Always moving forward

My hubby and I don’t generally make much fuss about New Year’s Eve. We’ve had some great celebrations over the years, some wacky ones, and quite a few quiet moments at home.

I remember the great Y2K fizzle on NYE 1999, when nothing happened as the computer clocks ticked over to a year ending in three zeros. Quite a few people globally had freaked out over the big changeover, including a friend from high school who, with her hubby, sold their super-successful business and went to live completely off the grid somewhere on a farm. We had our parents over for a special meal with a premium bottle of champagne, which I snagged months ahead of time based on predictions that the world would also run out of the fizzy beverage. Even though none of the doomsday predictions came true, it was a strange feeling to enter both a new century and a new millennium, and we wondered what lay ahead.

There have been highs and lows since then, as there always are. My parents lived through World War II in Europe, and carried the after-effects of that experience through the rest of their lives. Although they talked openly about it, I still can’t even imagine what it must have felt like to watch each new year tick by without resolution for six long years. They were resilient, though, surviving incredible hardships and emigrating to Canada afterwards. They met in a hospital in Windsor, where my dad was a patient under my nurse mom’s care, and went on to build a new life together.

Life always moves onward, and some New Year’s Eves are more cause for celebration than others – today will be one of those. We’ll all be happy to put 2020 to bed.

Inspired by a recipe for making Won Ton Soup from scratch that I stumbled across, I’ll be cooking Asian food for dinner. Our local best option for takeout Chinese food hasn’t been as good during the pandemic, but I’ve got easy recipes to make at home. (I have a vast collection of recipes for all occasions, in cookbooks and gathered from magazines as well as the internet.)

Over the past few months there has been a noticeable rise in food prices, although I was at the grocery store yesterday to pick up a few fresh vegetables and noticed a lot of sales as well to help buyers out. For this meal I’m using up a lot of ingredients we’ve had stocked up for a while instead of splurging on expensive new foods as we would have in other years – 2020 became the year we spent our money more wisely.

Along with many others, we tweaked our home nests to make them nicer places to spend a lot of time in, explored the joys of slow and deep cooking (our niece started making her own sourdough, and I spent a day and a half earlier this month making demi glace from scratch to give rich flavour to a goulash soup my hubby wanted for his December birthday), and found new ways to share quality time with friends and family safely.

As Canadians we hope for a less tumultuous four years of politics in the U.S., and to reconnecting with our American friends and family in person down the road. The entire world has been our home for our entire marriage, and we really miss it.

While we spend the limbo of these winter months waiting for our vaccine and nicer weather to arrive, the Action for Happiness website has a Happier January calendar full of daily actions that you can download and follow.

Tonight we’ll toast to new adventures in coming years, and to all my readers I wish you peace, health and resilience for 2021. To smoother waters ahead!

A holiday wish

We will look back on this holiday season as one that tested us. But we are marvelous human beings who can transcend challenges. This year has shown that to us – dedicated front-line workers, many acts of kindness to counteract the people who can’t think in terms of the greater good, a massive global effort to make vaccines.

This season, be compassionate to yourself and others. According to neuroscientist Daniel Levin, generosity, compassion and gratitude actually change our brains, including those parts that govern our own immune systems.

My entire province is going into lockdown on Boxing Day for several weeks to curb the rising number of Covid cases that are pushing our hospital system to its limits. Today I sent my hubby over to our senior aunt’s with a box full of Christmas food – it’s a safe way to share a bit of the holiday with her and let her know she’s cared for even if we all can’t be together.

Tonight we’ll eat the same food ourselves, watch Disney’s A Christmas Carol, and snuggle in as a big winter storm heads our way tonight. For the next few weeks, we’ll spend our time at home as peacefully and wisely as we can, and we’ll make a point of appreciating what we do have.

I grew up in northern Ontario where storms were always extreme. It didn’t just rain, it came down in torrents so heavy that my dad would often have to pull our car over to the side of the road to wait for the storm to clear. Fogs were similarly dense. Snow was always heavy and could block the roads for days, and keep us trapped inside our farmhouse with our wood stove and wood-burning furnace, but my parents always made sure we were well-stocked with food and essentials. Survival meant making the best of things, and I grew up loving storms for that feeling of hunkering down inside, safe and snug.

For this holiday season, I wish all of you a sense of snuggling in to wait out the pandemic storm.

Be kind to yourself and others, and do simple things of comfort and peace.

Light candles – the real kind, because fire has represented comfort and safety ever since our early days living in caves and we feel its cultural influence even today.

Do something different – eat a different meal, read a new book – to combat cabin fever, and enjoy the traditions that give you a sense of stability.

Give yourself an emotional break – watch shows that make you smile, play games, take walks, let the news run along without you from time to time.

I wish everyone all the serenity and joy you are able to find this year. Remember that this is a season of hope, and of light in the darkness. Keep looking toward the light.

The Price and Gift of Freedom

My hubby remembers his first view of Machu Picchu vividly: coming around a bend in the trail to see the massive citadel in the clouds spread out at our feet. It’s so much bigger than any photo you’ve ever seen of it – about four times as large. Perched on top of the mountain that our society has named it for, you have to walk up and down the narrow, steep and meandering pathways and seek out the quiet places to get a feel for what it must have been like to live there centuries ago, 8000 feet up in the air, long before airplanes, trains, roads or any machinery that might have made its remarkable construction so much easier.

Machu Picchu begins to unfold before your eyes
The Sacred Condor, its wings raised on the left, and the Sacred Puma — you can see the pointed ears and eyes on the face of the mountain on the right – watch protectively over the sanctuary at Machu Picchu

When Hiram Bingham brought it to the eyes of the world, he had to hack his way through thick jungle, crawl across rickety log bridges straddling the turbulent waters of the Urubamba River, and up the mountain until he could see the vine-choked blocks that he recognized as the remains of a great ancient gathering place. He and his animals suffered from altitude sickness.

The train to Aguas Calientes

Today we can take a scenic train along the river, accompanied by atmospheric South American music, to the cool town of Aguas Calientes, now called Machupicchu Pueblo, where we can stay in a range of comfort levels before taking a bus up the crazy road that winds back and forth up the mountain in clouds of dust until we reach the visitor area at the top. Then, having taken advantage of the only bathrooms for the next several hours, we clamber up a dirt and stone block path that leads much more easily to the jewel in Peru’s crown. Archeologists have cleared and rebuilt the citadel for us to explore, and guides explain what all the different parts mean.

Aguas Calientes straddles the river below the Old Mountain, Macnu Picchu

How marvelous it must have been to walk daily among the clouds, surrounded by blue-green peaks with the silvery Urubamba gleaming far below, watched over by the sacred Condor and Puma. If you step away from the crowds and stand at the edge of the peak, where grey-brown lizards scamper along the block walls, you almost feel you can hear the soft padding of feet on the dirt paths as the residents went along their daily duties.

Part of our bedroom at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, set in the cloud forest on the edge of Aguas Calientes
Hairpin turns help the road to the citadel climb the mountain
The road rises through the clouds as it climbs

But visiting Peru, or the many countries around the world that hold adventure, comes with a price: inoculations. In North America we take an awful lot for granted in terms of hygiene and safety, so novice travellers can be startled by the range of vaccines that are necessary to travel abroad. I was fortunate to be working as a pharmacy technician when my hubby and I began our more exotic adventures, so I had the advantage of advance knowledge.

Malaria, once found in swampier regions of our continent, has been eradicated here, but it’s still present in more than 100 countries, and it can be fatal. Clean water is not a fact of life in many countries, so visits to Asia, Africa and South America require vaccinations for Hepatitis A and B, as well as inoculations for Diphtheria, Polio, Typhoid, Pertussis (Whooping Cough) and sometimes Yellow Fever.

My hubby and I, in our travels, have had more vaccines than we can count, I think – some of them need to be renewed every ten years (used to be more frequent, but they’ve improved as science has continued to research and develop better versions). Our first hepatitis shots were given in the bum cheek – luckily our physician was an expert and I hardly felt the poke, although my hubby, as he watched the doctor wind up and jab it in smoothly, was sure I was going to wind up and deck him in response.

Vaccinations have saved countless lives ever since they were first developed. Diseases like tuberculosis, smallpox and whooping cough devastated families before the 20th century. My mother contracted Whooping Cough as a child in Romania and almost died of it herself. She was sent to a clinic on the Black Sea for the salt air, and thankfully it worked, or I wouldn’t be here to chat with you about it.

People do react differently to inoculations, as they do all medicines. Many people are allergic to penicillin, a game-changing antibiotic when it was first discovered. I get a nasty migraine from sulfa drugs. But there are many alternatives available.

In all the years that I’ve had inoculations, the worst I’ve ever felt is some tenderness at the injection site and perhaps a mild flu-like feeling for a couple of days. We’ve taken antimalarial tablets for five different trips and never had an issue. I know some people have felt worse, but being a little under-the-weather for a few days is far, far better than getting the actual disease, and we have always been profoundly grateful to have the freedom to journey to places like the Amazon jungle and the tips of the Andes without fear of getting deathly ill.

Find a quiet path to get away from the crowds at Macnu Picchu and imagine what life was like there hundreds of years ago
Some of the remarkable engineering on the top of the mountain, centuries before machinery
Standing in the brilliant sunlight in front of the Intihuatana, one of the sacred stones at Machu Picchu

Scientists and volunteers have worked tirelessly for months to create several different vaccines for the Coronavirus, and willing front-line workers are trying them out for us as I write this. Don’t turn down this opportunity to not only keep yourself and your loved ones safe, but to keep future generations safe as well.

These new vaccines are using a remarkable new technology. Find out more about it on the Mayo Clinic website. And think back to when a scientist first suggested the wacky notion of injecting people with tiny doses of an actual disease to create an immune response – look how well that turned out. Today we no longer have to worry about diseases like smallpox because someone like Edward Jenner developed a way to prevent them and eventually they were eradicated.

One day in the future we will be able to refer to COVID-19 in the past tense only, as a historical note.

Repacking your holiday boxes

The holidays are going to be really different this year, aren’t they? We’ve all had many years planning to spend them with family and/or friends in some format, whether we necessarily wanted to or not 😉 But this year that grumbly, sometimes overwhelming option isn’t even on the table, and it’s easy to fall into a state of sadness about choices that have been taken away from us.

I’d like to suggest something more uplifting. Gatherings at any time are at their best if they’re about spending quality time with people we care about. They don’t have to be elaborate, or expensive, or perfect. So this is the year to think outside your usual holiday box.

Maybe the best gift you can give someone is to keep them safe. That may mean rethinking what you expect out of the holidays. In Ontario there are quite a few outdoor light displays, so this year instead of meals inside someone’s home, my hubby and I will be getting together with small bubbles of family members to enjoy time together in the fresh air where we can keep a safe distance and appreciate the beautiful lights. The meals will be simplified for tailgating – one of them will include a hearty beef stew kept warm in a hot-air turkey fryer, of all things, with some crusty bread, and chocolate squares for dessert.

Next week the college I worked at is hosting a president’s get-together for everyone who retired this year, via the Zoom platform. It’s not the easiest way to assemble, but it works, and when you consider that ten or fifteen years ago it wouldn’t have been possible, this year it’s great to have that technology so that you can chat and see people’s faces.

I’ve been busy planning lots of meals to add some sparkle to the quiet season that my hubby and I are having in between our two family outings. They’re not elaborate, just yummy.

We have a Sherlock Holmes-themed murder mystery puzzle to exercise our brains on over the holidays when he’s home from work, and I want to write more chapters of my novel. We still have to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and Disney’s gorgeous animated version of A Christmas Carol, as we do every year. He’s seen The Sound of Music so many times, though, that that one is a flat no 😊

On days when I’m not feeling so great, the best remedy I’ve ever found is to do something nice for someone else. Check on a friend – they might be having a bad day too and a chat, or a coffee out of doors (bundled up with layers and a lap blanket), could be great for both of you. Donate groceries to a food bank, or chat with someone in a grocery store. Be kind to others – we’re all having a stressful holiday, no matter where we are

Help someone else to feel better, and you’ll feel better yourself. That may be one of the best forms of self-care.

The days will pass, the world will move on, we’ll all quietly celebrate the end of a crazy year and look forward to a new one that has the words “vaccine” and “heading back toward normal” in it.

Christmas trees & memories

Today was Christmas tree day in my household. We have as big a Fraser Fir as we can fit in our drop-ceiling rec room, and the fresh evergreen scent fills the room.

It’s going to be an awkward holiday this year, for millions of people around the globe, so we must all do the best we can to share the light with each other, through patience and kindness as we buy our groceries and gifts. Early decorating has been trending here in Ontario — I saw some house lights up early in November, and some Christmas trees in windows too.

While we may not be able to share our holiday with many people, for my hubby and I our tree is a lot more than just an annual decoration. On our honeymoon in the U.S. Virgin Islands we came across a blown-glass sea urchin ornament in a shop, and from that day onward we started bring back some memento(s) from each trip for our tree. They may or may not be actual ornaments — anything that we can hang will do. From our trip to New Zealand, on our rocky crossing via ferry from the South Island to the North Island across the Cook Strait I bought a small paperweight in the onboard shop; it has a tiny version of our boat bobbing on blue liquid inside a plastic cube, around which I wrapped a strand of fishing line to knot and loop into a hangar of sorts. The ornament just naturally hangs at a bit of a tilt, which immediately reminds us of crossing the strait in gale force winds and 9-metre swells.

The photo today shows one of my most prized ornaments. It’s a little stone replica of the Sun Gate at the highest ancient city in the world, called Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco, you may see it either way in books). This big ruin is so remote that most travelers will probably never see it, but ever since I first read about the mysterious ancient city I wanted to go there one day, and so the tour of Peru that I chose included a final couple of days crossing the border high in the Andes mountains into Bolivia and stopping at Tiwanaku on the way to our final destination of La Paz.

I’ll return to the rest of the tour, including Machu Picchu, a far more famous but far less enigmatic ruin, in a subsequent blog post. For today, I offer this little escape from the stress of the 2020 holiday season.

Tiwanaku is located a few miles from Lake Titicaca; when it was built it sat right on the shore, but the lake’s waters have receded since then. The high, flat, windswept Altiplano surrounds it, well above the tree line, and looking at the barren landscape you’ll immediately wonder how anyone ever managed to live in such an inhospitable place.

But the ancient builders had many secrets up their sleeve, including an ingenious system of agriculture that consisted of raised beds which lifted the plants off the cold ground and created stopped micro-climates.

The next question would be how they built nine- to ten-foot high walls and statues out of massive stone blocks weighing up to ten tons, with no logs around to roll these blocks from one spot to another.

Mysteries abound at roughly 13,000 feet up in the snow-capped mountains — why this location, where did the stone come from, how was it cut so precisely?

Tiwanaku began to attract attention after a Spanish conquistador named Pedro de Cieza de Leon found his way to it in 1549. To this day no one knows who built it, but when de Leon asked the locals if the ruins had been built in the time of the Incas, they “laughed at the question…that they were built before they reigned, but that they could not state or affirm who built them.”

Archeological excavations began in the 1900s, and continues to this day. Funding and the conditions at the high altitude have kept progress slow, and it’s currently estimated that less than one-quarter of the ancient citadel has been revealed so far.

One of the mysteries remains how old the place is — suggestions range from about 1,500 to thousands of years. An Austrian naval engineer named Arthur Posnansky, working on the site in the early 1900s, used astronomical measurements to determine that the main temple, the Kalasasaya, on a raised mound and surrounded by a great stone-block wall, would have last been aligned with the Sun at about 15,000 years B.C.

In the middle of the temple, barely excavated, sits the massive Gateway of the Sun.

On one side the capstone is carved with a central figure of Viracocha, the South American creator god, surrounded by numerous carvings, one of which is an animal that no longer walks our planet.

To me it looks like some kind of raptor with a horn protruding above its hooked beak, but apparently in the 1930s biologists identified it as a toxodont, a creature that hasn’t existed since the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago. That would mean the Tiwanaku people predated the Incas by thousands of years, with building techniques arguably just as advanced.

The site is littered with a variety of oddly-carved stone blocks with precision cuts. There are even more of them at Puma Punku nearby; if you’re a fan of the show Ancient Aliens you’ll likely have seen theories that Puma Punku was an alien landing site.

One of the strangest parts of Tiwanku, to me at least, is the ‘subterranean temple’, just beyond the Kalasasaya, sunken into the ground and lined with a stone wall studded with dozens of stone heads. It’s quite eerie to walk around.

The entire site feels very mysterious, out in the middle of nowhere high enough to touch the clouds. Rain clouds were looming overhead when we arrived, and by the time we made the longish walk to the Akapana, the stepped temple you first arrive at, we had only a few minutes with a guide with poor English before the skies let loose.

Everyone ran back to the visitor centre to have lunch, and I’m not sure the rest of our tour had gotten any idea of the importance of what they’d had the rare opportunity to see.

Then the sun came out and I asked if I could take another look. Our tour guide gave me twenty minutes, so I legged it back (my hubby’s knees were bothering him and he decided to remain near the bus to make sure it didn’t leave without me) and hiked along the long stone wall of the Kalasasaya, closely followed by a yellow bird that accompanied me the entire way — perhaps I picked up a spirit guide for a short time.

I was the only person in our group to see the sunken temple, and it was worth the frantic hike to get there. I wish we’d had more time to spend there, but at least I got a short look at what may be the oldest temple in South America, way up in the rarefied air of the Andes on the roof of the world.

We have ornaments from a lot of places, but this one, which I bought at a string of little open-air shops spreading out along the small town that tourism built just outside the archeological site, is always hung close to where I sit on the rec room sofa in the evenings so that I can see it every day. It’s a very special memory for me, from one of those places that rise out of the mists of time to haunt us today.