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

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

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

Image from Cañar municipal website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Cañar 2021

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Dear Friends. We have been gone from Cañar for nine months, the longest time away since 2005, when we came to Ecuador for a grant year, bought a piece of land with a view of the Andes, and came back in 2006 to begin building an earthen and wood “barraque” house. We’ve returned every year since for six months until last year, when we left on July 4 amidst the Covid pandemic on our “trip from hell #1” to return safely to Portland, Oregon, our other home. (This time, we almost hated to leave our glorious cherry tree, which we hadn’t seen in bloom in 15 years. Thanks to our friend Carla who took this photo when she picked us up for the airport on Monday morning.)

With our two vaccine jabs plus two weeks for immunity, I booked flights for April 5. Our usual routes to Guayaquil were not available so I used the Travelocity website, and somehow (my mistake?) reserved COPA flights from LAX to GYE that included a 9-hour layover in Los Angeles, becoming the trip from hell #2. This taught us a good lesson in the new reality of flying with Covid. We came in to LAX on Alaska mid-afternoon, but couldn’t check in to our 1:00 AM international flight until 9:00 PM. Terminal B was so depressing that I forgot to take any photos, so just imagine us sitting in a line of chairs in a cavernous dark space with everything closed. Michael worked on puzzles and I read an interminable Tana French police procedual. Once we finally checked through security into the fancy international lounge, we found ONE small bar for two beers and a wine plus a required bag of stale peanuts – $35.00! Is this really Los Angeles? The luxury duty-free stores were all closed except for Gucci, where I saw a woman in full hazmat shopping. That’s Michael in the wing chair waiting for our Panama flight.

Once in Guayaquil we recovered in a large hotel with our first meal in 24 hours, an air-conditioned room, hot showers, two double beds, and a long night of sleep. The next day we hired a driver with car, and three hours later we were in Cañar and our ordeal was over.

Our house in the clouds was in perfect condition except for dust and cobwebs. Thanks to Cañar’s high dry climate, adobe and wood stay perfectly preserved (as long as the wood is treated for termites). As usual, some of the interior patio plants are reaching for the glass roof, but our compadres Jose Maria and Narcisa, who take care of things while we’re gone, have kept my ferns and flowers mostly alive. Here’s Michael bent over a crossword our first day. For me, the usual unwelcome signs: headache, light headedness, insomnia, but after a couple of days all is clear and life at 10,100 feet feels invigorating.The yard is another matter. Our compadres are only responsible for keeping the patio plants alive, and being a security presence around the property, grazing their sheep on the lawn.They use our back field for their crops – usually corn or potatoes – and they also plant a kitchen vegetable garden before we come, and we plant one for them before we leave. This arrangement has worked well since José María worked on our house construction as the maestro and we got to know the family. Here’s Michael having a first chat with José María, taking a break from his job as a sanitation worker with the Municipality.

But back to the yard: last year I wrote a chronicle about my “sisyphusian garden” and I was reminded again, on day two when I went out to survey, that no matter what new flowers I’ve planted, or how hard I weed kikuyu, the African grass that creeps everywhere, stasis is the name of the game: aggressive species take back control, new exotics get beaten and disappear. Nothing changes. Of course, those local dominant guys that stay busy twelve months a year ain’t that bad.

Paiwa, our goddaughter, has come from Cuenca to stay with us while she takes an intensive online English course to prepare for the TOEFL exam, necessary to apply for graduate programs. She has just completed five years of a rigorous civil engineering course, and her graduation from University of Cuenca on May 28 will be the culminating event of our visit. Michael and I walked Paiwa to her first day of kindergarten, and she has been an important part of our lives since. My fantasy has her coming to Oregon State University for a master’s degree, but she’s a long way from deciding where she will go next – or rather, economics and financial aid will most likely decide.

Today, national elections for a new president – rockets shoot off now and then while I write, making me jump. Mystery to me why loud noises are important for religious and civic events. This time, a run-off of two socially conservative candidates, Guillermo Lasso 66, banker and Opus Dei member, and Andrés Arauz, 36-year-old economist anointed by ex-president Correa as his successor. Arauz won 32% of the vote in February, not enough to avoid a run-off, though polls say he will likely be the winner today. The third and by far most interesting candidate was the indigenous leader with the Pachakutig party that we were all rooting for: Yaku Pérez. He came so close to Lasso in the February elections (within .05) that he has toured the country crying “fraud,” and many of our Cañari friends firmly believe the count was manipulated. (International observers called it fair.) But he’s youngish (52), politically savvy and very smart, so we hope he’ll run again in four years. Meanwhile, that an indigenous candidate should come so close is a bright point for the future, and the party’s numbers in the national legislature have increased from nine to 43. Read more in this excellent article from today’s New York Times: “Indigenous Party, Not on the Ballot, Is Still a Big Winner in Ecuador Election.”

Well, dear friends, there’s much more to say about the economic, social and health devastation of Covid in Ecuador, and other things, but I want to get this out today before my work week starts. Our stay in Cañar is only two months this time – we’ll come back in December or January for our usual six months – and I have two projects in the works, contacts to keep alive, friends to see and the scholarship program to coordinate with our local committee. I’ll try writing a shorter blog once a week or so, and I promise the Cañar Book Club will be in session for next Chronicle. Until then, stay safe and I love to hear from you and your favorite books read during lockdown.

Trips from hell update: our flights back to Portland on June 5 are cancelled and I’m looking for new routes that will avoid Panama and Los Angeles.