The weather, a wedding and books

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

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

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

 

Cañar Book Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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