NOTES FROM A FOOTBAG PEDDLER
I buy footbags. It is my livelihood, although not my sole means of survival. This past year, I traveled to Guatemala to buy footbags, but the trip wasn’t strictly business — I brought my wife of 1.5 years along for promised sightseeing and to visit friends.
Planning a footbag buying trip to Guatemala is not like traveling to a more developed country. There are some special preparations and considerations before traveling one must take. As a trader, I take great precautions, especially on my recent trip with a new wife in my care. First I checked the US Government for tourist alerts. There were severe warnings about violence, even in the colonial town of Antigua, a normally quiet tourist haven that I use as a home base. I then checked with my American ex-patriot friends who live in Guatemala. They confirmed the violence was a result of a recent guerrilla peace accord but the violence was mainly directed at nationals. But the unemployed guerrillas had turned their weapons towards a few well-off tourists. “You’ll have no problem,” our Guatemalan friends said, “just look like a typical, broke, hippie tourist.” Sounded safe enough to me, so I booked our flights.
Keeping a low profile in Guatemala is difficult when you’re nearly 6 foot and blond headed. I intended to avoid the markets where most business transacts, so I arranged my connections on off market days or in private homes. Our lodging was pre-arranged at hotels owned by friends or at private residences with people whom I have known for years. I wanted this trip to be part explorative vacation and to appear as such. Traveling with my wife would help. I prepared my wife for the “adjustments” of Guatemalan travel.
We took minimal luggage — a dirty-looking daypack to tote our minimal clothing. We’d flash no jewelry, watches, cameras or new footwear. We would travel by bus or tourist bus to avoid being stopped by the police (the only time I was ripped off was by the Guatemala National Police who specifically target vehicles returning from the market towns, trump up charges and then confiscate goods). I never rent cars because driving is risky – Guatemala City is the only place in Latin America where you can’t get auto insurance.
Petty crime has always been a problem in Guatemala. In the past, pickpocketing, theft and occasional robbery has been a nuisance at most. Violent crimes used to befall just Guatemalans. However, the week before we left, a group of 20 tourists and their three Spanish teachers hiked to a local Antigua viewpoint and were robbed at gunpoint. A Guatemalan Spanish teacher was killed because she recognized one of the attackers. Even after the assailants were caught by local police and fingered by witnesses, the police let them go for lack of evidence! The witnesses, two Spanish teachers, subsequently disappeared from town for their own safety.
Guatemala is a different world. Justice and values aren’t as we Gringos perceive them. One asks what is wrong after learning that, when someone is hit by a car, the victim is left in the street bleeding to death because upon arrival by the police, any individuals standing around are arrested and charged with a crime. The proper response is to leave the scene as fast as possible, especially Gringos, as they are always blamed for mishaps and must pay for damages of all cars involved, lost time from work for all participants, funeral fees of the deceased as well as compensation to the police for their time. Guilty till proven innocent. On a previous trip I met an American who had driven down. I asked how the trip was, “not so good,” the tired-looking traveler said, “I hit and killed an old Indian on the highway on the way south. Walked right in front of my Suburban. Of course I had to drive away. I wish I could find the poor family and give them some money at least to cover funeral expenses, but I can’t get caught as you know what that means.” Welcome to Guatemala.
The impetus for the trip was hand crocheted footbags. My mission was to maintain the flow of Guatemalan footbags throughout the upcoming season. After years of overstuffed and shoddy product, we were finally getting the quality we desired in beautiful colors and designs that are unmatched by any production center in the world. And to think, each of the tens of thousands of footbags I saw was unique because they are handmade.
The weavers of our bags — the Mayans of Guatemala — have developed an unparalleled sense of artistry expressed through their weavings which has flourished from the 1500’s when the first Spanish conquerors repressed their native “barbaric” religions, and to an extent continues to this day. Using brilliant colors and geometric designs, the Mayans have woven their history into cloth instead — stitched figures and symbols representing Gods, stories and myths that link their daily lives with their surroundings. Where much of the Mayan culture was repressed or went underground, their history lives on in their colorfully designed products including footbags. I feel lucky to be able to propagate that heritage.
We met with our Guatemalan suppliers and arranged for sufficient production to meet our needs for the impending holiday season. Footbags in Guatemala have been selling well and we needed to make sure that everybody would be served — from our customers in North America to the individual Mayan weavers who sit on their earthen-floored homes during off-hours knitting for a consumer market far, far removed from their very existence. Most Guatemalans who make footbags earn a couple extra dollars to supplement their average daily wage of about $1.50 earned tilling their fields, cutting wood or picking coffee beans during the season. We organized production in about 200 villages high in the mountains to produce a high quality footbag that is unavailable in any Guatemalan public market. Our Guatemalan staff must deal with a country of 54 separate Mayan dialects and roads generally impassable except during the dry season. How they do it is beyond me.
With business behind us, we also visited a natural hot springs resort away in the mountains with an American friend who opened a bar in Quetzeltenango, the second largest city in Guatemala. “My bar is a refuge from that Macho stuff found elsewhere in Guatemala,” says the former Texan. “You can sit down and eat a bug-free meal in peace, listen to good music and not worry about being ripped off.” His remedy for success? “When I see the first sign of anyone acting up, hassling women, or playing that Macho game — I react,” he says. “But I don’t embarrass them in front of their Guatemalan friends by making a scene and asking them to leave. I wait until he goes to the bathroom and I quietly follow him in, block the door, collar him and warn him that if he continues with that macho stuff in my bar, I am going to beat the crap out of him. If he plays coy with me, I put my gun down his throat. I don’t have problems. Either they shape up or they never come back again.”
I am pleased to report that our trip went well for a Guatemalan trip. We chose only the tidiest of express buses since some of the local buses are improperly maintained (the precipitous roads to the high mountain trading towns are notorious for spectacular accidents). Seated in our crowded buses, we found little disturbance. We traveled with the locals and their chickens or goats, and put up with the frequent peddlers of chicklets and homemade burritos (that looked quite suspect). My wife and I even had time to visit the spectacular ruins at Tikal. My wife wasn’t thrilled that we each ran into bouts of gastric distress, but no hospital stays were required.
Despite the ongoing unrest, people living and working in Guatemala love the place as does this trader and author. Gringos aren’t the victims of most of the violence, just the targets for crime if allowed to be. Doing business in Guatemala takes a well-informed network of friends and business associates that know how to avoid the many roadblocks. If you intend on visiting or doing business there, do your homework, expect constant delays and be prepared for a different culture and business ethnic. And be prepared to grow within yourself.
Copyrighted by Josh Gerak