April: a month to remember!

Dear Friends:

What a month! Where shall I start?  With the tree that fell on our house in Portland? With the news of a three-year grant to UT Texas that includes the Cañar archive project? With the twinges on a newly-crowned tooth that indicate a root canal in my near future? (Here call “tratamiento de conductores,” which I much prefer.) With the hug from the woman at Relaciones Exteriores when I showed up for stage two of my visa transfer after a long wait? Or with the first visit to a notaria to make our Ecuadorian testamento (will) that began with: “You must bring ten witnesses.”  (below: Notaria Lila Jiménez and Lawyer Mercedes Guamán with Michael)

I’ll start with the last first. We are preparing to leave Cañar on May 2, first to Spain and Portugal, then to Portland. As every year when we get ready to fly back and forth over the vast Atlantic, we think about the “what if…” scenario that I wrote about in the last blog.

This time we decided to do something about it. Michael and I had already agreed – with our son Scott’s blessing – that our Cañar house and property will eventually be sold to establish an endowment for the Cañari women’s scholarship program. For this we need an Ecuadorian testamento, a will, to cover any circumstances where we both go at once – a plane goes down or the bus plunges off the side of the road, etc. But for the scholarship program to legally receive any funds generated by the sale, it must become an official non-profit entity within the Ecuadorian government – something we’ve avoided as it requires a crazy amount of paperwork and time, plus a monthly reporting of activities.

But before any of that, we needed a unanimous decision to go ahead with the non-profit year ago.)  Because time is short, I sent out an email requesting an emergency meeting and mentioned the testamento. Big mistake!  Everyone thought we were either (1) dying or (2) leaving Cañar for good. I allayed those fears in a second email, but once we were gathered for the meeting – where Michael and I each spoke of our decision – there were tears, tears and more tears. Testimonios de nostalgia and melancholia, as one member said. I was totally shocked. But when I mentioned that this is commonplace in the U.S., to make legal arrangements for possible future circumstances, it didn’t seem to matter. This was a cultural divide, and Michael and I could only respectfully accept the emotional response.

(I later learned that a will is usually a bedside visit to a dying person by a lawyer or notario – no one apparently does this in advance.)

The decision was quickly made, however, and the next day we met our lawyer Mercedes Guamán (an early scholarship graduate) at the notary – the public official who handles wills. There, in a loud staccato string of words, she told us we would need ten witnesses – five witnesses each – that the wills would be done separately, that because the law requires that 50% of an inheritance must go to a child or children, and we were not doing this: “You must bring photos of your other house (in Portland) to prove that he will not be left destitute by your will.”

Meanwhile, the next day, a tree fell on that house in Portland – Scott’s inheritance.  

We did not mention that to the notaria when we returned the following week. Though we certainly had plenty of time. We spent five hours in her small narrow office, with her three helpers on one side and, in a line of chairs along the other wall, supplicants and witnesses. During which time we witnessed and heard land transactions, whispered questions from an older man about getting divorced, water rights, and even an actual divorce of a young couple sitting mere feet from us. Completed, signed, stamped and paid for while we watched. (The “thawk” of seals and stamps was a daylong soundtrack…)Nothing was private, including our business. “Señora how old are you?” one helper yelled across the room at me while filling a form. Finally, our poor patient witnesses were called forward one by one to sign and make their fingerprints (Lila finally allowed us to share witnesses). The notaria put the two wills into two envelopes, sealed them with packing tape and said, “Now, these will stay with me!” What?

She did allow me to hold one briefly for this photo with our witnesses, and later her assistant did make us copies.

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On to the good news: The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded a three-year grant to AILLA (Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America) at University of Texas, Austin, that includes the Cañar archive project. We’ve been anxiously waiting to hear, since you-know-who-at-the-helm announced last year he might do away with both the NEH and NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). In fact, each was funded at the same level or slightly high than last year. Lucky for us. It means three years of support to digitize, create metadata and publish the photo and sound collections from the Archivo Cultural de Cañar. The University of Texas announcement is here).

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I’ll make the visa story short, although the wait has been long and aggravating.  My passport expired last year and I need to transfer my permanent resident visa into my new passport. Quick bit of paperwork and the whack of a stamp or two? Not on your life! Everything in government Ecuador is now online, beginning with making an appointment with Exterior Relations in Azogues, our provincial capital. That took almost three months. Then, at last, a first visit where I met Norma, this friendly woman who copied my passports and said she’d email when permission came from Quito for the transfer. “That may be as soon as Monday,” she said on Friday. Exactly one month later, after various visits and phone calls to Norma, with Michael fussing that I might not be allowed back into Ecuador as a resident if I left without the visa. Finally, an email from Norma. “Good news! Come with your passports!”  Michael had to provide all his paperwork also, as my visa depends on his – although we both own our property, the real estate visa is based on his name alone, and my visa is as his wife. OK, we’ll let that one go. M. and I showed up at Exterior Relations and Norma actually got up came around her desk to give me a hug. Would I get my visa today?  Not on your life!  Today Norma was only allowed to gather all our paperwork, then we would wait to hear again for the visa transfer. I asked for a photo but she said not allowed. So here’s a view of my paperwork (so far!)  I have a feeling I’m going to be traveling without the new visa.

Although, enough drama. On to bookish pleasures!

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Cañar Book Club

Well Dear Readers, this is our last Cañari book club for the year – or at least until December when we’ll be back to Cañar. But of course we’ll all keep reading books between now and then. For my part, I’m taking these few books for our month in Spain/Portugal: Baltasar and Blimunda, José Saramago. Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, María Rosa Menocal, and This Must be the Place, Maggie O’Farrell (thanks Claire).  Not nearly enough, and I still don’t use an e-reader, but sometimes I get lucky with a bookstore in Madrid.

For my Cañar reading, I’ve just finished and Michael is reading The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf. I couldn’t say it better than what a Bend, Oregon member wrote: “This book has it all!  Big ideas, adventure, history, sumptuous descriptions of nature and a lot about Latin America, specifically Ecuador. He introduced the stunning natural world of northern Latin America to eager scientists in Europe as well as to our own Thomas Jefferson. Beautifully written and researched.”

I’ve also recently read The Sympathizers by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which I found riveting until 3/4 way through, then utterly boring. But I’d give this author another read. Also Victor: An Unfinished Song by Joan Jara about her Chilean husband, singer Victor Jara, who was so horribly tortured and murdered during Pinochet’s military coup d ‘etat in 1973.  I’ve read it before but it’s good to be reminded that this must never happen again.

On to recommendations from other members:

Two faithful readers in Portland recommended: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. “Tells the story of a Korean family through the generations that ended up displaced to Japan. Lee doesn’t make nice on how horrendous that experience was and to some extent still is for Koreans in Japan.  Also Manhatten Beach by Jennifer Egan.  It was great.

From a Toronto member: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders and winner of this 2017 Man Booker Prize. It’s on my list for next year.

And another Toronto faithful:  I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad by Karolyn Smardz Frost. “To retrace the journey of a runaway slave …from the Ohio River Valley all the way to Canada is an immense challenge & a rare accomplishment….”  Winner of Governor General’s award, 2007.

From a literary friend in Mexico: The Wrong Blood, Manuel de Lope, set during the Spanish Civil War and The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, Francisco Cantú.

From another Toronto reader. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman – if you haven’t dipped into his books before, Shaman is a good one to start with.  Robinson’s New York 2040  is heavy going – as most of his books are, where detail almost overwhelms the narrative plot – but there is always lots to think about that makes it worthwhile. Including Antarctica, and a trilogy set in Washington during a time of extreme climate events.

And from Norway: The Automobile Club of Egypt. Allaa Al Aswany. “A superb novel of a gentleman’s club in Cairo in the last days of Egypt’s colonial status, before Nassar came to power, and where King Farouk came to gamble. A delight, the same sort of detailed characters as in his earlier The Yacoubian Building”

And a faithful book club member reporting for duty from London!  The Power by Naomi Alderman is …”odd and underwhelming though very readable. It’s supposed to be a feminist book (if there is such a thing) but my partner quite correctly declared … that it’s ‘a girl-book for boys.’ I’d be interested to hear whether you agree.”

I’m afraid I’ve lost track of some recommendations that came in by email, so please remind me, and I’ll keep them in reserve for our next meeting.

Until then, books make life worth living!

Time Marches On….

Dear Friends – This is Semana Santa, Holy Week, the quietest weekend of the year, and we are just a month away from leaving the southern half of our bifurcated life. On May 2 we’re off to Spain and Portugal for a month before landing in Portland on June 1. If I count right, this is our 14th consecutive Easter in Cañar since 2005, when we impulsively bought a small piece of land, decided to build a house and return for six months every year. And so we have, without a hitch. (That’s Lourdes, our architect, in the foreground with an outline of the house. Yes, you really can begin by drawing lines in the dirt. The next two photos show other early construction stages, circa 2006.) 

After so long, we’ve become a fact of life in Cañar. Small store owners send Michael home with tamales or a homemade pot of soup in a pretty container, as Doña Mila did yesterday with fanesca, the traditional Easter soup made of 12 grains to represent the 12 apostles. Market women give him “yapas” – that extra piece of fruit that says thanks for being a return customer. People we don’t think we know stop us in the street for an air-kiss, or yell hello in and out of cars.

(That’s Mila in her store in the photo below, bowing, for some reason…)Taxi drivers hear “la casa de los gringos” and take off without a glance or further directions to deliver visitors (or us) to the gate. 

Speaking of taxi drivers, we’ve had many a conversation that starts with:  “Do you have family?”  Yes, they are in the US. “Do they come and visit?” Yes, sometimes. “Well….what are you going to do with your house when….”  They needn’t finish as we know where the question is leading. Who will inherit our house and property?  This is a friendly, not exactly rude, set of questions (although our Cañari friends are way too reserved to bring up the idea that we not live forever). But maybe these drivers do us a service by making us think about the inevitable. Will we continue to come to Cañar forever?  Of course not. Michael turns 80 this year, and he’s still chopping wood and making fires and walking up into town, but slower, slower. We still take long walks, but cover fewer kilometers, and we generally walk down the mountain rather than climbing up (photo below – on a recent such walk, from a place called, appropriately, Jeruselen).

For my part, I can’t imagine not being in Cañar. My work is here. The Archivo Cultural de Cañar, after two decades of documenting work that continues, is just reaching the point of becoming readily available to local communities. This year I began transferring years of digital photo, audio and video files to a dedicated computer at the Centro de Memoria at Instituto Quilloac, an indigenous school and cultural complex. Here is my archive partner – Antonio Guamán, with a visiting PhD student from UPenn, Marlén Rosas.We get together every Tuesday afternoon for transfer and organization of files. I’m making schemata to keep it all straight, a 3-ring binder catalog, and also albums with printed photos so local folks can come in, look them over, and request digital copies or help us identify the people in the photos.  The great advantage of this venue is that Antonio, the librarian, is there every day, ready to help the many adults who are not computer literate. 

This is tremendously exciting to me and also a great relief because, to be honest, I too am feeling the press of time. Two decades of work are locked in numerous hard drives here and in Portland. What if… something happened to us? What if….something happened to the hard drives? What if….??

The digital archive project with AILLA at the University of Texas at Austin will continue over the next three years, but access to their website will depend on a good Internet connection. And although nearly everyone in Cañar now has a cell phone, good Internet in homes, and in the schools, remains a dream.

Speaking of dreams deferred, and unrelated to Cañar, a US publisher has requested an expanded book proposal for the “Ana Project” – the oral history of Ana Margarita Gasteazoro, who Michael and I, and my CUSO colleague Andrew Wilson, were good friends with when we all lived in Costa Rica in the 1980s. Ana was a political refugee from the war in El Salvador, where she had spent two years in prison without charges. Andrew and I transcribed, edited and organized a book manuscript around her recordings before Ana died at 42 years of breast cancer. After some efforts in the 1990’s to find a publisher, we let the project languish until a chance meeting with the director of the Salvadorean Museo de la Palabra y Imagén (Museum of the Word and Image) led us to resurrect the project, arrange for a Spanish translation, and re-edit and expand the chapters (thanks to Andrew, editor extraordinaire!). We hope the book, titled Tell Mother I’m in Paradise: Memoirs of a Political Prisoner in El Salvador, will be published in both Spanish and English in the next year or so.

Actually, this project does relate to Cañar, for the scholarship program for Cañari women is named for Ana. During one of our recording sessions, she told the story of her father telling her he could not afford to send both her and her brothers to university because. “Your brothers will marry and they’ll have to support families, so I will educate them. But you will marry and your husband will support you.” Ana never went to university, she never married and she never forgot the injustice of her father’s decision. When Ana died, I started up the Ana Margarita Gasteazoro Foundation for Women’s Education (since renamed the Cañari Women’s Education Foundation), which has sent 31 indigenous women to state universities. Ana, would be pleased at that.

OK, enough for a quiet Sunday Easter afternoon. I’ve enjoyed putting this blog together, knowing (hoping) you’ll read it and respond. I love hearing from you all….

(Oops, book club on hiatus for Easter holiday. I promise one more blog, and a book club meeting, before we leave Cañar on May 2.  Finally – any travel suggestions for Portugal?)



We are invited to a family event (at last)

Dear Friends: Going back a few weeks in time, and to a previous chronicle theme of rarely being invited to family events, I was absurdly pleased during the Carnaval procession to run into Mama Mariana Chuma, with her contingent from San Rafael, when she casually invited Michael and me to her house the next day (her granddaughter Naomi on right).“At 2:00, not 12:00?” I shouted over the cacophony of drums and flutes. I often don’t hear numbers correctly and doce for 12:00 and dos for 2:00 sound a lot alike. DOS she yelled. OK. Two o’clock on Carnaval Tuesday, we were invited to a traditional family gathering, which would most likely last all day into the evening with lots of sitting around, too much to eat and too much to drink. “We are going,” I informed Michael, and he readily agreed. We’ve known Mama Mariana and her family since her son’s baptism, in 1992, which, in fact, was the very first family event we were invited to in our early years here. Juan Carlos, then six years old, is now a professional musician with a master’s degree, married to one of our scholarship graduates, Pacha, a dentist. Shortly after Juan Carlos’s baptism, while we were on a visit to the U.S., his father Juanito died in a soccer accident. Mama Mariana raised her three children alone – now all university graduates – while working as a nurse in community clinics until her retirement a few years ago. I’ve always loved her.

Knowing that 2:00 was really just a starting point, we struck out walking from our house around then, intending to slowly cover the several kilometers to San Rafael so as not to be the first to arrive. Our plan was foiled when Segundo, Mama Mariana’s son-in-law, drove by and picked us up. We were the first to arrive.

Segundo, acting as host, led us to behind the house where we saw what looked like a newly dug grave, a few flowers stuck in at random. As Michael and I stood staring down, Segundo said, “It’s a pachamanka. It will be ready at 4:00.” This, we knew, meant our dinner was cooking somewhere under the tierra. In Kichwa, pacha means “earth” and manka  “pot,” and this is apparently an old Cañari/Inca custom being resurrected of cooking a meal underground with hot rocks. (MIchael chirps in: a mixture of a Hawaiian luau and New England clam bake).

We sat on a bench against the house, gazing at the countryside and the still smoking fire where the rocks had been heated. As the only guests, protocol dictates that we never be left alone, so Segundo sat with us while we had a few shots of Zhumir (sugarcane firewater) that Michael had brought, and then beer. Segundo is a good friend so we enjoyed talking of U.S. politics, and of the recent Ecuadorian popular referendum, where, it turned out after Segundo explained, Michael and I had voted SI for something we should have voted NO.

Soon, others arrived and our party livened up. Someone brought out a table to set in front of us, and Mama Mariana appeared with a pitcher of chicha, corn beer. I wondered where everyone else was, and when a helper passed by with a load of wood on her back, I realized cooking must be going on in the indoor kitchen too.

At 4:00, a flurry of activity as the flowers came off, shovels came out and kids appeared as the moment arrived to unearth the food.

First the choclos, or corn on the cob, protected by layers of husks.

Then fava beans in the pod and chorizo sausages (disappeared too quickly to photograph, eaten in bites by all of us standing around). Then, last, a huge calabaza (squash) that would be our dessert. By now it had started to rain, and within minutes the whole shebang was whisked inside – table, chairs, chicha, food, kids, adults. And, as I had suspected, there was a lot of action going on in the two indoor kitchens. Over an open fire on the floor, cuyes (guinea pigs) were cooking on long wooden skewers, boys at either end turning the poles.

…and in the other kitchen a huge wood fire with steaming pot of potatoes. We were about eight adult folks, seated around a large table, while Mariana, her two daughters and others were tending pots and pans around us on the large wood-fire in one corner, and a gas-cylinder cooker in another. Michael and an old friend, Santiago (Tayta Shanto), Mariana’s brother, grabbed places together against the wall, watching it all between shots of Zhumir and toasts.

But now I put away my camera. It was time to be a guest and not a photographer. Slowly, the first course of chicken soup arrived (always my favorite part, after so many hours of waiting), then seriously laden plates, with a cuy on top of huge slabs of roasted turkey, surrounded by potatoes, corn, beans and salad. More toasts. Then, after we could not eat another bite – the special dessert of cooked squash with milk, sugar and cinnamon. It was delicious!

Now about 8:00, Michael and I were tired, but we knew we couldn’t leave. In fact, no one around the table moved, recounting family stories and jokes and laughing while the women at the table held sleeping children, and the cooks sat behind us on low stools and chairs, chatting and snacking in their own circle, Two little boys no more than two or three sat in on corner, quietly playing on a shared cell phone. The older kids were outside, playing around the revived hot-rocks fire. More rounds of Zhumir and then another sweet liquor that appeared out of nowhere. By now I would delicately pat my mid-section and say “no mas, gracias,” but Michael couldn’t get escape so easily.

Incredibly, around 9:00 more family arrived – Mama Michi and her daughters, in great spirits. They’d had another invitation in another village. A second table and chairs were set up in the first kitchen. The cooks stirred, charged up the fire and cooker and began another round of serving each person – first chicken soup, then full plates.

It seemed a good moment to make our excuses. Juan Carlos offered to take us home in his car, and we gratefully accepted. The next day, satisfied that we had been included in a real family event, with people we’ve known so long and loved, we didn’t even mind the headaches with hangovers.  Well worth it!

The Cañar Book Club (with the Virgin of Cisne blessing our books)

Perhaps it’s something about the bad weather and books, but our faithful members from London to New York to Portland have been gathering and discussing and sending suggestions. Several readers have mentioned how much they loved A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. (“Warm, entertaining, lovely story.”) This member also wrote that her favorite books of the last year were The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony and The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery.

Two Portland members recommend Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, “an epic saga of a Korean family and National Book Award Finalist.” (Her previous novel with the intriguing title of  Free Food for Millionaires was one of the “Top 10 Novels of 2007).

Another Portland member wrote about her recent discovery of Jon McGregor’s  Reservoir 13, and  I see he has a bunch of other books with great titles, such as This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. I’ve put him on my Cañar list for 2019.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid seems to be on everyone’s list – certainly mine -and he’s coming to PDX Arts and Lectures in April.

A writer friend says she’s gone back to read some books she’d missed over the years: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese  (“thoroughly enjoyable”), and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, (“sturdily good”).  A new “difficult” author is Mattías Enard, she writes. “A Frenchman of vast erudition, who wrote Compass, a rumination on the otherness of the East to the West and vice versa, told in the thoughts of a dying Viennese musicologist.”  Sound intriguing. She’s also read Claudia Rankine’s “devastating Citizen” and books by Shirley Hazzard, such as The Great Fire (“just wish she’d written more”).

Another member wrote how much he’s enjoying books by Ali Smith, a perennial Booker finalist whom I also love: Autumn, Winter and How to be Both.  Ha.

Meanwhile, I want to end with a book that’s generating a lot of excitement in many translations, brought to my attention by our London correspondent: Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Read all about it here.

Have I missed any members’ recommendations?  If so, please remind me, and send new ideas for our April Book Club, when I’ll confess to some trashy reading on my part.

See More from Judy Blankenship

Fiesta & raymi season draws to a close (at last!)

Dear Friends:  It’s been an intense and productive couple of months documenting fiestas, raymis (kichwa for indigenous fiesta) and educational events with Buddy, my intern from Oregon State University. Working with a tireless 21-year-old in this rigorous business has kept me on my toes – and climbing mountains I might not otherwise have climbed. One way we kept track of our production of photo and video materials, and to share these with the community, was to create DVDs with covers using photos from the celebrations. So we began on December 21 with Kapak Raymi, the Andean winter solstice and Pase del Niño. As this is an event both profane (older kids dressed as Inca royalty) and religious (younger kids depicting bible characters), we made two DVDs.


On December 31 we ushered out 2017 with an all-day-into-night procession through the villages of Quilloac, called Año Viejo (old year). I’ve written before about this amazing ritual – filled with masks, music, jokes and fun. Because this event too had both religious and secular elements – my friend Mercedes carried “el Niño” or baby Jesus, in a little chair for hours – we created two DVDs, one of photos and one of video clips.

On January 12 the bilingual Instituto Quilloac invited us to document its 37th anniversary. I’m a big fan of this educational complex as it was created out of the Agrarian Reform in the 1960s at the behest (demand of?) the indigenous Cañari communities. “We’d never had a school before,” Tayta Antonio Quinde told me in one oral history session. “We wanted to preserve our language and our culture, so we made creating a bilingual (kichwa/español) institute a condition of the reform.”  The school grew to include all grades and at one time had over 2000 students, both indigenous and mestizos who came from other regions of Ecuador. It is now at about 800 students, but during the parade that wound through town we picked up graduates from all years and ended up on the grand patio of the school complex with a great crowd for a lively reunion of music, dancing, drinking and eating.

One benefit to me of these big events is that I come upon many old friends, reminding me how long I’ve been in Cañar. Pacari, for example, I’ve known since her birth. She’s the daughter of our compadres Zoila and Benedicto, and granddaughter of Mama Michi. I ran into her heading the parade as the ñusta, or queen, of Cañar Archeological Capital of Ecuador. Eighteen, beautiful, poised, Pacari is planning to study voice in university.

January 20 we filmed and photographed the Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua – in my opinion the best fiesta of them all. Although it lasts eight days, Buddy and I dedicated only one day to documenting the hours-long desfile (procession) climbing up to a height of 11,000 feet in the paramo (foggy highlands). I confess to catching a ride in a truck this year, while Buddy walked it entirely.

That left one final celebration on the Cañari calendar, and perhaps the biggest of them all: Pawkar Raymi, or Carnival. As with other carnival celebrations, it coincides with the beginning of Lent. But here the big day is Carnival Monday, when all the Cañari communities gather at a host village (this year our community of Chaglaban) to create a long procession through town and out into a large field in the country, where presentations of food, crafts, dance and music go all day and into evening.

Pawkar Raymi in the Cañari culture marks the flowering of the crops, abundance and generosity, and one important aspect of the procession is the cuy-naña carried by the women of the host community. (The name means “sister guinea pig” though English does not do it justice.) It is a heavily loaded platform with fruit and flowers, drinks and sweets, with two cooked cuyes and a chicken atop the poles of the platform and a cage of live cuyes at the bottom. With tremendous effort, the women must carry the platform for hours, with regular rest stops….

More than anything, a big fat guinea pig represents abundance and freedom from hunger. Here are the women from Chaglaban who carried the cuy-naña that day. A less favorite part of Carnival in Cañar for me is the custom of throwing water and maicena, or cornstarch, on passersby – in the streets, from the rooftops, during the parade, at house parties. Here’s Buddy after a maicena attack during the procession (in much better humor than I would be.)  A modern twist is the horrible kareoka, or spumy spray in canisters with triggers, that covers one in a chemical foam. I suffered a direct hit from one little two-year-old in her mother’s arms, who looked wide-eyed with fear as I yelled “NO” right after she covered my best camera with foam.

Finally, I want to mention the wonderful work being done by Allison Adrian, the ethnomusicologist who worked six months in Cañar in 2016. Back at her home university in Minneapolis, with help from professional editors, she is creating three films on Cañari music. Two of them are ready to be seen publically and next blog I’ll post online links. Meanwhile, we are making them available locally as DVDs.


The Cañar Book Club

Ah, the poor Cañar book club is in a funk. Everyone has been too busy to meet and we’ve exchanged little news of good new books. For myself, I tried one Michael had liked (That Bright Land by Terry Roberts (“a southern gothic thriller set in the summer of 1866), and didn’t get hooked, so I moved back two centuries and now I am well engaged with Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (set in Martha’s Vineyard in 1660’s, the story of a young woman). A faithful reader from London has suggested two books that sound intriguing: The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, about North Korea (“alarming and eye-opening”), 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. And for these times we should all be reading: How to Live a Feminist Life by Sarah Ahmed, and The Power, fiction by Naomi Alderman.

We’re calling a regular meeting before the next blog in March, so all member readers – please send your suggestions!  Over and out…..


Dear Friends: On this cold foggy afternoon, I look out the window where I sit at our dining room table and see our immediate neighbor to the west, Magdalena, doing her weekly washing in the small field behind her house. She pulls the clothes out of a big plastic basin sitting on the ground and rubs them hard with a bar of soap on a wedge-shaped tree trunk. The wedge is resting on a crude wooden box, propped up with bricks at each corner. It barely reaches 18 inches, but Magdalena is short and she has good leverage leaning over. She sloshes clean water from a bucket onto the pants and t-shirts of her teenage kids and her own bright wool skirts. She squeezes the water out and lays the clothes on the grassy ground beside her, to be hung on the barbed wire fence between our fields. I just checked the temperature outside: 55 degrees F. So I’m happy to see she is wearing rubber gloves, some slight protection. Now the fog is drifting in so thick I can barely see the long black braid that hangs down her back below the bottom of her pink sweater. Her white felt hat. Wool tights. Blue skirt. (Below: Magdalena several years ago when we were building our/her retaining wall).

There are no animals behind her house today – but we often see pigs (in a twig-and-stick shelter at the bottom of her land), sheep, a cow, chickens, and guinea pigs and rabbits in pens nearer the house. Magdalena owns another property up the mountain and the family seems to move their animals up and down.  This is really a story about our neighbors and the views from our house, not an easy subject while I try to respect privacy and cultural differences. When we bought the Cañar property 12 years ago, we had an almost 140-degree panoramic view that ran from the west, where the clouds come up from the coast, to the north view of the high mountains (my header image), and to the east, where we could just see the lower mountains that mark the boundary with the Amazon basin (though a neighbor’s tall concrete wall already blocked some of that view). This magnificent panorama was the reason we bought the land and positioned our house so the windows in the living/dining area would capture it. A beautiful cypress tree at the bottom of our lot (belonging to our neighbor) framed the view of the mountains. I loved that tree, and used it in every panoramic photo at the time.I painted the block wall a dark green and planted vines (despite Michael’s protests that it was not our wall). We came back the next year to see our neighbor Miguel up in the tree hacking away at it with a machete. I foolishly ran down and asked him if he had to do that – it was such a beautiful tree. Yes, he said, its branches were bothering his señora in her wood-fire, tin-roofed kitchen. Now it looked like this (below), but I still loved it and our crops (here quinoa) helped harmonize the scene.After that, every year we came back to find drastic changes to our sector which, unbeknownst to us, had been slated for urbanización to accommodate the fast-growing region of Cañar. We watched as a private “charismatic church” was built on the other side of Magdalena, constructed higgledy-piggledy of concrete block with a large back wall blocking our view to the west. The field below that became a housing development when a local man bought the agricultural land, went to New York and sold most of the lots to migrants from Cañar. I grew a thick hedge to block all that, with only the steeple and cross showing above, and for awhile I liked the green-neon cross but it soon went out.Another year we came back to see that Miguel had chopped off the top of the tree and it looked very sick.Our neighbors are poor. Magdalena has at least four children but only the two youngest live with her now. Years ago she told us her husband was in the U.S. and sending money back to build a new house, but the towering pile of bricks that she gestured to as evidence then is still there, stacked near the road. Meanwhile, her family lives in two small wattle-and-daub structures that abut our property: a windowless cook shack and a slightly larger shack for sleeping. Years ago they added a separate bathroom.

Magdalena is illiterate, and she knows her survival depends on her willingness to fight. Years ago, when we finalized property lines, she argued fiercely about where a rock marked the edge of her property. Michael measured, then moved the marker 20 centimeters into our side and said he was giving her a little bit of our land. She was happy – then!  But over the years, when she complained that our land was eroding down onto hers, we built a retaining wall; when she complained that our poplar tree was sending up seedlings in her dirt patio, we took it down. When she complained that our broom hedge was hanging onto her side, making it easier for thieves to creep in, we sent our garden-helper over to cut it back. Lately, when we run into one another on our road, Magdalena is very friendly.

MIGUEL: Miguel: lives to the northeast of us with his wife and children and grandchildren on a small lot. He’s older – between 60 and 70 – and mestizo, but like Magdalena he is poor. I frequently meet him on the road, always wearing a funny floppy cloth hat and raggedy clothes. Hola vecina! (neighborhe always greets me. When we moved in, Miguel’s back stone wall bulged into our property. When doing measurements for our fence, Michael told Miguel we would keep the line as defined by his bulging wall. He was pleased.

Then, last year I was horrified to see a block construction going up directly in our view of the mountains. Miguel and helpers were building a house. But wait – they’re tearing it down. No, here it comes again, facing the other direction and even more intrusive of our view. Of course. we could say nothing. Miguel and his wife deserve a real house, however ugly and despite lack of zoning laws.

When we arrived last year, the tree and bulging rock wall were gone and in their place a 10-foot concrete block wall, with the hated rebar sticking up another ten feet in case Miguel wants to expand upward. The house is done and it’s a mess, with an adjacent shed with corrugated tin sheets making a sort of overlapping roof. On the outside of the wall facing us for some crazy reason – a padded headboard with a heart – and a big yellow tarp hangs down from his balcony, which is blocked off with a sort of wooden pallet.

This year Miguel complains that the vines I planted are climbing into his house – “almost into our bed,” – he joked. We sent the garden-helper to trim the vines. I asked in exchange that his grandkids stop throwing garbage into our field. Agreed.  But what about that capuli tree? he asked, pointing to a volunteer cherry tree that I’m counting on to help partially cover up the wall. “The roots will be coming into our patio soon,” he said. “That’s MY tree,” I answered more strongly that I meant to, “and I don’t think the roots are coming for you.”  He backed down and the tree stays. For now.

I look out one late afternoon at a beautiful sunset and see Miguel standing on his half-made balcony, dreamingly admiring the view – the same 140-degree panoramic view we once had. Ours now – if measured from wall to wall – is down to about 45-degrees. But Miguel and I admire the sunset together, neighbors coexisting for good or bad in our gorgeous little world.


Cañar Book Club

Well, the members of our virtual book club have been quiet since the holidays, but I’d love to hear what new books have come your way, and what you are reading/liking/hating. For my part, I’m reading both non-fiction (lunch) and fiction (bedtime), a practice I learned from my mother to keep two books going. (In her case, it was to keep the dullest one for bedtime so the narrative wouldn’t get her excited and keep her awake.) I don’t have that problem, so I’m reading over lunchtime The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea WulfHeavy going, but I love the early history of “our” part of the world. Humboldt was an early explorer of Ecuador and, according to one map, I think he might have come through Cañar territory around 1801. At night, for relaxation, a fiction book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, by Anuradha Roy. The result of a mix-up: I thought I was reading the new book by Arundahati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Took me a while to figure that out, given the similarity of authors’ names and poetic titles. Not the brilliance of Arundahati Roy, but I’m enjoying it.

All for now. Stay in touch!