The navel of Peru

The Incas worshiped the Andean mountains, and as we traveled onward from Chivay to Cuzco, we could see why. This stretch was probably our longest on the road, but the mountains were endlessly fascinating – snow-capped peaks in vivid colours from ochre to deep charcoal brushing the piercingly blue sky.

The road at Mirador de los Andes

We reached the Mirador le los Andes, the highest point in the road, where a lookout offers stunning views of five volcanic peaks, including El Misti, the mountain looming over Arequipa, and Ampato, the final dramatic resting place of the Ice Maiden. Disembarking at an altitude of 4910 metres (16, 109 feet), we were warned to take things very slowly when we got off the overland truck, lest we pass out from lack of oxygen. The air was bright and cold as we stepped down onto the thin gravel surface, and it felt like we’d suddenly aged thirty years.

An artful rock stack framed by the mountains at Mirador

A small lake of rocks surrounds the lookout, and it’s become a tradition for visitors to build little rock stacks as a prayer to the gods for safe travels. My hubby and I shuffled around and soaked in the remarkable feeling of standing on the roof of the world, and I unexpectedly understood what drives the Mt Everest climbers: the exhilaration of both seeing what your body is capable of and experiencing sights so profound we were speechless.

The peaks of the Andes are a world unto themselves, with llama farms in the middle of nowhere, odd little outposts dotting the wide plateaus, small villages where people still carry on in the old ways, entrepreneurial women selling their beautiful textiles along the roadsides, and pockets of shimmering blue lakes.

It was growing dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Cuzco, and when I asked the driver to stop for a bathroom break, we discovered that our ailing passenger had relapsed and wasn’t able to walk. I spoke to our overall tour leader and as soon as we reached our hotel, the three of us made a beeline to a small hospital, my traveler head resting on my shoulder for the ride, while everyone else checked into their rooms.

Plaza de Armas at night

The hospital immediately ran a battery of tests, and confirmed what I’d suspected: more altitude sickness, which had driven my traveler blood pressure sky high, coupled with a reaction to the antibiotic that the doctor in Chivay had prescribed. She was put on IV to get her pressure back under control, and a different antibiotic. I processed the travel insurance information as our tour leader translated for me with her far more fluent Spanish.

Finally, exhausted, the leader and I got back to the hotel around 10pm. My hubby had arranged to get some take-out chicken from a little place down the street so that I was able to have a light dinner. Our traveler would remain in the hospital for two days while we moved on to the Amazon jungle the next morning (see my June 25 blog post for the details from that part of our adventure). A few other people who were planning on hiking the Inca Trail also elected to remain in Cuzco to spend more time acclimating. When we returned to Cuzco, she had recovered well and was able to continue on the journey, and the rest of us had acclimated to the altitude as well and were feeling pretty chipper. But we had picked up some additional passengers while we were in the Amazon (the tour could be joined at different points and carried on beyond Bolivia, which was the endpoint for my little group), and they had just experienced a steep change in altitude in a single day, from about 600 feet to over 11,000. Several of them were setting out on the challenging Inca Trail hike the next morning.

None of my group from Canada had wanted to do the 4-day hike, so I’d arranged for our own little adventure,  exploring Cuzco and the Sacred Valley for two days, followed by a train ride along the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu and two nights at a hotel in the midst of the Andean Cloud Forest.

Pachacuti, 9th Sapa Inca

Cuzco was the ancient capital of the Incan Empire, considered the navel of its civilization, and it shows. Spanish conquistadores captured the city in the 1500s and literally built on top of what they’d conquered, but although the native peoples assimilated into the Spanish rule they remained unbowed, their skilled artisans subtly adding their own stamp to the churches, incorporating their local delicacies into Christian holidays (guinea pig remains the preferred specialty for Christmas), keeping their Quechua language alive to this day. And in a final irony, every time there was an earthquake the elaborate Spanish buildings would crumble atop their superb-crafted Incan bases.

The Koricancha, where a Spanish convent is built on top of Incan walls

The resulting city, set breathtakingly in the bowl of a ring of peaks, is an amalgamation of old Peru sprinkled with magnificent Spanish architecture, narrow streets spreading upward from the pretty central square.

If you pay attention there are bits of the Incans all over the place, like a sinuous little snake carved high on a wall, to an entire wall with stones set in the shape of a puma, one of the sacred animals of the Incas. It’s believed that the original city was built in the shape of a puma. In this wall there’s also a famous 12-sided stone that everyone goes to see for its remarkably-precise fit among its adjacent stones.

The entire area was considered deeply sacred, and is full of smaller but important sites to visit. Cuzco is definitely a tourist centre, and tours can be booked for all manner of sights and activities. Accommodations abound, from hostels to mid-range to luxurious, and services abound for the independent traveler.

There’s a lively food scene. On our first morning we headed for the legendary Jack’s, famous for its full breakfasts and amazing coffee creations.

The next morning we returned to a place we’d had dinner in the night before, a little place with creaky floors on the top story of a building, where we had the best oatmeal I’ve ever had in my life, rich and sublimely creamy with a perfect amount of cinnamon added; I had planned to go back and ask for the recipe but never did make it, sadly. Chocolate lovers can even take classes in making their own.

Shops abound, many with a spiritual vibe channelling the mystical surroundings – I bought a shaman’s rattle at this little shop down the road from the Incan wall and the 12-sided stone.

In the Gallery above I found a tapestry representing the quipu, the series of knotted strings used for counting, and some believe for language transmission as well. Very few of the precious original quipu survive, so I knew I’d never get my hands on a real one, but my small wall-hanging is good enough for me, a tribute to that remarkable ancient culture.

Entrance to the Cathedral

Touring the Spanish constructions is de rigueur, and gives insight into the blending of the two cultures. In the Cathedral, you can see evidence of the subversive insertion of Incan symbology: every image of the Virgin Mary in her robes is in the shape of the sacred mountain, a painting of the Last Supper features guinea pig on the table, and many of the carved wooden seats have startling finials on the arms in the shape of bare-breasted women. Photography wasn’t allowed in the interior, so you’ll have to go and see all this for yourself 🙂

Cuzco also has an excellent museum to learn more about the Incas and their remarkable civilization.

Stunning Sacsayhuaman

Surrounding the city are a collection of lesser-known but important sacred sights. My favourite was Sacsayhuaman, long stacked walls with massive stone blocks undulating under the deep blue sky and showing the astounding expertise of the Incan builders – they found that making the layers rise and fall within each wall rendered them virtually earthquake-proof.

Fountains at Tambomachay

Tambomachay is believed to have been an ancient palace, and is replete with fountains and baths. It’s set in a lovely valley along a stream lined with olive trees and small shrubs. At the end of the valley, even if you’re not doing the famous hike to Machu Picchu, you can walk for a while in solitary enjoyment along the original trail first laid down by the Incas, who created a vast network of paths for their runners throughout the country, one of which ran far out to the coast at Puerto Inka (see this blog post). People live on the slopes above the site, and women in traditional dress bring colour to the scene.

My opportunity to walk a little of the original Inca trail

At Qenko you descend into the Incan underworld, into a deep cold chamber used for sacrifices. It is a huaca, a natural stone site that was believed by the Incas to have intrinsic sacred qualities.

Quenko

As you might have discerned, we loved Cuzco and could happily have spent at least a week there if we’d had the time. My research had shown reports about a high crime rate, but all of us wandered all over the place and had no incidents, apart from one fellow who left foolishly $700 locked up in his dufflebag in the hotel storage while we spent two days in the Amazon jungle and returned to find it had been stolen. (Note to travelers: always carry your valuables with you.) Cuzco is an intriguing and charming city in a spectacular setting with a large amount of history and culture to explore, so give yourself more than a single day there.

On the day we set out for Aguas Calientes, our package included a tour of the Sacred Valley itself, where the silvery Urubamba River winds among emerald-sided mountains until it reaches Machu Picchu itself.

Looking down on the Sacred Valley

We visited the ancient agricultural site of Pisac, where tall terraces step steeply down a mountainside like a massive stadium. Among their many talents, the Inca civilization also included skilled farmers – each level of the terraces had a different microclimate that would support different types of plants. Modern Peruvians still use these ancient techniques to grow food in what would seem some of the most difficult locations.

The terraces of Pisac

We also spent a delightful hour at the Awana Kancha Cooperative, where sixteen families keep alive the ancient weaving and dying techniques. We learned that the four different camelids of South America – the llama, the alpaca, the vicuna and the guanaco, are all related to the camels we’d seen (and ridden) in Egypt. You can pet and feed some of them, if they’re willing, and learn how dyes are traditionally made from different plants. Women in beautifully coloured clothing demonstrate their remarkable weaving. For visitors to Peru, this place should not be missed.

Llamas come in different colours

Following a steady stream of tour buses, we finally reached Ollantaytambo, well-known as the jumping-off point for the Inca Trail hike, but more significantly as the ceremonial centre of the Incan empire, as well as the royal estate for the emperor Pachacuti, whose golden statue dominates the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco.

Llama escapees on the road
Folloiwing the buses

More steep agricultural terraces rise up a hillside, interspersed with grain storehouses, while at the bottom there are houses, baths and fountains.

This photo gives an idea of the sheer size of Ollantaytambo. Storehouses can be seen in the upper right.

This site was chosen because of a natural feature on the mountainside which the Inca believed was the face of Tunupa, better known as Viracocha, the great creator god who rose from the waters of Lake Titicaca high up in the Andes; we would later see that lake itself and more of Viracocha at the remote ruins of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

The town of Ollantaytambo is charming, with a colourful market and the train station where, after a quick lunch in town, we boarded our window-lined Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes.

For me this was one of our best train rides ever, as we were transported along the winding Urubamba River along the same route that Hiram Bingham followed in 1911 when he searched for the lost city of Vilcabamba, instead making one of the most famous archeological finds in history, the lost citadel of Machu Picchu. With soft pan-pipe music playing over the intercom, through the domed windows we watched the river tumble by over a series of rapids, past thick walls of vegetation and clouds rolling in over distant peaks.

I could picture what it must have been like for Bingham’s expedition hacking through the untouched jungle in search of ancient mysteries (see this photo from his journeys of crossing a rough log bridge over the raging river below the mountain on which Machu Picchu sits, and more, on the Machu Picchu Explorer website, about the book written by his son).

http://www.machupicchuexplorer.com/AMBpix-2.htm

As dusk began to fall, we arrived at the station in Aguas Calientes,

A representative from the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel collected our luggage and we followed her through town to the property, set in 12 acres of cloud forest on the edge of town, where we would spend the next two nights in Andean comfort as we explored Bingham’s legacy for ourselves. Check back in November for what we saw and experienced in one of the world’s most famous places.

Little cracks, little fixes

I fully support all the measures our government has recommended during this pandemic – I wear a reusable mask in all public indoor spaces, wash my hands thoroughly as soon as I get home and stay home as much as I can without going stir-crazy. In fact, everyone in our neighbourhood seems to be doing the same, regularly hanging out in their yards.

I’m extremely grateful to have a back yard to safely spend time in, and I feel for everyone living in apartments or condos these days. We’re even hoping to eat Thanksgiving dinner with my brother on our patio in three weeks if the weather holds out. We may have to bundle up in toasty sweaters and sip hot cocoa to ward off the chill as we eat surrounded by fall colours, but that will be half the fun.

But this sudden press of humanity on a daily basis has its pros and cons. We’ve chatted with our neighbours more this summer than any time in the past, from a safe distance of course. The flip side has been a sometimes disconcerting lack of privacy. My hubby and I have remedied that as much as possible by putting a small privacy garden along our back fence, with trees that should grow in fairly quickly so that it stops feeling like we’re in two fish bowls side by side.

No one’s talked about what to do if you have aggravating neighbours, though – in our case, kids who haven’t been taught to respect boundaries. Over the years I’ve loved the sound of generations of kids playing on the large island we have in our cul-de-sac, but this summer with everyone home most of the time, several neighbours have complained to one family in particular about hockey pucks hitting their parked vehicles, toys left all over the road and on other people’s lawns, and repeated trespassing. Not the worst problem to have (judging by what I’ve been reading online), but after several months it’s gotten pretty tiresome.

Yesterday, before I blew my stack and turned into a complete witch, I decided a better idea would be to take a break. Channeling Sheldon Cooper, first I did a restocking run to our local pharmacy. There’s something satisfying about foraging for all the things that help to make your life more comfortable, even in small ways – a sense of accomplishment, especially now when so much is on hold.

After that, I checked out the new Halloween stock at our Home Sense store, then hit the country roads for some fresh-air R&R.

First purchase was an assortment of pumpkins for our front porch – a vermilion Cinderella, a squat blue pumpkin and a fat white one, and of course a big orange pumpkin for carving next month. A small pumpkin pie also came home with me for an after-dinner treat. To me, pumpkins are the icons of fall – so warm and homey-looking, and so delicious in pies and Pumpkin Spice Lattes!

Next I spent some time at our local botanical garden. It must be a well-kept secret because whenever I’ve visited this year I’ve largely had the place to myself, even though the gardens are extensive and free to visit.

Entrance to the gardens is lined with benches amid lush planters

The peacefulness of soft sun and a light breeze on my face, the chirping of birds in the trees and bees buzzing around the flowers, never fails to help me decompress, and I love taking photos of all the artistic details – the glow of sun through leaves, the sculptural quality of plants as they bend over the water, a butterfly flitting among the bright fall-tinted flowers.

Next time you’re out in nature, lose yourself for a while in admiring the details – of an intricate flower pistil, the undersides of flowers, bees industriously gathering pollen, the juxtaposition of colours and shapes. Several gardeners were pruning and clearing, and one of them chatted pleasantly with me as I strolled by.

Gardens are magical healing places if you take the time to enjoy all their layers, even if you just sit on a bench for a while and close your eyes to steep yourself in the scents and sounds.

As I turned home, I stopped in at my favourite roadside market to buy some fresh fruit and vegetables – it’s always a treat to see what’s filling their baskets and bushels that can be turned into something delectable for our next few meals.

Feeling much better, my hubby and I had a nice, easy meal topped off with freshly-baked pumpkin pie and whipped cream, and we relaxed for the evening. It’s easy to get caught up in the news and pandemic politics, and in trying to manage daily life while things are all cockeyed, so take a break once in a while and do something that restores your equanimity. And since we’re all in this together, be mindful of everyone around you. Kindness and consideration will help smooth a lot of the journey.

All photos by me and all rights reserved.

The Kindling of a Flame

As a kid, I always loved the return to school every September. I missed a lot of my friends who I hadn’t seen all summer. I couldn’t wait to go out shopping for a new outfit for the first day with my mom. I knew that fall colours and Halloween were getting closer. But most of all, I loved the buzz of learning.

I started school a year earlier than most children because my brother, five years older than me, had been going to school for a while and I wanted to go too, pestering my parents enough that they finally gave in and found a private kindergarten run by nuns that was willing to take me on.

By grade one I’d taught myself how to read and was so excited to go to the big school with my brother, who I’d guess wasn’t tickled to have me in tow on the walk to and from. I loved grade one so much that I chattered constantly, until I was reprimanded by my teacher. On the flip side, I was a good reader, and several times during that season the school hauled me around to higher classes to read to them, which I thought was pretty cool but which likely didn’t impress the older kids who had to listen to it.

What I actually remember the most was sometimes going to the factory where my dad was a security guard. I’d do the rounds with him, at night when everything was shut down, and all the machinery, hulking and shadowed, was like an intriguing alien city. Machinery fascinates me to this day.

When I was six we moved to a farm in northern Ontario, where school became a wild adventure. Elementary school took place in a classic little brown one-roomed schoolhouse, heated by a wood stove.

Once paved roads were put in, the school districts were amalgamated and the old schoolhouse torn down – someone bought the property and built a home on it

Autumn was wonderful there, long walks to the school past our friends’ farms, surrounded by gorgeously-coloured trees and goldenrod waving along the roadside, the tang of woodsmoke scenting the cool fall air. I think that’s where I irrevocably fell in love with autumn.

Scenery for walking to school doesn’t get much better than this, still looking much the same as it did when I was a child[ my brother and I used to toboggan down that hlll

There was a crab apple tree flourishing in one corner of the school yard that provided ammunition for friendly wars during recess, and across the road a small hall that the school used for special projects and our annual Christmas ‘play’.

The little old hall still exists, with a fresh coat of paint

Winter presented a challenge, with several feet of snow blanketing the roads from November to April, and temperatures that could drop well below zero. Sometimes our teacher, who lived in a small town about 30 minutes away at the best of times, couldn’t make it to work, typically because ice had knocked out the bridge crossing the river that separated the wider world from our little hamlet, but just as often because we’d had a major snowfall and the roads were impassable from our farmhouses. One of our neighbours had a snowmobile, so sometimes he’d make the rounds picking us all up – I remember huddling in multiple layers of clothing against the extra chill from the wind in my face as we zipped over the snow.

Spring was always welcome, with sugaring season and the first bits of green peeking through the snow, although trips to town for groceries could be dicey with sudden flooding from snow melt. Summers were long and full of wildflowers, whip-poor-wills calling to each other at dusk, and swimming in a local lake.

It was a glorious place to be a child, entwined with nature and wildlife. I missed it desperately when we first moved to southern Ontario when I turned eight, but Halloween saved the day – I was finally old enough to go trick-or-treating without my parents, and we lived in a city where the houses with candy were all next to each other in walkable blocks instead of a quarter-mile apart. There was even a lady who made popcorn balls!

Since then I’ve never stopped learning. Travelling with my hubby, the whole world has become a fascinating classroom. Every culture has had something to teach us, and with each trip we’ve grown both personally and as global citizens. And we’ve had a blast doing it.

My mother-in-law for many years couldn’t understand what the appeal was; as part of the post-war generation, her vision of adult life was to settle down in a big house (with a big mortgage) and fill it with kids. But then she finally came with us to Europe, on a sort of ‘tale-of-two-cities’ adventure to London and Paris.

Houses of Parliament, London England

I still remember the look on her face when we took her to the massive Houses of Parliament overlooking the Thames in London – she was blown away by the age, the history and the incredible architecture. By the time we returned home – after exploring the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, seeing Princess Diana’s gowns at Kensington Palace followed by delectable afternoon tea in the Orangerie, prowling through all the shopping halls of Harrod’s, watching street performers in Covent Garden and eating great home-cooked food in historic pubs, cramming in as much of the Louvre as we could before having afternoon tea in a Paris tea salon, looking at the grim prisoner cells at the Conciergerie and the medieval tapestries at the Cluny Museum, having chocolat chaud Viennoise piled with whipped cream on a blustery day at the Eiffel Tower and chocolate mousse at every bistro we visited, along with a superb cassoulet just down the street from our funky little boutique hotel in the Left Bank – she’d become an utter convert and couldn’t stop talking about the trip for months afterward.

Travel is one of the best educations available, but everything should remain a wonder and a gift to our minds, big or small. Never lose your curiosity and your willingness to invite something new into your brain – it’s what gives richness and stimulation to our lives. Don’t ever let your kindled flame go out.

To celebrate Labour Day this year, even though I’ve retired from full-time work at a local college and this fall have had no need for a new outfit to kick off the academic year (hey, any excuse for going shopping works for me), I cooked something nostalgic for dinner. Memories of food have always been tied to my learning adventures, whether it was trading lunch items in elementary school or sitting down for Sunday roasts on the weekend, dumping our pillowcase full of Halloween candy out on the carpet to sort through in order of desired eating, or having our first Chicken Satay in a little restaurant in the hills of Bali. My mom excelled at making meatloaf, so I tried out this online recipe from Bon Appetit, served with classic fluffy mashed potatoes, basic onion and mushroom gravy and some buttered tender-crisp asparagus. Perfect!