreneur projects (another of USAID projects being spearheaded by Aid to Artisan former consultants). These groups were so well spoken, really understanding their audience (me!), the products and producers. Their booths were well appointed and they were prepared with beautiful catalogs and pricelists - market readiness had been well implemented here. They were impressive. I looked forward to sitting down with them and developing many new product lines for my store - I quickly realized, I need to start seriously looking for those other locations for Women's Work in order to fully utilize these connections. I was very excited!
While I didn't find I could buy from every booth, I did try to be constructive and encouraging. Many of the businesses, even the ones I decided to work with had misconceived ideas about how to move ahead with the buyers from the USA. One told me her minimum order was 500 pieces per item. A few charged retail price for samples. Many didn't have catalogs, pricelists, or websites. All had to re-evaluate their prices for wholesale, which I am told is 3-5 times less than retail.
I was surprised by the currency of their designs. Most right on target for the US market. I was surprised that many had thriving businesses with customers in the UK and Japan. And many made samples only for this Expo. Kaarvan made dresses for the first time for this show! I was flabbergasted. They were able to ramp up and deliver in a few short months. Yes, these businesses were ready for the US market. I was humbled by their talents, their efforts and I felt great privilege to be one of the ones to bring them here to you.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pakistan Handmade Fashion Show and Expo

It's been a few days since the fashion show, but the participants are still buzzing and I'm hoping on a high from it. I thought the event was impressive! The place was standing room only - how I can remember all of the events I've put on both here and in Botswana that no one showed up for! And every Pakistan media outlet covered it along with some international press. I think that's amazing!
The show warranted attention and the organizers should be very proud of themselves. I for one, had a great time and couldn't wait to meet women that were featured on the runway (and I'm not talking about the Victoria's Secret model!)
The fashion show was actually the first day we arrive in Pakistan. We did have a chance to check in (at 3.30 am!) and relax. Some of the buyers slept. I was too excited, so I emailed, tried to reach Peter and the kids and unpacked.
We met in the lobby and got to go to a couple of stores. We were taken to two wonderful dress shops that carried the shalwar kameez. At one shop, I had a few in my hands and was wondering which one to buy. One of our "guides" on this trip, Colvin said, You know, they're $35. Why don't you get them both? So I did.
I had to buy a very large, unflatteringly huge size. Too embarrassed to tell you - but I heard Sue, another of the coordinators say that the dresses run two sizes smaller. OK. I'll go with that.
Most of us went in order to buy the traditional clothing to fit in, but we were all glad when we turned up at the fashion show looking supportive of the culture - AND we looked fabulous!
We were seated waiting for the show to begin when we were asked to go to the exhibition hall to meet the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson. She was entering the booths and at times (probably when the woman could speak better English) she was spending a long time with each participant. I was very impressed that she showed genuine interest and tried so hard to make the Pakistani women feel that their efforts were noticed.
She finally got to our "delegation" (like the sound of that, don't you?) and shook our hands, asked our names, then was going to leave when someone prompted us to tell her about our businesses and why were were here. She stood and talked to us for quite some time. She did say, "It's all well and good what you people are doing, but I was up in Boston trying to convince big business to come here to Pakistan. " Well, that says a lot about our dedication to Fair Trade and in this case women's empowerment, doesn't it, making us the ambassadors to US market you truly want?
I hope Pakistan Handmade uses the press generated to really force businesses to see that if a few small/medium businesses were willing to "risk their lives" to help a country in crisis, then maybe they should/could also. Because let me tell you people - we are being totally taken care of and while security is high, we don't feel a bit of anger toward us. Of course, it's only our first day here...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Flight to Pakistan

Finally arrived in Abu Dahbi and able to stretch my legs. Small, small seats, much tighter than going to Africa - or maybe just cramped because I couldn't relax for fear I'd bump the person next to me.
Perfectly nice young man from India who didn't snore, rest his head on my shoulder as he slept, hog both arm rests nor did he sit so that his leg touched mine. Very nice young man.
I should have slept for as long as he did, but no, I watched a movie (started with Invictus then thought Peter will want to see this, so I switched to another one) then another. Then they had technical difficulties and many of the screens around me were blank.
The most annoying thing was that some people had horrible sneezing fits but didn't couver their mouths. I saw the women later and I had to frown. I couldn't wait to douse myself in Vit.C and take a long hot shower, ew!
The funniest thing was a woman in traditional shalwar kameez who found me fascinating. She stared and stared openly, even smiling on occasion or crinkling her nose at me. but never attempted to communicate with me otherwise. She stared into my face - not up and down like she was evaluating my dress, not disapprovingly, not shyly. As if she were with me - you know what I mean. Even going to board the plane, she cut in front of me in line to give our tickets and then proceeded to stand next to me as if she were waiting for me. Of course, if she were in front or behind me, how could she watch me? No, she wasn't watching me, she was looking into my face. I don't really know why, so I pretended I didn't see her. She left the plane with a nod as if she was saying, I'll see you later. Oh well...
Still and all, a pleasant enough trip (so far).
I arrived at Abu Dahbi and while I suppose it's a big airport, it's not that big that you would have to walk miles to get to your gate. There were people with varying levels of western and eastern dress. I noticed the help desk had a woman with beautiful eyes shining behind her full black headpiece/veil and black gown. She said hello can I help you with a sweet sing song that made me smile she seemed so happy. I was early for the next flight. Just wait here, she said. I wandered around noticing how similar yet different things were. For example, there were actually chaise lounges, making it pleasant should you have a cancelled flight or a long layover. In JFK, they discourage you from even sitting, let alone lying down! There were large screen TV's to help while away the time. And - get this! There were computers with FREE internet connection. Not only that! No one on the computer stayed any longer than was necessary, gladly giving up their time so that others could use them. How long would those computers last in JFK - two weeks? maybe...
I sent my family another email, mainly coz I now had no cellphone coverage and I didn't know when I would. Besides, I thought it was so cool to email from the free internet cafe! And to be honest, I wanted my sister-in-law in particular not to worry. I called her and my nephew before I left JFK. I heard their answering machine go on and then burst into tears. I left a message that blubbered something like I'm at the airport on my way to wah! Islamabad, Pakistan, WAH! I'll call you when I get home in a week. Blubber, blubber. I'm not sure why I'm crying, but I can't stop...I finally just hung up.
I don't know what came over me. I hadn't cried like that since I met the San in the Kalahari. Sure, this trip was very similar. I was going on a trip without my husband or my children. I'm going on a journey that wouldn't be just far in distance, but in sentiment. I was going to Pakistan and I wasn't sure what I'd find there.
As I looked around the waiting room ready to board the plane for Islamabad, I picked out the other Fair Trade delegates. It wasn't hard. They were the tired, dirty, but upbeat conservatively dressed westerners - anxious, but eager, they were just like me.
Several of the 14 (one must have dropped out last minute), hadn't made the connecting flight due to a storm in Chicago (I believe) and so, there were only 10 of us here on this flight.
At Abu Dahbi, at this major crossroads, I waited with the others, waited to get on a plane to take us to a land we knew little about to work with women whom we'd never met.
And there it is, call for flight 100 to Islamabadand. As I got up to board the plane, a phrase came to mind.
"Here we goooo."
yup, here we go.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Packed for Pakistan

Hell yes, I'm going!
Actually I'm here - but because I wasn't able to upload this blog post I wrote on the "road", I'll post it now. I think it's important to get it all down in chronological order. So here goes.

June 23, 2010
Ah, airport bars. Peter and I know them well - with and without kids in tow.
I'm sitting just before the departure gates in a branch of a restaurant I remember from my life at Random House many many years ago (mid-1980's). I'm waiting for my flight at 10.50pm, getting here usually takes nearly 3 hours, this driver took around 2 - smooth ride with no traffic - good sign.

Also a good sign is that I went straight through the Etihad check in. I did have to rearrange some things - my carry on was over the 50 lbs. limit. It turned out to be my laptop, so I just took it out at the check-in person's request. Easy remedy and because she was so pleasant, there was no stress involved in the transaction. Just goes to show you how a smile and a helpful attitude can alleviate any tense situation.

I also had a little laugh with her from the start. Where is your final destination, she asked me? I hesitated. Islamabad? I said, slowly. Are you sure, she said? We both laughed. I wasn't sure if she meant what country or what? She had my ticket in her hands, I thought she would read it. Maybe she was just checking to make sure the ticket was correct. Or maybe I wasn't sure where I was going, what I was doing. Maybe it all just starting to sink in?

I'm heading off to Pakistan (not on vacation, not to relax, not even to work in Botswana) but to a country portrayed in the media as dangerous and a country filled with people who hate us. I've spent the few weeks mulling that situation over in my head. As she handed me my ticket and I wheeled my bag to the loading area (more security measures, I suppose), I knew where I was going. I really did. What I would find there when I got there, not that's a different story.

Waiting in line to drop off my luggage, a couple I spied earlier sitting on their luggage to get it closed walked right in front of all of the people in line - well, not all of them. They cut in line right behind me, cutting off 15 or so "Middle Eastern" people behind me. The baggage handlers were not amused. They directed them to the end of the line scolding them all the way. Wow, just a glimpse of racism. The perception of Westerners toward Middle Easterners was evident right here, right now.

As the baggage handler returned, he very sweetlly took my bag and said, "I'm sorry for that interruption." As I stepped away, he said, "Have a wonderful trip." and he meant it.

I had been sitting in a car for several hours. I welcomed the hustle of the other travelers. I love shopping in the South African transit hall, I thought I'd wander, giving up some tempting seats that were probably rare to find open, but I didn't want to sit. As it turned out, I didn't want to shop, either. The mall choices are pretty crappy. Cheesey high-end and horrible low.

I decided to see where my gate was - I'm that kind of person that needs to see where they need to be. I hate to be late and tend more toward being realy really early so that I'm not rushed. I'm nearly two hours early for my flight, so I look for somewhere to sit and have a beer. The last one I'll have for a while since I'm going to be in a Muslim country. I found the perfect spot (well, it would be perfect if there were internet I could access, but the beer and my seat at the bar makes it damn close.)

The Palm (and Palm II) were THE publishing lunch places in NYC in the 80's. A see-and-be-seen scene for the top book editors and their authors. This was the chain, but it did bring back my younger days, straight out of college, with a dream of one day writing the great American novel. As a receptionist at Random House at the time, I believed in my future. One day I would be the toasted author, sitting at the Palm as everyone made a fuss around me.

OK, that dream has long died. But as I'm off to the next natural step in my career, I see the irony and the promise. I am far from that naive young woman who spent her entire paycheck at Ann Taylor, eatting out at trendy restaurants, getting her hair done at Bumble and Bumble and wanting to be somebody...

The only thing that hadn't changed over the years was being with somebody. And that somebody was Peter. No, I don't miss being 20, the confusion, the disappointment, the wishing, the wondering...No. At 47, I know what I want. And today, the only thing missing in this picture was Peter.

I have been with him for longer than I've been without him. He has been there to share in my greatest moments and been there to hold me in my greatest defeats. And as I sit there, at the bar, drinking my most excellent Palm ale, I can't help feeling that he was very much there with me. I raised my glass to him and his constant support and appreciate all that he does for me, all that he gives me. I can't help but wonder what he and the kids are doing at home.

On this trip, I have only myself to take care of - no kids whining about waiting, no double-checking on Peter to make sure he had our passports, no overloaded bags carrying things for the kids to do on the long flight, no wondering how the dogs were at home...none of that.

I had only me to take care of. I was going on this trip alone - well, not totally alone. No matter where I go and what I do, I always have Peter there to cheer and to lend an ear (ooh, that was bad). As I go off to Pakistan, he's home taking care of the kids, the inlaw (and her sister, my mom and aunt live with us!), the dogs, the home. While I go off for Women's Work, he's home doing it.

Thanks Peter (and my wonderful self sufficient, understanding, encouraging kids!). Thanks for giving me the courage and the conviction to go on THIS buying trip and being with me in spirit. "Cheers" I toast my husband as I finish my beer and head off to the final security check. Cheers.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Passport to Pakistan

I've got a dilemma. I was invited to attend a women's expo and fashion show in Pakistan to help the women to create products marketable in the USA and possibly to develop a long term business relationship.
I read the invitation and jumped at the chance. Everything in my being accepted this as a natural course, an eventual progression for my business, my career.
All has been going smoothly, although slowly on my part. I misplaced my passport, was unable to print and thus sign the agreement, the visa application and last night, had difficulty taking and printing a profile photo in order to move on the paperwork. No big deals. No frustrations. Just a slowing of the process. I have all of the paperwork now and shortly will make copies of everything before I send it off later today.
And with each moment I delay, I have to wonder. Is this the right thing to do?
Sure, I want to work with women who NEED the income, NEED to elevate their status to gain respect from men, to gain some leverage in their lives. I want to work with THOSE women. I want to find a worthwhile producer group. To share my now seven years of experience in developing products with another group with other skills/talents. I want to take this opportunity to experience a different culture, afterall, I'm a writer/journalist first and foremost. How can I pass it up!?!
Because of my kids, that's how. I participated in the security briefing for the trip. I have never had a security briefing before, not even when then President Bush came to Mokolodi in 2003. We were told that the country is considered high risk with pockets of violence. Islamabad is where the government resides and so has some dangers but is pretty well protected. The fashion show and expo will all take place in the very nice hotel where we will be staying. I've stayed in 5 star accommodations thanks to my travel writing so staying in a very nice hotel is not a draw for me. I started to shake at the thought of armed security accompanying us everywhere we went, out of necessity, not vanity or protocol. I started noticing my breathing and my heart racing as she told us that should we be evacuated or if there is a problem, the security team was not to be questioned but their instructions followed to the letter. That it's hard to plan the itinerary since daily actions hinged on whether or not we would be safe. Site-visits were being planned, but not to be too disappointed if they did not happen depending on the threats we may have that day. All sobering thoughts.
I went to college, worked and lived in Manhattan. When you travel the world - hell, when you travel outside of the East Coast, the thought of gun violence is synonymous with Manhattan. But I never saw any in the 12 years I was there. I am a journalist and I am fully aware that violence sells newspapers and that is what is covered on the news. Does that mean it is as prevelant as it appears? Apparently in Pakistan, it is.
As each hour ticks away from the moment I decided for myself that I would go, I hear those "rational" voices in my head. I also hear the voices of concerned friends and relatives. My father-in-law, who had been in Pakistan many years ago, told me that the morning they arrived, he picked up the newspaper. The headline was of Americans who were killed while visiting Islamabad. My mother-in-law asked him what was in the news. He folded up the paper and said, "Nothing. Nothing at all." and they attended their conference, required to stay in the hotel unless the group traveled outside of it, were escorted by armed security details and each day, they went a different route to the school they were accrediting. But do you think I should go? I asked him. I would go, he said. Do I think you should go, I can't tell you that, was his response.
In times of indecision, I fall into fear-mode. I relinquish my inner voices and look to the outer ones, which seldom serve me well. I am questioning whether this trip is necessary. If the invitation, perhaps, was a wake up call to me, to get me to act on something I wanted, but didn't know how to achieve. Sometimes, opportunities are just that - cues and clues to what you really want but didn't know you wanted it or how to get it.
What if something does happen? Would my children understand that this is something I HAD to do? Or would they feel as if I abandoned them, chose my NEEDS over theirs? Would they question my loyalty to them, my devotion, my love? I know that every day we face these questions, sure, with more mundane situations, but they are posed to us, each and ever moment of each and every day. What to do, what to do?
I will do what was clearest to me to do. I will send in my passport, my signed contract, visa application and send it all off today. I will wait to see how things unfold. I think that our course in life is changeable (we do have free will), but I also think we have a course in life and there are higher beings that set us on our way. I have been very well taken care of thus far. I trust I will be during this trip as well. I will see how things go.
And today, I will be excited about going to Pakistan. (...and should it be cancelled, I'm sure I will breath that sigh of relief...but today, I'm going to Pakistan!)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Fair Trading of My Life

I'm just coming off the board of the Fair Trade Federation and realizing how entrenched in Fair Trade my life is. I guess I take it for granted that my life is mainstream, but upon closer inspection, it's not.

I started this campaign to make the Poughkeepsie Plaza a Fair Trade Mall because I believe that there's a calling for social justice, environmental stewardship, responsible spending here in the Hudson Valley. With six colleges, Woodstock and New Paltz, just an hour from Albany, this area is teaming with intellectuals, hippies, politicos and young idealist college students.
And that's who shops my store and who would support a destination mall that promoted fair and just payment for labor, the use of sustainable resources, the protection of the environment in the process, while preserving culture.

As I was being interviewed by a grad student doing her dissertation on Fair Trade, I heard myself talking about what the making of a Fair Trade mall meant to me. That there would be at least 50, but I'm hoping 75% of the businesses would carry at least 2 items that are Fair Trade. But as I elaborated, I realized I didn't just want to create a clever marketing ploy, but really support my efforts in a much more substantive way.

By spreading the Fair Trade "status" to other retailers, I knew that would be good for Fair Trade but it also could create competition for me. I was willing to risk that because I really want to see Fair Trade's ideals succeed. What I came to realize is that by making the entire mall, then one day Poughkeepsie, and at some point the Hudson Valley Fair Trade, I was setting myself and my family up to live a fair and just life, to have a fair and just lifestyle.

It's all well and good to talk the talk (god I hate phrases like that, but in this case, it's very true), I wanted to walk the walk. I started buying clothing to stock in the store because I need to wear clothing that doesn't use slave labor in its making. I carry coffee and chocolate, two things our family NEEDS on a daily basis, so that we consumed products that didn't contribute to the unfair wages and in some cases child labor practices in farming coffee and cocoa.

For the women I work with in Botswana, there is no slavery involved. They make jewelry to earn extra income, to live a better life. What I've learned from being involved with Fair Trade is that there are women who are forced into sex slavery by their families so that they can earn money for food, to keep from starving to death. There are greedy candy makers who want a larger profit with no regard for how they get the cocoa, even at the expense of young children. I've learned that women in many countries are beaten, kept from learning to read, enslaved by their families and then their husbands with no way to express themselves or get out of the situation.

Yesterday, a beautiful, well dressed, vivacious woman (one of many), came into the store. She coyly asked if I had any products from the West Coast of Africa. I scanned the store - I had dolls from Sierra Leone, some brass figures from Benin, a mask from Ivory Coast...but I didn't see any of them. I said, no, but I do get some things here and there...Are you from there? I asked. Yes, I'm from several countries (mother from one, father from another, husband yet another) but I live here now, she said with pride...and her story began with her rebellion as a child questioning the way things were. She would be beaten, told she was ugly and stupid, experienced genital mutilation but not without argument and so the beatings continued. She was married off to a man who worked for the UN, but would beat her on a daily basis, walked out of the hospital when she gave birth to a girl (subsequently, she had three girls with this man and she was beaten each time for her unwillingness to give him a son), and one day, she went on holiday in the United States, just her and her daughters and she boldly filed for divorce and then for asylum. She was granted both and five years later, her daughters only know the semblance of the life she led. She told me "I know that I am not stupid, that I am not ugly, and that my life is worth more than what other people's thoughts of me." "The only thing that stops you from doing, from being, is you." "My mother told me that if you wake up and say 'What a beautiful day!' that means you are alive and you are living, living your life."

The sexual inequalities I felt growing up a Filipina-American did not compare to these women. This made me feel that much more certain that my decision that very morning to accept an invitation to join a buyers delegation to Pakistan to work with and potentially buy from women artisans there, was the right decision.

A friend from Mali asked me why I was helping women in Botswana. They are rich. No, the women I work with are not rich - perhaps by comparison since they are not starving to death. They are providing a better life for themselves, their children, their family and their community, sure, but they are not rich. And I think that is why I became involved with them. They were just like me.

At the time, my involvement with them was due to a trip I took without Peter and the kids to experience buying day in the Kalahari. This trip to Pakistan will be my next step in my work supporting Fair Trade, the next step in my journey for self discovery. This time, I'll be reaching outside of my comfort zone and seeing a way of life I'd only heard about. This will be the only other time I will travel without Peter and the kids and I'm looking forward to finding out who I will be afterward and acknowledging who I've become.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Women's Work

I'm posting on Mother's Day because I think my shop's mission is all about being a mother. I made some tough choices over the years including deciding to leave a job I loved at Scholastic to become the primary caregiver to my children. I chose to move out of Manhattan to raise my children in a safer environment. Later, when we moved to Botswana, I chose to leave everyone and everything we knew to open the World up to my kids. Now, with a store that I am consumed with and a mission of fair trade, I choose to give them an example of a life worth living.

Yes, I show them that each of us can make a difference. But what I hope I'm giving them is a world that is fair and just, not only for those who have, but for everyone.

I don't think that in my lifetime the notion of fighting for the equal rights of all will be accomplished. But maybe in my children's lifetime. Maybe their children will not know the term Fair Trade, because all trade will be fair. All children will have the right to an education. There will not be slave labor inflicted to make their t shirts, chocolate, and roadways. I want to leave my children a legacy of caring for others, sure, but more importantly, a better world, a fairer life, a just existance for all.

And that's the work of mothers, I think. So, Happy Mother's Day to all my Women's Work friends, family and affiliates!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day Blessing

While in Botswana, I was lucky enough to work directly with many women's groups. There are many wonderful aspects of each of their cultures, but the culture I identified with most, was the hunter/gatherers.

The Kuru Artists were made up of a group of distinct San people who had a particular gift of self expression. Whether it was painting, handicrafts, dance, song...these natural born story tellers were able to convey their sentiments to their audience - whether or not they spoke a single click or pop! The artists painted or created linoleom block prints of nature and their interaction with "her". The San Bushmen depicted hunting scenes. The San Bush women depicted gathering scenes. Cgoise, one of the older artists, has a beautiful oil on canvas painting where women in modern dress, pick berries from desert bush. Its significance is evident. It touched me profoundly.

When I went out into the desert to meet the ostrich eggshell beaders for the first time, I identified with them. They wanted to stay home to care for their children. So did I. They wanted to help support their family by getting paid for something unique and beautiful that they created, so did I. They wanted to find a happy medium between the expectations and demands of the world and those of their children, so did I. I wanted a sense of purpose, a place of belonging, a way of life that was of my making, and here it was.

Remote as that village was, I never felt so connected and so welcome. No electricity, water, roof over my head, and still I was safe. Never having met any of these women previously, I was moved by the sense of the familiar, familial and they soon became my extended family.

Picture a place where there is nothing between you and the next tree but some shrubs and a vast expanse of red sand. That tree is nearly 15 miles away. Picture the night sky, inky blue with twinkling diamonds sprinkled from one edge of the horizon to the other. Picture a group of chattering women surrounding you with bundles of babies and ostrich eggshell beads enfolded in blankets. Picture a fourteen year old mother crying as her jewelry is returned to her. During this buying day, the buyer from the nonprofit returns her necklaces because they do not meet the quality standards. Nonchalantly, the other women begin unstringing, restringing polishing and piecing beads together to make more acceptable designs. Why is the girl cry? Was she embarrassed? Was she hungry? Was she sick? Or, more probably, she was afraid of being beaten by her child's father if she didn't bring in money for his drink.

I don't remember this incident because I identified with the young mother. I remember it because of that sense of community. That sense of unconditional support and understanding. I remembered it because I wanted to be a part of their group. I wanted to support them and have them support me.

Earth Day has been celebrated on April 22 for the past 40 years. For the San, earth day truly is everyday - as much of a cliche as that sounds, if you waited for rain to bring life to the parched plants that you relied on for food, lived with little shelter from the grit of sandstorms, and felt the burning earth on your tired calloused feet, then appreciating the earth's blessings would come every moment of every day.

And as a woman blessed by the San presence, I see the value in appreciating the earth's bounty each and every day. I am thankful for the gathering of women I am fortunate enough to be associated with, many women that unite under the auspices of Fair Trade at my store and beyond. But mostly, I am made aware of the fact that no matter where we are on this big beautiful planet, we have a connection, we are connected on April 22, 23, 24 and so on from the beginning of time - and that's the blessing I learned from the San Bushmen, the first people.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

My Botswana Snow Day

I'm sitting in our house on this snowy Thursday working on our book, checking emails, posting on Facebook, enjoying being home with the kids. Thursdays are my day home from the store. Even though I don't usually go into the store on weekends, I don't consider that a free day, just the weekend.

So, here we are, all together since this is the second snow day for the kids. I like it. It reminds me of Africa.

We were together a lot. The schools go all year with four months on, one month off. I thought it was great because Peter and I were both self-employed and it allowed our family time to travel as I wrote articles I was assigned and we all enjoyed some pretty awesome adventures!

As I said, I'm writing this book about our life in Botswana. To get back into Botswana, I thought I'd Google the game reserve we managed. Didn't find much, but as is my nature, I didn't stop digging until I found something interesting.

Peace Corps blogs are the first things I find of any worth. Sweet accounts of the slow pace, the cultural differences, the major milestones occurring back in the States making the homesickness that much more palpable even for voyeurs, anonymous and undetected.

I'm crying just thinking about our time there. My memories flood my senses. Things we had gone through are as vivid as if they occurred yesterday. Why is it so tangible for me? Why are the feelings so raw even after nearly four years away? Who am I that the country, the culture, the community never really left me? Why do some people finish their "stint" and move on while people like Peter (and, inadvertently, me) never ever leave?

Oh, don't get me wrong. There were many many days and nights in Botswana that left me wondering how I got there, wondering why I stayed. A black widow resting in my son's motorcycle helmet, scorpions falling from the ceiling onto my daughter's head, snake after poisonous snake curled up on our bed, in our yard, at our window, across the road - yes, a 15 foot python trying to get warm! And then there' s the runaway crocodile that roared like a lion, the charging elephant protecting her young, the hippo munching on grass right outside our tent, and just as bush legend would have it, the hyena that circled our campsite, which our children believe was the very one that swiped a teenage girl from the campfire as her parents helplessly watched.

But the woes of Botswana weren't really the animals, although it would come down to our animals, our dogs being shot by our neighbor that would finally prove to be the last straw. It was the lack of money, ways to make money for foreigners and residents a like that didn't make our life there viable. It would be the distance from one place to the other that would make accomplishing tasks nearly impossible. It would be the cultural differences that would prove puzzling and hindersome. What was the right thing to do? Our children imitate the young boy who came up to us as we stood in line for meat pies. "I'm hungry." he said, "Buy me a pie." So, we did, whereby, the entire line of Motswana customers and the pie-clerks turned on us. "If you buy him a pie, he will pester everyone on this line every day." What to do?

Today, I remember how much I loved living there. Why are we here? I ask myself. Why couldn't we make it work? Sure there are people - Peace Corps Volunteers that leave their host country never to return. But there are oh so many that cannot let it go. Peter, having been stationed in Botswana in the early '80's couldn't shake her from his being. For nearly 20 years, he looked for a way to return until he finally found the job on that fateful game reserve in 2002.

I sit in our comfortable home as my children warm up after playing in the snow and have to smile past the tears. Two different dogs surround me as I write, much the way Oz and Otse did in Botswana. Hell, this is the very same upholstered chair and ottoman that the three of us occupied in two different houses in Africa. Only, this time, we're in a heated house with sheet rock walls and hardwood floors.

This time, I am not writing about the newest bed and breakfast opening in the South African bush. I'm not compiling pictures from the San Bushman Dance Festival I had just covered, or writing about the latest developments at the HIV AIDS conference I just attended. This time, it's personal.

And because it is personal, I have that much more to say than "just the facts, ma'am". I want to bring you to Botswana with us. I want you to see what I saw the way that I saw it. I want you to want to be there too and understand full well why we left, why we remain involved, and why our experiences are significant in today's environment, economy, with today's lifestyle here in the USA.

Here I am writing in a snow storm in Poughkeepsie, NY, about as far away as you can get from our tin roofed, cement block two bedroom double garage door home in Ghanzi and I'm immersed in Botswana...and for today, I can take the day off from my store in the Poughkeepsie Plaza, from our life back in the States, and have a snow day, where I'm in Botswana, in 2003 once again.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Writing a Chapter

I'm starting to write chapters for my book.
I have finally gotten around to reading "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver. Since Peter and I have discussed writing the book together - from his perspective and mine - I like the way this book is laid out. (Of course, it's fiction and ours is not).
I love the different voices giving a chronological view of their life in Africa. Only when the mother "speaks" do you get a sense of the future since she is telling the story looking back.
That's what I have to figure out. Whether or not to tell the story as it unfolds or knowing what I know now, how the story came together in the past.
For a book proposal, you need to have an outline. A list of chapters and a synapses of the chapters. How-to's explain that this is not concrete - the book can change, but it's good to show the progression of the story to the agent, to the publisher.
The story is not always so clear to me. I can't always remember the progression, but rather major happenings that changed my mind, my views, my life.
Writing it down loses something for me. It makes me define some things that I don't know if I feel comfortable making black and white. Putting words to a memory also gives meaning to something that once only had feeling. What if I don't always feel this way? Will the memory now be altered and forced to conform to my latest version on paper (or in this case, digital memory)?
My cousin had an interesting take on Julie and Julia, a memoir made into a movie. He didn't like Julie - thought she was self indulgent. Was not surprised to find that she is now divorced from her husband, the patient saint in the movie. She didn't deserve him, my cousin said. But a memoir, no matter how honest and candid, is only a snapshot of what's really going on. Like all forms of expression, it conveys a message. A book cannot be a rambling mass of words, images, and occurrences. It needs to focus on a one sentence catch phrase. It needs to sum up for the reader one clear concise selling point. Sure, a good book appeals to many different people, who all walk away with a different emotion/idea. But a well crafted book has one central, one main, one distinct voice that gives the reader one finely tuned note.
When you write about yourself, about a time in your life, about something that matters greatly to you, you are at your most exposed. Like a painter's self portrait, a memoir is that glimpse at the true you as you see you.
What if you tell the story, but your reader walks away with a different plot? What if you tell the story and your readers sum you up based on that snippet in your life? What if it's self indulgent, as my cousin summarized Julie of Julie and Julia. What if...
A memoir is just that. It's how you remember your life. In my case, I want to share it not because I am a special person, not because I had extraordinary experiences, not because I want recognition. In my case, I want to share it because it COULD be anyone's story. Anyone/everyone can fulfill their heart's desire. They can take that leap of faith, not falter when an opportunity comes upon them, and trust in their own instincts to follow their heart, fulfill their dreams.
I'm struggling now. I'm stalling actually writing this book. A little bit afraid of all of the usual stuff people are afraid of, plus some things that only I could concoct. . . But as I write things down - sometimes they are just lists of what I'm grateful for, sometimes they are monologues to my brother who has passed on telling him my greatest fear and biggest wish, and sometimes they are the messages great and small that come my way - I see that writing it down helps me to make things clearer.
Writing down chapters I hope will someday be included in this book or perhaps another, I gain a new perspective on myself. Self indulgent as that may sound, it is something everyone should do - record chapters to document moments great and small for themselves, maybe for their children to read one day and maybe, just maybe, for a greater audience of readers who will find a sliver of understanding, a kindred soul, a stroke of inspiration.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Global Women's Work

A young woman entered my shop. Monday was particularly busy after Sunday's newspaper article. I even kept track of people who came in for the first time due to the article, who had seen the article and bought something and those who had been in for the first time without seeing the article.

"I cannot believe I am standing in a store called Women's Work" she told me in her charming Bangledeshi accent. She had just decided to put more effort in her cousin's business. Her cousin 'lives in India where there are so many poor, poor women you cannot even imagine.' she told me. Her cousin teaches them how to do different things so that they can get a job. Because the women are many generations of homeless, they don't even know how to clean properly, use an iron, sew. Her cousin, with her own money and that her of husband, bought these things and takes in these women and teaches them to earn a living.' Smiling from ear to ear, 'and here I am in Women's Work.'

She will bring me some of the things the women have made. Over time, she had taken their things and sold them for her cousin. But now, her cousin asked her to put more effort into it. The women need some success to feel hopeful. They need to sell some things to encourage them to make more. This is a life, she told me, that can change for this woman and her daughter and daughters yet to come. Prostitution, rape, acts of violence are part of their world, their way of life. With income coming from another source, with some self respect, self sufficiency, self reliance, this can be stopped.

Many women came into the store yesterday thanking me...Once, I stammered, "oh no, no need to thank me," I started to say. 'Thank you for having a store like this in Poughkeepsie." she finished. "Oh, yes. Well, it only seemed right."

From the first sale we had in 2006 days after we landed back on New York soil after our life in Botswana, the Unitarian Church Fair Trade Bazaar welcomed us wholeheartedly. That was this very same community.

Today, I got a call with a long lag time. The number on my cell said unavailable which usually means it is from overseas. I don't get as many long distance calls as I make, but lately, people had been seeking me out. This call was from an American who had lived most of his adult life
in Mexico. He was inviting me to come and help the women in his village. I had to smile.

On Sunday, a woman called me while we were doing the show in Long Island. She didn't know if I could help her, but...that's how the requests, inquiries, phone/email/postcards/packages start...an email on Saturday trailed off with, "I'm not sure how to articulate what I am asking now..."

People wanting to help, wanting a venue, a reason, a way. Sometimes, I can't help. Sometimes, all I can do is offer advice. Sometimes, it feels so right and then the project, the idea, the emotion/drive falls away. Sometimes, it all clicks and it all comes together - complete and satisfyingly easy.

I never know what's coming my way. I have gotten much better at dodging trouble - you know, the scenarios that seem too good to be true, and after a long and painful progression, you realize it all too late. The ideas that seem to fit your current state of mind, only to find out that it was a square peg you wanted so badly to fit into a round hole. Or the right premise, but the wrong promise.

I am open to the signs that come my way. I sometimes even write them down. "Today, out of the blue, three people mentioned New Paltz." that kind of thing. Later, you can take a look at those messages and see where you went "wrong" or go "aha!" I knew this would work even way back then!

One sign that keeps creeping up on me is India. I've never had an affinity to India, but time and again I am confronted by it - in Alanna's relationship with the children of the dumps in former Calcutta, in my buddy Jay's connection with the women who weave the trash bags, the popular treeless gift boxes from Sustainable Threads, most recently the young woman and her cousin helping women find work. I say this now because in a year, five years, ten years from now and I've got a store in India, we can all ohh and ah at my astuteness.

I wonder how people find me. Why they choose me even though my website is Botswana-centric, my story too, totally about the San in Botswana, about the ostrich eggshell jewelry. I am astounded that people approach me not just to buy their crafts but also for guidance, kindness, friendship and affirmation. I say I wonder how they find me, but really, I know.

There is a collective mindset that exists and connects all of us.

I chose the name and focus of Women's Work in 2005 because I believed that by targeting women, helping women, empowering women, I could affect the the elderly (our past) and the children (our future), all being taken care of by the caregivers, the women. CARE also adapted that notion in their latest campaign. And over the last two years, women have been the target for many organizations, telling me that my idea was the right one.

Retail/Wholesale in these economic times has been particularly difficult. Many good businesses have had to close. And while Women's Work isn't doing well enough to afford me a salary, I have done what I can to make sure it stays open - for the women artisans, those looking for ways to help, those looking for answers and those needing inspiration to set them on their way.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cold Spring to Poughkeepsie

Patrice came in to tell me she would take the job!

We had spoken the week before about her revamping my Cold Spring store - creating events that showcased Equal Exchange's Rooibus Tea and my connection with the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books; bring Goody Goodies to a new level, where the org would actively promote fair trade products in support of fundraising efforts; formalizing my new idea of supplying fair trade essential and carrier oils and also having a "bar" where people could make their own skincare products...so many ideas I have that stay just that. Patrice could be the person to actually make them happen...

It was the idea of hiring her that prompted my serious look at the store in Cold Spring.

Many factors needed to be addressed:

1. Sales - The Poughkeepsie Plaza store showed me that while we in the USA were still in recession, there was money being spent. The Poughkeepsie Store generated great sales during the holidays! The Cold Spring store did not.

2. Distance - Cold Spring was over 45 minutes away. The day after there was a burglary, when there is snow, when a customer wanted to come in on days we were closed, there was very little I could do about it because we lived so far away.

3. Book - We finally got a book proposal out to an agent. Now, we actually have to write a book! When would I do that with two stores to manage and work in?!?

4. Loyalty - Cold Spring is where Peter, the kids and I have always considered "home". 66 Main St's landlord was our neighbor while we lived in CS and a good, understanding, supportive landlord and friend these past two years. Portia has been an excellent sales person, working full time while we were in Africa two summers ago. I couldn't have wished for a more capable and knowledgeable assistant manager. After 4 years on Main Street, fellow shop owners have been my closest allies which is why I ran for the Board of the Cold Spring Chamber of Commerce. How do I walk away from all of these people?

I don't.

My difficult decision to move the store, which is what I have to do, comes due to all of these factors and so much more. While Women's Work will not have a presence in Cold Spring as of February, I will see if any of the other stores would like to carry some of the products I had done so well with like the Heirloom Rice, Project Have Hope Beads, Equal Exchange coffee/tea/chocolate, to name a few...

From Poughkeepsie, I can post flyers and market events so that the much larger population base here can be made aware of the many happenings in Cold Spring and Garrison - charming, sleepy historic villages that are well worth the day trip from Poughkeepsie and beyond.

And with 66 Main Street's door closing, I can move forward with some of my other projects hopefully with Patrice and most definitely taking all that I've learned from the inception of WW in 2006 to today.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ma Jong

After many dates made and cancelled, my mother finally committed (half-heartedly) to January 3 as a day to commemorate my father's Death Anniversary and a good excuse to have her friends over to play Mah Jong.

I half-heartedly followed her lead, as well. Afraid to commit to a date, to a party for many reasons including snow, fear the house would not be unpacked enough to show people, unpacked enough to find what we needed to throw a party and some reasons I am embarrassed to say here.

As some guests RSVP'd regrets, some came the day before and after the loose invites went out. As an email went unanswered, I quickly made a phone call full of apologies for not responding to a question about final date and time of event. As snow fell again for the fourth day in a row, I wondered if anyone would really come.

As we set up the tables and tried to determine which rooms would be used for buffet service, which for dining, drinks, and the mass that goes along with the commemoration, I realized that my mom and her friends often play Mah Jong until the next morning - shrieking and hooting and hollering all night long. "Why did you make it Sunday instead of Saturday?" I asked, more than a little annoyed. "The Priest couldn't make it Saturday." she answered timidly. "Oh." I responded unpleasantly.

So, as the Priest, a fellow Filipino, was the first to arrive, arranging his makeshift alter in our living room, I groaned to myself. When she said there would be a mass, I went along with it. When I realized it would be "Religious" I regretted my approval.

I raised my children to believe in a higher force, explained to them about my semi-Buddhist beliefs, shared with them my idea that each person is blessed and we should all be grateful for what the Universe gave to us. There was a time in Botswana when religion was an issue at Markham's nursery school. He pointed out to us that the sunshine streaming down in rays through the clouds was the light of God. Ugh! I didn't even have my son Baptised Catholic since I didn't agree with many of the policies of the Catholic Church. But here we were, with a Priest in our house and I could only imagine he'd bring "Jesus" into our home! Ugh!

But he is a nice man and he was kind enough to come to deliver mass to my mom and her friends, and so I was as respectful and friendly and welcoming as I could be. And as he started mass, I realized...

I knew the prayers he recited. I knew when to stand up and when to make the sign of the cross. I had to correct my son's attempts at it, telling him to use his right hand because he didn't even know that. And as the mass went on and he continued to speak, I listened.

Today turned out to be the perfect day for the celebration of my father's death, according to the Priest. Today, was the day the wise men finally found Jesus. They brought gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, finding him in Bethlehem days after his birth. They came late because they were deterred by their expectations, arriving in Jerusalem and approaching the King's palace, not following the Star. They only found Jesus after retracing their steps and once again looking to the light of the star to guide them.

On the Alter my mom created on our old chipped stained coffee table we bought for a few Pula at an auction in Botswana, there was a baby Jesus in a cradle. Just before Christmas, a husband and wife entered my store. "Are you Corazon Dinio Durkin? " the gentleman asked. "Well, no." and I hesitated wondering where this was going. "Why do you ask?" I responded, trying to not sound too much like a jerk. "Let's see...I have a baby Jesus..." My mom had asked him to repair this baby Jesus, all cracked, leg nearly broken off, fingers missing. I remembered it in the manger my mom would put out each year during Christmas. He had fixed it and wondered if I would bring it to Cora. Sure, we were now living together so it was easy. But he had brought it into my store and I kept forgetting to carry the heavy bulky parcel home. And when I finally did get it to my car, that's where it stayed for a few days as I kept forgetting about it in the back seat. When my mom finally got it, she was tickled to see how beautiful the Baby now was.

We had barely unpacked from our move in November when Peter and I would flee to Boston for Cultural Survival Bazaars. There was no Christmas Tree until days before Christmas and there weren't many decorations. Certainly, no place for a large nearly life-size Baby Jesus.

As the mass continued, everything seemed to fall into place. The date was fitting because not only did the Baby Jesus come to rest in a home that was welcoming (room at the "inn), this Priest, with his wise words found us, giving us gifts and telling us to follow the light - the light that is found in the children, the true light that guides us to the true gifts, and a better understanding of faith. My father, the Priest said, had a way of always uniting family and friends and he did it again today. Brought my mother's Mah Jong friends together again, welcoming them to our new home, and reminding me, in particular, of the wonderful community my father had created in Poughkeepsie, in his house, in our home.

As the familiar sounds of the Tagalog exclamations rang down the hallway, the clacking of the Mah Jong tiles being slapped down, stacked, and shuffled, I feel my dad finally followed the Light of God and it shone down on our home and it was found in the warmth of family and friends congregating together, giving our children the protection, adoration, and love that extended family gives willingly, unconditionally and with great gusto.

For 2010, I see a future filled with promise based on acknowledgment and knowledge of the past.
Happy New Year, everyone!