Her fingers work swiftly and deftly as the Mayan pattern takes shape in the weaving on her back-strap loom. I compliment her on her skill. She says her fingers have had much practice.
How long has she been doing this? I ask. She began when she was eight. Did someone teach her? Yes, her grandmother. Her mother died when she was very young, and she grew up in her grandmother’s care.
She wears the typical dress of Mayan women. Her hair is graying, and her skin is beginning to be wrinkled and leathery. But she does not seem old in spirit. She seems cheerful about her work, and careful to do it in a manner that she can be proud of. She explains how one can tell the difference between quality handwork and pieces woven on a machine.
It may take her two or three days to finish one of the long, colorful weavings that tourists and other visitors prize as wall hangings or table runners. Her work will probably sell for less than $15 in the market.
I’m good at bargaining when I want to be. When I’m face to face with a merchant in the market, we both know that the first price they quote me is the tourist price. They can and will come down on the figure, especially when there are other vendors a few steps away, or standing there vying to get my attention. If I play things right, I can get this item for 30 to 40 percent off.
But I can’t bring myself to do it. Somehow it seems brutal. Many of them will cut the price if I begin to walk away, but I rarely ask them to come down. Why should I think $7 is too much for a hand-woven, hand-sewn bag when the woven fabric in it may have cost someone two or three days to make? Much more cheaply made bags would cost $15 or $20 in Target or Kohl’s in the States. So why should I try to beat these weavers, sculptors, and jewelry makers down on the price of something that is already a bargain? I wouldn’t feel good about myself if I did it.
I am not trying to impute some nobility to all of these artisans just because their culture and their background is different than mine. As in any other culture, there are greedy and corrupt people among them who will cheat customers and who are not above manipulating potential buyers. “You’re rich. You can afford it,” one says. (She is wearing brand new typical clothing and seems particularly well fed.) Or, “Your church believes in helping people. You should help me out.”
But for the most part the people in the shops and market stalls seem to be honest, hard-working individuals trying to bring in a little income in the best way open to them. I hope God blesses them in their honest endeavors. I hope they and their descendants carry their skills on into coming centuries. And I will not ask them to cut their prices just because I’m clever and I can coerce them into doing it. I honor and respect their work, and truly, “the labourer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10:7).