Work these past few days has been a test of my independence, and patience too. Nest and I have been trying to set up a meeting with their business partner here, La Casa, that coordinates with multiple artisan groups around the country. I had been interested to see Max's workshop in the highlands and how Nest was incorporated to the Guatemalan culture. When I went to see the workshop last week, Max seemed eager to welcome me to his home and workplace, but also apprehensive to immediately start sharing details about La Casa and their entire production process. By conferencing with Nest, myself, and also Max and some of the La Casa staff, one could hope for a more clarified understanding of my purpose in Guatemala and a smooth transition for all parties. Although this meeting couldn't take place last week, I spent most of my time waiting researching other artisan groups in Guatemala that Nest had recommended I look into. All of them seemed really interesting, worth traveling to, and getting to know. However they were fairly spread out around the country, and although Guatemala isn't all that big, I felt more comfortable making my first solo journey to a more feasible location.
I was really interested in a group located in San Juan de la Laguna, right next to the town of San Pedro (an 55 queztal shuttle ride from my hostel). Sonny and Alex, whom I'd met while staying at Villa Esthela, were going to Spanish school in San Pedro as well, so I figured 'por que no'? So, this past weekend I took a break from the "bustle" of Antigua and headed northwest about three hours to the beautiful region of Lake Atitlán. The road there winds back and forth through the highlands of Guatemala - beautiful farmland scattered with quaint little groups of houses and stores. Definitely not the ride for travelers with fair stomachs, the people there drive crazy despite all the blind turns! Towards the end of the trip you come around yet another sharp turn, but all of a sudden there is a breathtaking view of an impressively sized lake, completely surrounded with jungly-looking mountains. Between every couple of mountains (one or two of which are volcanoes), lie little towns with populations of anywhere from 3,000 to 40,000. We drove through a couple before we reached San Pedro.
I knew that my friends were staying at a hostel called Hotel Pinnochio, but navigating through San Pedro at first seemed much more difficult than grid-like Antigua. The streets were hardly wide enough for one van, so 3-wheeled tuk-tuks dominated most of the traffic. We were dropped off on a street on which I couldn't find a name for, and were almost immediately surrounded by men and some children who were trying to lead us to various hostels, hoping to earn some commission. Luckily they didn't follow for too long, and about a half hour later I was able to find Pinnochio. At 9:45 the next day, after a great breakfast of local coffee (yummmmm) and banana bread, I took a 20 minute tuk-tuk ride to San Juan, the next town over.
I was meeting Elmy Hernandez to learn about the various artisan groups she was in charge of and the products that they made. I was immediately impressed when I walked into her shop, Xuaan Chi Ya. There was such a variety of products of great-looking quality and design and she seemed eager to inform me about their business.
I noted Elmy's warmness as soon as we got into her office. We sat down and she opened up so easily, describing the community and company to me. According to Elmy, San Pedro is a town of about 12,000 people, 55% of which are women. Aside from crafting, its primary economy is agriculture (coffee, tomatoes, onions, etc.), and is handled by men mainly. After Hurricane Stan in 2005 however, the agricultural market obviously suffered and that of artisan crafts started booming. But, like seen in any old economic situation, a change in the quantity should affect a product's pricing. To this day, many artisan groups struggle with fair pricing; at that time however only certain associations were receiving stable support from government organizations for example, and competition ensued. Eventually, 8 of these groups formed to what is now Xuaan Chi Ya, which Elmy is in charge of.
Xuaan Chi Ya's brand is Los Zumos, which represents the characteristics of strength, essence, vigor, and vitality. The 8 associations of artisans that represent this brand are: Asociación Bellas Cristalinas, Asociación Ixoqajkem, Artesanas de San Jose, Artesanos de San Juan, Manos Especiales, Qomaneel, Rupalaj Kistalin, and Chajil Chapup.
The presence of the Mayan culture struck me as still very prevalent in not only the names of the groups, but also in the town and Elmy's products. She explained to me that in addition to their 2 tourism lines (one for the land and one for the lake), they also worked with medicinal plants and a variety of natural and synthetic materials to make hygiene products and artisanal crafts. When I asked her about all of the products they made, she kept listing them off! Bags (beach and shopping), scarves/shawls, ponchos, make-up bags, purses, laptop cases, satchels, earrings, hammocks, pillows, tablecloths, decorative baskets, napkins, placemats, coasters, aprons, towels, gloves, pot holders, infant attire, soaps, shampoos, teas, candles...the list goes on!
Because there is such a variety of products, Elmy's team uses many different materials and techniques, depending on the product the artisan is making. Cotton, natural sheep wool, maguey (similar to agave), tulle (both the male and female plant), leather, and recycled materials are commonly used.
They use various dyes, some from from a certified producer, and others that are natural and made directly from plants. While some artists learn these skills through workshops, many of them (including Elmy) have been weaving since 8 or 10 years old. The majority of Mayan girls are taught varying artisanal techniques including how to use either a waist or a foot loom, or sewing machines. Because of the fragility of some of the materials or products, as well as the importance of tradition, Elmy's groups use machinery sparingly.
Overall, I left Elmy's very impressed and excited - I am interested to see where Nest wants me to go from here. I'm anxious to have this meeting with Max, La Casa, and Nest so I feel a little bit more productive during the day. Having this "down time" to do more research gives me the freedom to walk around Antigua when I want to, but there is only so much I can find out about a group without a trip there. Hopefully we're all on the same page soon.
So I'm back in Antigua now. The rest of my weekend was pretty relaxing - good and cheap food, lots of hammock lounging, and I took some great pictures! It's funny how my little room with no windows has become such a homey place, it was so great to be back to the hostel...just in time too because I started feeling kind of sick - must have been something I ate. Still waiting patiently to get a better understanding of what I should be doing day by day, but I really am enjoying my time here...taking pictures, sampling food, meeting people from all over. It's strange to think that I have just over a month left!