Dear Friends: Brrrr, it’s a foggy chilly day as I begin this – the inside temperature is 13C (55 degreesF). Although we yearly head south, no one can accuse us of being wimpy snowbirds on this, our 16th half-year in cold Cañar. We count on a little sun in the mornings to warm the glass-covered atrium and make the day comfortable. Not today. Michael wants to hold off to 4:00 PM before making a fire (he claims our woodpile is critically low), but once he has his KenKen puzzles, a beer and the fire, all is well in our little corner of the Andes.
We arrived a little over a week ago in Guayaquil, with a hard landing after a full day of travel from Portland. Turns out the Ecuadorian government changed the entry requirements for travelers the day before, so there was no way to know that we had to have a Covid test within 24 hours of travel. Nor did the hundreds of other travelers stuck in the airport with us at 2:00 AM. We finally emerged at 4:00 AM, after a quick and painful screw-up-the-nose antegen test. I laud Ecuador for being careful about the new variant, but it was unconscionable not to let us know what was going on, as we stood waiting 30 minutes in the jetway, then in a corridor, then another corridor, the in two waiting rooms. Finally, we were called to an improvised clinical setting and asked for our Covid exam results. Whaaaat? I’ve made a sort of cartoon of our travel day, with a nod to Roz Chast of the New Yorker. I hope you’ll be able to make sense of it.
After recovering in a Guayaquil hotel for a day and a night, we made the familiar drive to Cañar, leaving the hot and humid coast to zigzag up through the clouds to over 10,000 feet. Looking down on Cañar from the highest point, I thought back to my first writings about this place – that I’d first called a village, then a town, and now I have to say it is a small city. A scrappy, homely and cold small city, where we are still the only extranjeros who choose to live here. (Though who wouldn’t want to live here with a view like this?)
This high and dry climate is kind to our house, however. Other than dust and spiderwebs, it looks exactly as we left it six months ago. In fact it’s pretty much in the same shape as when we moved in, in 2007. Our compadres Jose María and Narcisa have left an offering on our kitchen table of a big basket of dried beans (enough for a few years) and a bowl of mazorkas, dried corn in various colors. These are from the harvest of our back field, where they follow the custom of being partidarios – planting land not your own and sharing the harvests. Over the years we’ve learned to acquiesce to the custom of receiving our symbolic “share,” even though we can never use the amount they give us.
The interior garden requires little care, with it’s succulents, cacti, aloe, geraniums, ferns and orchids. While we’re gone, Andean sparrows take up residence and build their nests in the monster Aloe, and I can peer in and see at least two nests. They appear empty of eggs, but the mamas still make regular visits during the day through the six-inch gap between the steel/glass structure and tile roof, circling the space, hopping around the patio and sometimes checking out our rooms.
The yard is another story – the compadres‘ sheep and the neighbors’ chickens have pretty well decimated the flower gardens and much else. Last year I wrote about my Sisyphean garden: no matter how much love I pour into it while we’re here – planting, pruning, mowing – it goes back to square one when we go away for a few months. Then, this time, after a few days of rain, just as I think the front lawn might recover, here comes Chirote in his heavy truck with a load of wood for Michael. Thirty-six vigas, or square wooden beams, some from old torn-down houses. Perfect heavy wood and truck tires to gouge out the grass.And because Chirote’s an old friend, Michael invites him in for a beer by the fire, where I can’t resist making a portrait of old friends.
And because it happens that the next day, when Mike finds his old chainsaw sputtering, he has a perfect excuse to make the trip to Cuenca to drop it off for repairs, and buy a new one. Although he will deny this, nothing makes him happier than to have a new toy – I mean tool.
(I want to stop here to say how much I love hearing from you all, and and ask that you respond to my Cañar Chronicles with my email firstname.lastname@example.org: Something is screwy with my MailChimp account and I know it’s been impossible to use the reply.)
That brings us to the moment we’ve all been waiting for…..
The Cañar Book Club
Dear Members – it’s been way too long, I agree, and I know it will be hard to make up for lost time trying to remember all we’ve read in the past few months. Speaking of memory – here and gone – I opened the book I brought for the long travel day, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra, and within a few pages I realized I’d already read it. But I could remember almost nothing, so I kept reading through the week, and the next, and found it (again) to be a beautiful, moving, reading experience of a story that takes place in Chechnya – a place I knew nothing about. I’ll let the New York Times Book Review say it all: “Extraordinary…A 21st Century War and Peace.” It’s currently #1 on my list.
Otherwise, given that an extra bag now costs $65 on American Airlines, I brought way fewer books this time. Here they are, looking rather pathetic on their own nearly-empty shelf on my bed-side bookshelf. They are:
Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart memoir (after enjyoing reading his articles in the “New Yorker,” humorous but serious writing. (Just finished – loved it!)
Oh William, Elizabeth Strout – a gift from a reading friend. I love Strout and am holding back on reading it so I can keep anticipating it, like a delicious meal.
Meaning a Life: An Autobiography, Mary Oppen (after references read in Maggie Nelson book The Argonauts, which I found riveting. I felt the same about Nelson’s The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, but she lost me with her most recent On Freedom.
The Book of Aron, Jim Shepard, because my serious reading friend Bruce said that he is one of the best authors he knows. Shepard also shows up on lots of best-of lists, but I don’t think I’ve read anything by him.
The Piano Tuner, Daniel Mason, because I read a later book by him, The Winter Soldier. Like “A Constellation…,” it captures previous centuries and worlds I don’t know – Siberian Russia and Burma.
Old Filth, Jane Gardam, I don’t remember, but I think it was mentioned in a book I recently read and loved –To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing, about walking the length of the River Ouse from source to sea. The river where Virginia Woolf died, Laing muses on that history and much else that’s taken place over the centuries along her walk. A slow meander to savor. And that led me to this strange title. Old Filth? Will report in next book club.
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert MacFarlane – because I love books about walking. Part of a trio of books about landscape and how we live in it. “…Macfarlane sets off to follow the ancient routes that crisscross both the landscape of the British Isles and its waters and territories beyond. The result is an immersive, enthralling exploration of the voices that haunt old paths and the stories our tracks tell.”
Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane (same author), also walking, this one about terms that comes about from particular landscapes. Each section starts with a glossary of words you’ve never heard before, such as rife: small river flowing across the coastal plain, or sike, small stream, often flowing through marshy ground. “Landmarks is a celebration and defense of such language.”
And just so I don’t get nervous about running out of books, I loaded a few on my iPad. I must confess I have no idea when, where or why I ordered these titles.
Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds, Marisol de la Cadena
Bring Me Back, B.A. Paris. A novel, but I know nothing else
Still Life, Louise Penny. A mystery, because I read one of hers before and like it. Not my usual fare.
PLEASE SEND YOUR READS AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR NEXT CANAR BOOK CLUB, IN JANUARY 2022!