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….

Feliz Año 2017

Dear Friends:  Well, Año Viejo made up for all we missed at Christmas. At least that was the case for me, as Michael decided not to make the long, panting hike up the mountain to join the end-of-year procession that lasted all afternoon and into the evening, through heavy fog and sprinkling rain, and finally included about 1000 folks (almost all in incredible masks and disguises). Michael and Paiwa, visiting for the holiday, stayed happily by the fire, but I joined them later for an important event at our house.  It was a wonderful experience! This annual celebration on the last day of the year is apparently unique to the community of Quilloac, made up of about eight or so comunas – distinct hamlets, each with a theme they were to act out with disguises and masks. We hiked to each comuna, where a stage was set for a short program before we marched on with those comuneros joining. I confess I couldn’t tell one theme from another, but the masks and costumes were very funny – many men dressed as women and maybe women dressed as men – harder to tell. Those in disguise stayed in character all day – giving speeches at each comuna – (someone dressed as an elder speaking in high, quivering voice, for example). Many jokes in Kichwa passed me by, but the crowd loved every minute, and for me the visual spectacle made it all worthwhile. This guy below pushed a stroller with two “babies” the whole day.  

But by the end of the day, after climbing up over 11,000 feet and shooting all day, I was too tired and cold to wait for the performances at the end point- the Quilloac school complex – and to hear who had won prizes for the best themes.     

I have to give credit here to my excellent assistant, godson Luis Gabriel, ten years old, who took charge of my pocket camera and charged up the mountain ahead of me to shoot photos as I was left breathless on the roadside.. (That is his mother Mercedes behind him on his right – an old friend, early scholarship graduate, lawyer, with other community leaders who invited me for this event. What I missed later was the burning of the giant effigies at midnight, after the performances and music and dancing. Earlier I’d seen students building them.

  

But then we had our own event back at home. Paiwa had found a small monigote in town (a cousin of Spongebob Squarepants) and brought it to Michael to make an effigy. It worked perfectly with the Trump mask he’d found last week. They dressed him up with my garden gloves and made a bonfire ready to light when I got home about 7:00.

 We were in bed with our books by 9:30 or so, but awakened abruptly at midnight with volleys of bombas – some sounding as though on top of our house – and fireworks near and far that went on for about 15 minutes. Then all was quiet and we knew 2017 was here…

Peace on earth?

Dear Friends: I’ve had a hard time coming up with a holiday message this year, so I’m going to start with a huge thanks to all of you who’ve donated to the Cañari Women’s Scholarship Fund. In my November fundraising letter, I noted that we have twelve graduates. But once back in Cañar, I went through our files and discovered we have, in fact, sixteen graduates – in fields from medicine, law, nursing, accounting, dentistry, psychology, nutrition, tourism, to communication. (You can read the letter here.) Plus eleven women are currently studying at state universities, including in architecture, engineering, gastronomy and medicine. (Official thank-you letters with tax # go out later this week, but it’s not too late. If you’d like contribute, you’ll find that information below).

One of the hopes for our program was that graduates would return to their communities or the region to work as professionals. And it is a great satisfaction to see this has happened. (Cañari women tend to stay close to home and marry within their communities.) In my daily rounds in town, I might walk by Pacha’s dental office (left), or run into Obdulia who works as a psychologist at the nearby Asilo de Ancianos (home for indigent elderly)
(right) or see Mercedes’s white hat bobbing in the window of her law office off the square. Luisa, recently graduated as a physician, is working at the local hospital. Here she is with her first post-delivery exam.

Juana, a 2015 graduate in veterinary medicine, has just won a scholarship for a master’s degree in Mexico. She leaves in a couple of weeks and it will be interesting to see where her life takes her. The fund supports our graduates in master’s degree programs up to $3000 over two years. Juana marks the third scholarship women to take advantage of this benefit.

(OK – If you’d like to contribute, you may send a check to: CWEF at 2147 NW Irving St., Portland, OR 97210, or use PayPal here.

Christmas in Cañar

This being our first time to spend the holidays in Cañar I didn’t know what to expect: relief at being away from the U.S. Christmas hustle? (Not to mention the year’s disappointments and fears for the future?) Pleasure at being in an environment we know well but with new schedule and customs?  We don’t count ourselves as Christians so the holiday has no religious significance for us. But the experience has been decidedly mixed. Although we enjoyed the quietness we craved on Christmas Day, I was surprised to feel a bit bereft as I walked into town and heard fiestas and family gatherings going on around me. I’d neglected to arrange anything or let friends know we are here, so we were not invited to anything and no one stopped by. Rather pathetically, we marked the day with Michael rearranging his wood pile and I completing (not very successfully)  an on-line sketching exercise.

 Skype calls to my sisters and son and grandsons helped, and emails from friends in Portland and elsewhere, but I’ve learned a few things for next time. (Note: Michael will have a hard time signing off on any of these.)

  • Make definite plans for Christmas Day
  • Make the rounds of friends in Cañar to let them know we are here
  • Do something thoughtful for others, such as make cookies (ha! – that’ll be me)
  • Invite folks to our house
  • Take a trip to the coast or Amazon, like so many others
  • If we choose the above, make sure we have bus tickets ahead of time, as travel is difficult during the holidays.
  • Maybe stay at home in Portland.

We do have a big event coming up that I will write about next week. Año Viejo (New Year’s Eve) will be a festival of processions and masks and effigies and bonfires to burn all the rubbish from 2016 and prepare for 2017. We’ve already bought a Trump mask and Michael plans to make a monigote – an effigy. You can guess his subject.

The Cañar Book Club

I’ve received many great reading suggestions from friends I want to pass on, along with their comments. If I’ve forgotten any of your titles, please send again. Also, combing the end-of-year “best of 2016” books has provided ideas for my 2017 wish list.

YOUR LIST

  • Once Upon a Time, Marina Warner (the history of fairy tales)
  • Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
  • Even Silence Has an End, Ingrid Betancourt writes about her six years as captive of FARC in Colombian jungle.
  • All That Man Is, David Szalay (beautifully written fiction on nine different men in various international locations)
  • Unseen City, Nathanael Johnson (intense exploration of how nature flourishes in urban habitats)
  • The Sympathiser, Viet Thanh Nguyen (the story of end of Vietnam war and lives of refugees in years after fall of Saigon)
  • The Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi (confronts us with the involvement of Africans in the enslavement of their own people)

2017 WISH LIST. Looking it over, my guess is I got the majority of these titles from the New York Times list or Guardian Bookmarks (in blue).

  • Days Without End, Sebastian Barry
  • Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
  • Before the Fall, Noah Hawley
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien
  • The Gloaming, Melanie Finn
  • Iza’s Ballad, Magda Szabo.
  • Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Arlie Russell Hochschild
  • Climbing DaysDan Richards
  • THE LIFE-WRITER. David Constantine. 
  • THE NORTH WATER. BIan McGuire
  • REPUTATIONS. Juan Gabriel Vásquez. A slender but impactful Colombian novel about a political cartoonist who re-examines his accusations against a politician
  • STILL HERE, Lara Vapnyar.  follows the intertwined lives of four immigrants in New York City as they grapple with love and tumult, the challenges of a new home, and the absurdities of the digital age.
  • THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. By Colson Whitehead. (Winner of all sorts of award and birthday gift to my son Scott)
  • THE VEGETARIAN. By Han Kang. This novella in three parts is both thriller and parable. The winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.
  • WAR AND TURPENTINE. By Stefan Hertmans. A masterly novel about memory, art, love and war, based on the author’s grandfather’s notebooks.
  • WEATHERING. By Lucy Wood. This poetic debut novel, set in a damp house near a roaring river, explores the relationship between mothers and daughters.
  • IN THE DARKROOM. By Susan Faludi. … a rich and ultimately generous investigation of her long-estranged father, who suddenly contacted her from his home in Hungary after undergoing gender-reassignment surgery at the age of 76.
  • WHEN IN FRENCH: Love in a Second Language. By Lauren Collins. New Yorker staff writer married to a Frenchman, writes a very personal memoir about love and language, shrewdly assessing how language affects our lives.
  • WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. By Nancy Isenberg. A masterly and ambitious cultural history of changing concepts of class and inferiority..

 

 

 

“No hay novedades”

Dear Friends:  I just re-read my very first Cañar Chronicle, written after our arrival in January 2013, and I was struck by how it reads much the same as the first post I wrote three weeks ago: house dusty and cobwebby, dogs and chickens occupying the yard, neighbors plowing the field below…This expression – “no hay novedades” (no-i-nov-e-da-daze) means, loosely, “nothing new,” and Michael and I always laugh at it because, every year, after six months away, when we ask José María, our taciturn compadre who takes care of things while we’re in Portland, he always answers the same: “no hay novedades,” even if the sky has fallen. Then he sits quiet for a long while before spilling out all the news of family, house, neighborhood, town and country. But we’re always happy to hear his sotto voce response because it means that nothing bad has happened – no one has broken into the house (it happened once), his daughter Lourdes with transplanted kidney is doing well, he still has his job as garbage collector with the municipality. In other words: all is well. And so it is with us – even with the chickens trying to join us inside the house.

My main focus these next few months will be recording oral histories of those who remember the hacienda period in Cañar, which didn’t come to an end until the late 60’s/early 70’s, with the agrarian reform. These interviews will be part of the larger Archivo Cultural de Cañar. I have long been interested in the history of the vast hacienda that dominated this area because our property is near the site of the Hacienda Guantug house, now a Catholic school. Picture a plantation of 116 square miles (30,000 hectares), with hundreds of workers/peones – near slaves – that extended through three climate zones. Each zone produced products for the hacienda owners: horses and cattle in the highlands (12,000+ feet); barley, wheat and potatoes in the region area around where we live (10,000+), and sugar cane and fruits in the lower sub-tropical areas.

Now, picture that all this had been inherited by a very wealthy, devout and single woman in Cuenca who, at her death in1956, left it to an order of nuns, Las Madres del Cristo Rey. In the photo above, by town photographer Rigoberto Navas, date unknown, you’ll see a few nuns among the hacienda workers. This week, I had a great start on the oral history project with three interviews – one with a woman whose father was a townsman (e.g.”white”) and administrator of the highland hacienda. Lolita provided an unfiltered child’s view of life on the hacienda when she described the twice-yearly visit of the nuns, who rode in on horseback with rolled-up sleeping mats to oversee the roundup and branding of cattle. They stayed a week to count their cattle. A second interview was with Antonio, who in the late 1960s was a young fired-up indigenous activist fighting to create agricultural cooperatives from the hacienda lands. Finally, I interviewed an ex-Peace Corps volunteer, George, who worked here in the late 1960’s and knew Antonio when he helped survey the highlands for the agrarian reform. George is visiting Cuenca, and so I grabbed the chance to hear his memories from 45 years ago as we viewed his beautiful photos, part of the archive. The first image is of the highland hacienda, Chuchucán; the second of Cañari comuneros working with George on the survey.At home, domestic life goes on. Michael is out planting our kitchen garden this morning, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do about the rooster and three hens, standing by and waiting to scratch out the seeds. (Later, when he goes to Cuenca, my job is to keep an eye out and shoo them away with a broom. I laugh as I watch them squeeze under the gate and indignantly march up the road. We’re hoping we can train the chickens to stay out of the garden – does anyone have advice on that?)We took our first long walk in the countryside around Cañar, and Michael couldn’t resist asking directions, even without a common language. As this old woman passed me by with her flock of sheep I think I heard her grumbling in Kichwa, “crazy gringo.”

And a final shot of M’s cook shack at foggy dusk, grilled pork chops coming our way….

The Cañar Book Club

Girls in Juncal reading the book about their community.

Thanks to all who responded to my first book club meeting with recommendations of your own. I’ve already started a list for 2017 and will post it soon.

As for my own reading, a quick report:  I have loved Oliver Sacks ever since The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and over the years have read most of his books and articles. I mourned his death in 2015 at age 82 – still vital, still writing, giving radio interviews, newly in love with a life-partner. So I was anxious to read On The Move, his autobiography. Turns out along with being a brilliant neurologist, he was a biker, weight lifter, serious amphetamine user, as well as a compulsive scribbler – exciting stuff. I will always miss him. Then I moved on to gentler territory with Family Album by Penelope Lively, a writer I’ve also much read and loved. But with this one I felt as though trapped in a 1950’s, starched BBC drama. This might be my last Lively book. Staying with families, I read My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. I must confess I did not understand the tremendous silence between mother and daughter, unable to communicate day in and day out while in a hospital room. Oh well, I would read anything by Elizabeth Strout after Olive Kittridge. I’m looking forward to The Burgess Boys.

Finally, I’m well into All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and find it riveting. Please keep your reading lists coming! I pay attention!  Regards to all, and Happy Holidays.

 

 

Hello Warm & Sunny Cañar

Dear Friends:  The last time we were in Cañar during this fall season was in 2001, near the end of a Fulbright year and our first long stay here. All I remember from these months was how cold I was. We lived in a flimsily-built house on the Paseo de los Cañaris, with almost no direct sunlight, and I sometimes slept in wool hat and gloves.p1150923Many things have changed since then, including global warming, Last week, we arrived in Cañar at mid-day to clear skies and temperatures in the 70’sF. Opening the door to our glass-covered patio it was over 80. Michael had bought lunch things, but for the first time in the eight years we’ve been in this house, it was too hot to have lunch at our usual spot in the patio. So I set up a table outside the kitchen for another first: lunch al fresco on a little back patio.  (sorry Michael for catching you mid-bite.)lunch-back-patioAfter, we slowly did our rounds of house and garden, Michael reporting he felt a bit dizzy while I had the usual altitude headache coming on and knew a couple of nights of insomnia awaited me. Within the last four hours, we had come from sea-level Guayaquil to over 10,000 ft. (3100 mts) with a hot-footed hired driver in her private car. It was thrilling to get here so fast, but the result was a mild version of soroche or altitude sickness (low partial pressure of oxygen). It does take us a few days to feel normal at this altitude, and I usually avoid making the climb into town because when greeting folks I’m too breathless to carry on much conversation.

Inside the house, we see calling cards of creatures small and smaller that take over the while we’re gone. White dropping all over the patio show that small birds  enjoyed swooping in through the space between the glass frame and tile roof, making themselves at home. In the utility room one enterprising ave has built its nest in the hot water heater. We see mouse droppings here and there, in likely and unlikely places – in my office/studio, for instance, on the bookshelves. I imagine the mice frolicking, looking for favorite titles. And among the beams the usual spider webs and lots of dust. (Below: Michael cleaning and repairing the hot water heater.) hot-water Outside, a neighbor’s cocky rooster with his three clucking hens has taken up residence in the kitchen garden. (That evening the rooster will startle us by jumping up and pecking at his reflection in our living room window, thinking an interloper has moved into his territory.)p1150974I see that our other next door neighbor, Magdalena, has tethered four cows in her tiny backyard, and constructed a new twig roof on her shed worthy of a Whitney Biennial artist. cow-chozaIn our side yard I see broken limbs from a small tree where Jose Maria’s twin bulls must have passed through on their way to the back field.  I’ve often watched our compadre bring these huge creatures through the gate and around the house, prodding them along as they try to chomp on anything in their way. This poor tree will never be the same with all its lower branches gone. After we left in July, Jose Maria tilled that field with the yoked bulls and wooden plow to plant potatoes, now beautifully in bloom. p1000679Below us looking north, I see a new wall built at the end of our property. Our spectacular view is slowly being encroached upon, and I mourn every inch that disappears. But Michael is more philosophic. We knew we were building in an area newly zoned as residential – in fact, we wanted to be close to town – so it’s inevitable that people build around us (if only it weren’t always with concrete blocks – least expensive and fastest construction). Still, I fondly remember our 180-degree view ten years ago of nothing but fields, mountains and a few adobe houses in the distance.p1000689Our favorite neighborhood dog, whom we call Gordo, squeezes under the gate and gives us a baleful look. You back already?     p1000702He loves our lawns for his daily “business” and also to store his collections of objects, such as two rubber shoes – not a pair – a tattered soccer ball, assorted bones and plastic bottled, a used diaper or two…

p1150976 p1150959That evening, with the magic of a small laptop and Bluetooth speaker we listen to our favorite Portland radio station KMHD – and our friend Lynn Darroch’s Friday afternoon program, Bright Moments. (Lynn: Michael says how much he loved the Ray Charles-in-Seattle story.)  And in front of our first fire (the temp drops dramatically at night and in fact it froze two nights later), we enjoyed our first sunset…  (Read on below for news from the Cañar Book Club.)p1150928-1

The Cañar Book Club

I’ve been a big reader since childhood, but I’ve never been in a book club. I asked to join one once, but the group was already well established and the members felt they couldn’t integrate another person. I understood. So I’ve created my own book club, and I invite you to join. I’ll report on what I’m reading and you tell me what you are reading, what you think, what you recommend. I’ll put this at the end of every Chronicle.

I’m attaching a list of the books I brought this year – a miscellaneous collection from wish lists, friends’ recommendation – including from you, dear readers – and reviews that led to impulse buys. Thus, as I unpack, I look at some titles and wonder whatever led me to buy this? So far since I left Portland on our 24-hour travel day I read Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter, picked up at the Multnomah County book table at Woodstock a couple of weeks ago. A beautiful memoir. Then for change of pace I picked up The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau – ordered after I read about the author shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, Graeme Macrae Burnet, and his bestselling “cult classic” first book. I’m not a big mystery reader, but this was a delight and I consumed it in two days. OK – below are the books now sitting on my reading shelf next to my side of the bed, making me feel happy and secure:

  1. H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
  2. Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth Hardwick
  3. Toby’s Room, Pat Barker
  4. Italian Ways, Tim Parks
  5. Shame, Melanie Finn
  6. A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers
  7. Family Album, Penelope Lively
  8. On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks
  9. An Unneccessary Woman: Rabih Alameddine
  10. The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
  11. All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  12. What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman
  13. My Venice and other Essays, Donna Leon
  14. My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
  15. The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit
  16. In the Wood, Tana French
  17. Faithful Place, Tana French
  18. A Man Called Ove, Fredrick Backman
  19. Madrid: The History, Jules Stewart
  20. The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, Graeme Macrae Burnet