Shortly after we arrived in Nicaragua, we identified a few small furniture-type items that would be really nice to have for our house. First, the absence of any sort of hall closet made me think it’d be great to have some sort of rack near the front door for shoes, soccer gear, and backpacks. Second, the girls’ bathroom has no storage – no counters, drawers, shelves or anything. There is just a few inches between the toilet and sink, but it’s enough for a tall and skinny shelving system. Finally, there’s a lot of open shelving in the kitchen that tends to look quite cluttered. In addition, having it so open makes it easy for the critters to scamper freely all over the items being stored there. So I figured a great solution would be some boxes or baskets.
After searching in the local shops and market, I realized just how far away I was from my usual trips to Target or online shopping at Amazon.com…
And then one of our neighbors mentioned she was having some “baskets” made by a local craftsman. She showed us several other items she had previously purchased from him. Did we want to check out his shop? Of course! A few minutes later we were all in the van for the hour trek across the hills to “furniture land.”
There’s a little town, called Masatepe, that is home to lots of the best furniture makers. (It’s sorta the North Carolina of Nicaragua in that regard.) They set up their wares along the side of the road, for what seems like a few miles of chairs, sofas, tables, and shelving units.
When we got to the particular craftsman my friends had purchased from, it certainly didn’t look like much from the street. “Trust us,” our friends said with a smile. So I pulled out my drawings and they started to translate.
“16 x 16 x 20 inches,” we said. “Pero no mas grande!” (No bigger!) When you need something to fix exactly into a certain space, the dimensions become hugely important. But without reading or writing skills on the part of the furniture maker, a measuring tape becomes a key communication tool. After we had agreed on the measurements using that tape, we moved on to the next piece.
About 30 minutes later, we felt confident (or as confident as we could) that he understand what I was looking for. He then showed us around his workshop. We found four young men working with just hand tools to shape and style various pieces of wood.
Before we left, he showed us the pile of wood ready for the next project. It was amazing to see the chunks of raw materials compared to the beautiful creations they would become.
All told, I ordered four “baskets” for the kitchen, a tall and skinny shelving unit for the girls’ bathroom, and a shoe rack. Looking around at the beautiful furniture waiting to be picked up, I decided, “Who needs Target? This stuff is beautiful, and inexpensive!”
And then we waited.
About 10 days later, I got a phone call that sounded a bit like this: “Wendy? blah blah blah blah canistas blah blah zapatos blah blah blah mañana blah blah blah 9am blah blah blah blah.”
I pretty much froze. I broke out in a sweat (seriously) and ran around the house looking for Wyeth (whose Spanish is worse than mine, so clearly I wasn’t thinking straight!). And to the lady on the phone, I kept saying, “uno momento, por favor, mi espanol es malo.” Duh.
Finally I ran outside and saw a neighbor. I thrust my phone through the fence and stood there expectedly.
He looked at me a bit strangely (no wonder). ”Something about boxes for shoes being ready?”
OK! So I had actually understood more than I thought. Canistas = boxes. Zapatos = shoes. (or rather my rack for shoes) And it’ll all be ready by 9am tomorrow morning.
On the way to retrieve my items, our friends warned us to keep our expectations low, so as to be pleasantly surprised if it turned out better than we hoped. I could see our items as soon as we pulled up and I smiled. They are wonderful! The boxes fit perfectly into the space in the kitchen, to keep it all neat and tidy. And the stain even matches the existing cabinets better than I had hoped!
I asked the furniture maker if I could take a photo of him next to my bathroom rack. I told him how much I loved his work, so he agreed. (Nicaraguan adults rarely smile in photos, so don’t let his lack-of-a-smile give you the wrong impression. He was very happy to do the work for us, super sweet, and obviously thrilled when I was happy with the results.)
And then we started the whole process over again for a few items my friend, Erinn, wants to order. What an adventure!
P.S. The tall hutch behind him is another one of his custom pieces. It is gorgeous! And a fraction of what we’d pay for something similar in the US… to bad we can’t bring it all back with us.