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Interview – Luke Della Santa of Piece Collectors

Luke Della Santa. It’s just one of those names that you’d only expect to belong to someone creative; a globe-trotting gypsy with an air of mystery about them. This is very much true of this particular Luke Della Santa, who I first met a decade ago in Sydney’s underground live music venue Brass Monkey. Social media has kept us connected over the years and it’s been a real treat to watch Luke (and now his partner, Em) slowly vagabonding around the globe. It’s also been a treat to watch Luke’s photography develop. But it’s Luke and Em’s business, Piece Collectors, that especially caught our eye. Read more below.

Luke Della Santa
Image by Luke Della Santa

Slow Travel Magazine: Tell us a little about yourself – the way you travel etc.
Luke Della Santa: My passion for travel is cultivated by experiences. I’m not that interested in visiting a tropical paradise or somewhere steeped in history without aiming to become part of the community. Ideally, I’m there for long enough for the market vendors or the kids kicking a soccer ball at the park to know my story and for me to know theirs.

Hiking in mountains
Image by Luke Della Santa

I’ve been drawn to the idea of travel and different cultures since I was a about 10 years old. I have two older sisters and a friend of theirs brought back a photo of a Sahdu from India. I remember being so in awe of him, covered in white chalk with hair flowing down to his feet. That led to pouring over the pages of National Geographic, which incidentally sparked my love for photography.

Around the same time as that picture influenced me, my sisters left home to be van-vagabonds – travel was in our blood. 10 years later, as soon as I finished school, I borrowed their van and travelled the east coast of Australia. Since then my curiosity for new places, people and cultures has never left.

South American local culture
Image by Luke Della Santa

What does slow travel mean to you?
LDS:
I tend to travel long term, 6-12 months at a time, moving slowly through places, spending a minimum of a few weeks or a month in each area. But ‘slow travel’ doesn’t have to be that. I think it’s possible to take a two week holiday and still travel slowly. It starts with a state of mind, being aware of the place you’re in and making an effort to understand and know the people and culture. To value the conversation with your taxi driver as much as the attraction they’re taking to you. It’s important to have days with nothing planned where you can wander aimlessly, meet people and let those experiences guide your time.

It starts with a state of mind, being aware of the place you’re in and making an effort to understand and know the people and culture.

South American men sitting on bench
Image by Luke Della Santa

Tell us about Piece Collectors
LDS:
Piece Collectors began a year into our travels back in 2014. Em (Luke’s partner) and I decided to base ourselves in a small village in Guatemala, to catch our breath after six months of intense backpacking, and simply to slow down, learn Spanish and just be still.

Getting to know the stories of the artisans, we also came to know their hardships.

One of our favourite past times is to visit local markets. It’s such a great way to experience the local community, chat to makers and fall in love with the traditional crafts. There are so many amazing traditional crafts in Guatemala and we quickly built strong relationships with many of the local artisans. Getting to know the stories of the artisans, we also came to know their hardships, and so grew a desire not only to share their incredible work back home in Australia but also hopefully provide them with financial support. And so, Piece Collectors was born.

Even when travelling slowly and spending extended time in places, you are still an observer and I have always wanted to be more connected to remote communities. Piece Collectors allows us to break down more barriers being involved in the community and valued as a part of it.

traditional weaving loom
Image by Luke Della Santa

If you know who made an item and the story behind it, then you’re more likely to treasure it forever.

What began as a way to fund our travels has become a fully-fledged business. Last year we based ourselves in Oaxaca, Mexico working on a bespoke collection, combining our own unique designs with traditional craftsmanship. It has been a long journey, but we’re aiming to relaunch the business later this year with an e-commerce store too. We’re passionate about connecting people with the makers of these pieces, because we believe that connection equals value. If you know who made an item and the story behind it, then you’re more likely to treasure it forever.

Oaxaca Mexico slow travel
Image by Luke Della Santa

Tell us a little about your trip to Chiapas
LDS:
A few years ago, one of the ladies who was working for us in Guatemala had mentioned that she could no longer weave due to her bad eyesight and it sparked an idea. Emily, my amazing partner is an eyewear designer (amongst other things) and reached out to her previous employer who generously donated the reading glasses. We carried these around with us across Mexico and to Guatemala, aligning with various groups to help us distribute them.

Weaving is such a big part of their culture and often a substantial source of income for the women and crazy to think that something we take for granted, readily available at a newsagent or airport could impact communities and their ability to work.

The older ladies would put on the glasses upside-down (not knowing how they worked) and all their kids and grandkids would burst out in laughter.

Slow travel Mexico
Image by Luke Della Santa
local culture travel mexico
Image by Luke Della Santa
sustainable travel mexico
Image by Luke Della Santa

In Chiapas, we are working with a close friend and textile producer. He works with over 120 weavers in villages around San Cristobal de las Casas. We visited each village, starting with one family and always ending the day with half the village turning up to see what the crazy gringos were doing. It was a great experience! I fumbled through my broken Spanish doing small presentations and explaining the testing process. A really beautiful moment that kept repeating itself in each village was when the older ladies would put on the glasses upside-down (not knowing how they worked) and all their kids and grandkids would burst out in laughter. You can read more about it here.

Oaxaca Mexico travel slowly
Image by Luke Della Santa

How do you feel that this trip enriched you as a traveller? (Compared to, say, going on a typical tourist holiday to Mexico, staying in a hotel, drinking magaritas by the pool etc).
LDS: Firstly, I’m a big fan of margaritas. Ha ha!

I think the travel I do allows me to be a sort of anthropologist; I can leave a place and still have those joyfully typical holiday memories we all share of swimming at a beautiful beach or visiting the sites, but I also take away a deeper perspective about how different cultures live day to day and I ultimately realise that people are pretty similar. Despite culture, religion and history we all like to laugh, love, eat, sing, party and we get angry and sad when our basic needs aren’t met. We have all these similarities that surpass our cultural upbringings.

We have all these similarities that surpass our cultural upbringings.

Busking, central Mexico
Image by Luke Della Santa

Did you learn some Spanish before (or during) your Mexico trip?
LDS:
When I left Australia I embarked on 5 weeks of intensive Spanish lessons in Argentina. I was living with a local guy who didn’t speak any English, which was hard because I’m a super social person and rely on my outgoing personality a lot. I kinda became an accidental introvert, changing my perspective of the world as someone who couldn’t confidently communicate. I have continued learning from audiotapes, but mostly chatting with people along the way at every chance I get. I find that locals love it when you make any effort to learn their language, even if you speak at the level of a cheeky 5-year-old.

Locals love it when you make any effort to learn their language, even if you speak at the level of a cheeky 5-year-old.

Mexican donkey transport
Image by Luke Della Santa

I collect herbs and spices as I go and always leave with recipes from local families.

Do you like to sample local food?
LDS:
I feel like ALL of my travel is based around food. If someone asks what a place is like, I immediately talk about the food! We are always searching for the best local foods; I try to be as open and adventurous as possible. I can spend entire days wandering food markets sampling each and every stall. I collect herbs and spices as I go and always leave with recipes from local families.

slow travel mexico
Image by Luke Della Santa

Please share some photos captured during your trips, which have special meaning to you.

LDS:

1. Armando making my hat.

I am obsessed with hats! I have been since I was a kid. I met Armando working at one of the local markets and we got to talking. He is a third-generation hat maker. The photo was taken after many visits to his stand chatting about hats, food and different cultures. Armando is very inquisitive; he loves hearing about Australia. His wife is a wildlife fanatic and wants to know about all our “crazy” animals and why they’re so dangerous.

I went back a few times learning about his artform and family history and came away with a hat that I’ll pass down to my kids one day.

After a while I decided I wanted to learn how to make a hat and Armando invited me to his house to create it. I designed a shape and we decided on materials and then began searching through the piles of felt until I had decided on my colours. It was just such a genuine experience; I went back a few times learning about his artform and family history and came away with a hat that I’ll pass down to my kids one day.

traditional hat making
Image by Luke Della Santa

2. Kids make a camera

During our time in Guatemala, Em and I volunteered at a nutrition centre, Konojel, that provided 60 meals a day to the towns most at risk (7 out of ten children in Guatemala are malnourished).

Quite early on, a position opened up as the Enrichment Program Co-ordinators (basically after-school activities) and they approached us to take over. With limited Spanish and no educational experience, we immersed ourselves into the role, having so much fun coming up with activities for the kids.

kids, children Guatemala
Image by Luke Della Santa

This picture was of one of the projects where we collected re-purposed craft supplies from around town and turned them into cameras, coinciding with a photography project I was building. This period of our lives was probably the slowest travel experience we had and remains one of the most important periods of my life.

This … remains one of the most important periods of my life.


Thanks, Luke, for your time and thoughtful responses. It’s been so great to chat and to learn more about Piece Collectors and also your own style of slow travel and trade. You and Em are amazing!

Image by Luke Della Santa
Mexican cactus
Image by Luke Della Santa

Follow Luke’s personal photography on instagram by clicking here or follow Piece Collectors on insta here (their feed of images is absolutely beautiful), facebook here or check out their website here. And for more about Slow Travel, check out our latest blog posts or subscribe to our newsletter.

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