Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Nomadic Artisan...

Throughout my travels I have come across many people who have questioned me about the country that I came from and the way in which I arrived.  With wide, curious eyes I’ve had an old indigenous man in the mountains of Guatemala ask me how many hours it would take to get from his town to Canada by chicken bus.  I’ve had anxious teenagers here in Ecuador ask me how much a flight would cost to Canada and then stare at me in disbelief when I tell them the price, their minds suddenly thinking that I must be filthy rich.  For many of these people the idea of international travel is a fantasy, something that they see in films and hear about from foreigners.  It is something that they’ve accepted as beyond their reach, and in most cases it is.  My ability to travel is something that I am extremely grateful for, but it has often been difficult to come to terms with the fact that most of the places that I visit are populated mainly by people that will never have the chance to leave their own country, let alone their community.  But this piece isn’t about those people.  This is about a societal segment of like-minded individuals in the poor world that represent a way of life and an outlook that I as a privileged traveler both envy and admire.  They are the nomadic artisans.

It is largely due to economic circumstances that we in the rich world are able to travel and that the majority of the poor world is not.  We have the benefit of being able to save lots of money and receive paid vacations, of being able to afford flights and travel insurance.  The idea of the long distance vacation is very much a product of rich-world capitalism.  The notion that we can leave the cold winter to go and hang on a beach for a week is something particular to our society, and to the upper throngs of the poor world.  That is not to say that people living in poverty do not enjoy a good vacation, but rather that their options are much more limited. 

One type of travel that the rich world has become known for is long-term travel.  It has become common place for young people to take off backpacking for months at a time, visiting entire continents if not flying around the world, seeing all of the great sights that their guide books tell them they should see.  This type of travel is next to impossible for most of the poor world, where daily work means a daily meal and bed, where people must work to support their families.  I´ve been living a life of long-term travel for the last three years, and people back in Canada who know me often tell me that the way I live my life is adventurous and uncertain.  I´ve often been asked if I ever worry about money or my future.  Relatively, I suppose my life is not conventional, and that from a rich world perspective the path I’ve taken thus far might be considered risky.  But the reality is that I have money in my bank account and a credit card for emergencies.  I have a government that will go out of its way to assist and support me and I have a family that opens their arms and doors for me when I go home.  I go home to a country where I can find a job and receive medical attention and where I’ll receive support when I’m old.  Thus long-term travelling for me is simple; it is just me taking advantage of my extremely lucky circumstances.  Any personal risk that my lifestyle poses pales in comparison to the people I’m about to talk about.

The true adventurers that really live on the edge are the nomadic artisans.  They are the people that travel long distances for an indefinite period of time, living day to day off of the work that they do with their own hands.  Here in Latin America, they come from different parts of the continent, often from extremely poor families, but they have found a way to enjoy the wonders of travel.  They represent a way of life that utilizes the capitalist world only as a means of survival, but that rejects it as a foundation of their existence.  They are the owners of their finished products, and they work when they like, at a leisurely pace, selling what they can.  The focus for the nomadic artisan is not to find a good job and save money, but to simply enjoy the experience of life, with money simply being a necessity of survival.

Being a traveler I always seem to find myself in the places where the nomadic artisans flock.  From the colonial streets of Antigua to the quaint surf town of El Zonte; from the downtown steps of Cuenca to the archeological ruins of Copan.  Where the tourist goes the nomadic artisan follows, for that is how he survives.  In the coastal town of Montañita lies the greatest abundance and diversity of nomadic artisans that I have ever seen.  It is the Mecca of the nomadic artisan.  They line the main street there with their displays of necklaces and bracelets, rings and other random items.  Many of them can be distinguished by the way they present and carry themselves, with loose and often dirty clothing, dread-locked hair and tattoos, and mannerisms that reveal a non-caring, easygoing lifestyle.  Many of them live from day to day, surviving off of the items that they are able to sell, some diversifying into street performing to add to their income.  A few nights ago one fellow told me he needed to make three dollars to pay for his bed that night, when I saw him later he told me that he had made four dollars by juggling fire and now he could buy a beer, he was very happy.  Such is the essence of the nomadic artisan: they find happiness in the little things and in the experience more than anything else, and if they make a little more money that day then it simply means that they can buy more food or drinks to share with their friends. 

The nomadic artisan also represent an outlook of tolerance and acceptance, and are some of the friendliest most self-less people I have ever met.  I always seem to find myself in great conversations with the nomadic artisans, as they are eager to talk and learn about you whether you are going to buy something or not.  After just a few days in Montañita I had made friends with several artisans and I would spend the evening hanging out on the curb of the main street with them, waiting for customers to come along and bargain for one of the items laid out on a cloth before us.  Despite my clear affluence in comparison to many of them, they were always eager to share, and rarely asked of anything from me but my company.  Many of these characters came from poor families in poor Latin American countries, but their lifestyle has allowed them to travel and see the world, to share experiences with people that they likely would have never met had they not been artisans.

My experiences with the nomadic artisans have given me a new found appreciation not only for my privileged ability to travel almost care free, but also for the dedication and joy put into the work that they carry out, and to what that work represents.  When I buy a bracelet or a necklace or whatever it may be from that interesting looking character on the street, I know that I’m not only helping him to eat that day, but that I’m allowing him to continue living a lifestyle that few are able to experience.  And it is a lifestyle of freedom and joy, immaterialism and openness; it is a lifestyle worth supporting.  

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