I bought my first Guatemalan weaving, a hand-woven 'guipil' (Mayan blouse), in 1974 on my first trip to Mexico and Central America, 44 years ago. In fact I bought it near my present office here in Panajachel where I sit at this very moment. I'm shocked to think I've been here this long (one could make the argument that I haven't gone very far in life), but it's been interesting. Where has the time gone?
After my initial foray down what was then called the 'Gringo Trail', I went back to Boulder, Colorado (in the U.S.) and finished university. I then tried my hand at construction, but it didn't take. In 1980 I'd had enough of pounding nails and with my savings went to Mexico with the dream of coming back to Guatemala and getting into exporting Guatemalan handicrafts. However, with the Guatemalan civil war raging, it was too dangerous. I ended up buying hammocks in Merida, Mexico, which sold quite well in Texas.
Over the next two years in addition to buying in Mexico, I went to Peru and Bolivia and bought alpaca sweaters, which I peddled on the surprisingly generous streets of New York City. In 1983 I flew to Brazil and traveled by land through South America and back to the US looking for handicrafts, however my first love was Guatemala. It still is. It's also where I found the best handicrafts.
That year I finally made it back to Guatemala and I've been here pretty much ever since. Eventually I designed and manufactured a line of bags and accessories under the brand Uccelli, which some of you who were in the business way back when might remember. It was sold throughout the U.S. and Europe.
By the mid 1990s Guatemalan handicrafts went out of fashion, and with it went Uccelli. I got into promoting Guatemalan travel online, my best known site being on Lake Atitlan (atitlan.com) next to Panajachel. I've been working in travel and web design ever since.
A few years back I ran into an old customer who asked me when I was going to get back into 'tipica' (short for 'ropa tipica' or Mayan typical clothing). My first thought was: 'been-there-done-that', but then I had always toyed with the idea of getting back into it eventually. "You should." He said. I asked why. "Because it's what you know how to do."
In the 1980s Panajachel was a very remote corner of the planet and not just geographically. It took me seven years to get a phone line — seven years — I kid you not! I truly enjoyed working with the Mayans. It wasn't easy, but their problems tended to be cultural — essentially not understanding how we foreigners work and visa-versa. After decades of selling to 'gringos' they have adjusted to our way of doing things, and we to theirs. The Guatemalans are hard-working people who in their own way get a lot done. Back then the even bigger issue was the difficulty of selling to and, worse yet, collecting from clients in the U.S. and Europe.
Those problems are things of the past (well, maybe not completely but much more so than before). Realtime communication is not just possible, but easy and cheap. Now anyone with twenty bucks in their pocket can get a phone number. The ability to make a quick call has eliminated my having to get on a boat or bus and go to a supplier's house and knock on their door. I enjoyed my trips into the hinterlands, but it was not the most efficient way to get things done. Best of all, online payment systems have made 'The check's in the mail' absolutely obsolete.
Now Guatemalan handicrafts can be sold direct to anyone anywhere. Now Mayan weavers can reach potential customers in every corner of the world.