San Juan De Oriente, Nicaragua
When we walk back through the alleyway, littered, as much is in Nicaragua, with trash, I felt a sinking feeling. It had been a difficult day, and I didn’t really want to go to my first ceramics lesson.
But I go because Jonah suggests it and because I trust this man, who consistently helps me right myself, tipping me back up like those red egg-shaped Japanese daruma dolls that return to a centered standing position every time you try to throw them off balance.
Past the yellow painted shop that leads to the messy backyard, I see the hand-built kiln for firing pieces and a large rectangular indent in the earth, about 15 feet deep, that looks like a swimming pool. It was, in fact, the little town’s water supply in ancient days, and now is home to two pigs and all the trash that the family collects. Our friend says it’s hilarious to watch their owners climb down the ladder to try to carry the pigs up to land level.
And then, a little covered shack. I don’t know what to expect, and am ready for disappointment, but rounding the corner I see her face. She has a few gold crowns on her front teeth like many of the women here, dark hair pulled away from her face, a clay stained half apron and dark grey keds that are coming apart at the seams. She is calm and beautiful and I immediately feel at rest. I watch the clay move under her hands, rising and settling and rising and settling and watch her thumbs as they dig into the center making indents that magically become a vessel–she’s making 30 identical mugs for a volunteer group that’s coming to the area.
I’m entranced. Jonah runs to get a camera and before she sits me down at the wheel, she fastens her apron around me. “You’re a flacita like me” she says, “skinny” and I laugh and say yes. “Do you like your body?” she asks and I’m surprised and pleased by the question. “Yes,” I say. She nods approvingly, “Better than being gorda,” she says. And somehow in a silly conversation I feel like we’re transformed into sisters.
She sits me right into it, letting me kick the wheel that groans when it turns, and warning me of only two things: don’t let your feet catch on the metal parts of the tourneo (the kick wheel), and don’t use your feet and your hands at the same time.
I go. On first touch the clay feels absolutely natural, and the momentum. I quickly start sweating as my leg works to turn the wheel faster. She tells me very little and I cup the clay, manuevering it into the exact center of the wheel and bringing it up into a wobbly pillar and back down into a lopsided disc. Then up and down again and it goes pretty well, so she makes the initial indent for me. Time dissolves or lengthens and I don’t know how long the cup forming takes before it collapses into the wheel. I am ebullient. My legs are fizzy like sodas and she asks me if I want to do another. Yes I say, and, “it reminds me of being a child, playing in the garden in the mud.” I am in love. I ruin two more piles of clay, the second of which she is able to nurse into a little flower vase, telling me it’s my first piece. I laugh when she looks serious, feeling no ownership over the perfect form she’s created.