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The Potter Writes Again
La Maysuta, or Ron Rivera Ceramicas – I finally rented a car and driver to get to the next “assignment.” When I realized the Potters for Peace overhauled pickup wouldn’t get its 1000-kilometer checkup for another 400 kilometers, I decided I had to get to work or I won’t get to all the pottery villages I want to go to before December. Robert called La Maysuta and left a message for Don Domingo – telephone service is only available 2 miles from the studio under a telephone pole on the International Highway. He was able to call Loma Panda co-op and they are not accessible because the river is too high! My neighbor Frank Davila has been looking for work for about 5 months now and I asked him if he would be willing to drive me to Ocotal to the pottery village. So we arranged to get the car on Tuesday evening and left on Wednesday morning at 7:00am. It took us 5 hours – less the half hour for breakfast along the way – to drive to Totogalpa near Ocotal and a few minutes and a couple u-turns to find the dirt road to La Maysuta. The traffic through Esteli was very slow and we followed a couple very slow moving trucks on curvy roads in the mountains. It is probably 220 kilometers from Granada to La Maysuta. It was a stick shift car and I didn’t want to drive it – I just needed it to get there!
When I arrived at the studio where Potters for Peace had visited in February, Don Domingo was not there, but the three other potters were. They were putting in a 120-gallon water tank up above the studio so there would be water – gravity fed – after they filled it with 5 gallon buckets! They were reading directions on how to hook it up and digging a trench for the pipe. They arranged a chair for me and a corner of a table and I put my feet up and took a rest. I told them I would work “mañana.” Domingo came back about 2:00pm with the pipe for the tank and they got it put in place. The toilet now has water and it really is a flush toilet! I use it every chance I get! We went up the hill and down the other side to Domingo’s house about 4:00pm and sat and tried to talk till dinner at 7:00pm. They always seem to suspect me and don’t really understand what I can share with them since I can’t talk to them much in Spanish. I know lots of words – and all the words that relate to clay! – but a conversation is very difficult because I can’t hear the words and process them fast enough. Domingo began to write questions for me and that does help.
His house is not far away, but is over the hill from the studio and across a single plank bridge over the clay dig in the middle of what used to be a road to his house. Just before dark I asked where the baño was and it is a hike up another hill and with a treacherous lack of pathway. It has been raining every night and the path – what there is of it – is really wet and slippery. Domingo’s wife Maria walked me to the outhouse the first time and then again after dark and showed me the way back the long way but not so steep. Domingo got me a 6-foot long walking stick to help on the path! The outhouse is another uncomfortable and dirty one, but I can do it! Since during the day I have a great toilet at the studio!!!
I am back to beans and rice but with lots of French Fried potatoes and sautéed vegetables – mostly onions and tomatoes – and fried cuajada (farmer’s cheese) – really good. I get an egg now and then and sometimes a really good vegetable stew – even a piece of chicken once in a while. They have a PFP water filter in the kitchen so I am able to get water. Except for having to get up at night and use the outhouse, I am OK here. And if the little dog didn’t bark every time I turn on my flashlight, I could get to the baño without waking the whole camp! But he yips on the way out and again on the way back to my room. Thank goodness it was only once during the night. I have a small cement room with a light, a plug in and a good bed. I don’t have a pillow so I have put clothes I am not using inside the pillowcase I always carry with me. I have had very few problems with mosquitoes in Nicaragua. I thought during the rainy season they might be worse, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I am not getting bitten much and I have finally realized I have lost enough of my hearing I can’t hear them. So maybe they are here and I don’t know it.
Thursday and Friday I made some pinch pot rattles and some wheel thrown forms to be turned into tree pods or vegetables – totally decorative pieces to hang on the wall. Then I made a couple bottles and we made fish from the split half of a bottle. I also made forms for a teapot and coffee pot. Friday I threw on the wheel while they sifted dry clay through a screen, added water and wedged it up. I showed some different types of lids and for the teapot and coffeepot. When Domingo drove away in the community pickup truck that parks at the studio on Friday morning, my instructions were to give the others some designs to make in the studio.
Saturday morning, October 18:
I am sitting on my bed using the computer and hear the turkey gobbling outside. They have quite a few chickens, one turkey and a bunch of pelegue – as far as I can tell, they are a cross between a goat and a sheep – they look a lot like goats but have no horns; they have no wool to speak of and are never shorn. They keep them for meat, but I have never been offered any to eat. Domingo told me they have 5 hectares (acres – mas or menos) and raise beans and corn. The younger children every evening shell corn into a pan to be ground and made into tortillas the next day. Their evening activity. Kathy is 10 and a helper in the kitchen. There are two smaller boys – 6 and 8 years old who never walk – always run! And 3 older boys – Douglas is a potter at 20; Daniel is 18 and works milking cows on a farm nearby. Jacob is 14 and still in secondary school. He is studying English and we have a chance to practice on each other. The elementary school is a block away. Douglas finished secondary school a couple years ago and is scheduled to train further with a well-known potter in San Juan de Oriente in November. Daniel didn’t want to go on to secondary school. Jacob rides his bicycle 5 kilometers to Totogalpa every day to attend. Many kids here never go beyond 6th grade.
We spent the day Saturday finishing up pieces we had made the day before. Things are having a hard time drying here as it rains almost every evening – we did have one really good sunny day. They are drying a pit full of clay and it is making progress – even though it is covered in plastic every night.
Before dinner last night I finally got Domingo’s three younger kids to sing my “round” – Fray Martini, Fray Martini, Duermes tu, duermes tu. Toca la campana, toca la campana, Tan tan tan, tan tan tan. In English – Are you sleeping? are you sleeping? Brother John, Brother John, Morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing, Ding ding dong, ding ding dong. Maybe it would be called a “rotunda” here! Remember it? I learned it in high school Spanish class 65 years ago!
Then I got out my computer and showed them how I could write in Spanish and we read my “familia historia.” I asked Kathy if she would like to type, but she didn’t want to till I said just write the numbers; they are across the top. So she typed one to 20 and her little brothers added a couple 10’s – they took turns till we got to 100 and then one of the older brothers was watching and he typed to 110. Then he typed his name Joran Daniel. I finally typed my name and my birthday and added all the 6 kid’s birthdays. 4 of the 6 were born in January! It took the kids a few days to warm up to this old lady who can’t talk to them. We did a pottery class this morning in the studio when none of the other potters was around. Probably used quite a bit of their precious hand processed clay, but had a good time – and it broke the ice.
Sunday: Domingo has to drive to Somoto at 8:00 this morning. Douglas plays 3rd base on the baseball team there at noon. I don’t quite know the schedule, but I plan to work in the studio some to get things ready to fire. We have really “played” in the mud for 3 days – nosotros juegamos en el barro! No one has done any serious work in clay. They have set up the water tank, mixed clay and other work kind of things. Domingo has done a lot of burnishing – something they don’t do normally. Douglas, Domingo’s 20-year-old son, has made forms for the firing – often at my request. I did ask not to carve decoration into one large vase so we can put horsehair and chicken feathers on it when it is red-hot. It has been burnished to a sheen and will show the decoration much better with a plain background.
Monday, October 21 already! Ricardo finally made two small houses in one morning! His usual work is a detailed “castle” with tile roof and many doors and windows – at least three stories tall – and he works on one piece for a full day. His tile roofs are to die for! He uses an umbrella stay sharpened in a certain way and has developed a technique to make the tiles look real – but in miniature. I brought him pictures of houses and churches so he would have a reference. I am so glad he is making smaller pieces. There is no way he can be paid for the time it takes to make one of his creations. And they are so fragile it is hard to transport them. I am hoping he will have a bunch of charming little houses or boxes in the shape of houses by the time the Potters for Peace Brigade comes in January.
We have added a new low fire technique – Obvara Raku Firing. I found it on the Ceramic Arts Daily web site. A pottery teacher in Texas has discovered an ancient European technique where the red hot pot is dipped in a solution of flour, sugar, yeast and water to make a piece look antique. It was developed to seal the pots so they are more water resistant. It seems to be the newest American raku technique. One of the other US potters who is using this technique just got an MA from Hood College in Frederick, MD where my friend Joyce Michaud teaches. I will have to look her up when I get back to the US and use this new technique in my own raku kiln.
At 2:00pm Domingo and I drove to the International Highway 2 kilometers away and parked under a telephone pole. It is the only way to use a telephone here. I called Robert at Potters for Peace and talked to him about my next pottery village visit. If the rivers are not too high I might be able to go to San Juan de Limay. Loma Panda is out right now because their river is much too high – you can’t get to the path that leads there. The plan is that I will go to Esteli to my favorite Hotel Los Arcos and call him from there – after I have a hot shower!!! If I can’t get to a pottery village I will return to Granada till the rivers go down in November after the rains slow down.
Finally the day of the firing arrived! We filled an old barrel with already fired pieces adding sawdust and other organic materials, etc. Then we cleaned out an old bread oven kiln so we could pull pieces out and put them into sawdust, the flour/sugar/yeast mixture or touch them with horsehair or feathers. The kiln had not been used for a couple years because they have a new bread oven made from an oil drum and bricks that is much more efficient. We cleaned out the old kiln and started a small fire in it to begin warming it up and drying it out.
It was hot and humid so I decided to take a “shower” with the bucket and scoop – sometimes it just has to be done! I brought a plastic stool because I am tall enough I was uncomfortable standing up to wash my hair during my shower before. That way I could sit down and not feel like I was visible the whole time. It worked pretty well. The scoop of water down the back is the worst! I even got a pretty good shampoo and scoop rinse. I dried off and put on my muumuu and was looking for the place to put my foot on the slippery looking boards – I wear plastic slippers in the shower – and reached over to balance myself with my right hand and displaced the top 3 rows of bricks and mortar! All the bricks fell into the shower floor and I fell backward with my head sticking out of the curtain beside the brick wall on the other side. The 18-year-old son heard the noise and came and gave me a hand up. I have a few scratches and a bruise on my left hip, but survived my first fall in Nicaragua. I have been very careful. It turns out that wall had been unstable for some time and I was the first to really test it, I guess! It could have been much worse. The bricks were wet and heavy and if they had fallen on my foot or ankle I would have been in serious trouble! It only crushed my soap and soap container!
Anyway – back to the firing. We carried all the pieces from the studio up the hill across the plank bridge over the clay dig and down the other side of the hill to the small kiln. Some things did not need to be pulled out to finish the firing so they went into the back of the kiln. Others were put near the two doors – one in front and one in back – so we could reach them with leather gloves and tongs to pull them out to put horsehair on or to dip in the bucket of flour/sugar/yeast mixture. We started putting wood in around the pots about 11:00am and about 4:00pm we started pulling pieces out of the still furiously burning kiln. Pablo used a stick to bring them to the door and I used the tongs to put them into sawdust or the flour mixture. (My other experience with a kiln where they put everything into sawdust was not in such flame. They have it figured out better then we did.) It was a hot job and difficult. Finally I said, “Let it burn down and we will get the rest out tomorrow morning.” By morning it was just warm and the pieces that had colors were much better – during the firing the colors all turned too black to be recognized. So we have samples of some colors that work best in an oxidizing firing like they do in their big kiln so it should be valuable. I showed Domingo pictures of the other kilns where they pull the hot pots from the kiln with different techniques so he has some idea of why we got more black then we wanted.
Wednesday morning after the three smallest children helped me take the rest of the pieces out of the kiln before going down to the studio to clean up the rest of the pieces and evaluate them. It was a mixed bag! I had said many times – Experimento! So I think they understood that we had some good pieces and some that were for the trash. The sawdust barrel was still smoldering – there does not seem to be a Spanish word for that! So they can open it later and get those results.
We had arranged to take Domingo’s wife Maria with us when he took me to Ocotal to catch the bus to Esteli so I could take her shopping at Pali – the supermercado. She spends her day cooking so I wanted to reward her. We were to leave at 11:00am so we had time to shop and get me to the 1:00pm bus. Well, Maria was in the kitchen till 11:45 then took a shower. We all walked to the studio where the community pickup is parked – I thought they wanted to say good-bye. Wrong! We were all going in the pickup to see me off in Ocotal. Maria finally got to the studio at 12:30 and 5 of their 6 kids piled in the back of the pickup with her. Only one passenger in the front seat – me. We stopped to pick up Pable and Ricardo, the other members of the co-op, and were off for the bus!
Maria and I shopped at the supermarket. I would ask, “Rice?” and she would pick a bag off the shelf. “Beans?” the same. We got vegetable oil, sugar, oranges, soap and toilet paper. I threw in a couple potato chips for the kids on the trip home. We spent around $20, which was fine for my three meals a day for a week. I also filled the pickup gas tank. It said empty when we left the studio to drive 10 kilometers to Ocotal. We made it! I told Domingo it was a gift from me. Feliz Navidad! At first he refused but finally kind of laughed and let me give him a “Christmas gift.”
It turns out that the bus leaves at 1:30 and we were there in time. I got to Esteli at 3:30pm and got a taxi to the hotel. I took a hot shower! I really needed it and it felt so good! I had bar-b-que pork ribs for dinner in the hotel restaurant and a margarita! I love doing what I am doing, but it is wonderful to get back to civilization!
I called Hugh and Kay Force and will spend a couple days on their finca (farm, to you) near Matagalpa before I go back to Granada. The rivers are up so I can’t get to Loma Panda, and the potter I want to work with is away this week so I will not be going to San Juan de Limay. It could be possible that I get stuck there and can’t get out because of the high water. I will catch them in November when the rivers go down.
I am glad I rented a car and driver to get to La Maysuta. It was a good week and I made some really good friends. It is a wonderful family. They all work very hard and are such warm people.
On the Finca at Matagalpa: I caught a bus from Esteli to Matagalpa and called Kay to say I thought we were coming into Matagalpa – Wrong! Nothing is marked here so it is hard to tell where you are. Kay drove into town and made a couple passes around the market place where the bus parks and finally found a place to stop and came into the bus station just as I got off the bus. Together we hefted my 50# suitcase into her 4-wheel drive vehicle and drove over the bumpy road to her house. With the rains the road is full of ruts and you choose where to drive by what looks smoothest. There is not much traffic on their road, however, there are 5 buses every day that pass their house and go a 3 – 4 hour drive further down the same bumpy road.
Kay and I took a walk in the afternoon – it is very wet because of the rains and it was hard to find solid ground to step on a lot of the time. They have bought the farm next door and have a cow pasture that is at the top of a hill. We walked up there and had a great view of Matagalpa. We went to an Italian restaurant for dinner – worked for me! I had eggplant layered like lasagna with lots of cheese – and a Margarita! We talked a lot and I showed a few of my recent pictures from the pottery villages so they can see what I am doing. I offered to buy some groceries when we went to town, but Kay said, “We like to support the work you are doing!” She took me back to the bus on Saturday afternoon to go to Masaya and then Granada. I sat with a Peace Corps volunteer who had been visiting Matagalpa with 4 others – also on the bus. They are studying Spanish and in training – have been in Nicaragua for 2 months and were checking out their sites this week.
So I am back in Granada for a few weeks. I need to return the pottery the children at the International School did a month ago. I have plans to teach a class in collage there to the older children. I will put some books on my Kindle and borrow a few more from The Garden Cafe’s supply. The Garden Cafe craft shop will exhibit some jewelry from San Juan de Limay as soon as the river goes down and we can get it delivered.
(An afterthought: When I went to get books at The Garden Cafe, I asked Damien if he would like someone to organize his free loaner library. He said he offered this free service and had hoped someone would offer! Who else? I have nothing else to do since I can’t get to a pottery village. It took me three days and two helpers, but the books got alphabetized the last week of October. Check it out!)
I hope you are enjoying my Potters for Peace “journey!”
1. Ricardo’s delicate castle – unfired. 0966
2. Ricardo’s charming smaller houses – unfired. 1021
3. The house, the bread oven, the kiln and the mountains. 0974
4. Pablo helps take hot pots from the flaming kiln. 0985
5. The furiously burning kiln. 1000