December 24, 1997

The Edge of the World

A trip in search of potters high in the Sierra Mazateca, where the trails are steep and life is harsh...

Not more than two weeks ago I went on a great adventure in search of pottery. I traveled deep into dear Oaxaca and even peeped into neighboring Puebla on the trail of rumored pottery villages. Many miles, hours, mountains and valleys. As with any worthy trip there were many interesting encounters, lessons, insights and stories from the road. Here is just one of those stories.

I had heard of a town of potters in the Sierra Mazateca, word of mouth and rumor three times removed. But that is enough to justify a trip, particularly to a region whose air I've never breathed. So I rounded up the van and headed out dark and early one morning. The sun caught up with me an hour down the road. I was quite thankful, for there was cold mist along the valley floors and the old van heater only added wind chill factor to the already sharp air.

After a slow and winding drop out of the Oaxacan hills, with the sun now well established, I advanced through the hot, mango, lime and sugar cane lowlands of the Canyada. Then, in a mango grove shaded town that hadn't heard about the 20th century, my path made an abrupt right and the road began a long slow climb up the quick canyon wall, up the haunch of the Sierra Mazateca. An hour later with a hot engine and a view from the top of the world, I'd made the pass. To the west, the canyon, hot hills and cactus. To the east, mountains, young, steep and sharply eroded by the onslaught of moisture that slides off the Gulf of Mexico and collides with this Sierra. Above me leaped the ridges and peaks, buried in deep, cool cloud forest. Somewhere up here was the rumored a town of potters.

Two muddy, rutted hours and many inquieries later I was in that town, which turned out to be a few dozen thatched huts clinging for their lives to the edge of the world. It was aptly named Buenavista (good view). I stopped my van and firmly engaged the parking break. An act of hollow reassurance, for I've driven for miles with that same brake firmly engaged, expereincing no breaking effect whatever.

I asked the first person I came upon if there where any potters around. She pointed to a distant mud house down a steep slope with a plume of smoke rising in front of it. "They are firing pots there right now."

I began the trek to yonder house following a traversing trail that headed in its direction. As I got above it the house disappeared over the edge of the slope. I made a guess at which path to take and began to head down.

I like to consider myself something of a trail savvy mountain boy. I am from the mountains, the mighty Sierra Nevada at that. And I've done my share of trail wandering and bushwhacking. But perhaps I've spent too much time on sidewalks in the last few years, or, as I kept energetically muttering as I careened down the trail before me, my cursed shoes don't have enough tread. Whatever the case, I used my tail more than my shoe soles to navigate the path before me, generally making a mess of things as I grabbed left and right, attempting too slow my descent. I came to a shallow dip in the trail which only served to speed me along and then found myself flung from amongst the trees into a clearing. I came out, on my feet, standing in a field. There before me stood a beautiful girl harvesting corn. She stopped her work to examine the dusty, pink man that the woods had just spit forth. I could only imagine that this was not a common occurrence in this corner of the Sierra Mazateca. In an attempt to explain my sudden presence I said, "uh, I'm looking for pottery, is there any around here?" She responded by disappearing into the corn. A moment latter a man, her father I assumed, appeared. A bit more composed, I asked him the same question. "Well, I'm a potter", and he led me through the field to his house on the hillside. I had been a bit off target, for this wasn't the house I'd been shown with all the smoke. But a potter is a potter and he was happy to show me his pots.

He pulled several large pots out of a dark and cool thatched hut. The pots were dark and cool too. They where a smokey brown black and roughly finished with a coarse, corn cob scraped surface. They has wide mouths and an easy rounded base with two ringed handles along the rim. Detail and refinement were of no concern to this potter. Yet his pots were exceptionally light and made a pleasing ring when I struck them with my knuckle, a sure indicator of being well fired.

I asked him where he got his clay and he pointed far down the valley and named a village. I carry it from there in a burlap sack. He showed me the sack, full of clay, which I hefted. My back creaked, the bag must have weighed 100 pounds.

"You have a donkey to haul your clay?" I asked.

"No, I carry it with a tump line, here on my forehead."

"Is it far to that village?" Truth was, I couldn't even see the place he was pointing to.

"A little. We leave at five in the morning and we are there not so long after sunrise. Of course it takes longer to come back as it is all up hill."

"And where do you sell your pots?"

"In Huatla every Sunday."

"Is that far?"

"A little. We leave at four in the morning and get there by nine. Of course it takes longer when it is raining and the mud is slick."

"Do you take your pots on a donkey?"

"No, I carry them. I carry six of these large ones and sell them all by 11AM."

What he was telling me was unfathomable. I looked at the mountains all around. Consistently steep, consistently sharp. This man was tiny and not particularly young. But he must have been all muscle and lung. Yet here, he was not unique, not noted for his prowess and stamina. Every potter in these hills, woman and man, makes the same trek.

By now the girl from the cornfield and her two sisters, equally beautiful, had materialized. From a safe distance they watched our conversation and giggled at my questions. His son was there to, always jumping to get out of our way but always seeming to be in the middle of things.

I looked at this man with his pots and his beautiful family. Here they lived on the edge of the earth with a small thatched hut and the patio all filled with drying corn, red, yellow and purple. It seemed so wonderful and right to me that I asked if I could take a picture if him and his family by their house. But quietly he said, "No. No family. There is no family."

"What do you mean?" I asked, confused.

"My wife is gone."

"She's gone?"

"She is dead." He did not look at me.

"Oh no." I looked at his children who all appeared to be in their teens. Maybe she died when his last child was born.

"Did she die long ago?"

"She died last week."

All I could think to say was "She must have been a pretty wife."


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