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.

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.

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.

The final push

It’s the final five days of the November writing marathon. Some writers have already reached 50,000 words; others haven’t commented for days and I wonder how they’re doing. I have only a little over 6,000 words to go, so I’m on the home stretch as far as the contest target is concerned. The finished book will be quite a bit longer, though, so I have more work to do. On November 1st, though, I couldn’t picture myself getting this far, so I’m pretty pleased.

NaNoWriMo has been a great exercise in perseverance, and it’s shown me that I can actually produce a novel. There will be editing and beta readers down the road, but for now I’m looking forward to typing those golden words, “The End”, in the near future.

While I’m plugging away this week to reach the finish line I offer this tiny peek into my book’s first draft. It’s a dream sequence my heroine has one night after a strange and unsettling experience in an old library. Let me know what you think.

Out of the mind’s eye

It’s week three of the NaNoWriMo writing marathon and some participants are feeling frantic. I’ve seen comments from writers that they’ve got lots of words that in total feel like a confused mess, or they’re just now getting down to the brass tacks of writing after spending the first two weeks laying out the plot. We’re not supposed to worry about editing, but some people feel they need to in order to get back on track.

There are as many writing styles as there are participants. I went into this with a lot of background research already in the can – I’ve often used that type of research to spark ideas – as well as a pretty solid outline of my first book’s plot with threads that will tie into Books Two and Three. I also created detailed diagrams of two key locations in Book One, a small town where the bulk of the action takes place, and a college campus within that town. To me these places are vivid in my mind’s eye, but laying them out on electronic paper in a way that made them work logically solidified them. Now, when my heroine is exploring these places, I can describe her exact path as if she was navigating a real town or college campus, and I’ll be consistent every time the action takes place in these locales (I hope 😊).

Writing reminds me of taking photographs. For a long time on my travels I took photos of the famous places we visited. My slides of Egypt, for example, where my hubby and I went early in our marriage, are pretty standard shots – the Pyramids, each of us sitting on a block of the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx’s enigmatic face, the Nile, cruising up the Nile… Well, you get the idea.

But as time went on I began to use more of a painter’s eye, to capture more scenes that told a story. Paintings by the old Masters like Rembrandt are tiny novels in paint form – you have to study all the components to understand what they’re telling you, from the choice of colours, the use of light/shadow/emphasis, and the artist’s decision of what to include both in the foreground and in the background. Every single detail was put there for a specific reason, and so it is with good photographs, especially travel photographs.

I began to realize that most of my viewers would never actually see or experience what I was standing in front of at that moment, whether it was beautiful or ugly, so I wanted to be able to bring it to them virtually, through my photos.

A couple of years ago my hubby and I visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, a microcosm of the American Revolutionary war. The docents were exemplary in explaining in unflinching detail what life was like for residents on both sides of the conflict. Walking through one of the original houses from the time period, that of a wealthy landowner, I was struck by this document in the home and had to take a photo of it.

It lists the family’s possessions and their monetary value, and included in that tally were all the slaves. Along with items of furniture and garden tools, each slave was assigned an amount in pounds sterling, the currency in use in the colonies before the Revolution. Each of these humans were valued as pieces of property, and not even of equal value. If you were a strong adult male, for example, you were worth more than someone aged who couldn’t do as much work any more. There right in front of me was something that brought to life the awfulness of the slave system in a way more compelling than many shows I’ve watched, because it wasn’t just a portrayal, it was a real thing. Any person who sees this photo will likely be able to feel the same emotion I felt standing in front of that piece of paper.

As writers it’s our job to do the same thing as this photo or a piece of art, to create a scene which is in our head so vividly that our readers can see it too, and can feel the emotions of the characters, whether love, fear, anger, revulsion, lust, hope, despair. If we’re writing about something that really happened it’s easier, but if we’re creating an entire imagined world in a book we have to be able to see it as if we’d lived it before we can share it with you the reader. So I empathize with my fellow marathoners in trying to get that out onto paper. We do it because there’s a story that simply must be told.

The distant shore

Well, I’m about one-third of the way through my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) goal of 50,000 written words by the end of November. I’m out in the middle of the lake hoping to reach the half-way point soon, and the far shore is in sight.

I can’t speak for everyone who’s determined to finally write their first/second/fifth novel this month, but so far for me it’s been incredibly rewarding.

Writing stories was my first love when I was growing up, but in my first year of high-school I fell in love with Biology and decided that’s what I wanted to study in university. I came by that honestly – my dad would have done the same if he’d had the opportunity, but when he was a young man in Europe he was expected to help out on the family farm. It was a waste of a great mind, and he supported me fully in pursuing the same dream. Although he’d already passed away by the time my hubby and I were able to go to Africa, I felt like maybe he was watching happily as our safari vehicle took us through so many fascinating landscapes filled with wonderful wild animal encounters.

All through adulthood I continued to want to write a little bit, jotting the beginnings of many different novels. Life got in the way, though, and I never finished any of them. A few years ago, however, I started homing in on an idea I’d had for a long time. I began doing a lot of background research and outlining some plot points.

Research and plot-tinkering are great ways to put off actually putting fingers to keyboard, though. I shared the same fear as many starting writers: can I write well enough to bring this story to life, or will I be wasting my time?

The great thing about this month of marathon writing is that it frees you to just write what’s in your head without worrying yet about getting it just right, and 30 days is not a very big chunk of time out of your life to give it a shot.

I had all the chapters worked out beforehand – the sequence of events that will take my (one-day) readers from the Inciting Event (the event that changes everything for the protagonist) to the (hopefully) thrilling Climax. And in my case, I also hope the first book will be enthralling enough to make my readers want to continue on the rest of the journey through books two and three.

What’s especially interesting about this process is that I started out worrying about how I was going turn my bare skeleton into a seaworthy craft, and then take myself on the actual journey with my heroine. What I’ve been finding is that the ship is in many ways building and sailing itself. When I sit down to write, the ideas are all falling into place. I guess that’s a good sign, and time will tell.

But more than that, the words are – mostly – coming out the way I want to express them. I’m not spilling out a confused mess just to get my word-count in, I’m writing paragraphs and scenes that I’m quite pleased with.

That’s not to say that I may not want or need to do a lot of editing and perhaps some rewriting before I let some beta readers have a look at it, and then some more tweaking based on their feedback. But I see the far shore, and there’s a landing site. And the journey to get there is a revelation.

So for all of you who have a pet project you’ve always wanted to try, just start doing it. You may find, as I am finding, that it’s like a snowball rolling down a hill that keeps gathering more and more snow and momentum as it goes until it becomes a fully-realized snow-person. It’s never too late to start one, and even if it doesn’t become an award-winning snow-person, in the end you can have the satisfaction of saying that you finally did it!