Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Monday, May 30, 2011

Passing through

            The man who cleans our house is washing the kitchen floor now. He’s scrubbed soapy water over the  boards and now he’s mopping in slow, circular motions. He never says much, but I saw him in the Patria park today, and he grinned at me. He looked different there, somehow. Buenas, I tell him as I’m leaving. He looks up from the wet floor and barely nods. Buenas, he replies. Once I made him a cup of coffee at lunchtime and left it for him on the kitchen table while he wiped down the bathroom sink. Outside, the sun is just starting to go down. It’s one of Quito’s most flattering lights, with the rays that fall between the mountains.

            There is the man who works at the Saborico tienda on the corner; today he is sitting behind the counter, his girlfriend on his lap. Both are on their cell phones. There are the junkies who lean against the graffiti outside and smoke cigarettes. They wear puffy down jackets and have thin faces and stringy hair, and they are talking loud as I pass them. There are the hippies who lay their necklaces on blankets on the sidewalk; there are their macramé necklaces, their silver cuffs set with stones they found in Nicaragua, maybe, or Peru. They sit, cross-legged and barefoot, weaving their thread. Tom Miller, in his book ‘The Panama Hat Trail,’ recounts a conversation with Alejandro, a man he meets in the lively port city of Manta. “Why do they act the way they do?” Alejandro asks the narrator. “Their dirty long hair! Is it really true they’re from the families of the rich?”

            There are the two white-haired men in black suits who stumble, a little drunk, in front of me. The taller one has his arm around his friend’s shoulders, and as I pass them on the sidewalk one says, Buenas Dias, senorita. I walk past a little faster. Buenas, I mumble, knowing that if the guys were younger I wouldn’t say a word. Despite being drunk, age garners respect here. I hear one of them inhale sharply, and then ‘Que bonita,’ he murmurs, slow and clear. The other one cackles, and I want to laugh too. How smooth he managed to sound, and how young.

            Couples stroll past, or women in suits on their lunch breaks, or groups of guys in skinny jeans and black t-shirts and gel in their hair. I catch snippets of conversations: After I dropped her off at school…he paid eighty dollars for that? My friend Sam told me that, during her junior year abroad, she finally started to feel good about her French when she began understanding conversations she heard on the street. Maybe I am learning something, I muse. Here come two women in cardigans carrying canvas bags full of groceries; I asked her what she was going to do, I hear one say as we pass each other.

         There is the man I saw on my way back home from the school this morning. He's still sitting with his wife at the same outdoor table, in front of the Cafe Amazonas. They're still sharing a 40 ounce Pilsener, still smoking cigarettes from the pack of Marb lights on the table between them. They seemed so white, with their light hair and heavy bellies, but as I walk past them now I see that they've gotten sunburned. I wonder whether they've left the cafe all day. They lean back in their chairs without speaking, their eyes concealed by dark glasses, their cigarettes balanced over the ashtray.

        There is the woman I saw on my way to the bus this morning. She is still crouched against the corner of the Banco Central building, still selling nail clippers and combs and tubes of lipstick and lollipops, cigarettes and gum and unrefrigerated bottles of water. She has laid all of these things out in even rows on a blanket. She wears the typical black wraparound skirt of the indigenous, with the white blouse and navy shawl and folded cloth on her head. Around her neck, she's looped dozens of strands of tiny fake-gold beads, and she wears gold studs in her ears. Her wrinkles cut deep lines into her face, puckering her mouth and eyes. She doesn't glance up at me either time I pass.

            At the edge of the Patria Park, the shoe-shiner is shining the newspaper vendor’s shoes. They sit there in their respective seats, the shiner crouched and working efficiently, while they quarrel. A woman is selling sunglasses from a rack that must hold two hundred pairs. A man with slicked back hair in a gray suit eyes me unkindly as we cross the street. We run a little to make plenty of room for the bus, which careens towards us with the names of its many destinations plastered to its windshield. As it passes, I watch the ayudante – the driver’s helper – who stands in the open doorway, clinging to the bar with one hand as he flies past, his blue tie flapping, his mouth open and ready to shout.

   The man in front of me on the path through the Patria staggers along. There’s something wrong with his foot—it’s twisted inwards somehow—so he must lope unevenly, swinging the bad leg. He’s wearing dark green pants and an old brown t-shirt and he uses his arms to propel himself as he walks. In the grass, a man in a camouflaged army uniform sits with a young woman and a small child. The child stands, wobbles, sits back down, then stands again, and each time the man and woman laugh. Lovers tug at each other’s hands, kiss in the grass or against one of the park’s many sculptures, or shove and then embrace each other flirtatiously. Quito’s not Paris, but it’s a city of lovers, especially if you go to the park.

    The artists aren’t here today, the ones that line up their canvases on weekends and sunny days and then lean against their cars and smoke pipes and chat with each other, one eye always on their paintings. Most of the painters aren’t that good, and a few, to me, are brilliant.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Where dimensions mean little

In Tom Miller's non-fiction travelogue, 'The Panama Hat Trail,' the narrator documents his quest through Ecuador in search of the story of the famed Panama hat. Miller begins in Quito, conducting interviews with Panama hat distributors, then buses it across the country, up and down the coast, tracking down the straw beginnings of the hat.

Miller's descriptions of Ecuador are incredible. With travelogues written thirty years ago by privileged white men, I think that, at least for this writer, there will always come a distance, a revealed perspective that doesn't seem quite fair, a use of certain words that doesn't feel quite right. Still, Miller had his finger on the pulse. He's not afraid to tell it like it is, and to tell it beautifully. His writing is never hard, you know? He can blend grief with humor and make a poor place beautiful. Occasionally I wonder whether he's oversimplifying, but I read nearly each page with pleasure, savoring the prose, savoring the way I am transported.

The following passage was taken from Chapter Six of 'The Panama Hat Trail,' wherein the author has been walking all day with a few straw-cutters through tiny towns north of La Libertad. The sun is hot, and they're headed for the fields. The author is eager to see the Panama hat's very first beginnings, in the form of the unharvested straw. As they walk, Domingo, one of the cutters, tells the narrator that they'll reach the plantations soon. Miller writes:

Soon? What does soon mean to someone who walks barefoot three hours to work in the morning and back again at night? For all I knew he went home for lunch too. Soon? Distance and time are two of life's limitations that take on surreal questions in Latin America. Dimensions mean little. Soon? It could mean today, tonight, tomorrow, by next week, or I'm not sure. Soon could be fifteen minutes or fifteen miles. The difference between soon and forever might be negligible. A few minutes later Domingo added: "We're getting closer."

Friday, May 27, 2011

This View

Quito's Museum of Contemporary Art is located in a gorgeous white building above the La Basilica cathedral, near the city's historic center. From the park that surrounds the museum, you can see all of Quito, it feels like: the volcanoes on the horizon, and the way the city stretches so long. The museum itself was once a hospital, and you can tell. There are so many hallways, doorways, little rooms.

The museum's naturally lit interior and bright walls energize the brick foundation and those gleaming floors. The gallery leaves plenty of space between works - actually, I felt like display space was being wasted. Still, really gorgeous, and how nice to escape the city streets for this. The whole place breathes.

From the northern courtyard, La Basilica cathedral is visible. 

Amazing landscaping...



And the painting I loved the most. The artist's name is Daniel Manta Angeles, and the piece is called Constelacn de Rosa. Angeles is one of three Peruvian artists featured at the museum right now; each share an attention to the primal, the organic and the ancestral. 

Lovely, right? With the red wall?

Wish you all were here...Love, Kate


Today is May 24th, Pichincha Battle Day in Ecuador. The streets of Quito were quiet and the clouds didn't dominate...a lovely time. 

Words on Tape

I earned my MFA in writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, a low-residency program in Montpelier. The program requires students to spend twenty days per year on campus. The rest of our coursework included an exchange 'packets' of writing each month with assigned advisors. It was a wonderful system, an exceptional program. When we weren't in Vermont, we'd all get our writing done after work, or in the hours before; we'd squeeze it out on weekends. We'd read books assigned by our advisors or suggested by friends, and then we'd write about them. We'd send our pages off and we'd wait for the letters back, letters that could crush or lift or do both at once. We'd go days without talking about our work with anyone; at those times, I most felt that I was living a dual life. When we came together in Vermont, we'd talk all day about writing and then drink wine in the evenings and talk about it more. An exceptional program, it was.

Most advisors would type out their response letters and email them off, but Philip Graham taped his. He'd speak for an hour, two hours, into a recorder, holding my pages in his hands and making comments. Philip Graham was my third semester advisor. He's also an incredible teacher, an astonishing writer, and a profound person, and today I found the tapes he'd recorded, and I played them.

I started with the third one, because I wanted to know what he'd said about a certain essay I'd submitted to him that fall. But the tape clicked on and his voice filled my rented room, and how like a conversation that tape suddenly felt, and I knew I'd have to listen to all of them. I knew just what he was talking about, though it's been over a year since he recorded the tape. I had forgotten the way his cat comes into the room while he's taping and he talks to her, or the way he makes little asides, giving his opinions on low-fat half-and-half and stiletto shoes in Portugal.

It was like, he'd say something and I'd nod in agreement. Or, you are so right, I would tell him. Or I'd laugh out loud, because he's funny! And when he laughs, you have to, too, because you can't help it. I wouldn't always listen to him, exactly; maybe I'd leave the room to make coffee or to run to the tienda across the street. Still, coming back, it was nice to hear a friend talking to me in there.

Is this wierd to you? A little, maybe? I say, Philip's a friend who knows me as a writer, and I heard his voice today, here in this house in Ecuador. And how I've missed really talking about writing. So thanks for doing the tapes, Philip. They are gifts, every one, and I will treasure them.

You remarked to me, on tape three, that you didn't really understand the term 'travel writing.' You supposed that all writing is travel writing, because everything we read takes us somewhere. So here's to that, Philip, wherever you are. Let's write something today and go somewhere. We've got our lives and we've got our shit, but if we've got the page, then we're free.

A Secret Hideout of Leaves and Mud, by Charles Finn

"But try as I might the current is swift, the years wash by, and the beautiful rainbow-sided fish of my youth slips through my fingers. There is so much we forget. Our memories are all that we own. And I think we are born knowing everything."

-Excerpted from Charles Finn's essay, "A Secret Hideout of Leaves and Mud," published in the most recent Silk Road Review

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Back and forth, the woods.

There is something the same about every forest. This one, this jungle just outside of the tiny town of Mindo, is cool beneath its roof of gray clouds and wide banana-tree leaves. Though I am hearing sounds I’ve never heard—certain birdcalls, or the weight of some tropical leaf brushing the ground—it feels the same, in a way, as it always does. The trees shade the ground; the wind shifts. The cobwebs I pass through without seeing feel just the same way on my skin as they always have, invisible threads I can't fully brush off. These woods are churning; when I stop and stand still and listen, I don't hear a drop of silence, just the rustling, the branches breaking, the leaves on the ground brushing up against each other. God, when I am still, it's just so loud.

In every wood you can hear the lives, if you listen hard. Here, it's the constant shuffle of insects working and branches snapping and saplings growing. I am surrounded. It's the teeny mites that cling to the cuffs of my pants, mites that resemble chewed up leaves or prickly burrs and won't let go. It's the termites I can hear but not see in the dead logs I walk past, and it's the occasional urgent flapping, an unseen squabble in the branches. It's the thud I hear once, a distant and heavy sound like a coconut being chucked down from somewhere high. It's the sense that I'm being watched as I pass through someone's carefully marked-out territory, or step over someone's home.

It’s the palm frond I walk past that is waving. It’s moving steadily back and forth, back and forth, and maybe you'll tell me that it had to be the wind, but no other trees are moving this way. And yet there goes that metronome branch. I stop to stare at it, but I can’t get thick enough into the jungle to see what might be going on. I listen hard. Beneath the constant breaking of branches, crunching of leaves, calling of birds, there is a very faint gnawing, like someone is chewing that branch in zig-zag bites, working steadily to bring it down. A city, this forest, with a different language.

There's pine in the wind here, mixed with the smells of the rain and the dark, wet earth and the rotting trunks of dead trees. I inhale the pine and all the other things and I know that the town awaits: the Saturday shoppers, the restaurant-goers, the shouting candy vendors. But I don't have to go back there yet. The first time I smelled pine, something stayed with me forever, and now it finds me in these woods and takes me home.

Pretty Mindo

Monday, May 23, 2011


A mariposario is a butterfly house; mariposa is butterfly. Both are ubiquitous in beautiful, subtropical Mindo, where I spent the weekend. Mindo is this tiny town two hours southwest of here, set in the jungled mountains. To get from Mindo's teeny center to the mariposario, you walk down a dirt road, through meadows and past little mountains, until you come to this charming place with a hand-painted sign and tour buses parked out front. 

And thanks to Blogger's upgrade - executed not without tears shed and data lost - I can now enlarge my mariposa pictures with ease! May you all enjoy Patagonian Road's new and improved picture quality.


And.....holy *%(*!!!! I noticed this enormous thing, which I can only imagine is somehow the beginnings of a beautiful mariposa, hiding under a leaf, just looking at me. Que miedo!!!! I am terrified of all things wormlike. 

Ahhhhhh! I can't even bear to look at it. 

Taking this picture, in fact, was super difficult, but I did it for you all. 

Love, Kate

Monday, May 16, 2011


Some images from the hike into Guápulo, a tiny community on the other side of Quito's eastern ridge. For all of Quito's crazy, crowded streets and megastores, Guápulo is refreshing and tiny, with hole-in-the-wall bars, a tiny university, cobblestone streets, great graffiti, and a beautiful chapel.

Friday, May 13, 2011

NOT so fun....

Darn you blogger! Hopefully everyone saw the posts I had up, of Quito and environs plus my lovely girl Eloesa (she just finished her Masters coursework!)...because Blogger has erased them! Epic fail!!! Maybe Donigan is right. Can somebody help me figure out how to switch to Wordpress? So far I've downloaded the program, opened the folder, looked at the many, many files in there, and gotten really confused. Help! Help! Cousin William? Donigan himself? I do not belong in the technology generation.

Love, Kate

Monday, May 9, 2011

La Basilica

Some images of Quito's Basilica del Voto Nacional, a huge neo-Gothic church built on the western slope of the city, as you enter the Centro Historico. Built in 1873, this church houses thousands of coffins (!) in a huge crypt beneath the cathedral. I went in and looked at them! No photos of that today, though. Just filtered light, huge pillars, and gorgeous arches. Enjoy!!

(there will always be stuff for sale.)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Tiny Ladies

She's so little and persuasive! I bought things.

More from Otavalo...

Sorry I've been skimping big time on posting pictures. I've decided not to be afraid of the Ecuadorian ladróns that I've so oft heard of, but to share beautiful Ecuador with my beloved following in a more visual way! Otavalo and its environs are amazing...one day I walked to the Lago San Paulo, pictured directly below. What sunshine! What mountains!

Saturday, May 7, 2011


By the time I reach the animal market, it's already winding down, even though it's only eight AM. People are leaving with their purchases and wares, packing the live chickens and guinea pigs into trucks or potato sacks and hauling them away. The vendors got here at five, and I bet most had to wake up by two or three to get down here, down onto this trodden meadow that overlooks Otavalo.

To get to the animal market, I cross this town that's stretched over an Andean floodplain, two hours north of Quito. I walk through the busy central park and down the long cement stairs that lead across the bridge, then over the deep, grassy gully that's littered with trash and criss-crossed with laundry lines. I walk up the hill, past the vendors who have set up their stands against the wall, stands and tables and blankets covered with folded t-shirts, gold beaded necklaces, piles of woven hip-belts and racks of lacy tunics. Loops and loops of rope. I cross the Interamericana, and from where I stand, at the brink of the market, I can see the treeless mountains, the parcels of farmland, the hazy clouds that cling to the tops of the peaks. These are the Andes, I think, and feel suddenly chilled.

What a market. I pass guinea pigs in baskets, climbing on top of one another and sleeping against each other. I peer into buckets of tiny puppies, sleeping bunnies, breathless chicks. One man holds two tiny kittens in his arms; he gazes at the people that pass with no expression on his face as the kittens mew and scramble, trying to escape. A little girl stands with two goats on ropes; an old man, shorter than five feet, for sure, screams that his calf is for sale. Cows, sheep, chickens everywhere, and beyond all of us, the silent peaks, shrouded in fog. In this light, they are glowing.

Here, some men wear their hair as long as the women, and god, they have such beautiful hair. It's thick and silky and hangs in clean braids down past their shoulder blades. They are proud of their hair, I am sure of it. Women stand around chatting in fedoras and long black skirts and white lace blouses embroidered with flowers, bright woven bands wrapped around the length of their braids. The older men, in spotless white pants and blue ponchos and wide-brimmed hats, gaze at the animals with dark eyes. It's one of those times I wish I weren't alone. How my mother would love this market, I think, and how my father would admire these mountains. That meadow, these people: I am awed, and I am sorry, because I want you here with me, too.