Carnaval – again!

Dear Friends:  Well, the big news is that Carnaval has come around once again. I’ve been documenting this spring fiesta celebrating the “flowering-of-the-crops” (called Pawkar Raymi) for many years, and although my photos begin to look the same, I try to find new details. Like this: each year a different community around Cañar “hosts” Carnaval. wm w cuyesThese two women, holding giant cuyes, or guinea pigs, represent this year’s host, and next year’s host. Or rather, I should say they are the wives of the men who are community leaders. Still a lot of sexism around here when it comes to women in leadership or political roles. They carried the cuyes all day long and sometimes put them down on little leashes to prance around, (or more likely run and hide – guinea pigs are shy).

For me, it is an exhausting all-day affair, beginning with a ritual ceremony/breakfast in the host community – this year way up in the mountains at a beautiful place called Shayac Rumi that Michael and I first visited over 20 years ago. 3 men in clouds...followed by a procession down the mountain (in a convoy of trucks) and then through and around town,Desfile town…and ending with an all-afternoon-into-the-night gathering for singing, dancing, eating and drinking at a big field outside of town. wm standingThese women are resting after carrying the cuy-ñaña – a sort of cornucopia – on their shoulders for hours and hours. Covered with fresh fruits and vegetables, topped by a cooked chicken with a chile in its beak, with a hanging-upside-down rooster (no longer alive) and, below, caged guinea pigs and rabbits, it represents the largess of mother nature, or pachamama. The women are from the host community.

This year, for me, Carnaval was two days on the front lines because I am working with a great new partner, Allison Adrian, an ethnomusicologist who’s come from St. Catherine University in Minneapolis on sabbatical and with a Fulbright to work in Cañar for six months. Her interest is, of course, the music and the instruments used in this particular fiesta, but she is was also filming in video and that made me want to be her guide and at her side (which means keeping up with her…)allison streetFor years I’ve been giving out CDs or DVDs of my Carnaval photos to local organizations or participants who request them, but they invariably ask, “Where’s the music?”  or “Where’s the dancing?” I have to explain that I work with a still camera, not moving pictures. With Allison, no more disappointment. Within a few days she had edited a 30-minute video of all of Carnaval, and this week we will give out DVDs.allison drinking(A true participant-observer, Allison gamely takes a sip of Zhumir – cane alcohol – from a cow’s horn.)

Back to details: perhaps what I love most are the faces. For Carnaval, men dress in finery I don’t see the rest of the year. Where do all these scarves come from?DSC_1691 DSC_1662DSC_1661DSC_1660DSC_1743DSC_1657And then there are these amazing sombreros that come out each year, carefully stored by the families and decorated anew with everything from cooked cuyes to a deer’s head.

DSC_1716 DSC_1714Even this sheep sported a sombrero on its back.sheep 2I’ve known and photographed this particular condor (below, on right) for 15 years, as it slowly dries and loses appendages. This year, it was worn by the grandson of its original owner, my friend Pedro Solano (on left).  Pedro, nieto..and with a new touch: a piece of chicken (maybe?) hanging from the condor’s beak.condon w chickenAll right. Enough of Carnaval for this year, except for one last photo, of a moment when two Taytas Carnavaleros stood on the edge of a precipice, tapping on those little drums as they would as long as Carnaval lasts, while the clouds come down around them. two tayta con nubes

And now – time for CAñAR BOOK CLUB.

Scholarship program progeny in Judy's book corner

Dear Readers: I’m getting enthusiastic responses from many of you with suggestions for good books (see below). My own reading has taken a very positive turn with the visit of friends from Canada bearing prize-winning books by Canadian authors. All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews, is one of those books so riveting that you try not to read too fast, so it won’t be over too soon. I resist until bedtime, when I know I’ll only have 20 minutes of reading until I drop off. Others beside my bed: His Whole Life, by Elizabeth Hay, and February by Lisa Moore.

From other readers, with comments:

  • A Long Long Way, an Irish novel and WWI story by Sebastian Barry. I’m not a big fan of war novels, but those Irish have the language down. Every word is beautiful.
  • ROOM by Emma Donaghue. An adventure of a different kind.
  • River of Doubt, which I loved. On our trip down the San Juan River in Nicaragua last year, we took a short “jungle tour.” One hour of sucking mud up to the knees, and trees covered in spines, we’d had enough.
  • Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Terese Svobodaabout the life of an early 20th-century radical poet.
  •  The Distant Marvels, by Chantel Acevedo. Her novel is set in Cuba from the 1860s to the 1960s. We’ve been to Cuba twice and appreciate the pictures Ms. Acevado paints with her words.
  • The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazonby Robert Whitaker. A book that tells the engrossing story of her solo trip down the Amazon River to reunite with her husband. A great and true adventure.
  • The Tomb of Seville, by Norman Lewis
  • A Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman
  • The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr
  • The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, by Vivian Gornick.

Thanks to all!    Please keep those titles coming and tell me why you like them.


Addendum – Ecuador travel article in today’s New York Times

In Ecuador, the Frugal Traveler Tries Luxury

Cotopaxi volcano, south of Quito, Tony Cenicola

Cotopaxi volcano, south of Quito, Tony Cenicola

I forgot to mention in yesterday’s Chronicle that the New York Times’ frugal traveler, Seth Kugel, came to Ecuador a few weeks ago for his swan-song column, beginning by sleeping in a luxury hotel in old town Quito and ending in the tiny village of Quingeo, sleeping in a bed offered by a local woman. We don’t know Seth, although I’ve read him over the years and like his style of travel-with-unexpected-adventures (close our style of travel), but we do know the photographer the Times sent to cover his route: Tony Cenicola.  Three years ago, Tony shot the story of our house, ” Up in the Clouds: A Second Home in the Andes”  and spent several days with us.

We were happy to welcome him back to Cañar, as he followed Kugel’s route with a “shoot list,” and then to accompany him to Cuenca and Quingeo. We stopped for roasted chancho on the road to Azogues at Picanteria La Dolorosa (didn’t make the article)…P1110923506A2154 copy

…got to be regular tourists in Cuenca,

506A2200 copy…and visited this amazing little town we didn’t know existed: Quingeo, out in the middle of nowhere south of Cuenca. Tony roamed around and took photos, Michael sat on the plaza and had – what else? – a beer, and I drew one of the old houses.michael drinking beer

Quingeo 1For Kugel’s article, Tony’s beautiful photos, and maps, check out today’s NYT travel section (

Books, books and more books, then and now

The best thing to happen in the last two weeks was the launch of a book here in Cañar that was originally published in Denmark in 1977: Juncal: una comunidad indigena en Ecuador (below: front & back covers)

juncal cover 089 (1)JUNCAL contraportadaProduced by anthropologists Niels Fock and Eva Krener, the book was one result of their research in 1973-74, and again in 1977, in the small hamlet of Juncal, nestled in a beautiful valley about 30 minutes from where I live. To give you an idea of this place, here is one of their photographs from that time:EK_077

I knew of Niels, well-known for his research in the Amazon and his writings on Cañar, but I knew nothing of this book until three years ago, when another anthropologist and friend, Jason Pribilsky, sent me a photocopy. Written by Eva, the book beautifully describes every aspect of daily life in Juncal during their time there. (I didn’t know that yet as I don’t read Danish, but I certainly recognised the importance of the great photos taken by Niels.)Juncal_1973-74_0106 Juncal_1973-74_0161 Juncal_1973-74_0170 (1) Juncal_1973-74_0175

At the time I was beginning to think about creating a digital archive of Cañar, so I sent Eva and Niels a formal snail-mail letter in Copenhagen: would they consider donating digital copies of the photos to the Cañar archive? And could I have a copy of their book? Back came a package with their book and the answer: yes, they would have their black/white negatives professionally scanned, and would I like to help (or maybe I offered?) publish a Spanish edition? 

Within months, I received scans of 500 images, with a spreadsheet with data on every image – an archivist’s dream!  Last year they sent another 300 scans of color slides. At our event last Friday, I showed a revolving slideshow of those  images, and the audience was riveted. Here was their village some 43 years ago.EK_004Fast forward: following a translation in Mexico, editing in Cañar, and a printing in Azogues, with support from the Casa de la Cultura and Municipio de Cañar, we had a Spanish edition of the book. On Friday, January 29, at a ceremonial event in the community, we gave copies to everyone who showed up – about 80 people. The young woman below is this year’s queen of Juncal, and she was in charge of getting a signature from each person who received a book. The older woman signed with a thumbprint, a reminder that in her time and place, when Niels and Eva were there, literacy was a luxury not available to many.ñustra y señora (1)It was a happy day. Tayta Geronimo, who had been the local young assistant to the anthropologists, is now an older man – he read the introduction he’d written for the new edition. Gregorio, a local teacher and town councillor who helped plan the event, claims he will translate the book into Kichwa. Here they pose with a banner of the back cover, a gift to the community.gregorio y geronimo
After the speeches, there was some dancing, then lunch at the church hall, and as we left town in the late afternoon, we saw everyone everywhere – young and old – sitting on park benches, in their doorways, or in their patios, reading the book or examining the back cover for someone they knew: grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents. History lives!P1120207.

The Cañar Book Club

"I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books." –Jorge Luis Borges

“I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.” –Jorge Luis Borges

I was thrilled at the enthusiastic response to my first Cañar Book Club post, and I’m going to pass on all the great reading suggestions and comments. But first, my book report: I am not a happy reader these days. I just finished The Sound of Things Falling by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who annoyed me greatly with his protagonist’s macho, self-referential view of everything that happened to him in 1980’s Bogota. If I had been his wife, Aura, I’d have left him too and taken little Leticia with me. Then I started A Rose for Winter: Travels in Andalusia, by Laurie Lee, whose first book I’d loved (Cider with Rosie). I dunno. The language seemed so dated, the description of post-Civil War Spain so overblown. I put it aside to read with more patience while we will be traveling in Spain in May. At that moment, while on the bus to Cuenca, Michael handed over his just-finished book: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon  by David Gramm. So I started to read about the British explorer Percy Fawcett who in 1925 disappeared in the Brazil with his 20-year old son, Jack, and his son’s friend. What is it with men doing these crazy impossible things, and dying, and taking their sons with them? (Remember River of Doubt: Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey to the Amazon with his son, Kermit?) Fawcett had been on several other dangerous adventures, and if I’d been his wife, Nina, I’d have left him long before and taken Jack with me.

OK. Now to some recommendations from other readers:

  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon, by Anthony Marra. Just started and it’s great thus far.
  •  Foremost of pretty amazing novels I’ve read this year is Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I’d also include Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, and Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth.
  • I finished the second Ferrante book yesterday evening, relishing every detail of their friendship, but mostly riveted by the politics of class and gender.
  • I read all three of the Elena Ferrante books. Would love to talk to you about them.
  •  I abandoned Elena Ferrante 2/3rds of the way through book 1. Yes, obsessive detail and terribly repetitive (she likes the clever friend, she hates the clever friend, she likes the clever friend, she hates…)
  • Elizabeth is Missing. Superbly written sort of mystery from the point of a woman descending into dementia. Seriously exceptional
  • I just finished a lovely book by Colum McCann, Transatlantic. He is a wonderful writer whose book Let the Great World Spin is on my top 10 of books I’ve read in the last five years.
  • I am loving My Venice and Other Essays by Donna Leon, an American writer living in Venice for thirty years or so. Even better, if you enjoy her writing, you can start to read her twenty mystery novels that are really delightful: the adventures of Commissario Guido Brunetti.
  • For my lighter reading, I like the Louise Penny mysteries. Starting a new book called All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr for my trip to Germany. I recently finished an interesting book called These is My Words, a story inspired by the diaries of a pioneer woman.
  • The Dragon Can’t Dance by Earl Lovelace. Short fiction about Carnival in Trinidad. Very good for a Caribbean read!
  • All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky.
  • The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (slow & pretentious).
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by the guy who wrote the Kite Runner (can’t put it down).