Authors note: I wrote this piece about five years ago after having arrived in Ecuador only a few weeks earlier. I’ve learned a lot about the folks here since then and a quite a bit more Spanish also! The shop is still there and the same artisan is still tapping that tiny hammer. There are many of these little places around but this one is my favorite. When I stopped by his place not long ago, he was repairing a huge coil condenser and copper kettle still…yes, as in moonshine making still. Stick your head in the door and you’ll score the experience and maybe a piece of craftsmanship.
On foot in the late afternoon, I sped along the narrow backstreets of El Centro in Cuenca, Ecuador. I was on my way to create a little art before “el sol” denied me my last few chances of the day by slipping away until the morrow. I had little time as the sun was indeed diving for the horizon as a chill wind picked up.
Edie and I burn a lot of shoe leather in Cuenca investigating our new surroundings and looking for compositions. We had walked by these metal-working shops a few times before in route to our favorite humita, quimbolita and tamale spot. That’s how I found out about the craftsmen and their handiworks. There was one guy in particular out of the four tinsmiths that had a higher skill level and a more eclectic selection of wares from which to choose. I had decided that this afternoon, I was going to immortalize his tiny dark cave of a workshop. Turning up my collar to deny the winter wind it’s demanding entry, I cut across the last street bordering the shop area.
“Hola, Buenas tardes, Como está, Como te va,” rolled from my lips as if I really had a great command of the Spanish language. I had even learned how to run all the phrases together as was often the style I heard in my new country. Of course, I was really nervous deep inside as I only knew a little more Spanish and about zero else about the city and its people being a “wet behind the ears” newcomer to Cuenca. There was no reply from the proprietor save the incessant tapping of the smaller hammer he was using to shape a copper bowl. “Hola, por favor puedo sacar fotos?”, I inquired in a polite fashion.
“No, no puede!” was delivered to my unbelieving ears. I don’t ask very often when I shoot in the street but the fellow was sitting right there so there wasn’t a very good way around it. It wasn’t his photograph I sought. Neither his dress nor countenance had anything to offer to my purposed composition which, in my pre-visualization, didn’t include him.
So, I started in with the customary cajoling and coaxing that usually unlocks the “no” door. I pleaded in broken Spanish accented by what I deemed were appropriate hand signals. Quick enough, it became apparent through conversation that he did not wish to be photographed but imagery of his shop would be fine. This was working out perfectly. He waved his arm as if to gift me permission as he moved to the back of the shop to accomplish another task and remove himself from the scene.
I needed no more. My camera was out of its’ pack and attached to a big tripod in under two minutes. He peered at me from the darkness, curious as to my equipment and intent. I captured two exposures prior to his quick return to the front of the shop. The sun had finished its trip to the western horizon as I packed up my gear. He continued tapping on that copper bowl as we exchanged a few glances. When he was distracted by a phone call, I placed cash on his workbench under the edge of a copper hummingbird he was working on.
The shop is filled with his handiwork, it’s wares also on display hanging from the door header and jambs. It’s a small and dark little shop tucked away on a busy street here in Cuenca. He will make you anything out of metal that you like from an ornamental yet functional weathervane to a copper pot for you to cook in. You can have everything in between fabricated too. A photograph or line drawing of what you want and a little discussion will get you a pretty favorable price also. Lead times seem reasonable based on the complexity of your request.
This is another neat discovery in my new country. People make things by hand. And, things are usually repaired in lieu of being discarded. Folks can make what you ask them and to the dimensions you specify. Plus, they give you a great price. That’s pretty different from the land I hailed from.
The street lights flickered on as a strong gust pushed me along the sidewalk. I thought about Edie at home in our new place waiting for me to return from my shoot. I thought about the shops proprietor and how his ways seemed so different from my own. Closing in on my new digs, I recalled a request for moras, fruit similar to what we called “Dewberries” back home. There were many street vendors selling along Calle Larga near Mercado Diez de Augusto so I bought a pound for a dollar coin and the woman included “lagniappe!” I keep finding out more and more I like about my new country Ecuador; seems nice surprises are around every bend in the road and each turn of a corner. I think I’ll stay awhile.