Another Year in Cañar

Dear Friends: The truth is I rarely think about our life in Cañar while we’re in Portland. Then, as we get closer to leaving, I’m preoccupied with renting the house, remembering and organizing what we’re to bring (two 8″ chimney brushes; exhibit materials for the Costa Rica trip, airpods for Paiwa), and preparing for travel. (At least no Covid restrictions this time.) On December 1 we’re off, with excess baggage ($168), four busy airports (bad food $$$), and three cramped flights (no food). Twenty-four hours later we land in Guayaquil, where the temperature is 82 F. We check into our usual silly Wyndham Garden hotel with endless Christmas carols in the lobby, two big beds, hot showers, cold beers. Ahhhhh. Sheer luxury to relax with nothing to do but relax after the past busy weeks.

Tulio, the man at the hotel who helped us with our bags, turns out to drive a taxi on off-hours, so even before we’ve settled into our room we’ve arranged a ride to Cañar the next day. He’ll take us after he finishes his shift at 3:00. We have a late lunch called a Tex-Mex bowl in the hotel’s dreary dining room, long rests with skipped dinner, and good sleeps. Next day for lunch we try the Magnolia Room on the 8th floor. World Cup games blasting everywhere, of course; I was briefly hopeful for Costa Rica. Terrible lunch, but I hardly noticed so distracted was I by the view outside and the decor inside. As long as Michael has a beer and his KenKen puzzles (printed out in Portland), he notices nothing but the tasteless fried seafood. The next day, with Tulio in his taxi, we take a familiar route out of chaotic Guayaquil, across the long coastal plain through the scrappy towns of Troncal and El Triumfo, with mile after mile of fruit stands on the side of the road. “Mango season,” Tulio says tersely. I’m grateful he’s a driver who doesn’t chatter; I like to read, Michael does his puzzles. Suddenly the road climbs and we begin the long ascent into the mountains. Distant clouds obscure the view, then clear to a blue sky, then lower to the ground for 50 feet visibility. Then repeat. We climb to up over 12,000 feet into the sierra of the Andes. As we reach the highest point, I avert my eyes from the bright red “love motel” that some idiot built here a couple of years ago, the sole eyesore in this magnificent landscape (also the turn off to Sangay National Park.) Past that, approaching four hours, I watch for signs of the inter-Andean valley where our town lies (big red dot on the map). Although the map barely captures what I’m describing, you can see the lighter areas where the Andes bifucate to create highland valleys. As we descend, I shoot a bunch of photos from the car on my phone. And there it is – the neighboring town of Tambo, looking celestial in the afternoon light. Only now do I start thinking  about our life in Cañar – how will we find the house and garden?  Will I remember people’s names? How are the scholarship women doing? I dig out my keys for the gate as we pull onto our road. We unload the bags, invite Tulio in for a beer (declined; he’s going straight back to Guayaquil), but we show him around the house. It’s dark from the closed shutters, furniture is covered with sheets, with a thick coating of dust everywhere, but otherwise pretty much as we left it six months ago. It’s too late for a fire, so Michael puts together a quick dinner with the groceries he bought in Guayaquil while I find a lamp, tablecloth and napkins to set us up in my office. Not only do we have a first dinner “in style” but the Internet is working so we watch the new Netflix film, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Talk about culture shock!  The next day we open the shutters and take stock. The layer of thick dust everywhere comes from constant traffic these past eight months on our dirt road due to a  construction/sewer detour that brings everything from buses to cattle trucks by our house. In the patio, we find two little fuzzballs hidden deep in the macho aloe. We see nests nearly every year, but this is the first time we’ve seen nestlings. In the following days we hear them chirping, and get occasionally sightings of them and their mother as she flies in under the roof to feed them. Then one day they are gone, flown away. For my birding friend, Annie Tucker: these are rufous-collared sparrows, (Zonotrichia capensis). “Widespread, common and familiar in shrubby and grassy areas throughout highlands, often around houses. Distinctive, with rufous collar, puffy-crested look. Streaky juveniles are often seen.” (The Birds of Ecuador Field Guide.)

Next day is Sunday, market day, and Michael has a yen for hornado or roasted pig. We trudge into town, stopping to catch our breath along the way, and greet acquaintances in the streets. “How do we know them?” we murmur to one another as we walk on. “What is his/her name?” But many know Michael by name – “Miquito” the taxi drivers yell as they drive by. And in the market, the pineapple man from the coast greets him with Señor Miko and the perfect fruit to eat today.

In the days that follow, we each make forays into town for groceries and supplies and to check out the state of this place, where dogs run free (I counted seven in front of our house one day)… 

Road/sewer construction never stops, which to go into town means running a guantlet of open sewer access inlets, fresh concrete (with dog prints), fresh asphalt (black footprints), and entire streets shut off with hoardings.

But that’s all part of life in Cañar, this homely town working to bring itself into the 21th century with potable water and sewer systems, paved roads (not ours), rabies vaccines for dogs, pink Himalayan salt found in our tiny MegaMarket (!), and nice people everywhere. We are happy to be back.

Cañar Book Club

Oh, how I’ve missed the Cañar Book Club, and I’m so depending on you, dear readers, to bring me out of my literary doldrums. I’m overwhelmed by all the “best of 2022 books” flooding my in-box, and although I’ve put several on hold in my library, when they come I’ll probably have no memory of why I got interested. I will mention one book I read in transit: The Wall, by Marlen Haushofer, and again, no memory why I choose this book. Published in 1963 it was recently reissued, so I might have read this review. But I was fascinated by the story of a women who finds herself cut off from the rest of humanity by a transparent wall, and has to create new skills to survive, accompanied by a dog, cow and cat. For some reason, I really enjoyed the repetitive mundane details of her life.

As for the books I’ve brought, it was a mixed bag (so to speak) of a couple of books I’d ordered (About Grace, Anthony Doerr, Butcher’s Crossing, John Williams), some taken from my shelves (Greene, Bryson, McPhee, Kidder), two that I’ve published this year (Ana Magarita’s story, Tell Mother I’m in Paradise), and another in Norwegian by my good friend Liv that I’ll be editing in the English edition (more on that next time). A paltry pile, so I’m depending on Kindle books from my Portland library to keep me happy these six months. And I’d also love to hear your recommendations for the next Cañar Book Club meeting in the new year, January 2023.

Until then, please stay in touch. I love hearing from you.







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9 thoughts on “Another Year in Cañar

  1. Judy, Your blog brings joy on this cold, snowy day in Central Oregon. Michael with the roasted pig is classic! Our Portland friends are drooling.

    Two five-star reads I hope are on your list:
    Horse by Geraldine Brooks
    How to Catch a Mole by Marc Hamer (I may have gotten this from book club, but it’s worth mentioning, as it delves into the smallest details of the natural world, like your rufous collared sparrow in the aloe. Great photo.)

  2. Judy, good morning from Boulder, and thank you for bringing us along again on your return to Cañar.

    I have a technical question: Regina and I live in a dusty house, too, with infusions of dust from the alley traffic–not from a main road as I gather is the case in front of your house. I pull the dust from the house in a really terrific Hoover vacuum with a HEPA filter on it, so that the dust is not just recirculated in the air. How do you remove the dust from your home in Cañar?

    On the reading front, a year ago, I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste. It was very good. Right now, I am reading a book she wrote 12 years ago about the migration of black people from the South 1915-1970. I am sure that many of your readers, and may be you too, will have read it: The Warmth of Other Suns. It is a story of this migration, how it happened, what conditions in the south were driving it, how difficult it was to leave and how strange the landing places were, to which people arrived: Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Cincinatti, New York. It is a vivid presentation of Jim Crow America, haunting because most of us in white liberal bubbles just have no idea about what challenges and prejudice as endured by these new arrivals to the North.

    I am reading The Warmth of Other Suns after having read the autobiography of Nate Shaw which is called “All God’s Dangers.” I learned about All God’s Danger while listening to a podcast of Ezra Klein in which he interviewed Noam Chomsky. Chomsky recommended the book saying that, after reading it, you just walk around in a daze for a few days. It is a passionate, eloquent and fluid account of the life of nature, born in 1885, just a few years before my grandfather Papa Cowles, S Macon Cowles Senior, was born. The life of Black people during Jim Crow was a little better than slavery. Sharecropping, and prisons and lynchings were the way of controlling the lives and aspirations of former slaves and their descendants. Nate Shaw was a resilient, strong and ambitious man, and the book follow his life through several generations, including a dozen years in prison starting in 1932 for standing up for another black household, to keep the planter from taking all the family’s belongings. Nature eventually died in around 1970. This amazing book covers much of his life up to his death. It is based on Nates fluid account–that man had a photographic memory– told to a couple of researchers from the north. The detail in the book is what makes it so stunning.

    Finally, I just read Imani Perry’s book “South to America.” I believe it just won the national book award. I didn’t know what to think as I started it. A soil professor at CSU in my book group chose it for us. I figured it would be some kind of travel book. Written by a Princeton professor who spent her first five years in Alabama, but then moved north with her parents, she shows how so many of the things firmly rooted in the south have become tightly woven into the language, music, sport, religion and culture. She has a long riff on use of the N word which is compelling and complicated. Black people may be speaking in 3 or 4 registers. She concludes with, “I won’t tell you what to think about the word itself, but I will tell you to think about what it does, inside history, with all the ghosts intact.”

    Imani Perry has a deep understanding of music. She talks about the son “Carolina on my mind.” The line, “Can you feel the moonshine?” and asks: Is that about hot liquor coursing through your body or about “an indigo moon illuminating the water?” She talks about black musicians and white, and the “music highway” connecting Nashville and Memphis.

    I learned things in Imani Perry’s book that were stunning to me: that the heart of Duke University’s gorgeous buildings–the gothic buildings, built with stone, for course–were all designed by a black architect, Julian Abele.

    She explores the differences between the God of Slaves and the God of Masters, the God of Getting Rich vs. the God worshipped as in “Lord, Take my Hand. ”

    There is something that I love from the last couple of pages of a Imani’s book. She’s talking about her home in Ensley Alabama which she has not visited for too long because of Covid. She speaks of home and the people she sees and the veil that WEB Du Bois wanted to pull a side “to reach to a deeper truth, to see it not as a dividing line but as a portal into something new.” That is what “South to America” did for me. The dividing line between people of different colors can be, instead of a line of strict separation, a portal to a different experience and a profound appreciation of another and of their world.

    Well, I have gone on for too long. And I did not get to tell you about one of the great experiences of my life from Sept. 26-Oct. 11 this year: a raft and hiking trip for two weeks in the Grand Canyon. It was a group chosen by Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stoneyfield Yogurt. Most of us did not know the others when we started. But how we 30 people formed friendships as we spent two weeks together. It was wonderful, fabulous, thrilling.

    Merry Christmas. Love to Michael and to Sherry and Char.

    -Macon Cowles

  3. I love to see what others are reading. I just read two memoirs by Bill Browder about his financial doings in Russia with the oligarchs and his fear of being assassinated. A good look at Putin too. Red Notice is how he got started in Russia and Freezing Order really delves into the money laundering. Fascinating look behind the scenes.

    We are off to South America and Antarctica this week. Got lots of books on my Kindle and Libby.

  4. Dearest Judy

    from Icy Cold Norway, 13 below Celsius- it is a full day job keeping the house livable !! But it warmed getting your vivid sign of life from a bit warmer place in this world. Great photos too !!

    And thank you Macon for your vivid description of books – and recommendations the autobiography Nate Shaw and Imani Perry with citations. I am reading the Nobel prize winner- Annie Ernaux: “Father” and “A woman” and I am looking forward to “The Years”.She is 82 – still going strong demonstrating against the horrible electricity prices and of course the wars.
    But most of all I am looking forward to leaving the North together with “Telling Mother I am in Paradise” – We are leaving xmas in the freezer. The warmth in the Canary Islands will heal our body and soul after a tough 2022. In this regard: I recommend: John Fante (?) “1933 was a Lousy Year” and Heinrich Mann: “The Turning Point” if you want dystopia. I will have the peace of mind to enter the book we have waited for for a long time, the biography of Anna Margarita Gasteazoro. What a woman. Gracias a la vida for 2023

  5. Hello, Judy & Miguel. Congratulations! In your customary indefatigable style, you’ve found your way back to your second home in Andes, shrugging off bad food and the indignities of modern air travel. You both are proof positive that bi-hemispheric life is good for body and soul. Your house looks more gorgeous than ever, and it’s nice to see you now have your own complement of companionable guard dogs. I’m envious of your treks to the local markets. Fred Meyers and Trader Joes can’t compare. Nice to see somewhere that’s not so dependent upon Big Ag.

    Nancy already sent you pics of our beaver-chewed cottonwoods coming down. If you want, I can send more. Our arborists–the ones who pruned your trees–are true aerial artists. The cottonwoods fell without causing any damage to our garden, but when they hit the ground, they literally exploded, sending out the shrapnel of limbs and branches.

    In the book department, I’m reading Amor Towels’ “The Lincoln Road.” He wrote it after “The Gentleman From Moscow.” Also starting Tess Ganty’s “The Rabbit Hutch,” which is this year’s National Book Award winner. In addition, I plan to read a recommended nonfiction book by Susan Linn entitled “Who’s Raising the Kids?” It documents how social media has damaged an entire generation, emotionally and psychologically, and reminds me of the courageous work of Maria Resa, the Filipino journalist who recently received the Noble Prize.

    Per usual, you are both obviously up to your eyeballs with projects. Happily so. Tell Miguel to stay in the kitchen and whip up his moveable feasts for friends and strangers. His excellent meals will keep everyone right with the world. In the meantime, hope you two can take a few minutes to kick back and let the natural beauty of home and garden settle into your bones. –Bruce

  6. Judy, so lovely that the Comment feature is now working on your blog! I love reading others’ recommendations and updates. I am sneaking in a reread of “Why We Swim” by Bonnie Tsui before gifting it to a friend. It’s healing and meditative to be back in the pool again, lap after lap driving out thoughts of the day. Often in the company of our water-loving friend Francie – with the payoff an immersion in the hot tub afterwards, the strong jets trained on all our sore places while we laugh and swap stories.

    Last book prior to this one, you gave me and I loved – A Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. Booker Prize winner in early 90s, the historical fiction of a British slave ship’s fateful 1752 trip to Africa. Beautifully written, sad and deeply revealing of both the evil of the exploiters and the suffering of the exploited – which included not only the enslaved Africans, but the poor, impressed crew members. But revenge is sweet (which I won’t reveal here)!

    So good to see you and Mikito in sunny, warmer climes, with good, fresh food, and your lush inside jungle. I miss you both!! Nancy

  7. Hermana, I loved this “hello, we’re back” from high in the Andres, as always.
    It’s nice to know you are moving toward the warmth of summer while we’re
    bracing for the first day of Winter and the darkest day of the year.
    I’ll try to find a recommendation for the book club, but blood, guts and police
    procedure just doesn’t fit in with the good literature y’all post.
    I will be glad to recommend “Leavings” by Megan McClard as I read every
    work of the large hardback and was enlightened and entertained.
    I will buy the paperback just to have that wonderful cover.
    Love, your middle sister, Char

  8. So delighted to have the Canar Chronicles back up and running. And the book club too. I’ve had a terrible reading year in which I’ve found myself unsatisfied by almost every book I’ve tried. Far too much identity agonising, life-trauma analysing, tedious introspection or just plain dullness! I can’t count the number of books I’ve started and abandoned. (One major exception – your recommendation Judy of Colm Toibin’s The Magician. Such beautiful writing about the fascinating life of Thomas Mann).
    However, I’m happy to report an improvement as the year draws to an end with the discovery (via a gift from a friend) of the author Mariana Leky whose What You Can See From Here is utterly beautiful. A quirky, almost magical realism but not quite, uplifting story which – as the blurb on the back says – will “get you through dark days”.

  9. Found your newsletter and gorgeous sky photos on Spam (again) and thank you for keeping me up to snuff on your travel adventures. Season’s greetings to you and Michael. Here are some of the books I have been reading and liking lately: FABRIC. The History of the Material World by Victoria Finlay. Also by the same author COLOR. A Natural History of the Palette. WINTERS BONE by Daniel Woodrell. Also by him TOMATO RED. AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins. Just out is Barbara Kingsolver’s DEAMON COPERHEAD\
    which I have just started and A GIRL”S STORY by Annie Ernaux, the recent Nobel Prize winner.
    Happy to see you are editing Liv’s book. If you have any questions relating to the English translation, please let me know. And if you have time could you edit my “COOKING SNAILS”?

    All my bets for the new year.

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