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

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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


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.

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Cañar Book Club – March 2016


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.

Books, books and more books, then and now

The best thing to happen in the last two weeks was the launch of a book here in Cañar that was originally published in Denmark in 1977: Juncal: una comunidad indigena en Ecuador (below: front & back covers)

juncal cover 089 (1)JUNCAL contraportadaProduced by anthropologists Niels Fock and Eva Krener, the book was one result of their research in 1973-74, and again in 1977, in the small hamlet of Juncal, nestled in a beautiful valley about 30 minutes from where I live. To give you an idea of this place, here is one of their photographs from that time:EK_077

I knew of Niels, well-known for his research in the Amazon and his writings on Cañar, but I knew nothing of this book until three years ago, when another anthropologist and friend, Jason Pribilsky, sent me a photocopy. Written by Eva, the book beautifully describes every aspect of daily life in Juncal during their time there. (I didn’t know that yet as I don’t read Danish, but I certainly recognised the importance of the great photos taken by Niels.)Juncal_1973-74_0106 Juncal_1973-74_0161 Juncal_1973-74_0170 (1) Juncal_1973-74_0175

At the time I was beginning to think about creating a digital archive of Cañar, so I sent Eva and Niels a formal snail-mail letter in Copenhagen: would they consider donating digital copies of the photos to the Cañar archive? And could I have a copy of their book? Back came a package with their book and the answer: yes, they would have their black/white negatives professionally scanned, and would I like to help (or maybe I offered?) publish a Spanish edition? 

Within months, I received scans of 500 images, with a spreadsheet with data on every image – an archivist’s dream!  Last year they sent another 300 scans of color slides. At our event last Friday, I showed a revolving slideshow of those  images, and the audience was riveted. Here was their village some 43 years ago.EK_004Fast forward: following a translation in Mexico, editing in Cañar, and a printing in Azogues, with support from the Casa de la Cultura and Municipio de Cañar, we had a Spanish edition of the book. On Friday, January 29, at a ceremonial event in the community, we gave copies to everyone who showed up – about 80 people. The young woman below is this year’s queen of Juncal, and she was in charge of getting a signature from each person who received a book. The older woman signed with a thumbprint, a reminder that in her time and place, when Niels and Eva were there, literacy was a luxury not available to many.ñustra y señora (1)It was a happy day. Tayta Geronimo, who had been the local young assistant to the anthropologists, is now an older man – he read the introduction he’d written for the new edition. Gregorio, a local teacher and town councillor who helped plan the event, claims he will translate the book into Kichwa. Here they pose with a banner of the back cover, a gift to the community.gregorio y geronimo
After the speeches, there was some dancing, then lunch at the church hall, and as we left town in the late afternoon, we saw everyone everywhere – young and old – sitting on park benches, in their doorways, or in their patios, reading the book or examining the back cover for someone they knew: grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents. History lives!P1120207.

The Cañar Book Club

"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books." –Jorge Luis Borges

“I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.” –Jorge Luis Borges

I was thrilled at the enthusiastic response to my first Cañar Book Club post, and I’m going to pass on all the great reading suggestions and comments. But first, my book report: I am not a happy reader these days. I just finished The Sound of Things Falling by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who annoyed me greatly with his protagonist’s macho, self-referential view of everything that happened to him in 1980’s Bogota. If I had been his wife, Aura, I’d have left him too and taken little Leticia with me. Then I started A Rose for Winter: Travels in Andalusia, by Laurie Lee, whose first book I’d loved (Cider with Rosie). I dunno. The language seemed so dated, the description of post-Civil War Spain so overblown. I put it aside to read with more patience while we will be traveling in Spain in May. At that moment, while on the bus to Cuenca, Michael handed over his just-finished book: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon  by David Gramm. So I started to read about the British explorer Percy Fawcett who in 1925 disappeared in the Brazil with his 20-year old son, Jack, and his son’s friend. What is it with men doing these crazy impossible things, and dying, and taking their sons with them? (Remember River of Doubt: Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey to the Amazon with his son, Kermit?) Fawcett had been on several other dangerous adventures, and if I’d been his wife, Nina, I’d have left him long before and taken Jack with me.

OK. Now to some recommendations from other readers:

  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon, by Anthony Marra. Just started and it’s great thus far.
  •  Foremost of pretty amazing novels I’ve read this year is Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I’d also include Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, and Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth.
  • I finished the second Ferrante book yesterday evening, relishing every detail of their friendship, but mostly riveted by the politics of class and gender.
  • I read all three of the Elena Ferrante books. Would love to talk to you about them.
  •  I abandoned Elena Ferrante 2/3rds of the way through book 1. Yes, obsessive detail and terribly repetitive (she likes the clever friend, she hates the clever friend, she likes the clever friend, she hates…)
  • Elizabeth is Missing. Superbly written sort of mystery from the point of a woman descending into dementia. Seriously exceptional
  • I just finished a lovely book by Colum McCann, Transatlantic. He is a wonderful writer whose book Let the Great World Spin is on my top 10 of books I’ve read in the last five years.
  • I am loving My Venice and Other Essays by Donna Leon, an American writer living in Venice for thirty years or so. Even better, if you enjoy her writing, you can start to read her twenty mystery novels that are really delightful: the adventures of Commissario Guido Brunetti.
  • For my lighter reading, I like the Louise Penny mysteries. Starting a new book called All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr for my trip to Germany. I recently finished an interesting book called These is My Words, a story inspired by the diaries of a pioneer woman.
  • The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace. Short fiction about Carnival in Trinidad. Very good for a Caribbean read!
  • All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky.
  • The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (slow & pretentious).
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by the guy who wrote the Kite Runner (can’t put it down).




The Pope, the Shaman, the Taxi Driver & U.S. Customs Agents

on the road to Guayaquil

on the road to Guayaquil

Well, I can’t resist one last Cañar Chronicle, given the prefect storm that accompanied our leaving Cañar last week. How could we have known when we made our reservations six months ago that El Papa would be flying into Ecuador the next day? That there would be no buses through Cañar because all were going straight to Guayaquil for the Pope’s mass, where a million people were expected? That protesters against President Correa would take advantage of the turmoil and close some roads around us the day before we were to travel? El Papa 2Making this trip more complicated (and interesting), Mama Michi was traveling with us to visit her daughter in the U.S. Fortunately, the day before our flight, and seeing trouble coming, we had hired Jacinto, our friend/taxi driver, to take us to Guayaquil. We agreed to leave Cañar at 3:00 for a flight on American at 11:00 PM.

As Jacinto tied Mama Michi’s two enormous bags on top of his car, I asked her why she was taking so much luggage for only a month’s visit. “It’s food,” she whispered. “I’m worried about the food there.” She was also, of course, taking typical Cañari fare as gifts for her family. I asked her to name what was in the bags: five cuyes (guinea pigs), cleaned and ready for cooking, and one already cooked; one rabbit cleaned and ready to cook; five bottles of Zhumir, the cane liquor so important at any ritual event; a bag of fresh shelly beans, another of peas and one of choclos (fresh field corn in husks) – all harvested from Mama Michi’s fields in the days before the trip; a bag of dried corn to make mote, an essential filler at every meal; and a pound of máchica, dried ground barley added to milk or other liquid for a drink that everyone loves; PLUS a big box full of tamales and chiviles (another type of tamale). Everything for the Andean diet except potatoes.mama michi now

After Jacinto picked up his wife – an unexpected fourth passenger – and stopped at the local roadside shrine to collect holy water, which he sprinkled on the car, on Michael in the front seat, and a few last drops on we three women crowded in the back, we were off…in plenty of time, so we accepted Jacinto’s invitation to stop at his “coast house” for beers. Every Cañarejo seems to want a warm place on the coastal plane, 9,000 feet below, where they can grow bananas and other sub-tropical crops not possible in Cañar. And have flowers galore. Here is Mama Michi posing with a “bear’s paw ” bush at Jacinto’s casita. She uses plants in her curaciones, so she was fascinated with the the flora. (A bundle of dried flowers and plants in one of her bags would figure in our near future.)

I should stop here and explain that Mama Michi (Mercedes Chuma) is one of our oldest friends in Cañar. I met her in 1991, on my very first trip to the (then) village for a meeting on a research project. I was a volunteer, ready to teach two young Cañari men photography and sound recording, and one of those young men was Mama Michi’s son, Jose Miguel. At a time of great distrust of outsiders, she welcomed me and found me amusing. She was an early and one of my best portrait subjects. Back then she was a community leader and a tired mother of 6 children with a sick husband, Serafin. After her husband died, Mama Michi became a curadera, a healer, or – as her passport says – shamán. She said she always knew she had the talent but her husband prevented her from practicing. Since then she has built an impressive business that has lifted her family well out of poverty. Mama Michi, however, did not have the advantage of an education beyond grade 3, and for that reason she needs to travel with someone – she cannot read nor write. Here she is in her first portrait, circa 1993.

Mama Michi Chuma

After the stop at Jacinto’s, it was a straight shot to the airport, except for a traffic police stop for no other reason than our out-of-province license plates and pure corrupt shakedown. We passengers watched in the rearview mirrors much arm-waving and angry gestures as the officers’ demand was negotiated down from $125, to $75, to $50, to $25. “Que disgracia! Que disgracia!” sweet, honest, religious Jacinto kept saying as he got back in the car. What a disgrace.MM & Michael in airport

me Mercedes in airportOnce at the airport we had plenty of time to relax and run into friends. Now that the US Consulate has begun to give out visas to Cañarejos, after years of refusing just about everyone, there’s lots of traffic visiting family, mostly in New York and New Jersey. Waiting, we ran into Mercedes Guamán, one of our first scholarship graduates and now a busy attorney and alternate member of the national congress.

At check-in, Mama Michi’s bags were overweight, and as I had a nearly empty suitcase I stuffed several unidentified packages from her bags into mine. “Bad idea, very bad idea,” Michael kept murmuring. But I forgot to ask MM about her carry-on, and that caused the first contretemps as we went through security. What are these? “Bottles of agua florida for my for my ceremonies,” she said. (Basically cologne with magic powers for “limpiezas, buena suerte, y protección.”) 

agua florida label agua florida

You can’t take those.  What’s this? “Olive oil, used for massages,” she said. Can’t take that, or that big tube of hand cream. And what is this? “My tupo, to hold my cape.” (A tupo is an essential part of every Cañari woman’s clothing – a sort of medallion with a small skewer about 4 inches long.) The security folks gathered around to test the point with their fingers, and shook their heads. I could see it was a beautiful silver tupo, maybe her mother’s, but in any case a treasured item. “You can’t take that,” I said. “It’s part of her heritage, her identity.” Without a word, one of the security women quietly stuck the tupo into a pocket of Mama Michi’s purse.

the long long hallway

OK. I think I’ll skip the drama of passing through Immigration in Miami at 4:30 AM, when Mama Michi was lost for an hour and a half in the visa-holders’ line and no one could let us go back to look for her once we had passed through the US citizens’ line. After a tearful reunion we grabbed our bags and rushed to customs, fearing we would miss our flight to Chicago. (Meanwhile I’d transferred her goods from my bags to hers.) There, Mama Michi’s luggage was opened by an agent to reveal all the glory of her hard work and planning and preparing and packing. Polite young agents who spoke Spanish gathered around and began to look for insects in her beans and corn and peas. “Yes, there’s a laper-something,” (Latin name) said one young agent, carefully peeling back the husks of an ear of corn with vinyl gloves. A young woman came over with a small vial to collect a nearly microscopic bug. “Can’t take the corn, sorry” he said in Spanish, very polite.  Oops, what’s that worm we see in the beans?  Sorry can’t take those. Nor the peas. What else do you have?

With that Mama Michi began the litany of goods: surprisingly, raw guinea pig was OK, but not beef or pork (she had none). Bottles of Zhumir, no problem. Dried corn and barley, fine. The bundle of dried flowers and herbs, OK. And the large box of cooked tamales and chiviles – looks good! YOU MAY GO.

By the time we were done, we had missed our flight to Chicago. That meant lining up to be re-routed with hundreds of other international travelers who had missed their connections. But again, very nice American Airlines helpers who spoke Spanish, all interested in Mama Michi, and in keeping us together for the remainder of the trip. “What tribe are you from?” asked someone along the way?  “Is she from Peru?” asked another. “May I speak to her?”

It was barely 9:00 when we were liberated into the Miami airport, exhausted, with two long flights still ahead, but we’d got to Guayaquil despite the Pope’s visit, survived Immigration and US Customs, and could begin to recover with coffee, breakfast, and a bit of rest.