Living out of a backpack is awesome, because you never have to pick out what you want to wear. Granted there are times when you would rather die than re-wear your single grey American Apparel V-neck, but on the whole, the fact that you don´t have much to choose from is quite liberating (decisions are the bain of the fasionista existence!)Most days you look like shit, feel a bit dirty, and long for some of those key pieces you had at home to liven up your look, but you are generally content with your excuse that you are ön the road¨and ¨didnt have a straigtener¨so it is impossible to look your best.
What does it mean, to be deprived of your womanly collection of shoes and purses? To be stripped of those securities that make you feel sexy, of those luxuries that make you feel luxurious? Where are you left when you do not have rows of blouses, stacks of tank-tops, and that strong collection of vintage dresses for the summer months? When your wardrobe wanes, how do you go about defining yourself in a world based on outside judgements?! My god, does this mean you are left to prove yourself based on yourself? Rather than the things you buy and wear?
Suddenly, for the simple limitation of physical space in your travelers pack, you are forced to think outside the box (the shoe boz, the hat box, the ridiculous and transparent box of the fashion world). You can no longer rely on that steezy vest with the tye-dye back to get the attention of fellow hipster travelers, and you no longer have that black dress that you bought at Forever 21 but looks like its from Anthropologie for those nights out on the town. Your killer cowboy boots and your stellar Stella McCartneys are miles away, sitting uselessly in a box somewhere north of here. Suddenly your wit will be your only accessory, your bad Spanish your only staple for easy flirtation (those low cut tops had to go in the packing process) and your laugh to provide the sparkle that those dangly earrings (not that dangly earrings are cute in any way, shape or form) used to work towards. In the fashion world, you have been stripped naked. In the real world, you are forced to decorate yourself.
In Guatemala, traditional clothing is still worn by most of the local women. These standard outfits, called Ropa Tipica, consist of an insanely intricate, embroidered blouse, tucked uncomfortably into a thick, high-waisted skirt, constructed by wrapping a piece of patterned fabric around the waist like a roll of paper towels. This is sinched tightly at the top with a colorfully embroidered belt. None of this matches, by the way, and the overall effect, although quite elaborate, can make the eyes dizzy and the aesthetic part of your brain (is this the right brain?) confused and distressed. I(n America we are taught that too many clashing visuals at once is bad form, that our color palattes should be carefully coordinated, and that we must never, under any sircumstances, wear two different patterns at the same time. Ahh, our sterile love for perfection up in those perfect fifty two states...)
Despite my personal qualms with the Guatemalan aesthetic (those patterns make me think of the nineties, by the way, when MC hammer may or may not have rocked Guatemalan print baggies while he boogied)there is something that I love about the way Guatemalans wear their clothing. Here, clothing is not used to distinguish oneself from the group (we love to do this in the States with bold öne of a kind¨fashion statements) but rather to fit people into a whole. Each village in Guatemala, however small or remote, however poor, produces and wears their own form of ¨Ropa Tipica.¨This means that wherever a woman goes, she will stand out not as an individual but rather as a member of her village, a part of a place.
Other women will notice and appreciate the varied forms of ropa tipica rather than judge the wearer of it (as we may judge the wearer of flared jeans in the states), and will take note of the technique that they use for embroidery up on the hill, or the way they tie their hair in the capital. Ähh,¨one will whisper to another, ¨she must come from San Pedro. That is the embroidery they use on that side of the lake!¨And she will feel confident that she has recognized the detailing on the sleeve and correctly decided where said woman hails from. This making and wearing and recognizing of clothing is quite endearing in its association with its sense of pride and place.
I understand that in American cities there are üniforms¨that are worn by residents, much like the traditional garb of the Guatemalans. In New York last year it was mandatory to wear flat shoes, skinny pants, and an ironic accessory that said fuck you to fashion. Black was never out, pink was never in, and Chuck Taylors refused to become uncool. In California they were still getting away with flip flops and Volcom cargo shorts, and the Californian could be spotted as a West Coast liberal as soon as he set foot in any other state. In Ohio I am quite positive that they have not moved away from Sketchers and Ohio State hoodies, which sucks for them but makes them recognizable nonetheless. Our identities, therefore, can be linked to our place of residence through our clothing, but there is a fundamental difference in how we Americans put ourselves together than those in many other cultures: this is about America´s obsession with choice and tendency towards change.
What is different about our üniforms¨is their lack of traditional value, which decreases their level authenticty, therefore decreasing the confidence of the wearer incrementally. We are allowed to and expected to choose what we wear ech day, and this choice is yet another of our espressions of ¨self¨and ïndividuality¨. Yet this choice can be confusing and overwhelming, which creates a sense of doubt in our fashionable expressions. Because of this we move in and out of fashion crazes, we ¨fall in love!¨with shoulder pads or spatter paint, we detest or adore denim (depending on the decade), we love bangs or we love braids or we love ¨back to basics¨white tee and jeans. We declare war on certain waistlines and wearing white at certain times of year. We let everyone know what is ïn¨and what is öut,¨making hasty and definitive statements that regulate whats in our closets. Our overall aesthetic, therefore, is always changing, always fleeting, and this means our choices are always changing.
Tradition, unlike in Guatemala or Mexico or any country where tradition (aside from our heinous traditions of Turkey and pilgrims and eggs on Easter), is meaningless in America when it comes to the decision of what to wear. In fact we go to all ends to break traditional clothing molds rather than keep them, wearing whatever we can to set us apart, to be different from our previous generations, to define ourselves and our status and our group of peers. When we do wear relicks of the past we do so with a sense of irony or drama, a ¨throwback¨if you will, which pokes fun of and relishes in decades past simultaneously. (The eighties, for example, are always ¨coming back¨in the form of leggings or side ponytails, and the fifties are resurfacing in the waistline and the cardigan.) The casting off of tradition is as important to Americans as keeping it is to Guatemalans.
When we try to be cool in Guatemala it is almost laughable. The American Apparel tee is just a tee here, and no one knows that it is the single hottest teeshirt in America and has a definable weight on the coolness scale. The ironic throwback is misunderstood and misread here; a shirt that reads ¨Fun in the Sun,´88¨may be mistaken for summer camp that you ACTUALLY attended in Florida Beach, rather than some thrift store score that people in America would understand was a real gem. Stylish haircuts are worth nothing to these people, and big sunglasses are a joke. There is really no point then, in putting anyone on by putting things on. Living out of a backpack with one pair of jeans is probably a good thing.
This doesn´t mean I don´t miss my dresses though, hanging in a row in my old closet, collecting dust there, and gradually becoming uncool.
As a rule, I do not concern myself with finances. I think about money as little as possible, count what I have only when necessary, and often forget that it is important. I do not know how to balance a checkbook (I can think only of an old fashioned scale with a checkbook balancing precariously in one of the metal bowls and a nugget of gold in the other) nor do I understand interest rates, tax write offs, or the concept of ällocating¨funds. Nazdaq and Dow are invisible phantoms; the stock market is a metaphor for something that I will never understand, just as I will never understand the way bridges are built or tunnels are constructed under water.
It is ironic, then, that I am working in Guatemala for an organization that deals with precisely what I do not choose to concern myself with: finances. The organization, Namaste Direct, is a microfinance institution that admisters small loans to women (mostly in small villages) which they use to start or advance a small business. The women pay back the loan (with a very low interest rate, whatever that means) and generally repeat the cycle, taking out another loan which can help their business to grow.
All of this seems simple enough, but for me, dunce of finances, it still seems a little daunting. Loans? Interest rates? Business in general? As previously mentioned, these are things I would rather not think about (there are so many things in Guatemala that I would choose to concern myself with: the slow Spanish and healthy conversations, the weaving on the women´s dresses, the markets bustling on a Saturday). But once I started working for Namaste I started to understand something: microfinance is not really about finances at all. It is about people. It is about slow Spanish and healthy conversations, the weaving on the women´s dresses, the markets bustling on a Saturday.
You see, the key word in microfinance is SMALL. SMALL loans to SMALL villages to start SMALL businesses. (By business I am talking investing in one pig to sell its meat or investing in used clothing to re-sell, nothing grand or extravagant.) As most of us liberal college kids know, keeping things on a smaller, more local scale is a way of making them more sustainable. In other words, by keeping loans small, they are more likely to be paid back (Namaste has a 98 percent payback rate!)which means they will be able to take out future loans. With these loans the women will buy something to vend at the bustling market in Solola on Saturday or thread to embroider the collar of their gorgeous blouses, for sale on Calle Santander. (This is what I mean by microfinance being a part of things I love.) These loans are only half about money. The other half is about the confidence of the woman who takes out the loan, about her learning how to use and implement the money, and about the push that the loan gives her to raise herself from poverty.
Namaste Direct held their first annual Businesswoman´s Conference this week in Panajachel, Guatemala, where I am currently living. The conference was three days long and took place at the Grand Hotel(not grand at all, by the gaudy standards of an American conference-goer), where many of the women had their first hotel experience, complete with chocolates on the downturned corners of the bed and towels folded like seashells. For many of the women it was their first time out of their village, the first time away from their children and families, and the first time they had been in contact with so many other women at once. There were 130 women total, each dressed in the traditional fabric of their village, each equally scared and smiling, and each very proud.
The women at the conference learned about how to manage their money and keep track of what they spend and owe (I made sure to take notes during these leactures for personal use). They also learned about international markets, animal husbandry, and how to tie good knots at the end of their weavings. A conference of small proportions, of simple teachings, that I feel made a huge impact. The women were arranging storefronts on Wednesday, doing division on Thursday, and dancing under the moon by Friday: little steps and the shaking of the shoulders, a confidence spreading through the breeze that sweeps Panajachel by night. (This confidence can partly be attributed to the fancy, red, Namaste tote bags that were carried around religiously by the women, a token of their participation in the conference, their modernity, and their professionalism.)
I am still unsure about working with finances. I don´t like the idea of credits or loans (perhaps because I know I am not quite responsible enough to pay them back) and I don´t know if microfinance is an answer to the problem of poverty. I still have resounding questions about whether introducing credit and business into small towns in third world countries is good at all: is it simply stretching the imposing ideas of capitalism and the obsession with money into further corners of the world? Will the competition fostered among the village women in Guatemala at some point come to be that evil, ardent competition we have to deal with in the States? Can we count on these communities to keep things SMALL, managable, sustainable? And even so, how are we so sure that the introduction of more money (or credit, rather) is the answer to the betterment of a community where money has never been the be-all end-all before?
Despite these questions (to which I have no answer, due to my limited knowledge of the way economics work) I am feeling good about what is going on in Panajachel and my work with Namaste. What I don´t know is how economics work. What I do know is how people work, how individuals work, and I know that in this case individuals are better off, happy, and most importantly, excited. Rural Guatemalan women are excited. In opportunity there is always excitement.
These women will gain knowledge from experimenting with money.
These women will gain respect from their knowledge of money.
These women will gain confidence from the respect they gain for their knowledge of money.
Knowledge. Respect. Confidence. Things that all women, in all places, (women with bad credit or good credit or no credit) hope to someday gain. If only microfinance were less about money, maybe I would take out a loan? For the simple confidence it might give me?
Excuse me while I balance my checkbook. (This will remind me that I am a part of a system of numbers, a world of money, and through this I will feel connected and real, a part of something bigger.)
You know those postcards, the ones you buy at the classy bookstores on the classy avenues of places in California, that are photographs of the colorful contrasts of third world countries? You know what I mean by contrasts: the brown skinned child in her traditional dress who plays in front of a Coca Cola sign, the beautiful beach strewn with trash and plastic, the contrast of the modern with the ancient or the contrast of society with nature. A row of brightly colored shanties in Mexico, their paint chipping and their windows dark, so different from our own houses in the North! Or an old Peruvian woman with no teeth, smiling her gaping smile for some Yankee photographer. People in America just LOVE these postcards, and will shell out three bucks for them in a heartbeat. Just romanticize the cracks in the system a bit, find a bit of beauty in people´s burdens, and the rich people go wild.
Americans (and if we´re going to separate people into large, generalized categories I am going to throw in Artists, Travelers, Rich People, Writers, People with Bad Taste, Historians, Revolutionaries, Shitheads, and anyone else who is lucky enough to be in the position to judge others) have always loved a good contrast. Those sexy Renassaince men were already discovering how certain colors bounced off of each other and made each other stronger, and therefore brought more power to their art. Photographers have been known to get attention when they focus in on the contrasts of real, daily life: the beautiful woman in the tattered clothes, the toilet amidst the trees, etc. Then Warhol stole everything from everyone and brought contrast back in business with his heinous cans of soup. We like contrast in art because it ¨makes us think,¨ and we like it because it seems ïnteresting.¨ We like to see the way things smash up against each other, battle for our attention, push on each other with their differences. We don´t, however, want to be there when this pressure (increasing as contrast increases) breaks. Because then the contrast would be real, and we Americans (Rich People, Travelers, etc.) would have to come to terms with the fact that contrasts are living things as well as photographs.
What is funny to me is that every person feels that they themselves have discovered the epic and artistic contrasts of the world. Anyone who owns a camera has taken that same picture of the traditionally clothed girl in front of the Coca Cola sign, and everyone wants in on that Peruvian woman´s toothless cackle. (When we let a moment of contrast or irony pass us by without capturing it we often say things like ¨Damn, that would have been a good picture,¨or ¨Fuck, I wish I had my camera¨). Contrasting is a technique that one learns in Art 1A, and therefore everyone knows what it means to juxtapose two charged elements to create the ultimate work of genious. You go, girl! Take those snapshots of those ancient ruins and their modern signage and feel good about it! You really captured something there, I think.
The reason I am talking about any of this is not to knock any art that employs or embelishes on the idea of contrast, but rather to question my own notations of contradictions in the developing world. I am currently living on the edge of Lake Atilan in Guatemala, where worlds (American and Guatemalan, modern and tradtitional) seem to collide with full force. It would be easy for me to talk about these contrasts, to note the pulse of tourism that taints this town, to speak of the concrete highways that are slicing into the sides of the mountains (the highways are being hastily constructed thanks to our glorious president Bush who has recently passed the Tratado de Libero Commercio which calls for 4 lane highways all throughout Central America so as to bring in things like more concrete so as to construct more highways, the dumbshit) but in a sense I feel like it is a copout. If I were to describe in detail the ironies of the women selling shawls to tourists or the way the lush green fights desprately to overpower the emerging grey of new cement, I would be doing what every other artist and writer and rich person and American has ever done: point out obvious contrasts that they think no one else notices and hold them up to the light for others to look at.
Octavio Paz, in his (outstanding) book ¨The Labyrinth of Solitude¨ speaks of the way a bourgeoise man looks at a poor, working man and sees something elegant and honest, something that he himself does not possess. The rich man imposes something onto the poor man; he assumes he holds a secret of some sort, or knows the answer to an unanserable question. Is this what we want to capture in our photographs that we take in other countries? When we snap shots of the homeless, the poor, the young and the old and the working and the dirty people that to us constitute some sort of öther,¨are we trying to understand their secret? Are we trying to unite ourselves with them in some sort of sympathy? Or are we distancing ourselves further, creating an even harsher contrast, as we juxtapose our lifestyle with that of other peoples?
A large percentage of Guatemalans are malnourished or starving.
A larger percentage of Guatemalans have cell phones, and pay for them with what little Quetzal they have in those patterned pouches of theirs.
These are the kind of inronies I am talking about. The kind that have no realtion to each other at all but are thrown together by wannabe-artists such as myself and then considered profound.
It is incorrect to say that contrasts such as these do not appear in every city, in every part of the world. You will find equally disturbing gaps between development and underdevelopment in major cities in India, for example, and chilling contrasts between those that live amongst each other in New York. In Europe one will note the beauty of the old buildings amongst the new. The difference to me lies in the way contrasts are played out in places such as Guatemala, where people seem to be acting in a play, reading a script that was written by those judgemental people in the North, as if it were all going to be shown on a movie screen someday, or hung in the form of a photograph or painting, awaiting commentary. Our American contrasts pale in comparison to the paint chipping and wood chopping in the South, and it seems we will forever relish in the fact that in other countries there are even bigger contradictions than our own.