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….

Update on earthquake, “la crisis,” and a baptism

Dear Friends: Since the 7.8 earthquake off the Ecuador coast last Saturday, the daily news has only been worse and worse. Initially, many coastal villages were completely cut off and, once reached, found to be entirely destroyed. As of today, 650 are confirmed dead, 130 still missing and 12,000 injured. Beyond that, 26,000 survivors without homes are living in parks and shelters. A series of small aftershocks have kept everyone nervous, though with no new damages. We felt only one, a 4.8 on Friday morning because it was nearer to Guayaquil and thus nearer us. I pulled these photos from today’s Guardianliving on boardwalk wm in street with table

damaged roadThis was the worst disaster in 70 years, coming on top of “la crisis” – a reduction since 2015 in oil prices that has kept the country on a tight leash and borrowing heavily from China. In fact, I was planning to write a blog, “The Price of Oil,”  enumerating the small ways a contracting economy affects everyday life. (The IMF predicts that Ecuador’s economy will shrink 4.5% in 2016, and some say the country is on the brink of bankruptcy; only Venezuela is in worse shape.) Small examples: The music classes my friend Magdalena organized for local kids as part of her job with a municipality cannot afford to buy a third guitar. La crisis. A cultural institution that issued a biannual magazine that a Cañari friend and I wrote for, “Patrimonio Cultural,” has ceased publication. La crisis. Same with the beautiful publication of CIDAP, the artesania and popular arts magazine. La crisis. This doesn’t even touch on the big things: reduction and delay in state salaries; road projects stalled, and so on. Many blame President Correa, who cashed in the previous government’s savings accounts of oil reserves that would have been used in such a disaster.

In spite of this, the response of the general population to the earthquake disaster has been amazing. As one Ecuadorian journalist, Martín Pallares, observed in this New York Times article “The country has become one huge relief center, and in almost every neighborhood, in towns large and small, there are collection points for donations of clothing, food and blankets.” In Cañar, this includes everyone from children in schools bringing in supplies, to our garbage collector who with his work group is gathering food and water. In the photo below, Quilloac community members gather food, water and basic foodstuffs to take to a central distribution point.quilloac donations

* * * * * * *

But of course despite the disaster life goes on, and so the day after the quake Michael and I became godparents to Luis Gabriel, the eight-year son of Mercedes Guamán. She was an early scholarship student and is now a lawyer and alternate to the national assembly. She’s also one of our oldest friends, and I’ve known for many years – since Gabriel was born – that she would ask us to be godparents. Although Michael at first resisted (see comic below), saying he would never take on another godchild, we found ourselves at the chapel of San Jose at the appointed hour.P1130412P1130425And before all the family (second godmother above) and Father Mario, who earlier in the week had requested to see our marriage certificate to prove that we were “married ecclesiastically” – and that after we had attended a two-hour cursillo (little course) to learn about our responsibilities as godparents – we agreed to help raise Gabriel to be a good Catholic.P1130448P1130447Then it was off to the family house for the fiesta. P1130452Where we had a few drinks P1130458 (1)and a bite to eat…P1130471P1130472As godparents, we were served four roasted guinea pigs (each!), three chickens, pounds of roasted pork, potatoes, rice and half a basket of mote (hominy). All to eat or to take home to share with others – a beautiful concept in the indigenous culture known in Quichua as warilla. 

We were home by midnight and very happy to be godparents to Luis Gabriel.Navas new002

 

Paella and other tiny adventures

Michael made one of the best paellas of his life the other day, and when we tried to analyze why it was so good, he attributed it to just the right intensity of the charcoal fire in his cookshack…P1120726...and just the right amount of chicken stock for the rice  (not too dry, not too mushy).P1120738P1120754I think he enjoyed the prep as much as the cooking and consuming. The week before: a trip to Cuenca for arborio rice, green beans and little chicken wings; another to neighboring Tambo on Saturday market day for langostinos; several times around Cañar for rum (to soak the saffron) and vegetables.  And here are all the ingredients, prepped and prettily lined up: roasted sweet red peppers, garlic, onions, green beans, saffron (in little glass), rice, tomatoes and langostinos.P1120735Several hours later…P1120761Paella for six! The guests were not able to come so we dined in glory in front of the fire, with Russian Red Boxed Wine, watching Better Call Saul and House of Cards.P1120762P1120758

Other pleasures in our life lately are country walks, and the people we meet on those walks. A couple of weeks ago Michael arranged for a tiny adventure on a road that has intrigued him for years, as seen from the bus to/from Cuenca. From behind Tayta Bueran, the mountain that dominates Cañar, a road meanders to the west off the PanAm towards the jagged mountains in the distance, usually covered by clouds.  P1120691 (1)We took the Cuenca bus to the point where Michael thought the road started (well, we got off a little too soon and had to walk about a half-kilometer with buses and big transports rushing by, putting me briefly in a bad mood). But once we found the way we were soon joined by a small man carrying a shovel, and we fell into step. Lucindo, from Molobog Grande, the valley with the wonderful name on the other side of the PanAm, was headed for his potato patch a few kilometers towards the mountains. As we walked and talked, and he answered our questions, he aptly captured the history of this region – the hacienda era, agrarian reform, and what “progress” has meant for the small farmer like himself. “All this was all owned by families from Cuenca,” – he gestured to the broad valley below – “Malos and Andrades.”  Names mean everything in upper-class Cuenca and M. and I immediately recognized these. “The agrarian reform came and the government helped us create a cooperative, Buena Esperanza (Good Hope). The land was divided up. I have a piece down there – where you see the cows – and up where my potatoes are planted, and waayyyyy up towards the mountains.”P1120685 (1)“Then, as often happens with people,” Lucindo said, “the members of the cooperative began to fight. Some were jealous, others wouldn’t do the communal work, and after some years we became the owners of our individual parcelas, which meant we could sell our land. Now, with that and migration, the cooperative is pretty much broken up, though some of us are still active and we have a fiesta every year.”

At that point we were passing another of his parcelas, and Lucindo gestured again to the beautiful valley below and talked about a present-day problem: “Down there I have a little trout pool,” he said, “but all the potable water projects for the towns around here are taking all the water. Now  I don’t have enough flow to keep my fish healthy. Tayta Bueran is covered with natural springs, and we used to have plenty of water.”

Now we stopped near a steep hillside with a small planting of papas, and it was time to say goodbye.  But not before Lucindo asked us if we were Catholics. P1120689Michael and I walked on…and on, and on. By now we’d dropped hundreds of feet in elevation. No way could we reach those mountains, but we took a road we thought we bring us to a village. No village, no cars, no taxis, hardly any people. Those few we came across tried to help. We offered to pay for a ride but no one had a car. One man said: “Maybe the teacher is still at the school – the red roof down the road. She’ll give you a ride.”  But the school was closed up tight. Finally, tired and resigned, we started the long slog up the road to the PanAm. Then, a miracle, a small truck came behind us and we jumped out and flagged him down. Startled to come across two gringos far from anywhere, the young driver invited us to crowd into his tiny cab and tell him how we got to Ecuador, and to this remote valley between Cañar and Cuenca.  drawing001

This and that in the month of March

P1120790

Dear Friends:  Well, I missed my chronicle deadline last week but for a good reason. Every year I host a group of students from Lewis and Clark College (based in Portland) who spend a semester in Cuenca, Ecuador. They live with local host families and study Spanish and other subjects at Fundación Amauta. For three days, I have a chance to show them something of another world – Cañar. Not much, but enough to give them an idea of differences between life in Cuenca and Cañar.

First stop: the jail, to see the prisoners at work on fine weavings and other handcrafts. We are no longer allowed to take photos in this 100-year old building overcrowded with 150 male prisoners (I was amazed we ever were), but we were given a great tour of the workshops by trustees/artisans and the new young director. Other prisoners – across the patio where they were confined but lined up at open windows, and agog at this sudden appearance of beautiful young women (and one man) – sent gifts. Here some students sit afterward at a taxi stand, with an origami bird made with bits of folded paper. (Don’t you love the retro phone-in-box where drivers take calls? )origami bird 2

Next, a visit to Mama Michi, curadera extraordinaire and always game to receive visitors at her jambi wasi (healing house). She was busy with many patients – this being one of her two weekly consultorio days – so we waited almost an hour. But the weather was great and the students patient, happy and charming – reminding me why I loved teaching this age in my days in academia. (On right, Lewis & Clark faculty member, Wendy Woodrich).waitingP1120792When it’s our turn, an assistant sells us the things needed for a diagnostic healing – egg, candle and a rough bouquet of herbs and flowers – and we’re escorted into the dark, aromatic interior of Mama Michi’s consultorio. She sits beside her altar looking bemused and buddha-like as fourteen of us find places to sit and stand. The students have decided among themselves which two will volunteer for curaciónes.P1120830

First, a diagnostic rub with the egg over head and body, before it (the egg) is cracked into a glass of water on Mama Michi’s altar, where it will settle and reveal its discoveries.eggMeanwhile, a cleansing with fire. We all gasp as flame seemingly shoots out of Mama Michi’s mouth with a great whoosh as she sprays an alcohol concoction through lit candles. (She first tells her patient to cover her hair and close her eyes.)P1120807

P1120808All around and up and down with the flames, including on the feet, where she tells the standing patient to stamp out the little blue flames dancing around on the mat (I know MM’s routines well, but this is new). Then, a light beating about the head and body with the handful of herbs and flowers, while Mama Michi invokes her special language to get rid of bad spirits or mal aire. I always hear this “OUT! OUT!” although I think it is in Kichwa. She throws the contaminated bouquet into the anteroom….diagnosis…and returns for a reading of the egg and the offering of a diagnosis. Trouble sleeping? A stomachache lately? Headache today?  General nervousness?  Usually, according to testimonials of those she treats, she is right on.

* * * * * * *

Cañar Book Club – March 2016

Books

I’d like to dedicate this month’s book club to my late mother, Adelene Blankenship, a great reader all her life. She usually had several books going at once because she was a delicate sleeper and she needed a particular kind of book by her bedside for nighttime reading: a history or biography or other non-fiction. “If I’m reading a novel and it’s too exciting, I won’t be able to sleep,” she would say. So – although I don’t have my mother’s sleep problems – I’m lately reading two books: one puts me to sleep within minutes and the other makes my heart beat faster and I save it for long bus rides. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, recommended by both my son and my husband, is a good read about two talented and dedicated men, supported through all their flying trials and tribulations by a talented and dedicated sister, Katherine, who of course has no place in the official history. Only in the epilogue does it mention that when she finally made a move on her own and married at age 58, her surviving brother would not speak to her until she was on her deathbed. So much for the history of flying.

My other book, The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander is about the dirty war in Argentina and the forced disappearance of a son (in the news lately with Obama’s visit  – see http://nyti.ms/21KSAh1 – “The Long Shadow of Argentina’s Dictatorship”). From the cover blurb: ” Englander …handles his unbearable subjects with the comic panache of a vaudeville artist…” which I found engaging in the first 200 pages but must confess that by now, with 100 pages to go, I’ve lost patience. So I cannot recommend this book, although I think the young writer is a very talented writer and I’ve enjoyed his New Yorker short stories.

Books recommended by friends this month, with their comments

  • Last Standing Woman, by Winona LaDuke. Lyrical novel written by, and from the viewpoint of, an Ojibwe woman on an Indian reservation in Minnesota.
  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.
  • Walking with Abel by Anna Badkhen. A wonderfully written and impassioned account a living a year with the Fulanis, the largest nomadic tribe in Sahelian Africa, set mainly in Northern Mali.
  • The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen.
  • The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, + newest My Name is Lucy Barton
  • All That Is by James Salter.
  • The story of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry was delightful, leaving me wishing I had a grandmother like the one in the story. I was certain a woman had written it. Wrong. The author, Fredrik Backman, is a 34-year-old Swede. I love Scandinavian men.
  • My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem’s autobiography.