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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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Posted by John on

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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