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Fair Trade in Guatemala Checkup, Part 2

Jim in Guatamala with the Monkey Fist Zip Knot Tying Family

Return of the Monkey King 2007.

Jim Markel catches up on his Fair Trade business adventure in Guatemala, where the story of the Monkey’s Fist Zip Knot is rapidly becoming the tale of the Monkey’s Fist Fair Trade.

With a new production facility for his partners and above average living wages, the Red Oxx is helping contribute to the quality of life of the people living deep in the mountains of Guatemala, they who make the Monkey’s Fist. Here’s Jim’s Part 2 to his Guatemala Adventure, the next in the popular Jim’s Trips Reports adventure travel series.

Time flies when you’re having fun and working hard! Past due for my update on my return to Guatemala.

I’d been on the road for three weeks for the annual trade shows and had just enough time to do some laundry and catch the next flight south. As you know, I like to keep up-to-date on the latest boarding regulations. Let’s see what the fine folks at TSA were dealing out…

The liquid rules were not winning awards from the traveling public. First rule I broke was too large a container (even though I had only 3 three ounces in it). Then it got worse. Back out of line and down to the service counter, I found my Sherpa Jr. Expedition Duffel was already loading. Typical luck! Tossed my toiletries in the trash and got back in line.

I’d hate to guess how much money’s been tossed into the rubbish since the new boarding rules. To get around the restrictions, I suggest Solid Shampoo from Many unique toiletry items like Ambrosia Shaving Oil. Quality is superb. Highly recommended for carry-on travel.

In Minneapolis the temperature was a balmy 34 degrees below zero. I replaced my toiletries at The Body Shop. Of course, now that I was inside the security zone, container size didn’t matter… Hmm, what’s wrong with this scenario?

Lago de Atitlán and the volcano Volcán Atitlán.
Lago de Atitlán and the volcano Volcán Atitlán.
Lago de Atitlán and the volcano Volcán Atitlán.

I arrived in Guatemala City around 10 that evening. My driver and I made a quick escape from the city. Guatemala’s improving the mountain highway and parts of the new road (finished) is nice. Thank God we missed the long waits at the construction zones. They don’t spend a lot on safety cones and warning lights as wrecked out cars evidenced.

We made it to Panahachel without incident. My favorite place, Los Encuentros, was booked so I scored at "Larry’s Rooms." Satisfactory lodging at a great price and centrally located, too. Washed the road grime off and hit the sack.

There’s a multitude of showering "devices" throughout Central America; most scare the crap out of me! Wires hooked up to heating elements and hanging right where unsuspecting gringos with a morbid curiosity might reach out. Word to the wise: keep your hands out of the Rube Goldberg setups. Ask the caretaker to fix your shower. Otherwise, you might end up "riding the lightning." No need for an alarm clock in Panajachel; there’s roosters!

I strolled down the street the next morning while street vendors were setting out all the handicrafts that make this part of the world famous; traditional guipil garments and the fantastic beadwork. The workmanship is colorful and detailed. The problem is that the workers rarely, if ever, receive a fair wage. After my first trip here I decided to do something.

We now had control of the production of the Monkeys Fist Zip Knot. It was time to make sure the craftsman were getting paid for their excellent quality work. After some cost analysis, we increased their wages to above the living wage.

Many interesting buildings abound in Antiqua.
Many interesting buildings abound in Antiqua.
Many interesting buildings abound in Antiqua

Lisa was waiting for me at the café and we settled in to discuss plans for visiting the new shop, a big deal for the villagers who had a two day party planned. I’d received pictures and emails keeping me up-to-date on the construction. I was excited to see their new shop.

I’d another day left before home. A visit to Antiqua was in order. The city’d caught my eye on my last trip but I didn’t have time to explore. Antiqua is probably the best-preserved example of surviving architecture from the colonial era of the new world. The massive churches and public buildings date from several centuries ago. Due to periodic earthquake damage, hurricanes, and repair, it oozes an ancient feel.

The pastel colored buildings and cobblestone streets are safe and photogenic; its no wonder it’s a World Heritage Site. I’ve visited several others; never disappointed. Shuttle buses run daily from Panajachel to Antiqua for about 20 bucks round trip.

Unfortunately, it was while riding the shuttle that I felt the first effects of a recurring case of "jungle fever". Sure enough, by the time I reached Antiqua I was feeling super puny. The rest of the day is fuzzy but I managed to snap a few photos. Piling back into the shuttle, I was thankful to find myself with only one other traveler. I promptly passed out in the back of the bus.

Antiqua's quaint back streets.
Antiqua’s quaint back streets.
Antiqua’s quaint back streets

In Pana, the driver stopped at a pharmacy and got me meds and a drink. The really cool thing about buying medicine in foreign countries is that they can really "fix" you up! Needless to say the next day I was feeling less than stellar. I hit the elixir first thing in the morning and was ready for the trail. Feeling no pain as we wound our way through the cool mountain air, I had time to think about what I was trying to accomplish here.

My perspective on the world has continually changed with each trip just as the world itself has changed dramatically in my lifetime. In some ways, change has been good and in others, too quick for indigenous people to keep up. Red Oxx has embraced the craftsmen of Guatemala by fostering an environment of craftsmanship and sustainable Fair Trade. Much the same way we foster it here in Montana.

While our competitors continually seek cheaper offshore labor for producing their bags, we have continued to invest in infrastructure and employees in Montana and now here in Guatemala. Though worlds apart, still two sides of the same coin. I believe people want to feel like they make a lasting contribution to the world. A large portion of that comes from the work they do.

That’s true of us here at the Oxx. Being able to take pride in our work is a large part of what makes this little company special. "Quality and Strength in Every Bag" has made our reputation. Our craftspeople also put their hearts into what they do.

Finally arriving at the village I hoisted my Mini Rucksack and set off down the path to see what our friends have been up to. They’d torn out the old storm-damaged building and replaced it with a tidy little production facility. Lots of natural lighting and some beautiful tile work as well. Juan’s eldest son had prepared a presentation.

Lisa and I settled in as guests of honor. We exchanged gifts, my photos of their grandmother were a huge hit. He explained how the work was making their life much easier. Juan spoke of once working in the fields with a machete in the hot sun was very hard and the pay was low. He was so thankful for the work he was doing now.

I suddenly realized how important these simple little Zip Knots are. By providing a fair wage and clean, healthy working environment, Red Oxx has made this little corner of Guatemala a better place. Maria had prepared a traditional meal and as we sat around the table they asked questions about Montana. They’re curious in how cold it gets in the Northlands.

During a village tour, we discovered sanitation would be improved next. Running communal well water, but no sewer. They need a safe system for waste management. There’s also some open land to plant trees. Due to the deforestation, erosion’s been a major problem here. A few extra trees will go a long way towards preventing a catastrophe. We hailed our goodbyes and promised to return in 2008.

By the time I made it to my hotel room I was feeling sick. I spent the rest of my trip there in bed. I’d planned to go to Tikal and see the magnificent ruins. Guess that’ll have to wait ’til next year! After four days in bed I felt better, just in time to catch my flight to Panama.

Cheers, Jim CEO

Did you enjoy Jim’s latest installment of his on-going Guatemala Trip Reports? Be sure to read the next adventure, Nurturing Entrepreneurship in Guatemala – Red Oxx Style.