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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 Zaruma.net 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 Zaruma.net, 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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