Since I've enjoyed sewing for most of my life, I was really excited to get to work with local women's artisan groups in and around my community. The women are all very talented and hardworking, but none of the three groups I've been working with is at 100% in both products and marketing/selling. Most artisans sew naguas- the floor length, traditional, but highly unflattering dresses, as well as chakaras- hand woven bags made out of local plant fibers. While the products themselves are traditional and require quite a bit of work, it appears that making a few minor adjustments would make them much more appealing to the tourist consumers. For example, the women in my site do not wear naguas because they consider them unflattering and simply don't like them. However, they make them and expect tourists to buy them at the high price that all of the work which goes into them demands. For months I've been encouraging them to make a simpler product with similar designs- an A line skirt with dientes (the triangle design) across the bottom or waistband.
A few weeks ago staff from the Peace Corps Panama office invited me to attend an artisan fair at the yearly Country Director's Conference with an artisan from my site. This was a really, really big deal because all 45 attendees would be very important people in Peace Corps: country directors from all Central and South American countries, staff from Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., and the Director of Peace Corps herself, Carrie Hessler-Radelet.
Seeing as though I'm one of the few people who actually enjoys networking with complete strangers, I was over-the-moon excited. I chose to bring my neighbor with me, since she makes beautiful crafts and already has a professional relationship with a buyer on the island. The 12 hour trip would not only be her first time in Panama City, but also her first time ever leaving our province. That's like someone in the United States never leaving their county. She was understandably nervous, but I did my best to reassure her and her family in the days and weeks leading up to the big day.
The day to leave finally came and she was a trooper during our early morning and subsequent incredibly long bus rides. She even seemed happy to get to know the two other artisans in attendance, which is a big deal for super shy people like her. Unfortunately though, she got sick the morning of the artisan fair and we had to head to the hospital.
I was sad to leave the event before it even had a chance to get started, but I'm also glad I was there to accompany my friend to the hospital. Long story short, the doctor said she suffering from long-oncoming effects of a poor diet and needed to see a dietary specialist in the next few days. We were able to head back home the next day, having sold almost nothing due to our personal absence the day before. Since we didn't even get to attend the fair, I didn't expect much to come of the trip. However, I was visiting her house the other day she called me over to her sewing machine- She was excitedly making skirts just like the ones I had been practically begging them to make for the past months! As we were talking, it seemed like her creative dam came unblocked and she was finally thinking about what types of things tourists are realistically going to want to buy.
I'm so relieved that we were able to turn a potentially bad experience into a positive one and I'm looking forward to sharing photos and news of through-the-roof sales of our new products very soon!
Me and the Director of Peace Corps, Carrie Hesseler Radelet