2022 Cañari Women’s Education Foundation Update


Dear Friends:

I never tire of seeing the faces of our graduates, and I thought you also would enjoy being reminded of (some) of the results of your generosity.  Thank you!

I wish I were writing this letter from Cañar–we don’t leave until December 1–so I could describe what the “new normal” looks like. This fall our scholarship women returned to in-person classes after two years at home, struggling to carry on with their courses despite unstable Internet, cranky cell phones, and isolation from fellow students. Still, they did well. In 2022 we had three new graduates, bringing our number to twenty-eight, along with four graduates with master’s degrees, one in a PhD program in Mexico, and our first potential Fulbright scholar for a master’s in the U.S.

 Our latest graduates are (l-r) Paiwa Acero (2021, civil engineering); Sarita Duy (2022, economics), and Nube Sumba (2022, economics).

As for our new scholarship women, I want to tell a story related to Nube (above, right). She showed up at our house with her mother about five years ago, coming from a poor farming region more than an hour from Cañar. Nube was timid and hardly spoke. With a gift of fresh cheese, her mother explained that although illiterate, she was determined that her two daughters get educated beyond high school. We did give Nube a scholarship, and on the first day of every month – when the scholarship is paid in cash – her mother showed up at our house with fresh cheese or eggs. Meanwhile, Nube charged straight through university in Riobamba, with excellent grades, to graduate this year with a degree in economics. Her sister is now studying at the same university (but without our scholarship, as we award only one per family). Still, that’s multiplication! And Nube’s mother has achieved her goal of having two daughters educated as professionals. On their last visit, Nube and her mother brought their neighbors, Kuya Killa and her mother, who is sole support of her four children, one with a serious medical condition. Kuya (who also barely spoke) graduated high school three years ago and passed the university entrance exam with high marks, but the family could not afford to send her to university. After our talk, with her mother’s encouragement, Kuya completed all the paperwork to renew her test scores and was accepted by the university in Riobamba. She is now enrolled in our program, and in the next five years I look forward to watching Kuya bloom, as did Nube, into a confident young woman. These two young women would never have known even the possibility of a university education without word of mouth of our graduates and friends, and without your support. Thank you!

A few updates on our graduates.

Dr. Luisa Duchi reports that she is now clinic director in the community of Huayrapungo, where 90% of her patients are Quichua-only speakers. This community, site of an old hacienda about an hour from Cañar, is famous for not allowing visitors into their territory. Michael and I ventured walking there once, and quickly left. Luisa is our first physician, but we have another one close to graduation at University of Cuenca.

Carmen Loja (far left), (economics, 2011) has made a success of her a community-based tourism program, Kinti Wasi, in her village of MilMil. Along with her cousin and another partner, Carmen hosts high school and gap-year groups to learn the Andean worldview in “agroecology, gastronomy, architecture, ancestral medicine and spirituality”. And I see by the website that Kinti Wasi is an Amigos de las Americas partner for 2022. Congratulations Carmen!  (She also welcomes individuals and small groups if any of you are contemplating a trip to Ecuador.)

Pacha Pichisaca, our only ondontóloga graduate so far, has expanded her dental practice, on the main shopping street in Cañar, by adding a second chair. She was one of our early graduates, and with CWEF support she continued with specialist courses in oral surgery and orthodontics. Each time I walk by, I glance up at her windows. After giving up on my dentist in Portland, I’m getting up my nerve to make an appointment with Pacha.

Finally, a dispatch from our first PhD graduate, Juana Chuma, who is at UNAM in Mexico, where she did her master’s (with help from CWEF). Earlier this year, she did a residency at University of Georgia, where she writes that her biggest challenge was understanding the southern English. She’s now back in Mexico working on her thesis, “optimizing the genetic selection of milk producing bovines in Chile,” (where she did a previous internship).

As you know, our foundation is managed in Portland, Oregon with a treasured treasurer, Charlotte Rubin, who takes care of contributions and banking. In Cañar, we are a busy committee who meets a few times a year to monitor the scholarship women’s progress, review new applications, and manage finances. But this year we had an additional agenda item: to complete our application for NGO status in Ecuador. This has been a multi-year project with lost documents, a change of presidents, a new ministry handling our application, and more. After a couple of marathon meetings in 2022, with the help of our lawyer in Cañar (Mercedes, far right, one of our first graduates) and our “man in Quito”– Segundo, husband of another first graduate (Alexandra, 3rd from right), we have shepherded our application through the byzantine process of becoming a legal non-profit foundation in Ecuador.

Here we are after a 5-hour meeting in May. The main benefit of our new status will be that it clears the way for Michael and I to leave our house and property to the program for an endowment. We made a proper will in Cañar years ago, which required six witnesses, several days, a lawyer, accountant, and $500. But no transfer of property for the benefit of an organization can be done without a government NGO designation. Flash: Today, I talked to lawyer Mercedes Guamán (far right) and she said she’d just received the final certification from the government.  Hurrah!

To conclude: Cañari Women’s Education Foundation (CWEF) is an official 501(c) 3 nonprofit, which means your contributions are tax deductible, and every dollar goes directly to the women. Here you can donate through PayPal by using the DONATE button below. Many thanks for your continuing support and please stay in touch.  I love hearing from you all. (You should see a new reply field below).     Judy Blankenship


The Time Has Come to Talk


Well, the time has come, as they say, to talk. Last week, on a late afternoon walk in the countryside near our house, enjoying the cold air on my face and the good feeling of simply moving after a day spent at the desk, a neighbor called out,”…y  Señor Michael?” He leaned on the entrance to his earthen patio, watching me. I didn’t recognize him, but called back, “Michael’s at home, by the fire. He doesn’t like to walk as much as I do.”

“His health is good?” he asked. Yes! I called back. “Gracias a dios!” he said, making a subtle prayer gesture. Walking on, I thought about this exchange. He was not the first neighbor to ask about Michael when they see me on the road, or Michael about me as he walks into town. People are watching and wondering about us, still the only two extranjeras in Cañar, living alone in that big house. No car, no obvious family. “Do you have children?” they often ask. Then, “Do they come to visit?” Then, maybe, the bolder ones: “How old are you?” The subtext is always, What’s going to happen to your property when….?

I know they are especially interested in Michael – watching him over the years as he grows more stooped, his pace slower as he trudges into town daily with his Orvis shopping bag. He usually takes a taxi or truck back, so all the drivers know him and with affection will ask me the next time I grab a ride: “Where’s Michael? What’s he doing?”

“At home, fixing dinner,” I love saying.

We’ve lived in our little comuna of Chaglaban for 15 years now, and longer than that in the town. I know that our neighbors are watching us grow older, and are thinking – how much longer will they keep coming to Cañar? That’s a question I ask myself sometimes, but mostly we – Michael and I – simply carry on with the assumption that we’ll keep living indefinitely in our “house in the clouds.” Witness our running list of items to bring next December, when we expect to return: larger chimney brush, arugula and cardamom seeds, yeast for popcorn, Earl Gray tea, 1 ceramic knife.

Besalú, Catalonia, May 2019

No question, however, that we gave a nod to age this year when we canceled our trip to Spain. Once we really talked about it, after we’d let our plans float for a few weeks, Michael said he just didn’t feel up to lugging around his bags on buses and trains for a month, (our modus operandi after we stopped driving in Spain), changing hotels every few days. Then there’s getting through airports, Covid tests, and the 10+ hour flight from Guayaquil to Madrid. Last time we were in Spain was 2019. The following year, we’d already paid for tickets, made reservations, and then…. well, you all know what happened. 2021 was also a bust. So, as I regretfully cancelled the hotel reservations I’d made this year, I felt a moment’s sadness thinking this might mark the end of our serious traveling days.

But then….Michael suggested we take a mini-vacation in Ecuador, as long as we could travel slowly by bus a few hours a day. So I started planning again, made hotel reservations for two nights between Cañar and Mindo, and three nights in Mindo, a bird/butterfly reserve/resort northwest of Quito. Smooth, yes? Well, not so much. I hadn’t remembered that the buses blast non-stop movies with sound so loud that those at the back won’t miss a single shot, scream, or car chase. Imagine passing through this magnificent landscape with sounds of an explosion or machine gun in your ears.

I wondered what the nuns thought, though Michael hardly seemed to notice. But by the time we got to Mindo after 12 hours on three buses, (broken up with two overnights in hotels), slogging through one interminable bus station and waiting in a tiny one at opposite ends of Quito, plus two long taxi rides, I was already planning to convince Michael we had to return by plane.


Mindo itself was a sort of mixed-up-mishaps-mess, but in the end it seemed the more setbacks we had the more cheerful Michael got. A small resort town mostly aimed at younger travelers with tours for night bicycling, “canyoning” the rivers, rappelling waterfalls, zip lines, and 6:00 AM treks for bird watching. We stayed near town in an “eco-lodge” made entirely of concrete, including the bed, side tables, floors and benches, with bamboo details. It was hot, and rained torrents every afternoon, so we stuck with one activity a day, walking into town for meals. The food was not good, Michael complained.We did enjoy the butterfly garden…


and watching birds  from the bird watching tower…


But the day before we were to leave Mindo landslides closed the road to Quito. By then I’d talked Michael into flying and bought tickets, so we hired a truck driver who promised to get us through to the Quito airport. We were there in plenty of time, but as we tried to check in for our afternoon flight, the agent wouldn’t let us pass because our national IDs were not “legitimate.” They were photocopies in plastic; same with our passports, which I had thoughtfully brought. I protested, I begged, and then I pulled out my Oregon driver’s license. The agent grabbed it and said, “Now THERE is a legitimate ID!” But Michael hadn’t brought his so….back to Quito to the office of a mini-bus we heard about from the taxi driver that serves Quito – Cuenca – Quito, where we made a reservation for the next day. “Let’s check out this Hostal Caribe,” Michael said in surprising good spirits as we walked a couple of blocks into a down-at-the-heels part of the city. That’s how we ended up enjoying a good sleep at a $15/night/per person, flocked wallpaper, leopard-print blanket, master-bedroom of a long-ago elegant mansion on the last night of our misadventure-some mini-vacation. Which gives me real hope that our traveling days are not over yet.

*  *  *  *

C a ñ a r   B o o k   C l u b

Dearest readers:  I’ve thrown caution to the wind lately and started paying for kindle books instead of waiting for the library. Most of these titles hooked me with the “look inside” or “sample” from Amazon, which offers about 20 pages before turning blank. That’s how I ended up with These Precious Days by Ann Patchett, one of my favorite essay writers (her fiction not so much). I’ve read some of these essays before, but still enjoyed sinking into her perfectly constructed sentences. Reminding me of when she appeared at Literary Arts in Portland a few years back, pacing the stage in front of about 3,000 people telling without prompts a complicated anecdotal and meandering story that she brought to a perfect conclusion. I also bought the novel Free Love by Tessa Hadley, a favorite short-story writer I read in The New Yorker. This one set in 1960’s-70’s London, and I know from the acknowledgements that Hadley did a lot of research but I found myself saying, “Did that really happen? Could that character really have made such a radical change in her life?”  My feeling after finishing the novel is that I prefer her short stories.

Found books in English are a special treasure in Ecuador, and whenever I end up in a restaurant or hotel with shelves of books left by travelers, I make a beeline. That’s how I ended up with The Witch Elm by Tana French. I’ve read her before, and was reminded with this one that her set-ups and characters are brilliant. You can’t stop reading (in the beginning). But then I find myself flipping pages as her characters’ conversations go on and on and on, wanting to get back to the action. I can’t say more without a spoiler, as I’ve just loaned the one to a friend, but I think my Tana French days are over.

So, on to suggestions by club members.

Mel in Vermont: This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger about the odyssey of four young kids who run away from a school for Native Americans and their adventures along the way. It takes place in the time of the Great Depression, and is a thought-provoking read.

Sandy in Portland: “Damon Galgut’s The Promise won the Booker and I think he deserved it. It’s about a South African family during and after apartheid. Beautiful, original writing. (I also read this book and recommend it.)

Portland’s “Everybody Reads: this year is Mira Jacob’s Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, a graphic novel. She’s an Indian American whose life is crowded with micro-aggressions and whose primary-age, mixed-race son asks hard questions about race, Trump and other related subjects. Eula Biss: Having and Being Had, short essays on trying to live ethically, understand and survive capitalism. Wonderful and LOL funny.
Jia Lynn Yang: One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration – excellent, good writing, interesting subject with great political details, a story I didn’t know and prompting a number of epiphany moments, including how ill prepared, inexperienced and ineffective Kennedy was despite the myth of Camelot.

From Patricia in New York. Francine Prose Sicilian Journey, a delightful essay by this excellent, insightful writer, a novelist as well as essayist. A personal, quirky, insightful and thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone contemplating a trip to Sicily.

Edmund DeWaal’s wonderful tale of The Hare with Amber Eyes, about a collection of Japanese netsuke and their history within his family and their journeys from Odessa  through Vienna, Paris, Tokyo and now London as this hidden inheritance tale unfolds. (I also read this one and loved it.)

That’s all for now, folks. If I missed anyone’s book suggestions please send again. There will be one more Cañar Chronicle before we leave on June 1 for Portland. Until then, I send fond regards and remember that I love to hear from you at: judyblanken@gmail.com.

Ana’s story is published – thirty years later


Dear Friends: Thirty years ago, on nearly every Sunday in a small house in San José, Costa Rica, Ana Margarita Gasteazoro and I sat side-by-side at a desk in my office/darkroom, a Sony recorder and a couple of glasses of wine between us. We were chronicling her life story, along with sounds of Michael in the kitchen, banging pots and pans and occasionally singing. Ana was 36 then, beautiful and vibrant and full of colorful tales of growing up in El Salvador as a rebellious girl in an upper-middle class family. But a more serious tone and melancholy pervaded at times. Ana was in Costa Rica as a political refugee, having spent nearly two years in prison in San Salvador.

She told of being violently arrested by the national police at the height of a bloody civil war that would cost 75,000 lives. After being “disappeared” for 11 days in the clandestine cells of the police, and repeatedly threatened with death, the first title of the book – Tell Mother I’m in Paradise – refers to Ana’s answer on the day she was delivered to Ilopango women’s prison, and the intake officer asked if she wanted to send a message to her family. Paradise, in this case, meant that she knew she was going to live, unlike so many of her colleagues and friends, but she was also already thinking about how she would continue her organizing work with the women political prisoners. (Header image above of women in Ilopango prison.)

Ana was an “organizer” at heart beginning with her teenage years, when her conservative mother sent her to Guatemala to a Catholic girls’ boarding school to “straighten her out.” Instead, Ana found herself surrounded by a group of Maryknoll nuns involved in resistance to Guatemala’s regime through liberation theology. The nuns didn’t tell her exactly what they were up to  – later Ana learned that one, Sister Marian Peter, became the famous antiwar activist in the US, Margery Melville. Ana was encouraged to volunteer in poor neighborhoods after school and on weekends, and it was here in Guatemala that her social consciousness began to take shape.

Ana went on to describe her young adult years as a rising star/activist in a legal political party in El Salvador, trips to Europe with Socialist International, a few affairs with famous men along with many unwanted advances from other famous men. There were some attempts to settle into a work and domestic life, and then, as the war escalated and she saw her political comrades and friends kidnapped, horribly tortured and left dead by roadsides, she made the decision to go underground and become a militant, while continuing to work “above ground” with her legal party. A very dangerous decision, as it turned out.At some indefinable moment on one of those Sundays in San José, I said – or she said, or we said together – “This should be a book!” With our mutual friend, Andrew  – who had introduced me to Ana – we worked together transcribing, editing, adding extra recording sessions to fill in gaps. Ana was eager but always ambivalent. This was 1988 and the war was still on in El Salvador. Should she be revealing all this?  And if a book came out, shouldn’t it be in Spanish? (My Spanish then was rudimentary; her English was perfect after years in the American School in San Salvador). We carried on, piece-meal, as I worked full-time with CUSO, and Andrew who worked with same Canadian NGO, returned to Canada.

Then, on a holiday to the Caribbean coast, Ana met Smokey. Always passionate and compulsive, she announced on her return that she had decided on a new life to realize a long-held dream. She and Smokey would open a bakery and cafe in Puerto Viejo. Ana had always loved to cook – she and Michael had quickly bonded over food – and Smokey owned land on the beach where they would build an open-air cafe with living quarters above. Michael contributed his labor with plumbing and electrical work; Andrew came back to Costa Rica, did more interviews with Ana and loaned her funds to buy a pizza oven. I stayed in San José working, and visiting when I could.

Cafe Coral was an instant success, with Ana’s granola (which I still make), and Smokey’s green-peppercorn-and lobster pizza. Within a year or so, Ana was chairwoman of the community of Puerto Viejo, promoting ecologically friendly development in the fast-growing tourism scene on the Caribbean coast.

There is so much more to this story, both sadness and joy, in Ana’s ebullient voice, but I hope you will buy the book so I’ll stop here. But with one more photo. In 1992 Ana and Smokey came to visit us in Cuenca, Ecuador. I took this photo of the two of them in the back yard of our house on the Tomebamba River. Another day, after we two went shopping and Ana bought a string of red coral beads, I took the cover photo in my upstairs studio. It was the next-to-last time I saw Ana.

In 2019, realizing Ana’s hope, the book was published in Spanish in El Salvador by the Museum of the Word and Image (MUPI) (with excellent translation work by her cousin Eva Gasteazoro), and on April 19, 2022, University of Alabama Press will officially publish the book in English. (pp 4-5 in catalog)

For those who like instant gratification, the book is already available on Amazon, but I’m hearing from friends who are getting it from their local independent bookstores such as Powell’s Books in Portland, Barnes and Noble and others. (I also hear that it is a beautiful hardback with dust jacket, cream-tone pages, and good photo reproductions.)

One last note. When Ana died prematurely at age 40 of breast cancer, I was still in Ecuador. Grieving, and remembering how much she had wanted a university education, like her brothers, I started the Ana Margarita Gasteazoro Fund for Women (now the Cañari Women’s Education Foundation). Since then, 38 Cañari have received full scholarships to state universities in Ecuador.

Any royalties from Tell Mother I’m in Paradise: Memoirs of a Political Prisoner in El Salvador will go to a similar fund in El Salvador. Ana Margarita would be pleased; she believed strongly that the education of women was one of the most important avenues for social and political progress in Latin America.

C a ñ a r  B o o k  C l u b

Well, unlike past book club meetings, I’ve had some good reads lately, and they sync nicely with recommendations from our members. The Wrong End of the Telescope by Abih Alameddine is about a transgender doctor, Lebanese in origin, who goes to the island of Lesbos with several friends to help support the immigrants arriving there. Interesting parallel with a book recommended by Chris in Ottawa: What a Strange Paradise by Egyptian-Canadian Omar El Akkad: “More bodies have washed up on the shores of a small island. Another over-filled, ill-equipped, dilapidated ship has sunk under the weight of its too many passengers: Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, all of them desperate to escape untenable lives in their homelands. And only one has made the passage…”

I read recently Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar and I’m still deciding what I think. Part novel, part memoir (now called autofiction), I was deeply drawn in to his life story, but put off by some of his long discourses on politics, art, money, sex, religion, and prejudice.  I say read it, and get back to me on what you let think.

A friend visiting from Mexico, Natalie, left her book with me: All the Frequent Troubles of our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler by Rebecca Donner. What a pleasure to hold a beautifully produced hardback book after months of Kindle reading! Incredibly well documented and written, a terribly sad book that reminds us how important resistance is to autocratic regimes, whether in the US, Russia or El Salvador.

Allison in Minneapolis has read and liked Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. “An immigrant family from Ghana settles in Huntsville, Alabama in hopes of a better life in America. … a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi’s phenomenal debut, Homegoing.”

Joanne in Mexico has recommended Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan, and after Michael and I listened to her read her short story, “So Late in the Day,” on the New Yorker podcast last week, I ordered her book on kindle and finished it in a few short hours. I agree with Joanne: “This beautiful, spare little book I read on the plane was so wonderful I wish it had been longer. Set in an Irish village at Christmas time, a local man confronts his past and the scene at a Magdalene laundry.”

Charlotte in Portland recommends Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, Edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. “… a very readable 80 Black-authored essays and poems giving the reader a broad picture of how enslavement of Africans essentially built America (and Western civilization) and how those Africans managed to fight and keep fighting through the entrenched hypocrisy that is still very much with us today.”

Shirley from Cuenca: The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate. “Real page turner based on  three women in 1875 post civil war trying to find lost relatives, and current day teacher trying to bring history to life in a black southern community.  Did not want the story to end.”

She carries on the “book” theme with:  The Book of Lost Names by Kristen Hamel. “A historical WWII novel about a Paris student who uses her artistic talent to forge documents to help Jewish children cross the border. How she saves all the names in a book in code is amazing.”

And now she is reading How the Word is Passed about slavery. “Author Clint Smith visits important sites like Montecello, Whitney Plantation and a Louisiana prison to interview workers, visitors and inmates to see oppression past and present.”

Did I miss anyone?  If so, please remind me what you are reading, with a comment a two. I always love hearing from our Cañar Book Club members.






















Covid update two years later, the consolation of a garden, and small deaths in the patio


Dear Friends – Some of you have read “Letter from Ecuador” in a recent New Yorker, with excellent reporting by Daniel Alarcón (link is here).  Primarily about the pandemic tragedy in Guayaquil two years ago that sent horrible images around the world of the dead left on the streets as hospital and mortuaries were overwhelmed, Alarcón also writes of the courageous medical workers, affected families then and now, and Ecuador’s general response to the pandemic.

March 16 marks two years since the national lockdown in Ecuador, when airports, schools, universities were abruptly shut, inter-provincial travel stopped and the entire population advised to stay at home and only venture out when necessary. In Cañar, the streets into town were barricaded while police and volunteer security teams (mostly newly recruited young people) circulated to check on movements and masks. Cañari villages surrounding the town took their own security measures, blocking off access roads with dump trucks, chains, anything that said “Do Not Enter.” Here’s a sketch I did in town the following day.

The first case to appear in Guayaquil was late February, when an elderly woman flew from Madrid for a family visit and exposed 80 people in a few days of socializing. From that point on cases exploded until the city was simply overwhelmed, and families were leaving their dead in the streets in front of their houses. Alarcón quotes a Doctor Ortiz saying that Guayaquil likely had the world’s most lethal outbreak of Covid-19 per capita. “One day, there were no patients,” he told me. “The next, there were five thousand looking for beds in intensive-care units.” Ortiz estimates that about sixty-five per cent of the city’s residents were infected during March and April of 2020. (emphasis mine).

I remember the first case we heard about in Cañar, via the grapevine, maybe late March. Someone said a Cañari youth had been in Guayaquil for a social event or meeting and came back infected. After that, the indigenous rural communities basically shut down communications with the outside world. Although there were surely many cases circulating, no one wanted to be tested or go to the hospital (or talk about it), and unless someone appeared to be dying they were treated at home with “native medicine” that included eucalyptus vapor and herbal teas. Surely some older folks died, but death certificates depend on medical professionals, and indigenous families don’t call these to their houses. A death at home is quickly followed by an all-night vigil, funeral mass, and a quick interment the next day. So case and mortality numbers in Cañar stayed extremely low.  Eventually, I knew of only three dangerously ill Cañaris who ended up in the hospital in Cuenca – all men and all three recovered. Two were from the village pictured below, Quilloac. (It was a different story in the town, but I have no statistics for those.)

From Alarcón’s article: “Officially, more than thirty-five thousand Ecuadorians died of covid-19 in the past two years, but the total excess deaths for 2020 and 2021 number more than eighty thousand. Five hundred and forty-five Ecuadorian doctors died of covid-19, along with hundreds of other health-care workers and medical professionals.”

On March 16, 2020 Michael and I were half way into our usual six months here, with tickets already paid to Spain for the month of May and on to Portland in June. Like so many others, in the beginning we figured we’d still travel, that this Covid thing would quickly pass and life would return to normal. In the end we were not able to leave Ecuador until July, and then barely – on one of the first weekly flights out of Quito on a three-day trip from hell.

Two years later, a national mask mandate is still in place, and according to a taxi driver I recently chatted with, will stay until May. The other day we were asked to show proof of vaccination before getting on the bus to Cuenca, and Michael until recently had to show his card at his favorite supermarket in Cuenca. Vaccinations began in January 2021, and today more than seventy-four per cent of the population of Ecuador is fully vaccinated—one of the highest vaccination rates in the region and higher than that of the United States.

In Cañar, however, other than masks, life seems to have slipped back to pre-2020. After a Omicron wave following the Christmas holidays (which everyone here simply called grippe fuerte – strong flu – and seemed to recover after 3-4 days) schools are back in person, markets are open, traffic has returned – furiously. The universities are still closed to in-person classes, and our twelve scholarship women have continued to do OK with virtual classes on their laptops and cell phones. But of course they are anxious to be back with classmates and professors and all that a university environment provides. The produce markets are thriving and my only complaint is the shelves at our town markets were cleared of wine by holiday fiestas, and haven’t been restocked.

OK, about those small deaths in the patio: These past few days I could detect that unmistakable odor of dead animal as I passed along one side of the interior patio, though Michael could not. Finally, I could stand it no longer and made a serious search inside the monster aloe that dominates the space. I soon spotted two empty nests, but it took longer to see a bit of wing and a little gray carcass of a rufous-collared sparrow. Then, glancing down at a flower pot at the base of the aloe I saw another dead sparrow. Mystery solved. Michael the hero volunteered to extract and dispose of our little neighbors. We enjoy living with them as the come in through the space between the glass structure and tile roof to hop around, drink from the fountain, check for insects in the soil and sometimes visit our rooms. It’s the first time we’ve found dead birds in the patio, however, and my guess is it was due to the unusually cold weather – nights in the 40’s and rainy days in the 50’s. (Though Michael disagrees, says these birds have to live through even colder weather). However, until otherwise proven, I stand by my theory.

Finally, the garden:  I just wanted to add some color to this post, so I made the header image a collage of the flowers currently in bloom in our garden.

Cañar Book Club

Well this time it’s just me. After a flurry of reading suggestions last time that made a extra-long list, our dear members have gone silent – or maybe just disappointed in their books, as I have been. (photo: The Yellow Book by Vincent Van Gogh).

Lately I’ve been dependent on e-books coming through my waiting list from the library, so I read what comes and if I’m disappointed I drop and pick up the next one. I have just started The Promise by Damon Galgut (winner of 2021 Booker) and I’m definitely engaged. “This bravura novel about the undoing of a bigoted South African family during apartheid deserves awards.”—The Guardian

Waiting on my Kindle library shelf is: Brick Lane by Monica Ali (while anticipating her new one, Love Marriage), and the Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  Why?  I have no idea.

Flash: As I was writing this, a message came from Pat in Bend, Oregon: “A researcher sets out to discover what’s happening to Pacific Salmon. The wild Salmon’s wide range takes him from Canada, to the Arctic and, eventually to Kamchatka, Russia. There he sees undisturbed Salmon habitat and vibrant ecosystems. He forms the notion of creating protected Salmon habitats that he calls, “strongholds” Thus the title of this book, Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild Salmon by Tucker Malarkey. Malarkey grew up with the researcher in their family cabins on the Deschutes River in Oregon, and she followed him as a journalist and friend in his endeavors to create an eco-organization. (non-fiction)

That’s it for now. Please keep your book suggestions coming for the April meeting of our beloved Cañar Book Club.


The house in the clouds – 15 years later


Dear Friends – coming up next month is the anniversary of moving into our “house in the clouds,” so I thought it would be fun to do a before/after look, remember the 14 months of construction, and realize again how much this home has meant to us, and all the visitors, friends and family who have come to share it with us over the years. I started thinking about this theme because this weekend we have our first visitor in two years – Emily – a fellow Fulbrighter and Portlander, now living in Ecuador. So, here we go…. (photos below: June 2005 and February 2022.)

We bought the land in July 2005, at the end of my second Fulbright grant and just as we were preparing to leave Cañar for what we assumed would be “forever.” Previously, for several years, we’d  been looking in Mexico for an alternative life, but as we talked about how much we would miss this homely place called Cañar, we had one of those “AHA -DUH!” moments when we realized everything we’d been looking for in Mexico was right here. Community, endless walking opportunities, good/bad climate (e.g. always chilly), and, for me, open-ended work as a documentary photographer. Only downside was how far we would be from friends and family in the U.S. But that very day Michael went out to look around, accompanied by a Cañari friend, and a couple of weeks later we had bought a cornfield in the comuna of Chaglaban, half-kilometer from where we’d been living in a little rental house. (There’s a lot more to this origin story in my  book, but for this blog we’ll stay with the CliffsNotes version.) Here’s Michael on the day we closed on the property. We left almost immediately for Portland, and returned six months later to find a few new residents.

But work had already begun with our architect, Lourdes Abad, from Cuenca, whom we’d hired after seeing the beautiful adobe house she’d built for a friend.Back in Portland, Michael had made a rough drawing Inspired by our many trips to Mexico of a simple square house with a central courtyard. We sent it to Lourdes, and by the time we came back to Cañar she had refined Michael’s design into a not-so-simple house, with three off-set rectangles to allow a larger courtyard, porches front and back, and a better layout.

After soil engineers determined that our land was not stable enough for an traditional adobe block house – this region is riddled with geologic faults –  Lourdes proposed a house made of “bahareque”- an old Spanish term for walls made of bamboo and soil. For us, it meant a house with a post-and-beam frame with mud walls, held by thin strips of bamboo. But I’m jumping ahead. We broke ground in 2006, and I have to say that, for me, watching a house being built from the ground up for the first time was a revelation. To begin, you draw an outline of house on the ground with chalk. No kidding.Then you dig channels around the chalk lines – with shovels, by hand.Then  you have a bunch of rocks delivered to fill in the channels and begin foundation walls.Then comes the wood for posts and beams, which Michael and the workers bought at the local wood market down the road. All eucalyptus. So you could say that making a house in Cañar, so far, is about chalk, sticks and stones, though we’ve yet to add the mud, straw and horse manure.

Dear readers: I’m going to break in here to speed up the process. In reviewing the photos I took during the construction period, it looks likes I documented every single day, and I’m having a tough time wading through the files. While I’m happy to have these images, I don’t think you will want to go through the entire construction with me. So I’m going to add a bunch of images with minimal text.

OR – you can always skip to the Cañar Book Club below, with some wonderful reading suggestions from our members.

I’m ending with before and after shots of our courtyard – March 27, 2007 – the day we inaugurated the house with a Wasipichana ceremony with Mama Michi officiating –  and today, February 21, 2022.

And if anyone should want more – the story of building the house and making a life in Cañar is told in my book, Our House in the Clouds, Building a Second Life in the Andes of Ecuador, University of Texas Press, 2013.

PS: Lourdes has asked me to add that in 15 years the house has not required any maintenance, inside or out!

C a ñ a r   B o o k   C l u b

Thanks to our dear club member Joanne from Patzcuaro, Mexico and Portland, Oregon, for the above photo. She recommends Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. “This beautiful, spare little book I read on the plane was so wonderful I wish it had been longer. Set in an Irish village at Christmas time, a local man confronts his past and the scene at a Magdalene laundry.”  

From Lisa in Savannah: I just read a fantastic, page-tuner entitled  Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo.  It’s the fascinating non-fiction story of art forgers in 1980’s and 90’s London. Also,iIf you liked  Song of Achilles – you would love Circe by the same author (Madeline Miller).

From Sandy in Toronto: How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith. “Really beautifully written book that manages to talk about slavery in a way that is neither pedantic, nor preachy. One of the best I have read on the subject – the kind of book that might actually help others learn and change.”

From Maya in Portland: “Top of the list is Rabih Alameddine’s latest, The Wrong End of the Telescope.  I liked his An Unnecessary Woman quite a lot but I like the new one even more. A transgender doctor, Lebanese in origin, goes to the island of Lesbos with several friends to help support the immigrants arriving there. It is warm and funny and well written, all the while  showing the terrible plight of refugees from the Mideast in the Mediterranean.”

Maya continues: “To that I’d add Nawal El Saadawi’s biography, Walking through Fire: The Later Years of Nawal El Saadawi, In Her Own Words. She’s an Egyptian feminist and author who recently died after living a remarkable life. And last – The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, translated from the French, about three generations of an Algerian family who flee to France during the Algerian revolution. Very well done.

From Bruce in Tucson: “Been reading Seed & Dust: Life, Nature, and a Country Garden by Marc Hamer. (Judy adds, as she has just ordered it from the library:  “Hamer describes a year in his life as a country gardener in the same 12-acre garden in the Welsh countryside for over two decades. As he works … he reflects on his own life: living homeless as a young man, his loving relationship with his wife and children, and – now – feeling the effects of old age on body and mind.”

Bruce continues: Hamer also wrote another great book: How to Catch a Mole. David Mitchell’s  Utopia Avenue is also great, about a rock band in 1960s England.

Scott in Portland recommends The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand. “In his follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand offers a new intellectual and cultural history of the postwar years.”

From Liz in Toronto: “I just finished Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys in preparation for reading her new book, Oh William, and wanted to recommend it for your book club. Such a wise, deeply humane and psychologically acute writer! I might even re-read.”

From Patricia in Cuenca: “I continue to dwell in the 19th century although this takes me into my own lifetime.” I’ve read Margaret Fuller Ossoli: A Biography, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Not the easiest read until the later chapters, as Ossoli developed into a journalist, feminist, abolitionist, and revolutionary in Italy, before her tragic drowning off Fire Island. Now onto the Autobiography of W. E. B. DuBois.

From Natalie in Mexico, but coming to Ecuador and Cañar soon: “I’ve lately read two novels by Ecuadorian-American writers lately: The Spanish Daughter by Lorena Hughes. A telenovela-worthy historical family saga-drama set in 1920s Guayaquil; and The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, a fun magical realism/female empowerment tale also
set in Guayaquil.

From Mary Day in Colombia, who seems to read a book a day: Como polvo en el viento, Leonardo Padura. On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed ( history of Texas and the rest of us). Drinking the Sea at Gaza, Amira Hass (vital book I should have read in the 90s when it first came out, but still bitterly relevant, by an Israeli reporter who lives still on the West Bank). Alec, William di Canzio (wonderful novel picking up on EM Forster’s Maurice). The Kingdom, Emanuel Carrere (French intellectual’s struggle to understand the politics and theology of the early Christian era). What Just Happened, Charles Finch (brilliant scream of anti-Trump outrage by writer most known for murder mysteries set in Victorian England. This is a very American book and also very funny). And, on the side, this was the year I rediscovered and reread all of Josephine Tey.

Finally, my dear sister Char in Austin is reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.“So compelling, so fearlessly imagined, that I wouldn’t have  put it down for anything.” –Ann Patchett. And Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy. “Propulsive and spell-binding…. the unforgettable story of a woman desperate to save the creatures she loves – if she isn’t consumed by a wild that was once her refuge.”


Given that long list of books that could keep us all busy for the rest of the year, I’m debating whether to add my own. I think I’ll wait until next time.

Until then, please stay in touch at:  judyblanken@gmail.com






Here comes 2022 with the años viejos


Dear Friends:  Well, since it’s still barely the first week of 2022 I can say – best wishes to you all for the new year, and please let it be better than 2021!

Looking back this past month, the holiday season in Cañar is always mixed for us, without family, visitors from far away or Portland friends. Christmas and New Year’s here are all about family gatherings, and it’s rare to include outsiders. However, we had just enough special visitors and events to make us feel loved. Here’s a lunch with our favorite architect, Lourdes Abad (red necklace), and her sister Ana.

I debated whether to take part part in my first crowd event on December 31 (called Año Viejo, or Old Year), but it was a beautiful day and I knew the hours-long, outdoor procession would be in constant motion. In the Cañari world, this day is all about music, dance, masks, disguises and irreverent fun. So early afternoon I tried out my persona/mask – I think it’s Ugly Betty? – packed camera, water, sunscreen, and joined several hundred comuneros at the highest village of Junducuchu at about 11,000 feet,-truly up in the clouds.There, with a 10-piece band leading, and dancing women and girls called damas, we began winding down the steep mountain. I in heavy boots, concentrating hard not to slip on the loose gravel or tip over the edge where the roadway collapsed, hanging onto tree branches and an occasional fellow walker… …while the women and girls stepped alongside me in their little wedgies sandals and plastic slippers without a pause. We stopped in several other comunas on the way down the mountain where the band played, the damas danced, and others joined in, many in funny masks and disguises.Men dressed as women is the favorite (no Cañari woman would ever make such a gesture).

Along the way I saw various life-sized rag dolls propped up at the entrance to villages, called monigotes, with names tacked on representing known figures, to be burned at midnight in a symbolic gesture of “regeneration” (though history says these were often effigies of hacienda overseers or other hated authority figures). Past years Michael and I have stayed up late enough to burn Trump, but this year I bought two masks to add to my collection and I don’t want to burn any of them: the devil signifying the pandemic, and a Dr. Fauci representing medical heroes.

By the time we got to the next-to-last village it was nearly 6:00 PM, the temperature was dropping, I was tired and Michael was at home by the fire with dinner on the stove. I nodded goodbye to the last monigotes and started on down the mountain.

I’d like to give a last credit to the great mask makers of Cuenca, the Alejandro Flores family who have been hand-crafting these papier maché masks for seventy years. Made with scrap paper from schools and other sources, glue and paint, they show up in the markets in Cañar the week between Christmas and New Year’s, costing about $2 each. Pictured below is Susana Flores, one of Alejandro’s ten children, four of which have stayed in the business.

Cañar Book Club

Our Cañar Book Club members have awaken after their holiday stupor and are reading books like crazy. From my Wine and Whine girlfriends in Portland: The Master and the Emissary. “Iain McGilchrist presents a fascinating exploration of the differences between the brain’s left and right hemispheres, and how those differences have affected society, history, and culture.” Cloud Cuckoo Land. “Already in 100 pages; Anthony Doerr is certainly a master of simple writing that makes for page-turning.” Two memoirs of special interest according to reviews: Home in the World by Amartya Sen and Sentence by Daniel Genis.

From Bibi in California: Mothering Sunday, Graham Swift; Moonglow, Michael Chabon  and  Rescue, Anita Shreve. “All of them are intriguing stories well told. The kind that makes you sad when they’re over. But my favorite book of the year: Garlic, Garlic, Garlic, by Linda & Fred Griffith. Even if you are not a gardener or cook, it is a wonderfully informative and entertaining book.”

Bruce in Portland gets the prize for most complicated title:  “I’m reading The Standardization of the Demoralization Procedures by Jennifer Hofmann. It’s about a career Stasi officer in East Germany around 1989. So far, it’s a pretty good read. Very tight prose.”

Pat in Bend, Oregon: I am in the midst of The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot  by Robert Macfarlane, and it’s great. I picked it up after reading Mountains of the Mind by him, a geological and psychological  history of mountains and mountain climbing. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Native American botanist and teacher of environmental biology, weaves science with indigenous wisdom and teaches us how to listen to plants. I wonder what your aloe has to say? Louise Penney recently co-authored a political thriller with Hilary Clinton called State of Terror that has details only an insider could know, and has cameos by Penney’s characters from her mysteries. Loved it! (Daphne from Edmonton, Alberta seconded this opinion.)

Alan the “The Avid Indoorsman” in New Jersey seems to be reading a book a day: Of Women of Salt, Gabriela Garcia. “It is beautifully written brutally honest and hard to put down. The story is brilliantly woven together and ends with unexpected hope.” Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper. “Finally, a book that tells the truth about our language. Here is why the rule against final prepositions is preposterous. Its bent and worn pages are a testament to how thoroughly I studied this tome.” Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen, “…about how we remember and avoid the facts.”

Claire in London (with with a leek and lentil gratin in the oven, reminding me we need to start again with our recipes – Claire?). The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. “Great fun, well structured with lots of twists and turns and very entertaining.” Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud. “If you don’t mind getting into the patois (it’s set in Trinidad) it’s a wonderful story of love and loss through food and friendship. I couldn’t put it down.”

Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. “It takes a few pages to get into it but I was soon gripped. Beautiful writing and so evocative.”   For those, like me, who LOVED  A Gentleman in Moscow, the new Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway, might well be a disappointment.  Multiple characters, none of them that believable or interesting and a story that seems to be taking ages to get going. However, I see from Twitter reviews that people who didn’t take to Gentleman rather like this one!  I adored All the Light One Can Not See by Anthony Doer and was initially dubious about his latest – Cloud Cuckoo Land. But I kept going and it grew on me, though I still had reservations about some elements (and mostly skipped those elements). Next I might try The Promise by Damon Galgut which won the Booker last year.

Ed on Vashon Island noted my interest in walking books and sent this recommendation: The Salt Path: A Memoir by Raynor Winn, who with her husband walked 600 miles of coastal paths in southwest Britain when they found themselves homeless and broke. I read it earlier this year and loved the story.

I’ll finish with a couple from my own very eclectic reading list. Friend Liv in Oslo recommended Trieste: A Novel by Dasa Drndic that I have just begun to read and had a hard time grasping the jumble of facts/figures/time periods. But I’m just getting into “this many-layered novel of WWII combines fiction with a collage of facts to explore the fate of Italian Jews under Nazi occupation, through the intimate story of a mother’s search for her son.” For some reason I brought Old Filth by Jane Gardam with me to Cañar, and for some reason I loved reading about the last days of an elderly lawyer called affectionately by the acronym FILTH: Failed in London Try Hong Kong. First of a trilogy that I’m hooked on. I’m also meandering along with The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, but yearning for a really great novel or thriller. I’ve already ordered several from the fantastic recommendations above.

That’s it, dear friends. Please stay in touch and write me with all your news and book recommendations at: judyblanken@gmail.com




Settling into our 16th half-year in Cañar


Dear Friends:   Brrrr, it’s a foggy chilly day as I begin this – the inside temperature is 13C (55 degreesF). Although we yearly head south, no one can accuse us of being wimpy snowbirds on this, our 16th half-year in cold Cañar. We count on a little sun in the mornings to warm the glass-covered atrium and make the day comfortable. Not today. Michael wants to hold off to 4:00 PM before making a fire (he claims our woodpile is critically low), but once he has his KenKen puzzles, a beer and the fire, all is well in our little corner of the Andes.

We arrived a little over a week ago in Guayaquil, with a hard landing after a full day of travel from Portland. Turns out the Ecuadorian government changed the entry requirements for travelers the day before, so there was no way to know that we had to have a Covid test within 24 hours of travel. Nor did the hundreds of other travelers stuck in the airport with us at 2:00 AM. We finally emerged at 4:00 AM, after a quick and painful screw-up-the-nose antegen test. I laud Ecuador for being careful about the new variant, but it was unconscionable not to let us know what was going on, as we stood waiting 30 minutes in the jetway, then in a corridor, then another corridor, the in two waiting rooms. Finally, we were called to an improvised clinical setting and asked for our Covid exam results. Whaaaat? I’ve made a sort of cartoon of our travel day, with a nod to Roz Chast of the New Yorker. I hope you’ll be able to make sense of it.

After recovering in a Guayaquil hotel for a day and a night, we made the familiar drive to Cañar, leaving the hot and humid coast to zigzag up through the clouds to over 10,000 feet. Looking down on Cañar from the highest point, I thought back to my first writings about this place –  that I’d first called a village, then a town, and now I have to say it is a small city. A scrappy, homely and cold small city, where we are still the only extranjeros who choose to live here. (Though who wouldn’t want to live here with a view like this?)

This high and dry climate is kind to our house, however. Other than dust and spiderwebs, it looks exactly as we left it six months ago. In fact it’s pretty much in the same shape as when we moved in, in 2007. Our compadres Jose María and Narcisa have left an offering on our kitchen table of a big basket of dried beans (enough for a few years) and a bowl of mazorkas, dried corn in various colors. These are from the harvest of our back field, where they follow the custom of being partidarios – planting land not your own and sharing the harvests. Over the years we’ve learned to acquiesce to the custom of receiving our symbolic “share,” even though we can never use the amount they give us.

The interior garden requires little care, with it’s succulents, cacti, aloe, geraniums, ferns and orchids. While we’re gone, Andean sparrows take up residence and build their nests in the monster Aloe, and I can peer in and see at least two nests. They appear empty of eggs, but the mamas still make regular visits during the day through the six-inch gap between the steel/glass structure and tile roof, circling the space, hopping around the patio and sometimes checking out our rooms.

The yard is another story – the compadres‘ sheep and the neighbors’ chickens have pretty well decimated the flower gardens and much else. Last year I wrote about my Sisyphean garden: no matter how much love I pour into it while we’re here – planting, pruning, mowing –  it goes back to square one when we go away for a few months. Then, this time, after a few days of rain, just as I think the front lawn might recover, here comes Chirote in his heavy truck with a load of wood for Michael. Thirty-six vigas, or square wooden beams, some from old torn-down houses. Perfect heavy wood and truck tires to gouge out the grass.And because Chirote’s an old friend, Michael invites him in for a beer by the fire, where I can’t resist making a portrait of old friends.

And because it happens that the next day, when Mike finds his old chainsaw sputtering, he has a perfect excuse to make the trip to Cuenca to drop it off for repairs, and buy a new one. Although he will deny this, nothing makes him happier than to have a new toy – I mean tool.

(I want to stop here to say how much I love hearing from you all, and and ask that you respond to my Cañar Chronicles with my email judyblanken@gmail.com: Something is screwy with my MailChimp account and I know it’s been impossible to use the reply.)

That brings us to the moment we’ve all been waiting for…..

The Cañar Book Club

Dear Members – it’s been way too long, I agree, and I know it will be hard to make up for lost time trying to remember all we’ve read in the past few months. Speaking of memory – here and gone –  I opened the book I brought for the long travel day, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra, and within a few pages I realized I’d already read it. But I could remember almost nothing, so I kept reading through the week, and the next, and found it (again) to be a beautiful, moving, reading experience of a story that takes place in Chechnya – a place I knew nothing about. I’ll let the New York Times Book Review say it all: “Extraordinary…A 21st Century War and Peace.” It’s currently #1 on my list.

Otherwise, given that an extra bag now costs $65 on American Airlines, I brought way fewer books this time. Here they are, looking rather pathetic on their own nearly-empty shelf on my bed-side bookshelf. They are:

Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart memoir (after enjyoing reading his articles in the “New Yorker,” humorous but serious writing. (Just finished – loved it!)

Oh William, Elizabeth Strout – a gift from a reading friend. I love Strout and am holding back on reading it so I can keep anticipating it, like a delicious meal.

Meaning a Life: An Autobiography, Mary Oppen (after references read in Maggie Nelson book The Argonauts, which I found riveting. I felt the same about Nelson’s The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, but she lost me with her most recent On Freedom.

The Book of Aron, Jim Shepard, because my serious reading friend Bruce said that he is one of the best authors he knows. Shepard also shows up on lots of best-of lists, but I don’t think I’ve read anything by him.

The Piano Tuner, Daniel Mason, because I read a later book by him, The Winter Soldier. Like “A Constellation…,”  it captures previous centuries and worlds I don’t know – Siberian Russia and Burma.

Old Filth, Jane Gardam, I don’t remember, but I think it was mentioned in a book I recently read and loved –To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing, about walking the length of the River Ouse from source to sea. The river where Virginia Woolf died, Laing muses on that history and much else that’s taken place over the centuries along her walk.  A slow meander to savor. And that led me to this strange title. Old Filth?  Will report in next book club.

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert MacFarlane – because I love books about walking. Part of a trio of books about landscape and how we live in it. “…Macfarlane sets off to follow the ancient routes that crisscross both the landscape of the British Isles and its waters and territories beyond. The result is an immersive, enthralling exploration of the voices that haunt old paths and the stories our tracks tell.”

Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane (same author), also walking, this one about terms that comes about from particular landscapes. Each section starts with a glossary of words you’ve never heard before, such as rife: small river flowing across the coastal plain, or  sike, small stream, often flowing through marshy ground.  “Landmarks is a celebration and defense of such language.”

And just so I don’t get nervous about running out of books, I loaded a few on my iPad. I must confess I have no idea when, where or why I ordered these titles.

Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds, Marisol de la Cadena

Bring Me Back, B.A. Paris. A novel, but I know nothing else

Still Life, Louise Penny. A mystery, because I read one of hers before and like it. Not my usual fare.




2021 Cañari Women’s Scholarship Program Update


Dear Friends: I’m very happy to be back in touch. Michael and I made a short trip to Cañar in the spring, when we found the Covid lockdown in Ecuador still in effect and cases rising, though nothing like previous levels. Masks were required throughout the country and public transportation was back but varied according to infection levels. Vaccinations were just starting in Cañar for the elderly and are now available to everyone, including children. Otherwise, in Cañar, at least, daily life felt “regular” – a favorite expression said with dead-pan tonality. Twice-weekly markets had started up and the town streets were alive with traffic and shoppers. Since then, according to a recent post from the World Bank, “after a vaccination campaign earlier this year, Ecuador went from being one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic to becoming an example for the world. This success story would have been impossible without the massive turnout of the population.” (Note: World Bank provided most of the funds for vaccines.)

Two posters for rural areas of Cañar. Text on the left: visits door-to-door to give vaccines to all persons from five years old. Second right indicates same information for local health clinic.

Last year I started this letter by saying that despite the pandemic our program was alive and well. I think this year I have to say that while still alive – we are limping. When the lockdown hit Ecuador in March 2020, our women were scattered across the country, some as far away as the northwest coast and in the Amazon, and they came home to face the challenge of continuing classes without Internet. Everyone had cell phones, however, and so at the outset the women “attended” classes and submitted their work on their mobiles. Imagine how hard that was! Our local committee quickly decided to continue paying full scholarships ($150-$160/month) to help families buy access to Internet and support additional children at home. Today, 18 months later, university classes are still virtual. One woman suspended her medical studies after struggling all year.

However, our 2021 numbers provide a positive overall picture: we have 25 graduates, four with master’s degrees, and one PhD student. Michael and I are headed to Ecuador on December 1 to begin the sixteenth year of our life in Cañar, so during the next six months I will send more up-to-date news of the scholarship program on this blog. Meanwhile, I’ve checked in with some of our graduates (mostly via Facebook) to see what they are up to.

Carmen Loja, (Economics, 2011), worked with several financial cooperatives before realizing her dream of building a community-based tourism program, Kinti Wasi, in her home community of Suscal. Along with her cousin and another partner, Carmen hosts groups such as this one of US-based Amigos de Las Americas: https://bit.ly/3BYzCNa) where “high school and gap-year students experience the Andean worldview in agroecology, gastronomy, architecture, ancestral medicine and spirituality.” And I see by the website that Kinti Wasi is an Amigos partner for 2022. Congratulations Carmen!  (She also welcomes individuals and small groups if any of you are contemplating a trip to Ecuador.)Margarita and Mercedes Guamán (with younger sister and brother), are both graduates of our program, and their subsequent careers reflect the employment situation in Ecuador. Margarita (l), now married with two children, works with the 911 call center in Cuenca, not what she was expecting when she graduated with a degree in natural resources in 2011. Her younger sister Mercedes (in cap & gown), also married with two children, graduated as a CPA in 2018 and has worked steadily as an accountant for local organizations. Without exception, our scholarship women choose careers aimed at jobs. Among our graduates we have several accountants, nurses and nutritionists, along with an MD, veterinarian, dentist, lab clinician, psychologist, agronomist, gastronomist, lawyer, business and communication specialists, but not one in the humanities. I’m sad about this, but the public university system in Ecuador is geared towards technology and science, and our scholarship women are geared towards professional jobs.

Juana Chuma is the only one of our women pursuing a PhD (so far). As a graduate in veterinary medicine from University of Cuenca (2015), she received our master’s support of $3000, but beyond that she has won scholarships and awards at UNAM in Mexico, including a training trip to Chile and a semester at University of Georgia in the US (delayed due to Covid but on track for 2022.)

The pandemic has meant good news for those already working in public health, as the Ecuadorian government has offered them full-time, permanent jobs in hospitals and community clinics. To be permanently nombrado in your workplace in Ecuador is something like tenure – you can stay for life. This is good for job security but not so good for new graduates trying to break into their respective fields. However, the world always needs doctors, nurses and nutritionists, especially those who are bilingual Quichua/Spanish as are all of these below.

Physician Luisa Duchi works in a community health clinic serving rural areas where many elderly speak only Quichua. Married with two children, she is from the Cañari village of Sisidhuayco

Mary Zhinin is a nurse in a provincial hospital in Ambato, in central Ecuador, where her husband also works. They have two children and are from the Cañari village of Quilloac.

Nutritionist/dietician Mariana Acero works in our provincial hospital in the city of Azogues, an hour from Cañar, which allows her to live at home in Correucu with her mother, the famous curandera Mama Michi Chuma.

Here is what graduation looked like in 2021: after five years in a very tough civil engineering program at University of Cuenca, Paiwa Acero sat in front of a laptop screen in my office in full graduation regalia (rented the day before), with script in hand, four people in attendance, and a Zoom program full of glitches. But that night her proud mother, Maria Esthela, organized an elaborate fiesta to celebrate with friends and family. Congratulations Paiwa!

Great thanks to the Circle of Giving in Bend, Oregon who for the past five years have supported women in a new two-year distance program called “Integrated Childhood Development” to train preschool teachers. It’s a government-created course to offer post-secondary education to those who can’t afford to attend university or have other barriers such as caring for young children or elderly parents.The “Circle” of eight women commit to a set amount each year to pay stipends to women who need assistance with childcare, transportation or meals, or to help the program outfit teaching laboratories at the facility. In May this year I was a surprise recipient of gratitude (to the Circle) when the program included me on a wonderful rainy “solidarity” day in the mountains, including a trout lunch

The Cañari Women’s Education Foundation (CWEF) is managed in Cañar by a local board of program graduates + me and the treasurer). Under normal circumstances, we meet two or three times a year to look over applications, review each scholar’s progress and decide how many spaces can be filled. Before Covid we also had a yearly meeting of all scholars, past and present; something we hope to do again in 2022. We keep the current group at about twelve, making it easy to manage monthly payments and monitor progress. Charlotte Rubin, our treasurer in Portland, keeps track of contributions and handles the banking here. We have no administrative costs.

CWEF is an official 501(c) 3 nonprofit, which means your contributions are tax deductible, and every dollar goes directly to the women. Please make your checks to CWEF and return in the enclosed envelope. We’ll send everyone thank you letters with IRS receipts. You can also donate through PayPal with this DONATE button at the end.

Please stay safe, stay in touch, and profound thanks for your continuing support.  Judy B.


On sisters, sons and daughters…


Dear Friends – this will be the last of my Cañar chronicles for a while, as we are returning to Portland on June 7, with a plan to come back in December for our usual six months. But this quick two-month visit has been important to maintain continuity between our two worlds. We leave this one hopeful, as Covid cases are down, vaccinations are taking place daily near us (Sputnik the Russia vaccine just approved), and town life is beginning to feel, well, alive again.  So now my thoughts turn to things personal. I come from a family of (long-lived) women. I am one of three sisters; our mother was one of six sisters, all loving and supportive to the end of their days – two are still alive. (Photo above: our mother’s 90th birthday.) Following this pattern, I think I expected to have a daughter, in that vague early-20’s sort of way, though the boy I got has filled my life with plenty of joy. But then my younger sisters began to have babies – all boys! – until we had, between us, five sons. Then when THEY began to have children (e.g. our grandchildren), they produced seven boys with two girls sprinkled in, 20 years apart.This was not the dynasty of women we’d expected to continue.

However, we three sisters, all single mothers at one time or another as we stumbled through the 60’s and 70’s, set the bar high in terms of independence and showing our boys what women could do. We’d like to take credit for preparing five good men for the stable marriages and families they’ve all made.

But then, relatively late in life and from a surprise source, the gift of a girl. When Michael and I made our first trip back to Ecuador in the 1990s, and fierce little Paiwa came into our lives at age two, we never imagined we’d have a future with this creature. Although we’d made the trip especially to be her godparents, Paiwa wouldn’t allow us to hold or touch her at her baptism. Here she was about then…

But we kept coming back to Cañar, and Paiwa gradually got used to us. By kindergarten she allowed us to walk her to her school on the first day, and once Michael made some furniture her size, she’d stop by our house after school to read books.On her birthday, secure on the lap of her mother, Paiwa and Michael made an obvious connection. Our relationship grew over the next fifteen years as we moved every six months from Portland to Cañar and back again. (As did the photo collection. Her mother Maria Esthela was one of my first photography students and owns a photo studio in town.)

With no children of his own, Michael loved being a godfather, and as Paiwa’s father was not involved in her upbringing, she considered Michael her marcatayta, a stand-in for her father.

Well, Paiwa graduated from grammar school, then from high school,


…went off to University of Cuenca for five years to study civil engineering, wrote a thesis on waste water management using vermifilters, and then…This past week Paiwa graduated (virtually, in my studio) and has even landed a 4-month, paid internship at the local potable water office CENAGRAP. We couldn’t be more proud of her –  our goddaughter, our granddaughter, our daughter.

Well, it’s hard to top that, but as I was walking around town this week I was shocked to see the first sign of a US-based fast-food chain – KFC, yes, the famous Kentucky Fried Chicken, which doesn’t exactly translate to local fare here. Instead it was offering a “Tropiburger” from a big red tent in an upper town plaza.

Let’s hope it’s gone the next time I pass by, because I love the streetscape of constantly changing small shops here, all locally owned. One block might have 4 bakeries, 2 cell phone shops, one Cañari clothing store, and one corner store, none like the other, though we can’t imagine how these small stores survive when many sell the very same products.

Well, dear friends, that’s it for now. I’ve read several books from the last book club suggestions, but there’s no time or space to give a report, other than that most of our members are reading heavily on themes of racism, BLM, slavery, and colonialism. Maybe if I have time this week I’ll do a dedicated Cañar Book Club.

Until then, I send greetings to all, and please remember that l love to hear from you, whether while here in Ecuador or in Portland.

May 30, 2021



Life in Cañar May 2021


Dear Friends:As with other South America countries, a second wave of Covid19 has hit Ecuador, though nothing as serious as it’s neighbors, Colombia and Peru, covered by a NYT article here. Still, after the horrific initial outbreak while we were here last March, Ecuador has been cautious. With the recent surge, the government declared a four-week, “general quarantine” on weekends (8:00 PM Friday to 5:00 AM Monday) in sixteen of the country’s twenty-four provinces. It’s being strictly enforced, according to the news, with 516 arrests for curfew violations the first weekend, and more than a thousand fines to drivers on the streets without legitimate reasons. Nine brothels were also closed around Guayaquil, with the best quote of the week from the National Emergency Operations Committee. “Fornication or other sexual acts among strangers are not allowed during the emergency.”  Cañar was not included in the quarantine, so life goes on pretty much as usual here. We’ve just been to the local Saturday market to find it packed with wholesale vendors and buyers, food stands, cars and trucks. Almost everyone wears masks, however, and I was glad to hear loudspeaker announcements in Quichua and Spanish on the importance of the vaccine, which has rolled out in Cañar these last few weeks with “tercer edades” (elders) and teachers. Countrywide, it’s been slow and chaotic, with only 4.3 of population so far vaccinated.“We had it under control in our communities,” a Cañari tayta, or elder, told me yesterday, “and now it’s back. But mostly in the town,” he added, naming several of his neighbors who were infected at their workplaces. Still, this past year in his large comuna only four people have died, and although infections were widespread he could only name one or two people who’d actually gone to hospital. He wore a mask as we talked, but said he would not be getting the vaccine – something I’m hearing from almost everyone who lives in the country. As I wonder about it, a clearer (but speculative) picture begins to form: while those who’ve had mild cases feel they’ve “been there” and don’t need further protection, the rest feel that if they’ve avoided the virus so far, why risk the vaccine with its reported side effects. Also, many folks here use preventative home remedies as protection against the virus. The tayta described the concoction he drinks three times a day: a tea made up of three heads of garlic, three red onions, four limes with peel, five cypress buds, and a dash of honey. And people keep eucalyptus branches at doorways, windows and even in cars.

Some of you have asked about Michael’s cooking (and commented on his hands), so here’s an update on last week’s paella, made possible by the magnificent langostinos that sometimes show up in the Sunday market…

…and shared with out resident goddaughter, Paiwa.Otherwise Michael’s labors involve maintaining the endlessly needy woodpile, with delivery of wood followed by the sound of the chainsaw.

As for me, I have two projects in the works, one short-term, one long. The first is a brochure on Cañari music, part of the amazing outcome of ethnomusicologist Allison Adrian’s time in Cañar on a Fulbright grant here three years ago. Since then, she has been producing videos, translations and transcriptions of traditional Cañari music. The brochure, which I’m helping design and guiding to print during the next month, will give listeners a quick study in Cañari music, with photos, titles and lyrics, and a QR code to a Soundcloud site. And here is a link to her videos on YouTube – Watch and listen and learn!The long-term project is one close to my heart for many years: a book of archival images from the glass-plate and early celluloid negatives of Rigoberto Navas, traditional Cañar town photographer. I began about six years ago when his family gave me access to a closet in his last studio, stuffed with boxes of negatives, camera equipment, and odds and ends of his long life (1911-2001). In the beginning I was only looking for images with indigenous content, but I quickly realized that here was a beautiful visual history of a small market town in the first half of 20th century. Six years on, although local and even national institutions are firmly behind the project, the pandemic means zero budget for cultural projects. So I will soon be off on a private fundraising effort that will take me into next year and the six months we plan to spend here.

Photo by Rigoberto Navas

Another big transition in a photographer’s life: a week or so ago I sold my Cañar darkroom equipment and supplies, including some seriously outdated film and chemicals. A photographer and collector from Cuenca, an acquaintance of many years, came and hauled it all away in the back of his SUV.

The day before, as Michael and dismantled the large Beseler enlarger, we laughed remembering traveling to Ecuador with it as baggage about 12 years ago, when it looked for all the world like a strange rocket. Ecuadorian customs agents, more accustomed to plasma TVs, microwaves and computers, took one quizzical look and let us through. It has served me well all these years, as I loved darkroom work, but like many others these day, I no longer use film, and barely a 35mm camera. We did the same routine in Portland a few months ago – dismantled the darkroom and placed equipment and camera gear on consignment with Blue Moon Camera.I was surprised and how quickly it all sold.

Cañar Book Club

OK dear readers, settle into your favorite wing chair with a good light. I put out a call for fiction and had some great responses from our esteemed and fabulous club members.

From Joanne in Portland: What’s Left of Me is Yours, Stephanie Scott. “Wonderful novel based on a true story of a murder by a wakaresaseya (breaker-upper) in Japan. Innovative, engaging, lots of cultural details about Japan.”

The Door, Magda Szabo. “Fabulous Hungarian novel about a writer who hires a housekeeper who takes over her life and forms a deep bond with her.”

From Maya in Portlnad: Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann. “Apparently a medieval German legend originally, Kehlmann has transposed the story of Till Ulenspiegel, a trickster and performer, into a rollicking story set in the 17th century about a juggler/ tightrope walker/performer who travels through Germany’s war-stricken countryside. It manages to be funny, imaginative, and unlike anything else. Very enjoyable.”

Sworn Virgin, by Elvira Dones. “The only Albanian novel I’ve ever read!. There’s historically been a custom in Albania that a woman can chose to live as a man, with all the perks that come with it, IF she swears to remain a virgin. This is a story of a contemporary woman in the mountainous and poor region of that country who makes this choice to be able to care for the old man who raised her- and years later is released to join a relative in the US: who will she be? man, or, after all these years, woman? And if the latter, how? Short, well written.”

From Rick in Portland: Rumors of Rain, André Brink: “A Novel of Corruption and Redemption set in South Africa – amidst the shocking violence that brings South African apartheid to an end.” (Judy’s note: I read A Dry White Season by the same author years ago and I also recommend it.)

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga: “Follows a darkly comic Bangalore driver through the poverty and corruption of modern India’s caste society.” (Judy’s note: we’ve just watched the film on Netflix. Entertaining but sad.)

Fracture, Andrés Neuman: “… an ambitious literary novel set against Japan’s 2011 nuclear accident in a cross-cultural story about how every society remembers and forgets its catastrophes.”

The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, Maryse Condé: “Born in Guadeloupe, Ivan and Ivana are twins with a bond so strong they become afraid of their feelings for one another. When their mother sends them off to live with their father in Mali they begin to grow apart, until, as young adults in Paris, Ivana’s youthful altruism compels her to join the police academy, while Ivan, stunted by early experiences of rejection and exploitation, walks the path of radicalization.”

Days Without End, Sebastian Barry: “A true left field wonder: a violent, superbly lyrical western offering a sweeping vision of America in the making.”—Kazuo Ishiguro

 A Thousand Moons, Sebastian Barry: “From the two-time Booker Prize finalist …comes a dazzling companion novel about memory and identity, set in Tennessee in the aftermath of the Civil War.”

History, Elsa Morante: “The central character in this powerful and unforgiving novel is Ida Mancuso, a schoolteacher whose husband has died and whose feckless teenage son treats the war as his playground. A German soldier on his way to North Africa rapes her, falls in love with her, and leaves her pregnant with a boy whose survival becomes Ida’s passion.”

From Arlene in Toronto: Nothing to See Here. “Kevin Wilson’s best book yet — a moving and uproarious novel about a woman who finds meaning in her life when she begins caring for two children with remarkable and disturbing abilities”

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Broedesser-Akner, about a marriage on the rocks. “…a marvel, full of shrewd observations, barbed wit, and deep insight. …reveals the twisted hearts of her characters—and the twisted soul of contemporary America—with an eye that is at once pitiless and full of compassion for our human foibles.”

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, “Two faces of the black experience A light-skinned twin sister constructs a new identity as a white woman in a clever novel that confounds expectations.”

That’s it for now. Please keep your reading suggestions coming, as I have a chronicle or two coming before we leave Cañar on June 6. (Note: I’m not sure my REPLY function is working, so write to me by e-mail:  judyblanken@gmail.com)


Beat-up hands, a new president and Covid (not in order of importance)


Dear Friends: It seems some of you didn’t receive my first Chronicle, Back to Cañar 2021. It is here. I had some trouble with my mailing list that I hope is now fixed.

Covid in Cañar: it’s not easy to find solid information, so I’ll pass on what I’ve learned from anecdotal accounts and a few very unreliable statistics. It appears that Covid infections are rampant in Cañar, both in the town and indigenous communities. Within Cañar, like small towns everywhere, news travels fast. “Five people died yesterday,” a lawyer tells me, “and there are many more cases.” As I walk around I see that everyone complies with masks and, as with last year, lye is sprinkled on pavement at entrance to stores, and I still receive change sprayed with alcohol.

Image from Cañar municipal website

But when I ask a Cañari friend about the indigenous comunas that surround the town, he says, “Nada grave. There are lots of cases, but no deaths, and everyone stays home and is cured with home remedies.” When I ask which home remedies, he says…inhaling eucalyptus steam baths and using medicinal plants for teas such as chamomile, ginger,

I believe this guardedness is in keeping with the insularity and reserve of the Cañari people, which goes back to hacienda days when maintaining separateness was a survival mechanism. The less the patron knew of your personal life, the safer you were. “No one wants to be treated in hospital or intubated,” my friend said. I’ve yet to hear of a single death in the indigenous communities although I suspect that there have to be some, especially elders, who by tradition die at home and are quickly buried, with no medical attention or death certificate. (Official statistic for Cañar county that includes the town and country comunas: 908 confirmed cases from Feb 29, 2020 – March 31 2021, a figure that has to be vastly under reported.)As for vaccines in Ecuador, some from Pfizer through the COVAX international plan and Sinovac from China, but the delivery situation is chaotic. Yesterday, as I walked home, the road to our house was nearly blocked with cars and people at a local school where shots were apparently available – or had been. People were crowded outside the closed gate, shouting at the soldiers on the other side. Everyone’s first question to me, when they learn I’m vaccinated, is “which one?” The second question is: “What was your reaction?” There’s lots of news, good and bad, circulating about which vaccines are the best (Pfizer!) and side effects. One elderly woman we love, who runs a store in town, said of her friend who had varicose veins, “She took the vaccine and she just died! I’m not getting it,” she concluded, maskless, “God will protect me.”

Michael’s big, beautiful beat-up Cañar hands. As many of you know, Michael was for many years a contractor in Portland, doing mostly plumbing and electrical work. His hands were always knobby and bloody, and now they are even knobbier with age and arthritis. Since I’ve known him he has not been able to open his hands fully, and now they look a bit like sweet bear paws, without the shredder claws. Lately, with retirement and Covid, his hands had grown soft and white. But now back in Cañar, what with taking down shutters, pruning bushes, building fires, cutting wood, moving compost (and using the Spanish dictionary), his hands are again getting beat-up. But they are lovely hands to draw or photograph.Otherwise, our domestic life is pretty much the same. Sunday market for produce and shrimp; daily forays into town for everything else; once a week to Cuenca for luxuries such as cheese and coffee. After our Portland life with Whole Foods and New Seasons and specialty stores, we returned from those first shopping trips with, “Look what I got for one dollar!” Here’s a photo from trip #1: eight tomatoes = $1.00; eight eggs = $1.00; five pounds of potatoes = $2.00 and a handful of maracuyá (a gift from the vendor).

 While Michael’s main domestic job is food and cooking, mine is laundry, carefully sorted into categories (a practice of most women I know) and hung according. On a sunny day, in this high dry climate, drying takes about two hours. Elections: Well, to the surprise of many, Guillermo Lasso won last week’s election on his third try for the presidency. Lasso, a banker, took 52% of the vote in the runoff following a campaign that pitted his free market economics against his opponent’s pledge to return to the socialist programs of previous president, Rafael Correa, that put the country deeply in debt.When Mr. Lasso takes office in May, he will have to deal with the Indigenous party, Pachakutik. While its candidate barely missed getting to the run-off, the party won half of all provinces (including Cañar) to become the second-largest block in Congress, going from nine to forty-three seats. “The politics of Ecuador will never be the same,” said Farith Simon, an Ecuadorean law professor and columnist. “There’s still racism, but there’s also a re-vindication of the value of Indigenous culture, of pride in their national role.”Cañar Book Club

Well, dear fellow members, I’m ashamed to say my reading has been pretty pathetic these last months. I didn’t keep track of the books read in Portland, and I brought only three paper books to Cañar (Michael refuses to carry them anymore, and I brought only one bag): Tana French’s police procedural, The Trespasser, which was a good interminable read for the 24-hour trip here, but not one I would recommend. Also Mountains of My Mind, for some unknown reason I’d bought months ago about a history of mountain climbing, which I’ll pass on to my friend in Cuenca who does climb mountains. I like Pico Iyer a lot, and just finished an ebook, The Man in the Head, also ordered from the library for some unknown reason. The man in Iyer’s head is Graham Greene, whose books I loved in the far past, but I’m not sure I’d recommend this book either.

So I have to give special thanks to a long book report from a 1960’s an ex-Peace Corps volunteer in Cuenca, now living in Florida, who has done some real quality reading over the pandemic months (unlike some of us). Here is his report, slightly edited:

“Two have Ecuadorian themes. The first is The Man Who Read Love Stories by writer Luis Sepulveda, a Bolivian-exile. The novela is set in the Ecuadorian Oriente and reminds me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The second is The Undocumented Americans, by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. Her parents brought her to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was a child and as an undocumented student she made it through Harvard and is now going for a PhD in American Studies at Yale. She got her green card last year and promptly had this book published.

The Bad Muslim Discount, a novel by Sayd M. Masood. Two Muslim families, one from Pakistan, the other from Iraq meet at an apartment building in San Francisco. Interactions and family conflicts are told in a somewhat comical way.

You might also try Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, by Suzy Hansen.  She discusses living and traveling in Turkey for seven years.  Living outside the US makes us see the world differently.

Finally, I’ll briefly mention these nonfiction books that I felt are also more than just chewing-gum-for-the-eyeballs:  1) Jon Meacham’s biography of John Lewis, His Truth is Marching On.  2) David Michaelis’s “Eleanor,” a lengthy biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.  3) Barak Obama’s A Promised Land.”

Finally, a Portland friend piped in late to say she is reading George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, based on his twenty years of teaching a class on the Russian short story. “He interrupts the story to pose questions and get us thinking about what makes great writing. It might not be for everyone but I find it intriguing and fun to read.”

So, dear readers, please send your suggestions for our next rousing meeting in two weeks. Until then, still well. I love to hear from you.

Back to Cañar 2021


Dear Friends. We have been gone from Cañar for nine months, the longest time away since 2005, when we came to Ecuador for a grant year, bought a piece of land with a view of the Andes, and came back in 2006 to begin building an earthen and wood “barraque” house. We’ve returned every year since for six months until last year, when we left on July 4 amidst the Covid pandemic on our “trip from hell #1” to return safely to Portland, Oregon, our other home. (This time, we almost hated to leave our glorious cherry tree, which we hadn’t seen in bloom in 15 years. Thanks to our friend Carla who took this photo when she picked us up for the airport on Monday morning.)

With our two vaccine jabs plus two weeks for immunity, I booked flights for April 5. Our usual routes to Guayaquil were not available so I used the Travelocity website, and somehow (my mistake?) reserved COPA flights from LAX to GYE that included a 9-hour layover in Los Angeles, becoming the trip from hell #2. This taught us a good lesson in the new reality of flying with Covid. We came in to LAX on Alaska mid-afternoon, but couldn’t check in to our 1:00 AM international flight until 9:00 PM. Terminal B was so depressing that I forgot to take any photos, so just imagine us sitting in a line of chairs in a cavernous dark space with everything closed. Michael worked on puzzles and I read an interminable Tana French police procedual. Once we finally checked through security into the fancy international lounge, we found ONE small bar for two beers and a wine plus a required bag of stale peanuts – $35.00! Is this really Los Angeles? The luxury duty-free stores were all closed except for Gucci, where I saw a woman in full hazmat shopping. That’s Michael in the wing chair waiting for our Panama flight.

Once in Guayaquil we recovered in a large hotel with our first meal in 24 hours, an air-conditioned room, hot showers, two double beds, and a long night of sleep. The next day we hired a driver with car, and three hours later we were in Cañar and our ordeal was over.

Our house in the clouds was in perfect condition except for dust and cobwebs. Thanks to Cañar’s high dry climate, adobe and wood stay perfectly preserved (as long as the wood is treated for termites). As usual, some of the interior patio plants are reaching for the glass roof, but our compadres Jose Maria and Narcisa, who take care of things while we’re gone, have kept my ferns and flowers mostly alive. Here’s Michael bent over a crossword our first day. For me, the usual unwelcome signs: headache, light headedness, insomnia, but after a couple of days all is clear and life at 10,100 feet feels invigorating.The yard is another matter. Our compadres are only responsible for keeping the patio plants alive, and being a security presence around the property, grazing their sheep on the lawn.They use our back field for their crops – usually corn or potatoes – and they also plant a kitchen vegetable garden before we come, and we plant one for them before we leave. This arrangement has worked well since José María worked on our house construction as the maestro and we got to know the family. Here’s Michael having a first chat with José María, taking a break from his job as a sanitation worker with the Municipality.

But back to the yard: last year I wrote a chronicle about my “sisyphusian garden” and I was reminded again, on day two when I went out to survey, that no matter what new flowers I’ve planted, or how hard I weed kikuyu, the African grass that creeps everywhere, stasis is the name of the game: aggressive species take back control, new exotics get beaten and disappear. Nothing changes. Of course, those local dominant guys that stay busy twelve months a year ain’t that bad.

Paiwa, our goddaughter, has come from Cuenca to stay with us while she takes an intensive online English course to prepare for the TOEFL exam, necessary to apply for graduate programs. She has just completed five years of a rigorous civil engineering course, and her graduation from University of Cuenca on May 28 will be the culminating event of our visit. Michael and I walked Paiwa to her first day of kindergarten, and she has been an important part of our lives since. My fantasy has her coming to Oregon State University for a master’s degree, but she’s a long way from deciding where she will go next – or rather, economics and financial aid will most likely decide.

Today, national elections for a new president – rockets shoot off now and then while I write, making me jump. Mystery to me why loud noises are important for religious and civic events. This time, a run-off of two socially conservative candidates, Guillermo Lasso 66, banker and Opus Dei member, and Andrés Arauz, 36-year-old economist anointed by ex-president Correa as his successor. Arauz won 32% of the vote in February, not enough to avoid a run-off, though polls say he will likely be the winner today. The third and by far most interesting candidate was the indigenous leader with the Pachakutig party that we were all rooting for: Yaku Pérez. He came so close to Lasso in the February elections (within .05) that he has toured the country crying “fraud,” and many of our Cañari friends firmly believe the count was manipulated. (International observers called it fair.) But he’s youngish (52), politically savvy and very smart, so we hope he’ll run again in four years. Meanwhile, that an indigenous candidate should come so close is a bright point for the future, and the party’s numbers in the national legislature have increased from nine to 43. Read more in this excellent article from today’s New York Times: “Indigenous Party, Not on the Ballot, Is Still a Big Winner in Ecuador Election.”

Well, dear friends, there’s much more to say about the economic, social and health devastation of Covid in Ecuador, and other things, but I want to get this out today before my work week starts. Our stay in Cañar is only two months this time – we’ll come back in December or January for our usual six months – and I have two projects in the works, contacts to keep alive, friends to see and the scholarship program to coordinate with our local committee. I’ll try writing a shorter blog once a week or so, and I promise the Cañar Book Club will be in session for next Chronicle. Until then, stay safe and I love to hear from you and your favorite books read during lockdown.

Trips from hell update: our flights back to Portland on June 5 are cancelled and I’m looking for new routes that will avoid Panama and Los Angeles.



We’re Not There Yet


Dear Friends – One year ago today, December 15, 2019, we left our warm bed at 2020 SE Ash Street in Portland, Oregon for Cañar, Ecuador. Or rather, we took an Uber as far as a funky Ramada Inn near PDX, where we slept a few hours before a van hauled us and all our luggage to the airport. There, Michael was thrilled to be the first person in line at the 3:00 AM check-in at American Airlines. Always his dream to be earliest.

That day, and into the next, as we flew to Phoenix, then to Miami, then to Guayaquil, where we spent the night in another hotel before taking a car to Cañar, marked fifteen years of making the long trip from Portland to Ecuador for a stay of six months. That was last year, when we were still so innocent.

Today, and for the near future, we are staying in Portland. Those who read my last blog will remember our hair-raising trip back from Cañar to Portland on July 4th. We quarantined for two weeks and were fine. Since then, we’ve hunkered down at home through a warm summer and fall, during which we relaxed and distant-socialized under the cherry tree that shades our back yard – our “witness” tree that shaded and sheltered us through many pleasant meals and early evenings.

In those early days we could walk to one of our neighborhood pubs for afternoon drinks, always outside. Some streets were blocked off to allow businesses to continue, like this one on next street over, we called Rainbow Road (still need to work on my perspective)…   …where there was a piano for anyone to play. These were also the days of Black Lives Matter marches and demonstrations all over Portland and the world. Although we couldn’t be out in the streets, given Covid, we took a lot of walks in the city and enjoyed the wonderful murals that sprung up here and everywhere.

Michael rebuilt our walkway, where the gnarly cherry tree roots had come to the surface.I dismantled my darkroom, after twenty-five years, and we hauled out my equipment to sell on consignment with Blue Moon Camera and Machine.