Writing a travel blog during a massive quarantine is a tad bit challenging. Yes, I can pull out old material, and I will have to, but I also like to write about current things. So this has very little to do with traveling, but it's relevant for everyone now and technically, we did have to travel to deliver them. Salt dough ornaments are simple and a great way to keep kids busy on these long, endless days. You can dye the dough or paint them after they bake. I've done both, and they always turn out really cute for ornaments or decorations.
Today was a bad day for everyone. There were lots of frustrated tears from both me and the kids about doing online schoolwork. Sites were crashing, sisters were fighting, the dog was pooping in his crate, the routine is different, and everyone is trying to accept this new normal. So after a really disastrous morning, we decided to deliver some cheer. A few days ago, I found a simple salt dough recipe circulating on Facebook:
1 cup flour
1/2 cup salt
1/2 cup water
*We doubled it because one batch doesn't make enough for three people to paint.
We mixed up our dough and used cookie cutters to punch out Easter shapes. Weirdly enough, I didn't have an egg shape. We grabbed a plastic cup squeezing it into an oval, and that worked just fine. We put our salt dough shapes on parchment paper-covered baking sheets and baked them at 250 degrees for two hours. Don't forget to punch holes in the tops if you intend to hang some. We just used the end of a paint brush to make the holes.
Once they cooled completely, we decorated them with acrylic craft paint and put pipe cleaners through the holes as hangers. They turned out pretty cute and kept the girls busy over a few hours for two days.
My grandma is 87 years old and lives alone. We drove to her house and surprised her with our decorations and also made a stop at my parents' house. We hung some from the trees and put some on the sidewalk. We also decorated their driveways with chalk while we were there. We made sure to stick to strict social distancing guidelines so as not to put them at risk. They all teared up, and I know it meant a lot for them to see us from a distance.
Spreading cheer today helped us heal our own lonely hearts for a brief moment in time. This book is a great complement to this theme. The main character Victoria is unable to connect with people due to her darkly troubled past, but she discovers a way to communicate through flowers. We can't communicate in person during this quarantine, but the human spirit is resilient, and we discover ways to meet our social needs through small things like phone calls, video chats, letters, gifts on porches, chalk pictures, and ornaments in trees.
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There's a shadow of gray and darkness that lurks along every chapter in this novel and while it stalks the pages, I loved the story even more because of it. As the title may falsely lead you to believe, this is not a light, flowery book with happy endings and tidy resolutions but instead the stark, reality of someone who experiences trauma. Trauma latches it's cold, spindly fingers onto every part of Victoria's life and won't let go just because she has entered adulthood. Victoria spends the majority of her life in the foster-care system, and she is unable to develop connections with people or the world around her except through the Victorian language of flowers. Victoria learns this language of love through one foster mom that she attaches to until tragedy strikes, and she is forced back into isolation. Victoria eventually emancipates and strikes out on her own but meets up with people and secrets from her past that force her to question her place in the world and even the precious language of flowers she so staunchly clings to. Victoria is not a likeable character but she's real. Her push-back against people who are kind to her is also authentic. She's angry, downright mean, and mostly lost. I love reading about the meaning of the various flowers and how they played a role in people's destines. Victoria develops a gift for choosing just what people need in the flower shop she comes to work for, and eventually comes to terms with what she needs in her own life in order to be happy.
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Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ruby's young adult historical fiction novel takes readers on a swirling, sweeping flight in and out of various decades, both for the living and the dead. I was a little reluctant to read this because I didn't care for Bone Gap at all with it's heavy-handed magical realism, but this one was more supernatural and bizarre in a way that has some boundaries and eventually an explanation. Frankie, her audacious little sister, Toni, and their big brother Vito have spent much of their childhood living in an orphanage getting Sunday visits from their Father who "temporarily" put them there until he could get back on his feet after riding the wave of the Great Depression. On the eve of WWII, Vito ships off to serve his country along with other boys from the orphanage including Frankie's first love, Sam. As some of the nuns enact brutal punishments on the orphans, Frankie just wants to be free even though she's not sure exactly what that means for her. The entire story is told through the "not-eyes" of ghost, Pearl, who floats aimlessly in and out of people's lives, yearning to find her purpose and what really caused her death in 1918. There are so many sad and eerie secrets revealed in all of the characters' lives that it's clear the author has done a lot of research. The murky line between fact and fiction in this book is blurred in a beautiful, scary, and haunting way. Some of Pearls' chapters in the beginning felt muddled and clunky, but it all came together in the end. This doesn't mean there's necessarily a happy or tidy ending, but there is resolution. I like how one of Ruby's many themes is about women's voracity for creativity, independence, and freedom. No matter what that freedom looks like to each woman, it is her own choice, right, and journey to take.
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I love sad memoirs. I could read them one after another. I'm not a sad person; I'm just drawn to stories of people who face hardship. I love to learn about the human experience and hopefully take little pieces of them with me so that when I also face struggles, I'm just a little bit better equipped to get through them. These stories layer themselves inside me, softening the way I understand the world, and while I can't claim to comprehend their experiences, I can at the very least use them to frame my attempts.
My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward by Mark Lukach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Mark and Giulia had a fairytale romance and marriage. Seemingly out of the blue, Giulia suffers a psychotic break characterized by religions delusions and suicidal ideations that lands her in a psychiatric ward for nearly a month. Mark's account of Giulia's initial breakdown, diagnoses, and subsequent hospital stays is heartbreaking and honest. Mark talks about how it impacts Giulia's job, family, personality, and their marriage. Mark also talks candidly about his own selfishness and how Giulia's mental health impacts his ability to lead a normal life. Giulia's hospital stays affect his ability to work, his own mental health, and his ability to lead a productive, fulfilling life. Not only does Giulia suffer, but their marriage and love for each other is constantly put to the test. I found this book to be incredibly sad, but it also gave me perspectives on mental health that I didn't full understand before. I particularly liked when Mark was inspired to create a plan with Giulia when she was feeling well so that they each had limits and wants clearly outlined before the psychosis took away Giulia's ability to make those calls on her own. This book certainly gave me pause to think more about those suffering within the shell of psychosis and how terrifying and helpless everyone around them must feel.
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I can't think of a more fitting title for 9 days of COVID-19 quarantine. I'm fortunate enough to have my husband, two kids, and Hoagie home with me, but if anyone's feeling lonely, I'm always up for chatting about books. Message me on the Gram or Facebook.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It's me not you. I feel bad that I'm not crazy about this book. It's just a book with no feelings, yet I want to prop it up and just can't. The writing is beautiful and sets the scene of Alaska's untamed, dangerous, and addicting landscape. There's really nothing wrong with the book. I think part of my issue was that I just didn't have a lot of time and was reading it in such small doses, that I lost my connection with it. I couldn't absorb the setting and characters in the way they deserved. Leni's father, Ernt, comes home from his time as a POW in the Vietnam War, and fights demons that manifest in violence with his family. He's irrational and impulsive and packs the family up to head to Alaska to fend for themselves while retreating from the world. Isolated and unprepared, Ernt forges ahead, quickly making enemies. Leni finds comfort in her newly learned independence and the strength of the local people who show her kindness and compassion. Her coming-of-age arc also includes her mother, Cora, who is the main target of Ernt's rage. Leni finds her first love and a tragic end amidst the formidable allure of the Alaskan backdrop. Kristin Hannah's book paints a raw and emotional picture of domestic violence and the way in which it festers and infects all those involved.
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We're on day five of the COVID-19 quarantine. Knowing that this may be a long, long time being stuck in the house, I was thrilled when my friend mentioned Uncharted Lancaster to me in a text. Uncharted Lancaster is a website that lays out clues to various adventure hikes all around Lancaster County. The hikes teach you some local history, introduce you to new places, and keep you on your toes trying to find treasure boxes. This sounded like the perfect way to adhere to the recommendations regarding social distancing but also allowing us to get some exercise and get out of our house. So far we've done three hikes, and they've captured the girls' attention in ways I'm truly thankful for. We've all been really tense, and the adventure of this special family time helped us take our minds off feeling scared and unsure about the current pandemic for at least a few hours during the day. We made sure to use gloves when opening or touching the boxes, and we wiped down the treasures with Clorox wipes before handling.
The girls read over the list of adventures on the Uncharted Adventures website.
Haunted Indian Gold Adventure
They were immediately drawn to the Haunted Indian Gold Adventure. After reading the background history about the buried gold and other treasures in the Safe Harbor area, the girls decided this would be the best adventure to start with. This has also been our favorite hike so far.
The website rates this hike a 4/5 on the difficulty scale, and I would agree that it's a challenge. It's a little over three miles and includes some steep climbs and declines. The website includes lots of helpful pictures to orient yourself as you continue on the trail.
Romancing the Stone Adventure
The start of this hike is only two minutes from the Pequea Trolley Trail which is why we did it the same day. It's also only a 2/5 on the difficulty scale and is similar in simplicity to the Pequea adventure. While only a mile long, the start of this adventure is a challenge. It's a steep uphill climb followed by a steep downhill trail on a skinny path. It evens out and crosses a rickety bridge following water and little waterfalls for another beautiful scene. This adventure ends up with a single box filled with glittering diamonds. The girls began bickering with each other at this point, and we had to hustle out to avoid the tired afternoon meltdowns. They stopped long enough to admire the waterfalls and climbing rocks, and we thoroughly enjoyed this adventure as well.
Of all the great books out there I've read about unlocking clues to find some kind of fortune or treasure, this one seems to best fit the current vibe with it's sci-fi, dystopian theme. We're all stuck inside our homes waiting out the pandemic while Wade Watts is stuck inside the virtual OASIS trying to unlock the gates that will lead him to Halliday's fortune. Luckily these Uncharted Lancaster experiences gave us the opportunity to treasure hunt outdoors. Check out this book to go down the 80s memory lane and immerse yourself in a virtual adventure.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
How did I not read this when it first came out?! Oh that’s right- there are too many good books and not enough time. It’s beyond good and a truly unique dystopian experience. So this guy (Halliday) creates a virtual gaming world (the OASIS) and when he dies, it’s revealed that there are Easter eggs hidden throughout the virtual reality. Whoever finds these keys and unlocks the gates will inherit his vast fortune. This sets off years of people clambering to unlock the secrets of the OASIS. Halliday loved the 80s so the clues all revolve around 80s games, movies and music. A huge corporation wants to take over the OASIS and monetize it, so there is also the conflict of single players who are true lovers of the game vs this greed-filled entity trying to take over. I loved the subtle commentary on human immersion in the technology world, and the nostalgia of 80s references was incredibly entertaining. If you haven’t read this yet, I’d highly recommend it.
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Cusco is cobblestones, tightly packed streets, balconies, delicious food, adventure, and charm. It's unique and atmospheric, the kind of place you can never have enough time to explore. I loved Cusco despite some of the initial traveling hardships we dealt with.
Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport - We flew Peruvian Airlines from Lima. The landing was bumpy, and our nerves were shot after worries about the notoriously unreliable flights in and out of Cusco. Our hotel provided transportation which made things nice and simple when getting out of this airport. One odd thing that you should take into consideration when flying out of Cusco with Peruvian is that they allow for less baggage weight leaving than coming in. This is hugely problematic since Cusco is THE best and cheapest place to shop. We decided to pay for an extra bag on the way out just to store souvenirs. We saw lots of people opening their suitcases and dumping things on the floor trying to figure out what to do with all of their stuff. There were lots of upset tourists who didn't take note of this detail. While we planned for this, we didn't know that they would make you get out of line and pay for the extra bag in another line. Then you have to get back in line again to check in. While at first we panicked that we wouldn't make it to our gate in time with all of the line changing, the airport is relatively small, and we had plenty of time to relax and prepare for boarding.
Altitude Sickness - One of the main reasons we didn't bring the girls on this adventure was due to our concerns over altitude sickness. We did our research and tried our best to avoid getting sick. Cusco's altitude is just over 11,000 feet. Many people recommend acclimating by starting your travels in Aguas Calintes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, since it's elevation is under 7,000 feet. This didn't make sense for the amount of time we had, so we opted to take our chances.
We hydrated excessively for several days before flying to Cusco, and we continued to drink water on the plane and after arrival. We also took ibuprofen close to arrival, avoided alcohol, and planned for a low-key first day. We tried to take naps right after arriving, but the city was so loud and bustling, we couldn't get settled and decided to walk around slowly instead. As our arrival day wore on, Tommy began feeling like crap. He said it started with a bad headache that got progressively worse. He felt like he was in the midst of a horrible hangover. We headed back to the hotel where I knew things were not good since he didn't want to eat. He felt sick in the stomach every time he moved. We called the front desk, and they immediately brought up an oxygen tank. They recommended that he use it for twenty minutes and then go to bed early. He followed their advice, and felt surprisingly better the next day. It caused us to lose a bit of time on that first evening but the early bedtime was worth it since he was able to sleep in a bit the next day and then be back to normal. I can't imagine how awful it must be for travelers who are hit with worse symptoms and can't acclimate. It took him about one day to fully acclimate and feel completely normal.
The only thing I noticed during our time in Cusco was getting winded easily on the steps. It was definitely harder to climb, and I found myself uncharacteristically out of breath shortly after starting up a staircase. I lucked out and had no other altitude issues.
Craps happens when you travel - In addition to Tommy's bout with altitude sickness, I was battling some kind of unknown allergic reaction. Upon arrival in Lima, my eyes got bright red and felt weird. I kept my contacts out and located a pharmacy. With our sad, broken, semi-conversational Spanish, we asked for eye drops. Once we arrived in Cusco, my eyes seemed to clear up, but I noticed a rash breaking out on my arms. By day two, my face had started to swell a little, and the rash had spread to my stomach, back, and legs. We headed back to the trusty Inkafarma. I was pretty confident the topical cream we got was ok, but we also asked for help getting an allergy pill. We apologized in advance for our poor attempts at Spanish, but explained that I was having a rash. They listened patiently and gave me some pills. I cross-checked the ingredients with a Spanish language app, and downed it hoping I had asked for the right thing. It did the trick after a few days of discomfort, and we soldiered on. Traveling is going to have moments that suck. We dedicated ourselves to staying positive, enjoying our trip, and taking in all of the beauty of the country despite the weird stuff that cropped up.
Turning Pages: Places to Check Out
Soccer Games - Copa Cup
We woke up one morning in the hotel to fireworks and lots of yelling in the streets. Something big was going on, but we didn't know what it was. We ventured outside and made our way to the square. There were soldiers lined up and a crowd was beginning to assemble to watch the Copa Cup: Peru vs. Brazil. We stumbled upon the city's pre-game parade and viewing event. There were people in costumes, school groups, karate teams, stilt walkers, vendors, and all sorts of excitement building. As the afternoon wore on, we bought Peruvian soccer shirts and face stickers before joining the crowd gathering in front of a giant TV screen and viewing platform. We watched the game, cheered, drank some beers, and had the absolute most insane time getting lost in the chanting, national pride, and general camaraderie. Closely tied with Machu Picchu, this experience was a favorite just because it was spontaneous and surreal being surrounded by the patriotic spirit and charisma of such a huge group of Peruvians in this majestic, colonial square. Clearly unprepared for standing in the hot sun all day without a hat, I could feel my pale face frying. A kind woman who didn't speak English noticed my discomfort and offered up a bottle of lotion. Red faced and glowing sweat, we soaked up the party and loved every minute of it. Pictures don't do this experience justice so make sure you check out my Facebook page or Instagram for the videos.
We bought so much stuff in Peru - blankets, table runners. backpacks, purses, pens, llama toys, pom-pom door hangers, candy, place mats, a chess set, ties, and various other odds and ends. Cusco is probably the best and cheapest place to shop. You can and should definitely haggle here. I really hate going back and forth over prices but Tommy gets a real kick out of it. The prices are fair, and the inventory is so immense here that you can definitely shop around, negotiate, and come to an agreement that all parties can be happy about. The San Blas area is worth a walk. The skinny streets are something to marvel over, and there are tons of stairs. You'll pass the Twelve-Angled Stone which is not very exciting to look at but tends to gather a crowd. It's considered an archaeological marvel for it's twelve intricate cuts. I also can't stress enough how much the people appreciate when you try to speak Spanish. Even if it's terrible, the effort goes a long way.
Moray Incan Ruins and Maras Salt Mines
We used one tour company, CUSCOPERU, for two different day adventures. We don't typically do the tour group thing but figured due to the language barriers and time restraints we had, it was best to leave some of our touring to the experts. They were reasonably priced, responsive in communication, and easy to work with. They provided transportation including buses, trains and vans for all parts of our trips, organized ticket purchases, tour guides, and any other requirements needed for a smooth trip (passport information for Machu Picchu, etc.) Overall we thought they were fantastic, but there were a few things along the way that could have been better. CUSCOPERU sends a rep to your hotel to orient you on the plans for your trips. This was a great perk and made us feel prepared. The thing we weren't prepared for was that they insisted we pay the remainder of our balance in cash which would have been way too much money to be carrying around. The only other option was to pay on their website with a card which also included a fee. None of this was explained in advance so we were kind of stuck and had to figure out the online payment system on my phone. Other issues with CUSCOPERU were small, and I'll address these as they come up. CUSCOPERU has great reviews on TripAdvisor, and our tours functioned like really well-oiled machines.
The Maras salt pans (Salineras de Maras) are absolutely fascinating. The ride there is harrowing and will most likely make you squeeze your eyes shut in fear more than once. The salt pans are located deep in a valley which means climbing high mountains and making your way down to them. The dirt roads are single lanes with zero guardrails. When zipping around corners, van drivers slam on the horns alerting oncoming traffic to stop. When buses and vans attempt to pass one another they delicately inch forward as each vehicle scoots past just inches from scraping metal and skirting the edge and each other in a fragile, dangerous balance. It's terrifyingly exciting.
Was the guinea pig delicious? No. Was the guinea pig edible? Yes. Did we also order a pizza? Yes. There was a very small amount of meat. It was gamey and greasy-tasting. I didn't want to throw up, but I also would never order it again. We ate all of it and enjoyed the experience. The following day we saw little hutches with guinea pigs in them, and I felt like they knew what I had done and were judging me for it.
San Pedro Market
Local markets are the absolute best way to experience the culture of a community. San Pedro market is incredible. It's located within easy walking distance of our hotel, and we visited there several times for food and shopping. The vendor and food stalls are crowded but the sights and smells are intoxicating. We had huge, insanely cheap meals at this market and enjoyed trying to chat with the locals. We found ourselves gaping at one customer's order of head soup. It was either a ram or lamb head laying in broth. For some reason I found this to be much grosser than the cuy. It was basically half a face laying in some liquid. I didn't want to take a picture of someone while they were eating, and I don't think either of us could have handled ordering one of those, so my verbal description will have to suffice. Our adventurous eating ended with the guinea pig.
Postscript: What I Missed
Things I wish we had time for (for the next visit):
Coricancha and the Convent of Santo Domingo - a massive religious compound with a sanctuary to honor the Sun god, Inti. We visited the church attached to this but didn't have enough time to see the complex.
Sacsayhuaman - ruins of an ancient Incan fortress
Cristo Blanco - Jesus Christ statue and views of Cusco
Rainbow Mountain - hike to see a mountain range made of ringed rainbow colors. We debated this trip seriously for a long time, but it's over three hours from Cusco. We also heard mixed reviews about it and ultimately nixed it.
Q'eswachaka Rope Bridge - relic example of a handwoven Incan suspension bridge. I really wanted to go to this one.
**If I could plan this trip again, I would definitely spend more time in Cusco. We only spent four days here and crammed in as much as we possibly could, but also felt like we missed so much. Between the colonial city and all of the day trip ruins, you could spend a month here and not feel satisfied.
I've been lost for an entire month in the inescapable landscape of new puppy. We surprised the girls with a baby Boston terrier, and I can't accomplish anything after work now. I try to type or read, and he diverts all of my attention instead to his cute biting, rolling, napping, snoring, snuffling like a pig, and endless list of other sweet puppy things. He has taken over our family like a little furry tornado, and it's a good thing we all like adventures because this one is wild and adorably distracting
The obvious connection here is of course, the dog. Pets enrich our lives in ways that can't always be explained. They fill a void. Human to human connections can be marred and muddled by emotions, intent, and circumstance. Human to dog connection is pure and more basic. It's unwavering and devoid of judgement. I loved how Stein's book shows the "human side" of a dog by letting the reader hear his emotions and thoughts about his owner, life, and experiences. This book is a perfect read for all dog lovers or anyone just looking to feel something simple and true.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Enzo is all heart and feels. This book is just adorable. Enzo is a dog who loves his owner and family, and articulately narrates the story of his life. He details how frustrating it is to see and hear everything that goes on but to not be able to communicate with the ones you love - to explain, to warn, to shower with verbal praise, to ask questions. It is what it is, and he believes that one day when his time is over, he will be reincarnated as a man. Enzo talks about his owner, Denny, with such sincere adoration that it makes me want to rush right out and buy a dog this very minute. I'm already having puppy pangs, and this book magnifies the feeling to a fever pitch. Denny talks to Enzo about his passion for auto racing, and this becomes a way for Enzo to understand the world. Lessons in racing become metaphors for the trials that Denny faces including his wife's illness, a life-altering criminal accusation, financial hardship, and in-law meddling to the extreme. My favorite part of the entire book is when Enzo is accidentally left home alone for days with little food and water, and in a fit of hallucination, he recalls the molester stuffed zebra attacking little Zoe's other toys and eventually tearing apart his own seams in a fit of crazed rage. This novel is all parts sad, hilarious, hopeful, and rage inducing. It's also a super, quick read and while the subject matter is heavy, Enzo's take on the world is light and captivating. Although ultimately we can't hear what our pets are thinking, if we slow down and really "listen," we might just find they can teach us more about the wonders of life than a single, audible word could ever convey.
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Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.