Elinor Maroney: Boots on the Ground with Potters for Peace


Nicaragua, the middle link in the chain of countries which connect North and South America, is the second poorest country in Latin America after Haiti. Poverty is largely a rural problem in Nicaragua. Close to half (43 per cent) of the people live in rural areas. 

Potters for Peace

Two out of three struggle to survive on little more than US $1 per day. Elinor has graciously sent in her journal of recent experiences there. She has taught and worked her way across Nicaragua with Potters for Peace this past year. For her dedication to the WCA Newsletter, (our past paper version which she compiled and edited for many years) she received the Lifetime Membership award from the WCA a few years ago when she moved on from the post. Our club has been built upon work such as Elinor’s and other long time WCA members. So grab a cup of tea and enjoy the story!

By Elinor Maroney:

I finished packing, cleaned out the refrigerator, eating what I could and throwing out anything that wouldn’t last 2 weeks. I had mac and cheese soup for my dinner – leftover macaroni, cheese and powdered milk. Actually it was pretty good. I have no flour to thicken a sauce. Robert Pillers, the director of Potters for Peace, had called to say there was another change of plans – “As usual!” (his quote). The river waters are down, so we can get to Loma Panda. “How are you with horses?” Just fine – I rode at Selva Negra a couple months ago when my daughter visited. OK, I will be there at the usual time – 6:00am. “Do you want to go tomorrow or Thursday?” Even though I had been sick, I said I would like to go tomorrow to take advantage of the most possible time.

 We got away about 6:15am and had breakfast in Sebaco when we got gas. Arrived in Somoto and picked up Martha (pronounced Marta) who I think had been waiting for at least 2 hours. It may not be very many kilometers off the highway, but it is one of the worst roads I have seen – potholes, washed out dips, big rocks, rivers to ford – obviously damaged by the heavy rains of the short rainy season – and it wasn’t much of a road before the rains!

 When we saw a couple walkers on the road we stopped and they got in the back of the pickup to ride to where they wanted to go. When they want to get out they hit the back of the cab. A very common practice here since there are so few ways to get around and a lot of people walk many miles to carry on business, etc. Robert finally pulled up to a wide spot in the road. His plan was to walk up to the studio with me and measure the kick wheel so they can make a new metal frame for it – it is now totally rotting wood! But we decided since he was driving back to Managua that day, I could measure the wheel and call him with the dimensions.

 The two women potters were making their way across the river – one in thongs, the other bare footed. They first took my heavy suitcase and backpack across and then came back for me. I got in over my shoe tops immediately, but they pointed out I could mostly step on big rocks – a little tipsy, but dry. With one on each side of me we got across without falling in or dropping my purse with my phone and camera. I asked where the caballo (horse) was. “No, hay” (there is) no horse. So one of them put her sandals back on and took off up the hill with her burlap bag of groceries. The other put my backpack on and put my suitcase on her head! I was embarrassed! They were much too heavy. I found a vine wrapped stick to use as a walking stick – wouldn’t have made it without it! We sat down to rest on some rocks soon and I offered to take the backpack, but she said no. Her son (I think! I am not sure a week later who he is!) joined us – 10 years old – and carried my purse as a small backpack. He led the way like it was the easiest path ever! Rocks everywhere, little sign of the path – and all uphill. We rested again soon and finally another young potter came down the hill to meet us and took the suitcase on her head. We finally got to some houses and I asked, “Are we there yet?” and Angela pointed just up ahead – not much more uphill climb!

A busy studio at El Calero – Isabel burnishes, Teodora begins a water jar, Dominga rolls a slab for a wall hanging planter and Elinor throws on the kick wheel.

 They gave me a drink and a chair and lunch of scrambled eggs and tomatoes with beans and rice and a tortilla. I got a rest. I was hot and sweaty. I finally asked where the baño was and got directed there. Possibly the dirtiest yet! And almost impossible to get to because of the rocks everywhere – looks like the rains moved a lot of rocks and uncovered more. I never venture out without my walking stick

 I had time to show them a few pictures on my computer from the other villages I had worked in. They know quite a few of the other potters around the country and enjoyed the show. They had a chance to see a few pieces like the ones we will be working on this week. I said, “Photos today, work tomorrow!”

 I sat in the kitchen for an hour before dinner. They were grinding something in an old fashioned hand grinder with a small hopper and an attachment of 3 pieces of wood on the front. It was coffee! It looked like a lot of work. Dominga and Carmen were cooking dinner, Martha kept grinding while Angela bagged up the coffee in small plastic bags – one small cup to the bag – maybe a one pot serving each. They sell coffee, sugar and a few other things from their front room.

 Thursday: I sat in the kitchen this morning and counted: there were 5 women (including myself), 6 ducks, 3 dogs, and 2 cats – with a couple chickens wandering through now and then. When I pointed it out they all laughed! They were grinding corn and cooking tortillas. I ate a hot tortilla and then ate beans and rice for breakfast. This morning the grinder had a bigger hopper and the corn was put through twice before it was patted into tortillas and cooked over a wood fire on a comal – a shallow ceramic plate made for cooking tortillas.

 We went to the studio at 9:00am and started “playing in the mud together.” Juegamos en arcilla – in Spanish! I threw on the wheel some and tried to read to them from my notes in Spanish while I had mud on my hands. I have written a lot of instructions in Spanish over the last 10 months and it really helps to communicate. They were very responsive and seemed to understand me! Three of them threw a few small pieces on the wheel and we paddled and altered them to be decorative wall pieces. Carmen seemed happier doing hand building and made some turtle rattles. So we had about a dozen different pieces from figs with a textured bottom stem made by forcing clay through a screen, some red, green and black peppers, a squash rattle, and a few imaginary pieces – you name them you can claim them! We were tired at 4:00pm and Carmen brought coffee to the studio. We cleaned up and called it a day. Hasta mañana!

 Friday: We worked on the usual – decorative pieces for the wall, rattles – all burnished to within an inch of their lives! I showed some different types of lids and forms to go with them. How to center larger amounts of clay with ease – important information for women potters. We looked at my books of low temperature techniques and ceramic jewelry. They took off with jewelry making. And I know very little about it! We all made beads and they colored them with slips in green, reds and black – leaving a few natural brown. Migdalia made small roundtextured beads in 4 colors and burnished them each one with the bristles of a toothbrush.


 We had a call from PFP on Saturday – there had been a change of plans. They need to do their trip to San Juan de Limay and be home by Wednesday. So to catch the bus for Somoto, we would need to fire on Sunday.

 It’s Sunday morning and instead of grinding corn for tortillas, Angela and Martha spent a couple hours gathering wood for the firing. They came back about 8:00am. Migdalia and I had started gathering materials for a saggar firing – sawdust, sand, guava leaves, banana peelings, wire and rusty metal. We filled a medium sized vase with pieces and organic materials, found a small plate for a lid and then put the beads they had made in old tin cans or aluminum foil – something to keep them together and not get lost in the firing. The fire got going slowly about 9:00am. They said it would take about 3-4 hours. About 11:30 a couple came up the walk (if you can call that pile of rocks a walk!) and started talking to the potters. The man finally asked, “Do you speak English?” Every chance I get! Turns out he is retired US Air Force and has lived in Somoto for 9 years. His wife is Nicaraguan and owns a restaurant. Her restaurant is listed in my guide book as Comido La Soya. He offered to give us a ride to Somoto tomorrow. Gave me his name and phone number.

 I finally had to send a neighbor boy who was hanging around to tell Migdalia and Angela that we needed to pull the pots right now because the kiln was cooling off fast. We pulled a few and put then in the mixture of flour, sugar and yeast with mixed success – Marcia Selsor calls it Obvara Raku. Took out a couple burnished rattles and put horse hair and feathers on them then the next ones were too cool to be very decorated. Turned out they were fine though – marble like, more subtle, but good. We pulled pots and emptied the kiln in about 30 minutes. The couple watched some of it after buying a few pots. They had not been to this pottery before. It is really out of the way. They have a pickup that was parked at the river down the long hill.

 We spent the afternoon stringing beads and making a tube of fabric for other larger beads. Migdalia called the hotel and made a reservation. I called Benito and he is planning to pick us up at 1:00pm tomorrow! Yeah! We had talked about the bus that really does come on that terrible road every day. Some say at 7:00am and again at 12. Others say it is coming at 11:00am or is it 1:30pm? And you get to Somoto at 3:00pm! Probably 10 kilometers. Anyway, I don’t need to worry about it. Benito will pick us up. Maybe we will eat at La Soya. It is a relief to know we don’t have to wait for a bus. The walk down the hill with my suitcase on one of the potter’s heads is bad enough- I am now a little anxious about crossing the river – will I get my shoes wet again?

I am a little worried about walking down the hill. It is pretty easy to slip on loose gravel. I will take my time! Really nice to know we have a ride.

 Monday: It is 7:00am and I am packed. I feel like it was again a very successful week. When I pass on an idea they pick it up and run with it and do better work than the original idea. They will have some different pieces to display with their other work. I am suggesting that Potters for Peace arrange to do a 2-3 day jewelry making workshop for women potters who are interested. I have had requests.

 As I sit eating my last desayuno (breakfast) in Loma Panda of fried eggs and gallo pinto (beans and rice), I am hearing the pat, pat, pat of making tortillas on a round piece of plastic. They didn’t make tortillas yesterday because they were gathering wood for the firing so they are making a larger batch today. All three of the able bodied are grinding corn while Angela makes and cooks the tortillas. The oldest sister fell and sprained her wrist and is not able to do her usual jobs. She still shoos the animals out from under foot with a stick, sweeps the patio and carries wood for the kitchen stove.

 We will go to the studio for a while this morning to evaluate what we have accomplished and take some photos. I just remembered if we are in a hotel with Internet I can share some obvara raku firing pictures with them. There is a lot on the Internet I can’t access while in a potter’s villages.

 The couple who came to purchase pottery on Monday came back on Tuesday and gave us a ride to Somoto to the hotel. It was a wonderful coincidence that they came on that day and were available to give us a ride. We met the bus – a truck with bench seats in the back, packed to the gills and with 5 men hanging on the back – and it was going away from Somoto! It takes about 3 hours to get to Somoto. What a pleasure to ride in a pickup – even though Migdalia and Carmen had to ride on the tire in the back. We picked up 3 more passengers on the way and drove through San Lucas, 8 kilometers from Loma Panda. Oh, yes, I took 45 minutes to walk down the hill to the river, waded across and got my shoes wet again. I am not about to wade barefoot on those river rocks.

 In the hotel we got a pretty typical Nicaraguan breakfast of scrambled eggs, rice and beans, coffee, orange juice and dry toast – no tortillas! Migdalia and Carmen left at 7:00am for the bus to go back to the river and wade home – they wear flip-flops to “ford” the river. I have no idea how long they took to get home or when the bus came – but they were on their way. I made sure they had bus fare and extra money to cover my expenses while I was in their village.

 I packed up and pulled my suitcase around the corner to Lolita’s La Soya Restaurant and waited an hour while she counted money and served soya milk hot from a large pot on the stove. A very busy morning in her restaurant! At 10:00am we drove out to her house and brought Benito back to tend the shop while we drove her mother to the doctor in Esteli, where I was to meet Robert and Alvaro to drive to San Juan de Limay to begin my stay in the pottery co-op La Naranja. I had it fixed in my mind that they were bringing shelving for La Calero, so I could stay there a few days and get the daughter to do my laundry. Well, we drove past Limay and arrived at La Naranjo where they haul their water a distance from the river. No laundry till the weekend when I ride the bus to Limay and El Calero where they have running water every morning for 4 hours.


 La Naranja, Wednesday to Sunday, November 19 – 23: I was startled when we pulled up to the studio at Carlos’ mother’s house. I really had thought we were going to El Calero because we had the shelves and wedging table for them. I was welcomed shyly and Roberto and Alvaro took Carlos and left about 5:00pm – nearly dark – to drive back to San Juan de Limay to unload the pickup. I was shown the studio which is larger than most – has a wheel, a wedging/hand building table and some shelving. Pretty soon they brought in a cot and set it up inside the door. Someone brought a pillow – a pillowcase with a blanket folded inside. They put a sheet over the cot and I have my own sheet for the top. I asked to be shown to the baño before dark. Another long walk around the house, past a big tree, over a bunch of loose rocks and one narrow path between two big rocks. Dinner was rice and beans. Roberto had bought some eggs and rice and beans to add to the stock for me. I will leave a 500-cordoba bill (about $20.00) to cover my Bed and Breakfast – even 3 meals a day.

 There are several family members living here and nearby – and several small children. Carlos’ sister Luisa has the questionable job of sleeping on another cot in the studio to “keep me company.” I am not sure it was necessary, but is what we did. I thought of asking her to accompany me to the baño the first night, but she was asleep. I managed. The toilet actually had a plastic molded seat!

 They kept asking, didn’t I want a bath? Well, I couldn’t see where the usual “shower” curtain was so I kept saying “No importa.” One day they insisted that Luisa would walk me to the bath. I took my soap, washcloth and towel and we walked probably a quarter of a mile down a rock trail to the river. There was a fairly deep pool with clear looking water. Luisa filled a bucket and gave me a small plastic bowl to use as a scoop. She and her niece sat behind a large rock while I took a “shower!” I sponged off totally and washed my hair. When we got back to the house, my feet were already full of mud from the water and the dusty road. We had to get a pan of water to wash my feet. I only took one bath in La Naranja! There are cold water showers and there are outdoor showers. Enough is enough!

 We made the usual pieces in the studio and a few more that I thought of in the night. We made a round “stamp” that rolls on the clay after it is fired. Leaves an interesting and different texture. I made a small piggy bank and both Dominga and Damaris wanted to make one, too. Then I made a car – a VW bug – from two pinch pots. There are several little boys around who took a fancy to it. We made a few rattles with different colored slips and burnished them. Some went into the saggar with sawdust and turned out totally black – nice when burnished. I loaded the saggar with a couple watching to see how it was done. Pretty soon Dominga’s son Marvin came and started unloading it with me saying “No, no. It is just right and I have it just the way I want it.” Turns out I used a couple cacti pieces and they said they would explode so we had to dig them out. I knew exactly where they were and they were full of vicious spines. We used a stick and stirred it up till we found them and removed them.

 I was told we would fire on Saturday. Well, all morning Dominga made chicken water jars, Carlos threw on the wheel. I did a little work and a few things I had thought of too late to go into this firing. Ernestina made some beads like the ones in the Ceramic Jewelry book I had brought. So I went ahead and made some beads with large holes for a tube of fabric. I put them in the sun and got them half dry and had time to burnish them before the firing was started at 3:00pm. The large beads went in the top of the saggar and turned out nice and black. Ernestina’s beads were wrapped in aluminum foil and were fine. It is a trick to put them in foil – they are protected from any burn marks and don’t get lost in among the larger pieces during the firing.

 Carlos said “Adios” and left and Dominga, his mother, did the loading, bricking up the door, clamming in the door with wet clay and the firing by herself. None of Carlos pieces – 100 small planters – went in this firing. The firing took about 5 hours and used less wood than I would have guessed. It is a Potters for Peace kiln and is very efficient. The bricks were pulled at 6:00am and the kiln began to cool. I could hardly wait to see it unloaded, so I began to pull out a few easy to reach pieces. When they were cool enough we rubbed them with wax – actually natural colored shoe polish. Works like a charm to bring out the shine.

 The bus passes La Naranja twice a day – 7:30am and 3:00pm. I had time to look at the work from the firing, wax what needed it and evaluate what we had done. At 2:00pm we started up the road to catch the 3:00pm bus. Carlos youngest brother Marlon carried my suitcase on his shoulder and placed it where the bus would stop. We waited in the shade of a tree until about 3:15. It is 5 kilometers to San Juan de Limay and took about half an hour. Bad roads as always here with dips to slow down for and rivers to ford. We got off at the park and Isabel met us there. She had called a taxi to take us to El Calero pottery studio. I am sleeping in the living area of Isabel’s house. I have a sheet hanging in front of my bed, a blanket and a heavy pillow. The bed is made of ropes with a piece of plastic over it. I put the extra blanket over the bed for padding. It is pretty hard and uncomfortable – but just for three nights. It has been dark since 6:00pm and things settle down pretty early here. The toilet is about as usual – a cement seat, with a door that is about to fall off. I don’t want to be responsible for knocking down the door of the outhouse! There is water in a sink between the outhouse and the kitchen so I can wash my hands. That has been a problem at times. I have used lots of hand sanitizer.

 This is the first studio where I have returned to work a second time. In May, I worked with Dominga and her daughter Gersil. Isabel was in Esteli with her daughter and the new baby and Teodora had had surgery. This time I was able to share some ideas with all three of the potters and buy some of their jewelry for shops in Granada. I do feel like I am winding down after 11 months in Nicaragua. I keep thinking of things I could have shared with the three of them. Ah well, you get what you pay for!


 I am planning a stay in the hotel in Esteli again for a night and take a potter shopping for some necessities here in the village. That means I can take a hot shower on Wednesday! And I have not had any Internet for 2 weeks now. I need to check my messages.

 I was planning to take Gersil to Esteli shopping for necessities for the community. One of the other potters asked, “Why are you taking Gersil again?” So I ended taking two potters and Carlos who had been with me a lot in the past 10 months to the hotel and shopping at the supermercado. Then we had to buy large shopping bags at the plastic store to carry it. The bags were heavy with pounds of rice and sugar, etc. They each had a large bag on their shoulders and another smaller bag in hand. I found a hammock for Carlos’ mother’s community – they didn’t share the shopping trip. Their hammock was literally falling apart! I felt like I got a gift, too. I spent a little more than I had expected, but I had had no expenses for the 2 weeks I was away.

 Thursday morning: My friends put me in a taxi from the hotel to the bus stop. The bus trip to Managua was the best. No one told me there were real buses here with reclining soft seats with arm rests! (Most of the buses here are recycled American school buses – in bad shape before they were put on these bad roads.) The taxi driver from the hotel dropped me at the door to the bus to Managua and we were underway in 5 minutes. I was the last passenger to get on the 8:45am bus. It was a two-hour, almost non-stop trip. I found a taxi in Managua ready to take me to the UCA (University of Central America) bus stop for the bus trip to Granada. I got off near my favorite coffee place near the park in Granada and had a cold mochachino! Coffee and cocoa. Delicious! Caught another taxi to my house. Took from 8:45am – 1:45pm, but was not an unpleasant trip.

 Friday, November 28: Back in Granada. I was awakened this morning at 4:30am by the fireworks at the Cathedral – several blocks away. Now at 6:00am they are shooting off fireworks at the church across the street! I will never understand why they do that!

 I have much to do to get ready to leave Nicaragua. I am planning to teach pottery classes in Camp Kikotemaal, a Cerebral Palsy Camp in Guatemala for 10 days in December. Then I will be in Oregon with my kids and grandkids for Christmas and I am planning to be back in Seattle in January. My journaling has been extensive – there is much to tell!  ~Elinor