Saying goodbye…

Well, I’d no sooner published my last post on the contradictory relationship between President Correa’s new media law, cracking down on press freedoms while continuing to host Wikileaks’Julian Assange in Ecuador’s London embassy, when Edward Snowden popped up in Moscow, reportedly heading for Ecuador via Cuba. My favorite story of what happened next appeared in the Guardian, describing the two dozen journalists who bought seats on the Aeroflot flight to Havana, having heard that Snowden and his traveling companion, Sarah Harrison of WikiLeaks, had checked into seats 17A and 17 B. I love imagining how the media folks anticipated the long hours they’d have with a cornered Snowden as he was compelled to answer all their questions. But as the plane taxied away from the gate, the journalists discovered that Snowden was not onboard. Instead, they found themselves stuck with one another on the 12-hour flight to Cuba – on which no alcohol was served, “much to the chagrin of the reporters, many of whom aren’t used to going half a day without a stiff drink.”


Latest news from Ecuador is that Correa is cooling off on the idea of granting Snowden asylum, party because he’s pissed off at Assange for “trying to run the show” from the London embassy. (Two (too) big personalities on the same stage?) At a press conference on Friday, the president declared that Ecuador would not consider an asylum request unless Snowden reached Ecuadorian territory, highly unlikely given that he apparently remains in transit hell in the Moscow airport.

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OK, enough of politics. Life moves by very fast when it’s lived in six-month segments. When I tell folks here I’m leaving Cañar in a week they say, “No es posible! You just got here!” When I let friends in Portland know we’re coming home, they say, “Really? It seems you just left!” I feel the same. In the end, our lives might go by in a flash but the landscape changes very little. Here is a lovely photo taken by a Peace Corps volunteer in 1970. In the background is Tayta Bueran, the flattop mountain that marks the continental divide. For the Canari it is a “cerro sacrado,” a sacred mountain.


And one of the same I took recently…

arando con bueren

This is our eighth year of living in Cañar from January to July; and in Portland from July to December. Once here, I barely think about our Portland life until we get close to leaving; then I begin to anticipate with great pleasure everything that awaits in the north – friends, family, food, movies, home, garden, summer weather…. (It also usually begins to get very cold and windy here in June.) The same happens in Portland – I feel totally disconnected from our life in Canar. We don’t check in or want any news of problems (the house was broken into a few years ago, in September, and there was nothing we could do until we got here in January). But when it gets close to coming back to Ecuador, I get excited – the house, the views, climate, friends and projects, the no-car, no-TV, no-phone-calls life – and I can’t wait to get back.

Michael has his own emotional response to change, based on a profoundly domestic streak that binds him to place and routine wherever he is. “I don’t want to leave,” he said the other night to José María our compadre and caretaker. But then I hear him say the same in Portland, come December: “Let’s just stay here!”

One big difference in our two lives in how we take leave of our houses. In Portland we prepare it as if a guesthouse for a wonderful tenant who has come back at least five years now, clearing shelves, closets and personal tchotchkes, and giving our old Volvo a Cristo wrap in the driveway. In return, our tenant meticulously takes care of the house, replacing every broken cup, and leaving it just as we left it, with fresh linens on the beds.


In Cañar, we virtually strip the house of all belongings except furniture – wall art, rugs, linens, clothes, bedding, and pack everything away in two locked storerooms. I cover the bookcases, kitchen shelves and some of the better furniture with old sheets. On the last day, Michael shutters the windows and doors, leaving the house dark and closed up like a big box. Since the break-in, we have a 700-pound safe for my large camera and gear, and Michael has created an ingenious system for hiding his tools that I can’t divulge. José María and his family come once a week or so to water the plants in the patio. They also tend the surrounding yard of alfalfa and plant the field behind, so they are a consistent presence while we’re gone. We tell them they are not responsible if anything goes wrong, but of course they do feel responsible.

putting up shutters living room coveredclosed up back closed up front

We leave Cañar next Wednesday, July 3, and I haven’t decided what to do about this blog for the next six months. Shall I suspend and take it up again next January, when we return to Ecuador? Or should I keep posting from Portland? Please let me know what you think.





Some of you have asked…

As I begin to write this, I’ve been nearly four days without an Internet connection, and I find I have a lot more productive time – lonely, but productive. How dependent we’ve grown on being constantly connected to the world and to those we love. Anyway, I began to think about a few things that I’ve put on the back burner but wanted to write about before I leave Ecuador, one being the question some of you have asked about the political situation and President Rafael Correa.correa cropped

An economist trained in the U.S., Correa, 50, took office in 2007, with the support of the indigenous vote, bringing a political stability to Ecuador after a turbulent decade, when three presidents were forced to step down (or flee) because of social and economic unrest. Usually referred to in the U.S. press as a “socialist” or “leftist,” Correa spent heavily on social programs in his first term, and this past February he was re-elected with an overwhelming majority to a second five-year term. By then, the indigenous organizations were less supportive – Correa has refused to dialogue with them on several important issues – but his highly-visible infrastructure projects throughout the country – mostly highways, improved country roads, tourist sites, and potable water systems, always accompanied with a big billboard, “The Citizen’s Revolution Financed This Work” –  helped his party capture a majority in the National Assembly for the first time.

Revolución Cuidadana

Ecuador has been in the international headlines these last weeks in two strangely connected matters. Julian Assange, the Wikileaks guy, just passed his first anniversary as resident in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he sought political asylum after an extradition order from Sweden. Apparently Correa is willing to give him safe conduct to Ecuador, but Assange is unable to step out of the embassy for fear of being extradited to the US, where he may face espionage charges, or to Sweden, where he faces accusations of sexual assault. Below: Julian Assange and Ecuador’s foreign minister Ricardo Patino inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London this week (AP foto) where discussions with British authorities were at a stalemate. (I’ll bet Correa wishes he’d never waded into this one!).Julian Assange and Ricardo Patino

Also this past week, the National Assembly passed a restrictive media law, Ley de Comunicación, regulating the news, creating media watchdogs, imposing sanctions for smearing “people’s good name” and limiting private media – all in an effort to control the opposition. A favorite project of Correa, who last year brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit for libel against a newspaper publisher. Big misstep, from many points of view! Journalists and human rights organizations have called it a blow to free speech. And as one editorial critic pointed out, under the new law Julian Assange’s activities would certainly be considered illegal in Ecuador.

But before I go further, I’d like to recount some effects of Correa’s social programs here in Cañar. Many of you will remember Lourdes, the daughter of our compadre, Jose Maria, who worked on the house construction for 18 months and now watches over things while we’re gone. Three years ago, Lourdes, then 12, suffered acute renal failure as a result of childhood kidney disease. The same year, Correa’s government passed a health law covering all costs of “catastrophic medical conditions,” such as cancer or end-stage heart or kidney disease, hemophilia, etc. This new law saved Lourdes’ life: giving her emergency hospitalization in Quito followed by three years of dialysis. Her family was charged nothing.Lourdes y Maria(Lourdes on the left, with her sister Maria, taken yesterday at Inti Raymi)

Dialysis three times a week in a city two hours away is a horrible existence for anyone, but for Lourdes it meant her normal teenage life was over. She had to leave school and stay at home with restricted diet and activities, her only hope a kidney transplant. But in Ecuador organ donation was virtually unknown, until last year, that is, when Correa’s government passed a law, following Spain’s example, authorizing default organ donation in the case of a fatal accident if a driver had not opted out the license. Last September, Lourdes’ parents got a call in the middle of the night that a kidney was available from a young man who had died in an accident in Cuenca. Lourdes and her mother were flown to Quito where she was admitted to one of the best private hospitals and given a successful transplant, provided a month’s lodging nearby with her mother for daily follow-up, plus weekly and now monthly follow-ups when they travel by bus to Quito. Today, Lourdes is healthy and planning to go back to school in September.

Also last year, her father, Jose Maria, found a job as a garbage collector with the municipality of Cañar, and a new minimum wage law gave him and his family the first decent financial security they have ever had.

So, two thumbs up for Correa’s social programs, and one down for media censorship!

Correa next turned to overhauling education, which has affected our women’s scholarship program here in Cañar. Two years ago, the government made all state universities free. This was good, but had minimum effect on us because tuition was very little: $60 – $100 dollars a year; still, we were pleased to have our scholarship dollars go further. At the same time, however, and very abruptly, the government put into place a system of qualifying exams, much like the SATs, throwing public secondary schools into chaos. No one could enter university without an exam score that qualified him or her for a certain “career” at a certain university, and the competition was nationwide. A graduating high school senior had to declare a first choice of career and university at the time of the exam. Students in Cañar were ill-prepared, the exams were given late in the academic year, test results were delayed, and everyone was confused by the new system. Last June, when our scholarship committee met to consider granting new scholarships, we did not have a single new applicant. Fortunately, the year before, seven women had qualified, having started their studies before the new law, and with one continuing, we have eight women in the program, all doing well in areas such as medicine, veterinarian medicine, nursing, laboratory technician, accounting and nutrition. scholarship women 2013

This year, things are better organized on a national level, but with painful results close to home. Our beloved goddaughter, Paiwa, who has been an excellent student since first grade in the best Catholic school here, exceling in math and science, took the exam last month. After careful thought, she’d decided to declare her first choice as civil engineering at University of Cuenca. Her exam score was 850 out of 1000, so we were sure she’d be on her way come September.

PaiwaHowever, when the results were posted on the Internet last week, she was not listed. University of Cuenca had only 100 places for civil engineering students, and the competition included students from private high schools in Quito and Guayaquil. Paiwa probably needed a score of over 900 to win a spot. Suddenly, a young life that has been focused for years on going to university and becoming a professional is in suspension. We have no idea what will happen now. My friend Magdalena, who works in bi-lingual education, says it will take a generation for rural and indigenous students to catch up with the new law.

So this is a sketchy overview as I see it from on the ground in Cañar, where we live without TV, newspapers or serious radio (and now Internet), but we certainly feel the effects of government actions. On the one hand, Correa’s government is bringing needed reforms in education, health and the economy; on the other, his style of governing is ham-fisted and authoritarian, pushing through laws without sufficient debate, refusing to dialogue with the indigenous organizations, threatening to privatize water while privately negotiating with oil and mining companies.



Back to the everyday…

sewer project from gardenWell, the dust has settled and things are pretty well back to normal. Today we have no water service, my internet has been intermittent, the power was off the other day, and a sewer project has left a six-foot-deep open trench in our road that we had to leap over to get to our house, until Michael put down this makeshift bridge the other day.Mike's bridge

The sewer project has resulted in broken water lines by the end of nearly every day. The next morning city workers come to fix things and we have water for another few hours to fill our reserve tank. Yesterday, we were profligate, and without thinking we watered the new lawn and I worked for hours in the darkroom, washing prints with an open faucet. We hadn’t noticed the tank was emptying until not a drop was left. Today, Michael is pacing around thinking up a new warning system valve that will turn on a light in the house when the tank is emptying (a pump keeps it topped off, but only when water is coming in from the street).  Oh, and the buzz of chainsaws in the background reminds me the beautiful line of cypress and eucalyptus trees on the other side of our road is being leveled and turned into lumber. Apparently some neighbors feared the trees would fall on their houses, and they got an order from the city. The landscape and hardscape around us change constantly, usually for the worse (sewer project excluded) and we just have to roll with it.

digging up road

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Thanks to all of you who responded so enthusiastically to the New York Times article last week. (

boys w NYT cropped

And a special thanks to writer Sandy Keenan and photographer Tony Cenicola who did such great work while visiting us here in Cañar. Both produced a tremendous amount of good material, which the editors then … edited. This is the reality of journalism, and some stuff important to us ended up on the cutting room floor, such as images of indigenous neighbors and mention of the Canari women’s scholarship program. By the way, Portland friends, Sandy is looking for a good Portland story – it has to have an interesting house but more important, interesting people and ideas. She is presently doing a story on passive houses in Seattle area, for example. Send along any ideas and I’ll forward to her.

Meanwhile, Michael is making bread using a book brought by Tony, that M. insists is changing his life (or the way he makes bread anyway): My Bread, by Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan. Very little yeast, very wet mass, no knead, 18 hours to rise (that’s a warming light over the bread dough). The first result was chewy baguettes and some of the best bread we’ve ever eaten. Since then M. has made pizza, tapas, panini, and is now looking forward to finding some of the more exotic ingredients once back in Portland (e.g. speck with pecorino sandwich).

Michael makes breadbread finished

Finally, we are down to the last three weeks of our 2013 Canar sojourn. While I increasingly daydream about Portland – warm days, summer nights, cotton dresses, old friends – I have so many great projects still going on here, and friends to see and things to do that I can’t imagine leaving.

But this is the “delightful pull” of living in two places. I hope to send another blog from Canar before we leave on July 3. Below: the view from our porch yesterday…those are peas coming up in the back





New York Times to feature our life in Cañar this week

Dear Friends:

This Thursday, June 6, the New York Times, Home/Garden section, is featuring our life in Cañar with a full-page article with photos. This has been in the works since April, when the writer and photographer visited Cañar, but I didn’t want to say anything until we had a publication date. An on-line version, with a slideshow of 23 photos, will probably go up on Wednesday night. I’ll send a link on this site as soon as I see the article.

If you’re curious to know how this has come about, I’ll be happy to tell you, as it falls under the subject of “shameless self-promotion.” When Our House in the Clouds came out in March, I sent an e-mail to a writer I’ve frequently read and liked at the Times’ Home section, mentioning the book and adding a few photos. She wrote right back saying she’d pass the message on to her editor. Within days I heard from the editor, who said they might be interested “if you haven’t already had press.” (Well, I thought, I can probably hold off all the other media clambering for interviews and coverage.) A writer, Sandy Keenan, got in touch to say she was reading the book, and might be interested to come to Cañar to do a story. Were there any hotels nearby?

Thus began a wonderful couple of weeks in April. Sandy and the photographer, Tony Cenicola, came at separate times, stayed with us as house guests, and proved themselves  true third-world troopers. Sandy’s luggage went on to Lima, Peru, and didn’t show up until five days later, mere hours before she left. Tony’s Avis rental car, along with some of his equipment in the trunk, was towed the first night from in front of his hotel in Cuenca, and impounded by the traffic police as “possibly stolen” (for no other reason than it was on the street at night). And it stayed impounded for the eight days of his stay, despite escalating calls to Avis agents, lawyers, Cuenca officials, and finally, the assistant to the mayor. No one could do anything, although a journalist friend in Cuenca valiantly took on the cause.

Tony had to rent a second car while continuing to pay for the first. He began a blog to friends called, “Daily Cup of Kafka.” Finally, a judge’s order allowed him to get his equipment (our journalist friend was key to this triumph), but the car was not liberated until seven days after he left. Tony was charged with lawyers and court fees, impoundment costs, plus the rental for both cars. (One of his parting comments to me was: “You told me not to rent a car!”)

But through it all Sandy and Tony calmly carried on with their work and enjoyed Canar, the people they met, the local sites, and Michael’s meals.  Certainly, we enjoyed them.

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We are back home after a very chilly month in Spain, making Cañar feel positively tropical. (Newspaper headlines our last day: “Spain Braces for Coldest Summer in 200 Years.”) I’m hoping to write one more blog about our trip – despite the weather we enjoyed our time and learned a tremendous amount about the Basque history, culture and today’s political/economic situation.

Below: last day in Hondarribia, near the French border. Our San Nicolas hotel is with light blue trim around windows. Brrrrrr.Hondarribia