Part-time expats find peace of mind in Cañar Province, north of Cuenca; ‘like a piece of heaven in the sky’

Jun 14, 2013 | 0 comments

By Sandy Keenan

Most people aren’t willing to drive more than a few hours to get to a second home in the country.

But Judy Blankenship and Michael Jenkins leave their house in Portland, Oregon, and travel 4,300 miles — a two-day trip that usually involves three flights and one miserable bus ride that takes about five hours but feels more like a week — to a ragged town high in the Andes.

Their house here has no television, no dishwasher and no heat, apart from what is produced by the adobe hearth in the living room. The crazy weather can’t be counted on, the thin air causes all sorts of bodily havoc, they don’t have a car and the few friends willing to make the arduous journey to visit find there is almost nothing to do once they arrive.

Still, Mr. Jenkins, a contractor, and his wife, a photographer and journalist, have been coming here for nearly a quarter-century and have settled into a routine, arriving in January, like exotic migratory birds, and sticking around through June. Even their neighbors in this small town can’t quite figure out why.

So, what keeps them coming back?

Besides the richness of the local Cañari culture, whose traditions and folklore Ms. Blankenship has devoted herself to documenting, there is one of the most spectacular views in the world. The couple’s house is so high up that from their windows they can see clouds rising from the valley below like foamy waves.

“It really is a world unto itself,” said Ms. Blankenship, 72.

When strangers stop them on the street and ask, with genuine interest, what it is exactly they like about living here (something that happens more often than you might think), Mr. Jenkins, 74, answers simply, in his easy Spanish: “It’s like a piece of heaven in the sky.”

Buzz hovers over the couple as if they were actors shooting a movie in a remote location. And it’s not just because Ms. Blankenship recently published an account of their time here, “Our House in the Clouds: Building a Second Life in the Andes of Ecuador.” Or that while others in the community are erecting modern concrete houses, the couple made theirs the way homes were built here for hundreds of years, using earthen construction methods passed down by word of mouth.

“We’re the only outsiders here,” Ms. Blankenship said. “And we like it that way.”

It was her fascination with Andean tribes, when she worked as a human rights educator and photojournalist in Latin America in the 1980s, that brought them here in the first place and inspired this odd second life.

In Portland, they live in a fairly conventional Victorian house and work for a living like anyone else — Mr. Jenkins on small contracting jobs and Ms. Blankenship on freelance editing and writing projects — setting aside enough money to subsidize their time away.
Life in Ecuador is simpler and much less expensive. Their $10,000 budget usually gets them through six months, with enough to spare for a short vacation.

Here, they live in a Bahareque-style home, a timber-frame structure with walls packed full of straw and mud. (It cost them just $75,000 in 2006, including the half-acre of land and the labor and materials.) And they occupy themselves with watching the dynamic sky or the oxen plowing distant fields through their expansive windows.

There are always great smells coming from the kitchen, where Mr. Jenkins cooks and bakes constantly. And evenings find them snuggled by the hearth, listening to opera or Al Green, or watching a movie on a laptop.

Invite them out to dinner, as any decent houseguest should, and they admit there isn’t a decent restaurant anywhere in the vicinity. Soon it emerges that things like real butter and cheese can’t be obtained nearby, either. Such edible luxuries require getting on a bus and traveling to Cuenca, a city of a half-million about 55 miles away.

Ms. Jenkins and Ms. Blankenship make the trip every week or so. He plays chess at the local club there and buys groceries; she meets with museum curators and sees friends for lunch. But they aren’t really here for Ecuador’s urban life.

By day, Mr. Jenkins prefers to work on home improvements. Or he walks into town on errands, stopping to talk to those he meets along the way.

Ms. Blankenship reads and writes, or visits members of the Cañari tribe, who address her affectionately as Judicita.

A spiritual and reserved people, Cañaris follow a social code based on the reciprocity of goods and services. Ms. Blankenship has been their self-appointed (and unpaid) documentarian off and on for 25 years.

In the beginning, she recalled, it wasn’t easy. When she’d try to photograph them or ask to tag along, they would shake their heads no. “I was in a bad spot because there was a long history of mainly North American academics coming here and leaving nothing behind but embarrassment,” she said. “The Cañaris always cooperated with the research, but they complained they had nothing real to show for it, no photographs or books of their own.”

In time, they came to know and trust her. And the couple learned to stomach delicacies like charred guinea pig and shots of Zhumir, the local alcohol. Soon Cañaris were sitting for portraits and sharing family stories.

As Mr. Jenkins said: “Judy has street cred in all the villages. She always follows through and does what she says she’ll do.”

Along the way, they have become godparents to four Cañari children, and Ms. Blankenship has won two Fulbright scholarships and other grants that have allowed them to spend more time in the Andes.

Mr. Jenkins frets that she works too hard, especially now that her photography archive and the audio and written histories she has compiled are about to go on permanent display in a new cultural center here.

But recently, Ms. Blankenship has become more anxious about completing her work and making sure there is some record of this insular tribe’s traditions before they vanish under the pressures of modern life. “The older generation is dying, the ones who know all about the weaving, the songs, the dance, the myths,” she said. “And the younger generation is definitely not carrying these things along.”

Balancing two lives and households thousands of miles apart can be tricky. But it’s refreshing: there’s always something different ahead. The transitions are the most difficult part, Mr. Jenkins said, because once you’re settled, it can be hard to leave.
In Cañar, he said: “I just like getting up and making coffee and looking out the window to see how the day is forming. And going to town, because you never know who you’re going to wind up chatting with.”

Life in Portland is busier and noisier. And more is expected of them, particularly because they have to cram 12 months of work and socializing into half the time, Ms. Blankenship said. “It’s like a merry-go-round, just exhausting. We rarely have an open night or weekend.”

But that’s all right, because Cañar is just around the corner.

After one five-year stretch away, while they were busy replenishing their bank accounts, they flew back for an exhibition of Ms. Blankenship’s photography at a museum in Cuenca.

“As we took the bus over the mountain, my stomach flipped,” she said. “It was like seeing an old lover.”

Credit: The New York Times,; Photo captions: Scene from Cañar and Judy Blankenship and Michael Jenkins; Ecuador map (photo & map credit: New York Times)


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