Fall – a feast for the senses

View from the terrace of Montgomery Place historic estate along the Hudson River, NY - photo by E. Jurus
View from the terrace of Montgomery Place historic estate along the Hudson River, NY – photo by E. Jurus

Everyone has their favourite season, and you could drum up a lively debate about which one is best. For some people autumn represents only the impending return of winter, but to me it’s the most sensual season — if you take the time to appreciate it.

Forget the equinox date — to me autumn begins when kids return to school at the beginning of September, just as winter feels like it really begins at the beginning of December.

I loved starting school again each year, but it wasn’t just the return to classes and the schoolroom — it was picking out a new dress for the first day of school, buying new school supplies (I’ve always loved the smell of new notebook paper!), walking to school as the leaves began to drift down until every step became crunchy, the screech of blue jays on chilly mornings, eating a hot bowl of oatmeal with cream and lots of brown sugar, the scent of grapes growing in neighbours’ yards, Thanksgiving turkey with stuffing, and the building excitement as Halloween approached.

For a couple of years my family lived on a farm in northern Ontario, where autumn is extravagantly beautiful — great swathes of colour lining the winding dirt road that we walked to and from school, the tang of wood smoke in the crisp clear air, gold-tinged fields rolling away under a bright blue sky… Moving down to southern Ontario brought a gentler season but better opportunities for trick-or-treating in a more urban area. How I missed the wonderful autumns of the north, though!

I’ve taken my hubby Mike up to northern Ontario a couple of times over the years so that he could experience a bit of what I loved so much. Autumn has become our favourite time to travel almost anywhere (except parts of Africa) — to enjoy the milder weather and fewer crowds, to enjoy the outdoors, and quite a few times to enjoy Halloween events.

The first time we went to England was in early November, and we had a fantastic time. We bundled up in trench coats and toasty sweaters, had tea in cozy pubs by the fire. We visited Stonehenge on a cool, cloudy day, but besides us there were perhaps only about a half-dozen other people about. All the cities and towns had Christmas decorations out, so we had great fun in Oxford buying little university sweatshirts as gifts for all our tiny nieces and nephews. I remember driving down a country road to Bath in the dusk and watching autumn mist creep down the hillsides — if a Druid had come floating through the trees collecting mistletoe I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.

October in Paris is equally enticing. We had a chilly day on the Eiffel Tower, which gave us the perfect excuse to visit the café on the second level for a thick, dreamy Chocolat Chaud Viennois (rich hot chocolate with a generous helping of whipped cream on top).

Autumn is the perfect time for a road trip. One of our favourite places to go is the Hudson River Valley in New York State. There are magnificent old estates dotted along the river, lots of great hikes, delightful small towns to poke around, plenty of history, an abundance of farmer’s markets with fabulous artisanal food (can’t give you names, just stop in at any market you come across), and best of all for all Halloween buffs, this is Washington Irving country. The denizens of the Valley make the most of the whole Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle atmosphere — in fact, there’s a real town called Sleepy Hollow where you can walk across the Headless Horseman bridge and visit Irving’s grave in the very old cemetery (which you can catch glimpses of in the new TV series that just debuted this week). Irving based his tale of the Headless Horseman on a genuine old legend, and believe me, if you wander up into the Catskill Mountains you’ll get some eerie shivers when the wind moans through the forests. There are a ton of Halloween-themed things to do, including the Headless Horseman haunted farm, which is the top-rated haunted attraction in the U.S. and an absolute blast!

In our increasing urbanization, people are missing out on many of the sights and sounds of autumn. It’s not a season to be depressed about — it’s a season to celebrate as Nature puts on her finest show, but you may have to go looking for the best stuff. Go hike in the woods and breathe deeply of fallen leaves. Visit a fall fair and buy some good home-made sausages and apple butter to take home for dinner. Have a picnic on a plaid blanket spread out on the leaf-strewn grass, with a thermos of tea, some sumptuous sandwiches and crumbly pumpkin squares for dessert. Line your porch with pumpkins of all shapes and sizes, then enjoy chocolate eyeballs and some cheesy old sci-fi movies for Halloween. Life is too short not to make the most of this most glorious season.

Challenges and a glass half-full

View from the train to Aguas Calientes, Peru - photo by E. Jurus 2012
View from the train to Aguas Calientes, Peru – photo by E. Jurus 2012

Back from a short hiatus! I’m just getting over a flare-up of my fibromyalgia. I’ve had it for about 8 years, and usually I manage pretty well, but when I push myself too hard for an extended period of time, I pay for it afterwards — this time for a couple of weeks.

For anyone who’s not very familiar with this condition, it’s what’s often referred to as an ‘invisible disability’: you can’t tell just by looking at someone that there’s something the matter with them. When it’s at its worst, every muscle in my body hurts, from head to toe, and I feel like I’ve come down with a bad virus. Most days, I just get tired by the end of the day, but the biggest challenge for me is to try and keep fit. If I don’t exercise, my muscles lose all their tone very quickly, but if I exercise too much (where even an extra five minutes could push me over the edge) I end up feeling so achy later that I can’t do anything other than huddle on the couch with a cup of tea.

For some reason I can be much more active on a trip, but the most frightening thing that ever happened to me as a result of my condition also happened while travelling. Several years ago we spent a few days on the island of Mauritius at a very nice beach resort called Legends, on the northern shore of the island. The beach had quite a steep drop a few yards from shore, which I knew, but what I didn’t realize was that the drop curved inward instead of running in a straight line. I’ve never been a really strong swimmer, but strong enough to pass swimming tests when I was a kid, so I never worried particularly about drowning. This time, though, I was bobbing along through the water parallel to the shore when I suddenly found myself in water way over my head. I tried to return just a yard or so to where my feet could touch the sand, and it was a struggle — my muscles just weren’t giving me much movement, to the point where I had to fight not to panic. After what seemed like an eternity I was finally able to reach solid ground, but that short journey had been touch-and-go. I stayed well close to shore after that, having been made terrifyingly aware of how much strength I’d lost because of this strange ailment.

And yet, I’m very lucky. If I take good care of myself I can live a fairly normal life. I can still do many of the things I love — travelling, dancing, golf (okay, that’s really a love-hate relationship, depending on the day). I look at someone in a wheelchair and think, ‘There, but for the grace of God…’

Last fall I was able to hike around the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu for three hours and enjoy every minute of it. I wasn’t in the running to do the strenuous 4-day hike up the Inca Trail, but that was okay because we thoroughly enjoyed the atmospheric train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes through the Urubamba Valley, winding along the same route that Hiram Bingham hiked just over 100 years ago when he became the official ‘discoverer’ of the Lost City of the Incas. As our train snaked along the river bank, through lush cloud forest, we watched the clouds come in over the towering mountain peaks on either side in the darkening sky.

The next morning, from Aguas Calientes we took a death-defying bus ride (well, not really death-defying, but not for the faint-of-heart) along a narrow dirt road that climbed up to the citadel in tight dusty switchbacks clinging to the edge of the steep mountainside. At the top, in the crystal-clear morning air, we hiked through more cloud forest until we rounded a piece of the mountain and saw the entire city laid out before us, rising and falling across the mountain peak. Machu Picchu is fascinating, but what’s even more awe-inspiring is the setting. You stand on a dirt path amid the stone houses and look down several thousand feet to the Urubamba River undulating far below, with nary a fence to keep an unwary walker from falling over, but all around you there are deep blue-green mountains that swim among the clouds, and ancient sacred animals like the puma and the condor imprisoned in the towering stones.

The view looking out from Machu Picchu
The view looking out from Machu Picchu

Life throws us a lot of curves, so it’s important to celebrate what we can do and live life to the fullest as long as we’re able.

I’d love to hike to Everest Base Camp, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to. Nevertheless, I’ve stood among the clouds in South America. I’ve had a spider monkey sit on my head, I’ve looked at wild orchids so small you need a magnifying glass to see them clearly, I’ve ridden on a reed boat at the roof of the world. There’s still plenty to enjoy.

My prescription for jet lag

Early-morning landing at Heathrow
Early-morning landing at Heathrow

A new article on the BBC website, ‘Molecular basis’ for jet lag found, caught my eye today: researchers believe they’ve finally found the mechanism in our bodies that triggers jet lag in some people when we cross numerous time zones. There’s a protein they’ve called SIK1 which prevents us from responding to light cues in a new location, stalling our ability to adjust our body’s internal clock to the new time zone.

Why would such a protein exist in the first place, if it’s detrimental in our modern jet-set world? Researchers speculate that it was originally designed, genetically speaking, to keep our internal clocks from being reset in error, by things like moonlight.

Studies like this are worthwhile if they either offer insight into a possible treatment, or a route for prevention. Another article on BBC mentioned a study on insomnia that deduced that, among other things, insomniacs’ brains function differently during the day than those who have sleep — no duh!

The medical community responded to the jet lag study in a typical way to the results of this study: “it is a very drugable target and I would suspect there are lots of potential  drugs already developed”.

Why is it that Western medicine immediately wants to give us a pill? Because it’s an easy fix for them, and most humans tend to like easy fixes, so that makes it a ‘win-win’ for both sides, theoretically. But putting a lot of artificially-created substances in our bodies catches up with us eventually, so we need to think twice about what we’re willing to take.

Don’t get me wrong — there are many medications that save our lives. I worked as a pharmacy assistant for many years and have seen firsthand the value of quite a few prescription drugs. I’ve also seen medications that are over-prescribed either because the doctor has been lazy or the patient demanding, medications that have been abused because the physician wasn’t being diligent, and a growing number of new medications that have such a complex artificial production process that they cause an increasing amount of strange side effects.

Western medicine has a history of treating symptoms instead of looking for the underlying cause. I suffered from chronic migraines when I was in my 30s, to the point where I was getting them every single day. I saw every conceivable type of doctor — neurologists, occupational physicians, allergists… After several years of going through this route with no success, I was frustrated and depressed. In the midst of this, Mike and I went on a 15th-anniversary trip to Southeast Asia. We spent 3 weeks in very hot, humid weather — in Thailand, we had to wash our clothes every day — and by the time we got to Singapore Mike’s tooth abscess had flared up out of control and I had a fever. Singapore was our last good ‘medical outpost’, so we made a beeline for a doctor there. Dr. Lee was a delightful man who teased my hubby for not having had a root canal done sooner, but he gave him a specific antibiotic that cleared up the infection for the balance of the trip.

My fever luckily turned out to be nothing more than the result of a cold from going between sweltering heat outside and air-conditioning inside, but in the process Dr. Lee discovered my chronic migraine problem and asked if I’d ever tried Gingko. At that time this simple plant-based remedy wasn’t available at all back home, but in Asia it had been in use for over 20 years on prescription to treat all types of circulation-related problems, from strokes to migraines, with no side effects. He gave me 30 of them to try out, which I did after we returned home, and they worked! Unfortunately I couldn’t get such a pure source here for many years afterwards.

In the meantime, though, after having some mild improvement with homeopathic treatments, I bought a book on how to do an Elimination Diet. I’d very carefully eliminated all the standard migraine triggers that every resource listed, so I reasoned that I had to be eating something so common that I didn’t even think twice about it. All the doctors told me to keep a food diary, but that’s such an imprecise way to find out what a trigger is — in even a basic meal, you might consume 20+ different ingredients!

The elimination diet took 28 days, and it wasn’t an easy process to go through, but the results were more than worth it: my biggest triggers were wheat (which I was eating multiple times every day), flax (so much for the 12-grain cereals that were supposed to be good for me) and food additives. After over 1,000 days straight of throbbing migraines, the first day that I didn’t have one felt like a miracle! I was eventually able to cut back the migraines by about 60%, substantially reduce the number of strong medications I’d had to take, and return to work.

So, back to the jet lag. I’ll tell you right off the bat that Mike and I don’t get jet lag — ever. Neither have the friends and family we’ve taken on trips with us. How do we manage it? We immediately immerse ourselves in the new time zone and don’t look back — literally. It’s a mindset: you set your watch to the new time zone, and once you arrive you behave as the new time dictates — you don’t have a nap as soon as you land, you DON’T try and figure out what time it is back home.

This works really well with night flights — get as much sleep as possible on the flight (I use long-acting dimenhydrinate that helps prevent airsickness and makes me drowsy enough to nod off, but if that doesn’t work for you, you might try an all-natural herbal product I really like called Relax & Sleep by Jamieson), have the breakfast they serve on the plane, ditch your luggage at your hotel and go out exploring all day. By the end of the first day you’re ready for a good night’s sleep, and you wake up the next morning refreshed and acclimatized.

Good luck, fellow travellers — let me know how you make out!