Girona, Spain: two peoples, a thousand years apart, each calling for autonomy

Featured

We have landed in the small city of Girona in the far northeast corner of Spain, part of the Catalonia region. It’s a city we’d never heard of but chose because (1) we wanted to avoid the madding crowds of Barcelona, (2) it was near the Pyrenees mountains and good for scenery, and (3) it would be a good base from which to explore the nearby Costa Brava, where we’d take peaceful walks along the spectacular Mediterranean coastline and visit the Dalí Museum.

None of that happened once we realized that the tourist crowds of Barcelona were heading to or coming back from the Costa Brava, with the Dalí museum a de rigueur stop.

WHERE WE DID NOT GO….

But in Girona we found a beautiful medieval town with two intriguing chapters of human history, a thousand years distant, with each group wanting only self determination to maintain their culture, language, rights, customs, and rituals: a Jewish community that thrived here for 600 years, from the 9th-14th century, and a 21st-century Catalonia community with its own unique identity, including a language that is not related to Spanish.

The juxtaposition of these two histories marked our visit to Girona: the Jewish community that was destroyed by extreme persecution, the Spanish inquisition and eventual expulsion from Spain, and the Catalans who are still here and fighting for autonomy and independence from the rest of Spain..

The walled city of Girona, as with so much of historic Spain, changed hands regularly with invasions, wars, regional conflicts, the inquisition, immigration and emigration. The first inhabitants were prehistoric Iberians (migrating Celtic peoples), then came the Romans (4th century), followed by Visigoths and Moors (8th century), and in the 9th century Christians wrested the region of Girona from the Moors in a re-conquest at the hands of a local called Wilfred the Hairy (really! Guifré el Pilós). He re-populated areas the Moors had left, established laws of inherited titles and land, and is often credited with being the founder of independent Catalonia. Here is here below fighting a dragon.

In Girona, we found the remains of the Jewish community in a puzzle of labyrinthine streets in the old town and an excellent new Museum of Jewish History built on the site of an ancient synagogue and mikvah (ritual bath). https://bit.ly/2w1ml6F

The Jewish Quarter (aljama) in Girona, which dates back to at least the 9th century, grew up in the old town around the Cathedral, with synagogue, baths, butcher shop, book binders and sellers, shoemakers, tailors, weavers, midwives, and money lenders. For 600 years the community thrived, as Jews became a prosperous and influential part the city’s life, although always ruled over by – and in alliances with – the Christian rulers.

In the museum we saw original documents such as elaborate marriage agreements (if one was destroyed by fire, the couple was no longer considered married until a new one was drawn up,) massive medieval gravestones with Hebrew text that we couldn’t believe they moved into the space (we later saw a photo – power lifted through an opening in stone walls) and archeological finds such as 13-14th century ceramic jugs and silver earrings,

Michael in courtyard of old synagogue

All this changed in the 14th century, when the Jewish quarter became a target of racist attacks, then an isolated ghetto with Jews banned from the rest of the city, and In the year 1391 a violent attack wiped out half the Jewish population and ordered those who remained to convert to Christianity. Those who refused to convert, or were suspected of following their religious rituals or practices, were denounced, imprisoned for life, or burned alive. The Inquisition destroyed any remnants of the aljama and in 1492, as Columbus sailed for the New World, all Jews were expelled from Spain. Our time in the museum and after, walking the ancient streets of Girona as the city prepared for its annual flower festival, it was hard to grasp the inhumanity and cruelty of human beings to one another…

“629 were burned alive and and 609 who had fled were burned in effigy.”

Leaving the Museum of Jewish History we saw everywhere pro-independence banners and flags (with a single star) and the ubiquitous yellow lapel pins. Photos of political prisoners hung large on buildings with signs like the one below.

The leader of one of two pro-independence parties, Carles Puigdemont, a journalist and politician, is from Girona. Two years ago the Spanish government forcible removed him and others from office in the Catalan parliament after an unofficial referendum in 2017 – when 92% voted “yes” – and the parliament declared independence from Spain. The leaders were charged with rebellion and misuse of public funds. Puigdemont fled the country, lives in exile in Belgium, and last week was re-elected in absentia as president of his party.

Two activists and seven politicians remain in prison. We saw banners and their photos here in Girona and all over in Catalonia – including yellow ribbons strung along highway fences.

We were ready to leave Girona and politics behind and travel to the beautiful village of Besalú. There we stayed five days and found an HBO film crew preparing the historic center for a shoot of the third season of Westworld (??): sand bags (filled with nut shells), barricades, vintage clothes hanging from windows half-covered with wooden planks. I think there’s a Spanish Civil War theme going here, but we didn’t ask.

Cañar Book Club

Spain reads! There are bookstores in every town, large magazine stands on the streets, and in Catalonia free books exchanges in the bus stations. Our Cañar book club had a short meeting this time, but I’m happy to pass on some comments and recommendations from some of our most active members, and a report of my desultory reading in Spain.

Patty from Portland writes: “Brother by David Chariandy was suggested by your book club. Very good and you will recognize Toronto/Scarborough – all places are accurate. Maggie O’Farrell is new to me but what a storyteller she is! On my third novel and I can’t put her down.”

And Claire from London: I can’t remember who mentioned the book, West by Carys Davies, but I wanted to thank them as I’d never heard of it – or indeed the author before. She writes extraordinary prose, taut and concise but at the same time incredibly descriptive. It’s a thin book which could have done with a few more pages to flesh out some of her descriptions and ideas! Never mind, I still wanted to turn the page to find out what happened next and I did feel transported to late 19th century U.S. 

Claire goes on to add: Now here’s a weird thing that happened. I was finishing the book on a bus home one evening and a man approached me to ask if he could take a picture of me reading it to share with the author who, he said, was a good friend! I declined. I’m not of the selfie/instagram generation and found it a bit uncomfortable, even more so when he then confessed that he had two copies of the book at home but hadn’t yet read it! 

And from Arlene in Toronto: Yes, I am the one who recommended Carys Davies. I think her book The Redemption of Galen Pike is even more exhilarating to read than West.

Alan in New Jersey is reading Klondike Fever by Pierre Berton. “He goes into great detail about a lot of boys on a mission and what greed can do to them. I read Berton’s two volumes about the War of 1812. That’s when I found out that the oral history we have about an ancestor of ours in that war is about four thirds untrue.”

From Pat in Bend, Oregon: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver about life in precarious times when the foundations of the past fail to prepare us for the future. It’s a story of two families in two different centuries that live precariously on the corner of 6th and Plum in Vineland, NJ, a former utopian community.”

Laura in New York recommends The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

From my sister Char: The Principles of Uncertainty, written and illustrated by Maira Kalman. “I’m sure most of you have read her, but this book is a real journey. Just the title made it relevant for today: the eternal question of who are we and what are we, with a touch of the Holocaust, growing old, fashion, hairdos and dogs.”

And finally, from Patricia in Cuenca: The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison. “A new collection of essays and lectures spanning four decades of the author’s career that cements her status as an unparalleled literary innovator.”

My own reading during this past month: Voices of the Old Sea, by Norman Lewis, based on his memories of post-WW II Costa Brava and the book that made me want to visit the area. It was as enjoyable a read this time as it was a few years ago, though I was shocked that he described Besalú (the village we loved) as …”an unattractive town built round a hundred yards of third-class highway.” I think he got it confused with somewhere else!

A Penelope Lively book I found in a thrift store in Madrid, How it All Began, a sweet and wry novel that starts with the street mugging of an older woman and the “butterfly effect” as lives around her intersect. I’ve always loved Lively and this felt like we’re old friends growing older together. I note her new book is Life In the Garden – now on my list.

There were a couple of other forgettable books as I ran out of reading material, but I have a prize in my carry-on bag for the 12-hour flight back to Ecuador tomorrow, given me by my sister before she left Madrid: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje – another writer that’s been a part of my life since I read The Collected Works of Billy the Kid while doing a typing stint in Toronto at Coach House Press, his first publisher.

Well dear readers, that’s it for now – it was not such a short meeting after all. Keep the book club recommendations coming and I’ll make one final Cañar Chronicle in June before we return to Portland in July.

The Winds of Change

We came back from Spain on June 1 to Cañar’s equatorial winter – unrelenting wind and cold and rain with night (and sometimes day) temperatures in the 40s. No heat other than the fireplace, which Michael keeps going all day now.

Three sweaters, wool cap, and boots, trying to work by fire.

We’d forgotten that we like to be in Portland by June, but our house was firmly rented until July 1, so here we are. I’d picked up a respiratory virus the last days in Spain and the first couple of weeks here were devoted to following everyone’s home remedies: milk with garlic before bed; tea made of violets; ginger, garlic, honey and rum hot toddy; Hedera helix (ivy leaf) extract expectorant; and so on. But with a virus like this you just have to ride it out…

Meanwhile we fall back into our usual routines. Market on Sundays.

My herb and flower vendor in market. “Drink the violet tea three times a day.”
Cesar, Michael’s fish guy: “Bring me a hat like yours next year!”

Our near neighbor Magdalena, after years of living in a near hovel with several children, is building a mega-migrant house, two-and-a-half stories flush with our property line, as is the practice here. We have tall shrubs and trees that mitigate the view somewhat, but we can only be happy that Magdalena – and it appears new daughters-in-law and babies and maybe a new son-in-law – have a house. Magdalena’s husband has been in the U.S. as long as we’ve been here. We assume. Magdalena is rather fierce with us – guardedly friendly but no exchange of information. Probably because we share a property line – a very delicate business here and we did have a few issues years back when she insisted her property line was “where the rock used to be.” But someone has obviously been sending money and Magdalena has had a pile of bricks waiting for years for this important moment in the lives of migrant families: pay off the debt, send a son or daughter, then begin saving money for a truck or house.

We see these houses everywhere – oversized, mostly badly designed, made of concrete block or brick, but the source of great pride with the family. Then they sit empty for a few years before a For Sale sign goes up. I don’t really understand all of this.`

Then there is my gardening, or my “zen” gardening as I think of it, because no matter how many weeds I pull, how much I prune, plant and plan, when I come back six months later everything has returned to its original state. The kikuyu African grass has invaded the flower beds, the fuchsia bush outside our bedroom window – that I cut back every year before we leave – is as bushy and invasive as ever. The vegetable garden, planted by our compadres who watch the house, is overpopulated with way too much cabbage, onions, cauliflower and lettuces. More than we can ever eat, and they refuse to take the produce to market, insisting it for us. So, a lot goes to waste, but before we leave, I usually do the same – plant vegetables for them (not this year, too cold!)

Another part of our agricultural cycle happens in the back field, where our compadres plant. The corn and beans are done, the field is covered in sticky weeds and two days ago we looked out to see two bulls and two sheep at work, eating all that remains. Such an efficient system! They fertilize while they eat, of course, and once the field is cleared – in a week or two – Jose María and Narcisa will till the field using the same bulls yoked to a wooden plow. And, I suspect, those same sheep will be chomping on the grass around the house while we’re gone.

Finally, this particular June will be memorable because, after 18 months of frustrating paperwork, innumerable trips to Cuenca and Azogues (regional capital) to a horrible building called “Center of Citizen Attention (see above image), several moments of my head-on-desk in front of a government agent – “no es possible…” when I was turned down once again because of an error made 10 years ago at an airport in my passport, or a mistaken date in an office in Quito – I HAVE A NEW VISA! I didn’t cry during the process, which has taken such a chunk out of my time here in 2018 and 2019, though I was tempted at times. When I told the agent this past week that this has been the worst experience of my 15 years living in Ecuador, she didn’t blink. Then, because it had just happened as I was waiting, I said – “And a man just walked by sobbing!” “That’s different,” she said, “he’s from Venezuela,” as though that made a difference. (There has been a huge waves of Venezuelans coming to Ecuador, trying to work and make new lives.)

Anyway, three days ago I had my last interview when I knew I’d cleared all the hurdles. I gave the agent my two passports, old and new. She asked me to go into the waiting room while she processed the visa. I asked if I could observe. No. She called me back in a few minutes, handed my the passports and said, “Your visa is in an email.” I couldn’t believe it. Do I stick it in my passport? I asked. “No, no just carry the paper with you as you leave and come into the country.” Here it is

An interesting update to my last post about the Jewish community in Gerona, Spain from my favorite daily blog, Spitalfields Life. “Built in 1901, the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London is the oldest synagogue in the UK, and it has been continuously in use for over three hundred years, … Its origin lies with Spanish and Portuguese Jews who came to London in the seventeenth century, escaping persecution of the Catholic Church and taking advantage of a greater religious tolerance in this country under Oliver Cromwell’s rule. When war broke out between England and Spain in 1654, Antonio Robles, a wealthy merchant, went to court to prove that he was Jewish rather than Spanish – establishing a legal precedent which permitted Jewish people to live freely in this country for the first time since their expulsion by Edward I in 1290.”

The Cañar Book Club

Coming back from Spain, my worst reader’s fears were realized when I saw I was out of books. I had loaded one on my mini-iPad for the trip – my first ever ebook – and I turned back to that source out of desperation. That took me down the rabbit-hole of Amazon’s 1-click buy (click-bait?) and I haven’t stopped ordering books since, and reading at a much faster pace, for some reason (partly, all the bus reading time for visa business). So, graded by stars: The Hand that Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell (****), West by Cary Davies (***), Educated by Tara Westover (****), The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai (**), Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (****), and The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (*). This was getting expensive and I had to stop. It occured to me I could order ebooks from my home library and I put in a couple of titles. Normal People by Sally Rooney – over 500 holds!

So, now I’m back to re-reading “paper” books from my Cañar shelves, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor, a favorite author, and My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, a prequel to Anything is Possible. Those’ll take me home to Portland, next week, June 30, when I’ll start stockpiling books for next year’s trip to Ecuador.

Meanwhile, some faithful book club members have stayed active through June. Here are their comments.

Irene from Salem sent my all-time favorite title:.  The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Author?

Maggi Redmonds from Toronto: The End of Days: A Story of Tolerance, Tyranny and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, by Erna Paris,

Patty in Portland: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez and Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck.

Joanne in Portland read The Great Believers on the plane back from Philly and loved it; also started The Ninth Hour – a bit dark but excellent writing. Before that she read Say Nothing, which was really compelling and she loved Milkman. (Not everyone does.) And like me and hundreds of others, she’s on the list at the library for both of Sally Rooney’s novels.

Mel in Vermont is reading Michael Ondaatje’s Cat’s Table.

My sister Sherry in Santa Fe: reading the best book! The Night Of The Gun by David Carr

Who sent this? I’m sorry to say I lost track, but it goes so beautifully with my previous post and the update above. The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish. This is about descendants of Portuguese Jews who escaped the inquisition by moving to Britain, and how modern-day researchers uncovered this history through 17th century manuscripts found in an English home.

Fond regards to all.

Of “Dioses y Diablos” (and visiting angels)

Dear Friends: I love it when things turn out the way you’ve hoped and planned. A couple of years ago, I came across an article published in 1984 by an anthropological linguist from England, Rosaleen Howard, “Dyablu Its Meanings in Cañar Quichua Oral Narrative.” I took note, as published material on Cañar is rare, and when I later came across her book, Dioses y Diablos: tradicion oral de Cañar, Ecuador, (Gods and Devils: Oral Tradition in Cañar, Ecuador) with more than 50 Cañari myths and legends, recorded in Quichua and transcribed into Spanish, I knew I had to find her and invite her back to Cañar. So I began to search by the Internet and email…and searched, and searched. No luck. Finally, about a year ago, my contact at University of Texas gave me Rosaleen’s correct address. Success! She answered immediately, delighted to have been found.

She is Director of the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Chair of Hispanic Studies – School of Modern Languages, at Newcastle University in the U.K. She wrote that she’s now doing research primarily in Peru and Bolivia but was already planning a trip back to Ecuador. I described the Archivo Cultural de Cañar, and the great importance to the Cañari community to have access to these stories, in live recordings and written text. Could we find a time to work together in Cañar? We began to compare our schedules and plan.

Spoiler alert: she’s here! Barely a day after she arrived last week, she gave her first talk on Cañari myths and music to an audience of bilingual (Kichwa/Spanish) teachers, administrators, students, and one of the original narrators from 1976, Pedro Duy (on her left in photo). Everyone loves that Rosaleen speaks Kichwa. And I was so pleased to present her in the name of the Archivo Cultural de los Cañaris, and just that morning had delivered our new banner with the name in Kichwa.

Rosaleen was in her twenties in the 1970’s when she came to Cañar to do her doctoral research, when this was a dark and dreary place with no electricity in the villages, no roads, no amenities such as potable water. The agrarian reform had barely begun, this was pre-migration, and the people were poor. In our working visits to villages to interview those narrators still alive, she marveled at the changes.

Our first visit was to the village of Juncal to speak to Gerónimo Guasco Guamán, one of Rosaleen’s original narrators 43 years ago, and whom I know from my work with the book of Danish anthropologists Niels Fock and Eva Krener, which we published in Spanish as Juncal: Una comunidad indígena del ecuador in 2016. Tayta Gerónimo wrote the introduction that edition. It was a gorgeous day when we took a taxi/truck about 20 kilometers away to a spectacular mountain valley that has changed little, geographically speaking (sheep are still there too).

Since we published Juncal in Spanish, I’ve been working with three bilingual educators to translate it into Kichwa and the day of our visit I took a mock-up of the new version to show Tayta Geronimo and his wife, Rosario María. After the family gathered around for a look…

…Mama Rosario took possession of the book and worked through every page, identifying people and places, including a photo of herself in a distant field. She couldn’t have cared less about the text; it was the images that transported her back almost 50 years. A wonderful moment for me as a photo archivist – I only wish I had recorded her information.

Rosaleen waited patiently to talk to Tayta Gerónimo. Although he can’t hear well, she wanted to play one of his recorded stories, so he held two little speakers to his ears and was delighted to listen to a long story he’d recorded with her in 1976.

Next day we made a visit to the village La Capilla, near Cañar, where we met two original narrators: Pedro Duy and Segundo Avelino. After a tasty lunch of fried trout (it was Good Friday), Rosaleen took out her computer to show photos she’d taken in 1976. Suddenly, Segundo said, “That’s me, joven!” as he pointed to a young man in the back of a truck dressed for a fiesta.

And there he was, as a young man, 43 years ago (back right, with banner across chest, holding hat). Very excited, Segundo said he had to have a copy of the photo, and we sat there for a moment, thinking. Then – this being 2019 – he took his iPhone out of his pocket and made a copy from the computer screen.

That led to reminiscing, which led to the proper moment for Rosaleen to take out her recorder and ask how things have changed since 1976. It was a mostly a sad litany, with some nostalgia: “We’ve lost our language, our traditional clothing, our agricultural practices, our music (Pedro gave up the accordion ten years ago), and so on…

But then we look around at Pedro’s and Laura’s large and comfortable house and enclosed patio. At 71 years, Pedro still works on the mountain with his animals and crops. His daughter, Laura, has just graduated from the University of Cuenca. Segundo mentions his horses and cattle, and shows us his Borsalino cowboy hat (he’d given up the white Cañari hat from the photo). In this particular community it appears there has been a shift from Cañari culture to a mestizo life, but these folks are vital into old age, tending their crops and animals, educating their children, living in good houses, and they are no longer poor.

After, Rosaleen and I took the long way home, walking along unknown roads that dead-ended in steep pathways, to finally reach our house in time for wine, the fire, and Michael’s dinner of BBQ’d pork chops and mashed potatoes, plus salad with homemade pickled beets. Ahhh…

Rosaleen will present her work this week at two universities in the area, then head back to Guayaquil, Quito and Newcastle. But I’m happy to say she’s already planning her next trip back to Cañar. Yupaychani, Rosaleen, and come back soon!

The Cañar Book Club is BACK!

Two young women in Juncal perusing their new book, Juncal, una comunidad indígena en Ecuador, March 2016.

Many of my dear book club members were outraged that we skipped a meeting of the Cañar Book Club in the March blog, and I apologize. One should never be too busy to pass on recommendations of good books. So here they are a month late – and I promise never to miss a meeting again (except for next month, when I’ll be in Spain).

From Claire in London as she was leaving for a holiday: Tangerine by Christine Mangan that was strongly recommended by the cashier at bookstore. And I’ve just started The Capital by Robert Menasse. She adds: “anything by Maggie O’Farrell, my go-to when I can’t think what else to read; I’m going to run out soon.” Judy’s comment: I agree on Maggie O’Farrell. She never disappoints.

And from my great archive collaborators, the Peace Corps guys who served in Cañar in the 1960s. Alan, in New Jersey, recommends: The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. And Dan, in Florida: “The Woman in the Window,” a novel by A.J. Finn, Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, a nonfiction work by Grace Humiston, set in early 20th century New York, about the city’s first female detective. Finally, Gringolandia by Matthew Hayes, a Canadian sociology professor who writes about the ex-pat community in Cuenca, Ecuador. “He’s not exactly an Oscar Lewis but some of his interviews with expats are very illuminating.” 

From Sandy a reader in Portland of serious books: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, These Truths: A History of the United States, Jill Lepore, and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. ” I still find myself reacting to Citizen. Partly because I had to read it multiple times to even come close to understanding it all. I really do think it is one of the best books I have ever read.”

From Pat in Bend, Oregon: Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif:  “A Saudi woman who suffered the culture of her country, worked to reform the treatment of women, ended up in prison, and eventually emigrated. Her answers are ambivalent; she loves her country, but her country’s culture brutalizes women.

From Arlene in Toronto: Brother by David Chariandy: “beautiful short novel that won the Toronto Book Award and Rogers Fiction Prize about two brothers of Trinidadian descent growing up in Scarborough.” The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: “a feminist rewriting of The Iliad from the point of view of the Trojan Women.” (Judy’s note: I love anything by Pat Barker; this one goes on my list.) The Five Invitations: What Death Can Teach Us about Living Fully by Frank Ostaseski, the founder of the Zen Project Hospice in San Francisco. Women Talking by Miriam Toews (See the recent New Yorker profile here: https://bit.ly/2Frwe3a.) And The Redemption of Galen Pike a book of short stories by Carys Davies. “I think her work is spectacular. I roll her sentences around on my tongue as though they were delicious food. Am reading her West: A Novel right now.” (Judy’s note: I don’t know this writer but reading the rave reviews and awards, I certainly plan to bring her with me to Cañar next year.)

From Patty in Portland. “Just finished Becoming and loved it. Michelle’s story is amazing Made me miss the Obama White House even more.”

From my sister Char in Santa Fe: Figuring by Maria Popova. “It will take me all year to read it, but every page is wonderful. I’m also reading The Wife by Meg Wolitzer, which is well written with a sense of extraordinary observation. I like it. Haven’t seen the film.” (Judy’s comment: Glenn Close certainly should have won the Oscar for the film. See if if you haven’t!)

From Nancy In Portland: Pig Boy’s Wicked Bird by Doug Crandell about life with his sharecropper parents and four siblings (Derrick, Darren, Dina and Dana) during one particular year in childhood, 1976. Poe Ballantine (one of my favorite Sun essayists) wrpte Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. Takes place in Nebraska.” Judy’s comment: After this I get to say that my birthplace (Nebraska) was the ‘howling plains of nowhere.’

Phew! That was a long meeting with lots of good book suggestions. So I’ll keep my part brief by saying my greatest fear has been realized: I’ve run out of books and it’s only April! My last good read was The Company You Keep by Neil Gordon, a writer who died too young after producing two other great books: Sacrifice of Isaac and The Gunrunner’s Daughter. All complicated stories that require a lot of attention, but my favorite was the last as it deals with the underground life of Vietnam War protestors from the famous Weather Underground. A lot of factual info intertwined around fictional characters. A riveting read. After that, my friend Lynn in Cuenca loaned me two Henning Mankell books. An author I’ve loved over the years with the Wallander mystery series, since his lamented death two years ago it appears his publishing machine has gone into overdrive, scouring anything not yet printed. So skip An Event in Autumn (written for a Wallander give-away in Holland many years ago), and After the Fire, a novel without Wallander but with a protagonist I heartily disliked. Desperate, I asked visitors from Portland to bring me, The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, which I’ve just started and am enjoying getting my feet into the deep dark mud of the Blackwater Estuary in1883 Essex. Stay tuned for final report on that one.

Until then, keep reading and sending your recommendations for the next Cañar Book Club, in June (May club meets in Spain….)




House and garden

Dear Friends. I’d planned to write about Carnival, or Lalay Raymi as it’s called here, but for the first time since 2005 I skipped the event. Past years I’ve documented the hours-long parade as it winds through the villages and into town before gathering in a local field for more hours of eating, dancing and music. I’d always make a stop at home to download hundreds of photos, have a quick bite, then rush back out to take hundreds more, until the end the day when, totally exhausted, I’d come home. Despite being the best photo op of the year, after so many times and thousands of photos, my Lalay Raymi images are beginning to look much the same. Also, I had a mild cold this year that just wouldn’t go away and Michael convinced me to stay home. (Below, 2016, 2012, 2014.).

Instead, I thought I’d write about house and garden. So come on in… you’ll note that although the house looks much the same, the trees are growing tall, the lawn is established and there’s a line of flowers I faithfully attend while we’re here.

This month marks the twelfth year in our Cañar house, and it’s fitting that our talented architect, Lourdes Abad, is spending a few days with us as she presents a workshop in Cañar on construction and restoration of earthen buildings (e.g. adobe). On the last day she is bringing the participants to see our house and sample Michael’s canelaso (hot alcoholic tea).

So, a look back to March 2007: after two years of construction drama, we moved into our house with an traditional Cañari housewarming, or wasipichana, that included a night-time vigil, procession, blessing, southern cross placed on the roof, a roasted pig to feed about 100 guests, live music, dancing, and finally, fiery paper balloons called globos launched to float over the countryside. A wonderful day and a great relief when it was over. Since then, we have become la casa de los gringos.

In 2013, after I’d published a book about building the house and living half-years in Canar, (https://amzn.to/2ueNcvm), I sent an email to a journalist at the New York Times in the then Home and Garden section (I miss it still!) and in an act of shameless self-promotion, I suggested an article and attached some photos. Within a week or so, an editor had assigned a writer and photographer to come to Cañar. That’s how we met Tony Cenicola, this great photographer who spent a week with us and took the best photos of the house we’ll ever have by climbing a ladder in the garden to get the photo of the house lit up, and climbing a tree across the road to get the photo from the front, showing the rooflines. (And, despite having his rental car and some equipment impounded by the police in Cuenca for the entire week, he still came back a couple of years ago for another story!)

I was a bit disappointed, however, when the full-page article with a 23-image slideshow came out, to see that his editor had chosen many photos of sedums and other plain plants in the patio, and nasturtiums in the kitchen garden, rather than shots of the Cañari people, or the countryside, or examples of traditional adobe houses. And after I’d arranged for the writer to spend a half day with architect Lourdes, there was no mention of the importance of maintaining traditional architecture in Cañar. Here’s the article, “Up in the Clouds,” from June 2013: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/06/garden/a-second-home-in-the-andes-worth-the-4300-mile-trek.htm

And now to the garden. Our interior glass-covered patio garden has gone through several stages, from being the dusty dance floor and blessing site during the housewarming (see above), to early experiments with Andean crops (we came back one year to find our compadres had planted corn and peas), my endless flowers that dried up in the solar heat, a lemon tree that got whitefly, to gifts or purchases and exotic epiphytes picked up on walks and plopped down in an alien environment.

But plants know what they like best, so twelve years later we have a garden with monster aloeveras reaching for the sky, huge jade plants, aggressive creeping oregano that we keeping digging out, spiky things such as cacti, succulents and other desert-like plants without names (known to me) that tend to be slow-growing and do not require much care for the six months we’re gone. Then there’s that large spiking beauty from our friend Eduardo’s Vega’s yard in Cuenca that has gone crazy and neighbors keep asking for hijuelos – offspring- to take away for their own garden (photo: bottom center).

All identifying information welcome! One of my pleasures during a work day is to step out to the patio and take a short break to water pots or pull weeds and oregano, or watch the birds that come in and make themselves at home – even building nests when we’re gone. And my other pleasure is taking a longer afternoon break (between work and wine) to fiddle around in the kitchen garden. There, my talents are limited but not my enthusiasm for weeding, turning the soil – still finding construction nails and pieces of roof tiles – and planting seedlings (broccoli, chard, parsley purple cabbage, cilantro). It doesn’t matter if we’re not here to harvest the crop. Our compadres (who planted the corn in the patio and always plant vegetables in kitchen garden before we come) will be here to enjoy.

Well, dear friends, I’ve taken up enough of your time, and we’ll have to forego the book club this blog, but I promise another one soon once I emerge from my visa/vortex/ HELL that has kept me traveling a couple of days a week to Cuenca or Azogues to solve the unimaginably, endless, problems around having my permanent resident visa transferred from my old passport to a new. I’m now in the second year of tramites – red tape – and my only advice is to not stay in Ecuador beyond your 10-year passport expiration. (Just kidding.)

But I do want to end with an important announcement. This week, AILLA – Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America at University of Texas, Austin, launched the first archives from Cañar – the Peace Corps Collection.

AILLA’s newest public collection is the Cañar Peace Corps Collection, which features more than 400 photographs taken in the 1960s and 1970s by US Peace Corps Volunteers working in Ecuador with the Kichwa-speaking Cañari people on projects related to agrarian reform, forestry, and traditional handcrafts. Many photographs (some in color, others in black and white) are portraits of Cañari people or panoramas of the dramatic landscape of southern Ecuador.

I couldn’t be more pleased that we begin the first phase of this NEH-supported, three-year project with the work of these (then) young and idealistic men (and one woman) who came to Cañar in the 1960’s with cameras, typewriters and tape recorders, and once home, managed to keep their negatives, photos, cassette tapes and documents safe in attics and basements and boxes for 50 years until they reached retirement. Then, recalling this unforgettable time of their life, they scanned, copied, e-mailed and packed up boxes of documents to be a part of the Archivo Cultural de Cañar.

Participants in Peace Corps leadership training course, circa 1968.

I’ll end with Alan Adams’ introduction to the collection:

A bit about the Peace Corps in Cañar by Alan Adams: In the period of Ecuadorian agrarian reform from 1965 to 1970, we Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Cañar tasked with supporting the peasant population’s formation of agricultural cooperatives. Young and idealistic, we walked among the indigenous Cañari and we were astonished. We conversed with them. We listened to them. We desperately tried to help them. And if we provided a word of encouragement, fantastic. What we learned was invaluable. We volunteers participated on many occasions and in many ways, and some of us had the idea to take pictures. Mine were lost. Some thought to keep their photos, and now they are available as part of a historic visual archive of agrarian reform, a decisive period in the history of the Cañari people. It was not a reform that happened to the Cañari, but rather a movement that the people themselves took over, shaped, and created to turn the course of their history. We hope that these photos help communicate the admiration and reverence that we felt as we watched the agrarian reform unfold.

Mil gracias! Hasta la proxima. Judy




Migration is not a crime

I’ve had migration much on my mind these days – up close personally, through the media with the Trumpian wall hysteria, watching the crisis in neighboring Venezuela sending many migrants to Ecuador, and with two excellent fiction books I’ve just finished, Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, about African migrants in Germany (and so much more). And Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which begins in an unknown country in the Middle East.

For the up-close and personal, I want to tell a Cañar migration story, (with names changed).

At 4:00 AM on a October morning we received a call in Portland from an acquaintance here in Cañar, Alejandro, an older man who had worked on our house construction and who became a “compadre de la casa, which means we are considered near-family. He called to say his son – I’ll call him Rafael – had left Cañar in September with his wife, Mariana. Both were picked up crossing the border and were recently found held at the Eloy Detention Center near Phoenix, Arizona. His son wanted to be in touch with us. Could we help?

This was the beginning of many collect calls from Eloy, and many letters on my part for Rafael: one saying we knew him as an honorable man who would not be a threat if released, another to a judge at Eloy, another to the lawyer who was “helping,” saying we would provide some support to the couple in getting settled if released (I don’t think Rafael ever realized we were in Portland, Oregon, not New York or New Jersey.) Meanwhile, I took an online tour of Eloy Detention Center by a local Fox10 TV station in Phoenix, showing a modern clinic, an exercise yard and a in-facility courtroom. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHsM2XADlSQ But make no mistake: this is a prison, a private prison owned and operated by CoreCivic, under contract with ICE.

Some quick facts on Eloy: 1,500 men and women are presently being held for various immigration violations, and after the Trump administration’s controversial zero-tolerance policy in 2018, the facility housed roughly 300 mothers separated from their children. People die here, primarily through suicides but also for lack of timely medical attention; since 2003, Eloy alone represented 9% of the total inmate deaths in all 250 detention facilities in the United States.

In our calls, with urgency on Rafael’s part, asking for yet another letter addressed to yet another official at Eloy, we didn’t talk much about his personal situation. But I learned later from his father (once we were back in Cañar) that he is an engineer by training, and that he and Mariana left four children with Alejandro and his wife, Leonor. Grandparents in their 70’s who thought they were done with child rearing, grandparents who surely sacrificed to send their son to university, grandparents who are really very poor, left raising four children, two of them still in primary school? I found this hard to comprehend, but asked no further questions the one time Alejandro came to visit – tired and worried – so as not to reveal my true feeling: How on earth could his son and wife leave their four children, knowing it will be years before they see, or care for them, again?

Fast forward to last week, when I ran into Rafael’s sister, Clemencia. As we walked down the road together, I asked if there was news of her brother and sister-in-law. “They were released last week!” she said. I asked if they had to pay bail (thinking of the letter to the lawyer)? “Oh yes,” she said, “they had to pay $15,000 for Rafael, and $20,000 for Mariana.” And on top of that, I thought, add the cost of paying coyotes to get them from Cañar to the U.S.: right now up to $12,000, probably more for a couple. “They are both in New York and working,” Clemencia said, “and They have a court date in three months.” (Or not, I thought. It’s common enough for migrants from Cañar to sacrifice the bail, be no-shows at court, and continue an existence as illegales, working for years to pay their debts.) A quick calculation on my part puts Rafael and Mariana’s debt, with bail, at about $50,000. I didn’t ask what their work was, but it is most likely construction and hotel cleaning. How many years will it take?

MIGRATION IS NOT A CRIME. The crime is a system of coyotes, money lenders, ICE, private prisons, lawyers, courts, bail bondsmen, draconian laws that will mean years before Rafael and Mariana see their children, and years that Alejandro and Leonor, grandparents too old for parenting, will be caring for young children.

OK, on to less fraught, domestic, news: We took a long hike a week or so ago that was the first serious walking test of Michael’s new hip. We hired a taxi to take us to the top of a mountain that looms over Cañar, called Tayta Bueran, then we walked down – about 3 hours. The tough part was wading through the paramo grass that grows above tree line – dense, knee-level, grabby and clinging, full of hidden holes,. But once through that – about 45 minutes – it was (sortof) smooth sailing, with picnic lunch and slipping and sliding on steep gravel road to the Pan American highway.

So far so good, so then yesterday, we tried it again, but on another mountain (taxi to top, walk downhill) and with our goddaughter, Paiwa, on vacation and spending a few days with us.

CANAR BOOK CLUB

Lots of great book suggestions came in from my last blog, and I was interested to see how many relate to migration in one way or another. – maybe it’s on all our minds. I’ve already revealed my recent reads, but I have to mention The Past, by Tessa Hadley, which I’m presently loving. And I’ll include another reader’s mention of Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck because Susan G. of Portland makes such a good summary: “Takes place in Berlin and portrays a retired professor’s encounter with the illegal immigrants there. Sounds like nothing but grimness, but it shows the transformative effect of empathy, and much more, and left me with a positive feeling.” She also liked Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan and The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, two titles I’ve put on my wish list.

My sister Sher in Santa Fe is reading Tana French’s new book The Witch Elm – “love her writing!” (Tana French can do no wrong.) Carole from Portland is reading Leavers by Lisa Ko – “hard read for me but thought provoking.” Suzanne from Cuenca suggests Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, “a fictional story that embodies so many aspects of the modern immigrant story. And of course Becoming by Micelle Obama. Such a personal look at her life from childhood through the White House. I have even greater regard for this woman and her family, and she takes on the issue of race that is strangling this country.”

Pat from Bend is reading Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, “a novel about two families living in the same shelter (a brick house) in two different centuries.”

Son Scott in San Francisco suggests Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, which Michael is presently reading and liking very much. Also, by same author: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

Janice in New Jersey writes that she loved Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (in response to my reading of The Ninth Hour, her new book).

Judy in Batavia, New York is reading Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles (of A Gentleman in Moscow fame) and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. (One of the saddest books I’ve ever read.)

Finally, Rick – great reader and writer from Portland – recommends Valeria Luiselli, “born in Mexico, raised in South Africa, lives in NYC, writes in English and Spanish, worked as a translator for the juvenile courts for migrant kids and now teaches at Hofstra. The English book, Tell Me How It Ends, is an essay about the plight of migrants, what they overcome by leaving Central America,and their difficulties getting into the US.  It’s short, and so powerful that I bought a dozen copies for our political group. The Story of My Teeth, originally published about three years ago, got terrific reviews. It’s hilarious, and great fun to read.”

This virtual Cañar Book Club might be one of the best ideas I’ve ever had! I love all my fellow club members, and please keep your reading suggestions coming for the March blog!