Update on earthquake, “la crisis,” and a baptism

Dear Friends: Since the 7.8 earthquake off the Ecuador coast last Saturday, the daily news has only been worse and worse. Initially, many coastal villages were completely cut off and, once reached, found to be entirely destroyed. As of today, 650 are confirmed dead, 130 still missing and 12,000 injured. Beyond that, 26,000 survivors without homes are living in parks and shelters. A series of small aftershocks have kept everyone nervous, though with no new damages. We felt only one, a 4.8 on Friday morning because it was nearer to Guayaquil and thus nearer us. I pulled these photos from today’s Guardianliving on boardwalk wm in street with table

damaged roadThis was the worst disaster in 70 years, coming on top of “la crisis” – a reduction since 2015 in oil prices that has kept the country on a tight leash and borrowing heavily from China. In fact, I was planning to write a blog, “The Price of Oil,”  enumerating the small ways a contracting economy affects everyday life. (The IMF predicts that Ecuador’s economy will shrink 4.5% in 2016, and some say the country is on the brink of bankruptcy; only Venezuela is in worse shape.) Small examples: The music classes my friend Magdalena organized for local kids as part of her job with a municipality cannot afford to buy a third guitar. La crisis. A cultural institution that issued a biannual magazine that a Cañari friend and I wrote for, “Patrimonio Cultural,” has ceased publication. La crisis. Same with the beautiful publication of CIDAP, the artesania and popular arts magazine. La crisis. This doesn’t even touch on the big things: reduction and delay in state salaries; road projects stalled, and so on. Many blame President Correa, who cashed in the previous government’s savings accounts of oil reserves that would have been used in such a disaster.

In spite of this, the response of the general population to the earthquake disaster has been amazing. As one Ecuadorian journalist, Martín Pallares, observed in this New York Times article “The country has become one huge relief center, and in almost every neighborhood, in towns large and small, there are collection points for donations of clothing, food and blankets.” In Cañar, this includes everyone from children in schools bringing in supplies, to our garbage collector who with his work group is gathering food and water. In the photo below, Quilloac community members gather food, water and basic foodstuffs to take to a central distribution point.quilloac donations

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But of course despite the disaster life goes on, and so the day after the quake Michael and I became godparents to Luis Gabriel, the eight-year son of Mercedes Guamán. She was an early scholarship student and is now a lawyer and alternate to the national assembly. She’s also one of our oldest friends, and I’ve known for many years – since Gabriel was born – that she would ask us to be godparents. Although Michael at first resisted (see comic below), saying he would never take on another godchild, we found ourselves at the chapel of San Jose at the appointed hour.P1130412P1130425And before all the family (second godmother above) and Father Mario, who earlier in the week had requested to see our marriage certificate to prove that we were “married ecclesiastically” – and that after we had attended a two-hour cursillo (little course) to learn about our responsibilities as godparents – we agreed to help raise Gabriel to be a good Catholic.P1130448P1130447Then it was off to the family house for the fiesta. P1130452Where we had a few drinks P1130458 (1)and a bite to eat…P1130471P1130472As godparents, we were served four roasted guinea pigs (each!), three chickens, pounds of roasted pork, potatoes, rice and half a basket of mote (hominy). All to eat or to take home to share with others – a beautiful concept in the indigenous culture known in Quichua as warilla. 

We were home by midnight and very happy to be godparents to Luis Gabriel.Navas new002


Earthquake in Ecuador

Dear Friends: I’m trying to get this blog out today, first of all to say that while we certainly felt the 7.8 earthquake last night, we are far from the epicenter and we didn’t know of the deaths and damage to the coastal areas until this morning. Thanks to those who quickly wrote to ask if we are OK. I grabbed this image off the web to give an idea where we were are in relation to the center in Muisne. From Guayaquil, we are about 200 km. east, up in the Anearthquake 2des. Michael and I felt many tremors during our years in Costa Rica and last night we immediately recognized what was happening. About 40 seconds of gentle swaying, with power flickering and light fixtures swaying. Our house is built of barraque – adobe mud around a wooden frame – for just this reason.  It is built to “sway” with the earth’s movement instead of coming down, as can happen with adobe block structures. (Our area of Cañar is affected by minute movements, usually unfelt but obvious in the eroded countryside around us.)

In fact, in other Andean countries such as Chile and Argentina, adobe block construction is no longer allowed because so many die in these buildings in strong earthquakes. Now, of course, most buildings are made of poured concerete or concrete block and this was typical damage last night. (image from NYT)building damage2

building damage1

From quick reading on BBC:  (Ecuador) sits on the so-called “Ring of Fire” – the arc of high seismic activity that extends right around the Pacific basin. At its location, Ecuador fronts the boundary between the Nazca and South American tectonic plates. …The Nazca plate, which makes up the Pacific Ocean floor in this region, is being pulled down (subducted) and under the South American coast. It is a process that has helped build the Andes and Ecuador’s many volcanoes, including the mighty Chimborazo.”

Thanks again for all those who wrote with concern. Now I’ll continue working on my  blog for next week: “The Price of Oil, A Walk, and Another Baptism (later today).

Paella and other tiny adventures

Michael made one of the best paellas of his life the other day, and when we tried to analyze why it was so good, he attributed it to just the right intensity of the charcoal fire in his cookshack…P1120726...and just the right amount of chicken stock for the rice  (not too dry, not too mushy).P1120738P1120754I think he enjoyed the prep as much as the cooking and consuming. The week before: a trip to Cuenca for arborio rice, green beans and little chicken wings; another to neighboring Tambo on Saturday market day for langostinos; several times around Cañar for rum (to soak the saffron) and vegetables.  And here are all the ingredients, prepped and prettily lined up: roasted sweet red peppers, garlic, onions, green beans, saffron (in little glass), rice, tomatoes and langostinos.P1120735Several hours later…P1120761Paella for six! The guests were not able to come so we dined in glory in front of the fire, with Russian Red Boxed Wine, watching Better Call Saul and House of Cards.P1120762P1120758

Other pleasures in our life lately are country walks, and the people we meet on those walks. A couple of weeks ago Michael arranged for a tiny adventure on a road that has intrigued him for years, as seen from the bus to/from Cuenca. From behind Tayta Bueran, the mountain that dominates Cañar, a road meanders to the west off the PanAm towards the jagged mountains in the distance, usually covered by clouds.  P1120691 (1)We took the Cuenca bus to the point where Michael thought the road started (well, we got off a little too soon and had to walk about a half-kilometer with buses and big transports rushing by, putting me briefly in a bad mood). But once we found the way we were soon joined by a small man carrying a shovel, and we fell into step. Lucindo, from Molobog Grande, the valley with the wonderful name on the other side of the PanAm, was headed for his potato patch a few kilometers towards the mountains. As we walked and talked, and he answered our questions, he aptly captured the history of this region – the hacienda era, agrarian reform, and what “progress” has meant for the small farmer like himself. “All this was all owned by families from Cuenca,” – he gestured to the broad valley below – “Malos and Andrades.”  Names mean everything in upper-class Cuenca and M. and I immediately recognized these. “The agrarian reform came and the government helped us create a cooperative, Buena Esperanza (Good Hope). The land was divided up. I have a piece down there – where you see the cows – and up where my potatoes are planted, and waayyyyy up towards the mountains.”P1120685 (1)“Then, as often happens with people,” Lucindo said, “the members of the cooperative began to fight. Some were jealous, others wouldn’t do the communal work, and after some years we became the owners of our individual parcelas, which meant we could sell our land. Now, with that and migration, the cooperative is pretty much broken up, though some of us are still active and we have a fiesta every year.”

At that point we were passing another of his parcelas, and Lucindo gestured again to the beautiful valley below and talked about a present-day problem: “Down there I have a little trout pool,” he said, “but all the potable water projects for the towns around here are taking all the water. Now  I don’t have enough flow to keep my fish healthy. Tayta Bueran is covered with natural springs, and we used to have plenty of water.”

Now we stopped near a steep hillside with a small planting of papas, and it was time to say goodbye.  But not before Lucindo asked us if we were Catholics. P1120689Michael and I walked on…and on, and on. By now we’d dropped hundreds of feet in elevation. No way could we reach those mountains, but we took a road we thought we bring us to a village. No village, no cars, no taxis, hardly any people. Those few we came across tried to help. We offered to pay for a ride but no one had a car. One man said: “Maybe the teacher is still at the school – the red roof down the road. She’ll give you a ride.”  But the school was closed up tight. Finally, tired and resigned, we started the long slog up the road to the PanAm. Then, a miracle, a small truck came behind us and we jumped out and flagged him down. Startled to come across two gringos far from anywhere, the young driver invited us to crowd into his tiny cab and tell him how we got to Ecuador, and to this remote valley between Cañar and Cuenca.  drawing001

This and that in the month of March


Dear Friends:  Well, I missed my chronicle deadline last week but for a good reason. Every year I host a group of students from Lewis and Clark College (based in Portland) who spend a semester in Cuenca, Ecuador. They live with local host families and study Spanish and other subjects at Fundación Amauta. For three days, I have a chance to show them something of another world – Cañar. Not much, but enough to give them an idea of differences between life in Cuenca and Cañar.

First stop: the jail, to see the prisoners at work on fine weavings and other handcrafts. We are no longer allowed to take photos in this 100-year old building overcrowded with 150 male prisoners (I was amazed we ever were), but we were given a great tour of the workshops by trustees/artisans and the new young director. Other prisoners – across the patio where they were confined but lined up at open windows, and agog at this sudden appearance of beautiful young women (and one man) – sent gifts. Here some students sit afterward at a taxi stand, with an origami bird made with bits of folded paper. (Don’t you love the retro phone-in-box where drivers take calls? )origami bird 2

Next, a visit to Mama Michi, curadera extraordinaire and always game to receive visitors at her jambi wasi (healing house). She was busy with many patients – this being one of her two weekly consultorio days – so we waited almost an hour. But the weather was great and the students patient, happy and charming – reminding me why I loved teaching this age in my days in academia. (On right, Lewis & Clark faculty member, Wendy Woodrich).waitingP1120792When it’s our turn, an assistant sells us the things needed for a diagnostic healing – egg, candle and a rough bouquet of herbs and flowers – and we’re escorted into the dark, aromatic interior of Mama Michi’s consultorio. She sits beside her altar looking bemused and buddha-like as fourteen of us find places to sit and stand. The students have decided among themselves which two will volunteer for curaciónes.P1120830

First, a diagnostic rub with the egg over head and body, before it (the egg) is cracked into a glass of water on Mama Michi’s altar, where it will settle and reveal its discoveries.eggMeanwhile, a cleansing with fire. We all gasp as flame seemingly shoots out of Mama Michi’s mouth with a great whoosh as she sprays an alcohol concoction through lit candles. (She first tells her patient to cover her hair and close her eyes.)P1120807

P1120808All around and up and down with the flames, including on the feet, where she tells the standing patient to stamp out the little blue flames dancing around on the mat (I know MM’s routines well, but this is new). Then, a light beating about the head and body with the handful of herbs and flowers, while Mama Michi invokes her special language to get rid of bad spirits or mal aire. I always hear this “OUT! OUT!” although I think it is in Kichwa. She throws the contaminated bouquet into the anteroom….diagnosis…and returns for a reading of the egg and the offering of a diagnosis. Trouble sleeping? A stomachache lately? Headache today?  General nervousness?  Usually, according to testimonials of those she treats, she is right on.

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Cañar Book Club – March 2016


I’d like to dedicate this month’s book club to my late mother, Adelene Blankenship, a great reader all her life. She usually had several books going at once because she was a delicate sleeper and she needed a particular kind of book by her bedside for nighttime reading: a history or biography or other non-fiction. “If I’m reading a novel and it’s too exciting, I won’t be able to sleep,” she would say. So – although I don’t have my mother’s sleep problems – I’m lately reading two books: one puts me to sleep within minutes and the other makes my heart beat faster and I save it for long bus rides. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, recommended by both my son and my husband, is a good read about two talented and dedicated men, supported through all their flying trials and tribulations by a talented and dedicated sister, Katherine, who of course has no place in the official history. Only in the epilogue does it mention that when she finally made a move on her own and married at age 58, her surviving brother would not speak to her until she was on her deathbed. So much for the history of flying.

My other book, The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander is about the dirty war in Argentina and the forced disappearance of a son (in the news lately with Obama’s visit  – see http://nyti.ms/21KSAh1 – “The Long Shadow of Argentina’s Dictatorship”). From the cover blurb: ” Englander …handles his unbearable subjects with the comic panache of a vaudeville artist…” which I found engaging in the first 200 pages but must confess that by now, with 100 pages to go, I’ve lost patience. So I cannot recommend this book, although I think the young writer is a very talented writer and I’ve enjoyed his New Yorker short stories.

Books recommended by friends this month, with their comments

  • Last Standing Woman, by Winona LaDuke. Lyrical novel written by, and from the viewpoint of, an Ojibwe woman on an Indian reservation in Minnesota.
  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.
  • Walking with Abel by Anna Badkhen. A wonderfully written and impassioned account a living a year with the Fulanis, the largest nomadic tribe in Sahelian Africa, set mainly in Northern Mali.
  • The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen.
  • The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, + newest My Name is Lucy Barton
  • All That Is by James Salter.
  • The story of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry was delightful, leaving me wishing I had a grandmother like the one in the story. I was certain a woman had written it. Wrong. The author, Fredrik Backman, is a 34-year-old Swede. I love Scandinavian men.
  • My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem’s autobiography.

Notes from the domestic front

DSC_2030 (1)Well, we’ve been in Cañar two months now and I already feel time going by faster than it should. I look at the calendar and see March full of activities and events, and even into April. Our day-to-day life is pretty quiet though there’s always something to break the routine. In fact, that’s our favorite refrain when things go wrong: “IT’S ALWAYS SOMETHING….” Last week, for example, workers began taking down trees below us, and left us without electricity, off and on, for several days. The first day the power went off I walked down the road and found a young man up in this enormous tree with a hand saw! P1120569 He’d dropped a limb on the lines. CentroSur, the power company, came and reconnected us, but in the days that followed they simply cut the power during the day while the tree cutters were at work (now with the steady drone of chainsaws), and reconnected us at night. Just imagine what this would do to your schedule if you knew that from 8:00 – 4:00 you’d have no Internet, no lights, no fountain, no radio, no working outlets. Well, you’d just do other things. Michael’s stove is gas so he cooked.DSC_1995My laptops have batteries so I kept working until they went out. Then, I suppose, it was time for a glass of wine – and we still have the fire in the fireplace, thankfully. Life could be worse.

We’ve been in the house eight years and the interior garden plants – I remember how excited we were with those first little plantings – have grown enormously – from the macho aloe vera reaching for the sky (with two birds’ nests discovered in it last year) to the jade plant blooming like crazy and dropping baby jade plants to colonize Michael’s side). The oregano, on “my” side, that we were so pleased to think we’d have close to the kitchen, had so completely taken over, even infested with tiny white flies, that it was choking out all other plants. With help fromthis unidentified monster thing: P1120576Michael decided to take on the patio garden as a project (after his visa/passport affair was settled, but that’s another story). He tore out this thing, plus all the oregano, though a network of roots lurks just waiting to come up again. Yesterday we went shopping for new plants at Marco’s, our plant dealer who lives up the road, and came home with a tree (another project), 5 or 6 cactus, and other weird spiky sedum things, all for $20 (think what that would cost at Portland Nursery!) The result, earlier today:P1120663Meanwhile, not to be outdone, I was out in the kitchen garden thinning the minuscule lettuce plants that visitors helped me plant a few weeks ago.P1120665

What do we do for fun, you ask? Well, yesterday we had a tiny adventure when we decided to explore a church that has intrigued us for years, seen from the bus high on a mountain in the town of Biblian, between here and Cuenca. P1120596 Michael packed a picnic lunch and we got off the bus at the approximate elevation of the church and started walking. It was still a big climb, and just as we needed to stop to catch our breath we saw this:P1120601 An old woman in bright colors sitting in front of a yellow house weaving a straw hat. Beside her, a little store with an old man. “Buy a beer!” I urged Michael although it was only about 10:00. I needed time to chat and take some photos. Maria Angelita Dután Zhinun is 92 years old, and has been making hats since she was eight, taught by her mother. P1120613

Her hands are still supple, her hearing fine, her sight good enough to weave, and her sense of humor intact, along with her eagerness to talk. We soon got down to the personal stuff. She married at 16, has had 26 pregnancies, seven left alive, and the old man in the store (her partner) is her nephew. I guess she has outlived all the men her age. She spun other stories about Saint Rocio in the church up the hill, miracles, and stuff. P1120617We didn’t get it all, but this stop with María Angelita made the whole day worthwhile.P1120629

She liked my blue eyes and asked Michael if that is why he married me. I asked her if we could have a photo together. After, we continued our climb up the mountain to the church, but it rather paled next to where we’d just been.P1120632P1120636

We had our picnic lunch (with great views), walked on around and down the back side of the mountain and caught the bus home. “We must do something like this again next week,” one of us said, but we both agreed.

I’m going to pass on the Cañar book club this time. I think once a month will do, so please send your latest reads and comments for the next chronicle, on March 20. Meanwhile, stay in touch; I love hearing from all of you.