Our Future in Cañar


Dear Friends: Although we left Cañar at the beginning of July, I want to write one more chronicle this season to report on our brief two months there, as we made decisions that will determine our future in Cañar and that of the Cañar Chronicles. (Spoiler: we will continue to live in Cañar half-years and I will continue to write.)

But to go back. As many of our friends know, Michael has Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative condition that affects movement and other physical functions. In Michael’s case, the onset was late (about 4 years ago) and progression is slow. Nevertheless, at 86 years (this month), he shows more signs of the disease in his posture, walking, and energy levels. There is no cure, but symptoms are controlled with a standard drug taken three times a day. Last fall, when Michael ended up in the hospital for two weeks with a complicated type of pneumonia, we realized that the dependable body he has enjoyed up to his 80s will never be the same. This wonderful body that built two houses – one inside out, the other outside-in – renovated three houses for resale, and did countless kitchen and bathroom remodels around Portland in the 30 years he was a contractor. (He painted our front porch the week before he went into the hospital). He recovered slowly, and once we got the OK from his doctor that his lungs were clear, we made plans to go back to Cañar for two months as a sort of trial run. First, we wanted to see how he would do with the rigors of travel – from Portland to Cañar is a two-day, tiring trip through at least three airports – and second, how he would do in our hilly town at 10,000 feet without a car and few of the immediate luxuries we enjoy in Portland.

It went well for the most part. We were welcomed back by the taxi/truck drivers available on five-minute notice to take us anywhere in the area for $2.00. Over the years they’ve become friends and sources of information, as well as dependable transportation. When I developed a bad flu in May, a driver took us into town to a doctor whose name we’d be given (our previous one retired). When we rang the bell, we could hear the doctor clomping down the stairs from the family house upstairs. He sat at the desk in his tiny office crowded with photos and artwork by kids and grandkids, then checked me out, gave me a shot and an Rx, and charged $20. When Michael developed something similar he did the same for him. So just like that, we have a doctor in Cañar. (Later, someone said, “You didn’t know that most of our doctors come to your house?”)

And of course, Michael’s famous woodman Chirote showed up immediately, plaintively yelling “Mikito” from the road – “I’ve been crying and missing you!” – his usual routine. One of Michael’s great pleasures in Cañar is building a fire at around 3:00 every day, when he sits with a tall beer and “muses” until it’s time to make dinner. For that, he needs a constant source of wood and Chirote is his man. But when Chirote made the next delivery without telling Michael how much wood he was bringing and how much he would charge, Michael refused to pay and they broke up.  I was there to capture the moment…

…and again for the make-up a few weeks later.

We also had the good fortune to meet gardener Marco Verdugo last year when we hired him to mow the lawn and tend the garden once a month while we were In Portland. He would send beautiful videos of our garden and his work on Facebook Messenger. So when Annie Tucker and I went to Cañar in February this year for a relampago visit. I messaged Marco and asked him to help take down the shutters. I saw then how efficient he was. So before we arrived in May I asked him to help Michael take down the front shutters that require a ladder, and to wash the windows…  …then to help me with the gardening and heavy pruning……and again to cut and stack the woodpile. You get the picture: we now have found a dependable person to help us with the heavy work around the house. 

But perhaps the most significant moment came the day I was due to go into Cuenca for a press-check of the Navas photo book – the last possible moment to make any changes before a final printing – in this case, 500 copies. At 3:00 that afternoon I was to meet the designer, the printers, the project team, and the Navas family to see the first sample book. But Michael had not bounced back from his flu, and that morning he was so light-headed he could not get out of bed. I was reluctant to leave him alone all day, but he insisted I go, saying I should lock the gate and he would stay in bed. I worried and dithered, and finally left a couple of hours late, but before that, I’d run through several scenarios – some shared with Michael – that contributed to my thinking about our future. IF I needed someone to come stay with Michael, I could call Patricia who cleans our house and works nearby (F-no! says Michael). IF he needed a ride to town to see a doctor he could call one of our taxi-truck friends who would even help him from house to taxi, taxi to office, and home again. (“Never!” says Michael.) IF he needed a doctor urgently, he could call one to come to the house. (“Won’t happen!” says Michael).

Still, I left the padlock on the gate open and checked with our neighbor next door who was out in his garden if he would look in on Michael should I need him. I did call Michael several times while I was gone, and when I got home early evening he was sitting by the fire with a beer, as though it had been an ordinary day. On June 28 – the day before we left Cañar, I presented the Navas book at the Centro Civico with the Cañar mayor beside me, along with the Navas family, the Catholic University team who had published the book, and an audience of townsfolk and friends.  Everyone who came was given a book. (The law in Ecuador says public institutions cannot sell books but must give them away.)  And so I’m happy to give you all a digital copy of Desde de Mirada de Rigoberto Navas: 1940-1960 here. _LibroNavas

We left the next morning for Guayaquil-Miami-Portland. Our travel worries? Who needs Global Entry when you can breeze through immigration, customs, and TSA with a wheelchair (and a partner who trots alongside pulling a carry-on)?  We plan to go back to Cañar on November 1 for six months. If anyone is interested in renting our house in Portland, please get in touch! And, of course, you are always welcome to visit us in Cañar.

The Cañar Book Club

I’ve been reading promiscuously this summer, as I tend to do when I’m in Portland and have access to many sources of books. Following the recommendation of a member who described her “Tóibín-fest,” I went back and read Colm Tóibín’s first novel, The South, which I liked very much as it is about art and artists in post-Civil War Spain and in Ireland. Then I moved on to Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, which put me off a bit when I realized novel was about Mary he mother of Jesus in the last years of her life. I let it expire from the library, but rather regretted it when I read this review comment: “The Testament of Mary is a reminder that Jesus indeed had a mother, and she was nobody’s fool.”  Now I’m on safer ground with his The Blackwater Lightship, set in Ireland in the early days of AIDS, with flashbacks that  I see from reading Toibin’s Wikipedia site, cover the ground of his own lonely childhood in Ireland. (I’ve also read many of Tóibín’s later travel and fiction books, so I’m a certified fan.)

Beyond that, I’m immersed in a memoir about a world I knew nothing about: How to Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair is the extraordinary story of a young woman growing up in a Rastafari family in Jamaica in the 1980s. I first read her in a New Yorker excerpt and kept the book on my list. I’m about halfway through and find it fascinating.

I won’t bore you with the books I put down without finishing, or finished with the thought, that I’d wasted my time.  But hey, it’s summer and hot, and I have a hammock, and I’m entitled to some rubbish reading. 

Let’s hear what you all have been reading, rubbish or not!  




A 14-year photography project comes home to Cañar


Dear Friends: Someone commenting on my last chronicle asked where I was in the story.  So this one is mainly about me. However, later on, you’ll get a glimpse of Michael with his giant langoustine and soup recipe.

As seen above, the book Cañar: Desde la Mirada de Rigoberto Navas, 1940-1960 (“From the View of Rigoberto Navas, 1940-1960”) will be launched in Cañar on June 28, one day before we return to Portland. Five hundred books are being printed right now in Cuenca and won’t be ready until one day before the big event. Eeek! After the usual slow and complicated buildup, everything happens at the last minute. But the print job is gorgeous, and I couldn’t be happier to see this project come home.

The Navas project goes back to 2010, when two members of the family approached me to ask if I could print some of their father’s glass plate negatives in my darkroom. Although I didn’t have an enlarger adequate for 4″ x 5″ negatives, I was happy to make contact prints – where I laid the negatives directly onto photographic paper, exposed them to light. and developed the paper in my chemicals. Here’s an example of a contact sheet:

You can imagine my excitement when I saw the quality of the images. Rigoberto Navas (1911-2001) was the Cañar town photographer for over 50 years, and also a professor at the technical high school. Over the years I’d been curious about the Estudio Navas sign hanging outside the family home in town, but I knew nothing more. When I returned the first batch of glass plates to Marta and Paul Navas I asked if I could come to the studio and look at more negatives. They said of course. Truth is, I was looking for images of the Indigenous Cañari communities  – people, places and events of a culture that was hardly documented during the 20th century. In my next few darkroom sessions with the negatives, very few Cañari images turned up, but something else happened. Here, from my essay included in the book:

It was the portrait of a young couple that had me hooked. Posed in Navas’ studio in what may have been a wedding portrait, given the seriousness of her gaze into the camera, the woman was barefoot, while the man wore ashotas– rubber sandals. His arm is around her shoulders, and next to them on the studio wall is a cardboard advertisement for a 1951 Ford car. Who were they? Where were they from?  Why doesn’t she have shoes? Why the cardboard on the wall? As a documentary photographer, my curiosity was piqued. I wanted to know more.

I realized that the Navas negatives—images of schools, sports, baptisms, buildings, civic events, studio portraits, and more—offered a window into daily life in a small market town in the southern Andes of Ecuador. Who could resist? Thus began a slow cycle of printing a stack of glass negatives and returning them to the Navas studio (really just a large dusty closet) in the home where Rigoberto’s wife, Luz Maria, still lived with three of their fourteen adult children. I’d have afternoon coffee with the family—other Navas siblings from around town usually showed up—and take home another box of glass plates. (Photo: my darkroom circa 2018 below)

This went on, hit and miss, over several years during the six months I lived here. At one point I tried to create metadata system to record names and dates, consulting with Marta, my main contact in the family, but it was nearly impossible. Señor Navas left no records and, in fact, almost no photos except in family albums around town – only thousands of negatives!

One day in 2020, confined by the pandemic and in a burst of activity, I printed around 150 photos on my home printer, and with paper, scissors, and glue I spent several days assembling a sample book. Very crude. I used an existing photo book I liked and simply pasted in the photos and created a mock cover. I took to carrying it around in my backpack whenever I had meetings with municipal or cultural authorities. Everyone loved the idea of the book but no public institution had money to publish it.

Finally, a couple of years ago, I met a woman from the Catholic University in Cuenca at a meeting at the Casa de la Cultura in Azogues. At an opportune moment, I pulled out the sample book. She looked at it and said, “Hmmm, we have a new Culture Department at our university; I’d like to show this to them.” The rest, as they say, is history. Well, perhaps a rather rocky history, with personnel changes at the university and lots of delays. In the meantime, I was determined to find the names of the few Cañari folks appearing in the book. While it was easy to identify townsfolk – Marta would take one look and say, “That’s family so-and-so; the grandson is the pharmacist down the street,” it was harder to locate Cañari names from faces of seventy years ago.

I turned to an old friend, Tayta José Pichizaca, who came to look at photos on my computer and was able to give me a few names for photo captions in the book.

Once I returned to Ecuador this May, the culture folks at the Catholic University finally puse las pilas, as they say here (literally, “put in the batteries”). They hired a talented designer and a copyeditor, I loaded and edited the photos, and we all worked non-stop to get the book ready to print.

In the photos below, from just last Friday, we are getting a first look at the proof printed book. Pictured are the book designer Sebastian Egas; the head of the Culture Department Gemma Rosas; the in-house print technician; and two of the Navas sisters.

The book is gorgeous!  I’ll admit I was surprised that the university print shop could do such a fantastic job. (Technical note: it’s laser printed using a four-color process but making it duotone using only yellow and black – creating a rich sepia tone.)

All my materials from this 14-year project will go back to the Navas family, who propose to create a Navas museum that would include their father’s photos, darkroom equipment, cameras, even a 16mm film projector (he brought the first cinema to Cañar).

OK, Michael’s been patiently waiting in the wings to show you his giant langoustine. A couple of weeks ago he bought a pound of shrimp with heads on at the Sunday market for $5. (Well, I’ve exaggerated in the drawing – but this one was 10 inches – we measured!)

Mike’s Monster Langoustine Soup

  • Pull off heads and shells and put in stock of plain water or fish stock with a little white wine. Simmer up to one hour on low heat with lid on pot.
  • Meanwhile, finely dice a small purple onion, 5-6 garlic cloves, and add 2 T of tomato paste.
  • With a slotted spoon remove all heads and shells from the stock and add all above ingredientes.
  • Add two medium-sized potatoes, cubed, to the stock. Cook about 15 minutes. Meanwhile cut shrimp into bite-sized pieces, and add to soup at the last minute. Cook for about 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve!

C a ñ a r  B o o k  C l u b

At last! We come to books, and I have a bonanza of recommendations this month. Thanks to all our faithful members who responded after May’s meeting.

  • Annie in Portland:  “I’m reading Mighty Bad Land: A Perilous Expedition to Antarctica Reveals Clues to an Eighth Continent by Bruce Luyendyke, a geologist and friend of my husband Steve Tucker, who died two years ago.  It’s about the author’s first trip to Antartica when Steve was along as a mountaineer. I haven’t had the courage to read it until now. He mentions Steve a lot who I think helped keep a level-head when they faced adversity such as storms that delayed plane-drops of equipment. Bruce does a nice job of painting both the team’s work and the day-to-day life living on ice. His group went on to discover a large submarine  plateau resulting  from two tectonic plates colliding, a discovery that led to a mountain being named after him.”
  • Pat in Oregon: I join the consensus with Hisham Matar’s last part of the triptych which includes In the Country of Men and The Return. A Month in Sienna is a meditation on Sienese art in the 1600’s and is elegant, as usual. Also, I read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. A couple in their 50’s lose their farm and the husband receives a terminal diagnosis. They decide to walk the South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, a path of some 630 miles. In the end they make their way to peace and reconciliation. (Comment from Judy: I also read this and enjoyed this immensely. Based on the fame of the first book, Winn wrote a second (not quite as engaging) memoir, The Wild Silence.)
  • Richard in Oslo: I am reading Mikael Niemi’s latest (a Swedish writer from the Finn-Swede border region in the northern forest, where his very funny first book Popular Music from Vittula was set. His previous book is called To Cook a Bear, and the latest, and best in my eyes and ears, is not yet in English but will probably be The Stone in Silk, or Silk-wrapped Stone. (Comment from Judy: I downloaded both these books and have just finished To Cook A Bear – a rather misleading title. It takes place in the far north of Sweden in 1852….”following a runaway Sami boy and his mentor, the famous pastor Laestadius, as they investigate a murder in their village along with the mysteries of life.” Be warned that what appears to be an innocent story turns dark and violent and sad.)
  • Claire in London: I’m late to Colm Toibin. and am utterly enchanted by his writing. I’d read The Magician (the one based on the life of Thomas Mann) and really liked it. Next, I read The South (set largely in post-civil war Spain to which an unhappy Irish woman has fled and where she falls in love with an ex-communist fighter). I was blown away by the writing and was completely immersed in the characters and place (extraordinary to learn it’s his first novel!). I went straight on to another one – The Heather Blazing which I found utterly compelling even though I didn’t particularly like the main character. But as a study of small-town and rural Irish life in the mid-20th century, it was brilliant. (Judy’s comment: I also love Colm Toibin and can recommend The Master (about Henry James), Nora Webster and Brooklyn. Now everyone – including me – is on the wait list for his new book, Long Island, said to be a continuation of Brooklyn.)
  • Claire continues: So after my Toibin-fest, I read An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris. Harris is a masterful storyteller though his prose is fairly pedestrian. But An Officer and a Spy is Harris at his best. It’s the story of the Dreyfuss Affair in France, something I’ve always “known” about but not really understood. He writes it like a thriller while also highlighting the complex relationship between Army, State and Catholic church, and the deeply rooted anti-semitism in all three. I could not put it down. 
  • Joanne in Portland: Long Island by Colm Toibin is a great read. Straightforward language and dialogue but psychologically complex portraits. I’m glad I read Kairos, by Jenny Erpenbeck. At times, the characters seemed more allegorical than real, but the backdrop of a changing Germany is fascinating. I more admired than enjoyed it.
  • Jeffrey Ashe, one of the first Peace Corps volunteers in Cañar in the 1960’s and later a pioneer in microfinance, recommends: We are Not Able to Live in the Sky: The Seductive Promise of Microfinance by Mara Kardas-Nelson.

That’s it for now, dear friends. Keep your suggestions coming as I’m planning one more chronicle in July.


News from just south of the equator


Dear Friends:   We left Portland On May 1 on an overnight flight to Miami. The next day we flew on to Guayaquil, where we checked into our usual hotel with the ridiculous name I can never get quite right: Wnydyam, Whymdam, no – Wyndham Garden! Anyway, it’s known to us, close to the airport, friendly and secure –  important in the “number-one most dangerous city in Ecuador.” An image belied, I think, by the giant (Soviet-era style) handshake we passed twice on our way to the hotel.

On arrival, we have our ritual cold beer with lunch (Club Verde) and dinner in the room with Trader Joe’s snacks. The trip was easier this year because, for the first time, Michael used chairs and carts for airport arrivals, changing terminals, and getting through immigration and customs. We were even escorted out to the curb in the coastal heat (90+) of Guayaquil to a hotel minibus. (American Airlines, great service, easy travel.) On my trip here in March with my friend Annie, she clocked us walking eight miles coming and going through airports.

The next day, May 3, the hotel arranged for a driver to take us to Cañar – four hours, $130. We both sat in the backseat to discourage chatting. We’ve had all sorts of Guayaquil-Cañar drivers over the years – some virtually mute (best), others overly chatty (most annoying!), one disoriented (we had to give him directions), and some…just right. This guy, Javier, was in the last category: good driver, minimal chat, good springs, and he easily handled the long detour on a dirt road with large trucks lined up due to a fallen bridge. A flooded river, poor construction, and slow rebuilding reminded us we were in a country with poor infrastructure – not like in the U.S. ….Oh, wait, maybe not true? 

After that, we begin the serpentine climb into the highlands and the landscape turns lovely green and misty. I too get a little misty as we approach our southern home.

Arriving at our house in Cañar is always an anxious moment. Last year we hired Marco to tend to the garden once a month and it has made a big difference in the look of the place Before that, while we were gone, our comadre’s sheep were used to trim the grass, but they also ate most of the flowers and bushes. Here’s Michael with the keys to the kingdom, I mean the gate!And the patio looks great, although we must do something before the macho aloe reaches the roof.

It’s been ten months since we’ve been in Cañar together, and Michael is greeted everywhere as the returned prodigal son (grandfather?). On the streets, he’s greeted affectionately, by the worker who yells from the second floor of a house under construction  – Hola Miquito! – to market vendors, neighbors, taxi/truck drivers, and his wood guy, Chirote (“I’ve been crying!”). This is the longest absence since we began our yearly six-month stays in 2005. Everyone has watched the only gringos in town grow older and Michael more stooped and slow. When we didn’t come in December some must have assumed the worst. Depending on the questions, we give different answers: salud delicada (delicate health, a favorite expression), un crisis de salud (a health crisis), un problema con el pulmón (problem with the lung), or – to our neighbor who is a doctor, the detailed truth: last fall Michael had a complicated pleural effusion caused by pneumonia that required two weeks in the hospital and a long recovery time. (Others ask if we want to sell the house.)

 We have only come for two months to see how Michael does at this altitude (10,100 ft) and with the rigors of living here. If all goes well, we hope to come back in November or December for our usual six months.  So far so good! 

Our daily routine here is much like in Portland but with variations. Michael still plans each dinner, but instead of jumping into the car and running to New Seasons (to spend a fortune), he trudges up the hill with his old Orvis shopping bag to see what’s available. The other day I went with him and watched, while with a twenty-dollar bill ($20) he bought a pork tenderloin, a liter of milk, a giant yellow pepper, household cleaning supplies, spices, and a bottle of rum. I think he even got some change. Of course, the selection in the MegaMart in Cañar is seriously limited, so Michael takes the bus to Cuenca every week – two hours each way – and shops at the SuperMaxi for luxuries such as butter and cheese and jamon serrano. There, he spends more than $20!

Late afternoon he makes a fire, has a rum and a beer, and prepares dinner. I work on a watercolor at the dining room table, with a glass of wine. We eat dinner in front of the fire while listening to This American Life or PBS news, after which we watch a movie or series on my 13″ laptop. I am the curator of the evening’s entertainment, limited to Netflix or Apple TV while we’re here (recommended: Disobedience on former; The Booksellers on latter). We go to bed around 9:30. Nights are cold, at 40-50F degrees, dark and quiet, and sleeping is delicious.

Cañar Book Club

Oh, my dear readers, I have missed you! Our Cañar Book Club is bursting with news, recommendations and literary gossip. But first: I am mourning the disappearance from this life of one of my favorite authors, Alice Munro. Favorite of all the world, it appears, by the cascade of articles and obits and homages. I began to read her when I moved to Canada in 1975 and followed her through her books and New Yorker stories to her last book, Dear Life, published the year before she won the Nobel Prize, sitting on my bedside bookshelf in Portland.

It’s been so long, I’ll start with what I’m reading now and move backward (as memory allows). Staying with Canada, The Art of Leaving by the Canadian/Israeli writer, Ayelet Tsabari, was recommended by either Arlene in Toronto or Daphne in Victoria – both beloved friendships based on books and shared histories. A memoir published in 2019, The Art of Leaving is set mostly in the 1980s in a very different Israel from now, as Ayelet grows up a young Yemini girl who loses her father at age 10 and becomes the rebellious creature that colors her stories. I’m learning a lot about her Misrahi ethnic group within Israel, originating in the Arab cultures, and the discrimination and racism she experienced coming of age before she escaped to India, New York, and finally Canada. 

Before that, The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng took me to another unknown region of the world, that of Penang, Malaysia, in the early 20th century when it was still a British colony. Based on true events, the novel allowed me to hang out with the character of Somerset Maugham – the most popular and richest British writer of his era – and his British hosts. Tan Twan Eng is a Malaysian writer, nominated for multiple Booker prizes, including for The House of Doors. Thanks, Joanne of Portland and Patzcuaro for recommending it.

And before this, looking back at notes in my calendar, I see a list of depressing books with comments like: ugh! – hard! – omg! – tragic! – ends too abrupt! We’ll skip those, but amongst them are a few gems: My Friends, a novel by Hisham Matar, a Libyan/British author I always read, follows the lives of two Libyan university students in Edinburgh after they are critically injured at a demonstration in front of the Libyan embassy in London. The narrative in this novel dovetails with Matar’s non-fiction accounts of life in Libya and the consequences of his father’s disappearance into one of Quaddifi’s prisons:  In the Country of Men and The Return.

And to end with another Canadian writer whose books I enjoyed: Birds, Art, Life, and Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Lives and Family Secrets, by Kyo Maclear. Both are the kinds of memoirs based on journals and daily life that I’m dedicated to as a reader and a writer. The author, married to musician David Wall, is the daughter-in-law of another beloved friend from Toronto who died a couple of years ago: Naomi Wall.

As I await your book recommendations for my June Chronicle, I send all Cañar Book Club members a big hug.

To Ecuador and Back: “Una visita relámpago”


Dear Friends: With travel companion Annie Tucker (an avid Portland birder), I made a “lightning visit” to Ecuador from February 22 – March 8. Twenty-two hours going and 22 hours coming, through Portland-Miami-Quito-Cuenca-Quito-Dallas/FW-Portland. Result: I’ve vowed not to do that route again. For the future, despite all the bad press Guayaquil’s gotten lately (more on that later) – landing there is so much easier. This is how Michael and I plan to travel in May/June (more on that later too).

It was disheartening indeed to see what the world news has done to Ecuador’s tourism – which plummeted to near zero after the first sensational reports. In fact, the violence has been limited to gangs in overcrowded prisons and a few coastal cities where the drug trade has fanned crime. (It would be like reading about violence in Chicago and deciding not to visit New York or Los Angeles.) But in rural mountainous areas such as Cañar, and urban cities such as Quito and Cuenca, daily life continues as usual, quietly hectic but secure. Only the tourists are missing, which is a great shame for Ecuador is such a lovely and easy country to explore and tourism has become so important to its economy. I just read that in 2019 it employed around 270,000 people, representing around 3.7% of total employment in the country. Even so, tourism has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels,

Crater Lake Quilotoa, which Michael and I visited years ago.

But back to our trip. Coming off the plane in Quito, I was slammed by the 9,350 ft. altitude and dehydration from the many hours sitting on planes. To recover and wait for our next flight to Cuenca, we walked across the street to an open-air terrace of the new airport. Stepping through the glass doors, Annie heard her first Ecuador birdsong: the beautiful trill of the russet-collared sparrow. Go here to listen: https://xeno-canto.org/274469

This homely little bird is very familiar to us in Cañar. It feeds mainly on seeds, herbs, and grains, of which we have plenty. And its song is described by most sources as “the sweetest and most musical” of any sparrow. This was the first of 77 birds that Annie would spot/record during our 10-day visit, of which 64 were new to her.

From Quito, we flew straight to Cuenca. At the end of our killer travel day, we checked into a small hotel and went out for bowls of ramen in nearby Plaza San Sebastian. The servings were huge, and as we gave up, exhausted and ready to go back to our hotel, an elderly street musician wandered into the tiny cafe, strumming a beat-up guitar. He zeroed right in on us, and our table, and asked if he could finish our ramen. Gladly! He also eyed the beer still in my hand, but I shook my head, “No, this is mine and well deserved.”

After three days of rest and recovery in Cuenca (8400 ft ahhhhh…), my friend Susana K. drove us to Cañar, bringing along Leonora, her employee, who, she said, wanted to help us clean and open the house. Welcome! Michael and I had left Cañar in June 2023, planning to come back as usual in December, so the house had been empty for nearly eight months. One purpose of my trip was to reconnect with and pay those who help us take care of the place – the gardener, our compadres who plant the backfield, our comadre who pays our monthly expenses, and for me to pay the land and irrigation taxes. Within a couple of hours of arriving on a beautiful warm day, we four women had removed the shutters, hooked up the gas for hot water and cooking, cleaned the kitchen, living/dining room, two bedrooms, baths, my studio – and made the beds.


Women Should Rule the World!” is the title of this sequence. During the next few days, Annie and I also filled the fountain and got the pump running (with a couple of calls to Michael), made kindling, built the daily fire, and cooked several meals  (well, Annie did). When the Lewis & Clark students arrived on Friday the house looked lived in. Then, exactly one week later, on a marathon day, Annie and I closed up the house again – a bit like dismantling a movie set.

Other than the house affairs, I’d come to Ecuador for two projects: my annual job coordinating the 3-day visit of the Lewis & Clark College students to Cañar to experience something of the indigenous culture. The highlight is always visiting Mama Michi for a dramatic limpieza, complete with herbs and nettles, fire, and a little bit of brimstone (incense).

My other project is a book of the photos of Cañar town photographer, Rigoberto Navas, whose glass plate and early celluloid negatives I’ve spent years printing in my darkroom. After several exhibits and related projects, the photographs are finally coming together in a book to be published in June 2024 by the Catholic University of Cuenca. I was surprised on a Sunday visit to Ingapirca with the students to see a display of panels of images from the book. I think I was informed of the project y in October, while Michael was in the hospital, but I’d completely forgotten.


Meanwhile, Annie upped her count with more birding adventures in Cañar “hotspots.” We were able to visit one of these together, Chorocopte Lake. The taxi driver took such a long route to get there (around the outside of the green in the sketch below), that I wouldn’t let Annie go all the way around the lake as I was worried about the dark clouds and the long walk back. I later regretted it, as we came across an old woman who without a word pointed to another route down (the dotted line through the green) and we were home in an hour. (The birds in the sketch, by the way, are: Andean duck, Great thrush. Carunculated caracara, and Hooded siskin.) In the photo below, Annie is watching a pair of carunculated caracaras – say that fast a couple of times!


And now, back in Portland, after the sun and exhilaration of the Andes, I feared more winter. But today, March 15, the Ides of March bring- not a bad omen – but very good weather at last. Walking to my library today I came across this poem by Emily Dickinson, posted in a front yard. I share the first stanza, along with some spring-promising flowers.


To finish – Michael and I plan to spend May/June in Cañar to test out how he does at the altitude. If all goes well, we will return as usual in December for six months. I’ll plan a chronicle during that visit. Meanwhile, I love hearing from all of you and – again – I promise a book club report next time!

Stormy weather here and there


Dear Friends:  Two big headlines in January (when I meant to send out this chronicle): Giant Ice Storm in Portland and Violence in Ecuador.  Ice storm first, as that is easier.

View from our upstairs bathroom, looking south, Big Storm day #1

 On Friday, January 12, fierce winds came out of the Columbia Gorge at hurricane force, bringing down trees and power lines around Portland, and leaving up to 150,000 people without power. Which for many, also meant no heat and no water. Cozy in bed in our 120-year-old, tall wooden house, Michael and I could feel the wind gusts buffeting us through the night. We were fine the next morning, but our friends who live about 500 feet higher on the other side of town caught the brunt of it. They woke up Saturday morning to no electricity, no heat, frozen pipes, and impassable roads. They later counted 63 trees down in their immediate neighborhood. The temperature was in the 20’s with sleet, ice, and snow forecast for the next few days. (OK, you friends in Minneapolis and other northern kingdoms who think this is no big deal, stay with me…)

Looking north, Big Storm day #2

By Saturday afternoon Portland’s mayor had declared a state of emergency, and a few days later the governor would declare a statewide emergency. Temperatures stayed in the mid-teens as warming shelters were opened around town, and soon overflowed. (Portland has a large unhoused population.) The storm continued to blow and icy rain made leaving the house treacherous.  Schools closed, public transportation was paralyzed, and folks were displaced by fallen trees on their houses or burst pipes in their apartments.

On Sunday, the roads were solid ice under a sheet of snow, but our friends were barely able to get out of their neighborhood to come to stay with us, taking 1.5 hours for a 20-minute drive. The sun was out that day, so I went for a walk to buy bagels and brats for our dinner. I grew up in Colorado so it brought back memories of a long walk home from the bus stop when I was six years old.

The next day another storm came in, and roads and sidewalks stayed solid ice. So for five days we were frozen in place. But I have to say we were happy campers. Anne and Ken and Michael took turns cooking, and Zoe walked the dogs, while I took photos and made sketches.

Michael blesses Harrient and Jiggy before their trip home.

Finally, on Thursday, Day #6, when our guests saw their power was on, they packed up and went home only to find their pipes still frozen and the power off again. They checked into a hotel for two nights. After eight days they could finally go home and begin to recover their lives. Others were not so lucky:  Nine people died, two from fallen trees, several of hypothermia, and three others tragically electrocuted when power lines fell on their vehicle; two stepped onto the street and a third tried to help.

Other than one brief Covid period, this is our first winter in Portland in 18 years. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be here this time next year.

*. *. *. *. *. *. *.

On to Ecuador. Many of you have written asking if it’s safe for me to travel there for a planned visit end of February. (I’m going for a small job, a big project, and the scholarship program). No wonder – with news of the assassinations of public officials, “wars” within prisons with unspeakable violence between gangs, the recent escape of the two high-level gang leaders with certain help from security officials, and the invasion of a TV station by a dozen armed thugs that was broadcast live. After that, the 35-year-old president Daniel Naboa, imposed a nationwide state of emergency to last for 60 days.

The answer is yes, I’m going, and I’ll be safe as long as I stay away from the coastal city of Guayaquil and the borders with Peru and Colombia. My friends in Cuenca report that all is calm in the southern highlands. This was a two-week trip planned when Michael’s health crisis in October made it obvious we would have to cancel our usual stay. With a friend from Portland, I will fly directly to Cuenca and stay within the Cuenca/Cañar region before flying back to Portland on March 8.

But the situation is heartbreaking. Ecuador was for so many years a sea of peace in South America, surrounded by countries convulsed with violence – one of the reasons we first moved there in the early 90’s. No longer! Organized crime cartels from Mexico, Colombia, and even the Balkans have stealthily moved in to make Ecuador a major hub for the drug trade. With two permeable borders with Peru and Colombia, a long coast with deep ports, and a dollar economy for easy money laundering, Ecuador has become a major transit point for drugs produced in neighboring countries.

One big critical factor: bananas! Ecuador is the world’s largest exporter of bananas, and drug traffickers have infiltrated the industry to the point that 9.5 metric tons of cocaine were discovered in a container shipment to Spain in 2023, with similar-sized shipments in other European ports. Until now, Ecuador’s government has done little to control what was (in my view) a slow build-up into a tangled, complex infrastructure that even includes submarines at work off the coast. Now the prisons are overflowing and a 35-year-old president just elected in November,  is trying to regain control, along with the military.  As I say, it’s heartbreaking. I hate to see tanks on the streets of Quito.

But to end with good news: Michael’s health has rebounded to the point that we are planning to go to Ecuador for a few months in early 2024. We’ll see how he does in high altitude Cañar (10,000 ft), with hopes that we can return to our usual six-month stay beginning in December.  So stay tuned, dear friends. If all goes well, you can expect an invite to visit us in 2025, when you’ll get to know my friend Pacha in the Sunday market.  


Goodbye to 2023, Hello to 2024


Dear Friends: 

As we say goodbye to 2023 I want to thank every one of you who generously contributed to the scholarship fund this year. If you haven’t had a chance, this will take you to my letter with a “donate” button at the end: Cañari Women’s Education Foundation.

As you can see from the photo above, we are still in Portland. But the good news is that Michael is recovering, and the doctors say he can live again at 10,000 in the Andes. But not yet…  After two weeks in the hospital in October, we had to wait until December for a CT scan, “with contrast” – (e.g. a dye injection) to get the news that his lung was clear, with no sign of infection or other intruder, such as a tumor. Turns out it was a bacterial infection of the pleural lining gone wild (“with complications” was the actual medical term). Perhaps I share too much, but in keeping with my practice of documenting our lives, here is “the man and the machine” on a pretty momentous day. They allowed me a glimpse of the CT scan room but I wasn’t permitted to stay for the action.

One upside of our changed plans is that Paiwa, a 2021 graduate of our scholarship program, does not have to spend her first holidays in the U.S. alone. Newly enrolled in the master’s program at the University of Illinois, she’s here in Portland, where she says the winter weather is just like Cañar – perpetually chilly – but better than Chicago! Another upside is realizing what a great emissary she is of our program, as she meets friends, family, acquaintances – and dogs – visits the Gorge, and shops at Goodwill.

In other news, I’m planning a short trip to Cañar with a friend at the end of February to take care of details of our Cañar house, meet with the scholarship women, introduce students from Lewis & Clark College to the Cañari culture (in a short three days), and launch a book project that is close to my heart. 

I plan to write a longer blog in January but, for now, I’m sending affectionate end-of-year greetings from wintery Portland, where the ducks don’t mind the rain.

May 2024 be a good year for us all.   Judy

2023 Cañari Women’s Education Foundation Newsletter


Dear Friends:

To begin at the top – here we are in May 2023 after our first full scholarship meeting in three years. And this was not all of us! We now have thirty graduates, four with master’s degrees, one in Mexico with (almost) a Ph.D. in veterinary medicine, one doing a dermatology specialty (in Russia!), and one newly minted Fulbright scholar at the  University of Illinois in Chicago. More on these amazing women later.

Before we get to the newbies, I want to tell you about this year’s three graduates. Two women got their degrees in economics at the same University of Chimborazo (UNACH) in Riobamba. Sara Duy sailed through four years without a pause, met her husband online, had a baby, and graduated in July 2023.  I love her group photo below as it captures the great importance of family support in our program. Riobamba is normally more than four hours by bus, and the road has recently been closed by a landslide, forcing an even longer trip. I count eleven family members at Sarita’s side as she graduated.

Like Sara, Nube Sumba also sailed through her courses in economics with high grades, and was so anxious to get a job that she began working with a financial cooperative in her community even before her degree was awarded. So, her mother came to tell me the news and brought me this hand-knit poncho with Nube’s name stitched around the edge. During the years that Nube was in Riobamba, her mother came faithfully every month, bringing fresh cheese, eggs or other offerings from her garden or animals. The poncho was her final gift. Felicitaciones Sara and Nube!

Aracely Quishpi has a different story. She started her studies in 2018 at the University of  Carchi, about as far north as you can go and still be in Ecuador. The distance made it hard for her to attend meetings, so when her coursework was done, and she was required to write a thesis – as are almost all the students – we lost touch. In January this year, I was surprised to run into her at a crafts fair in the park in Cañar. “Yes, I finished! I graduated in ecotourism; I have a child and I’m building a tourist lodge in my home village of Sisíd.” Congratulations Aracely!

Among the present scholarship women in the photo below, several will graduate in 2024. From left to right: Elizabeth (accounting), Kuya Killa (accounting), (me), Lucia (education), Jessica (agriculture), Elsa (environmental engineering), Vilma (accounting), Tannya (education), Nataly (economics), Estrella (veterinary medicine). Not shown are Pacari (business administration) Lourdes (medicine) and Sara (architecture). That brings our current number of scholarships to twelve, the perfect number we like to maintain to manage our program effectively. As our scholarship program approaches its 20th anniversary in 2025, I thought you’d like to hear news of some of our early graduates and of our first (and hopefully not the last) Fulbright scholar.

Pacha Pichisaca (far right). Our dentist – Michael’s, mine, and many others in the community.  She graduated in 2011 and since then has completed several specialties, including orthodontia. Braces, or brakets, are newly popular in Cañar and Pacha has added two additional chairs to her clinic in town. Being a Quichua speaker also brings her many patients from the country.

Carmen Loja (2011, business admin) has created her own community tourism project with two other women from her village. Kinti Wasi hosts student groups from Amigos de las Americas, a prestigious program for teens in the U.S. She invites us all to visit at: https://www.facebook.com/kintiwasi.ec

Mercedes Guamán, lawyer and Alexandra Solano, agronomist, two of our earliest graduates, both members of our local foundation committee.

María Theresa Chimborazo (2020 tourism). In a sweet connection, she has the job managing the community tourism lodge in Sisíd Añejo, where I take the Lewis & Clark College students from Portland each year to spend three days learning about the Cañari culture and visiting heritage sites. I will be there again in March 2024 during my short trip to Cañar.

Paiwa Acero graduated from the University of Cuenca in 2021 as a civil engineer and worked for two years in municipal potable water offices in Cañar while applying to Fulbright for a master’s degree. What followed was an 18-month process that involved intensive English courses to pass the TOEFL exam; intensive prep courses for the GRE exam, and much more. She made it as a finalist and in September 2023 began her master’s in environmental engineering at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Our local committee is as active as always. In 2023 we finally completed the byzantine process of becoming a legal non-profit foundation in Ecuador. This is an important step in making the scholarship program independent of our traditional base in Portland. We can now legally open a bank account in Ecuador, apply for grants, and accept contributions from local organizations and businesses.

CWEF is an official 501(c) 3 nonprofit, which means your contributions are tax-deductible, and every dollar goes directly to the women. You can donate through PayPal through the DONATE button you find below. (Next year I hope to have a Venmo link.)

Many thanks, dear friends for your continuing support. Best wishes for this year and in 2024. (Some of you will also receive a paper copy of this letter. Let me know if you’d prefer virtual only at: judyblanken@gmail.com)

Judy B.

(To end on a personal note: this year will be the first time in 18 years that Michael and I will not be going to Cañar. In September, Michael landed in the hospital for two weeks with a complicated lung/pleural infection. Although he’s doing better, he has a long recovery ahead. But we hope to go sometime in 2024. However, I will make a short trip end of February for work, to meet with the scholarship committee and take care of the house and other details. My plan is to continue my Cañar Chronicles, beginning in January. So – stay tuned!)






















Saying goodbye…again


Dear Friends – in a routine that has become familiar after 17 years, I recognize the first signs: time rushing by at unnatural speed, projects that dawdled along for months suddenly require urgent attention; visitors who put off visiting arrive at the door (often with great amounts of garden or crop produce), meetings delayed for months suddenly solidify. All of which is to say these last two weeks in May are unusally busy. Still, I wanted to squeeze in one last chronicle because I really miss being in touch with you all while we’re in Portland.

This is also a time when I get around to tasks I’ve put off for months. On a sunny day last week I took off on a long solitary walk – about 5 kilometers – down to a comuna called Cuchucún where, in 2000, my early photography student José Miguel and I went to interview, photograph and film a musician, Pedro Pichisaca. Now, 23 years later and feeling lost on the empty road, I stopped to ask a man the way. “Pedro Pichisaca?  He died 10 years ago! I’m his uncle.” He pointed out the house in the distance, and after winding down and down the mountain, I asked again as I got closer. A a neighbor in her field pointed to a small house and said the widow of Pedro lived there. I knocked, her son answered (I saw Pedro’s face in his) and after about ten minutes the widow came cautiously to the door. She recognized me but did not invite me in. She took the large envelope I offered and studied the photos – contact sheets and color prints. Then she looked up at me and asked politely, “But where’s the video?”

Chagrined, I came home and after a two-hour nap found the video on an old hard drive, and called her son to ask him to come by with a flash drive to download. Hard evidence can be found in the two screen shots below from the video. This was a good reminder of how important it is to return images and videos to folks who so kindly collaborate with our documentary ways. After 23 years, Pedro’s widow had not forgotten that motion and sound bring back a beloved person, not stills.

This is also a time when I’m aware the Cañarean cycle of life. We came in December to find two nests with little cheepers in the giant aloe plant in the atrium. Now, we watch as two rufous collared sparrows come and go from under the glass roof, either building a new nest or renovating the two empty ones that I can still see. Our own little aviary.

In the back field we find two bulls cleaning up the remains of the corn/bean/squash crop, as our compadres José Maria and Narcisa prepare to plow and replant. Their dogs keep watch from our back porch, somehow knowing this will again be their alternative home for the next six months.

Speaking of dogs, we had some puppy excitement a couple of weeks ago. I was in a zoom conversation looking out the window towards the street when I saw a woman I didn’t know come through the gate with a large shopping bag. She dumped three puppies onto the lawn. I yelled for Michael, who ran out and began chasing the puppies as I caught up with the woman as she started to leave.

“We can’t have puppies,” I said. “Why don’t you sell them at the Sunday open market?” She said little, only that she had three more in same litter and couldn’t take care of all the dogs. She stood patiently as Michael corralled the puppies and put them back in the bag. But as soon as she walked out the gate she dumped them on the edge of the road, where there was traffic. I ran out to check they were OK, but someone in a car had already stopped and taken away these beautiful healthy little creatures. (A friend pointed out they would sell for about $500 each in Portland.)

Two weeks ago we held the first all-scholarship meeting since before Covid, with current scholars along with a couple of graduates to give motivation, inspiration and lessons learned. Luisa, the physician, talked about the difficulties of getting married and having a baby while in university (stony faces all around). And Paiwa, the engineer, talked about the long road to a scholarship for a master’s in the US – learning English being the key. Afterward, lunch, a cake, and a final photo in the front yard.

And that’s it for this year in Cañar, folks. The house darkens as Michael put up the shutters yesterday, even after kindly friends sent a message that they thought it was too dangerous and that Michael should get a neighbor to help. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m sure Magdalena (our troublesome neighbor) would love to help me.”

I ran out to assist, but got distracted photographing my flowers for the last time.

Cañar Book Club

I have some last recommendations for summer reading.

Maya in Portland: The Ministry For the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. “Speculative fiction that takes place a bit in the future, when disasters from climate change have become bigger and scarier. Robinson manages to create a visceral sense of what can/will go wrong and the effect on humanity, but also a really imaginative look at the kinds of things that could solve some of the problems and halt the worst of the destruction.  There are interesting characters and a plot, as well, making it an absorbing read on several levels. Mostly, it really makes you think about the big issues we face, yet without despair. Impressive!

She also liked Rebecca Makai’s The Great Believers, about the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s in Chicago, and it’s aftermath. “Very absorbing.”

Nancy in Portland:  Independent People by Halldor Laxness, an Icelandic writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 in part based on this masterpiece (he wrote many books). Set in sheep herding country in early 20th century Iceland, it’s an intimate, richly detailed story of a stubborn man who’s determined to get out from under the quasi-feudal economic system of landholding at that time. Jane Smiley called it “one of the best books of the 20th Century.” It’s dense and complex, very character-based, and leavened by sardonic humor.

Julie in Vermont:  The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls was a book club favorite here, and I’d recommend the same author writing on her mother and remarkable grandmother in Half Broke Horses.

My reading has been all over the place as I grow impatient with my iPad and yearn for a paper book and characters that I can love. I gave up on the Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest (fed up with reading about Columbus and his ilk risking their lives for gold and silver to bring genocide and slavery to the New World). Then The Candy Store by Jennifer Egan. Clever, as always, but do I like any of these characters enough to keep reading 350 pages? No. Then, Fellowship Point by Alice Elliot Dark, after reading a review. Ho hum! Should I care about resolving ownership of a point of land in Maine owned by wealthy Philadelphians?  Finally, from the library, The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese. Ahhhh, a sprawling novel by a favorite writer, set in India beginning in 1900, 775 pages to go, and 24 hours of travel ahead.  I’m happy!

As always, I love hearing from you. We have tickets back to Cañar on December 1, so if you’ve been wanting to visit Ecuador, start making your plans for 2024!

April was the cruelest month


Just so you know that life in Cañar isn’t always a bowl of cherries (thank you Mr. Gershwin) and that April was surely the cruelest month (sorry, Mr. Eliot), both were true for us this year. Our cruel troubles began on April 10 with a trip to Cuenca when we had appointments to see the dermatologist, Dr. Leon. Michael went shopping first at the SuperMaxi and was lugging a heavy bag when we met up at the doctor’s. After, as we walked a few blocks to pick up my prescription skin cream, we transferred two heavy bottles from Michael’s bag to my backpack. Then we took a taxi for lunch in the large new Plaza San Luis Seminario near the center.

Although it was rather chilly we chose a table outside near Le Bistro (neither French nor a bistro) with our bags piled on an extra chair. During lunch Michael did his puzzles and I read a book on my iPad. When I grabbed my wallet to go inside to check the pastries, I told Michael to keep an eye on my backpack. I came out in less than five minutes to find him standing, turning in circles. “They stole your bag! As soon as you left someone tapped me on the back – “Senor!”  When I turned to look someone else grabbed your backpack.” We both knew instantly it was a lost cause. The plaza was full of tourists and locals milling around and eating at tables near us. Other diners quickly caught on to what had happened, nodding sympathetically and probably thinking, “Idiots, why didn’t they choose a table inside the glass divider?” I found the young security guard patrolling the plaza, who looked a little scared before running futilely out an entrance to the street.

You’ve all had a moment like this, right?  You’re not sure what just happened or what to do next. For my part, I looked down and saw the wallet in my hand (good!), then glanced at the table and saw my iPad (good; I’m in the middle of a book). Because it was chilly I had on my expensive Patagonia jacket (good). On the other hand, the thief had my two iPhones (very bad). An older one for Ecuador calls; a newer one I use for photos and while in the US. Then I thought how the thief would be pleasantly surprised to find a bottle of 12-year old El Castillo rum and a liter of delicious strawberry/orange juice, along with my sunglasses, sun screen, prescription skin creams, and all my keys, although I couldn’t think of anything in the pack that would identify where we live. He also got a red cap for sun, and a beautiful alpaca hat and wool gloves I’d worn leaving cold Cañar that morning.

That was on April 10. We came home and began what you might call “discovery and recovery.” With the Apple app, “Find My Phone,” we watched on a GPS map as the thief got on a bus in Cuenca and headed this way. We held our breath as he passed through Cañar – for sure we didn’t want him stopping here! – and headed on to Tambo, Zhud and Troncal. He ended up a couple of days later (when I stopped checking) in a village near Pelileo, a market town in the middle of the country where M. remembered that years ago his pants were cut by a thief while we visited there as tourists with our friend Andrew.

Michael and I have a long history of attempted and successful street robberies in Latin American capitals. Twice in San José (from car & market); in old town Quito with pants cut; in Lima with variation on the “Hey Señor” distraction; in Buenos Aires with mustard squirted on Michael while thief pointed to tree and suggested that a bird had shit on him. But it hasn’t happened in many years and I have to admit we’ve become complacent.

But back to events, because the robbery was only the beginning. Two days later I received a message from Guadalupe, my friend in Costa Rica, saying she’d got a call on my phone with a lot noise in the background. So on the Apple site I “locked and erased” my phone and “requested recovery” of my Apple ID. Then, a week later, a receipt for an App Store purchase (in Spanish) landed in my in-box. Somehow a more sophisticated hacker (not the bus-riding thief) had my phone and was ordering programs or games. Checking my VISA bill, I could see a second charge. I was beginning to regret, more than anything, the lost time this robbery was taking out of my life. On the VISA website I was able to report fraud, get the charges refunded, close the account and order new cards. Then I called Apple and they removed my credit card from my account (cautionary tale; don’t let vendors keep your card on file). And I asked if there was any way I could “recovery” my Apple ID before May 5, the date the email they’d sent me targeted, as I’d also lost access to other apps such as Messages and FaceTime, which I use every day to stay in touch with family, and WhatsApp, which everyone here uses. Nope, I’m in Apple purgatory until May 5.

But wait, there’s more. On April 18 I received a follow-up email about a discrimination suit that has been brought against us via the fair housing agency in Portland for not renting to a woman with two teenage children. There’s a complicated backstory here – mistakes on my part, litigiousness on her part (11 court cases, some involving landlord/tenant issues), and lots of lessons learned. We are cooperating. At issue seems to be my contention that the basement guest room is not an adequate bedroom for a teenager. (Memo to self: next time don’t advertise 3 bedrooms.) Now the agency requests to send an inspector to look at the room, so I’ve had to ask our tenants to give me a convenient time. Rather embarrassing. We can, the email says, shorten the case by going to mediation/settlement and I’ve written asking for more details. Michael is giving counsel from the couch, based on all those hours watching Judge Judy on daytime TV. 

So there must have been some good things happen in April? Yes. Michael and I have both been to visit our new dentist, Pacha Pichasaca, a graduate of our scholarship program about eight years ago. I was treated to a beautiful limpieza during which she called in her fellow dentist to look at my gold crowns – they’d never seen them. Then when Michael went they got a real look at a mouth full of gold. I see on Facebook that Dra. Pacha just qualified as an orthodontist.

Another of our graduates, Paiwa Acero, just received confirmation of a “full ride” for her master’s in civil engineering at the University of Illinois, Chicago, with a Fulbright scholarship, tuition waiver and a research assistantship, which should allow her to graduate without debt. Here she is, one of 14 Fulbright scholars from Ecuador doing master’s or PhDs in the U.S. (Paiwa is fourth from right).

Congratulations to both!

C a ñ a r  B o o k   C l u b

Let’s move on to books, always a dependable bowl of cherries in this life.

Jeff in Cambridge writes: I think The Glass Hotel by Emilie St. John Mandel would be perfect for the Canari book club. I was entranced by the interlocking stories of the principal characters in the book, with the glass hotel located on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia playing a supporting role. (Thanks Jeff; I’ve just put on hold at my library.)

Susan in Portland:  “I’m really enjoying The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Humboldt was remarkably prescient in emphasizing the inter-connectedness of life forms and recognizing human’s impact on these systems, particularly in the colonial invasion of the so-called New World, which he observed and recorded in his groundbreaking journeys in South America, Mexico and the Caribbean in 1799-1804. Sounds dry, but it isn’t.” (I agree – read it a couple of years ago and loved it!)

On a very different time and place, The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris, takes place in post Civil War South. Two ex-slave brothers trying to head north in search of their mother encounter help from a former Yankee landowner and his wife. Their son, returned from the Confederate army, has secrets. Hard to describe it but it’s a very strong first novel by a pretty young black author who grew up in Ashland, Oregon. Highly recommend it.”

Claire in London:  I enjoyed We are all Birds of Uganda by Zayyan Hafsa. A great effort from a young debut writer, though flawed. While the parts set in the UK are excellent, it flags (and doesn’t really add up) when she takes her protagonist to Uganda. But the story moves along and the characters are engaging, so I did enjoy reading it. She has a fantastic understanding of south-Asian immigrant family and business culture and the best descriptions of “micro-aggressions” (though she doesn’t call them that) experienced by non-white professionals in the work place.”

Irene in Salem: Just finished Dinners with Ruth by Nina Totenberg. “A lovely read on friendship and how we can support each other when times are tough.” (Totenberg, the NPR journalist, writes about Chief Justice Ruth Ginsberg and their parallel ascents in fields that were not friendly to women.)

Joanne in Mexico: Just finished Ari Shapiro’s memoir, The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening. “I Enjoyed the mix of personal stories and reportage. I’ve heard him sing with Pink Martini but had no idea he grew up in Beaverton, Oregon. Came out in high school, and soon hit the PDX gay bars. He’s had an amazing life. Now reading Culture: The Story of Us, from Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Punchner. Great book but not great for kindle. I might buy a hard copy in Portland.

Judy in Cañar: I’ve not had a great reading month, having sent more books back to the library after a few pages than I’ve read. But I have great hopes for three currently on my iPad: 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare, by James Shapiro, which just won the Baille Gifford Prize for non-fiction; Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck (I have no idea why) and the wonderfully titled The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts.  Reviews coming in the May Chronicle.

Meanwhile, dear Cañar Book Club members, stay in touch and keep those recommendations coming!








Pura Vida in Costa Rica



Dear Friends: Well, it’s April, and all I can say is, “There went March!” The first third of the month was taken up preparing for my trip to Costa Rica.The second third was taken up with the trip itself (March 14-23), and the last third was catching up on everything back in Cañar. So, here’s the story:

Some time last year my Costa Rican friend, Guadalupe Urbina, got in touch with an idea for a photography exhibit, concert, and community workshops in San José, based on our work together in the 1980’s in her home province of Guanacaste. She suggested the National Library could be the venue, with the director Laura Rodriguez as our partner/sponsor. Laura was enthusiastic, and we three became a team formidable planning and producing a proposal. The U.S. Embassy in San José thought so too, and after a few months of ups and downs and revisions, they agreed to finance the project: The Living Face of Guanacaste: An Afro-Mestizo Photographic and Sound Memory. I was especially pleased because I have wanted to donate my photos and materials from the six years I worked in Costa Rica (1985-91) to an archive there.

Guadalupe with Don Blas, San Vicente, Guanacaste 1986

Guadalupe and I have been friends since the day I heard her sing from a distant room in the organization where I worked in San José. I followed the voice, and there she was. Just 24, beautiful, a recent winner of  a big prize at the University of Costa Rica song competition. This was 1986, the same year I met Michael. I don’t remember how, or when, we decided to collaborate on a documentary project, recording and photographing the anonymous music, traditional musicians and storytellers of Guanacaste.This was not part of my official job, so we made the trips now and then over the next five years.

Guanacaste, the northernmost province of Costa Rica, was once part of Nicaragua, then for 125 years it was independent before being  annexed by Costa Rica nearly 100 years ago. So it’s cultural mix is of original indigenous inhabitants, Afrodescendents of former Jamaican slaves in Nicaragua, and settlers from all parts of Costa Rica who came to work in cattle ranching and small farming. Today, mass tourism along the Pacific coast has radically altered the economy and lifestyle of many Guanacastecos.

In our visits to Guanacaste, a women’s ceramic cooperative in San Vicente was one of our stops, and their member, Sofia Chavarría, became the face of our exhibit.

Guadalupe works with a terrific production team that brought their talents and attention to detail to our project.They designed the materials along with the exhibit photographs and text, plus they staged the concert and made a 24-minute video of the project. Ivy and Fran and their team were a joy to work with, and I will never want to do an exhibit without them. They also arranged social media that kept us busy before the opening and tested my Spanish to the max with live 45-minute Facebook and national radio interviews. The National Library of Costa Rica was built in the 1970’s with a huge open first floor. That’s Laura at the opening in the photo below, where you can (barely) see the photographs along the far wall; they extended all the way around in a circle. Behind her was the stage set for Guadalupe’s concert.

Guadalupe is now famous, and she doesn’t demur when I call her “the Mercedes Sosa of Costa Rica.”  She is recognized everywhere as the country’s premier folklorist/composer, considered an authority on Guanacaste music, history and culture. She’s even on a postal stamp, but we didn’t have time to get to the post office! She came to Portland around 1998 with a cultural exchange of performances, interviews and events, so many of our Portland friends remember her. She has a website and is all over YouTube, but I like this, a mix of images and music.

I had taken my art supplies, planning to do a lot sketching during my free time. Which turned out to be one single Sunday spent with Guadalupe and dear friend Fresia Comacho in her beautiful spot in the country, with the view you see at the top of this page. Here they are resting after lunch, with Fresia’s dog, LUCKY.

Ten days gone, leaving Michael alone in Cañar – he who refuses a cell phone or computer. So we talked daily by home phone on Skype. I would report all that was going on in San José, seeing old friends, meeting new folks, doing live radio interviews, preparing the exhibit. And he would report that a neighbor’s rooster got free and pecked at our front door. (Oh yes, there was the news of a 6.8 earthquake he felt in Cañar, but as we were talking I felt my bed move as a 5.5 quake hit Costa Rica.)  At the end of my 10-day stay, after a 15-hour trip and extra night in a Cuenca hotel due to a flight delay in Quito, AND a final bus ride, I was home to a freshly cleaned house, a fire in the fireplace, and a Michael-made-meal. Some would wonder why I ever leave!

Cañar Book Club

Settle in with a cup of tea or coffee for a delicious long meeting. We have a backlog of recommendations since we missed March’s Cañar Book Club.

With long travel days in March, I got in a lot of reading. Horse, by Geraldine Brooks, which some of you recommended, finally came as an eBook from my library, and I learned more about 19th century racing and horses than I ever imagined I would want to know. But I did, and enjoyed it. My friend Joanne recommended Trespasses, a first novel by Irish writer Louise Kennedy. Maybe the best fiction I’ve read in ages, it’s a complicated, jig-saw puzzle of a story set in Belfast during the “troubles” that fits together so beautifully that you care for every character and want to go back and read again. Desperate for a “real” paper book for my travels, I picked one off my own shelf, Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder. It begins: “Deo arrives in the United States from Burundi in search of a new life. Having survived a civil war and genocide, he lands at JFK airport with two hundred dollars, no English, and no contacts.” I was especially interested in this story as it relates to one our Aristata Press will publish in 2023: Women in the Crossfire: One Woman’s Quest for Peace in the Midst of Civil War by South Sudanese Abuk Makuac and Susan Clark. And remember, dear readers, that Aristata Press is open for submissions. You can read the details at: https://aristatapress.com/.

On to the many recommendations from dear readers:

Claire from London: Mariana Leky’s “What You Can See from Here” is the book that restored my love of reading after a truly terrible book year. It’s delightful. Those who don’t like a touch of magical realism can step away now, but for the rest of us I suggest getting stuck in. We Are All Birds of Uganda, a debut novel by a young woman of Ugandan Asian heritage is a good read though flawed in several places. Strengths lie in its understanding of the British-(south) Asian community, the immigrant experience in the UK and the best illustration of what are now referred to as “micro-aggressions.” A very compelling story and an easy bed-time read. Finally, This is Happiness by Niall Williams, an Irish writer who conjures up, through the most incredible, rich and often funny sentences, a beautiful, backward, loving, characterful rural Ireland of the 1950s. 

Mary Day in Colombia. Jill Lepore’s enormous and beautifully written history of the US, These Truths, is a long and intense read with lots of connections and facts I never knew. I am working my way through Diario de una invasion by Andrei  Kurkov, about Ukranian-Russian history and the details of life since the invasion. My next book, on Kindle from the library, is Solito by Javier Zamora, a memoir of a Salvadoran child coming alone to the U.S. from El Salvador. I am also reading  Born in Blackness by Howard French, a history of Africa and its relation to Europe, the Americas, and Asia and the enormous role African gold and people played in creating the Europe-centered “modern” world.

Patricia from Cuenca who is recently traveling in Italy. Can’t you tell?  Reading Lampedusa’s The Leopard,I am beginning to identify with the Prince who understands how his beloved world is vanishing. Mary Taylor Simeti‘s andOn Persephone’s Island, Bitter Almonds Pomp and Sustenance, Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food: all highly recommended, as is The Florios of Sicily by Stefania Auci, a more recent, engaging historical fiction which casts light on the changes of the three centuries. Julius Norwich for a thorough if somewhat dense history, Sicily a Short History, from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra.

My sister Char in Austin: Circe by Madeline Miller. If you think humans are crazy, meet the Gods! Very well written, enlightening and entertaining. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. A conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Everyone, sincerely, should get this book and just have it by their bedside.

Lee in Whidby Island, WA: I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s newest Demon Copperhead. So good! Also Mary Roach, science writer, Fuzz – When Nature Breaks the Law – humorous, informative, captivating. And now I’ve just started one recommended to me, Horse, by Geraldine Brooks; I’m only 50 pages in, but it has grabbed me; I love a good wordsmith who has done their research.

Jennifer in Toronto: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. A wonderful story based on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, looking at how words were selected and defined in the several decades’ process, and which words in common use – especially words used by or about women – were not included. 

That’s it for April, dear readers. Please send me your reading experiences – good, bad, or ugly – for the May Cañar Book Club. Until then…




This and that at three months in Cañar


Dear Friends:  March 1 marks our three months in Cañar, with three more to go. It’s a beautiful Sunday and Michael is playing chess with a new young player, Byron, while they listen to Led Zepplin. Byron came yesterday too and they listened to Pink Floyd. Some things never change.This is a shorter than usual chronicle because I’m getting ready for a trip to Costa Rica next week (March 15-23), for an exhibit of the photographic work I did there in the 1980’s with folksinger/composer Guadalupe Urbina. We worked together about 5 years, making trips to her home province of Guanacaste when I could get time off my regular job. We documented the musicians, storytellers and anonymous music of this  northern province, next door to Nicaragua and with a strong afro-mestizo influence. Lupe recorded, I photographed and we produced a body of work that was shown before I left in 1991 for Ecuador. Now the national library of Costa Rica, with funding from the US embassy, is sponsoring an exhibit/concert/archive deposit and a workshop in community archives. I’ll write more about this project, with photos from San José, in my next chronicle, but for now a bit of local news. Each year we try to take one trip within Ecuador, usually with some silly excuse such as a birthday. Last year it was a week’s sojourn to a nature resort, Mindo, northeast of Quito, that involved a three-day bus trip, lots of rain, a cold bed made of solid concrete, a landslide blocking our way back to Quito, a refusal at the airport to allow us to board our flight because our IDs were photocopied, and a mini-bus ride back home. We were not particularly happy with the experience, but at least pleased with ourselves for having carried it off despite all the hurdles.

This year we kept it simpler – 3 days in Loja, a city to the south that we’ve visited before, beginning with a 6-hour bus trip with spectacular countryside as we climbed, then gradually dropped to a lower elevation and warmer climes.

Michael, working on his daily puzzles as usual, had to be reminded again and again to look out the window. Loja is a small proud city that has carefully protected its heritage with well-preserved houses, churches and public squares, and gorgeous municipal murals (there are two in this post – see if you can spot them).

We rewarded ourselves with two nights at the Casa Bolivar, a 236-year-old house that has recently been converted by the family into a hotel/museum, with lots of original quirky features such as an entryway paved with animal vertebrae and black stones, trees in the patio growing to the second floor, a private chapel, a hidden spiral stairway for the help (always a necessity), and crazy patterns on walls and floors and ceilings that I loved, and which the young host claimed were mostly original (or reconstructed from the originals).

The last image is the patriarch of the house, who before he died in his 90’s had papered his office with the lottery tickets he bought every day of his life. (We were told he had won three times.) Another obsessive lover of repeated patterns. I had a lot of fun taking photos and ended with this panorama of our room.

Cañar Book Club

To all book writers, readers and lovers, I have a special announcement for our March book club. This past year Anne McClard and I started Aristata Press, a women-run, non-profit press that came out of our recent experience publishing two books on our own: Megan McClard’s LEAVINGS: Memoir of a 1920’s Hollywood Love Child and Memorias de una prisionera política en El Salvador,the Spanish translation of Ana Margarita Gasteazoro’s memoir edited by Andrew Wilson and myself. Anne and I were so pleased with the results, and impressed with all that we’d learned that we said: “We can do this for others!” Aristata Press was born. This year we will publish four titles (more on those later) and now we are looking for new submissions. Aristata Press seeks fresh literary fiction, poetry and non-fiction authors. If you have a novel stashed in a drawer, know someone who has written a memoir, have a friend or relative working on a non-fiction book, or know a poet who is ready to get out into the world, let’s start a conversation with this contact form

“Our community of publishers and writers are passionate about reading, creating, and sharing great writing. Come join us!”

PS: Regular book club will return in April, so keep reading and sending those recommendations! 

PSS: the two murals from Loja are the header image of the woman with flowers, painted on the side of a church, and the cat and books, painted on the side of the library.

The Two Worlds of Cañar


Dear Friends: The two worlds of Cañar have never been clearer to me than this past month, with the Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua in Junducuchu, a Cañari village high on a mountain above the town, and the “town” festival as the “Archeological and Cultural Capital of Ecuador.” The former, an eight-day fiesta built around a tiny saint reportedly found in a local field many years ago; the latter a self-declared affair created in 2000 to draw national attention to humble, homely, backwater Cañar, whose main “archeological” distinction is its proximity to the Ingapirca ruins nearly two hours away. Since then, the town holiday has grown into a two-week extravaganza that included, god forbid, a Moto-Fiesta with a punk concert. AND it happened on the same day. On the Saturday afternoon of the San Antonio procession, the SUV of the friends I was with couldn’t make it up to 11,000 feet Junducuchu (clutch burned out), so we came down to town for a bite to eat and ended up at the motorcycle/punk event with a bunch of gentle giants dressed in black leather. A sight in Cañar I will never forget. Michael and I happened to arrive in Cañar on the very day of the first declared holiday, January 26, 2000, to find a parade blocking the streets while we were looking for a place to live. All these years later, the event has grown to last from January 17-28 and includes a “bank holiday” for schools and official businesses, a massive parade with a queen wrapped in ostrich feathers, followed by days of events such as poetry and photography competitions, and battle of the bands concerts.

But back to the Fiesta de San Antonio, which I’ve been documenting since 2006. I love the rukuyayas, the “festival fools” who work very hard for three days, leading the processions, gamboling about, saying rude things, playing tricks, asking for coins, and entertaining the crowd with their acrobatic antics. In their homemade masks, it’s impossible to know their identities and I usually stay clear of them, as they love to tease the gringa. But this guy played nice and allowed a photo.


This year the Fiesta de San Antonio was more colorful and exuberant than I’ve seen, with larger crowds, partly the result of the three-year Covid hiatus. And the Saturday and Sunday I participated were beautiful weather days, which helps the fiesta spirit.

On the domestic front, I know I’ve said before that our comfort here depends on the fireplace, where we sit, eat and watch movies from about 5:00 every day. And that means a constant supply of firewood that begins with Chirote, who drives by in his big truck and yells “MIKITO” from the street. This leads to loud discussions in the patio, bad jokes about how “Judy will go off with another man and ‘cuckold’ Michael,” a run by the two of them to examine some wood, negotiation on a price, and finally the wood delivery. Then begins Michael’s labor, as he hauls, cuts and stacks the wood. Then, of course, he has to build the fire and feed it until bedtime.

Meanwhile, Chirote continues to drive by regularly to keep an eye on our wood supply and yell HOLA MIKITO from the street. 

A final note on the two worlds of Cañar. Mid-term elections were held this past Sunday, and our indigenous mayor, Segundo Yungsi, was running for a second term against a “town” candidate, Pablo Padrón. While news of the winning candidatesr fom the rest of Ecuador began to trickle in on Sunday night, Cañar was a blank. Sunday night… Monday… Tuesday… until today, when the news became official: Yungsi has won by about 4,000 votes – a count that was apparently known on Sunday night soon after the polls closed. But the delay was caused when Pablo Padrón the town candidate, pulled a TRUMP, cried fraud and demanded a recount. This bought out two groups of supporters holding vigil during the recount outside the elections office in the provincial capital of Azogues. Among one of those groups was our goddaughter, Paiwa, who now works for the municipality and was called on to spend two long nights in Azogues. This morning she told us the count is final, Yungsi has officially won, but she said the Padrón supporters yelled ugly racist taunts during the vigil. Although many of the townsfolk are saying, “We need a change!” Segundo Yungsi will be Cañar’s only second indigenous mayor in the nearly 200 years since the town was established.

Cañar Book Club

Dear Readers: I’ve been on a reading tear lately on my iPad, mostly e-books from the Portland library that give me only three weeks – and then they tend to come all at once. So this past month I’ve gone down the Annie Ernaux rabbit hole (forgive me!) with A Woman’s Story, A Girl’s Story, and The Years. I loved the first two and am finding The Years hard going, as the author has removed herself from the narrative and writes as an observer of the post-war years in France.  I also read The Book of Goose by Yuyun Li, and Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel Prize winner from Tanzania but has lived many years in the UK.The first had me puzzled, wondering at the point of the relationship between two young women in rural France; the second was a wonderfully written, old-fashioned tale set in German East-Africa in the early 1900’s, on “the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.” I have always loved Elizabeth Strout’s books, but I’m really beginning to be bored with Lucy. In Lucy by the Sea, Strout’s third book with this protagonist, Lucy seemed to have lost all sense of direction and self confidence as she waited out Covid with her ex-husband William in a house by the sea in Maine. Please take me back to Olive Kitteridge!

Joanne in Mexico: Just read Foster – a miracle of a book. Claire Keegan is a master of spare prose that evokes a world now nearly gone. With a few words, flicks of the wrist, she captures complete characters. I can see why the Irish school system teaches her books. 

Bruce in Portland: On the reading front, I’m thoroughly enjoying The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings. He evokes an alternative New Orleans, using powerful language to make the magical mundane. I finished Lincoln Highway. Too on the nose.

Irene in Salem: My favorite book I read this year was Atomic Love by Jennie Fields. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do. It is well written and an easy read.

OK, dear readers, I need more book suggestions for the March chronicle. Until then, stay safe, keep in touch, and keep reading!! 





2023: A New Year in Cañar


Dear Friends: I was so pleased by your responses to my first Cañar Chronicle, and overwhelmed by all your book recommendations! But minutes after I hit “publish” I lost Internet/phone service for three days (“real old world” texted my son), and once back on I was chagrined to see that some crazy algorithm had chosen my least favorite photo to accompany the email splash page: Michael sprawled on the double bed of a sterile hotel room in Guayaquil. I had intended it to be something like this:

Over the past few months I’ve worked with a wonderful web designer to straighten out my mailing list, arrange for responses on my blog (thanks all for your comments!) and refit the way the chronicles land in your email. She did instruct me at some point, now way-back remote, how to use the “featured image” function on WordPress. I think I’ve got it right now and I hope to send inviting photos to your mailbox with every blog.

So on to news from the bagel capital of Ecuador. Our first social visit of two friends from Cuenca last week inspired Michael to ask Google Home, “How long should I boil the bagels?” and the response sent him (me) to this website, Sally’s Baking Addiction.  I downloaded and printed the recipe, and here is the result! (Boiling clue: 1 minute per side.)

Getting ready for guests, I smartened up the house with some flowers and textiles. Susana and Patricia offered to bring salmon, cream cheese and a panettone. We had a perfect long lunch from 12:00 to 5:00, on a rare sunny day that allowed for a leisurely tour of the garden and a long chat in the patio. Just another slow-food day in Cañar!

Christmas in Cañar: along with new customs brought back by returning US migrants – twinkling lights, Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Christmas gifts – most indigenous communities maintain some rituals of Kapak Raymi to mark the winter solstice. On December 25, after a couple of too-quiet days, I went along to one of these fiestas in the village of Correouku, the first place that welcomed Michael and me almost thirty years ago. It was Mama Michi Chuma then who opened her arms with: “I thought I could trust you because you arrived without a car or a bible.” Since then, we have watched a generation of the young grow to adults, and it was their names I noticed on the program that landed on my FB messenger.  I walked over around 3:00 on the last of three days of celebration – hoping to watch the feria del cuy – a contest of guinea pigs – the fastest, the fattest, the cutest. But all I saw was a soccer game. I was about to take a longer walk and go home when a group of brightly dressed folks come out of the casa comunal and begin walking down the hill. I fell in and soon found myself with this lovely bunch of welcoming people, mostly older, some known to me over the years, some strangers. Before long, I was sitting in a room surrounded by about 40 people, dancing and toasting with chicha and beer. Soon, each of us was served a huge plate of food that included half a cuy, pork, chicken, potatoes, salad and mote (hominy). The protocol with these ritual meals is that you politely pick at the overloaded plate in your lap until the hostess brings out a handful of plastic bags, into which you slip your food to take home for later, or for others. You never leave a bite behind. After one last dance we regrouped for the procession back to the soccer field, led by two vacas locas  – men holding papier mache “crazy cows” over their heads, running back and forth, playing at impaling anyone who gets close. Someone explained that our procession was a corrida taurino, confusing because that term relates to bullfighting, and three women carried large breads formed as bulls.Leading the procession, young women carried a tremendously heavy kuynaña on a platform, a cornucopia offering covered with fruit, candies, breads, soft drinks and more, to be shared by all the fiesta participants.And there was music, of course, in this case a sole accordionist and raspadora, with the voices of women.We were headed back to the soccer field, where the breads and kuynañan were to be presented to the soccer champions (aka bullfighters) and others. But by now it was late afternoon, getting dark and beginning to sprinkle, so I decided to walk home cross country. I followed what I thought was a through-path that ended in a house. I skirted the sheep in the yard but then came face-to-face with a billy goat. He didn’t seem like he wanted to butt me, but I backtracked and stumbled onto a path that took me to our road. Then up the loooong hill……home to Michael, a fire, and a dinner of leftovers from my fiesta lunch. Finally, I want to thank all who contributed to the Cañari women’s scholarship fund this year. The 2022 newsletter is here. I hope to get the thank yous with IRS info out in next couple of weeks. A late update: our only physician, Luisa Duchi, who graduated about five years, just left for Russia for a three-year specialization in dermatology. She sent this photo.

The best of 2023 to you all. Stay warm and safe and keep those comments and book recommendations coming. I love hearing from you.

C a ñ a r  B o o k   C l u b

Dear Readers: Your wealth of book recommendations sent me to the library for ebooks, and making lists for the future (all those end-of-year recommendations!) Thank you all!  I’m re-posting the books suggestions below for those who didn’t read them in the comments on the blog post. For my part, like everyone else it seems, I’m reading Annie Ernaux, starting with A Woman’s Story. I was inspired by her straight-forward description of her mother’s life to begin thinking about writing about the life of my own dear mother, Adelene Blankenship (1920-2013). Otherwise, I’ve just finished Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, a re-issue of a novel set in Colorado in the 1870s about Buffalo hunting: “One of the finest novels of the West ever to come out of the West,” says it all.  Finally, I’ve just started the first novel by a favorite author, About Grace by Anthony Doerr. I loved his blockbuster, All the Light We Cannot See; couldn’t finish his second so am giving him another chance with his first.

OK – here’s the first batch of readers’ reviews. Keep them coming in the new year!

Claire in London: Mariana Leky whose What You Can See From Here is utterly beautiful. A quirky, almost magical realism but not quite, uplifting story which – as the blurb on the back says – will “get you through dark days”.

Char in Austin: Leavings by Megan McClard, as I read every word of the hardback and was enlightened and entertained. I will buy the paperback just to have that wonderful cover.

Patsy in Oregon:  Two five-star reads I hope are on your list: Horse by Geraldine Brooks
and How to Catch a Mole by Marc Hamer (it’s worth mentioning, as it delves into the smallest details of the natural world, like your rufous collared sparrow in the aloe. Great photo.)

Nancy in Portland: I am sneaking in a reread of Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui before gifting it to a friend. It’s healing and meditative to be back in the pool again, lap after lap driving out thoughts of the day. Also, A Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. Booker Prize winner in early 90s, the historical fiction of a British slave ship’s fateful 1752 trip to Africa. Beautifully written, sad and deeply revealing of both the evil of the exploiters and the suffering of the exploited – which included not only the enslaved Africans, but the poor, impressed crew members. But revenge is sweet (which I won’t reveal here)!

Marathon reader Bibi in California: Here are some of the books I have been reading and liking lately: Fabric: The History of the Material World by Victoria Finlay. Also by the same author Color: A Natural History of the Palette. Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Also his Tomato Red. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Just out is Barbara Kingsolver’s Deamon Copperhead, which I have just started and A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux, the recent Nobel Prize winner

Bruce in Portland: I’m reading Amor Towles’ “The Lincoln Road, written after The Gentleman From Moscow. Also starting Tess Ganty’s, The Rabbit Hutch, this year’s National Book Award winner. In addition, I plan to read a recommended nonfiction book by Susan Linn entitled Who’s Raising the Kids? It documents how social media has damaged an entire generation, emotionally and psychologically, and reminds me of the courageous work of Maria Resa, the Filipino journalist who recently received the Noble Prize.

Liv in Norway: I am reading the Nobel prize winner- Annie Ernaux’s: A Man’s Place and A Woman’s Story (about her father and mother) and I am looking forward to The Years. She is 82 – still going strong, demonstrating against the horrible electricity prices and of course the wars.The warmth in the Canary Islands will heal our body and soul after a tough 2022. In this regard: I recommend: John Fante’s 1933 was a Lousy Year” and Heinrich Mann’s “The Turning Point if you want dystopia.I  will have the peace of mind to enter the book we have waited for for a long time, the biography of Anna Margarita Gasteazoro, Tell Mother I’m in Paradise: Memoir of a Political Prisoner in El Salvador.  What a woman. Gracias a la vida for 2023.

Shirley in Oregon: I just read two memoirs by Bill Browder about his financial doings in Russia with the oligarchs and his fear of being assassinated. A good look at Putin too. Red Notice is how he got started in Russia and Freezing Order really delves into the money laundering. Fascinating look behind the scenes.

Macon in Colorado: I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste. It was very good. Right now, I am reading a book she wrote 12 years ago about the migration of black people from the South 1915-1970. I am sure that many of your readers will have read it: The Warmth of Other Suns. Then there was All God’s Dangers by Nate Shaw. He was a resilient, strong and ambitious man, and the book follow his life through several generations, including a dozen years in prison starting in 1932 for standing up for another black household, to keep the planter from taking all the family’s belongings.

Finally, I just read Imani Perry’s book South to America. I believe it just won the national book award. Written by a Princeton professor who spent her first five years in Alabama, but then moved north with her parents, she shows how so many of the things firmly rooted in the south have become tightly woven into the language, music, sport, religion and culture.

Another Year in Cañar


Dear Friends: The truth is I rarely think about our life in Cañar while we’re in Portland. Then, as we get closer to leaving, I’m preoccupied with renting the house, remembering and organizing what we’re to bring (two 8″ chimney brushes; exhibit materials for the Costa Rica trip, airpods for Paiwa), and preparing for travel. (At least no Covid restrictions this time.) On December 1 we’re off, with excess baggage ($168), four busy airports (bad food $$$), and three cramped flights (no food). Twenty-four hours later we land in Guayaquil, where the temperature is 82 F. We check into our usual silly Wyndham Garden hotel with endless Christmas carols in the lobby, two big beds, hot showers, cold beers. Ahhhhh. Sheer luxury to relax with nothing to do but relax after the past busy weeks.

Tulio, the man at the hotel who helped us with our bags, turns out to drive a taxi on off-hours, so even before we’ve settled into our room we’ve arranged a ride to Cañar the next day. He’ll take us after he finishes his shift at 3:00. We have a late lunch called a Tex-Mex bowl in the hotel’s dreary dining room, long rests with skipped dinner, and good sleeps. Next day for lunch we try the Magnolia Room on the 8th floor. World Cup games blasting everywhere, of course; I was briefly hopeful for Costa Rica. Terrible lunch, but I hardly noticed so distracted was I by the view outside and the decor inside. As long as Michael has a beer and his KenKen puzzles (printed out in Portland), he notices nothing but the tasteless fried seafood. The next day, with Tulio in his taxi, we take a familiar route out of chaotic Guayaquil, across the long coastal plain through the scrappy towns of Troncal and El Triumfo, with mile after mile of fruit stands on the side of the road. “Mango season,” Tulio says tersely. I’m grateful he’s a driver who doesn’t chatter; I like to read, Michael does his puzzles. Suddenly the road climbs and we begin the long ascent into the mountains. Distant clouds obscure the view, then clear to a blue sky, then lower to the ground for 50 feet visibility. Then repeat. We climb to up over 12,000 feet into the sierra of the Andes. As we reach the highest point, I avert my eyes from the bright red “love motel” that some idiot built here a couple of years ago, the sole eyesore in this magnificent landscape (also the turn off to Sangay National Park.) Past that, approaching four hours, I watch for signs of the inter-Andean valley where our town lies (big red dot on the map). Although the map barely captures what I’m describing, you can see the lighter areas where the Andes bifucate to create highland valleys. As we descend, I shoot a bunch of photos from the car on my phone. And there it is – the neighboring town of Tambo, looking celestial in the afternoon light. Only now do I start thinking  about our life in Cañar – how will we find the house and garden?  Will I remember people’s names? How are the scholarship women doing? I dig out my keys for the gate as we pull onto our road. We unload the bags, invite Tulio in for a beer (declined; he’s going straight back to Guayaquil), but we show him around the house. It’s dark from the closed shutters, furniture is covered with sheets, with a thick coating of dust everywhere, but otherwise pretty much as we left it six months ago. It’s too late for a fire, so Michael puts together a quick dinner with the groceries he bought in Guayaquil while I find a lamp, tablecloth and napkins to set us up in my office. Not only do we have a first dinner “in style” but the Internet is working so we watch the new Netflix film, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Talk about culture shock!  The next day we open the shutters and take stock. The layer of thick dust everywhere comes from constant traffic these past eight months on our dirt road due to a  construction/sewer detour that brings everything from buses to cattle trucks by our house. In the patio, we find two little fuzzballs hidden deep in the macho aloe. We see nests nearly every year, but this is the first time we’ve seen nestlings. In the following days we hear them chirping, and get occasionally sightings of them and their mother as she flies in under the roof to feed them. Then one day they are gone, flown away. For my birding friend, Annie Tucker: these are rufous-collared sparrows, (Zonotrichia capensis). “Widespread, common and familiar in shrubby and grassy areas throughout highlands, often around houses. Distinctive, with rufous collar, puffy-crested look. Streaky juveniles are often seen.” (The Birds of Ecuador Field Guide.)

Next day is Sunday, market day, and Michael has a yen for hornado or roasted pig. We trudge into town, stopping to catch our breath along the way, and greet acquaintances in the streets. “How do we know them?” we murmur to one another as we walk on. “What is his/her name?” But many know Michael by name – “Miquito” the taxi drivers yell as they drive by. And in the market, the pineapple man from the coast greets him with Señor Miko and the perfect fruit to eat today.

In the days that follow, we each make forays into town for groceries and supplies and to check out the state of this place, where dogs run free (I counted seven in front of our house one day)… 

Road/sewer construction never stops, which to go into town means running a guantlet of open sewer access inlets, fresh concrete (with dog prints), fresh asphalt (black footprints), and entire streets shut off with hoardings.

But that’s all part of life in Cañar, this homely town working to bring itself into the 21th century with potable water and sewer systems, paved roads (not ours), rabies vaccines for dogs, pink Himalayan salt found in our tiny MegaMarket (!), and nice people everywhere. We are happy to be back.

Cañar Book Club

Oh, how I’ve missed the Cañar Book Club, and I’m so depending on you, dear readers, to bring me out of my literary doldrums. I’m overwhelmed by all the “best of 2022 books” flooding my in-box, and although I’ve put several on hold in my library, when they come I’ll probably have no memory of why I got interested. I will mention one book I read in transit: The Wall, by Marlen Haushofer, and again, no memory why I choose this book. Published in 1963 it was recently reissued, so I might have read this review. But I was fascinated by the story of a women who finds herself cut off from the rest of humanity by a transparent wall, and has to create new skills to survive, accompanied by a dog, cow and cat. For some reason, I really enjoyed the repetitive mundane details of her life.

As for the books I’ve brought, it was a mixed bag (so to speak) of a couple of books I’d ordered (About Grace, Anthony Doerr, Butcher’s Crossing, John Williams), some taken from my shelves (Greene, Bryson, McPhee, Kidder), two that I’ve published this year (Ana Magarita’s story, Tell Mother I’m in Paradise), and another in Norwegian by my good friend Liv that I’ll be editing in the English edition (more on that next time). A paltry pile, so I’m depending on Kindle books from my Portland library to keep me happy these six months. And I’d also love to hear your recommendations for the next Cañar Book Club meeting in the new year, January 2023.

Until then, please stay in touch. I love hearing from you.







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.

Here I am waiting in line to say goodbye to my beloved Hasselblad. (I felt OK about it until last week when got the check. Knowing it was now sold and in someone else’s hands made me a little sad.)





But we also had lovely moments, celebrating the harvest moon in a friend’s garden. Even a socially distant lunch in the distant city of Salem.Then the days got shorter, Covid got stronger, the pubs and restaurants closed down, the leaves blazed – then fell, the rains and days too cold to meet outside, and life got a little sadder. But we are lucky, when so many are living in the streets and with poverty, to have a home, economic security, books and music and movies.

Today – December 15, 2020, we are looking forward to the end of this hard year and the new year of 2021. If Michael are I are lucky enough to get the vaccine before April, we plan on going to Cañar for a short visit, maybe three months. Then back to our usual six months in 2022. That sounds so far away, doesn’t it?

Thanks to you all who have contributed to the scholarship fund, and if you didn’t see the Cañari Women’s Education Foundation newsletter I sent earlier this month, you can find it here.

Or make a contribution using the PayPal button below. 

May you all stay safe in these difficult times, and many thanks for your continuing support. Please stay in touch.   Judy B


2020 Scholarship Letter


Dear Friends: Despite the pandemic, our Cañari women’s scholarship program is alive and well. We now have twenty-three university graduates and thirteen current scholars. Three of our graduates have earned master’s degrees and one is heading for her doctorate (Juana Chuma, in veterinary medicine, University Nacional de Mexico). Because we were unable to have our annual gathering of past and present scholars in 2020, I am using the photo from last year. Thanks to you all for supporting this wonderful group of indigenous women as they forge a new professional landscape in Ecuador. By any measure, this has been an extraordinary year. In Ecuador, after a tragic Covid-19 outbreak in the coastal city of Guayaquil, the country swiftly locked down with an emergencia sanitaria that continues today. Smaller towns in mountainous areas like Cañar had an easier time of it. With agriculture as the economic mainstay, almost all indigenous families live at a distance from neighbors in small hamlets. Most, accustomed to organizing around cooperatives, strikes and marches, quickly closed off access roads and created their own regulations and markets (and, as I heard through the grapevine, used native medicine for those who were infected. To date,I know of no Cañari deaths in our area.)

In town, the local police and a small army of young people in bright vests patrolled the streets, reminding folks to wear masks and checking that painted footprints outside stores were two meters apart. Faux hazmat suits, and hand-embroidered and beaded masks became de moda. As the lockdown relaxed, farmers and vendors got creative with their excess produce, selling their wares from open doorways and garages or alongside the road. Michael said the shopping had never been so good. (We returned to the U.S. on July 4 in a hair-raising trip I describe on my blog here.)

In March, our thirteen scholarship women – most living in university towns far from home – returned to their families in Cañar and we all tried to make sense of the new reality. Remote learning was a mystery to students and teachers alike. Many women did not have Internet access in their homes and weren’t prepared for Zoom classes. Our local committee quickly decided the scholarship women would continue to receive full monthly stipends for the duration of the crisis ($150-$160/month), so that all could buy Internet access and help their families in this hard time.

We had one graduate this year and expect two more in 2021. Zara Falcón earned a degree in accounting and auditing (equivalent to a CPA) from the State University of Bolívar in Guaranda, in central Ecuador. She is pictured here with her proud parents at her graduation. Zara came into our program five years ago, just out of high school, and zoomed through her courses without a pause and with excellent grades. I can’t wait to see what Zara does next, once the pandemic is over.

For the past two years, a group of seven women in Bend, Oregon, called Circle of Giving, makes monthly contributions to a new program within our foundation. In 2012, Ecuador’s Higher Education Law created technical schools with two-year, post-secondary courses in five regions. In Cañar, the program at Institute Quilloac trains early childhood educators using an integrative approach that includes nutrition, language, health, cognitive skills and creative play. Funds provided by Circle of Giving have gone to support six women with small monthly stipends, and for materials and supplies to create teaching “laboratories.” Two members of the group visited Cañar to meet scholarship women in January 2019. This past month we were invited to attend a virtual graduation of the new program, and in our last Zoom meeting we chatted with the six women currently receiving stipends. A huge thank you to the Circle of Giving women of Bend who have initiated a more hands-on model of funding.

I was pleased and surprised by two other creative funding gestures in 2020. Preston Wilson, a Peace Corps volunteer in Cañar from 1968-70, has made the generous pledge of giving $1000 every year. Preston has been an active partner in the Cañari archive project, the first to contribute his photos of Cañar from the late sixties – the people and the place – a time of almost no photo documentation of the region. In 2012 he and his wife Beverly Hammons (Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, 1970-73) made a return trip, from which he produced a seventy-minute film titled “Ecuador, Me, and the Peace Corps,” which can be found here (Photo: Preston Wilson, circa 1968)

Another long-time supporter of our program, Janice Fried Donnola, used Facebook Birthday Fundraiser to generate over $600 dollars – and counting! Janice and her husband Bruce have a special connection as their son, Cisco, was born in the province of Cañar. The fundraiser will end on Cisco’s 21st birthday, November 21. Janice is a wonderful mixed media artist and illustrator who sometimes uses Cañari motifs in her work. (illustration: “Mariposa”)  Check out her website here.

Preston’s and Janice’s gifts got me thinking again about an idea for a “legacy” or endowment fund that would mean a secure future for Cañari women’s higher education. Michael and I have willed our Cañar house and property to the program – a long time off, we hope – to be sold for the benefit of the foundation. If any of you are interested in talking to me about such a plan, I welcome any ideas on how to create an endowment fund. So – a quick recap: the Cañari Women’s Education Foundation is managed by a local board in Cañar that does an amazing job. All but one are graduates of the program. (L-R: Maria Esthela, treasurer; Alexandra, vice president; Veronica, secretary; Mercedes, president.) Under normal circumstances, we meet two or three times a year to look over applications, review how each scholar is doing and decide how many spaces we have to fill. We keep the current group at about twelve, making it easy to manage monthly payments and monitor progress. (We pay stipends in cash each month, with zero administrative costs). Charlotte Rubin, our treasurer in Portland, keeps track of contributions and manages the banking here. Thanks as ever, Charlotte!

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 checks to CWEF and send to Charlotte Rubin, 2147 NW Irving St., Portland, OR 97210 (some of you will receive this letter by snail mail with return envelopes), or you can contribute through PayPal with the secure “DONATE” button below. May you stay safe in these difficult times, and many thanks for your continuing support. Please stay in touch.   Judy B

The New Life in Portland


Dear Friends –  this past Friday was the 14th day of our self-quarantine and the official beginning of our new life in Portland. So many friends wished us well on our three-day “trip from hell” and welcomed us home that I wanted to send an update to say that Michael and I feel great. My raw hands have healed from the hand sanitizer I used repeatedly during the trip, gone is tiredness we both felt from the tension of closing our Cañar house, one long taxi ride, four flights, two hotel stays, one very long layover – and being accosted by a crazy maskless guy in Houston carrying a bible and yelling that we didn’t need masks, just Jesus! (Headline I found in a Kentucky newspaper: “What would Jesus do right now? He would wear a face mask.”)Summer n Portland is glorious, and we love being back in our Buckman neighborhood. Where else can you find great tacos and a “heritage” barbershop sharing sign space and social-distance seating while you wait? As we’re busy getting our Portland affairs in order – dental, medical, taxes, banking, garden, and so on – we’ve made a few local outings to see the gains and losses during the pandemic. Mostly losses, but to start with a gain (at least for Michael): a block over the street closed to traffic and picnic tables are set up to serve a brewery, a pub and a coffee shop (this being Portland). You sit at a color-coded, well-separated and numbered table, make your order on your phone, and a masked server appears. Here’s Michael’s with his first IPA and pulled-pork sandwich in seven months. So happy!

The losses: my favorite used/new clothing store two blocks from our house. The young owner was in tears when I ran into her hauling stuff out the door  – “We didn’t get a Covid-19 small business loan; my four-year old was sent home from preschool for misbehaving and we have a one-year old. I can’t hold on any longer.” It was also a consignment store and I believe I had some credit there I was looking forward to using when I got home. I will really miss Palace.

The yoga studio two blocks in the other direction, where I had been re-introduced to yoga after thirty years. The classes were beyond my level, but I enjoyed putting on my leotards (no yoga pants for me), rolling up my cheap puffy mat (no $70 yoga mat here) and walking over three times a week. I was planning to continue and I’ll miss Love Hive too – although I really hated their name.

We both really miss the thrice-weekly picnic with chamber music concerts at Reed College we’ve been a part of since about 1995 (I as photographer). Seeing re-plays online just ain’t the same, even if we can drink wine and eat ice cream with fresh blueberries while we watch.Novelties: The large silhouette of a black bull that’s become an iconic symbol of Spain has appeared over the fancy French dessert place around the corner, Pix Pâtisserie, now selling its wares through a vending machine at the outside entrance. What people will do for a sugar fix! I had to line up to take the photo of the Pix-o-matic.

What’s new? Hallelujah!  A bookstore/art gallery called Nationale right around the corner from our house in the space where the dental prosthetics lab used to be. Doing some research I see they are not brand new to Portland; they moved to our neighborhood while we were gone and just re-opened. This was all I saw for a few days and I was so curious …

Then...limited stock, and a few cosmetics, but all the titles I saw were all good ones.

OK, on to the hard news: Portland is in it’s 51th day of protests that were sparked by the George Floyd murder. We don’t watch television news but when we hear helicopters we know things have escalated downtown, where protesters have set up camp in a park by the federal courthouse. This past week, Trump and his Homeland Security goons sent in federal  “storm troopers” – fully camouflaged, without identification, using teargas and “munitions,” taking peaceful protestors away in unmarked vans. Uninvited by local police, officials or politicians, and seriously breaking the law. Our friend’s son-in-law lawyer, Athul Acharya, is part of a class-action lawsuit by ACLU against the City of Portland and federal government on behalf of journalists and legal observers who were targeted and attacked by the police while documenting protests in Portland. You can read more about the lawsuit  here.

Oregon’s Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum: “Every American should be repulsed when they see this happening.  If this can happen here in Portland, it can happen anywhere.”

There is much more to say on this issue, but the national and international papers are full of news on Portland. The Guardian here. The New York Times here.

I think this will be my last blog until December, when we hope to return to Cañar. I will miss you all, and miss writing this blog, but we can always be in touch by email at  judyblanken@gmail.com. And Oregon friends, we’re ready to be social if you are! And to everyone –  stay tuned for some great summer reading suggestions below.


I’ve been reading like crazy since I got back, with library e- and “real” books available to me again (pick-up by appointment), and recommendations by you, dear friends. I read in my garden hammock during the day, in bed at night, first thing in the morning. So….Nemesis by Philip Roth, a novel published in 2011 but about the July 1944 polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey. Roth obviously lived through it, as did many of us in the 1950’s before there was a vaccine.  I haven’t read Roth in years, but – for obvious reasons – I felt I was reading about today. Beautiful to reconnect with Roth, a writer I’d read and admired way back and sortof forgot (I had to look up to see if he was still alive). Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout brought us, I think, to the end of Olive’s life. I have loved her irascible self and am sorry to see her go. I think Strout was too, but as a writer is surely eager to move on to other characters. Good Husbandry by Kristin Kimball because I love to read about daily life on a large CSA farm in up-state New York. I read her first book, The Dirty Life, a few years ago and it was good to catch up. But the most amazing book I’ve read lately is Telephone: A Novel by Percival Everett, recommended by a chronicle reader. I dipped into it (while reading other books) and dropped everything until the finish. It’s brilliant, riveting and devastating. How did I not know about this author? He’s written about twenty-five books and I’ve already ordered a second one with the great title: So Much Blue.

Maggi in Toronto:  Am currently reading Extensions by Myrna Dey.  I thought it was going to be a “lite” mystery (protagonist is an RCMP officer) but it turns out to be a more interesting exploration of the narrator’s great-grandmother, a poor woman in a Welsh mining community in 19th century BC.  Not a literary masterpiece, but a good & interesting summer read.

Sandy P in Portland: Javier Cercas’ Lord of All the Dead, a novel where he tries to come to terms with having had an uncle who died fighting for Franco. Or if you are interested in Israel/Palestine I found Colum McCann’s Apeirogon very compelling. Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains has given me a new way at looking at the Republican/ Libertarian/Koch takeover of our country, i.e. the privatization and cruelty we were experienced long before 1945.

Just finished Telephone by Percival Everett and that should go on your list too! A novel. Quite engaging and well written. Oh dear, these are all kind of heavy. Maybe you want to read cookbooks. I’m loving using Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons.

CIaire in London: just finished The Mirror and the Light, Hillary Mantel’s last in the Cromwell trilogy and once again am totally blown away. That’s not to say I loved every minute. Until, that is, it got very bogged down about a third of the way through where she seemed to feel the need to tell us everything about those crucial years between Anne Boleyn’s execution and Cromwell’s demise. And I mean EVERYTHING. But I’m so glad I persevered. It gets better and better and – as with Bring Up The Bodies – the last few pages are simply brilliant and utterly devastating. She is a genius and I forgive her the tedious chunk in the middle just for those last couple of chapters.

Maya: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, which one half of the Booker this year. Loving it. And I loved the Sally Hansen non-fiction Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. Hansen frames a critique of how being American blinds us to the realities of the rest of the world and particularly the US role in it with her experiences in Turkey and Greece. It puts together many things I’ve known about how this country operates in its own self-interest and screws other countries under cover of self-righteousness better than I’ve ever seen, and very readable.

That’s it, dear readers. Stay in touch and before you know it the Cañar Book Club will be back in session in 2021.

At home in Portland – safe and (apparently) sound


Dear Friends – Thanks to all for your best wishes for our “trip from hell.”  I’m happy to report we’re home in Portland since Friday July 3, and we feel fine (so far), only tired from traveling for three days on four flights, with long stopovers in two countries and three states. My hands are raw from hand gel and alcohol wipes and we have surplus of safety supplies if anyone needs anything – we started out seriously over-prepared, I’d say, plus my sisters sent a care package to our hotel in Houston.So – to the details. Before we even knew for sure that we could travel, we had to take blood tests at least 72 hours before our domestic flight from Cuenca to Quito (a new requirement within Ecuador). So on Monday we went to the only lab in town that qualified, to meet the one employee, Valeria, who became our new best friend, especially when we picked up the negative test results.

Then, some last shopping for a final dinner. As you can see, Cañar has been very strict about masks.

…and a last dinner with no electricity, reminding us that we were leaving a country where lights and water are not a dependable constant. We started out from Cañar at 6:00 AM on July 1, in a taxi. It was the first day in 3.5 months that taxis could circulate freely between Cañar and Cuenca, regardless of license plate number. And our first time in a taxi since March. The new plastic safety barrier between Juan the driver and us in the back seat made it hard to understand what he was saying, but whenever he would gesture at a checkpoint that was no longer manned, or other sights, we’d just say, “Si, si…” In Cuenca we lined up on the sidewalk outside the airport, spaced two meters apart, until just before our 9:00 AM flight. Then, young agents took our temperature, guided us through check-in, asked to see negative results of our blood tests, and finally escorted us to a waiting area.The flight to Quito was only 55 minutes, to a new international airport that was virtually empty. Our plane to the U.S. was not until the next day so I’d arranged a stay at the only airport hotel – which we soon called “the mother ship” for obvious reasons …also nearly empty, with beautiful views over a steep ravine, young staff so cautious and eager to be helpful that we allowed them every service that included a tip: a water bottle delivered to our room, spraying the bottom of our shoes, carrying a small roller bag. The shot below is the interior “hallway” of the hotel, wood strips inside a superstructure open to the air at the bottom. Altogether a good restful hiatus after the tension of preparing for the trip, closing up the house, saying goodbye

In the evening we walked over to the airport for a drink on the terrace of the food court – again, alone.The next day, the same careful precautions by airport employees as we waited in the same food court area for the flight to Houston – marking Quito the exemplary point of our Covid-19 travel. In contrast, Houston was, most certainly, the low point: A huge busy terminal, a subterranean shuttle to our horribly ugly and expensive airport Marriott hotel.

As we were waiting in the enormous dark and dreary circular lobby to check in, a crazy man rushed by us, maskless, yelling several times, “You don’t need no masks – you just need JESUS!”  I believe he was carrying a bible. Then, on the way to our room across a courtyard – a giant cockroach (one of two on that overnight stop). The next day – beginning of July 4 holiday – the terminal was jammed with United flights going every which way – Michael was amazed to see one to his podunk birthplace of Medford, Oregon. Everyone had masks, but beyond that social distancing was impossible, especially as flights loaded for New York or Chicago – even the walkway was nearly blocked.

Although I’d sprung $90 each to have access to the “United Club” during long layovers – (I won’t repeat what Michael said about THAT), we found it closed in Houston. A morning flight to Denver was uneventful, and there we found the United “luxury lounge” open. Although with only packaged snacks and certainly not free drinks (as my sister had promised), we did have near complete privacy for the six-hour layover before our flight to Portland.

Last leg, Michael totally absorbed with puzzles my sisters had sent to Houston (now that’s a thoughtful care package!). While I read one paper novel and a Kindle book – both set in war-time Spain (see Covid-19 travel Cañar Book Club below) – Michael seems to find relief from anxiety only through endless KenKen and crossword puzzles. Although I’d printed a 4-day supply before we left Cañar, he was done with all by Houston. Friends met us at PDX with a cooler full of dinner and breakfast fare and left us with a promise of a social-distance outdoor dinner next week (now those are thoughtful friends), and then we were at home in Portland for the first time in seven months.

Our first walk around the neighborhood felt almost post-apocalyptic. It shouldn’t have surprised us, but it did, to see a favorite sushi restaurant closed, and others with take-out menus and phone numbers plastered on the windows, other windows boarded up (this area was close to organizing points of protest marches), and our neighborhood theater closed with this on the marquee:

…but once we had our first dinner in the garden under our ever-spreading, supposedly semi-dwarf, cherry tree (behind M)…

…and he saw that his crimson clover ground cover had done it’s job with controlling weeds and nitrogen-fixing roots, we felt everything will be OK. However, we will be in semi-quarantine until we’re sure. Best regards to all who follow this blog and wished us well.  As always, I love to hear from you…

Covid-19 Travel Cañar Book Club

The Wrong Blood, Manuel de Lope, a novel in translation set in Basque country during the 1936 Civil War. Claims it’s about two women but really it’s about the men who circle around them. (I’d give it a 7/10.) Beautiful descriptions of weather in the area of Spain around San Sebastian, where we visited three or so years ago and experienced a magnificent seaside storm.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller, a historical novel I found riveting and beautifully written, and I carefully paced myself so as not to end it too soon. I’ll be lazy here and lift a description from a review: “follows John Lacroix, a soldier trying to escape his guilt-ridden memories of atrocities carried out by British soldiers in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, as he makes his way to the Hebrides; it also follows, in parallel, the two men–one English, one Spanish–dispatched to find him and hold him accountable for what happened.”  This story is also partly set in a place we’ve visited: Coruña, Spain, where I puzzled over a prominent statue of a British general, John Moore in a seaside park. (I’d give this a 9/10, and is the second book I’ve read by British author Andrew Miller – the first, Pure, set in pre-revolutionary Paris where a young engineer is hired to clear the cemetery of Les Innocents that is polluting the neighborhood. (I’d give it a 6.5/10).

All for now.  I’d love to hear about your Covid-19 favorite books.


Goodbye Cañar (?)


Dear Friends – we are ten days away from trying to leave Cañar for Portland. “Trying” because the trip is a complicated jig-saw puzzle that hasn’t quite come together. We have reservations on United Airlines from Quito to Houston on July 2 (their one flight a week), but the problem is getting from here to Quito. TAME, the national airline, was recently liquidated by President Morena in the face of “la crisis económica” (along with the postal service, the  railway and other public companies, as well as a reducing public sector salaries by 25%).

The other airline serving this area, LATAM (based in Chile), has just declared bankruptcy. While LATAM has this week begun a daily flight from Cuenca to Quito, it’s too late in the day to make our connection to United. So we’ll go the day before and spend the night in an airport hotel to make the flight to Houston, where a 12-hour layover means another night in a hotel. THEN, a flight to Denver, and finally home to Portland on the evening of July 3.

Of course we’re worried about exposure traveling 48 hours through two countries and three states, but we’ll take all the precautions I’ve been reading about, such as upgrading our seats so we don’t sit near bathrooms (too much human traffic). We’ll also try not to go ourselves. In any case, once in Portland we are planning to self quarantine for 14 days.

Update:  we’ve just been informed that we have to show Covid-19 negative test results from a laboratory within 72 hours of flying within the country. Michael went up to town to find the one lab in Cañar that provides tests – at $70 per person!  No wonder the statistics from Ecuador are totally out of whack; no one can afford to be tested.

All things considered, it would be smarter to stay here, but our tenant leaves our Portland house on June 29, Michael has medical appointments, we both have dental appointments, and so on. Also, we simply want to be with our friends and closer to family after seven months in Cañar.These last three months have been special, however – even relaxing. No more trips to Cuenca, no more running around the countryside with projects or climbing the streets into town for meetings. We’ve discovered we have everything but luxury food items here, and local commerce has really picked up with people selling their produce from doorways and driveways.

Michael marvels that he can find beautiful tomatoes on the Paseo de los Cañaris, the little commercial strip near home, and no longer has to wait for Sunday market. And, wonder of wonders – the giant langostinos are back after a three-month hiatus, looking fresh, and sold from a new storefront open to the street for $4.00 per pound. Michael cooks them on skewers in the fireplace.

It has been a delight to have our goddaughter Paiwa with us these three months. She’s 24 years old, in her 5th year of civil engineering at University of Cuenca, and spends up to 12 hours a day in her room with classes, homework and exams, emerging to join us for meals, practice her English, appreciate Michael’s cooking and do the dishes. It’s been like having a young but mature and engaging house guest. When we go to Cuenca to catch our (supposed) flight on July 1, she will return to her rented room near the university, although her classes will not begin again until September or October.

Masks are still mandatory in town, but I notice that folks continue to use them in almost all everyday activities in the streets and cars, except for in the fields or their own houses.

Cautious meeting with Soledad Quinde, teacher in a program the Bend Circle of Giving supports with stipends for women students.

Also, as the restrictions on small stores lift, I see a new mini-industry arise – homemade “hazmat” suits in various colors and sizes on mannequins (and in the streets), along with embroidered and beaded masks (I’m wearing one above in photo). Cañar has many seamstress shops – mostly owned by Cañari women making the beautiful elaborate Cañari skirts and blouses – so it was a no-brainer to switch to what is selling – masks and protective suits.

As for me, I’ve grown “garden proud” during the three-month quarantine, right down to obsessively plucking dandelion heads on the lawn (made up largely of tough African kikuyu grass that needs no watering) and digging up its long tendrils below my flower beds. But It’s been thrilling to see this:Become this:Normally I would not pay such close attention and simply let nature takes its course, but being in the house every day with all these windows to the outside, I couldn’t help but become obsessed with the flowers, the vegetables, hummingbirds, and the grass – which I insisted we have someone cut with the weed whacker every two or three weeks, for heaven’s sake!

Now with our leaving it becomes what I call my Sisyphean garden – I’ll come back in six months to find everything back to beginnings – grass raggedly trimmed by our compadres‘ sheep, flower beds filled with weeds, vegetable garden maybe still producing some of what I’ve planted. It’s the arrangement we’ve had for nearly 15 years – our compadres are responsible only for checking on the property and watering the plants in the patio. I don’t mind at all. I’ll start again with renewed hope and patience, like any good gardener.

By the way – those creatures at the top of this blog are a part of our coat rack in the patio. A collection of paper mache masks that are traditional around Christmas and New Year’s, bought for to make effigies to burn ( you’ll recognize Ugly Betty with the freckles and the guy who looks like Nixon was meant to be Trump).

Anyway, this will be my last chronicle from Cañar for 2020, unless our flights are cancelled, we fail the Covid-19 tests, the U.S. stops all in-bound air traffic, or the sky falls.

But there’s always meatballs!  Scroll down below the book club for Michael’s famous recipe, which he’s making for our first dinner guest Sunday evening.

Cañar Book Club

The Yellow Books, 1887 (oil on canvas) by Vincent van Gogh

Well, I’ll be sorry to miss you all and your wonderful reading suggestions, but I plan to be back for our last meeting of the year in December, when you’ll have lots more to report. So let’s begin…

Sandy in Portland: One I highly recommend is Heavy: An American Memoir, by Kiese Laymon. It is a memoir, though a friend said it should be called a reckoning, and I agree. It is challenging emotionally and really well written. Also I have just started reading Sapiens, A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari and am enjoying it. It overwhelms me, but does go into enough detail that I am learning a lot. Jill LePore’s 785 page tome, These Truths: A History of the United States, took awhile but it helped me deal with the current political situation – turns out Trump isn’t the first!

Bruce in Portland: The Wild Trees by Richard Preston. “Preston’s account of this amazing world, by turns terrifying, moving, and fascinating, is an adventure story told in novelistic detail by a master of nonfiction narrative. The author shares his protagonists’ passion for tall trees, and he mastered the techniques of tall-tree climbing to tell the story in The Wild Trees—the story of the fate of the world’s most splendid forests and of the imperiled biosphere itself.”

Arlene in Toronto: Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Wiener – I galloped through that one — tracing the lives of two sisters from the 1950s to the 2020s through the sexual revolution, the rise of feminism, the Vietnam war etc etc. I am currently reading On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous by Vietnamese-American writer Ocean Vuong, but slowly because I find it both beautiful and painful.

Char in Austin The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, National Book Award and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. “An adventure story about
scholarship that locates the foundations of modern secular, scientific thought in the brilliance and heroism of our intellectual forebears.”
Yup, one for the quarantine.  Nothing but time.  It’s very engrossing.

Joanne in Mexico: did I mention A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar? I love his work, both novels and his memoir, The Return. Siena is about art and much more. A beautiful little gem. I just started Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis – “Winner of the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, this intoxicating story of a teenage girl who trades her middle-class upbringing for a quest for meaning in 1980s Mexico is ‘a surreal, captivating tale about the power of a youthful imagination, the lure of teenage transgression, and its inevitable disappointments'”. (And, after a recent trip from Mexico to Portland, she writes: The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich – good flight book)

Michael’s Meatballs (with a chance of clouds`)

  • 1 pound ground pork
  • ¾ cup fine breadcrumbs
  • 5-6 good-sized garlic cloves, minced or pressed
  • 1 egg
  • Salt to taste
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • 3 T chopped Italian parsley
  • ½ cup finely chopped yellow onion
  • ¾ t. fresh-ground nutmeg

In a wide bowl:

  • Beat the egg
  • Put the pork on top of the beaten egg, and with the back of a big spoon spread out the meat in a layer (this makes it easier to add the seasonings and later mix everything).
  • Distribute garlic, salt, pepper, nutmeg, parsley, onion, crumbs as evenly as possible over the ground pork.
  • With your hands or other implement, fold and mix ingredients, incorporating the egg throughout. Let the mixture sit a few minutes to allow the crumbs to gain moisture.
  • Make a small sample meatball and fry it in olive oil until done. Taste for seasoning, especially salt.

Once that is done:

  • With your hands, form the mixture into about 16 meatballs a little smaller than golf balls, and as smooth as possible.
  • Brown all sides in a skillet in olive oil, as evenly as possible.
  • I don’t finish cooking the meatballs in the browning process, but when they have a nice color I remove them from the pan to a plate.
  • Using the drippings in the skillet, add white wine or stock or water (or beer).
  • Bring the stock to a simmer, taste for salt. Now you can add tomato puree or paste, or cream, to make whatever sauce you fancy – and/or thicken with a little flour-and-water mixture carefully stirred in.
  • Add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer in skillet for about 20 minutes.




Cañar Update: Day 60+ and Still Quarantined


Dear Friends – We are at Day 60 (now 62) and counting, with a strict quarantine and curfew still in place in Cañar and in all of Ecuador. Here, even the dogs are sheltering in place. (Couldn’t resist! We pass these guys every time we walk into town. We call them “the rugs.”)

News on the street says this will continue until end of May, with slow opening beginning June 1. A national newspaper says the airport in Guayaquil will open on that date. Good news, though we’ll keep our distance from that city for years to come, I think. But we do have reservations on Delta Airlines from Quito on July 1. We’ve not yet paid for the tickets – as we can’t get to Cuenca with the cash, which the airlines are demanding in place of cards – “en caso de mortalidad” (in case we die) – but as of now we are planning on traveling Cuenca- Quito – Atlanta – Portland on July 1.

On the work front, I’ve been contentedly engaged with two book projects. Last week co-editor Andrew and I sent off the final ms. of the “Ana book” – (Tell Mother I’m in Paradise: Memoir of a Political Prisoner in El Salvador), along with 28 photos and illustrations, to the wonderful editor at University of Alabama Press. The book now goes into the editorial pipeline and will, hopefully, emerge as a Spring 2021 title. It has been a great experience working with Andrew and Wendi. Here’s a photo of Ana that showed up in the Spanish edition that we’d never seen – Ana at about 20 years. This will go into the new book.

The second project on the work front, which came to a halt with the quarantine, is the culmination of years of darkroom printing, scanning and organizing the negatives of a town photographer, Rigoberto Navas (1911-2001). The cultural department at the Municipality of Cañar has committed to printing the book of Navas photos this year, although the reality remains to be seen. But I’ve had fun making a mock-up – cutting and pasting photocopied images into an existing photo book. At least this allows me choose the photos and their sequence, and to show a good facsimile of how the final book will look. 

On the pleasure front, six words: cocktail, sunset, fireplace, drawing, flowers and dinner.

As wine grew scarce (it’s back!) Michael began a new custom of 5:00 PM cocktails: fresh orange juice, rum and fizzy water. This, in the big room with the fire, flowers and Michael, keeps me happy while I try to make a drawing/ watercolor that relates to the day. Sometimes it’s a challenge, sometimes it comes easy. Something it’s as mundane as Michael cooking a chicken…

…as dreamy as where we “would have been” in Spain if all this hadn’t happened. 

or as serious as keeping track of the numbers (until I couldn’t)….

Or as homely as going for a walk, running into a neighbor washing her carrot harvest and bringing home a few for a carrot soup that Michael claims he had never made before, and was absolutely delicious.

Speaking of Michael, he has been stalwart in fixing lunch and dinner for three “cuarentinadas” every day for two months, with another month to go at least. With limited options, we’ve been eating pork in its many iterations. There’s a butcher shop here called Piggi’s where he buys sausage, cutlets and a kind of re-constituted bacon that’s not really bacon. Paiwa and I love it! Plus lots of our garden vegetables (we’re sick of broccoli and cauliflower) and an endless supply of potatoes from our back field that Michael finds way to fix almost every night.  Here he is making gnocchi.

For sweets he’s kept us in a near-constant supply of zesty orange oatmeal cookies, which he devised as an alternative to orange cake that takes longer to bake and uses too much gas. (* Recipe at bottom of this blog). The only kitchen disaster has been our espresso machine is kaput. Michael makes campfire coffee every morning, but it’s not the same. We’re dreaming of finding a new machine in Cuenca once the quarantine lifts, although we’re having a hard time finding a source from the Internet. (Cuenca friends – if you know of a store that has domestic espressos, please let me know.)

And that brings us to…..

The Cañar Book Club

This selection above of “plague books” appeared on a website a couple of weeks. I tracked down the source, then lost it – but credit went to an antiquarian book store with participation of artist.

From our own faithful book club members, some good recommendations.

Patty in Portland: “Enjoyed Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson, Kerouac’s girlfriend who was in the thick of that time with the Beats. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner is worth a read. Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day the best of the three of her novels I read. She has a dark side which can be pretty funny.”

Maya in Portland: “I’m now on pp 657 of the 1000 page, one-sentence Ducks, Newburryport by Lucy Ellmann, which I’m enjoying greatly. It’s oddly addictive. Essentially about how you live a private life as a woman/mother when you are so aware of all that is wrong globally and locally. Also very funny. Beyond that I found How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibrahim X Kendi to be worth reading. He’s very methodical about analyzing all the different ways people objectify blacks and use that, often unwittingly, to discriminate in one way or another.”

Liz in Toronto: Madeleine Miller’s Circe is great argument for mortality! I read Milkman, found it terrifying but compelling, a tour de force; also recommend Miriam Toews’s Women Talking.”

Joanne in Mexico: “Now reading a wonderful collection of essays by a young Irish writer, Sinéad Gleeson – Constellations.”

Char in Austin: “Just finished Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, illustrations by Maira Kalman. Published in 1933, this new edition includes Maira’s delightful illustrations. I loved every word of her endless sentences that brought to life Paris at the beginning of the century.”

Sher in Santa Fe: “If you’re looking for a beautiful distraction, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is apropos of our times, as this gentleman is under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow (1922). See how he makes use of his time!!”

Anne in Portland recommends: The Hour of Land by Terry Tempest Williams.

Finally, my turn:  I can’t say enough about the riveting Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by New Yorker writer, Patrick Radden Keefe. As my words fail, I quote from the David Grann review: “Meticulously reported, exquisitely written, and grippingly told, Say Nothing is a work of revelation. Keefe not only peels back, layer by layer, the truth behind one of the most important and mysterious crimes of a terrible conflict; he also excavates the history of the Troubles, and illuminates its repercussions to this day.”

Did I miss anyone?  If so, please remind me, and keep your book news coming, dear readers. Until next time…

* Mike’s Zesty Orange Oatmeal Cookies

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly in one bowl:

  • 1 cup oats
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 heaping tsp of baking powder

In another bowl mix:

  • 1 egg, 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup oil such as safflower or sunflower
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • finely grated rind of two unpeeled oranges with microplane. (If oranges are big, maybe 1.5 grated)

Beat the egg and salt with whisk, add brown sugar, beat again, add oil and beat again. Add grated orange rind and beat (yet again).

Pour the dry ingredients into the egg/sugar/oil/zest mixture, beat thoroughly.

Once everything is moistened, add carefully and mix throughout

  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 1/3 cup raisins, well separated

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Carefully glob 12 piles of mixture onto greased cookies sheet, leaving space between each.

In oven, check after about 6 minutes for even baking. Should be done between 10-15 minutes; checking if browning around edges.

(Alternative: instead of grated orange rind, use 1/2 teaspoon each of nutmeg and cinnamon.)








Cañar Update: Heading into Week Six


Dear Friends. We are heading into Week Six of total lockdown here in Ecuador and in Cañar. Masks are mandatory, local streets are barricaded and interprovincial traffic strictly controlled by police, with a national curfew from 2:00 PM to 5:00 AM (sirens marking the beginning, reminding me of a school bell – how quickly we become adjusted to sound cues). In Cantón Cañar (the county), Covid-19 cases number only twelve, a very slow rise over three weeks. National rates are, I suspect, carefully controlled and under-reported by the government after some very bad press about the coastal city of Guayaquil. As of today: Ecuador’s “official” figures are 8450 cases with 421 deaths. (In contrast, today’s Guardian reported close to 7,000 deaths in Guayaquil alone, where so many die at home and are not counted.)

Our home routine is so fixed that I can barely remember life before. For Michael, little has changed – he makes morning coffee (although our little espresso machine just went kaput), works on the puzzles I print each morning (four KenKens; one NYT crossword), fixes lunch and plans dinner. If it’s a cold rainy day – as in the photo above – he builds an early fire. Once or twice a week he trudges up into town to go shopping and I sometimes go with him. Our little stores remain well provisioned, and the last couple of weeks we see a lot more sidewalk and doorway action as farming families set up spontaneous stands to sell their own products.

For me, the early morning routine remains the same – coffee in bed with laptop, an hour or so of email, news, articles and a bowl of home-made granola (*Ana’s recipe at end of post). From there, I move to my studio office or the dining room table if we have an early fire. Several projects keep me busy with full work days. In late afternoon, I take a break in the garden to hack some weeds and check what’s ready to eat (our first of many cauliflower this week). The big difference during lockdown is, of course, that I don’t leave the house for work. Looking back to last year’s daily journal for April, I’m amazed at the constant motion of my days – accompanying a visiting researcher to villages; recording interviews, trips to Cuenca, trips to town and to schools, getting ready for visitors from Cuenca, and visitors from Portland. I can’t believe I will ever lead such a non-stop daily life again. Not sure I want to.

The other member of our little lockdown household is Paiwa, our 24-year-old goddaughter. She’s nearly full-time in her room with her on-line classes in 5th year civil engineering, emerging for lunch and dinner and to wash clothes or the dishes. We’ve developed a nice routine of knowing when to socialize over dinner, when to practice English, and when to eat lunch in companionable silence, each with our device (Michael with crossword). Although we’ve known her and been close since she was about five, we’ve never had this much time with Paiwa, and it has been delightful.

But the most interesting thing these past couple of weeks is what we watched  from our living room windows, as our compadres Jose Maria and Narcisa, and their daughter Sara harvested and planted the back field. First they cleared the potato field of weeds to feed two cows tethered in residence for about a week. Two huge bulls arrived to pull the plow to uncover the potatoes, one section at a time, then stood tethered while the family collected the potatoes by hand. Then they plowed again for a couple of days and planted peas. It was fast and brutally hard work, some days in the rain, and dangerous in handling such large animals. Every day Michael and I ran from window to window, reporting on what we saw. In the end, not a single thing was wasted in that field – “weeds” that were not food for animals turned out to be medicinal plants, while others produced seeds for an additional crop (cilantro, amaranth).The most dangerous moment is when Narcisa and Jose Maria control the bulls and lash on the hand-hewn wooden yoke. The bulls know what’s coming and can resist by trying to gore or charge.

While plowing someone (usually a woman in bright clothes – in this case Sara) walks in front to guide the bulls. Jose Maria puts his weight into the plow – a long wooden eucalyptus pole with metal point lashed on, using a series of sounds to urge the bulls. He carries a stick with short whip.

When the bulls are at rest, tethered at the bottom of the field, they have to be fed and watered once a day. Jose María brings from his own fields a load of dried corn stalks and chops them into four piles for the animals. Watching, I was reminded of the tremendous responsibility of farmers with large animals.

The harvest – enough potatoes for the family for a year, Narcisa tells me, and which they insist on sharing with us. Beautiful reds called super-cholas, which Michael is preparing most days in some form or another.

Finally, another round of plowing on a couple of rainy days, and Narcisa plants peas. They quickly lead the bulls around the house and out the gate and it’s all over for the season.

Perhaps those who enjoyed the week the most were Narcisa’s four lambs, gamboling about the front yard, jumping on the rock wall among the cactus, running up and down the road outside the gate. They are left free because they never stray far from their bleating mothers, tethered up the road in a vacant grassy lot.

And to end with a flash update:  after many back-and-forth emails with our travel agent in Cuenca, we are able to make reservations for our return to Portland on July 1. We fly from Cuenca to Quito (avoiding Guayaquil) and Delta to Atlanta and Portland. When I wrote to thank Teresa and ask how I could get payment to her, the return message puzzled me. I read it over several times, and then to Michael, before we understood:  “the airlines are requiring cash payments “en caso de mortalidad.” In case we die.

We are certainly willing to pay cash, once transportation begins, and we are certainly not going to die. I hope you too are staying well and safe in your homes and looking forward to life after.

C a ñ a r  B o o k  C l u b
“The greatest gift is the passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination.”
– Elizabeth Hardwick

I promise you this was not a plan, but in the last weeks I’ve read Dutch House, by Ann Patchet, The Yellow House by Sarah Bloom and Great House by Nicole Krauss. The first was entertaining, the second was over-long but a good look into life in New Orleans pre-and post-Katrine; the third I’m having a hard time staying with. So to clear my palate of houses I started (on Kindle) The Promise of the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell’s Perilous Journey and His Vision for the American West by John Ross.  Why?  I must have read a good mention in my morning perusing. I think it’s probably good history, but bed-time reading requires something livelier, so I’ve started the book Hilary Mantel said she couldn’t put down: Death and Nightingales by Eugene McCabe, and that did the trick. “…an epic story of love, deception, betrayal and revenge, set on a single day in the Irish countryside in 1883.” It’s so gripping I can’t wait for bedtime to keep reading.

OK, this month we have a special guest reviewer, Jennifer from Toronto:
“I read a lot of mysteries and detective stories, most of which are not deserving of the attention of your book club members, but provide me with some relief from the world’s woes. But every month I read 2-3 “good” books. Often I’m disappointed, but I also find some that are beautifully written and engaging and depressing as hell or alienating.
Currently, I have two books on the go: Aria by Nazanine Hozar, following the life of a young girl in Iran from the 1950’s to 70’s; The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christi Lefteri, focused on the lives of Syrians who end up as refugees in the UK. Both  I suspect will be rewarding in the end – by which I mean will be enlightening about the experience of people from parts of the world in continuous upheaval – but are difficult to read in the quiet hour before bedtime! (And I have to confess, before finishing either of these books, I just started The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich’s new book.)
But I’ve just finished a book of that I wanted to recommend to you: Five Wives by Joan Thomas, a Canadian author who has revisited the story of five American evangelicals who went to Ecuador in the 1950’s, intent on converting the Amazonian Waorani tribe, and who were killed shortly after their first contact.  After the killings, two women stayed on to work with the Waorani (also known by the more derogatory Quichua term “Auca”), a sister of one of the dead and a wife of one of the others.
The author, who appears to be from a family of Canadian evangelicals and heard the story as a child, was inspired to write the book following a New Yorker article in 2012 that traced the connections between the activities of evangelicals in Ecuador and the oil industry, though this is not a major focus in the book.
Instead, the author writes from the perspective of the wives and some of the offspring of the men who were killed. The author says about her process: ‘I use actual names and biographical details, but … the interior lives of the characters and the dynamics of their relationships are entirely of my creation. I read the available biographies and journals of the Operation Auca eleven, and then set those books aside and let the characters walk into my novel with the personalities they had assumed in my imagination. In the missionaries’ memoirs, ‘God’s leading’ explains almost every impulse. I set out to peer behind that, to explore in human terms actions that astonished me.'”

Jennifer adds that Five Wives won the Governor General’s award for fiction last year, equivalent of the National Book Award. I know the background of this story, and look forward to finding the book.

Speaking of missionaries, Michael just finished Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel Everett, which he loved and quoted extensively to me while reading. I look forward to that one.

That’s it for now, dear friends.  Please stay well and stay in touch.

* The recipe for Ana’s granola, which I have been making since visiting Ana Margarita Gasteazoro’s Café Coral in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica circa 1988.  I just made it yesterday.

Ana’s Granola (2020 version)*

Mix in one large bowl

  • 5 cups of coarse-ground oats
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1 cups pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • 3/4 cups sesame seeds
  • 1 cup almonds or walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp sea salt

Separately, mix and stir (and heat slightly if honey is thick):

  • ½ cup honey
  • ¼ cup oil such as safflower
  • ½ cup orange juice (or the juice of one orange)
  • 2 T fresh grated ginger
  • dash of vanilla extract
  • orange peel cut into thin strips

Mix honey and oil, orange juice and orange peel into oats and seed mixture.

Spread granola on large cookie sheet and bake at 300 degree for 45 minutes. (I usually use a timer and turn granola with spatula every 15 minutes or so to make it uniformly toasty. When it looks uniformly brown on top, it’s done)







Cañar Update – Week Three


Dear Friends: We are into week three of a national lockdown in Ecuador, with obligatory masks, barricaded streets, and a curfew from 2:00 PM to 5:00 AM. That allows us to move about (on foot) in the mornings for groceries and other necessities. One of us goes out about once a week for shopping in town where only small stories, bakeries and banks are open. Soon after 2:00 I hear sirens go off for about ten minutes. It sounds to me that the police are circulating into neighborhoods and comunas with sirens blaring, but none has passed by on our road. But the other day when I was out in the front garden, I saw a man running down the road about 2:30 and I remembered that on government order we can be fined for breaking the curfew at $100 (first time), second time basic salary, and so on. (Though I wonder if it is being enforced in Cañar.)

The photo above is part of the agricultural cycle we’re watching from our living room windows – accelerated, I think, by the many country neighbors stuck at home during the quarantine. These images also help explain why we are literally surrounded by farm produce that gets sold on the streets and small stores through this crisis. So…on Day One we saw cows gleaning the cornfield after a harvest.

On Day Two, we saw the fires burning what was left on the field. On Day Three, plowing the field with yoked oxen. We took a walk that day and saw these bulls at rest (it was lunch hour), but you get a good picture of the hand-hewn wooden yoke, with the long neck of the plow tied between the bulls. On a later walk we stood and watched a farmer and his helpers try to tie a yoke onto a fiesty bull, who obviously knew what it meant a hard work day ahead- a difficult and dangerous job for the farmer. 

Day Four, we watched the family planting and fertilizing with bags of guano. Now we’re set for the cycle begin again.It’s comforting to see how much agricultural activity still exists around us, after years of massive out-migration, urbanization, and low-income production. Here is a field of potatoes in bloom just below our house.

On another theme: I got an email last week from the director of the Fulbright Commission in Quito with instructions on how to leave the country on April 7 on a charter flight for the U.S. (No commercial flights can leave or enter Ecuador.) Fulbright and Peace Corps students and volunteers have already been evacuated, and I guess the offer was extended to me as an ex-Fulbrighter, or maybe just as an American. In any case, it was a crazy scary scenario: (1) make a reservation on the flight to Miami with the U.S. Embassy; (2) then we qualify for a safe conduct pass on a special bus from Cuenca to Guayaquil (the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak). (3) Once in Guayaquil, the message read, the plane might be delayed, so be prepared to wait it out in a hotel.  (The flight is with Eastern Airlines – didn’t they go bankrupt about 20 years ago? Yes, but someone bought them and they now do charters out of Miami. No mention of cost of flight.)

I emailed back: Thank you very much, but NO WAY are we leaving Cañar. It seems to us the safest place we can be these days, and probably for the next few months…

Although I continued to believe Ecuador’s numbers were low, I read the news today (April 4) and see that the both the case numbers and death rates are high (3.4%). Ecuador reports 3465 confirmed cases, 172 deaths. Nearly 50% of our cases are in Guayaquil, the coastal city of 2.3 million that is hot, low, humid, with with much poverty and lack of basic services. The images I see today that have been shown around the world are appalling: cadavers left in the streets or wrapped in plastic in family homes, caskets or bodies left on the curb, even DYI cremations, as hospitals, morgues and funeral homes are overwhelmed. Guayaquil is our New York – people are fleeing for the mountains, avoiding roadblocks by taking back roads and “goat paths” as someone described it. Our first case in Cañar was someone who had visited Guayaquil, and today we are at 5 cases.

And that is why, in part, indigenous communities, or comunas, around Cañar are setting up their own roadblocks. Below our house we came across this chain, resting on the road, but obviously it is ready to be raised to prevent cars from coming in.

Michael wants me to mention his new theory: that dogs, realizing people are disappearing from the streets, are reclaiming their territory. “The dogs on my way into town are more aggressive” he said the other day. “They never barked before; now they do. One even ran out into the street and lunged.”  He is convinced Cañar dogs have been waiting for this moment. Most run free anyway, but they usually have a healthy respect for pedestrians. No more. Here we found them on our walk – having an organizing meeting, with minimal social distancing. (See the little gray mutt under the chin of the dog on the right?)

But our favorite dog from next door, Gordo, would never bark or lunge or join that group of ruffians. He guards our house, keeps other dogs away, and loves Michael for the morsels thrown his way every now and then. All it takes is a whistle and Gordo comes running.

To finish this update: my thought are with our scholarship graduates who are working in front-line health care through the crisis:  four nurses, one physician, one dentist, one medical laboratory technician and at least one current student who is set to work in a hospital as a nutritionist.  Here are photos of a few – we hope they all stay safe.

The Cañar Book Club

As I’m constantly reminded, books are even more important during our home confinement. I’ve been downloading lists of “must-reads,” reserving e-books from my local library and looking with alarm at the few unread books I brought from Portland in that lifetime ago. Our Cañar Book Club members are doing the same – and I’m happy to pass on these recommendations

Joanne in Mexico:- Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King:  “fascinating look at race, culture and the history of anthropology – very readable.” And A Woman of No Importance:The Untold Story of the American SkypWho Helped Win WWII by Sonia Purnell, “a biography that reads like a spy novel.”

From Joan in Leige, Belgium: “Just listened to audio book of The Milkman by Anna Burns and it was great.”

From Nancy in Portland:  Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls, author of the Glass Castle. “This one is billed as a “true life novel” — the story of her grandmother, who led an adventurous life in New Mexico, Arizona and Chicago. It’s peppered with actual photos of the grandma and family, and she’s framed the narrative around authenticated family stories, but wrote it in the 1st person of the grandmother, so she’s created a lot to fill in where the record doesn’t. A competently written page turner.”

Lisa in Savannah: “I am reading Vera by Stacy Schiff (author of my favorite – Cleopatra).  “It is a biography of Vladimir Nabokov’s wife. I loved Cleopatra so much that I just read it again recently. Still mind-boggling exciting the 2nd time!”

Pat in Bend, Oregon:  “In my book club we were reading, just before the outbreak, The Great Influenza by John M Barry, a history of the 1918 pandemic. I don’t recommend reading this now, but it made me acutely aware of what can happen. I do recommend two beautiful books that sweep you away into nature: 1) Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez an 2) Edge of Awe, a collection of writing about the desert that includes William Kittredge and Ursula Le Guin.”

Laura in up-state New York: The Overstory by Richard powers and Underland by Robert Macfarlane.

Irene in Salem:  The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. “I found it a terrific read and well written.”

That’s it for now, dear friends. I need to send this off, so will wait until next time for my own recommendations.  Stay well, stay safe, stay in place, and stay in touch. Here’s where we’ll be for the unknown future (photo by our goddaughter, Paiwa, who is with us for the duration.)




News from Cañar


Dear Friends:  As of this past week we are in complete shutdown in Cañar, and in all of Ecuador, with bus lines and airports closed, along with schools, universities, restaurants bars and non-essential stores. .As of today (03-22) Ecuador has 532 confirmed cases, 7 deaths, the majority in the coastal province of Guayas. In our small town, local police and security folks patrol the streets – today, barriers went up at all roads leading into the center – and even pedestrians are only allowed to be out and about (with a mask!) to go to food markets, banks or pharmacies.  The rest of us stay at home, and stay at home and stay at home.

I walked up two days ago and took these photos. As I stood in the the street, I watched four security agents knock on the closed, roll-up door of a bakery; when the door slid up they went in and sat down to have coffee and pastries. Small town! Another amazing sight is the Pan American hIghway empty – the commercial corridor in Ecuador that normally roars night and day with large trucks. (I know these empty-major-road shots look all alike, but I can’t resist.)

The day before the shutdown, I went up and bought the last four bottles of red wine ($5 each/12% alcohol) – see space on shelf below. Now nothing left but bad white wine (and lots of liquor, which we don’t drink). Michael feels sure his beer supply is secure, but he took pleasure in burning this carton of Corona, a gift from a friend before all this began.

Housebound with us is Paiwa, our 24-year old goddaughter who is in her last year of engineering at University of Cuenca. She came before the transportation shutdown and will be with us for the duration, I think. She visits her mother nearby, but the attractions of our household are (1) Michael’s cooking, (2) my Internet, and (3) our washing machine (I suspect #2 is most important). She’s doing some on-line classes but mostly staying in touch with friends. (Below – a late-afternoon scene when it grows chilly and we all gather in the living/dining room.)We’re delighted to have this time with her, as we’ve hardly seen her this year as she nears graduation. She’s helpful (up the ladder to gather blackberries while I glean those on the ground; does the dishes while we sleep), and smart and funny. She needs to pass a TESOL English exam to go on to graduate school, so we’re speaking English as much as possible, with some hilarious results. (Last night she asked what “it doesn’t matter” meant, when she heard me say it to Michael. He launched into a 5-minute explanation of “dark matter” while Paiwa and I looked quizzically at one another.)

As for food, we are surrounded by it – potatoes and fava beans in the back field, ready to harvest, and in the kitchen garden lots of broccoli and lettuce and red cabbage (and not much else). Our meals will soon be pretty boring without Michael’s weekly trip to Cuenca for delicacies such as cheese, butter, coffee, and salmon. Cañar’s little markets are open and the shelves are stocked, and Michael is good at being creative with what’s available. Last night: pizza with Italian sausage and onions. Remains to be seen if we’ll have the usual Sunday market, where products come from all over Ecuador. (Update – market cancelled, maybe first time ever – you can see by this photo taken a couple of weeks ago that social distancing would be impossible ).

One of my great pleasures, with all this extra time at home, is an hour or so in the garden late afternoons. Weeding the flower beds, hacking out dead limbs, doesn’t matter and doesn’t make much of a difference. It’s outside, it’s exercise, it’s visual comfort. So I will end with these images of nature’s beauty…. (but keep scrolling down for the (reduced but still kicking ) Cañar Book Club.

Cañar Book Club (in time of Covid-19)

Well, it was a sad turn-out this month at the Cañar Book Club, as members deal with the crisis in their individual countries or states. However, as we “shelter in place” for the next few weeks (please, not months!) we need reading suggestions more than ever, and resources for getting books. I am increasingly using e-books from my public library in Portland. I just checked – we can still order ebooks and audiobooks – up to 50 at a time! – also, movies on Kanopy and Hoopla.

So – I just finished – and loved –  Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells by Pico Iyer. I’ve known him as a travel writer but this is a quiet rumination on daily life in Japan, where he lives in two rooms with his Japanese wife, plays ping pong at the local activity center, and writes and takes walks. He also lives in California with his mother six months a year, and his steady lively description of his life had me captivated beginning to end. I’m on the waiting list for some of his other books. Otherwise, I’m totally entertained by Margaret the First, a quirky novel by Danielle Dutton. ( NYT Review says it best: “This slender but dense imagining of the life of Margaret Cavendish, a pioneering 17th-century writer and wife of the aristocrat William Cavendish, could be classified as a more elliptical cousin of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels.”)

And let’s give a feminist salute to Dutton’s other endeavor: In 2010, she founded the small press Dorothy, a publishing project named for her great aunt Dorothy, a librarian who drove her home-made bookmobile through the back hills of southern California.

. *. *. *. *. *. *.  *. *. *.

And now for suggestions from members who wrote before the great meltdown:

From Andrea in Portland: I just started Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. (NOTE to Andrea: let us know what you thought)

From sister Char in Austin: Pachinko by Korean-American Min Jin Lee. An epic historical novel following a Korean family who eventually migrates to Japan. I leaned much from this and enjoyed the read.  Next, The Bear by Andrew Krivak: “A gorgeous fable of Earth’s last two human inhabitants, and a girls journey home.”   I loved this book. Makes you think. Last is a tall-tale romp by Howard Frank Mosher written in 1977. Disappearances
involving,  “about a thousand details of farming, timbering and whiskey-running life on the Vermont-Canadian border.”  It’s 1936, it’s winter and they drink a lot of Canadian whiskey. Best part: the paperback I ordered from Amazon came from the Paris-Bourbon Co. Library in Paris, Ky.  Our daddy would have loved this book.

From Donald in Toronto: “My suggestion for a good read – Richard Wagamese’s last novel Starlight (McClelland and Stewart, 2018). The descriptions of connecting with the land are spectacular, with scenes that conjure up walking in the hills and mountains around Canar, even though located in central British Columbia, Canada. The tenderness in the growing relationships between an Indigenous and settler man, and them and a settler woman and her daughter, are beautifully conveyed.

And from Joanne in Mexico: “Books! Yes, our salvation. I think you’ll love The Door by Magda Szabo. Now reading Girl, Woman, Other by Gernadine Evaristo – not great but engaging. And finished the John Berger bio. I learned a lot – a bit heady but still worth reading.”

Did I miss anyone? Let’s try for a rousing meeting in April, with reviews all the books we’ve read while sheltering-in-place.  Meanwhile, here’s a list of comfort reads from recent NYTimes

Stay well, stay inside, stay connected.  Judy B.




A bookish month


Dear Friends – February has been a wonderful month for books: read, launched, generated and dreamt of for the future. First, news from University of Alabama Press that they will publish Ana’s book: Tell Mother I’m in Paradise: Memoirs of Ana Margarita Gasteazoro, a Political Prisoner in El Salvador. As many of you know, Ana was the original inspiration for the Cañari Women’s Education Foundation (CWEF). Last October her story was published in a Spanish translation by MUPI (Museum of the Word and Image) in El Salvador. My partner in the project – Andrew Wilson, based in London – and I went to San Salvador, along with Eva, Ana’s cousin in New York who was the final editor. There, celebrating the book launch, Ana’s siblings gave their blessing for an edition in English (a requirement of University of Alabama Press).

An oral history made when we all lived in Costa Rica in the 1980s, Andrew and I have been trying – off and on – to find an English-language publisher for Ana’s memoirs since her untimely death of breast cancer in El Salvador in 1993. Now her story will be made widely known in her own words, complete with photographs and newspaper clippings, with an introduction by Dr. Erik Ching, author of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle Over Memory. 

Here in Cañar we’ve had a more recent book launch. Juncal: An Indigenous Community in Ecuador, was first published in Denmark by two anthropologists who lived in the community of Juncal near here in 1973-74, and again in 1977-78.  Eva Krener and Niel Fock agreed to fund a Spanish translation and that edition was published three years ago. Here they are in the photos below in their first years in Juncal – with their young daughter, Felicia, on Eva’s back.

And now last week, after years of translation work by three Cañari bilingual educators, and funding by the Municipality of Cañar, we have a new edition in Quichua. It was wonderful to return to the community to give away books and reunite with the señora on the cover (right, with baby, and in the photos below with a pink shawl on park bench and beside me holding the book). She told me the baby in now a grandmother! The older folks in Juncal remember Niels and Eva, who sent greetings from Denmark that I conveyed in my little speech. Over the years Niels and Eva have donated 800 digitized photos to the Cañar archive, also included in the digital collection of AILLA, Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America at University of Texas, Austin, where my photographs will eventually be housed.

I’m hoping my next book project will be a collection of photos of old Cañar from the Navas family collection. For years I’ve been printing and digitizing glass plates and early celluloid negatives, and it’s time we make something of this traditional town photographer’s monumental work (he  lived into his 90’s). It will, of course, come down to a search for funding, but we never let that stop us.

Well, that’s all the book news this month except for…..the famous Cañar Book Club.

C A N A R  B O O K   C L U B

For me, reading this month has been a mixed bag, as they say. Some good books, some middling, some unable to finish. I read two young authors at the same time – both a bit self-conscious, newly minted MFAs seemed to me (lots of quoting Barthes and Brecht), and both focused on the urban experience of others or outsiders.  On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong was, I thought, beautifully written – as a long letter to his Vietnamese mother – and I was drawn in from page 1. There, There, by Tommy Orange, somehow never engaged me and I gave up about 3/4 of the way, as the various characters slowly traveled to the Oakland Powwow. I know it’s a big hit, and an Everyone Reads choice for Portland Public Library, so I don’t want to turn off fellow club members. Sometimes a book just doesn’t click with the reader. Also disappointing, for me, was the new biography of John Berger, A Writer of Our Times: The Life and Work of John Berger by Joshua Sperling. I discovered Berger with Pig Earth, the first of his Into Their Labours Trilogy, and was hooked by his novels (and film collaborations) up to his death in 2017. He was a sort of hero to me, so of course I wanted to know more about his life. But where the title says “…the life and work…” the emphasis is on “work” as it is in fact more of an intellectual biography with very little about his private and country life.

Otherwise, I enjoyed Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan and I’m just getting into The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. I will count these as “middling.”

So – on to recommendations by other members:

From Joanne in Mexico: “I’m racing through an amazing bio of a one-legged woman who basically organized the French resistance during WWII (A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, highly recommend). I loved “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk and Antonia Lloyd-Jones.I’ve put Flights by same author on my library list but I hope it doesn’t arrive too soon. Too many great books, which means life is good.”

From Arlene in Toronto: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. A gripping short novel, beautifully written, set in Northumberland that takes on issues of domestic violence, misogyny and what the Iron Age walls of the past have to do with the present. A slender, completely absorbing counterpart to Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Two African-American families in Brooklyn, one middle class, the other headed by a single mother, are connected through their children who conceive a child. The characters are vivid and memorable, the language is exquisite.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner is not just a story of two sisters and, eventually, their extended families, but also a novel about the coming of age of women in America. “It’s about the ’60s, civil rights and the drug culture; it’s about the ’70s and Vietnam; and it’s about struggles with weight, the Jewish culture, feminism and sexual freedom.” A read that is fun and absorbing too.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. A touching story about 10-year old twins who have the disconcerting habit of bursting into flames whenever they get very agitated and the “loser” young woman tasked with caring for them who becomes their fierce defender. Reminiscent of Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (can’t remember if I recommended this before). A reworking of the tragedy of Antigone, set within the context of a contemporary British-Pakistani Muslim family.

From Claire in London:  “We (book club) have read, and all really liked, The Dutch House by Ann Patchett.  For our next book club, William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy. It’s non-fiction, about the founding of the East India Company, it’s take-over of India and the beginnings of the British Empire.

From Mel in Vermont: “…reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, which is good so far. Also, Down the Garden Path by Beverly Nichols? A jewel for gardeners!!

Macon in Boulder:  (forgotten last time, sorry Macon): I am reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel – an interesting story about the upbringing of this talented woman, and her escape from the political and religious horror of Somalia and Islam.

And finally, from Maya in Portland: My recent reads: The Sun Does Shine, by Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row before being exonerated. A compelling read. And Women Talking, the Miriam Toews about the women who were all raped in a Mennonite community in South America and have to decide what to do. Also strong. Unusual. And I’ve just started Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellman, the 1,000 page one sentence opus by Richard Ellman’s daughter. I’m hooked, and finding it quite funny.





My Sisyphus Garden


Dear Friends – Sissinghurst Gardens in England, made famous (for me) by Virginia Woolf’s love affair with its owner and author, Vita Sackville-West, has nothing in common with my Sisyphus Garden in Cañar. But I like the sound of the two names together (and the coincidence that Sackville-West wrote a novella called Seducers in Ecuador). And another coincidence I just discovered: today, January 25, is Virginia Woolf’s birthday.  So I thought I’d start with that and see where it takes us….

I’m calling my Cañar garden the Sisyphus Garden because no matter what I do one year to the next to improve it, I come back to find it exactly as it was before – new flowers gone, same weeds back in force, kitchen garden eaten by the neighbor’s chickens, trees trimmed further up by the bulls brought in to plow the back field, scrubby grass front and back full of sheep droppings, and the aggressive vinca major (periwinkle) and bushy fuchsia voraciously covering the side yard, even though I cut them back severely before we left last June. And there’s the hedge of quinoa (a native bush, not the grain) that has grown to over 15 feet and blocked our view to the west.

When it comes to my Cañar garden, I start over every year, just like Sisyphus endlessly pushing that stone up the hill.  (Forgive my co-opting a suffragist image; couldn’t resisit.)

The fact is, we are living on a working farm operated by our compadres Jose Maria and Narcisa. It is their sheep that trim and fertilize the lawn while we’re gone, their bulls that eat the lower branches of the trees, their irrigating the back field that floods the front yard. But they have contributed so tremendously to our experience living in Cañar, and as compadres we are considered extended family, with responsibilities that go both ways.

As I write, I hear the pump, drawing from the irrigation canal that runs in front of our property. Yards and yards of black pipe snake around the house to irrigate the potato field behind. Jose Maria has access to the canal only today – it has been released from above – and there seems to be no control. Water gushes out of the pipes and into sprinkler heads in the field, soaking the back lawn, the kitchen garden, the back of the house, the neighbor’s clothes hung on the fence. In front, water overflows the canal and runs down the hill, creating rivulets in the dirt road that will become ruts, and creeps along the pathway up to our house and threatens to dampen our adobe walls. Jose María runs back and forth from the pump in front to the field in back; It appears to us that he is flooding the field. Yesterday, the canal was blocked, and we regularly saw neighbors in the yard, looking down into the canal and poking it with a long stick, trying to unblock it. For farmers, water is life and livelihood –  and in this part of the world as hotly political as property lines.

 Which is not to say that I don’t love things as they are in my Sisyphean garden. First of all, since I have no talent as a gardener – unable to plan or imagine or create a white garden, as Vita Sackville-West did at Sissinghurst – there’s little disappointment in coming back to find I have to start over again.

I never tire of pulling weeds, trimming back the crazy climbing roses, replanting things lost, digging out the crocosmia that is all over the yard because it gets distributed through the compost, cutting back the passiflora vine that threatens to take down the fence, tracking down and pulling up the aggressive kikuyu grass that grows over and under everything and is one of the most noxious weeds that somehow made it to Cañar from its native East Africa. But my pleasure comes from what I see when I look out the windows – flowers I’ve forgotten that bloom year after year; something I’ve stuck in the ground that makes an incredible display of tiny yellow blooms (photo #1), the aggressive fuchsia bush that fills our bedroom window, the white daises along the front that insist on taking over.


And for those who want to see the hated “creeping” kikuyu” up close, here it is.  Most often it goes underground, strangling the roots of good plants, or displacing flagstones, before springing up as tall grass. I’ve spent many happy hours chasing it down; farmers throw it in the road to fill ruts. But in fact our lush lawn is mostly made of it, cut short. 

Back to Sisyphus: Camus imagined him smiling while pushing the rock and embracing his situation without thinking of the past or the future. “He refused to surrender to gravity…he is remembered for his labor towards his purpose” Well, I’m not sure I’ve refused to surrender to gravity (I take a look in the mirror), but I certainly feel I have a purpose here in my Sisyphean Cañar garden.

And to finish with Virginia Woolf, from her diary, May 31, 1920: “The first pure joy of the garden . . . weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness. … We were out till nine at night, though the evening was cold. Both stiff and scratched all over today, with chocolate earth in our nails.”


CANAR BOOK CLUB (what you’ve all been waiting for)

The first 2020 meeting of the Cañar Book Club was a rousing success!  Our members were obviously anxious to reconvene after six months and share news of books. So I”ll start with our international members’ comments and save my own for the end.

Francie in Portland is reading  Like Falling Through a Cloud: A Lyrical Memoir  by Eugenia Zukerman, an internationally renowned flutist and writer facing a dreaded diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Joanne in Mexico: “I read The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner, on the plane and liked it a lot. Fascinating mix of voices and ways of thinking about language. Definitely recommend. I’m about to start Drive you Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarzcuk… and will report.”

Nancy In Portland: How to Catch a Mole. by Marc Hammer. “It’s about moles, but also about a Welsh book editor and gardener growing older, his love and deep connection with nature and determination to stop killing moles. A beautifully reflective book!”

Nancy Also read: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, 2012 National book award winning nonfiction centered around the lives of slum dwellers near the Mumbai airport. “Deeply empathetic. Harrowing, heartbreaking stories. Reminded me a bit in tone of Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted. And I also enjoyed Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn— the groundbreaking 1999 introduction to mindfulness meditation.”

And from an indefatigable reader in Austin: “Love your book lists, Judy, and always love how many of your favorites I’ve read and loved. A couple recent reads that I thoroughly enjoyed:” All my Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Towes, Severance by Ling Ma, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrent, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, Disoriental by Niger Dyaneli, Overstory by Richard Powers, The Museum of Modern Love, by Heather Rose, The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, Educated by Tara Westover, Meet me at the Museum by Anne Youngson, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, My Life of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, The Monk of Mokha, by Dave Eggers, Here in Berlin by Cristina Garcia, Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami.

Liv from Oslo wrote, responding to authors I mentioned in our last meeting:  “Books: Towles- I have the same experience.  Patrick Modiano – mysterious and fascinating. Linn Ullmann- I read it fast – rather nasty to her mother, Liv Ullmann. It seems to be a trend in Norway right now.  I got presents:  Ruth First and Joe Slovo against Apatheid by Alan Wieder, and Upside Down. A Primer for the Looking Glass World by Eduardo Galeano.  To recommend: Trieste, by Dasa Drndic.-One of the strongest novel I have read in many years.  East West Street, by Philippe Sands.

Two Oregon readers, Shirley and Pat, both recommended  Deep River, by Karl Marlantes. Pat writes: “It’s about the Finns who settled both sides of the Columbia R., starting in the 1800’s logging and fishing. It’s 5-stars, very good.”

From Laura in Upstate New York: “What an ambitious list of books. I continue to recommend Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. It’s also a great audio book, read by the incomparable Juliet Stevenson.”

From Bruce in Portland:  Marc Hamer’s How to Catch a Mole. Brilliant. He’s a Welsh writer and his luminous meditations on nature have strong parallels to Wendell Berry’s writing.

Claire from London: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite is brilliant. Seemingly almost comic to start with, it’s actually a dark tale revealing much about life for young, educated women living and working in Lagos. Short and bittersweet.

Richard from Oslo: I am reading an amazingly constructed book, The Overstory, by Richard Powers, on a psychic revenge taken by trees, some of whom seem to have memories going back 4 million years, and who suddenly are being helped to save greenery in America by certain drop-out, off-the-bend, Americans who, once leaving civilization can groove with trees. For me it is his best since The Echo Maker and also The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Sister Char in Santa Fe: This is How it Always Is, Laurie Frankel, “Frankel’s portrayal of even the most openhearted parents’ doubts and fears around a child’s gender identity elevates this novel.”  New York Times Bestseller, 2017

And from Arlene in Toronto, late last year, neatly presented as a bulleted list:

  • The House of Names, Colm Toibin
  • The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
  • The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes
  • What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence by Michele Filgate

Whew!  And now for those who’ve made it this far, my report:

Since our last meeting I have read A Gentleman in Moscow – charming in the end but such a time sink – it took me 3 tries to get into it; Bad Blood I ordered and read for the second time; an amazing memoir by the English academic feminist, Lorna Sage, growing up in rural England in the 1950s. Won many prizes when it came out in 2000, right before she died at age 58. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue – author of Room – about a “fasting girl” of 19th century Ireland where I learned a tremendous amount about the power of Catholic belief, sin and redemption. Reads a bit like a mystery (nominated for Shirley Jackson Award). I’m now reading The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, the German author I so admired last year with Go, Went, Gone and The Visitation. Jury’s still out on this one – I’ll report in next time.

I’m still struggling to connect with e-books. Those I download from the library I forget or barely start, then after 3 weeks they’re gone. I have bought and partially read Life in The Garden by Penelope Lively, a writer I’ve long admired but I find her essays on gardens a little boring (but she brought me to Virginia Woolf’s love of garden). Oliver Sack’s’ last book of essays, Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales, came and went. I love him, but I realized many were essays I’d already read.  Bottom line: there’s nothing like having a quality-paper book in one’s hands for a long bus ride, or those fleeting minutes before the lights go out at night.

Until next time, dear readers. Keep those book suggestions and comments coming for our February book club meeting.





Hello Cañar, Goodbye 2019


Dear Friends: I have missed you these past seven months and I’m so happy to be back in touch, writing the Chronicles. (If anyone didn’t see the 2019 Scholarship update sent in November, you can find it here with a PayPal donate button or mailing information.

I start this on Christmas Day, when we have been in Cañar one week. After the cold, dark and short days of Portland, nothing compares to waking up that first morning in our east-facing bedroom to see early morning light coming through the giant fuchsia bush outside. A welcome back.

Before that, upon opening the door to our first sight of our interior patio, we saw plants grown wild. We had to take out one monster to get the fountain going, and days later I found three birds’ nests in the tall aloe plants. But what a safe place it is for nesting and hatching by the common sparrows that are a constant in our domestic life here – flying in and out at will through the opening between the glass and tile roofs, peeking into the bedroom door in the morning, occasionally getting stuck in a room.

That first day we walked around inside and out, opening shutters, checking lights, phone, gas, Internet, water. Amazing that everything works. Some years nothing does. One year we had lots of mice. This year just cobwebs and dust and a moldy fridge. Outside, I gather other evidence of months gone by – a broken wooden plow, the orchid that is finally blooming, a dry vegetable garden the neighbor’s chickens have ravaged, a beautiful crop of potatoes in the back field.

First Sunday market day, Michael takes the requested hat from Portland to his fish guy, César, and gets a pound of shrimp in return. And I visit my favorite lunch vendor – an 85+ woman who prepares and sells roasted pig and llapingachos every day on the street or in the market.

As I follow Michael in his shopping, I snap photos on my phone of the grand cornucopia that is the Sunday market.

*. *. * *

OK, here’s what you’ve all been waiting for – the first meeting of the…

Cañar Book Club

This year I have an eclectic batch of books, acquired in eclectic ways: some ordered online after reading reviews or on recommendations of friends, others picked up for $5 at the library sale at our annual Portland Book Festival, and even a couple found in a sidewalk Little Library. I’ve also given in to weight considerations (Michael says: “I’m not carrying another damn book in my luggage!”) and ordered some e-books for my iPad. (Only problem I’ve found is I cannot see text in bright sunlight of patio, where I always read while eating lunch. So I have two books going at once.) I’ve also started ordering ebooks from my Portland library. Problem is: you only get three weeks to read and don’t get to keep it!

So here is the list. Because I was impatient, I finished two of them before I got here, one on the plane –  marked by asterisks with notes. And because we don’t always get what we want, when we want it, I’ve added my wish list for 2020. Now – Dear Readers – I look forward to hearing book reports and recommendations from all of you. Until the next meeting…


  • A Writer of our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger, Joshua Sperling
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
  • Margaret the First: A Novel, Danielle Dutton
  • Life in the Garden, Penelope Lively
  • Images and Shadows, Part of a Life, Iris Origo (follow-up to excellent WW II war diary War in Val d’Orcia.
  • The Parisian, Isabella Hammand * (reading now and not yet engaged, will give it time)


  • There, There, Tommy Orange
  • The Wrong Blood, Manuel de Lope
  • A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles * (reading now – third try)
  • In the Distance, Hernan Diaz
  • Iceberg, Marion Coutts * (finished – excellent, moving memoir)
  • Pure, Andrew Miller
  • Mission to Paris, Alan Furst * (finished, not great, don’t bother)
  • The Wonder, Emma Donoghue
  • Frog Music, Emma Donoghue
  • Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan
  • The Patron Saint of Liars, Ann Pachett
  • Saving Agnes, Rachel Cusk
  • The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day
  • Great House, Nicole Krauss
  • Autumn, Ali Smith
  • Bad Blood, Lorna Sage
  • The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck
  • Late in the Day, Tessa Hadley
  • Dora Bruder, Patrick Modiano* (read on plane, very good and follow-up to Modiano’s The Night Watch)


  • Disappearing Earth, Julia Phillips
  • The Club, Leo Damrosch
  • Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe
  • Olive Again, Elizabeth Strout
  • The Accomplice, Joseph Kanon
  • Unquiet, Linn Ullmann
  • On Chapel Sands, Laura Cumming
  • Essays by Lydia Davis
  • To Calais, in Ordinary Time, James Meek
  • Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo
  • Permanent Record, Edward Snowden
  • How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell
  • Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser
  • The Witches, Stacey Schiff
  • The Warmth of Other Sons, Isabel Wilkerson
  • The Yellow House, Sarah Broom
  • When Death Takes Something from You, Give It Back, Naja Marie Aidt
  • Belonging, Nora Krug
  • The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick
  • Optic Nerve, Maria Gainza * (just got notification from library)

2019 Cañari Women’s Scholarship Foundation Update


I begin this year’s update with exciting news related to Ana Margarita Gasteazoro, the original inspiration for our scholarship program. Ana was a Salvadoran friend from my Costa Rica days, a political refugee after years of resistance and imprisonment during the El Salvador civil war (1979-92/75,000 lives lost). During the late 80’s and early 90’s, with friend/colleague Andrew Wilson, we recorded, transcribed and edited Ana’s oral history. But before we could make a book together – our original plan – Ana died of breast cancer, at age 41, in 1993. Just before, she had visited Michael and me in Cuenca, Ecuador, and we had a chance to spend a night in Cañar. On hearing the news of Ana’s death, I established a women’s education fund (that later became Cañari Women’s Education Foundation). A born teacher, feminist and organizer, Ana fervently believed that women’s education was one of the most important tools for social justice and political progress in Latin America.

Twenty-six years later, we not only have thirty-four university graduates and current scholars, but we have a book! In October I was in El Salvador for the launch of Tell Mother I’m in Paradise: Memoir of a Political Prisoner, based on Ana’s oral history. Many dedicated volunteers helped bring this Spanish edition to life: from translators, transcribers, editors and artists to the director of MUPI, Museum of the Word and Image, in San Salvador, publisher of the book. The banner/poster pictured above was presented various times during the visit to El Salvador, along with the story of Ana’s scholarship. I heard so many of her family, friends, and others who had known her, say – “Ana lives again!” And that is never more true than in our Cañari women’s scholarship program. Stay tuned for an English edition that we hope will be published in a year or two.

Book presentation at MUPI in San Salvador, October 8, 2019

Our early graduates are now mid-career (a term their modesty would never allow), but I thought it would be fun to do some updates – where are they now? – along with before/after photos.


Alexandra Mariana Solano (2006/Cuenca/Agronomy) is the new director of CENAGRAP, the potable water organization that serves rural regions of highland Cañar. Here she signs a convenio with city officials. Alexandra is also midway into a new master’s program at University of Azuay in Cuenca: “Climate Change, Sustainability and Development.” (Our program provides $3000 over two years for master’s degrees for our graduates.

Mercedes Guamán (2006/Cuenca/Law) represented Ecuador at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2019, as she had in 2018. She is president of her local community of Quilloac and, as a lawyer, serves a wide contingent of Quichua-speaking clients. She is also our first graduate to receive an honorary degree in jurisprudence for her service to the community and social justice.

Pacha Pichisaca (2011/Cuenca/Medicine) has just finished an advanced diploma in dentistry. Pacha has established her own clinic in Cañar and told me recently that she has added a “second chair” (e.g., business is good). She too serves her neighbors and others as one of the only Quichua-speaking women dentists in Cañar.

Juana Chuma (2015/Cuenca/Veterinary Medicine), finished her master’s at UNAM in Mexico in 2019, and is charging ahead for a PhD in the same program. Although CWEF is not able to support doctoral studies, we are so proud that Juana will be our first graduate to get a doctorate. Juana appears in the photo above with her fellow graduates (first row, far right, white blouse). And on the right, her proud parents in Cañar. Juana has several younger sisters yet to be sent to university, but in order to serve a wider population of young Cañari women, CWEF has a policy of one scholarship per family.


In January we had two special visitors to Cañar from Oregon, representing the Bend Giving Circle, a group of six women (now eight!) who have chosen CWEF for monthly support. We had a great gathering of the scholarship women, past and present, and families to meet Helen and Laurel. Maria Esthela, our board treasurer, made red bead necklaces for the group and I recently received this photo taken at their October meeting, showing off their Cañari jewelry. We are so grateful to them – as well as to all of you – for sustained interest and support.

So – a quick recap: the Cañari Women’s Education Foundation has 21 graduates, 13 current scholars, and an amazing board in Cañar that we couldn’t do without, but that could manage very well without me. We meet two or three times a year to look over applications, assess where each woman is in her studies, and decide how many spaces we have to fill. We keep the current group at about 12, which makes the accounting and monthly payments easy to handle. We pay stipends in cash so as to have personal contact with each scholar on a regular basis. Charlotte Rubin, our treasurer in Portland, keeps track of contributions and manages the banking. Michael and I have willed our Cañar house and property to the program – a long time off, we hope – in a move that will help insure long-term sustainability.

The Cañari Women’s Education Foundation is an official 501(c)3 nonprofit, which means your contributions are tax deductible. We have zero administrative costs other than a yearly mailing, so every dollar goes to the women’s education. Please make checks to CWEF and send to Charlotte Rubin, 2147 NW Irving St., Portland, OR 97210 (some of you will receive this letter by snail mail with return envelopes), or you can contribute through PayPal with the secure “DONATE” button below.

Last note: We are returning to Ecuador on December 16 and the regular Cañar Chronicles will begin in January, along with the Cañar Book Club. I have missed you all, and we will have so much book news to share!

“Indigenous Ecuadorians Too Strong to be Ignored After Deal to End Protests”


Dear Friends: We are not returning to Cañar until December, but I wanted to post blogs on current events: the recent protests in Ecuador (and resolution – with headline from The Guardian, October 16), and my recent trip to El Salvador for the launch of a book that was inspired by Ana Margarita Gasteazoro, for whom the Cañari Women’s Scholarship Program is named. So…first the protests and the resolution, in an online article published by my good friend Alan Adams, a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador in the 1960’s who has rekindled his Canari friendships in retirement, working with Mushuk Yuyay, a local community development organization and reconnecting with those local indigenous leaders he knew back then. Thanks to Alan, and thanks to his editor at https://www.esperanzaproject.com for allowing me to reprint the article. (I have edited lightly and added a few extra photos from various sources). Next chronicle about El Salvador coming soon…

UPDATE, October 12: At publication time, the Cañari caravan was in Quito joining the throng of demonstrators in a victory celebration. The Moreno government agreed to rescind the austerity decree and has promised to rewrite it with input from the people. Nicolás Pichazaca of Mushuk Yuyay wrote me: “Our work and strategy have not been in vain, not only for the Indigenous people, but for all Ecuadorians. It is one more story.”

Superheroes don’t wear capes. They wear ponchos and sombreros.” The phrase is often repeated in the Andean highlands. And now as they see their lands and their culture under increasing threat, the Indigenous people of Ecuador are employing that phrase once again, as they go out into the streets in the face of danger, as they have many times during their history.

High in the Andes of southern Ecuador live the Cañari people, who have been struggling for their freedom and for Sumak Kawsay, a good life, for thousands of years. Their present challenge comes at the hands of the President of the Republic who made a pact with the International Monetary Fund and expects the poor of Ecuador to pay. When Lenín Moreno Garcés took office, the Cañari people were cautious, hopeful, and patient because he promised to break with the extractive policies of his predecessor, Rafael Correa. He humbled himself before Indigenous people in a solemn ceremony where he accepted the blessing of the many nations that comprise the State of Ecuador.

Lenin Moreno becomes president, February 2017, Reuters.

Slowly it became obvious that the winds in Quito had shifted, as the President began to move in a different direction. I often describe Lenín Moreno in Shakespeare’s words, “Commanded always by the greater gust…” The greater gust these days was coming from the IMF, which demanded austerity, and Moreno decided to find cash by removing fuel price subsidies that have been in place since 1970. Fuel prices shot up by a dollar a gallon, enough to wipe out the budgets of most small businesses as well as of most families. In addition to the gas prices going up, the IMF is requesting an increase in fees for all government services and for utilities, a new value-added tax, a consumption tax, and an increase in the ceiling on interest rates so that banks can charge whatever interest rates they want.

Immediately, the Cañari people responded with peaceful, but vocal, demonstrations throughout their communities. They joined in support of labor unions and other groups, but mostly in collaboration with other indigenous communities and organizations of Ecuador. They blocked roads and joined the general strike. They requested dialogue with the government. Violence began to erupt in the protests — which some, in civilian as well as governmental sectors, suspect was being incited by infiltrators paid by Correa. President Moreno declared a State of Emergency to quell the violence, which only increased the people’s determination to find a solution that would benefit all and lead toward a more secure future for the country. 

President Moreno responded that the austerity policies would not be changed. He said that the demonstrations did not originate with the people but were encouraged by the former president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, working with President Maduro of Venezuela. The statement only fanned the flames of resistance. However, there is evidence that Correa and other actors are taking advantage of the situation to sow doubt and suspicion. The Indigenous organizations need to weave through this confusion cautiously to keep the issues in focus.

Disrespect is not new for the Cañari people. After centuries of being used as beasts of burden, as the Cañari poet José Buñay put it years ago, they are determined not to go back to the abuses of the hacienda days. Last week, as the protests continued to escalate and began to grow violent, Moreno took his government from the capital of Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil. When the demonstrators set out to meet him there, the mayor of that city stated bluntly that “Indians” are not welcome in her city. They should go back to the páramos, the high mountain grasslands. 

Mayor of Guayaquil Cynthia Viteri in her signature white shirt. Photo El Universo

But Cañaris will not be humiliated. Indigenous people don’t take abuse lightly. A movement was launched to withhold  food from the highland farms to Guayaquil. Several Indigenous people posted photos of their páramo homes with pride. They also posted the reminder that Indigenous peoples can be found in the universities, the professions, government offices, elected positions, and everywhere in Ecuadorian society. They even live in Guayaquil.

The declarations that I read over and over again from Cañari friends are not simply that the price of gas should go down, but that neoliberal policies must end. The IMF must go. What they are demanding is a complex set of changes, each affecting the other, that cannot be oversimplified. There is no simple fix. They are proposing a comprehensive solution on the other side of the insults and accusations that will insure that a way toward a peaceful and lasting social and economic system can be secured. This solution will be sought by large numbers of determined and united people.

Faced with this necessity, the people of the Cañari communities, both those in Ecuador and those who have emigrated, decided to add their voices. Truckloads of people departed. They made laughing videos of people climbing aboard moving overcrowded vehicles. Wave after wave of men, women, and children declared their determination to protect their rights as Ecuadorian citizens.

The last trucks to departed Cañari on Saturday morning. It was not lost on anyone that this was Columbus Day, the day set aside to commemorate the beginning of the struggle that they have been involved in for over 500 years. They drove slowly over roads that had been blocked and made contacts with others along the way. On Saturday evening, the caravan announced that they had Puruhua People in their company now. They are the Indigenous Nation to the north of the Kañari in the province of Chimborazo. On Sunday they set off again in trucks, cars, buses, and on foot on a cold and cloudy day.

Photo by Kusikayo Naula, Zhud.

The plan was to arrive in Quito in time to lend force to the words of the leaders in a meeting with the President, to show the strength of a united people and to prove that hardship and danger will not deter them. We remember, too, that over the recent Ecuadorian history, Indigenous demonstrations have led to changes of government and policy changes. What sets this demonstration apart is its spontaneity and comprehensiveness.  The people responded immediately to a threat with thought and care to find a solution consistent with their goals. To get elected, President Moreno said and did some things he seems to have forgotten, but the people didn’t forget.

This is but one more chapter in the history of the people who developed their science and art over the millennia, resisted the Inca, survived the haciendas, rebuilt their lives through the Agrarian Reform, ended the agro-chemical-based Green Revolution, confronted (and continue to confront) climate change, and now are dedicated to help redesign the social and economic institutions of Ecuador. The significance of this continuing struggle cannot be overemphasized.


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael in courtyard of old synagogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cañar Book Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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