The house in the clouds – 15 years later

Dear Friends – coming up next month is the anniversary of moving into our “house in the clouds,” so I thought it would be fun to do a before/after look, remember the 14 months of construction, and realize again how much this home has meant to us, and all the visitors, friends and family who have come to share it with us over the years. I started thinking about this theme because this weekend we have our first visitor in two years – Emily – a fellow Fulbrighter and Portlander, now living in Ecuador. So, here we go…. (photos below: June 2005 and February 2022.)

We bought the land in July 2005, at the end of my second Fulbright grant and just as we were preparing to leave Cañar for what we assumed would be “forever.” Previously, for several years, we’d  been looking in Mexico for an alternative life, but as we talked about how much we would miss this homely place called Cañar, we had one of those “AHA -DUH!” moments when we realized everything we’d been looking for in Mexico was right here. Community, endless walking opportunities, good/bad climate (e.g. always chilly), and, for me, open-ended work as a documentary photographer. Only downside was how far we would be from friends and family in the U.S. But that very day Michael went out to look around, accompanied by a Cañari friend, and a couple of weeks later we had bought a cornfield in the comuna of Chaglaban, half-kilometer from where we’d been living in a little rental house. (There’s a lot more to this origin story in my  book, but for this blog we’ll stay with the CliffsNotes version.) Here’s Michael on the day we closed on the property. We left almost immediately for Portland, and returned six months later to find a few new residents.

But work had already begun with our architect, Lourdes Abad, from Cuenca, whom we’d hired after seeing the beautiful adobe house she’d built for a friend.Back in Portland, Michael had made a rough drawing Inspired by our many trips to Mexico of a simple square house with a central courtyard. We sent it to Lourdes, and by the time we came back to Cañar she had refined Michael’s design into a not-so-simple house, with three off-set rectangles to allow a larger courtyard, porches front and back, and a better layout.

After soil engineers determined that our land was not stable enough for an traditional adobe block house – this region is riddled with geologic faults –  Lourdes proposed a house made of “bahareque”- an old Spanish term for walls made of bamboo and soil. For us, it meant a house with a post-and-beam frame with mud walls, held by thin strips of bamboo. But I’m jumping ahead. We broke ground in 2006, and I have to say that, for me, watching a house being built from the ground up for the first time was a revelation. To begin, you draw an outline of house on the ground with chalk. No kidding.Then you dig channels around the chalk lines – with shovels, by hand.Then  you have a bunch of rocks delivered to fill in the channels and begin foundation walls.Then comes the wood for posts and beams, which Michael and the workers bought at the local wood market down the road. All eucalyptus. So you could say that making a house in Cañar, so far, is about chalk, sticks and stones, though we’ve yet to add the mud, straw and horse manure.

Dear readers: I’m going to break in here to speed up the process. In reviewing the photos I took during the construction period, it looks likes I documented every single day, and I’m having a tough time wading through the files. While I’m happy to have these images, I don’t think you will want to go through the entire construction with me. So I’m going to add a bunch of images with minimal text.

OR – you can always skip to the Cañar Book Club below, with some wonderful reading suggestions from our members.

I’m ending with before and after shots of our courtyard – March 27, 2007 – the day we inaugurated the house with a Wasipichana ceremony with Mama Michi officiating –  and today, February 21, 2022.

And if anyone should want more – the story of building the house and making a life in Cañar is told in my book, Our House in the Clouds, Building a Second Life in the Andes of Ecuador, University of Texas Press, 2013.

PS: Lourdes has asked me to add that in 15 years the house has not required any maintenance, inside or out!

C a ñ a r   B o o k   C l u b

Thanks to our dear club member Joanne from Patzcuaro, Mexico and Portland, Oregon, for the above photo. She recommends Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. “This beautiful, spare little book I read on the plane was so wonderful I wish it had been longer. Set in an Irish village at Christmas time, a local man confronts his past and the scene at a Magdalene laundry.”  

From Lisa in Savannah: I just read a fantastic, page-tuner entitled  Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo.  It’s the fascinating non-fiction story of art forgers in 1980’s and 90’s London. Also,iIf you liked  Song of Achilles – you would love Circe by the same author (Madeline Miller).

From Sandy in Toronto: How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith. “Really beautifully written book that manages to talk about slavery in a way that is neither pedantic, nor preachy. One of the best I have read on the subject – the kind of book that might actually help others learn and change.”

From Maya in Portland: “Top of the list is Rabih Alameddine’s latest, The Wrong End of the Telescope.  I liked his An Unnecessary Woman quite a lot but I like the new one even more. A transgender doctor, Lebanese in origin, goes to the island of Lesbos with several friends to help support the immigrants arriving there. It is warm and funny and well written, all the while  showing the terrible plight of refugees from the Mideast in the Mediterranean.”

Maya continues: “To that I’d add Nawal El Saadawi’s biography, Walking through Fire: The Later Years of Nawal El Saadawi, In Her Own Words. She’s an Egyptian feminist and author who recently died after living a remarkable life. And last – The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, translated from the French, about three generations of an Algerian family who flee to France during the Algerian revolution. Very well done.

From Bruce in Tucson: “Been reading Seed & Dust: Life, Nature, and a Country Garden by Marc Hamer. (Judy adds, as she has just ordered it from the library:  “Hamer describes a year in his life as a country gardener in the same 12-acre garden in the Welsh countryside for over two decades. As he works … he reflects on his own life: living homeless as a young man, his loving relationship with his wife and children, and – now – feeling the effects of old age on body and mind.”

Bruce continues: Hamer also wrote another great book: How to Catch a Mole. David Mitchell’s  Utopia Avenue is also great, about a rock band in 1960s England.

Scott in Portland recommends The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand. “In his follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand offers a new intellectual and cultural history of the postwar years.”

From Liz in Toronto: “I just finished Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys in preparation for reading her new book, Oh William, and wanted to recommend it for your book club. Such a wise, deeply humane and psychologically acute writer! I might even re-read.”

From Patricia in Cuenca: “I continue to dwell in the 19th century although this takes me into my own lifetime.” I’ve read Margaret Fuller Ossoli: A Biography, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Not the easiest read until the later chapters, as Ossoli developed into a journalist, feminist, abolitionist, and revolutionary in Italy, before her tragic drowning off Fire Island. Now onto the Autobiography of W. E. B. DuBois.

From Natalie in Mexico, but coming to Ecuador and Cañar soon: “I’ve lately read two novels by Ecuadorian-American writers lately: The Spanish Daughter by Lorena Hughes. A telenovela-worthy historical family saga-drama set in 1920s Guayaquil; and The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, a fun magical realism/female empowerment tale also
set in Guayaquil.

From Mary Day in Colombia, who seems to read a book a day: Como polvo en el viento, Leonardo Padura. On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed ( history of Texas and the rest of us). Drinking the Sea at Gaza, Amira Hass (vital book I should have read in the 90s when it first came out, but still bitterly relevant, by an Israeli reporter who lives still on the West Bank). Alec, William di Canzio (wonderful novel picking up on EM Forster’s Maurice). The Kingdom, Emanuel Carrere (French intellectual’s struggle to understand the politics and theology of the early Christian era). What Just Happened, Charles Finch (brilliant scream of anti-Trump outrage by writer most known for murder mysteries set in Victorian England. This is a very American book and also very funny). And, on the side, this was the year I rediscovered and reread all of Josephine Tey.

Finally, my dear sister Char in Austin is reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.“So compelling, so fearlessly imagined, that I wouldn’t have  put it down for anything.” –Ann Patchett. And Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy. “Propulsive and spell-binding…. the unforgettable story of a woman desperate to save the creatures she loves – if she isn’t consumed by a wild that was once her refuge.”


Given that long list of books that could keep us all busy for the rest of the year, I’m debating whether to add my own. I think I’ll wait until next time.

Until then, please stay in touch at:






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