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.

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17 thoughts on “News from just south of the equator

  1. So beautiful to see you and Michael back in Cañar together! Have a wonderful time!

  2. So great to see you and Michael back in Cañar together! Have a wonderful time and looking forward to reading your next chronicle.

  3. Good to see you both back home, south of the equator. Glad all is going to plan and we hope you are both back for the long haul in November. Hisham Matar is a very interesting writer. One of our translator friends is unhappy as Norwegians did not buy enough of his first two books, which she translated, so she had not the pleasure to translate the latest ones. 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 Stein i Silke which is not yet in English but will probably be The Stone in Silk, or Silk-wrapped Stone. This covers a whole community moving back and forth through about 3 generations, of class, ethnic multiplicity, and to a degree gender relations in an ambience partly Christian, partly dirt poor logging and farming, partly mystical and studded with vivid characterizations as a woman returns north to her roots from a life in the urban south.

  4. What joy to read your email and see the photos…. i am so happy that
    the two of you are back in Canar…..I hope that the altitude does not prove a problem
    and that you. will both enjoy good helath and be able to return in November…

  5. I am so happy that you are among Cañari neighbors once again. I woke up today and looked at a painting done by a Cuencan and had a pang of sadness. Life is full in Vermont. Spring madness: flowers everywhere, garden veggies just starting, son’s baby coming within the month. Thanks for the book suggestions!

  6. Hi Mum – Really great to see Mike in his element! I love your posts relaying the daily details of your wonderful like in Cañar.

  7. So good to know you made it there without incident. Looking forward to meeting you with my students in June!

  8. Loved seeing you In Portland, and glad you had easier trip this time. Hope Michael’s health holds up for all your beautiful plans.

    For bookclub, 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 loses their farm and the husband, Moth, receives a terminal diagnosis. They decide to walk the South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall, a path of some 630 miles. Along the way, they learn that there is no way; walking makes the way, and in the end they make their way to peace and reconciliation.

  9. Once again, great stories and photos of your life in Canar. Happy that you both were able to make the trip this time. Travel is not easy as we get older. Am afraid, our long trips will now become shorter road trips. Enjoy your busy time there – you are truly blessed. Enjoy.

  10. Glad you made it safely and that your place was in good shape. Good going with the watercolors! The veggies in your market look fabulous. Probably not the $5 a bunch of carrots like that would be at Whole Paycheck.

  11. Sister Jude, loved your chronicle as usual…feeling very close to you here in Spain,
    although I’m sure we’re the same many hours apart time wise.
    Thrilled to see Michael happily integrated into his Ecuador he never left,
    and that your garden is taking over. What are you feeding those plants?

    I’ve no books to add at this time, but will enjoy checking out your recommendations.
    Love, sister Char (from Dénia, Spain. May 20th. )

  12. Hello, Judy–and Miguel! Per usual, your dazzling photo-narrative combo of life in Ecuador is very captivating. You both present a ringing endorsement for living the adventurous (and glamorous!) life of the rootless cosmopolitan. And what a gorgeous garden! Buying groceries and house supplies for only $20 bucks also got my attention. It’s a strong inducement to flee south to the equator, seeking to escape the escalating indignities of our price-gouging economy. How is your photo book project coming along? I’d love to hear some details. Also, on your next chronicle, will you include any of your watercolor drawings that document your lives there?

  13. Dear Judy,
    So relieved that the trip was easier (I totally endorse wheelchairs and the attendants in EC understand service in a way that outshines JFK by a landslide!)
    Michael looks great in the photos and I love the one at the front door with the ready to go wood and the “woodman”.
    The house looks great…, that Feb visit helped!
    I am reading The Bee Sting but not yet sure whether Ican recommend it as I am struggling through the second section but my in person bookies here are discussing it next Friday!

    Spring here in the Hudson Valley is glorious but the weeds and invasive plants are thriving thanks to a warmer winter and lots of rain, as predicted by the head of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies about 15 years ago when speaking to my library system annual meeting. Bamboos and ferns harder to control and weeds grow in the blink of an eye but the lilacs, dogwood and viburnums have been stunning.

  14. Wonderful to see you both in Canar. The house and patio look fantastic. Enjoy your stay…xxx

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