San Cristóbal de las Casas

Riding 14 hours overnight on an uncomfortable bus from Campeche, on the Gulf of Mexico, to the highlands of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border, reminds us what hard work traveling in Mexico can be. It also reminds us how huge this country is – maybe ten times the size of Ecuador? Below you can see our trail from Cancún to Mérida to Campeche to San Cristóbal de las Casas. Next week we must retrace our steps to catch our flight back to Ecuador.imageBut here we are, settled into San Cristóbal for ten days of Semana Santa, and the suffering has paid off.imageA beautiful colonial city (and yet another UNESCO gem), Michael and I traveled here during our Costa Rica years in the late 1980s. I remember it was very cold, there were few indigenous people in the town, and the guidebooks warned us not to photograph in their villages, where a European tourist had done so in a church and been killed. Although now chock-full of tourists from every part of the globe, including thousands of Mexicans here for Semana Santa (Easter week), San Cristóbal remains a fascinating (and complicated) place to experience indigenous Mexico. (More on that in a moment.) At 2200 meters (7260 feet), and surrounded by mountains and pine forests, the climate and scenery suit us perfectly; in fact it feels a bit like home in Cañar, except for the incredible colonial churches on every corner and the religious art filling them.imageimageimageimageimage
Home to the Mayan people for thousands of years, the Spanish conquered the region in 1528 and the native peoples, who had been part of the most brilliant civilization in pre-Hispanic America, soon suffered loss of communal lands, diseases, taxes and forced labor. Familiar story. One epidemic in 1544 killed about half the indigenous population of Chiapas.imageThe city is named for Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican monk who arrived here in 1545, saw the terrible exploitation of native peoples and as bishop of Chiapas became the greatest defender the indigenous in colonial times.
Since that date the city has gone through many names changes before it settled on San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Today, the local indigenous peoples are everywhere present in the streets and ubiquitous open-air markets, dressed in their stunning hand-woven and embroidered clothing. At first, one can only stare in wonder:image
Then, I began to see young children, many under ten years, hawking trinkets and shining shoes. Everywhere. Old barefoot women carrying armloads of woven belts and shawls to sell, walking the streets all day. Legions of young women with babies on their backs, or in tow, selling embroidered blouses. On our first day here, we saw government rally to “support” 6,000 single mothers in Chiapas. This was the face of poverty like nothing we’ve seen in Ecuador.
(Michael playing chess surrounded by (older) shoeshine kids.)
Hadn’t the 1994 uprising by the indigenous communities, led by Comandante Marcos and the Zapatistas (EZLN), that brought the world’s attention to the abysmal conditions in Chiapas, made a difference? In an effort to understand we saw a pretty good documentary film, “Zapatista” that showed armed indigenous farmers occupying city hall in San Cristobal (a few blocks from our hotel), and then being massacred by the army in the market in Ocosingo, a town two hours from here. By the end of the narrative (2007) we learned how contradictory the movement had been. Led by a Marxist philosophy professor from Mexico City, come to organize the peasants, the Mexican military moved in with tanks and helicopters as though at war (it was a war). Aiding by paramilitaries, many villagers were killed and eventually 21,000 were displaced from their homes. Evangelical missionaries got involved, further splintering communities that had long practiced a mix of animistic pre-Hispanic rituals and Catholicism. Government promises from three Mexican presidents came to nothing; disillusionment set in and now – 20 years later – the movement is pretty much dead (except for the Zapatista trinkets in every tourist shop.)
But in the end didn’t the uprising have a positive effect on conditions for Chiapas’ indigenous? We asked a woman we came across who has worked with a women’s weaving cooperative for ten years. “Somewhat,” was her answer. “There is more indigenous pride. Before, if an Indian met a townsperson on the sidewalks of San Cristobal, the Indian had to step off into the street. The situation of women is better, with the organizing of cooperatives where they are earning their own money. There are now autonomous villages where the military and outsiders can’t enter. But the conflict within and between communities has intensified and caused a massive migration to the edges of San Cristóbal. The evangelical movement, encouraged by the government in the face of the uprising, split communities, and whichever group was in the majority expelled the others.”
So, some 20 years later, most villages do not have running water or electricity, two of the original EZLN demands. The Mayans farm the least productive land, with the least amount of government services. Of the 4.8 million people of Chiapas, one quarter are indigenous, and among them speak 30 languages. Hearing vendors talking to one another always turns my head with the music.image
But to come back to the poverty we see around us in San Cristobal: according to our Lonely Planet guidebook, many of the men, women and children on the streets are displaced villagers, living in the “belt of misery” of poor, violence-ridden shantytowns ringed around the edges of the city. Most have been expelled from their villages as a result of political-religious conflicts – a sad conclusion to twenty years of struggle to create better and longer lives.
To finish on a sunnier note, here is Michael after a successful day of playing chess on the plaza.image

Campeche – (or) Lord Sun Sheep Tick

A three-hour bus ride from from Mérida took us to the smaller coastal city of Campeche, also a UNESCO site and described accurately in the guidebooks as a “colonial gem.” After the rigors and heat of Mérida, we immediately loved this place. Cooler, due to a terrific windstorm our first day. (Here I am, blown in with one of the 16th century pirates who regularly sacked Campeche and killed its Spanish settlers after it became a rich port exploiting the local resources – once the native Mayan were vanquished, of course).
Quieter and safer since 1685, when King Carlos of Spain ordered a wall built around the city. Some of the ramparts remain, and workers are busy reconstructing the rest of the wall, cutting blocks of the skull-white fine limestone the city is built upon, covering everything with a thin layer of dust.
And more recently, with the UNESCO anointment in 1999, the restoration of many of the one-story houses within the historic center, painted ice-cream tones, and the creation of several pedestrian-only streets. Ah, how I love quiet, walkable, “gawkable” streets.
Plazas and walkways are dotted with the amazing bronze sculptures of an artist we’d never heard of, but will not soon forget, Leonora Carrington.
Born 1917 into upper-class England, Carrington was a rebellious girl who declared herself a Surrealist by age 19, ended up with Max Ernst in Nazi France in the 1930′s, in Spain during the civil war, then in Mexico by age 25, where she joined the great Mexican artistic movement of the period: Frida + Diego, Buñuel, et al. When we saw the date on the base of one sculpture as 2010, we couldn’t believe she was still working. But she was; she only died in 2011, at 94, an iconoclast faithful to her Surrealist visions to the very end. I can’t wait to read her biography.image
imageBack to Campeche: originally a Maya city called A Kim Pech (with the wonderful translation, “Lord Sun Sheep Tick”), the city is doing it best to promote tourism, fast becoming one base of its economy, and interestingly most of the tourists are Europeans – especially French, according to conversations we heard around us. Cultural life abounds with mansions and 18th century convents restored into cultural centers, with music, dancing and readings every night. Young people are everywhere, interviewing tourists for their high school project – “What most you like about our city?” on their way to dance and music classes. I came across several excellent bookstores, which always makes me happy whether I buy or not.image
We were sorry to leave after two days but we were worried about traveling during Semana Santa, the long Easter vacation that many Mexicans stretch to ten days. So we bought bus tickets for our next destination: the highlands of Chiapas and San Cristobal de las Casas, a city Michael and I visited in the 1980s during our first years in Costa Rica. Our only choice to get there was an overnight bus trip, 12 hours that turned into 14 hours when some local indigenous communities blocked the road. Although the Zapatista movement has settled down, political turmoil remains, it seems.
More from San Cristobal soon….image

The Mexico We Didn’t Know

imageDear Friends: We are in Mérida, Mexico, in the Yucatán Peninsula, where yesterday it was 98 degrees. Today is to be 101. And tomorrow, the temperature will be 104. That’s one-hundred-and-four degrees farenheit! It’s taken us several days to adapt to such a hot climate, or perhaps I should say to learn to survive. The first days we rushed about, stayed out in the mid-day heat like mad dogs, ate too large a lunch at 12:00 sharp, then collapsed in our hotel for several hours in a siesta-stupor. The only thing to revive us was dipping into the grotto-like swimming pool at our small hotel, where M. and I donned swimming suits and swam a few strokes for the first time in about 10 years.image
Now we’ve learned: Like the locals, you go out and about in the early morning, (walking very slow), have lunch between 1:00 and 3:00, stay indoors between 3:00 and 8:00, and venture out for nighttime activities at about 9:00 (when concerts and other cultural activities start). We have a couple of margaritas about 10:30 PM on one of the leafy plazas, and go to bed about midnight. It’s a wild life for us (in Cañar, we’re in bed before 9:30, and the difference in temperature between there and here is about 50 degrees F.)

But we are enjoying ourselves nonetheless, in part because we’ve ended up in this quirky small hotel in the historic center where we are the only guests.
image Casa Mexilio is a colonial townhouse converted into a warren of eight high-ceilinged rooms, narrow twisting stairways, terraces in surprising places, interior balconies with tile awnings (Escher could have been the architect), a small limestone pool at ground level, wrought iron galore, and crammed with Mexican antiques. Oh, and I didn’t mention the mourning cat who has recently lost her three kittens (died soon after birth) and wanders around at night, howling for them. We call her la gata llorona, the crying cat.

(Our room)

The “sala,” or breakfast room, but since no breakfast is offered because we are the only guests, every morning we go around the corner to this lovely place, La Flor de Santiago.
Tripadvisor respondents had many complaints about Casa Mexilio: rude ex-pat owner (“too long in Mexico”), dusty, creepy, Dracula-like. But I had a feeling these might endear us to the place, so I made a reservation for five nights in the Enrique Granados room (a famous Mexican composer). Also, I confess, I like staying in a place where we don’t have to talk to anyone, especially other sun-stunned tourists (like us) that I see out on the streets in large groups, or couples arguing in the market about what Yucatán handcrafts to buy.

Mérida itself has been something of a disappointment. Perhaps because it is so hot, much of life takes place behind tall walls and closed doors. Every house and hotel has a beautiful garden, patio, or terrace inside, but out on the narrow streets traffic thunders by at frightening speeds. The noise level is terrific. Many streets in the historic center are lined with run-down houses, some nothing but facades. Because this is a UNESCO city, these houses cannot be torn down, but neither do the owners want to invest the money to restore them. Many properties are for sale.

And tourism has come full-tilt to Mérida, so streets in tourist areas are teeming with aggressive and insistent vendors and hawkers, haranguing us in broken English to eat at their restaurant or buy their handcrafts or take their tours to Maya sites. In contrast are the quiet and sad-eyed Mayan village women who walk the streets day and night offering their blouses and bags. I finally don’t want to make eye contact with anyone. and that’s no way to travel.

We leave Mérida tomorrow for Campeche, about three hours away by bus, a “colonial gem” on the coast where it’s reported to be even hotter. But a storm is predicted which should bring cooler temperatures. Then we head for the mountains of Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas, where hotels have fireplaces and heated floors. Ah, heaven…….
(Finally, a few images of the beautiful floors in every old house, called “baldosas,” tiles made of poured cement with dyed patterns – classic Mexico.)

Exploring Cañar’s Prehistory

Dear Friends: We are heading for Mexico this week and I want to get one more Chronicle out before we leave. These last few years, since settling into the house, it seems easier to travel while we’re here then during our six months in Portland. For one thing, we have more flexible time. For another, we get a discount on flights because we are residents of Ecuador and, ahem, tercer edad - “third age” or golden agers. We usually go to Spain but this year Michael was yearning to return to a place he has loved (and lived in): Mexico. We are spending three weeks in the Yucatán and Chiapas, and I’ll try to send a couple of travel blogs if I can figure out how to do it from my iPad.

Antonio con landscape

So, back to Cañar, where we’ve been lucky to be invited by Tayta Antonio Quinde (above) to accompany him on some exploratory journeys to the past (me as photographer; Michael as guest). He is researching and writing about pre-Inca times, when the local “runas” (or native peoples, now identified as Cañaris), ranged over a wide swath of southern Ecuador and northern Peru. They left many traces, but much mystery, as the invading Incas overlaid their own culture on this territory in the mid-fifteen century, and the conquering Spaniards imposed their customs and religion on the region a mere 100 years later. Written history began with the Spanish chroniclers, and what we know of the early pre-Inca times was told to them by local informants in the aftermath of two violent upheavals of the original cultures.

landscape w road

Still, the landscape we saw on an outing into the highlands near Cañar last week probably hasn’t changed much since then (except for the roads). And folks still live perched on the sides of the mountains much as they have for millenniums.

house on hillsidehouse long shot

And survive in much the same ways:

meat, closeup“We’ve been here at least 3,000 years,” Cañaris usually say in speaking of their history, but recent research indicates that South America might have been peopled much earlier, perhaps 9,000 years ago (red ocher cave paintings in Brazil) or 22,000 years ago (stone tools in northeast Brazil) or even up to 30,000 years ago (giant sloth hunters in Uruguay). And then there is Texas, where archeologists have recently found projectile points showing that hunter-gatherers reached Buttermilk Creek as early as 15,500 years ago.

rock w carbonWe’ve come today to see a petroglyph that Antonio says is Cañari, which means it might be a mere 1000 years old. When I ask how he knows, he says the spiral form is indicative of native iconography of pre-Inca peoples. Near the spectacular site of the rock (here outlined in a piece of carbon from the fire), Antonio points out where, years before, he saw ancient terraces and stone pathways. He asks the man who lives in the nearby house what happened, and the man says, “My father-in-law cleared them to make space for the pigs.” So much for prehistory; but then I suppose a pig in the hand is worth more to a landowner/farmer than a pre-Inca site.

site of rockLater, Antonio showed us a worked stone near his highland property, revealed when a neighbor hired a tractor to plow the land and tip the stone to the edge of the field. Which just goes to show that Cañar’s prehistory continues to be uncovered.  Antonio con rock

Finally, indulge me with a few shots of the beautiful native flora we saw at this higher elevation, quite different from that in Cañar. Sorry I have no names, but if some of your request it I will ask a Cañari friend for local identifying info. DSC_7570

DSC_7579 DSC_7585 DSC_7590DSC_7591

Pawkar Raymi

desfile1 croppedPawkar Raymi is the Quichua equivalent of Carnival, the celebration that marks the beginning of Lent in Catholic Church. In the indigenous cosmovision – world view, loosely translated – Pawkar Raymi marks the “flowering of the crops” planted earlier in the year and the promise of a good harvest ahead (with another fiesta at summer solstice called Inti Raymi). It’s all about abundance and sharing and my favorite fiesta of the year. Only in recent years have Cañari communities begun to recreate what they claim was a pre-Inca indigenous festival, co-opted first by the Inca invaders and then by the Spanish conquistadors and the Catholic Church. But as Pawkar Raymi always falls on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, and its name comes from the Inca language, I think it’s safe to say it’s a perfectly melded day of old and new traditions from far and wide.comuna quilloacFor me, it’s a long and arduous workday, beginning with a procession that starts early from a host community, usually deep in the country, picking up participants along the way as it winds through town and then out to a field prepared for a celebration that lasts far into the night of music, dancing, eating, and throwing cornstarch, water and canned foam on one another (more on that later). I usually take a break between morning and afternoon, come home for lunch to download my photos and charge the batteries. But my job is nothing compared to the work of the women who carry the cuynaña for hours and hours, a sort of cornucopia platform loaded fruits and vegetables, drinks and cooked cuys – guinea pigs, so important to Andean life. There’s one in the photo below, impaled next to a …chicken? cuy nañaHere’s the cuynaña from above in a moment when the women rested.cuy naña2When I first started photographing this fiesta, live cuys were dangled by their little feet around the platform, usually not surviving the day. After a few years, animal rights concerns put them in cages attached to the bottom of the platform, and now live animals seem to have disappeared altogether.

After lunch, it’s back to the field, where each community sets up a choza to offer food and drink to the carnavaleros. Over in one corner, women and men from the host community are cooking in huge pots on wood fires to feed about 1000 people. As I said, Pawkar Raymi is all about abundance and sharing.mesa ofertaP1040276There I run into many familiar faces, and it’s one day where I’m allowed to photograph everyone without asking, In return, I give CDs of the photos to anyone who asks. tayta2

Families have spent weeks preparing for this day – the women making special clothing and the men fashioning flutes and drums and these amazing hats, made of cowhide stretched over a frame and decorated with everything from fresh flowers to cooked cuyes to deer heads and antlers.


Every year for over 20 years, my old friend Pedro Solano has brought out his Tayta Carnaval sombrero topped with a stuffed condor, each year more desiccated and missing more parts. pedro

By mid-afternoon it is raining hard, and I’ve finally had enough of trying to protect my gear while dodging cornstarch and foam sprayed from cans (called kareoke, for some strange reason), and I’m exhausted from shooting over 500 photos. I trudge home and say to Michael, “I’m not sure I can keep doing this every year.” But I know I’ll be back next year – walking backwards and stumbling along the road, trying to capture the procession as it heads toward me at a fast clip.P1040255 - Version 2




Election Fever

belesario(Belisario Chimborazo, mayor of Cañar, 2011, with wife Rosa Camas and vice-mayor Ezequiel Cárdenas)

“Do you mean we can’t buy alcohol between Friday noon and Monday?” I asked our local mini-market guy as I purchased two bottles of my favorite (and only available) wine on Thursday afternoon. “Si, es la ley seca,” he said – the “dry law” before elections. “But don’t worry, I can always meet your needs,” he said with a wink.

Ecuadorian regional elections were held a week ago, on February 23. As a foreigner with five years’ residency in Ecuador, I knew I was qualified to vote, but I hadn’t bothered to register until a few weeks ago, when the nudge came from one of those Kafkaesque moments so familiar. For years I’ve been trying to get good broadband service, but every time I’ve gone to the local telephone office – one that keeps re-inventing itself, trying to keep up with the times – and now newly refurbished, called CNT, and with a new Internet logo: “Fast Boy” (is that a surfboard?) – I heard:


“Sorry, señora – no more lines. Come back next month,” or, in some cases, “…next year.” After three frustrating years of private and terrible internet service, I was absolutely determined when I got here this January to…well…try again!

So I walked into town to the telephone office (photo: central Cañar, circa 1969, by George Mowry, Peace Corps Volunteer)town streettook a number (an innovation), sat on a plastic chair and watched the Grammy’s broadcast in English on the television high in one corner (another innovation), until my number was called.

The young woman behind the desk began to fill out the formulario on her computer. Telephone? Check! National ID card? Check! Voter card? “No. But as a foreigner, I’m not required to vote.” She consulted with an older colleague sitting beside her (the one who always gave me the bad news). Nothing definite. She called her boss, then said: “Sorry, without a voter number I can’t complete the formulario. And we only have two lines left and the deadline is tomorrow.”

“Do you mean that I can’t have broadband service unless I have a voter card?”

Yep – there’s the Kafka part, and I saw not a flicker of humor or an ironic shrug. So I ran for a bus to the provincial capital, Azogues, one hour away, took a taxi to the Tribunal Electoral where, in one minute, the Republic of Ecuador had issued me a voter card. I rushed back to Cañar 15 minutes before the telephone office closed, and within a few minutes heard the sweet words: “Señora, the técnicos will come tomorrow to install your service.”

belesario building

belesario w sign

So back to the elections. I voted for Belisario Chimborazo to be re-elected mayor. Quiet, intelligent and reserved, five years ago this secondary school teacher ran against one of the usual candidates for mayor, all from one of the powerful local families with names of Cárdenas and Ordonez who have traded the position back and forth for roughly 185 years, since Cañar was declared a cantón. Then, whether the town population was tired of the same old faces, or the indigenous population in the countryside was fired up to vote, Belisario won by a slight margin. That was 2009 and we went to his victory party, surprised at some of the town faces we saw there, such as my bank manager, who gave me a hug.

I’ve watched as Belisario has worked hard to develop rural hamlets that have been ignored for generations, with schools, roads, potable water, health services, meeting halls and commercial opportunities, while trying to satisfy the demands of the townspeople (fewer potholes, water 24 hours a day, a bus terminal). I think he’s done a brilliant job. Here here is a couple of years ago inaugurating a tourist guesthouse in Caguanapampa, a village on the mountain above Cañar.Belisario ceremonia

On election day I’d been directed to vote at one of the primary schools – all the schools in town and countryside are turned into polling places. I found organized calm and a quiet air of fiesta – folks sitting around chatting after having voted, outside on the street eating ice cream, with the benign presence of military and members of the five political parties standing vigil at each table. Ecuador has a long history of corruption when it comes to elections, and the indigenous-based movement and political party, Pachakutik is particularly wary. My friend Alexandra (in the white hat below), was one of those watchers, and she told me a group was standing by to follow the cars carrying the ballots to Azogues, where the official count would be made later that day.

school vote

soldier + old man

I voted at table #5, where four young women sat handing out ballots, explaining them, and taking our signatures after. I saw an old Cañari woman signing with her thumbprint, a reminder that we are not that far from hacienda times when there were no schools for Cañari children. After, I was given a new card, certifying that I had voted in vote cardFor Ecuadorians this card is serious – voting is obligatory by law, and you cannot get a passport, driver’s license, a job, or leave the country without showing it. This does not apply to me as a foreigner, but I still followed the example of everyone else, and had my card “plasticated” at the portable business set up right outside the school emplasticate! me, card, closeup

This time, Belisario Chimorazo won by an even greater margin, making him the first indigenous mayor to be reelected in190 years!

That’s all the news from Cañar. Now I have to get my cameras ready for Carnival, tomorrow!

Goings On About the House

rooster profile

Dear Friends: Well, I’ve been trying to write a blog about the regional elections, in which I’ll vote for the first time, but since they will not be held until February 23, I’ll write a short entry this week about domestic goings on, with the election blog to come, after I’ve voted.

Although we’ve been in the house seven years now, the birds are just discovering us, at least those that want to move in. Last week a little black hen wandered into the yard and as dusk fell, tried to roost. She pecked at the window where Michael was playing chess, perched onto the deck rail, disappeared, showed up at the kitchen window, pecked again, then settled down on Michael’s rubber garden shoes to sleep, leaving a nice little gift. Next day she was out in the quinoa field, pecking away. Michael took her water and grain, thinking she belonged to one of the neighbors and was surely lost. She roosted again that night on the front porch, and by the third day was gone. We miss her.

rooster 2 roosting roosterNow we have two little finches, also pecking at the windows but also trying to nest in the light fixture on the back porch. After watching them for several days, Michael has decided to build a bird house. He got up this morning, put on his work pants, rustled around in his storeroom for materials, and by cocktail time, the glass birdhouse was done and hung on the back porch (looks like a frame in this photo). It remains to be seen if the birds like it.


Michael’s also been in the kitchen, of course – and in the garden – which our compadres Jose Maria and Narcisa planted before we arrived: broccoli, chard, scallions, and so much cauliflower that we are eating it pickled.

garden cropped veggie from garden

For Valentine’s day, he made a special meal chicken in sweet red pepper sauce, with potatoes. (The hilarious heart-shaped chicken breast a complete accident, only noticed later.)

valentine chicken chicken w potatoes

We also have a wild blackberry vine in a corner of the field that has produced enough for a couple of berry/orange cakes…

berries better cakeMeanwhile, we’re watching with interest the quinoa that Jose Maria planted for the first time in our back field (it’s always been corn, potatoes or peas). For the first month it was hard to tell the weeds from the quinoa plants.field of quinoa

But with recent rains the top leaves are turning lovely shades of pink, and yesterday Jose Maria brought an agronomist to show him how to weed and hill the plants. I can’t wait to see the maturation of this traditional Andean grain, which for some reason the local folks do not eat (they say it is bitter in its natural state, and takes too long to prepare).

quinoa close agronomo

Finally, for those who remember the medical saga of Lourdes, the young daughter of Jose Maria, I have great news. We had just moved into the house when she was diagnosed with end-stage kidney disease; then shortly after total kidney failure, a long hospitalization in Quito, two miserable years of dialysis in Cuenca, and then finally – the miracle – a kidney transplant in Quito two years ago. After a delicate first year without major complications, Lourdes is now a healthy 17-year old, back in school after losing three years, with good color and some growth, and enjoying a pretty normal life. Here she sits at my computer, researching music, asking me how to use Bluetooth to connect my computer with her cell phone (huh?)



Goings on about Cañar

January is always a busy time here, what with the five-day Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua, held this month despite the fact his official saint’s day is June 13, when he died in Padua, Italy, in 1231. Then there’s the Fiestas de Cañar, an annual civic celebration lasting fifteen days, beginning with a cleaning of the city streets, ending with fireworks, and in between a handcrafts fair, lectures, soccer games, concerts, dances, a bull fight, and an long-long parade on January 26 to celebrate Cañar as the self-proclaimed archeological capital of Ecuador.Cañar capitalI gladly photograph it all, sometimes by invitation; and sometimes I get a call as the big parade is forming up: “Judicita, we’re hundreds of people from Quilloac getting ready to march. Come take some photos!”

foto 2Other times, I come upon things by accident, as today when I walked into town and stumbled on the finish line of the wooden car race, always held the last day of the civic fiesta, when hand-made wooden carts race down the Pan American from the high hill on the outskirts of town.wooden car wins

wooden car

But my favorite event is the Fiesta de San Antonio, held in the hamlet of Junducuchu high on the mountain, with its own saint – a tiny figure or “doll” found in a mountain crevice 100 years ago by a woman of the village, and venerated ever since. (Below: tiny San Antonio is behind glass…the figure alongside represents El Nîño, or baby Jesus.) tiny saint

The tiny San Antonio lives with a host family that changes year to year, a transition marked by carrying the saint into town to the church to be blessed before being carried back up the mountain in the arms of the wife or daughters of the  prioste - the new guardian of the saint, who will also host the fiesta, including feeding hundreds of people several times in the course of five days.

two wm w saints

On a bright Saturday morning I joined up outside the church, where the vacas locas gather and dance while waiting for the saints and village leaders to emerge from the blessing. Men and boys prance around as huge “crazy cow” puppets, mooing and snorting, or pretending to poke onlookers, as a town band plays. These wonderful vaca locas are hand-made of cow hide stretched over a wooden form, with papier mâché heads, decorated in inventive ways, and a wooden bar across the front for the dancers to hang onto and maneuver for the hours they must be carried.

.dance of vacas locas vaca loca closeupMeanwhile, other figures join in, and onlookers gather, waiting for the taytas or community leaders to emerge from  the church

desfile de iglesia taytas in front of churchAfter a short march around the town we start up the mountain, the band playing nonstop. Meanwhile, another group has left the village to come down to meet us. This procession includes boys and girls, dancers, a man carrying a maypole, a trio of flutes and drum, accompanied by various other characters, such as the rukuyayas, or clowns, who make mischief as long as the fiesta lasts:

yucuyaya  rukuyays

And the bands:

band on hillside  flute + drums

And this wonderful old man, who appears every year in his mask and vaquero, or cowboy, gear, of rope and chaps. He dances for hours and hours, sleeps a bit sitting up, then dances some more. One year he grabbed onto me to dance, and insisting on calling me his warmi, “woman” in Quichua.

tayta con mascaraWell, this is only one day of the fiesta and I’m usually worn out by the third day. All this January activity wraps up in time to prepare for Carnaval, the biggest Cañari fiesta of the year, celebrated the Monday before Lent. This year it is mercifully late, on March 5.

We’ve had a month of brilliant weather – sunny and warm but so dry that the farmers around us badly need rain. They plow and plant in January anticipating the rainy season, which should have started before now.

One of the goings on I came across the other day was a minga, a cooperative work day that is part indigenous tradition, part hacienda custom, I suspect. Everyone in a comuna is called out to work, in this case on an irrigation project. The old way was to blow on a conch shell, called a quipo. Now they probably use cell phones.

boy w conche

Those who don’t work must pay a fine, or send a laborer for which they pay. I came across this scene the other day near our house – maybe two hundred people digging up old and broken concrete irrigation pipes, to be replaced with plastic ones. They live in a village far down the mountain, and no water has reached them during this drought. When I came by later in the day, the pipe was laid and the ditch covered. Irrigation is, and has always been, the life’s blood of agriculture, and of rural life. Next week there will be another minga near our house, and we were told we will be expected to colaborar – collaborate, meaning either work or make a contribution. Stay tuned!



Breathless in Cañar

When I posted these photos on Facebook the other day, with the caption “Culebrillas Lake at 4000 meters,” I meant to add “breathless,” which is how Michael and I felt hiking around this spectacular landscape earlier this week with our friend, Lynn.Culebrillas  M. wi lake Paradones M & me culebrillas

It always takes us awhile to adapt to the altitude here (Cañar is at 3,100 mts. or 10,170 feet), but we normally wouldn’t attempt 4000 meters (13,123 feet) within ten days of arriving. However, the road to Lake Culebrillas is notoriously bad, and only during the dry season can a four-wheel-drive vehicle safely traverse the two hours of pot-holed, rocky, rugged, heart-stopping-drops, landslide-vulnerable track called a road. For days, we’d been watching the clear views of the high mountains from our north windows, the same you see at the top of this blog. The lake lies behind the highest ridge, in an intermontane valley, and is the site of the myth of origin of the Cañari people. When we called Lynn to suggest that we take the opportunity of good weather for a day trip, she agreed, driving up from Cuenca with her dog, Ariel, to spend the night so we could get an early start.

Michael and I haven’t been to this lake for years, but it played a part in our very earliest years here, when we organized an overnight camping trip with our first Cañari friends, my photography students and their spouses and siblings. We were a group of about ten. The truck we hired couldn’t make it all the way, so we ended up walking overland. The Cañaris (with their big lungs and oxygenated hearts) leaping over the páramo grass while carrying a large tarp, pots, food, our packs (mine with a heavy Hasselblad camera and gear) and even a bass drum, while Michael and I, carrying nothing, were on our knees every few yards, gasping to catch our breath. We slept by the lake, under the tarp, where our friends built a fire while playing music long into the night. The next morning, a bit sick from carbon monoxide, we walked around the lake and Michael and the boys tried their luck fishing.

It was a wonderful time – a significant moment then and an evocative one now. Antonio, one of my students, died last year, and his wife Edelina, died ten years ago, and the little girl in the photo below now works in a nail salon in New Jersey. Another couple is separated, and a young woman, unmarried but hopeful at the time, is now a “migrant widow” – one of many Cañari women left in marital limbo here, raising children, while their immigrant husbands in the U.S. make new lives, some with new families.

Antonio y Edelina  ME w lamb

Zoila y Rebecaat culebrillas

The bottom right photo is the only one I could find in my digital files from that original trip to Lake Culebrillas – the boys looking for fish with Michael’s net – although the other images were taken around the same year, 1992.



First Cañar Chronicle 2014

P1030362Dear Friends: Well, we are at home in Cañar, and Michael is already cutting wood, but we couldn’t have chosen a worse time to travel. Of course, when we bought our economy airline tickets six months ago, we didn’t give a thought to weather until the moment arrived. I did, however, wonder why we were routed through Washington DC; then JFK in New York, then an overnight flight to Guayaquil. With three different airlines.

Even the Alaska Airlines agent in Portland mentioned it was a long way round. She asked if we needed visas for Ecuador and recounted, rolling her eyes, that she’d recently checked through a guy traveling to Mexico with a “service kangaroo.”  Mexico refused him entry. She had also lately met several service parrots. Michael joked that he’d like to have a “service toad” to calm his nerves when he travels.

That was the easy part. I have written a long account of our travel travails, but to spare you the convoluted details I’ll just say it was a trip from hell that began on January 7 and ended 36 hours later, with a surprise twist, in Guayaquil. So: a series of delayed and missed flights, an unplanned expensive night at a hotel in New York, a fruitless search for our four large bags in DC and JFK (10 degrees F), where a broken water main had flooded the baggage area. This was truly a scene from Hades – thousands of bags without their owners; thousands of passengers milling around looking for their bags, the lost luggage offices jammed.

M. baggage(I think he’s screaming, not laughing)

Past midnight, after the American Airlines agent told us the only voucher hotel they could offer was on Long Island, 1.5 hours away, “and there’s no transportation,” we thought, for an awful hour or so, that we might have to join other lost souls sleeping on cots and in chairs in a cold lounge near the terminal exit. Courtesy phones to call hotels and Internet service and even charging stations were not working. As Michael sat calmly doing Sudoku, preparing to spend the night sitting up, I called my sister Sherry in Santa Fe and asked her to try to find us a hotel near the airport. And so she did – the heroine of our saga – a warm and outrageously overpriced room at Day’s Inn. We were lucky to get it.  Bad weather brings manna from heaven for some.

It could have been this:sleeping lounge

But instead was this:Day's End

Miraculously, 24 hours later, rerouted through Miami by an efficient agent who never cracked a smile or made small talk (while the guy next to us muttered, “five days, I’ve been five days trying to get out…”), we arrived in Guayaquil WITH OUR BAGS. We still can’t figure that one out.

Here comes the dramatic part: We had loaded our four suitcases onto the cart, grinning like fools and crowing, “All four bags! Amazing! How did that happen? How could we be so lucky?” Our luck continued as we got the green light at customs and the agent waved us through. Again, “We must be charmed!” Then, as we were literally yards from the exit, an officer in camouflage approached. “Your passport please. Do you speak Spanish? I am from the money-laundering police, and I’d like to know how much money you are carrying. Please step into this office and bring all your luggage.”

Michael was so stunned he numbly followed the guy into his office, leaving me to juggle the cart and roller bags. “The Señora too,” the guy peered out and gestured. Bring all your bags.”

Michael knows the law. In Ecuador, same as in the U.S., an individual is allowed to bring up to $10,000 cash into the country. And that’s just about what he had strapped in money belts and bags around his middle. But in the rush to leave we hadn’t counted what was in our wallets, and Michael had mentioned a couple of times he was worried we were over the limit. (No matter that I had also suggested a couple of times, “Why don’t we just wire the funds to our bank in Cañar?” But noooooooo. I had also offered to carry one of the money belts.)

And so we sat down with the money-laundering officer in a small dark room. No computer, no safe, just a desk, bookcase, and four black fake leather chairs. When I glanced at the dark light fixture on the ceiling, he said, “For security. So they don’t see we’re handling money in here.” Not exactly reassuring. Michael stripped off his money belts and the officer asked for his wallet and patted him down. He asked for my wallet and counted my cash: $70. On a chair between us, he laid out the pile of bills and began to carefully count each one, even those still in the bank wrappers. I got out my little notebook and noted his name: Jorge Aguirre. And for good measure but no particular reason, laid my business card from Cañar on the chair.

He tried to make small talk as he counted: “How long have you lived in Ecuador? That’s two thousand. What work do you do?  Six thousand. You know money laundering is a problem here that we have to control. Eight thousand.”

I asked why us, was it a random sort of thing? He said something not very convincing like, “Oh we check about one traveler in a thousand.”

We sat tense as Jorge Aguirre kept counting: “nine thousand eight hundred, nine thousand nine hundred…”, and then…with some loose bills still to count he made a “that’s it” gesture and dropped the last bills on the pile. “OK, you are good, but if it had been $10,000 you would have had to pay a thirty percent multa, a fine.  $3000 dollars!  “Next time divide your money with the Señora.”

Relieved but still in shock, as we gathered up wallets and bills, Michael strapping on money belts and we prepared to continue on with our lives, Jorge Aguirre asked in the nicest possible way, “And how was your Christmas?”

After a night our familiar Hostal Tangara in Guayaquil, we hired a car and driver to bring us, all our bags and our cash, to Cañar. A mere 3.5 hours later, on newly paved roads (finally!), we were at our gate. The house was just as we had left it in July.

house exterior

The patio plants on Michael’s side continue to take over:


The view we love from our back porch the same, with the clouds coming in, quinoa newly planted in the field, and our neighbor Magdalena’s calf and pig flirting with one another.

view mountains

Michael uncovered our San Antonio, guardian of the house, while our compadre Jose Maria (the other guardian of the house), watched.

San Antonio 2

And, after a quick trip to the market, we had our first local-fare lunch in the patio: fried potatoes, green pepper, onions and tomatoes.

first lunch

Also on the domestic front, and very big news, is our new sewer service, a process that began with our neighbors in 2010 and continued with fits and starts until we left in July, still incomplete. But Michael was prepared, having last year laid a 4” pipe from house to road, and today he had the great pleasure of making the hookup at the house….sewer house

and in the road.

sewer street

Then a chat with our neighbor Magdalena about the problems with water service…and that’s all for now. I’ll try to send out chronicles every two weeks, but meantime I love hearing from everyone.