I’ve dreaded writing this post. I’m afraid anyone who reads it will think I’m the sort of airhead who travels in order to buy stuff, when almost the opposite is true. I don’t buy much on the road, and Steve loathes shopping. Anything you buy has to be transported home, which is tough if you limit yourself to carry-ones (as we do). If the purchase requires bargaining, that adds to the stress. Then when you get home, you have to decide what to do with those quirky knick-knacks.
I found a partial answer to the last question a few years go, when I was puzzling over what to do with a beautiful piece of cloth I couldn’t resist buying for a few dollars in Senegal, a country renowned for its striking fabrics. Coincidentally, our youngest son had recently moved out, and I wanted to transform the battered bedroom of his boyhood into a guest room. A friend suggested I use the cloth as a wall hanging, and add additional African details. The room-renovation thus turned into a Project. It gave me a place to print and hang some of our many photos from Africa. Online I found a mosquito net and installed that over the bed. And I had an instant home for the other African souvenirs I had picked up in spite of myself.
Our own bedroom already was Asian. Decades ago Steve and I fell in love with Japan and built a Japanese-style master bed, along with sliding Japanese-style window coverings. So I suppose it was inevitable a Latin-American decorational fever eventually might seize me.
A room on a lower level from the main floor of our house is the closest thing we have to a living room. But it was pretty dumpy (having previously been incarnated as a home office and then a kids’ playroom). It had a few Latin touches (a papier-mâché parrot I picked up in Tijuana ages ago; a couple of tango posters from Buenos Aires.) When planning our trip for the eclipse in Chile and Argentina, I started toying with the idea of jazzing up this room by further South Americanizing it.
The toughest thing, I confided in email to my friend Doris, traveling in Ecuador at the time, would be to find a rug to replace the aging one in the room, handed down to us by some friends. Doris had a suggestion. In the Andean highlands, she and her partner Louis had just been dazzled by the beautiful textiles still being produced by master weavers. A few were still working with “backstrap” looms, an ancient art once practiced in various places around the world, using sticks, rope, and a strap worn around the weaver’s waist. Others created striking objects using more traditional hand looms. Why not spend a little time in Ecuador on our way home from the eclipse, and buy a rug from one of those guys?
Her suggestion wound up profoundly influencing our plans. Besides visiting the Galápagos Islands on the cheap and having four nights in Quito (the first cultural UN World Heritage site, so designated for its striking and well-preserved colonial architecture), we would spend all the rest of our available time in Ecuador (three nights) in the town of Otavalo, renowned for having one of the largest and most famous craft markets in South America. At the town’s weekly Saturday fair, I should find some small decorations for my downstairs room, I figured. But my central mission would be to get a great rug and buy a colorful box to replace the ugly Tupperware container housing our puppy-grooming gear (which we use in that downstairs room).
I emailed the small hotel where we would be staying in Otavalo to ask if they could recommend anyone who might drive us to visit the local master weavers. Wendy, the owner of the Doña Esther, wrote me back that Luis, their regular taxi driver, would be happy to take us around for $10 an hour.
Luis made up for his lack of English with his deep local knowledge and eagerness to be helpful. First he drove us to a hillside village inhabited entirely by indigenous Andeans, where we parked… …and walked to the workshop of Don José Cotacachi.
Within the compound where Don José lives, a young woman demonstrated how the natural dyes are made. Some start with the scale insect that grows on prickly pear cactus pads. When squished, these creatures (known as cochineal) turn into a brilliant scarlet goo; mixing in other substances such as lemon juice produces other hues.
Browns and tans are are derived from walnuts. The artists use such substances to color the alpaca and woolen yarns they weave into patterns both subtle and bold.
I fell in love with Don José’s work.But Steve and I were struck by a problem with using any of it to cover our floor. The largest pieces were less than four by five feet, smaller than what we were seeking. Furthermore, they weren’t very thick but rather more suitable for hanging on a wall or covering a bed. They’d be a bitch to vacuum, and we could all too readily imagine our dogs turning them into a rumpled pile of cloth.
We felt similar misgivings in the workshop of Don Miguel Andrango, an octogenarian famous for his preservation of Ecuadorian backstrap-weaving techniques.
Although Don Miguel himself was ailing on the morning of our visit, three younger generations of the family are still producing beautiful work.
Once again, I loved their creations. I lusted to own one. But nothing seemed suitable for life on the ground. This time I broke down and bought a 6-foot-long by 1.5-foot wide weaving for $150 to use as a table runner. But my rug quest remained unfulfilled.
By the end of that day, Steve and I had formulated a new plan. We would visit the market in town the next day (Friday) and check out the carpets there. They might not be as beautiful as those produced by the master weavers, but they should cost less, and if they looked South American… well, we could live with that.
We must have spent close to two hours combing the Friday marketplace. Once again, we were dismayed by the absence of anything one might call a carpet. We found cloth that would make beautiful blankets; that might transform a couch. But nothing that resembled the South American carpet of my dreams.
Sometime that afternoon we had an epiphany: we’d gotten it wrong. In our ignorance, we’d imagined a role for carpets in this culture similar to what we’d seen in Morocco or India. But now it dawned on us there wasn’t a single carpet anywhere in our hotel. Or in other public buildings we visited. The Spanish conquistadors had made lovely stone floor tiles that had become ubiquitous in this part of the world. But the local folk didn’t adorn them.
I’d been so intent, so sure, I would find what I wanted. In the end, though, we yielded to what seemed to be the evidence. On Saturday we returned to Don José’s and bought a weaving that will occupy a place of honor on our downstairs wall. But we’ll live with our hand-me-down rug (which, if produced in a factory, does look vaguely indigenous.)
The story of my hunt for a box almost turned out the same way. I was certain such boxes, eye-catchingly Latin, must exist. Vendors in the market would badger me to buy them, I fantasized. And when we looked for them at the gigantic Saturday market, we did find lively painted wood trays. We found a few plain wood boxes, and a handful of painted boxes — but only in sizes way too small to hold the doggy toothbrush and toothpaste and toenail file and cotton balls I wanted to conceal.
I felt sad as we hurried back to the hotel to catch our ride out of town. A few blocks away from the end of all our shopping, I stopped at one last stand specializing in painted wooden objects. If I couldn’t find my box, I decided, at least I could buy a tray. We negotiated a price ($35). And then I spotted a handful of similarly painted boxes in one corner of the stall — exactly the size I had been seeking.
So I got my box, along with a lesson: when you hit the road, you never know what you’re going to find. Forgetting that can lead to disappointment. On the other hand, I’m delighted with most of our purchases. We got to dive into the life of the market, a wonderful place. I also had five electrifying Ecuadorian experiences. I hope to share them in one more final, brief post.