April was the cruelest month


Just so you know that life in Cañar isn’t always a bowl of cherries (thank you Mr. Gershwin) and that April was surely the cruelest month (sorry, Mr. Eliot), both were true for us this year. Our cruel troubles began on April 10 with a trip to Cuenca when we had appointments to see the dermatologist, Dr. Leon. Michael went shopping first at the SuperMaxi and was lugging a heavy bag when we met up at the doctor’s. After, as we walked a few blocks to pick up my prescription skin cream, we transferred two heavy bottles from Michael’s bag to my backpack. Then we took a taxi for lunch in the large new Plaza San Luis Seminario near the center.

Although it was rather chilly we chose a table outside near Le Bistro (neither French nor a bistro) with our bags piled on an extra chair. During lunch Michael did his puzzles and I read a book on my iPad. When I grabbed my wallet to go inside to check the pastries, I told Michael to keep an eye on my backpack. I came out in less than five minutes to find him standing, turning in circles. “They stole your bag! As soon as you left someone tapped me on the back – “Senor!”  When I turned to look someone else grabbed your backpack.” We both knew instantly it was a lost cause. The plaza was full of tourists and locals milling around and eating at tables near us. Other diners quickly caught on to what had happened, nodding sympathetically and probably thinking, “Idiots, why didn’t they choose a table inside the glass divider?” I found the young security guard patrolling the plaza, who looked a little scared before running futilely out an entrance to the street.

You’ve all had a moment like this, right?  You’re not sure what just happened or what to do next. For my part, I looked down and saw the wallet in my hand (good!), then glanced at the table and saw my iPad (good; I’m in the middle of a book). Because it was chilly I had on my expensive Patagonia jacket (good). On the other hand, the thief had my two iPhones (very bad). An older one for Ecuador calls; a newer one I use for photos and while in the US. Then I thought how the thief would be pleasantly surprised to find a bottle of 12-year old El Castillo rum and a liter of delicious strawberry/orange juice, along with my sunglasses, sun screen, prescription skin creams, and all my keys, although I couldn’t think of anything in the pack that would identify where we live. He also got a red cap for sun, and a beautiful alpaca hat and wool gloves I’d worn leaving cold Cañar that morning.

That was on April 10. We came home and began what you might call “discovery and recovery.” With the Apple app, “Find My Phone,” we watched on a GPS map as the thief got on a bus in Cuenca and headed this way. We held our breath as he passed through Cañar – for sure we didn’t want him stopping here! – and headed on to Tambo, Zhud and Troncal. He ended up a couple of days later (when I stopped checking) in a village near Pelileo, a market town in the middle of the country where M. remembered that years ago his pants were cut by a thief while we visited there as tourists with our friend Andrew.

Michael and I have a long history of attempted and successful street robberies in Latin American capitals. Twice in San José (from car & market); in old town Quito with pants cut; in Lima with variation on the “Hey Señor” distraction; in Buenos Aires with mustard squirted on Michael while thief pointed to tree and suggested that a bird had shit on him. But it hasn’t happened in many years and I have to admit we’ve become complacent.

But back to events, because the robbery was only the beginning. Two days later I received a message from Guadalupe, my friend in Costa Rica, saying she’d got a call on my phone with a lot noise in the background. So on the Apple site I “locked and erased” my phone and “requested recovery” of my Apple ID. Then, a week later, a receipt for an App Store purchase (in Spanish) landed in my in-box. Somehow a more sophisticated hacker (not the bus-riding thief) had my phone and was ordering programs or games. Checking my VISA bill, I could see a second charge. I was beginning to regret, more than anything, the lost time this robbery was taking out of my life. On the VISA website I was able to report fraud, get the charges refunded, close the account and order new cards. Then I called Apple and they removed my credit card from my account (cautionary tale; don’t let vendors keep your card on file). And I asked if there was any way I could “recovery” my Apple ID before May 5, the date the email they’d sent me targeted, as I’d also lost access to other apps such as Messages and FaceTime, which I use every day to stay in touch with family, and WhatsApp, which everyone here uses. Nope, I’m in Apple purgatory until May 5.

But wait, there’s more. On April 18 I received a follow-up email about a discrimination suit that has been brought against us via the fair housing agency in Portland for not renting to a woman with two teenage children. There’s a complicated backstory here – mistakes on my part, litigiousness on her part (11 court cases, some involving landlord/tenant issues), and lots of lessons learned. We are cooperating. At issue seems to be my contention that the basement guest room is not an adequate bedroom for a teenager. (Memo to self: next time don’t advertise 3 bedrooms.) Now the agency requests to send an inspector to look at the room, so I’ve had to ask our tenants to give me a convenient time. Rather embarrassing. We can, the email says, shorten the case by going to mediation/settlement and I’ve written asking for more details. Michael is giving counsel from the couch, based on all those hours watching Judge Judy on daytime TV. 

So there must have been some good things happen in April? Yes. Michael and I have both been to visit our new dentist, Pacha Pichasaca, a graduate of our scholarship program about eight years ago. I was treated to a beautiful limpieza during which she called in her fellow dentist to look at my gold crowns – they’d never seen them. Then when Michael went they got a real look at a mouth full of gold. I see on Facebook that Dra. Pacha just qualified as an orthodontist.

Another of our graduates, Paiwa Acero, just received confirmation of a “full ride” for her master’s in civil engineering at the University of Illinois, Chicago, with a Fulbright scholarship, tuition waiver and a research assistantship, which should allow her to graduate without debt. Here she is, one of 14 Fulbright scholars from Ecuador doing master’s or PhDs in the U.S. (Paiwa is fourth from right).

Congratulations to both!

C a ñ a r  B o o k   C l u b

Let’s move on to books, always a dependable bowl of cherries in this life.

Jeff in Cambridge writes: I think The Glass Hotel by Emilie St. John Mandel would be perfect for the Canari book club. I was entranced by the interlocking stories of the principal characters in the book, with the glass hotel located on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia playing a supporting role. (Thanks Jeff; I’ve just put on hold at my library.)

Susan in Portland:  “I’m really enjoying The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. Humboldt was remarkably prescient in emphasizing the inter-connectedness of life forms and recognizing human’s impact on these systems, particularly in the colonial invasion of the so-called New World, which he observed and recorded in his groundbreaking journeys in South America, Mexico and the Caribbean in 1799-1804. Sounds dry, but it isn’t.” (I agree – read it a couple of years ago and loved it!)

On a very different time and place, The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris, takes place in post Civil War South. Two ex-slave brothers trying to head north in search of their mother encounter help from a former Yankee landowner and his wife. Their son, returned from the Confederate army, has secrets. Hard to describe it but it’s a very strong first novel by a pretty young black author who grew up in Ashland, Oregon. Highly recommend it.”

Claire in London:  I enjoyed We are all Birds of Uganda by Zayyan Hafsa. A great effort from a young debut writer, though flawed. While the parts set in the UK are excellent, it flags (and doesn’t really add up) when she takes her protagonist to Uganda. But the story moves along and the characters are engaging, so I did enjoy reading it. She has a fantastic understanding of south-Asian immigrant family and business culture and the best descriptions of “micro-aggressions” (though she doesn’t call them that) experienced by non-white professionals in the work place.”

Irene in Salem: Just finished Dinners with Ruth by Nina Totenberg. “A lovely read on friendship and how we can support each other when times are tough.” (Totenberg, the NPR journalist, writes about Chief Justice Ruth Ginsberg and their parallel ascents in fields that were not friendly to women.)

Joanne in Mexico: Just finished Ari Shapiro’s memoir, The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening. “I Enjoyed the mix of personal stories and reportage. I’ve heard him sing with Pink Martini but had no idea he grew up in Beaverton, Oregon. Came out in high school, and soon hit the PDX gay bars. He’s had an amazing life. Now reading Culture: The Story of Us, from Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Punchner. Great book but not great for kindle. I might buy a hard copy in Portland.

Judy in Cañar: I’ve not had a great reading month, having sent more books back to the library after a few pages than I’ve read. But I have great hopes for three currently on my iPad: 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare, by James Shapiro, which just won the Baille Gifford Prize for non-fiction; Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck (I have no idea why) and the wonderfully titled The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts.  Reviews coming in the May Chronicle.

Meanwhile, dear Cañar Book Club members, stay in touch and keep those recommendations coming!








Pura Vida in Costa Rica



Dear Friends: Well, it’s April, and all I can say is, “There went March!” The first third of the month was taken up preparing for my trip to Costa Rica.The second third was taken up with the trip itself (March 14-23), and the last third was catching up on everything back in Cañar. So, here’s the story:

Some time last year my Costa Rican friend, Guadalupe Urbina, got in touch with an idea for a photography exhibit, concert, and community workshops in San José, based on our work together in the 1980’s in her home province of Guanacaste. She suggested the National Library could be the venue, with the director Laura Rodriguez as our partner/sponsor. Laura was enthusiastic, and we three became a team formidable planning and producing a proposal. The U.S. Embassy in San José thought so too, and after a few months of ups and downs and revisions, they agreed to finance the project: The Living Face of Guanacaste: An Afro-Mestizo Photographic and Sound Memory. I was especially pleased because I have wanted to donate my photos and materials from the six years I worked in Costa Rica (1985-91) to an archive there.

Guadalupe with Don Blas, San Vicente, Guanacaste 1986

Guadalupe and I have been friends since the day I heard her sing from a distant room in the organization where I worked in San José. I followed the voice, and there she was. Just 24, beautiful, a recent winner of  a big prize at the University of Costa Rica song competition. This was 1986, the same year I met Michael. I don’t remember how, or when, we decided to collaborate on a documentary project, recording and photographing the anonymous music, traditional musicians and storytellers of Guanacaste.This was not part of my official job, so we made the trips now and then over the next five years.

Guanacaste, the northernmost province of Costa Rica, was once part of Nicaragua, then for 125 years it was independent before being  annexed by Costa Rica nearly 100 years ago. So it’s cultural mix is of original indigenous inhabitants, Afrodescendents of former Jamaican slaves in Nicaragua, and settlers from all parts of Costa Rica who came to work in cattle ranching and small farming. Today, mass tourism along the Pacific coast has radically altered the economy and lifestyle of many Guanacastecos.

In our visits to Guanacaste, a women’s ceramic cooperative in San Vicente was one of our stops, and their member, Sofia Chavarría, became the face of our exhibit.

Guadalupe works with a terrific production team that brought their talents and attention to detail to our project.They designed the materials along with the exhibit photographs and text, plus they staged the concert and made a 24-minute video of the project. Ivy and Fran and their team were a joy to work with, and I will never want to do an exhibit without them. They also arranged social media that kept us busy before the opening and tested my Spanish to the max with live 45-minute Facebook and national radio interviews. The National Library of Costa Rica was built in the 1970’s with a huge open first floor. That’s Laura at the opening in the photo below, where you can (barely) see the photographs along the far wall; they extended all the way around in a circle. Behind her was the stage set for Guadalupe’s concert.

Guadalupe is now famous, and she doesn’t demur when I call her “the Mercedes Sosa of Costa Rica.”  She is recognized everywhere as the country’s premier folklorist/composer, considered an authority on Guanacaste music, history and culture. She’s even on a postal stamp, but we didn’t have time to get to the post office! She came to Portland around 1998 with a cultural exchange of performances, interviews and events, so many of our Portland friends remember her. She has a website and is all over YouTube, but I like this, a mix of images and music.

I had taken my art supplies, planning to do a lot sketching during my free time. Which turned out to be one single Sunday spent with Guadalupe and dear friend Fresia Comacho in her beautiful spot in the country, with the view you see at the top of this page. Here they are resting after lunch, with Fresia’s dog, LUCKY.

Ten days gone, leaving Michael alone in Cañar – he who refuses a cell phone or computer. So we talked daily by home phone on Skype. I would report all that was going on in San José, seeing old friends, meeting new folks, doing live radio interviews, preparing the exhibit. And he would report that a neighbor’s rooster got free and pecked at our front door. (Oh yes, there was the news of a 6.8 earthquake he felt in Cañar, but as we were talking I felt my bed move as a 5.5 quake hit Costa Rica.)  At the end of my 10-day stay, after a 15-hour trip and extra night in a Cuenca hotel due to a flight delay in Quito, AND a final bus ride, I was home to a freshly cleaned house, a fire in the fireplace, and a Michael-made-meal. Some would wonder why I ever leave!

Cañar Book Club

Settle in with a cup of tea or coffee for a delicious long meeting. We have a backlog of recommendations since we missed March’s Cañar Book Club.

With long travel days in March, I got in a lot of reading. Horse, by Geraldine Brooks, which some of you recommended, finally came as an eBook from my library, and I learned more about 19th century racing and horses than I ever imagined I would want to know. But I did, and enjoyed it. My friend Joanne recommended Trespasses, a first novel by Irish writer Louise Kennedy. Maybe the best fiction I’ve read in ages, it’s a complicated, jig-saw puzzle of a story set in Belfast during the “troubles” that fits together so beautifully that you care for every character and want to go back and read again. Desperate for a “real” paper book for my travels, I picked one off my own shelf, Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder. It begins: “Deo arrives in the United States from Burundi in search of a new life. Having survived a civil war and genocide, he lands at JFK airport with two hundred dollars, no English, and no contacts.” I was especially interested in this story as it relates to one our Aristata Press will publish in 2023: Women in the Crossfire: One Woman’s Quest for Peace in the Midst of Civil War by South Sudanese Abuk Makuac and Susan Clark. And remember, dear readers, that Aristata Press is open for submissions. You can read the details at: https://aristatapress.com/.

On to the many recommendations from dear readers:

Claire from London: Mariana Leky’s “What You Can See from Here” is the book that restored my love of reading after a truly terrible book year. It’s delightful. Those who don’t like a touch of magical realism can step away now, but for the rest of us I suggest getting stuck in. We Are All Birds of Uganda, a debut novel by a young woman of Ugandan Asian heritage is a good read though flawed in several places. Strengths lie in its understanding of the British-(south) Asian community, the immigrant experience in the UK and the best illustration of what are now referred to as “micro-aggressions.” A very compelling story and an easy bed-time read. Finally, This is Happiness by Niall Williams, an Irish writer who conjures up, through the most incredible, rich and often funny sentences, a beautiful, backward, loving, characterful rural Ireland of the 1950s. 

Mary Day in Colombia. Jill Lepore’s enormous and beautifully written history of the US, These Truths, is a long and intense read with lots of connections and facts I never knew. I am working my way through Diario de una invasion by Andrei  Kurkov, about Ukranian-Russian history and the details of life since the invasion. My next book, on Kindle from the library, is Solito by Javier Zamora, a memoir of a Salvadoran child coming alone to the U.S. from El Salvador. I am also reading  Born in Blackness by Howard French, a history of Africa and its relation to Europe, the Americas, and Asia and the enormous role African gold and people played in creating the Europe-centered “modern” world.

Patricia from Cuenca who is recently traveling in Italy. Can’t you tell?  Reading Lampedusa’s The Leopard,I am beginning to identify with the Prince who understands how his beloved world is vanishing. Mary Taylor Simeti‘s andOn Persephone’s Island, Bitter Almonds Pomp and Sustenance, Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food: all highly recommended, as is The Florios of Sicily by Stefania Auci, a more recent, engaging historical fiction which casts light on the changes of the three centuries. Julius Norwich for a thorough if somewhat dense history, Sicily a Short History, from the Greeks to Cosa Nostra.

My sister Char in Austin: Circe by Madeline Miller. If you think humans are crazy, meet the Gods! Very well written, enlightening and entertaining. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. A conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Everyone, sincerely, should get this book and just have it by their bedside.

Lee in Whidby Island, WA: I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s newest Demon Copperhead. So good! Also Mary Roach, science writer, Fuzz – When Nature Breaks the Law – humorous, informative, captivating. And now I’ve just started one recommended to me, Horse, by Geraldine Brooks; I’m only 50 pages in, but it has grabbed me; I love a good wordsmith who has done their research.

Jennifer in Toronto: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. A wonderful story based on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, looking at how words were selected and defined in the several decades’ process, and which words in common use – especially words used by or about women – were not included. 

That’s it for April, dear readers. Please send me your reading experiences – good, bad, or ugly – for the May Cañar Book Club. Until then…




This and that at three months in Cañar


Dear Friends:  March 1 marks our three months in Cañar, with three more to go. It’s a beautiful Sunday and Michael is playing chess with a new young player, Byron, while they listen to Led Zepplin. Byron came yesterday too and they listened to Pink Floyd. Some things never change.This is a shorter than usual chronicle because I’m getting ready for a trip to Costa Rica next week (March 15-23), for an exhibit of the photographic work I did there in the 1980’s with folksinger/composer Guadalupe Urbina. We worked together about 5 years, making trips to her home province of Guanacaste when I could get time off my regular job. We documented the musicians, storytellers and anonymous music of this  northern province, next door to Nicaragua and with a strong afro-mestizo influence. Lupe recorded, I photographed and we produced a body of work that was shown before I left in 1991 for Ecuador. Now the national library of Costa Rica, with funding from the US embassy, is sponsoring an exhibit/concert/archive deposit and a workshop in community archives. I’ll write more about this project, with photos from San José, in my next chronicle, but for now a bit of local news. Each year we try to take one trip within Ecuador, usually with some silly excuse such as a birthday. Last year it was a week’s sojourn to a nature resort, Mindo, northeast of Quito, that involved a three-day bus trip, lots of rain, a cold bed made of solid concrete, a landslide blocking our way back to Quito, a refusal at the airport to allow us to board our flight because our IDs were photocopied, and a mini-bus ride back home. We were not particularly happy with the experience, but at least pleased with ourselves for having carried it off despite all the hurdles.

This year we kept it simpler – 3 days in Loja, a city to the south that we’ve visited before, beginning with a 6-hour bus trip with spectacular countryside as we climbed, then gradually dropped to a lower elevation and warmer climes.

Michael, working on his daily puzzles as usual, had to be reminded again and again to look out the window. Loja is a small proud city that has carefully protected its heritage with well-preserved houses, churches and public squares, and gorgeous municipal murals (there are two in this post – see if you can spot them).

We rewarded ourselves with two nights at the Casa Bolivar, a 236-year-old house that has recently been converted by the family into a hotel/museum, with lots of original quirky features such as an entryway paved with animal vertebrae and black stones, trees in the patio growing to the second floor, a private chapel, a hidden spiral stairway for the help (always a necessity), and crazy patterns on walls and floors and ceilings that I loved, and which the young host claimed were mostly original (or reconstructed from the originals).

The last image is the patriarch of the house, who before he died in his 90’s had papered his office with the lottery tickets he bought every day of his life. (We were told he had won three times.) Another obsessive lover of repeated patterns. I had a lot of fun taking photos and ended with this panorama of our room.

Cañar Book Club

To all book writers, readers and lovers, I have a special announcement for our March book club. This past year Anne McClard and I started Aristata Press, a women-run, non-profit press that came out of our recent experience publishing two books on our own: Megan McClard’s LEAVINGS: Memoir of a 1920’s Hollywood Love Child and Memorias de una prisionera política en El Salvador,the Spanish translation of Ana Margarita Gasteazoro’s memoir edited by Andrew Wilson and myself. Anne and I were so pleased with the results, and impressed with all that we’d learned that we said: “We can do this for others!” Aristata Press was born. This year we will publish four titles (more on those later) and now we are looking for new submissions. Aristata Press seeks fresh literary fiction, poetry and non-fiction authors. If you have a novel stashed in a drawer, know someone who has written a memoir, have a friend or relative working on a non-fiction book, or know a poet who is ready to get out into the world, let’s start a conversation with this contact form

“Our community of publishers and writers are passionate about reading, creating, and sharing great writing. Come join us!”

PS: Regular book club will return in April, so keep reading and sending those recommendations! 

PSS: the two murals from Loja are the header image of the woman with flowers, painted on the side of a church, and the cat and books, painted on the side of the library.