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, 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.