To Ecuador and Back: “Una visita relámpago”

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Dear Friends: With travel companion Annie Tucker (an avid Portland birder), I made a “lightning visit” to Ecuador from February 22 – March 8. Twenty-two hours going and 22 hours coming, through Portland-Miami-Quito-Cuenca-Quito-Dallas/FW-Portland. Result: I’ve vowed not to do that route again. For the future, despite all the bad press Guayaquil’s gotten lately (more on that later) – landing there is so much easier. This is how Michael and I plan to travel in May/June (more on that later too).

It was disheartening indeed to see what the world news has done to Ecuador’s tourism – which plummeted to near zero after the first sensational reports. In fact, the violence has been limited to gangs in overcrowded prisons and a few coastal cities where the drug trade has fanned crime. (It would be like reading about violence in Chicago and deciding not to visit New York or Los Angeles.) But in rural mountainous areas such as Cañar, and urban cities such as Quito and Cuenca, daily life continues as usual, quietly hectic but secure. Only the tourists are missing, which is a great shame for Ecuador is such a lovely and easy country to explore and tourism has become so important to its economy. I just read that in 2019 it employed around 270,000 people, representing around 3.7% of total employment in the country. Even so, tourism has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels,

Crater Lake Quilotoa, which Michael and I visited years ago.

But back to our trip. Coming off the plane in Quito, I was slammed by the 9,350 ft. altitude and dehydration from the many hours sitting on planes. To recover and wait for our next flight to Cuenca, we walked across the street to an open-air terrace of the new airport. Stepping through the glass doors, Annie heard her first Ecuador birdsong: the beautiful trill of the russet-collared sparrow. Go here to listen: https://xeno-canto.org/274469

This homely little bird is very familiar to us in Cañar. It feeds mainly on seeds, herbs, and grains, of which we have plenty. And its song is described by most sources as “the sweetest and most musical” of any sparrow. This was the first of 77 birds that Annie would spot/record during our 10-day visit, of which 64 were new to her.

From Quito, we flew straight to Cuenca. At the end of our killer travel day, we checked into a small hotel and went out for bowls of ramen in nearby Plaza San Sebastian. The servings were huge, and as we gave up, exhausted and ready to go back to our hotel, an elderly street musician wandered into the tiny cafe, strumming a beat-up guitar. He zeroed right in on us, and our table, and asked if he could finish our ramen. Gladly! He also eyed the beer still in my hand, but I shook my head, “No, this is mine and well deserved.”

After three days of rest and recovery in Cuenca (8400 ft ahhhhh…), my friend Susana K. drove us to Cañar, bringing along Leonora, her employee, who, she said, wanted to help us clean and open the house. Welcome! Michael and I had left Cañar in June 2023, planning to come back as usual in December, so the house had been empty for nearly eight months. One purpose of my trip was to reconnect with and pay those who help us take care of the place – the gardener, our compadres who plant the backfield, our comadre who pays our monthly expenses, and for me to pay the land and irrigation taxes. Within a couple of hours of arriving on a beautiful warm day, we four women had removed the shutters, hooked up the gas for hot water and cooking, cleaned the kitchen, living/dining room, two bedrooms, baths, my studio – and made the beds.

 

Women Should Rule the World!” is the title of this sequence. During the next few days, Annie and I also filled the fountain and got the pump running (with a couple of calls to Michael), made kindling, built the daily fire, and cooked several meals  (well, Annie did). When the Lewis & Clark students arrived on Friday the house looked lived in. Then, exactly one week later, on a marathon day, Annie and I closed up the house again – a bit like dismantling a movie set.

Other than the house affairs, I’d come to Ecuador for two projects: my annual job coordinating the 3-day visit of the Lewis & Clark College students to Cañar to experience something of the indigenous culture. The highlight is always visiting Mama Michi for a dramatic limpieza, complete with herbs and nettles, fire, and a little bit of brimstone (incense).

My other project is a book of the photos of Cañar town photographer, Rigoberto Navas, whose glass plate and early celluloid negatives I’ve spent years printing in my darkroom. After several exhibits and related projects, the photographs are finally coming together in a book to be published in June 2024 by the Catholic University of Cuenca. I was surprised on a Sunday visit to Ingapirca with the students to see a display of panels of images from the book. I think I was informed of the project y in October, while Michael was in the hospital, but I’d completely forgotten.

 

Meanwhile, Annie upped her count with more birding adventures in Cañar “hotspots.” We were able to visit one of these together, Chorocopte Lake. The taxi driver took such a long route to get there (around the outside of the green in the sketch below), that I wouldn’t let Annie go all the way around the lake as I was worried about the dark clouds and the long walk back. I later regretted it, as we came across an old woman who without a word pointed to another route down (the dotted line through the green) and we were home in an hour. (The birds in the sketch, by the way, are: Andean duck, Great thrush. Carunculated caracara, and Hooded siskin.) In the photo below, Annie is watching a pair of carunculated caracaras – say that fast a couple of times!

 

And now, back in Portland, after the sun and exhilaration of the Andes, I feared more winter. But today, March 15, the Ides of March bring- not a bad omen – but very good weather at last. Walking to my library today I came across this poem by Emily Dickinson, posted in a front yard. I share the first stanza, along with some spring-promising flowers.

 

To finish – Michael and I plan to spend May/June in Cañar to test out how he does at the altitude. If all goes well, we will return as usual in December for six months. I’ll plan a chronicle during that visit. Meanwhile, I love hearing from all of you and – again – I promise a book club report next time!

Stormy weather here and there

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Dear Friends:  Two big headlines in January (when I meant to send out this chronicle): Giant Ice Storm in Portland and Violence in Ecuador.  Ice storm first, as that is easier.

View from our upstairs bathroom, looking south, Big Storm day #1

 On Friday, January 12, fierce winds came out of the Columbia Gorge at hurricane force, bringing down trees and power lines around Portland, and leaving up to 150,000 people without power. Which for many, also meant no heat and no water. Cozy in bed in our 120-year-old, tall wooden house, Michael and I could feel the wind gusts buffeting us through the night. We were fine the next morning, but our friends who live about 500 feet higher on the other side of town caught the brunt of it. They woke up Saturday morning to no electricity, no heat, frozen pipes, and impassable roads. They later counted 63 trees down in their immediate neighborhood. The temperature was in the 20’s with sleet, ice, and snow forecast for the next few days. (OK, you friends in Minneapolis and other northern kingdoms who think this is no big deal, stay with me…)

Looking north, Big Storm day #2

By Saturday afternoon Portland’s mayor had declared a state of emergency, and a few days later the governor would declare a statewide emergency. Temperatures stayed in the mid-teens as warming shelters were opened around town, and soon overflowed. (Portland has a large unhoused population.) The storm continued to blow and icy rain made leaving the house treacherous.  Schools closed, public transportation was paralyzed, and folks were displaced by fallen trees on their houses or burst pipes in their apartments.

On Sunday, the roads were solid ice under a sheet of snow, but our friends were barely able to get out of their neighborhood to come to stay with us, taking 1.5 hours for a 20-minute drive. The sun was out that day, so I went for a walk to buy bagels and brats for our dinner. I grew up in Colorado so it brought back memories of a long walk home from the bus stop when I was six years old.

The next day another storm came in, and roads and sidewalks stayed solid ice. So for five days we were frozen in place. But I have to say we were happy campers. Anne and Ken and Michael took turns cooking, and Zoe walked the dogs, while I took photos and made sketches.

Michael blesses Harrient and Jiggy before their trip home.

Finally, on Thursday, Day #6, when our guests saw their power was on, they packed up and went home only to find their pipes still frozen and the power off again. They checked into a hotel for two nights. After eight days they could finally go home and begin to recover their lives. Others were not so lucky:  Nine people died, two from fallen trees, several of hypothermia, and three others tragically electrocuted when power lines fell on their vehicle; two stepped onto the street and a third tried to help.

Other than one brief Covid period, this is our first winter in Portland in 18 years. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be here this time next year.

*. *. *. *. *. *. *.

On to Ecuador. Many of you have written asking if it’s safe for me to travel there for a planned visit end of February. (I’m going for a small job, a big project, and the scholarship program). No wonder – with news of the assassinations of public officials, “wars” within prisons with unspeakable violence between gangs, the recent escape of the two high-level gang leaders with certain help from security officials, and the invasion of a TV station by a dozen armed thugs that was broadcast live. After that, the 35-year-old president Daniel Naboa, imposed a nationwide state of emergency to last for 60 days.

The answer is yes, I’m going, and I’ll be safe as long as I stay away from the coastal city of Guayaquil and the borders with Peru and Colombia. My friends in Cuenca report that all is calm in the southern highlands. This was a two-week trip planned when Michael’s health crisis in October made it obvious we would have to cancel our usual stay. With a friend from Portland, I will fly directly to Cuenca and stay within the Cuenca/Cañar region before flying back to Portland on March 8.

But the situation is heartbreaking. Ecuador was for so many years a sea of peace in South America, surrounded by countries convulsed with violence – one of the reasons we first moved there in the early 90’s. No longer! Organized crime cartels from Mexico, Colombia, and even the Balkans have stealthily moved in to make Ecuador a major hub for the drug trade. With two permeable borders with Peru and Colombia, a long coast with deep ports, and a dollar economy for easy money laundering, Ecuador has become a major transit point for drugs produced in neighboring countries.

One big critical factor: bananas! Ecuador is the world’s largest exporter of bananas, and drug traffickers have infiltrated the industry to the point that 9.5 metric tons of cocaine were discovered in a container shipment to Spain in 2023, with similar-sized shipments in other European ports. Until now, Ecuador’s government has done little to control what was (in my view) a slow build-up into a tangled, complex infrastructure that even includes submarines at work off the coast. Now the prisons are overflowing and a 35-year-old president just elected in November,  is trying to regain control, along with the military.  As I say, it’s heartbreaking. I hate to see tanks on the streets of Quito.

But to end with good news: Michael’s health has rebounded to the point that we are planning to go to Ecuador for a few months in early 2024. We’ll see how he does in high altitude Cañar (10,000 ft), with hopes that we can return to our usual six-month stay beginning in December.  So stay tuned, dear friends. If all goes well, you can expect an invite to visit us in 2025, when you’ll get to know my friend Pacha in the Sunday market.  

 

Goodbye to 2023, Hello to 2024

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Dear Friends: 

As we say goodbye to 2023 I want to thank every one of you who generously contributed to the scholarship fund this year. If you haven’t had a chance, this will take you to my letter with a “donate” button at the end: Cañari Women’s Education Foundation.

As you can see from the photo above, we are still in Portland. But the good news is that Michael is recovering, and the doctors say he can live again at 10,000 in the Andes. But not yet…  After two weeks in the hospital in October, we had to wait until December for a CT scan, “with contrast” – (e.g. a dye injection) to get the news that his lung was clear, with no sign of infection or other intruder, such as a tumor. Turns out it was a bacterial infection of the pleural lining gone wild (“with complications” was the actual medical term). Perhaps I share too much, but in keeping with my practice of documenting our lives, here is “the man and the machine” on a pretty momentous day. They allowed me a glimpse of the CT scan room but I wasn’t permitted to stay for the action.

One upside of our changed plans is that Paiwa, a 2021 graduate of our scholarship program, does not have to spend her first holidays in the U.S. alone. Newly enrolled in the master’s program at the University of Illinois, she’s here in Portland, where she says the winter weather is just like Cañar – perpetually chilly – but better than Chicago! Another upside is realizing what a great emissary she is of our program, as she meets friends, family, acquaintances – and dogs – visits the Gorge, and shops at Goodwill.

In other news, I’m planning a short trip to Cañar with a friend at the end of February to take care of details of our Cañar house, meet with the scholarship women, introduce students from Lewis & Clark College to the Cañari culture (in a short three days), and launch a book project that is close to my heart. 

I plan to write a longer blog in January but, for now, I’m sending affectionate end-of-year greetings from wintery Portland, where the ducks don’t mind the rain.

May 2024 be a good year for us all.   Judy