Final adventures in Peru/Boliva

Imagine a plateau nestled in the tops of the mountains, a lake so high it surpasses the tree line, and a capital city almost as high as the top of the Rocky Mountains.

The final leg of our adventure was also the most challenging: a week fully at high altitude, over 12,000 feet.From Cuzco our tour climbed upward to the Altiplano, the huge plateau stretching from Peru to Argentina. It’s noted for its thin air, but by this time most of us were well-acclimated and able to enjoy the scenery.

Our journey took us along the Ruta del Sol, the Route of the Sun, which wound in and around the mountain peaks, often following the railway line. The skies were an unearthly blue in the thin, clean air.

We passed a surprising array of traditional villages, their women wearing a variety of different hat styles specific to their region.

There were a surprising number of farms managing to grow crops in the increasingly difficult elevations.

While we saw a lot of signs for modern products, the architecture was mainly still adobe brick.

At lunchtime we stopped at La Raya Pass, an intimidating 14, 271 feet high, but you couldn’t beat the view.

At the top there’s a research centre and a small bazaar where the colourful Andean handicrafts are vivid against the deep blue of the sky and the charcoal and amber mountain peaks topped with snow.

From La Raya we travelled across a vast, flat and windy landscape of ochre scrub against brilliant blue skies. It felt almost alien in its remoteness.

Somehow people manage to raise cattle in the rarified air, well above the tree line with little in the way of pasture apart from spiky tufts of tough Andean grass.

As we got closer to our destination for the night, the city of Puno on the edge of Lake Titicaca, which is fed by numerous small rivers, we could see thin ultramarine waterways snaking across the plateau.

By dusk we reached Puno, set spectacularly at one end of the lake.

The next morning we clambered into tuk-tuks for a wild and crazy ride racing through the streets (literally — our drivers were competing with each other) to the harbour.

Hubby and me, getting ready for the mad dash to the harbour

At the harbour we bought food gifts (fresh produce and olive oil) for our hosts — we’d be spending the night in homestays on Amantani Island about two hours away in the middle of Lake Titicaca — and boarded our motorboat for an amazing ride across the highest navigable lake in the world.

The part of the lake closest to Puno is a maze of totora reeds, whose thick stalks provided shelter and a new way of life for ancient people fleeing conquest by the Incas.

The Uros people fled the Incas out into the Lake and built floating islands from the reeds that they’ve lived on for centuries. There is regular traffic between the islands and Puno, and our boat passed a teacher being rowed out to the islands.

The islands float placidly on the relatively still waters in this section of the lake.

The Uros use the reeds for many purposes: as the base for the islands, as homes, food and natural remedies. The reeds can be opened up and are remarkably cool inside — they’re used as compresses for aches and pains.

It’s a remarkable culture that seems to be staying more-or-less untouched, apart from a few motorboats.

Each island holds a complete family, and each has its own style. Our tour included a stop on one family’s island to see how they live. The islands are constructed of layers of reeds running in different directions, and as the top layer dries out, fresh reeds are added to the top. Walking on them is a little spongy, but not wet. Remarkably, they even cook with open fires on their floating patch of ‘land’.

The family gathered together to show us how they make their handicrafts…

They also gave us a little demonstration of how the islands are constructed,

Their quite beautiful handicrafts are for sale, and help provide income.

The Uros culture is an incredible peek into an ancient past, and a world of colour set at the top of the Andes. If you go to Peru and can manage the altitude, it’s not to be missed.

From the Floating Islands we continued on for another hour and a half across the stunning blue waters edged by snow-crusted mountain tops, where we really got a sense of traversing this super-high lake.

At Amantani Island we met our homestay “mothers” and were escorted to our homes for the night.

Amantani truly is a time capsule, although the women who provide their homes must have certain conveniences and be able to speak two languages. Our mother, Rosa, spoke Quechua and Spanish. If you’re thinking of doing this, it will be of great help if you can speak a little Spanish so you can converse with your hostess.

Rosa had added a top floor to her adobe home for bedrooms, which were clean, basic and colourful — just comfortable beds and thick woven blankets to ward against the night chill. There’s no central heating, and the temperature drops precipitously when the sun goes down.

We ate three meals freshly cooked by Rosa and her daughter, Kenia.

The islanders are vegetarians — they keep a communal cow and their own sheep to provide milk for cheese. Our lunch consisted of a delicious vegetable soup, followed by a plate of an assortment of cooked potatoes, with a semi-soft cheese and a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers picked from their garden behind the house.

There was a fully-functioning bathroom with a flush toilet and cool shower. I’d been expecting much more rudimentary facilities, so this was a nice surprise.

After lunch we walked to the central village, which is small but has a school, church and some cafes, which serve as local gathering places.

After a supper of vegetable stew with rice, with more of the vegetable soup to start, each housemother provided traditional clothing for her guests — which we put on atop our regular clothing, as the night was already quite chilly — and led us to the community centre, where they put on a lively dance for us and we got to learn Andean moves. We didn’t keep them up too late, as they lead very busy lives without modern conveniences — but they took a photo of all of us in our finery. It was a really fun evening, after which we went back to our home, changed into thick sweats and crawled in under our blankets to fall deeply asleep.

Yours truly seated in the front left with the dark green skirt (over my hiking pants).

After a breakfast of scrambled eggs and more potatoes, Rosa walked us back to the boat and we continued on to Taquile Island, famous for its beautiful knitwear. While Amantani was fairly flat, Taquile is a big hill, and many of us were stopping regularly to gasp for air as we climbed the long grade up to the town.

Taquile is very dry and scrubby, with lots of succulents and meandering rock walls.

This island has some hydro, but the residents live simply and recycle everything, like this pair of old sandal soles repurposed as gate hinges.

With its rolling scrubby terrain and tall dark green trees set against a deep blue sea, I felt like I’d stepped into Greek mythology, even though we were on the other side of the world.

The town is larger than the one on Amantani, and has a craft cooperative located in the two-tiered building you see below.

The island is world-renowned for the quality of its knitting, which is all done by the men; the women do the weaving for garments. Each pattern has a specific meaning and often incorporates elements from the weaver’s/knitter’s life.

While we didn’t converse much with the villagers, while I sat to eat a sandwich this little girl seem entranced by a game of ‘I’ll roll the bottle cap down the steps and you pick it up and give it back to me’, which she did over and over again.

The island was full of vivid villager life, like these two boys rolling hoops down the steep paths. I took many pictures, too many to show here.

All too soon it was time to board the boat to return to Puno and head to Desaguadero, the somewhat wild frontier-like town that governs the border between Peru and Bolivia on this stretch of road.

It took us quite a while to circumnavigate Lake Titicaca.

We were high enough to pass through areas with snowfall.

Desaguadero is a jumble of shops, thick traffic, the customs house and people waiting to get across the border.

The central square is a bustling hive of tough-looking money-changers and sellers of anything from housewares to ‘fresh’ meat.

Trucks, buses, pedal-carts and people all throng the crossing waiting for their turn.

Once across the border, we headed across the Bolivian Altiplano to the ruins of Tiwanku, which I highlighted in a December post.

From Tiwanaku, across the barren heights where it seems impossible to live, we headed to our final destination for the trip, and our final overnight stop, the capital city of Bolivia and the highest capital in the world, La Paz. It nestles stunningly between a ring of mountain peaks, and sits at roughly 13,000 feet high.

This altitude is not for the faint of heart, and while some tours actually begin here and work their way downwards, I wouldn’t recommend it. Every hotel stocks coca leaf tea in the lobby.

La Paz is a fascinating mixture of old and new, climbing up and down the hills on dusty streets. We were only there overnight and didn’t get to see much, particularly as one of our fellow travellers was ill and we stayed in to take care of her. But we were glad to have been there for a little while, in this city at the top of the Andes.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little escape to South America, particularly during this cold, virus-challenged winter, and I hope I’ve inspired you to visit these amazing places one day. Take your camera and a lot of storage capacity — you’ll need it. If you’ve been there already, I hope I’ve reminded you of some pleasant memories.

Swapping drama for fun

I don’t know about you, but over the past year I feel I’ve had enough drama to last me a lifetime. At this start of a new year, I feel the need for more fun in my life.

Here in Ontario we’re back in Emergency Measures and have just been tasked with staying home again except for essential outings (groceries, etc.), so opportunities for fun are restricted, but “fun” is a mindset anyway.

Your idea of fun may not be the same as mine – my hubby and I have the most fun on our travels when things go wrong, for example, while our friends think we’re nuts and refuse to travel with us ;D

One of my favourite ways to engage in a little planned fun while stuck indoors is escapism through movies, and pairing those movies with a themed meal creates a great atmosphere. Planning these ‘dinner & a movie’ nights gives you something to look forward to.

Your choice of movie to escape into is very personal. I’ve read several articles analyzing why horror movies have been so popular since the start of the pandemic. They’re not my cup of tea, though – I like feel-good and adventure movies at the moment.

The other night I stumbled across a great old movie called North to Alaska (1960) – a ribald, colourful adventure comedy starring John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Fabian and Capucine. My mom and I used to love watching this movie together when I was a teenager, and I still enjoy it.

Plot synopsis: Wayne, Granger and Fabian are three men who’ve gone to Alaska for the Gold Rush and made a rich strike. Claim-jumping is rampant, though, so Granger asks Wayne to go to Seattle to buy some better equipment while he and his younger brother mind the camp, and to also pick up Granger’s long-time French fiancée Jenny to bring her to Alaska so they can finally get married. When Wayne finds Jenny, however, she’s given up on waiting and married someone. Drowning his sorrows on behalf of his friend at a Seattle brothel that evening, Wayne meets Capucine, a lovely and feisty French prostitute named Michelle, and offers her a lot of money to come with him to Alaska to replace Jenny. On the long boat ride to Nome a budding romance develops, although neither will admit it to themselves, and things get even crazier when Capucine joins the men out at their mine. If you’ve never seen it, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out what happens after that!

There’s a fun scene where Wayne takes Capucine to the annual Logger’s Picnic in Seattle before they head to Alaska, and they have a picnic meal with spit-roasted pork and sides that made me instantly want to make my own version. I bought some pulled pork at a local deli, and made my own sides: gluten-free cornbread (using the excellent mix from Bob’s Red Mill), homemade coleslaw, buttered corn and Green Giant buttered Brussels sprouts (which weren’t a picnic feature in the early 1900s, but I just like them). It’s not a meal I typically make, so it was as much fun to put together as it was delicious to consume, and for a little while we were virtually transported to the fresh air of the West Coast at the turn of the previous century, eating simple but great food.

For me there was an added layer of nostalgia, as my dad was a medic at a logging camp when we lived in Northern Ontario while my brother and I were kids – eating our meal, I could almost smell the tall pine trees, wood chips and forest soil.

There are all kinds of movies you could do this evening of escapism with. You could make an Egyptian-themed meal to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark – get takeout if you have a good local Middle Eastern restaurant and at the same time support them during these challenging economic times, or buy some hummus, baba ghanoush and pita bread at the grocery store, and make some quick kofta for an easy meal, or a salad with black olives and fresh orange slices, followed by store-bought date and nut confections. These are exactly the sorts of foods my hubby and I ate when we were in Egypt, so it’s a really authentic meal that instantly smells and tastes of that part of the world. It will also work with Death on the Nile (1978) with the addition of a cup of tea, or with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with its references to the Crusaders and medieval Middle Eastern locales like Alexandretta, not to mention the great final scenes at Petra in Jordan.

If you haven’t had Italian for a while, make some spaghetti and meatballs with tomato sauce from scratch to eat while watching a movie like Moonstruck. There’s something special about homemade tomato sauce, and it’s easy: sauté chopped onions and green peppers in a big pot until soft and a little browned, add some minced garlic, and when the aroma of the garlic begins to rise throw in a can or two of chopped tomatoes (depending on how much you want to make), add crushed chili flakes, and salt and pepper to taste, and let simmer for a while with the lid mostly on (tomato sauce spatters a lot). You can also add some fresh or dried herbs like basil and oregano. Let the sauce cook until the aroma permeates your kitchen and the sauce is thick enough to cling to the spaghetti. You can either make your own meatballs or buy some good ones and bake them in the oven until browned and cooked through, then add them to the sauce and ladle over a nice plate of pasta. Make some garlic bread and a green salad, pour a little red wine, and enjoy!

Getting into the many landscapes of magnificent Africa, one of my favourite escapes is available on Prime Video: Sherlock Holmes: Incident at Victoria Falls. It features the great Christopher Lee as a senior Holmes asked by the king to undertake one final task in southern Africa, with Patrick Macnee as the indefatigable Dr. Watson and a host of other famous characters from the time period, including Claude Akins as a jolly Teddy Roosevelt. The movie is set on location, so for about 3.5 hours you’ll be transported to the sun-drenched scenery of the gorgeous African wild and of Victoria Falls. This is the movie that inspired me to include the Falls on our first African safari (they were even more stunning in person).

Magnificent, stunning Victoria Falls at peak water flow

It’s a two-parter and will pleasurably take up an entire afternoon or evening. Safari food is quite eclectic – we’ve had everything from chicken stew to fresh potato salad to chocolate cake with a red wine sauce – but if you want to make something exotic but easy, BBC Good Food has a great recipe for Bobotie, a classic South African dish. Serve with a green salad, and make a banana dessert to finish it off (bananas grow readily in Africa and are common on safari as they keep well). You can drink tea or coffee, or Rooibos tea if you really want to be authentic.

So take a break from all the drama in the news and make a virtual escape to somewhere more fun, whether it’s an engrossing board game, a hobby you haven’t tried for a while (I love Paint-by-Numbers, even though I also paint freehand), or dinner and a comedy/adventure movie. (If you prefer horror, you can find all kinds of Halloween-themed food to make that would suit such a movie perfectly.)

Next week I’ll take you on a little virtual trip as I fill in the remainder of the trip to Peru and Bolivia, journeying through the Altiplano, the plateau that sits high in the Andes, and a brief glimpse of La Paz, the highest capital city in the world.

Until then, have a little fun in whatever way makes you smile.

Celebrating life

Well, if you’re reading this post you’ve survived 2020, and I deeply hope all of the people you care about have as well. There were parts of the past year during which we may have forgotten to celebrate being alive – parts where we may have felt anxiety, frustration, even pain.

But here we are, on the cusp of what we all hope will be a much better year. I’ve always advocated looking forward, not backward. We can’t change what’s passed, although we can learn from it and enjoy memories of the good times. I believe that, on our journey through life, we should create as many good memories as we can, to balance out the bad memories that come along without our choosing them. We can choose to be a good person, to be our own person, to laugh as much as possible, and to do the right thing.

We can choose to make the best of things instead of the worst, or at least to give it our best shot.

My late mother-in-law travelled with my hubby and I on several occasions, and she used to remark on our capacity to stay calm when things didn’t go according to plan. Part of that ability developed through long experience – something always happens on our trips, and often more than once – but mainly we’ve always tried to make the best of things, because that just feels much better than the down side.

Life is pretty amusing if you’re willing to look at it that way. Case in point, and the reason for the photo for this week’s blog: our first trip together involving flights, the year we got engaged. We flew to visit friends in California, over the Christmas break because I was still in university and that was the only time we could go together.

I was excited about flying on a big plane, but nervous and a little queasy the entire time. The snow storm we had in Ontario the day before our departure hadn’t boosted my confidence either. But four and a half hours later we were landing in LAX on a balmy night, and not long after that our friends pulled into the driveway of their tile-roofed Spanish-style bungalow in Santa Monica.

The next morning the hazy air smelled of the sea and of eucalyptus. I spent the week falling in love with California, from the fresh oranges on the tree in our hosts’ back yard to the famous places like the Santa Monica Pier, Hollywood and Disneyland. My first sight of palm trees, lining the street our friends’ lived on, and of the ocean, crashing in rolling waves onto the wide sand beaches just like it did in all the movies, was absolutely thrilling – this was the first time I’d been outside my home province. We passed swathes of red poinsettia growing wild on hillsides, not confined to little plastic pots.

We had a late New Year’s Eve, and about two hours of sleep before we all got up early to take a bus to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade. I also had a lingering case of strep throat, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see my favourite parade live and in person! I remember waiting impatiently in line on the grounds of Pepperdine University to get on the bus, and climbing up the bleachers lining the parade route with my 35mm camera at the ready. It was chilly at 8am, but the sun was shining and across the street the mountains surrounding the city were lavender in the morning haze.

The parade was wonderful and the floats even more glorious when you’re sitting just a few feet away from them. When the Rose Parade returns in the future, I recommend it for your bucket list.

Since that day it’s become an annual ritual in our home to get up on January 1st, put on the kettle and a bit of breakfast, and watch the year’s beautiful flowered floats in their bright colours wind past the television cameras.

But on that day, by the time the parade finished, our short night and my illness caught up with me on the seemingly interminable bus ride back to Pepperdine; I fell asleep before the bus even left Pasadena and woke up just long enough to get in our hosts’ car to return to their house. Everyone else camped out in the living room to watch the Rose Bowl, but I made a beeline for the bed, stripped down, crawled in, and promptly fell fast asleep.

I remember waking up at one point with the bed shaking, and thinking groggily ‘Oh, we must be having an earthquake’, but falling fast asleep again – which tells you how out of it I was feeling. Until about a minute later when my hubby – then fiancé – burst through the door yelling, “Get up, we’re having an earthquake!!!”, with everyone else close behind him.

The problem was that I hadn’t bothered to put pyjamas on, so while he was urging me to get up I was clutching the sheets up to my chin and trying to point out to him that I couldn’t move until everyone left the room. After some confusion around that, I finally got the opportunity to get dressed without an audience, and joined the crew in the living room.

Looking back, it was a hilarious, if completely anxiety-riddled day. The original quake was 4.6 on the Richter Scale, so nothing serious, but while you’re in the middle of it you have no idea of how it’s going to end. Fed by Hollywood, I was having visions of the earth splitting open and houses falling in.

Some of the aftershocks were worse than the quake. One felt a giant had come along and kicked the house – the whole building just gave a sudden jerk. Others trickled along, evidenced only by the ornaments jiggling slightly on our hosts’ Christmas tree. At a couple of points our hosts ran over to their china cabinet to keep it from toppling over. Another aftershock caught me in the bathroom, with my hubby pounding on the door for me to come out while I tried to explain that I was “in the middle of something at the moment”.

An announcement about the quake was aired right in the middle of the football game, so we had to call home and reassure everyone that we were okay. That would be the first of many such calls over the years.

By dinnertime, after several hours of ongoing aftershocks, my hubby and I were pretty twitchy, so our friends decided to distract us by taking us to Olvera Street, the very first street of what would one day become the sprawling city of Los Angeles. At that time Olvera wasn’t as structured as it is today, but I remember lots of stalls selling colourful decorations and food, and we had our first taste of Mexican cuisine. We had enchiladas that were an explosion of flavour in our mouths, and we craved them intensely for years after we got home because we simply couldn’t get it anywhere around here.

The earthquake spooked us so badly that it took us thirteen years to return to California, but we’ve been there many times since, enjoying the sun, the scents, and the food! We laugh about that first trip a lot; it was a wonderful introduction to travel for me, despite the quake. When I learned that there wouldn’t be an actual Rose Parade this New Year’s Day, I had to run out and get flowers to make our own small homage to the parade and to California – the end result is what you see in the photo. It also celebrates Nature’s artistic mastery, which will be the theme of many of my blogs in 2021 because that’s something we need to preserve.

We hope to get back to California again one day, to Africa again, and to all the other places we still dream about, but in the meantime we will enjoy life to the fullest, even if it’s via small floral celebrations perched on our coffee table. I think that’s a good way to live.