The Time Has Come to Talk

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Well, the time has come, as they say, to talk. Last week, on a late afternoon walk in the countryside near our house, enjoying the cold air on my face and the good feeling of simply moving after a day spent at the desk, a neighbor called out,”…y  Señor Michael?” He leaned on the entrance to his earthen patio, watching me. I didn’t recognize him, but called back, “Michael’s at home, by the fire. He doesn’t like to walk as much as I do.”

“His health is good?” he asked. Yes! I called back. “Gracias a dios!” he said, making a subtle prayer gesture. Walking on, I thought about this exchange. He was not the first neighbor to ask about Michael when they see me on the road, or Michael about me as he walks into town. People are watching and wondering about us, still the only two extranjeras in Cañar, living alone in that big house. No car, no obvious family. “Do you have children?” they often ask. Then, “Do they come to visit?” Then, maybe, the bolder ones: “How old are you?” The subtext is always, What’s going to happen to your property when….?

I know they are especially interested in Michael – watching him over the years as he grows more stooped, his pace slower as he trudges into town daily with his Orvis shopping bag. He usually takes a taxi or truck back, so all the drivers know him and with affection will ask me the next time I grab a ride: “Where’s Michael? What’s he doing?”

“At home, fixing dinner,” I love saying.

We’ve lived in our little comuna of Chaglaban for 15 years now, and longer than that in the town. I know that our neighbors are watching us grow older, and are thinking – how much longer will they keep coming to Cañar? That’s a question I ask myself sometimes, but mostly we – Michael and I – simply carry on with the assumption that we’ll keep living indefinitely in our “house in the clouds.” Witness our running list of items to bring next December, when we expect to return: larger chimney brush, arugula and cardamom seeds, yeast for popcorn, Earl Gray tea, 1 ceramic knife.

Besalú, Catalonia, May 2019

No question, however, that we gave a nod to age this year when we canceled our trip to Spain. Once we really talked about it, after we’d let our plans float for a few weeks, Michael said he just didn’t feel up to lugging around his bags on buses and trains for a month, (our modus operandi after we stopped driving in Spain), changing hotels every few days. Then there’s getting through airports, Covid tests, and the 10+ hour flight from Guayaquil to Madrid. Last time we were in Spain was 2019. The following year, we’d already paid for tickets, made reservations, and then…. well, you all know what happened. 2021 was also a bust. So, as I regretfully cancelled the hotel reservations I’d made this year, I felt a moment’s sadness thinking this might mark the end of our serious traveling days.

But then….Michael suggested we take a mini-vacation in Ecuador, as long as we could travel slowly by bus a few hours a day. So I started planning again, made hotel reservations for two nights between Cañar and Mindo, and three nights in Mindo, a bird/butterfly reserve/resort northwest of Quito. Smooth, yes? Well, not so much. I hadn’t remembered that the buses blast non-stop movies with sound so loud that those at the back won’t miss a single shot, scream, or car chase. Imagine passing through this magnificent landscape with sounds of an explosion or machine gun in your ears.

I wondered what the nuns thought, though Michael hardly seemed to notice. But by the time we got to Mindo after 12 hours on three buses, (broken up with two overnights in hotels), slogging through one interminable bus station and waiting in a tiny one at opposite ends of Quito, plus two long taxi rides, I was already planning to convince Michael we had to return by plane.

 

Mindo itself was a sort of mixed-up-mishaps-mess, but in the end it seemed the more setbacks we had the more cheerful Michael got. A small resort town mostly aimed at younger travelers with tours for night bicycling, “canyoning” the rivers, rappelling waterfalls, zip lines, and 6:00 AM treks for bird watching. We stayed near town in an “eco-lodge” made entirely of concrete, including the bed, side tables, floors and benches, with bamboo details. It was hot, and rained torrents every afternoon, so we stuck with one activity a day, walking into town for meals. The food was not good, Michael complained.We did enjoy the butterfly garden…

   

and watching birds  from the bird watching tower…

 

But the day before we were to leave Mindo landslides closed the road to Quito. By then I’d talked Michael into flying and bought tickets, so we hired a truck driver who promised to get us through to the Quito airport. We were there in plenty of time, but as we tried to check in for our afternoon flight, the agent wouldn’t let us pass because our national IDs were not “legitimate.” They were photocopies in plastic; same with our passports, which I had thoughtfully brought. I protested, I begged, and then I pulled out my Oregon driver’s license. The agent grabbed it and said, “Now THERE is a legitimate ID!” But Michael hadn’t brought his so….back to Quito to the office of a mini-bus we heard about from the taxi driver that serves Quito – Cuenca – Quito, where we made a reservation for the next day. “Let’s check out this Hostal Caribe,” Michael said in surprising good spirits as we walked a couple of blocks into a down-at-the-heels part of the city. That’s how we ended up enjoying a good sleep at a $15/night/per person, flocked wallpaper, leopard-print blanket, master-bedroom of a long-ago elegant mansion on the last night of our misadventure-some mini-vacation. Which gives me real hope that our traveling days are not over yet.

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C a ñ a r   B o o k   C l u b

Dearest readers:  I’ve thrown caution to the wind lately and started paying for kindle books instead of waiting for the library. Most of these titles hooked me with the “look inside” or “sample” from Amazon, which offers about 20 pages before turning blank. That’s how I ended up with These Precious Days by Ann Patchett, one of my favorite essay writers (her fiction not so much). I’ve read some of these essays before, but still enjoyed sinking into her perfectly constructed sentences. Reminding me of when she appeared at Literary Arts in Portland a few years back, pacing the stage in front of about 3,000 people telling without prompts a complicated anecdotal and meandering story that she brought to a perfect conclusion. I also bought the novel Free Love by Tessa Hadley, a favorite short-story writer I read in The New Yorker. This one set in 1960’s-70’s London, and I know from the acknowledgements that Hadley did a lot of research but I found myself saying, “Did that really happen? Could that character really have made such a radical change in her life?”  My feeling after finishing the novel is that I prefer her short stories.

Found books in English are a special treasure in Ecuador, and whenever I end up in a restaurant or hotel with shelves of books left by travelers, I make a beeline. That’s how I ended up with The Witch Elm by Tana French. I’ve read her before, and was reminded with this one that her set-ups and characters are brilliant. You can’t stop reading (in the beginning). But then I find myself flipping pages as her characters’ conversations go on and on and on, wanting to get back to the action. I can’t say more without a spoiler, as I’ve just loaned the one to a friend, but I think my Tana French days are over.

So, on to suggestions by club members.

Mel in Vermont: This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger about the odyssey of four young kids who run away from a school for Native Americans and their adventures along the way. It takes place in the time of the Great Depression, and is a thought-provoking read.

Sandy in Portland: “Damon Galgut’s The Promise won the Booker and I think he deserved it. It’s about a South African family during and after apartheid. Beautiful, original writing. (I also read this book and recommend it.)

Portland’s “Everybody Reads: this year is Mira Jacob’s Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, a graphic novel. She’s an Indian American whose life is crowded with micro-aggressions and whose primary-age, mixed-race son asks hard questions about race, Trump and other related subjects. Eula Biss: Having and Being Had, short essays on trying to live ethically, understand and survive capitalism. Wonderful and LOL funny.
Jia Lynn Yang: One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration – excellent, good writing, interesting subject with great political details, a story I didn’t know and prompting a number of epiphany moments, including how ill prepared, inexperienced and ineffective Kennedy was despite the myth of Camelot.

From Patricia in New York. Francine Prose Sicilian Journey, a delightful essay by this excellent, insightful writer, a novelist as well as essayist. A personal, quirky, insightful and thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone contemplating a trip to Sicily.

Edmund DeWaal’s wonderful tale of The Hare with Amber Eyes, about a collection of Japanese netsuke and their history within his family and their journeys from Odessa  through Vienna, Paris, Tokyo and now London as this hidden inheritance tale unfolds. (I also read this one and loved it.)

That’s all for now, folks. If I missed anyone’s book suggestions please send again. There will be one more Cañar Chronicle before we leave on June 1 for Portland. Until then, I send fond regards and remember that I love to hear from you at: judyblanken@gmail.com.

Ana’s story is published – thirty years later

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Dear Friends: Thirty years ago, on nearly every Sunday in a small house in San José, Costa Rica, Ana Margarita Gasteazoro and I sat side-by-side at a desk in my office/darkroom, a Sony recorder and a couple of glasses of wine between us. We were chronicling her life story, along with sounds of Michael in the kitchen, banging pots and pans and occasionally singing. Ana was 36 then, beautiful and vibrant and full of colorful tales of growing up in El Salvador as a rebellious girl in an upper-middle class family. But a more serious tone and melancholy pervaded at times. Ana was in Costa Rica as a political refugee, having spent nearly two years in prison in San Salvador.

She told of being violently arrested by the national police at the height of a bloody civil war that would cost 75,000 lives. After being “disappeared” for 11 days in the clandestine cells of the police, and repeatedly threatened with death, the first title of the book – Tell Mother I’m in Paradise – refers to Ana’s answer on the day she was delivered to Ilopango women’s prison, and the intake officer asked if she wanted to send a message to her family. Paradise, in this case, meant that she knew she was going to live, unlike so many of her colleagues and friends, but she was also already thinking about how she would continue her organizing work with the women political prisoners. (Header image above of women in Ilopango prison.)

Ana was an “organizer” at heart beginning with her teenage years, when her conservative mother sent her to Guatemala to a Catholic girls’ boarding school to “straighten her out.” Instead, Ana found herself surrounded by a group of Maryknoll nuns involved in resistance to Guatemala’s regime through liberation theology. The nuns didn’t tell her exactly what they were up to  – later Ana learned that one, Sister Marian Peter, became the famous antiwar activist in the US, Margery Melville. Ana was encouraged to volunteer in poor neighborhoods after school and on weekends, and it was here in Guatemala that her social consciousness began to take shape.

Ana went on to describe her young adult years as a rising star/activist in a legal political party in El Salvador, trips to Europe with Socialist International, a few affairs with famous men along with many unwanted advances from other famous men. There were some attempts to settle into a work and domestic life, and then, as the war escalated and she saw her political comrades and friends kidnapped, horribly tortured and left dead by roadsides, she made the decision to go underground and become a militant, while continuing to work “above ground” with her legal party. A very dangerous decision, as it turned out.At some indefinable moment on one of those Sundays in San José, I said – or she said, or we said together – “This should be a book!” With our mutual friend, Andrew  – who had introduced me to Ana – we worked together transcribing, editing, adding extra recording sessions to fill in gaps. Ana was eager but always ambivalent. This was 1988 and the war was still on in El Salvador. Should she be revealing all this?  And if a book came out, shouldn’t it be in Spanish? (My Spanish then was rudimentary; her English was perfect after years in the American School in San Salvador). We carried on, piece-meal, as I worked full-time with CUSO, and Andrew who worked with same Canadian NGO, returned to Canada.

Then, on a holiday to the Caribbean coast, Ana met Smokey. Always passionate and compulsive, she announced on her return that she had decided on a new life to realize a long-held dream. She and Smokey would open a bakery and cafe in Puerto Viejo. Ana had always loved to cook – she and Michael had quickly bonded over food – and Smokey owned land on the beach where they would build an open-air cafe with living quarters above. Michael contributed his labor with plumbing and electrical work; Andrew came back to Costa Rica, did more interviews with Ana and loaned her funds to buy a pizza oven. I stayed in San José working, and visiting when I could.

Cafe Coral was an instant success, with Ana’s granola (which I still make), and Smokey’s green-peppercorn-and lobster pizza. Within a year or so, Ana was chairwoman of the community of Puerto Viejo, promoting ecologically friendly development in the fast-growing tourism scene on the Caribbean coast.

There is so much more to this story, both sadness and joy, in Ana’s ebullient voice, but I hope you will buy the book so I’ll stop here. But with one more photo. In 1992 Ana and Smokey came to visit us in Cuenca, Ecuador. I took this photo of the two of them in the back yard of our house on the Tomebamba River. Another day, after we two went shopping and Ana bought a string of red coral beads, I took the cover photo in my upstairs studio. It was the next-to-last time I saw Ana.

In 2019, realizing Ana’s hope, the book was published in Spanish in El Salvador by the Museum of the Word and Image (MUPI) (with excellent translation work by her cousin Eva Gasteazoro), and on April 19, 2022, University of Alabama Press will officially publish the book in English. (pp 4-5 in catalog)

For those who like instant gratification, the book is already available on Amazon, but I’m hearing from friends who are getting it from their local independent bookstores such as Powell’s Books in Portland, Barnes and Noble and others. (I also hear that it is a beautiful hardback with dust jacket, cream-tone pages, and good photo reproductions.)

One last note. When Ana died prematurely at age 40 of breast cancer, I was still in Ecuador. Grieving, and remembering how much she had wanted a university education, like her brothers, I started the Ana Margarita Gasteazoro Fund for Women (now the Cañari Women’s Education Foundation). Since then, 38 Cañari have received full scholarships to state universities in Ecuador.

Any royalties from Tell Mother I’m in Paradise: Memoirs of a Political Prisoner in El Salvador will go to a similar fund in El Salvador. Ana Margarita would be pleased; she believed strongly that the education of women was one of the most important avenues for social and political progress in Latin America.

C a ñ a r  B o o k  C l u b

Well, unlike past book club meetings, I’ve had some good reads lately, and they sync nicely with recommendations from our members. The Wrong End of the Telescope by Abih Alameddine is about a transgender doctor, Lebanese in origin, who goes to the island of Lesbos with several friends to help support the immigrants arriving there. Interesting parallel with a book recommended by Chris in Ottawa: What a Strange Paradise by Egyptian-Canadian Omar El Akkad: “More bodies have washed up on the shores of a small island. Another over-filled, ill-equipped, dilapidated ship has sunk under the weight of its too many passengers: Syrians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians, all of them desperate to escape untenable lives in their homelands. And only one has made the passage…”

I read recently Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar and I’m still deciding what I think. Part novel, part memoir (now called autofiction), I was deeply drawn in to his life story, but put off by some of his long discourses on politics, art, money, sex, religion, and prejudice.  I say read it, and get back to me on what you let think.

A friend visiting from Mexico, Natalie, left her book with me: All the Frequent Troubles of our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler by Rebecca Donner. What a pleasure to hold a beautifully produced hardback book after months of Kindle reading! Incredibly well documented and written, a terribly sad book that reminds us how important resistance is to autocratic regimes, whether in the US, Russia or El Salvador.

Allison in Minneapolis has read and liked Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. “An immigrant family from Ghana settles in Huntsville, Alabama in hopes of a better life in America. … a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi’s phenomenal debut, Homegoing.”

Joanne in Mexico has recommended Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan, and after Michael and I listened to her read her short story, “So Late in the Day,” on the New Yorker podcast last week, I ordered her book on kindle and finished it in a few short hours. I agree with Joanne: “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.”

Charlotte in Portland recommends Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, Edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. “… a very readable 80 Black-authored essays and poems giving the reader a broad picture of how enslavement of Africans essentially built America (and Western civilization) and how those Africans managed to fight and keep fighting through the entrenched hypocrisy that is still very much with us today.”

Shirley from Cuenca: The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate. “Real page turner based on  three women in 1875 post civil war trying to find lost relatives, and current day teacher trying to bring history to life in a black southern community.  Did not want the story to end.”

She carries on the “book” theme with:  The Book of Lost Names by Kristen Hamel. “A historical WWII novel about a Paris student who uses her artistic talent to forge documents to help Jewish children cross the border. How she saves all the names in a book in code is amazing.”

And now she is reading How the Word is Passed about slavery. “Author Clint Smith visits important sites like Montecello, Whitney Plantation and a Louisiana prison to interview workers, visitors and inmates to see oppression past and present.”

Did I miss anyone?  If so, please remind me what you are reading, with a comment a two. I always love hearing from our Cañar Book Club members.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Covid update two years later, the consolation of a garden, and small deaths in the patio

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Dear Friends – Some of you have read “Letter from Ecuador” in a recent New Yorker, with excellent reporting by Daniel Alarcón (link is here).  Primarily about the pandemic tragedy in Guayaquil two years ago that sent horrible images around the world of the dead left on the streets as hospital and mortuaries were overwhelmed, Alarcón also writes of the courageous medical workers, affected families then and now, and Ecuador’s general response to the pandemic.

March 16 marks two years since the national lockdown in Ecuador, when airports, schools, universities were abruptly shut, inter-provincial travel stopped and the entire population advised to stay at home and only venture out when necessary. In Cañar, the streets into town were barricaded while police and volunteer security teams (mostly newly recruited young people) circulated to check on movements and masks. Cañari villages surrounding the town took their own security measures, blocking off access roads with dump trucks, chains, anything that said “Do Not Enter.” Here’s a sketch I did in town the following day.

The first case to appear in Guayaquil was late February, when an elderly woman flew from Madrid for a family visit and exposed 80 people in a few days of socializing. From that point on cases exploded until the city was simply overwhelmed, and families were leaving their dead in the streets in front of their houses. Alarcón quotes a Doctor Ortiz saying that Guayaquil likely had the world’s most lethal outbreak of Covid-19 per capita. “One day, there were no patients,” he told me. “The next, there were five thousand looking for beds in intensive-care units.” Ortiz estimates that about sixty-five per cent of the city’s residents were infected during March and April of 2020. (emphasis mine).

I remember the first case we heard about in Cañar, via the grapevine, maybe late March. Someone said a Cañari youth had been in Guayaquil for a social event or meeting and came back infected. After that, the indigenous rural communities basically shut down communications with the outside world. Although there were surely many cases circulating, no one wanted to be tested or go to the hospital (or talk about it), and unless someone appeared to be dying they were treated at home with “native medicine” that included eucalyptus vapor and herbal teas. Surely some older folks died, but death certificates depend on medical professionals, and indigenous families don’t call these to their houses. A death at home is quickly followed by an all-night vigil, funeral mass, and a quick interment the next day. So case and mortality numbers in Cañar stayed extremely low.  Eventually, I knew of only three dangerously ill Cañaris who ended up in the hospital in Cuenca – all men and all three recovered. Two were from the village pictured below, Quilloac. (It was a different story in the town, but I have no statistics for those.)

From Alarcón’s article: “Officially, more than thirty-five thousand Ecuadorians died of covid-19 in the past two years, but the total excess deaths for 2020 and 2021 number more than eighty thousand. Five hundred and forty-five Ecuadorian doctors died of covid-19, along with hundreds of other health-care workers and medical professionals.”

On March 16, 2020 Michael and I were half way into our usual six months here, with tickets already paid to Spain for the month of May and on to Portland in June. Like so many others, in the beginning we figured we’d still travel, that this Covid thing would quickly pass and life would return to normal. In the end we were not able to leave Ecuador until July, and then barely – on one of the first weekly flights out of Quito on a three-day trip from hell.

Two years later, a national mask mandate is still in place, and according to a taxi driver I recently chatted with, will stay until May. The other day we were asked to show proof of vaccination before getting on the bus to Cuenca, and Michael until recently had to show his card at his favorite supermarket in Cuenca. Vaccinations began in January 2021, and today more than seventy-four per cent of the population of Ecuador is fully vaccinated—one of the highest vaccination rates in the region and higher than that of the United States.

In Cañar, however, other than masks, life seems to have slipped back to pre-2020. After a Omicron wave following the Christmas holidays (which everyone here simply called grippe fuerte – strong flu – and seemed to recover after 3-4 days) schools are back in person, markets are open, traffic has returned – furiously. The universities are still closed to in-person classes, and our twelve scholarship women have continued to do OK with virtual classes on their laptops and cell phones. But of course they are anxious to be back with classmates and professors and all that a university environment provides. The produce markets are thriving and my only complaint is the shelves at our town markets were cleared of wine by holiday fiestas, and haven’t been restocked.

OK, about those small deaths in the patio: These past few days I could detect that unmistakable odor of dead animal as I passed along one side of the interior patio, though Michael could not. Finally, I could stand it no longer and made a serious search inside the monster aloe that dominates the space. I soon spotted two empty nests, but it took longer to see a bit of wing and a little gray carcass of a rufous-collared sparrow. Then, glancing down at a flower pot at the base of the aloe I saw another dead sparrow. Mystery solved. Michael the hero volunteered to extract and dispose of our little neighbors. We enjoy living with them as the come in through the space between the glass structure and tile roof to hop around, drink from the fountain, check for insects in the soil and sometimes visit our rooms. It’s the first time we’ve found dead birds in the patio, however, and my guess is it was due to the unusually cold weather – nights in the 40’s and rainy days in the 50’s. (Though Michael disagrees, says these birds have to live through even colder weather). However, until otherwise proven, I stand by my theory.

Finally, the garden:  I just wanted to add some color to this post, so I made the header image a collage of the flowers currently in bloom in our garden.

Cañar Book Club

Well this time it’s just me. After a flurry of reading suggestions last time that made a extra-long list, our dear members have gone silent – or maybe just disappointed in their books, as I have been. (photo: The Yellow Book by Vincent Van Gogh).

Lately I’ve been dependent on e-books coming through my waiting list from the library, so I read what comes and if I’m disappointed I drop and pick up the next one. I have just started The Promise by Damon Galgut (winner of 2021 Booker) and I’m definitely engaged. “This bravura novel about the undoing of a bigoted South African family during apartheid deserves awards.”—The Guardian

Waiting on my Kindle library shelf is: Brick Lane by Monica Ali (while anticipating her new one, Love Marriage), and the Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  Why?  I have no idea.

Flash: As I was writing this, a message came from Pat in Bend, Oregon: “A researcher sets out to discover what’s happening to Pacific Salmon. The wild Salmon’s wide range takes him from Canada, to the Arctic and, eventually to Kamchatka, Russia. There he sees undisturbed Salmon habitat and vibrant ecosystems. He forms the notion of creating protected Salmon habitats that he calls, “strongholds” Thus the title of this book, Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild Salmon by Tucker Malarkey. Malarkey grew up with the researcher in their family cabins on the Deschutes River in Oregon, and she followed him as a journalist and friend in his endeavors to create an eco-organization. (non-fiction)

That’s it for now. Please keep your book suggestions coming for the April meeting of our beloved Cañar Book Club.