On sisters, sons and daughters…

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Dear Friends – this will be the last of my Cañar chronicles for a while, as we are returning to Portland on June 7, with a plan to come back in December for our usual six months. But this quick two-month visit has been important to maintain continuity between our two worlds. We leave this one hopeful, as Covid cases are down, vaccinations are taking place daily near us (Sputnik the Russia vaccine just approved), and town life is beginning to feel, well, alive again.  So now my thoughts turn to things personal. I come from a family of (long-lived) women. I am one of three sisters; our mother was one of six sisters, all loving and supportive to the end of their days – two are still alive. (Photo above: our mother’s 90th birthday.) Following this pattern, I think I expected to have a daughter, in that vague early-20’s sort of way, though the boy I got has filled my life with plenty of joy. But then my younger sisters began to have babies – all boys! – until we had, between us, five sons. Then when THEY began to have children (e.g. our grandchildren), they produced seven boys with two girls sprinkled in, 20 years apart.This was not the dynasty of women we’d expected to continue.

However, we three sisters, all single mothers at one time or another as we stumbled through the 60’s and 70’s, set the bar high in terms of independence and showing our boys what women could do. We’d like to take credit for preparing five good men for the stable marriages and families they’ve all made.

But then, relatively late in life and from a surprise source, the gift of a girl. When Michael and I made our first trip back to Ecuador in the 1990s, and fierce little Paiwa came into our lives at age two, we never imagined we’d have a future with this creature. Although we’d made the trip especially to be her godparents, Paiwa wouldn’t allow us to hold or touch her at her baptism. Here she was about then…

But we kept coming back to Cañar, and Paiwa gradually got used to us. By kindergarten she allowed us to walk her to her school on the first day, and once Michael made some furniture her size, she’d stop by our house after school to read books.On her birthday, secure on the lap of her mother, Paiwa and Michael made an obvious connection. Our relationship grew over the next fifteen years as we moved every six months from Portland to Cañar and back again. (As did the photo collection. Her mother Maria Esthela was one of my first photography students and owns a photo studio in town.)

With no children of his own, Michael loved being a godfather, and as Paiwa’s father was not involved in her upbringing, she considered Michael her marcatayta, a stand-in for her father.

Well, Paiwa graduated from grammar school, then from high school,

 

…went off to University of Cuenca for five years to study civil engineering, wrote a thesis on waste water management using vermifilters, and then…This past week Paiwa graduated (virtually, in my studio) and has even landed a 4-month, paid internship at the local potable water office CENAGRAP. We couldn’t be more proud of her –  our goddaughter, our granddaughter, our daughter.

Well, it’s hard to top that, but as I was walking around town this week I was shocked to see the first sign of a US-based fast-food chain – KFC, yes, the famous Kentucky Fried Chicken, which doesn’t exactly translate to local fare here. Instead it was offering a “Tropiburger” from a big red tent in an upper town plaza.

Let’s hope it’s gone the next time I pass by, because I love the streetscape of constantly changing small shops here, all locally owned. One block might have 4 bakeries, 2 cell phone shops, one Cañari clothing store, and one corner store, none like the other, though we can’t imagine how these small stores survive when many sell the very same products.

Well, dear friends, that’s it for now. I’ve read several books from the last book club suggestions, but there’s no time or space to give a report, other than that most of our members are reading heavily on themes of racism, BLM, slavery, and colonialism. Maybe if I have time this week I’ll do a dedicated Cañar Book Club.

Until then, I send greetings to all, and please remember that l love to hear from you, whether while here in Ecuador or in Portland.

May 30, 2021

 

 

Life in Cañar May 2021

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Dear Friends:As with other South America countries, a second wave of Covid19 has hit Ecuador, though nothing as serious as it’s neighbors, Colombia and Peru, covered by a NYT article here. Still, after the horrific initial outbreak while we were here last March, Ecuador has been cautious. With the recent surge, the government declared a four-week, “general quarantine” on weekends (8:00 PM Friday to 5:00 AM Monday) in sixteen of the country’s twenty-four provinces. It’s being strictly enforced, according to the news, with 516 arrests for curfew violations the first weekend, and more than a thousand fines to drivers on the streets without legitimate reasons. Nine brothels were also closed around Guayaquil, with the best quote of the week from the National Emergency Operations Committee. “Fornication or other sexual acts among strangers are not allowed during the emergency.”  Cañar was not included in the quarantine, so life goes on pretty much as usual here. We’ve just been to the local Saturday market to find it packed with wholesale vendors and buyers, food stands, cars and trucks. Almost everyone wears masks, however, and I was glad to hear loudspeaker announcements in Quichua and Spanish on the importance of the vaccine, which has rolled out in Cañar these last few weeks with “tercer edades” (elders) and teachers. Countrywide, it’s been slow and chaotic, with only 4.3 of population so far vaccinated.“We had it under control in our communities,” a Cañari tayta, or elder, told me yesterday, “and now it’s back. But mostly in the town,” he added, naming several of his neighbors who were infected at their workplaces. Still, this past year in his large comuna only four people have died, and although infections were widespread he could only name one or two people who’d actually gone to hospital. He wore a mask as we talked, but said he would not be getting the vaccine – something I’m hearing from almost everyone who lives in the country. As I wonder about it, a clearer (but speculative) picture begins to form: while those who’ve had mild cases feel they’ve “been there” and don’t need further protection, the rest feel that if they’ve avoided the virus so far, why risk the vaccine with its reported side effects. Also, many folks here use preventative home remedies as protection against the virus. The tayta described the concoction he drinks three times a day: a tea made up of three heads of garlic, three red onions, four limes with peel, five cypress buds, and a dash of honey. And people keep eucalyptus branches at doorways, windows and even in cars.

Some of you have asked about Michael’s cooking (and commented on his hands), so here’s an update on last week’s paella, made possible by the magnificent langostinos that sometimes show up in the Sunday market…

…and shared with out resident goddaughter, Paiwa.Otherwise Michael’s labors involve maintaining the endlessly needy woodpile, with delivery of wood followed by the sound of the chainsaw.

As for me, I have two projects in the works, one short-term, one long. The first is a brochure on Cañari music, part of the amazing outcome of ethnomusicologist Allison Adrian’s time in Cañar on a Fulbright grant here three years ago. Since then, she has been producing videos, translations and transcriptions of traditional Cañari music. The brochure, which I’m helping design and guiding to print during the next month, will give listeners a quick study in Cañari music, with photos, titles and lyrics, and a QR code to a Soundcloud site. And here is a link to her videos on YouTube – Watch and listen and learn!The long-term project is one close to my heart for many years: a book of archival images from the glass-plate and early celluloid negatives of Rigoberto Navas, traditional Cañar town photographer. I began about six years ago when his family gave me access to a closet in his last studio, stuffed with boxes of negatives, camera equipment, and odds and ends of his long life (1911-2001). In the beginning I was only looking for images with indigenous content, but I quickly realized that here was a beautiful visual history of a small market town in the first half of 20th century. Six years on, although local and even national institutions are firmly behind the project, the pandemic means zero budget for cultural projects. So I will soon be off on a private fundraising effort that will take me into next year and the six months we plan to spend here.

Photo by Rigoberto Navas

Another big transition in a photographer’s life: a week or so ago I sold my Cañar darkroom equipment and supplies, including some seriously outdated film and chemicals. A photographer and collector from Cuenca, an acquaintance of many years, came and hauled it all away in the back of his SUV.

The day before, as Michael and dismantled the large Beseler enlarger, we laughed remembering traveling to Ecuador with it as baggage about 12 years ago, when it looked for all the world like a strange rocket. Ecuadorian customs agents, more accustomed to plasma TVs, microwaves and computers, took one quizzical look and let us through. It has served me well all these years, as I loved darkroom work, but like many others these day, I no longer use film, and barely a 35mm camera. We did the same routine in Portland a few months ago – dismantled the darkroom and placed equipment and camera gear on consignment with Blue Moon Camera.I was surprised and how quickly it all sold.

Cañar Book Club

OK dear readers, settle into your favorite wing chair with a good light. I put out a call for fiction and had some great responses from our esteemed and fabulous club members.

From Joanne in Portland: What’s Left of Me is Yours, Stephanie Scott. “Wonderful novel based on a true story of a murder by a wakaresaseya (breaker-upper) in Japan. Innovative, engaging, lots of cultural details about Japan.”

The Door, Magda Szabo. “Fabulous Hungarian novel about a writer who hires a housekeeper who takes over her life and forms a deep bond with her.”

From Maya in Portlnad: Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann. “Apparently a medieval German legend originally, Kehlmann has transposed the story of Till Ulenspiegel, a trickster and performer, into a rollicking story set in the 17th century about a juggler/ tightrope walker/performer who travels through Germany’s war-stricken countryside. It manages to be funny, imaginative, and unlike anything else. Very enjoyable.”

Sworn Virgin, by Elvira Dones. “The only Albanian novel I’ve ever read!. There’s historically been a custom in Albania that a woman can chose to live as a man, with all the perks that come with it, IF she swears to remain a virgin. This is a story of a contemporary woman in the mountainous and poor region of that country who makes this choice to be able to care for the old man who raised her- and years later is released to join a relative in the US: who will she be? man, or, after all these years, woman? And if the latter, how? Short, well written.”

From Rick in Portland: Rumors of Rain, André Brink: “A Novel of Corruption and Redemption set in South Africa – amidst the shocking violence that brings South African apartheid to an end.” (Judy’s note: I read A Dry White Season by the same author years ago and I also recommend it.)

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga: “Follows a darkly comic Bangalore driver through the poverty and corruption of modern India’s caste society.” (Judy’s note: we’ve just watched the film on Netflix. Entertaining but sad.)

Fracture, Andrés Neuman: “… an ambitious literary novel set against Japan’s 2011 nuclear accident in a cross-cultural story about how every society remembers and forgets its catastrophes.”

The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, Maryse Condé: “Born in Guadeloupe, Ivan and Ivana are twins with a bond so strong they become afraid of their feelings for one another. When their mother sends them off to live with their father in Mali they begin to grow apart, until, as young adults in Paris, Ivana’s youthful altruism compels her to join the police academy, while Ivan, stunted by early experiences of rejection and exploitation, walks the path of radicalization.”

Days Without End, Sebastian Barry: “A true left field wonder: a violent, superbly lyrical western offering a sweeping vision of America in the making.”—Kazuo Ishiguro

 A Thousand Moons, Sebastian Barry: “From the two-time Booker Prize finalist …comes a dazzling companion novel about memory and identity, set in Tennessee in the aftermath of the Civil War.”

History, Elsa Morante: “The central character in this powerful and unforgiving novel is Ida Mancuso, a schoolteacher whose husband has died and whose feckless teenage son treats the war as his playground. A German soldier on his way to North Africa rapes her, falls in love with her, and leaves her pregnant with a boy whose survival becomes Ida’s passion.”

From Arlene in Toronto: Nothing to See Here. “Kevin Wilson’s best book yet — a moving and uproarious novel about a woman who finds meaning in her life when she begins caring for two children with remarkable and disturbing abilities”

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Broedesser-Akner, about a marriage on the rocks. “…a marvel, full of shrewd observations, barbed wit, and deep insight. …reveals the twisted hearts of her characters—and the twisted soul of contemporary America—with an eye that is at once pitiless and full of compassion for our human foibles.”

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, “Two faces of the black experience A light-skinned twin sister constructs a new identity as a white woman in a clever novel that confounds expectations.”

That’s it for now. Please keep your reading suggestions coming, as I have a chronicle or two coming before we leave Cañar on June 6. (Note: I’m not sure my REPLY function is working, so write to me by e-mail:  judyblanken@gmail.com)

 

Beat-up hands, a new president and Covid (not in order of importance)

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Dear Friends: It seems some of you didn’t receive my first Chronicle, Back to Cañar 2021. It is here. I had some trouble with my mailing list that I hope is now fixed.

Covid in Cañar: it’s not easy to find solid information, so I’ll pass on what I’ve learned from anecdotal accounts and a few very unreliable statistics. It appears that Covid infections are rampant in Cañar, both in the town and indigenous communities. Within Cañar, like small towns everywhere, news travels fast. “Five people died yesterday,” a lawyer tells me, “and there are many more cases.” As I walk around I see that everyone complies with masks and, as with last year, lye is sprinkled on pavement at entrance to stores, and I still receive change sprayed with alcohol.

Image from Cañar municipal website

But when I ask a Cañari friend about the indigenous comunas that surround the town, he says, “Nada grave. There are lots of cases, but no deaths, and everyone stays home and is cured with home remedies.” When I ask which home remedies, he says…inhaling eucalyptus steam baths and using medicinal plants for teas such as chamomile, ginger,

I believe this guardedness is in keeping with the insularity and reserve of the Cañari people, which goes back to hacienda days when maintaining separateness was a survival mechanism. The less the patron knew of your personal life, the safer you were. “No one wants to be treated in hospital or intubated,” my friend said. I’ve yet to hear of a single death in the indigenous communities although I suspect that there have to be some, especially elders, who by tradition die at home and are quickly buried, with no medical attention or death certificate. (Official statistic for Cañar county that includes the town and country comunas: 908 confirmed cases from Feb 29, 2020 – March 31 2021, a figure that has to be vastly under reported.)As for vaccines in Ecuador, some from Pfizer through the COVAX international plan and Sinovac from China, but the delivery situation is chaotic. Yesterday, as I walked home, the road to our house was nearly blocked with cars and people at a local school where shots were apparently available – or had been. People were crowded outside the closed gate, shouting at the soldiers on the other side. Everyone’s first question to me, when they learn I’m vaccinated, is “which one?” The second question is: “What was your reaction?” There’s lots of news, good and bad, circulating about which vaccines are the best (Pfizer!) and side effects. One elderly woman we love, who runs a store in town, said of her friend who had varicose veins, “She took the vaccine and she just died! I’m not getting it,” she concluded, maskless, “God will protect me.”

Michael’s big, beautiful beat-up Cañar hands. As many of you know, Michael was for many years a contractor in Portland, doing mostly plumbing and electrical work. His hands were always knobby and bloody, and now they are even knobbier with age and arthritis. Since I’ve known him he has not been able to open his hands fully, and now they look a bit like sweet bear paws, without the shredder claws. Lately, with retirement and Covid, his hands had grown soft and white. But now back in Cañar, what with taking down shutters, pruning bushes, building fires, cutting wood, moving compost (and using the Spanish dictionary), his hands are again getting beat-up. But they are lovely hands to draw or photograph.Otherwise, our domestic life is pretty much the same. Sunday market for produce and shrimp; daily forays into town for everything else; once a week to Cuenca for luxuries such as cheese and coffee. After our Portland life with Whole Foods and New Seasons and specialty stores, we returned from those first shopping trips with, “Look what I got for one dollar!” Here’s a photo from trip #1: eight tomatoes = $1.00; eight eggs = $1.00; five pounds of potatoes = $2.00 and a handful of maracuyá (a gift from the vendor).

 While Michael’s main domestic job is food and cooking, mine is laundry, carefully sorted into categories (a practice of most women I know) and hung according. On a sunny day, in this high dry climate, drying takes about two hours. Elections: Well, to the surprise of many, Guillermo Lasso won last week’s election on his third try for the presidency. Lasso, a banker, took 52% of the vote in the runoff following a campaign that pitted his free market economics against his opponent’s pledge to return to the socialist programs of previous president, Rafael Correa, that put the country deeply in debt.When Mr. Lasso takes office in May, he will have to deal with the Indigenous party, Pachakutik. While its candidate barely missed getting to the run-off, the party won half of all provinces (including Cañar) to become the second-largest block in Congress, going from nine to forty-three seats. “The politics of Ecuador will never be the same,” said Farith Simon, an Ecuadorean law professor and columnist. “There’s still racism, but there’s also a re-vindication of the value of Indigenous culture, of pride in their national role.”Cañar Book Club

Well, dear fellow members, I’m ashamed to say my reading has been pretty pathetic these last months. I didn’t keep track of the books read in Portland, and I brought only three paper books to Cañar (Michael refuses to carry them anymore, and I brought only one bag): Tana French’s police procedural, The Trespasser, which was a good interminable read for the 24-hour trip here, but not one I would recommend. Also Mountains of My Mind, for some unknown reason I’d bought months ago about a history of mountain climbing, which I’ll pass on to my friend in Cuenca who does climb mountains. I like Pico Iyer a lot, and just finished an ebook, The Man in the Head, also ordered from the library for some unknown reason. The man in Iyer’s head is Graham Greene, whose books I loved in the far past, but I’m not sure I’d recommend this book either.

So I have to give special thanks to a long book report from a 1960’s an ex-Peace Corps volunteer in Cuenca, now living in Florida, who has done some real quality reading over the pandemic months (unlike some of us). Here is his report, slightly edited:

“Two have Ecuadorian themes. The first is The Man Who Read Love Stories by writer Luis Sepulveda, a Bolivian-exile. The novela is set in the Ecuadorian Oriente and reminds me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The second is The Undocumented Americans, by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. Her parents brought her to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was a child and as an undocumented student she made it through Harvard and is now going for a PhD in American Studies at Yale. She got her green card last year and promptly had this book published.

The Bad Muslim Discount, a novel by Sayd M. Masood. Two Muslim families, one from Pakistan, the other from Iraq meet at an apartment building in San Francisco. Interactions and family conflicts are told in a somewhat comical way.

You might also try Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, by Suzy Hansen.  She discusses living and traveling in Turkey for seven years.  Living outside the US makes us see the world differently.

Finally, I’ll briefly mention these nonfiction books that I felt are also more than just chewing-gum-for-the-eyeballs:  1) Jon Meacham’s biography of John Lewis, His Truth is Marching On.  2) David Michaelis’s “Eleanor,” a lengthy biography of Eleanor Roosevelt.  3) Barak Obama’s A Promised Land.”

Finally, a Portland friend piped in late to say she is reading George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, based on his twenty years of teaching a class on the Russian short story. “He interrupts the story to pose questions and get us thinking about what makes great writing. It might not be for everyone but I find it intriguing and fun to read.”

So, dear readers, please send your suggestions for our next rousing meeting in two weeks. Until then, still well. I love to hear from you.