Saying goodbye…again


Dear Friends – in a routine that has become familiar after 17 years, I recognize the first signs: time rushing by at unnatural speed, projects that dawdled along for months suddenly require urgent attention; visitors who put off visiting arrive at the door (often with great amounts of garden or crop produce), meetings delayed for months suddenly solidify. All of which is to say these last two weeks in May are unusally busy. Still, I wanted to squeeze in one last chronicle because I really miss being in touch with you all while we’re in Portland.

This is also a time when I get around to tasks I’ve put off for months. On a sunny day last week I took off on a long solitary walk – about 5 kilometers – down to a comuna called Cuchucún where, in 2000, my early photography student José Miguel and I went to interview, photograph and film a musician, Pedro Pichisaca. Now, 23 years later and feeling lost on the empty road, I stopped to ask a man the way. “Pedro Pichisaca?  He died 10 years ago! I’m his uncle.” He pointed out the house in the distance, and after winding down and down the mountain, I asked again as I got closer. A a neighbor in her field pointed to a small house and said the widow of Pedro lived there. I knocked, her son answered (I saw Pedro’s face in his) and after about ten minutes the widow came cautiously to the door. She recognized me but did not invite me in. She took the large envelope I offered and studied the photos – contact sheets and color prints. Then she looked up at me and asked politely, “But where’s the video?”

Chagrined, I came home and after a two-hour nap found the video on an old hard drive, and called her son to ask him to come by with a flash drive to download. Hard evidence can be found in the two screen shots below from the video. This was a good reminder of how important it is to return images and videos to folks who so kindly collaborate with our documentary ways. After 23 years, Pedro’s widow had not forgotten that motion and sound bring back a beloved person, not stills.

This is also a time when I’m aware the Cañarean cycle of life. We came in December to find two nests with little cheepers in the giant aloe plant in the atrium. Now, we watch as two rufous collared sparrows come and go from under the glass roof, either building a new nest or renovating the two empty ones that I can still see. Our own little aviary.

In the back field we find two bulls cleaning up the remains of the corn/bean/squash crop, as our compadres José Maria and Narcisa prepare to plow and replant. Their dogs keep watch from our back porch, somehow knowing this will again be their alternative home for the next six months.

Speaking of dogs, we had some puppy excitement a couple of weeks ago. I was in a zoom conversation looking out the window towards the street when I saw a woman I didn’t know come through the gate with a large shopping bag. She dumped three puppies onto the lawn. I yelled for Michael, who ran out and began chasing the puppies as I caught up with the woman as she started to leave.

“We can’t have puppies,” I said. “Why don’t you sell them at the Sunday open market?” She said little, only that she had three more in same litter and couldn’t take care of all the dogs. She stood patiently as Michael corralled the puppies and put them back in the bag. But as soon as she walked out the gate she dumped them on the edge of the road, where there was traffic. I ran out to check they were OK, but someone in a car had already stopped and taken away these beautiful healthy little creatures. (A friend pointed out they would sell for about $500 each in Portland.)

Two weeks ago we held the first all-scholarship meeting since before Covid, with current scholars along with a couple of graduates to give motivation, inspiration and lessons learned. Luisa, the physician, talked about the difficulties of getting married and having a baby while in university (stony faces all around). And Paiwa, the engineer, talked about the long road to a scholarship for a master’s in the US – learning English being the key. Afterward, lunch, a cake, and a final photo in the front yard.

And that’s it for this year in Cañar, folks. The house darkens as Michael put up the shutters yesterday, even after kindly friends sent a message that they thought it was too dangerous and that Michael should get a neighbor to help. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m sure Magdalena (our troublesome neighbor) would love to help me.”

I ran out to assist, but got distracted photographing my flowers for the last time.

Cañar Book Club

I have some last recommendations for summer reading.

Maya in Portland: The Ministry For the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. “Speculative fiction that takes place a bit in the future, when disasters from climate change have become bigger and scarier. Robinson manages to create a visceral sense of what can/will go wrong and the effect on humanity, but also a really imaginative look at the kinds of things that could solve some of the problems and halt the worst of the destruction.  There are interesting characters and a plot, as well, making it an absorbing read on several levels. Mostly, it really makes you think about the big issues we face, yet without despair. Impressive!

She also liked Rebecca Makai’s The Great Believers, about the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s in Chicago, and it’s aftermath. “Very absorbing.”

Nancy in Portland:  Independent People by Halldor Laxness, an Icelandic writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 in part based on this masterpiece (he wrote many books). Set in sheep herding country in early 20th century Iceland, it’s an intimate, richly detailed story of a stubborn man who’s determined to get out from under the quasi-feudal economic system of landholding at that time. Jane Smiley called it “one of the best books of the 20th Century.” It’s dense and complex, very character-based, and leavened by sardonic humor.

Julie in Vermont:  The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls was a book club favorite here, and I’d recommend the same author writing on her mother and remarkable grandmother in Half Broke Horses.

My reading has been all over the place as I grow impatient with my iPad and yearn for a paper book and characters that I can love. I gave up on the Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest (fed up with reading about Columbus and his ilk risking their lives for gold and silver to bring genocide and slavery to the New World). Then The Candy Store by Jennifer Egan. Clever, as always, but do I like any of these characters enough to keep reading 350 pages? No. Then, Fellowship Point by Alice Elliot Dark, after reading a review. Ho hum! Should I care about resolving ownership of a point of land in Maine owned by wealthy Philadelphians?  Finally, from the library, The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese. Ahhhh, a sprawling novel by a favorite writer, set in India beginning in 1900, 775 pages to go, and 24 hours of travel ahead.  I’m happy!

As always, I love hearing from you. We have tickets back to Cañar on December 1, so if you’ve been wanting to visit Ecuador, start making your plans for 2024!

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:

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…