A book question for my readers

Hiking through the Hooker Valley in New Zealand

I don’t know about you, but the world is making me crazy. Not literally – not yet at least lol – but in a manner of speaking. Here in Ontario we’re entering our third lockdown, amid ongoing reports of people partying, breaking all the rules and creating superspreader events.

The longer people flout the need to wear masks and avoid gatherings, the longer this pandemic is going to drag on, and on. Surely as a global village we can unify and do something for the greater good?!

In the meantime, while I’m mostly stuck in my home again, I’ve signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, which is the April version of National Novel Writing Month.

I’ve had several ideas for a non-fiction book in my head for a while, and this month seems like the perfect time to get one of them rolling. What I need, though, is your help in deciding which book to write.

Here are the three possible topics. I’ve had requests over the years for all three, and I would love to hear from you which one you’d be most interested in reading.

  1. Travel memoir with photos – My hubby and I have been chased by a hippo in Botswana, ridden a runaway camel across the dunes in Egypt, walked with lions, helped schoolchildren practice their English in Hong Kong, and explored remote temples around the world. We’ve been to six of the eight continents and had numerous adventures – a lot of which were unplanned, including five hurricanes, a bush fire, an earthquake, a tornado, bombings and much more. Along the way, we’ve learned so much about the world, and about ourselves, and met so many wonderful people who’ve reaffirmed our belief in the essential humanity of the amazing planet we all call home.
  2. Stepping outside your comfort zone into a larger life – There’s a saying that the world begins outside your comfort zone, and it’s one of the truest things I’ve heard. Comfort zones are reassuring places to spend time in, but they’re also traps that keep you from growing. Growth = confidence + resilience + agility in challenging times, and we have no better illustration of the need for those qualities than right now. Learn how to break the chains you’ve wrapped around yourself that keep you from making the most of your life.
  3. Using your bucket list as a chart of stepping stones to the life you’d like to lead – Bucket lists are fun things to dream up, but they can also be incredibly useful. In fact, they can change your life. For example, one of my biggest items many years ago was to overcome my fear of public speaking. Originally it was just so I could stop freezing up in meetings, but the journey took me so much farther than that and has opened more doors than I would ever have thought possible. Imagine what you could dare to dream – and then go on to accomplish!

With enough input from you, I can get a sense of which book I should tackle first. I’ll announce the chosen topic in next week’s blog!

All photos on this site are by me unless otherwise specified and may not be used without my express permission.

Lanterns, dumplings, horoscopes

The Lunar New Year is here, and with it another great reason to have a little party in your home.

Chinese New Year, as it’s more commonly known, begins with the date of the new moon in Asia, falling here in the West today, and in the East tomorrow. I’ve always loved the splendour of ceilings hung with dozens upon dozens of bright red and gold lanterns around a grinning dragon in our local Mandarin restaurant, which typically celebrates with a myriad of delectable dumplings and other traditional Chinese fare. Everyone’s horoscope is printed on paper placemats, and you can order a special cocktail based on which animal your birth year represents in the Chinese zodiac.

Unfortunately our area is still in lockdown, so we’re prohibited from dining inside any restaurants and won’t be able to enjoy the festivities. There’s no reason we can’t enjoy them at home, though!

Last week I created my own table arrangement, using materials I happened to have in the house.

Some black branches were propped up in a tall glass vase with a base of black stones to hold them in place, then hung with a variety of Asian-themed decor: red ‘lucky money’ packets that we’ve been given over the years when we dined out for the festival and that were tucked away in a drawer until the idea to turn them into ornaments popped into my head; glass Chinese ornaments I bought a couple of Christmases ago in our local Home Sense store; and an ornament with 3 wooden old yen coins on black cord (picked up when we were in Southeast Asia a number of years ago). I added two stalks of bronze-gold silk eucalyptus, which look a bit like silver dollar plants and seemed to be appropriately auspicious. There’s also a little red plastic lantern on a stem that came with a bouquet of CNY-themed flowers I bought at a grocery store last year.

The little figurine at the base of the vase is a ceramic bull that we picked up in Peru, where they’re found in larger form on all the roofs of the houses as guardians. This is the Year of the Ox in the Chinese calendar, so I thought this figurine would be close enough.

There are two red votive holders, and a ceramic tea cup for drinking green tea, as well as a black and gold scarf with leopards on it (I don’t have one with tigers yet). It was simple to put together, but I’m pleased with the effect. It’s a small piece of joy in our long, cold winter.

Last year I bought one of the beautiful red ceiling lanterns at the restaurant, and it’s hanging in our rec room, along with a garland that I made quite inexpensively with a gold paper-ball garland and 3 small red paper honeycomb fans that I tied onto the garland. I think the whole thing cost me about $5 at one of our grocery stores, and it looks pretty swagged across our fireplace mantel along with a strand of mini-lights.

Tomorrow I’ll be making Asian food for dinner (I found some great recipes on the Taste of Home website), but for this blog I wanted to offer you an easy Asian-themed meal that you can make at any time. It’s especially wonderful for transporting you to the Far East on a chilly and drab February day.

Satay chicken, yellow rice, rice noodle salad with mango and avocado, and Indonesian green beans — a burst of colour and flavour for your dinner

The recipe for the Satay Chicken with Peanut Sauce is taken from an old cookbook by a great chef and cookbook writer named Sheila Lukins, her All Around the World Cookbook, published in 1994. It’s a wonderful cookbook, and still available through Amazon if you’re of a mind to buy it after you try out this recipe. We had the most wonderful satay in Indonesia, and this recipe is the closest I’ve ever found to replicate what we ate on that journey. There are quite a few ingredients, but the recipe is very easy and you’ll be treated to the best satay you’ve ever eaten.

Chicken Satay

makes 24 skewers

marinade:

3 tbsp peanut oil

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tsp honey

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tbsp minced peeled fresh ginger

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Peanut Sauce (recipe follows)

Soak at least 24 x 12″-long bamboo skewers in water overnight. Mix all marinade ingredients together in a large bowl. Cut the chicken along the grain (lengthwise) into strips about 3″ long and 2″ wide. Mix well with the marinade and let rest, covered, at room temperature for 2 hours. Just before serving, preheat oven to 450oF. Thread the chicken pieces lengthwise onto the bamboo skewers and place them on a baking sheet. Bake until just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Do not overcook. Serve warm with peanut sauce.

Peanut Sauce:

1/4 cup peanut oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tsp curry powder

2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 cup coconut milk

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

3 tbsp lemon juice

2 tsp white wine vinegar

3 rounded tbsp brown sugar

1 cinnamon stick (3″ long)

1 bay leaf

1/4 cup boiling water

Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over low heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the curry powder and pepper flakes; cook 2-3 minutes to mellow the flavours. Stir in the coconut milk and water, then stir in the peanut butter, lemon juice, vinegar, brown sugar, cinnamon stick and bay leaf. Mix together well. Bring the mixture to a boil and immediately reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove the cinnamon and bay leaf. Place the mixture in a blender or food processor and process until smooth, add the boiling water through the lid hole or the feed tube to bind the sauce. Scrape the sauce into a serving bowl and serve with the skewers. (The sauce can be prepared ahead, placed in a small pot and stored in the refrigerator. Warm gently for 10 minutes or so before serving.)

The luscious-looking Rice Noodle Salad with Avocado, Mango, and Chile is from Fine Cooking, and you can find the recipe here. A couple of pointers: I added toasted cashews and used rice wine vinegar in place of mirin (easier to find around here). My packet of rice noodles expanded hugely when cooked, so next time I’ll only use half of the contents. The soft noodles contrast wonderfully with the lush chunks of mango and avocado and the light tartness of the dressing.

I obtained the recipes for the pretty yellow rice and the green beans from a cookbook I picked up on the island of Bali. I like to bring home a cookbook from each place we’ve travelled. Both dishes are easy to make and serve as a nice complement to the star of the dinner. The cookbook is called Indonesian Food and Cookery, by Sri Owen, and amazingly enough is also available on Amazon! Nevertheless, here are my takes on the two recipes.

Nasi Kuning (Yellow Rice)

From Indonesian Food and Cookery by Sri Owen, serves 4

2 cups long-grain rice

2 cups chicken stock

1 tsp turmeric

1 cinnamon stick

1 whole clove

1 bay leaf

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

2 tbsp vegetable oil or clarified butter

Soak rice for a few minutes, rinse and drain. Heat the oil/butter in a saucepan and sauté the rice for 2 minutes. Place in steamer in a cooking reservoir that will hold liquid and add the remaining ingredients. Steam until liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender (about 45 minutes for brown basmati).

Tumis Buncis

From Indonesian Food and Cookery by Sri Owen, serves 4

1 lb French beans

3 shallots

Pinch of chili powder

Pinch of ground/grated nutmeg

Pinch of ground ginger

6 tbsp chicken stock

2 tbsp vegetable oil or clarified butter

Wash, cut ends off and slice the beans into shorter lengths. Chop shallots finely and sauté in oil/butter for 1 minute. Add beans and spices and sauté for 2 more minutes, stirring. Pour in the stock, cover the pan and simmer gently for 8 minutes. Uncover and continue sautéing for another 2 to 3 minutes until liquid has reduced to glaze the beans.

We shared this meal in our backyard last summer with good friends. For dessert I made a banana-coconut cream pie, for which I don’t have the recipe handy but I imagine you can find a good one on the internet.

Every time I make this aromatic meal I’m instantly transported back to a restaurant up in the hills of Bali, where our driver and guide for the day, took us for a fantastic lunch after he showed us the stunning green rice terraces. The image below was scanned from a slide image I took while we were there, and truly does it no justice at all. I remember standing there with my hubby, entranced, on the roadside next to some jack-fruit trees, as we watched the local farmers harvest their crop. The best way I can describe it was like being inside a massive living, breathing emerald, full of the deafening screeches of tree insects all around us.

I hope you take the opportunity to enjoy this meal, as well as colourful, exciting Lunar New Year! May the Year of the Ox be good to you.

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.

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.