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.

Feeling Peachy

It’s peach season here in southern Ontario! Beautiful reddish-gold peaches are ripening on trees, ready to eat in all their juice-dripping freshness or – even better to my mind – to deepen their flavour through cooking.

August peach time means a few things to me: the advent of ‘harvest’, with its connotations of gathering in supplies of food to share with family and friends; the approach of cooler weather (hopefully); the upcoming return of my favourite season, autumn, and all that it brings (sweater days, log fires, changing leaves, pumpkins, Thanksgiving meals, and the delightful spookiness of Halloween).

Now the peaches are ripe…

… the grapes are growing heavy on the vines …

… the corn is getting tall and tasseled.

Here we’re blessed to live in a tender-fruit agricultural area, with over 1500 farms growing a luscious selection of bright fruits and vegetables – a special boon for those of us who are garden-challenged like myself. Roadside markets dot the country byways, another great reason to do some exploring in our regional back yard and enjoy milder sunny days in the fresh air while bringing back a splendid haul for our kitchens. I’m happy to support our local restaurants and take-out spots during this time, but there’s something soul-warming in cooking a great meal yourself and then enjoying it out on the patio (or balcony, or a picnic table in a local nature area).

These meals don’t need to be elaborate – in fact, the simplicity of putting together delicious food using a few quality ingredients is the epitome of a more relaxed, down-to-earth lifestyle that this pause in the global rat race is giving us a new chance to appreciate.

After a strenuous weekend adding a new privacy garden to our back yard (with evergreens and shrubs, the two categories of self-sufficient plants I’ve been able to grow successfully) and some new cushions for our patio furniture, my hubby and I chilled out on the patio enjoying the cooler evening air and eating uncomplicated summer food – grilled sausages with corn and tomato salad, and ham and asparagus pasta with Fontina cheese followed by fresh peach and cinnamon cake.

Peaches belong to the “tender fruit” category, a somewhat vague term that I’ve never been able to find a definition for other than that it means cherries, nectarines, peaches, pears and plums – as opposed to “crisp” fruit (i.e. apples), grapes and berries.

We have a provincial tender-fruit board, ontariotenderfruit.ca, that even offers a variety of recipes for each of the different fruits, including peaches.

My primary choice of what to do with a handsome basket of peaches would be a golden peach pie, deep orange-pink pieces of caramelized fruit temptingly peeking out through the slits in the sugary top crust, but I’ve yet to find a gluten-free flour that will allow me to make a double crust.

There are plenty of alternatives, through, so I’ll give you the peach and cinnamon cake recipe I just tried out that worked beautifully with Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free flour as a straight 1-to-1 substitution. My only recommendation for the recipe, whose provenance unfortunately I’ve lost track of, is to add extra peaches to really enjoy their lush flavour!

As our summer winds down to cozier weather, enjoy the bounty that August brings amid some quiet time away from all the crazy news and frothing global debate. Simplicity and eating good food outdoors are great, low-cost antidotes that we can all use right now.

Fresh Peach Cake

(recipe origin lost) makes one 9” sq cake

¼ lb unsalted butter, room temp

1½ cups sugar

2 extra-large eggs, room temp (not having read this properly beforehand, I ended up successfully using 3 smaller-sized large eggs)

1 cup sour cream, room temp

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose or gluten-free flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

½ tsp kosher salt (I used fine Himalayan sea salt)

1 tsp ground cinnamon

3 lg ripe peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced (look for ‘free-stone’ peaches, which have flesh that separates easily from the pit)

½ cup chopped pecans (worked well with walnuts since I’d run out of pecans)

Preheat the oven to 350oF. Grease a 9” square baking pan.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and 1 cup of the sugar for three to five minutes on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. With the mixer on low, add the eggs, one at a time, then the sour cream and vanilla. Mix until the batter is smooth.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the batter and mix just until combined.

In a small bowl mix the remaining sugar and the cinnamon.

Spread half of the batter evenly in the prepared pan. Top with half of the peaches, then sprinkle with two-thirds of the cinnamon sugar. Spread the remaining batter on top, arrange the rest of the peaches on top of the batter and sprinkle with the remaining cinnamon sugar. Scatter the chopped nuts on the very top.

Bake the cake for 45 to 55 minutes, until a tester or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature.

All photos on this site are by me (unless otherwise specified) and all rights are reserved.

Days well spent

A year ago around this time my hubby and I were finalizing our September trip to Ireland, and I was looking forward to taking lots of photos for this blog. A year ago we weren’t all living the pages of a science fiction novel.

We never know where life is going to take us, do we?

While we wait out this odd limbo we’re in, we think about what ‘afterward’ is going to look like. No one knows what the future will be, so to my mind let’s make the most of the unexpected time we have on our hands in the present.

Here in Ontario home renovations are booming – all those projects people have been wanting to get to but never had enough time.

There’s a bonanza of flowers and plants at one of our local nurseries, rows and rows of gorgeous colour and texture to explore like a yard sale in the Garden of Eden. I could have wandered through there for hours, but I wanted to get home with my treasures: a glorious flame-red canna lily to plant next to our moody purple smoke bush, and a vibrant pot garden.

I have very little skill as a gardener (didn’t get my mother’s green-thumb gene), but I love plants and I needed to add these two bursts of energy to the front of our house. I needed to add some brightness to what feels like a faded version of our world these days.

This is a great time to stretch yourself, to discover new things. In the ‘afterwards’, things will have shifted. I suspect we’ll be labelling things as “pre-“ or “post-“ COVID, and like any major upheaval the most successful survivors will be the ones who were most adaptable.

You’ve probably seen a TV show about the rambunctious troops of macaque monkeys that have taken over the city of Jaipur in India. National Geographic produced two entertaining series about these hardy little survivors called Monkey Thieves. The macaques and their rivals, the grey langurs, have been driven out of their normal wild habitat by the expanding human population, but they’re making the most of their new city homes. Macaques are extraordinarily adaptable – clever and resourceful, they’re willing to eat just about anything and sleep almost anywhere. Rather than dying out, they’re thriving in Indian cities to the point of becoming nuisances.

Koala bears, by contrast, are critically endangered. They eat only eucalyptus leaves, and of the 700 varieties of eucalyptus in Australia, they’ll only feed from a tiny percentage. We humans have backed them into an ecological corner which they may not survive.

So this is a great time to, like the wily macaques, explore and find out what you can make use of. Try things you might not have considered before – who knows what you might find you like and are even pretty good at.

Early into our home ownership, as a young married couple in a bad economy (mortgage rates were as high as 18%) we couldn’t afford much in the way of Christmas decorations. I saw a beautiful grapevine wreath in a store that I just couldn’t swing, but we had a home-crafting store called White Rose that carried all the basics, and I thought that maybe I could make my own wreath for a fraction of the cost. I had no idea what I was doing – no inkling of things like glue guns, even – but my version turned out just as pretty as the store-made version, much to my surprise. Making my own holiday florals has been a passion of mine ever since – I hunt through different sources to put together very personalized wreaths and table arrangements to compliment our house colour scheme, and tweak them as I find interesting new objects I’d like to add or swap in. I did actually sell custom-made creations for a while, which was fun but not my ultimate goal so I didn’t keep it up.

A fresh Christmas arrangement that I put together every year

One of the things that did stick professionally was photography. During a summer job while I was in university that involved mapping a local conservation area for visitor use, I was asked to take some photos and put together a promotional brochure – not my forte as a biology major, but my brother had loaned me one of his cameras and I got some good photos of a Great Blue Heron on the edge of one of the ponds. I never had ambitions of becoming a professional, but over the years I’ve taken photos for a real estate agent, the college I worked at, and of course thousands of travel photos that allowed us to show the rest of the world to our non-travelling friends and family. I love to take photos that capture all the cool little parts of a place that are rarely portrayed in the destination marketing, all the personal experiences that have brought a place alive for us.

This photo of a pair of stuffed faux llamas decorated in all their finery in the artsy little city of Arequipa in Peru is one of my personal favourites. Arequipa is one of the coolest places in Peru but most tours unfortunately skip it. It’s full of culture and colour, though, as well as delicious food, an amazing convent complex that’s a small city on its own, and even the famous Ice Maiden herself, found at the top of Andes a few years ago. (More about Arequipa in an upcoming post!)

One of the biggest changes to my life occurred after I decided to get over my fear of public speaking. It has empowered me and transformed my life in ways I would never have foreseen.

Burdened with one of the most common fears people have, I was able to practice avoidance strategy until I began working at our local college and found myself having to say things in meetings. I absolutely dreaded even introducing myself. After a while, though, I got tired of dodging opportunities. One of the vice-presidents at the college had started up a chapter of Toastmasters and an acquaintance of mine who was already a member recommended that I join. Finally I got up the nerve to do it, although I lurked silently in a back corner of the meeting room for weeks. The members were kind enough to give me that space – otherwise I probably would have bolted in the first few minutes.

Eventually I started working on the speaking projects and got used to getting up in front of the room with the entire group of members focused on me alone. I wasn’t a natural by any means and I had to work hard at learning the basic skills, but I achieved my primary goal, to be able to say something in a meeting without freezing like a deer in headlights.

About two years into the program I was unexpectedly contacted by our local public library to come and do a presentation about Kenya – they’d seen some media about a trip that I’d run to Kenya for the college. My first instinct was to duck out of it, but I’d joined Toastmasters for a reason and I wanted to take this next small step. I was still pretty novice and quite nervous, but I had great photos and stories from the trip. I found myself enjoying the experience, something that I would have laughed at skeptically just a handful of years before that. When some of the attendees came up to chat with me afterward and told me that I was a good storyteller, I jumped a hurdle I’d never banked on.

I’ve done many talks for the library and other organizations since then. One of my favourite stories: all the while that I was doing a later presentation about Peru and Bolivia, a fellow at the far end of the front row was tapping into his cell phone. He wasn’t disturbing anyone, so I left it alone – all the other attendees seemed to be getting a lot out of the presentation. During Q&A at the end of the talk, I assumed that he’d be the first to bug out, but he startled me by asking if the remote temple of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian Andes would be accessible from the town of Copacabana, which he was going to visit in a few months. I’d only included a handful of photos from the site in my presentation, as the brief finale of our trip on the way to our end destination of La Paz, but they’d made such an impression on him that on the spot he decided to see Tiwanaku himself.

When you can get up to talk to people and have a personal impact on their lives, that’s an amazing feeling. By the time I’d served on our regional board and also on the international team that developed the updated Toastmasters program in the past decade, I’d become a different person – comfortable in any situation, confident, well-spoken even in a pinch. Pushing myself to overcome the fear has opened a lot of doors and taken my life in so many new directions.

Dare to imagine what else you could be. Most people have time on their hands now, and there are plenty of opportunities to try out something different. Even if those different things don’t become your passion, at the very least they’ll have expanded your skill base, and in the best-case scenario they may send you on your own amazing journey to a new post-COVID life.

In the meantime, they’ll also serve as a multi-purpose way to pass the time, especially to take your mind off the news. At a virtual photography conference I attended last month, one of the speakers, Caroline Jensen (a Sony Artisan), talked about “Stress Relief in Your Own Backyard” through macro photography. This technique of focusing in on the close-up details of a flower, a butterfly, or any other pieces of nature, keeps you completely absorbed in the moment for hours at a time. She even recommends it as a way to help children cope with their own anxiety.

It opens up a new world in the familiar places we’re all currently restricted to. I live near the Welland Canal, and walking alongside to watch a fascinating ore freighter chug by the other day, I spotted a variety of pretty wildflowers growing along the banks, small enough that most walkers probably passed them by. Great practice for a photographer though 😊

Nature is one of our best sources of therapy during challenging times, and for the most part it’s free to access, especially if you don’t happen to have a back yard of your own to spend placid time in. On any walk in your local woods, you might spot a bright little chipmunk, or admire the sculptural forms of a fallen tree.

If you’d like to try out some macro photography yourself, you can find Caroline’s Quick Start guide here, along with some of her wonderful examples.

I’d like to leave you with a great short TED talk, just a little less than 10 minutes, that was mentioned during the photography conference. Louie Schwartzberg is a renowned photographer who’s spent his career taking time-lapse videos of flowers blooming, and what a magical gift it is to watch them do their thing. His talk includes wise words from a Benedictine monk that, although the talk was done in 2011, couldn’t be more applicable to our present confusion and uncertainty. It’s about how to appreciate nature and the world around us, and to take comfort in each day as the gift that it is.