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