Mike Has a Very Bad Day

Years ago, when Michael and I first met in Costa Rica, we did a series of tongue-in-cheek fotonovelas about our new lives: How Mike and Judy Met; Mike and Judy Get Engaged; Mike and Judy Contemplate Marriage, and so on. In those days I shot in black/white, developed the photos in the darkroom, designed and photocopied the booklets, hand-colored the photos, and sent the novelas off to friends and family with the postal service. Remember those days?  When we left Costa Rica (Mike and Judy Consider a Change of Life), we gave up the project. However, when Michael lost his keys this week, which led to a series of unfortunate events that added up to “a very bad day,” we thought we would resurrect the form and have a bit of fun…It all began as a regular day, Michael left early for Cuenca for his usual weekly grocery shopping at the SuperMaxi. Judy left soon after for appointments in Azogues and Cuenca. Michael was to come home early, and Judy later, closer to dinnertime.The downward spiral begins when Michael returns to find his keys gone – no doubt lost in a taxi or bus when he pulled out coins from his pockets. The gate was locked, but he’d hidden two keys for just such a disaster – one for the gate just inside the fence – reachable from outside – and another deeper inside for the front door. What? The gate key is gone! Our compadre who takes care of the property while we’re gone must have used it and did not put it back.

So now Mike has to get into the yard. This requires climbing the 8-foot metal fence – luckily one without spikes on top like all our neighbors – through thick bushes.

On the other side, Mike goes looking for the hidden front door key. What? No hidden key?? El compadre must have used this one too and did not put it back. Chuta! (a favorite Cañar expletive.)

Now the only thing to do is to break into the house.  Judy’s darkroom window seems a likely place.

Mike forces the latch and climbs over my darkroom sink. Ah, in the house at last, and ready to relax, make a fire and have a beer. That will put everything right.  But….what’s this?? No beer??? Oh NO!So it’s back out to buy some beer. Still no gate key, so Mike finds the ladder, luckily left outside behind the house. So it’s up, fiddle the ladder to get it on the other side, climb down, go buy beer, then up and down again….


 

Judy comes home at last from a busy day in Cuenca. By now Mike has crafted his very bad day into a good story. And he’s brought a special treat for dinner in that little red cooler he took to Cuenca  – sea bass fillets!  Now to just find the breadcrumbs….

What? No breadcrumbs???

Well, that was the end of Mike’s very bad day. He breaded the fish in cornmeal, and it was OK. At the time we didn’t know we would do this fotonovela, so I didn’t take a photo. But here is my sea bass sandwich next day, on our walk into the country… …enjoyed while watching an alpaca make friends with a pig. Which rather put things in perspective…That’s all folks!  Next Cañar Chronicle back to serious things. National runoff election this Sunday, April 2, that will determine the next president of Ecuador. Stay tuned and be sure to write. I love hearing from you.

The weather, a wedding and books

Dear Friends:  It has been a long period of extremely cold, rainy and foggy weather in Cañar, with the temperature most days in the mid-50’s (F) and at night in the 40’s (F). Brrrr. Here Narcisa and José María plow our back field during the “dias feos” – ugly days. Michael has taken to building a morning fire and keeping it going all day until bedtime. We eat dinner in front of it, listening to KMHD jazz or Radiolab, and watching our films sitting there. Then, come @ 9:00, we rush towards the bedroom, sometimes one at a time, brush, jump into bed nearly fully clothed (that’s me), and read a book for 15-30 minutes. Then, before lights out, I peel off layers of (lately) an undershirt, two t-shirts, two sweaters, wool scarf, and I leave it all in a tangle, wrong-side-out, on the floor beside the bed.

We sink into good sound sleeps of around eight hours in the cold, dark and quiet. Next morning I only have to reach over and turn my clothes right-side-in and peel them back on, while still cozy in bed. Meanwhile, Michael is in the kitchen doing last night’s dishes and making coffee. In return for coffee in bed, I load Michael’s puzzles on my laptop: a NYTimes crossword and four KenKens (“puzzles that make you smarter), while simultaneously checking the headlines (oh no!). “COFFEE!” M. yells from the kitchen (unless we have guests, in which case the protocol is to come quietly to bedroom door). That is my signal to jump up, put on tights, and print his puzzles while I get my coffee. Then it’s back to bed for me while Michael has two double espressos with puzzles in his “chess corner” in the living room, still warmish after last night’s fire.And here I am at the moment. It is Sunday morning, March 5, and the brief sun has gone. Yesterday we were invited to a special wedding at Ingapirca, the Inca ruins about 30 minutes from Cañar that many of our visitors know. Although we have vowed, after all these years, to avoid baptisms, weddings, and graduation fiestas – all two-three day, late-night affairs – we went to this one for several reasons. Pacha, the bride, is one of our scholarship graduates and Juan Carlos, the groom, is someone we’ve known since he was 5 or so, back in 1992 when we attended his baptism fiesta. It was our first real invitation to a Cañari family event, and we were so thrilled we stayed late dancing and returned early the next morning to continue the celebration. We left Cañar soon after for a Christmas break in the U.S., and when we returned we learned that Juan Carlos’s father, a promising young agronomist, had died after a soccer-game kick that probably ruptured his spleen.

Meet the bride and groom, or “novios” as they say here. (That’s Mama Michi on left.)Pacha and Juan Carlos have an interesting story. They got together too young in high school, had a baby who died, went their separate ways, got back together, Pacha applied to the Cañar Women’s Scholarship Program in her second year of dental school at University of Cuenca, and we supported her through four more years and a specialist course – she now has a thriving practice in Cañar – during which time Juan earned a master’s degree in music and they had a beautiful daughter, Naomi, now nine. Naomi led the wedding procession as we wound our way through the archeological complex, stopping for ritual ceremonies at various points along the way. OK, so why get married…again? After 13 years, and a second child born a year or so ago. They surely had a civic marriage at some point, but in the eyes of Mama Mariana, Juan Carlos’s mother, a widow so proud of her three professional children, and the Catholic Church and maybe even the Cañari community, Pacha and Juan Carlos were not really married until…well, something like the ritual of yesterday. It was all very orchestrated, a mix of La La Land fantasy with music, flowers and flames and flags and dancing. But we all loved it, along with the lucky tourists in Ingapirca yesterday. Michael and I skipped the all-night fiesta at Pacha’s parents’ house, as we are skipping the mass today and will miss another late-night fiesta tonight at Mama Mariana’s house. Our stamina for such events – and mine as documenting photographer – is not what it used to be. But here we were: me with a brother of the bride; Michael with the groom.

 

Cañar Book Club

OK, we are WAY overdue for a meeting of the Cañar Book Club, and I apologize to my fellow members for being so long in calling a meeting.
However, I have been faithfully collecting the amazing list your good reads and suggestions. My own reading has been all over the place, from A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (hated it! although I’ve liked most everything else of his, but can’t believe such a boring story has been made into a movie with Tom Hanks). Then, desperate for a change of pace, I read Tana French’s Faithful Place. For years I’ve heard about her writing and her Dublin-based mystery stories. Too long, but I was captivated as much by the vernacular voice of her protagonists (e.g. incredibly creative cursing) as by the story. She’s great. Now Michael’s reading it, and I have her In the Woods on my bedside pile. But my best read by far the past few months was The Secrets of Mary Bowser, by Portland author Lois Leveen. A historical novel based on a real person, I learned a lot about the Civil War south as seen through the eyes of an ex-slave turned spy for the Union.

Your reads: (I fear I’ve missed some of your book club messages. Please send  anew, with updates…)

From Andrew in London: July’s People by Nadine Gordimer – humanistic, incredible writing.

 From Lisa in LA: That Bright Land by Terry Roberts and quite enjoying it… about a small North Carolina town post-Civil War and a former Union soldier sent there to discover who is killing Union veterans.

From Maggi in Toronto: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and… just finishing The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead – most interesting.

From Susan in PortlandBarkskins by Annie Proulx. A huge tome, 700+ pages. Deals with the European attitude toward the natural world, focusing on the huge forests in the northern New World.

From Daphne in EdmontonAnn Patchett’s new novel Commonwealth. It’s very interesting, a good read.

From Shoshana in Portland: My Antonia (Willa Cather)…because I have always loved her simple and rich writing style, rich with similes, where the reader can feel, taste and sense the surroundings.

From Joan in Corvallis: Mary Weismantel’s book  Food, Gender and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes.

From Ed in Quito: Lost Crops of the Incas-Little known plants of the Andes with Promise of World Wide Cultivation y Huasipungo by Jorge Icaza which was influential in describing the abuses of the hacienda system.

From Sandy in Portland: Citizen, An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. Brilliantly written, difficult to read, but her writing leaves you not just with greater intellectual understandings of racism, but feelings. I have read some other good ones lately, but this one is the one that had the biggest impact on me.

From Char in Santa Fe.: Mariette In Ecstasy by Ron Hanson, 1991.  I love it for thedaily routine of the nuns. The tag line is “Exquisite…a cliff-hanger of a story..the finale is a stunner.”

From Irene in Salem: Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. They are best read in a series. Well written and I do like mysteries.

From Patty in Portland: An Atlas of Impossible Longing, by Anuradha Roy, another great read and terrific title and also The Folded Earth (2011) by Roy, which I haven’t yet read.

From Maya in Portland:  The Return: Fathers and Sons and the Land in Between, by Hisham Matar, a memoir by a Libyan who’s father was thrown into Kadaffi’s prison, which was one of New York Times’ best books of the year, and it is totally compelling.

From ??: The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya.  It’s got that signature modern Latin American technique of continuous first person narrative in an almost hallucinogenic pace. The protagonist is an exile in Mexico City considering returning to El Salvador.

And to end with Maya from Portland who writes, given these times:  Thank goodness for good books!

 

Elections!

Presidential candidate Lenin Moreno.                                      Photograph: Henry Romero, Reuters

Dear Friends:   The U.S. could learn a few things from Ecuador when it comes to national elections. To start, the political campaigning for a new president lasts officially one month – if this happened in the U.S. think how many gazillion dollars would be saved and spent on important things. Two days before voting (on February 19) all campaigning must stop: no TV ads, no noisy trucks with banners and flags and blaring speakers, no candidates making last-minute flights on private jets to far-flung corners of the country (that would be the U.S., again). On the day of voting, no publicity materials of any kind are to be displayed, and no public meetings are allowed, including church services (?). (Also: no liquor sales for three days before polling, though I easily bought two bottles of wine the day before.) Yesterday, as Michael and I walked into town to vote, we ran into a friend scraping a political sticker off his windshield. “I don’t want to be fined,” he said.

Voting is compulsory from age 18-65, and citizens can be charged a fine for not voting -$44.80 according to one headline. Turnout for the last general election in 2009 was 91%. Michael and I are eligible to vote (but not required) by virtue of our permanent residency status and ten years living here, plus we had to register for our voter’s cards.
Here’s Michael lined up at a local school for his first time voting. Polling sites are designated schools, with tables manned by university students who are obligated to serve and paid $20 for the day – presumably with a bit of training and supervision. (For reasons I don’t clearly understand, men and women vote at separate tables.) One young man checked off Michael’s name from the voters’ list and had him sign in, while another
handed him the paper ballots, called papaletos, large sheets of paper with color photos of candidates. There are no primaries in Ecuador to sort out presidential favorites, so we had our choice of eight candidates, pictured here with their vice president choices. The system allows for a run-off election if one candidate does not receive 40% of the vote with a ten-point lead.The presidential ballot is not too confusing – you simply put a vertical line in the box above your choice. The two top contenders this election are: Lenín Moreno (far right) and Guillermo Lasso (second from right). More on them later. In addition, we had to vote for about 140 asemblistas – members to the national assembly, and five Andean Parliment representatives (member states: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile). This ballot was a lot more challenging, especially for those such as the elderly and illiterate Cañari woman beside me when I voted, who understood little and certainly needed a Kichwa-speaking helper – nowhere in sight. Michael was handed his papaletos, stepped into one of the two cardboard voting booths, and made his rayas – vertical marks – with a blue ballpoint attached to a string in the booth – ink color matters here).

Happenings elsewhere

Dear Friends:  You’ll note by the header image that my horizon has recently expanded beyond Cañar. As far north as Quito, where I spent several days last week in happenings related to both archive/business and pleasure. Pleasure first: a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Fulbright Commission in Ecuador. When the evite that came a few weeks ago said: “cocteles between 7:00-9:00″ I imagined a circulate-and-chat event with wine and cheese bits and maybe a few words from the Commission director, Susana Cabeza de Vaca. When the locale on the evite said “Convento Santo Domingo” I imagined a smallish space – maybe the refectory – where nuns had once lived and shared their meals in silence. And when, the week before, an email came from Susana asking if I would speak “for five minutes” about what my Fulbright grants have meant for my life and work, I imagined a stand-up, informal, shout-out with cocktail glasses in hand. So I made a reservation at a nearby hotel for the night of the event, packed a skirt that I’ve never worn in chilly Cañar, my best Goodwill-find French top, espadrilles from Spain as good shoes, and Mom’s pearl and silver necklace made by my nephew Demian. The first surprise was the locale of the event – no austere convent this but a grand church built by Dominican friars in 1581, with Moorish ceilings, wood carvings, a gold and silver altar along with an adjoining monastery and beautiful formal gardens. The church sits on the southeast side of the Plaza Santo Domingo where, with sweet symmetry, Michael and I stayed when we first arrived in Quito in 1991. (We were robbed on the street the next day.) Because the evening was raining and cold and churches and monasteries are not known for their warmth, I gave up the idea of the skirt and espadrilles and put on pants, double socks, no-nonsense shoes, jacket and wrapped a silk ikat shawl for a touch of finery.The next surprise was the crowd! For over an hour about two hundred and fifty invited guests filed into the cloister entrance, dressed in suits and evening wear, and lined up to greet director Susana before being escorted into the church. I began to suspect that I was not in Kansas anymore when I was told to sit in a front “reserved” row and saw a podium on the altar with stage lighting. “Are we speaking up there?” I asked a friend from Cuenca I’d not seen for years who sat beside me, Francisco Salgado. Yes. He too was to speak as an Ecuador Fulbrighter who is now president of a university. As the audience was still gathering, I had time to walk up to meet the master of ceremonies and check the light on the podium, as I would read my little five-minute talk. “Here’s the program,” he said, “first Susana speaks about the history of the Fulbright program, then the American ambassador, then the mayor of Quito, then Doctora (so-and-so), then the Government Minister (of something or other), then I’ll introduce YOU.

The next surprise. The “five-minute talks” were way longer – some honorees read nervously, while others extemporized charmingly. Susana Cabeza de Vaca spoke of the “Fulbright family” of 3000 Ecuadorian grantees since the program began 60 years ago. Much beloved for her dedication, she was given a lifetime award from U.S. ambassador Todd Chapman, who also made a gift of $50,000 to the Commission for projects in Ecuador.

I kept sneaking a look at my little speech, which my Quito friend Marta had edited in Spanish. Everyone else had started by greeting all the dignitaries, one by one and by name. No way I could manage that. “Buenas noches todos,” would have to do. As the program progressed I realized I was there to represent those US Fulbrighters who had come from the north, I being the poster child of one who had stayed and made a life here. I sat waiting nervously, wearing black wool gloves; our breezy “reserved bench” was directly in line with the open archway to the garden. Then I was introduced, removed my gloves, took a deep breath, mounted the podium, squinted into the lights, and began: “Buenas Noches todos!”

Finally, a priest from this grand church gave a short talk and benediction, reminding us that the Dominicans have been around for 800 years, they too dedicated to education. This very monastery complex was, in fact, the first university in Quito, Universidad de Santo Tomas. The genial Spanish priest was wearing a vestment and cape that looked much like this image from Wikipedia.

Whew! It was about 9:30 when we were finally invited out into the colonnade around the garden (still rainy and cold) for the promised “coctel” – and a toast by the ambassador. Ah, a glass of wine at last. A second glass of wine at last. OK, one more and that’s it! My hotel was only steps away and everyone was so charming and here was the circulating and chatting that I’d imagined. It was a wonderful event and I was happy to be a part of it. Great thanks to my good Quito friend, Marta Alban, who made my speech better, to Ana Maria and Ted, who hosted me the first two days, and to all other colleagues and new friends whom I met around the archive project. I’ll write more on that next time AND get back to the Cañar Book Club.

Meanwhile, there’s another pressing subject:We are in the midst of a national election in Ecuador – voting on February 19 – and, other issues aside, it is refreshing that the campaign only started a couple of weeks ago – in Cañar at least – with a few trucks circulating with speakers blaring and party flags flying. I’ve seen one party office in town, and no doubt there’s radio and television coverage that Michael and I know nothing about, although we will both be voting. There are six candidates for president, replacing Rafael Correa a “populist-but-increasingly-authoritarian” figure who has been in office nearly ten years now. Which is not to say his party, Alianza Pais, is going away anytime soon. The candidate favored to win is Lenin Moreno, who served as vice president from 2007 to 2013 and has since been special envoy to United Nations on disability and accessibility. A shooting in1998 left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. (He’s on far right in the graphic above.) You’ll notice a woman in the line-up: Cynthia Viteri, who the polls tell us is in second place. Her central-right Christian Social party promises to make 800,000 new jobs by stimulating production activity along the Colombian and Peruvian borders. OK! Lenin Moreno only promises 200,000 jobs, but says he’ll improve the living conditions of senior citizens through a program called “My Best Years.” Come on!  Bottom line: Michael and I have some serious research to do before we decide on our votes. More details next time. Until then, stay in touch. I love hearing from everyone.

Grabado 1743, Banco Central del Ecuador. 
  

 

Life in our back field

Dear Friends: The field behind our house looks a mess, but really it is full of goodness: two kinds of potatoes, fava beans, and nabo, or field mustard (rapeseed). Michael the master forager doesn’t have to go far for our supper greens – just out the kitchen door and through the arch into the field that is planted twice a year by our compadres. Above he’s  harvesting nabo leaves amongst the beautiful yellow blooms. An interesting fact: canola oil comes from the seeds of this plant, but I have an even better story from the oral histories I’ve been doing around the hacienda era. Lola Muñoz was an 11-year-old child in a remote part of the Hacienda Guantug, where her father was an overseer, when she saw several nuns arriving on horseback to spend a week with the family. They had come from Cuenca to oversee the semi-annual round-up and branding and counting of the cattle that belonged to the vast property they had inherited, making them the richest landowners in Southern Ecuador. When the previous owner of the hacienda, Florencia Astudillo, a pious spinster, died in 1952, she left her landholding of 30,000 hectares (115 square miles) to an order of poor nuns, Hermanas de los Ancianos Desamparadas, loosely translated as Sisters of the Uncared-for (or abandoned) Elders. 

(Above: an area of the hacienda where Lola lived – you can understand why no roads existed until maybe 30 years ago). Lola, now in her seventies, recalled a time when Florencia Astudillo was still alive. The native peones were obliged to work for the production of the hacienda a certain number of days each week, and in return they were allowed a small piece of land for a house and animals and garden. When a worker died, his widow was permitted to stay on their plot as long as she did certain jobs. And a particular job of the widows, incredibly, was to harvest the seeds of the nabo to make birdseed for Florencia’s caged birds in her house in Cuenca. Lola remembered, “The widows spent days rubbing the dried pods to harvest the seeds and pack them in big sacks that were carried over the mountains on mules.” (A glance on Internet confirmed that an important source of birdseed still is nabo, or rapeseed.)

 

All right – back to today and our back field. When I pulled up one of the smaller potato plants in order to take this photo, it produced a surprising amount of tubers, which in turn inspired M. to make a dinner salad of potatoes and basil and bacon with onions. “And on the side we’ll have a little blue cheese and deviled eggs, maybe some chopped tomato.”  
Lastly, mixed in with the nabo and potatoes and weeds are avas, or fava beans. These are a delicious part of our Cañar diet, usually simply boiled and eaten by hand with hot sauce, bits of fresh cheese or with boiled potatoes. Those in our field are not yet ready to harvest so I asked Michael to buy a package of shucked avas in the market. (That didn’t happen so I’ll add something else found in our back field – a beautiful passion flower vine.) 

As for our kitchen garden, it is a true disaster. After Michael brought seeds from Portland, prepared the soil, planted peas, beans, arugula, and lettuce, and dutifully watered while we both chased out the neighbors’ scratching chickens, it appears that they – the chickens – have won. Not a single seed has appeared to sprout above ground.

Today (now yesterday) is the birthday of my beloved mother, Adelene, who died four years ago at age 93. Facebook reminded me of her 97th birthday, leading me to wonder – how long does one stay alive on Facebook after they’ve passed on? But I was happy to see her FB photo, taken, I believe, at her 90th birthday celebration in Santa Fe, where she was surrounded by her family and friends and looked beautiful and danced with her guests.

Unlike my father, who my sisters and I always say would be “mad as hell” to know he’d now be 104 years old, our mother would have been delighted to be alive in 2017. Her own mother, Zelda, lived to 100 and we had all hoped the same for Mom. But a mild heart condition became acute and she left us while still vividly engaged in life. Beloved by all her family and by everyone she knew, we will always miss her optimism and independence and generosity.

 

The Cañar Book Club

John Berger, one of my all-time heroes, died on January 2 at the age of 90, in France. Since then, with helpful links from a friend in Canada, I have been reading every obit, article, remembrance. Also, with help from another friend, we were able to see the film “Four Seasons in Quincy,” made in 2015 in the village where he lived. Storyteller, writer, artist, critic, Marxist, humanist, I probably discovered Berger with his book Pig Earth, first in a series  Into Our Labours, based on stories of life in a peasant community in the French Alps. From that moment, I looked for everything he wrote, and upon hearing of his death I ordered one of his last books, Bento’s Sketchbook, that a friend will bring from Portland end of January. I also loved Berger because he loved and wrote about photographs, A Seventh Man was a collaboration with photographer Jean Mohr about migrant laborers in Europe. Berger joins my list of a never-to-be-forgotten presence in my life. 

Finally, I am not happy to report that I did not enjoy An Unnecessary Woman, which I’d been looking forward to reading after I saw the author, Rabih Alameddine, at Wordstock this past year. There, in a conversation with an interlocutor, when asked how he saw himself at this stage of his life – Muslim, gay, American, Lebanese – he said, “Grumpy!  I’ve become a grumpy old man.” So in reading his book, written in first person voice of a bitter older woman living alone in an apartment in Bierut, secretly translating books into Arabic, all I could imagine was the voice of a grumpy old man. Other than one scene of solidarity with other women in the apartment house, occasioned by a bathroom flood, I could not get his voice out of my head.

OK dear readers. Over and out. Tell me what you are reading, and like or don’t like. And next Cañar Book Club I’ll report on it all….