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.

Out of the mind’s eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, my day started off with a bang today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view of Lake Ontario from the walking trail

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

Checking into the lodge

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

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

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

Key lime cheesecake

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

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

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

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

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

Boldt Castle on Heart Island
The humble yacht house

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

Cornwall Pub
My delicious g-f pizza

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

Smuggler’s Glen Golf Course

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

The entrance to Pumpkinferno

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

Ticket-holder entrance points

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

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

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

All photos by me and all rights reserved.

The navel of Peru

The Incas worshiped the Andean mountains, and as we traveled onward from Chivay to Cuzco, we could see why. This stretch was probably our longest on the road, but the mountains were endlessly fascinating – snow-capped peaks in vivid colours from ochre to deep charcoal brushing the piercingly blue sky.

The road at Mirador de los Andes

We reached the Mirador le los Andes, the highest point in the road, where a lookout offers stunning views of five volcanic peaks, including El Misti, the mountain looming over Arequipa, and Ampato, the final dramatic resting place of the Ice Maiden. Disembarking at an altitude of 4910 metres (16, 109 feet), we were warned to take things very slowly when we got off the overland truck, lest we pass out from lack of oxygen. The air was bright and cold as we stepped down onto the thin gravel surface, and it felt like we’d suddenly aged thirty years.

An artful rock stack framed by the mountains at Mirador

A small lake of rocks surrounds the lookout, and it’s become a tradition for visitors to build little rock stacks as a prayer to the gods for safe travels. My hubby and I shuffled around and soaked in the remarkable feeling of standing on the roof of the world, and I unexpectedly understood what drives the Mt Everest climbers: the exhilaration of both seeing what your body is capable of and experiencing sights so profound we were speechless.

The peaks of the Andes are a world unto themselves, with llama farms in the middle of nowhere, odd little outposts dotting the wide plateaus, small villages where people still carry on in the old ways, entrepreneurial women selling their beautiful textiles along the roadsides, and pockets of shimmering blue lakes.

It was growing dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Cuzco, and when I asked the driver to stop for a bathroom break, we discovered that our ailing passenger had relapsed and wasn’t able to walk. I spoke to our overall tour leader and as soon as we reached our hotel, the three of us made a beeline to a small hospital, my traveler head resting on my shoulder for the ride, while everyone else checked into their rooms.

Plaza de Armas at night

The hospital immediately ran a battery of tests, and confirmed what I’d suspected: more altitude sickness, which had driven my traveler blood pressure sky high, coupled with a reaction to the antibiotic that the doctor in Chivay had prescribed. She was put on IV to get her pressure back under control, and a different antibiotic. I processed the travel insurance information as our tour leader translated for me with her far more fluent Spanish.

Finally, exhausted, the leader and I got back to the hotel around 10pm. My hubby had arranged to get some take-out chicken from a little place down the street so that I was able to have a light dinner. Our traveler would remain in the hospital for two days while we moved on to the Amazon jungle the next morning (see my June 25 blog post for the details from that part of our adventure). A few other people who were planning on hiking the Inca Trail also elected to remain in Cuzco to spend more time acclimating. When we returned to Cuzco, she had recovered well and was able to continue on the journey, and the rest of us had acclimated to the altitude as well and were feeling pretty chipper. But we had picked up some additional passengers while we were in the Amazon (the tour could be joined at different points and carried on beyond Bolivia, which was the endpoint for my little group), and they had just experienced a steep change in altitude in a single day, from about 600 feet to over 11,000. Several of them were setting out on the challenging Inca Trail hike the next morning.

None of my group from Canada had wanted to do the 4-day hike, so I’d arranged for our own little adventure,  exploring Cuzco and the Sacred Valley for two days, followed by a train ride along the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu and two nights at a hotel in the midst of the Andean Cloud Forest.

Pachacuti, 9th Sapa Inca

Cuzco was the ancient capital of the Incan Empire, considered the navel of its civilization, and it shows. Spanish conquistadores captured the city in the 1500s and literally built on top of what they’d conquered, but although the native peoples assimilated into the Spanish rule they remained unbowed, their skilled artisans subtly adding their own stamp to the churches, incorporating their local delicacies into Christian holidays (guinea pig remains the preferred specialty for Christmas), keeping their Quechua language alive to this day. And in a final irony, every time there was an earthquake the elaborate Spanish buildings would crumble atop their superb-crafted Incan bases.

The Koricancha, where a Spanish convent is built on top of Incan walls

The resulting city, set breathtakingly in the bowl of a ring of peaks, is an amalgamation of old Peru sprinkled with magnificent Spanish architecture, narrow streets spreading upward from the pretty central square.

If you pay attention there are bits of the Incans all over the place, like a sinuous little snake carved high on a wall, to an entire wall with stones set in the shape of a puma, one of the sacred animals of the Incas. It’s believed that the original city was built in the shape of a puma. In this wall there’s also a famous 12-sided stone that everyone goes to see for its remarkably-precise fit among its adjacent stones.

The entire area was considered deeply sacred, and is full of smaller but important sites to visit. Cuzco is definitely a tourist centre, and tours can be booked for all manner of sights and activities. Accommodations abound, from hostels to mid-range to luxurious, and services abound for the independent traveler.

There’s a lively food scene. On our first morning we headed for the legendary Jack’s, famous for its full breakfasts and amazing coffee creations.

The next morning we returned to a place we’d had dinner in the night before, a little place with creaky floors on the top story of a building, where we had the best oatmeal I’ve ever had in my life, rich and sublimely creamy with a perfect amount of cinnamon added; I had planned to go back and ask for the recipe but never did make it, sadly. Chocolate lovers can even take classes in making their own.

Shops abound, many with a spiritual vibe channelling the mystical surroundings – I bought a shaman’s rattle at this little shop down the road from the Incan wall and the 12-sided stone.

In the Gallery above I found a tapestry representing the quipu, the series of knotted strings used for counting, and some believe for language transmission as well. Very few of the precious original quipu survive, so I knew I’d never get my hands on a real one, but my small wall-hanging is good enough for me, a tribute to that remarkable ancient culture.

Entrance to the Cathedral

Touring the Spanish constructions is de rigueur, and gives insight into the blending of the two cultures. In the Cathedral, you can see evidence of the subversive insertion of Incan symbology: every image of the Virgin Mary in her robes is in the shape of the sacred mountain, a painting of the Last Supper features guinea pig on the table, and many of the carved wooden seats have startling finials on the arms in the shape of bare-breasted women. Photography wasn’t allowed in the interior, so you’ll have to go and see all this for yourself 🙂

Cuzco also has an excellent museum to learn more about the Incas and their remarkable civilization.

Stunning Sacsayhuaman

Surrounding the city are a collection of lesser-known but important sacred sights. My favourite was Sacsayhuaman, long stacked walls with massive stone blocks undulating under the deep blue sky and showing the astounding expertise of the Incan builders – they found that making the layers rise and fall within each wall rendered them virtually earthquake-proof.

Fountains at Tambomachay

Tambomachay is believed to have been an ancient palace, and is replete with fountains and baths. It’s set in a lovely valley along a stream lined with olive trees and small shrubs. At the end of the valley, even if you’re not doing the famous hike to Machu Picchu, you can walk for a while in solitary enjoyment along the original trail first laid down by the Incas, who created a vast network of paths for their runners throughout the country, one of which ran far out to the coast at Puerto Inka (see this blog post). People live on the slopes above the site, and women in traditional dress bring colour to the scene.

My opportunity to walk a little of the original Inca trail

At Qenko you descend into the Incan underworld, into a deep cold chamber used for sacrifices. It is a huaca, a natural stone site that was believed by the Incas to have intrinsic sacred qualities.

Quenko

As you might have discerned, we loved Cuzco and could happily have spent at least a week there if we’d had the time. My research had shown reports about a high crime rate, but all of us wandered all over the place and had no incidents, apart from one fellow who left foolishly $700 locked up in his dufflebag in the hotel storage while we spent two days in the Amazon jungle and returned to find it had been stolen. (Note to travelers: always carry your valuables with you.) Cuzco is an intriguing and charming city in a spectacular setting with a large amount of history and culture to explore, so give yourself more than a single day there.

On the day we set out for Aguas Calientes, our package included a tour of the Sacred Valley itself, where the silvery Urubamba River winds among emerald-sided mountains until it reaches Machu Picchu itself.

Looking down on the Sacred Valley

We visited the ancient agricultural site of Pisac, where tall terraces step steeply down a mountainside like a massive stadium. Among their many talents, the Inca civilization also included skilled farmers – each level of the terraces had a different microclimate that would support different types of plants. Modern Peruvians still use these ancient techniques to grow food in what would seem some of the most difficult locations.

The terraces of Pisac

We also spent a delightful hour at the Awana Kancha Cooperative, where sixteen families keep alive the ancient weaving and dying techniques. We learned that the four different camelids of South America – the llama, the alpaca, the vicuna and the guanaco, are all related to the camels we’d seen (and ridden) in Egypt. You can pet and feed some of them, if they’re willing, and learn how dyes are traditionally made from different plants. Women in beautifully coloured clothing demonstrate their remarkable weaving. For visitors to Peru, this place should not be missed.

Llamas come in different colours

Following a steady stream of tour buses, we finally reached Ollantaytambo, well-known as the jumping-off point for the Inca Trail hike, but more significantly as the ceremonial centre of the Incan empire, as well as the royal estate for the emperor Pachacuti, whose golden statue dominates the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco.

Llama escapees on the road
Folloiwing the buses

More steep agricultural terraces rise up a hillside, interspersed with grain storehouses, while at the bottom there are houses, baths and fountains.

This photo gives an idea of the sheer size of Ollantaytambo. Storehouses can be seen in the upper right.

This site was chosen because of a natural feature on the mountainside which the Inca believed was the face of Tunupa, better known as Viracocha, the great creator god who rose from the waters of Lake Titicaca high up in the Andes; we would later see that lake itself and more of Viracocha at the remote ruins of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

The town of Ollantaytambo is charming, with a colourful market and the train station where, after a quick lunch in town, we boarded our window-lined Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes.

For me this was one of our best train rides ever, as we were transported along the winding Urubamba River along the same route that Hiram Bingham followed in 1911 when he searched for the lost city of Vilcabamba, instead making one of the most famous archeological finds in history, the lost citadel of Machu Picchu. With soft pan-pipe music playing over the intercom, through the domed windows we watched the river tumble by over a series of rapids, past thick walls of vegetation and clouds rolling in over distant peaks.

I could picture what it must have been like for Bingham’s expedition hacking through the untouched jungle in search of ancient mysteries (see this photo from his journeys of crossing a rough log bridge over the raging river below the mountain on which Machu Picchu sits, and more, on the Machu Picchu Explorer website, about the book written by his son).

http://www.machupicchuexplorer.com/AMBpix-2.htm

As dusk began to fall, we arrived at the station in Aguas Calientes,

A representative from the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel collected our luggage and we followed her through town to the property, set in 12 acres of cloud forest on the edge of town, where we would spend the next two nights in Andean comfort as we explored Bingham’s legacy for ourselves. Check back in November for what we saw and experienced in one of the world’s most famous places.