On a recent afternoon in Sarchí, Costa Rica’s premier artisan town to the northwest of San José, an apron-clad, paint-smeared woman held up a blue oxcart. From gathering the materials to carving the wood to painting the oxcart, Christie Peucker, a 31-year-old journalist from Adelaide, Australia, had crafted the whole thing herself.
Sure, it might not have been the most polished oxcart in the country. (Due to its historical role in transporting coffee, the oxcart is actually Costa Rica’s national symbol.) But Peucker’s intricate handiwork did display a month’s worth of dedication.
“I’m no Picasso, that’s for sure … but it feels great to have a finished product,” she said. “There’s something therapeutic about doing things with your hands. It’s something to be proud of.”
Lately, Peucker has a lot to be proud of. In April, she ran the Great Wall Marathon in China. In July, she learned to make cheese in the Netherlands. In September, Peucker trained eagles in the mountains of Mongolia. It’s all part of a personal journey she named “30 Days for 30 Years” and embarked on after spending a little too much time behind a desk.
Once the chief of staff of eight magazines in Australia, Peucker often found herself dreaming of visiting other countries and having time for hobbies. Eventually, she saved enough money to leave her job and set off on 30 Days for 30 Years, which began last April. So far, she’s been to China, Western Australia, Israel, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Mongolia, Malta, Tennessee and now Costa Rica. In each location, she chooses an activity for the month, basing her decision on both her personal interests and the local culture.
Peucker knew she wanted to learn to paint, and she had also heard that Costa Rica was the happiest place on earth. When she found out oxcarts were not only the best of Costa Rican artistry, but also the traditional transporters of coffee from the highlands to ports on the Pacific coast, she was sold.
“I had never been to Central America, and I had always wanted to come here to see what all the fuss was about,” she said.
When Peucker arrived at the beginning of January, she had no idea how she would learn to paint. When she got to Sarchí, she immediately noticed the enormous orange oxcart in the town’s central square, and the man – Ronald Alpízar – retouching it. That seemed like a good sign. Peucker approached a woman at a nearby information kiosk, and the woman recommended one of the area’s renowned artists – Luis Madrigal Aguilera – as an instructor.
Madrigal is known for painting oxcarts, but also for painting costumes, parade floats, furniture, business signage and more. He’ll be one of the featured artists in the 2012 International Arts Festival in March, and every taxi driver in Sarchí knows where he lives. Peucker easily tracked him down, and he agreed to help her paint an oxcart at no charge.
Peucker began with raw wood, which she picked up at the well-known Eloy Alfaro oxcart factory. Although the oxcarts normally come finished, Peucker requested just the square wooden blocks. She wanted to do everything herself.
“People now just buy their things from Ikea and put it together by numbers. That’s not crafting anything,” Peucker said. “There are all these lost arts. No one knows how to sew. Penmanship is just out the window. I wanted to do something where I made something with my hands.”
Peucker brought the wood pieces to another instructor, who taught her to carve, and she spent eight hours chipping away a flower pattern. She took the pieces back to the factory and had them cut to appropriate sizes for the oxcart.
When she began her training with Madrigal, Peucker didn’t know much about drawing or painting. They spent hours getting the designs and patterns right in pencil, and then eventually graduated to brushes and enamel paint. She chose a deep blue for the base color, mainly because she intends to use the finished product as an ice cooler (referred to in Australia as an “esky”) for beer. She didn’t want her oxcart to be too ostentatious, but in keeping with tradition, she selected bright orange, pink and sea green for the design colors.
Finally, Peucker began her paint job on one of the wheels. “To get the symmetry right, you had to use the compass,” she said, holding up the measuring tool. “It was like going back to grade-five mathematics.”
The painting was a challenge at first, and Peucker was forced to start over and “rub things out” many times. She often found herself muttering about “these damn flowers,” but eventually she figured out just how much paint she needed on the brush, and her fingers became accustomed to the swooshing technique.
From Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Peucker painted each of the 18 pieces of her oxcart at Madrigal’s home. Although Peucker speaks no Spanish and Madrigal speaks no English, they often taught each other words over coffee.
“I came here every day, and he fed me, looked after me and taught me about his life and culture,” she said. “He’s been so kind and generous with his time.”
When asked how her month in Costa Rica measured up to her previous experiences, Peucker smiled.
“Every month I do something amazing, and then I finish the month and think I cannot possibly top it,” she said.
She acknowledged that painting in Sarchí doesn’t quite have the wow factor involved in training eagles in the mountains of Mongolia or running the Great Wall Marathon. But her experience here gave her something perhaps more valuable.
“It reinvigorated my faith in human kindness,” she said.
To read more about Peucker’s adventures, go to www.30days30years.com.