Opossum

It was a perfect early October day here in east Tennessee and it was time for an annual customer appreciation picnic at the local wildlife/nature center. This is one of my favorite days of fall for not only is the atmosphere beautiful but I love the food and each year there is a theme, this year it was ‘America’. After I had my dinner I went in the main building to see this year’s exhibit of birds of prey. The featured star was a bald eagle named America. He had been injured as a young bird and so had a long and illustrious career teaching children about his species. It is amazing to be so close to this magnificent bird, so regal. There was also a beautiful small screech owl with an eye injury that keeps her from hunting. It was too bad these lovely birds were no longer in the wild but they do so much to teach about birds and conservation.

But what does that have to do with opossums? Well nothing really, I was just setting the scene. Now on to the opossum. When I arrived at the picnic the head naturalist Lyn Bales was holding an opossum named Olivia. I’ve certainly seen lots of opossums, alive through the window having a midnight snack on my back porch and also unfortunately dead on the road, a way too common sight. But this was the first time for me to see one up close and personal, I love opossums. They are odd little creatures with pointy noses, beady eyes and a long hairless tail—I’m not much on the tail. They are the only marsupials in North American and they can be seen carrying their babies on their backs. The babies are beyond adorable.

I went straight over to Olivia and was totally enchanted by her whiskers and soft round gray ears. I mentioned to Lyn that I had just read the day before he had written a new book, Ephemeral by Nature. I guess I looked harmless and he let me pet her! I got to pet an opossum. Well here is why I was so excited—the opossum has long been one of my totem animals (symbolic personality traits). Strange, I know, most people have cool animals like wolves, bears, hawks or owls. Not me, I have an opossum but I’ve learned to love the gifts that opossum gives me. The gift of the opossum is to play dead. (Actually the faint when scared and give off a scent of rotting carcass.) That doesn’t seem like much of a skill set but let me tell you it is mighty useful. When you play dead you don’t have to use any energy fighting off detractors or criticism. “Nothing to see here” and then you run off as soon as the danger passes and go about your business. It is a good way to stay out of trouble and arguments with nary a scratch. It has saved me lots of suffering.

I loved having the opossum on my side but after awhile I needed some new techniques that were a little more empowered so I took on a bit more strength with the black panther. But every once in awhile the opossum keeps me out of trouble or is just the most expedient choice. Olivia the opossum was just the medicine I needed that day to remind me that opossums are not just helpful but cute too.

Advertisements

Iona

Iona had been calling me for a long time. This tiny island, the last bit of land before the great Atlantic, is at the end of the earth. Ireland is 40 miles to the south but other than that the only thing west of Iona is the vast unknown. It is serious work to get there: fly to Edinburgh, take a train to Oban, then a ferry to Mull, cross Mull on a one-way road in a bus and then one more ferry ride to Iona, walk to the Abbey and you finally arrived. Why would anyone feel the need to go to such a remote place? Why would this tiny island call me?

The story goes that St. Columba got in a bit of an argument over the Psalms at his Irish monastery so he was banished to Iona and built a monastery there in 563 and thus credited for bringing Christianity to Scotland. The monastery thrived and the Book of Kells was written on the island. It became a major pilgrimage site and great honor to be buried on the island. The first major Celtic crosses stood in front of the Abbey and the remaining pieces are in the museum. But there is a power to this place that seems otherworldly. It is often said that “the veils are thin” on Iona and it is easier and quicker to reach heaven if buried on the island. Many years ago I read that it is an “Atlantis Priestess Portal”, I can’t remember where I read that but I never forgot that description. I can’t say for sure what the power is–history, geography, geology, myth– or what this island means to other pilgrims in the past but what I can say is that I had one truly perfect day on earth on Iona.

I didn’t go to Iona on my 2009 trip to Scotland, I knew that time wasn’t right. On this trip it was the final destination that all the holy sites on the way prepared me for. It was raining and foggy on the one-way road across Mull and the traffic was very heavy. I couldn’t see the landscape and felt like I was in a cocoon in the very slow moving bus. Every few hundred feet we had to pull over and wait for an oncoming vehicle. We finally arrived at the parking lot and I got my suitcase and walked through the rain down to the ferry and across the waves onto the ramp; no tourist cars are allowed on the island. I got to the hotel and settled in and then had a group tour of the Abbey. It is plain but it is hallowed ground. I visited the museum and took a walk. As I walked the path to the ocean I had the same overwhelming feeling of joy that I had on the Camino. Three black sheep grazing by the road added to my happiness.

That first evening after supper, most of the group went to the service in the Abbey. The Iona Community, which is dedicated to social justice, conducted a beautiful ecumenical service with singing and sharing of bread. Coffee and dessert in the hotel lounge with my dear friends ended my first partial day on Iona.

All day a song that I had in my iTunes had been going round my head, Cantique de Jean Racine by Faure. The words are in Latin so I looked up the translation, I felt there was a message. “O Christ look with favor upon your faithful people now gathered to praise you”. In my excitement to visit these holy sites and have experiences I forgot the true goal of pilgrimage—-devotion. I was on Iona not for my benefit but to give my devotion to the Divine. I was on this holy isle to sing praises and give thanks for life. I listened to the song over and over, soaking in the beautiful melody and important message.

I had been watching the weather all week hoping that we would have a sunny day on our full day on the island and my prayers were answered. I woke to bright morning sun and the sound of mooing. I walked out to find a herd of “hairy coos”–highland cattle in the nearby barnyard. The baby came running to greet me but was kept at bay by a long-horned mother with gruff voice. I promised her I wouldn’t touch, just admire. After breakfast the hikers in the group met at the ruins of the nunnery to walk across the island to St. Columba Bay. We had a few moment to enjoy this place of worship where stones stacked by man and meadows provided by Mother Nature come together to make the perfect chapel.

After obtaining a few snacks our little group started the walk. The sparkling sun, green meadows, charming animals and the chatter of dear friends made the world even brighter and more vivid. How about the ram with such curly horns that they looked like he had spectacles on. Or my personal favorite, white fluffy lambs frolicking on yellow-flower meadows—ahhhh, it was almost too much to bear. Every step was like walking in a dream. Down the final hill was a beautiful, turquoise bay. The beach is a thick pile of perfectly smooth rocks and down by the water are innumerable green marble stones polished by billions of waves for millions of years. I was surprised we could walk back to the hotel with the weight of all our treasured stones which are said to give protection.

I went over to walk the near by labyrinth and had a bit of an encounter with the head cow as we were walking in open pasture. Apparently I was on her path and she told me in no uncertain terms to get the hell out of her way. Big bossy cows not behind a fence are not to be trifled with and I quickly obeyed.

Then lunch and a bit of retail therapy—that didn’t take long for there are only a few shops. I decided I needed more time in the Abbey to wander alone. I sat in a stream of sunlight and listened to the theme song of my visit on my iPod and soaked in the glory. It isn’t a fancy Abbey but the history and devotion of 1500 years makes it a powerful place. I sat in front of the stone crosses in the museum and thought about all the pilgrims before me and those to come.

After supper I went to the Abbey for the evening service. I was the only one in the group to go but I felt called to be in the Abbey as much as possible. I was greeted by the shadow of the cross on the stone wall of St Columba’s tiny chapel and then made my way inside and found a seat in the Choir. The service was more traditional with just a handful of participants. That was fine with me because I love traditional liturgy. I know it was a time of devotion but the service was absolutely devised by the Divine for my perfect joyful day on Iona. First there was a cosmic joke—the young Englishman leading the service was wearing a bright green tee shirt that said “Dollywood Tennessee” I kid you not!! Dollywood is just up the road from my home and I have been there many times.

The first song, one I knew well, reminded me of my dad. He was a very spiritual man and would have loved my pilgrimage. A few Bible readings and then another song. This time the hymn tune was St. Columba. Wait, that is my favorite tune—I’ve played it on the piano hundreds of times—I didn’t know that was the name. I play that song like a chant. There I was singing new words to my most loved hymn, St. Columba was already a part of my life. A few more Bible verses and then the closing song. The veil between heaven and earth was nonexistent as I sang the final tune as a two-part round “All praise to thee my God this Night for all the blessing for the Light”. I knew all the words by heart. “Praise God from whom all Blessing flow, Praise him all Creatures here below”. A perfect reminder of the message of devotion from the day before. My voice echoed against the ancient stones and I held my hand to my heart in pure joy.

I joined my friends for our final coffee and dessert to share our experiences of the day as the sun set for the short night on this tiny island outpost in the north Atlantic. It was a magic day—not of big experiences but of subtle joys of our beautiful world, meaningful songs, sun and water, friends and history all bathed in the light of the Divine.

The Dove and the Stone by Alice O. Howell

Christ of the Celts, The Healing of Creation  J. Philip Newell

The Snow Leopard

photo by Bernard Landgraf

Last week Hamilton and I took my mom to see the movie Born in China. She loves nature shows on TV and it was a nice outing for all of us. So after dinner out we headed to the theater where we were the only three watching the movie. I’m so glad we saw it on the big screen because it was spectacularly beautiful with pandas, monkeys, cranes and my favorite, snow leopards. The narrator had charming and engaging story-lines about each animal mother and child. We watched rolly-polly baby pandas tumble down the mountain followed by young monkeys jumping around their forest home. In the introduction and ending are cranes flying across mountains, lakes and a giant setting sun. I really don’t think I’ve seen a more beautiful movie. But what I wanted to see the most were the snow leopards, the rare and elusive big cat that lives in the high and uninhabitable Himalayas.

I first learned about snow leopards many years ago when I read a book in book club called The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The book was written in the 1970’s about Peter’s expedition into the deep Himalayas. His companion was in search of rutting sheep but Peter was in search of himself and a rare glimpse of the snow leopard. He had lost his young wife to cancer the year before and used this journey to look deeply at his life and grieve. The two hiked for weeks through high and difficult terrain with a rag-tag group of porters to reach the sheep. During the long days of hard walking Peter reflected on his personal and spiritual life. He never did see a snow leopard for at that time less than a handful of people had ever glimpsed this elusive cat.

The first time I read this book I understood absolutely nothing. Yep, I couldn’t comprehend anything Peter was talking about. I was young and I had no context for his experience. But interestingly enough I never forgot the book for somehow I sensed that it was important and so is the snow leopard. Over the years photographers captured a few distant images of the snow leopard in the wild but now this movie gives us a look at their elusive life.

I was inspired to read The Snow Leopard again after seeing this exquisite mama and babies try to survive in such a harshly beautiful environment. Hamilton had his copy high on a shelf so I got a ladder and pulled down the small paperback. The pages were old, discolored and rough. I started to read it for the first time in 25 years. This time I understood every word. Time had given me context for this beautiful pilgrimage into a harsh land and a grieving heart. Peter is a Buddhist and now all the words and stories about the Buddha made sense and after having a long walking pilgrimage myself I now understood his journey and deep need for a quest into the unknown. I had finally grown into the book.

At the same time I was revisiting another book I read over 20 years ago, The Ecstatic Journey by Sophy Burnham about mystical experiences. This is another book I didn’t understand on the first read but yet never forgot. These two books came into my life when the words were as elusive to me as the snow leopard. My life experience had no context for the story. But time changed that, for I persevered and built the vocabulary and experience to revisit these spiritual classics and now every word is like a tonic and a blessing. Like the new and amazing images of the snow leopard these books now can be part of my heart for I can see them now, when before they were so hidden with my lack of experience.

What books and movies do you need to revisit? What is waiting to for you to read with new eyes now that you have grown and learned? When time and experience combines with learning and wisdom we build new path ways to new mountain tops and are able to finally glimpse the snow leopard.

Persy on her snow leopard blanket.  It makes her feel exotic and mysterious.

Pachamama

ypachamamma

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.

img_3823img_3821img_3830

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.

img_3820img_3828

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.

img_3835img_3836img_3840img_3841

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.

img_3849

img_3858

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.

img_3869

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.

img_3871img_3897

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.

img_3902

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

img_3795

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.

img_8983

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.

img_8988

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.

img_3799

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.

img_3808img_3805img_3810

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

vicugnq

Vicugna

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.

img_3767
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.

img_3778img_3779

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

img_3780

img_3794

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.

img_3782

“Glamazon” woman too tall for the door.

img_3775

More lambs with knit hats.

Cusco, Peru

Cusco

It all started when my sister wanted to do some adventure travel, she wanted to climb Kilimanjaro. Now I like adventure travel but 19,000 feet sounds a little too much like suffering to me. So I suggested we try Peru first and see how we do at 14,000 feet first. I visited Peru in 2011 and loved it and really wanted to walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Inca.

One thing lead to another and the result was two sisters–Melissa and me, two daughters—Alexandra and Anne, and two friends–Lisa and Melanie– all with tickets to Peru. Alexandra came from LA and met me in Miami where we flew together to Lima and spent the night at a hotel near the airport.

The next morning we had an hour flight to Cusco in the heart of the Andes and the Inca Empire. The population of Cusco is about 700,000 and the altitude is 11,000 feet. I had a local guide Wilfredo (www.toursbylocals.com) pick us up at the tiny airport. Our first stop was a traditional lunch with potatoes and chicken, soup and avocado. There were two couples performing a traditional dance to give us the full experience.

dancers

Next stop was the cathedral in the main square. Built in the 1500’s, it is a gold and silver extravaganza with ornate carvings and saints. Tucked in a corner is a large painting of The Last Supper where Jesus is offering guinea pig instead of bread to the disciples. There is a black Jesus nearby which beautifully reflects the local culture and the universal love of the Christ.

Cusco Cathedral

On our way to Qurikancha, also spelled Coricancha, the Sun Temple of the Inca, we got Alexandra’s first alpaca fix. I promised her baby animals so an enclosed courtyard with puppies and kittens and alpacas was a great delight. The owner brought out a big handful of alfalfa so we could feed and pet them. A few streets down were women in traditional dress holding lambs with little knit hats. That was good for another round of cuddles.

alpacaslambs

Qurikancha is built from the Inca stones that are so precise that there is no mortar or space between the stones. They have internal notching like legos that make them earthquake proof. The Incan walls surround a monastery that the Conquistadors built on the site after removing tons of gold from the original temple.

inca wall

The final stop was Saqsaywaman, another Incan site on an epic scale. Massive stones were quarried and again precisely cut to build this ceremonial complex. You can see how massive the stones are because Alexandra is six feet tall and this single block of stone is many feet higher. We then climbed up to the top for an amazing view of Cusco in the valley. Storm clouds were all around giving a beautiful combination of pink sunset and dual rainbows.

img_3744

It had been a long day and we were happy to see our charming hotel (Tierra Viva Plaza) just off the main square. Some pizza was the perfect ending to the day.

cusco