I am so glad that I had the opportunity to visit Maicao and La Magdalena, but I have to confess, I am glad to be ‘home’. It truly felt like I landed in a different country. Excited to get off the plane and breathe in fresh air, I was quickly reminded that I was now in the Caribbean- the air hit me like a steamy, wet blanket, thick with humidity and uncomfortably hot. The drive to Maicao from the airport in Rioacha was a complete shock. The landscape was a sea of sand and desert as far as the eye could see, with not a drop of water in sight. Even the cacti looked parched. I so wanted to throw my remaining crackers out the window to the cows and goats, all desperately searching for any sign of green to eat, their skin hanging lose and every rib protruding, mocking any ambition their owners might have had to use them for food or milk.
The drive was only an hour to Maicao, and after an extremely rough landing, I was so grateful for the air conditioner that was blasting freezing air straight into my face and the passionate vallenatos (typical music of the region) pouring out of the speakers. I refused to adjust the vents and tried to hide the goose bumps covering my entire body in anticipation of my exit from the car, which turned out to be a good plan.
Maicao is not exactly a place where one goes to vacation. It literally still exists because of its proximity to the Venezuelan border and the thriving black markets that keep the tiny town afloat (bad choice of words since the people don’t even have water in their houses). People come from all over to purchase everything from gasoline to knock-off jeans. It is a hot, humid, dusty, dirty mass of people stores, cars, food carts, people, dogs and the occasional hungry cow. It also happens to be situated near where the Wayuu live.
The Wayuu have managed to preserve their culture and traditions by distancing themselves from towns and cities. A traditional Wayuu settlement is made up of five or six houses that make up a ‘rancheria’. A few Wayuu women will come to sell their products in the street, but very few Colombians ever get the chance to visit a rancheria. Apparently, working with the Wayuu women is not an easy process either and simply cannot be done without a liaison. Because the store owners in Maicao have been working with the Wayuu for decades, there is somewhat of an established system, which basically consists of the women showing up to the various stores when the want to sell a handful of completed products…for way less than they should. Phones are rarely used and email is not an option.
For this reason, I was at the mercy of the store owners and their established relationships with these women. An even bigger issue was the fact that what I was asking them to do was not exactly how the process normally works. The Wayuu women typically make very few bags and straps at a time, and only one or two will have the same design and color. It is not as if they are busting out hundreds of these on a machine; each one is made my hand. It is possible for them to make several of one design, but the average number of straps that one woman will weave in a day is two, at the most.
By the time I finally arrived to Maicao, all the stores were starting to close around us. Yusef was waiting for me at the hotel, and with no time to even break a sweat, we headed straight to meet a women working in one of stores that sell Wayuu products. We spent the next hour in her tiny store trying to explain what we wanted. She looked doubtful but said she would reach out to the women she knew to see what was possible. Besides her obvious skepticism that we could pull this off, something just didn’t feel right. The store seemed chaotic, filled with cheap trinkets and bags in colors and designs that looked nothing like what I wanted. I could tell she was ready to close shop, so I reluctantly left all my images, descriptions and colors in her care and left the store. I felt a surge of panic as I realized that I only had the following day to hope that this woman could connect with the Wayuu women, after which I needed to effectively communicate the exact colors and designs that I wanted; establish how, when and how much we were going to pay; and then figure out a way to get all 100 straps back to Bogota before I leave on Monday!
We were starving, sweating like crazy and exhausted. It was a holiday in Colombia, so although it was early on Monday, people were already out in the streets ready to celebrate. As the doors slammed shut around us, we decided the best thing to do was to join them.
The next morning, Yusef insisted on meeting at 8am to get an early start. After a very long night, I was in awe of his punctuality and willingness to endure the chaotic, hot streets, shopping for purses! We decided to go explore a bit further and we spotted a beautifully decorated store filled with hundreds of colorful Wayuu bags. The minute we walked in, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud! I had three bags in my hands in a matter of seconds and was ready buy out the store! The designs were stunning, and the colors, classy and carefully selected. The owner, Esther, had me behind the counter in no time; showing me pictures of more designs that she loved; shoving a pair of scissors in my hand to cut strands of the exact colors I wanted; and ensuring that Yusef and I had a steady supply of water and tinto to keep us going. We found our woman!
Esther and her husband have been running their store for 28 years. We were there for hours, which was plenty of time to see her in action. She was playful and warm while literally doing a hundred different tasks at once- negotiating prices, sewing, making jewelry, getting her hair done, tallying up numbers…I would have stayed there the entire morning just to watch her do her thing! Several Wayuu women came in selling their products while we were there, and she was always respectful but also very particular about what she would accept. She would kindly turn them away if their product wasn’t up to her standard, offering them advice on what they needed to do to ensure that their items would sell the next time. She was confident that we could make this happen, explaining that, since the weaving tradition is passed down from mother to daughter, and there are extended members of the family living together, they usually know how to make very similar designs. She assured me that we could get all 5 designs made in exactly the colors that I wanted. Yusef also offered stay an extra day so that he could bring the finished straps back with him to Bogota. We wrapped everything up by closing time and headed back.
I had to catch an early bus the next morning to meet one of the directors working with the Genesis Foundation in La Magdalena. After thanking Yusef an obnoxious amount of times, we parted ways and I returned to my hotel, exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. Finally- thanks to Yusef and Diana, Esther and her crazy husband, and the talented Wayuu women- the last piece was in place.