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: https://aristatapress.com/.

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…




This and that at three months in Cañar


Dear Friends:  March 1 marks our three months in Cañar, with three more to go. It’s a beautiful Sunday and Michael is playing chess with a new young player, Byron, while they listen to Led Zepplin. Byron came yesterday too and they listened to Pink Floyd. Some things never change.This is a shorter than usual chronicle because I’m getting ready for a trip to Costa Rica next week (March 15-23), for an exhibit of the photographic work I did there in the 1980’s with folksinger/composer Guadalupe Urbina. We worked together about 5 years, making trips to her home province of Guanacaste when I could get time off my regular job. We documented the musicians, storytellers and anonymous music of this  northern province, next door to Nicaragua and with a strong afro-mestizo influence. Lupe recorded, I photographed and we produced a body of work that was shown before I left in 1991 for Ecuador. Now the national library of Costa Rica, with funding from the US embassy, is sponsoring an exhibit/concert/archive deposit and a workshop in community archives. I’ll write more about this project, with photos from San José, in my next chronicle, but for now a bit of local news. Each year we try to take one trip within Ecuador, usually with some silly excuse such as a birthday. Last year it was a week’s sojourn to a nature resort, Mindo, northeast of Quito, that involved a three-day bus trip, lots of rain, a cold bed made of solid concrete, a landslide blocking our way back to Quito, a refusal at the airport to allow us to board our flight because our IDs were photocopied, and a mini-bus ride back home. We were not particularly happy with the experience, but at least pleased with ourselves for having carried it off despite all the hurdles.

This year we kept it simpler – 3 days in Loja, a city to the south that we’ve visited before, beginning with a 6-hour bus trip with spectacular countryside as we climbed, then gradually dropped to a lower elevation and warmer climes.

Michael, working on his daily puzzles as usual, had to be reminded again and again to look out the window. Loja is a small proud city that has carefully protected its heritage with well-preserved houses, churches and public squares, and gorgeous municipal murals (there are two in this post – see if you can spot them).

We rewarded ourselves with two nights at the Casa Bolivar, a 236-year-old house that has recently been converted by the family into a hotel/museum, with lots of original quirky features such as an entryway paved with animal vertebrae and black stones, trees in the patio growing to the second floor, a private chapel, a hidden spiral stairway for the help (always a necessity), and crazy patterns on walls and floors and ceilings that I loved, and which the young host claimed were mostly original (or reconstructed from the originals).

The last image is the patriarch of the house, who before he died in his 90’s had papered his office with the lottery tickets he bought every day of his life. (We were told he had won three times.) Another obsessive lover of repeated patterns. I had a lot of fun taking photos and ended with this panorama of our room.

Cañar Book Club

To all book writers, readers and lovers, I have a special announcement for our March book club. This past year Anne McClard and I started Aristata Press, a women-run, non-profit press that came out of our recent experience publishing two books on our own: Megan McClard’s LEAVINGS: Memoir of a 1920’s Hollywood Love Child and Memorias de una prisionera política en El Salvador,the Spanish translation of Ana Margarita Gasteazoro’s memoir edited by Andrew Wilson and myself. Anne and I were so pleased with the results, and impressed with all that we’d learned that we said: “We can do this for others!” Aristata Press was born. This year we will publish four titles (more on those later) and now we are looking for new submissions. Aristata Press seeks fresh literary fiction, poetry and non-fiction authors. If you have a novel stashed in a drawer, know someone who has written a memoir, have a friend or relative working on a non-fiction book, or know a poet who is ready to get out into the world, let’s start a conversation with this contact form

“Our community of publishers and writers are passionate about reading, creating, and sharing great writing. Come join us!”

PS: Regular book club will return in April, so keep reading and sending those recommendations! 

PSS: the two murals from Loja are the header image of the woman with flowers, painted on the side of a church, and the cat and books, painted on the side of the library.

The Two Worlds of Cañar


Dear Friends: The two worlds of Cañar have never been clearer to me than this past month, with the Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua in Junducuchu, a Cañari village high on a mountain above the town, and the “town” festival as the “Archeological and Cultural Capital of Ecuador.” The former, an eight-day fiesta built around a tiny saint reportedly found in a local field many years ago; the latter a self-declared affair created in 2000 to draw national attention to humble, homely, backwater Cañar, whose main “archeological” distinction is its proximity to the Ingapirca ruins nearly two hours away. Since then, the town holiday has grown into a two-week extravaganza that included, god forbid, a Moto-Fiesta with a punk concert. AND it happened on the same day. On the Saturday afternoon of the San Antonio procession, the SUV of the friends I was with couldn’t make it up to 11,000 feet Junducuchu (clutch burned out), so we came down to town for a bite to eat and ended up at the motorcycle/punk event with a bunch of gentle giants dressed in black leather. A sight in Cañar I will never forget. Michael and I happened to arrive in Cañar on the very day of the first declared holiday, January 26, 2000, to find a parade blocking the streets while we were looking for a place to live. All these years later, the event has grown to last from January 17-28 and includes a “bank holiday” for schools and official businesses, a massive parade with a queen wrapped in ostrich feathers, followed by days of events such as poetry and photography competitions, and battle of the bands concerts.

But back to the Fiesta de San Antonio, which I’ve been documenting since 2006. I love the rukuyayas, the “festival fools” who work very hard for three days, leading the processions, gamboling about, saying rude things, playing tricks, asking for coins, and entertaining the crowd with their acrobatic antics. In their homemade masks, it’s impossible to know their identities and I usually stay clear of them, as they love to tease the gringa. But this guy played nice and allowed a photo.


This year the Fiesta de San Antonio was more colorful and exuberant than I’ve seen, with larger crowds, partly the result of the three-year Covid hiatus. And the Saturday and Sunday I participated were beautiful weather days, which helps the fiesta spirit.

On the domestic front, I know I’ve said before that our comfort here depends on the fireplace, where we sit, eat and watch movies from about 5:00 every day. And that means a constant supply of firewood that begins with Chirote, who drives by in his big truck and yells “MIKITO” from the street. This leads to loud discussions in the patio, bad jokes about how “Judy will go off with another man and ‘cuckold’ Michael,” a run by the two of them to examine some wood, negotiation on a price, and finally the wood delivery. Then begins Michael’s labor, as he hauls, cuts and stacks the wood. Then, of course, he has to build the fire and feed it until bedtime.

Meanwhile, Chirote continues to drive by regularly to keep an eye on our wood supply and yell HOLA MIKITO from the street. 

A final note on the two worlds of Cañar. Mid-term elections were held this past Sunday, and our indigenous mayor, Segundo Yungsi, was running for a second term against a “town” candidate, Pablo Padrón. While news of the winning candidatesr fom the rest of Ecuador began to trickle in on Sunday night, Cañar was a blank. Sunday night… Monday… Tuesday… until today, when the news became official: Yungsi has won by about 4,000 votes – a count that was apparently known on Sunday night soon after the polls closed. But the delay was caused when Pablo Padrón the town candidate, pulled a TRUMP, cried fraud and demanded a recount. This bought out two groups of supporters holding vigil during the recount outside the elections office in the provincial capital of Azogues. Among one of those groups was our goddaughter, Paiwa, who now works for the municipality and was called on to spend two long nights in Azogues. This morning she told us the count is final, Yungsi has officially won, but she said the Padrón supporters yelled ugly racist taunts during the vigil. Although many of the townsfolk are saying, “We need a change!” Segundo Yungsi will be Cañar’s only second indigenous mayor in the nearly 200 years since the town was established.

Cañar Book Club

Dear Readers: I’ve been on a reading tear lately on my iPad, mostly e-books from the Portland library that give me only three weeks – and then they tend to come all at once. So this past month I’ve gone down the Annie Ernaux rabbit hole (forgive me!) with A Woman’s Story, A Girl’s Story, and The Years. I loved the first two and am finding The Years hard going, as the author has removed herself from the narrative and writes as an observer of the post-war years in France.  I also read The Book of Goose by Yuyun Li, and Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel Prize winner from Tanzania but has lived many years in the UK.The first had me puzzled, wondering at the point of the relationship between two young women in rural France; the second was a wonderfully written, old-fashioned tale set in German East-Africa in the early 1900’s, on “the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.” I have always loved Elizabeth Strout’s books, but I’m really beginning to be bored with Lucy. In Lucy by the Sea, Strout’s third book with this protagonist, Lucy seemed to have lost all sense of direction and self confidence as she waited out Covid with her ex-husband William in a house by the sea in Maine. Please take me back to Olive Kitteridge!

Joanne in Mexico: Just read Foster – a miracle of a book. Claire Keegan is a master of spare prose that evokes a world now nearly gone. With a few words, flicks of the wrist, she captures complete characters. I can see why the Irish school system teaches her books. 

Bruce in Portland: On the reading front, I’m thoroughly enjoying The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings. He evokes an alternative New Orleans, using powerful language to make the magical mundane. I finished Lincoln Highway. Too on the nose.

Irene in Salem: My favorite book I read this year was Atomic Love by Jennie Fields. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do. It is well written and an easy read.

OK, dear readers, I need more book suggestions for the March chronicle. Until then, stay safe, keep in touch, and keep reading!!