We stepped into the courtyard and straight into the heart of a little family business. And it was more heart than business.
On a low bench along a wall a young man sat pencilling designs on small rounded tan-coloured gourds. Two young women next to him, carving out his drawings, using nothing more than a nail sharpened to a point. I noticed the plasters wound around finger tips; saw the concentration on their faces and felt their cameraderie as they worked together, chatting, smiling, laughing. Standing a few meters away, a world unto himself, worked Pedro Veli, the master. A little padded bib hung over his chest, he peered over his glasses and worked steadily. On his gourd there was no pencil drawing. His image came from memory, from imagination, from life, from himself. He carves intricate drawings of fiestas and wedding feasts, potato harvests and old Andean stories. He can make images to order, peopling his drawings with real-life characters, but traditional designs are falling out of favour, they no longer mean so much to people. Still he works on, trusting that he is doing the right thing, for himself and his family.
He’s been carving since he was five – for about seventy years he said, shaking his head, as if he could hardly believe it himself. My father taught me – and he pointed to a large, poster-size print of a photograph hanging on the wall – another master carver, flanked by two large bottle gourds. He, in turn, now passes his skills onto his own children. As we spoke he began to shade and burn his drawing, simply using a lighted eucalyptus stick, blowing on it, off and on, to make it hotter, or cooler, as he wished, to darken or lighten his figure, coaxing every shade of tan, brown, and black imaginable from the depths of the gourd. Before my eyes the line lady took on flesh and blood, and became a living being. I could almost see her dancing. Astonishing that such subtlety can come from such simplicity. His strokes were deft, his hands sure. He’d done it many times before.
I fell in love with the gourd depicting the potato harvest. Medium sized, full of fact, history, tradition. It had taken him a week to carve it. It cost PEN 75 ($25). I could never pay him for the hours he’d taken over it. He didn’t see it that way. With the money I gave him, I gave him the opportunity to feed his family, to buy four or five more gourds from the local market, to carry on doing what he loved. I like re-telling the old ways, the creativity of it, the patience needed for it, he told me. I gave the money to his wife. He checked it, but she took it. We laughed. ‘I do the cooking’, she said, pocketing the cash.
She gave us a picture postcard – which showed her surrounded by gourds – as a keepsake and showed us her kitchen. A tiny oblong space, cooking pots arranged on an open fire; walls and ceiling blackened by years of smoke. There was a gas burner ‘for emergencies’. Knick-knacks hung from hooks and were arranged in orange-crate makeshift cupboards. Everything is used and re-used. Nothing is thrown away. Objects are valued for the effort that’s gone into making them, for the time poured into them, for the skill needed to nurture them into being. A broken whisk, minus handle, hung from a nail, but it was still good enough to whisk. On a table covered in plastic, stood four carved gourds – containers for sugar, corn, and salt. Gourds are a part of their life, not just for the tourists.
My gourd was wrapped in a bag, along with the keepsake postcard. But I would never forget Pedro Veli.