The Pope, the Shaman, the Taxi Driver & U.S. Customs Agents

on the road to Guayaquil

on the road to Guayaquil

Well, I can’t resist one last Cañar Chronicle, given the prefect storm that accompanied our leaving Cañar last week. How could we have known when we made our reservations six months ago that El Papa would be flying into Ecuador the next day? That there would be no buses through Cañar because all were going straight to Guayaquil for the Pope’s mass, where a million people were expected? That protesters against President Correa would take advantage of the turmoil and close some roads around us the day before we were to travel? El Papa 2Making this trip more complicated (and interesting), Mama Michi was traveling with us to visit her daughter in the U.S. Fortunately, the day before our flight, and seeing trouble coming, we had hired Jacinto, our friend/taxi driver, to take us to Guayaquil. We agreed to leave Cañar at 3:00 for a flight on American at 11:00 PM.

As Jacinto tied Mama Michi’s two enormous bags on top of his car, I asked her why she was taking so much luggage for only a month’s visit. “It’s food,” she whispered. “I’m worried about the food there.” She was also, of course, taking typical Cañari fare as gifts for her family. I asked her to name what was in the bags: five cuyes (guinea pigs), cleaned and ready for cooking, and one already cooked; one rabbit cleaned and ready to cook; five bottles of Zhumir, the cane liquor so important at any ritual event; a bag of fresh shelly beans, another of peas and one of choclos (fresh field corn in husks) – all harvested from Mama Michi’s fields in the days before the trip; a bag of dried corn to make mote, an essential filler at every meal; and a pound of máchica, dried ground barley added to milk or other liquid for a drink that everyone loves; PLUS a big box full of tamales and chiviles (another type of tamale). Everything for the Andean diet except potatoes.mama michi now

After Jacinto picked up his wife – an unexpected fourth passenger – and stopped at the local roadside shrine to collect holy water, which he sprinkled on the car, on Michael in the front seat, and a few last drops on we three women crowded in the back, we were off…in plenty of time, so we accepted Jacinto’s invitation to stop at his “coast house” for beers. Every Cañarejo seems to want a warm place on the coastal plane, 9,000 feet below, where they can grow bananas and other sub-tropical crops not possible in Cañar. And have flowers galore. Here is Mama Michi posing with a “bear’s paw ” bush at Jacinto’s casita. She uses plants in her curaciones, so she was fascinated with the the flora. (A bundle of dried flowers and plants in one of her bags would figure in our near future.)

I should stop here and explain that Mama Michi (Mercedes Chuma) is one of our oldest friends in Cañar. I met her in 1991, on my very first trip to the (then) village for a meeting on a research project. I was a volunteer, ready to teach two young Cañari men photography and sound recording, and one of those young men was Mama Michi’s son, Jose Miguel. At a time of great distrust of outsiders, she welcomed me and found me amusing. She was an early and one of my best portrait subjects. Back then she was a community leader and a tired mother of 6 children with a sick husband, Serafin. After her husband died, Mama Michi became a curadera, a healer, or – as her passport says – shamán. She said she always knew she had the talent but her husband prevented her from practicing. Since then she has built an impressive business that has lifted her family well out of poverty. Mama Michi, however, did not have the advantage of an education beyond grade 3, and for that reason she needs to travel with someone – she cannot read nor write. Here she is in her first portrait, circa 1993.

Mama Michi Chuma

After the stop at Jacinto’s, it was a straight shot to the airport, except for a traffic police stop for no other reason than our out-of-province license plates and pure corrupt shakedown. We passengers watched in the rearview mirrors much arm-waving and angry gestures as the officers’ demand was negotiated down from $125, to $75, to $50, to $25. “Que disgracia! Que disgracia!” sweet, honest, religious Jacinto kept saying as he got back in the car. What a disgrace.MM & Michael in airport

me Mercedes in airportOnce at the airport we had plenty of time to relax and run into friends. Now that the US Consulate has begun to give out visas to Cañarejos, after years of refusing just about everyone, there’s lots of traffic visiting family, mostly in New York and New Jersey. Waiting, we ran into Mercedes Guamán, one of our first scholarship graduates and now a busy attorney and alternate member of the national congress.

At check-in, Mama Michi’s bags were overweight, and as I had a nearly empty suitcase I stuffed several unidentified packages from her bags into mine. “Bad idea, very bad idea,” Michael kept murmuring. But I forgot to ask MM about her carry-on, and that caused the first contretemps as we went through security. What are these? “Bottles of agua florida for my for my ceremonies,” she said. (Basically cologne with magic powers for “limpiezas, buena suerte, y protección.”) 

agua florida label agua florida

You can’t take those.  What’s this? “Olive oil, used for massages,” she said. Can’t take that, or that big tube of hand cream. And what is this? “My tupo, to hold my cape.” (A tupo is an essential part of every Cañari woman’s clothing – a sort of medallion with a small skewer about 4 inches long.) The security folks gathered around to test the point with their fingers, and shook their heads. I could see it was a beautiful silver tupo, maybe her mother’s, but in any case a treasured item. “You can’t take that,” I said. “It’s part of her heritage, her identity.” Without a word, one of the security women quietly stuck the tupo into a pocket of Mama Michi’s purse.

the long long hallway

OK. I think I’ll skip the drama of passing through Immigration in Miami at 4:30 AM, when Mama Michi was lost for an hour and a half in the visa-holders’ line and no one could let us go back to look for her once we had passed through the US citizens’ line. After a tearful reunion we grabbed our bags and rushed to customs, fearing we would miss our flight to Chicago. (Meanwhile I’d transferred her goods from my bags to hers.) There, Mama Michi’s luggage was opened by an agent to reveal all the glory of her hard work and planning and preparing and packing. Polite young agents who spoke Spanish gathered around and began to look for insects in her beans and corn and peas. “Yes, there’s a laper-something,” (Latin name) said one young agent, carefully peeling back the husks of an ear of corn with vinyl gloves. A young woman came over with a small vial to collect a nearly microscopic bug. “Can’t take the corn, sorry” he said in Spanish, very polite.  Oops, what’s that worm we see in the beans?  Sorry can’t take those. Nor the peas. What else do you have?

With that Mama Michi began the litany of goods: surprisingly, raw guinea pig was OK, but not beef or pork (she had none). Bottles of Zhumir, no problem. Dried corn and barley, fine. The bundle of dried flowers and herbs, OK. And the large box of cooked tamales and chiviles – looks good! YOU MAY GO.

By the time we were done, we had missed our flight to Chicago. That meant lining up to be re-routed with hundreds of other international travelers who had missed their connections. But again, very nice American Airlines helpers who spoke Spanish, all interested in Mama Michi, and in keeping us together for the remainder of the trip. “What tribe are you from?” asked someone along the way?  “Is she from Peru?” asked another. “May I speak to her?”

It was barely 9:00 when we were liberated into the Miami airport, exhausted, with two long flights still ahead, but we’d got to Guayaquil despite the Pope’s visit, survived Immigration and US Customs, and could begin to recover with coffee, breakfast, and a bit of rest.



Leaving Cañar

P1100509There must be a good metaphor for the closing up of a house, slowly divesting it of color in rugs, pillows, throws, weavings. Darkening the rooms with exterior shutters. Rolling up rugs and mats. Taking art and photos off the walls. Shutting down the patio fountain. Emptying shelves, packing away clothes. It’s all good for cleaning and ordering, but maybe brings on a touch of melancholy. Continue reading

A Trip to the Coast

long viewOur trip to the coast began as all our Cañar departures begin: waiting on the side of the Pan American Highway for a bus. As our town sits right on this artery running the length of Ecuador (and all of South America, for that matter), buses barrel through day and night, along with giant trucks carrying gas canisters, double-trailers with racks of Coca Cola, oversized construction materials, and heavy Coca Cola truck 1military equipment.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist. I looked for a stock photo of the open-sided trucks that carry Coca Cola to all points in Ecuador. Here’s an historic version. )

So….one early morning about two weeks ago, as M. and I stood at the intersection where buses stop briefly (no bus terminal yet in Cañar, though promised) we eyed the others waiting, trying to guess who was going to Quito and who was going to Guayaquil. This matters, because there’s always a rush when a bus pulls up and the assistant driver jumps down and yells the destination: “Quito, Quito,” or “Guayaquil, Guayaquil.” With no protocol about lining up in an orderly fashion, it’s strictly first-come-first-served, so you simply squint as the bus approaches, trying to read the destination sign in the windshield, and guess where it will come to a full stop. Then you rush to get on.

1. bus arrives crop 5. quito riobamba sign4. Riobamba! Quito! 3 rush for the door crop6. last call7. on its wayP1090994

Here’s the sequence in photos I happened to catch the other day.  Bus arrives at intersection; passengers stand on alert. Where’s it going?  The driver’s helper walks alongside yelling: “Riobamba, Riobamba, Quito, Quito.”A rush for the door. Last call as the helper jumps onboard. Bus leaves. (about 8 minutes max).

For this trip we needed a bus to Guayaquil, on a route that turns west off the PanAm less than an hour north. But M. and I have a system – if we have luggage to put below, he stays beside the bus while I run for the door and jump on to check if there are seats. If so, I plop a backpack on each to claim while M. waits for the assistant to open the luggage compartment. If there are no seats (the driver always says there are), I stick my head out the door and yell at Michael: “NO HAY ASIENTOS!” and he grabs our bags back, I jump off, and we settle down to wait for the next bus – usually about a half hour.

This time we got lucky. A bus pulled up after about ten minutes, almost empty. We took seats with more legroom than a business-class flight, and on the west side with the best views. Michael had made sandwiches, as he does for any bus trip over two hours, in case we got hungry. We happily settled in for the four-hour, 10,000-feet descent to Guayaquil. (don’t believe the times in the maps below…)

MAP Cañar, Guayaquil GYE-Playas 2

Our Cuenca friend, Susana, met us at the bus station in Guayaquil and drove us to Playas, where she and her sister have a beach house. On the way, she told wonderful stories from her childhood when she, along with her mother and siblings, spent school vacations at the beach and her father came from Cuenca on weekends. Their house was near the single phone booth in the village, always with an impatient lineup of folks, and Susana and family could hear shouted conversations about whose child had diarrhea, who was coming and who was going, and whose daughter was flirting shamelessly with a boy from Quito.

Shortly, we were sitting on Susana’s terrace overlooking the bay of Playas, wearing far fewer clothes than we’ve worn these past five months. The temperature was at about 90 degrees (30C) and the views magnificent. terraceOriginally a fishing village, Playas has been somewhat discovered by “los ricos de Guayaquil” who’ve built a couple of high rises, but it remains basically a fishing village around a natural harbor. The fishermen go out in the morning in wooden dories or on these amazing balsa rafts, made of 3 or 5 balsa logs simply roped together.

balsa raft launching

a balsa launch with helpers

Four or six men stand on the rafts with only paddles, (although we saw some balsas on the beach with sails). The fisherman set nets offshore and then come in for the day, going out again in the afternoon to haul in the nets.  fisher w nets & birds

We got lucky one afternoon to come upon the “great haul” as men (and one woman) pulled in a huge net. The frigatebirds and I were equally excited, as I grabbed photos and they grabbed fish. The birds came in so low, fast and aggressive, I ducked a few times. As the nets get closer, everyone gathers around to hold in the fish while other helpers load them into crates to carry to trucks on the beach.high rise backgroundfish in netJPG

We asked what kind of fish – they looked too small for the market – and I’m sorry to report the answer was balanceado – animal food. We also asked how much the fishermen and helpers made in one day, and once we’d worked out the formula it came to about $25.00. However, we enjoyed the bounty of the coast with a visit to the fish market for pulpo (octupus) that M. fixed one night, and a red snapper dinner another night by María, Susana’s cook.

susana michael market

fish 1But the best part of the trip was spending time with our good friend, Susana, and her sweet chocolate Lab, Ron (rum in English). Every afternoon they played in the surf.S & Ron in surf

El Niño has heated the usually cool water this time of year to almost 80 degrees, and so I put on my rarely-used, ad hoc “swimming costume” and rolled around a bit in the surf. Michael did not of course, and also refused sunscreen on his lily-white legs, so his skin is still peeling.M with sail

*  *  *  *  *

Two weeks later: June 21, first day of summer, and the temperature was 47 degrees this morning, with spitting rain. One recent night the wind howled all night and shook doors and windows. As I write, it’s not yet 10:00 AM and I’m sitting by the fire, which we’ve had the last three mornings – the first morning fires since we came in January. It’s time to go home to summer in Portland.

But I’ve got a least one more blog to write before we leave. So don’t sign off on Cañar Chronicles 2015 yet.

Attachment to the Land

Carboneria Dear Friends: We’ve just been through a short rainy season here in Cañar – one of several in the agricultural year – and the fields are emerald green and the mountains cerulean blue. Recently, taking the bus to Cuenca on a clear day recently – a trip I usually use for two solid hours of reading – I couldn’t stop staring out the window at the beauty of the landscape. And this had me thinking that, although a much smaller percentage of the population makes a living from agriculture these days, folks both urban and rural remain attached to their land. Even ferociously attached, whether to the fields alongside a family’s house to produce their yearly supply of potatoes and corn; a small plot in the countryside where a city person grows a few vegetables, or a finca -a remnant of the hacienda period – that a family holds onto for a country house and to run a few horses. Continue reading

May Day, Cañari Style

Jose Acero w flagIn the US we don’t place so much importance on May 1, but here in Ecuador as in many countries around the world, it is a national holiday to celebrate the “laboring classes.” In fact this year in Cañar it was a three-day school holiday, which my cynical Cañari friend suggested was a strategy on President Correa’s part so the students couldn’t get organized for a big opposition demonstration. (In fact there were for-and-against-Correa marches in Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil.)marchers w bannerIn Cañar it is always a huge event, as the indigenous organizations have taken on the day as a their own, even though 80% of campesinos still work in agriculture and not for a wage. My own history here is related to May 1, going back to 1992, when we lived in Cuenca and I had barely begun my work in Cañar, with little success. Mama Michi Chuma, the mother of my first photography student, José Miguel, invited me to take a portrait of her agricultural cooperative after the march, “but only if you make a copy for every member.” I was thrilled. This was my first “public” photo in Cañar, one I would never have been able to make if not invited. I set up my big old Rolleiflex camera and took two shots: one post-march of the members relaxing on the grass with their picnic lunch, and a second standing at attention with their flag. Today I can only find the second shot. (And I recall that I did make an 8 x 10 copy for every person.) MM coop 1992

Last Friday, the march was organized to go from El Tambo to Cañar, a distance of about 10 kilometers. The idea, of course, was to block the busy Pan American highway for the duration of the march, always a strategy of Cañari organizations when protesting or sending a message to the central government. (You can see the line of parked cars below.) The message to President Correa on the placard: “Don’t insult the people; respect the people.”marchers w parked carsNormally I would not choose to walk this stretch of the highway, which runs down to the river valley from El Tambo and then climbs steeply to Cañar. But a colleague, Judy Goldberg, and I got caught up in the excitement of day – she is here for a few months coordinating our new story exchange project, Voces de Cañar/Cañarikunapa Raymi. So at the last minute we hired a taxi-truck and took along a bunch of other celebrants who had missed out on rides.anastasio + belisarioWe met up with the march just outside El Tambo – hundreds of people surging downhill, chanting, singing, carrying banners and placards, while the police directed all traffic to stop. The day was brilliant sun, not so good for photos or walking at the incredibly fast pace the Cañaris always take, but spirits were high and the police were friendly. Judy and I quickly separated as she took off with her recorder to capture sounds, and I did my usual thing of walking backwards while photographing, trying not to trip and fall on my butt while the the fast-paced crowd rushed towards me, and avoiding being run over by the pickup carrying the mayor and other municipal authorities.IMG_4657The walk downhill to the river was easy, but the fast climb up the other side on this hot day quickly wore me out and I fell back. I saw Judy once, fresh and energetic and ready to walk the distance, although she kindly offered to stop with me. But then a second truck came by, handing out water to the marchers, and I gestured to the “water men” that I wanted to get in. They hauled my camera bag, and then me, over the back of the truck and I took my place amidst the plastic bags of water and, increasingly, young children and overheated women carrying babies, until the back of the truck was jammed. But I was able to stand and get some great shots of the marchers and mountains, before resuming walking again at the top of the hill. (Michael, seeing all the rainbow flags when I showed him the photos, said, “Everyone in Cañar is gay!”) man on horse w flagI never saw Judy again until we met at home for lunch, but it turned out she had stayed with the march until the very end, when the crowd gathered at the UPCCC, the indigenous center in Cañar. I was there too, taking some last shots of the crowd,UPCCCBut once the speeches began, I knew the event would go on without me, with hours more of speeches, dancing, and music ahead. May Day in Cañar was a big success. The soundtrack of the event, edited by Judy, was broadcast on Radio Kichwa Hatari in New York this week, and you can see the audiovisual on our new website: Voces de Cañar.

Finally, because music is so important to any Cañari event, I can’t resist adding a gallery of photos of the musicians who didn’t make it into the blog. I love this guy on his horse with his on horse w violenman w round hornI don’t know the name of this spherical horn, but my guess is it’s made of plastic pipe…bocina…as is this bocina, an instrument traditionally made of thick bamboo with a cow’s horn for mouthpiece. red scarf w quipaThe quipa, or caracol marino (seashell) is traditionally used to call country people together for a meeting, or as an alert, as the sound carries over a long distance. We still hear it some days from our comuna, albeit over a loudspeaker. boy with quipa

And it’s wonderfully heartening to see young kids learning these customs and instruments.