Monday, November 30, 2009

Goodbye to Guatemala

Tomorrow I leave this land of eternal spring where I have spent close to the last two weeks experiencing the Guatemalan side of Mayan Hands, traveling to villages, enjoying the company of my companions and being well cared for by our hosts...

but most of all getting to see the women in their homes where they produce the weaving we purchase in the United States at church and home sales, from the website, in Fair Trade stores thoughout the country.

It has been an exceptional experience. Our guide Deb was right, our itinerary changed but almost always in new and interesting ways. We spent days traveling together documenting and getting to know small pieces of a country that have sustained a weaving tradition for thousands of years.

We have met women who struggle to support their families and build peace in their families and nation. I have been amazed at the resplendent colors and the seemingly unending challenges of simply surviving day to day.

Goodbyes are always somewhat melancholy but maybe I have grown used to them with all the traveling I have done. I have a friend who never says goodbye at all... She just always assures me we will see each other again.

That is how I feel as I leave.

Hasta la proxima!

Please check back for photos and for other posts about the experience and sales and news in December. More to come! Great to have you traveling with me.

The Legendary Market of Chichicastenango

On Saturday we arrived in Chichi (as natives call it here and it means place of the stinging nettles) a beautiful city in the highlands at a higher altitude than we had previously visited. My traveling companions were rested and refreshed after their adventure out in Morales overnight. Our host in Chichi, Juana, was making sure at every step that people were rested, well fed, comfortable. Thank you, Juana.

On Saurday Juana brought us to a sacred Mayan altar high on a hillside outside the city. We had purchased candles for our intentions and to honor the energy of the day (the sign of water ... one of thirteen days in the Mayan calendar). A local shaman was using the site for his own prayer. We lit candles and placed them on the altar.

We were all grateful to Juana for sharing her belief system and teaching us about this ancient tradition. She also welcomed us into her gallery located in her family home where she told us about the groups of women who make paper and then paint tradition symbols onto the paper to earn an income. Juana has just started as a field worker with Mayan Hands though she has many year of experience with groups.

Everyone was setting up for the Sunday market and it seemed the town did not sleep!

Waking up early on Sunday and walking the whole market, the local and the tourist, was lots of fun. Colors, textures, vendors hawking their goods, abundant flowers for sale to offer in the churches, local fruits like granadilla...

Please come back. I will post a photo that will transport you there.

Travel home tomorrow and visiting some sites today nearby and getting ready for the transition home.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Overnight in Morales after Vasconcelos

That´s how the rest of my group spent yesterday. I am curious to see them this morning after their unplanned night out in a village since the road was closed to Panajachel. I returned at midday with Mayan Hands accountant, Julio Cardona who was kind enough to give me a ride back to the hotel since I was feeling under the weather.

Fine now but really curious about the night out in the village.

Our visit yesterday in the morning to Vasconcelos was quite interesting. The women their make many of the fine table runners, jaspe and honeycomb weave, that Mayan Hands has available for sale.

The group of about 10 women gave us a demonstration of how they wash and prepare the cotton thread. They use a warping board to create the warp and also use atole to strengthen the thread used for the warp.

They use small sticks and pieces of wood as heddles and pieces of the loom. I am fascinated by this process. While I have been a quilter for many years, I have never learned to weave. This may be the start of something.

It takes about 2 days to prepare the yearn and then to set up the loom for work. Yesterday the women told me that it takes about four additional days to weave a jaspe tablerunner. The women work and care for children at the same time. In Vasconcelos we were surrounded by chickens and serenaded by the turkeys in a pen nearby. Children played around us. Men were working in the field cultivating corn and beans.

When you buy Mayan Hands products, you are supporting a traditional lifestyle, supporting income for women, supporting the education and alimentation of children. The women have had a difficult year. Sales are down. Their incomes are down.

Their spirits are not. While there are no new orders for December, they have hopes for the new year. So do we.

Panabaj, Santiago Atitlan, 11-25

Let me back track a bit. On the day before Thanksgiving, we visited a group in Panabaj that weaves on a backstrap loom (oh yes pictures would help here, but imagine the weaver strapping the loom around her waist, attaching it to a post and kneeling on a palm mat to do her work).

They make the Children of the World products, woven with beautiful colors with impeccable technique.

We met at the home of the leader of the group Maria Victoria. Panabaj is located minutes away from the town of Santiago Atitlan, one of the villages along the magnificent Lago Atitlan. As we crossed from Panajachel in a launch, we could see all the volcanoes around the lake, the fisherman out in boats and the terrible algal bloom of coliform bacteria that has been caused by sewage flowing directly into the lake since Hurrican Stan in 2005.

The women not only make these products they clothe themselves in a woven traje that includes a shirt, huipil and a skirt, corte. Each village has a traditional style of weaving, a color scheme, and symbols that have significance in the Mayan cosmology. In these villages birds are particularly important... We could see them, from herons to kingfishers, all along the shoreline.

Their huipiles are covered with birds. Embroidered, woven... The birds have flown right onto the cloth. Just as I suspected. There is a surfeit of beauty here amongst all the difficulty.

Thanks for reading. Today we go to Chichicastenango to visit Juana (the Mayan Hands fieldworker) who has also been involved in her own project making paper and teaching women to paint using acrylics. This should be really interesting.

Oxlajuj B´atz´ or Thirteen Threads

Our group spent Thanksgiving at the offices of Oxlajuj B´atz´, an education project of the umbrella organization that includes Mayan Hands. It is a sister project that focuses on education and empowerment and sends community faciliatators into the field to work with many of the same weavers groups I have written about.

In the morning we listened to a presentation by Ramona, the director and an American living here in Pana and her three community faciliators, Hilda, Lucia and Maria, all Mayan women.

The turkey was roasting and it was inspring to listen to the three personal stories of Hilda, Lucia and Maria. They have struggled to combine work and family, to empower themselves and then to offer that to the women they work with in the villages. They show incredible patience and stamina. Their smiles would light up any room they walk into.

They joined us for a Thanksgiving feast! We had 22 around the table representing three Mayan languages, English and Spanish. Everyone offered thanks as we went around the table before tasting the turkey, potatoes, gravy and much much more. There was even pumpkin pie for dessert. Thank you Deborah Chandler for the organization and effort that went into the meal!

We were grateful for many things, most of all the opportunity to share our cultures with each other, learn about work being done and strive to build the bridges between people and countries that may help us to create peace and justice in the future.

Meltiox! Thank you!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

La Sopa Esta Lista

That´s what our driver Santos said as the women of Xeabaj, Santa Apolonia, Chimaltenango brought their potful of dyed pine needles out of the common house where they prepare materials for the pine baskets sold by Mayan Hands.

We laughed and so did the women.

Visiting them on Tuesday, 11-24, was very special because we were accompanied by both Mayan Hands fieldworkers, Teresa Gomez (who I have written about) and Juana Xiloj. We had a taste of what the fieldwork is like. We heard much more of the particular Mayan language in that region which Juana translated with ease.

The women dye pine needles they collect and then weave with raffia into baskets of different shapes and sizes. Another way of using their consummate skills at creating beautiful things.

Sorry about the lack of images. I will post photos with each entry when I arrive home. Technology is not permitting me to transfer photos from the camera to public computers... so the next time I will have to give you photos with the word.

In that particular visit to Xeabaj, we entered into the altiplano, the highlands. The green fields lay below the house where we watched the women demonstrate techniques, the men worked cultivating lettuce for sale in the market and clouds covered the hillsides wherever we looked. The landscape of agriculture and mountains together amazes me. Picture corn beans and squash cultivated on very steep slopes!

You will love the pictures and thank you for reading.

Giving Thanks

So far, when we have met with groups of weavers, as they introduce themselves they also express their thanks for the work they have through Mayan Hands and for our visit to them. Their words have been beautiful in their different Mayan languages... and by reading the expressive faces and then understanding the words in translation, we have all heard that they are so grateful for the opportunity to sell their products at a price much higher than what they would receive in the market here. Until this year, they have had steady work.

The groups in San Rafael, Chuaperol, Xeabaj and Panabaj have been gracious hosts welcoming us into their homes, showing us their techniques, even teaching us some simple weaving methods.

So we have been thanked everywhere we go. This Thanksgiving is special being out of the country and surrounded by traveling companions who I must admit are very easy to travel with. Kate comes from California and has worked her whole career in public health. She is a weaver and really knew what she was doing when she sat in front of a loom. Her Spanish is excellent and I am taking many cues from her!

Anne and Mark come from the Capital District of NY and we are finding many intersections and commonalities between us. Anne brings great snacks, think dried cranberries. Mark, a photography teacher at Emma Willard School in Troy, NY is taking great photos that he promises to share. He is also offering the Mayan Hands women family portraits which they really enjoy posing for!

So grateful. Especially to you who are reading this. Enjoy this day. Hello and love to friends and family far away. A turkey is roasting for us and we will learn about a weaving education program this morning that works together with Mayan Hands to support the weavers, Oxlajuj B´atz´which means Thirteen Threads. The sun is shining and the air is cool.

I am especially thankful for the strong women I am meeting here who remind me of all the strong women in my life! Thank you and you know who you are... Meltiox!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Unidas Para Vivir Mejor

Well, be patient. I have not figured out the photo connection to my camera yet. Hmmm, hard to find time for it but maybe tomorrow! Trust me, it is will worth your while to check back to see this beautiful country and the women of Mayan Hands.

So, UPAVIM (Unidas Para Vivir Mejor) is an interesting cooperative of 80 women which we visted yesterday before leaving La Capital, as natives call Guatemala City.

We spent the morning touring the buildings and hearing from women about their program areas. They run a school, a day care program, a craft/sewing program and a business program which includes a neighborhood bakery.

Oh, and I forgot to tell you. They are located in one of the poorest neighborhoods built up from a squatters camp that started twenty years ago. Now these women and their children thrive in a safe place where mothers can work, check on their children and know that they are safe throughout the day.

Find out more at

I just set up my first hot link. Photos should not be far behind.

Turkey day tomorrow!

Happy to be part of the problem and the solution!

That´s what Mayan Hands fieldworker just said about her work with the women weavers. Her name is Teresa and she is what our guide calls a firecracker. Twenty'seven years old, she has worked three years with MH and put much of here heart and soul into the work.

Today we traveled across Lake Atitlan to Santiago Atitlan. There are almost no words for the beauty of this caldera lake surrounded by volcanoes. We spent the morning with women of Panabaj who lived through the mudslides of Hurrican Stan and continue to produce beautiful products like the Children of the World purses.

Ahh, so much to tell you all. I need to learn to post pictures quickly form camera to hotel computer. Let me spend some time learning that and try to post later!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Back in the City from Baja Verapaz

We returned yesterday from Rabinal. In the morning we visited the local cemetary that houses many colorfully decorated crypts and three monuments to the three mass graves in the site that date from La Violencia in the early 1980s. Of all my traveling companions, I am the least knowledgeable about that time in history so I am learning a lot. Many campesinos were killed by the military. The region we visited was particularly hard hit.

That same morning before the visit to the cemetary we saw Paulino who makes tablecloths and placemats with his wife Mariana at Chuaperol. He was checking the pattern for a sample of cloth they will produce. He told us his father was one of the campesinos killed in 1981. As a result, he fled the countryside and spent a lost decade in Guatemala City until he returned and met Mariana.

It makes me think about the importance of security in all of our lives and on what that depends. We norte americanos at least most of us are so fortunate not to have to live in a daily state of fear or hunger or insecurity. Reliable income is necessary to overcome that insecurity and create solid communities. Mayan Hands helps to provide a steady, predictable income to women and families in some of the hardest hit areas of this ruggedly beautiful country.

Today we visit Upavim, a women´s cooperative here in the city. We leave for Pana in the afternoon and will meet Teresa and Juana, fieldworkers for the programs in the highlands.

I will post photos when our schedule slows down a bit! Mark Van Wormer, husband of Anne Kelley and traveling companion is taking some amazing shots. I cannot wait to share them with you.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Two groups of weavers near Rabinal

We spent the morning in San Rafael meeting a group of Mayan women who have been weaving scarves for Mayan Hands for many years. I had my first weaving lesson surrouded and supported by more than fifteen women all gathering around me showing me how to use a backstrap loom. Quite a spiritual experience.

Then we moved in the afternoon to the home of Mariana and Paulino leaders of another weaving group that have not had enough work this year because sales are down. They make the beautiful placemats and tablecloths found on the website.

It is difficult to describe the mood aong the weavers who have been unemployed for some time. They told us they were triste.

So were we.

The solution seems to be to sell as much of the existing inventory as possible and seek new markets at the same time. Lots of work and imagination will get the job done. Winding down at the end fo the day but will try to post some photos tomorrow.

Back to the city to visit a sewing coop in the toughest part of GC.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Guatemala City, Mayan Hands warehouse

We are here! Flights, late night arrivals, delayed baggage and in spite of all that, we are now well rested and ready for the travel ahead. Guatemala City is beautiful. Our hosts have been gracious and entertaining.

As I write, Deborah Chandler (Mayan Hands Program Director extraordinaire and our guide for the trip) and her assistant Julio Cardona, are giving us a tour of the warehouse where they work and provide supplies and store completed product.

We just looked at a room full of colorful cotton threads from which the weavings are made. The group of us (we are four and I will tell you about us soon in another post) have been discussing how Mayan Hands particpates in the Fair Trade movement. What Anne Kelly (Fair Trade promoter for the New York State Labor Religion Coalition and fellow traveler, check them out!) has taught me on this trip is that Fair Trade is many things and her definition keeps changing.

Fair Trade is about relationships. Fair Trade has a community development piece. Fair Trade is about fair wages, fair and just treatment of the earth. It is about sustainability. It provides people with the ability to retain traditional lifestyles when global pressures are forcing rural people into urban areas in the developing world.

Today we are learning about these artisan businesses. Mayan Hands is a member of the Fair Trade Federation. Check out their website. I will post a hot link soon.

This afternoon we will travel to Rabinal, a village four hours from here. Tomorrow we will visit weavers who create the Mayan Hands products. The Mayan people are supported by the crafts you buy through this fair trade business. I will be writing about them. I will try to comunicate th beauty and the challenge of their lives. A traditional people living in a culture more than 5,000 years old has much to teach us.

The Mayan Hands website will show you beautiful items made in Rabinal! More later on that!

Be well and I will write soon.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Living with beauty

I have been living with Mayan Hands products for quite a few years now. We have two large tablecloths (both gifts from generous friends), placemats we use every day at our kitchen island (they wear so well) and a beautiful table runner that I put on a painted dresser in our main room.

The colors make me happy. The work of human hands warms my soul and my home. The quality of the goods has always impressed me. I feel connected to craftswomen who have the dignity of work. I have been a contented customer.

In April 2009, Brenda Rosenbaum (founder of Mayan Hands) asked my husband Ricardo and I to join her board. We considered it and answered an enthusiastic: Yes! We have both known Brenda since her time as an anthropologist at UAlbany, before we were married.

So far, we have contributed some time at Board meetings, worked at a sale and helped pack for the busy season of fall church and community sales in the Albany, NY area. We are enjoying getting to know a very committed group of workers and volunteers.

Tomorrow, I will be able to make the connection between the products I have lived with, a Fair Trade organization I have admired and the women who produce the weavings in Guatemala. I expect I will learn what my guidebook describes is the “terrible beauty” of the country after a score of years of warfare. My eyes are wide open. It is through darkness we enter the light.

What a priviledge. Thank you.

A friend asked how she could help Mayan Hands. How? It’s easy. Do some of your holiday shopping at a sale or on the website at

I think you will find something you’d like to give or get on the website.

The colors will inspire you, you’ll be supporting a women’s empowerment project and you will be living with the beauty of something handmade. When I return, I will be hosting a home sale in December… stay posted for the date.

And have fun! I will too…

We are all Americans

Guatemala. Central America. As my sister-in-law in Colombia said, "We are all Americans." I am looking forward to seeing a new part of our continent, meeting Mayan women and seeing what their weaving work means to them.

Check this out:


My husband Ricardo created a map of the country using Google. He will update it with the itinerary as the Mayan Hands group I travel with makes its way around to different highland villages.

Will add images to the blog soon! Packing today. Ah, travel...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

From the Mayan Hands website at

"We work with 10 groups (about 200+ women), who inhabit different rural communities in the highlands of Guatemala. Working together, we design textiles that fit the tastes of people in the international market; then we seek out markets for them that pay a fair return to the women. Additionally, we work together with other organizations to offer oportunities to our weavers in many areas, including scholarships and school supplies for their children, home improvements, micro-lending, training in new skills and techniques, as well as classes in gender awareness, domestic violence, conflict resolution, and herbal medicine.

Our weavers produce the exquisite, high quality products that we proudly offer you. The backstrap loom is a painstaking art form, whereby even experts weave only one inch of brocaded cloth per hour. Considering this, we think their craftwork is very reasonably priced and hope you'll agree. Moreover, with a Fair Trade market, you can rest assured that your purchases allow these talented weavers to make a modest, but regular income with which they can feed their families better, send their children to school, and harbor dreams for a better future.

Our Grandmother, the Moon, taught the first woman to weave on a backstrap loom more than three thousand years ago. Among many Maya groups, women still experience Our Grandmother coming to them in their dreams and teaching them this complicated art form."

I am looking forward to meeting these weavers and seeing how they live. What beautiful products they produce. I can only imagine that they live with beauty around them and in them.

Leaving Thursday!

Buen viaje todos