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Tiltepec, Oaxaca

The Tiltepec Attaché,
In Search of Pottery

see also Surfing in the Mud
see also Tales of the Heart
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Just a month or so ago I headed my depreciating van down the Sola de Vega highway (Hwy 131) bound for the Pacific Coast and a week tangled between the waves and hammocks on my favorite secret beach. Pottery buyers need a break now and then from the clay and there is none at all on the beach, though heaven knows there's lots of grog. But on my way I searched out a little potteryville that I heard rumor of, a place called Santa Maria Magdalena Tiltepec or just plain Tiltepec of you haven't got that much time. For those of you planning on going there next time you're in Southern Mexico, it's

Santa María Magdelena Tiltepec is about 15 miles NW of Puerto Escondido (straight-line distance)
right outside of Santos Reyes Nopala and a bit inland of Puerto Escondido with the best surfing break in Mexico, though nary a potter to be found.
After questioning several pedestrians in Nopala I decided I had an accurate enough picture of how to get to Tiltepec to give it a try. (The rule of thumb in the Mexican boondocks is that if you ask one person how to get to your destination you'll get somewhere. If you ask two people you'll get somewhere else. If you ask three you'll probably get where you wanted to go. I guess that's called triangulation.) I turned off the main dirt road onto a side dirt road which took me up a tropical river valley cut by a broad, clear, white graveled river running among boulders. The hillsides where covered with shady green rainforest and the valley floor was dotted with enormous Brahma bulls looking like over-fertilized pit bulls, and open, tall grass pastures that were surely once also covered with rainforest. The dirt road was quite moist and consisted of that particular tropical soil that is hard, slick, and white. Stuff that makes your tires spin on the climbs. And on the descents and sometimes on the flats. The tires I was sporting that day had lost any of chance of resale value for sandal soles some time ago and were as smooth as a burnished pot.
After a slick and bumpy half-hour I slid around a bend, down through a white gravel creek crossing, and before me, up the steeply rising road, was the town of Tiltepec. I gave the climb an engine-whining run, but my tires had retired from heavy duty and half way up I gave it up and slide down to a little pullout, quickly convincing myself that it would be best to meet this town on foot. It looks better to walk into a town anyway. Folks can identify with that. Driving a car into the center of town can make people suspicious, they think you are a politician coming to blow smoke or maybe a health worker with sharp needles.
I got out of my van and called to a young woman who happened to be going by on a trail. I have found it to be very helpful when wandering into an unknown village to befriend someone at the onset and let them become my guide though the town. I asked the young woman if they made pottery here. It was intended as an easy-answer question since I pretty much knew that this was a town full of potters and that she herself was likely a potter. An opener really, doesn't get much results in bars, but pretty good in pottery villages. But a 6'4" blonde guy with a goofy grin showing up all sweaty in a village beyond Nopala is about as common an event as a similar looking guy walking on the moon. There isn't always pre-established village protocol on how to deal with such a phenomenon. This young woman's response, one I've encountered before a time or two, was to pretend that this wasn't happening and keep on walking.
I stood there for a moment mopping my brow and thinking about how I'd approach this village in my moon boots when a man with a top-of-the-line potbelly greeted me from the shade of a four-post bamboo hut just down the trail. "Here" I thought, "is my cultural attaché," and I went over and began to make small talk with him.
I quickly got to the subject of local pottery and he said that plenty was made here. He called his little son over and was about to send him out to bring me a sample from in town when I interrupted and said I'd like to go along, look around, and meet the potters. The man paused for the briefest moment to collect his thoughts and then said, "Very good, I will go with you, we will take a little walk." It would not be polite to send me out just with his young son who might get us lost and, perhaps there would be a little prestige in accompanying the Moon Man around town. I could see that this was a virtuous offer on his part for he was, as I mentioned, rather complete in the belly department etc., and the shade of this hut was an oasis in the tropical humidity. In spite of this heat some time was spent looking for a T-shirt for him to wear so as to be presentable. That in hand, actually draped over a shoulder, we headed for town.
I was not sure of my attaché's occupation, but as we climbed up the steep trail to town, me following close behind him and his low-riding pants, I determined that he may well be a plumber. Topping that rise we were both wet with sweat, O' that tropical air, and never quite getting it on in the first place, he abandoned his T-shirt completely, handing it to his son.
At the top of the rise the little town came into view and a lovely place it was. It was a town of jumbled little red tile-roofed houses of bamboo and adobe, looking like a strewn deck of cards. The houses filled the contours of a hillside cut through with twisting little creeks filled with boulders and waterfalls and shaded by thick banana stands. There was only one road in town and from it wandered little paths among the houses in all directions. Behind it all was a wall of dramatic little pointy jungle hills and below, the river.
We followed one of the little trails over a creek and up another steep slope, I too wanting to abandon my shirt, until we came to the shaded porch of a small house. "This woman is a fine potter" my attaché announced and then sat me down in a hammock, called to an ancient woman and said he'd be back shortly. He went off to what I presumed was the outhouse and I tried to make small talk with the woman.
This region of Oaxaca, I found out, is the Chatino region. These people are Chatinos and this woman speaks Chatino, and nothing else. I don't speak Chatino, not a word. But pottery is an international language and by the time my bilingual attaché got back from the outhouse the potter and I were getting along fine.
She was showing me well-made, simple and clean pottery. The village style I assume, a sort of yellow-tan clay burnished with a broad stone and colored over with vaporous fire marks. She showed me short-necked bean pots and wonderful casserole-type bowls with thick little loop handles on either side and a special clay stove made to hold a bean pot with an opening to feed firewood through. She also had a couple of short, fat-legged, flat-nosed piggy banks with tiny red and black seeds stuck in sockets as eyes.
After much admiring and appreciation I bought what my attaché and I could carry and thanked the woman for her fine work. We then retraced our route, sweating profusely. I vetoed visiting any other potters. I was supposed to be on vacation from pottery buying, and the beach, what lovely cool breezes caress it. My attaché readily agreed to my veto and we made a beeline for his shaded hut, stopping for a moment along the way at a little store where I bought myself and my attaché big, tall, orange sodas, cold and moist with condensation. We slurped them down and he got his shirt back from his son for a moment to wipe sweat off his neck.

Eric Mindling
Manos de Oaxaca


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