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.
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…)
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.
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.
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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.