Discovering Fair Trade in Guatemala, Part 1

On the trail of the Monkey’s Fist, 2006

When Red Oxx Manufacturing co-owner Jim Markel traveled to Guatemala, he discovered a fair trade human interest story. It all started with those handy little cords on all of our travel bags. The ones that make it easy to pull open the #10 YKK zippers. They feel good between the fingers, and look cool at the same time. Little did we know that when our fearless leader decided to make them standard issue across our line of adventure travel luggage, he’d be drawn all the way to Guatemala. Here’s Jim’s story; how a simple curiosity blossomed into a human interest fair trade tale, the next in his popular Trip Reports adventure travel series.

I noticed my first "monkey fist" zipper pull-knot years ago on a customer’s ski jacket. "Hey, where did you get that cool zipper pull? That knot looks like a tiny fist?" Little did I know the monkey’s fist already had me in a knot! And just what is a monkey fist anyway? I discovered they call’em a monkey fist because the knot looks like a miniature fist. I was in luck. My customer told me there was a load of zip knots in a storage locker in Bozeman, Montana. After a quick negotiation, I was soon rolling to the "Zone" (one of Bozeman’s nicknames) for a pile of 250,000 monkey paw knots. Man, was my business partner Perry ticked off! "But they’re so cool!" I argued. "Yeah, what’re you gonna do when you run out?" Good question…cross that bridge when we get there I guess. In the meantime, we had plenty of Zip Knots.

Well things were fine while Red Oxx was still quite small. The mountain began to disappear until one day we were down to just a few boxes. Hmm, guess I better figure out where to get these…knots? Luckily they make Monkey Fist Knots in Guatemala. Whew, the cool factor was saved.

Suddenly, our supplier decided to give up the knotty ghost. Rather than be tied up in knots, I engaged in some wiley detective work. Soon, I found myself heading to Guatemala for what was going to become a Fair Trade Tale. Quick trip equals traveling light. I nabbed my trusty Red Oxx PR5 Safari Beano, the largest legal airline bag, my Tri-fold Toiletry Kit and a handy multi-purpose Gator Carry-on Bag to keep my camera gear in. That’s it. A light flight is a traveler’s delight.

My plane landed late in Guatemala City and after a second glance from my crazy cabbie, we sped off to Hotel De Los Proceres. If this is the "good zone" lodging, I would hate to see lodging in the bad zone! Not wanting to be relieved of my wallet by taking a late night stroll in this grungy part of town, I hit the sack. Club music pounded through the wall from the bar next door. Finally jet lag set in.

My bliss shattered, I jumped to a ringing phone at 0500. What!? Oh yeah, I had a ride to catch. It’s off to the mountains. I notice armed guards supervising morning deliveries. The overall decay was appalling, conflicting with a feeling of uncontrolled growth. Throw a few earthquakes in the mix and you get Guatemala City. Not a place to wander without an escort. Soon, I was on my way to Lago De Atitlan.

The native craftspeople of Guatemala are famous for their artistry and skilled ability to work with textiles that feature hand-dyed natural pigments and intricate weavings. I’m pleasantly surprised to find a first class operation being run by a retired Colonel. Next, I hopped over to my new digs. Los Encuentros is quite an accommodating lodge. I called my contact Lisa and arranged a meeting.

Lisa has quite a story; she left America at seventeen and never looked back! Her Spanish is so natural it was hard to believe she’s from New Jersey. I sat back and listened about Hurricane Stan washing out the bridge and damaging the sewer system. Many people lost their homes. Although, my top priority was to meet the creators of the monkey paw knots, Lisa informed me Hurricane Stan had not spared them either. I thought to myself, "What a great opportunity for fair trade!" Red Oxx can help these people.

Rising early we loaded our adventure gear into her ancient Nissan and headed deeper into the mountains. Snaking through switchbacks and dodging chicken busses, we eventually arrived at the rendezvous. We were greeted by Juan and Maria’s whole family. We joined them for a meal. Sitting in their humble, but tidy home, I learned hurricane Stan had washed away the adobe wall on the west side of their kitchen. They were in dire straits. The repairs were sporadic. We discussed capacity and income. Juan assured me that workers in the village could handle it. I set about to raise their wages with a stable work flow.

Think of it as the Red Oxx version of fair trade. We agreed to build them a new workroom with a kitchen attached. The Monkey’s Fist was making a positive impact on this little village in Guatemala. I left feeling like we had made some serious progress and at the same time, kept our knots intact.

Cheers, Jim CEO

Be sure to stay tuned for Jim’s next installment when he travels once again to Guatemala to check up on his Fair Trade friends.

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