Questions

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It all started with a question. How will I feed my reading addiction when I’m walking the Camino? I could only carry about 17 pounds so a couple of books would make me way over the weight limit. Some people even suggested that there wouldn’t be time to read but they had no idea of the extent of my problem. I can get the shakes if I go more than few hours without reading. So, I bought a Kindle. Up until then I preferred books and fed my addiction at the used bookstore and with penny books on Amazon.

I took to my new electronic reader right away which is surprising because I’m actually what is termed a “slow adapter”, which mostly means I’m too frugal to buy new technology until the price comes down. Nothing wrong with old technology, in my world, the main source of entertainment here on the farm is sitting around a fire drinking coffee.

I looked around to find books to put on my new-fangled device that would be pilgrimage appropriate. I’m not much of a novel reader—can’t keep characters straight. I didn’t want anything densely philosophical or overly religious. I needed something to gently ground me after a long day’s walk, so Buddhism fit the requirements perfectly. I like the gentleness and simplicity of modern Zen writing and it was a good way to balance life on a Christian pilgrimage.

I decided to read Paradise in Plain Sight by Karen Maezen Miller. I had read Hand Wash Cold and liked her style of writing. Karen is a Zen Buddhist priest living on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It looked like a good fit and someone I could relate too; mother, American, Buddhist, gardener. I downloaded the book and a couple of others on yoga two days before I flew to Spain hoping that would sustain me on my walk.

Everyday after our long walk and a hot shower Alexandra would take a nap and I would find some place to read because if I napped I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Each day I would read the next chapter in Paradise in Plain Sight. I always like to savor books like this and just read one chapter a day. Every chapter is centered around a part of Karen’s Zen garden that she was lovingly restoring to its original beauty after many years of neglect. It was a big project to take on but Karen knew she was the next caretaker for this special little paradise.

Each day I enjoyed learning something new about the garden and Zen. It was the perfect way to unwind after our daily 12 mile walk. That was until chapter 16, Weeds. Then everything changed. There was one tiny sentence that changed the entire perspective of my pilgrimage:

In Zen, we don’t find the answers: we lose the questions.

What?!? The whole point of the walk was to work through any lingering problems, sort through old memories, make future goals and generally come out of the experience full of ambition, accomplishment and deep personal insight. It seems that Zen had just turned that upside down and inside out. I put aside my western mind and moved into a wonderfully Zen place. In that moment I lost the questions.

The next three weeks of the journey took on a new light. Each day was just a walk in the world in great joy. I was freed from trying to figure life out and instead I was left the with the incredible lightness of being. Don’t tell anyone but I wrote the saying on a rock in hope that another pilgrim would also lose the need to find answers.

I am deeply changed by my walk, not in a dramatic “change everything about my life” type of change but a quiet, gentle way of seeing the world. I don’t need to have things figured out or know why things happen or what the future will be. All these questions will figure themselves out in time. My work is to be in this world and breath in life. I can definitely do that.

The Secret Garden

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As much as I love a grand adventure to a foreign land, sometimes a gentle adventure close to home is exactly what my soul needs. On a perfect October day with bright blue sky and the brilliant colored trees, I went to a new sacred site in my home town of Knoxville, a secret garden.

The Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum is 47 acres of trees, flowers and old stone walls, originally a land grant from George Washington to David Howell for his service in the Revolutionary War. Before the land was part of the state of Tennessee the Howell family were planting trees and building stone fences. Past magnificent century-old cedars from Lebanon, there is a secret garden tucked in a corner along one of these old stone walls.

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This secret garden maybe new but the inspiration for the garden started many years ago in Knoxville with the celebrated children’s author Frances Hodgson Burnett. Originally from England, Frances came to Knoxville in 1865 and fell in love with Dr. Swan Burnett. She started writing novels for children. Among her most famous works are The Secret Garden, A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy. I loved all these books as a child and my copy of The Secret Garden was tattered and taped. I related to lonely Mary who just wanted “a bit of earth” and wished I had a friend like Dickon who always had a baby animal with him. I wanted a robin to show me a magical walled garden where I could have my own secret world.

Two years ago my friend Val wrote a book, A Year In the Secret Garden, about bringing the magic of the original story into everyday life with activities, stories and recipes. It is a charming and beautifully illustrated book that just happened to be published right at the 150th anniversary of Frances’ move to Knoxville. A few months ago Val was asked to be on a team to help design a secret garden for the children of Knoxville in memory of Andie Ray who loved the book so much that she had named her clothing store Vagabondia after Frances’ Knoxville home. Andie’s parents wanted a special place to honor their daughter’s memory and reflect her love of life and beauty. In the story the garden is a place of healing for the lonely Mary and her invalid cousin Colin and I know this garden is a great healing for Andie’s loved ones and a place for everyone to renew enchantment with life. The secret world of your heart can blossom and grown in this special, beautiful garden.

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So on this beautiful October afternoon Val and I, her daughter and friend had a picnic and then entered the secret garden. A curved wooden door welcomes you and draws you into this magic space but don’t forget the key that unlocks this world of wonder; it is right next to the door. The path meanders along a scent garden to add to the beauty of the flowers in large pots that change with the season. If you look carefully, you will find a fox hiding in the bushes. Further down the path you see a giant nest and as you come around the corner you see a robin’s egg made of blue granite. There are large rocks in a circle, the perfect place for storytelling or to sit with a good book. There is more to come as the garden matures and becomes a beloved place to visit in every season.

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Photo by V. Budayr

If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden—-

Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden (1993)   If you love Downton Abbey you will love the film version of the book.  Maggie Smith plays the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock.

Secret Garden designed by Sara Hedstrom  and Rachel Beasley

Machu Picchu

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Today was the grand finale, the day we arrived a Machu Picchu one of the 7 wonders of the modern world. We ate a big breakfast and took our luggage to be stored until the train that night. Our guide Valdimir met us and we went to buy bus tickets to the top of the mountain. Alexandra and Anne decided that they needed more trekking so they took the stair trail to the top, 157 flights of stairs. I was happy with the bus that winds around up the mountain on dirt roads without guardrails.

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Vladimir gave us a wonderful guided tour and the girls found us about half way through. We had perfect weather, warm but not hot, blue sky and cool breeze. I was in heaven. The green mountains, blue sky and spectacular ruins —it is like walking in a dream. Nothing could possibly be that perfectly beautiful.


We all wanted to walk to the Sun Gate, a three mile round trip. This is where the Inca trail ends and the trekkers get their first glimpse of this magic city. We sat up on a ruin for a long time trying to soak up every inch of beauty. A man asked Anne if she could take a video. He was actually proposing and she recorded the whole thing. We cheered for the happy couple and her ring sparkled in the intense sun. Melissa and I did a little ceremony for our father who died last year. We miss him so much and he was our inspiration for an active and exuberant life. He loved to walk and so do we. He would have loved the trek and we knew he was with us. I told a story about how he used the Incan writing system of knots in string as part of a Sunday school lesson when I was a child.

 

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We headed back down to the terraces and just laid in the sun. Lisa, who is a yoga teacher, did peacock pose for her obligatory yoga pose at beautiful places. I wanted to walk the whole thing one more time now that it wasn’t so crowded. We just quietly walked through the site taking it all in one more time in our own way without words.
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We were hot, thirsty and exhausted from 9 miles of walking around the site and to the Sun Gate. So we caught the bus down to the town, found a restaurant. Pizza and beer never tasted so good.

A bit of last minute shopping and we headed to the train station just as the porter arrived with our bags. The train took an hour and a half but unfortunately it was dark so no spectacular scenery. A driver met us at our stop and we headed up the mountain back to Cusco, another two hour drive. It was cloudy so we couldn’t see any stars but the full moon lightly covered with cloud was the perfect finale to the perfect day in paradise at the lost city of the Incas.

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I was so happy for a shower and bed. Washed just enough clothes to get us home and fell asleep. I was so dehydrated that I woke up every few hours to drink and then would fall immediately back to sleep.

All total I walked 30 miles above 8000 feet. Our highest point was 15,000. The trip has been a lifetime of memories. All 6 of us where excellent travelers—no complaints, go with the flow and delighted in each new challenge and experience. We were so lucky that there we no injuries or illnesses. Yes a few blisters, sore muscles and a touch of altitude sickness but nothing more. Our time off the beaten path in the perfection of the Pachamama —mother earth—-has made all of our lives richer and more joyous. We are all changed and our lives empowered.

Vistadome Train

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I woke up about 5:15. The sun was up although it was overcast. There was no lying around and snoozing; my body had enough of the tent and every part of me was dried out. I sat on a bench used for the soccer games and just enjoyed the morning air and rehydrated. Soon the cook was up and I wandered up to the lodge for some hot cocoa and trail mix. One by one, the rest joined me and we relived the glories of the day before. We had fava bean porridge, omelets and a fried crispy bread with either cheese or chocolate sauce. Nico also baked and decorated a cake for a farewell. We thanked our support staff, Richard, Nico and Pablito for their great care and packed up to leave for Ollantaytambo.

As we were packing up Lisa started making a fuss. Seems that a friendly tarantula found her shirt warm and inviting. Lisa apparently wasn’t up to sharing and shook him out onto the ground. Poor thing just wandered off to liven up someone else’s day.

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A large bus came and the kitchen equipment was put on top and the rest of us inside plus an Australian couple, the only other people on the trail. Pablito rounded up the horses and started his trek the 15 miles back over the mountain to his home.

We dropped off Richard and Nico to head back to Cusco and picked up some people headed our way. In Ollantaytambo we found a restaurant to park our gear and ordered pizzas made in a wood-fired oven and set off to explore the town. We had already seen the ruins a few days before and there wasn’t much time so we peeked into the shops and bought a drink. Soon I had a text from Alexandra. She had found kittens so we played with the babies until lunch. It has always been our mission to find and hold kittens, lambs and puppies wherever we go

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It was time for the train to Auges Calientes the town at Machu Picchu. Our coach was a Vistadome with big windows, even overhead, because we were headed down the Urubamba gorge a long, spectacular raging river. This is one of the world’s great train rides.

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It ended too soon and we were met by a porter to take us to our hotel (El MaPi). There are no cars allowed in the town and it is all built on the side of a mountain. The porter loaded his cart with our bags and we followed him through the narrow streets. Quickly checked in, we got to our beautiful modern rooms. Each room had a quote on the wall. Mine was from Isaac Newton, “Nature is truly coherent and comfortable with itself”. Yep, Pachamama knows what she is doing. As much as I loved sleeping in the mountains I was ready for a shower and Wi-Fi. I had worn the same clothes for 4 days and was feeling a bit dirty.

We headed out to explore the town and do some shopping. There is never a lack of shopping even while we were on the isolated trek. There was always some one with a blanket covered in hats or scarves or a boy with woven brackets.

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Dinner and a pisco sour, the local drink something like a margarita, were included. So we headed to the bar to celebrate our victory and the glories of Peru. The dinner was wonderful with quinoa, lamb, pasta and salad. After a visit it was time for bed. Clean sheets and a fluffy comforter were pure luxury and I was tired so it wasn’t long until I was fast asleep

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Pachamama

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The morning started early, around 5:30, when Nico brought us steaming mugs of coca tea. This not only warmed us up but woke us up, too. Coca tea tastes a lot like an herbal tea but definitely gets you going and helps with the altitude. Contacts in, yesterday’s clothes back on and a shuffle out of the tent and into my shoes and I was good to go, We all brought minimal stuff for the trail, a change of clothes, rain jacket, coat, hat and gloves, sleeping bag and walking poles—that was about it. What we didn’t carry went on the horse and that was limited to 12 pounds, everything else was stored at the Cusco hotel.

We also met the family that lives in the home, mother, father Pablito, two sons and two daughters and two grandchildren. The youngest is just two months old—Daisy Karen—and we doted over that precious baby all wrapped up and ready to go on her mother’s back. We spoke the universal language of baby admiration—aaahhhhhhh!!!! The little boy–Kevin– was not left out. He got treats and Alexandra picked him up and played with him. He informed her in quechua, “You are not my mother”. The ladies spread out Peruvian goods for us to purchase. We were happy to buy socks, hats and beautiful hand woven bags to carry coca leaves. We so appreciated their hospitality and enjoyed the intimate look at their lives so different from ours. Yet, at our core, humans have the same needs, food, shelter and love.

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Nico cooked us a wonderful breakfast: first, quinoa porridge, then pancakes with strawberries, coffee and hot chocolate. All of our meals where cooked on his two burner stove on the ground connected to a propane tank. A few battered pots and pans, a knife and a cutting board on Nico’s lap completed the kitchen. It was amazing what he could cook for us, it was as delicious and complicated as any fine restaurant. So, everyone, no more excuses about lack of counter space or small stove.

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The horses were saddled with our tents and supplies. We said goodbye and started walking, first up a steep hill then on to flatter ground. The barren land is beautiful and wild with high snow-capped mountains coming down to a gray-green valley. Well above the tree line we wouldn’t see a tree again until after lunch. There are no roads or power lines. The only signs of the inhabitants were low stone walls and an occasional thatched hut organically woven into the landscape. As we walked along children would appear beside the trail. I delighted in stopping and giving them treats. They were so gentle and beautiful. As quickly as they would appear they then would disappear back into the land to tend the sheep and alpacas.

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The trail started to get steeper and Melissa handed out coca leaves from her new bag. Normally my drug of choice is half-caf coffee with cream. Sometimes, I go wild and have a Starbucks tall latte but 14,000 feet called for something a bit stronger. Just a few coca leaves in the side of my mouth were just what I needed for the altitude. It is everything you would imagine about having leaves and twigs in your cheek; bitter, earthy and not very comfortable. But it does work, I never had a headache and I was expecting a raging headache. Coca leaves also help with thirst, hunger and nausea which is a good thing because breathing pretty much took up all the emotional and mental space.

It rained some and then there was small hail. Melanie was struggling so one of the horses came back to get her up the mountain. The rest of us pushed on from one steep slope to the next. Eventually Lisa and I started to play the “rock game”. Choose a rock 15 feet ahead, slowly walk to it, stop and try to catch your breath. When you can almost breath again, choose another one, walk to it, stop and try to catch your breath. Three long steep slopes and we made it to the top, 15,000 feet! We were defiantly on top of the world and it was stunningly beautiful. Everywhere I looked was magnificent. Down below on the other side of the pass was a pristine mountain lake.

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After a very short stop to breath, take in the view, eat some cookies and enjoy our victory we headed down the mountain. It was very cold at the top and we still had a long ways to go. Breathing is defiantly easier going down but the new challenge was making sure I didn’t twist an ankle on the large shifting stones. I walked carefully, stopping often to look at the lake and just wonder at the rugged beauty: I couldn’t believe I was there. Past the lake was another stunning mountain lake and this beautiful fence in the shape of a heart.

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I was defiantly in the heart and arms of the Pachamama, the earth mother. This day was not about something humans had built like the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral. This was about walking with the Pachamama and the glories of our beautiful world. This was the special pilgrim moment I had come for, just this pristine, rugged beauty and the openness of my own heart. I had challenged myself to my physical limit which breaks down the barrier between the heart, mind and body. I had no choice but to become one with the Pachamama, the giver of life. I was on the road less traveled in the world and in my heart.

The kitchen tent was already set up by a wide swiftly running stream. There Nico was working his magic and lunch would be served shortly. Richard and Pablito were following Nico’s orders running back and forth to the stream for water and washing the pots. Most of us trekkers laid down on the tarp for a much needed rest except for me. If I got down I wasn’t sure I was getting back up so I sat on a camp stool by the water. Of course there was a lady selling treasures and so Alexandra bought some clean gloves and socks. The lady’s little girl was tending a lamb and quickly caught it so Alexandra could have an extended lamb fix. The lamb didn’t have a knit hat but Alexandra didn’t seem to care. She held that lamb until it totally objected. Alexandra is already planning her quarter-life crisis where she runs off to New Zealand and tends sheep for a year.

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After a lunch of soup, chicken and vegetables it was more down-hill walking to get to the campsite for the night. I continued to be slow so Richard held back with me to make sure I didn’t get lost. We were finally down to the tree-line in a very narrow valley with a roaring stream. I trudged along on the slippery rocks. My legs were already wobbly from the climb so I had to be careful. I eventually got a blister on the side of my foot from the uneven rocks.

It was just getting dark when we arrived at camp. The tents were set up on a soccer field and the horses where munching on the grass nearby. The big excitement was a flush-toilet outhouse with tarp walls. Dinner was served in a rustic lodge next to the soccer field. There were tables and chairs and some drinks for sale thanks to the owners living next door. We bought three big bottles of water because we were very dehydrated and the stove was being used for cooking with no time to boil water.

Nico cooked us a special farewell dinner for our last night. Each dish that was served had some fancy garnish made from vegetables, including little hard boiled egg mice and tomato flowers. The final dish was a roast guinea pig splayed out with his feet dangling off the platter, complete with pepper in his mouth. I was hoping he wasn’t part of the choir from the night before, it was best if I didn’t know. Anne was brave and had several pieces and said it tasted a bit like duck. Melissa and Lisa tasted a bit too. The rest of us tried not to watch and focused on the pasta instead. Strange meat and snakes are somewhere long past my boundaries for adventure. I plan on tackling those challenges in another lifetime.

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Time to crawl into our sleeping bags. 15 miles, 15,000 feet altitude and roast guinea pig—it had been a long but completely fulfilling day. Every moment was challenging and thrilling all at the same time. Our bodies were exhausted but our hearts and minds were filled with the love of the Pachamama.

Lares Trail

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Originally we wanted to walk the Inca trail–26 miles from Ollantaytombo to Machu Picchu– but this trail has gotten very popular and is now limited to 500 permits a day which includes guides and porters. Some how our permits didn’t go through but the airline tickets were already purchased so we opted to do one of the other treks in the Sacred Valley that doesn’t require permits.

Now all good pilgrims know that when things don’t work out as planned, you let it go and move to the next option and trust the process. I trusted the process and knew we would get the best experience for our needs. So, instead of a busy trail with thousands of Inca steps we ended up on the road less traveled. A total of 8 where on the Lares Trail the day we started instead of 500. We walked through the pristine countryside and tiny indigenous villages and saw lots of animals. Although the trail was very challenging, it wasn’t quite as hard or as long as the Inca Trail or Salkantey Trail. We all knew that we were where we were meant to be this beautiful October day in Peru. It was perfect.

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Our day started early when our guide Vladimir (www.karikuy.com) picked us up at 5:15 to head to our first stop in the Sacred Valley at Urubamba. We went to the market for breakfast where we found some delicious cake and then finally the coffee counter. The ladies made us hot chocolate and coffee with steaming milk and then fried eggs on the local flat bread. Below us we were the smells and sounds of the butcher cutting up that day’s meat. One of the local dogs managed to break in and help himself to the scrapes.

We next drove up into the mountains on a narrow one-lane road with steep dropoffs on both sides. Fortunately, the driver negotiated it expertly and we focused in the scenery and the thousands of free-range alpacas grazing on the steep mountains.

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Our next stop was the hot spring at Lares, a beautiful garden with six pools ranging from cold to very hot. Lots of local children were playing in the shallower pool and took great delight in splashing the tall blond girl. Our guide showed us how to go from hot to cold and back to hot then to cold to have the complete spa experience. We dried off, put our hiking clothes back on, had a snack and headed up the mountain. We just had day packs with snacks, water and rain jacket. The rest of our gear was sent ahead by horse to our camping spot.

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The first part was steep and the altitude made me short of breath. I thought that maybe I had made a big mistake but I took my time and stopped for a rest and it soon leveled out next to a beautiful boulder-filled rushing stream. We stopped to thank Pachamama, the earth mother, goddess of fertility, for her gift of life and gave her an offering of three coca leaves. We walked by the small, stone houses of the local indigenous people, the Quechua. The little children would come running over to see us. My sister brought chocolates and I brought pens and puffy glitter stickers. I took the backing off the stickers and put them on their sweaters or in the backs of their hands. From toddlers to older children, they stood patiently waiting for me to get to each one. Big smiles and “gracias” and we were all happy. In the mean time, Alexandra made it her mission to personally great each of the ten thousand sheep and alpacas we saw and professing her undying love. Even the little pigs got the same attention. Meanwhile, Melanie documented every moment with pictures. We all had our rolls to play.

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We slowly hiked up the mountainside enjoying each new view, animals and people in their colorful clothes. We hiked about four hours and six miles until we got to the little village where our tents were waiting for us in the barnyard by the small stone hut with thatched roof and dirt floors. This was the home of the horseman. Along with our guide Vladimir, there was the cook Nico, assistant Richard and horseman Pablito. Our guide said we were at 13,000 feet. We were all very tired and hungry and glad our lunch was almost ready. The hut was one room serving as kitchen, living room and store room. The sleeping room was a separate hut next to the main room. There was a table set up with a cloth and silverware and camp stools. First course was soup and it was delicious and perfect to warm us up. The next course was trout, potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers and rice with hot sweet lemon tea. Alexandra noticed a couple of guinea pigs in the corner and, sure enough, after awhile about 30 guinea pigs where running around our feet as we ate. Their little chirping noises were like a choir singing to us, definitely a new experience for me. I fed the kitty some scrapes of trout and the guinea pigs liked the rice. I’m glad they weren’t on the menu. It would be hard to eat the entertainment.img_3811img_3816img_3815

It was time to put on every layer we owned and hang out in the sleeping bags where we chatted and Melissa and Alexandra sang some of the songs from Hamilton. It gets very dark by 6 so we scouted a rock wall as an open air bathroom—Inca toilet– since the stand up outhouse seemed to be just a bit much.

The lunch was so big and late that we asked for just a snack for supper. We snuggled into the cooking tent to eat popcorn, cookies and hot cocoa. It was all delicious and really warmed us up for our night in our little tents in a barnyard with the little pig in Peru. The full moon cloaked in gentle clouds gave just enough light to make the land even more mysterious. All of us are adventurous and good sports and find the whole experience delightful from guinea pig companions to stunning scenery. This is definitely not the trip for the fragile or neat freak but if you can find delight in living life to the fullest whatever that may be, it is the perfect adventure.

Sacred Valley

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After a breakfast by a crackling fire in the fireplace, we headed out for the day’s adventure. Wilfredo, our guide from the day before, met us for a tour of the Sacred Valley. This is the beautiful valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu, the holy land of the Inca. We quickly left the city and headed down the narrow winding road into the valley. The first stop was a small animal preserve were we saw llamas, alpacas and their petite cousins, vicugna, adorable creatures with long necks, big eyes with long lashes and the softest fur for sweaters. There were the sacred condor, enormous birds, not very pretty but the great messengers of the gods. High in the corner were puma, another sacred animal that represents power. There were also smaller native cats and foxes, monkeys and a darling speckled black bear just waking from a nap. A bit latter this same young bear escaped his cage and we saw him being shooed back home by the keeper. That was one of Alexandra’s favorite moments, the bear escaped the zoo!

Then back up winding roads to the archeological site of Pisac which featured layers of big green terraces build by the Inca. This was the only way to create farmland from mountains. The Inca were experts at building the walls and making the terraces complete with drainage systems which are still perfect hundreds of years later.

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Next in the agenda was the market in the town of Pisac. Dozens of stalls held beautiful Peruvian jewelry, sweaters, blankets, fluffy llama pelts and all other manner of Peruvian delights. We were delighted to trade our Sols, the Peruvian currency, for our new treasures. I bought a couple of alpaca blankets and a hat and scarf I needed to keep me warm during our adventure in the mountains the next day.

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After lunch, there was a quick stop to see the giant guinea pig statue to lure us to stop and enjoy the delicacy roasting nearby. Since I’m not much on roasted pets, we quickly moved on and headed to Ollantaytambo, a magnificent Incan site that was my favorite from my last visit. Very crowed this time but it gave me plenty of time to take the steep steps up the mountain at about 9000 feet. At the top is the magnificent Sun Temple, a mammoth granite holy site. Back down the mountain was a beautiful fountain

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It was time to take the long drive through the mountains to Cusco. The sun was setting over the snow capped mountains. The pink sky and full moon guided us back to the hotel where my sister and niece Anne were waiting to greet us. They had arrived that day on a different flight.  A supper of wood-oven pizza finished the day perfectly and then we headed to our plush hotel to prepare for the next day’s adventure.

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“Glamazon” woman too tall for the door.

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More lambs with knit hats.