Dear Friends: On this cold foggy afternoon, I look out the window where I sit at our dining room table and see our immediate neighbor to the west, Magdalena, doing her weekly washing in the small field behind her house. She pulls the clothes out of a big plastic basin sitting on the ground and rubs them hard with a bar of soap on a wedge-shaped tree trunk. The wedge is resting on a crude wooden box, propped up with bricks at each corner. It barely reaches 18 inches, but Magdalena is short and she has good leverage leaning over. She sloshes clean water from a bucket onto the pants and t-shirts of her teenage kids and her own bright wool skirts. She squeezes the water out and lays the clothes on the grassy ground beside her, to be hung on the barbed wire fence between our fields. I just checked the temperature outside: 55 degrees F. So I’m happy to see she is wearing rubber gloves, some slight protection. Now the fog is drifting in so thick I can barely see the long black braid that hangs down her back below the bottom of her pink sweater. Her white felt hat. Wool tights. Blue skirt. (Below: Magdalena several years ago when we were building our/her retaining wall).
There are no animals behind her house today – but we often see pigs (in a twig-and-stick shelter at the bottom of her land), sheep, a cow, chickens, and guinea pigs and rabbits in pens nearer the house. Magdalena owns another property up the mountain and the family seems to move their animals up and down. This is really a story about our neighbors and the views from our house, not an easy subject while I try to respect privacy and cultural differences. When we bought the Cañar property 12 years ago, we had an almost 140-degree panoramic view that ran from the west, where the clouds come up from the coast, to the north view of the high mountains (my header image), and to the east, where we could just see the lower mountains that mark the boundary with the Amazon basin (though a neighbor’s tall concrete wall already blocked some of that view). This magnificent panorama was the reason we bought the land and positioned our house so the windows in the living/dining area would capture it. A beautiful cypress tree at the bottom of our lot (belonging to our neighbor) framed the view of the mountains. I loved that tree, and used it in every panoramic photo at the time.I painted the block wall a dark green and planted vines (despite Michael’s protests that it was not our wall). We came back the next year to see our neighbor Miguel up in the tree hacking away at it with a machete. I foolishly ran down and asked him if he had to do that – it was such a beautiful tree. Yes, he said, its branches were bothering his señora in her wood-fire, tin-roofed kitchen. Now it looked like this (below), but I still loved it and our crops (here quinoa) helped harmonize the scene.After that, every year we came back to find drastic changes to our sector which, unbeknownst to us, had been slated for urbanización to accommodate the fast-growing region of Cañar. We watched as a private “charismatic church” was built on the other side of Magdalena, constructed higgledy-piggledy of concrete block with a large back wall blocking our view to the west. The field below that became a housing development when a local man bought the agricultural land, went to New York and sold most of the lots to migrants from Cañar. I grew a thick hedge to block all that, with only the steeple and cross showing above, and for awhile I liked the green-neon cross but it soon went out.Another year we came back to see that Miguel had chopped off the top of the tree and it looked very sick.Our neighbors are poor. Magdalena has at least four children but only the two youngest live with her now. Years ago she told us her husband was in the U.S. and sending money back to build a new house, but the towering pile of bricks that she gestured to as evidence then is still there, stacked near the road. Meanwhile, her family lives in two small wattle-and-daub structures that abut our property: a windowless cook shack and a slightly larger shack for sleeping. Years ago they added a separate bathroom.
Magdalena is illiterate, and she knows her survival depends on her willingness to fight. Years ago, when we finalized property lines, she argued fiercely about where a rock marked the edge of her property. Michael measured, then moved the marker 20 centimeters into our side and said he was giving her a little bit of our land. She was happy – then! But over the years, when she complained that our land was eroding down onto hers, we built a retaining wall; when she complained that our poplar tree was sending up seedlings in her dirt patio, we took it down. When she complained that our broom hedge was hanging onto her side, making it easier for thieves to creep in, we sent our garden-helper over to cut it back. Lately, when we run into one another on our road, Magdalena is very friendly.
MIGUEL: Miguel: lives to the northeast of us with his wife and children and grandchildren on a small lot. He’s older – between 60 and 70 – and mestizo, but like Magdalena he is poor. I frequently meet him on the road, always wearing a funny floppy cloth hat and raggedy clothes. Hola vecina! (neighbor) he always greets me. When we moved in, Miguel’s back stone wall bulged into our property. When doing measurements for our fence, Michael told Miguel we would keep the line as defined by his bulging wall. He was pleased.
Then, last year I was horrified to see a block construction going up directly in our view of the mountains. Miguel and helpers were building a house. But wait – they’re tearing it down. No, here it comes again, facing the other direction and even more intrusive of our view. Of course. we could say nothing. Miguel and his wife deserve a real house, however ugly and despite lack of zoning laws.
When we arrived last year, the tree and bulging rock wall were gone and in their place a 10-foot concrete block wall, with the hated rebar sticking up another ten feet in case Miguel wants to expand upward. The house is done and it’s a mess, with an adjacent shed with corrugated tin sheets making a sort of overlapping roof. On the outside of the wall facing us for some crazy reason – a padded headboard with a heart – and a big yellow tarp hangs down from his balcony, which is blocked off with a sort of wooden pallet.
This year Miguel complains that the vines I planted are climbing into his house – “almost into our bed,” – he joked. We sent the garden-helper to trim the vines. I asked in exchange that his grandkids stop throwing garbage into our field. Agreed. But what about that capuli tree? he asked, pointing to a volunteer cherry tree that I’m counting on to help partially cover up the wall. “The roots will be coming into our patio soon,” he said. “That’s MY tree,” I answered more strongly that I meant to, “and I don’t think the roots are coming for you.” He backed down and the tree stays. For now.
I look out one late afternoon at a beautiful sunset and see Miguel standing on his half-made balcony, dreamingly admiring the view – the same 140-degree panoramic view we once had. Ours now – if measured from wall to wall – is down to about 45-degrees. But Miguel and I admire the sunset together, neighbors coexisting for good or bad in our gorgeous little world.
Well, the members of our virtual book club have been quiet since the holidays, but I’d love to hear what new books have come your way, and what you are reading/liking/hating. For my part, I’m reading both non-fiction (lunch) and fiction (bedtime), a practice I learned from my mother to keep two books going. (In her case, it was to keep the dullest one for bedtime so the narrative wouldn’t get her excited and keep her awake.) I don’t have that problem, so I’m reading over lunchtime The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Heavy going, but I love the early history of “our” part of the world. Humboldt was an early explorer of Ecuador and, according to one map, I think he might have come through Cañar territory around 1801. At night, for relaxation, a fiction book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, by Anuradha Roy. The result of a mix-up: I thought I was reading the new book by Arundahati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Took me a while to figure that out, given the similarity of authors’ names and poetic titles. Not the brilliance of Arundahati Roy, but I’m enjoying it.
All for now. Stay in touch!