Floating Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

While in Puno I took the chance to do some sightseeing for a day. And the main attraction is on the lake itself, Lake Titicaca.

It is one of the most famous local attractions for tourists – a visit to the see the Uru people (los uros) who inhabit a multitude of floating islands just a few kilometres by boat from Puno. It is certainly another world. The indigenous people here pre-date the Incas, living on islands of reeds they made themselves. Even today they still make their homes and their boats from the reeds.

Tourism helps to keep these communities going, but much of it felt staged. From the welcoming sing-a-long to the information talk and the hard-sell of the local crafts I hoped the communities maintained their sense of identity, and not just a tourist facsimile. When the tourists aren’t around, the people here still have to maintain their way of life.

As well as a visit to Los Uros, Puno has a few other attractions, including a ship built in the 19th century (MN Yavari) that took six years to be hauled up over the Andes from the coast and then reassembled on the lake. As well as checking its seaworthiness I climbed up the local hill overlooking Puno (Condor hill) and later relaxed in a fine cafe with a cup of local fair trade coffee.

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Fair trade hats, Sigsig, Ecuador

There’s a hat for every occasion, though when it comes to fair trade hats made at the ATMA women’s co-op in Sigsig, southern Ecuador, traditional is the style.

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This following article originally appeared in the January 2013 edition of “fair trade”, a magazine published by the Canadian Fair Trade Network (CFTN).

http://issuu.com/cftnetwork/docs/fairtrade-magazine-jan2013/17?e=0

I tried to set up an appointment beforehand but was told that the workers were busy and might not have time to talk. I took my chance anyway.

I knocked on the heavy double door of the former hospital building. When the door opened, Rosa, the stalwart matriarch of the co-op, welcomed me. She wore one of the cooperative’s panama hats with a black cardigan and red skirt. Her braided hair gave her a traditional Ecuadorian look. She welcomed me with a smile and insisted that I join the workers for a homecooked meal. It was yet another example of the hospitality and generosity of time I experienced on my travels.
I was nine months into my Fair Trade journey, riding my bicycle from Vancouver to South America, visiting as many cooperatives as I could. I wanted to learn more about the people living in producer communities, and how Fair Trade plays a role in their lives.

The Asociación de Toquilleras de María Auxiliadora (ATMA) is a women’s Fair Trade cooperative that produces artisan crafts, and in particular, panama hats. It is located among the beautiful Andean highlands of southern Ecuador, on the edge of the dusty, patchwork town of Sigsig, a 90-minute bus journey from the colonial city Cuenca.

Inside the old building, there was a central courtyard, almost filled by a wooden structure with a wide central column, which was decorated with a colourful ribbon to make it look like a hat. It stood about three metres high and 10 metres wide and was really a circular table that could also be used as a stage. I made my way into the main working area, where a thrum of activity was already underway. The workroom was open and well lit by the large windows that stretched the length of the room. This was not some factory-style operation. The women worked busily at their own stations, but the atmosphere was relaxed. Most of the noise came from a mix of machines and children. Eight to 10 women typically work here, eight hours per day, Monday to Friday. During busier times, they’ll work Saturdays too.

On the edges of the clean, tiled floor, the walls were lined with shelves and cupboards full of hats in various states of completion. Tables were piled high with materials. The panamas are made from palm-like grass from the Pacific coast. The style was originally named after the coastal city of Montecristi, but they became known as “panama hats” when they were given international visibility during the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century.

The women use many different dyes to colour the grass straw and then hang them in bunches to dry. The traditional hat weaving, an important traditional local skill, is meticulously completed by hand. The women continued to work while I visited. Their sewing machines rattled as they stitched labels onto the finished hats.

Every minute or so there was a loud hiss of decompressed air, as a woman named Maria moulded hats into different styles. Another woman helped to shape the hats with an iron. Meanwhile, a group of children ran in and out of the room, playing games.

The women sell their products directly to Pachacuti, a relationship that has been established for many years. Pachacuti is a Fair Trade certified fashion retailer that in 2009 became the first company in the world to complete a pilot study for the new World Fair Trade Organization certification process. It was the first international Fair Trade organization allowed to put “Fair Trade Certified” on its full range of products, certifying the organization as a whole rather than
specific items.

ATMA provides many benefits for its employees. It offers them fair wages and provides health benefits and educational assistance for their children. Because of ATMA, important cultural knowledge will be maintained and transferred to younger generations. What’s most important is the sense of empowerment. The women here have created their own business, invested in training and equipment, and are earning their own incomes.

The cooperative also has its own shop that sells hats, bags, and crafts. It felt good buying a hat straight from its source. I was satisfied, knowing my money went directly to the women here. It might be a small contribution, but it’s important.

For more information (and to buy): http://www.pachacuti.co.uk

fair trade matters

Fair Trade isn’t perfect by any means. If our world trading system was set up fairly, we wouldn’t even need “fair trade”. But unfortunately, power tends to rule, and the power lies with Northern corporations and governments. There are many admirable alternatives and particularly in coffee you can find many examples of ‘direct trade’. I read about one particular example and although it appears to be successful, the main thing I learned was how important Fair Trade is and why it does offer the best model for so many producers.

A Costa Rican coffee producer, with 12 acres, is struggling. The work is hard, the reward is too little. He thinks this is no way to make a living. Yet he is a “fair trade” producer, receiving fair trade terms and prices. Is there something wrong here? This particular farmer thinks there is. He asks himself: what’s the alternative? is there a better way?

He sets up a company with a new “direct trade” approach. It puts at least 50% of the sale price into the coffee grower’s hands. The farmer has a vested interest in the supply chain right up until the end user. This model is successful. He decides that he can help other farmers and duplicates this model. From a humble beginning there are now 800 producers in this group. They receive better prices for their coffee and thus liveable wage. It sounds pretty good all round, doesn’t it?

What works here? Transparency, shorter supply chain, more of a producer-consumer ‘relationship’, a good price for the farmer. But let’s explore this situation a little more closely…

A “direct trade” model has many advantages, but can lack transparency and often focuses purely on a higher price for the coffee, but nothing for the wider community. This particular model is based on consignment. Who’s buying their coffee? Are there any agreements/contracts in place? What guarantee does he or she have that their coffee will be bought? To me that is a fundamental flaw in this example.

Consignment is only a shop window. Fair trade offers long-term contracts to growers so they have security of a guaranteed sale, and a minimum price. Money is also invested within the community through the ‘social premium’. Via the local co-operative the producer may have access to loans or credit.

A major criticism was that when Fair Trade prices are higher than conventional prices, buyers are more likely to go for the cheaper options, thus depriving the Fair Trade farmer the extra income (which is needed because of his added costs). However, many Fair Trade coffee buyers buy this coffee for exactly these reasons – it helps the farmer. This is not a weakness of the model, it is a strength. And, Fair Trade prices track the market price, with an additional premium paid. The gap only widens when the price of coffee falls below a minimum, which is a critical advantage of Fair Trade because so many farmers end up in dire poverty when they can’t even cover their production costs.

While many examples of “direct trade” are admirable, including this one, overall I believe Fair Trade offers a better long-term model. This particular example, called Thrive, is also somewhat unique. The farmer I mentioned at the beginning? Kenneth Lander. He’s American, bought this farm and moved with his family here a few years ago, taking to coffee as a hobby. It was only when the financial crisis hit his real estate investments that he needed to bring some income for his family. So this ‘Thrive’ model that he established came from this perspective (and his frustration with the Fair Trade model). But I think it would be much more difficult for a Costa Rican farmer to create this kind of model. I also think that Fair Trade offers the average Costa Rican farmer more security, empowerment and community involvement and support. I don’t think Thrive offers these farmers the same advantages, and it suffers from many of the same problems that Kenneth cited about Fair Trade.

Still, it’s important that we as consumers recognise the life situation of the producers of our food and whether it’s Fair Trade, Thrive or another way of fairer production, learn what you can and try to put your money towards some degree of fairer production. I do wish Kenneth and the Thrive farmers success. All producers deserve a fair and dignified livelihood. Fair Trade is not perfect by any means, but it offers that independent guarantee of ‘fairness’ (the Fair Trade ‘label’ i.e. third-party certification). That’s important, and worth supporting.

You can read more about Kenneth and the Thrive model here:

http://www.psmag.com/business-economics/fair-fair-enough-beyond-fair-trade-coffee-farming-agriculture-65987/

http://www.thrivefarmers.com

Cycling through peanut butter

For a touring cyclist there can be no better energy food than peanut butter. Actually it’s just excellent food period. Already one of my favourite things to eat, it became my number one food of choice on the road. Being vegan, sampling a lot of local ‘delicacies’ was out the window, so as I moved further south, seeking out supplies of my favourite essential foodstuff became a bit of a mission, one that fortuitously led to discoveries in every country.

What’s there not to like? It goes with just about anything, sweet or savoury. My first few weeks in the USA were easy. Oh, how I look back fondly on those idyllic times, stopping mid-afternoon at a local natural food store for some organic, additive-free, peanut butter. If I was lucky, I could even grind the peanuts myself. Such luxury…

Back home in Vancouver I happily make a peanut butter sandwich with avocado and Marmite (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it…). Lacking the special Marmite magic on my travels, I kept to my favourite accompaniment – bananas. Even in Peru, my love affair with peanut butter was still going strong. Who needs variety when you’ve got peanut butter.

I didn’t expect to become so dependent on it, but as I realised I might be able to find supplies throughout Mexico I made a point of searching for it – high and low. I migrated from bread (Bimbo!) to fresh, often delicious tortillas, but I needed some quality toppings and fillings. Beans (with jalapenos)? Avocado and tomatoes (with jalapenos)? Both great options, but I needed that delicious, sweet taste and energy from the peanut butter and it’s conjoined twin, bananas (you can’t separate these things).

It became a bit of a game to try and hunt out peanut butter in each country I passed through. If I found a good source I’d buy extra – just in case there wasn’t any across the next border. However I lucked out every time, with only one – and a very minor one considering my alternatives – snag: Skippy, Jif and their ilk.

Like I said, I try to eat peanut butter as it should be. And that means peanuts. End of. No sugar, no palm oil, no hydrogenated oil, no random other ‘natural’ ingredients. I’ll allow a little salt. If it’s organic, so much the better. From Mexico southwards it was a different story. But needs must, so I wasn’t complaining. I learned to embrace Big Peanut Butter. It definitely spread better. Large jars of Skippy and Jif were stuffed into my panniers. Occasionally I’d see a ‘local’ brand, which really meant some country-specific peanut butter brand owned by the usual suspects. One was called Peter Pan. On very rare and heavenly days I found authentic, 100% peanut butter, such as from cafe Al-Natur in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. And it came crunchy.

Was it expensive? For me, touring on a tight budget, absolutely. I could destroy my daily food allowance on just a single jar. But it was worth it. If I found one country to be on the cheaper side, I’d stock up. I could have bought jam for a fraction of the price, but it’s nowhere near the same. My $6 indulgence. The funny thing was trying to compare prices in each country. Most places it worked out roughly similar, $5-$6 or thereabouts. Gringo prices for gringo food. Panama had pretty good prices and Colombia seemed to be the most expensive. But by then I didn’t care. I was well in for the long haul and even while I wasn’t cycling at that point, it was just too good. I almost brought some home.

310 days, 12 countries, 15,000 km, 30+ Fair Trade visits

310 days seems like a long time. It is. But it’s not forever and the end point is at hand. La senora gorda cantando.

But I look at it another way. It’s really the start of another adventure for me. Back in Vancouver, or wherever the future takes me, I’m looking forward to coming home. I’ve been able to appreciate the people and the things I have in life a lot more.

I’m sat in Lima airport, waiting for an evening flight to New York. I’m trying to reflect on the experience. Too much to summarise here: the ups, downs, falls, scares, good, bad, surprising, touching, the people…

My insights into Fair Trade just scratch the surface. Like most things, there’s a lot more to it than just the label on your coffee or chocolate. But it is a step in the right direction. I believe that, despite the downsides I’ve seen. We need to keep fighting for the marginalised producers. I laughed whole-heartedly at the recent petrol ‘crisis’ that gripped Britain recently – people running to panic-buy petrol when there was only the mere threat of a delivery strike. Imagine if banana and coffee and cacao growers went on strike….

It’s amazing what we take for granted and the people who provide these foods for us need a bigger say in the picture. Do try to buy Fair Trade when you can, and more importantly, get informed about the bigger picture and how we can help these millions of small producers and their children lift themselves, however marginally, out of poverty.

Edna shows her undercarriage, ready for packing up
I hit South America a couple of months ago, after swapping the bike for the bus

And don’t worry, Fair Trade Bike Ride isn’t going off-line. I’ve many more stories to tell from my trip and there’ll be more adventures to come, I’m sure of it. Thanks to everyone who’s read the blog and encouraged me along the way. I really appreciate it. Hasta luego!

 

Football, Ecuadorian style

Football. Best game on the planet. I’ve seen many games in England and the odd one or two in Vancouver. One thing on my list during this trip was to try to catch a live game somewhere. It proved difficult to be in the right place at the right time, but the stars eventually aligned and I got an opportunity to see a match in Quito, home of Deportivo Quito. The competition was the Copa Libertadores America (the South American equivalent of the European Champions League) and the opposition on the night was Velez Sarsfield from Argentina (I have no idea who they are either).

I hoped it would be a good game, certainly different from what I’d experienced before. And it was…from the crush of getting into the stadium, where half of it was closed and so fans had restricted points of entry and impatience reigned. We were packed into one side of the stadium, a decrepit-looking thing, though the views of the nearby mountains, with aircraft flying under the backdrop, made a stunning panorama. I was seated on bare concrete not far from the hardcore fans. The flags and banners were out, and the huge bass drums were being readied. Fencing surrounded the pitch, which was a shock. I can’t imagine fan safety was ever a priority for these occasions.

As the game was about to start, Velez got a typical away-team reception of a chorus of boos. There wasn’t a single away fan, unsurprisingly. The Quito chants were underway, the flares were lit and the drums rolled.

Into the game and I notice the differences. The pace is slow, like treacle. There’s little goalmouth action. The funniest part is when the referee, miles behind the play, books a Velez player when he made a foul. Just as I’ve seen on television many times, the ref races over and dramatically shoves the yellow card in the Velez player’s face. Hilarious. Right before the end of a desperately poor first half, a Quito player hoofs the ball downfield towards the Velez area, a real up-and-under. The Quito forward gives chase and falls inside the Velez penalty area. Diving, surely? No, the ref (again, miles behind play) agrees with the linesman’s flag to give a penalty to Quito. The fans go absolutely mad and the penalty is duly converted, 1-0. Then the flares really got going. A dozen of them. The fans chant, the drums bang louder. I’m surprised when some riot police jog onto the pitch to accompany the ref when he blows the half-time whistle.

It quietens down quickly, and the food vendors walk up and down the aisles selling their snacks. Nothing vegan, though, so I skip the offerings. I notice one young lad, shirtless, carrying a fire extinguisher, and wonder how he managed to smuggle it in. Quickly though, I spot several more lads with them. The players come out, and the extinguishers are let off in unison. Colour-coordinated in pink and blue, the air is filled with dust. The flares had already gone out, so the fire risk was minimal, and then the CO2 dust rains down on the crowd.

The chants continue but the noise erupts once again when Quito score early in the second half. It looks like they can play after all. Later I notice the ref has a paint gun to mark the ’10 yard’ distance at free kicks. He carefully marks where the ball is to be set and where the opposing players can stand. What an idea! Why don’t they use that in the Premiership?? When one of the players feigns injury (sorry, that’s my prejudice – all players in South America feign injury…) a golf cart comes on to cart the player off. Needless to say he is absolutely fine.

The game peters out, despite another goal for Quito. They win 3-0 and the crowd are happy. The chants continued throughout the rest of the game. An estimated 9,000 were there, though it was hard to tell given how empty the stadium looked on the other sides. But I didn’t care. It had been quite an experience for me and I enjoyed it, despite having to sit out in the cool mountain air. It wasn’t as good as English football, but you try telling that to the thousands of Quito fans who left the stadium, paying 10 cents to use the toilet on their way out.

Unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera, so here’s another picture of Carlos Valderrama…

Carlos Valderrama is Colombian, but you just can't beat that hairstyle

Western Honduras to Nicaragua…in only two days

Sitting on the crowded bus, I marvelled at how quickly the miles passed and yet how I was missing all that was happening on the road. I could look out the window, but it wasn’t the same as seeing everything from the seat of my bicycle. But when the bus slowed to a virtual standstill, the driver ragging the gearing to get into first, I did feel slightly happier that I wasn’t riding up some steep mountain roads.

My few days in the Santa Rosa area in western Honduras were really interesting. But time was running out and I needed to make tracks towards Panama. It meant some long bus rides lay ahead. The first of which was getting to the Honduran captial, Tegucigalpa.

Santa Rosa parque central. Lovely square, nice church

Leaving Santa Rosa was a bit of a panic. For all the ‘laid-backness’ of the people in Central America, when it comes to bus travel, they somehow get over-excited and the bus ‘shouters’ make you feel like their bus is the most important place to be in the world. “You have to get on, now! (Even though we’re not leaving anytime soon…).” So I got into a bit of a tizzy trying to get my bike around to load her up, dumping my bags on the ground and making sure they treated her well when loading her up. I didn’t count on the blind taxi driver then driving over my bike bag. Argh! All a-fluster, I managed to get on the bus but then had 8 hours ahead to calm down…

Tegucigalpa was a place I wanted to spend as little time as possible. I heard negative things about it and the bus terminal was not in the nicest area of town. Arriving late afternoon I hope to be on my way first thing next morning. I didn’t get to see any of its nicer spots, unfortunately, so my experience is one-sided. I did get to wander about a little bit, but I was on edge almost the whole time. It’s a shame that I wasn’t able to see its good side, which it does have. My hotel was perfectly fine and safe, but I was glad it was a quiet Sunday morning when I left. I needed Plan B, as the bus to Managua, the Nicaraguan capital was full. It meant a bus to the border, skipping over and more buses from the other side. Not ideal, but getting to Esteli was do-able in a day.

Except…I get to the bus stop and they tell me they can’t take my bike. Unbelievable! I thought these bus people could take anything. Not this time, even though I waited for another bus. Eventually they pointed me over the road, to catch a different bus. It got me going, though not quite as far as I hoped. Eventually, after another bus ride, I was close to the border. I fancied cycling the remaining 15 km, even though it was uphill and I didn’t have much time that day. But it felt a lot easier than juggling the bike and the buses.

The border was its chaotic self. I even smiled at the $12 ‘tourist’ fee. Money changed, I saw the Nicaraguan bus. Relief! It was a “school bus”. This typically means anything goes, and with little fuss Edna was loaded up on the roof. We drove through more coffee country and I felt quite at home; the bus was packed, sweaty and jarring. But it was short, and I transferred to yet another bus in order to get to Esteli, my stop for the day. I timed it perfectly, after paying for tickets and toilets we were on our way again. This bus was a proper coach, so I got to sit back and reflect on my chaotic day. Four buses, a border crossing, an hour of cycling…and, very relieved, I made it to a simple but very nice hotel in Esteli just before dusk.

Nicaragua! The usual border chaos, but it was pretty straightforward

I was very relieved to get through El Salvador and Honduras. I’d heard plenty of negative things about each country, and though my experience was generally good, I always had a sense of caution in the back of my head. When even local people urged caution, as in El Salvador, it made me take notice. A couple of other cyclists I’d met in Mexico had their trip ended after later being robbed in Honduras. And though I was cautious, I had some very good experiences in both countries. The people were generally very welcoming, friendly and hospitable. Each country has a lot to offer visitors and I often felt that we listen to the media too closely when it comes to travelling. Sometimes you just have to put that to one side. The best way is to get out there and experience it for yourself.

Leaving Esteli...I was out before dawn