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.