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.

Little cracks, little fixes

I fully support all the measures our government has recommended during this pandemic – I wear a reusable mask in all public indoor spaces, wash my hands thoroughly as soon as I get home and stay home as much as I can without going stir-crazy. In fact, everyone in our neighbourhood seems to be doing the same, regularly hanging out in their yards.

I’m extremely grateful to have a back yard to safely spend time in, and I feel for everyone living in apartments or condos these days. We’re even hoping to eat Thanksgiving dinner with my brother on our patio in three weeks if the weather holds out. We may have to bundle up in toasty sweaters and sip hot cocoa to ward off the chill as we eat surrounded by fall colours, but that will be half the fun.

But this sudden press of humanity on a daily basis has its pros and cons. We’ve chatted with our neighbours more this summer than any time in the past, from a safe distance of course. The flip side has been a sometimes disconcerting lack of privacy. My hubby and I have remedied that as much as possible by putting a small privacy garden along our back fence, with trees that should grow in fairly quickly so that it stops feeling like we’re in two fish bowls side by side.

No one’s talked about what to do if you have aggravating neighbours, though – in our case, kids who haven’t been taught to respect boundaries. Over the years I’ve loved the sound of generations of kids playing on the large island we have in our cul-de-sac, but this summer with everyone home most of the time, several neighbours have complained to one family in particular about hockey pucks hitting their parked vehicles, toys left all over the road and on other people’s lawns, and repeated trespassing. Not the worst problem to have (judging by what I’ve been reading online), but after several months it’s gotten pretty tiresome.

Yesterday, before I blew my stack and turned into a complete witch, I decided a better idea would be to take a break. Channeling Sheldon Cooper, first I did a restocking run to our local pharmacy. There’s something satisfying about foraging for all the things that help to make your life more comfortable, even in small ways – a sense of accomplishment, especially now when so much is on hold.

After that, I checked out the new Halloween stock at our Home Sense store, then hit the country roads for some fresh-air R&R.

First purchase was an assortment of pumpkins for our front porch – a vermilion Cinderella, a squat blue pumpkin and a fat white one, and of course a big orange pumpkin for carving next month. A small pumpkin pie also came home with me for an after-dinner treat. To me, pumpkins are the icons of fall – so warm and homey-looking, and so delicious in pies and Pumpkin Spice Lattes!

Next I spent some time at our local botanical garden. It must be a well-kept secret because whenever I’ve visited this year I’ve largely had the place to myself, even though the gardens are extensive and free to visit.

Entrance to the gardens is lined with benches amid lush planters

The peacefulness of soft sun and a light breeze on my face, the chirping of birds in the trees and bees buzzing around the flowers, never fails to help me decompress, and I love taking photos of all the artistic details – the glow of sun through leaves, the sculptural quality of plants as they bend over the water, a butterfly flitting among the bright fall-tinted flowers.

Next time you’re out in nature, lose yourself for a while in admiring the details – of an intricate flower pistil, the undersides of flowers, bees industriously gathering pollen, the juxtaposition of colours and shapes. Several gardeners were pruning and clearing, and one of them chatted pleasantly with me as I strolled by.

Gardens are magical healing places if you take the time to enjoy all their layers, even if you just sit on a bench for a while and close your eyes to steep yourself in the scents and sounds.

As I turned home, I stopped in at my favourite roadside market to buy some fresh fruit and vegetables – it’s always a treat to see what’s filling their baskets and bushels that can be turned into something delectable for our next few meals.

Feeling much better, my hubby and I had a nice, easy meal topped off with freshly-baked pumpkin pie and whipped cream, and we relaxed for the evening. It’s easy to get caught up in the news and pandemic politics, and in trying to manage daily life while things are all cockeyed, so take a break once in a while and do something that restores your equanimity. And since we’re all in this together, be mindful of everyone around you. Kindness and consideration will help smooth a lot of the journey.

All photos by me and all rights reserved.

Higher and higher

As we navigate the challenges of the pandemic, it sometimes reminds me of the challenges of the next leg of our Peru journey, and how we weathered those.

I always used to wonder why people would push themselves to physical extremes – to climb 29,000 feet up Mt. Everest into what’s called the Death Zone, where there’s so little oxygen that your body begins to die and you have just a few hours to summit and remain alive even as the majestic mountain hurls wind and snow at your battered body.

I was going to have a small taste of that on our trip to Peru and Bolivia, where we’d be spending more than a week at very high altitudes – and there was no way to discover in advance how each of our bodies would react to the stresses of being so high. I’d been nervous as we embarked on this grand adventure, but I’d done a lot of advance research and our group of travellers was as prepped as we could be.

I’d chosen this tour because it had a decent amount of time for acclimatizing to the high altitudes we’d be reaching as we journeyed up and up toward our final point, the city of La Paz in Bolivia – the highest capital city in the world.

Most people fly into Lima for a week and make a quick trip to see Machu Picchu – their limited exposure to high altitude doesn’t usually require getting acclimatized (although there have been a few fatalities even under those circumstances). High altitude isn’t something to take lightly.

Our journey was a different story, though, and as we left Huacachina to drive south along the lengthy Peruvian coastline to the town of Camana, where we would then turn eastwards up into the Andes Mountains, the coming physical challenge was on everyone’s mind.

High altitude is very different to what most of us are used to. Here in southern Ontario we live a little above sea-level, at around 300 feet. On this trip we’d be going 53 times higher than that, over 16,000 feet at one point.

My hubby and I had already weathered a brief stint at about 8,000 feet when we were in Kenya, and apart from a mild headache we’d been fine. But every 1,000 feet above that puts increasing strain on your body.

Although most people think that there’s less oxygen the higher you go, what actually happens is that the air pressure gets lower, which means that there’s less pressure available to push oxygen into your lungs to then make it available for you body’s needs.

Your body responds by working harder to make up the difference – it speeds everything up, including your breathing, shoving oxygen through your tissues as fast as it can.

This can be rather uncomfortable until your body ‘acclimatizes’ – gets used to the accelerated pace needed to survive. Some people reach that equilibrium state faster than others.

The really interesting thing is that there’s (currently, at least) no way to tell in advance how any individual’s system will react – it doesn’t matter whether you’re an athlete or a couch potato, young or old, in great health or not so much. Essentially you just have to go and see what happens – but there are ways to help your body make the adaptation more easily and to manage the symptoms until it does.

Most people start out with a headache and nausea, and perhaps a little trouble sleeping for a few days, and that’s often as bad as it gets. If you’re one of the few that has more trouble acclimatizing, or you do something unwise, you can wind up in a great deal of trouble, though.

The worst-case scenario is edema, i.e. fluid leaking into places it’s not supposed to. There are two possibilities: HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema, fluid leaking into the lungs) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema, fluid leaking into the brain), and while pulmonary edema is slightly less dangerous than cerebral, you really don’t want to get either of them – if they’re not treated in time, they can be fatal. In fact, a great number of the fatalities among climbers of Mt. Everest are due to one of these two conditions. They make it to the summit, but then are in such bad shape – exhausted, in pain and badly disoriented – that they either fall off the peak or sit down to rest and never get back up.

Although we weren’t facing such extreme conditions, one of our larger group of travellers would find out that choosing to not follow the acclimatization rules can be a very bad idea.

As I’ve mentioned, in Peru the mountains plunge precipitously down to the ocean, making the winding coastal road a rather white-knuckle ride. In places the road clings to the mountainside, a slender groove cut sharply into the steep slopes, with nary a barrier to stop your vehicle from tumbling a thousand feet or so onto the jagged rocks and crashing waves below.

I have a pretty good head for heights, but I took these photos leaning to the left side of the bus with my camera stuck nervously out the window on the right. Luckily the pictures turned out fairly well.

In spots the road would run through narrow cuts in the rocks, where we often saw loads of the ubiquitous potato being transported. We were actually headed nearer and nearer to the potato epicentre of the country.

Other times the coast road drops down to run endlessly away toward the hazy blue horizon, scalloped by odd inlets where the ocean runs inward enough to irrigate small farms that sit in patchwork green quilts amid the long stretches of bleached sand. The Peruvians seem to be expert at both desalination as well as finding ways to grow crops in places that look impossible.

We continued to pass a variety of tiny towns with billboards painted onto walls.

Finally we arrived in Camana in the midst of an All Souls Day festival. After a picnic lunch in an empty parking lot, some of us wandered over to the festivities, where groups clothed in a variety of colourful costumes preparing for a big parade. They were all very friendly and happy to pose for photos in all their finery.

The road began to climb as soon as we left Camana, through more surreal scenery, including some spectacular barchan dunes. These mysterious crescent-shaped dunes migrate across the desert, sometimes calving smaller dune from their horns.

Although many passengers had their heads buried in their smart phones or tablets during the day-long drive, I found the changing landscape to be endlessly fascinating.

We approached the city of Arequipa, our home for the next couple of days, as the sun was setting and painting the rocky mountain ridges orange against the cloud-collared white volcanoes.

Arequipa sits at about 8,000 feet, the entry-level height to high altitude, so it makes a perfect spot to begin acclimatizing. Giving your body time to adapt is the single best thing you can do to help yourself.

Ideally you’re supposed to ascend no more than 1,000 feet in a day, but realistically most visitors to Peru don’t have the time to take it that slowly. Spending a couple of days at around 8,000 feet though is a good start, and generally people tolerate this height fairly well. (In fact, Machu Picchu itself sits at about that height and fast visits are usually problem-free, though not always).

In addition, Arequipa is a beautiful city, full of culture and charm, and I always recommend it to people who ask me about going to Peru.

It’s often called the White City, partly because many of the buildings in its UNESCO-recognized historic centre are made from white ashlar stone from the three surrounding volcanoes, Misti, Pichu Pichu and Chachani. The pale tree-studded streets with cozy sizewalk cafes are a delight to explore, and to nosh in. We had fabulous stone-oven pizza and the best vanilla milkshakes I’ve ever had in my life – should have asked for the recipe!

There are all kinds of colourful markets and pretty gardens, but there are two standout sights that shouldn’t be missed.

The first, the Museo Santuario Andinos, to my great excitement when I found out, holds the famous Ice Maiden, the mummy of a young girl who was revealed at the peak of Mt Ampato in 1995 when a neighbouring volcano erupted and melted some of the ice at the top. Given the name Juanita, she had a short life with a dramatic ending, sacrificed to the gods in the eerie cold and wind at the top of the mountain after an arduous climb up the almost 21,000 feet of Ampato’s height, after which she was given a drugged ceremonial drink to ease her state of mind and then clubbed severely on the head to kill her.

Entrance to the Museo Santuario Andinos

She would likely have been sacrificed to appease the gods after an eruption of Mt. Misti, so it seems fitting that her final resting place is in the city below its white peak, Arequipa. She’s still dressed in her ceremonial garb, curled into position and kept carefully in a glass shroud in the museum. I’d seen her haunting story on National Geographic a few years previously, and was honored to be able to see her in person. Photography isn’t allowed inside the museum, but you can find out a bit more about her on the Smithsonian YouTube channel.

The other must-see is the Monasterio Santa Catalina, which hides a world of 16th century convent life inside its white walls, when extra daughters without marriage prospects were sent to make a different life.

Outside the walls, you’ll see women selling refreshments or religious items, sometimes with a child in tow.

The complex inside is enormous, a small city within a city, with zigzagging streets and hidden gardens. Nuns still live there to this day in more modern buildings, secluded from the historic front sections that you can walk through.

The novices could meet their family from time to time in this long passageway through latticed windows.

They slept in simple rooms, their beds positioned in alcoves set into the thick stone walls to shelter them from earthquakes and eruptions.

Within the stern white exterior walls, a fantastic world of colour opens up before you, with surprising juxtapositions almost Cubist in appearance, interspersed with beautiful religious murals painted among the archways.

One entire section was painted in vivid adobe red, a dramatic contrast to the heavy wooden doors and pale stones paving the lanes.

Little gardens offered places for sunlight and contemplation.

Some of the ancient conveniences were amazingly clever. Water was filtered through cones of porous volcanic rock, a process that would take several days but give absolutely clean water for drinking and cooking.

A kitchen storeroom held an array of cookware, including this fish-shaped bread pan.

My favourite contraption was a laundry system where clothes were washed and then rinsed clean in a succession of huge shell-shaped stone basins.

From the rooftops we could see the mountains looming over the city as we looked down on the labyrinth of pale roofs and reddish passages.

It was in Arequipa that we discovered the concept of what we affectionately called ‘Peruvian flat’ – there are no flat streets in most of Peru, everything seems to go uphill, or at least felt like it! The city is like an urban version of a Stairmaster, getting you in shape for the more intense walking you’ll be doing later.

We found the citizens to be very friendly, such as this mom who enjoyed watching her children play with us,

and these two crafty ladies. I prefer to take unposed shots of people going about their daily lives, but they caught me taking a photo of them, and they were so cute that I felt I had to buy one of their dolls. It sits on a shelf next to our rec room fireplace.

Arequipa was the place for those of us taking the only medication available for travel to high altitude, acetazolamide. It helps your body adapt faster, and is to be started 24 hours before you begin to ascend. For those who can’t take it, like me (it conflicted with another medication), the other options help: higher amounts of caffeine (for which the powerful Peruvian coffee was perfect) and lots of carbs to provide your body with more energy, copious amounts of water (drink until your urine is almost colourless — it helps with the headaches), and as much rest as possible between activities.

After two great days exploring this delightful city, we moved onward to our first serious high-altitude site, Colca Canyon. This canyon, believed by some to be the deepest in the world, is where the magnificent Andean condors nest and glide around on the thermals, and I really wanted to see it even though many blogs talked about how awful people felt when they reached its location at 14,500 feet.

Along the way we were treated to stunning views of the volcanoes, and we got instruction in how to chew coca leaves the way that the people of the Andes have done for a long time.

The leaves reminded me a lot of small bay leaves, if not as smooth. We were each given a bundle of about eight or nine of them, which you layer together and then place a small piece of damp banana-leaf ash in the middle. This is then rolled up like a miniature cigar and place in the corner of your mouth to be slowly chewed on either until you’ve consumed the whole thing or you feel like discarding the remainder. The sweet ash gives it a pleasant taste, and the chemicals in the ash work together with the coca leaf to make the whole thing work even better. It’s an ancient remedy that the high-altitude inhabitants have been using for centuries to help them with a variety of illnesses. It’s said that there are some common North American illnesses that these Andean people never get, but unfortunately coca leaves are illegal outside of Peru and a couple of other South American countries. I didn’t get any buzz even from chewing the leaves directly, and they did help.

We passed an area in the mountains where wild vicuna live, surviving on tough grasses with serrated edges that also sharpen their teeth as they graze.

The road to Colca runs through the town of Chivay, an unremarkable place that serves as a base to get lunch and park your weary body after a trip to the higher locale of the canyon. One of the ways to help your body acclimate, if you can’t do the whole thing slowly, is to spend a few days going up and down in altitude. For some reason that works, as we can attest from this trip.

Not everyone makes an easy transition, though – the husband of a young couple from England approached me after lunch because his wife was already severely nauseated. I gave him a Gravol tablet (aka Dramamine), told him to crush it and give it to her with some juice to hide the very bitter taste in order to get it into her system as fast as possible, and a few coca leaf candies for good measure.

Past a cactus-filled desert landscape straight out of a spaghetti Western, eventually we arrived at the top of the canyon and the viewing platforms.

The canyon itself is a breathtaking sight, which is a good thing as there’s no guarantee that you’re going to see a condor, the sacred bird of the Incas with a huge wingspan of about ten feet – they fly around on their own schedule. We were delighted when eventually a male came out, leaving its mate on her nest of eggs, to look for food. It glided through the canyon walls on its wide black wings.

There’s a small and colourful textile market on site if you’re looking for some weaving, but while my hubby and I were feeling fine, I decided to go and check on a few people who’d felt ill enough to stay on the bus, and it was good choice.

One was headachy and weak, but able to talk; the other was chilled and really out of it – an early sign of moderate High Altitude Sickness, so I hustled to find our overall tour leader and transport everyone 2,500 feet down into Chivay. In such a case, quick descent is the first stage of treatment. Along the way we stopped briefly to view the undulating hillsides of potato farms – this was where the bulk of Peru’s extensive potato crop comes from.

In Chivay we were taken to our cozy hotel to check in, with a handy llama out back to keep the lawn grass short, and great mountain views.

Several people took advantage of the hot springs the town is known for to work out some high-altitude kinks, but I accompanied our ill traveller to the local doctor. She was suffering from high altitude sickness indeed, compounded by an intestinal parasite that she’d likely picked up in Arequipa, either from brushing her teeth with tap water or from an out-of-the-way restaurant serving guinea pig. With a prescription for antibiotic, we got her back to the hotel to sleep. I had instructions from the doctor to call him in a couple of hours and let him know if she’d had any more episodes of vomiting, something she’d unfortunately chosen to conceal from me until now. I checked on her in due time and was happy to see that she was feeling better and able to eat some light chicken soup.

That evening we all gathered for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, warming up from the high-altitude nighttime chill around the cozy fire.

Some people were already feeling the effects of our Colca Canyon visit, so I gave them recommendations, including to avoid alcohol (which acts as a CNS depressant, fighting the hard work your body is doing to speed things up).

A hearty meal under our belts, my hubby and I both retired early with headaches, something that had worried me as I was already prone to migraines. My hubby was doing a bit better than me, as he was able to take the Diamox. I took what pain medication I could and tried to relax, hoping the headache wouldn’t get much worse.

At length I fell asleep, only to be woken up around midnight by someone knocking on our door. It was one of my own group, asking what she could do for her roommate, who’d ignored my advice to skip wine with dinner and was now sitting on the bathroom floor with her head over the toilet. I dispensed some more Gravol with the same crush-with-juice instructions (when you’re that nauseated, you want to get the medication into your system before you vomit it out) and went back to bed.

By the next morning everyone was feeling more-or-less better, including the young English gal, and we hit the road once more for a long drive through the Andes to Cuzco, the cradle of Inca civilization and the gateway to the main highlight of our journey, Machu Picchu. But more adventures awaited us before we got there. Tune in for more in a couple of weeks.

All photos are by me and all rights reserved.

Outdoor Masochism

After catching some of the delightful videos people have posted online about their housebound entertainment activities, I thought I’d take a walk on the lighter side myself this week.

The title of this blog might bring to mind different activities to you as we all try to keep ourselves amused close to home this summer, but I’m talking about the venerable and frustrating game of Golf.

While a few people love the game unconditionally, if you ask most people you’ll find that they lean towards more of a love-hate relationship. After a good round we’re bubbling over with enthusiasm and confidence, which often gets flattened the next time we play and everything goes to hell-in-a-handbasket.

Golf requires a challenging combination of hand-eye coordination plus mental focus, taken out onto courses that are designed to throw kinks at you.

Where else would you find sand traps that are directly in line with where you need to aim, or that are so deep you might think you’re going to strike oil when you swing at the ball? Trees wait to grab high-flying balls in their branches and dump them straight down to lie forlornly at the roots, or bounce them backwards past where you hit from. Pretty little ponds wait with strange magnetism to draw your ball, which you were sure you were aiming in another direction, down into their murky and irretrievable depths (and then your golf club, which frustrated golfers are sure is the cause of all their troubles and so often fling into the same pond).

Even the pros, who practice so much that they should have robotically-perfect swings, engage in public hissy fits when they find themselves, despite their best efforts, making the same bad shot several times in a row.

The evil genius of the game is that our minds and bodies don’t always agree to cooperate. We know we can hit the right shot, it just sometimes refuses to appear until the second try, when we invariably grumble “Should have done that the first time!”

So why do we keep playing this ridiculous game, that Mark Twain was erroneously attributed to refer to as ‘a good walk spoiled’?

Well, for one thing, it’s a great excuse to spend some time outdoors in beautiful surroundings, away from everything else going on in your life. While we’ve seen the odd person bring their cell phone onto the course, it’s generally frowned on. Nothing must distract us from our pursuit of that elusive great round, and golf etiquette demands that we maintain a reverent silence near anyone else struggling to find their own Grail round.

In between shots, though, we may speak to fellow golfers – there’s a camaraderie brought on by shared frustration punctuated by whoops of joy when a ball actually does what we want it to or laughter when sheer luck defeats the course’s hazards. Last summer I had several fellows come over from a different hole to congratulate me after my shot bounced off a rake and avoided going into the sand trap.

Sand traps, or bunkers as they’re more commonly known, are devoutly to be avoided. We watch helplessly as our ball seems to make a beeline for these little slices of beach that aren’t nearly as much fun as the real thing, then either lays a track to a spot that’s never as easy to get out of as it was to get into, or – even more fun – plugs itself halfway into the sand (amusingly called a fried egg). In a deep ‘pot’ bunker this can be a disaster of epic proportions – you have only to watch the British Open Championship to see seasoned pros get stymied by trying to dig a stuck ball out of the steep sides.

The scenery sort of makes up for a poor game. Here in North America course designers like to make the most of the landscape, which can make for some wonderful, if challenging, layouts.

One of the challenging holes at Island Pointe, trying to land safely across the river

One of our favourite courses is in Tennessee, Island Pointe Golf Club. It picturesquely meanders in and out of the French Broad River, among high cliffs and utilizing three islands in the river itself. The water is deep and rushing, making the island holes quite exciting as you’re surrounded by what can feel like a raging flood. It’s not a well-known course – we stumbled upon it a few years ago and are so fascinated by it that we play it whenever we’re in the area.

Heading into the unknown for the men’s tees

Ladies have it a bit better than men – our tees (where we hit from) are placed closer to the pin, that little hole that seems to be like the exhaust port on the Death Star, something that seems impossible to get your ball into. At the course my hubby and I played last weekend, the path on the sixth hole branched off to the men’s tees through a dark mysterious wood so removed from the fairway that there was almost an ominous hush. My hubby had to whack the ball over a wide clump of nasty, grabby wild plants, while from my tee block I enjoyed a pleasant vista down the fairway.

From the men’s tees on No. 6, it’s hard to even see the distant flag
Much friendlier view from the ladies’ tees

Hitting straight onto the fairway is a definite advantage, and much harder than it looks. Going off-course into the ‘rough’ is fraught with danger – things like the shimmering ponds and tall fescue grass that waves pleasantly in the breeze while it waits to wrap your club in bands of steel. Courses in the southwest United States feature thorny cacti that will capture your skin and not let it go, or homes along the fairway with patios that may transfer your ball straight into someone’s swimming pool (better that than their plate glass windows anyway).

Our favourite course in Ontario is attached to the Taboo Resort in Muskoka. It’s a beautiful course in any season, although we love to be there in the fall especially. Last summer the resort added an outdoor seating area on top of the hill by the driving range, before you approach the first tee, with a food truck and a bar that offers passion fruit margaritas so good that they (almost) make your play irrelevant.  

Rock-strewn hole at Taboo Golf Course

The course is set among the granite outcroppings of our Cambrian Shield, and my husband will attest that you can achieve some spectacular arcs as your mis-hit ball bounces off the rock high into the air and away into the woods.

Many players’ golf balls have been permanently sacrificed to all these devilish ambushes.

On the plus side, other bonuses are the weather – on a beautiful fall day, with the sun shining and the scent of wood smoke and fallen leaves all around, there’s nothing better – and the wildlife, contingent on whether you mind having a flock of geese or ducks as your watchful peanut gallery. Great Blue Herons, one of our most spectacular birds, seem to like hanging out by the ponds and completely ignore the people flailing away with their clubs.

The end of a round, which may come too soon or not soon enough depending on how you played, always deserves a refreshing beverage (maybe more margaritas!) and a good meal. The score card may be kept in triumph or stomped on, shredded and then burned to ash. You may have to separate your head covers that have been quarreling in your absence.

And the next week we do it all over again, because near the end of every round there’s always at least one great shot that sucks you back into the game.

Whatever your favourite form of self-inflicted torture is, make the most of it – at least it’s a good distraction.

The Road Through Time

It’s early August and the past few months have been a bit of a blur, days of staying in punctuated by trips for groceries and home supplies, and a few rounds of golf. I feel that we’re a lot less stressed here in Canada, but the news from outside our borders is routinely troubling.

Michelle Obama has gone on record about feeling low-grade depression through all of this, a revealing comment from someone who was resilient enough to be a truly historic First Lady. While I’m not feeling the stress in exactly the same way – removed as I am from a lot of the turmoil that she’s surrounded by – even in Canada there’s a constant and pervasive low hum of tension just below our senses that we try to ignore so we can carry on as best as possible.

We feel it in small ways though. I find myself more irritable about silly small things, never completely relaxed, looking for ways to keep myself occupied. Perhaps you’re feeling the same, or something different.

The lengthy heat wave we’re experiencing in Ontario hasn’t helped for me personally, although it’s a great summer for pool owners. I can do dry heat any time, but the combo of 90oF-plus temperatures and humidity just as high makes me even more testy when I do have to go out, and I’m drained of energy by the time I get back home. I really feel for so many of the seniors I see in grocery stores who seem to be struggling with navigating the ever-changing rules as our society tries to safely get closer to normal, but I get frustrated with people who appear to have forgotten how to drive or can’t seem to understand the social-distancing thing.

So this is a good week to offer a little distraction via the next part of our journey to Peru, through the blazingly hot desert to see the Nazca Lines and Chauchilla Cemetery.

Peru is most famous for the Incas, but there were many cultures before them. From Huacachina Oasis the road took us backward in time to the mysterious Nazca people, and then forward to the very early Incas, through burnt landscapes filled with eerie dust devils and so empty that we wondered why anyone would have ever made a home there.

The Pan-American highway crosses the Nazca Plateau and there’s even a spot where a tower has been built to view a few of the strange and gigantic etchings in the dirt without flying over them. The area is protected, so you can’t walk out to the etchings, but you can get a decent view of a couple of them from the tower if you’re not inclined to do the flight. The view from the tower, though, doesn’t capture the weirdness – for that you need to see all the Nazca Lines from above, stretching for miles across the desert plateau, layers and layers of them.

The sprawling branches of the huge biomorphic “Tree” glyph
Straight geometric shapes stretching for miles mixed with undulating wavy shapes

As we left the tower, the sun was setting over the eerie landscape that houses the etchings – more than 50 miles of flat reddish land dotted with little scrubby bushes that seem to survive on virtually no moisture.

We stayed in a charming 3-star hacienda-style hotel surrounded by farmland — how they managed to grow food in this climate was a sign of Peruvian ingenuity.

The next morning, those of us who planned to brave the Nazca flights headed off to the Maria Reiche Neuman Airport.

Maria Reiche was one of the first noted researchers of the Nazca figures. The enormous geoglyphs had been mentioned by a Spanish conquistador, Pedro Cieza de León, as ‘trail markers’ in the 1500s, but it wasn’t until humans invented flight that people were able to see them in their entirety and realize their significance. An American historian, Paul Kosok, was the first to study them in depth, including from the air, and he was later joined by an America archaeologist, Richard P. Schaedel, and Maria Reiche, a German mathematician and archaeologist who had come to Peru originally as a governess and tutor, then stayed on when WWII started. She’d been doing scientific work in Lima when she became fascinated by the Nazca figures. She joined Kosok in his research and spent the remainder of her long life studying, mapping and protecting the geoglyphs. After the Pan-American highway was cut directly through one of the figures, she lobbied the government to protect their national treasure and also sponsored the tower that we’d just been at the afternoon before. For her efforts, she became known as the Lady of the Lines, and is honored at the local airport.

Safety Note: For several years before we arrived, the small-craft flights over the Lines had a poor safety record, with several crashes and deaths. At one point, as group leader for our cluster of eight travellers, I was going to recommend that we skip the flights entirely. The Peruvian government had worked diligently to improve matters, and by the time of our trip our tour company was able to recommend several approved flight companies. The one we used, as you can see in this photo of yours truly waiting to board the plane, was Air Majoro.

Any time you’re planning an adventurous activity, it’s important to do your research in advance – there’s always an element of risk in these types of activities, but you’ll want to know what you’re getting into and make an educated decision about how far you’re willing to go.

The airline put my hubby and I on different planes – they spent a lot of time figuring out weight configurations among all of us on the small craft – so we each had very different experiences.

One thing you should be aware of before deciding to fly is that the planes tilt at severe angles to give you the best view of the figures etched into the red dirt. They also make a lot of pretty tight turns to allow you to see as many of the figures as possible.

Rising into the deep blue sky, it’s truly stunning to see how many figures the ancient Nazca people carved – there are over 1,000 of them, spreading for miles, often crossing other figures, and in a wild assortment of shapes and styles. Seventy of the figures, known as biomorphs, include the famous animal figures (monkey, spider, lizard, heron, etc.). But these are only a small proportion: there are 300 odd geometric designs, and 800 straight lines running for up to 30 miles in length!

There are only a few somewhat humanoid figures: a large pair of what looks likes disembodied hands, and a 100-foot tall figure etched into the side of a hill. It’s often referred to as the Astronaut, with an odd helmet-shaped head and its arm raised as if in greeting to something in the sky.

The geometric shapes are astoundingly sharp and straight for having been created over 2,500 years ago by removing the reddish upper layer of dirt up to about a foot deep to reveal the pale yellowish base beneath. Reiche found the mathematical precision to be highly sophisticated. Her research with Kosok found that many of the figures pointed towards the summer and winter solstices, so they theorized that the plateau was a gigantic astronomical calendar.

Since then, a lot of people have speculated about the purpose of the figures, from landing sites for aliens to religious ritual designs to markers for underground sources of water in a landscape that receives only about one inch of rain in a year.

This figure, my personal favourite, was originally called The Hummingbird, but is now believed to represent a forest bird called a Hermit

Many of the theories seem to fit some of the Lines, but none of them fit all of the Lines, and it’s not until you fly over them that you see how strange they truly are. Whichever theory appeals to you, there are a lot of questions still. Some that popped up in my head that day: what could prompt those ancient peoples to make so many of them (think of the effort in measuring, excavating, running straight edges for miles and miles and miles even up in the hills), why would they make so many different shapes, why would they lay them on top of each other like a crazy jigsaw puzzle? I’m not sure we’ve come to any real understanding of what the etchings are for, or are even close to it.

Our pilot gave us a heads-up as we approached each different figure or cluster of figures, tilting the plane steeply so that the wing tip was pointing towards where we needed to look. Then he would execute another tightly-banked turn to move on to the next figure.

It turned out that my plane had a hot-dogging pilot who seemed to be showing off a bit for a guest he’d brought on board. I was doing okay stomach-wise until he started zipping through tighter and tighter turns, while I got greener and greener in the face. I had to stop taking photos and was fervently praying to land soon when someone must have alerted the pilot that I was looking pretty bad, because suddenly we were doing just that. On the ground, our excursion leader sat me down and hustled to get me some coca leaf candies.

Peruvians have been using coca leaf tea for centuries for altitude sickness, and it turns out that coca leaves are also great for nausea. Both tea and candies are available everywhere, and I recovered enough to be able to explore a couple of shops – I bought a silver-coloured wrist cuff with the most famous Nazca animals on it – while I waited for my hubby’s plane to return.

What I didn’t find out until they landed was that his pilot had trouble with the landing gear and was delayed for several minutes as he frantically pumped the lever to get the wheels down. My hubby regaled me quietly with this story after we got back to the hacienda.

Was the flight entirely safe? Well, everyone in our group eventually made it safely to ground, although not without a bit of a close call. Do we regret taking the flight? No, there’s no other way to get any real sense of the scope and enigma of the Nazca Lines. Should you go to Peru, check recent safety records and decide for yourself.

The mystery of the Lines becomes even deeper when you visit the ancient cemetery of Chauchilla, just 19 miles south. The Nazca culture believed that the afterlife was a mirror of their earthly existence, so they buried their people in little houses constructed underground, hair braided and clothed in well-made robes, surrounded by the artifacts they had used in life – pottery for cooking, tools if you were a builder, and so on.

You can visit Chauchilla and its subterranean necropolis today because robbers had been digging up remains for some time – walking across the blistering sand, you can see bones and bits of smashed pottery scattered about – so the government turned it into a protected open-air museum.

You approach Chauchilla across miles of bleak desert, where eerie dust devils spin up out of the sand with a noise like gusts scouring the air.

Wear closed footgear – Chauchilla sits in part of the Atacama Desert (according to the National Geographic Society), commonly considered the driest place on earth. It was certainly the hottest place we’ve ever been, a strange wind-blown inferno which for some reason the Nazca peoples decided to make their home. Any of our travellers wearing sandals took no more than a few steps before they sprinted back to our overland truck to get shoes. Even the truck itself was parked under a huge shaded ‘truckport’ to keep it at a reasonable temperature while we explored the site.

Long stone-lined paths lead to covered areas where you can view the tombs.

The occupants are well-preserved and you can see details of their lives, including stone grinding bowls and simple pottery. It was an appropriate place to visit on Halloween, as it happened.

So this brought to mind my next question: how did these apparently simple peoples create the mathematically-sophisticated Nazca geoglyphs? And why would they have gone to the trouble?

Questions to ponder as we moved forward about 1,000 years in time to a place on the coast where the ancient Incas sent fresh fish by footpath over 300 miles to Cuzco, the religious centre of their culture. The road to Puerto Inka is cut through soft sand down to the beach – we blessed our skilled driver for navigating the precipitous twists and turns.

As evening began to fall we arrived at a unique place to stay, the Hotel Puerto Inka just outside the ruins of the ancient village overlooking the pounding waves of the Pacific.

After checking into one of the comfortable, salt-scented rooms stacked in layers up the hillside, many of us checked out the ruins of the Inca buildings, which even in their rustic village state still displayed remarkably precise engineering.

A few people took a walk along one of the many paths in the surrounding hills (presumably those of the fish-runners), or along the gorgeous beach.

At dinner, since it was Halloween, we celebrated with a round of Pisco Sours and organic candy suckers that I’d brought with me, while the waves crashed on the shore and storm clouds darkened the sky – a fitting wrap-up to a day of strangeness and wonder.

The Nazca Lines are one of those ancient mysteries that will haunt and intrigue us for a long time, I think, and should not be missed if you go to Peru.

Next up: beginning our high-altitude acclimation 8,000 feet up in Arequipa, the ‘White City’ for its white-stone buildings set among three looming volcanoes, and widely considered the most beautiful city in Peru. Its residents consider themselves so set-apart from the rest of the country that they even have their own, unofficial, passport (which you can buy).

In the meantime, stay calm and kind for yourself and the people around you, stay safe for the better tomorrow that will be coming.