The Pope, the Shaman, the Taxi Driver & U.S. Customs Agents

on the road to Guayaquil

on the road to Guayaquil

Well, I can’t resist one last Cañar Chronicle, given the prefect storm that accompanied our leaving Cañar last week. How could we have known when we made our reservations six months ago that El Papa would be flying into Ecuador the next day? That there would be no buses through Cañar because all were going straight to Guayaquil for the Pope’s mass, where a million people were expected? That protesters against President Correa would take advantage of the turmoil and close some roads around us the day before we were to travel? El Papa 2Making this trip more complicated (and interesting), Mama Michi was traveling with us to visit her daughter in the U.S. Fortunately, the day before our flight, and seeing trouble coming, we had hired Jacinto, our friend/taxi driver, to take us to Guayaquil. We agreed to leave Cañar at 3:00 for a flight on American at 11:00 PM.

As Jacinto tied Mama Michi’s two enormous bags on top of his car, I asked her why she was taking so much luggage for only a month’s visit. “It’s food,” she whispered. “I’m worried about the food there.” She was also, of course, taking typical Cañari fare as gifts for her family. I asked her to name what was in the bags: five cuyes (guinea pigs), cleaned and ready for cooking, and one already cooked; one rabbit cleaned and ready to cook; five bottles of Zhumir, the cane liquor so important at any ritual event; a bag of fresh shelly beans, another of peas and one of choclos (fresh field corn in husks) – all harvested from Mama Michi’s fields in the days before the trip; a bag of dried corn to make mote, an essential filler at every meal; and a pound of máchica, dried ground barley added to milk or other liquid for a drink that everyone loves; PLUS a big box full of tamales and chiviles (another type of tamale). Everything for the Andean diet except potatoes.mama michi now

After Jacinto picked up his wife – an unexpected fourth passenger – and stopped at the local roadside shrine to collect holy water, which he sprinkled on the car, on Michael in the front seat, and a few last drops on we three women crowded in the back, we were off…in plenty of time, so we accepted Jacinto’s invitation to stop at his “coast house” for beers. Every Cañarejo seems to want a warm place on the coastal plane, 9,000 feet below, where they can grow bananas and other sub-tropical crops not possible in Cañar. And have flowers galore. Here is Mama Michi posing with a “bear’s paw ” bush at Jacinto’s casita. She uses plants in her curaciones, so she was fascinated with the the flora. (A bundle of dried flowers and plants in one of her bags would figure in our near future.)

I should stop here and explain that Mama Michi (Mercedes Chuma) is one of our oldest friends in Cañar. I met her in 1991, on my very first trip to the (then) village for a meeting on a research project. I was a volunteer, ready to teach two young Cañari men photography and sound recording, and one of those young men was Mama Michi’s son, Jose Miguel. At a time of great distrust of outsiders, she welcomed me and found me amusing. She was an early and one of my best portrait subjects. Back then she was a community leader and a tired mother of 6 children with a sick husband, Serafin. After her husband died, Mama Michi became a curadera, a healer, or – as her passport says – shamán. She said she always knew she had the talent but her husband prevented her from practicing. Since then she has built an impressive business that has lifted her family well out of poverty. Mama Michi, however, did not have the advantage of an education beyond grade 3, and for that reason she needs to travel with someone – she cannot read nor write. Here she is in her first portrait, circa 1993.

Mama Michi Chuma

After the stop at Jacinto’s, it was a straight shot to the airport, except for a traffic police stop for no other reason than our out-of-province license plates and pure corrupt shakedown. We passengers watched in the rearview mirrors much arm-waving and angry gestures as the officers’ demand was negotiated down from $125, to $75, to $50, to $25. “Que disgracia! Que disgracia!” sweet, honest, religious Jacinto kept saying as he got back in the car. What a disgrace.MM & Michael in airport

me Mercedes in airportOnce at the airport we had plenty of time to relax and run into friends. Now that the US Consulate has begun to give out visas to Cañarejos, after years of refusing just about everyone, there’s lots of traffic visiting family, mostly in New York and New Jersey. Waiting, we ran into Mercedes Guamán, one of our first scholarship graduates and now a busy attorney and alternate member of the national congress.

At check-in, Mama Michi’s bags were overweight, and as I had a nearly empty suitcase I stuffed several unidentified packages from her bags into mine. “Bad idea, very bad idea,” Michael kept murmuring. But I forgot to ask MM about her carry-on, and that caused the first contretemps as we went through security. What are these? “Bottles of agua florida for my for my ceremonies,” she said. (Basically cologne with magic powers for “limpiezas, buena suerte, y protección.”) 

agua florida label agua florida

You can’t take those.  What’s this? “Olive oil, used for massages,” she said. Can’t take that, or that big tube of hand cream. And what is this? “My tupo, to hold my cape.” (A tupo is an essential part of every Cañari woman’s clothing – a sort of medallion with a small skewer about 4 inches long.) The security folks gathered around to test the point with their fingers, and shook their heads. I could see it was a beautiful silver tupo, maybe her mother’s, but in any case a treasured item. “You can’t take that,” I said. “It’s part of her heritage, her identity.” Without a word, one of the security women quietly stuck the tupo into a pocket of Mama Michi’s purse.

the long long hallway

OK. I think I’ll skip the drama of passing through Immigration in Miami at 4:30 AM, when Mama Michi was lost for an hour and a half in the visa-holders’ line and no one could let us go back to look for her once we had passed through the US citizens’ line. After a tearful reunion we grabbed our bags and rushed to customs, fearing we would miss our flight to Chicago. (Meanwhile I’d transferred her goods from my bags to hers.) There, Mama Michi’s luggage was opened by an agent to reveal all the glory of her hard work and planning and preparing and packing. Polite young agents who spoke Spanish gathered around and began to look for insects in her beans and corn and peas. “Yes, there’s a laper-something,” (Latin name) said one young agent, carefully peeling back the husks of an ear of corn with vinyl gloves. A young woman came over with a small vial to collect a nearly microscopic bug. “Can’t take the corn, sorry” he said in Spanish, very polite.  Oops, what’s that worm we see in the beans?  Sorry can’t take those. Nor the peas. What else do you have?

With that Mama Michi began the litany of goods: surprisingly, raw guinea pig was OK, but not beef or pork (she had none). Bottles of Zhumir, no problem. Dried corn and barley, fine. The bundle of dried flowers and herbs, OK. And the large box of cooked tamales and chiviles – looks good! YOU MAY GO.

By the time we were done, we had missed our flight to Chicago. That meant lining up to be re-routed with hundreds of other international travelers who had missed their connections. But again, very nice American Airlines helpers who spoke Spanish, all interested in Mama Michi, and in keeping us together for the remainder of the trip. “What tribe are you from?” asked someone along the way?  “Is she from Peru?” asked another. “May I speak to her?”

It was barely 9:00 when we were liberated into the Miami airport, exhausted, with two long flights still ahead, but we’d got to Guayaquil despite the Pope’s visit, survived Immigration and US Customs, and could begin to recover with coffee, breakfast, and a bit of rest.



A Trip to the Coast

long viewOur trip to the coast began as all our Cañar departures begin: waiting on the side of the Pan American Highway for a bus. As our town sits right on this artery running the length of Ecuador (and all of South America, for that matter), buses barrel through day and night, along with giant trucks carrying gas canisters, double-trailers with racks of Coca Cola, oversized construction materials, and heavy Coca Cola truck 1military equipment.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist. I looked for a stock photo of the open-sided trucks that carry Coca Cola to all points in Ecuador. Here’s an historic version. )

So….one early morning about two weeks ago, as M. and I stood at the intersection where buses stop briefly (no bus terminal yet in Cañar, though promised) we eyed the others waiting, trying to guess who was going to Quito and who was going to Guayaquil. This matters, because there’s always a rush when a bus pulls up and the assistant driver jumps down and yells the destination: “Quito, Quito,” or “Guayaquil, Guayaquil.” With no protocol about lining up in an orderly fashion, it’s strictly first-come-first-served, so you simply squint as the bus approaches, trying to read the destination sign in the windshield, and guess where it will come to a full stop. Then you rush to get on.

1. bus arrives crop 5. quito riobamba sign4. Riobamba! Quito! 3 rush for the door crop6. last call7. on its wayP1090994

Here’s the sequence in photos I happened to catch the other day.  Bus arrives at intersection; passengers stand on alert. Where’s it going?  The driver’s helper walks alongside yelling: “Riobamba, Riobamba, Quito, Quito.”A rush for the door. Last call as the helper jumps onboard. Bus leaves. (about 8 minutes max).

For this trip we needed a bus to Guayaquil, on a route that turns west off the PanAm less than an hour north. But M. and I have a system – if we have luggage to put below, he stays beside the bus while I run for the door and jump on to check if there are seats. If so, I plop a backpack on each to claim while M. waits for the assistant to open the luggage compartment. If there are no seats (the driver always says there are), I stick my head out the door and yell at Michael: “NO HAY ASIENTOS!” and he grabs our bags back, I jump off, and we settle down to wait for the next bus – usually about a half hour.

This time we got lucky. A bus pulled up after about ten minutes, almost empty. We took seats with more legroom than a business-class flight, and on the west side with the best views. Michael had made sandwiches, as he does for any bus trip over two hours, in case we got hungry. We happily settled in for the four-hour, 10,000-feet descent to Guayaquil. (don’t believe the times in the maps below…)

MAP Cañar, Guayaquil GYE-Playas 2

Our Cuenca friend, Susana, met us at the bus station in Guayaquil and drove us to Playas, where she and her sister have a beach house. On the way, she told wonderful stories from her childhood when she, along with her mother and siblings, spent school vacations at the beach and her father came from Cuenca on weekends. Their house was near the single phone booth in the village, always with an impatient lineup of folks, and Susana and family could hear shouted conversations about whose child had diarrhea, who was coming and who was going, and whose daughter was flirting shamelessly with a boy from Quito.

Shortly, we were sitting on Susana’s terrace overlooking the bay of Playas, wearing far fewer clothes than we’ve worn these past five months. The temperature was at about 90 degrees (30C) and the views magnificent. terraceOriginally a fishing village, Playas has been somewhat discovered by “los ricos de Guayaquil” who’ve built a couple of high rises, but it remains basically a fishing village around a natural harbor. The fishermen go out in the morning in wooden dories or on these amazing balsa rafts, made of 3 or 5 balsa logs simply roped together.

balsa raft launching

a balsa launch with helpers

Four or six men stand on the rafts with only paddles, (although we saw some balsas on the beach with sails). The fisherman set nets offshore and then come in for the day, going out again in the afternoon to haul in the nets.  fisher w nets & birds

We got lucky one afternoon to come upon the “great haul” as men (and one woman) pulled in a huge net. The frigatebirds and I were equally excited, as I grabbed photos and they grabbed fish. The birds came in so low, fast and aggressive, I ducked a few times. As the nets get closer, everyone gathers around to hold in the fish while other helpers load them into crates to carry to trucks on the beach.high rise backgroundfish in netJPG

We asked what kind of fish – they looked too small for the market – and I’m sorry to report the answer was balanceado – animal food. We also asked how much the fishermen and helpers made in one day, and once we’d worked out the formula it came to about $25.00. However, we enjoyed the bounty of the coast with a visit to the fish market for pulpo (octupus) that M. fixed one night, and a red snapper dinner another night by María, Susana’s cook.

susana michael market

fish 1But the best part of the trip was spending time with our good friend, Susana, and her sweet chocolate Lab, Ron (rum in English). Every afternoon they played in the surf.S & Ron in surf

El Niño has heated the usually cool water this time of year to almost 80 degrees, and so I put on my rarely-used, ad hoc “swimming costume” and rolled around a bit in the surf. Michael did not of course, and also refused sunscreen on his lily-white legs, so his skin is still peeling.M with sail

*  *  *  *  *

Two weeks later: June 21, first day of summer, and the temperature was 47 degrees this morning, with spitting rain. One recent night the wind howled all night and shook doors and windows. As I write, it’s not yet 10:00 AM and I’m sitting by the fire, which we’ve had the last three mornings – the first morning fires since we came in January. It’s time to go home to summer in Portland.

But I’ve got a least one more blog to write before we leave. So don’t sign off on Cañar Chronicles 2015 yet.

The Mexico We Didn’t Know

imageDear Friends: We are in Mérida, Mexico, in the Yucatán Peninsula, where yesterday it was 98 degrees. Today is to be 101. And tomorrow, the temperature will be 104. That’s one-hundred-and-four degrees farenheit! It’s taken us several days to adapt to such a hot climate, or perhaps I should say to learn to survive. The first days we rushed about, stayed out in the mid-day heat like mad dogs, ate too large a lunch at 12:00 sharp, then collapsed in our hotel for several hours in a siesta-stupor. The only thing to revive us was dipping into the grotto-like swimming pool at our small hotel, where M. and I donned swimming suits and swam a few strokes for the first time in about 10 years.image
Now we’ve learned: Like the locals, you go out and about in the early morning, (walking very slow), have lunch between 1:00 and 3:00, stay indoors between 3:00 and 8:00, and venture out for nighttime activities at about 9:00 (when concerts and other cultural activities start). We have a couple of margaritas about 10:30 PM on one of the leafy plazas, and go to bed about midnight. It’s a wild life for us (in Cañar, we’re in bed before 9:30, and the difference in temperature between there and here is about 50 degrees F.)

But we are enjoying ourselves nonetheless, in part because we’ve ended up in this quirky small hotel in the historic center where we are the only guests.
image Casa Mexilio is a colonial townhouse converted into a warren of eight high-ceilinged rooms, narrow twisting stairways, terraces in surprising places, interior balconies with tile awnings (Escher could have been the architect), a small limestone pool at ground level, wrought iron galore, and crammed with Mexican antiques. Oh, and I didn’t mention the mourning cat who has recently lost her three kittens (died soon after birth) and wanders around at night, howling for them. We call her la gata llorona, the crying cat.

(Our room)

The “sala,” or breakfast room, but since no breakfast is offered because we are the only guests, every morning we go around the corner to this lovely place, La Flor de Santiago.
Tripadvisor respondents had many complaints about Casa Mexilio: rude ex-pat owner (“too long in Mexico”), dusty, creepy, Dracula-like. But I had a feeling these might endear us to the place, so I made a reservation for five nights in the Enrique Granados room (a famous Mexican composer). Also, I confess, I like staying in a place where we don’t have to talk to anyone, especially other sun-stunned tourists (like us) that I see out on the streets in large groups, or couples arguing in the market about what Yucatán handcrafts to buy.

Mérida itself has been something of a disappointment. Perhaps because it is so hot, much of life takes place behind tall walls and closed doors. Every house and hotel has a beautiful garden, patio, or terrace inside, but out on the narrow streets traffic thunders by at frightening speeds. The noise level is terrific. Many streets in the historic center are lined with run-down houses, some nothing but facades. Because this is a UNESCO city, these houses cannot be torn down, but neither do the owners want to invest the money to restore them. Many properties are for sale.

And tourism has come full-tilt to Mérida, so streets in tourist areas are teeming with aggressive and insistent vendors and hawkers, haranguing us in broken English to eat at their restaurant or buy their handcrafts or take their tours to Maya sites. In contrast are the quiet and sad-eyed Mayan village women who walk the streets day and night offering their blouses and bags. I finally don’t want to make eye contact with anyone. and that’s no way to travel.

We leave Mérida tomorrow for Campeche, about three hours away by bus, a “colonial gem” on the coast where it’s reported to be even hotter. But a storm is predicted which should bring cooler temperatures. Then we head for the mountains of Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas, where hotels have fireplaces and heated floors. Ah, heaven…….
(Finally, a few images of the beautiful floors in every old house, called “baldosas,” tiles made of poured cement with dyed patterns – classic Mexico.)

The things I love about coming home to Portland…

“Instant” summer. No suffering through Portland’s (usual) long chilly days of May and June, waiting for the sun. When we arrive on July 4, after 26 hours of travel, the warm weather is here! We have lunch with friends in their garden and, for the first time in about six months, I realize I’m sitting deliciously in the open air without a sweater, long pants, socks and boots.Francie's party

Garden surprises. Finding that the passiflora vine I hadn’t remembered planting has taken over the back fence and looks beautiful.passiflora vine 2

Easy start to the day. Curtains wafting in the early morning breeze as I sit in bed with coffee, New York Times and an unbelievably fast internet connection. curtains blowing gently

Long evenings of summer! Going to a movie at our neighborhood theater and coming out to find it’s not even dark. (The Laurelhurst, opened in 1923, was one of the first art deco theaters of the period. The original single screen could seat 650 people; now it is divided into four small theaters and is locally owned, offering pizza, beer and wine.)Laurelhurst

Getting reacquainted with the neighborhood. Strolling home past our local junk-treasure store, called SMUT…smug

And admiring the new mural at Holman’s Bar, a neighborhood institution. (Yelp: “This may be the perfect bar, for what it is.” Barfly: “Holman’s House Of Heartburn serves up tradition deep-fried and just a little over-priced.”)mural 3

Transition Time 1: Michael declares he is retiring, and retrieves his 1977 Ford work van for the very last time from our friends’ farm in Canby. He removes the tree that has grown up through the vents during the winter, washes off the windshield, fills it with gas, and drives the thing home. He will soon sell it, he says. (Bought in 1991 for $1100; let’s see what he gets for it 22 years later…)michael washing vantree in dash

Transition Time 2:  Michael declares he will give up his man cave/ toolroom/workshop/ storage dump, and kitsch museum in the basement and build a new guest room.mancave 2

kitsch(items from Mike’s kitsch museum: battery-operated hula doll; dress made for him by his grandmother when he had a fit that his sister had one and he didn’t; contractor’s license; ceramic skull with knife through frontal lobe; children’s wooden blocks; birthday cards from various years; piece of unidentified glass.)

As for me, I am looking forward to lying in this hammock, the fountain burbling nearby, with a book and some iced tea on a hot day sometime in the near future. Summer in Portland is a wonderful thing.hammock