Our Future in Cañar


Dear Friends: Although we left Cañar at the beginning of July, I want to write one more chronicle this season to report on our brief two months there, as we made decisions that will determine our future in Cañar and that of the Cañar Chronicles. (Spoiler: we will continue to live in Cañar half-years and I will continue to write.)

But to go back. As many of our friends know, Michael has Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative condition that affects movement and other physical functions. In Michael’s case, the onset was late (about 4 years ago) and progression is slow. Nevertheless, at 86 years (this month), he shows more signs of the disease in his posture, walking, and energy levels. There is no cure, but symptoms are controlled with a standard drug taken three times a day. Last fall, when Michael ended up in the hospital for two weeks with a complicated type of pneumonia, we realized that the dependable body he has enjoyed up to his 80s will never be the same. This wonderful body that built two houses – one inside out, the other outside-in – renovated three houses for resale, and did countless kitchen and bathroom remodels around Portland in the 30 years he was a contractor. (He painted our front porch the week before he went into the hospital). He recovered slowly, and once we got the OK from his doctor that his lungs were clear, we made plans to go back to Cañar for two months as a sort of trial run. First, we wanted to see how he would do with the rigors of travel – from Portland to Cañar is a two-day, tiring trip through at least three airports – and second, how he would do in our hilly town at 10,000 feet without a car and few of the immediate luxuries we enjoy in Portland.

It went well for the most part. We were welcomed back by the taxi/truck drivers available on five-minute notice to take us anywhere in the area for $2.00. Over the years they’ve become friends and sources of information, as well as dependable transportation. When I developed a bad flu in May, a driver took us into town to a doctor whose name we’d be given (our previous one retired). When we rang the bell, we could hear the doctor clomping down the stairs from the family house upstairs. He sat at the desk in his tiny office crowded with photos and artwork by kids and grandkids, then checked me out, gave me a shot and an Rx, and charged $20. When Michael developed something similar he did the same for him. So just like that, we have a doctor in Cañar. (Later, someone said, “You didn’t know that most of our doctors come to your house?”)

And of course, Michael’s famous woodman Chirote showed up immediately, plaintively yelling “Mikito” from the road – “I’ve been crying and missing you!” – his usual routine. One of Michael’s great pleasures in Cañar is building a fire at around 3:00 every day, when he sits with a tall beer and “muses” until it’s time to make dinner. For that, he needs a constant source of wood and Chirote is his man. But when Chirote made the next delivery without telling Michael how much wood he was bringing and how much he would charge, Michael refused to pay and they broke up.  I was there to capture the moment…

…and again for the make-up a few weeks later.

We also had the good fortune to meet gardener Marco Verdugo last year when we hired him to mow the lawn and tend the garden once a month while we were In Portland. He would send beautiful videos of our garden and his work on Facebook Messenger. So when Annie Tucker and I went to Cañar in February this year for a relampago visit. I messaged Marco and asked him to help take down the shutters. I saw then how efficient he was. So before we arrived in May I asked him to help Michael take down the front shutters that require a ladder, and to wash the windows…  …then to help me with the gardening and heavy pruning……and again to cut and stack the woodpile. You get the picture: we now have found a dependable person to help us with the heavy work around the house. 

But perhaps the most significant moment came the day I was due to go into Cuenca for a press-check of the Navas photo book – the last possible moment to make any changes before a final printing – in this case, 500 copies. At 3:00 that afternoon I was to meet the designer, the printers, the project team, and the Navas family to see the first sample book. But Michael had not bounced back from his flu, and that morning he was so light-headed he could not get out of bed. I was reluctant to leave him alone all day, but he insisted I go, saying I should lock the gate and he would stay in bed. I worried and dithered, and finally left a couple of hours late, but before that, I’d run through several scenarios – some shared with Michael – that contributed to my thinking about our future. IF I needed someone to come stay with Michael, I could call Patricia who cleans our house and works nearby (F-no! says Michael). IF he needed a ride to town to see a doctor he could call one of our taxi-truck friends who would even help him from house to taxi, taxi to office, and home again. (“Never!” says Michael.) IF he needed a doctor urgently, he could call one to come to the house. (“Won’t happen!” says Michael).

Still, I left the padlock on the gate open and checked with our neighbor next door who was out in his garden if he would look in on Michael should I need him. I did call Michael several times while I was gone, and when I got home early evening he was sitting by the fire with a beer, as though it had been an ordinary day. On June 28 – the day before we left Cañar, I presented the Navas book at the Centro Civico with the Cañar mayor beside me, along with the Navas family, the Catholic University team who had published the book, and an audience of townsfolk and friends.  Everyone who came was given a book. (The law in Ecuador says public institutions cannot sell books but must give them away.)  And so I’m happy to give you all a digital copy of Desde de Mirada de Rigoberto Navas: 1940-1960 here. _LibroNavas

We left the next morning for Guayaquil-Miami-Portland. Our travel worries? Who needs Global Entry when you can breeze through immigration, customs, and TSA with a wheelchair (and a partner who trots alongside pulling a carry-on)?  We plan to go back to Cañar on November 1 for six months. If anyone is interested in renting our house in Portland, please get in touch! And, of course, you are always welcome to visit us in Cañar.

The Cañar Book Club

I’ve been reading promiscuously this summer, as I tend to do when I’m in Portland and have access to many sources of books. Following the recommendation of a member who described her “Tóibín-fest,” I went back and read Colm Tóibín’s first novel, The South, which I liked very much as it is about art and artists in post-Civil War Spain and in Ireland. Then I moved on to Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, which put me off a bit when I realized novel was about Mary he mother of Jesus in the last years of her life. I let it expire from the library, but rather regretted it when I read this review comment: “The Testament of Mary is a reminder that Jesus indeed had a mother, and she was nobody’s fool.”  Now I’m on safer ground with his The Blackwater Lightship, set in Ireland in the early days of AIDS, with flashbacks that  I see from reading Toibin’s Wikipedia site, cover the ground of his own lonely childhood in Ireland. (I’ve also read many of Tóibín’s later travel and fiction books, so I’m a certified fan.)

Beyond that, I’m immersed in a memoir about a world I knew nothing about: How to Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair is the extraordinary story of a young woman growing up in a Rastafari family in Jamaica in the 1980s. I first read her in a New Yorker excerpt and kept the book on my list. I’m about halfway through and find it fascinating.

I won’t bore you with the books I put down without finishing, or finished with the thought, that I’d wasted my time.  But hey, it’s summer and hot, and I have a hammock, and I’m entitled to some rubbish reading. 

Let’s hear what you all have been reading, rubbish or not!  




A 14-year photography project comes home to Cañar


Dear Friends: Someone commenting on my last chronicle asked where I was in the story.  So this one is mainly about me. However, later on, you’ll get a glimpse of Michael with his giant langoustine and soup recipe.

As seen above, the book Cañar: Desde la Mirada de Rigoberto Navas, 1940-1960 (“From the View of Rigoberto Navas, 1940-1960”) will be launched in Cañar on June 28, one day before we return to Portland. Five hundred books are being printed right now in Cuenca and won’t be ready until one day before the big event. Eeek! After the usual slow and complicated buildup, everything happens at the last minute. But the print job is gorgeous, and I couldn’t be happier to see this project come home.

The Navas project goes back to 2010, when two members of the family approached me to ask if I could print some of their father’s glass plate negatives in my darkroom. Although I didn’t have an enlarger adequate for 4″ x 5″ negatives, I was happy to make contact prints – where I laid the negatives directly onto photographic paper, exposed them to light. and developed the paper in my chemicals. Here’s an example of a contact sheet:

You can imagine my excitement when I saw the quality of the images. Rigoberto Navas (1911-2001) was the Cañar town photographer for over 50 years, and also a professor at the technical high school. Over the years I’d been curious about the Estudio Navas sign hanging outside the family home in town, but I knew nothing more. When I returned the first batch of glass plates to Marta and Paul Navas I asked if I could come to the studio and look at more negatives. They said of course. Truth is, I was looking for images of the Indigenous Cañari communities  – people, places and events of a culture that was hardly documented during the 20th century. In my next few darkroom sessions with the negatives, very few Cañari images turned up, but something else happened. Here, from my essay included in the book:

It was the portrait of a young couple that had me hooked. Posed in Navas’ studio in what may have been a wedding portrait, given the seriousness of her gaze into the camera, the woman was barefoot, while the man wore ashotas– rubber sandals. His arm is around her shoulders, and next to them on the studio wall is a cardboard advertisement for a 1951 Ford car. Who were they? Where were they from?  Why doesn’t she have shoes? Why the cardboard on the wall? As a documentary photographer, my curiosity was piqued. I wanted to know more.

I realized that the Navas negatives—images of schools, sports, baptisms, buildings, civic events, studio portraits, and more—offered a window into daily life in a small market town in the southern Andes of Ecuador. Who could resist? Thus began a slow cycle of printing a stack of glass negatives and returning them to the Navas studio (really just a large dusty closet) in the home where Rigoberto’s wife, Luz Maria, still lived with three of their fourteen adult children. I’d have afternoon coffee with the family—other Navas siblings from around town usually showed up—and take home another box of glass plates. (Photo: my darkroom circa 2018 below)

This went on, hit and miss, over several years during the six months I lived here. At one point I tried to create metadata system to record names and dates, consulting with Marta, my main contact in the family, but it was nearly impossible. Señor Navas left no records and, in fact, almost no photos except in family albums around town – only thousands of negatives!

One day in 2020, confined by the pandemic and in a burst of activity, I printed around 150 photos on my home printer, and with paper, scissors, and glue I spent several days assembling a sample book. Very crude. I used an existing photo book I liked and simply pasted in the photos and created a mock cover. I took to carrying it around in my backpack whenever I had meetings with municipal or cultural authorities. Everyone loved the idea of the book but no public institution had money to publish it.

Finally, a couple of years ago, I met a woman from the Catholic University in Cuenca at a meeting at the Casa de la Cultura in Azogues. At an opportune moment, I pulled out the sample book. She looked at it and said, “Hmmm, we have a new Culture Department at our university; I’d like to show this to them.” The rest, as they say, is history. Well, perhaps a rather rocky history, with personnel changes at the university and lots of delays. In the meantime, I was determined to find the names of the few Cañari folks appearing in the book. While it was easy to identify townsfolk – Marta would take one look and say, “That’s family so-and-so; the grandson is the pharmacist down the street,” it was harder to locate Cañari names from faces of seventy years ago.

I turned to an old friend, Tayta José Pichizaca, who came to look at photos on my computer and was able to give me a few names for photo captions in the book.

Once I returned to Ecuador this May, the culture folks at the Catholic University finally puse las pilas, as they say here (literally, “put in the batteries”). They hired a talented designer and a copyeditor, I loaded and edited the photos, and we all worked non-stop to get the book ready to print.

In the photos below, from just last Friday, we are getting a first look at the proof printed book. Pictured are the book designer Sebastian Egas; the head of the Culture Department Gemma Rosas; the in-house print technician; and two of the Navas sisters.

The book is gorgeous!  I’ll admit I was surprised that the university print shop could do such a fantastic job. (Technical note: it’s laser printed using a four-color process but making it duotone using only yellow and black – creating a rich sepia tone.)

All my materials from this 14-year project will go back to the Navas family, who propose to create a Navas museum that would include their father’s photos, darkroom equipment, cameras, even a 16mm film projector (he brought the first cinema to Cañar).

OK, Michael’s been patiently waiting in the wings to show you his giant langoustine. A couple of weeks ago he bought a pound of shrimp with heads on at the Sunday market for $5. (Well, I’ve exaggerated in the drawing – but this one was 10 inches – we measured!)

Mike’s Monster Langoustine Soup

  • Pull off heads and shells and put in stock of plain water or fish stock with a little white wine. Simmer up to one hour on low heat with lid on pot.
  • Meanwhile, finely dice a small purple onion, 5-6 garlic cloves, and add 2 T of tomato paste.
  • With a slotted spoon remove all heads and shells from the stock and add all above ingredientes.
  • Add two medium-sized potatoes, cubed, to the stock. Cook about 15 minutes. Meanwhile cut shrimp into bite-sized pieces, and add to soup at the last minute. Cook for about 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve!

C a ñ a r  B o o k  C l u b

At last! We come to books, and I have a bonanza of recommendations this month. Thanks to all our faithful members who responded after May’s meeting.

  • Annie in Portland:  “I’m reading Mighty Bad Land: A Perilous Expedition to Antarctica Reveals Clues to an Eighth Continent by Bruce Luyendyke, a geologist and friend of my husband Steve Tucker, who died two years ago.  It’s about the author’s first trip to Antartica when Steve was along as a mountaineer. I haven’t had the courage to read it until now. He mentions Steve a lot who I think helped keep a level-head when they faced adversity such as storms that delayed plane-drops of equipment. Bruce does a nice job of painting both the team’s work and the day-to-day life living on ice. His group went on to discover a large submarine  plateau resulting  from two tectonic plates colliding, a discovery that led to a mountain being named after him.”
  • Pat in Oregon: I join the consensus with Hisham Matar’s last part of the triptych which includes In the Country of Men and The Return. A Month in Sienna is a meditation on Sienese art in the 1600’s and is elegant, as usual. Also, I read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. A couple in their 50’s lose their farm and the husband receives a terminal diagnosis. They decide to walk the South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, a path of some 630 miles. In the end they make their way to peace and reconciliation. (Comment from Judy: I also read this and enjoyed this immensely. Based on the fame of the first book, Winn wrote a second (not quite as engaging) memoir, The Wild Silence.)
  • Richard in Oslo: I am reading Mikael Niemi’s latest (a Swedish writer from the Finn-Swede border region in the northern forest, where his very funny first book Popular Music from Vittula was set. His previous book is called To Cook a Bear, and the latest, and best in my eyes and ears, is not yet in English but will probably be The Stone in Silk, or Silk-wrapped Stone. (Comment from Judy: I downloaded both these books and have just finished To Cook A Bear – a rather misleading title. It takes place in the far north of Sweden in 1852….”following a runaway Sami boy and his mentor, the famous pastor Laestadius, as they investigate a murder in their village along with the mysteries of life.” Be warned that what appears to be an innocent story turns dark and violent and sad.)
  • Claire in London: I’m late to Colm Toibin. and am utterly enchanted by his writing. I’d read The Magician (the one based on the life of Thomas Mann) and really liked it. Next, I read The South (set largely in post-civil war Spain to which an unhappy Irish woman has fled and where she falls in love with an ex-communist fighter). I was blown away by the writing and was completely immersed in the characters and place (extraordinary to learn it’s his first novel!). I went straight on to another one – The Heather Blazing which I found utterly compelling even though I didn’t particularly like the main character. But as a study of small-town and rural Irish life in the mid-20th century, it was brilliant. (Judy’s comment: I also love Colm Toibin and can recommend The Master (about Henry James), Nora Webster and Brooklyn. Now everyone – including me – is on the wait list for his new book, Long Island, said to be a continuation of Brooklyn.)
  • Claire continues: So after my Toibin-fest, I read An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris. Harris is a masterful storyteller though his prose is fairly pedestrian. But An Officer and a Spy is Harris at his best. It’s the story of the Dreyfuss Affair in France, something I’ve always “known” about but not really understood. He writes it like a thriller while also highlighting the complex relationship between Army, State and Catholic church, and the deeply rooted anti-semitism in all three. I could not put it down. 
  • Joanne in Portland: Long Island by Colm Toibin is a great read. Straightforward language and dialogue but psychologically complex portraits. I’m glad I read Kairos, by Jenny Erpenbeck. At times, the characters seemed more allegorical than real, but the backdrop of a changing Germany is fascinating. I more admired than enjoyed it.
  • Jeffrey Ashe, one of the first Peace Corps volunteers in Cañar in the 1960’s and later a pioneer in microfinance, recommends: We are Not Able to Live in the Sky: The Seductive Promise of Microfinance by Mara Kardas-Nelson.

That’s it for now, dear friends. Keep your suggestions coming as I’m planning one more chronicle in July.


News from just south of the equator


Dear Friends:   We left Portland On May 1 on an overnight flight to Miami. The next day we flew on to Guayaquil, where we checked into our usual hotel with the ridiculous name I can never get quite right: Wnydyam, Whymdam, no – Wyndham Garden! Anyway, it’s known to us, close to the airport, friendly and secure –  important in the “number-one most dangerous city in Ecuador.” An image belied, I think, by the giant (Soviet-era style) handshake we passed twice on our way to the hotel.

On arrival, we have our ritual cold beer with lunch (Club Verde) and dinner in the room with Trader Joe’s snacks. The trip was easier this year because, for the first time, Michael used chairs and carts for airport arrivals, changing terminals, and getting through immigration and customs. We were even escorted out to the curb in the coastal heat (90+) of Guayaquil to a hotel minibus. (American Airlines, great service, easy travel.) On my trip here in March with my friend Annie, she clocked us walking eight miles coming and going through airports.

The next day, May 3, the hotel arranged for a driver to take us to Cañar – four hours, $130. We both sat in the backseat to discourage chatting. We’ve had all sorts of Guayaquil-Cañar drivers over the years – some virtually mute (best), others overly chatty (most annoying!), one disoriented (we had to give him directions), and some…just right. This guy, Javier, was in the last category: good driver, minimal chat, good springs, and he easily handled the long detour on a dirt road with large trucks lined up due to a fallen bridge. A flooded river, poor construction, and slow rebuilding reminded us we were in a country with poor infrastructure – not like in the U.S. ….Oh, wait, maybe not true? 

After that, we begin the serpentine climb into the highlands and the landscape turns lovely green and misty. I too get a little misty as we approach our southern home.

Arriving at our house in Cañar is always an anxious moment. Last year we hired Marco to tend to the garden once a month and it has made a big difference in the look of the place Before that, while we were gone, our comadre’s sheep were used to trim the grass, but they also ate most of the flowers and bushes. Here’s Michael with the keys to the kingdom, I mean the gate!And the patio looks great, although we must do something before the macho aloe reaches the roof.

It’s been ten months since we’ve been in Cañar together, and Michael is greeted everywhere as the returned prodigal son (grandfather?). On the streets, he’s greeted affectionately, by the worker who yells from the second floor of a house under construction  – Hola Miquito! – to market vendors, neighbors, taxi/truck drivers, and his wood guy, Chirote (“I’ve been crying!”). This is the longest absence since we began our yearly six-month stays in 2005. Everyone has watched the only gringos in town grow older and Michael more stooped and slow. When we didn’t come in December some must have assumed the worst. Depending on the questions, we give different answers: salud delicada (delicate health, a favorite expression), un crisis de salud (a health crisis), un problema con el pulmón (problem with the lung), or – to our neighbor who is a doctor, the detailed truth: last fall Michael had a complicated pleural effusion caused by pneumonia that required two weeks in the hospital and a long recovery time. (Others ask if we want to sell the house.)

 We have only come for two months to see how Michael does at this altitude (10,100 ft) and with the rigors of living here. If all goes well, we hope to come back in November or December for our usual six months.  So far so good! 

Our daily routine here is much like in Portland but with variations. Michael still plans each dinner, but instead of jumping into the car and running to New Seasons (to spend a fortune), he trudges up the hill with his old Orvis shopping bag to see what’s available. The other day I went with him and watched, while with a twenty-dollar bill ($20) he bought a pork tenderloin, a liter of milk, a giant yellow pepper, household cleaning supplies, spices, and a bottle of rum. I think he even got some change. Of course, the selection in the MegaMart in Cañar is seriously limited, so Michael takes the bus to Cuenca every week – two hours each way – and shops at the SuperMaxi for luxuries such as butter and cheese and jamon serrano. There, he spends more than $20!

Late afternoon he makes a fire, has a rum and a beer, and prepares dinner. I work on a watercolor at the dining room table, with a glass of wine. We eat dinner in front of the fire while listening to This American Life or PBS news, after which we watch a movie or series on my 13″ laptop. I am the curator of the evening’s entertainment, limited to Netflix or Apple TV while we’re here (recommended: Disobedience on former; The Booksellers on latter). We go to bed around 9:30. Nights are cold, at 40-50F degrees, dark and quiet, and sleeping is delicious.

Cañar Book Club

Oh, my dear readers, I have missed you! Our Cañar Book Club is bursting with news, recommendations and literary gossip. But first: I am mourning the disappearance from this life of one of my favorite authors, Alice Munro. Favorite of all the world, it appears, by the cascade of articles and obits and homages. I began to read her when I moved to Canada in 1975 and followed her through her books and New Yorker stories to her last book, Dear Life, published the year before she won the Nobel Prize, sitting on my bedside bookshelf in Portland.

It’s been so long, I’ll start with what I’m reading now and move backward (as memory allows). Staying with Canada, The Art of Leaving by the Canadian/Israeli writer, Ayelet Tsabari, was recommended by either Arlene in Toronto or Daphne in Victoria – both beloved friendships based on books and shared histories. A memoir published in 2019, The Art of Leaving is set mostly in the 1980s in a very different Israel from now, as Ayelet grows up a young Yemini girl who loses her father at age 10 and becomes the rebellious creature that colors her stories. I’m learning a lot about her Misrahi ethnic group within Israel, originating in the Arab cultures, and the discrimination and racism she experienced coming of age before she escaped to India, New York, and finally Canada. 

Before that, The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng took me to another unknown region of the world, that of Penang, Malaysia, in the early 20th century when it was still a British colony. Based on true events, the novel allowed me to hang out with the character of Somerset Maugham – the most popular and richest British writer of his era – and his British hosts. Tan Twan Eng is a Malaysian writer, nominated for multiple Booker prizes, including for The House of Doors. Thanks, Joanne of Portland and Patzcuaro for recommending it.

And before this, looking back at notes in my calendar, I see a list of depressing books with comments like: ugh! – hard! – omg! – tragic! – ends too abrupt! We’ll skip those, but amongst them are a few gems: My Friends, a novel by Hisham Matar, a Libyan/British author I always read, follows the lives of two Libyan university students in Edinburgh after they are critically injured at a demonstration in front of the Libyan embassy in London. The narrative in this novel dovetails with Matar’s non-fiction accounts of life in Libya and the consequences of his father’s disappearance into one of Quaddifi’s prisons:  In the Country of Men and The Return.

And to end with another Canadian writer whose books I enjoyed: Birds, Art, Life, and Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Lives and Family Secrets, by Kyo Maclear. Both are the kinds of memoirs based on journals and daily life that I’m dedicated to as a reader and a writer. The author, married to musician David Wall, is the daughter-in-law of another beloved friend from Toronto who died a couple of years ago: Naomi Wall.

As I await your book recommendations for my June Chronicle, I send all Cañar Book Club members a big hug.