Inspire Me! blog

Frosty wonderland

A little armchair travel for those of you who may have never had the opportunity to see this: Niagara Falls, partially frozen into spectacular blue-tinged stalactites amidst cold blue tumbles of water raising billows of white mist.

The Niagara River doesn’t always freeze — in fact, it has never completely frozen over, but it came extremely close in 1848 when an ice jam blocked up the falls, except for a few trickles, for almost two days.

In 1912 the American Falls froze solid, which must have been an amazing sight. This year, they look like a scene out of Nordic mythology.

Our Canadian Falls are still flowing freely, except for rivulets through the rock layers that have frozen on their downward drop.

Between the two Falls, more gigantic blue icicles dot the rock layers. The Falls formed when the last ice sheet retreated 10,000 years ago, but the resulting gorge had a harder top layer of limestone and dolomite over softer shale, and you can see flows of water that have worked their way through only to be petrified before they finished their journey.

Just below the Canadian Falls, chunks of ice have piled on exposed brown rock to look like sugar crystals sprinkled on chocolate chunks.

As the river continues on its way below the Falls toward Lake Erie, this winter it’s a cold steely-blue band on which we were surprised to see someone out on a boat.

Our closest groundhog has predicted an early Spring, but in the meantime we’ve been treated to a beautiful winter wonderland that’s become rare as our globe heats up. I don’t know when we’ll see it again.

Things to do when you’re snowed in (or have time on your hands)

The snow was thick on our street on our Tuesday snow day

Snow days are so much fun, even if you’re working from home or retired and don’t need to worry whether you have to try and drive through treacherous conditions to work the next morning. There’s an implicit permission to throw responsibility to the wind and play hooky for the day.

My hubby and I went to bed on Monday night with snow falling thickly and confirming the two days of storm warnings from Environment Canada. I watched from our kitchen window as fierce gusts of wind scooped the snow from rooftops and flung it across the landscape. The small garden we planted along our back fence last summer was quickly disappearing from sight.

By the time hubby’s alarm went off before daybreak, there was already at least a foot of snow blanketing our neighbourhood, clogging our front porch, driveway, the entire circle we live on, and any access to the outside world. He closed the front door, called work to say he wouldn’t be there (a great relief for me that he wasn’t going to try going and run the risk of getting stuck) and we headed back to bed to snuggle under the covers until we felt like getting up for the day.

It was a lazy morning as we watched the snow continue to pile up. A couple of our neighbours have snow blowers and were thoughtfully cleaning all of our driveways. Eventually we bundled up to clean our vehicles off, and my hubby decided to check on the progress of pieces of barn-wood he routed, glued and clamped for a side table for our rec room. Inspired by an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives we watched a few days previously, I fished out a package of ground beef from the freezer and assorted vegetables from the fridge to make a pot of minestrone for lunch. This isn’t a soup I normally make, so it was fun to stretch my repertoire – with a big bowl of steaming soup to eat at the end of it.

Then, with a cozy fire crackling in our rec room fireplace, I spent an entertaining afternoon doing research for my novel.

I’m at the point in the story where some of the main characters will intersect with actual history from the wilds of my imagination. To make that work, I need to pull up enough details from historical references to produce believable scenes that resonate with the readers.

And it’s just fun to speculate on what part my own fictional characters could have played in a real event. Finding enough genuine facts – especially if the facts are a little mysterious or unusual – to flesh out the story is like a treasure hunt. There’s definitely a serotonin rush when you come across a curious little piece of information and think, Oh yeah, that could totally work for what I have in mind!

Staying at home this winter is a little like an extended snow day, except that it’s going on far too long. The great thing about an actual snow day was the excitement of watching a storm raise havoc outside while we were safely tucked inside our home.

Pet projects make the enforced down-time more enjoyable as well, whether it’s as simple a thing as making a dish you’ve never tried before, or a virtual scavenger hunt for whatever information gives you a lift. Rather than dwelling on how much time you have to fill, just let your mind wander outside the box and toss ideas at you. They may not all be good ones, but you can’t find the garden under the snow unless you start digging 😀

Lanterns, dumplings, horoscopes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicken Satay

makes 24 skewers

marinade:

3 tbsp peanut oil

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tsp honey

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tbsp minced peeled fresh ginger

1 tbsp curry powder

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Peanut Sauce (recipe follows)

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

Peanut Sauce:

1/4 cup peanut oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tsp curry powder

2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 cup coconut milk

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup creamy peanut butter

3 tbsp lemon juice

2 tsp white wine vinegar

3 rounded tbsp brown sugar

1 cinnamon stick (3″ long)

1 bay leaf

1/4 cup boiling water

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

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

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

Nasi Kuning (Yellow Rice)

From Indonesian Food and Cookery by Sri Owen, serves 4

2 cups long-grain rice

2 cups chicken stock

1 tsp turmeric

1 cinnamon stick

1 whole clove

1 bay leaf

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

2 tbsp vegetable oil or clarified butter

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

Tumis Buncis

From Indonesian Food and Cookery by Sri Owen, serves 4

1 lb French beans

3 shallots

Pinch of chili powder

Pinch of ground/grated nutmeg

Pinch of ground ginger

6 tbsp chicken stock

2 tbsp vegetable oil or clarified butter

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

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

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

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

Small but not insignificant

I sat in on a really interesting webinar today, hosted by Action for Happiness, whose resources I’ve posted on this blog before. The topic was “Mindfulness made easy”, and although I try to regularly practice mindfulness anyway, there’s always something to learn.

Before I elaborate on the content, I just wanted to comment on the irony of many of the attendees constantly posting messages in the Chat box. If you’re not all that familiar with the concept of mindfulness, it basically means to be fully ‘in the moment’, i.e. to pay attention to where you are, what’s going on and how you’re feeling. Seems to me that the point of a webinar on Mindfulness would be to pay attention to the webinar.

Anyway, there were three great ideas discussed during the session that I thought I’d share with you as we’re all coping with a long, restricted winter:

  1. If you have trouble focusing on being in the moment, break it down into a tiny chunk that you can practice daily. As an example, the speaker, mindfulness expert and best-selling author Shamash Alidina, told us how he’d had trouble meditating, so he changed tactics to doing just one mindful breath each morning. Nothing too tough – just taking a deep breath until your entire lungs are filled, then slowly letting the breath out (it should take longer to let out than to have breathed in). He also recommended doing what he called a “1% smile” along with it, that is, a tiny partial smile which most of us can manage even on days where we really don’t feel like smiling at all. You may even find, as many of us did during the webinar, that trying to generate a teeny smile has the opposite effect – we wound up laughing.

He found that he could easily do that one special breath every morning, and even on bad days he felt good about accomplishing that one thing, which made him feel like doing more of it, and soon he did more than one breath, and so on.

This technique is recommended for incorporating any new beneficial habit into your life. For people with fibromyalgia, for example, it’s really challenging to begin an exercise program because even an amount so small that most people wouldn’t classify it as exercise makes you feel bad. Today, I did 5 minutes at a slow walk on our treadmill, followed by 8 stretches with an ab roller – and this evening, inevitably, I’m feeling beat up. But it’s not so bad that I won’t continue doing it.

I can tell you, though, that for someone who used to play a vigorous match of squash almost every single day when I was in my thirties and healthy, only 5 minutes pf walking feels ridiculous. But that’s my reality and I’ve learned to be okay with it. And acceptance is part of being kind to yourself.

  • When something is stressing you out, apply the “Pearl Habit”: reframe how you react to a stressor by, each time that it happens, using it as a prompt to give yourself some self-kindness. Alidina talked about a woman he knew who was being treated badly (psychologically) by her ex-husband during divorce proceedings, so each time that took place she began treating herself in some way. After a while she found that she wasn’t as sensitive to his attempts to push her buttons because she was dissipating the hurt and anger effectively, and eventually he began to stop doing it so often because she wasn’t reacting.

I really like this idea, since we all have stressors we can’t avoid – noisy neighbours, aggravating co-workers, rude shoppers, etc. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I like to turn an occasional bad encounter around by doing something nice for someone else, but this technique of doing something nice for yourself would be a wonderful resolution to ongoing aggravation, wouldn’t it? The next time something happens to push your buttons, try it out and see what happens.

  • An author called BJ Fogg did some research into the emotional lift we get when we accomplish something positive, even if it’s a small thing like doing that one piece of mindful breathing, and he gave that emotion a name: Shine. And we can cultivate it. We can make a point of celebrating the small things in our lives, the little successes that we accomplish.

This is the perfect time to do it. We can practice gratitude (consciously expressing gratitude for three to five things each day, or when we’re having a bad day), but we can also consciously Shine.

Here’s a personal example I can give you. London (England) has always had a thriving theatre scene, and the first time we visited we wanted to see at least one musical. But it was before the days of the internet and easy online booking. Our travel agent had a list of what was playing at that time, so one day I worked up the gumption to place a call to a well-known ticket agent in New York called Edwards & Edwards. I’d never done this sort of thing before and was also very shy in those days, so I was nervous – but determined. When the call rang through, they were pleasant and helpful, and I snagged two really good seats for one of the big hits, a musical called Chess. (You may remember its hit song, One Night in Bangkok.) When I got off the phone, I was so excited I spent a couple of minutes jumping up and down in exultation and yelling “Yes, yes, yes!” It wasn’t a big thing, but it felt really good to me.

Even if we’re not jumping up and down, let’s take pleasure in the small things we can accomplish during our troubled times.

Here’s something you can do that will not only give you a great feeling of success, but also something delicious to eat: make a pot of home-made chicken noodle soup. Have you ever done it? It’s so easy and so much better than anything you can buy in a store. Here are two ways to make it.

  1. The Quick and Dirty Method

I discovered this when I was laid up with a bad stomach bug a number of years ago. It was highly contagious and spread through a good portion of both staff and students at the college where I was working. The illness manifested really quickly: one evening in January I was feeling perfectly fine, but at about 2:30am I woke up feeling edgy and then had to make a desperate run to the bathroom to vomit. I didn’t make it all the way, so my poor hubby had to clean up a mess on the hall floor, and then hold my head while I vomited several more times violently into the toilet. I was exhausted and couldn’t stay awake for more than an hour at a time, and I couldn’t stomach any food. The only thing I was able to eat for a day and a half was fresh watermelon – my intrepid hubby searched several stores to find me some in the dead of winter.

On the third day, after the hydration and sugar from the watermelon had helped, I thought I might be able to manage some chicken noodle soup, but I was too tired to be on my feet for long. I sent my hubby on another shopping trip, and just threw all of the following items together in a big pot: chicken breasts, organic chicken broth, a package of pre-diced onions + celery + carrots, salt, and a small bag of gluten-free noodles. Then I flaked out on the couch again while the soup cooked for 30 minutes.

It was delicious, and studies have shown that home-made chicken soup has healing properties. I’ve made that version many times since then, whenever one of us has been under the weather, and the only change I’ve made is to use chicken thighs instead of breasts – they hold up better with the boiling/simmering and have more flavour. Here’s the ratio I use to make at least two dinners’ worth: 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs, 3 litres (quarts) of good-quality broth, 1 good-sized piece each of carrot + celery + cooking onion (chopped), and only about 100 to 150g of pasta (I prefer lots of broth, and adding too much pasta will make it too much like stew); add salt and pepper to taste at the end. I’ve found that a certain amount of saltiness helps settle a queasy stomach, so I like my soup a little on the salty side. That’s it.

  • The Old-fashioned From-Scratch Method

I don’t recall my mom making chicken noodle soup from scratch – she kept a lot of either Lipton’s or Campbell’s around the house because I had an ongoing case of tonsillitis and I was sick on a regular basis. My parents tried to take me for surgery when I was three, but I’d had a bad experience with a doctor as a baby and I shrieked as soon as I saw the hospital. By the time I turned five, though, I’d gotten past that, and I even asked the surgeon if I could see my tonsils after the operation. He was amused and kept them for me in a jar of formaldehyde. They were in such bad shape that to this day I remember what they looked like: a pair of lumpy white spheres with black specks. (There was much speculation at the time that I’d grow up to be a doctor, but I became a biologist instead.)

After my hubby and I began dating, I discovered that his old Polish grandmother, who loved to feed people, made a great chicken noodle soup from scratch, and I promptly abandoned store-bought.

This version too is quite easy, just a bit more time-consuming, but a lot of us have time on our hands these days.

Make the stock first:

  1. Roast some inexpensive chicken that has bones and skin (a pound of wings that you might have sitting around in the freezer will do) in the oven until the pieces brown a bit. Both the bones and the bits of fat under the skin add a lot of flavour to your stock, as does the browning.
  2. In a big Dutch oven or stock pot, put the browned chicken and any juices from the roasting pan, along with two litres of good broth and a litre of water (the broth gives a little extra boost to the stock), one cooking onion with skin on and cut into quarters, the centre 3 or 4 stalks of a bundle of celery including the leafy heart, and a hefty unpeeled carrot cut into chunks (give the vegetables a bit of a scrub first). Add 2 or 3 dried bay leaves, about 12 peppercorns, and a teaspoon of coarse sea salt. You can also add a few cloves of garlic if you want. If you want to add a little zip to your stock, toss in a couple of dried chiles broken in half.
  3. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let the stock simmer, covered, for an hour or so.
  4. Strain the stock by either pouring the contents of the pot through a colander into a big bowl, or by scooping out the solids with a slotted spoon. The poached vegetables are quite good to snack on, by the way.

Make the soup:

  1. Put the strained stock back into the pot and add: 6 boneless skinless chicken thighs, another onion peeled and chopped, a carrot chopped (wash but leave the peel on – it’s full of nutrients), and a stalk of celery sliced up crosswise into about 1/8” thick slices (at the wider end, cut the stalk in half lengthwise to keep the slices fairly consistent in size). Add chopped fresh herbs if you have them (parsley or dill are nice), or a teaspoon of dried. Bring to a boil and simmer for about half an hour.
  2. Cook your pasta separately, however much you want to use (remembering that pasta swells as it cooks).
  3. Once the soup has cooked, drain the pasta and add it to the soup at the end, along with salt and pepper to taste. (In the Quick method, the pasta is cooked right in the soup, which tastes fine but adds some cloudiness to the end product.)
  4. To serve, put a piece of chicken in a bowl and cut up into small pieces, then add the broth, vegetables and pasta. Enjoy!

The idea of mindfulness is to set aside all the detritus we carry around most of the time – worrying about the bills or the appliance that sounds like it’s going to fail soon, avoiding the coronavirus, our kids are fighting, and on and on – for a little while to take a breather, to just appreciate something nice we’re doing at the moment. A lot of the time we forget to do that.

Making a wonderful pot of soup on a cold winter day is the perfect antidote to both the weather and your mind running around in circles. It’s nourishing, comforting, and feels really good to produce. Life doesn’t get much better than sharing that soothing deliciousness with your family or someone you’re keeping in contact with who needs a pick-me-up. Let me know how you make out 😊

If you’re having trouble coping with the heightened state of worry we’re all in these days, check out the many free resources and webinars offered by the Action for Happiness organization. I think you’ll find some really good ideas to help you.

Next week: getting ready for another fun holiday to celebrate: the Lunar (Chinese) New Year coming up on February 12th.

Final adventures in Peru/Boliva

Imagine a plateau nestled in the tops of the mountains, a lake so high it surpasses the tree line, and a capital city almost as high as the top of the Rocky Mountains.

The final leg of our adventure was also the most challenging: a week fully at high altitude, over 12,000 feet.From Cuzco our tour climbed upward to the Altiplano, the huge plateau stretching from Peru to Argentina. It’s noted for its thin air, but by this time most of us were well-acclimated and able to enjoy the scenery.

Our journey took us along the Ruta del Sol, the Route of the Sun, which wound in and around the mountain peaks, often following the railway line. The skies were an unearthly blue in the thin, clean air.

We passed a surprising array of traditional villages, their women wearing a variety of different hat styles specific to their region.

There were a surprising number of farms managing to grow crops in the increasingly difficult elevations.

While we saw a lot of signs for modern products, the architecture was mainly still adobe brick.

At lunchtime we stopped at La Raya Pass, an intimidating 14, 271 feet high, but you couldn’t beat the view.

At the top there’s a research centre and a small bazaar where the colourful Andean handicrafts are vivid against the deep blue of the sky and the charcoal and amber mountain peaks topped with snow.

From La Raya we travelled across a vast, flat and windy landscape of ochre scrub against brilliant blue skies. It felt almost alien in its remoteness.

Somehow people manage to raise cattle in the rarified air, well above the tree line with little in the way of pasture apart from spiky tufts of tough Andean grass.

As we got closer to our destination for the night, the city of Puno on the edge of Lake Titicaca, which is fed by numerous small rivers, we could see thin ultramarine waterways snaking across the plateau.

By dusk we reached Puno, set spectacularly at one end of the lake.

The next morning we clambered into tuk-tuks for a wild and crazy ride racing through the streets (literally — our drivers were competing with each other) to the harbour.

Hubby and me, getting ready for the mad dash to the harbour

At the harbour we bought food gifts (fresh produce and olive oil) for our hosts — we’d be spending the night in homestays on Amantani Island about two hours away in the middle of Lake Titicaca — and boarded our motorboat for an amazing ride across the highest navigable lake in the world.

The part of the lake closest to Puno is a maze of totora reeds, whose thick stalks provided shelter and a new way of life for ancient people fleeing conquest by the Incas.

The Uros people fled the Incas out into the Lake and built floating islands from the reeds that they’ve lived on for centuries. There is regular traffic between the islands and Puno, and our boat passed a teacher being rowed out to the islands.

The islands float placidly on the relatively still waters in this section of the lake.

The Uros use the reeds for many purposes: as the base for the islands, as homes, food and natural remedies. The reeds can be opened up and are remarkably cool inside — they’re used as compresses for aches and pains.

It’s a remarkable culture that seems to be staying more-or-less untouched, apart from a few motorboats.

Each island holds a complete family, and each has its own style. Our tour included a stop on one family’s island to see how they live. The islands are constructed of layers of reeds running in different directions, and as the top layer dries out, fresh reeds are added to the top. Walking on them is a little spongy, but not wet. Remarkably, they even cook with open fires on their floating patch of ‘land’.

The family gathered together to show us how they make their handicrafts…

They also gave us a little demonstration of how the islands are constructed,

Their quite beautiful handicrafts are for sale, and help provide income.

The Uros culture is an incredible peek into an ancient past, and a world of colour set at the top of the Andes. If you go to Peru and can manage the altitude, it’s not to be missed.

From the Floating Islands we continued on for another hour and a half across the stunning blue waters edged by snow-crusted mountain tops, where we really got a sense of traversing this super-high lake.

At Amantani Island we met our homestay “mothers” and were escorted to our homes for the night.

Amantani truly is a time capsule, although the women who provide their homes must have certain conveniences and be able to speak two languages. Our mother, Rosa, spoke Quechua and Spanish. If you’re thinking of doing this, it will be of great help if you can speak a little Spanish so you can converse with your hostess.

Rosa had added a top floor to her adobe home for bedrooms, which were clean, basic and colourful — just comfortable beds and thick woven blankets to ward against the night chill. There’s no central heating, and the temperature drops precipitously when the sun goes down.

We ate three meals freshly cooked by Rosa and her daughter, Kenia.

The islanders are vegetarians — they keep a communal cow and their own sheep to provide milk for cheese. Our lunch consisted of a delicious vegetable soup, followed by a plate of an assortment of cooked potatoes, with a semi-soft cheese and a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers picked from their garden behind the house.

There was a fully-functioning bathroom with a flush toilet and cool shower. I’d been expecting much more rudimentary facilities, so this was a nice surprise.

After lunch we walked to the central village, which is small but has a school, church and some cafes, which serve as local gathering places.

After a supper of vegetable stew with rice, with more of the vegetable soup to start, each housemother provided traditional clothing for her guests — which we put on atop our regular clothing, as the night was already quite chilly — and led us to the community centre, where they put on a lively dance for us and we got to learn Andean moves. We didn’t keep them up too late, as they lead very busy lives without modern conveniences — but they took a photo of all of us in our finery. It was a really fun evening, after which we went back to our home, changed into thick sweats and crawled in under our blankets to fall deeply asleep.

Yours truly seated in the front left with the dark green skirt (over my hiking pants).

After a breakfast of scrambled eggs and more potatoes, Rosa walked us back to the boat and we continued on to Taquile Island, famous for its beautiful knitwear. While Amantani was fairly flat, Taquile is a big hill, and many of us were stopping regularly to gasp for air as we climbed the long grade up to the town.

Taquile is very dry and scrubby, with lots of succulents and meandering rock walls.

This island has some hydro, but the residents live simply and recycle everything, like this pair of old sandal soles repurposed as gate hinges.

With its rolling scrubby terrain and tall dark green trees set against a deep blue sea, I felt like I’d stepped into Greek mythology, even though we were on the other side of the world.

The town is larger than the one on Amantani, and has a craft cooperative located in the two-tiered building you see below.

The island is world-renowned for the quality of its knitting, which is all done by the men; the women do the weaving for garments. Each pattern has a specific meaning and often incorporates elements from the weaver’s/knitter’s life.

While we didn’t converse much with the villagers, while I sat to eat a sandwich this little girl seem entranced by a game of ‘I’ll roll the bottle cap down the steps and you pick it up and give it back to me’, which she did over and over again.

The island was full of vivid villager life, like these two boys rolling hoops down the steep paths. I took many pictures, too many to show here.

All too soon it was time to board the boat to return to Puno and head to Desaguadero, the somewhat wild frontier-like town that governs the border between Peru and Bolivia on this stretch of road.

It took us quite a while to circumnavigate Lake Titicaca.

We were high enough to pass through areas with snowfall.

Desaguadero is a jumble of shops, thick traffic, the customs house and people waiting to get across the border.

The central square is a bustling hive of tough-looking money-changers and sellers of anything from housewares to ‘fresh’ meat.

Trucks, buses, pedal-carts and people all throng the crossing waiting for their turn.

Once across the border, we headed across the Bolivian Altiplano to the ruins of Tiwanku, which I highlighted in a December post.

From Tiwanaku, across the barren heights where it seems impossible to live, we headed to our final destination for the trip, and our final overnight stop, the capital city of Bolivia and the highest capital in the world, La Paz. It nestles stunningly between a ring of mountain peaks, and sits at roughly 13,000 feet high.

This altitude is not for the faint of heart, and while some tours actually begin here and work their way downwards, I wouldn’t recommend it. Every hotel stocks coca leaf tea in the lobby.

La Paz is a fascinating mixture of old and new, climbing up and down the hills on dusty streets. We were only there overnight and didn’t get to see much, particularly as one of our fellow travellers was ill and we stayed in to take care of her. But we were glad to have been there for a little while, in this city at the top of the Andes.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little escape to South America, particularly during this cold, virus-challenged winter, and I hope I’ve inspired you to visit these amazing places one day. Take your camera and a lot of storage capacity — you’ll need it. If you’ve been there already, I hope I’ve reminded you of some pleasant memories.