You could say I find joy in odd situations. Granted, I tend to find joy – or at least the silver lining – in most situations. For example, I am currently crouched on top of a giant pile construction debris in the middle of a street in Otovalo, Ecuador. I’m digging bricks out of the dirt with my bare hands, while my Birkenstocks sink into the soil. I’m wearing jeans, a blouse, and an embroidered scarf because I was on my way back from dinner when I turned the corner and and saw it, You’ve got to be kidding me.
As I continue my brick extraction, a drunken Ecuadorean man – who is avoiding going home because he’s in a fight with his wife – is using the only shovel we have to pile the dirt into a plastic bucket and an old woven cement bag; the only two receptacles we have to move several hundred pounds of dirt and brick from the street to a second floor terrace.
“So, we have to get this all off the road before 6 a.m. or we get a $400 fine?” I ask.
“Okay,” I reply, a little bit out of breath but secretly relishing in the absurdity of this moment.
As I glance up I see Jonathan, the crazy son of a bitch that got us into this mess, and I can tell from the gleam in his eye that he lives for this shit.
Normally when someone you haven’t seen in 6 years suggests via Facebook message that you should crash on the floor of his friends leather workshop in Ecuador – the answer would be no. But then again, when you’re on a round-the-world once-in-a-lifetime-trip the rules are different. Much like improv comedy, the cardinal rule becomes, Always Say Yes. Whether it’s a warehouse party in Panama, dinner at your taxi driver’s house during Colombian holidays, or – in my case – a free place to crash at an artists loft in Ecuador.
This is how I found myself standing outside a home on Modest Jaramillo in Otovalo, ringing every doorbell I can see to no avail. I’m standing on the street with my backpack and daypack, fully weighed down and getting impatient. My eyes flit upwards towards the second story window and I spot it: a tiny bell attached to a string that dangles down and ends in shiny brass loop.
I give it a few pulls, and laugh to myself at the sound of it’s perfect little jingle. Well isn’t that just fucking whimsical?
I didn’t know it then but that bell symbolized the spirit of everything I would experience over the next few days. That when you need something, find simple elegant materials, create a handmade solution – and you’ll end up with something that’s so much more satisfying to use.
Jonathan always loved leather. The fact that it was a natural by-product from the beef industry that would otherwise go to waste, that its durable and everlasting, that it changes as you use it – softening, bending, wrinkling – transforming with you over decades of use.
When he left his home on Prince Edward Island to travel the world, he never would have imagined that 3 years later he’d be running his own leather design label – J.J. Leathersmith – and living in Ecuador. Completely self-taught, he started by making leather-bound journals and quickly worked his way up to wallets, backpacks and purses, sold on the side of the street everywhere from Mozambique to Colombia.
With dye-stained fingertips, an alpaca sweater, and blonde hair thrown up into a bun, Jonathan greets me as I climb the outdoor stairs to the second floor entryway. The space looks like the New York loft of my dreams inexplicably placed in the middle of South America. It has white brick walls, soaring ceilings, beautiful hard wood floors, and a custom workshop table littered with the tools of the trade smack dab in the middle of it all. Dotting the entire space like icing on a cake, are Jonathan’s gorgeous leather works; instantly making me wish I could buy them all. Yup, I can definitely stay here for a few days.
As the days went on I got more insight in how things are done at J.J. Leathersmith. Along with seeing how the leather was dyed, hand-stitched and shined, there was no refrigerator, no plastic water bottles, and lunch was an amazing $1.50 chicken soup served from a stall in the local food market where the owner knew Jon by name.
The entire feel of the place was one that was simultaneously humble and about making do with what you have, while still appreciating luxury and the finer things in life. Meaning you could eat for less than $2, but knew when to spend on the highest quality supplies, good wine, and great coffee.
“So, I passed a construction site that was hauling out a bunch of dirt and bricks from an old building – and I asked them if I could have it,” says Jonathan one evening, as if this is a completely normal thought process that anyone would have. “They’re going to dump some of it in front of the house later.”
I’ve lost track of how many hours we’ve spent lugging bucket after bucket of earth and bricks upstairs. Jonathan, myself and Tim – another traveller who spent 3 months staying at the workshop – have got a bit of system down at this point, but we’re fading fast.
At about midnight the Ecuadorean man who was walking passed and decided to help out continued on his way home. At 1:30 a.m. I throw in the towel. At 3:30 a.m. Tim goes inside for coffee and doesn’t return – falling asleep at the kitchen table. Leaving Jonathan by himself, working away with our limited tools, to move the rest of the dirt off the street.
He knows these bricks have been exactly what he’s been looking for to create an amazing garden on the terrace, and when he saw them heading for a landfill he wasn’t about to let them go. It’s then that I realize Jonathan is a certain type of person; if he has a creative vision, he commits to it, and there is no backing down. Hell or high water, he’ll give everything he has to pull it off.
When I awake in the morning, Jonathan is still awake, finishing with the rising sun. Now that’s an artist.
Check out J.J. Leathersmith
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