Peru Adventure – The Sacred Valley

July 10, 2014

Cristo Blanco watching over Cusco
White Jesus watching over Cusco

We started our day in a van around 7:30 a.m. We had a busy day planned, so we got right to it. Our first destination was a statue that sits high above Cusco. Ray called it “White Jesus,” but it is officially called Cristo Blanco. The statue was a thank you gift from some Christian Palestinians in the mid-1940s after they sought refuge in Peru. Considering that we were about to take a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, it seemed a little strange to be hanging out by a white Jesus but the view was worth it. From there, we were also able to get a glimpse of our first Inca ruin, Sacsayhuaman. Ray told us the correct pronunciation for that word. Then he told us most gringos call it “Sexy Woman,” and that stuck. Go figure.

After our photo-op, we got back into the touring van and descended down the winding road toward the first of our two cultural destinations of the day. We were going to a local village where women still practice the art of weaving as it has been done for centuries. One of the reasons I chose G Adventures for our trip was their dedication to helping the communities they visit through Planeterra, a charitable organization they founded. Planeterra’s mission is to protect iconic destinations from being exploited by partnering with community members and finding ways to support them, help the environment, and encourage local business.

Weaving the old school way
Weaving the old school way

As we pulled up to the village, our van slowed to pick up a diminutive woman in traditional costume who served as our guide for the tour. Lucila explained how they shear the wool from alpacas, clean it using the roots from a plant, and then color it by creating dye from different native plants and minerals. Once the wool is dyed, they spin it and then weave it into hats, scarves, and other textiles that the families sell to folks who visit the co-op. If the women use the ancient weaving process (shown here), it can take a month to make one patterned table runner. If they use the more modern looms provided by the Planeterra foundation, these same textiles take half the time to create. Either way, they’re producing handcrafted, truly Peruvian souvenirs for tourists while sustaining their community and preserving cultural traditions. We bought gifts for everyone on our list and felt good about supporting these families and the Planeterra mission. Total win/win.

Ray explaining the Inca terraces
Ray explaining the Inca terraces

Our next stop was to Pisac to tour our first Inca ruin. As we pulled up, we could see the agricultural terracing the Incas had set up. It was my first opportunity to acknowledge that we were actually in Peru and about to experience something I’d only seen in photos. I felt so small in the expanse and could not wait to stand there in the midst of what the Incas had created. Once we negotiated the maze of tour buses and finally reached the entrance, Ray took over. He told us how the terracing allowed the Incas to grow diverse crops depending upon the altitude at which they were planted. The Incas were not only master builders, but they were masters of their environment as well, creating channels and rerouting snow melt water to irrigate their crops from the top down. We toured the ruins and got some practice huffing and puffing our way up the stairs. Ray told us he was going to be evaluating our group fitness. As the oldest person in our group, I crossed my fingers that I would not turn out to be the weakest link.

The perfect setting for an authentic Peruvian lunch
The perfect setting for an authentic Peruvian lunch

In the meantime, I needed something more than oxygen. Lunch. Did someone say lunch? We had an hour-long bus ride to reach our lunch destination, another Planeterra brainchild. To foster preservation of native, Peruvian cuisine, Planeterra had worked with one small, struggling community to create a top-notch restaurant that serves traditional cuisine crafted from local produce to weary travelers like our group. Ray assured us that the meal would be excellent. It was. In a state-of-the-art kitchen in the middle of nowhere, Peruvians who had been trained as chefs by Planeterra had spent their morning whipping up delicacies for us. We had appetizers, a delicious green salad (you have no idea how excited I was about that “safe” lettuce), a rocoto pepper stuffed with ground alpaca (so good), and mazamorra morada (spiced pudding made with purple corn and fruit) for dessert. It was probably the best meal we’d eaten yet in Peru. To rest after lunch, we all took turns trying our hand at Sapo, a Peruvian tossing game similar to our Cornhole game where you try to land a beanbag in a hole. Instead of tossing a bean bag, we were tossing heavy, metal coins into holes on a table to score points. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but it was a fun way to interact with our fellow travelers. I found myself grateful that hand-eye coordination is not a skill required to hike the Inca Trail.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place
Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Our late afternoon plan included yet another bus ride. This time we were headed toward our last civilized accommodation before becoming ground sleepers. We arrived in Ollantaytambo (oy-on-tay-tom-bo), checked into a super cute inn, and had just enough time to unpack our souvenirs and freshen up before hitting our last destination of the day. Within walking distance of the inn and situated at the junction of two valleys sit the Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo. The sun was starting to sink behind the Andes and we were losing daylight. Because of this, as we were entering the ruins, most of the crowds there were leaving. Like all the other ruins, this one included an impressive number of stairs. Ray broke it down into sections for us, giving us time to gasp for air while he told us about our surroundings. Of all the ruins we saw on our tour, these became my favorite. The stonework was incredible, and the setting was impressive. Scanning the nearby hills, small ruins were evident all over the place. Maybe it was the setting sun. Maybe it was the excitement of the trek we would begin the next day. Maybe it was the recognition that we were in truly sacred territory. In any case, something that evening made those ruins stand out. What the Incas were able to do in the formidable terrain of the surrounding Andes is awe-inspiring. And despite the cold wind blowing down the valleys and into the site while we walked around, I was getting a warm, fuzzy feeling about where this trip would take me.

Etiquette Schooling

Looking contrite
Looking contrite

Last week, a couple days post Christmas, hubby was working on his thank you notes. Yes. Thank you notes. We both come from families that are big on thank you notes. So, after birthdays and Christmas, you will find everyone in our family cranking out thank you notes. We get them from my 80 year old father-in-law. Our sons have been sending them since they learned to write the alphabet. (Before that, I sent notes for them, which meant for each gift Joe, Luke, and I received I wrote notes. I got hand cramps every Christmas as well as in late spring because our sons’ birthdays lie within two weeks on either side of mine.). Hubby has the infernal curse of having his birthday on December 20th, which means he gets to do double thank you note duty after Christmas to cover both occasions. Two gifts means two notes.

I’d like to say that this is all unnecessary, but the truth is that I like the tradition. That’s not to say that I enjoy writing the notes. I don’t, not really. But, I honestly think it’s great that both our families believe in this old-school nicety. I hold out hope that my boys will continue the tradition as they get older. In a world that finds us increasingly impolite and me-focused, this small, written gesture of gratitude gives me hope that we’re not all self-absorbed savages.

Although my boys write their own notes now (except for the lines that I draw on their blank cards to keep them on track), I address the envelopes for them. I still do this because writing and spelling are difficult for my guys. I’d rather they focus their neatness and attention on the notes themselves. Well, the other night as Steve was working on his birthday thank you notes, he needed some assistance addressing his envelopes.

“What’s Julie’s address?” he asked, referring to my youngest sister.

I stared at him blankly. Seriously?

“Get the address from your phone,” I told him.

“It’s not in my phone,” he replied.

“Why not?” I questioned.

“Well, she moved,” he said.

“Uh huh,” I answered. “More than six months ago.”

“What is it?” he asked, attempting to press on.

“Don’t you think you should have my family members’ addresses and phone numbers in your phone? I have your sister’s and your parents’ information in my phone. What if you needed to get in touch with them?”

I was surprised he had such an information deficit in his life. I guess he felt he didn’t need to worry about it because he has me to supply the information for him. And it’s true. In the end, I gave him my sister’s address along with an admonishment, hinting that it might be a perfect time to add her to his iPhone address book. But, tonight, as he was finishing up his Christmas thank you notes, he asked me once again for my sister’s address.

“Are you kidding me?” I said.

“Well….she’s going to be moving again soon, right?”

“Probably. But, that’s not the point. I gave you this info a week ago and now I’m doing it again. Do I have three children or two?”

With that, he finally pulled out his phone, asked for her cell number and address, and put it on record at last.

There are days when I’m feeling fairly unimportant as stay-at-home mom who makes no financial contributions to our household. But, when I think about things that are housed in my brain, things that help our family run smoothly, I know there would be a definite gap if something happened to me. For starters, it’s clear that the thank you notes wouldn’t get sent.

Take Your Stocking And Stuff It

Guess which stocking belongs to my husband…

I’ve blogged a few times recently about traditions and about how we’ve struggled to create some for our little family foursome. Steve and I both came from families with fairly ingrained family traditions. When you start a new household, you ideally take some traditions from each side and then add to them or make them your own with a slightly different twist. One thing I looked forward to when Steve and I got married was picking out new Christmas stockings that would be unique to our household. Steve and I each had inherited the stockings we’d had with our parents. It sounds silly, I know, but I was adamant that I wanted us to start a new tradition for our family with matching stockings of our choosing. I couldn’t wait to purchase and hang our own stockings and to add to our collection of what would be hung by the chimney with care with each child we added to our happy home.

The first Christmas Steve and I were married, however, my incredibly thoughtful mother-in-law had a special stocking created for me, one that looked exactly like the one Steve had when he was growing up. The stocking is hand knit and has my name as well as the year I was born (I really wish I could erase that part). The funny part about my stocking is that it is quite obviously smaller than Steve’s. My mother-in-law swears they were created using the same pattern, but you’d be hard pressed to believe it if you saw his stocking that is big enough for a Cadillac or at least for twice the amount of gifts that mine will hold. I have to admit that I was not a great sport about the gift, at least not in front of Steve. He tolerated my tirade about how I felt the stocking was an intrusion and how it robbed me of my chance to start my own tradition. Although he understood then what I did not, that his mother was trying to be inclusive and thoughtful when she had a stocking handmade for me, he also understood my feelings and told me we should go ahead and start our own tradition.

So, we did. We ordered some holiday needlepoint stockings from LL Bean and had our names embroidered onto them. When the boys were born, my mother-in-law commissioned knit stockings for them, just as she had for me. I also got them stockings, stockings that matched the ones Steve and I had chosen for ourselves. I was hell bent on setting up this tradition for our family. I figured that since his parents lived in another state, it would not matter. We could keep the stockings my mother-in-law had knit for us and just put up the other ones in our home. No one would have to know. Well, then, my in-laws decided to purchase a home 30 minutes away from us and to come to Denver in the winter. The space between us dissipated and, as it did, the ability to put up the stockings we’d bought without creating hard feelings disappeared.

Now, seventeen years after my hand-knit stocking was gifted to me, those stockings are the only ones we put out. Oddly enough, the tradition I fought so vehemently is one I now truly enjoy. I love our stockings. They were created from a pattern that Steve’s grandmother had, and we know no one with stockings like ours. Because they’re knit they stretch to hold a ton of stuffers. And, I love to point out to anyone who will look that Steve’s stocking is gargantuan while the rest of ours are all the same, significantly smaller size. Although they look funny on our mantle with Steve’s stocking dwarfing the rest of ours, there’s a charm and a story in that which trumps the visual oddity.

Every time I open our box of Christmas decorations, I’m reminded about how pig-headed I was as a young bride and how ungrateful I was when my mother-in-law was simply trying to include me in her family. I’m also reminded that I wasted $140 on holiday stockings that we simply do not use. They stay in the box while we hang and stuff the knit ones instead. They’re the ones the boys recognize and are excited to see. Now, I have a yearly reminder that sometimes the effort is not worth the battle. Sometimes, the things we think are important are truly not important at all. I no longer want to tell my mother-in-law to take that stocking she had made for me and stuff it…unless, of course, she wants to stuff it with Starbucks gift cards and cute tops from Boden. I’d be totally cool with that.

The Griswold Family Christmas Tree

It looked a lot smaller in the forest.

One of our favorite things to do once Thanksgiving is over is to enjoy our annual holiday viewing of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. This seems to get us in the right frame of mind for our next favorite holiday activity…cutting our own Christmas tree. We normally wait at least a week after Thanksgiving before getting our tree, but last year we realized that a freshly cut tree lasts much longer than you think it will so we figured we should get it sooner and enjoy it longer. While a forest tree is not as lovely and symmetrical as a tree you select from a tree lot, you get a lot more exercise when you do it our way. Besides, at $10 a tree, it is quite a bargain anyway you saw it.

When it’s cold, we often pull into the forest, find the first semi-sort-of-okay-but-admittedly-totally-Charlie-Brown-tree, cut it down, and take off. With 50 degree temperatures today, though, we were unencumbered by inclement weather so we sauntered, letting several perfectly acceptable trees stand firm while we looked for something a little better. At one point, I had wandered off in my own direction alone when I spotted IT, a reasonably full number in blue spruce. Steve was nowhere nearby and although I had the saw in hand I felt I should acquire a second opinion, so I called out to him.

“Marco!” I yelled in his general direction. Although I couldn’t see him, I knew he would get the message. No response. I yelled again. Louder this time.

“MARCO!”

“Polo,” came the faint response.

When he was near enough that I could see him clearly, I yelled again.

“Over here! I need your opinion.”

The tree was very close to another tree, which usually is a bad sign, but it was tall and still very full. When Steve arrived I asked him to find the one I was thinking about. When he picked it right out, I knew I was onto something. We went over and inspected it. It was taller than our usual tree, but I thought we could make it work. We checked the base of the tree (it can’t be more than 6 inches in diameter if you want to cut it) and determined we were good to go. We’d have to cut off the lower portion and bring it back with us, but we still felt it was manageable so Steve began to cut. He kept cutting. He kept cutting some more. Dang. This was taking way too long.

Someone must be overcompensating.

“Do you want me to work on it for a while?” I asked, trying not to sound impatient but being really impatient.

“I’m fine,” he said as he started working on it again.

It was still taking what seemed like forever. Either the saw was worthless or we were having operator issues, I thought.

“Where is Charles Ingalls when you need him?” I quipped.

Steve shot me a look and made some reference to the notion that a proper spouse would be supportive. Clearly, he did not think my comment was nearly as amusing as I thought it was. For the record, I thought it was both appropriate and pretty dang funny. (Also, I know I’m not a proper spouse.)

When he had gotten about 5/6ths the way through the trunk, he was starting to slow down from the overexertion. I offered to take over. In less than a minute, compared to his ten, the tree fell over.

“See. And that is how it’s done,” I said as I quickly stepped out of his reach so he could not throttle me.

Once it was on the ground and no longer standing directly beneath a Ponderosa pine that was more than twice its size, our tree seemed a bit bigger. We tried not to trouble ourselves with this detail and got to work making it manageable for the trailer ride home. When we got back to the car, we were relieved to see our tree was roughly the same size as the one our friends had cut down. No worries.

Not your usual Charlie Brown forest tree

Then, we got the tree home and off the trailer. That was when we started to suspect that we might have a problem. You know how sometimes you take more food than you’re actually going to be able to eat because your eyes are bigger than your stomach is? Well, I began to wonder if we’d had similar problems sizing up this forest tree to the realistic size of our living room. We leaned it up against the house. It was huge. I told Steve that, ala one of my favorite scenes from Christmas Vacation, someone was going to ask us where we thought we would put a tree that big. We got out the tape measure. It was 15 feet tall. While a 15 foot tree can easily fit in our living room with the 18 foot ceiling, it cannot fit in a tree stand that can only support a 12 foot tree. Steve cut off a few more feet while I walked around muttering, “little full, lot of sap.” With that last cut, however, we found that now the bottom appeared sparse and uneven so we omitted a couple extra feet to balance it out. Voilà

Now, not only do we have the perfect Christmas tree, but we also have several decent starter logs for our fire pit as well as an attractive section of log Steve hopes to fashion into a comely centerpiece for our dining table. We got all this for the low, low price of an Alexander Hamilton. As I sit here inhaling the beautiful forest scent with my kleenex by my side (did I forget to mention that three of the four of us are allergic to evergreen trees?), I’m feeling confident that we chose the right tree. Now I just have to make sure Uncle Lewis doesn’t stand too near to it with his stogey.

My Staring Contest With Time

At Anderson Farms – October 2003

We don’t have many family traditions. With our families so close by, we usually spend the holidays jumping from house to house to join someone else’s tradition (and the months before the holidays bickering over which family gets which holiday and who had it last year). We haven’t had much opportunity to establish our own family traditions for our family of four. At first, when the boys were young, I really didn’t care. Now that the precious years when they believe in Santa are over, I’m starting to wish we had some things in place.

One tradition we have managed to establish is our annual trip to Anderson Farms to trek through the corn maze and pick our pumpkins. We have done this every year since Joe was born, so this will be our 11th consecutive trip there. That first year, Joe was all of four months old. I’ll never forget that day. It was warm, and we had Joe in the Baby Bjorn as we trekked through the corn. We had to stop at one point and change his diaper in the middle of the maze. When we’d walked as far as we could go, we set him into a decorative wheelbarrow full of pumpkins and snapped some photos. He was chubby and bald headed then. If he’d been orange, he would have blended right in with the other smooth, round, orange things.  We’ve been there when it’s been 80 degrees and we’ve been there when we’ve been out in the pumpkin patch as it began snowing. We’ve gone with friends and family, and we’ve gone through it just the four of us. One year it was ridiculously muddy after a significant rain and Joe slipped and fell into an enormous mud puddle, much to my dismay since I was hoping to capture a decent family photo. At least it was memorable. Last year we rushed through the maze in advance of a windstorm and were nearly blown back to our car and had to cut the visit short.

In the giant cornucopia in 2011

It’s not an inexpensive day. We’ve never gotten out of there for under $80 (including admission, lunch, and pumpkins), but it’s so worth it. Some things you do regardless of the cost because they mean that much. This is one of those things. So, this Saturday we’ll be up with the roosters. We’ll hit Starbucks and head to Anderson Farms by its 9 a.m. opening time. Looks like good weather, so we should be peeling off layers as we warm up during our maze hike. Our goal this year is to get all the punches on the maze punch card. We haven’t been able to accomplish that feat with the boys yet, but I have a feeling this is our year.

As the boys get older, these trips are the things I treasure most. I can look back through photos and watch the cornstalks appear to grow shorter as our boys grow taller. It’s magic. Now we just need to establish a couple other family traditions so we can have them in place for a few years before the boys move out. When you have young children, people always tell you to “enjoy it while you can because it will be gone before you know it.” That saying is so irksome at the point when you’re exhausted and up to your elbows in diaper cream and baby wipes and can’t wait to move to the next phase. Sadly, though, it is true. Mine are only 9 and 11, and it breaks my heart when I think of how true it is. Your time with your children passes in the blink of an eye. The trick is not to blink. And so I begin my staring contest with time.