Dear Friends: I just re-read my very first Cañar Chronicle, written after our arrival in January 2013, and I was struck by how it reads much the same as the first post I wrote three weeks ago: house dusty and cobwebby, dogs and chickens occupying the yard, neighbors plowing the field below…This expression – “no hay novedades” (no-i-nov-e-da-daze) means, loosely, “nothing new,” and Michael and I always laugh at it because, every year, after six months away, when we ask José María, our taciturn compadre who takes care of things while we’re in Portland, he always answers the same: “no hay novedades,” even if the sky has fallen. Then he sits quiet for a long while before spilling out all the news of family, house, neighborhood, town and country. But we’re always happy to hear his sotto voce response because it means that nothing bad has happened – no one has broken into the house (it happened once), his daughter Lourdes with transplanted kidney is doing well, he still has his job as garbage collector with the municipality. In other words: all is well. And so it is with us – even with the chickens trying to join us inside the house.
My main focus these next few months will be recording oral histories of those who remember the hacienda period in Cañar, which didn’t come to an end until the late 60’s/early 70’s, with the agrarian reform. These interviews will be part of the larger Archivo Cultural de Cañar. I have long been interested in the history of the vast hacienda that dominated this area because our property is near the site of the Hacienda Guantug house, now a Catholic school. Picture a plantation of 116 square miles (30,000 hectares), with hundreds of workers/peones – near slaves – that extended through three climate zones. Each zone produced products for the hacienda owners: horses and cattle in the highlands (12,000+ feet); barley, wheat and potatoes in the region area around where we live (10,000+), and sugar cane and fruits in the lower sub-tropical areas.
Now, picture that all this had been inherited by a very wealthy, devout and single woman in Cuenca who, at her death in1956, left it to an order of nuns, Las Madres del Cristo Rey. In the photo above, by town photographer Rigoberto Navas, date unknown, you’ll see a few nuns among the hacienda workers. This week, I had a great start on the oral history project with three interviews – one with a woman whose father was a townsman (e.g.”white”) and administrator of the highland hacienda. Lolita provided an unfiltered child’s view of life on the hacienda when she described the twice-yearly visit of the nuns, who rode in on horseback with rolled-up sleeping mats to oversee the roundup and branding of cattle. They stayed a week to count their cattle. A second interview was with Antonio, who in the late 1960s was a young fired-up indigenous activist fighting to create agricultural cooperatives from the hacienda lands. Finally, I interviewed an ex-Peace Corps volunteer, George, who worked here in the late 1960’s and knew Antonio when he helped survey the highlands for the agrarian reform. George is visiting Cuenca, and so I grabbed the chance to hear his memories from 45 years ago as we viewed his beautiful photos, part of the archive. The first image is of the highland hacienda, Chuchucán; the second of Cañari comuneros working with George on the survey.At home, domestic life goes on. Michael is out planting our kitchen garden this morning, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do about the rooster and three hens, standing by and waiting to scratch out the seeds. (Later, when he goes to Cuenca, my job is to keep an eye out and shoo them away with a broom. I laugh as I watch them squeeze under the gate and indignantly march up the road. We’re hoping we can train the chickens to stay out of the garden – does anyone have advice on that?)We took our first long walk in the countryside around Cañar, and Michael couldn’t resist asking directions, even without a common language. As this old woman passed me by with her flock of sheep I think I heard her grumbling in Kichwa, “crazy gringo.”
The Cañar Book Club
Thanks to all who responded to my first book club meeting with recommendations of your own. I’ve already started a list for 2017 and will post it soon.
As for my own reading, a quick report: I have loved Oliver Sacks ever since The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and over the years have read most of his books and articles. I mourned his death in 2015 at age 82 – still vital, still writing, giving radio interviews, newly in love with a life-partner. So I was anxious to read On The Move, his autobiography. Turns out along with being a brilliant neurologist, he was a biker, weight lifter, serious amphetamine user, as well as a compulsive scribbler – exciting stuff. I will always miss him. Then I moved on to gentler territory with Family Album by Penelope Lively, a writer I’ve also much read and loved. But with this one I felt as though trapped in a 1950’s, starched BBC drama. This might be my last Lively book. Staying with families, I read My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. I must confess I did not understand the tremendous silence between mother and daughter, unable to communicate day in and day out while in a hospital room. Oh well, I would read anything by Elizabeth Strout after Olive Kittridge. I’m looking forward to The Burgess Boys.
Finally, I’m well into All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and find it riveting. Please keep your reading lists coming! I pay attention! Regards to all, and Happy Holidays.