Where there’s smoke there’s…

…fire. And that’s what we had in our chimney a week ago. During the six years (well, half-years) we’ve basked in the warmth of a roaring fire every night in Cañar, where temperatures can drop to the low 50’s and 40’s, we’ve often said that having a fireplace is key to our sweet life here. We invite visitors for the weekend, or longer, knowing they won’t be shivering once the sun goes down, but instead relaxed and cozy until bedtime. And it’s comforting to know that if the day is miserable and rainy and cold, we can have a fire any time we get too chilled.

Larry + mike

On a usual day, Michael builds a fire about 4:00 PM, in preparation for his cocktail hour, and whether I’m out in the garden or in my studio, I’ve grown accustomed to the delicious aroma of a freshly lit wood and the anticipation of joining him about 5:00 for a glass of wine and to review the day. But that afternoon, a few minutes after Michael had lit the fire, I walked into the patio and breathed in a pungently sweet odor I’d never known before. In fact, it was overwhelmingly sweet! Trying to identify its source I looked up to see billows of dense brown smoke coming out the chimney, distinctly different from the usual gray puffs. This, in turns out, was the creosote burning, the combustible wood tar deposit that had built up inside the chimney over the years. (Below the barely seen chimney from inside patio.)

patio interior I called Michael to take a look, and he recognized immediately what had happened. He reduced the fire, the clouds of brown smoke disappeared, and we settled down for our usual routine of dinner and two episodes of Justified, Season 3 on my laptop (OK, our entertainment standards may go way down in Cañar, but Justified is great fun). By 9:00 or so, the wood in the fireplace nearly ashes, we went to bed at for our usual long deep sleep. (Luckily it wasn’t too long or too deep, if you know what I mean.)

Early the next morning, when Michael went to make coffee, he found the living room full of smoke and the beams around the chimney glowing red. Ashes and live cinders had dropped from the burned beams onto the wood floor in front of the fireplace, and in  nearby baskets of wood chips, kindling and paper. The fire in the chimney had smoldered all night and was still burning.

fire in chimney 2

Thus began a day during which we repeated many times, “We are so lucky!” Lucky the roof didn’t catch fire, lucky the baskets full of wood chips and paper didn’t catch fire, lucky we didn’t wake to find more damage, and lucky an open-air patio separated us from the smoke-filled living room. (Smoke detectors are unknown here…)

fireplace full shot

Our house is made of thick adobe walls constructed around a wood frame structure. We could see where the open beams around the fireplace were charred and smoking, but there was no way of knowing if the wood frame inside the walls was smoldering. Judging by the amount of steam that emerged when Michael used a garden hose, inside the chimney and then outside on the roof, the wood inside the walls was still hot. It took a couple of hours before he felt the fire was out, before I finally got my morning coffee and we could survey the damage.

We called our imperturbable architect, Lourdes Abad, in Cuenca, and she came a few days later with Maestro Miguel, the older man who put the original adobe mud finish on our house. We’re waiting to hear her recommendations, but we expect we’ll have to tear out and rebuild the chimney and maybe tear out some of the walls to replace the beams.

This brings up the question of how to keep this from happening again. Chimney fires evoke images of The Great Fire of London, in 1666, that destroyed 13,000 houses, 87 churches and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The fire also gave rise to the first ever building regulations that altered the design of chimneys and created an industry of children chimney sweeps.


The climbing boys, and sometimes girls, were technically called chimney sweeps apprentices, and were indentured to a master sweep, who being an adult, was too large to fit into a chimney. He would be paid by the parish to teach orphans or paupers the craft. It was generally agreed that six was a good age to train a boy, although some were as young as four.

The work was dangerous, and the children could get jammed in the flue, suffocate or burn to death. As the soot was a carcinogen, and as the apprentices slept under the soot sacks that were rarely washed, they were prone to Chimney Sweeps Cancer, apparently one of the first cancers recognized as related to environmental conditions. (How would you like to work for this master sweep?)

OK. Enough about chimney sweeps. You can tell I’ve been to Wikipedia.

After years of saying we couldn’t live in Cañar without a fireplace, we find that of course we can. We do what everyone else here does when evening comes: we get out the fingerless gloves, wrap a scarf around the neck, put on an extra sweater and go to bed early.

Stay tuned, dear friends, and send suggestions and words of advice.



Cañar Chronicle 3: What’s for dinner?

Dear Friends:

Some of you have wondered what Michael’s been cooking for dinner, so I thought I’d start there, as I know he would say, “So glad you asked!” Last Sunday, he came home in ecstasy from the market, having found fresh langostinos like he hasn’t seen in years. “Huge prawns, with the heads on, and only five dollars a pound!” he crowed, as he showed me one of the brute crustaceans laid out on a cutting board.

“Hmm, could be an eight-incher,” I said, remembering the time he had insisted I take a photo of a giant prawn with a measuring tape.prawn big crop

But he was already back in the kitchen, prepping for dinner. He’d also found a perfectly ripe pineapple (Sunday is the day when tropical produce comes up from the coast) and his plan was to grill the pineapple and prawns in our fireplace. This required building an elaborate fire at just the right time, about 5:00, so as to have coals perfectly ready for cooking, about 6:30. My job was to set the perfect table, or rather the two little tables in front of the fireplace where we spend every evening, this being our cocktail lounge, entertainment center (laptop, speakers, movies), dinner table, and the after-dinner hang-out until bedtime at about 9:00 or 9:30.

OK, back to Michael for the recipe (with apologies for my food photos, much lacking; I took these at night.)

“With a knife, split the prawns down the middle, belly side, leaving the heads on and just enough of the shell to make a hinge. Rinse those that look like they had a bellyful of something, but don’t devein. Butterfly prawns flat and skewer from the side, four to a skewer. Then I make a sort of aioli-based marinade with lemon juice, olive oil, sea salt and bit of black pepper and garlic. Put in mini-blender, and if you have the right mixture it looks just like aioli. With a brush, slather prawns on both sides with this marinade.

M at fireplace

Cut pineapple into ¾” slices, and lay on grill first. When almost done, slide onto one side and throw prawns on. With a hot fire, it only takes 2-3 minutes on a side.

Warn your dinner companions you expect the return of their shells – those they don’t eat, that is, because the blazing fire turns them into tasty crispy bits. Collect shells and heads for the next day, when you will want to boil them with garlic, shallots or onions, white wine, and a bit of anise or fennel. Blend the stock and run through a fine sieve, pressing all juice out of the shell pulp. Discard shells. Return stock to stove and add olive oil, butter, cream or whatever you like to make a delicious prawn bisque.* I also added some blended cooked tomatoes and potato for thickener. To gild the lily, I finished my bisque with sautéed shiitake mushrooms.”

let's eat!

*  *  *  *

And now, since it’s another Sunday, let’s visit the market. The open-air weekly market that until a couple of years ago had always been in the streets along an avenue not far from our house. So when the Municipality of Cañar built a huge new market, some complained it didn’t feel right to have the market under cover (where it acts as a wind tunnel), and all in one place on the edge of town. It felt empty the first few times we went, but now the place is buzzing, full to capacity with produce vendors (all seemingly selling the same thing), lunch stalls with roasted pigs, rolling spice carts and plastics and household goods, with the surrounding streets full of vendors who don’t want to pay for a stall.

market long shot

small animal market

The photo above is the small animal market, where country people come to town with sacks of live cuyes, rabbits, hens and roosters, and sometimes kittens and puppies, to sell in the plaza at the market entrance.

Here is Michael’s favorite fish and crustacean guy, César, who comes from Cuenca every week.

Cesar fish guy


And his meat lady, who cuts him special thin strips for cecina, paper-thin slices of meat beef or pork, that he marinates for BBQ on the fire.

meat lady 2

Well, that’s my dinner and market report. Please let me know if you’d like to know about food and cooking in Cañar. For example, how to prepare the perfect cuy, a staple of the Andean diet? Michael is not a fan of either cooking or eating cuy (guinea pig) but I’ve discovered lately  – especially in the midst of a hard day’s work photographing a fiesta, say – that I can enjoy chewing on a tasty, well-roasted leg (excluding the paw), and appreciate what it means to have concentrated salty protein amidst the bland carbohydrates of potatoes and mote (hominy), other staples always served with cuy.

And I promise to get better at food photography.


Cañar Chronicle 2

February 2013

Dear Friends: Well, creating this web blog has been more difficult that I anticipated. The problem is my broadband service, delivered from a communications tower on a nearby mountain, through a device mounted on a 3-meter pole in our garden and pointed at the mountain. Early in the mornings, when no one else is on-line, I enjoy a fast connection and can, say, upload photos to my website. By 2:00 PM, when all the kids are out of school and have flooded the commercial Internet places that have sprung up in town like fast food venues at every other storefront, I can barely send e-mails. It’s a little bit amusing to think how I’m sharing the ether with all these kids hunched over computers (with little partitions dividing them), cruising Facebook and UTube and who knows what else. Then I have to wait until next morning for my fast connection. So, before this chronicle gets too out of date…

Never look a gift gallo in the beak? *

rooster cropped

Last Sunday was a marathon of visitors bearing gifts. First, Estela, a nursing student in the scholarship program, came by to collect her monthly payment, bringing fresh fava beans and new potatoes.

red papas

Then Alexandra and her mother arrived from Suscal, an hour away, with a bag of warm, justly-made chiveles (a form of sweet tamale). They’d come to ask if I would be the godmother of Alexandra’s high school graduation on Friday. Yes, of course.

And finally, a man I know named José knocked on the door, wanting to inquire about the scholarship program for his daughter, who I could see hanging back at the front gate, looking embarrassed and holding a wriggling feed sack.

“It’s a gallo!” said José, once we’d sat down in my studio. The shy daughter opened the sack and I looked in to see a big beautiful rooster. “But we have nowhere to keep it,” was, I’m sorry to say, my first response.

“Eat it!” replied José, making a chopping gesture with his hand. ”Put it in a pot and cook it and eat it!”

I called to Michael, walking by, and he came in and peered into the sack. “Thank you so much.” He said sincerely and walked out. So it was settled. The only other animal we’ve been given in Cañar was a white rabbit a few years ago. We named him Narizon for his pretty black nose, and kept him in the patio until our interior garden began to smell like a rabbit hutch. We gave him to our compadres and didn’t ask after his fate.

As soon as José and his daughter left, Michael ran up the hill to inquire if our neighbor, Rosario, would like a gallo. She came within minutes, and I requested she pull the rooster out of the sack for a photo before she took him away. “Will you eat him?” I asked. “Oh no, he’ll be good with my hens,” she said.

“Yeah,” Michael said knowingly after she left, “that rooster will soon be over here pecking through our compost and trying to get into the garden.” Sure enough, a few days later I came home to find the rooster strutting around our front yard with two hens in tow, looking quite pleased with himself. At dusk, Rosario came looking for her flock, bearing four beautiful fresh eggs as a gift. “With that new rooster, the hens have really started laying!” she said with a laugh.

* Latin text of St. Jerome, The Letter to the Ephesians, circa AD 400, contains the text ‘Noli equi dentes inspicere donati’ (Never inspect the teeth of a given horse).

*  *  *  *

A couple of weeks ago I was happy to be asked to photograph the Fiesta de San Antonio in the mountain village of Junducuchu, a few miles above Cañar. I’ve done this several years now, and it’s the most exciting and rewarding of local fiestas. Also a little bit dangerous. I’ve been knocked off the bull ring fence by a wild bull, along with a bunch of boys, and limped home to go to bed for a day; pinched on the butt by a vaca loca (men acting like “mad cows” and allowed to do this only during fiesta); and this year I slipped and fell in the road while walking backwards photographing the procession, and I was accidentally bopped on the head by one of the giant puppets.

santa + niño

San Antonio de Padua is the patron saint of Cañar, but no one has been able to tell me how a how a thirteenth-century Franciscan monk who was born in Portugal and died in Padua, Italy, in 1231, came to be venerated in this remote Ecuadorian town. I suppose the first Spanish priests decided to introduce this particular saint to the native peoples of the region. Anyway, that’s him in the little box above, or rather an 8-inch, doll-like icon of San Antonio in a sequined gown, carried by the ñusta, or queen, of the fiesta. Next to her is a fiesta host señora carrying a baby Jesus (universally call el niño) in a little chair. These two women, along with about a hundred others, including a brass band and a whole herd of vacas locas, had walked from the church in the town square to high on the mountain, a procession of several hours. Usually I walk too, but this year I got lucky and was offered a ride to the halfway point, having vowed last year never to do that climb again.

girls on plateauThe day was beautiful when I joined a second group waiting on a plateau for the procession. Young people who are called the “chorus” – the girls in scarves and veils and capes, carrying umbrellas the twirl when they dance; the boys in little skirts over their pants, wigs with long braids under their hats, and elaborate capes.boy in chorus


Also waiting alongside the road were these wonderful papier mache-over-wood-frame puppet characters, brought out and spiffed up each year for the fiesta. People animate them by carrying the over their heads.

puppet guitar 2


puppet horse






And here comes the procession, led by a vaca loca and the village officials. Every detail of the fiesta is determined by a traditional but shifting hierarchy – who carries the saint, who plays the vacas locas, which hamlet trains the chorus, who eats when and where. (This was all explained to me today in an hour-long interview with Pedro Solano, a leader from the community, in anticipation of submitting a co-authored article for the patrimonial culture magazine.)

procession 2

Today, I realized what a faux pas I made by not staying to eat, but by late afternoon maybe 400 people were crowded around the host’s house, all expecting to dine, and I simply could not figure out when it should be my turn to enter the house and take a seat at the table. (Also, I wanted to get home to Michael’s dinner.) Apparently the community leaders noticed that I snuck away before eating, and that brings shame on them (and on me too but they would never say such a thing). Next time, I’ll join the line-up and eat cuy!

At the house of the host, San Antonio and el Niño were placed in an altar made for the occasion. There they would stay during the next eight days, until they return to the elder of the community, a woman, who “owns” the saint as long as she lives. When she dies it will be passed on to someone else. Stay tuned as I learn more….

altar with santos


el Niño

San Antonio