Middle of the Rainy

July 1999

A visit to Tonaltepec to collect pottery in the middle of the rainy season...

Three years running we've been thoroughly rained on while loading pottery up in Tonaltepec. That's what I get for going up July. I should know better. In the business of a Oaxacan pottery buyer, February through May are the months to head out to the villages and buy pottery. It is high dry season, roads are well packed and dusty and you never need to travel with an umbrella, unless you're really sensitive to the sun. The harvest is all put up. The marathon, years-end fiestas have worn themselves out and the potters are hard at work. It is during these months that you will find me hard at work and enjoying myself greatly on epic buying trips.

But there are eight villages that I buy in and one always has to be last. It's usually Tonaltepec. The main reason for this is that I have to advise the scattering of Tonaltepec potters two months in advance that I'll be coming. There aren't very many potters left up there and it takes them this long to make the 2,000 or so pots that are needed to fill the truck. And, to be quite frank, I never time this first trip very well. With my memory always forgetting combined with skilled procrastinating I usually end up wandering the potters houses in April, telling them, much to my vexation, that I'll be back, oh, about mid-July. This year was not novel along those lines.

The Big Red Truck, five calloused pottery packers and I finally headed out to Tonaltepec on Saturday, July 17th. For what it's worth we'd have been there three weeks earlier. However, one tropical storm after another rolled up the coast filling the high valleys with plenty of corn-growing, blessed rain, though not near enough blue sky to fool us into trying those muddy Tonaltepec hills. However, Thursday the 15th shone with a fine sunset and Friday was a bright day of glory. Saturday before cocks crow we headed for Tonaltepec. Old Federal Highway 190 was one year worse than last year. Such roads are a wonderful substitute for coffee or sniper fire in keeping ones eyes wide open and the mind sharp early in the morning. Should ones attention wander, so too will the rear axle or muffler. The red and white dirt road out to Tonaltepec was much better. Dirt roads are always better than cratered highways. There's no question about going fast on them so the pitfalls are much less terrorizing. Plus, the Tonaltepec road is spectacular as it winds along a little valley of leather red hills cut with ten thousand arroyos. Shimmering against this red skin, leaning in the wind, are small green fields of new corn and wheat, edged with sharp, blue agave plants. And here and there a little adobe house.

We arrived in Tonaltepec at 8:30. I was glad to see clear skies and satisfied that we had many hours of daylight before us to finish our task. The potters were glad to see us too. Within a minute of our arrival they knew about it. I could see them leaning out the doors, peaking over walls or standing out front looking at us. Three cars a day pass by on that little road and two of them are usually one coming and going. So when we pull up there isn't anyone who doesn't know it. I appreciate this announcement system. It is extremely efficient, probably saving me an hour of work. The houses are spread, one here, one there along the white hillsides. There's a bit of walking involved getting from one to another. And more, there's the chitchat that happens at each place. Being a firm believer in such chitchat, the more of it I can avoid early on in the day, the sooner we get the truck packed. The Tonaltepec road, where it passes the settlement of potters, runs along the very crest of a rounded ridge. On either side the land just drops away. There is a wide spot on this road where we can pull the truck in and have room to spread out the pots. This, of course, means that all the pots have to get to this spot, a process that usually fills the first three or four hours of the day. With the road being on the very crest of the ridge, to get there from anywhere means walking up a steep hill. This is an unfortunate fact, but I guess it's a question of odds as there are other villages where I buy that the geography is just the opposite and potters can roll their pots out their front doors and down to the truck. For some reason, however, they never do.

The five robust pottery packers, aided by everyone around who can walk, get to work hauling pots. Everyone includes Susanna and Petra, two very old time potters. They really are quite old, though no one has statistics as they were born before birth certificates. So, with everyone hard at work, the pots rise from the houses and settle behind the Big Red Truck.

I guess I should say that everyone who can walk hauls pots except me. Before the pots can make the trip up the hill they need to be checked, bargained, ticketed and counted. This is a strategic point, as the pots could also be processed up on the wide spot behind the truck. But that would be an extremely weak bargaining position as the potters would have just spent three hours getting them there. Once there they KNOW damn well that I'm going to buy them. That or wear them on my ringing head. So I always bargain Tonaltepec prices right by the potter's front door. By the time I've checked, bargained, ticketed and counted everyone's pots three or four hours will have passed. Each year, upon finishing this task, I set down my clipboard and bargaining tongue, ready to start shouldering pots up the steep trail. But, turning around to look, I find they are already all up there. You might call that strategic too.

While this is all going on I keep one eye to the sky. I'm hoping that this is going to be the year that we don't take involuntary showers in Tonaltepec. Last year was a biggy. We had the truck about half packed, the other half of the pottery was spread behind it, when the sky, dark and close simply opened up and poured itself upon us. I had on my wide brim Michoacan hat and a rubber Poncho. I squatted down and let the rain splash mud around me. The potters, who always mill around the packing scene for the excitement of it, squeezed themselves beneath the truck with water flowing under their feet. And the five calloused packers, they decided to keep on packing. In jeans and shirt sleeves they worked away, absolutely soaked through. They knew that working without stop there were just enough hours in the day to finish the job. If we wanted to finish in daylight there could be no stopping for the rain. I told them to take shelter. When they wouldn't I called them all fools and told them they'd catch their deaths of pneumonia. And I admired them immensely. The rain stopped an hour or so later and we finished up just as dark was winning against light. Our retreat was hasty, as the heaterless truck with rolled up windows proved to be much warmer than the windy ridge top. When we got back to Oaxaca I bought them all rain ponchos in appreciation for their valor. Better late than never.

Having survived the pneumonia threat they are all back this year. Each, I might add, with his poncho. The sky, so crystal blue in the morning, was quickly filling with picturesque white clouds pouring in from the east. It might be timely to note here that there is nothing in Tonaltepec that is not picturesque. Indeed, it is one of the more spectacular places on earth that I know. This is high country, the top of Oaxaca, and the air is always spotless. Along our little ridge road we are on the top of it all. One can stand there turning and turning following the endless view. The wrinkled world drops and rises into the blue distance on all sides. An hour's walk in any direction finds you surrounded by white and red earth scrubbed naked by the scouring weather. There are canyons on arroyos on ripples and not a flat piece of land to be seen. Further on the hills begin to hide themselves under tangled hats of oak forest, and further still the land becomes a solid rolling carpet of brown-green oak. To the east, beyond this oak forest, I can see the clouds coming over the tops of ridges and hills for fifty miles. The earth is close to the sky here and the taller hills snare the forming clouds, the tops of which are so bright that one can hardly stand to look at them. Beneath, the cloud's smooth, flat bellies reflect the changing colors of the land. Green from the oak woods, warm red from the barren arroyos.

But as I bent forward counting the nine hundredth pot of the day, there was nothing picturesque in those clouds to me. By mid-afternoon the clouds had become the sky and in the distance I could see the squalls coming in. We covered the pots with seven tarps that I'd brought along, pulled out our ponchos, upped the pace of the packing and braced ourselves for the inevitable. It came first as light drops, the kind that kick up dust as they hit the earth, the front edge of a dark storm that knocks lightly before blowing down the door. As I waited for the door to come in on me I scolded myself for my faulty organizing and incurable procrastination. Here we were, now four years in a row, standing exposed to a pressing dark sky, pots scattered wide, piles of cardboard and newspaper being lifted by the wind. Standing like fools in the middle of the rainy season in Tonaltepec (Though perhaps the 's' on fools is unfair).

"I swear I'll get it right next year," I mutter to myself, " We'll be here in the very heart of the dry season next time."

But even as I say it I don't believe it. After all, It wasn't true the last three times I muttered it. As I stood there talking fiction to myself I began to realize that the door hadn't come crashing in with a rush of water yet. Indeed, those first drops had stopped and the bluster was no longer about us. I could see the dark mass of clouds off to the south moving away. It had missed us, or taken mercy. There was a pause as this reality settled around each of us. Just a moment, and then we were all back to work, taking off ponchos, folding up the tarps and carefully placing the pots in the back of the truck. The packing continued, but the banter that the five calloused packers threw back and forth was just a bit more animated than it had been when the dark clouds seemed enormously upwind.

We finished our work well before dusk got heavy. One of the potters brought up a basket full of food for us to feast on. Rice and eggs with tomatoes, jalapenos in vinegar, hot black beans and fresh made corn-wheat tortillas accompanied by orange sodas. We sat in a loose circle on the ground with tortillas full of hot food in our laps. The chit chat ambled about in the easy-flowing tone that comes after the work is done, when the sky is clear and there is plenty and good food before you. From where we sat we could look out on darn near most of the world. Far to the northeast there was an enormous scooping wall of clouds rising high enough to catch the warm light of the sun that had already set on us. The reflected light illuminated our feast. Those tall clouds were thunder heads, five in a row. I knew the rain was coming down hard there and felt a moment of pity for any poor fool pottery buyer beneath those skies. A person like that ought to plan better, I thought. But I didn't dwell on it, my appetite was too healthy for thinking and I took another big bite of beans.


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