Tag Archives: otavalo

Andean handicrafts

I lived in Ecuador for two years, and right before heading back to the States, I stopped by this giant artisanal market, a tiny town called Otavalo dedicated mostly to selling Andean handicrafts to tourists from all over the world. I’m looking around my house now and, I don’t know where any of those purchases are. I remember I bought all of these brightly colored woven tapestries, I definitely had a clear picture in my head at the time, I’d hang them in my living room, I bought a really narrow and long one that would have been great for the stairway.


But, I’m still looking and, OK, there it is, there’s something. I have this piece of furniture from IKEA, it has a bunch of wooden cubbies, and down at the bottom I’m seeing this giant mortar and pestle. You know, like when you go to a Mexican restaurant and they make tableside guacamole, it’s just like that, a huge stone bowl that’s as heavy as it looks.

When I took the hour-long bus ride from the capital to Otavalo, I actually had this particular item in mind. A lot of the Ecuadorean women would use these tools as a way to grind spices, and I thought it would have been such a cool addition to my American kitchen. How much would one of these things have cost in the States? Probably a lot. I got one from some vendor for thirty-five bucks.

I mentioned it was heavy, right? Really heavy. Like I had to carry it around everywhere I went, all the way back to New York. And now here it is, I see it, but in the three years since I’ve been back, I can clearly remember the one time I used it. I was cooking something, I wanted to use cumin, so I bought whole cumin seeds. After toasting them in a frying pan over low heat, I transferred everything to the bowl, where I used the oval shaped stone to crush it into a powder. Now that I’m writing everything out, I actually don’t know which one is the mortar and which one is the pestle.

But yeah, I used it once, and that was it. I remember trying to clean it out afterwards, I didn’t know how. The sponge was getting ripped up as I wiped the surface of the rock, and even though I ran it under hot water, I could never get out the cumin trapped in between the tiny crevasses of the surface.

I told myself, yeah, I’ll use this again, maybe I’ll make guacamole. But that was it, that’s the last memory I have of the mortar and pestle. I must have left it out for my wife to put away, and here it is, in this little cubby hole, right next to my hand-cranked pasta maker. That piece of equipment has a similar history, a big bulky purchase, a single use, and then banished to the cubby, to a lifetime of obscurity, unnoticed in the background of my everyday.

But where is everything else? I bought so many other artisanal goods. There were these two hand painted ceramic plates that … oh wait, that’s coming back to me. These things were beautiful, large round dishes that I had hoped to hang on the wall of my kitchen. But they were only wrapped in newspaper, and when I opened up my suitcase in New York, I could see that the mortar and pestle had smashed everything that it was packed against. So it was just this wrapped collection of ceramic shards.

Even that, even the trash, I had a vision of laying them out, as if I could glue them back together, like maybe I could hang up the broken pieces, so it would have this preserved-despite-being-destroyed museum like quality. I set the fragments to the side and, I’m positive that they were thrown out. Looking back, there’s no way I would have known how to even begin thinking about how I’d accomplish such a project.

I just thought it would have been nice, to be able to decorate my house will all of these cool souvenirs. But it’s all just taking up space, either in this kitchen, or more likely buried in some box in the basement somewhere. If I ever get access to a time machine, I’m going to travel back to that market, I’m going to confront myself and say, “Listen, Rob, this stuff is all really cool, but I want to let you know that it’s not going to work out, you’re just wasting your money. Go and have a nice lunch instead. Or just give me the money, and I’ll take it back to the future for the both of us.”

And I’m ready for that, I always have been. If a future version of me ever just pops up and tells me what to do, I’m not going to hesitate, or think that I know better. I’ll just do whatever he tells me. And my house will have so much less clutter and I’ll have all that money in my pocket.