One of the great things about traveling the way I do is that I get to see parts of countries most people don’t. With increased globalization and mass tourism, people tend to come home with the same pictures and the same cheap souvenirs the world over. It almost feels like the magic of a specific place has been commercialized, lacking all authenticity. The fact of the matter is this is simply not the case. You may not find it in the accessible markets where you’re told to go due to safety concerns, proximity to hotels/attractions and what have you, but if you stray from the beaten path, you’ll eventually find what you’re looking for. Such was my experience in Haiti.
As with mass tourism, mass production is the cheap way to meet the demands of the market. The problem with this is that before that was the preferred system, people spent lifetimes passing particular skills through generations. Artisans who work by hand creating authentic products are often left in the dust of modern times, regardless of the superior quality and uniqueness. My sponsor, Orta, works to revive hand weaving in Buldan, Turkey, but for Haiti I reached out to Donna Karan, who’s Urban Zen foundation, among other initiative, works with Haitian artisans to help create new markets for their products, yielding better wages, safer working conditions, and also helps the keep the craft alive.
My guide on this journey was Paula Coles, a French/Haitian designer who sells her handmade, recycled t-shirt handbags through Urban Zen. Our first stop was where they work wood and horns. Although the working conditions could use improvement, I was impressed by the output and beauty of the work.
Next we hit Croix de Bouquet, the land of metal and beadwork. It was here where you could already see the effects of accessibility to Western markets. Clean streets, better light and ventilation, but most importantly smiles all around. This was upcycling at its finest, solving waste management problems while creating beautiful works of art from scrap metal, simply amazing.
The highlight of all this was meeting Jean-Baptiste, a famous bead worker who creates Voodoo flags (drapos). When we arrived, he was guiding two customers on choosing the appropriate flag. As part of the process, a ceremony is then performed blessing the items. I was allowed to join in with the songs, prayers and Créole chants, all strung together by the shaking of gourds.
This is the difference. After six weeks of meticulous craftsmanship, an artisan is giving you more than just a decoration for your home. He’s giving you a piece of himself and the craft he represents. Items like these are not some a fickle purchase, but rather a memorable experience. And, with continued support from organizations like Orta and Urban Zen, these micro-industries can flourish as they never have before.