Exploring Cañar’s Prehistory

Dear Friends: We are heading for Mexico this week and I want to get one more Chronicle out before we leave. These last few years, since settling into the house, it seems easier to travel while we’re here then during our six months in Portland. For one thing, we have more flexible time. For another, we get a discount on flights because we are residents of Ecuador and, ahem, tercer edad – “third age” or golden agers. We usually go to Spain but this year Michael was yearning to return to a place he has loved (and lived in): Mexico. We are spending three weeks in the Yucatán and Chiapas, and I’ll try to send a couple of travel blogs if I can figure out how to do it from my iPad.

Antonio con landscape

So, back to Cañar, where we’ve been lucky to be invited by Tayta Antonio Quinde (above) to accompany him on some exploratory journeys to the past (me as photographer; Michael as guest). He is researching and writing about pre-Inca times, when the local “runas” (or native peoples, now identified as Cañaris), ranged over a wide swath of southern Ecuador and northern Peru. They left many traces, but much mystery, as the invading Incas overlaid their own culture on this territory in the mid-fifteen century, and the conquering Spaniards imposed their customs and religion on the region a mere 100 years later. Written history began with the Spanish chroniclers, and what we know of the early pre-Inca times was told to them by local informants in the aftermath of two violent upheavals of the original cultures.

landscape w road

Still, the landscape we saw on an outing into the highlands near Cañar last week probably hasn’t changed much since then (except for the roads). And folks still live perched on the sides of the mountains much as they have for millenniums.

house on hillsidehouse long shot

And survive in much the same ways:

meat, closeup“We’ve been here at least 3,000 years,” Cañaris usually say in speaking of their history, but recent research indicates that South America might have been peopled much earlier, perhaps 9,000 years ago (red ocher cave paintings in Brazil) or 22,000 years ago (stone tools in northeast Brazil) or even up to 30,000 years ago (giant sloth hunters in Uruguay). And then there is Texas, where archeologists have recently found projectile points showing that hunter-gatherers reached Buttermilk Creek as early as 15,500 years ago.

rock w carbonWe’ve come today to see a petroglyph that Antonio says is Cañari, which means it might be a mere 1000 years old. When I ask how he knows, he says the spiral form is indicative of native iconography of pre-Inca peoples. Near the spectacular site of the rock (here outlined in a piece of carbon from the fire), Antonio points out where, years before, he saw ancient terraces and stone pathways. He asks the man who lives in the nearby house what happened, and the man says, “My father-in-law cleared them to make space for the pigs.” So much for prehistory; but then I suppose a pig in the hand is worth more to a landowner/farmer than a pre-Inca site.

site of rockLater, Antonio showed us a worked stone near his highland property, revealed when a neighbor hired a tractor to plow the land and tip the stone to the edge of the field. Which just goes to show that Cañar’s prehistory continues to be uncovered.  Antonio con rock

Finally, indulge me with a few shots of the beautiful native flora we saw at this higher elevation, quite different from that in Cañar. Sorry I have no names, but if some of your request it I will ask a Cañari friend for local identifying info. DSC_7570

DSC_7579 DSC_7585 DSC_7590DSC_7591

Pawkar Raymi

desfile1 croppedPawkar Raymi is the Quichua equivalent of Carnival, the celebration that marks the beginning of Lent in Catholic Church. In the indigenous cosmovision – world view, loosely translated – Pawkar Raymi marks the “flowering of the crops” planted earlier in the year and the promise of a good harvest ahead (with another fiesta at summer solstice called Inti Raymi). It’s all about abundance and sharing and my favorite fiesta of the year. Only in recent years have Cañari communities begun to recreate what they claim was a pre-Inca indigenous festival, co-opted first by the Inca invaders and then by the Spanish conquistadors and the Catholic Church. But as Pawkar Raymi always falls on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, and its name comes from the Inca language, I think it’s safe to say it’s a perfectly melded day of old and new traditions from far and wide.comuna quilloacFor me, it’s a long and arduous workday, beginning with a procession that starts early from a host community, usually deep in the country, picking up participants along the way as it winds through town and then out to a field prepared for a celebration that lasts far into the night of music, dancing, eating, and throwing cornstarch, water and canned foam on one another (more on that later). I usually take a break between morning and afternoon, come home for lunch to download my photos and charge the batteries. But my job is nothing compared to the work of the women who carry the cuynaña for hours and hours, a sort of cornucopia platform loaded fruits and vegetables, drinks and cooked cuys – guinea pigs, so important to Andean life. There’s one in the photo below, impaled next to a …chicken? cuy nañaHere’s the cuynaña from above in a moment when the women rested.cuy naña2When I first started photographing this fiesta, live cuys were dangled by their little feet around the platform, usually not surviving the day. After a few years, animal rights concerns put them in cages attached to the bottom of the platform, and now live animals seem to have disappeared altogether.

After lunch, it’s back to the field, where each community sets up a choza to offer food and drink to the carnavaleros. Over in one corner, women and men from the host community are cooking in huge pots on wood fires to feed about 1000 people. As I said, Pawkar Raymi is all about abundance and sharing.mesa ofertaP1040276There I run into many familiar faces, and it’s one day where I’m allowed to photograph everyone without asking, In return, I give CDs of the photos to anyone who asks. tayta2

Families have spent weeks preparing for this day – the women making special clothing and the men fashioning flutes and drums and these amazing hats, made of cowhide stretched over a frame and decorated with everything from fresh flowers to cooked cuyes to deer heads and antlers.


Every year for over 20 years, my old friend Pedro Solano has brought out his Tayta Carnaval sombrero topped with a stuffed condor, each year more desiccated and missing more parts. pedro

By mid-afternoon it is raining hard, and I’ve finally had enough of trying to protect my gear while dodging cornstarch and foam sprayed from cans (called kareoke, for some strange reason), and I’m exhausted from shooting over 500 photos. I trudge home and say to Michael, “I’m not sure I can keep doing this every year.” But I know I’ll be back next year – walking backwards and stumbling along the road, trying to capture the procession as it heads toward me at a fast clip.P1040255 - Version 2




Election Fever

belesario(Belisario Chimborazo, mayor of Cañar, 2011, with wife Rosa Camas and vice-mayor Ezequiel Cárdenas)

“Do you mean we can’t buy alcohol between Friday noon and Monday?” I asked our local mini-market guy as I purchased two bottles of my favorite (and only available) wine on Thursday afternoon. “Si, es la ley seca,” he said – the “dry law” before elections. “But don’t worry, I can always meet your needs,” he said with a wink.

Ecuadorian regional elections were held a week ago, on February 23. As a foreigner with five years’ residency in Ecuador, I knew I was qualified to vote, but I hadn’t bothered to register until a few weeks ago, when the nudge came from one of those Kafkaesque moments so familiar. For years I’ve been trying to get good broadband service, but every time I’ve gone to the local telephone office – one that keeps re-inventing itself, trying to keep up with the times – and now newly refurbished, called CNT, and with a new Internet logo: “Fast Boy” (is that a surfboard?) – I heard:


“Sorry, señora – no more lines. Come back next month,” or, in some cases, “…next year.” After three frustrating years of private and terrible internet service, I was absolutely determined when I got here this January to…well…try again!

So I walked into town to the telephone office (photo: central Cañar, circa 1969, by George Mowry, Peace Corps Volunteer)town streettook a number (an innovation), sat on a plastic chair and watched the Grammy’s broadcast in English on the television high in one corner (another innovation), until my number was called.

The young woman behind the desk began to fill out the formulario on her computer. Telephone? Check! National ID card? Check! Voter card? “No. But as a foreigner, I’m not required to vote.” She consulted with an older colleague sitting beside her (the one who always gave me the bad news). Nothing definite. She called her boss, then said: “Sorry, without a voter number I can’t complete the formulario. And we only have two lines left and the deadline is tomorrow.”

“Do you mean that I can’t have broadband service unless I have a voter card?”

Yep – there’s the Kafka part, and I saw not a flicker of humor or an ironic shrug. So I ran for a bus to the provincial capital, Azogues, one hour away, took a taxi to the Tribunal Electoral where, in one minute, the Republic of Ecuador had issued me a voter card. I rushed back to Cañar 15 minutes before the telephone office closed, and within a few minutes heard the sweet words: “Señora, the técnicos will come tomorrow to install your service.”

belesario building

belesario w sign

So back to the elections. I voted for Belisario Chimborazo to be re-elected mayor. Quiet, intelligent and reserved, five years ago this secondary school teacher ran against one of the usual candidates for mayor, all from one of the powerful local families with names of Cárdenas and Ordonez who have traded the position back and forth for roughly 185 years, since Cañar was declared a cantón. Then, whether the town population was tired of the same old faces, or the indigenous population in the countryside was fired up to vote, Belisario won by a slight margin. That was 2009 and we went to his victory party, surprised at some of the town faces we saw there, such as my bank manager, who gave me a hug.

I’ve watched as Belisario has worked hard to develop rural hamlets that have been ignored for generations, with schools, roads, potable water, health services, meeting halls and commercial opportunities, while trying to satisfy the demands of the townspeople (fewer potholes, water 24 hours a day, a bus terminal). I think he’s done a brilliant job. Here here is a couple of years ago inaugurating a tourist guesthouse in Caguanapampa, a village on the mountain above Cañar.Belisario ceremonia

On election day I’d been directed to vote at one of the primary schools – all the schools in town and countryside are turned into polling places. I found organized calm and a quiet air of fiesta – folks sitting around chatting after having voted, outside on the street eating ice cream, with the benign presence of military and members of the five political parties standing vigil at each table. Ecuador has a long history of corruption when it comes to elections, and the indigenous-based movement and political party, Pachakutik is particularly wary. My friend Alexandra (in the white hat below), was one of those watchers, and she told me a group was standing by to follow the cars carrying the ballots to Azogues, where the official count would be made later that day.

school vote

soldier + old man

I voted at table #5, where four young women sat handing out ballots, explaining them, and taking our signatures after. I saw an old Cañari woman signing with her thumbprint, a reminder that we are not that far from hacienda times when there were no schools for Cañari children. After, I was given a new card, certifying that I had voted in 2014.me vote cardFor Ecuadorians this card is serious – voting is obligatory by law, and you cannot get a passport, driver’s license, a job, or leave the country without showing it. This does not apply to me as a foreigner, but I still followed the example of everyone else, and had my card “plasticated” at the portable business set up right outside the school emplasticate! me, card, closeup

This time, Belisario Chimorazo won by an even greater margin, making him the first indigenous mayor to be reelected in190 years!

That’s all the news from Cañar. Now I have to get my cameras ready for Carnival, tomorrow!