Family Travel - The Farther You Go, the Closer You Get

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Shaping the Clay
by Nick Gallo

An art lover wanted to make a connection with a Zapotec artisan,
but it was his son who provided the key.

A man in a cowboy hat cracked open a walnut with a machete. An old, thin woman in a nearby stall was selling beeswax candles--and perhaps dispensing curses and spells, too, judging by the crowd around her. The "balloon man," the Pied Piper of vendors, had a pack of kids trailing him as he yelled, "¡Globos! ¡Un mil!"

It was Friday market in Ocotlán, in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico, and my wife Laurie and I felt a familiar giddiness. We were back in Mexico for a vacation. It didn't matter whether we were climbing a pyramid or snorkeling off the Yucatan or watching a man crack walnuts with a machete--we were once again intoxicated by a swig of life south of the border.

But was Noah, our six-year-old making his first visit to Mexico, feeling a similar excitement? Seated on a bench, he stared without expression at the swirl of activity.

"What if he hates Mexico?" Laurie whispered.

It was an interesting question, or at least the underlying issue was. How do children discover the pleasures of travel? How can parents help kids appreciate other peoples and places? Or is the process too mysterious and complicated for a simple tutorial?

Moments later, we headed out of the market and I had started to think about my own reasons for our trip to Ocotlán. A dusty fanning enclave about twenty miles south of the city of Oaxaca, it was the home of Josefina Aguilar, a ceramist. Several years ago, I'd bought two of her clay sculptures at a Seattle folk-art store.

The first piece, smooth and radiant, is a curvy mermaid floating through a bright array of fish and seashells. The second, a big-busted streetwalker prowling the night with a cigarette dangling from red lips, is comic, jaunty, subversive. These colorful figures, set in my kitchen, bloom with whimsical charm and chase away the Seattle grayness.

My idea was simple: find this source of alchemy and relay my thanks.

Perhaps I allowed myself a fantasy: Josefina, happy to see distant travelers, would invite my family to dine on tamales, beg us to stay in her home, help us move to Mexico, allow me to sip margaritas beneath a palapa for the rest of my life...who knows what I was thinking.

In any event, after obtaining directions to Josefina's house at the market, we walked along the town's main street for about a mile until we found ourselves outside her gate. Atop a brick archway, a line of two-foot-tall ceramic figures--among them, a religious saint and a farmer--formed a welcome party. We walked through the open gate into a courtyard set inside a two-story, stucco home.

Nearby, a woman in a simple white blouse and loose skirt knelt on the ground and rolled out a sheet of moist, brown clay. She was a big Buddha of a woman--heavy-set, brown-skinned, impassive. She appeared to be about forty years old.

When I announced that I wanted to meet Josefina, she flicked a glance at me, then returned her attention to the clay.

"That's Josefina," said a man in the courtyard, pointing to her. I introduced myself, and in awkward Spanish, I told her that I loved her work, that I had two of her sculptures in my house, that I had come to see her "all the way from Seattle."

"Gracias," she responded, politely. She told me in Spanish that she had made pottery all her life, learned ceramics from her mother, and had traveled to the U.S. to exhibit her work--"all the way to Texas and Chicago and Boston."

She spoke in short sentences. She did not smile. Unnerved, I tried to talk of the special spirit of her work. I blathered on that it "breathed of Mexico," that it was transcendent, that it spoke from the heart yet was rooted to the earth, until soon I began to sound like a lunatic combination of Shirley MacLaine and Ricardo Montalban from Fantasy Island.

She gave me a long look, then resumed her work. She wasn't hostile, but I didn't think we'd be sharing a plate of tamales soon.

To be truthful, I was feeling miffed. I had half-expected to be mobbed by children hawking ceramics, but there was just the silence of this square-jawed Zapotec woman, solid as the earth, working the clay with such smooth, natural movements that her hands seemed to rise up from the ground.

Rebuffed, I felt my eyes begin to canvass the courtyard, ferreting out corners and peeking into alcoves. I knew the symptoms: I was transforming into The American Shopper, looking for something to buy.

At the far end of the courtyard, a girl about twelve years old applied glitter to a mermaid sculpture. I wandered over and when I discovered the price--about $10--I gulped hard. I'd paid eight times that much in Seattle for a similar piece. Now I was in for another shock: neither this sculpture nor any others were for sale. All were on order for U.S. shops.

I cursed my luck, thundered at "greedy gringo gallery-owners," and contemplated ransacking the garbage for "seconds." Just as shopper's lust threatened to overwhelm me, I happened to look back at Josefina.

There she was, still seated in the dirt, but beside her was Noah. Cross-legged, he sat transfixed, his eyes locked on her movements. The "glitter girl" was advising me when to return for better shopping opportunities, but now my attention was on Noah. He held a piece of clay in his hands. Moistening it with water, he rolled it in his palms and tried to shape it as Josefina directed him.

I watched as she brought out a primitive tool, a foot-long wooden stick with a metal hook on it. With a baker's hands--strong, thick wrists, and fingers that fluttered like butterflies--she pushed and poked the clay as if it were a ball of masa, or tortilla dough. She shaped it into a human figure, then continued to mold it until it grew into a village woman with a sliced watermelon on her head. She returned the clay to a formless mass, then rolled the ball into a cherub's face, with big cheeks.

Shy and private, Noah said nothing, but he did not take his eyes off the clay. When Josefina offered it to him, he accepted it eagerly. Ignoring us, he kneaded the clay into an oval shape, using the tool to make fine marks. Every so often, he looked up to study Josefina's human figures, then plunged back into work.

When I got close, I saw that he had composed something quite lovely: a woman's face--long and majestic, even noble. When he finished, he held it out and deposited it in Josefina's hands. Her eyes lit up. Muscles in her face moved. "El niño es un buen artesano," she said to the man painting candleholders nearby. He joked about hiring Noah and she laughed. Her seeming dispassion melted away. She was buoyant.

For the next half-hour, this unlikely pair--a woman/spirit from the Zapotec world and my 50-pound blond kindergartner--were at each other's side. Without speaking, she used her hands to instruct him, teaching him how to hold the clay, how to touch it, how to feel it.

Finally, Noah finished working and stood up. He placed his ceramic face atop one of Josefina's human torsos that were drying in the sun.

"Tell her it's a present, Dad."

"Un regálo," I said.

She fastened her eyes on my son and nodded her head. A word formed slowly: "Gracias."

Amid this wonderfulness, I confess I held out hope: would Josefina save my failed shopping excursion and make us a present of a prized sculpture?

She did not. But we had our gift: the look of wonder on my son's face. It announced the birth of a traveler, the first step to citizenry of the world.


Nick Gallo is a Seattle freelance writer, who specializes in travel to Mexico.



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