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Visiting the Indigenous Artisans of the Otavalo Market

We’ve been looking forward to seeing the Otavalo Market since we first made plans to go to Ecuador over a year ago. The main market is on Saturday, though a smaller version runs every day. Before we made it to the big market, we wanted to get some background on the artisans so we hired a local guide named Jorge, who might possibly be one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

the indigenous people

Elderly couple carding woolWe’ve seen the indigenous people all around since we’ve been here. They dress distinctively. The women wear bright white shirts with embroidered flowers and long black skirts, multiple layers of gold beads around their necks, and their long, glossy hair wrapped with a ribbon in the back.  Men wear black felt hats covering their long braided hair, wearing wool ponchos, and often with bright white pants. They both wear a sandal that looks like a flat espadrille.

The people themselves are small – I am taller than almost every man here at 5’6″ – but they have broader chests that allow them to easily breathe at such a high altitude.

The main market is on Saturday, though a smaller version runs every day. Before we made it to the big market, we wanted to get some background on the artisans so we hired a local guide named Jorge, who might possibly be one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.

visiting the artisans

We set out around noon with another couple to tour the indigenous villages. These people are not unfriendly when you see them out, but they seem to keep very much to themselves. It is like walking up to a group of Mennonites or Amish in United States as they go about their daily lives; you just wouldn’t think of doing it. Because they speak Quichua and not Spanish, I never even expected to have a conversation with one of them, and I expected our tour to be a drive around to their villages, maybe a stop in their stores, and running commentary along the way.

Boy was I wrong (and I can’t tell you how excited I am every time this happens).

Our guide Jorge

our guide, Jorge

Artisan using a backloom to create a scarf

Artisan using a backloom to create a scarf

Jorge gave us a lot of background on the indigenous people. (First, a little background on Jorge. He speaks English, Spanish, and Quichua and can do everything from sell you a house to fix your computer. When he’s not teaching university students math and physics, that is. I’m telling you, this is a Renaissance man.)

Jorge explained that each village had a specialty, and within that specialty are subspecialties. For example, in Iluman, they are famous for making hats. Some people make doll hats, some make felt hats, and some make the famous Panama hats (which are actually from Ecuador and not Panama, surprisingly enough). When the other villages need hats, they go to a community like Iluman. When the hatmakers in Iluman need a sweater or poncho, they will go to the villages that specialize in those products.

What has happened over time is that middlemen have come through and modernized the process by giving some of the artisans material and patterns to make a particular item in bulk. They make many of the same sweater, poncho, or tapestry, and the middleman picks them up a few weeks later to sell or export. The artisan is paid and doesn’t have to find his or her customers.

Betsy tries to card wool

Carding wool is much harder than it looks

A hatmaker in Iluman, Ecuador

Ironing felt hats in Iluman

The downside to this is that the middleman creates the product based on tourist demand, so the artisans are using colors and patterns they would never use on their own. And in some instances, they are using factory-made materials and acrylic yarn instead of making their own wool yarn.

You can’t really blame them. When it comes to putting food on the table, do you want to go with your artistic sensibilities or create something below your skill level for a guaranteed paycheck?

Jorge took us into the indigenous villages surrounding Otavalo, and we actually went into people’s homes to see them work. The roads into the indigenous villages are dirt, and we walked through pigs, chickens, children at play, and barking dogs – not to mention the messes they leave behind – to get to these modest homes.

A stack of hats ready to go to market

A stack of hats ready to go to market

Gardens are plentiful, and most have a 3-plant system. First, the corn is planted. After it grows a few inches, beans are planted next to the corn stalks so they have something to climb. The two plants help each other grow. After the beans have sprouted a bit and the garden is weeded, pumpkins are planted to shade the garden and prevent new weeds from growing. The watering is taken care of by Mother Nature. Isn’t that clever? Jorge says this process has been in place for two thousand years.

The houses do not have heat, and if the floors were not dirt, they were covered in dirt. Clothes washing is done outside in the same area where yarn is washed and dried. You can’t imagine the poverty that lies behind these beautiful rugs, sweaters, and scarves.

the villages

In Carabuela, we met an elderly husband and wife who made their own wool thread and then created beautiful tapestries, scarves, and ponchos with a back loom. You can see in the photo that the man sits on the floor and attaches himself to the loom with a

This man makes his rug patterns from memory

This man creates his rugs from memory

low back brace, working thread by thread on a scarf. When he finishes the scarf, he uses a dried nettle to brush the wool until it gets a soft feel to it.

In San Roque, we met a rug maker who had done well enough to buy his 12-year-old son Wayra his own loom, and he made tapestries that our friends Ann and Howie bought. Wayra’s father had a wicked sense of humor, too. When we explained why we weren’t buying anything, he asked how many children we had. When we said none, he smiled and said perhaps we should consider getting some god-children.

Wayra’s dad also taught us the what to say when smiling for a picture. You can’t say “cheese” – that translates to “queso” here. He says “whisky” and it gives a perfect smile every time.

thoughts on the day

Weaver and his children

Weaver and his children

The poverty is definitely something to get used to. In a typical Western fashion, I kept thinking of all the things they were missing and how hard their lives must be.

But Wayra’s mom washed her clothes outside while staring at a million-dollar view of mountains, volcanos, and the city below. Wayra went to school from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day in addition to learning his father’s craft. And crops were growing out back along with a few chickens for food.

No doubt about it, these people have hard lives. But who am I to say they are really poor? Smiles come easily, children play in the streets, families live near each other, and each craftsman is proud of his expertise.

We are learning a lot about our attitudes and assumptions on this trip, and it is challenging to see some of these

girl in San Roque

Girl in San Roque

things. But we are working to expand our thinking, realize that we all have different ways of living, and that just because we have money and education does not mean we know the best way. My head is spinning after just a week on the road, and I can’t imagine how we will be changed by trip’s end.

Next up: We venture out to the famous Otavalo Market, eat street meat, and learn to negotiate like pros. Lots of pictures on that one, so stay tuned.

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