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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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