One step forward, two steps back: the dance of progress

This month the world celebrated International Women’s Day. This is an interesting event for me because it shouldn’t need to exist. It shouldn’t require a special occasion to recognize the contributions of women.

When I was in university studying biology I spent a couple of summers working for different sectors of the government. There were an assortment of female and male students, and most of them were great to work with, but I still remember one fellow in particular who declared that he would never work for a female boss. I can still picture him spitting out those angry words.

Women’s rights have come a long way in my lifetime, but I still see so much divisiveness.

We consider ourselves modern, at the pinnacle of human achievement in recorded history, yet we continue to devalue people who are different, whether it’s another gender, skin colour, religious belief, or any other number of other characteristics that diverge from our own. Every creature on this earth has a place, whether it’s human or non-human, and deserves to be able to live in peace and harmony.

One of the things that my hubby and I have learned on our travels is that people all over the world are the same as us: they live, love, laugh, cry, feel pain. They want the same things – to be able to provide and care for their loved ones, and to be treated with dignity. They may choose to live their lives differently than we do, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We need to get over our fears and embrace other styles and viewpoints; there’s often a lot we can learn.

We’ve encountered remarkable people wherever we’ve gone. One of my favourite stories involving women comes out of Kenya, the first African country to start offering commercial safaris.

Kenya is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It’s also highly developed, meaning that the game reserves you visit on safari are in pockets separated by long roads edged with civilization. The main roads are in decent shape, but once off of those your driver spends their time playing dodge ball with numerous, sizeable potholes. It’s impossible to drive in a straight line on the country roads, and vehicles constantly zigzag back and forth across lanes to avoid the biggest ruts.

We were amused by the experience – until our guide couldn’t avoid one gigantic hole on the road to the Masai Mara Reserve. With a big bounce and a loud bang, the left rear tire of the van was shredded.

So there we were, a guide and six passengers, stuck in the middle of nowhere, just miles of lion country and the odd tiny Maasai village. We all clambered out of the van and watched in the dry-season heat as my hubby and the guide removed the damaged tire and tried to put on the spare.

When the old tire was off, they discovered that it wasn’t actually the road that damaged the tire – when leaf springs meet pitted asphalt, they don’t come out of it well. Our leaf spring had been dislodged and bent, so it wasn’t just a matter of changing the tire. They struggled for a while but the vehicle’s jack wasn’t able to lift the van high enough to get at the spring.

By that point, we’d begun attracting a lot of attention from the nearby village. Quite a few people came over to us with various things they thought might help, from crowbars to odd pieces of wood and metal.

Nothing worked, though, until the village’s matriarch brought out an old exhaust pipe, slowly walking over with her wonderfully wise face. Like all great matriarchs, her wisdom and experience saved the day. I took this photo of her after a few of us got back into the van briefly to get out of the blazing afternoon sun.    

My hubby was able to use a couple of rocks and smash the leaf spring back into its accustomed spot, and the spare tire was bolted into place. We only managed to limp about a mile down the road, though, before the jury-rigged system gave out, and our guide had to radio ahead to our lodge for rescue.

For a different kind of adventure, I recently stumbled upon a great movie called Maiden, the true story of Tracy Edwards, who at the age of 24 took on the male-dominated sport of yacht racing by putting together the first all-female crew in the famous Whitbread Round-the-World Race.

Many influences shaped Tracy’s determination to take on the challenge, not least the early death of her father and her mother’s remarriage to an abusive man.

Tracy ran away while still a teenager and began working as a cook on a charter boat, still trying to work through the emotional baggage. She fell in love with sailing and after a lot of cajoling was able to sign on as cook on one of the yachts participating in the 1985 world race, but even after sweating the more than 25,000 miles of rough open water with the all-male crew, she never felt truly accepted by them, and became resolved to enter an all-female crew.

Through reminiscences by Tracy and all the young women who signed on, and actual footage from the time, the movie documents Tracy’s ads for a crew, the derision she received, and the exhausting quest for a sponsor when no one was willing to take a risk on a crew with no men. She did eventually find a single sponsor – and I won’t spoil things by telling you who it turned out to be – and she and her fellow adventurers spent a year repairing a used boat.

By the day of the 1989 race departure, the crew of the boat now named “Maiden” had been thoroughly trashed by the media and some of the male crew on other boats, a variety of whom were also interviewed throughout the film. No-one beside Tracy and her crew believed they would even finish the first leg of the race from Southampton England to Uruguay. All the men expected them to give up partway and turn tail back to England.

I’ll let you discover what happened as the ladies of the Maiden battled calm spells, raging seas, cold so severe that snow often coated the deck of the boat, and endless days of non-stop rigging and navigation. I will only say here that those remarkable women made history in a way they never expected.

The movie has streamed on several stations lately, and hopefully one of the services like Netflix or Prime Video will pick it up. If you can catch it, you won’t regret watching this testament to what people are capable of when they strive to achieve something bigger than themselves.

Frosty wonderland

A little armchair travel for those of you who may have never had the opportunity to see this: Niagara Falls, partially frozen into spectacular blue-tinged stalactites amidst cold blue tumbles of water raising billows of white mist.

The Niagara River doesn’t always freeze — in fact, it has never completely frozen over, but it came extremely close in 1848 when an ice jam blocked up the falls, except for a few trickles, for almost two days.

In 1912 the American Falls froze solid, which must have been an amazing sight. This year, they look like a scene out of Nordic mythology.

Our Canadian Falls are still flowing freely, except for rivulets through the rock layers that have frozen on their downward drop.

Between the two Falls, more gigantic blue icicles dot the rock layers. The Falls formed when the last ice sheet retreated 10,000 years ago, but the resulting gorge had a harder top layer of limestone and dolomite over softer shale, and you can see flows of water that have worked their way through only to be petrified before they finished their journey.

Just below the Canadian Falls, chunks of ice have piled on exposed brown rock to look like sugar crystals sprinkled on chocolate chunks.

As the river continues on its way below the Falls toward Lake Erie, this winter it’s a cold steely-blue band on which we were surprised to see someone out on a boat.

Our closest groundhog has predicted an early Spring, but in the meantime we’ve been treated to a beautiful winter wonderland that’s become rare as our globe heats up. I don’t know when we’ll see it again.

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.

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.

Pandemic-style fall mini-adventure – it can be done!

Well, my day started off with a bang today.

The keyboard on my laptop, which was perfectly fine when I shut things down last night, decided it wasn’t going to work today. After much cursing followed by research, I believe it may be fixable, but in the meantime I spent half my day running around to buy a new laptop with an SSD drive that was on sale at Best Buy (since the one I’ve been using is about 4.5 years old and nearing the typical lifespan of its HDD drive, and I also have a 40-minute tea talk to do via Zoom next week which I hope the upgraded equipment will make smoother), and a small wireless keyboard that I hooked up to the old one so I could type this blog without using the slow onscreen keyboard.

So, a few dollars poorer now, I’m a little less aggravated sitting on the couch typing this post. (Wish me luck setting up the new one tomorrow and transferring all the files.)

Hubby and I were very fortunate to be able to take a little vacation break last week. We decided to head to eastern Ontario for the fall colours and some Halloween-themed events. As you might expect, a lot of autumn events have been cancelled this year, but I found a few that were still running. Here’s how the planning went:

  • Checking lodging websites throughout the summer. It was challenging to find accommodations for a week – evidently a lot of Ontarians were travelling within our own ‘backyard’ in order to stay safe. We ended up booking basic rooms at the lodge associated with the golf course we wanted to play a round or two at – sadly all the rooms with fireplaces were booked up, but the basic rooms looked nice enough in photos and frankly we were delighted enough to be able to get away from the house for a few days.
  • Recurring checks on activities from August to September. They seemed to be pretty variable, depending on how the prevailing health wind was blowing. Some places opened in June/July and then closed up again within a few weeks. (I imagine there must have been cost-benefit issues with staffing, maintenance, etc.)

In September I was thrilled to see confirmed October dates for three activities we really wanted to do : Pumpkinferno at Upper Canada Village, Fort Fright at Fort Henry in Kingston, and a 1000 Islands cruise, although we did get a subsequent email from the cruise line that our original choice of date had been cancelled and we needed to pick a different date. We’d kept our itinerary really flexible around the blustery fall weather and any surprises, so it was a minor inconvenience. I did happy dances on the day I secured online tickets.

  • Several hours over the summer researching how many restaurants were still open and offering something gluten-free. A few places that we wouldn’t have minded trying out seemed to have shut their doors due to the pandemic, and others had very limited menus, so I needed to know just how often we might have to forage for meals in local grocery stores.

Here’s how it turned out. On the Saturday morning we threw our luggage into the vehicle and hit the road. We stopped in at a great gluten-free bakery in Oakville called Kelly’s to pick up an assortment of muffins for in-room breakfasts and a tray of their fabulous pumpkin scones for the picnic lunch we’d be having enroute to our final destination. It was a beautiful fall day, a mix of sun and clouds with a cool breeze coming off Lake Ontario.

Our picnic spread
The scones, with a vegan spiced maple frosting

We hurried past Toronto, which always has heavy traffic, then got off onto a more rural road through an assortment of pretty small towns dating back to the 1800s that we’d never explored before. On the outskirts of Port Hope we found a picnic area overlooking the lake and a walking trail, and spread out a plaid blanket on which we laid our lunch fare – a thermos of hot tea, scrambled egg + cheese + bacon sandwiches on gluten-free buns, and the pumpkin scones that had been calling my name for the previous two hours.

A view of Lake Ontario from the walking trail

After a good lunch and leg-stretch along a bit of the trail, we resumed travels with hardly anyone else on the road besides us – one upside to the pandemic, at least. We reached our lodging at dusk, checked in and settled into our riverview room on a hillside, and walked down to the main building for dinner.

Checking into the lodge

Glen House was obviously designed for groups of male golf buddies – our room was essentially a small cabin with a door in back off the parking area and a front door stepping out onto a balcony and a view across a lawn to the riverfront the lodge property sits on the edge of.

Rear entrance to our cabin-style room
Our sleeping & seating area
View from our balcony

There was a small kitchenette with sink, mini-fridge and coffee/tea maker, a nice-enough bathroom with a walk-in shower and a vanity that could have been a bit larger for my taste, and a small flat-screen TV with just a handful of stations. Our seating area/bedroom held two queen-sized beds, and there was a separate bedroom with another two beds. The love-seat in the seating area was actually a fold-out bed, which explained the odd tilt forward the seats had – I had to prop myself up on it to play on my laptop and my hubby in one of the tub chairs had to keep retrieving my mouse for me every time it slid off my lap. All in all, it was clean, comfortable and had good heating, which we really appreciated on the cooler nights north of Lake Ontario. Housekeeping was not allowed to enter our rooms for the duration of our stay, but there were plenty of towels and the front desk gladly supplied anything we ran low on.

Key lime cheesecake

The dining room was warm and welcoming, and the tables were well-spaced. There were indeed several groups of male golfers staying there, so as the rare female guest I was an anomaly, but most of the dining room staff were female and everyone was very nice. The menu was small, but all the food we had, whether breakfast or dinner, was quite delicious, especially the key lime cheesecake that was the featured dessert that week.

Waiting to board our cruise boat while the crew disinfected it between sailings

The next morning we woke to cloudy skies, but the weather held out and we were able to take our 1.5 hour cruise among the famous 1000 Islands that straddle the St. Lawrence River between Ontario and New York State. It was a lovely way to spend an autumn afternoon, with an excellent commentary by the crew as we wound through resplendently rustic island estates.

Gorgeous island shorelines
Gannets perched on rocky outcrops
One of the many ‘cottages’ tucked away on their private islands

The only thing we weren’t able to do was disembark at Boldt Castle, a famous manse with a tragic history that’s on U.S. soil, but the cruise circumnavigated the island and we got a pretty good look at the exterior and grounds, including the huge ‘yacht’ house on its own separate island.

Boldt Castle on Heart Island
The humble yacht house

In the strong chill breeze aboard the boat we’d worked up an appetite, so afterward we decided to have an early dinner at the cozy Cornwall Pub in the tiny town of Rockport where the cruise boats were based. I had an excellent barbecued-chicken pizza on a gluten-free crust – the advantages of a tourist town, even off-season during a pandemic! We doggie-bagged the leftovers for noshing on that evening back in our room.

Cornwall Pub
My delicious g-f pizza

Monday was golfing day, on a beautiful course called Smuggler’s Glen, made spectacular by the brilliant fall colours. The course was busy – a lot of people enjoying what was left of the end of the season here in Ontario (although if we’re lucky we might get a couple more mild days to squeeze in a final round back at home). All of the golf courses in our province have received a lot of bookings this year, since golf as a sport is both amenable to social distancing and a great opportunity to spend time outdoors.

Smuggler’s Glen Golf Course

On Tuesday evening we headed about an hour farther east to the highlight of the trip, Pumpkinferno! Spread through 1 km of historic Upper Canada Village are vignettes built of about 7,000 carved and lit pumpkins that (this year at least) you can slowly walk through and explore in the velvety darkness of a cool autumn night.

The entrance to Pumpkinferno

We’d had to prebook tickets with a specific entry time, and only 360 people total were allowed in for the entire evening, 60 at each entry time with wide spacing between groups. Even the parking spaces were arranged with space between, and there was plenty of parking close up without a long walk just to get to the entrance.

Ticket-holder entrance points

The darkness and dearth of people gave the village an eerie atmosphere, and the wide paths around the property allowed for space to enjoy the displays and music without being crowded at all – even to take my time photographing as many as possible. It was truly impressive and quite magical. It has also sold out for the rest of the month, so I’m glad we booked when we did.

Under the Sea
Superheroes
“Double, double, toil and trouble…”
Psychedelic 60s
A T-rex roars his dominance
The Enchanted Forest

These are just a few of the fantastic creations we saw. Next week, the rest of the trip, especially spooky Fort Fright, the annual haunted attraction at historic Fort Henry, where the dead walk and a sarcastic zombie keeps visitors entertained as they wait their turn to enter!

All photos by me and all rights reserved.

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.