Inspire Me! blog

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.

The surreal coastline of Peru

This week really got away from me! Hubby and I were watching a two-episode show on Prime video called El Dorado, an ‘archeological’ adventure made in 2010 to capitalize on the impending ‘end of the world’ in 2012 (according to the Mayan calendar). The show played pretty fast and loose with archeology – even the supernatural parts – but the scenery of Peru is spectacular. Then hubby pointed out to me that it’s Thursday!

So, this blog post is a bit seat-of-my-pants, but it will give you an idea of the strange and often other-worldly coastline of Peru, where the Andes mountains dip their feet in the Pacific Ocean, creating some hair-raising roads that hug the mountainsides alternating with lunar-looking desert and verdant farms that demonstrate that modern Peruvians haven’t lost their skill at agriculture.

Leaving Lima very quickly shows you Peruvian life outside of the one-percenters. Ramshackle towns perch between the highway and the beach.

You are travelling along the famous Pan-American Highway, an ambitious concept designed to stretch between both tips of North and South America. The United States had a vision of cooperation among all the countries in the Western Hemisphere, and held the First International Conference of American States in 1890. Delegates from 13 countries attended, and among numerous political discussions one of the ideas proposed was a railroad that would stretch along the entire western coastline. Several decades into the new century, when road transportation began to dominate, the highway was born, and it was quite a thrill to be riding on a portion of the South American network.

Life is very basic outside Lima, almost a throwback to another time, with plaster or mud brick homes mixed with shop stalls selling modern goods like open-air convenience stores.

The road weaves in and out along the coast, sometimes moving inward through hills on which the Peruvians, echoing the ancient desert carvings on the Nazca Plateau toward which the highway is leading, have inscribed gigantic advertisements into the dirt.

The roadside is also dotted with odd little shrines and memorials in isolated places.

Within a handful of hours we’ve arrived at our overnight destination, the little city of Pisco. The word “pisco” means bird in the old Peruvian language of Quechua, which has been in use for hundreds of years, long before the Inca Empire. Pisco sits amid the remnants of the ancient Paracas culture, which flourished over 1000 years before the Incas. In modern times this section of coastline is part of the Paracas National Reserve, a protected area that straddles both arid coast and the deep blue aquatic biosphere off shore, where thousands of birds and other sea creatures live on islands strewn across the waters.

The moisture in the sandy soil allows vines to flourish, despite the heat and dryness, and one of the products to come out of those grapes has made the town famous: Pisco brandy, used to make the delicious Pisco Sour.

After checking into our quaint hotel scrunched in at the edge of one of the streets in the middle of the city, where the rooms were basic and clean, we went down to the main square to explore a little of the area before dinner.

Pisco is in an earthquake zone, and in 2010, just two years before our visit, an 8.0-magnitude quake destroyed about 80% of the city, which was still being rebuilt. From the pretty central park, filled with funky topiaries and pretty gardens, we could see signs of the damage in the severely cracked bell tower of the Cathedral, which was so bad that they had to construct a new church next door.

Nevertheless, the people of Pisco are resilient, and many relax in the park as the day winds down or stroll the delightful open-air market.

With such a long coastline, Peru specializes in fresh seafood, and we returned to our hotel for a fabulous meal that began with the beverage we’d been holding off on trying until we could sample it in its home base — the amazing Pisco Sour. It reminded me of a sweeter Margarita, but smoother and more refreshing.

We followed that with a huge bowl of chicken and vegetable soup topped with a fried egg — pure Peruvian comfort food!

Some of our group opted for the fresh seafood paella, which looked fantastic, although I’m not a big seafood eater myself.

It’s a short drive from Pisco to the town of Paracas, the jumping-off point for cruises out to the Ballestas Islands, an animal sanctuary out in the ocean formed of a series of rocky outcrops amid the Humboldt Current, which brings many creatures to these little outposts in the water.

Paracas has a nice little waterfront that you can stroll as you wait for your boat, with cute little cafes strung along the promenade.

The ride out to the islands is smooth and pleasurable. On the way you get an excellent view of a strange and massive figure cut into the desert sands approximately 2,200 years ago by the Paracas peoples! It’s been named El Candelabro because of its shape, but no one knows what it really represents. Although it’s hard to tell from the water as you pass by, the figure is 595 feet tall, and was cut two feet into the soil, allowing it to last for over two millennia and be seen 12 miles away.

You can spot the Ballestas Islands from some distance, pretty grey mounds sprinkled through the deep blue water.

Your boat will take you quite close, and if you’re at all prone to seasickness, let me warn you that the remainder of the cruise is going to be quite unpleasant while you get spectacular views of the wildlife. The waters are very choppy as they swirl around the rocks, and the bobbing up and down of the boat mixed with the strong smell of boat fuel as your pilot stops at each outcrop is intense.

I’d taken an anti-nauseant before we boarded, and had to hurriedly swallow a second one while we were out there, neither of which helped very much. I’m not sorry we took the cruise, but I paid for it for several hours afterward. Fair warning should you choose to go 🙂

The closeup views of the wildlife are worth the effort, though. These islands are often referred to as the mini-Galapagos for a reason, but unlike those more famous islands, here visitors are not allowed on shore, which is non-existent anyway.

Numerous sea lions basking on the rocks
The pretty Humboldt penguin
Beautiful Inca terns

Happy to be back on land a few hours later, we had the opportunity for either more adventure or some R&R at the Huacachina Oasis farther inland. The oasis looks straight out of a 1930s Hollywood movie, laden with palm trees and a circling promenade made for languorous strolling — balm to my unsettled stomach.

However, Huacachina is most well-known for its dune buggy rides across the towering sand hills that surround the oasis. I wasn’t up to it, but my hubby went and really enjoyed it (although he did tell me that it wouldn’t have been a good idea for me at the time).

From the oasis the road enters an increasingly surreal landscape that makes you feel as if you’re on another planet — strange white rocks emerging from the sands, long empty stretches of sand edged by mirage-like golden hills in the distance, with the highway snaking back and forth surreptitiously through all of it.

This road takes you to one of the strangest places in South America: the mysterious Nazca Lines. Some of us would be taking a flight over the Lines to see them from where they were seemingly designed to be viewed, high above the plateau on which they were inscribed, but no advance reading could prepare us for what we were soon to experience. More to come in the next Peru-themed blog post in two weeks!

N.B. all photos are by me and all rights are reserved.

From a fellow pet owner

Our late doggies, L to R: Ramses, our beautiful brown sugar-coloured first dog who we raised from a puppy, and Isis, our sleek black female rescue dog who joined our family a little later

I had something different planned for today’s post, but I saw a link to an article in an excellent newsletter I receive by email called The Red Thread Swipe File by Tamsen Webster, and I had to read it, and then respond to it.

The article is written by Eric Kaplan, a thought piece on the loss of his dog and how we deal with grief. He asked for suggestions to be sent to his Twitter account, but since I’m not on Twitter I felt I wanted to blog about it, having had to euthanize our own two dogs when they got old and terminally ill 16 years ago.

The fact that my hubby and I have never been able to get more dogs even after all that time will tell you something about how deeply we felt their loss, so to Eric I would first say: my heart goes out to you.  

Losing a beloved pet, or any great loss, is quite literally heart-breaking – you feel as though your heart has torn open and will never be whole again.

For all that, though, it was such a gift to have our dogs in our lives and I wouldn’t take that experience back for anything.

We learned a lot from our dogs. Their acceptance of life as it unfolds – their resilience in dealing with every illness that arose, from arthritis to heart problems, while still happily enjoying every day’s simple pleasures – helped us to work our way through our grief at losing them.  

For everyone, like Eric, who’s struggled with the paradox of trying to enjoy the highs of life amid so many lows, maybe this will help a little:

One of the things I’ve realized over several decades of existence is that life is going to throw sorrow at us no matter what we do, no matter how much we might suppress feelings of joy in case they jinx something.

The only way to balance out the lows is to enjoy the highs for the gift that they are.

I’ve had fibromyalgia for many years, and the good days are rare, so I have learned to the most of them! With enough self-care, there are not too many bad days. Mostly I have so-so days that are pretty livable. I can be like our dogs and make the most of every day.

As humans our initial reaction to misfortune is anger – understandably – but eventually, to cope and move forward, we have to reach a state of acceptance and look at how to manage things long-term. Animals, although we can’t know exactly what they’re thinking, seem to go straight to acceptance and change management. While they absolutely feel pain, sadness and fear, like we do, the next beautiful moment that comes along for them is embraced unreservedly. Watching a dog give its entire being over to rolling around in the grass, or chasing a Frisbee across a lawn, is a lesson in mindfulness.

Eric, I hope this blog finds its way to you (@ericlinuskaplan). Please carry on your dog’s legacy of how to live in the moment. It’s a good way to go on.

Intro to Peru, starting with fascinating Lima

Suddenly I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stonework.’ Hiram Bingham, Lost City of the Incas

In 1911 a young lecturer from Yale University was exploring Peru in search of the ancient Incan capital of Vitcos. Travelling along the winding Urubamba river, he asked local people about any Inca ruins in the area. On one particularly drizzly day a farmer named Melchor Arteaga led him across the river and up to the top of Old Mountain, called Machu Picchu in the local language. The rest is enshrined in history.

Hiram Bingham wasn’t the first non-Peruvian to see the jungle-cloaked ruins of the citadel named after the mountain it sits on, but he received support from Yale University and the Peruvian president to return in a year later and excavate the sprawling piles of rocks, revealing an amazing ancient city that was so well hidden in the Andes that the Spanish invaders never found it. It remained intact and was eventually reclaimed by the surrounding cloud forest.

Bingham’s photos and accounts of his expeditions were a sensation and the discovery of Machu Picchu would become one of the greatest ‘finds’ in history – so famous, in fact, that most visitors to Peru see little else.

That is a great mistake, because Peru is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. Straddling the jagged Andes mountains, on the eastern side the country is the dense green Amazon jungle. Crossing the crest of the mountains, roads wind among the grey and ochre-coloured peaks under an unearthly blue sky. The western side drops steeply toward the Pacific Ocean, in landscapes that look like they’re from another planet.

I hope that by the end of this blog series you’ll feel the same way, and look for a tour that spends at least two weeks or more exploring some of the many, many different aspects of Peru.

I grew up most enthralled by ancient Egypt. A fascination with all ancient cultures, and growing up watching adventure movies with my dad (like the 1954 movie Secret of the Incas, which served as the inspiration for Indiana Jones’ signature outfit), meant that Machu Picchu was on my bucket list but not at the top. A higher list spot belonged to a remote and mysterious archeological ruin high up in the mountains of Bolivia called Tiwanaku, which would be capping the trip and was actually the part of the journey I was most excited about.

By the end of the trip, though, I’d completely fallen in love with Peru – it’s that remarkable! But to see past its most famous feature, you have to take the time to explore its many layers.

Start your adventure with at least a couple of days in Lima. Most tours fly you in and ship you out to Cuzco the next day, but Lima is a great city, and a wonderful introduction to the country. I recommend arriving least one day early to give you time to explore the architecture, culture and fabulous food of Peru’s capital.

Most tours will locate you at a hotel in the upscale Miraflores district. We were so fortunate that our tour, with Tucan Travel, put us right in the middle of the city, just a block away from the central plaza. We stayed at the Hotel Maury, a 3-star hotel that looked it was straight out of a 1950s adventure movie! The wood-lined bar with gorgeous murals, a lobby with classic wall clocks for several international cities, elevators with old brass number plates, and an old-fashioned breakfast room that may have been a bit worn around the edges but exuded atmosphere, more than made up for the basic rooms.

On top of that, on our very first morning a parade proceeded to the Plaza de Armas right past the entrance to our hotel – all we had to do was step outside and have front-row seats to the colourful spectacle. We had no idea what the strange costumes meant, but it was a fascinating slice of real Peruvian life.

There seemed to be a lot of festivals going on when we arrived in late October, so almost every time we turned a corner there was something artsy taking place. Peruvians do celebrate Halloween, and the Spanish part of their history means that they also celebrate the Christian holidays that come afterward. It was a very lively time to be there and I highly recommend it.

The Plaza de Armas, aka Plaza Mayor, is the core of the city, and to us it felt like the heartbeat as well. It’s a very picturesque square fringed by several important historical buildings displaying stunning Spanish architecture.

In the height of irony, conquistador Francisco Pizarro laid the first stone for the imposing Cathedral of Lima, in a location on top of ancient Inca tombs, after he and his company systematically overran the country and destroyed both the Inca civilization and a large part of the artifacts that told its history. Inside the cathedral you can see the entrances to several tombs safely preserved under glass, as well as the tomb of Pizarro himself.

Walking around the perimeter of the Plaza shows fascinating streets radiating away from it, with colourful buildings and artwork, lots of arcaded shops to explore, pretty tree-lined seating areas, cafes with delicious food and snack shops filled with treats for the local sweet tooth, and ladies with carts purveying all sorts of religious articles.

Expand your walk a little further and you’ll come across the beautiful Convent of Santo Domingo, where we found another band setting up to play.

The interior of the building is rich in colour, with vibrant chapels, a delightful trompe-l’oeil floor, beautiful tiled cloisters and lusciously-scented rose gardens. The library is a magnificent wood-paneled room with about 25,000 richly-decorated books.  

Bus tours leave from the Plaza regularly to take you on a wider tour of the city, where you can see everything from the imposing Judicial Palace to flower vendors tucked into tiny open shop-fronts.

These are just a few things you can discover as you explore Lima – don’t neglect the opportunity to spend at least a little time there.

It won’t be until you finally leave Lima to see the rest of the country that you’ll see your first evidence of the wide disparity between rich and poor in Peru. The interior of the city may be filled with ornate buildings and pretty parks, but the poor are all clustered in stacked slums on the outskirts, living a bare-bones existence and working at whatever they can to make ends meet.

A few things to be aware of before you go:

  • The plumbing standards in all of South America are not even close to ours, so even in major cities like Lima your used bathroom tissue can’t go in the toilet (little covered pails are handily placed and regularly cleaned out by staff).
  • Tap water is not safe to use even for brushing teeth.
  • If you eat in central restaurants, you shouldn’t have any issues, but you’ll want to be wary of out-of-the-way places for trying things like guinea pig, a Peruvian delicacy – as curious as you may (or may not) be, things like that are best avoided. My hubby and I had no trouble with the food during our three weeks, but some of the other tour passengers who decided to be adventurous did pick up a serious illness.
  • You may see warnings about a high crime rate in Lima. My hubby and I walked freely around the streets surrounding our hotel without any problems – we stumbled across a great barbecued chicken restaurant one evening on one of the side streets. Just be as prudent as you would in any large city in your own country.
  • Learn some basic Spanish before you go – it’s a lovely, easy language to learn and will smooth your connections with local residents if you can at least say hello, please and thank you. In more remote areas, a phrasebook will really come in handy.
  • Future posts will include information about travelling to the higher altitudes of Peru. You may see some tours that begin in Puno/Lake Titicaca and go downward from there, ending in Lima (more-or-less sea level), but that’s a hard way to do it and I’ll be explaining why later. The itinerary we followed, starting in Lima and slowly climbing higher to allow for acclimatization, is (based on both extensive research and the experiences of our group of travellers) the preferable method.

In our next installment we’ll look at travelling along Peru’s Paracas coastline to two special places – Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, and a clump of offshore islands often referred to as the Mini-Galapagos, not to mention a gigantic ancient figurine predating the Inca culture that’s carved into a hillside along the way!

Grounding with traditions

Growing up with a thirst for travel, to be honest I was never overly into celebrating Canada – all the exciting stuff seemed to happen somewhere else.

But over the many years of our travels, we learned as much about our own country as we did about others. While we’ve enjoyed and admired the pace of life in other places, we can come home to a lot of things we love: changes of season (there’s nothing like a crisp autumn day surrounded by gorgeous leaf colours); a cosmopolitan food scene that allows us to recreate some of our favourite dishes from our travels; the opportunity to own a home with a yard where we can enjoy summer barbecues.

Our history hasn’t been spotless and we’re still working out the fallout/reparation, but during this time in particular we are grateful to have great medical care available to everyone. The son of a friend of mine contracted a very serious case of Covid and our local hospital saved his life without anyone having to worry about the cost.

So for several years now my hubby and I have been celebrating Canada Day in various ways, and this year I noticed that a lot of people in our neighbourhood have done the same. Our government has done a good job of steering us through the pandemic and I think most of us feel as safe as we can be under the circumstances.

While I’m more of a free-form person than someone who likes routine, this year our national holiday made me think of how traditions can help provide a sense of stability and continuity. in times of uncertainty especially, celebrating things we care about helps ground us to normality, whether it’s a daily ritual of afternoon tea, a weekly trip to a bistro for good coffee and pastries as my brother does, or reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol every December as another friend does each year for her family – whatever brings a smile your face.

So this July 1st, we braved the heat and humidity to fire up our barbecue for some good steaks, corn bread with cheese, and a layered salad, followed by a highly-tweaked banana split that took advantage of the wonderful fruit we have available: fresh in-season strawberries macerated in sugar and Drambuie over vanilla-bean ice cream, peaches sautéed in a butter/brown sugar/cardamom sauce over salted caramel ice cream, and chocolate sauce over coffee ice cream.  

I hope that, wherever you are, there are traditions that can help keep you grounded while we wait for whatever normality comes out of this eventually.

The Monkey’s Tail

How many types of birds do you typically see in your back yard? I’ve counted maybe a dozen at different times – blue jays, cardinals, wrens, robins, pigeons… – the usual urban North American coterie.

In the Amazon rainforest there are 1,300 species and counting.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, of all the known species of creatures on the earth, 1 in 10 are found in the Amazon basin – “40,000 plant species, 3,000 freshwater fish species, and more than 370 types of reptiles. Over 2,000 new species of plants and vertebrates, including a monkey that purrs like a cat, have been described since 1999.” It’s mind-boggling.

The first thing you notice walking through the Amazon Jungle is a battle for life – layers and layers of plant life climbing on top of each other, growing on each other, feeding on each other. Jostling for every nutrient they can wring out of their complex environment.

Parasitic vines will eventually choke the life out of a tree

You look up through layers of green to catch a glimpse of the sky, or downward to a dense layer of new, old and decaying growth littering the ground. Nothing goes to waste in a rainforest.

Layers upon layers cover the forest floor

The jungle is home to myriad creatures as well – carpenter ants carting massive pieces of leaves like banners, spiders clinging to tree trunks, huge butterflies flitting in and out, secretive capuchin monkeys clustered on branches.

A black tarantula ventures a couple of legs out from its burrow near the top right

To celebrate World Rainforest Day this week on June 22, this blog is kicking off a Peru travel series with a peek at exploring that very jungle.

In Peru, typically visitors access the jungle along one of the Amazon’s tributaries, flying from Cusco to one of the jungle’s great frontier towns, Puerto Maldonado. From the Andes mountains your plane swoops down over masses of dense green-ness, sadly patched with barren brown pieces of denuded land, to a murky river snaking through the thick jungle growth.

How fantastic it must have been for the first intrepid explorers to be faced with the undisturbed masses of vegetation, and how daunting to explore for months slowly moving through unknown and difficult terrain.

We arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, easily, landing in muddy, ramshackle, colourful Puerto Maldonado, where any useful supplies for a trip into the jungle can be bought and loaded onto your transportation to the river dock.

Once at the bare-bones wooden dock, we boarded a long motorized canoe that zipped along the Madre de Dios river for just an hour and a half, past steep banks dotted with wrecked wooden canoes and the odd small cabin, residents cruising by in their own motorboats bringing supplies back home from the town, and people using illegal gold-dredging methods that destroy the river ecosystem.

Transferring to our motorized canoe in Puerto Maldonado

The river banks look the same, I imagine, as they must have for the early adventurers, but the river traffic is a modern concoction. The river is wide and flanked by tall green walls of trees – palm, wild papaya and mango, and many other kinds that we didn’t recognize.

Illegal river mining

Eventually we were brought gently up to a jetty peeking out of a clearing in the green wall – the access point to our comfortably rustic lodge, the Eco Amazonia. No hacking our way through the jungle – porters collected our baggage and led the way on raised walkways to the main lodge to check in. Had we arrived a few weeks later, the river would have risen right up to those walkways – the lodge even thoughtfully provides racks of loaner rubber boots for its guests.

Arriving at the lodge

The lodge wasn’t one of the luxury versions, but I loved its green-meshed and wood-sided buildings strewn amongst the brilliant red- and pink-flowered ginger plants with vivid green leaves.

Colourful meals were served in the large dining room – our first lunch led off with a fresh avocado salad, followed by a mysterious banana leaf-wrapped packet that, once we untied the string, revealed a delicious chicken and vegetable rice pilaf.

Our raised cabins were ranged in rows along the grounds, past brilliant green lizards, little brown agouti and parrots lurking in the palm trees. Here we finally heard all the sounds you expect to find, from insects and birds and monkeys in the jungle that surrounded the lodge property, just a short bridge-walk away.

A small agouti roams across the grounds

The accommodations were basic but quite comfortable, straddling the line between civilized and adventurous. Steps lead up to a screened porch, then a large sleeping area with several twin beds, and a dimly-lit bathroom that intermittently had warm water in the shower. At night we could hear the preliminary light rains spattering down on the corrugated tin roofs, and the insects humming safely outside the walls.

There are a lot of things to do in the jungle after a meal and a cup of the thick, dark, concentrated Peruvian coffee that has to be thinned with water to be drinkable.

On our first afternoon we were taken across the river to the lodge’s Monkey Island, a sanctuary for primates rescued from the pet trade. There are golden and brown capuchins, and a particularly cheeky female spider monkey who loves to pluck plastic water bottles from visitors and bite off the caps. I was standing next to a small feeding platform, taking a few photos, when she decided to run across, climb my shoulder and sit on my head, wrapping her long prehensile tail around my neck for balance so tightly that I had to wiggle my finger in between to keep from choking. I could hear cameras going off furiously while I tried to see past a screen of black fur. After a minute or so she’d had enough of her perch on my head and uncoiled herself to see who else looked interesting.

Our spider monkey visitor

As evening fell and we made our way back to the canoe, we could see the deep tracks of a caiman in the cracked dry earth of the river’s edge. Some of us took the opportunity to do a night canoe ride by paddle on the river in the hopes of spotting a black caiman or two along the banks, their eyes gleaming in the darkness. It was eerie and silent, gliding softly through the water under hundreds of stars – that was when I felt closest to the early explorers.

Our long hike through the jungle itself was led by a genuine Amazonian native, Marco, who’d grown up in one of the traditional villages and knew the forest like the back of his hand. He showed us some of the many plants that the villagers have used for a long time to promote fertility, heal maladies, even to send messages – one of the trees makes such a loud, carrying sound when it’s hit with a piece of wood that people would use it as a locator signal.

This tree holds the source of extracts for both male virility (the purplish protrusions) and female fertility (the green vine winding up the trunk)

We ducked under fallen trees, crossed weed-choked streams, took photos of each other dwarfed by just the roots of towering jungle trees. And yes, you can actually swing on the vines.

Our guide demonstrating the proper vine swing technique

Our main destination was an oxbow lake well-hidden by wild papaya trees. There’s a tall viewing platform that some people climbed, but we chose to be paddled around the small lake in a canoe, watching ducks swim along the fringes and a black-collared hawk look for prey from its perch on an old branch. Back on shore, butterflies of all kinds flitted around us and landed on our gear. We felt miles away from anywhere.

In the evenings after dinner everyone congregated in the bar and explored the many intriguing cocktails created by the staff. I believe I sampled an Anaconda and perhaps even a Jaguar, perfect after a day in the jungle.

Our three-week adventure to Peru and Bolivia included just two days in the rainforest, so we weren’t able to catch sight of the area’s most famous residents, like the elusive jaguar or the giant river otters, but it was a window into a mysterious green world that forms one of the greatest natural wonders of our planet. Even today we know so little about it, a place with over 16,000 species of trees alone, and a staggering estimated 2.5 million species of insects!

The sight of a big, bright blue Morpho butterfly landing delicately on a leaf in front of you is a magical thing.

There are numerous rainforests around the world, all rapidly dwindling because of our greed. To learn more about these biodiversity hotspots and how you can help save as much as possible, check out the Rainforest Rescue website.

All photos by Erica Jurus and rights reserved.