Amazing Amaranth

amaranth headLast week our consulting agronomist came by, took a look, and said our amaranth was ready to harvest. (The birds already knew this – they’ve been busy helping themselves the past couple of weeks). A slight shake of a catkin-like head brought down a cascade of tiny seeds (the little yellow specks in the photo above). And such tiny seeds! How many plants will it take to make a pound of this gluten-free- -pseudocereal-with-eight-essential-amino-acids, I wonder? It also makes me realize why amaranth is not a popular crop here. It takes the same amount of land, watering, weeding and fumigating that a crop of barley or wheat takes, with much less payoff (except nutrition-wise). Still, it has been an absolute delight these past six months to watch this beautiful plant go through its stages as we glanced out our windows, and I will certainly miss the sight of it next year, when ho-hum corn or potatoes will be back. Mike scarecrpw

So on a very cold day (about 50 degrees; the Andean winter is upon us) Jose María – who plants our field and whose harvest this is – came by and we followed the agronomist’s instructions: cut off the catkin-heads and put them in a sack, trying not to shake too many seeds onto the ground. Lay out the heads on a tarp for several days to dry in the sun. The three of us set to work with clippers, but we kept stopping to show off the most spectacular plants, and take photos. JM w headThat’s quinoa behind Jose Maria, which won’t be ready for a couple of weeks, if the birds leave anything. Too bad we’ll miss it. For that harvest the agronomist said he will bring a threshing machine. The amaranth was not enough to warrant a machine, and in fact, in only took us about an hour to finish the harvest.closeup harvest


Here’s what’s left of the field, with quinoa on the left and sangorache, another form of amaranth, on the right, still waiting for harvest.field stripped

While the seed heads await their shaking/threshing.

amaranth I promised Michael’s recipe for quinoa, but all I can say at this point is that he made paella (without measuring a thing) the famous Spanish dish, using quinoa instead of the usual arborio rice. The result was tasty, but not as good, I think, as with rice. But we’ll keep trying! Thanks again for all who sent recipes.paellaToday is our last day in Cañar for 2014. It takes about three non-stop days to strip the interior of the house of its character and color – hangings, throws, pillows, rugs, blankets, bedding – wash and store everything in trunks and bags and big plastic containers in a storeroom. That’s my job, along with many trips into town to take care of last details, such as submitting a formal request to the phone company to reduce my Internet service for six months. (Didn’t get it right the first time; was sent home to compose another.) On the last day, I cover the bookcases, kitchen shelves, dining table and living room with cloths- old sheets and the like. Michael’s job is to shut down the mechanics of the house – pumps, gas, water, hot water heaters, espresso machine – and to put up the shutters that cover every window and door. The house grows dark, the only light from the interior patio. It’s time to leave.

laundry patioP1060151

And some final farewells, one from Mama Michi and her daughter Mariana, one of our scholarship women who graduated yesterday from the University of Riobamba in public health.P1060157

Our final act is rather ignominious: we call a taxi to take us to the Pan American, where we stand beside the road with our bags, waiting for bus to Guayaquil to pass by. Others are waiting too, and it’s sometimes a scramble to get on and find seats. If there are none, we scramble off and wait for the next bus. And if there are no buses, as happened one Sunday, we hire a taxi at the last minute. We’ve developed a technique: I jump on fast and grab the seats while Michael stays to see the bags stashed underneath by the driver’s assistant. Only then can we relax into the four-hour ride to Guayaquil, where we’ll get a midnight plane to Miami, then another to Chicago, then finally arriving in Portland 18 hours later.

It’s been extremely cold and windy in Cañar these past couple of weeks, and we can’t wait for a Portland summer. Regards to all, until next January (unless I get inspired to write about Portland). In the meantime, I invite all to stay in touch.

Guayaquil airport, 8:10 PM, June 24, 2014.




While awaiting the harvest (and our departure)…


Dear Friends: Thanks to all who sent recipes for quinoa following my last post (“Tumbleweeds of my youth, back as quinoa in Cañar”). I have read them out to Michael, who listens seriously and promises to try some. He claims, however, to have a secret quinoa recipe of his own up his sleeve, which he will reveal after a trial run in the kitchen. Meanwhile, while we are waiting for our harvest, and counting down the days until we leave Ecuador on June 24, I came across some photos I’d taken years ago (circa 2000?) when I barely knew what quinoa was. Antonio harvest quinoaNicolas

MichiAntonio Guamán (in photo #1) was one of my first photography students, when he was a bright 20-year old, married to Edelina, with two darling girls. After that, with more children, the tragic death of Edelina, a second marriage and yet more children, Antonio lived and died as a subsistence farmer, alternately poisoned by alcohol and herbicides. Before he died in 2012, we became godparents to his son, Nicolas (second photo), at the behest of Antonio’s sister, Mercedes (third photo). But I’m afraid we have failed to benefit Nicolas in any way. Last I heard, he is now 14 and has left school to work at the coast. The two “darling girls” are grown young women, both living in the U.S. with their husband as undocumented migrants, one working in a nail salon in New Jersey. They’ve left behind in Cañar a total of three or four children to be raised by grandmothers. Another family fractured by poverty and migration.

*  *  *  *


Tumbleweeds of my youth, back as quinoa in Cañar

I grew up on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies, where tumbleweeds were a constant in my small-town landscape –  rolling across the sagebrush desert and down the roads, piled up against every fence. When I was six and we lived in the country, my fantasy play involved using tumbleweeds as umbrellas (rain was an important part of fantasy in that high dry climate, there being very little of it). And of course I grew up hearing – every morning on KRAI country radio, it seemed – Tumbling Tumbleweeds by The Sons of the Pioneers. ( 1

I hadn’t thought much about tumbleweeds until recently, when I began to write this blog and discovered they are in the same family as the gorgeous quinoa and amaranth growing in the field behind our house. In fact, the main reason I’m writing this blog, which I think might be the last before we leave on June 24, is because I’m so in love with the view outside our windows. view quinoa

Here is quinoa, at about six months. As it ripens and grows ever brighter, it turns from a sort of lavenderish pink to a pinkish red. And when the sun is setting, the reflected light inside the house seems to glow with its shades. I can’t stop photographing it. quinoa closeAnd here is Lourdes, our architect on a visit from Cuenca, standing amidst the amaranth, in the same field alongside the quinoa. lourdes amaranthAmaranth (amaranto in Spanish) might be even more beautiful and strange than quinoa.amaranth close upAnd finally, in this magical field, we have sangorache, a hybrid of amaranth. Lourdes collected the leaves and made a hot alcoholic tea, with lemon and Zhumir, that brightened our evening tremendously and impressed our guests from Puerto Rico. SangurachiSo, believe it or not, these three plants are all species of goosefoot, a huge genus that includes the tumbleweeds of my youth. The subspecies in our field is a chenopod, closely related to beetroots, spinach, and Swiss chard. Our particular chenopod family produces tiny edible seeds called pseudocereals, not real grains like wheat or barley because our plants not part of the true grass family. 

Still with me?

The seeds of the amaranth are tiny, and you wonder how anyone figured out how to cook and eat them. Here they are in the hand of one of the agronomists who has been consulting with us and Jose Maria (our compadre who plants the field). The agronomists are part of an effort to reintroduce quinoa to this region as a cash crop, but so far Ecuador is way behind Bolivia and Peru as producers.amaranth grains

Quinoa (the Spanish name is derived from the Quichua, kinwa) originated in the Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, where it was domesticated for human consumption 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.

Despite it’s amazing qualities (near-perfect protein source, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, maybe even cholesterol-reducer) and popularity in the U.S., Michael has yet to be converted. Nor is it popular in local kitchens. Years ago, quinoa had to be washed and washed and rinsed multiple times to rid it of its bitter coating of saponins. This took time and, for households with no running water, too much trouble. Most families here prefer rice or potatoes for starch, and for their grain, barley or máchica, roasted, ground-up barley.  For Michael, who loves our local potatoes, of which there are several varieties, he can”t see the appeal of quinoa. Nonetheless, at my request he has cooked it a couple of times, with so-so results. But sitting at his chess table every morning and watching the birds feast on the pseudocereals in our field, he did feel compelled to make a scarecrow.scarecrowMike scarecrpwWell dear friends, I was hoping for a harvest to finish this story, but I think that won’t happen for another week or so. This means you’ll probably hear from me once more before our Cañar sojourn is over for 2014. Meanwhile, for those of you who cook with quinoa, send some recipes – let’s try to convert Michael.

Lives of Cañari girls and women

Dear Friends: While I was in Mexico last month, several of you sent me the link to the tragic story in the New York Times of the 12-year old Cañari girl, Noemi Álvarez Quillay, who hung herself in a children’s shelter in Juarez, Mexico, after being caught trying to migrate to the U.S. ( Her parents, undocumented immigrants living in the Bronx, migrated north when Noemi was a three, leaving her to be raised by her maternal grandparents, along with four young cousins left by other family members. A few months ago, Noemi’s parents arranged with “coyotes” to bring their daughter to the U.S, paying from 15-20 thousand dollars. These arrangements were made from New York through a vast human smuggling network that begins in the village where Noemi lived and extends through Central America, Mexico and the border city of Juarez where she died. Little is known about how she traveled – some deals involve flights to Mexico from Ecuador with false papers; others begin in Guayaquil on rickety fishing boats that arrive 5-8-days later off the coast of Guatemala, and migrants go overland from there, traveling by bus, truck and on foot through Central America and Mexico.


Noemi had been sent once before, a year ago, and – as she wrote in a school report – a school report! – she was detained in Nicaragua for two months before being sent back. She was only 11 then. Although I know many migration stories, I simply cannot imagine this girl – or my 11-year- old grandson, Cosmo, for that matter – leaving home alone on a dangerous journey, with strangers, detained for two months in a strange country, and sent back home.
From this creased photo published in the Times, I’d guess Noemi was seven or eight when it was taken, as a school ID photo. The article included a quote by her grandmother when Noemi’s mother told her she was sending for her daughter: “I said to her, ‘Why take her away? She’s studying here, she’s doing well.’ But my daughter says education in Ecuador is no good and it’s better for her to study there. And she took my Noemi away, only for this to happen.”

One month and 4000 miles later, Noemi was picked up in Juarez and taken to the shelter, Casa de la Esperanza and interrogated by a prosecutor, who was probably going after the coyote (in whose truck she was found). Noemi was reported to be terrified and crying inconsolably for a few days before she locked herself in the bathroom and hung herself with the shower curtain. An autopsy report showed she had not been sexually abused – an all too common crime against migrants that thankfully she was spared.

I suspected when I first read the article, and confirmed once home in Cañar, that Noemi was from a village I know well, not far from where I live (I don’t know the family, though their name is a common one). This past week I visited the country school where Noemi might have been an 8th grade student next year. I went to talk to the junior and senior girls about our scholarship program that sends low-income Cañari girls to university. “Ninety percent of our students are affected by migration,” Principal María Juana Alulema told me beforehand. “One or both parents are gone, and they are left in the care of grandparents, aunts and uncles, or others. As our students get close to graduation, all they can think about is migrating north. They do not concentrate on their studies.”

Below: Sisíd bilingual secondary school (Spanish/Quichua), for 9th -12th sisidPrincipal María Juana Alulema and the senior girls.girls sisidStill, in my talk with the girls I tried to present an option to migration – showing them photos of our present scholarship women and graduates, saying they were also poor and from similar communities, describing their determination and difficulties in getting through university, some while marrying and having children. I listed their professions: Pacha, dentist; María Esthela, Transito and Marta, nurses; Mercedes, lawyer; Carmen, economist; Juana, veterinarian; Luisa, physician.becarias 2013I also mentioned to these high school girls what they already know well: their jobs in the U.S. would most likely be limited to hair or nail salons (like Noemi’s mother), cleaning hotel rooms, working in restaurant kitchens, stitching clothing, and so on. Migrating, in almost every case, means the end of educations.

It was hard to read their responses (as you can see from the photo). But I gave the girls application forms and invited them to come see me and learn more. And I’ll go again next year, and the next, until we have a scholarship woman from this village.

In the week after Noemi’s death, 370 foreign child migrants were detained across Mexico, according to the national immigration agency. Nearly half were traveling alone. From the article: The number of unaccompanied minors caught entering the United States…is expected to reach 60,000 in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, an increase from 6,560 in 2011. 

But to return the the theme of education, I’d like to end with the story of another Noemi, the daughter of one of our scholarship graduates – Pacha Pichisaca, now a dentist with her own practice in Cañar. In the photo below, Noemi is the little girl on far right, looking straight at the camera, playing with other “scholarship kids” in the patio while their parents met in my studio. (“Keep ‘em out of the fountain,” I can hear Michael saying. Impossible!)kids in patioNoemi is six or seven now. Her parents came from poor indigenous families that chose not to emigrate. Her father, Juan Carlos, a professional musician and teacher, and her mother Pacha married during high school and lost their first baby. But they persisted in getting through university, taking 5 or 6 years and having Noemi along the way. She is a bright healthy kid who loves school and her ballet lessons, living in a close family and village milieu with cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, far from the hard reality of the Cañari diaspora in Queens, Newark, Minneapolis of the Bronx. With two professional parents, there is no question this Noemi will go to university, and she surely won’t need one of our scholarships. In only one or two generations, with educational opportunities, the lives of Cañari girls and women can be turned around.

I only wish the other Noemi had been given that chance.


Home again

viewAh, why do we ever leave here? we asked ourselves with a collective sigh on arriving home last Thursday. Michael built a fire and we had drinks and he made dinner and we went to sleep early in our own comfy bed, with good reading lights and surrounded by silence. “Let’s never travel again, OK?” I recall one of us saying.

We both feel our Mexico trip was not a success, and coming home we were reminded of Thomas Moore’s aphorism on travel (which I just found and gender-edited a bit). “We travel the world over in search of what we need, and return home to find it.” Take climate and congestion: Mérida, our first stop in the Yucatán, was way too hot – 100+ degrees every day (40 C), and terribly crowded with tourists. While here in Cañar we have a perfect climate with average high of 65F (18C), and no sightseers to speak of. Our second destination, Campeche, on the Gulf of Mexico, was a mite less hot, and not so crowded, but a fierce wind nearly blew us off our feet. San Cristobal, our last destination in the mountains of Chiapas, has a delightful climate, but we made the mistake of landing smack in the middle of Mexico’s biggest holiday of the year: two weeks around Easter. All children are out of school and, as in Ecuador, everyone wants to be somewhere else: the beach, the mountains, the city, the country. During our ten-day visit in San Cristobal, half of Mexico seemed to be there. All hotel prices go up, restaurants are overcrowded, streets are packed, and there’s a general air of making the most of the exodus, both among the travelers (lots of partying) and the businesses of the host city.congestionBy the way, that red/white building close on the right is a Burger King, which brings me to Michael’s recurring lament, “Where’s the old Mexico?” (It was partly his nostalgia that took us on this adventure.) The face of globalization is everywhere: Pizza Hut, KFC, Holiday Inn, Ramada, McDonald’s, often disguised within old buildings. And these were only what we saw walking the city streets. In our daily searches for small things – water, toothpaste, or yogurt – an OXXO store sat at every corner and, we soon realized, is a ubiquitous presence in Mexican cities and towns. Something like the 7-Eleven, but Mexican-owned, with 11,000 stores across Latin America. Michael yearned for the small mom-and-pop shops he remembers, but the closest we came was the orange juice and other street vendors. (Again, of course, we were not hanging out in the barrios, where I’m sure small business must still exist. But OXXO (no kisses & hugs there) has certainly taken a chunk from them.)vendor orangevendor tacosFood: When we think of Mexican food, I suspect we are remembering meals from many years ago, with a patina of nostalgia and romance. “Remember that great huitlacoche we had in Guanajuato in 1989?” Michael asks. (“No,” I reply, “but I do remember the evening and what I was wearing,”)

“Well, this isn’t nearly as good,” he declares. He was very much enjoying the Margarita, however. (We were never disappointed with those.)M. margaritaFor me, going out to search for meals twice a day was agony: trouble making a choice (always!), servings too large, flavors not what I expected. It was almost a relief to get an intestinal infection from contaminated juice so I didn’t have to eat for a few days. (Of course, there was that 12-hour bus ride ahead that sent Michael to the pharmacy for me). Once I was eating again, I remembered that no one makes chicken soup like Mexico.chicken soupHowever, eating abroad also reminds me that Michael is about the best cook around, and we don’t have to leave home for this….. or this….shrimp  tapas

Many come to San Cristobal for the re-enactment of the Good Friday crucifixion, which took place in a plaza near our hotel, and included an elaborate procession to several churches in the historic center. I was sick that day, and between bouts of intestinal distress I went out to photograph. Worthy of Cecil B. deMille, this is religious drama at its best for which the players must prepare all year: Roman soldiers, Pilate’s court, the two thieves, and Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. jesus + two thievesjesus in rope behind soldier roman solider thief on the crossThat night I was able to get a few shots of the candlelight procession, which was taking Jesus from the cave to the church where he would wait to rise on Easter Sunday:procession 2 procession 3 procession 4We traveled the next day and so I missed the burning of Judas. But I had seen enough. The people of San Cristobal are rightly proud of their religious customs around Semana Santa, and I have to say the Passion of Christ, as it is called, was played out with great respect and solemnity, despite all the clicking of cell phones and cameras.

OK. Back to Cañar, where “real” life continues – such as, watching the quinoa in our back field grow to maturity. There’s nothing like the pleasures of a simple life, no?quinoa