La Paz, Bolivia

During our last week of January, Eduardo and I spent five days in La Paz, Bolivia. It is the highest capital in the world at 3,640 metres above sea level. That must be the average as much of the city is precariously built on the surrounding mountains

Its tumultuous, confusing streets take your breath away, literally and figuratively. Traffic and people mingle in often chaotic ways. We used taxis as buses were just too confusing. We walked a lot too, frequently going around in circles. Especially one evening. We had tickets for a traditional music concert by three of Bolivia’s most well-known artists, and we were looking for a relatively clean place to eat.

Trip Advisor sent us on a wild goose chase. We finally found “the place”, but it had closed down. No wonder! We lost about one hour just trying to locate it. People on the street sent us to a “safe” place although the man said he preferred the food in the market.

Let me assure you: clean is a relative term. Luckily, Eduardo and I have fairly tough digestive systems!

Food-wise we never did eat anything really good. Although I heard later that we should have gone into the richer section of the city for some better fare.

Our Airbnb was located fairly centrally, and the family was very nice. They lived in a modern 10th floor three bedroom apartment.

The father is an architect, and still works on contracts part-time. His wife (both around 60) keeps this room rented plus an apartment on another floor that her son (who lives in the US) owns. Another son who is doing a Masters degree stays with them one week a month, along with his wife who works nearby, and their two year old son. Grandparents take him to and from daycare. They seem to be a very close family who help each other in many different ways.

That’s what I like about Airbnb. You often get to meet and interact with a local family.

During our stay, there was a festival going on called Alasitas. It honours the Aymara god, of abundance, Ekeku. Merchants sell all kinds of miniature objects and money. People buy what they would like to have in the coming year. Or what they want to give to friends and family: cars, houses, money, gold, or other more mundane articles such as cell phones or even university diplomas!

It reminded me of the Chinese custom of buying miniatures for the dead. Things one would need in the next world.

At the concert, the musician even gave out wads of miniature money to the audience. He gave me so much I had lots to share with everyone around me.

Ernesto Cavour Aramayo (picture of hin posing with Eduardo in title photo, and playing the charango on the left immediately above) is the founder of the Museum of musical instruments. He is also a prolific writer, an accomplished musician and inventor of many instruments. One being the two-sided guitar which you can see being played in the pictures.

Oh, yes, we took a ride up a mountainside on their new “Mi Teleferico”. There are four different lines of cable cars. What would take one hour in a noisy, crowded, dusty, smoky bus takes only ten minutes, but locals told me it costs twice as much as the bus.

So don’t go to La Paz to relax or enjoy fine cuisine. Go for the experience! People watch! Breathe deeply; drinks lots of water; and chew coca leaves.

La Paz is interesting, but it would not be my favourite place to live…

Cusco, on the other hand… but that is for my next blog.


Peru/ Bolivia

Week two in Peru and into Bolivia

Arequipa is a big city, about one million people. The historical centre is nice, but the rest is blah. We did a four hour city tour… boring… but we did find out why they have so many ceramic bulls. They have a bull fighting tradition: bull against bull. “So we don’t kill the bulls like the Spanish,” the guide explained. But when questioned about the losing bull, as the winner is the one which wears the other out by sticking his horn into the poor loser, the guide admitted that he was taken to the slaughter house!

Another interesting but (for me) rather horrifying place was the Monastery of Santa Catalina. A rich widow founded the huge convent and then charged exorbitant fees for families to send a chosen daughter to become a nun. The poor chosen, twelve year old had to keep silence and couldn’t see her family during her four year noviciate. When she she became a full-fledged nun she would live in a house on the property sometimes with another nun or a boarder and would have three or four servants ( local indigenous women) to do the work while she prayed seven hours a day! Some lived well into their hundreds, while one self-flagellating saint died at the age of 33. The idea crossed my irreverent mind that she might have been trying to commit suicide. As for the boarders, they would be admitted at the age of three and would study the womanly arts of singing and embroidery until she was ready to be married at the age of twelve.


Our day trip to the Kolka Canyon and Valley was amazing. Early in the day there was snow on the mountains. We saw vicuñas, the wild ancestor of the llama, condors twice; once very close over our heads. Incredible ancient terraces that produce food at over 5000 metres. The people built the walls of the highest terraces with black stones to hold the heat, and when possible, in the shape of a huge amphi-theatre which also protected the plants.

Our Airbnb was a great apartment with a roof-top patio and a great host. His favourite restaurant, ZigZag is pricey and just down the street from us, so we treated ourselves to a wonderful dinner. Although Peru is known for its fine cuisine, it is not commonly served. Most places fry a perfectly good piece of fish or meat and plop it on a huge pile of white rice and french fries!


We got the impression from Lonely Planet that Puno was a small, ramshackle town. Small, it is not, with a population of over 200,000. We had a very interesting day visiting the floating islands of Uros on Lake Titikaka, and the real island of Taquile. On the floating islands, we saw how people live, how the island is built and maintained. Quite amazing! On beautiful Taquile Island, we walked UP to the town centre and visited their textile store. they are well known for the hats the men knit. So, we crossed the boarder and went to Copacabana, Bolivia which is a tiny, picturesque town on the south end of Lake Titikaka. We wandered around during the afternoon overlay and checked out our hotel where we will stay on the way back. Very cute, good view of the lake, and serves good food!

Then on, mostly in the dark to La Paz which, I think deserves its own blog!

See you soon, Val

Peru: Week One


Peru, Week one, January 18, 2018, Thursday, 7:30 AM, Arequipa

Our first week in Peru has been busy: Lima 3 days, Paracas 1, Huacachina/Ica 1, Nazca 1, and now we have landed in Arequipa early in the morning after an all-night bus trip. We were lucky to have a rather luxurious bus with big comfy reclining seats and even a duvet to keep warm.

My first impressions are that Peruvians are polite, friendly people, a little on the quiet side. The countryside has been coastal so far. It is a narrow stretch of desert between the Pacific and the mountains. The towns are small, dusty, rather poor, but each centre has something of interest.

Obviously tourism plays a large part in the economy, but there is a thriving farming area around Ica because of ancient aqueduct systems built by the Nazca people. Today there are vineyards, fruits, and vegetables using the same ancient aquaducts.

Peruvian cuisine is very tasty with many spicy dishes. We have enjoyed the ceviche that they serve with different kinds of corn kernels and slices of sweet potato. It sounds weird but it quickly becomes addictive! We also enjoy the wonderful fruit juices: orange, mango, lulo, pineapple, passionfruit, (our favourite) watermelon, and more. We are starting to explore the chicha which is an ancient, slightly fermented drink made of almost anything that ferments!

What surprised us most is the size of the servings. They are huge! So we usually share an appetizer and one main dish with a little dessert. There is also a plethora of sweets often with chocolate and/or manjar blanco, which we call the cajeta in Mexico and dulce de leche in most other countries. I’ve noticed it’s becoming more popular in Canada lately.

Highlights in Lima: the Puk Llama ( a huge archeological site) Where I got off to a great introductory sunburn ( no hat, no sunscreen). DUH!


The wonderful murals in Barranco. The National Museum of Archeology and the Larco Museum. On our final day we just enjoyed visiting a market and then taking a very crowded mini train into the historic center. After three days of walking we a good massage helped loosen our sore muscles.( 40 soles for 1hour, about $15)


In Paracas, six hours south of Lima by bus, we went out in a small speedboat to see the animal life on the Ballestas Islands (really just big rocks). They look white from a distance as they are covered by thousands of birds which produce large quantities of guano. But a few penguins and see lions don’t seem to mind the mess or the smell!


Moving on the next day to Huacachina: Lots of towns here in Peru have the word Hua in them. It means place, and it makes things rather confusing as there are so many Huas. Here all the young’uns went sand-boarding on the huge dunes. They put arborite on the bottom and then wax it. If you have money a dune buggy will take you for a speedy ride up, but many people just climb up in their big boots and their board on their back. I can only imagine how difficult it must be as we trudged up this soft, fine sand in bare feet, and it was exhausting and hot too. On the ridge we watched the boarders and waited for the sunset as the wind came up and sand insinuated itself everywhere: eyes, hair, ears, clothes. I worried most about my camera.

Huacachina is really a little suburb for tourists surrounding a tiny natural lake outside of the rather prosperous town of Ica, the home of the famous Tejas candy. Tejas are mainly manjar blanco with nuts or dried fruit and covered with a plain sugar coating or chocolate for a fancier version. Very rich but no gluten!


They make Pisco and a rather sweet wine in this area. Also, there is a busy mining industry I am told.

Continuing south along the coast is Nazca named after the Nazca people who lived here from about 200 BC to 700 A.D. Over this 1000 year period, they created the Nasca lines which are considered one of the world’s marvels. Straight lines and figures go for kilometres on the flat, rocky desert. They had to have great mathematical knowledge to make them as you can’t really see the full figure from the ground. We did a 30 minute flight in a small Cesna over the lines which are truly amazing. There are many theories how and why they were made which include conjunctures of extra-terrestrials.

Today we are in Arequipa, perhaps Peru’s prettiest city which is inland at an altitude of 2300 meters. It is warm and sunny this morning. I had my breakfast on a second floor veranda overlooking the Plaza Major.

I think I will go and wake up Eduardo; he was grumpy this morning as he didn’t sleep well on the bus, and he forgot his phone plugged into the wall of our last hotel, nine hours back. I left my sunglasses on the table in a restaurant yesterday. Fortunately I got them back! (So I am keeping my mouth shut!)

Hasta la próxima.

Time Travel: A War Bride: 1919

A war bride: 1919

My name is Elizabeth. Family call me Lizzie. We are actually British Presbyterians living in North Ireland. My father owned a big bakery that employed around twenty workers. We had a nice home with all the amenities of the time. I was a working girl: a book-keeper at the Belfast Co-op. During the first years of the war, I kept busy, working and waiting for my beau who was off fighting for the British. Evenings were spent at home, sewing my trousseau and writing letters to him.

One Sunday, at church, the minister read the list of the recently killed men. When I heard his name, it was like a bomb had hit me; I gasped and slumped over in a faint. Smelling salts and a smart slap brought me back to my senses. Everyone was staring. My father and brother held me up as we left the church.

I was almost thirty; my chances were growing slimmer by the day when I met David. He was tall, slim, very handsome, a little darker than our boys from home, and a lot more self-assured. He was also of British descent, although sometimes he joked that he had Indian blood in him. His family was from the States and had come to Canada because they were British Empire Loyalists. He talked a lot about Canada, about the future, about his land. Shortly, he asked my father for my hand.

I felt rather excited really, it would be such an adventure to travel across the Atlantic by ship and then half way across America to Manitoba by train. David had a house waiting for us. I had a trunk full of linens. I was ready.

What a ninny I was. What did I know about a man? What did I know about farming? What did I know about winter on the prairies?

That house was less than a cottage, a bit better than a hut; there were two rooms: kitchen and living room. No running water, no electricity. David kept his promise and bought me a second hand piano, and a mission-style pull-out sofa. That is where we slept. Soon I was the chickens, raise a pig, and grow a garden if we were to survive. In the house, I learned to bake bread pregnant. David was pleased with himself. I didn’t have time to feel pity for myself as he expected three meals a day, and often there would be hired men to feed. I had to learn to milk the cow, feed, lay up preserves, make butter, cook the chicken I had killed, plucked, and eviscerated. I washed clothes by hand in a tub. David hauled the water in to heat it on the stove, but I had to wash, boil, rinse and wring it out before hanging it up on the line to dry. It was heavy work.

David worked hard on the land, but all the money he earned went back into the farm. He expected me to be responsible for home expenses, so I started giving a few children piano lessons. Their mothers would bring them over in a horse-drawn cart or cutter in the winter, and sit by the wood stove in the kitchen and drink tea while her darling plunked away at the piano.  Sometimes, the three of us would have a little sing-song before they went home. On Sundays, David and I would go to the church in town where I would play the piano and lead the congregation in song. That was usually our only outing except when we needed supplies.

David was nervous since it was my first child. He took me to town early to stay with his mother. I had a week’s rest before, finally, I gave birth. Really, that is such a misnomer. That child did not want to come out, I did not “give” birth; she was literally torn out of me. I was in bed for a month afterwards; David could not hide his disappointment. He had wanted a son, and a wife back in the kitchen. I felt like such a failure. I directed from the sofa, but the hired-girl burnt all the food, and my daughter didn’t stop crying until I finally got back on my feet and tied her, peasant style, to my hip while I worked.

I often wondered if the life of spinster would have been so bad after all.

Literary Nonfiction

I am taking a creative writing course through the University of Iowa called Writing Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction. This is my second submission; a piece I wrote (All names have been altered and some characters are credited with words/actions they did not say.) I am not particularly satisfied with it as it is more didactic that I wanted. Any comments or suggestions you might have will be received gratefully.


“A Traveller’s Insights”

After visiting Guatemala for two weeks in January with my husband, I found the perfect place to spend the rest of the winter: Antigua. Eduardo headed home, and I settled in with a “home stay” taking Spanish classes in the morning and doing volunteer work in the afternoon. This is the way I like to travel, nice and slow.

Antiqua is a lovely colonial city about an hour outside of Guatemala City. It is known for its spring-like weather, Spanish schools, and spectacular Easter celebrations. There are many tourists just passing through and many students who take classes. Most are housed in private homes advertised to give one a true experience of living with a family. This is what I wanted, imagining myself making tasty local dishes with the lady of the house. In fact, most homes are extremely basic; food is simple and sparse. Meals are served to the guests who are all foreign students from various parts of the world. It became depressing very quickly. When the “mother” refused to allow me to boil water for tea on Sunday when she did not cook for us, I decided to look for another place.

After visiting some other homes the school recommended, I chose to spend more money and rent a lovely room in a gracious home, through Airbnb. The hostess was a university prof who turned out to be good company when she wasn’t working one of her three jobs.

The school was close by. I would walk briskly in the cool morning through the cobbled streets greeting passers-by with a friendly, “Buenos días.” It is considered impolite not to speak to people you meet in the streets. The instructors were mostly women. We often chatted around the coffee pot before classes started. One day, I overheard them discussing an upcoming meeting with the administration.  “It is not what they promised.” “I have to supply all my own materials.” “Let’s keep the discussion to the most important issue: money.” And their voices grew softer, as more students entered the room.

My instructor, Maia, came to my table later than usual, after getting herself a cup of coffee. She looked angry. I had been sitting there waiting; I smiled and said, “Hacen huelga?” Going on strike? She smirked and said, “Tal vez, we just might.” Then upon further discussion, I discovered they only earned Q400 quetzales a week. That is just a bit over $50 US dollars or $70 Canadian, far less than I was paying the school. And for 20 hours a week! These instructors could make more cleaning houses. The young woman who cleaned our house earned Q500 for the same number of hours.

“I bet those foreigners working in the office earn more than that,” I mused. “And this school is supposed to be a charitable organization. That is why I chose to study here over a privately owned school. I should complain to the head office in Europe.”

“Por favor, no,” Maia whispered, “you will get me into trouble.”

I quit the next week, and found a tutor, a university prof who taught Guatemalan history at university at night and Social Studies at a private high school by day. Q65 ($9 US/$12 CND) an hour sounded steep at first, but I was only going to take 3 to 5 hours a week.

Marisol was great. She pushed me to read texts that dissected the recent civil war, or the workings of the corrupt government officials, or current events. She got me writing in Spanish, something I find difficult and rather embarrassing as my level of writing does not reflect my thoughts very well, but this is what I wanted: a challenge, insight into the country, and discussion.

In the next few weeks, I met many other women who lived in Guatemala, most of them American or Canadian. Some spent the winters in Antigua; others worked, or stayed home while their husbands worked for foreign companies; others lived here permanently, going home just for special occasions.

One younger German woman was married to a Guatemalan. He was an architect. They had a nice condo, and a young baby. Although they had been together for many years, the baby seemed to driving them apart. Paula no longer had an income and missed her freedom; her daughter took up all of her time.  Francisco loved his daughter but found his wife distant, moody, and aggressive. I could understand having been married to a Mexican for the last thirty years. Intercultural marriages are difficult, especially when you are far from family.

Most women I met were older, retired like myself. They enjoyed each other’s company, and the good life in this country where foreign money goes much further than at home.

Dale, a single woman, shared a house with another woman in a chic district on the outskirts of Antigua. She organized money raising activities for a small charitable organization she had started ten years ago. She also enjoyed a varied and busy social life with many male companions both Guatemalan and foreign. At home it had never been so easy.

Susan was also having a second chance at love. She had met a fellow American, Sid, who was enjoying being a musician in his retirement. They both might have attended Woodstock judging by the way they dressed.

Andrea was more my type. She enjoyed hiking and bird watching; she spoke decent Spanish and was involved in the local drama group doing mostly ‘behind the scenes’ work, but with Guatemalans. She had even met some of the more famous movie actors.

All of these people lived in beautiful houses; all had domestic help; everyone could afford trips home. They were all involved to some degree in the local life.

Looking at life for Guatemalans, life is not so rosy even in Antigua, a relatively wealthy city. Many mothers spent their days on the streets selling baubles to the tourists, local and foreign. Most had a baby tied onto their back or on their hip. Others had one or more toddlers playing along beside them. Many small school-age children would help them hawk their wares, or look after their younger siblings. Older girls, around ten to fifteen could often been seen carrying a baby. I found out that Guatemala has a very high rate of young girls getting pregnant, as early as ten, so one never knew if the baby was a sibling or one of their own children. Boys might shine shoes, or sell wheelbarrows of peanuts. There weren’t so many boys; maybe they stayed at home and worked on the land.

Gladys, one woman I met, had befriended many of these boys. “Too often,” she told me, “they end up dead.” Elaborating she explained, “They are recruited into gangs and are either killed while committing a crime or by a rival gang.”

The level of violence in the country leads many youth to flee into Mexico on their way to the United States. Only a few are successful and even fewer avoid severe violence during their voyage.

Most local workers live in villages surrounding Antigua where housing is exorbitantly expensive by Guatemalan standards. “In these towns,” Maia explained, “gangs rule everyone’s life.” I was robbed at gunpoint just a year ago, on the street in broad daylight. It is not just tourists who have to be careful.”

Very few criminals are caught and charged. Those who are face worse violence in prison. While I was getting my nails done one afternoon, the esthetician’s boyfriend asked me, “Did you see that short video of a young woman being beaten and robbed by two guys on a motorcycle?”

“Yes,” I said, “everybody was sharing it at school. It went viral in Antigua. It was right in this neighbourhood.”

“Well,” he added, “the guy was arrested and sent to prison. Yesterday someone slit his throat.”

Slowly, I was understanding why Guatemalans took so many precautions: guards and cameras controlling the entrance to people’s houses, or stores, warnings not to use the local buses, tuk-tuks, or even taxis, women not going out after dark, people looking the other way when someone is being beaten or robbed, and probably other reflexes I wasn’t even aware of.

I asked my tutor, Marisol, “What is the cause of all this violence? Poverty, the civil war that lasted thirty-six years, drugs? What do you think?”

“Todo eso,” all of those, she answered. “People are so poor, they see wealthy Guatemalans or rich tourists as fair game. We all look rich to them. There is no help for them from the government; many cannot even send their kids to school because they can’t afford the uniform, books, lunches and transportation. ”

“Do you think tourism helps or causes more problems here in Guatemala?” I asked.

“What do you think?” she replied.

“Both, probably. We create expectations in people. Street vendors expect us to buy something from them. Young people see how we dress, how we eat in restaurants, carry cameras and other gear around with us, travel in first-class buses or taxis. And how many tourists are cheap with the locals, bargaining over a trifle, or rarely tipping. Some young tourists even hitchhike. In a tourist town like Antigua, locals cannot afford to live here. My room costs the same per day as a language teacher earns in a week. But we also give work to the people. Many rich locals are worse than foreigners. Tourists can’t be the only problem,” I trailed off.

“And what about volunteers? Are we seen in the same way?”

She looks at me, shrugs her shoulders, “Not everyone thinks in the same way,” she says.

Home soon

Travelling is great, but I always miss being home, and the closer the time to return home, the more I look forward to seeing family and friends, enjoying the comforts of home, getting back into some kind of routine, gardening, sailing, going for a favourite bike ride, starting new projects, working on some self-improvement items (such as down-sizing, home improvements, reading, exercising, studying, or whatever).

Today, I made a list, but it has been brewing for the last couple of weeks, especially because I have been rather bored here, resting, in order to get rid of the flu which turned into bronchitis, so I can enjoy these last days of sun, ocean, and heat.

After leaving Guatemala, via Belize, I spent one day exploring Tulum (a small but beautiful Mayan ruins site by the ocean) and sitting under a palapa on the beach. Unfortunately, I remembered to use sunscreen everywhere but my face! Forgot to bring my hat too!

A coati and me at the Tulum ruins

Here in Cozumel for the last five days, waiting and hoping that my lungs clear up enough to go diving. Fortunately, I am staying in a lovely big Airbnb apartment not far from a bright, modern hospital where I have been going twice a day for nebulisation treatments. The grocery store is not far, and there is a great little place to eat fresh hot tacos al pastor right around the corner, so all my basic needs are covered.


Catching the setting sun.

I also got a Mexican sim card for my phone, so I have unlimited calls anywhere in Mexico, USA, and Canada. These calls are refreshing after a steady diet of facebook and TV. A CBC app on my ipad is also a boon, and it makes appreciate, as I listen to the weather reports, the warmth (actually, I should say heat) of Mexico.

Hasta pronto,


Last days in Guatemala

Last days in Guatemala

If you are going to be sick, better not to be on the road. I got a bad case of the flu in Antigua, and was glad to be “at home” where I could sleep all day, and make myself something to eat when I got hungry.
Unfortunately, I still felt rather weak leaving for Semuc Champey. It was a long ten hour bus trip. The countryside got more striking as we entered the department of Alta Verapaz. It is greener; the mountains are steep with breath-taking views from the narrow winding roads.

It was a bit of an effort, but I pretty well kept up the the young ones the next day on our tour. The caves were particularly challenging as we were in water, often over our heads most of the time. It was rather difficult to keep our candles lit! I found it scary coming back: we had to slide down the rocks in a water fall into a deep pool. Lost my cap in there!

Afterwards, we relaxed in tubes as we floated down the river. Needless to say, the cough didn’t gey any better that day.

Another ten hour bus ride to Flores which is in the northern most department of Petén. The next day: Tikal, the most important and largest of the Mayan ruins. We had a great guide who took care to choose the shadiest paths as it was mid-day with temperatures over 35 degrees. He was also a lover of nature and pointed out many birds and spider monkeys to us.

The second day, the sunrise tour was more agreeable with its cooler temperture and its abundance of wild life (even if we didn’t see the sunrise due to the cloud cover). Highlights: two scorpions on the trail, a Great Currasow (male), toucans, trogons, herons, flycatchers, and many more.

Today, I am veging in the pretty town of Flores as my tour of another site was cancelled. Tomorrow heading back to Mexico.