36 Hours in Cañar

street scene oldAvoided, underrated or just plain forgotten, Cañar is a town that’s been fighting a bad reputation for several centuries, at least among Ecuadorians. “You live in Cañar? Isn’t it cold? Isn’t it boring? Isn’t it homely? What do you do there?”

I recently interviewed Padre Carlos, our neighbor priest who arrived in Cañar in 1970 as a seminary student from Colombia. “I immediately disliked the place,” he said. “It was cold and dark, with electricity only a few hours a day, no piped water, no bathrooms, streets of mud, no cars and no roads to speak of. We rode hours on horseback to reach the outlying villages.”

So let’s make a virtual visit to this “dismal place” 45 years later to see if things have changed, (with a nod and apology to the NY Times travel feature.)  By the way, Padre Carlos came back in 1972 and stayed a lifetime.streetscape now

Friday, 5:00 PM  A fire crackles in the fireplace, and our host enjoys a beer after a hard day of troubleshooting. Earlier, he’d noticed water streaming out of the pump house, and investigating found that the pressure tank of the pump had sprung a leak. He turned off the pump, unbolted the tank from its concrete moorings and saw that a metal plate had rusted through. Announced to the guests that there would be no running water, as the city has lately turned off the water supply at night. However, there are a few gallons in plastic containers that our hostess had filled for a reserve – was that maybe last year? Oh well, We have another beer.

bad tank P1080253(looks new but rusted through…)

7:00 PM Dinner as planned, water or no, and our host gets to work in his new cook shack. Tonight he prepares grilled shrimp, pineapple slices and plantains, cauliflower with saffron (thanks Laura Silverman), a salad with nasturtiums, served on cosy tables in front of the fire.

dinner w fireM w dinnersaladcauliflower8:00 PM After-dinner entertainment on our own: each on individual laptops with videos bought on the streets of Cuenca – many marked “for Oscar consideration only.”

El Gran Año

9:00 PM As there are no cafes, theaters, movies or night life to speak of, we come to what is perhaps the most attractive feature of a visit to Cañar: nine solid hours of sleep in total darkness and quiet (except for a few barking dogs.) We are shown to our rooms carrying water jugs for brushing teeth, with the promise of running water for showers in the morning.

Saturday 9:00 AM

A glorious day after a rainy patch. Today we will visit Ingapirca, the most famous Cañari and Inca ruins in Ecuador. On the bus to Tambo (25 cents) a familiar woman gets up to tell a long story about her disabled child and the miracle of prayer. She goes on to do a few magic tricks with a cord and hankie (Michael was once the stooge; she ended up pulling a pair of red jockey shorts out of his pants), before handing out packets of candy with a Virgin of Guadalupe card in return for a contribution for her daughter’s care. Those of us who are readers-virgin de guadalupeof books-on-buses, are usually annoyed by the loud voices and strong deliveries of the itinerate vendors (frequently selling bogus medical cures), but today we reward this señora for her chutzpah and magic skills.

In Tambo we catch a local, what you might call “vintage,” bus for the spectacular ride up the mountain to Ingapirca (another 25 cents). There we find this most famous of Ecuador’s archeological sites has changed hands once again. Depending on who makes the most vigorous – and sometimes violent – claims, Ingapirca has over the years passed from the Central Bank (original owner of Ecuador’s cultural treasures) to the local townsfolk, who feel their small town – also called Ingapirca – should benefit from the admissions fees, to the indigenous Cañari who claimed it was their ancient religious site and they should therefore control it. Each group decides how much admission to charge, who will work as guides, and how the site will be run…or not. In the past there have been times when a chain across the road closed all access. (I like to think these disinterested llamas represent the competing groups.)inga con llamasAbout three years ago President Correa’s government created a new Ministry of Patrimony to take over Ingapirca and run it as a national archeological treasure should be run. HAH!

“There’s only four of us here now,” the woman at the visitors’ desk said as she charged us a different admission from last year. “All the others have left or been fired. Do you want a guide? I’ll call someone from the town.” At that I knew the townsfolk have taken the complex back again. Still, the site is beautifully maintained and our town guide was knowledgable. inga con fleurs

12:00 PM After a leisurely, hour-long guided tour we just have time for lunch on the patio of the only restaurant, Inti Pakari ($2.50), while clouds build up and rain begins to spatter.restaurant

We run for the bus and happily doze on the trip back to Cañar. The Andean sun is fierce, the altitude at Ingapirca about 11,000 feet (3353 mts), and we’ve put in a hard day as tourists. But the weekend is not over yet!

Saturday 7:00 PM  The power has gone off at our hosts’ house, so we stroll into town looking for dinner. The labyrinthine streets of Cañar offer dubious dining options, but tonight we spot what might be a refreshing new exception: a pincho stand on the street under a canopy.  A young man is cooking shish kabobs (pinchos) over a charcoal fire: beef, pork, chicken and plantains. Between us we have one of each.pincho 2 pinchos close up

Saturday 9:00 PM  We come back to our lodgings to find the lights back on. Last night was so refreshingly novel relaxing, we want to repeat the experience. A movie, book, a glass of wine on the house in front of the fire, and in bed by 9:30.

Sunday   9:00 AM

Our last day, and it’s market day! Need a cuy (guinea pig) or a couple of rabbits for dinner? A puppy for the kids? Baby chicks for the señora? A fighting cock for the señor? Cow’s heads? Geese, gloves? The feria libre is the place to be. After quiet Saturday comes chaotic Sunday, when all the streets of Cañar are turned over to commercial activity. Indigenous families come in from the country in trucks and cars (Padre Carlos remembers the first vehicle to come to Cañar, circa 1975, but now it seems like everyone has one). Town folks head out the door with baskets and rolling bags to buy their weekly groceries. So much more fun than going to the supermarket.geese puppies glovescows headsrabbits & kittenscuyes

Before we head back to the PanAmerican to catch our bus for Cuenca, we take a quick peek inside the main church and say hello to San Antonio, Cañar’s patron saint kept warm by an endless supply of knit scarves and ponchos. We are also so pleased to see they allow dogs in church here. san antonioinside church w dogSo that’s it:  36 hours in Cañar, a place like no other, and no other place we would rather be.

(Note:  All of the above happened within the last two weeks (e.g. no water, no lights), although I have conflated a couple of events (and we didn’t really eat those pinchos, but had dinner again at Chez Michael).

Documenting + Digital + Dreaming = Archives

I haven’t written much about my work in Ecuador before, but the Cañar Digital Archive is so central to my life here, and so close to my heart- where it will remain for years to come, I suspect – that I thought I’d write about it. Also, I’ve just received a Fulbright grant for 2015-16, giving me a great boost of hope and enthusiasm for the project.

my scans 2013084 men with level  Early images, circa 1992

Having been a documentarian of Cañar life off and on since 1991, my own archive of materials – videos, music recordings, documents, oral histories and thousands of photographs – long ago reached a critical mass. And then there are others who have so generously shared a piece of their Cañar history. Peace Corps volunteers from the late 1960s found me on the web and sent documents and some 300 color images, many beautiful Kodachrome slides. These then-young people, with their idealism and Pentax cameras, captured a Cañar that was in the process of cataclysmic change. New agrarian reform laws were demanding land redistribution to indigenous communities after nearly 500 years of serfdom. A few Peace Corps volunteers were sent to Cañar to help create agricultural cooperatives and initiate leadership training. (They were eventually ousted as “communists” by mean-spirited townsfolk.)

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Two years ago, I contacted Danish anthropologists Niels Fock and Eva Krener, who had done research in the early 1970s in a village about 15 miles from Cañar that seemed locked in time even then. They sent me over 500 scanned images, and we are about to print a Spanish version of their book, “Juncal: An Indian Community in Ecuador,” originally published in Denmark in 1976.

Juncal_1973-74_0008 Juncal_1973-74_0297

The family of the town photographer, Rigoberto Navas, who for fifty years faithfully recorded marriages, baptisms, funerals and everyday life in and around Cañar has given me permission to print Navas’s glass plates and early celluloid negatives. These images provide us a incredible visual history of the region and an era that would otherwise have been lost forever on the dusty shelves of his studio.

16 segadores dos hermanas 1

I’ve known for several years that I had to do something. Almost all these materials are now digitized, but stored in growing towers of external hard drives on closet shelves in Portland, on hard drives here in Cañar that I guard with my life and struggle to keep up to date, and on my two laptops.

Fortunately my need to codify Cañar cultural history, and make it available locally and on the Internet, coincides with a surge of interest in community digital archives, public access, open source software, and some wonderful archivists at academic institutions in the U.S. willing to be my collaborators. In fact, a group from the Society of American Archivists interested in Latin America are planning a trip to Ecuador in September – with a stop in Cañar to give a helping hand! I intend to be here.

All right – back to the present and living color. As I write, a bird flies under the glass roof and into the patio. Acting as if she owns it, she looks for bugs in the spiky flowers of the macho aloe, then takes a little bath in the fountain. I knew it would fly when I went for my camera, but here’s my view.patio viewAnd here’s what she was after:

aloe flowerFinally, I know you’re waiting to hear more about Michael’s experiences in his new cook shack. Let’s ask him: “I’m trying a new recipe for gP1080156rilled chicken for visitors coming on Monday,” he says. First, the marinade/paste: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup fresh orange juice, 3 cloves of garlic minced, 6 whole grains black peppercorns, 1.5 t dried oregano, 1.5 t cumin, 1 T fresh chopped fresh cilantro, .5 t salt. Put in mini-blender or mortar and pestle and mash or liquify. Add heaping T of achiote (Mexico condiment) or mild paprika and stir into a paste. Salt chicken pieces (skinless, boneless breast in my case) or pork or other meat. Slater paste over surface and leave overnight in fridge before barbecuing. ¡Buen provecho!


Faces of the Fiesta (and Mike’s cook shack)

bad weather 3 Dear Friends: Just so you don’t think we always enjoy beautiful weather, the  photo above was taken in the midst of days of rain and cold. At the moment I write it is 54 degrees F (12C) in my office. I’m wearing an undershirt, long sleeve t-shirt, two sweaters and a down vest. Michael is with visitors in the living room in front of an early fire, which is where I’ll soon be for the rest of the day.vacas locas churchEvery year in January I’m invited to photograph the Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua, the most traditional festival celebrating the patron saint of Cañar. Held in a village at about 11,000 feet, it lasts seven days, and usually I’ve just landed in Ecuador and have not yet adjusted to the altitude. (Although it’s obvious no one comprehends my comments about the effects of altitude, having breathed this rarified air all their lives.) In any case, the physical effort is tremendous, and it’s impossible for me to document a weeklong event. (The municipal fiestas, just ended, lasted 30 days!) Nonetheless, over the past ten years I have documented all the different days and most nights of the Fiesta de San Antonio, including the bullfight, where I was knocked off the fence and limped home.

vaca loca close

But when I show up on Saturday morning for the dancing vacas locas and music at the church, preceding the procession into the countryside, I always hear, “Where were you? We started on Tuesday night!” I always explain that night-time photos are not the best (without mentioning that it’s cold and dark and miserable to be out at night in Cañar).dulcina drum church Also, I’ve noticed that after so many years my photos of the fiesta look much the same. So this year, as it was cold and rainy, I only accompanied the long procession to the host community, Cuchucún, stayed and couple of hours, and focused on details and faces.

Music is essential in all Cañar fiestas, and is no doubt one of the main costs. This day, the high sweet sound of the reed dulcena, with rat-a-tat accompanying drum, marked the beginning of activities at the church. Soon a town band arrived, with brass and cymbals and drums. They follow the procession, set up in the community and play all day and evening and probably the next day too.banda popular

Leaving the church for the procession, one young woman carries the santo, while another carries el niño, baby Jesus.

queen 1queen 2

 A host community must invest a tremendous amount of money, time and other resources in this fiesta, including a bull to be ritually killed, then roasted and served to the hundreds of participants. A community leader is designated the prioste, or steward of the fiesta. The man on the right, holding his baton of authority, is this year’s prioste. Fireworks, or rather bombas that split the air with a tremendous boom! all day long, are also important. The man on the left is in charge of the explosives. His job is to find a safe place to let them off, asking folks along the procession for permission to set them up on their property.

fireworks guy prioste 

Rukuyayas, or clowns hired for the duration of the event, play an important role in the fiesta. There are usually two or three or four, and they stay in character the entire time, with masks and crazy clothing. They carry chicotes – short decorated hardwood batons that are a traditional weapon of the Cañaris – and pretend to hit one another and chase onlookers. Although I might know them in everyday life, I can never figure out their real identities. (Only once did a friend take off his mask at the last day to show me who he was.) They act out physically in humorous and vulgar ways that I never see otherwise in this indigenous culture. There’re lots of sexual and scatological jokes – both verbal and physical – played out in hilarious scenes.

 rukuyaya 2 ruku 2 crop

ruku 3ruku 4

They always target me, the gringa, yelling things I don’t understand, making everyone laugh, and threatening me and asking for money. Usually I run and hide behind an older woman in an exaggerated way that the audience loves, but sometimes I give one of them a coin, which he holds up and prances around and crows about. The rukuyayas also drink liberally and as the festival goes on, day and night, they get increasingly plastered, sometimes passing out amidst the activities, taking a snooze, then jumping up and joining the festivities again. I hope they are getting paid well because they work tremendously hard.

RukuyayaRukuyayas are also ritual objects in the cosmology of Cañari cultural that I’ve never clearly understood. Some say they represent abuelos – grandfathers – or sabios – wise men – or protectors. In the museum in Guayaquil a few weeks ago, we saw hundreds of little figurines called rukuyayas – described as talismans or accessories carried to guard against malas energías. I await more information. Anyone?

News of Michael: He loves to grill on the open fire – shrimp, pork, chicken, vegetables and he has built or bought various devices over our years in Cañar: a portable grill for the front porch, where the wind blew smoke back into the house; a rack to go into the fireplace, which works beautifully but means he has to tamp down the fire, cook on it, then build it back up. A half-barrel thing with a rack he bought last year… So, during the months in Portland he was dreaming of, and designing, a cook shack to be built behind the kitchen, out of the wind, where he can grill in all weathers. Here it is taking shape.

That’s all for now. Next time: a cooking shot and a recipe.

mike's choza 1MIke's choza2



Cañar 2015

sunsetDear Friends:

We are back in Cañar after six months in Portland, and although I always claim to be one of those people unaffected by seasons, I have to say I really felt the contrast between our two climates this time. On January 5, in the winter dawn darkness, we left Portland, where days are short and gloomy, and 48 hours later we woke in our Cañar bedroom at 6:30 AM to sun streaming into our windows. Later that day, at 6:30 PM, we watched our first gorgeous sunset reflected on the Andes. I’ve come to fully appreciate what living on the equator means: twelve hours of sunlight, year-round.

Back in Guayaquil, where we landed after the usual 24-hour ordeal, we spent a steamy but pleasant day recovering with friends of friends from Canada who coincidently had arrived at Hostal Tangara hours before us: a visit to a museum, a walk and beers along the riverfront, our usual dinner of crab soup at the outdoor place (not as good as I remember). The next morning we hired a car and driver to bring us to Cañar, and in three hours flat we were at our gate, a guiltless luxury we allow ourselves as this is a trip that has taken up to six hours on the bus due to bad roads, terrible weather, frequent landslides, and long delays.m. arriving at house

The house is pretty much as we had left it, albeit with a scruffy yard (there’s been no rain for months) and dust and cobwebs inside, along with a sprinkling of feathers. As I open the door into the interior patio, a small bird flies out the narrow space between the glass structure and tile roof. Flies with confidence, as though it knew the way, not fluttering against the glass as birds usually do. This one is at home in this place, I think, confirmed when I find bird droppings in my studio and seeds sprinkled on my long table. Then I see the 100-pound sack against the wall, and I know this must be quinoa from the harvest of our back field after we left in July. It’s the long-held custom here for partidarios – those who sow a field they do not own, to share the harvest. So José María, who plants our field and watches our house, has left us our share of his first quinoa crop. No matter how many times we say we are only two people, and cannot consume our part of the harvest, we get only a friendly nod in return – and piles of potatoes, corn, beans, or peas. So we will accept this quintal of quinoa with good grace and give it away to all who come visiting, one small bag at a time.

quintal de quinoaquinoa close

While I open some of the 18 window shutters, Michael fires up all his systems: water, gas, hot water heaters, pump. Only thing not working is the phone, which means I have no Internet service. No matter; for the moment it’s nice to enjoy the quiet: no calls, no news, no radio, no TV, no traffic noises. Here’s Michael that first day, having taken off the rest of the shutters and looking pretty pleased with his mechanical triumph.

M in patio wideI never want to leave the house the first couple of days. After gloomy Portland, the bright sunlight hurts my eyes, and going into town requires finding a cap, sunglasses, sunscreen, jacket, extra sweater, cell phone. Then there’s the sudden change in altitude – 10,100 feet takes getting used to after six months at sea level. I feel lightheaded, with a slight headache for a couple of days. Also, I have a horror of running into someone I know well but whose name I’ve forgotten. For this I always bring last year’s agenda and, depending on where I’m going, look up people I might run into. So it’s easier to stay at home and unpack at a leisurely pace, cleaning and ordering as I go, with no interruptions other than Michael calling out the temperature and humidity on the new digital thermometer he’s brought and hung in our bedroom, punching a hole in the thick wall for an outside sensor. “It’s 59 degrees outside, 63 inside, humidity at 56%.”

In contrast, Michael charges out immediately, walking into town with his shopping bag to the MegaMarket, our little excuse for a supermarket. (Just as in Portland, within the first hour home, he jumps into the car and drives to Zupan’s, his favorite grocery.) He returns to report that shelves at the Mega are nearly empty. There is no granola, no wholegrain bread, and my acceptable $4 red wine from Argentina is no longer available. “Christmas and Año Nuevo holidays,” the owner’s son told him. “We’re cleaned out, but we’ll be restocking this week.”

By the second day I am forced out by the lack of phone and Internet service. Huffing up the dirt road to the top of our hill, I see that our street has a new name: Calle María Inga Gañalshug. There it is on a official ceramic plaque neatly attached to the street-level wall of a house above us. Who on earth was she, and why did they change our street from San José de Calasanz, named after the order of the priests who live across the streets? (Before that our official address was calle sin nombre. In any case, I’m pleased to live on a street named for a woman, in a country where nearly every street, monument, plaque, statue, building, and even towns, are named after men.street sign

At the phone company I’m told that the home number we’ve had for ten years has been changed. No explanation other than, “Oh yes, all numbers with 237 no longer exist. Your new number starts with 236.” And lack of phone service? “We’ll call the técnicos,” the white-haired woman I’ve known for years tells me. “What is your name, address, cell phone?” (Turns out the line had fallen to the ground.) And to restore my Internet service? “Well, for that you’ll have to come back with an oficio (letter of solicitation) and copies of your cedula (national ID) and carta de votación (card showing I’ve voted) and talk to the person in charge.  Some things never change.

On Sunday Michael goes to the market, taking with him the two big chef’s knives competing fish mongers have requested he bring from Portland. They each pay him, he goes shopping, and returns with his bounty. The cost of everything in the photo below: $8.00, and that includes a pound of langostinos. Michael’s so happy to be back in the land where three papayas cost a dollar and a pound of giant shrimp goes for $5.00. market visit $7

Finally, a great thank-you to all who donated to the Cañari Women’s Scholarship Fund this year in support of indigenous women earning university degrees. Please know that every dollar is appreciated. The mother of Luisa, our scholarship women in medical school in Riobamba, came by today to pick up her daughter’s monthly stipend. She told me she was illiterate, but that she and her husband have struggled to educate their four children. “Every one of them graduated from secondary school,” she said as she laboriously signed the receipt with a signature learned in literacy class.

If you didn’t get a chance to contribute and would like to, there is a PayPal “donate” button on the “SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAM” part of this website (at bottom of post). Also, our lovely tenant in Portland has offered to deposit any last-minute checks.

Again, Mil Gracias! And remember that I love hearing from every one of you.