This past Tuesday, we all began our first week at our individual internship placements! Olympia and Victoria have been busy at Sacred Valley Health, while Austen and Isabelle have been working alongside women who produce organic vegetables at Canastas Verdes. Abi and Chiamaka have been helping out at local schools, Grace is back at Casita Huaran with Tania, Clare has been double-timing it at a physical therapy clinic and Corazones para Peru, and Jason and Yong Quan are working on a farm. Finally, Waideen is working at Awamaki, and I’m working at a different weaving co-op called Tika.
My first few days at Tika have already provided me with new perspectives and filled me with excitement for the next two and a half months here. In just four days, I’ve witnessed the passion that these women put into their work, the relationships that they’ve developed while working side by side, and their willingness to share this lifestyle – which combines hard work and bonding – with others. Guadalupe and the other women at Tika utilize their talent and knowledge of weaving – a skill they’ve been developing since as young as five years old – to make high quality textiles and sell them at a fair price. The goal is to offer the customer a good deal, while also charging enough to maintain themselves and their children through this work. Guadalupe, Mari, Maribelle, and Rosi, have built their lives around weaving; it’s not just about making money, but forming bonds with one another and the community. Guadalupe lives in a house behind her store, so Tika is not only a job, but a way of life for her and her son. Her welcoming character shines through in the way that she treats clients – offering them a seat, a hot mug of Muña tea, and explaining the weaving process through an introductory speech as soon as they enter. Tika is not just a store, it’s an interactive space for learning and sharing with a door that’s always open.
During my first day, I took inventory and braided for an hour and a half – Guadalupe explained this would prepare my hands for weaving. In the beginning, I didn’t quite understand my role at Tika. I hadn’t yet realized how I can help accentuate the assets of the women there; in fact, I’m still trying to figure that out. I know that taking inventory is something that Guadalupe had never done before I arrived this week, and that doing so is not only useful, but necessary, for running a profitable business. While organizing and counting the products in the store little by little each day has been time consuming, the challenge will be developing a sustainable system for taking inventory that will outlast my time at Tika. Due to limited space in the store, the textiles and other products frequently become disorganized, and currently, there is no system for efficiently re-ordering them. For this reason, developing better methods of organization will be a crucial part of establishing a sustainable process for inventory-collection .
Beyond implementing an inventory system at Tika, I realized that there are more ways I may be of use – due to my identity as a tourist from the United States – during an encounter on Wednesday afternoon. Around noon, I was preparing to return home for lunch, when an English-speaking tourist couple from Los Ángeles arrived. Guadalupe asked me to stay so that I could observe their demonstration and help translate; I agreed, and I’m so happy that I did. During the demonstration, Guadalupe explained the differences in quality and texture of various materials; the process of washing wool with plants and water; spinning it with the “pushca”; and dying it with natural minerals, plants, or insects. Immediately, the woman pulled out her camera and started taking photos of my co-workers, and she and her husband laughed any time Guadalupe erred in her English. I was embarrassed that the couple came from the same country as my own, and angry that my colleagues were being dehumanized in this way. Above all, I felt trapped, because I felt as though I couldn’t do anything to help.
After the demonstration, Guadalupe invited the couple to browse. They did, and they immediately began bargaining. As a tourist, I too have heard that, in many places, it’s important to bargain, because products are often overpriced. However, I instantly felt the urge to dissuade the couple from bargaining here, because the prices at Tika are fair; I wanted to explain that weaving and selling textiles isn’t just the occupation of my colleagues, but rather their way of life. Despite my repeated pleas (as the translator) that Guadalupe could not offer them any lower of a price than she had already agreed to, the couple continued relentlessly to refuse my claim; they would not accept any price but the insufficient one they had in mind. Furthermore, as I attempted to defend my supervisor, the woman “shhsh”-ed me, whining that this was her “first purchase in Peru” and she needed to practice her “bargaining skills” before leaving the country. I was fuming. I wanted to tell her that Tika isn’t the place to “practice her skills”, because in contrast to her own desire to play a game, the women at Tika are trying to make a living. However, I simply continued to translate, because although this was a new experience for me, I knew this was not my bosses’ first encounter with such difficult clients.
After the couple left, I spoke with Guadalupe and the other women whom I work with at Tika. They too felt my frustration, but were more composed than I was; as I suspected, the nature of the encounter wasn’t new for them. They said that they’re used to receiving tourist customers who try to bargain, but it’s difficult to explain that while many other tourist stores are overpriced, Tika’s prices are just. Before returning to Urubamba, I made my supervisor a “cheat sheet” with useful English words for conversing with customers and an exact translation explaining how the products are priced, including: the original price of the materials, how the cost differs depending on the quality of the wool, and the amount of time it took to make them. Since Wednesday, I’ve been thinking about how to present this fact before customers start bargaining. On Monday, I plan to ask Guadalupe how she would feel about introducing Tika’s countercultural application of fair pricing during the demonstration, rather than trying to explain this in the midst of a sale.
Although the interaction with the couple from Los Angeles was difficult and eye-opening, it forced me to consider complications that can result from cultural differences, and question how I may have contributed to these difficulties in smaller or different ways during my time in Peru thus far. While challenging in some ways, I’ve loved my first week at Tika and can’t wait to see what the next couple of months will bring.