This compelling memoir by the author of Cañar: A Year in the Highlands of Ecuador vividly describes an American couple’s experience of making a second home in a rural Andean community in which they are the only outsiders.
Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Thirty-one
While many baby boomers are downsizing to a simpler retirement lifestyle, photographer and writer Judy Blankenship and her husband Michael Jenkins took a more challenging leap in deciding to build a house on the side of a mountain in southern Ecuador. They now live half the year in Cañar, an indigenous community they came to know in the early nineties when Blankenship taught photography there. They are the only extranjeros (outsiders) in this homely, chilly town at 10,100 feet, where every afternoon a spectacular mass of clouds rolls up from the river valley below and envelopes the town.
In this absorbing memoir, Blankenship tells the interwoven stories of building their house in the clouds and strengthening their ties to the community. Although she and Michael had spent considerable time in Cañar before deciding to move there, they still had much to learn about local customs as they navigated the process of building a house with traditional materials using a local architect and craftspeople. Likewise, fulfilling their obligations as neighbors in a community based on reciprocity presented its own challenges and rewards. Blankenship writes vividly of the rituals of births, baptisms, marriages, festival days, and deaths that counterpoint her and Michael’s solitary pursuits of reading, writing, listening to opera, playing chess, and cooking. Their story will appeal to anyone contemplating a second life, as well as those seeking a deeper understanding of daily life in the developing world.
- "where we are" by Gerald Locklin
- Part 1
- 1. Planting a Tree for Plinio
- 2. On Becoming Property Owners in Ecuador
- 3. How Much Will All This Cost?
- 4. Construction Begins, Poco a Poco
- 5. "You're Going to Live Here?"
- 6. The Lives of the Workers
- 7. Carnival: Sins and Repentance, Abundance and Reciprocity
- 8. Sticks and Stones, Mud and Horse Manure
- 9. We Become Padrinos . . . Again
- 10. Strike!
- 11. Putting Out Fires
- 12. Personae non Gratae in Ecuador:(or) Why We Went to Peru Last Week
- 13. On Becoming Residents of a Foreign Country: (or) "Just Go Get Married Again!"
- 14. Leaving Cañar
- Part 2
- 15. The Return
- 16. On This Day a Year Ago
- 17. Reality Sets In
- 18. The Devil Is in the Details
- 19. A Short History of This Place
- 20. Moving Day
- 21. The Wasipichana
- 22. The Mysteries of the New House and a Mother's Visit
- 23. Mama Michi, Curandera
- 24. Coming Home to Cañar
- 25. Neighbors and Fences
- 26. La Uyanza: A Gift of Sustenance
- 27. Life in Town
- 28. Living in Two Worlds
- 29. Epilogue: What on Earth Are We Doing Here?
where we are
I envy those
who live in two places:
new york, say, and london;
wales and spain;
l.a. and paris;
hawaii and switzerland.
there is always the anticipation
of the change, the chance that what is wrong
is the result of where you are. i have
always loved both the freshness of
arriving and the relief of leaving. with
two homes every move would be a homecoming.
i am not even considering the weather, hot
or cold, dry or wet: i am talking about hope.
Copyright © 2000 by Gerald Locklin, from The Iceberg Theory and Other Poems, Lummox Press.
I believe the best parts of life are often those unexpected twists and turns that you could never have imagined—at least, those that turn out well. In my case, the strangest turn has been a long love affair with a high mountain town in a remote corner of South America, in a country called Ecuador, in a place known as Cañar.
The affair began serendipitously enough in the early nineties. I'd worked six years in Central America for a Canadian development agency, CUSO (roughly analogous to the Peace Corps), based in Costa Rica. One lucky day during my first year there, I met the man who would become my husband, Michael Jenkins, at the Flor y Mar hostel in the cloud forest of Monteverde. We were the only non-birders at the communal dinner table of eco-tourists who’d come seeking the resplendent quetzal, a famously difficult bird to spot despite iridescent green feathers, a red belly, and a long tail. Our eyes met over the table as one of the guests actually got up, flapped his arms, and did an imitation of a quetzal song. The next morning, Michael invited me to take a walk to see the dead sloth he'd spotted the day before. A tree had fallen with the sloth attached. I couldn't resist: I figured I would receive such an invitation only once in my lifetime.
I was a documentary photographer tied to a full-time job as a CUSO cooperant with a local popular education organization, Alforja. Michael was a footloose traveler from Portland, Oregon, making his meandering way to Brazil. After a few weeks lingering in Costa Rica, I suggested he stay a little longer for an Easter weekend climb of Mt. Chirripo, the country's highest mountain. We were a small group, with a guide, but it was a difficult few days of blisters, asthma attacks, bad knees, and one very cold night bivouacked when we didn't make it to the refuge. When Michael and I came down the mountain three days later, we’d agreed on a future together. Soon after, he went back to Portland to put his affairs in order. (Will he really return? I remember wondering many times during the month he was gone.) Then we settled in to live together in San José for the next five years.
At the end of my last CUSO contract, and after twenty years working full time, I yearned for a free year to concentrate on my own photography, to create a cohesive set of images around a single subject. My vague dream: to record the daily life of a highland indigenous community in South America. Luckily, Michael shared my romantic notions and love of adventure, along with an aversion—at least for the moment—to settling into the rat race of late twentieth-century life en el norte.
We gave ourselves a year. Without funding, but with enough savings to live on, we chose Ecuador as our destination because it is a small peaceful country in the northwest corner of South America with plenty of mountains and a then-reported Indian population of 40 percent. We figured we had an advantage in being fluent in Spanish (ignorant of the fact that Quichua is the native language of Andean peoples) and having hardy dispositions that thrived on physical challenge. So, we naively thought, we would simply land somewhere, look around a few days to find our village, and settle in for a year (maybe even without electricity or running water, an exciting prospect). There, we further naively thought, we would be warmly welcomed by the villagers as interested extranjeros, strangers, who had come to contribute their energies.
Michael's volunteer work in Costa Rica had been with a local foundation, Sol de Vida, building solar ovens with women's groups and promoting a high-efficiency wood cookstove, called the Varney Stove. He wanted to check out possibilities in Ecuador. My contribution, I hoped, would be to serve as a sort of village photographer: chronicling the life and events of a community and giving back photos of fiestas, rituals, weddings, baptisms, funerals.
What's that proverb about the gods laughing at those who make plans? Nothing turned out as we imagined, at least in the short term. In March 1991 we landed in Cuenca, the beautiful colonial city in the south of Ecuador. We checked into the Crespo Hotel, far too expensive for our modest means, and began our search. This was pre–Internet days, so it was not possible to do online research that would have quickly informed our quest. Instead, Michael and I simply got on a different bus each day and rode into the countryside, returning tired and discouraged every afternoon.
"The indígenas don't live around here," a local finally told us. "The Cañaris are in the province to the north, and the Saraguros are in the south." But by then Michael and I were out of energy, patience, and good humor with one another, having moved to a much humbler and cramped hotel room after a couple of weeks. Plus, we'd fallen in love with Cuenca, a lovely old city, more than four hundred years old. It is a city of colonial-style houses with balconies and lush interior courtyards, cobblestone streets, and grand plazas with fountains, churches and monasteries. We placed a newspaper ad saying two Americans wanted to rent a house and, within days, we had several offers. So, in place of the rustic thatched-roof adobe hut in the country where I had imagined us, we ended up in an exquisite 1940s modernist house with parquet floors, a sweeping staircase, a chandelier in the dining room, bidets in the bathrooms, terraces overlooking the Tomebamba River, and two heavy 1950s-style telephones that actually worked—all for three hundred dollars a month. In short order, and with the landlord's permission, Michael had torn up the lawn, planted a vegetable garden, and built a darkroom in the maids' quarters.
In search of a photography project in Cuenca, I used a CUSO contact to meet a sociologist, Livia Cajamarca. She invited me to take photos for her thesis project, interviewing rural mestizo women whose husbands had migrated to the United States. I didn't know it then, in 1991, but the wave of emigration from southern Ecuador to the eastern United States was building momentum and would grow exponentially in the next decade.
I tried to capture in images the stories of poor, mostly young women left behind to manage children and crops while their husbands lived in Queens and worked in restaurants in Manhattan. At the time, I didn't fully understand "transnational migration." I would come to fully grasp all its ramifications many years later in Cañar. I took a few photos, but my heart was not in it.
Months later, a chance invitation from another academic in Livia's group, Patricio Carpio, to participate in a research project in the neighboring province of Cañar changed my luck. Two hours north of Cuenca on the Pan-American Highway, the highland town of Cañar lies at 10,100 feet in a valley surrounded by mountains. There, a newly formed indigenous organization, INTI (National Institute of Indigenous Technology), had agreed to participate in a survey on the effects of development projects on indigenous communities. My volunteer job was to train two young Cañari men, José Miguel Acero and Antonio Guamán, to use cameras and tape recorders to photograph their informants and record oral histories.
I will never forget my first visit to Cañar, when I sat through a chilly, all-day meeting in—yes, a thatched-roof adobe house—with a very reserved group of Cañari men and women, who, these many years later, are still our friends. But that day I was only a tall, thin gringa who seemingly appeared out of nowhere and so was refused her first request to take a photo. During a break in the meeting, one of the participants, Vicenta, sat in the sun on a grassy hummock spinning wool with a drop spindle. A beautiful shot! When I asked if I could take a photograph, she slowly shook her head, without even looking up, and continued spinning. I left my cameras in their case, but this image joined another "untaken" shot from that day that is forever etched on my brain: a group of three or four children sitting on the ground in front of an enormous cactus alongside a wooden gate, looking at a book. Today, I am reminded of that moment every time I walk by that cactus and that gate, both now old and tumbledown, not far from where we live.
I came back to Cuenca excited, telling Michael that I'd found the indigenous village we'd imagined, though a less romantic, homelier place than our fantasy. I insisted he come with me to the next meeting to demonstrate his cookstove and meet my new acquaintances: the wonderful Chuma sisters, who seemed to be the activist heart of the community: Mercedes (Mama Michi), Vicenta, Mariana, María Juana and the matriarch, Mama Vicenta, and Mama Michi's son, José Miguel, my new photography student, who would eventually become the first indigenous professional photographer in Cañar.
Our year in Cuenca was quickly over, but we couldn't leave because we finally had the opportunity we'd been hoping for. The directors of INTI invited us to collaborate with them. We kept the house in Cuenca, but rented a small storefront in Cañar, where I gave photography lessons on Sundays and Michael worked on a terracing project and promoted his small woodstove as an alternative to open fire cooking. (Everyone professed to love it, but no one wanted to spend the five dollars to buy it. Besides, someone would politely point out with a sweep of the arm, wood was plentiful and free with all the eucalyptus trees around.) By the end of the second year, I was able to make a set of portraits of our Cañari friends and indigenous life that captured something of what I'd come looking for.
Then it was time to return to the United States and engage with all the requisites of the American Dream: jobs, a house, vehicles, credit cards, and—of course—debts and a mortgage. But a piece of our hearts remained in Cañar, and in the next few years we began returning to Ecuador for visits, short and long. In 1997 for the baptism of our goddaughter, Paiwa, the child of my photography student José Miguel and his wife Estela; in 1998 to mount an exhibit of the Cañari portraits at the ethnographic museum in Cuenca and teach a course; in 2000–01 for a Fulbright grant, when Michael and I lived a full year in Cañar (Cañar: A Year in the Highlands of Ecuador tells that story); and in 2005 for a second Fulbright to create an interactive program on Cañari culture with local groups and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
In June 2005, when this story opens, Michael and I are set to leave Cañar for what we assume is the last time. I have finished my last grant project, and we will soon return to Portland, resume our life there, and consider our future, which we hope includes a foothold somewhere in the Latin world. Cañar does not figure in it—too remote, too cold, too far away from family and friends—but the past several years we've made several exploratory trips to Mexico, looking for that "perfect" place, where we will feel at home. We haven't found it yet, but we plan to keep looking.
Then, everything changed again. . .
Planting a Tree for Plinio
It is a brisk morning in late May 2005 when Michael and I leave our small house on the outskirts of Cañar and walk to the nearby Pan-American Highway to wait for a bus. We are on our way to the mountain village of Sisíd, where our friend, Plinio, was buried four months ago.
In January, on the very day we arrived in Ecuador, a tearful phone call from a friend in the United States told us of Plinio's death. A skilled carpenter and construction worker, he had fallen from a ladder while installing a second-floor window. No one saw him fall or could explain how the accident happened, but Plinio died the next day of severe head injuries. He was thirty-five and had been working steadily for five years since arriving in the United States as an undocumented immigrant. Plinio was not only our sweet gentle friend from Cañar, but also our compadre. We are godparents to his youngest daughter, Adelita, and in Latino culture there is no greater honor than to be asked to be a padrino, which implies a life-long bond of friendship and mutual help.
This morning, as Michael and I climb aboard the large yellow bus, Transportes Cañaris, the local passengers examine us with shy but curious stares. I can imagine them thinking, Who are these two extranjeros? What are they doing in Cañar, where few travelers stop and no gringos live? And where on earth can they be going so early in the morning?
Michael has planned carefully for this day. In his backpack, he carries a heavy marble and bronze plaque that he designed and commissioned from a gravestone maker in Cuenca, our nearest city. Etched with the name and dates of a too-short life: Plinio Quishpe, 1970–2005, the plaque will go beside the guayllac tree that we plan to plant today in Plinio's garden.
Michael's pack also contains a carpenter's level, a rain jacket, a Sudoku book, a pint of Zhumir (aguardiente or cane alcohol), and a small shot glass—the last two items essential for the small ceremony we will have with Plinio's family. In my backpack, I carry two cameras, a rain jacket, an extra sweater, a bottle of water, a tube of sunscreen, and a copy of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.
Twenty minutes later, we jump off in the small town of El Tambo, walk across the pretty town square, and wait for the local bus up the mountain. Although Sisíd is only about twenty kilometers from Cañar, it will take us more than an hour to reach the village, at around eleven thousands feet. A woman selling bananas under the portal where we stand is doing a thriving business, and I just have time to buy two before a small battered bus trundles around the square and comes to a stop, spewing exhaust. Michael and I climb on, ducking our heads under the low ceiling, and crowd into a tiny seat that barely accommodates our North American bottoms and bulky backpacks. We are giants in this land of small people.
Tightly packed around us, Indian women sit with sleeping babies on their backs, young children in their arms, baskets of produce between their feet, and live chickens and guinea pigs in sacks tucked under their seats. I breathe in the pungent but pleasant smell of wood smoke from cook fires, emanating from passengers' wool clothing and hair. The women, round-faced and red-cheeked, glance at us with frank curiosity, but no one speaks or shows any sign of approachability. They assume we are passing tourists heading for Ingapirca, the much-visited complex of Cañari and Inca ruins up the mountain.
The driver makes another bone-shaking round of the cobbled streets, searching for a few more passengers before crossing the old railroad tracks and heading out of town.
The winding road is narrow and potholed, with chunks of the edge washed away by recent downpours. From where I sit by the window, I can't help but glance over the edge at the certain-death drops into the valley below. But I've learned by now not to obsess over dying in a bus accident in South America (which has one of the higher rates of such accidents in the world). Instead, with a mental shrug, I affect the fatalistic attitude of local folks to sudden death and other terrible misfortunes: fue destino—it was destiny; fue su tiempo—it was his/her time; and finally, the less comforting but oh-so-true mala suerte—bad luck.
In Plinio's case, it was certainly very bad luck. In his five years as a migrante, he had found good work with a building contractor, brought his wife Zulma to join him, sent money home to support their two daughters left with his mother, and begun building a house. His dream was to return to Ecuador with Zulma, tend his garden, work his crops and animals, and see his two daughters grow up.
As we climb, the longer view grabs my attention. It is a glorious day, with an intense clear sky above a magnificent panorama of serrated slate-blue mountains to the west. Layers of light clouds float between us, high on the mountain, and the deep green Cañar River valley far below. White stucco or adobe houses with red or blue roofs sprinkle the patchwork of fields, some with grazing cows and sheep, others with ripening barley or wheat, yet others with corn or potatoes. Clumps of olive green eucalyptus trees define the borders of the fields.
As the bus labors up and up, swerving around potholes and fallen rocks, our adopted town comes into view to the south. Cañar lies at 10,150 feet in a broad north-south valley between two parallel chains of the Andes Mountains. Established in colonial times as a market center for surrounding haciendas and small farms, the town has grown hodgepodge over the centuries, from a few cobblestone streets, adobe buildings, a church, and a square into a small city with a population of about ten thousand. Agrarian reform came late, in the 1960s and 70s, dismantling the hacienda system, and while the urban areas have grown with the mestizo population, the indigenous Cañaris still live in widely scattered hamlets in the countryside, where they have lived for millennia. Today an estimated forty thousand Quichua-speaking Cañari are scattered throughout the province.
A half hour later, I look up from my book to see the cluster of houses that mark the village of Sisíd. Four years ago, Michael and I spent the night here after Adelita's baptism. Though it had been Plinio's idea to ask us to be godparents, he wasn't there for the ritual in the Catholic church in Cañar. The year before, he had left from Guayaquil on a rickety fishing boat on the first step of the dangerous journey to join his brother, Nestor, in el norte. It's a story we've heard countless times. Six days on the open seas to reach the coast of Guatemala on a boat meant for a few fisherman but crammed with more than a hundred Ecuadorians, followed by weeks of walking and traveling by bus and truck through Central America and Mexico to the treacherous border crossing into Arizona or Texas. Coyotes, or traffickers in illegal immigrants, guide and facilitate the trip at every point, beginning with a contact in the local village who might be a neighbor or a cousin. The cost when he left, in 2002, was seven thousand dollars, paid out slowly over the months to a local coyote as Plinio made his way north. (Today the cost is twelve thousand dollars.)
Once safely across the border—and Plinio was lucky to have made it the first time—he became one of the estimated half-million Ecuadorians who have left the country since the economy collapsed in 1999. Most headed for the east coast of the United States, where one of the favorite destinations is Queens, New York, which Ecuadorians like to call their fourth largest city.
Soon after the baptism, Zulma followed her husband, leaving her daughters, then two and five years old, with Mama Julia, Plinio's mother. Zulma was not so lucky at the border crossing. She was arrested in Texas, held in detention, given a trial date, and then inexplicably released. She joined her husband in a northern city, got a job at Taco Bell with false documents, and was quietly absorbed into the estimated twelve million illegal immigrants living in the United States at that time.
I try to imagine what Zulma is going through now, in these months since Plinio's death. She must be in shock, paralyzed by insecurity and fear to have been suddenly left alone in a country and culture not her own, where she doesn't speak the language or have legal status, carrying on a lonely life circumscribed by a bus ride to and from work. We recently heard that she is planning to come back to Ecuador to join the two young daughters she's not seen in several years, but no one knows for sure. (How can she not come back to her girls, a part of me screams, but I tamp down that thought. I've learned not to be judgmental when I hear about mothers who leave young children to be raised by relatives while they join their husbands in el norte, "to preserve the marriage.")
"Parada!" Michael yells, looking up from his Sudoku book. The driver grinds to a stop and waits patiently as we struggle out of our tiny seat, shoulder our unwieldy backpacks, and push our way through a crowd of standing passengers, stepping over baskets of produce and bags of grain blocking the exit. In my rush, I knock my head on the ceiling, and as the bus pulls away, I hear laughter. This is a culture where locals do not hurry to give a hand to strangers suffering minor accidents or mishaps, though I suspect their paralysis is more out of fear and respect than disregard. And I suppose it is funny to see a tall gringa with an overloaded pack ungracefully trying to exit a small bus.
We walk the last half kilometer up a rough dirt track, passing an assortment of houses that reveal the past and present history of this place. Old abandoned adobe casas with ragged thatched roofs sit cheek by jowl with new, multi-colored, two- and three-story concrete-block houses, built with dollars sent home by migrants. Some are barely under construction, with piles of sand and gravel on the side of the road. Others were never finished, rusting lines of rebar sticking into the air above concrete walls, testament to lost or deferred dreams. Still other houses sit resplendent and seemingly complete, but empty—brightly painted on the outside but often without plumbing or kitchens or bathrooms inside. These are shells, "trophy houses," built to show a local migrant's success in the United States or Spain, a sign that he or she—or they—plan to return to the home village some day and live in a new style.
As we clamber down the rocky path to a house perched on the hillside overlooking the valley, Mama Julia herself comes out to greet us. Obviously dressed for our visit, she wears two thick wool skirts with embroidered edges—one on top of the other—a short black shawl pinned over her chest, on top of a white embroidered blouse, navy blue knee socks with "USA" woven in at calf level, oversized shoes (no doubt sent by her daughter in New York), and the ubiquitous round white hat that distinguishes Cañaris from other indigenous groups in Ecuador.
"Descansen!" "Rest!" Mama Julia commands as she hauls two straight-backed chairs from her kitchen and plunks them down in the uneven courtyard. Her round face creases with a smile. She is probably in her late fifties, but like many country women who spend their lives working outdoors in this harsh climate, she looks much older. Her husband died of a heart attack about ten years ago, leaving her with six children. Iliana, her oldest daughter, is married and lives nearby; another daughter and son are migrants in the United States, leaving her with two teenage daughters at home.
We catch our breath from the climb and luxuriate in the warmth of the high altitude sun. Tall eucalyptus trees surrounding the compound sway in the slight breeze and bring that wonderful acerbic scent I associate with Cañar. Mama Julia brings us cups of beer mixed with Coca-Cola, a favorite local drink that tastes wonderful to me, even at ten o'clock in the morning.
We last saw Mama Julia the day of the funeral, four months ago, when she looked thoroughly destroyed by grief and the long agonizing wait for her son's body to come home. In Andean cultures, it's believed that the newly dead's spirit must not be left in limbo, and this means a quick burial, following the proper rituals, on the third day after death. But Plinio's remains were held in the United States for an interminable three weeks while an Ecuadorian consulate mishandled or lost the paperwork. The family was crazed with despair while they waited, believing his spirit to be without rest. But their greatest fear, Iliana told me, was that her brother's body would be botado—meaning forgotten or lost—in the cargo area of some airport. Something similar had happened the year before to a young man from their village who had died in a construction accident in New York.
Once Plinio's remains finally arrived in the coastal city of Guayaquil, the family followed the death rites as though he had just died. A velorio, or vigil, was held at home the first two days and nights, and on the third day, a mass was followed by a long walking procession to the cemetery for interment, Iliana sobbing into a cell phone as she described the scene to her sister in New York. Michael was a pallbearer. As is custom, we mourners remained at the cemetery, while workmen sealed the big American-made steel casket in its niche with cement, to witness that Plinio's physical and spiritual remains were at last at rest.
But today Mama Julia is energetic and friendly. "Mas cola, Mamita?" she keeps asking me. Like many older Cañaris, Mama Julia speaks mostly Quichua, with only a sprinkling of Spanish. Most of the time I have no idea what she is saying, but Michael and I nod and smile a lot and she seems to understand our Spanish well enough.
As we finish our drinks, Michael explains that he wants Mama Julia's help in deciding where to plant the tree and put the plaque. She nods that she understands, and the two of them take off down the road to Plinio's house. I follow a few minutes later, taking time to get my cameras ready. The family gave me permission to photograph the velorio and funeral, and I'm assuming I'll have permission to record this day. I catch up with them standing in the road, looking up at an unfinished two-story, white-washed house and its blank, glass-less windows and weed-filled yard. For a few years, Plinio and Zulma sent money home to start building the house, but then decided it was too much investment when they couldn't be here to oversee the work. So there it sits, a sad coda to a shattered dream of a better life. No one has mentioned what will happen to the house now.
As I come close, Mama Julia is gesturing at the house and indicating to Michael that she thinks the best place for the plaque would be high up, about second-story level, facing the road. As she speaks, I watch Michael's face. This is completely contrary to his idea of placing the plaque in the ground near the tree. But with a kindly nod he takes in Mama Julia's suggestion. Then—maybe she also sees his face—she looks uncertain, shrugs, and says, "Let’s wait for Iliana to decide." Plinio's sister has promised to join us later this morning.
Mama Julia turns to go back to her house, but Michael, impatient to get started and fearing a long delay if he waits for Iliana, asks if he can start digging the hole for the tree. She nods and hurries away to her daily chores, tending to her pigs, sheep, cows, and chickens. Plus, I suspect she is preparing a meal for us.
Michael and I climb the short path to the patch of grass alongside the house where Plinio's garden used to be. I have a sudden memory of visiting him here years ago, when he proudly showed me his carefully tended vegetables, flowers, and trees—unusual for a Cañari man, whose traditional role is the rougher work of plowing, planting, harvesting crops, and wrestling with pigs and bulls.
Michael gets to work with the shovel as I settle down on a grassy knoll nearby with my book. I look out at the 240-degree view of the broad river valley below and the mountains beyond and feel a surge of pleasure, or love, or . . . something! Sheep graze in the field beside me. A radio plays faintly from a nearby house, and in the near distance the bright skirts of women tending their animals or crops dot the intense green hillsides. It’s beautiful, peaceful, nearly magical. I'm suddenly aware that we are within a month of leaving Cañar, presumably for the last time, and of how much I will miss it.
"What a perfect place," I yell down to Michael. "Let's forget Mexico! Why don't we come live in Cañar instead? This is where we should be!"
"I've been thinking the same thing lately," Michael grunts, head down, shoveling dirt.
An hour later, Iliana finally arrives, along with her husband Victor, Mama Julia, and Mama Julia's brother, Tayta Mateo, a new player in today's scenario whom I've not met. He is a vigorous-looking man in his sixties, I'd guess, with a sweet face and serious, no-nonsense manner. During the wait, Michael has planted the tree. As everyone stands around and looks approvingly at the small, spindly guayllac, Michael brings out the brass plaque from his backpack and begins to read the text: "This tree is planted in memory of . . ."
"So the plaque needs to be near the tree to make sense," Iliana says, immediately grasping the situation. She turns to explain in Quichua to Mama Julia and Tayta Mateo.
"Yes," Tayta Mateo emphatically breaks in, in Spanish. "All that is good. But what we need is a hatun rumi, right here!" He taps the ground with his foot next to the tree. "A big stone for the plaque so it won't get overgrown with grass and weeds and no one can bother it."
I look at Michael, who is dismayed to think that the uncle's suggestion will mean a delay in his careful plan: more time, more work, and more materials. But Tayta Mateo is busily scanning the immediate landscape. "There," he says, "that one!" pointing to a cut into the hillside directly behind the house, where the tip of a rock peeks out.
Within minutes, Michael, Victor, and Tayta Mateo are digging around the rock with a shovel and a pick. Soon, a huge boulder is revealed, about four feet long and weighing hundreds of pounds.
I'm standing near enough to see that the stone is perfect for its purpose. With a two-tiered flat surface, the longer plane can accommodate the plaque, and the raised shorter end will make a perfect little bench.
"So, the Virgincita can go right here," says Tayta Mateo, patting the raised end.
Michael just nods helplessly and says, "Buen idea!" I picture Plinio's spare brass plaque keeping company with one of the gaudily painted, blue-robed ceramic virgins we see for sale in stores. But Tayta Mateo is senior man in charge now, and we must follow his vision.
In the next two hours, with Tayta Mateo giving enthusiastic directions in a mix of Quichua and Spanish, the three men roll the boulder down the slope, settle it into the ground, mix and pour a concrete base around the stone ("too much mortar," I hear Michael mutter as Tayta Mateo sloshes water to make a big puddle of cement), place the plaque on top of the stone and wipe the excess from around the marble ("too much mortar," I hear Michael mutter again).
The men stand back to admire the results.
"All it needs now is the Virgincita," Tayta Mateo adds.
It is late afternoon and beginning to turn chilly. Michael brings out the bottle of Zhumir and the shot glass as we gather round the tree and the plaque. Mama Julia has come back with Plinio's two young daughters, home from school. The first shot is poured onto the ground to honor Plinio and Pachamama, Mother Earth; then each adult takes a drink from the same glass with a nod and salud to each other.
After that, Mama Julia will invite us back to her house for an extended meal of roasted guinea pigs with all the trimmings, followed by a lengthy sit-about with more drinks before we go home, near evening.
But the main business of the day is done and everyone seems contento: Plinio's tree is planted, his plaque laid, his memory honored. And though Michael and I haven't quite settled on it yet, our future in Cañar is starting to take shape.
“This is a compelling memoir about creating a life in another culture. . . . Blankenship offers fascinating perspectives on the indigenous Andean world from her stance as a writer, a photographer, and, as the book progresses, an honorary local. . . . The book will definitely appeal to general audiences eager to learn about contemporary Ecuador, and it will draw readers curious about the day-to-day reality of creating a life in such a different environment. People who want to escape the confines of a single cultural viewpoint will also find inspiration here. We come away with a sense of the profound differences and inequalities in the world, but also of the many ways that friendships transcend our divides.”
Joanne B. Mulcahy, author of Remedios: The Healing Life of Eva Castellanoz, and Birth and Rebirth on an Alaskan Island: The Life of an Alutiiq Healer