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….

Feliz Año 2017

Dear Friends:  Well, Año Viejo made up for all we missed at Christmas. At least that was the case for me, as Michael decided not to make the long, panting hike up the mountain to join the end-of-year procession that lasted all afternoon and into the evening, through heavy fog and sprinkling rain, and finally included about 1000 folks (almost all in incredible masks and disguises). Michael and Paiwa, visiting for the holiday, stayed happily by the fire, but I joined them later for an important event at our house.  It was a wonderful experience! This annual celebration on the last day of the year is apparently unique to the community of Quilloac, made up of about eight or so comunas – distinct hamlets, each with a theme they were to act out with disguises and masks. We hiked to each comuna, where a stage was set for a short program before we marched on with those comuneros joining. I confess I couldn’t tell one theme from another, but the masks and costumes were very funny – many men dressed as women and maybe women dressed as men – harder to tell. Those in disguise stayed in character all day – giving speeches at each comuna – (someone dressed as an elder speaking in high, quivering voice, for example). Many jokes in Kichwa passed me by, but the crowd loved every minute, and for me the visual spectacle made it all worthwhile. This guy below pushed a stroller with two “babies” the whole day.  

But by the end of the day, after climbing up over 11,000 feet and shooting all day, I was too tired and cold to wait for the performances at the end point- the Quilloac school complex – and to hear who had won prizes for the best themes.     

I have to give credit here to my excellent assistant, godson Luis Gabriel, ten years old, who took charge of my pocket camera and charged up the mountain ahead of me to shoot photos as I was left breathless on the roadside.. (That is his mother Mercedes behind him on his right – an old friend, early scholarship graduate, lawyer, with other community leaders who invited me for this event. What I missed later was the burning of the giant effigies at midnight, after the performances and music and dancing. Earlier I’d seen students building them.

  

But then we had our own event back at home. Paiwa had found a small monigote in town (a cousin of Spongebob Squarepants) and brought it to Michael to make an effigy. It worked perfectly with the Trump mask he’d found last week. They dressed him up with my garden gloves and made a bonfire ready to light when I got home about 7:00.

 We were in bed with our books by 9:30 or so, but awakened abruptly at midnight with volleys of bombas – some sounding as though on top of our house – and fireworks near and far that went on for about 15 minutes. Then all was quiet and we knew 2017 was here…

Peace on earth?

Dear Friends: I’ve had a hard time coming up with a holiday message this year, so I’m going to start with a huge thanks to all of you who’ve donated to the Cañari Women’s Scholarship Fund. In my November fundraising letter, I noted that we have twelve graduates. But once back in Cañar, I went through our files and discovered we have, in fact, sixteen graduates – in fields from medicine, law, nursing, accounting, dentistry, psychology, nutrition, tourism, to communication. (You can read the letter here.) Plus eleven women are currently studying at state universities, including in architecture, engineering, gastronomy and medicine. (Official thank-you letters with tax # go out later this week, but it’s not too late. If you’d like contribute, you’ll find that information below).

One of the hopes for our program was that graduates would return to their communities or the region to work as professionals. And it is a great satisfaction to see this has happened. (Cañari women tend to stay close to home and marry within their communities.) In my daily rounds in town, I might walk by Pacha’s dental office (left), or run into Obdulia who works as a psychologist at the nearby Asilo de Ancianos (home for indigent elderly)
(right) or see Mercedes’s white hat bobbing in the window of her law office off the square. Luisa, recently graduated as a physician, is working at the local hospital. Here she is with her first post-delivery exam.

Juana, a 2015 graduate in veterinary medicine, has just won a scholarship for a master’s degree in Mexico. She leaves in a couple of weeks and it will be interesting to see where her life takes her. The fund supports our graduates in master’s degree programs up to $3000 over two years. Juana marks the third scholarship women to take advantage of this benefit.

(OK – If you’d like to contribute, you may send a check to: CWEF at 2147 NW Irving St., Portland, OR 97210, or use PayPal here.

Christmas in Cañar

This being our first time to spend the holidays in Cañar I didn’t know what to expect: relief at being away from the U.S. Christmas hustle? (Not to mention the year’s disappointments and fears for the future?) Pleasure at being in an environment we know well but with new schedule and customs?  We don’t count ourselves as Christians so the holiday has no religious significance for us. But the experience has been decidedly mixed. Although we enjoyed the quietness we craved on Christmas Day, I was surprised to feel a bit bereft as I walked into town and heard fiestas and family gatherings going on around me. I’d neglected to arrange anything or let friends know we are here, so we were not invited to anything and no one stopped by. Rather pathetically, we marked the day with Michael rearranging his wood pile and I completing (not very successfully)  an on-line sketching exercise.

 Skype calls to my sisters and son and grandsons helped, and emails from friends in Portland and elsewhere, but I’ve learned a few things for next time. (Note: Michael will have a hard time signing off on any of these.)

  • Make definite plans for Christmas Day
  • Make the rounds of friends in Cañar to let them know we are here
  • Do something thoughtful for others, such as make cookies (ha! – that’ll be me)
  • Invite folks to our house
  • Take a trip to the coast or Amazon, like so many others
  • If we choose the above, make sure we have bus tickets ahead of time, as travel is difficult during the holidays.
  • Maybe stay at home in Portland.

We do have a big event coming up that I will write about next week. Año Viejo (New Year’s Eve) will be a festival of processions and masks and effigies and bonfires to burn all the rubbish from 2016 and prepare for 2017. We’ve already bought a Trump mask and Michael plans to make a monigote – an effigy. You can guess his subject.

The Cañar Book Club

I’ve received many great reading suggestions from friends I want to pass on, along with their comments. If I’ve forgotten any of your titles, please send again. Also, combing the end-of-year “best of 2016” books has provided ideas for my 2017 wish list.

YOUR LIST

  • Once Upon a Time, Marina Warner (the history of fairy tales)
  • Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
  • Even Silence Has an End, Ingrid Betancourt writes about her six years as captive of FARC in Colombian jungle.
  • All That Man Is, David Szalay (beautifully written fiction on nine different men in various international locations)
  • Unseen City, Nathanael Johnson (intense exploration of how nature flourishes in urban habitats)
  • The Sympathiser, Viet Thanh Nguyen (the story of end of Vietnam war and lives of refugees in years after fall of Saigon)
  • The Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi (confronts us with the involvement of Africans in the enslavement of their own people)

2017 WISH LIST. Looking it over, my guess is I got the majority of these titles from the New York Times list or Guardian Bookmarks (in blue).

  • Days Without End, Sebastian Barry
  • Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
  • Before the Fall, Noah Hawley
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien
  • The Gloaming, Melanie Finn
  • Iza’s Ballad, Magda Szabo.
  • Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Arlie Russell Hochschild
  • Climbing DaysDan Richards
  • THE LIFE-WRITER. David Constantine. 
  • THE NORTH WATER. BIan McGuire
  • REPUTATIONS. Juan Gabriel Vásquez. A slender but impactful Colombian novel about a political cartoonist who re-examines his accusations against a politician
  • STILL HERE, Lara Vapnyar.  follows the intertwined lives of four immigrants in New York City as they grapple with love and tumult, the challenges of a new home, and the absurdities of the digital age.
  • THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. By Colson Whitehead. (Winner of all sorts of award and birthday gift to my son Scott)
  • THE VEGETARIAN. By Han Kang. This novella in three parts is both thriller and parable. The winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.
  • WAR AND TURPENTINE. By Stefan Hertmans. A masterly novel about memory, art, love and war, based on the author’s grandfather’s notebooks.
  • WEATHERING. By Lucy Wood. This poetic debut novel, set in a damp house near a roaring river, explores the relationship between mothers and daughters.
  • IN THE DARKROOM. By Susan Faludi. … a rich and ultimately generous investigation of her long-estranged father, who suddenly contacted her from his home in Hungary after undergoing gender-reassignment surgery at the age of 76.
  • WHEN IN FRENCH: Love in a Second Language. By Lauren Collins. New Yorker staff writer married to a Frenchman, writes a very personal memoir about love and language, shrewdly assessing how language affects our lives.
  • WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. By Nancy Isenberg. A masterly and ambitious cultural history of changing concepts of class and inferiority..

 

 

 

“No hay novedades”

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.”

And a final shot of M’s cook shack at foggy dusk, grilled pork chops coming our way….

The Cañar Book Club

Girls in Juncal reading the book about their community.

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.