This and that in the month of March


Dear Friends:  Well, I missed my chronicle deadline last week but for a good reason. Every year I host a group of students from Lewis and Clark College (based in Portland) who spend a semester in Cuenca, Ecuador. They live with local host families and study Spanish and other subjects at Fundación Amauta. For three days, I have a chance to show them something of another world – Cañar. Not much, but enough to give them an idea of differences between life in Cuenca and Cañar.

First stop: the jail, to see the prisoners at work on fine weavings and other handcrafts. We are no longer allowed to take photos in this 100-year old building overcrowded with 150 male prisoners (I was amazed we ever were), but we were given a great tour of the workshops by trustees/artisans and the new young director. Other prisoners – across the patio where they were confined but lined up at open windows, and agog at this sudden appearance of beautiful young women (and one man) – sent gifts. Here some students sit afterward at a taxi stand, with an origami bird made with bits of folded paper. (Don’t you love the retro phone-in-box where drivers take calls? )origami bird 2

Next, a visit to Mama Michi, curadera extraordinaire and always game to receive visitors at her jambi wasi (healing house). She was busy with many patients – this being one of her two weekly consultorio days – so we waited almost an hour. But the weather was great and the students patient, happy and charming – reminding me why I loved teaching this age in my days in academia. (On right, Lewis & Clark faculty member, Wendy Woodrich).waitingP1120792When it’s our turn, an assistant sells us the things needed for a diagnostic healing – egg, candle and a rough bouquet of herbs and flowers – and we’re escorted into the dark, aromatic interior of Mama Michi’s consultorio. She sits beside her altar looking bemused and buddha-like as fourteen of us find places to sit and stand. The students have decided among themselves which two will volunteer for curaciónes.P1120830

First, a diagnostic rub with the egg over head and body, before it (the egg) is cracked into a glass of water on Mama Michi’s altar, where it will settle and reveal its discoveries.eggMeanwhile, a cleansing with fire. We all gasp as flame seemingly shoots out of Mama Michi’s mouth with a great whoosh as she sprays an alcohol concoction through lit candles. (She first tells her patient to cover her hair and close her eyes.)P1120807

P1120808All around and up and down with the flames, including on the feet, where she tells the standing patient to stamp out the little blue flames dancing around on the mat (I know MM’s routines well, but this is new). Then, a light beating about the head and body with the handful of herbs and flowers, while Mama Michi invokes her special language to get rid of bad spirits or mal aire. I always hear this “OUT! OUT!” although I think it is in Kichwa. She throws the contaminated bouquet into the anteroom….diagnosis…and returns for a reading of the egg and the offering of a diagnosis. Trouble sleeping? A stomachache lately? Headache today?  General nervousness?  Usually, according to testimonials of those she treats, she is right on.

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Cañar Book Club – March 2016


I’d like to dedicate this month’s book club to my late mother, Adelene Blankenship, a great reader all her life. She usually had several books going at once because she was a delicate sleeper and she needed a particular kind of book by her bedside for nighttime reading: a history or biography or other non-fiction. “If I’m reading a novel and it’s too exciting, I won’t be able to sleep,” she would say. So – although I don’t have my mother’s sleep problems – I’m lately reading two books: one puts me to sleep within minutes and the other makes my heart beat faster and I save it for long bus rides. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, recommended by both my son and my husband, is a good read about two talented and dedicated men, supported through all their flying trials and tribulations by a talented and dedicated sister, Katherine, who of course has no place in the official history. Only in the epilogue does it mention that when she finally made a move on her own and married at age 58, her surviving brother would not speak to her until she was on her deathbed. So much for the history of flying.

My other book, The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander is about the dirty war in Argentina and the forced disappearance of a son (in the news lately with Obama’s visit  – see – “The Long Shadow of Argentina’s Dictatorship”). From the cover blurb: ” Englander …handles his unbearable subjects with the comic panache of a vaudeville artist…” which I found engaging in the first 200 pages but must confess that by now, with 100 pages to go, I’ve lost patience. So I cannot recommend this book, although I think the young writer is a very talented writer and I’ve enjoyed his New Yorker short stories.

Books recommended by friends this month, with their comments

  • Last Standing Woman, by Winona LaDuke. Lyrical novel written by, and from the viewpoint of, an Ojibwe woman on an Indian reservation in Minnesota.
  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.
  • Walking with Abel by Anna Badkhen. A wonderfully written and impassioned account a living a year with the Fulanis, the largest nomadic tribe in Sahelian Africa, set mainly in Northern Mali.
  • The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen.
  • The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, + newest My Name is Lucy Barton
  • All That Is by James Salter.
  • The story of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry was delightful, leaving me wishing I had a grandmother like the one in the story. I was certain a woman had written it. Wrong. The author, Fredrik Backman, is a 34-year-old Swede. I love Scandinavian men.
  • My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem’s autobiography.

Notes from the domestic front

DSC_2030 (1)Well, we’ve been in Cañar two months now and I already feel time going by faster than it should. I look at the calendar and see March full of activities and events, and even into April. Our day-to-day life is pretty quiet though there’s always something to break the routine. In fact, that’s our favorite refrain when things go wrong: “IT’S ALWAYS SOMETHING….” Last week, for example, workers began taking down trees below us, and left us without electricity, off and on, for several days. The first day the power went off I walked down the road and found a young man up in this enormous tree with a hand saw! P1120569 He’d dropped a limb on the lines. CentroSur, the power company, came and reconnected us, but in the days that followed they simply cut the power during the day while the tree cutters were at work (now with the steady drone of chainsaws), and reconnected us at night. Just imagine what this would do to your schedule if you knew that from 8:00 – 4:00 you’d have no Internet, no lights, no fountain, no radio, no working outlets. Well, you’d just do other things. Michael’s stove is gas so he cooked.DSC_1995My laptops have batteries so I kept working until they went out. Then, I suppose, it was time for a glass of wine – and we still have the fire in the fireplace, thankfully. Life could be worse.

We’ve been in the house eight years and the interior garden plants – I remember how excited we were with those first little plantings – have grown enormously – from the macho aloe vera reaching for the sky (with two birds’ nests discovered in it last year) to the jade plant blooming like crazy and dropping baby jade plants to colonize Michael’s side). The oregano, on “my” side, that we were so pleased to think we’d have close to the kitchen, had so completely taken over, even infested with tiny white flies, that it was choking out all other plants. With help fromthis unidentified monster thing: P1120576Michael decided to take on the patio garden as a project (after his visa/passport affair was settled, but that’s another story). He tore out this thing, plus all the oregano, though a network of roots lurks just waiting to come up again. Yesterday we went shopping for new plants at Marco’s, our plant dealer who lives up the road, and came home with a tree (another project), 5 or 6 cactus, and other weird spiky sedum things, all for $20 (think what that would cost at Portland Nursery!) The result, earlier today:P1120663Meanwhile, not to be outdone, I was out in the kitchen garden thinning the minuscule lettuce plants that visitors helped me plant a few weeks ago.P1120665

What do we do for fun, you ask? Well, yesterday we had a tiny adventure when we decided to explore a church that has intrigued us for years, seen from the bus high on a mountain in the town of Biblian, between here and Cuenca. P1120596 Michael packed a picnic lunch and we got off the bus at the approximate elevation of the church and started walking. It was still a big climb, and just as we needed to stop to catch our breath we saw this:P1120601 An old woman in bright colors sitting in front of a yellow house weaving a straw hat. Beside her, a little store with an old man. “Buy a beer!” I urged Michael although it was only about 10:00. I needed time to chat and take some photos. Maria Angelita Dután Zhinun is 92 years old, and has been making hats since she was eight, taught by her mother. P1120613

Her hands are still supple, her hearing fine, her sight good enough to weave, and her sense of humor intact, along with her eagerness to talk. We soon got down to the personal stuff. She married at 16, has had 26 pregnancies, seven left alive, and the old man in the store (her partner) is her nephew. I guess she has outlived all the men her age. She spun other stories about Saint Rocio in the church up the hill, miracles, and stuff. P1120617We didn’t get it all, but this stop with María Angelita made the whole day worthwhile.P1120629

She liked my blue eyes and asked Michael if that is why he married me. I asked her if we could have a photo together. After, we continued our climb up the mountain to the church, but it rather paled next to where we’d just been.P1120632P1120636

We had our picnic lunch (with great views), walked on around and down the back side of the mountain and caught the bus home. “We must do something like this again next week,” one of us said, but we both agreed.

I’m going to pass on the Cañar book club this time. I think once a month will do, so please send your latest reads and comments for the next chronicle, on March 20. Meanwhile, stay in touch; I love hearing from all of you.

Update on Carnaval – again!

Dear Friends:  Apologies to all who could not access my last Cañar Chronicles post, Carnaval – again!  Unknowingly, I had “exceeded my bandwidth” (an image of ever-tightening pants comes to mind ), which meant I had run out of my allotted data transfer space. I’ve now been given a larger pair of pants by my web host in Portland, Host Pond, and should not have this problem again. Blog post is here

Thanks for being patient.