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.
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
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
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 …
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. And Oregon friends, we’re ready to be social if you are! And to everyone – stay tuned for some great summer reading suggestions below.
SUMMER BOOK CLUB PORTLAND
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.
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.
…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:
…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.
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.
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
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.
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…
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
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.)
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
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.
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)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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…
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.