PALENQUE, Mexico- It has been my experience that cobblers are amongst the most honest, genuine, humble, and proud craftsmen that I have regularly had the privilege to encounter in 11 years of travel around planet earth. Time and time again, I walk into the street side hut, sidewalk bench, or into thee small store fronts of shoe repair men all over the world and I am immediately received warmly, the price of the labor and supplies is quoted to be ridiculously cheap, and the work that ensues is high quality.
All too often hiring someone to do a job for you when traveling is a tenuous activity, one full of — often rightful — mistrust. When I take my boots into be fixed I hardly even ask the price anymore, as I have never been charged over a minimal amount of money for a shoe repair anywhere in the world.
I occasionally have my boots and shoes repaired. I would like to keep the activity of shopping for new boots something I reserve for doing once every four years. I only chuck my boots when I absolutely have to (ironically, I just had to do this yesterday). When my soles begin to flap, when my boot leather begins to wear, I look for a craftsman to repair them — they abound in dark little dens the world over, working humbly by hand with simple, steel, ancient, tools.
On this occasion in Palenque, Mexico it was my wife, Chaya, who needed the hand of a cobbler to put her soles back on. Her Teva sandals were flapping in the breeze, she tried to strap them back together with a rubber band to no avail, it was time to go to a professional craftsman. I looked up and saw a worn down yellow sign that said just what we were looking for:
Reparaciones de Calzados
I stopped my wife in her tracks, pointed at her floppy sandal, and called her over to the man sitting behind a little booth with a roughly made tin roof over his head. I asked him if he could fix my wife’s shoe. He scooped the sandal off of her foot in a swift motion, and, without ever pausing to look at it, he began tearing off the sole. He knew right off what needed to be done.
“Wait!” my wife called out, “I need that to walk home in, I will return with another pair of shoes on my feet. My wife did not wish to stumble around Palenque with one sandal on one sandal off.
No need, the cobbler explained. I am going to fix it right now, it will only take a moment. He now had the sole removed from the sandal and was scrapping away the layers of dead glue with some sort of metal file.
“How much is this going to cost?” I asked more out of concern that I knew that neither my wife nor I had any small money, and even busy stores and shops are disinclined to cashing 200 peso notes.
The cobbler looked at us almost without an expression. He said that the charge would be nothing as matter of factly as he began working on the shoe. With a little urging we got him to say 10 pesos, around 75 cents.
The shoe repair was completed almost as soon as it had began.
“I can just walk away in it?” my wife asked.
“The glue doesn’t need time to dry?”
I then had to explain how we did not have the proper denomination of money to pay him. He laughed as I asked if he had change for a 200 peso note. Of course he didn’t, nobody in Mexico does.
He told us to not worry about paying him. He was serious. He went on to the next pair of shoes in his line up to work on.
We told him that I would return with his 10 pesos when we got change. I did. He took the coin as uncaringly as when he told us that there would be no charge for his service.
Cobbler guild all over the world similar
If this event stood on its own then I probably would have taken this Mexican shoe repairman to be another really genuine, nice person that you meet every once in a while traveling. But I can’t. I have had similar experiences with shoe repair men all over the world. In Darjeeling, India myself and a friend had some invasive work done to our shoes before going hiking in the Himalaya by a shoe repair man who worked on a street corner from only a little stool and a small box of tools. He also did not want to be paid for his service, and when he finally named a price it was incredibly slight. I had a similar experience in the jungles of Peru — I had the soles glued and sewn back onto my boots (complete with a complimentary shine) for a fee so nominal that it would scarcely have purchased much of anything at all.
Guilds attract certain character types, mold others
It is interesting how certain trades tend to attract or mold certain caste-types of people all over the world. Taxi drivers tend to be similar everywhere, so are mechanics, bus drivers, school teachers, police men, fire men, construction workers, soldiers, bank tellers, call center employees, the list goes on. When amends are taken for particular cultural contexts, the myriad of global professions have honed lifestyles that are more or less similar between country, between society.
It is truly amazing to measure up your interactions with people from various trades across the planet and see how similar they are. Particular livelihoods seem to attract certain types of people the world over, and then molds them into the character of their world wide guild. Aspects of culture differ greatly between various part of the world, and the basic beliefs and life structure of a taxi driver in Peru may be totally different than one in China, but get into the car with both of them at the appointed time, have a conversation, watch how driver interacts with his co-workers as he sits on his car’s hood smoking cigarettes, note how he handles the money exchange, pay attention to the underlaying aspects of your interaction, and the similarities are startling.
World wide guilds mold their own world wide character. If you want a misty indication of a person’s character when traveling, ask him what his profession is. The culture of the guilds often goes beyond the culture of geography, religion, place, or time.
I have found cobblers to be some of the most modest, honest craftsmen on the planet: from India to Mexico.