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Zaruma letter # 1

Zaruma letter # 1

Hello from Zaruma!                                                                  June 20, 2001

We are perched on the side of a mountain in this colonial mining town in southern Ecuador, where John’s grandfather worked for thirty years between the world wars and his father was born, and where we will be spending the summer shooting a documentary.  The subject?  Well, we’re still not sure.  But today’s subject was the alumni reunion celebration of a local high school, where half the town watched the other half parade through the narrow colonial streets to the central plaza, and where they danced to a brass band until noon (in fact, they’re still dancing now at 10 pm).  In an era when we spend so much effort “building community,” it’s heartening to be in a place where the web of life is out on the street, not on the internet.

We found a furnished apartment our second day here, with breathtaking views out the back balcony.  The mornings are sunny and warm but not hot, and mist rolls down the mountainsides in the afternoon, sometimes filling the valley below and cooling the evenings.   We have been more or less adopted by two local families and are meeting more folks every day.   Paige has a new girlfriend and is starting to make out bricks in the wall of Spanish that confronted her when we landed.  Marcus is still sizing up from a distance the crew of boys who play on the packed earth outside our apartment, which is actually a flat in a tall San Francisco-style house on, surprise, la Calle San Francisco.  Inspired by the local boys, Marcus has begun to work on his marble-shooting skills.   I (this is John talking) have been communing with the older generation, with the help of photos my grandparents took in the thirties of the nearby mining camp (now mostly destroyed), and am cheerfully butchering the Spanish language in all directions.

I’ll turn the laptop over to Beret for her own report. For my part, now that we have gone through the time-and space warp of leaving Colorado and arriving here, I am seized with an urge to crow at our amazing fortune (and I suppose I have just done so).   To avoid further irritating those of you who are reading this from your desks at work, I will just keep my s— eating grin to myself.


I find this town utterly charming — it’s not just that it’s beautiful here and vibrantly alive (no thanks to tourists — we’re the only foreigners in town as far as we can tell), but the people have a great sense of community, with components of pride, honor, friendship and togetherness.   Children as young as four are allowed to navigate the narrow streets by themselves.

Paige is on the way to having more freedom than she has in the U.S.   Paige and Marcus are clearly homesick at times and blissfully engaged at others (we have begun daily pilgrimages to the town swimming pool), and John and I are having a great time, having dreamed this summer for a long time before it arrived.  The U.S. seems like a parallel universe and I can barely conjure it up.  We are writing this email without yet knowing how we’ll send it, though there is one “internet cafe” in Zaruma, less than a year old, and some talk of cell phones that connect to computers.  The phone system is analogue and antiquated and I’m not sure how often we’ll be able to get on line.

The film project is underway already in the sense that the whole town is connected to gold mining, which is done by many with picks and dynamite and prayers for safe return at the end of the day.   The people of Zaruma are friendlier and kinder than I expected and they all seem to know one another.   The streets are incredibly steep and we practically tumble down to the market and main street below.  The long arm of multinationals reaches here — one can buy Fruit Loops, Coke Light, and Doritos, surely expensive by local standards, but we can’t find any pasteurized cheese and Marcus is going through grilled cheese sandwich withdrawal.  The mountains surround us, steep and layered as in Bali, and a sea of clouds some days pours down drom the high valleys near dusk, blanketing the land below.  I am, in a word (well, two), blissed out.   We hope all is well with  you wherever you are (that would include Saipan, Nigeria, Quito, Boulder, the Philippines, and various other parts west, north and east of here).

Yours from afar,
John and Beret (and Paige and Marcus)

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Zaruma Letter # 2

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                            24 de junio, 2001

We enjoyed writing our first joint letter and especially enjoyed hearing from some of you in the days that followed.  I feel like my senses are sensitively tuned at most times here.  When I’m at “,” the sole (and new) internet “cafe” here in Zaruma, which is also a larga distancia telephone outlet with a shortage of telephone lines (one line — so its either phone or internet but not both at once), part of my mind is in the northern hemisphere, and the rest is in the small room, grappling with the stiff keyboard and its differently placed keys, the music and engine sounds drifting in from the street, and whatever else is going on.  Two days ago, the Ecuadorean man next to me was weeping copiously into his email, which struck me as brave and open, not what a man from the U.S. would be likely to do in such a public setting.

Yesterday we had an almost all-day power outage, which pointed out the electricity dependence of our addictions — email, ice cream, warm showers.  We have warm water in our shower (if set at very low water pressure) and cold water elsewhere.  Cold means cold.   We have a three-burner gas stove, which is hard to modulate.  It’s a burn and boil kind of stove.  We’re enjoying our adventures in food procurement and cooking.  I especially love the indoor-outdoor market.  Do I miss my fabulous kitchen in Boulder?  You bet!  But that house feels like someone else’s mansion right now, which it in fact is, as we’ve rented it out and our fish, cat, and my best orchid have all been placed in other homes for the summer.

By late yesterday afternoon, my mother arrived in Zaruma by bus and pickup truck from the coastal city of Guayaquil.  She had been on a tour to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos, Quito, and Otavalo.  The lovely woman (who is also a nurse at the local hospital) who has been washing our laundry by hand in the cement sink on our balcony-terrace offered to meet my mother at the airport in Guayaquil.   Which was a very lucky thing, as it proved harder to get here than any of us expected.  Changing buses in Machala, a couple of hours into the journey, required dragging the luggage across several city blocks.   We learned that the very next T.A.C. bus from Machala after my mother’s crashed between the small city of Pinas and our city of Zaruma, killing three passengers.  I found that pretty unnerving, though when I asked John whether it gave him pause about taking the kids on buses — essentially our only way to go on side trips here — he just shrugged.  And I know what he means.   You do your best to be safe and then you give over to a kind of fatalism.   The drivers in Zaruma are very careful, which they need to be, given the narrowness of the streets and the number of pedestrians, especially children, who are in them at all hours.  But elsewhere the passing on blind curves, passing three abreast, passing while the passengers debate about whether they’re better off or worse off if they watch the road, is the norm.  We decided to offer an extra dollar to local taxistas if they promise No Unsafe Passing.  Ecuador is newly on the dollar — dollarization is generally a destructive thing for Latin American countries — and that makes money dealings easy for us.   We can tell when things have sat in stores for a long time because their prices are still marked in sucres, usually to the tune of five or six mystifying digits with a period plunked somewhere in the middle.

We’re two weeks into our ten-week trip and we’re … still happy.  We continue to be delighted by this small city and the wonderful people who live here.  Word has gotten out about us and why we’re here.  It’s said that 3/4 of the families here live off of mining in some way or other.  John has all sorts of interview prospects.  Last week he interviewed an 84-year-old miner who remembered the old, old days when John’s father was a child.   The relationship between Zaruma and mining is not completely obvious because when one is near downtown, as we are, it feels like the city lives off of commerce.  But mining is everywhere — any dirt road out of town seems to lead to an artesanal mine.   Signs that say “I buy gold” hang from storefronts downtown.  Many of the older buildings are wood and there are old-style wooden shutters for many storefronts and swinging saloon doors for saloons.  It’s the Ecuadorean West.  There’s a store that sells nothing but carbide lanterns.  Rubber boots for miners cost $4 and I’m off to buy a pair tomorrow because it looks like we have a mine shoot tomorrow afternoon.

Today we attended a fiesta at a local Catholic school where our neighbor teaches and where we’re going to take Marcus to the pre-kinder to see if he enjoys the preschool scene.  John was the Pied Piper of children — at one point, he had about a dozen boys clustered around him and the video camera.  We were told my another neighbor that part of the school is actually subsiding and is structurally unsafe because too many mine shafts have been dug into the ground underneath it.  Can you imagine?  They’re been mining continuously since the mid-16th century here and so they have to go down much deeper than in previous centuries.  This is dangerous for a number of reasons, especially bad air and cave-ins.  But I bet two hundred years from now it’ll still be going on … somehow.

My friends Lynne and Don were married today in Colorado and I took a walk up above town to commune with their wedding long distance.   It was so beautiful at that hour — 5:30 pm — with twilight coming on, the clouds spilling into the valleys between the mountain peaks and lying there in a thick layer, peaks above and peaks below.  In the course of my walk, I came upon many gardens — bougainvillea, roses, orange trees, bananas, onion, lettuce, cilantro, mysterious tropical fruits, chickens, dogs, a pig, a gold mine, an improvised cobblestone street (small rocks set into the earth), a house made partly of earth and bamboo, and a girl from the fourth grade class I visited with Paige earlier this week.  I love the beauty of this place and I love its sounds — the Andean music that we hear sometimes, the cocks crowing at all hours, the crickets, diesel motors, dogs barking, and hum of human voices.

The ten o’clock siren went off 20 minutes ago, signaling bedtime to all those with timepieces and without.  We’re so greedy for our quiet time when the kids are asleep (they’re currently sleeping together across the short axis of a double bed) that we tend to stay up late.  The cockroaches tend to creep and skitter in the dark hours, so I slip on my shoes if I get up in the night.  Last night we had the most beautiful leaf-mantis creature on our terrace — about four inches long, as green as Ireland in the spring, and shaped like a leaf with skinny legs.  It stayed all night and was gone by mid-morning.   Paige and her friend Karen have taken to scavenging in the canyon behind the houses — a graveyard of junk and trash and tropical trees and decaying foliage and, oh yeah, all the cockroaches murdered by yours truly.

As you can see, I am not running out of things to say, but I think it’s John’s turn now.  We’d like to write a “group” letter a week except for the times when we’re on the road.  We’re thinking of trips to Loja/Cuenca in the southern highlands, to Quito/Otavalo in the northern highlands, and to the beach near Machala or Guayaquil.   The acute homesickness of Paige and Marcus seems to be subsiding a bit, but still — it has been more intense than I anticipated.  Of course, they have a huge language barrier, while John and I are blabbing away in our fractured Spanish.  My hubris that our nearly undivided attention would be enough has been punctured, as all hubris ought to be.  Now that my mother’s here, we’ll focus on getting some footage shot for the documentary.  We miss all of you and hope you’re having a lovely summer.  We’ll be at while we’re in Ecuador and we welcome all news of you.  John and I are happy here and I’ve actually read two books, one set in Sri Lanka and the other set in Nepal-Tibet.  Now I’m hanging out with Galileo in the early 17th century.  I haven’t started writing poems yet, but I’ve read a bit of Neruda, whose poems I love, and have been keeping a journal….  Be well, everyone.


John here.  I’m not sure how much there is to add to the above (I’ll claim first dibs on next week’s installment).   I guess the main thing is that the fun and of researching our film project has exceeded my high hopes.  Last Thursday I went with a 76-year-old neighbor to the town of Portovelo (where the mining operation that my grandfather worked is actually located) and toured the places that show up in our family photos: the giant, cylindrical cyanide tanks used for processing ore; the company store; the camp hospital where my grandmother worked and my father and aunt were born; the gringo social club, with its swimming pool now filled with rubble but the high dive supports still standing; the “casa mirador,” as the house where the family lived was called, set on a bluff above a steep slope with sweeping views of the valley, with the ruins of formal plantings and overgrown, shattered walkways all around.  The man who now lives in the downstairs of the gringo social club says he hears ghosts in the billiard room.   My image of the place has been so shaped by sepia photos that I was surprised to see it all in tropical green.

And there is a fair feeling of archaeology to the work, as the gringo company left in 1950 and the national enterprise that tried to continue the works failed in 1979.  Since then, small-scale miners have tunnelled this way and that with little great success, the ore tailings have been sifted through and the buildings once located on them destroyed, and the company files apparently burned.  The headshaft superstructure of the mine, known as “El Castillo,” was knocked down some years ago, to the great distress of the old-timers.  And the jungle has worked relentlessly to erase anything that humans have not actively preserved.   As a friend once remarked to me, the difference between the first and third worlds is not construction; it’s maintenance.

On the human side much is lost as well.  Most of the retirees I am in contact with remember the company in the 40’s, after my grandfather had left.  One exception is my neighbor’s 102-year-old mother, who worked as a housemaid for the gringos in the 20’s.  She clutched my hand as we talked in place of seeing me, and as I fairly shouted my questions and she keened her replies, I had the feeling of a conversation over short-wave radio with the static drowning out every third word.  She was upset by the camera that day and drifted in and out of lucidity, but I hope to get her on tape on a good day before summer’s end.

Some things remain, though.  My father’s and aunt’s births remain inscribed in the large folios of the Registro Civil of Zaruma, where even the staff awoke from their bureaucratic lassitude when we found the right hand-written pages from 1918 and 1921.  My father’s entry confirms an old family tale, that his middle name was initially “Burr,” until the maiden aunts objected by telegraph from New Jersey that they would nave no great-nephew named after a traitor.  So my grandfather relented and changed it to “Bayard.”

Well, now it’s 11:30 and the kids will be up with the roosters (around here that’s NOT a figure of speech), so I’ll sign off.   We’ll try not to be so long-winded next time.   Enjoy your northern summers, and be well.  XXOO John.

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Zaruma Letter # 3

Queridos amigos y familiares,                       30 de junio – 1 de julio, 2001

John here.  It is remarkably quiet for a Saturday night.  There is salsa music pulsing somewhere in the darkness, but too far off to get the melody.  It has been over an hour since any M80-sized rockets exploded in our vicinity (though there were twenty or thirty earlier this evening).   Only one dog is howling.   Nobody is doing any late-night mufflerless transmission testing on the steep grade that winds up past our apartment.  And the ten o’clock siren has come and gone, summoning all the Christians to their beds.   I may actually sleep tonight.

It is not too much of an overgeneralization to say that, on the whole, the Zarumenos love noise.   Large social gatherings are overladen with music loud enough to make conversation difficult.  The early morning trash truck repeats the same salsa tune endlessly over a loudspeaker to alert the neighbors to its whereabouts (I have thought of this song as the “trash song,” and was amused to hear locals dancing enthusiastically to it the other night, but my friends tell me it is an important traditional melody).  But just how much the locals love noise we shall soon see, because we are approaching the time of the annual fiestas.  Every night the Virgen del Cisne is paraded through a different neighborhood, accompanied by  powerful rockets and a brass band.  Last night there was loud music and a whooping DJ until about 3:30 a.m.  When the fiestas really get started, I am told, this will be a nightly occurrence.   We will either have to join ‘em (which involves figuring out late-night childcare options that are not readily apparent) or go deaf.  If in the meantime these weekly e-postcards get a little grouchier, you’ll know the reason.

Monday we toured another mine, with our wonderful friend Fabian.  Our first mine experience had been pretty tame, with electric lighting and no really scary precipices, so we were feeling pretty cocky.  And then there was Paige, militating to be allowed to go into a mine.  So we decided to take her on the next shoot.  This time we had carbide lanterns instead of electric lights, plenty of scary precipices (a couple of which you had to cross on planks over blackness you could not see the bottom of), and at the end the air was so thick with moisture that I didn’t dare film where the men were pounding away with a deafening air-hammer.   Paige thought it was all pretty cool, and it was educational as well.  As soon as we got home, she went to work with colored markers on a document entitled “My Mining Report.”  The first section gave the reasons Why Mines Are Not Safe, most of them based on her personal observation.   An apt subtitle to this report would be Why Child Protective Services Should Meet Us At the Airport Upon Our Return, and no doubt several of you will be making such arrangements shortly after hearing this tale.  But you’ll be relieved to know that we have learned our lesson, at least for now.

*** Next day.  Beret here.  John is on the back terraza reading The Hobbit aloud to Paige and Marcus.  Paige’s recent letter to Maggie, our friend and childcare provider, gave us a good laugh.  Herewith a couple of excerpts.   On the mine she went into: “There were big black holes and wooden bridges.  There was a place where a long time ago people threw down the sacks of ore they carried on their backs.   There were these weird lamp thingimabobbers that had fire flames sticking out of the front of them.  They didn’t usually go out from the water that dripped from the ceiling, but sometimes they did.”  It was, in a word, scary, because the shafts that drop off the cramped main tunnel are easily 100 feet down.  Fabian also led us through some of the “detours” dug to go around cave ins.  It was scary during, exhilarating afterward, if that makes any sense.

On the subject of her sleeping arrangement, Paige wrote to Maggie, “I have to sleep with Marcus in a two-person bed, shortwise, not longwise, and my feet hang off the edge.”  On what she does for fun, “There’s a place near our apartment that I call the secret hiding place.  It has a table and an old chair with three legs and no seat on it, and a lot of trash.  There’s also a broom that I sweep the trash with and use some of the trash to make stuff.  Like an old telephone wire and a piece of wood are a telephone.  And for the chair I take pieces of wood and put them on the chair to make a seat, and put sticks underneath to make it look like a fourth leg.  I put a sign that said coca cola on it that’s made of metal and a piece of rubber rug on it so that it didn’t hurt anybody, and then I put some pretty tissue paper with stars on it and today I put tape on it.   I strung a cord from things around and tied confetti on it.  And I found some old soap that I’m using as soap for the bathroom.   I did this with [my friend] Karen.  She helped me a lot.”  Alas, once Karen’s mother figured out that this was the playplace where we had lured her daughter, she said Karen couldn’t play there any more.  Which is just as well, really, because even with tetanus shots….

Still, it’s hard to give up the wild canyon with all its treasures.  One of their games (before they were banished, that is) was to pick wild coffee beans and baby avocadoes.  Postscript: After I wrote the above, our upstairs neighbor suggested that we shouldn’t let the kids play out back because of “culebras”.  John translated this as “cobras,” but perhaps it just means “snakes”.

If you were waiting for me to say that there’s something surreal and magical about moments in our life here, then I will.  Marcus walks around with a tiny, hundred-year-old copy of Shakespeare’s Henry VI in his pocket, asking to have it read aloud from time to time.   He likes to walk through churches, the market, and the parque central.  Paige likes to play “orphanage” and “harvest.”  The other evening I came upon John sitting on our bed reviewing footage — “dailies” as filmmakers call them.   Right over his head a large cockroach was taking in the evening air.  For some reason, an extended family of cockroaches began to take the night air on our bedroom ceiling.  I am a bit phobic about cockroaches, so the only comfort for me was that they favored John’s side of the bed.  In the end, I demanded fumigation with “Baygone.”  Put on your best Spanish accent, say “Bye!” “Gone!” and you’ve got it.  My other favorite brand name is “SNOB”, which makes the best strawberry jam to be had.  The food here is so much fresher than in the U.S. and we are being treated to incredible hospitality by our neighbors — shrimp ceviche, tegrillo (cooked banana, egg, and cheese), yuca (yucca), sopa de pollo (chicken soup), and manjar (carmel dessert).

Before I leave the land of insects, there’s a winged creature here, kind of like a giant grasshopper in that it can hop and fly, that scares the local people because it has a fierce bite.   We found one in the street the other night and John put his hand down to measure the beast.  It was bigger than John’s hand — about six inches long!  Now keep in mind that we’re not even close to the Amazonian basin here, being in the mountains and all.

My mother and I went to visit the local hospital with a nurse we know.  It’s the most basic medical care facility I have ever laid eyes on, but they are able to do emergency caesareans and local women usually give birth there.   There’s a women’s ward and a men’s ward, with bare mattresses, a couple of bedside tables, and bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling.

Yesterday we went to a nearby river (upriver from the mercury and cyanide processing mills for the 800+ gold mines around here) that has a wonderful balneario — a swimming concession with various pools, not to mention the river itself.  The kids asked to go back today, but it’s a ways past Portovelo on a dirt road and yesterday the taxista decided it was better to stay and swim than have to come back for us in three and a half hours.

This morning John and I took the bus to the barrio of Faique, where the norteamericanos were buried in the era of John’s grandfather.  With a couple of local guys, we hiked down to the town of Portovelo, stopping along the way to film.  We were able to visit the house on the hill where John’s father was born.  The people there had some old books in English, including one with John’s grandfather’s signature inside.   I videotaped, John wept with the emotion of the moment, and the family that lives there graciously showed us every room.  The glassless windows are covered with chicken wire, but the house, in spite of its decay, retains some of its former grandeur, having the only fireplace we have seen in these parts and an old woodburning stove with an oven.

To get an idea of what life costs here in Zaruma, a large unfurnished flat might cost $25 a month.  We are paying a king’s ransom for ours, but that’s another story.  Coffee is $1 a pound, rice 20 cents a pound, carrots 12 cents a pound.  The miners who work full time might make around $100 a month (sometimes more, sometimes less), which means $5 is good money around here.  Many people have abandoned agriculture because mining pays more.  These days in many local mines each ton of ore yields only a few grams of gold and the sheer physical labor of carrying out each ton of ore in sacks on men’s backs is just staggering.

I’m charmed by the local buses which grind up and down the mountain between here and Portovelo.  Many of them are trucks with painted open air wooden structures on their beds.  The structures have four wooden benches apiece, a roof, and enough wooden sidewall that people don’t fall out.   The seats are numbered 1 to 20, but people end up riding on the runningboard if there are more than, say, 15 passengers.   If you want to get off, you yell, “Bajo aqui!” (I get off here!) or you reach out and pound the metal roof hard until the driver hears the noise.   Zaruma reminds me of Boulder — at random moments, I’m struck by the breathtaking natural beauty all around.

We do have longings for the creature comforts of home.  John misses our bed the most, with its sheets that fit and its pillows that aren’t like like river stones under our heads.  (I brought a down pillow with me and I’m the envy of all.)  I don’t mind the bed much, but I miss my kitchen with its double sink and hot water and liquid dish soap. Yesterday we made pancakes with yeast as leavening and jam instead of syrup.  We had offered this cooking idea to Paige a couple of weeks ago, but she essentially said, “Wait until I’m more desperate.”  Which translates into, “Wait until the memories of things left behind recede.”  And that is exactly what is happening.   Some days the membrane between Spanish and English feels as thin as the filament in a butterfly wing.  Other days, well, it’s time to butcher some reflexive pronouns!  I love living in the moment, as we do here, and having the sense that there is enough time.  We parents aren’t getting as much time to ourselves as we would like, but we have ample time to be together as a family.  I hope you’re all well.  Sometimes one or another of you walks through my dreams.

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Zaruma Letter # 4

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                  el 7 de julio de 2001

Muchas gracias to those of you who sent wonderful letters in the wake of our last missive.  We are not very good at individual correspondence this summer, for want of time mainly, but we hope you can hear our silently composed and warm responses.  The XVI Feria de la Mineria began last night in Portovelo.  The official schedule stated that the annual national contest to choose the Queen of Mining would begin at 9 p.m.  We gringos arrived at 8:30, which meant good bleacher seats for us, and the beauty contest began a bit after 10.   I was sorry that I forgot my earplugs, and ended up stuffing kleenex into my ears, which was good for about 15 decibels.  Before the pageant a young Neil Diamondesque singer tried to rouse the crowd, but it was early yet.   The mayor’s office had a lovely projected slide show of historical photos of Portovelo, some of which belong to John’s aunt Betty Sykes’s collection.  We got to see John’s grandparents on the big screen and John was personally thanked in the course of things.  (We were already conspicuous with our blonde daughter and video camera on tripod.)  More entertaining was when the mayor came over to ask John to be one of the pageant judges!  It would have meant staying until the happy (the Portovelo candidate won) and inebriated end (4 a.m.) and not getting to videotape the increasingly rowdy and entertaining goings on, so John told the mayor, “It would be a great honor, but….”  I detected a bit of wistfulnes (“It’s the only beauty contest I’ll ever be asked to judge”) and some relief (“I have some hankering to be a judge … but not that kind”).  Speaking of judges, he learned some interesting things about corruption and how judges here make their living this week.  But back to the beauty pageant, Paige and I stayed until she’d seen the contestants do a mini-skirted dance number.  She was hoping they’d all be in crowns and long dresses.  It was then after 11 p.m., teenage boys were dipping into their stealthily acquired hard liquor supplies, and the crowd was warming up to the evening.  Paige and I decided to head for home, which was a good idea, as it proved hard to find transportation back to Zaruma.  At 1 a.m., John had to settle for a friendly but drunk owner of a pick-up truck, who brought him home VERY FAST for $5.

For my part, I prefer the open air buses to the taxis.  Yesterday all five of us (the two of us, the kids, and my mother) hiked from El Faique, where the Americans are buried, to the Casa Mirador where John’s family once lived, and ended up down in Portovelo, where we caught the most overloaded camioneta we have been on to date.  (And it just figures that it would be my mother’s first ride.)  This was the smaller of the open air buses.  There are four benches and they’re so close together John and I have to sit partly sideways.  I counted 19 people in the back, three in the cab, one on the running board, and two plus cargo on the roof.  Someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a photograph of a moment like that.

In the afternoon, John and I went to a merienda (afternoon meal) at the house of Las Senoras del Faique.  They are three sisters who live by themselves in this tiny village/neighborhood of 10 houses, a wooden church, and the American cemetery.  They want to repair their church (whose roof is leaking and spoiling the beautifully painted wood ceiling) and fix up the graveyard whose occupants include a 2-month-old baby, a five-year-old boy, and a young wife.  There’s a lot of nostalgia among older people for the old days of the Campamento Americano, which was lovingly landscaped, and a lot of criticism in leftist writings of the imperialist doings of the “South American” company.  People here don’t always agree on facts about the past, and in the end some of it comes down to politics and to how one sees the world.   For my part, I like trying to hold the opposing points of view in the palm of each hand.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing that happened to us and our incipient film this week was an interview with Don Delfin Calle who, at 94, is said to be the oldest living miner left from the South American Company era.   He is living in the house where he lived decades ago with his growing family (nine children in all).  He arrived at the Campamento on foot to ask for a job, having walked for five days through the mountains from Loja.  This morning John interviewed a former mineworker labor organizer and ongoing communist intellectual who lives in Portovelo.

Paige is developing a good Spanish accent — believe it or not, she actually says “No!” with an accent when playing with her friends here — and both kids have perfected the art of playing with kids without much conversation.  Paige surprises us sometimes by what she understands in Spanish.   Just this minute a pickup is driving up our street announcing over its rooftop loudspeaker that the Reina de Zaruma (Zaruma’s Queen) will be crowned tonight beginning at 8:30 p.m.  And so it starts again (only louder, because it’s not far from here).  In preparation for the upcoming Fiestas, people have begun hanging colored streamers over the streets of their neighborhoods and the bomberos (firemen) went around town late at night washing down the streets.  Three firemen walked down our steep hill holding onto the blasting hose, the truck trailing slowly behind.   The Virgin is being carried around Zaruma in the evenings, always accompanied by lovely singing.   There’s some tension between the many Catholics and the few evangelical Christians; I try to avoid the subject of our religious beliefs, though people have impeccably good manners here and the strongest response to our relative atheism has been, “Of course, God made the world and everything in it.”  I like the shrines to the Virgin at the openings of many mines, because the miners are in need of protection.  Two months ago, there was a cave in in a former South American Company mine above Portovelo.  The three miners who were killed fell so far down that their bodies were hauled out from the other side of the mountain.

I’ve been thinking about the schools here, as Paige and I visited the primary school across the street and Marcus spent part of a morning in a pre-kinder at another school.  We live and breathe primary school, as the recited lessons, a loud group chant from a dozen or more classrooms, reverberate all morning Monday through Friday through our house.  The learning method is very different from what goes on at Paige’s school — it’s mainly oral and group- oriented.  I was at one moment reminded of the terrified law students in the film “The Paper Chase” when third graders were asked to recite one by one the definition of the “subject” of a sentence.  All in all, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on theory (they were actually learning grammar) than on the practical application of concepts, which  is about the opposite of Paige’s school.  There’s also a contrast between individualism (U.S.) and uniformity/group (here), though I’m not sure what happens at the secondary level.  The starkest contrast between the schools here and in the U.S., besides the teaching methods, is the extreme plenitude of materials in the U.S. and the extreme dearth here.   Public school is free, but if the parents can’t afford the pencils, notebook, and one or two or three schoolbooks out of which the pupil works all year, then a child can’t go to school, because the schools do not have the funds to provide those materials.  When Marcus visited the preschool at a school wealthier than the one across the street (which educates many of the miners’ children from the hills above us), there was one bin of crayons, one bin of plastic manipulatives, a few Pokemon and Disney puzzles, and that was it.  The teacher hand-drew each child a banana and an orange and gave each a yellow crayon to color them in.  Marcus thought his orange was an apple and asked for a red crayon, but yellow was the color of the day and that was that.  I felt like sweeping into American schools and gathering up armloads of materials for these students because it’s just not fair that these kids and their teachers have so little and our kids have so much more than they need.

We tried to buy sparklers in Portovelo to celebrate the 4th of July, but that proved impossible.  So our ever resourceful Queen of Holidays daughter improvised.  She wanted a red, white, and blue theme, so we had red jello, white stovetop playdough, and homemade blue confetti.  Then we had a disco dance to one of Christina Aguilera’s songs, which Paige shyly lip-synched.  She is happy that her dad thinks she’ll be a teenybopper at the age of 8.

For those who like to hear about the domestic side of life (senoras y senoritas y hombres liberados?), how about the subject of hot water?  I admire the degree of resource conservation that goes on in so many other parts of the world, though I also am attached to having an endless stream of hot running water.  Here, as I may have mentioned, the only hot water is in the shower.  The heat is provided by a device that costs $10 and is essentially a heating coil-shower head.  To turn it on, you flip what John dubbed years ago a “Frankenstein switch” because it has two bare and electrically-live pieces of metal that appear when the switch is in one of its two positions.  Years ago, we failed to warn my stepmother about how to use these devices; I still remember her scream from the shower on her first day in Guatemala City.  The problem is reaching up with a wet hand to turn the thing off….  But anyway, the art of our shower is in turning the thing on (lightbulb dims overhead, so you know it’s on), and then turning the water pressure down low enough that the water moves from tepid to warm or maybe even deliciously warm, but the instant the pressure gets too low, the device turns off, the lightbulb instantly glows 20 watts brighter, the water runs cold, and you have to start the water pressure dance all over again.  I go through this about 20 times each shower, mainly because I don’t like cold water and because everything can be going along swimmingly until, say, the fridge motor kicks on, there’s a drop in power, the heating coil goes off, and so on.  In Argentina, we had a calefon, which is a larger version of a heating coil and can provide kitchen and bath hot water, but which one lights only when hot water is needed.  Imagine how much energy is saved each year by these devices.  Next week’s exciting subject: grocery shopping!

We’re off on the bus on Monday to Cuenca for several days and then to visit old Tweedy family friends in Machala.  We’ve had good luck with health (I was expecting GI ailments, but we’ve had almost none of that), though Paige had a sore throat and fever for a couple of days this week and my mother got a severe muscle spasm that spurred us to go buy an “esponja” (foam ‘sponge’) to soften her bed.  True to the spirit of the human drive to Find Cause, women we know here offered their theories on Paige’s illness.  It was caused by (a) our letting her play in the dirt, (b) the cold water in the swimming pool, (c) the temperature differential between the warm days and cool nights (“Oh yeah?” I wanted to say.  “Try a week in Colorado!”).  What’s sure is that the medical profession isn’t being paid enough by the government.  A dentist acquaintance from Portovelo who works full-time for the government earns $150 a month, which “isn’t even enough to buy food,” as he put it.  Locals have opined that it’s better to work for the government than to be in private practice, waiting for patients who can pay $7 or so in fees.  (I suspect many doctors and dentists do both — certainly in Argentina most professionals had about three different jobs.)  This week doctors and dentists all over the country are on strike.  And so far the government is saying no to their petition.  And now it’s John’s turn.  Take care, everyone!


Indeed, I HAVE been gnashing my teeth all day about not accepting the offer to judge the Mining Queen contest, and if they hadn’t sprung it on me at the last minute I might have accepted.  But as regrets go, it’s one I can live with.  After Paige and Beret left, the bikini portion of the contest was held, and the atmosphere became more charged with loud music and increasingly drunken cheering and catcalls.  I had as much fun filming the faces of the crowd as the events on the stage: fathers in profile with their teenage daughters; middle-aged mothers muttering comments to each other; roving bands of girls moving past roving bands of boys; portly town councilmen gazing from the front row like iguanas contemplating insects.   Spectators from out of town brought banners to cheer on their candidates, one of which blocked the view of the row of 50-ish men in front of us.  They protested their blocked view at first with the almost courtly expression “Tenga la bondad!” (Have the goodness).  By bikini time they were throwing plastic bottles at the offending banner-holders, and by coronation time who knows what they were throwing.  But I can’t tell you how that part turned out, because at a certain point I realized that the festivities were likely to go on until 4 am and I needed to bail if I was going to get a ride up the hill to Zaruma (which, as Beret mentioned, I barely did).  On my way out I ran into a local poet friend who had helped prepare the slideshow.  His comment was, “We will know the winner by breakfast, when they send up the white smoke.”  He also said, “In a few years we may get this down to its essence, with nude contestants and a nude audience.”  They have a ways to go to get to that level, but it’s still a ways past the marching bands of the fourth of July celebrations of my grandfather’s day.

I also wondered whether, in not agreeing to judge, I may have missed my best opportunity to receive actual bribes.   But whether the result was straight or crooked, the word is that the local candidate from Portovelo was crowned queen.

Speaking of bribes, a lawyer acquaintance recently illustrated the judicial corruption here thus:  “Sure, I’m expensive.  But from my fees I take care of everyone, the judge, the prosecutors, the court staff.  Other lawyers, you pay their fees and then you pay bribes to everyone else separately.  With me, its all in one price. “  Another classic moment in officialdom occurred one evening in the central plaza when a jeep roared past at top speed, a bottle spinning out the front window in the general vicinity of a trash can on the sidewalk.  As I looked up to scowl, I read the logo “Ministry of Public Health” on the door.   (A noteworthy number of public trashcans, by the way, are former sodium cyanide cans, with skull and crossbones still on them.)

For all this, the openness (to a certain degree) and warmth of the people is intoxicating.  The oldsters we are interviewing describe experiences that are beyond imagining.  The 94-year-old miner said that when he started in 1930 he was given two candles for an eight-hour shift.   They had typically burned or blown out by the end, so he would make his way back, up ladders and through tunnels several hundred meters long, by feel.   Today’s interview (which I had the poor judgment to schedule at 9 am) was with a communist union leader in the mine camp during the 60’s who was actually sent to the USSR by the Portovelo communist party for training.   His description of the paternalism and authority (but at the same time the care for basic necessities) in the Portovelo mining camp was strikingly similar to his experiences in model factories in Russia, and he had glowing memories of both.

And the daily living is full of  pleasure.  I love the verticality of the environment, present in so many ways: the open-air bus-toboggan ride down the hill to Portovelo (I  have become something of a commuter) and the slow grind back up; the switchbacking cobbled trails the miners used to take, now overtaken by ferns and floods and giant spiders; the winding concrete staircases traversing the town instead of sidestreets; the 10-degree temperature difference between Portovelo on the valley floor and Zaruma perched above; and the sweeping, enormous views so ubiquitous that we take them in like air.    I, like my father, do adore mountains.  And it’s great to discover where he got it.

Be well,  John

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Zaruma Letter # 5

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                    17-18 de julio de 2001

Saludos a todos.  We’re back in Zaruma, after a week of travel to the beautiful colonial city of Cuenca, its smaller and quieter neighbor Gualaceo, and Machala, the banana-growing capital city of this province, El Oro (literally: The Gold).  John and I were turned loose for a memorable evening  in Cuenca by my mother (our first evening out alone this summer) and we visited several bookstores and dined on shrimp and goat.  The actual name of the goat dish was “seco de chivo”, which means something vaguely like “dryness of goat.”  Ecuadorean food is wonderful and WAY fresher than U.S. food.  We will mourn the passing from our lives (our summer here is half over and a certain daughter of ours is celebrating) of very fresh eggs and chicken, and fabulous avocado, pineapple, papaya, and tangerines.

As for Cuenca, we enjoyed our beautiful hotel next to the Tomebamba River (luxurious hot showers!) and a trip to the Supermaxi netted us a version of maple syrup, two washcloths, and a knife for spreading peanut butter and jam.  For the first time since arriving in Ecuador, we were among our own kind — tourists — and John found that he didn’t particularly want to be related to as a tourist.   I enjoyed my solo trip to the Museo de la Medicina, which had all sorts of fascinating medical apparatuses dating back to the early 20th century.  Some of the more interesting devices originated in the U.S.  Can you imagine what Cunningham’s Incontinence Clamp looks like?  Hint: it is about two inches long and includes two rows of metal teeth.  Your guess is as good as mine about what the teeth clamp onto.

Our four days in Gualaceo were idyllic.  We stayed at the Parador Turistico, a chalet-style hotel on a hill above town.  It has a broad band of land around it, including a stream, a Eucalyptus grove, and a couple of pastures with cows, goats, sheep, and lambs grazing, attended by an old woman in the indigenous dress of women in the Andes (ample skirt, blouse, and long braids down her back).  The kids played happily under the umbrella of an acacia tree.  When John was down with a terrible bout of food poisoning, Paige pretended she and her family (Marcus) were so poor they lived under the tree, harvested their own food, and that sometimes people who stayed in the hotel gave them food.  The new John is thinner, has a tan, and is having to grow his sideburns back because the barber here shaved them off.  On our first afternoon in the countryside, we were all wandering up a path through the eucalyptus grove when my mother said, “Isn’t that poison sumac or poison ivy?”  Two days later….  By the way, one of the most enjoyable things about writing this group letter is the mail we get back with your personal tales.  Cockroaches were a rich topic.

We were struck by the number of beautiful new houses in both Cuenca and Gualaceo, so we started asking about the local economy.  It turns out that a large number of people from those two cities work (usually illegally) in the U.S. (mainly in the northeast) or in Spain or Italy.  They send the money back to their families, and the families in turn have the houses built.  Sometimes the whole family gets to the U.S. in the end, sometimes the marriages don’t survive, sometimes children end up being raised by other family members.  Since our arrival here, various attempts by visa-less Ecuadoreans to get to the U.S. have failed, though I’m sure many more have succeeded.  The most distressing recent attempt we know about involved over a hundred people packed onto a rickety boat.  We don’t know the details, but the crew abandoned the boat and left their human cargo locked below deck to die.  Ah, but someone had a cell phone and called someone in Ecuador, who called the U.S. Coast Guard, who rescued them.  The person who told us about it is the owner of a banana plantation in Machala; her carpenter was one of the rescued and he was quite pleased with how he was treated by the Coast Guard and has already left on his next attempt to get to the U.S.  Apparently, a lot of the route is by sea in overloaded and rickety shrimp boats.  Landfall is Central America, often Guatemala, from where the coyotes take people overland to the U.S. border.  The cost is as much as $10,000, and people often deed their houses over to the coyotes (called coyoteros here) and if they don’t pay within three years, guess who owns their house?   Another, sadder recent story is that this year a shrimp boat sank and all aboard were drowned, including a father and mother of five children who had been left with a neighbor.  When it was learned that the parents had died, the neighbor approached a relative of one of the parents, who also has five children and said he couldn’t take care of five more.  We don’t know what happened after that.

It’s not hard to imagine why people would risk their lives to change their destinies and those of their children, but why they would stay in the U.S. after earning the money is harder for us to understand, because each dollar goes so much farther here and because the southern highlands are incredibly fertile and beautiful and the climate is perfect.   But all that fertility doesn’t translate into a living wage.  I loved watching the Quechua-speaking women washing clothes on the bank of the river that flows through Gualaceo, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy standing knee-deep in the river, bent over a flat stone, scrubbing, year after year.

We went on a spectacular hike to the top of a hill overlooking Gualaceo and on our return crossed over the river on a wooden bridge that reminded us of walking the planks in the mine.  When we got to the far side, we were amused to find the sign, “Danger: Bridge Closed”.  It didn’t feel dangerous except for passing situations — if you’re the person next to the open water and the person you’re passing has, say, a bike.  And you’re toting a squirmy, 40-pound child.

The banana plantation in Machala was wonderful in its own way.  I finally thought I had found my way into a Dickens novel (specifically, Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations), because the tropical humidity has had its way with this elegant, large plantation house for over 50 years.  I have never before heard such a clattering of songbirds.  The owner was John’s aunt Betty’s childhood friend in Portovelo.  She is an 85-year-old grande dame and I thoroughly enjoyed her.   The kids enjoyed her Spanish-talking parrot and pet monkeys.  The problem with the banana plantation (bananas for export to the U.S., by the way) is that the Ecuadorean government is paying only $2.90 a box for export-quality bananas and it’s a dismal price for the growers.  The bananas have to be just so to suit the American mania for beautiful-looking food and this requires, you guessed it, chemicals.  Sorry to sound so many sad notes, but that’s the way it goes when one learns more about the realities of a place we have already grown to love.   I’d best not get started on the respiratory and other ailments suffered by people, including young children, up near the Colombian border because of aerial spraying to kill off the coca crop.

We were glad to come home to “our town” yesterday, after three hours on a hot bus.  The amazing thing about the bus from Machala was that no one opened a window to the foggy air except us, which is why a little girl brought me her trash to throw out the window.   I tried to explain why I didn’t want to throw it, but she was only about five and I think she just thought I was odd.  The roads are always interesting — people often dry their coffee and cacao beans on the edge of the asphalt, marking off the thin strip of borrowed pavement with stones.  There are a lot of landslide scars and rock falls on the highway to Cuenca and occasionally you’ll come around a curve and a steer will be staring you down from the middle of the road.

I was going to write about grocery shopping, but what’s on my mind today is the mail.  People here say that if you want something to get through, send it by DHL or some other expensive private service.  They don’t mention that the nearest DHL office is an hour away on the bus.  The Correos (government postal service) in Zaruma consists of one amiable woman.  If she goes on vacation, so does the mail.  When we received an aerogramme from a friend in Illinois, she climbed our steep hill to deliver it in person.  There are no house numbers, but I had named our neighbors for her.  We have been awaiting a package from our friend Pattea in Boulder, but today learned that the Correos (or possibly Customs) is holding it hostage in Machala (that would be SIX hours round trip on the fetid bus).  I am wondering whether we will have to pay ransom or merely show up with a passport and gracious manners.

Good news has been coming in over the wire about our documentary on Iwo Jima.  We won a Golden Eagle in the CINE competition (which is big news for little filmmakers), will be screened at the Great Plains Film Festival, and have been accepted into the Independent Feature Market, which means a trip to New York for me in late September if we feel we can afford it.  My dream is of a lucrative broadcast.  Thanks to all of you who have helped in one way or another with the film (that would be at least half of you)!

I’ll turn this over to John, but before I do: imagine yourself at 8,000 ft. near the equator.  Everything is green; there are patches of corn, stalks of sugar cane, fruit trees, animals cropping the grass, brooks tumbling down the hillsides.   You are below the snow-capped volcanoes and above the broad-leafed bananas.  The air temperature is perfect.  You have entered Eden.

A final note: how do you know you’re off the beaten track in Ecuador?  When you ask for salt in a restaurant and they bring it to you on a teaspoon.  Paige is planning a Pacific Islands birthday party and we’re on day 52 of the countdown to the big event.   Both children have learned to play happily and long with leaves, sticks, rocks, and found objects.  Marcus walks his one beanie baby dog, Tramp, on a leash made from a travel clothesline, and Paige plays house by sweeping the dirt in the yard smooth and marking the invisible walls with small stones.  Thanks for the wonderful letters.  — Beret


OK, I’ll get the bit about the food poisoning out of my system (ark ark) first.  Last Friday (the 13th as you’ll recall) Beret and I took the kids on a hike to a church we had seen perched atop a steep hill across the valley, above a grove of eucalyptus.  The cobblestone path went up sharply, switchbacking past adobe walls, front doors, and pigpens; through deep grooves in the hill covered with ferns and moss; under squawking chickens, hissing rubber water pipes, and hanging parasitic orchids; and over a maze of splashing streams and irrigation canals.  Dogs came bounding out to bark at us, stopping at the invisible limits of their territory sometimes too close to our heels.  Paige now being an ace hiker led pretty much the whole way, and Marcus did well too though he needed carrying by the summit.  The church at the top was locked, but the view was great — and as always it was the path getting there that was the real highlight.

We cruised back down in a quarter the time and headed into town for lunch at a restaurant that had been recommended in two guidebooks.  Needless to say, after walking three hours and toting Marcus a fair piece I was a bit peckish, so I devoured my plate of chicken, rice, fries and (gasp) vegetable salad covered in a mayonnaise sauce.  This last was against my better judgment, but these salads are so common in Ecuador and the place was full of well-dressed people, so I indulged.

That evening, Beret’s mom and I sat around after a nice dinner congratulating ourselves on how well our trip was going health-wise.  We told war stories of The Worst Road Sick Ever, and smugly opined that it wasn’t so hard to stay healthy if you were careful.   The restaurant was playing an old tape of the Carpenters, which felt nostalgic at the time . . . .

By four the next morning, I wasn’t eating my words, but rather — well, you know.   I won’t go into the next phase, except to praise the age of antibiotics in which we live (long may it last) and to say that in the afternoon my fever broke enough to try to watch TV (you know you’re ill when the commercials are too hard to understand), and I watched parts of a VERY Catholic movie about the apparition of the Virgin of Fatima.  Then my fever came back, and the Virgin of Fatima and Karen Carpenter got twisted together so that all these people were asking me to bless them but all I could do was sing Rainy Days and Mondays to them.  I was on the road to recovery the next morning (thanks to megadoses of Cipro, as much gatorade as I could keep down, and the tender care of Beret), and am now completely fine.

Another surreal experience in Gualaceo was two days earlier, when I walked up the road above our hotel and stumbled on the little village of Quim-zhe.  There, the locals were celebrating their local fiesta de Santiago with a horseback ceremony.  Two groups of indigenous men, one dressed as kings with colored capes and paper crowns, the other dressed as women with ballooning skirts and panama hats, took turns galloping their horses in a circle.  A brass band of men in their eighties with battered instruments stood among the stalks of a dried cornfield and honked out the same melody over and over again.  The rest of the village stood by, watching silently and drinking homemade liquor from a shotglass passed from hand to hand, or eating ice-cream bars sold by a guy who came from down the valley.  He saw me watching and said after a minute, “You understand nothing?”  I confessed this was true, and he explained that this ceremony was based on a reenactment of the Moorish Wars in Spain.

The thing I liked most about the display was that there was nothing canned, nothing for tourist consumption, nothing for outsiders at all, about it.  So much of Latin America on the tourist route is such a caricature, so far removed from people’s daily lives that I think it looks more at home in the fancy shops on Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall than in the countries where it originates.   So why didn’t I turn around and leave the people of Quim-zhe in peace?  I did, after about ten minutes — though I confess it was for the purpose of going back to tell Beret, so that she could see it too (they had finished before she arrived).

Back in Zaruma, travel delays resulting from my food poisoning had caused us to miss some of the annual fiesta activities we had intended to film, but we were back in time for the fireworks in the square.   Ecuadoreans, of course, lack funds for the pyrotechnic stadium displays we are used to back home, but they make up for it in danger.  Indeed, they have managed to put the FIRE back in fireworks.  The main event was a wooden structure about thirty feet high with various pyrotechnic pinwheels attached, which sprayed sparks and flares in all directions at unpredictable times to a radius of about thirty feet.  The crowd kept some distance except for a maniacal group of boys who danced about five feet in front of the thing with their jackets over their heads as protection from the pelting flares.  They had a blast, and so did I.   As my Aunt Betty’s friend, Dona Luquita, had told me when we visited her in Machala, when you ask a Zarumeno how a fiesta went, the traditional reply is, “Not too bad.  Only one death.”  Half of me cheers to be in a society unchoked by tort lawyers.

But even I drew the line last night, when we took the kids to the little carnival ride setup they have here for the week.   The merry-go-round, comprised of rockinghorses bolted to a circular platform powered by an electric motor, went nicely around, and both kids enjoyed it.  But the “off switch”?  The guy running the thing reached under the platform, pulled out the power cable, and untwisted the bare metal wire with his bare hands, sending a little pop of spark into the night.  Then, of course, when the next round of kids got on, he put the wires back together, again twisted them with his bare hands with the current running, and tossed the thing back under.   And then it started to rain . . . we didn’t wait to see how he did the procedure in the rain, but the kids want to go back tonight, so we’ll see if he’s still living.  If he is, it’ll make me think these Catholics actually do have something on the inside with the Big Guy.

But that’s another topic for another week.  A couple of you have asked if the film is taking shape yet, and I’m happy to report that it is.  This week’s project is to write out the first draft of a treatment, pulling together the various themes we’ve been developing.  Some of you may find yourselves dragooned in for advice before too long!  For the present we’re well and happy.  Marcus has taken to sporting a baseball cap and big plastic shades at all hours, causing Beret to call him Mr.  Hollywood.  “Mo-om,” retorts Paige.  “He can’t be Mr. Hollywood if he has a blankie.”  Sure he can, we say.  Be well, y’all.

John.  (ojo! Beret postscript to follow)

Okay, just one more story….  A carnival is a carnival is a carnival, but this one is almost too much for me.  Both kids hang off the balcony during the day, looking lovingly at the Rueda Gigante (Giant Wheel), aka the ferris wheel.  After we let the kids go on all the other rides (imagine a theme park with almost no protective barriers around whirring metal cars and electrical cables snaking across the bare concrete where everyone is walking), John decided to take both of my babies up in the Rueda Gigante.  Here is Paige’s point of view: “It was really fun and it was beautiful when we were at the top.  Marcus kept on sliding around in his seat.  Bye bye.”  My point of view: It was like watching my whole family go up in a small plane that had recently had mechanical problems.  The amazing thing is that what drives it is an uncovered car motor with a skull and crossbones painted on the radiator.  A young guy shifts up through the manual gears to get it up to speed.   Acceleration sounded like a car peeling out, only screechier.  The teenaged boys like to rock their seats as hard as they can.  Everyone moves to the pulse of salsa music.  I can hear it even now, filling up the night.

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Zaruma Letter # 6

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                 24-27 de julio, 2001

John here.  Greetings from the backside of fiesta week in Zaruma.  People here have spent the last two days taking down banners, sweeping up broken glass, dissipating the odor of urine from the streetcorners, and, yes, burying the dead.   Two separate traffic accidents last weekend — one involving two  Portovelenos and the other involving a Zarumeno — resulted in large funerals in both towns in the past two days.  The Zarumeno who died, a well-liked fellow with the nickname of “Chesterfield,” was minding his own business on the road to Loja when a landslide hit his car.  The Portovelenos were two kids who were hauling wooden beams for a local mining company, driving one of the open-air buses we have written about.  The driver, 22, and the passenger, 19, were apparently drunk.   Today Portovelo was heavy with the anguish of sons pointlessly dead, and yesterday over two hundred Zarumenos came out to carry Chesterfield down the church steps.   To add to the atmosphere, yesterday there were some fifty buzzards forming a tight funnel cloud down to a point in the trees about halfway up the valley between the two towns.  Of course, the buzzards are always present here, gracefully riding thermals past our balcony with feathers splayed like the fingers of surfers riding the curl.  But yesterday’s concentration was not exactly picturesque.

And aside from the deaths, people are just tired.  There were dances every night last week, culminating Sunday in another fireworks display and an open-air baile down below our house.   We turned in before the thing got properly started (we blame lack of childcare when asked, but the truth is we old gringos ain’t got no stamina for REAL partying), but I awoke at around four a.m. to realize that the disco beat had ceased, giving way to hundreds of people singing in the night.  The tune had the heavy, fraternal feeling of auld lang syne, wafting up as the cocks began to crow.   After the last belted chorus there were just a few sleepy voices and footsteps on the cobblestones, as people headed home for a couple of hours sleep before facing the mother of all Mondays.

Another fiesta highlight was the parade, in which the fifth grade class of every school performed dance numbers in costumes that parents spent a week of nights and probably a week of wages preparing, led by floats carrying the beauty queens of every grade school, high school, trade group and neighborhood in town.  The mayor invited us to sit up in the reviewing stand (two blonde kids and a video camera will get you all kinds of perks) and Paige’s fascination with beauty queen culture only deepened.   This week she sewed a beauty queen sash for herself, and our neighbor who actually was Reina de Algo a few years back let Paige borrow her tiara.  I don’t know if the lessons she’s drawing from all this will pass feminist muster, but she’s having fun with it.  Even Marcus is in on the act, proclaiming himself “King of Zaruma” in lordly tones.

It was Marcus who suffered our only fiesta mishap for the week.  He’s fine, but it could have been much worse.   Those frigging rides!  We parents had hoped that our one evening of living dangerously at the carnival would pacify the kids, but the rides were set up in a soccer field in full view of our back balcony, and every night the munchkins wanted to go again.   Finally, last Thursday they prevailed on me for a repeat visit.   It had been raining, and the bald tires, electrical cords, and other devices that power the rides were somewhat damp.  Plus, it appears that a week of use since these clanky things were assembled had loosened a few screws.  Anyway, Paige and Marcus rode the mini-ferris wheel and the kiddie train without mishap and were agitating to ride the Giant Wheel.   I convinced them to do the merry-go-round instead.  Halfway through the ride, one of the four springs anchoring Marcus’s horse sprang loose and his horse lurched over sideways.  He managed not to fall off, and I got him off the ride after only one revolution.  He was badly scared,  but of course the next day he wanted to go back and do it again.  By then, though, we had heared that a ferris wheel in Guayaquil fell over recently, killing some fifty people, which took riding the Rueda Gigante off the negotiating table.

All of which got me thinking about my glib discussion of risk in our last letter.  The “uncolorful” truth is that people accept more risk here because they are too poor to afford safety.   Boulders fall on motorists because there are inadequate funds to retain the slopes.  Brakes fail on buses because the company’s margins are too thin for adequate maintenance.  Some of the other parents at the carnival were just as dubious about the rides as we were (especially after Marcus’s horse broke).  But I can mollify Paige and Marcus with the promise that we will go to Six Flags when we get home, whereas for the Ecuadorean kids there is no other game in town.  So they live dangerously, not because they are wild and crazy latins, but because they have no meaningful choice.

This lack of choices encompasses more than safety.  In our film interviews we have progressed to the third generation, the grandchildren of miners who are now trying to raise their own kids and find opportunities today.  And there basically aren’t any.  Raw materials prices on the world market are so low that agricultural producers here can’t make a go of it.  The ones who emigrate to Spain and Italy work in the fields of the European Community, where subsidies protect local agriculture and market share is negotiated by trade ministers.  But Ecuador lies prostrate before the “liberalization” requirements of the international monetary system.  So Ecuador’s fields, some of the richest in the world, produce little more than subsistence for its people.   When I’m in the States, international economic news is like a dim buzz in the background, a sort of droning undercurrent to REALLY important things like the latest quarterly earnings forecast for Cisco Systems.   From this vantage point, though, it’s hard not to view it all as a casino that the Americans and Europeans rigged years ago, where the rest of the world bellies up to the roulette table only to be cleaned out over and over, or just looks in the windows at all the tuxedoes and caviar.

Not that Ecuadoreans aren’t their own worst enemies in other ways.  Even the simplest official activity can involve suffocating bureaucracy.  Zaruma is small and remote enough that we have not had to deal with the State very much this summer, other than to read of the bank failures and financial scandals in the Quito papers; but yesterday’s trip to customs in the provincial capital of Machala to pick up the wonderful care package sent by our friend Pattea was a reminder that Kafka is just a busride away.  I won’t bore you with the details of this experience (Latin American bureaucracy tales are the quintessential shaggy dog stories), except to note that it involved a trip to a nearby copy store to make multiple copies of all relevant documents, large numbers of people crushing anxiously against windows in ill-lit offices, an elaborate but false pretense of order, and in the end the payment of a very small duty.   I’m not complaining; the customs people actually served me in half the time other people were forced to wait (I had a brief spasm of conscience about receiving this servicio gringo, but got over it in time to take my package and run) and the package was well worth the field trip.

One can ponder whether bureaucratic malfeasance is a cause or simply a symptom of underdevelopment.  But whichever is the chicken or the egg, poverty and corruption make a grim breakfast for the kids chanting their way through their morning lessons in the school across the street.

I keep looking for a moment to brighten up this week’s assessment.  I guess part of getting to love a place is that one feels its troubles more.    But people around here aren’t daunted.  In fact, if they weren’t so hung over, tired, and broke from fiesta week, they’d probably say, “Let’s light some more firecrackers and DANCE!”  Which is probably an excellent response to the situation.


Hello.  Beret here.  If I wasn’t feeling sad before, I am now, after reading the above.   Everyone we have gotten to know even a little bit well is struggling.  Our retired upstairs neighbor has a government pension of $30 a month and we share our newspaper with him because he can’t afford one.  Our laundress has a beautiful 15-year-old daughter with kidney disease.  She sold her one piece of land to pay for surgery several years ago, and doesn’t know what she’ll do if her daughter’s remaining kidney fails.   Her summer earnings from us are going to pay for ultrasound and lab tests.  And Paige’s Spanish teacher, who is also the mother of Paige’s best friend here, is supporting a family of five because her miner husband is out of work.  Ana makes $45 a month teaching English full-time at a local public school.  She sells beauty products on the side.  By paying her $2 an hour for her lessons with Paige, we have nearly doubled the household income.   Of course, we’re also leaving Zaruma in less than three weeks.

I am quite in love with Zaruma — the steep streets, beautiful houses, bird calls, chants of children, even the sound of trucks lumbering by.   This town provoked poems to spill from my visiting uncle Dick at dawn two days running.   Parents, wouldn’t you like to live in a place where the first thing out of people’s mouths (before even “Buenos dias” and “Como va?”) is “And the children?”  We greet one another in the street whether or not we’ve met before, and the kids and I have a lot of fun shopping for buttons, fabric, and fresh-baked bread.  This morning as I tumbled down the hill to my favorite grocery store, I noticed a man sewing in the dark shadows of an unmarked shop, his feet pumping the treadle of an ancient sewing machine.  Just below him was the barber cutting hair in the open air, and below him was the office of the Registro Civil, where John found the birth records of his father and aunt in ancient tomes that have somehow never been consumed by fire.

I have been meaning to write about shopping for groceries and household supplies, so I will….  The main market is not far from our house.  It’s a three-story building with stalls spilling out into the street.  You can buy everything from shoes and clothes to produce, meat, and certain groceries.  Sometimes we hand pick our peppers and carrots out of the heaps of vegetables and sometimes we just ask for a pound of whatever we want.  $5 buys a lot of produce.   Corn, rice, and and bulk grain are sold from large burlap sacks.  Eggs are counted and placed in plastic baggies, tied at the top.  Calculations are done by hand on small pieces of paper and sometimes recorded in a ledger.

The chicken lady has most of her wares laying out on a bloody tile counter (best to buy before the day heats up too much!).  For the last chicken we bought, we requested no head, feet, back, or organs, and please cut the breast in two.  Hack, hack, hack went the cleaver in her right hand.  With her left, she held the chicken, tucking her thumb under her fingers so that it was out of danger.   For one horrible moment I thought she had lost it in an accident of her trade.  When she finished cutting and bagging our chicken, she had a splash of blood in the middle of her forehead, right where an Indian woman sometimes puts her marriage mark.

There are a lot of small grocery stores on the main street down below.  On a single block, you can shop in five or six stores that carry the same items at the same prices.  If you want something out of the ordinary — such as canned mushrooms or tomato sauce or corn flakes — the hunt begins … and often ends with the item unfound.  My favorite store, run by Xavier, a self-described extreme leftist who loves a good laugh, is so narrow you can just about touch both walls, but it goes straight up a good ten feet.  So I spend a lot of time scanning from bottom to top, to see if I’ve missed something that reminds me of home.  I asked Xavier how he knew about certain odd items he stocks (nutrasweet, zip-lock baggies, etc.).  He grinned broadly and said, “In-ter-net!”   When I come in, he greets me with “Senora Estrong,” and then pulls out something he hopes will dazzle me.

We had a fabulous time this week visiting an exquisitely beautiful hacienda out in the countryside.   We and my intrepid soils-analysis-specializing uncle Dick (aka Tio Ricardo) and the kids had a wonderful experience exploring ranch life Ecuadorean-style — in the hen house, at the river, watching the cheese clot in the bucket.  Paige and Marcus frolicked among Holstein calves (the Holstein is Paige’s school symbol, so we tried to photograph her with calves but they were so young they would get scared and run away).  We also visited the pig stalls.  The 9-month-old male, already a father, looked like he could crush a small car, of which there are some to be found, as Russia is selling Ladas here.

Later we watched two chickens being killed — creatures we and our hosts ate less than two hours later.  It was hard to watch a living, struggling, frightened animal have its throat cut on our behalf.  The blood poured out into a plastic bowl, the reddest of reds.  Half a minute later, the chicken was dead.  The women then dunked the chickens in boiling water so that their feathers would pull out more easily.   It was a reminder of just how fragile we all are — one minute alive and the next, irrevocably dead.  I feel the hypocrisy of my meat-eating ever more deeply.

As John wrote, death hovered nearby this week.   Paige and Marcus and I were on the main street, walking hand in hand, when people began to pour down the cathedral steps.  I asked someone whether it was a wedding or a mass, as people were dressed up.   “Sepelio,” he said, which means “burial.”  And then I noticed the women in widow’s black, which Catholic women wear for many months.  The coffin bearers were laboring under the weight of their burden, and when they got down to the street where a pickup truck decorated with elaborate sprays of flowers was waiting, they motioned it on, and two hundred people, including children in their school uniforms, walked down main street behind the coffin, while the sidewalks were lined with passersby who stopped to watch.

This week we helped two children who couldn’t afford to go to school for lack of supplies begin the school year a couple of months late.   Their mother lives with an abusive alcoholic, so the children live with their father in a two-bedroom flat with five adults and eight other children.  My fantasies were running to pencils and books, but the reality is that we also ended up buying shoes, underwear, cloth for school uniforms, backpacks, and so on.  We are having some of the clothes sewn by a local seamstress.  The children were a sad sight; I spent a morning with them and with our laundress-nurse friend, Charo, as we went from store to store.  The 7-year-old boy is already a street urchin of sorts, darting into stores and coming out with pieces of candy (how he gets them, I never saw) and generally acting like a child who lives by his wits.  The 6-year-old girl looks and acts like a 4-year-old (development stunted by malnutrition?), though her big teeth are coming in.  Her feet were stuffed into ruined tennis shoes two sizes too small and when we took them off to try on school shoes, we discovered she also had on wet socks that were three sizes too big.  When the children were finally taken home by Charo and their father saw that they now have a year’s worth of supplies, he wept.

Though we were somewhat fiesta-weary, a wonderful friend of John’s invited us to the fiesta of his parents’ village of orgin, el pueblito de Roma, which consists of 50 families, a church and a multi-purpose dirt cancha for futbol, volley y basket.  We watched the end of a cattle auction (young cattle sold for $200-300 apiece) and part of an impressive 3-on-3 regional volleyball game as the brass band played on the church balcony.  The church floor was covered with wax that had dripped from candles held during the morning mass.  Behind the church, a young girl folded lengths of purple toilet paper for those willing to pay cinco centavos.  (When we visited the mayor’s office in Portovelo and I asked where the bathrooms were, a middle-aged male city employee asked solicitously, “Can I get you some toilet paper?”)  We visited the village graveyard, which included concrete burial buildings where caskets could be slid into slots (kind of condo-like, actually), a handpainted cross with a tin roof, and a cross made out of rebar and adorned with plastic flowers.   We rode home in the back of a pickup truck (pickups are the dirt road taxis here), all fourteen of us (not counting the people in the cab), including two babies, a huge stalk of bananas, and other mysterious sacks.   John’s comment on the driver’s way of handling his load was “medio bruto,” which means “half brutish.”

It’s now the twilight hour when the light over the mountains is tinged with violet and rose.   Gas stoves are being lighted for hundreds of pots of rice and soup.  I have been rereading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “El amor en los tiempos de colera,” which has such a beautiful and rarefied vocabulary that when I muster up the energy to look something up in my 600-page dictionary, half the time it’s just not there.  Wishing you all good things.  We’ll be back in Boulder in less than a month and you’ll receive only one or two more of these tomes from us before we head for a final week communing with el Oceano Pacifico and then for home.

Con carino, Beret y John

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Zaruma Letter #7

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                     1-3  de Agosto, 2001

John here.  I begin this week’s missive in the spirit of procrastination.  Tomorrow night I’m supposed to give a talk in Portovelo to high school students, after they view excerpts from the film footage my grandparents took in the ‘30s and ‘40s.   I haven’t prepared anything, and of course doing it in Spanish adds an element of sport.  People here are extremely good-natured about my mistreatment of their language, but one does want to avoid major linguistic faux pas, such as calling the head of the Catholic church a potato (el papa vs. la papa).  My only major worry is that someone will ask me a question that I flat out do not understand (a likely prospect, because it happens to me all the time down here).

Also in the public events department, on Monday I attended a ceremony at the city hall to witness the signing of a public works contract to improve the water treatment system, involving an expense of some $800,000.   Presiding were the mayor of Zaruma, the governor of the province of El Oro, its two representatives to Congress, two officials of the state central bank, the mayors of all the neighboring towns — and of course the Reina de Zaruma in her tiara and sash.   All of these were arrayed at a banquet table at the front of the hall.   And because half of the dignitaries arrived late, the line of chairs facing the audience grew to somewhat comical proportions as the morning wore on.  The tone of the speeches started with the monotony befitting a party congress in Stalinist Russia, but after about an hour the gloves came off.   The speakers started yelling into the mike, accusing one another of failing to advance the Cause of the People (“The road to Loja is a bloody disgrace!”) pleading for unity (as defined by their own party line), and evoking the territorial dispute with Peru (“We didn’t fight just for colors painted on a map on the wall!”).  After the ceremony ended with the Anthem of Zaruma, the audience scrummed to the front to participate in the match.  I didn’t stay to see who was declared the winner and who required paramedics, and there weren’t any referees, but I sensed that all the locals were keeping score.

Now it’s two days after writing the above.  The August winds are in full force, with dried leaves the size of saucers bouncing down the hill past our window and people squinting into the dust as they climb against it.   We just returned from a morning spent on the nearest hilltop, chasing butterflies, drawing, climbing rocks, and soaking up the views we will be leaving before long.

I am pleased to report that I survived the event in Portovelo with my linguistic dignity (such as it is) more or less intact.  The audience of 250 was a mixture of students and older folk, and I’m afraid the latter drowned out any possibility of dialogue with the former, but it was interesting nevertheless.  The toughest part was the people who asked me, in more or less pointed terms, when there will be a new wave of investment in Portovelo comparable to Grandfather’s time.  I had to answer that I thought the American company came at a particular moment in history, with a particular mission to spread the gospel of capitalism, that is not likely to recur.   But the questioners’ subtext of “How, and when, are you going to help us?” was loud and clear, and my tacit response of “I don’t think I can,” rang fairly hollow.

That message accentuated one of my persistent thoughts of this summer.   I am continually struck by the size and challenges of the enterprise Grandfather took on, and by the ideals of progress and civilization he espoused.   My generation grew up adept at pointing out the contradictions inherent in those ideals and the flaws in that enterprise.  And one can’t honestly tell the story of Portovelo without mentioning the high incidence of silicosis and tuberculosis in the early years, the tons of gold shipped to New York with only minimal taxation, the hillsides deforested, the rivers polluted.  But still there remains a dominant theme here that the time of the Americans was a golden age, and we critics have done poorly in creating an alternative vision that comes close to matching its organizing power, discipline and self-sacrifice.   One of my interviewees said, “We have lost our sense of heroism”; indeed, there is something heroic about the early photos of staggering mules and shoeless men hauling heavy machinery over the muddy mountains.  But Portovelo of today is not alone in its need to recover an ethic of heroism from the cultural morass.

The best I seem to be able to do these days is to be alert for the sublime moments in everyday life.  Like Tuesday, which would have been Dad’s eightieth birthday.  I had planned to carve out some time in the day to mark the occasion, but I had a shoot in the morning, the kids were clambering in the afternoon, and before I knew it dinnertime loomed.  Suddenly I looked out the back terrace to see the towers of Zaruma and the Portovelo valley bathed in the clearest golden light I had seen all summer.  I grabbed the video camera and hustled out to the promontory I have been passing for weeks thinking, “In the right light . . . .”  Dios mio, was it the right light.  The sunset just kept unfolding over the high sierra until the moon rose in the dusk.

That night I had a dream, drenched in the same light, of a garden party of old people dancing.  It seemed to be a wedding; the couple of honor were tall, ancient and dressed in luminous white as they waltzed on the lawn.  And Dad was there, smiling and hale, shaking my hand, loving the party.

Here’s hoping you’re well and enjoying the onset of August.  We have ten days left before a week on the beach reorients our minds to life in Colorado.  The kids are ready, talking fondly of all the things they will do when they get home.  I have refrained from telling them about reverse culture shock, which I know awaits . . . .


Beret here.  Happy 80th birthday, Jack Tweedy!  We are glad to have been able to see the house where he was born (in Spanish, the verb for giving birth is “dar a luz”, which literally means “to give to light” — beautiful, no?).  It feels like Jack’s spirit hovered near us this week.  As for last night, I was very proud of John, because it was a loaded evening — the South American Development Company represents a mythical past for which there is no small amount of nostalgia, and to the Portovelenses, John represents both the past and in a lesser but still palpable way symbolizes the hope of the future (for only a company with very deep pockets can pump the thermal water out of the bottom of the mine, where the mother lode, many believe, is still waiting.)  And just for the record, John’s Spanish was impressive.  We speak a lot more Spanish here than we did during our year in Argentina when I was buried in books and John was writing a novel.

This week we had two very wonderful outings to two different rivers, including a videotaping/surreptitious bathing outing yesterday to Zaruma’s beautiful and forbidden source of potable water.  On the way there, we visited the manjar-making place.  It’s a large shed with five massive kettles for the making of manjar, a caramel dessert made mainly from milk and sugar.  A woman stirs the boiling manjar for four hours with a wooden paddle.  It was like seeing a factory from the Middle Ages that had reached the 20th century through the addition of cooking gas in the place of firewood.

Sunday at the Rio Pindo was an interesting window on local culture.  You need to know that the Rio Amarillo (Yellow River), which flows murky, muddy, and yellow through Portovelo, is heavily contaminated with mine trailings, mercury, and sodium cyanide.  Its sister river, the Rio Pindo, is in comparison relatively untainted.  What I find intriguing is the myth of the Rio Pindo, that it’s as pure as Rocky Mountain spring water just burbling out of the earth.  I don’t know where the Pindo originates, but it flows past casas de campo (simple earthen dwellings without running water) and ruminating cattle and other signs of human encroachment.

We arrived at a shady bend in the river in two pickup trucks with four other families and proceeded to unload an impressive supply of cooking pots, foodstuffs, and other infrastructure (guitar, hammock, etc.)  We set up camp by the river and set a huge kettle of river water to boil for coffee.  In the course of the morning, my friend said, “This water is cleaner than the agua potable in Zaruma.”  By the time we had been there for a few hours, our children had peed in and near the river (who knows what the adults did), we had washed dishes with soap, washed a carseat liner (for Maggie, a 9-year-old with cerebral palsy), and swum (shod!) in the river.  We also burned up local tree limbs, blackened rocks for two different cooking fires, and consumed a banquet.

From the moment we arrived, the women (3 of them, not counting the otherwise occupied mother of Maggie and the useless gringa Beret) began to cook.  They made an elaborate soup of banana, peas, and pork fat(?).  Then we had marinated chicken, rice, a cold salad of grated carrots, peas, green beans, onion, potato, and mayonnaise dressing.  And a fabulous chocolate cake with manjar in between its layers.  All prepared painstakingly on the river bank (except for the cake and the premarinated chicken) for h-o-u-r-s while everyone else was having fun in the river.  I told my friend Ana that I would never, ever go to so much trouble about food (she was up at 5 am doing prep cooking).  But for these women, cooking and chatting and feeding their broods was what gave them pleasure.  The children — all 9 or 10 of them — played in the river, catching tadpoles and frogs and butterflies, swimming, and looking for gold. We all came home sunstruck and happy.

Our kids continue to invent their own entertainments here, though we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of raw materials.  Every box in the house, from tea boxes on up to cereal boxes pilfered before the cereal has even been eaten, has been made into a house.  There’s a cardboard swimming pool with popsicle stick steps, a bed, and three very little people.  August is the month of wind and dust, so children are making kites out of the ubiquitous striped grocery/garbage bags and string.  We bought extra big grocery bags for a dime apiece and right now out front are five kids with all the scissors and knives we own trying to take a length of bamboo into kite-sized sticks.  Knives are apparently a tool most kids are handy with (though I was dismayed to see our kitchen knife being dragged across the concrete in an effort to cut a plastic bag to size).  The other evening at dusk we made it to the top of the Cerro Zaruma-Urcu, which is a large hill that offers a lovely view of the city.  We pulled out our water bottle and cookies and Paige’s friend Karen pulled out a knife with an 8-inch blade and several fruits that taste like lemons, only sweeter.

There has been no school for the elementary school kids this week, which has made things more peaceful at our house (during “recreo” or recess, we sometimes have two dozen uniformed kids out front, half of them with their faces pressed through the wrought iron grille to look for our kids through the window.)  Thank you to those of you who wrote  asking  how to offer supplies to the schools here.  Because it is too expensive to send things (not to mention the problem of customs) and because the kids’ supplies are different here, we are going to buy locally and deliver some supplies before we leave.

The story of the friend who teaches full-time for very little money and sells Avon on the side (for which she receives “product” but no payment) broadened into a river of sorrow when I learned more about  how things really are in that family.  Everything they touch has gone bust.  They tried to ranch cattle near the coast by taking out a “cattle loan” from a bank (the bank gives you your loan in the form of livestock), but there was a five-year drought and the cattle starved to death.  They are still in debt to the bank even though they lost their land.  These days they don’t have warm water in the shower (can’t afford the electricity) or eyeglasses for the daughter with myopia, and the two teenagers barely made it to high school this year because when the school year started the parents didn’t have the $12 in annual fees for each child.  Needless to say, they are eating a lot of rice and vegetable soup.  The worst of it is the husband has had very bad luck with jobs, though he is willing to work in the Oriente (the Amazon basin) or wherever work is to be had.  He is so discouraged that he sometimes tells his wife he wants to die; she is afraid he might just follow through on that impulse.  The thing is that this family looks and acts like the urban middle class, which is the group of people we’ve been hanging out with this summer.  But open one door and you find….

Yesterday’s newspaper had an interesting statistic.  A government institute here says that the “basic” cost of living for a family to get by in Ecuador is $290.66 a month, but that the average family has only $200.73.  Meanwhile, we are worried that our upstairs neighbor is having a health crisis (kidneys? liver?).  The doctors are still on strike, though emergency cases are being taken at hospitals.  When I urged him to go to the little hospital here for care a few minutes ago, he said “No money.”  I said, “We’ll pay.”  He said, “That would make me ashamed.”  He brings us treats — warm bread, candied peanuts.  Two days ago a beloved local pharmacist died suddenly of a heart attack.  Hundreds of people went to his funeral today, which means we were a town dressed in black mourning clothes.  Don Marcelo was everyone’s friend and he was also the only pharmacist who gave out medicine to anyone in need, and let them pay when they could.  This is the most anguish I have witnessed all summer.

The headline story in Quito paper for the last three weeks has been that of a large bank that suddenly shut its doors, swallowing many people’s life savings and causing thousands of salaries and pensions to go unpaid.  The doctors’ strike is still on and the news is that when the police tear-gased a peaceful protest march of doctors outside a maternity hospital in Quito, the gas went right in the open windows (and maybe a canister went in too?) and gased a bunch of preemies in their incubators and new mothers in their nightgowns.   Two babies died of asphyxia and the fallout is still raining down.

And now, for a lighter topic.  Being able to get around in Spanish doesn’t solve all communication problems, I’ve found.  There’s the question of culture gap.  There’s also what I’ll call the “macho creep.”  Creep as in a thing that goes crawling and creeping across the floor (la cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya la vemos caminar).  John and I have a few gendered habits of labor division in the U.S., though we’re pretty flexible on the whole.  So what happens to us when we find ourselves in a traditionally macho society?  You guessed right — the macho creep!  The form it takes is so insidious it took me some weeks to notice it was happening.  For instance, when a man comes over to see John about something, I feel compelled to serve beverages to the two of them.  And if a male acquaintance invites John to bring us to an event or on an outing, it is expected that John can answer for the whole family without consulting any of us.  After all, es el padre de la familia!  John gave into this a few times before I said, “Basta con esto!”  Then when he told one of these men that he needed to consult with me, the fellow said, “Oh, you have to ask permission.”

Strange cultural moment: A woman friend asked whether in the United States  we routinely cut something inside our daughters’ bodies.  WHAT?  It took a few minutes and a piece of paper, and a sidetrip into the land of episiotomies, for me to understand what she was asking.  She had seen a T.V. show about American parents who were so liberal (?) or … I can’t even think of a word here … that they wanted to dispense altogether with the notion of virginity in their daughters, so they had doctors surgically remove their hymens.   My friend wanted to know whether we had done this thing to Paige.  I told her I had never heard of such a thing (have any of you?), that it was definitely not a common practice in the U.S.  As you can imagine, women are very careful to protect their honor here and I have the impression that there are a lot of virgin brides.

Being a housewife in Ecuador is a luxury of sorts — you have the luxury of getting to cook 3-6 times a day (I’m not kidding) and, unless you’re wealthy, to wash the family’s clothes in a concrete utility sink by soaking them in a bucket with detergent and then scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing them with abrasive soap, wringing out the water the old twist-the-rope way, and hanging them inside out on the clotheslines to dry.   The front page of yesterday’s Quito paper business section announced a course called “Electricity for Women.”  We women are being offered the opportunity to solve the problems presented by vacuum cleaners, irons, and other electric apparatuses.  Felicidades a todas!  (But let’s not be fooled — vaccuum cleaners are for the urban rich.  I haven’t seen a single one in Zaruma.)

Many women here, especially the young and the hip, dress in tight jeans and spandex halter-type tops.  If you’re under 40, that is, or even if you’re 40 and are going out dancing.  When I contemplate going to a Catholic country, I prepare my wardrobe as if I were going to teach at a junior high school run by Jesuits, with the added thought (in this case) that it could well be hot and that my clothes may be ruined by summer’s end.  I favor two tent-like cotton dresses I bought in Bali years ago, which earned me the question, “Are you expecting a baby?”  Another equally startling question is, “Can you have more babies or did they operate on you?”  It took me a while to unravel this question.  What it means it that when women don’t want to have any more babies here, they typically undergo tubal ligation, subsidized by the state.  A more philosophical question: who is more likely to be adulterous, United States men or Latin American men?  For bonus points, discuss your reasoning.  (I actually had this conversation with someone last week and we ended up wallowing around in the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism on the question of guilt and absolution, on machismo, and on equal rights for men and women.)

Now that I’ve set you thinking about a strange array of things, it’s time to go fly kites!  They came out beautifully, thanks to the talents of two teenaged boys.  John just made Marcus a kite out of newspaper.  This I’ve got to see.   Next time we write, it’ll be to say adios to Zaruma and to this series of letters.  Thanks for being our gracious and wonderful audience.  As they say in Zaruma, chao!

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Posted by John on

Zaruma Letter # 8

Queridos amigos y familiares,                          el 8-11 de agosto, 2001

We thought we were done for in the email department when the one computer-with-modem at caved in last week, but it’s up and running now.  It takes hours to send these group emails, partly because of the analogue phone line and sssslllloooowww modem and partly because we have to paste the addresses one by one into hotmail and then, as often as not, the whole thing freaks out into precambrian html at the moment of sending it.  It takes so long to send each message that we’d be there forever if we sent them one by one.   I drool at the thought of my dsl modem awaiting me at home, but at the same time I am very grateful that we’ve had contact with all of you this summer.  We have received such lyrical letters in return.  And you know how it is when you’re far away — news from friends and family is so precious.

We have gotten ourselves in deep socially, so the process of saying goodbye is akin to crossing a wide river.  You keep thinking you’re getting across, only to find that now the current is a little stronger and the far bank feels ever farther away.  There’s also an elaborate potlatch system and we are indebted to many people and there are of course people who would like us to make it work out for them to come to the U.S. to work.

I feel very sad to leave.  Of course, I fall in love everywhere I go, but rarely as quickly as I have fallen in love here.  We are already talking about how and when to return, though we know we won’t have the luxury of an expansive summer any time soon.  Our friends here mention houses for sale, plots of land for building, how we could arrange to have a house taken care of in our absence.  That’s the thing about gringos — they’re definitely rich, but HOW rich?  (Tonight John and I were joking about a request to Senor Doctor Don John Tweedy for big money for the fire department of Portovelo.  ‘A round of fire trucks for all my friends!’ John joked and we both became semi-hysterical with laughter.   That’s what happens when several times a day your heart is breaking over some suffering you have just witnessed and have no remedy for.)

But anyway, we’ll be riding out of town next  Tuesday morning on a greasy-seated bus is how rich we are.  Now, to confess the truth, I asked both owners of double-cabin pickup truck taxis about being driven to Guayaquil, but their vehicles are in no shape for such a trip.  John now feels that his shot videotapes are this thirdborn child, so he doesn’t want us to find ourselves tricked by thieves in the Guayaquil bus station.  He thought he was going to be robbed or mugged by three teenaged boys in Portovelo the other night when he tried to find a taxi home at 11 p.m.   The only times we’ve been good and scared this summer have been trying to get home from Portovelo late at night, so no more of that.

Some time back I discovered that the shower water and I were getting along fine.  And my progress with cockroaches is impressive (if I may be permitted a small brag).  Last week I actually kept my cool when one slithered out of the photo album I was politely perusing.  Alas, it took refuge in the next photo album in the stack and foreknowledge is sometimes the worst kind.  There are some things here that try my patience a bit.  Is it really that hard, por ejemplo,  to design a sink so that all the water drains out?   How about a drainage system for the water that gets in shower door tracks?  Our bathroom’s only window opens into our downstairs neighbor’s open stairwell, so we keep it closed as a matter of courtesy.  We noticed a smell of putrefaction in the bathroom early on but it took a week or two before we realized that we were running a science experiment in the shower door tracks that lacked only malarious mosquito larvae (but not to worry, we have baby crickets instead).   Some things in Ecuador are brilliantly designed, by the way, such as houses that let in the breeze up near the eaves.

Our bed has been the scene of some Moliere-style comedy.  When we came to look at the apartment, it was a mattress on the floor, so we asked whether we could raise it some way.  (All roads lead back, of course, to my feelings about cockroaches.)  Our landlady, who is all of 22 years old, borrowed a bed frame with a pine lattice to hold us up.  We crashed through to the floor on the first go, and John ended up nailing the thing together.  We slept in this trough for a  month (I thought I was in one of those ancient walk-ups in Paris), and then a new lattice appeared, which fit after John took a saw to it.  The other night it broke down on my side — great cracking of boards and sinking of the distinguished spouse of Senor Doctor  Tweedy….

This morning we breakfasted in Portovelo on papaya, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee, and hot cheese empanadas sprinkled with sugar at the house of our neighbor’s 102-year-old mother.  She was the youngest of 21 children and it seems that the only reason there wasn’t a 22nd child is that her father died before she was born.  She looks remarkably young for her age and has about as much gray hair as John.  We used up the rest of our polaroid film creating “recuerdos” and then dropped by the Municipio to see our poet friend, now sporting a black eye.   We listened to a man singing a ballad on with an old guitar in a tiny store, and finally wound our way up the switchbacks back to  Zaruma.  As I looked out at the countryside passing by, I felt that soulful sorrow of loving and leaving a place of breathtaking beauty and complicated human stories.  This place has left its mark on all of us — Paige is perhaps the most changed of all.  At an acto solemne in Portovelo the other day, after interminable hours of listening to others speechify, John (locally known as Jhon and sometimes even as Jonh) received a certificate making him an honored visitor to their illustrious city.   John’s name also appeared on the first page of a section of the Quito newspaper last Sunday, thanks to our poet friend, who is the cultural attache of Portovelo and is having fun making John into a fish with fins and gills in a small pond.  We had that feeling on Saipan too — one could reinvent oneself altogether.  I decided to reincarnate as a filmmaker, and look what that has brought us.

There are some things I won’t miss about Zaruma, such as having to cook food and boil drinking water in the same pot on an intemperate gas stove lit with exploding Elephant Superior Best Quality Safety Matches (the head of one, burning of course, embedded itself in my fingertip).  We’ve been drinking water with a sheen of cooking oil all summer.  With luck, our guests don’t look down when they’re drinking.  I have learned a good deal about how people live with less.  When John and I went to the Sahel desert of Niger years ago, we camped next to the Woodabe, a nomadic group who travel on camel-back and donkey-back and live mainly off of goat’s meat, blood, and milk.  They have very few possessions, using huge gourds as bowls and goatskin bladders to hold milk and water.  Their “outside” luxuries are transistor radios and large umbrellas.  In the Sahel, a discarded tin can is a valuable item.  Here, a glass jar is valued because it’s a good storage container and many people can’t afford to buy the things that come in jars.  At a friend’s house the other day, I saw no prepackaged food whatsoever.  These are people who do without shampoo, paper (the women wash their menstrual cloths along with the laundry), and good light (there’s a 60-watt bulb per room and that’s it).  But yes, they have that most essential of items, the television.  Of course, it can get even simpler — doors made out of hanging cloth….  We are the only street in this city to have more than 10 hours a day of running water.  The question is why?  Ah yes, there are theories….

The kids continue to delight me.  Yesterday Paige and three friends made an elaborate cemetery with more than a half-dozen eloquent headstones in Spanish for a couple of dead butterflies: “Lyza and Maggie, our unforgettable friends,” “rest in your tomb,” “we love you very much.”  Meanwhile, I’m trying to explain the concept of death to Marcus, but he doesn’t get it.  He thinks it’s funny to crow “I’m drowning” in the swimming pool.  These days he favors as toys massive pieces of rebar and sticks twice as long as he is.  We have to take these far away or he will go looking for them.   He also has taken to dangling his clothesline-leashed beanie baby Tramp, as dirty a dog as you ever hoped to see, out our bedroom window and to pitching clothespins into the undergrowth of our coffee-tree covered canyon.  How are we going to take this kid back to preschool?  Meanwhile, Paige is chattering away in rudimentary Spanish with her friend Karen, though she is often mute in all languages around Zarumenos who try to get the suca (pale girl) to talk.  Her vocabulary is especially fine in the areas of money, desserts, and the imperative mood (as in “Come!”, “Don’t touch!” and so on).  I have spent most of my time with the children this summer (while Jhon was off becoming an honored visitor) and have even been the sort of mother I sometimes see but have rarely actually been — the one who does just about nothing besides care for and entertain children and do housework.  This theme loops around to the “macho creep” and I’ll leave you to pull that thread back through.

Today was perhaps the last great adventure of our summer (ah, but never say ‘last’).  We went into the main South American Company mine in Portovelo, which is downright luxurious — electric lightbulbs every so often, iron rails for ore cars pushed by miners with battery-operated headlamps, and room to stand up a fair amount of the time.  Outside the mine’s dark mouth, an old man poured handfuls of white dynamite chips into newspaper sheets rolled into the shape of dynamite sticks.  Inside, a full ore car, weighing a ton, derailed with a deafening roar just in front of us, provoking laughter (from the miners) and wonder (in us, who wondered what they were going to do about it).  We shot footage of Paige, who at the last minute asked to go along, her argument being that it was wrong to have bought rubber boots that were only going to be used once.  It was downright safe in this mine compared to the Miranda mine we took her in weeks ago, though there’s no such thing as a mine without visible signs of cave ins and electric wires hanging in company with water, water everywhere.  The timbering is often ancient, but could it be worse than the old tree trunks that hold up some of the houses in Zaruma?  The light is beautiful and unearthly and there’s the sound of water dripping down and our footsteps in muddy water.  The dull rumble of an approaching ore car appears as an apparition lit only by the glow of a miner’s headlamp.  The car looms larger and larger and we press against the tunnel wall as it roars past.

After we left the mine, we walked under a baking sun to the old and now empty swimming pool built during the epoca norteamericana as a memorial to a child who died.  As we passed along a dirt street near the river, an adolescent boy stared open-mouthed at Paige and her yellow pony tail, and John, a giant in miner’s boots.   At least the sight of us doesn’t make babies cry, as it did in rural Africa and Thailand.

Adios, everyone, and perhaps, just perhaps, we will write you a post-trip postscript, so that you can see the U.S. for a moment through the eyes of those for whom travel will have made our homeland briefly strange.  I remember that after a year in Argentina, and after indulging in lavish fantasies of stocked supermarket shelves, I was so overwhelmed by the range of choices that I had to leave.  Here I live with my senses fully awake.  It’s half the reason I turned to Buddhism, this joy of being awake.  The other half is the path of compassion, that quest to learn how other beings experience things.  What luck to have been born into a life that allows us to travel.  Just now an indigenous boy came up the hill with a huge bundle of clothes tied on his back, calling out his wares in a gentle voice.  He looked at Marcus and me three times in the dusky, golden light, perhaps to take us in fully, and continued on his way.  Con carino para todos desde Zaruma — beret


John here.  You didn’t think we could REALLY resist writing another installment of War and Peace?  Well, no more promises, although we’re giving this laptop away in five days, so this probably will be the last . . . .

So I’ll tell you about the swallows.   They congregate in the evenings in a single block of the main street downtown, where the road narrows to a point where two pickups can pass each other with a foot clearance on all sides, and the sidewalks retreat under the covered balconies of three-story colonial buildings.   At one end of the block is a wide, sweeping staircase leading to the doors and sheet-metal covered steeple of the main church (quite pretty when you get used to the idea) and at the other end are the stairs leading to, where we techno-heathens worship.  Along the block are the town’s only bank and Western Union, two grocery stores, a seamstress, a liquor store, two shoeshine boys, the local coffee grinder (I don’t believe we’ve raved about the coffee, but we should), a guy who repairs electrical things of all kinds, the bakery where we get our bread and ice cream, and the Cafe Barcelona, run by our delightful neighbor Celia, who at least once a week whips up take-out fried chicken for us to haul home.

I was loitering outside Celia’s place tonight waiting for our dinner when I really took in, for the first time, how many swallows there are in this narrow canyon of town.  They roost at dusk, and over a quarter of an hour I was able to watch and hear them gather.  It soon became a math problem.  Let’s see, forty-five electrical and telephone wires, ranging from 25 to 50 feet long, each with a bird every six inches, plus three street lights with a minimum of 40 birds on each, plus … then my eyes scanned the eaves and window ledges above, and I remembered the surge of anxiety I always felt in algebra class when the word problem I had been sort of understanding suddenly veered into the fourth dimension.   Anyway, a LOT of swallows, all chattering and screeching.  Do not think Capistrano.  Think Hitchcock.  At least until one of those M80-sized pop-bottle rockets goes off.  Then all chattering ceases for exactly two seconds and (I kid you not) a little cloudburst of swallow poop comes raining down.  So I come home with my food, chortling to myself about how Beret and Paige are not the only ones whom the sudden booms of those rockets scare, well —

Speaking of the rockets, I found out that they are homemade by off-hours miners, with the same methods and materials as they use to roll homemade sticks of dynamite outside the mouths of the mines around town: a stack of newspaper carefully rolled into tubes, then packed with either powder or plastic explosive.  Fun!

It’s now two days after writing the above.  Beret and Paige got food poisoned Thursday at a lunch given by the Portovelo branch of a national after-school and special education program, housed in the building that was once the gringo company store.  They are on the mend, though slowly; the bacteria down here are tough little critters.   Marcus and I somehow escaped, though we all ate the same thing.   The lunch event itself was poignant.   Some fifty kids, eating soup out of metal bowls, and then playing in the yard.  There were no books, art supplies, toys or other amusements of any kind in evidence, though the special ed therapy spaces upstairs had some minimal supplies.  We contributed something from a wonderful store of funds donated by folks at my firm and wired down last week.

That afternoon (while the microbes were silently massing for their attack on my unsuspecting wife and child) we visited the little pueblo of Lourdes with our dentist friend Emilio and his family.   On the way up the dirt road there in Emilio’s ancient but honorable Datsun wagon, we came across a burro carrying firewood in two saddlebags in the manner of Grandfather’s films.  The muleteer was of course a friend of Emilio’s, and soon Marcus and Paige were taking turns riding the “pony.”   At the house of Emilio’s father-in-law, they grow their own oranges, grapefruit, bananas (the coastal variety is scorned here the way we look down on those mealy pink supermarket tomatoes), coffee, corn, cacao, and rice.  In the animal department they raise chickens and guinea pigs (a favored traditional food item), as well as various other companion critters.  As the father-in-law observed, “What more do I need?”

Then tonight there was awful news.  The August winds that have been howling through town the past few days knocked over a tree, which fell on Maria Belen, the little girl that Beret helped outfit for school two weeks ago.   Her skull is seriously fractured and she is at this moment in an ambulance on the way to the provincial capital of Machala.  At some point there may be something measured and thoughtful to say about this.  But I can’t summon it just now.

And in general, leaving Zaruma is tougher than I imagined, though I did think it would be hard.  It’s not only that people are asking us to change the reality of their individual lives, and we can’t.  It’s also preparing to cross the enormous gap separating this world and our own.   In one sense, our film project is an effort to connect the two worlds, at least through their links in the past.   But the film may end up as a portrait of the vastness of the gulf between.

Of course, the people most changed are ourselves.  It will be interesting to see how the kids handle traversing the gap, how they historicize this summer, and how we all carry this time forward.   One thing we are sure of is how much we look forward to returning to all of you.  In this place where family and community are so important, we are ready (and Paige is MORE than ready) to come back to our own.  That is, if we are ever released from Customs after we answer the question, “Have you been on a farm or ranch outside during your stay of the United States?”

Hasta pronto!  John

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