November 1998

Gift Exchange

What goes down must come up...

This recent Oaxacan Day of the Dead weekend the family was invited to spend the weekend up in the Sierra Mixe with Doņa Josefina. She is a fine hostess and a trip to the mountains sounded refreshing, so we loaded the van and climbed up into the clouds.

The Sierra Mixe is home to the old Mixe or Ayu'uk (as they call themselves) nation. Among the mountain villages there are several filled with fine potters. Thus my familiarity with the area and Doņa Josefina. She is a Mixe women who buys pottery from the potters who are spread throughout the mountains, I then buy pottery from her and so it goes.

Cloud-wreathed Zempoatepetl in the tilted land of the Mixe
Cloud-wreathed Zempoatepetl in the tilted land of the Mixe

During our visit this Day of the Dead we decided to visit a family of potters who lived in a village far below the town Josefina lives in as I wanted to see and photograph their potting. Just this year a road was opened to the small village. Josefina prepared a basket full of food gifts; tamales, special bread, bottled sodas, fire water and cider, to give to the potters. Custom here during Day of the Dead is to prepare lots of tasty food and invite everyone conceivable to eat. It is a time when it is best to avoid walking along the street lest you be invited to eat tamales and drink fire water at a dozen homes before you get to the corner.

The road down to the village pitches off the edge of the mountain and wheels its way down to the valley bottom. There it crosses the river and wanders in and out of small canyons until getting to the village. Unfortunately somewhere in the wheeling section a flow of surface runoff had turned the road into an impassable bog. We hadn't planned for this. Thought we'd drive in, visit some and drive out. Now to get there we'd have to walk. Suddenly Josefina's basket of food gifts looked very big. Even bigger looked my two year old, big boned daughter. Her carrying pack had stayed home. Josefina said it was about an hour by foot from here. I groaned, but she was undauntable. So I pulled the hand brake, we put rocks in front of the tires and set out. Me with my brick girl on my hip, Josefina with a basket bearing gifts and my wife with the backpack that carries daughter accessories (diapers, extra clothes, stuffed animal, picture book) and some road food.

Josefina was right, we made it in about an hour. As of yet my hip didn't know how sore it was. The potters we were going to see lived on a hill slope under a canopy of pine trees. The pine needle thatched roofs of their little houses just peaked above the tassels of tall corn growing on all sides. Coming through the corn we found the houses, one a little log cabin, the other an adobe room. The potters, an ancient mother and her daughter, were waiting for us, both dressed in the traditional white top with a long blue dress. Their faces creased wonderfully around the mouth and eyes when they smiled. As they spoke not a word of Spanish Josefina did the translating. In any case there was scarce little conversation as they were extremely shy, or just quite. But they sat down and made a pot for me to see and didn't mind at all me poking around with my silly camera.

They made the pots and I took many wonderful pictures (in the setting I could not go wrong). Josefina gave them the gifts from her basket and they invited us to eat tamales which we politely did (not more than an hour and a half previous we had smacked through an eating marathon of turkey soup, tamales and hard cider up at Josefina's). Then, well filled, we got up to bid translated farewells. Overcome by the sweet goodness of these potters and perhaps slightly food intoxicated, we opened our backpack and gave them everything in it that they might enjoy: juicy oranges we'd got in the city that morning, rolls of sweet bread and a package of Ritz crackers. It is also possible that lightening the load for the return trek was a motivation. Anyway, in this happy mood of giving and enlightenment we prepared to leave. But they motioned us to wait just a little moment and ran off.

Now, I have lived and traveled among the potters of Mexico long enough to know that one doesn't give gifts for the purpose of lightening ones load. Gifts should be given for the pure pleasure of giving, and besides, such a tactic never works for load lightening. Indeed the result is often the opposite. So I'm not sure what I was thinking in that flurry of pouch zippering. I can only imagine that my motives were selfless and holy, not at all influenced by the length of the hike out. For had I really been thinking of our own needs and comfort I would have held onto those oranges, rolls and crackers.

The way it works in these parts is that if you give a gift you get a gift. Or two. These sweet women reappeared with smiling wrinkles. They warmly handed us a bag full of fat tamales, a twenty finger bunch of bananas just cut from the yard tree, a healthy pumpkin from the field and a special pot. Were they concerned that this would unduly burden us on our return journey? I don't think the thought crossed their mind. Every Sunday since they could remember they've been making the same trek, without the advantage of driving half way, to the town we'd come from. They'd carry a weeks worth of pottery up the canyon on tump lines to sell at market and then buy a weeks worth of supplies and march back home. What's a few tamales, bananas and a little squash?

Of course we accepted the gifts and were thankful of their kindness, truly. Though had we not been so very full we'd have done our best to eat those tamales and bananas on our hike out and cook the squash in the pot and eat it too.


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