On the factory floor
As we drove onto the freeway, heading away from Atlanta's massive airport complex, Mercedes and Martha sat bleary-eyed in the back of our rented car. Mercedes looked at the landscape around her and observed, "There are a lot of cars here."
As we headed towards Atlanta, passing lot after lot of rental cars and overnight parking: "Are all these cars for sale?"
Cutting through downtown Atlanta on the freeway: "So, are people not allowed to walk on this road?"
Finally, two hours later, in rural Georgia, miles from any city, crawling along with heavy traffic on a Sunday afternoon, towards our destination, Charlotte, NC: "Where are all these people going???"
Welcome to the U.S., amigas, the land of cars and freeways! No, I have no idea where all these people are going.
I am writing to thank you all for supporting Martha and Mercedes' trip to the U.S. The trip experience was a profound one. As their guide and translator, I was so impressed by their observations and analysis, and so proud to have such smart, dedicated women working for Awamaki. "I would like to thank the people who made it possible for me to have this unforgettable experience," Mercedes wrote to me in her report on the trip. As Awamaki's Director, I want to thank you also. This trip was truly the opportunity of a lifetime for them, and an incredible opportunity for Awamaki to invest in our hardworking staffmembers so they can better lead our women artisans.
In all, Martha and Mercedes spent 10 days in Georgia and North Carolina. The trip was a whirlwind of visits to stores and suppliers, and attending the textile conference and presenting there, with a few misadventures thrown in.
Our first stop was Ten Thousand Villages in Atlanta, where Juliet, the store manager, generously hosted us. For Martha and Mercedes, this was their first time seeing any other fair trade products besides our own. Even though they had just flown in on a redeye, they were so excited. Even though they hadn't eaten for hours, I had to drag them out of the store so we could have lunch. They had tons of ideas for different products the women could make, and new ways to present the products. Juliet gave us great guidance about what makes a successful fair trade product. Then, we hopped in the car and drove four hours to Charlotte--with our designer Jess and me up front, and Martha and Mercedes alternately dozing after their long plane ride, and feeding Cheerios to my 10-month-old, who came along for the trip, in the back.
The next day in Charlotte, we visited the oldest working textile mill company in Georgia, where they make upholstery on giant weaving machines. Pretty different from Awamaki! But Martha and Mercedes agreed this was the most interesting day of the trip. They loved seeing how the business was organized. We visited their design studios, learned about their quality control, and even walked the mill floor. Martha had a lot of questions about quality control, and Mercedes admired their inventory tracking. "Everything is so organized," she observed. She was expecially interested in their archive rooms and the catalog system they use to track everything they make.
We also visited two museum stores in Charlotte, where the store managers sat down with our team and talked to us about what makes a successful product in each of their stores. With one, we spent the meeting discussing a custom order, and Martha and Mercedes saw firsthand what our custom collaboration process looks like. "We absolutely can't do that," Mercedes told me, when I translated to her that the client had suggested to Jess that the women weave a complicated replica of a museum art piece. She was right, of course--and also I think she better understood where our design team is coming from when they relay clients' custom design requests to her. Then, at the second store, we talked at length about marketing to the artisan products customer, and looked at different types of labeling and marketing materials that promote their artisans' stories.
One afternoon in Charlotte, we had some free time. We suggested visiting a pumpkin patch (No, I explained, we don't eat the pumpkins, we just...carve them) but these mountain gals wanted to head downtown and look at the buildings. We connected with a friend who let us ride up to the 32nd floor of her apartment building. Martha and Mercedes were in awe--especially when fire trucks, ambulances and police cars all came screaming up to an intersection we could see below. "Something very bad must have happened!" Martha said, but 15 minutes later, they all left quietly without any action that we could see, to her disappointment.
Then, we were off to Savannah to attend the conference and make our presentation! With, of course, a stop at a Chipotle Mexican Grill on the way. There, Martha and Mercedes got their first taste of tacos, accidentally fed spicy beans to the baby, and filled up their waterbottles with lemonade at the "free" soda machine. (Whoops!)
I was happy we had gone to Charlotte first, because Savannah, with its quaint rowhouses, brick-lined streets, and small plazas every few blocks, is not a typical U.S. city! But Martha and Mercedes loved the historic town. Mercedes especially admired the gardens and yards in front of all the houses, though she strongly felt that the homeowners should be planting fruits and vegetables instead of all the ornamental plants. At the conference, they were excited to run into a former Awamaki volunteer. There, they attended sessions on everything from breeding sheep to optimize wool quality, to Mexican textile art.
In the afternoons, we explored Charlotte. Given their choice of activities in Savannah--like the beach, a wildlife refuge or a ghost tour--Martha and Mercedes enthusiastically chose a riverboat cruise. As we motored up and down the Savannah river, they we passed a giant container ship loaded high with containers; cranes at the port to lift the containers; a huge ship that transports cars all over the world, and more. The afternoon ended up being a really interesting lesson in the movement of goods across regions and countries--which, after all, is very relevant to our work at Awamaki.
Finally, Saturday was the day of the presentation. Mercedes took command of the stage--speaking in front of a crowd is where she shines, as we see all the time in her leadership of our women's groups. Martha was more nervous, and once forgot what she had planned to say, becoming visibly upset. The crowd was patient, warm and supportive, and she recovered beautifully! I loved seeing how exhilirated she was after it was over.
On Saturday evening, Martha and Mercedes set out to explore Savannah, and were kicked out of not one but two wedding ceremonies. They found this hilarous and perplexing. "They didn't want us at their wedding," said Mercedes, as she laughingly described being escorted out of each church. In Peru, the church doors remain open during ceremonies, and anyone can attend. In fact tourists wander in all the time. "Why would they want to keep the church closed during the wedding?" Martha asked me, concerned. I didn't have a good answer.
Finally, on Sunday, we packed up the crew to leave. I asked if they would stay longer if they could. "If I could get some chuño soup," Mercedes said, referring to a soup made of potatoes that have been freeze-dried in the Andean sun and then ground into a flour that makes a thick, pasty soup. I guess she was tired of our steady diet of tacos, sandwiches and pizza. "I would stay longer," said Martha, "if I didn't miss my children so much!"
So, we headed back to Atlanta, with one last stop at Chipotle. (Because who can turn down all the free lemonade?) Then, it was off to the airport, where they said goodbye to Jess, me and the baby, whom they had started calling "The Cheerio" because that was all he ate for the entire trip.
None of this would have been possible without your help. I hope that in this account I have given you a glimpse of how incredible this trip was for them and for Awamaki. I am profoundly grateful to you for making it possible for us to offer this opportunity to Martha and Mercedes. We all know how transformative a travel experience can be. However, the effect that experiences like this have on a person's leadership, perspective and thinking are impossible to predict or quantify, and thus difficult to fund. I am extremely grateful to you, our donors, for trusting us with your funds to make an experience like this possible, and I am looking forward to seeing how Martha and Mercedes use their new perspective and experience in their work.
Presenting about our work
Checking out the tall buildings
Ran into a former volunteer!
Boat ride on the Savannah River
Presenting at the conference