Thankful for You, Mom

There are so many things we take for granted. The sun in the sky, the air we breathe, the seasons. Our breath, our health, the people we love. But if there is one thing this year has taught me, it is this: We can’t–and shouldn’t–take anything for granted. Not clean air, not the reliability of seasons, not good health, and certainly not those we care about. We must stop for a moment, notice–and appreciate–every little thing we have. Because we are so lucky to have it, and because it’s not guaranteed to last. Noticing and appreciating. The little things. The present, the moment. The people. This is what life is about.

Today, with Thanksgiving approaching, I want to pause and truly GIVE THANKS. Because although this has been a challenging year, there is still so much to be grateful for. 

We take a lot for granted, things and people. But there’s no one we take for granted more than our mothers. Like the sun and the moon, and the way the world just is, our mothers are always there.

I am grateful for many things today, but want to give some extra special thanks to the one person who gave me life, and from then on always had my back: my Mom.

**********

Ima,

Thank you for caring for me all those years. Thanks for the sacrifices you made, for the tea parties, synonym games, and all the dreams you composed. Thanks for the countless meals you cooked, when you felt like it and when you didn’t. I took them for granted then, but now, when I have to feed my own children, I see them for what they truly were: repeated expressions of love. Thanks for coming to school bringing the sandwiches I forgot, for your help with homework, for your solid support. Thank you for always dressing my physical wounds and hurt feelings. You spent hundreds of hours typing my high school thesis, all 130 pages of it (not including the bibliography), on a typewriter, in those dark, bygone days before computers. No one else would have done that for me. 

You helped as much as you could in every way you could when time came for me to fly out of the nest, even though my flight eventually took me further than either of us had ever expected, and even though it must have been so, so painful. I am grateful you went out of your comfort zone to come backpacking with me in China. And thankful also that you travelled thousands of miles, over and over, to be present at all the important events of my life. Thanks, too, for loving my children, deeply and passionately, and for being such a wonderful grandma.

You are the smartest, wisest, most empathetic person I know. Beautiful inside and out. Thank you for teaching me what it means to stand up for what is right, and for what you believe in. Thanks for being my best friend. Thanks for showing me, though a personal example, what a strong woman looks like. What it means to be a good human being and a good mother. Because of you, when my kids arrived, no instructions or manuals attached, I knew what to do, sort of. I’ve been trying to be as good a mother to them as you are to me. Thanks for being there for all the important milestones, for all the big and small moments. I am grateful for all the adventures we had together, and for all those we will still have.

Throughout the storms of my life, you were a rock and a lighthouse. You always show me the way to what is right.

Love you to the end of the universe and back,

Zwia.

**********

Who are you thankful for today? If you haven’t done so yet, perhaps you should reach out to tell them. The last few months have been challenging for everyone, so I’m sure they will appreciate your gesture.

If this makes it a bit easier for you, I made a downloadable version of the card I made for my mom that you can personalize. Clicking on the link below will download the image directly into your “Downloads” file:

Download here

Once you download it, you can personalize it:

1) By inserting a picture of your own on the blank rectangle electronically, using your favorite picture-editing program, and then printing it out.

Or:

2) Simply print it out and physically glue your own picture on top.  

Then give or mail it to whoever you want, and pass the love on 🙂

Happy Thanksgiving!

A Dragon Quilt for My Beloved Boy

Prologue

I took my first quilting class while pregnant with my first child. Her baby quilt was finished before she was even born. Shortly after she turned one, I made a beautiful album summarizing her first year of life. Then, when she was about four years old and all into princesses, I sewed her a flowing magenta princess cape.

Her little sister got her own cape (but in blue) at the same time. She was barely two years old, and wanted everything her big sister had. Caring for two toddlers didn’t leave me with much free time, however, so my second daughter only got her baby quilt when she was about two and a half and much too big for it. I didn’t get to make her baby album until after she turned three, when my parents came for a visit (giving me some free time). 

My third child turned five without getting any of the above-mentioned markers of motherly love. By then he understood what getting the short end of the stick meant, and so he pestered me about it continuously. “When will I get my own cape?” (although he fit into his sisters’ old ones); “when am I going to get an album?;” and “what about MY quilt?”

I suspect he might have overheard me confessing my guilt to whomever was willing to listen, and that his words reflected my own bad conscious. But there is was, nonetheless.

So I finally sewed him his own cape–a knight’s cape, complete with sword and shield. I pieced a baby-quilt background, and took an applique class to learn how to applique the vehicles I wanted to put on it. But I never got to the actual appliqueing… Several months into his kindergarten year, I spent my free mornings combing through his numerous baby pictures, carefully selecting the best ones. For over a month I lovingly printed them, glued them, wrote nice captions beneath them. I kept thinking of how happy he will be to finally have his own baby album.

Then, on his sixth birthday, I asked him to close his eyes and put his arms out. I carefully placed the wrapped album in his hands, holding my breath to see his reaction. He tore the wrapping, glanced at it, and … burst into tears. This was not the birthday gift he wanted. He much preferred a set of Legos…

Needless to say, I never finished that quilt. It still lies buried, to this day, somewhere deep in my Unfinished Project piles… My son doesn’t even like vehicles any more, and yet that quilt has been sitting silent between us, all those years…

Fire-spitting Dragons

A few weeks ago my son, now in fifth grade, came by to show me a drawing he made:

I loved the composition, the lively colors he chose, the meticulous details. I immediately sent a proud picture of it to my mom and siblings.

And then I kept thinking about it, and thinking some more…

Finally, I enlarged his drawing, and printed it on four sheets of paper:

I taped them all together to form a bigger version of his creation:

My sewing room is pretty low-tech, but sometimes necessity is the mother of all inventions…  I put the enlarged print against the window, and traced the outline of the drawing’s different parts with a pencil:

Now I had all the elements separated:

I cut each piece out:

Then, I selected a fabric for the background. I had several light-blue swatches that seemed perfect, but they were all too small. There were less options among my bigger pieces, but I finally found something suitable. I went on to choose additional fabrics from my scrap boxes in colors matching his work (they do come handy, those scraps!):

Putting the paper outlines on top of the fabrics, I carefully cut the pieces out:

I laid them all on the background fabric, then pinned them down:

Two of the clouds proved problematic: the cloud behind the wings, and that behind the head. Somehow, they just didn’t look right when translated into fabric. So I exercised some artistic freedom and moved them elsewhere…

I zigzagged all around the pieces, using black thread to mimic the drawing’s outline:

Then came the exciting part… When my son was a baby, I once took a free-motion quilting class. That was very long ago. I wasn’t good at it then, and I haven’t practiced since. In fact, I haven’t even used my free-motion foot in all those years, and barely remembered where I put it. But now I had to fish it out and use it to draw the scales. So I did.

It was nerve-wracking. I was so tense, that my arms started shaking after a while. But I kept at it. I put scales on the tail, on the body, on the head. Even on the legs. But I decided to leave the wings unscaled, diverting from the original drawing, because the fabric I used already looked scale-like. I was pretty happy with the result, and quite proud of myself, too! This is how it looked from the back:

I decided to add a border, since the blue alone looked too pale against the wall. My son loves red, and red matched the fire. So I added a red frame. I sandwiched the quilt, using a checkered fabric for the backing:

Then I started quilting. I used wavy horizontal lines to quilt the background since they gave it a bit of movement, and also somewhat mimicked the lines of the folder paper my son originally used. Finally, there it was: a dragon quilt for my beloved son!

At first, I though I’ll wait until my son’s birthday to give it to him. Turned out I was too excited for that… So I decided to give it right away instead, as an early birthday gift. I could hardly wait for my son to come home from school. When he finally did, I asked him to close his eyes and put his arms out. I carefully placed the quilt, back-side up, in his hands. My heart was pounding hard. I didn’t know what to expect. I held my breath…

My child opened his eyes and read the dedication I wrote on the back. Then he turned the quilt over. His eyes expanded in wonder. “How did you do it??” he asked once, and then again. “How did you do it?”

For a split second I felt like a magician, with textile art as my magic. How did I do it indeed?

My son ran to his room and brought his original drawing. He put the two side by side, drawing and quilt, and looked them both over. 

My work passed the test. He absolutely loved it!

And me? I loved being a magician, if only for a little while…

Quilt debt paid.

 

Farewell to My Dad, The Ultimate Upcycler

My father passed away in mid March, ripping a huge tear in the fabric of my life.

My dad was a true Renaissance man, a walking encyclopedia, utterly brilliant. He was also humble and modest to a fault, the most honest person I’ve ever met.

Most people knew him for his brain: his academic achievements and intellectual pursuits. His articles, publications, students and volunteer work could attest to that. We, who knew him up-close, were also awed by his hands. My father was extremely dexterous: he fixed, built, hammered, screwed, kneaded, cooked, sewed, planted, pruned, hugged. His capable hands could create wonders and fix anything, including broken hearts. 

My dad was an upcycler before upcycling was fashionable. He noticed the potential in everything around him, from a newborn baby to a tiny screw lying on the pavement. My father always picked up things that other people discarded, building himself a workshop stacked floor to ceiling with various kinds of treasures: nails, screws, cords, bulbs and what not. He had vast collections of scrap wood and other materials. When asked what for, he always said he might use them some day, and he often did. Whenever one of us needed anything, we would go to him first. He often had what we were looking for.

A master of improvisation, my dad thought outside the box and gave old objects a new life. On a desert trip when I was little, he dug into clay soil to create a makeshift oven in which we baked Chalas for Shabbat. Another year we were travelling during Hannukah and didn’t have a Menora. He built one out of snail shells. When the elastic on a fitted sheet tore, he used a hair pin to replace it. He cut tattered pants to give worn books new covers:

When my kids were little, they collected their broken toys in a special box. Whenever grandpa came to visit, he would fix them all. Better yet, he built them beautiful wooden toys from the wood he rescued:

In Hebrew, when a person is talented with their hands, we say he has “golden hands.” My dad had golden hands with a green thumb. He had a magic touch when it came to plants as well. He coerced them to grow from seed, could grow an entire tree from a tiny piece of plant cutting, and could graft. I learned to love nature and all of my gardening skills from him.

My dad is no longer here to fix the huge hole created by his passing, but in the few weeks since his death I became acutely aware of the permanent imprint he left. My father is gone, but his spirit lives on, in me, in my siblings, in our children. His guiding principles, taught by example, will keep showing us the way as we walk the path of life.

 

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Sure, You Can Probably Do the Inca Trail, But Should You?

I wrote extensively about our December trip to Peru, because … well, there was a lot to write about! I absolutely MUST write this one last Peru post, though, because trekking the Inca Trail was an experience of a lifetime.

Why I’m Sure You Can Do It, Too, Unless You Have a Serious Health Issue:

I first read about the Inca Trail a few decades ago, as I was procrastinating instead of writing my dissertation. It looked thrilling and fun, but seemed like one of those faraway things one can only dream about. Except that last December we did end up going to Peru…

We HAD to sign up for the trek, of course. But to tell you I wasn’t worried would be a lie. For one, I was a lot older than I was when I first read about it. A lot more out of shape, too. AND I was recovering from a second bout of debilitating back pain, the kind that rendered me nearly immobile for several weeks… I was terrified to hurt my back again, two-days into the trail, with no way out but a helicopter airlift… I went back and forth, trying to decide whether I should go or not. Then, at the last minute, I decided to go for it.

Now, my kids are in much better shape than I am. Several hours before leaving for the trek, however, we needed to take two out of the three to a clinic. One had an ear infection. The other–a bad stomach virus that involved sever vomiting and diarrhea. They went on the trek sick, each with their own antibiotics, and a small arsenal of additional medications.

So, folks, if we could do the Inca Trail, you could, too!

What to Expect

The classic Inca Trail is a four-day, 25-kilometer trek. It leaves from km 82 of the railroad, heads north towards the Amazon, and ends in the famous city of Machu Picchu.

The Trail

This is what all the guide books tell you: The first day is an easy warm-up. The second day, which takes you up to an elevation of more then 4,200 meters, is brutal. The third day is all downhill, and the fourth day is easy, with a short hike from the park entrance, up to the Sun Gate and down to Machu Picchu.

The reality: The first day is an “Inca Flat.” “Inca Flat” means lots of ups and downs. It might be easy if you’re in great shape. Otherwise … not so much. During this day you will walk through some pretty wilderness:

But also through many little villages that offer drinks and snacks for sale, as well as bathroom-use for a small fee.

You will also see your first Inca ruins, and realize, to your amazement, that there’s a ruin on almost every hill!

The second day is, indeed, brutal. Because if “Inca Flat” can be steep, just imagine what “Inca Steep” is like… Think an entire day of these:

And how grueling it can be to actually climb them…

My legs got so wobbly, that I needed to use walking sticks (those are life-savers!):

Don’t believe all the smiling Dead Woman’s Pass blog-post pictures you see everywhere. This is what it REALLY feels like to climb up to the highest part of the trail:

And yes, I, too, have a smiling picture from the Pass. But not because I felt great. I was smiling because, against all expectations, I made it there ALIVE!

That night I barely managed to crawl out of my tent to eat dinner…

The third day, I thought, would be super easy. What can be easier than going downhill, right? Uhmm … WRONG! Because this wasn’t down, it was “Inca Down.” That means starting the day with a twenty-minute upward climb. Then going down Inca steps, which  are STEEP. Some are knee-high. It rained. And everything was slippery. Going down those stairs was almost worse than climbing them!

The “leisurely” fourth day started with a 3:00 am wake-up call. We had to pack in the dark. Then we sat for two hours, in the dark and cold, along with five hundred other people, all waiting for the gate to the national park to open.

The minute the gate opened, at 5:30 am, the Great Race began. People were running, overtaking, almost pushing, only to get to the Sun Gate first. My family disappeared with the first rush. I walked as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast. The view was beautiful, but I had no time to enjoy it.

Then, right before the Sun Gate, another set of stairs, which the guides jokingly call “The Death Stairs.” Some people literally crawl up…

From the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu was actually rather easy, though quite packed with tourists even early in the morning.

The Weather

Because of the high elevation and the fact that the trail goes through several climate zones, weather on the Inca trail can be very unpredictable no matter when you go. We went in December, which is the dry season. It didn’t rain on our first day, but, as you can see from the pictures above, it drizzled, rained, poured and hailed on the second and third days. It got quite windy sometimes, too.

And it was mostly foggy for two entire days. We were told there are breath-taking views beyond the trail, but this is all we could see:

Early mornings, evenings and nights were all cold, requiring coats, warm hats and gloves.

The Ruins

The Inca Tail passes near several small Inca settlement. Seeing those up-close and walking around them was one of the highlights of the experience:

Once, we even saw a black lama, which are quite rare!

Your Fellow Trekkers

The Peruvian government allows only 500 people a day on the trail. That number includes 200 tourists and 300 porters. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but since all these people walk at about the same pace, the trail feels rather crowded most of the time.

People overtake you constantly. Rows of porters go by, carrying ginormous, heavy loads. Each company has a different uniform for its porters, and the guides jokingly call the porter-rows “caterpillars.” During the day you see “Red Caterpillars,” “Green Caterpillars,” “Blue Caterpillars,” “Orange Caterpillars” and so on.

You meet other tourist groups at lunch stops, and several groups share a night camp.

The Food

Every group travels with a chef. Porters carry portable kitchens and all the ingredients. Meals are cooked on the spot. Despite the minimal facilities, the food was incredible! It not only tasted good, but was also presented beautifully, like at a high-end restaurant. I am vegetarian, and got some vegetarian dishes cooked just for me.

There is even a waiter, who serves everything restaurant-style:

On the last day, we actually got a freshly-baked cake!

The Bathrooms

Bathrooms on the Inca Trail are far between and far from perfect. On the first day, there are bathrooms you can use in the villages you pass. You need to pay a small fee. Those are very simple and not super clean. For the rest of the trip, there are few public bathrooms along the tail, and heavily-used-but-rarely-cleaned bathrooms in every night camp. I’ve seen worse in China a few decades ago. My kids were appalled.

When no bathrooms are available, you are allowed to use “Pacha Mama (=Mother Earth) Bathrooms.”  The problem is, that finding a private place is hard. The trail, as I mentioned, is crowded, with people passing you all the time. Even if you find a secluded spot, you never know when someone will appear from around the bend… As usual, things are easier for men than for women.

Some porter companies take portable potties along. I think that making porters carry heavy potties (not to mention cleaning them!) is unnecessary and inhumane. We chose a company that didn’t do that.

Why I’m Not Sure You Should…

I’ve been dreaming of doing the Inca Trail for decades, and although it was hard, I’m really glad I did. The trail was physically challenging, but pushing myself through it felt rewarding. Seeing the different landscapes of Peru up-close was interesting, even in the fog. Walking is the only way to see the many Inca ruins along the way. And Machu Picchu was everything I hoped it would be!

However…

It IS hard!

Even fit people find parts of the trail challenging. If you’re the kind of person who suffers greatly while hiking, this isn’t an experience for you!

There is no helicopter

It turns out that the rumors about a helicopter airlift are a myth. There is no good place for helicopters to land along the trek. If something happens on the first day, while you are close to villages, you can hire a horse or donkey and ride out. After that, you need to walk out, no matter what.

The bathrooms suck

You might be grossed out if you’re not used to it…

You might feel guilty about the porters

I know I did! It’s true that the Inca Trail trek provides many jobs to people who might otherwise not have them. It’s also true that these jobs pay better than some others. However, being a porter is really hard work! Porters carry huge backspaces and heavy loads. Once, there were no regulations and they were made to carry whatever tourists wanted them to. Now, the weight is limited to 20 kg, but it is still a lot.

The porters who pass you are constantly sweating. They chew coca leaves to keep themselves going. The porters have to get to camp before you, and set everything up so it’s ready when you arrive. They have to take everything down once you leave, and then rush to catch up and overpass you, so they can be there to set up the next stop…

Some porter companies don’t provide their workers even with basic equipment. We’ve seen porters wearing flip flops. And some companies make them carry portapotties…

The porters all sleep together in the dining tent once you are done eating. The food they eat is not nearly as sophisticated as what they make for you.

You don’t sleep a lot

On the first day, the guide comes to pick you up from your hotel at 4:00 am. On the second day, since you need to climb up quite a bit, wake-up is at 5:00 am, with a 5:30 departure. The third day isn’t so bad, with a 6:00 am wake-up call. But on the last day you need to get up before 3:00 am. That’s because the porters need to catch a 7:00 am train back to Cusco, and need to be able to pack camp and hike all the way down to make it to the train in time.

And so…

When you finally arrive in Machu Picchu, you’re exhausted!

Machu Pichhu was a city, and it is much larger than all the ruins you see along the way. So although by the end of the trek you think you’ve seen a lot of ruins, you are STILL awed when you get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu! I, personally, felt elated once I actually made it there!

Even early in the morning, Machu Picchu is swarming with tourists. You can immediately tell who hiked there, though. The Inca-Trail veterans have an air of superiority to them. They feel a bit … hardier than everyone else (“The Lazies,” as our guide called them). They also have black circles around their eyes. And they certainly smell more … fragrant. Wearing, hiking and sleeping in the same outfit for several days feels OK on the trail, where you are surrounded by people who do the same. But once you come in contact with civilization again, you become a little self-conscious…

Then there are a few additional hours of touring the place. Our guide had a lot to explain, but I found it hard to listen. I just wanted to sleep. I was wondering if getting there on an early train, after a nice breakfast and a shower, wouldn’t have been just as good…

Gypsy Robe: How My Family Became Part of an Evolving Community Canvas

The tradition of passing on a Gypsy Robe in musical theater productions apparently started on Broadway in 1950. It’s now a part of the Broadway production routine, with clear rules that everyone respects.

This tradition is also followed by other theater companies, including the youth theater group that my children participate in. In this company, the Robe is always given to a supporting actor who manifested a positive attitude throughout the rehearsal process, and who contributed to making the overall experience pleasant for everyone. In the previous show, A Christmas Story, which ended last November, my daughter was the proud recipient of the robe!

I’ve heared about the Robe over the years, of course, but I haven’t actually seen it until my daughter brought it home. When I laid eyes on it, I immediately appreciated the idea. A gypsy Robe, you see, is an evolving communal piece of art, onto which different people keep adding their mark over time!

This specific robe has already seen many shows, and had a great vibe of numerous kids’ fabulous experiences:

Patches representing different musicals covered it all over. These displayed different levels of artistic ingenuity, as well as varying degrees of sewing skills. Some were complex and well executed. Others were rather simple, both in idea and execution. But together they told the story of the youth theater, and represented the fun memories of the many kids who participated in those shows:

When the Robe came home, I assumed that the task of adding A Christmas Story patch to it would fall on me. I am, after all, the textile artist in the family! I was pleasantly surprised, however, when my daughter took responsibility for this. My husband enthusiastically came to her aid.

Of course, in a typical way, those two just couldn’t keep things simple!

They decided to make a patch with the show’s memorable leg-lamp. Not a regular patch of an appliqued lamp, but rather a three-dimensional one. They wanted to build a lamp that actually works!

My daughter made a paper prototype and attached it to the robe to see if it fits:

Then my husband did some research on materials that could lighten up. He ended up buying an Electroluminescent (EL) Light Panel:

It came with a wire on the back:

My husband cut it to shape:

The two then asked me to find a trim to go on the lampshade’s bottom. This was a great excuse to visit FabMo (and return with a little more than just a trim…)!

Little trimming

My daughter asked me to sew a leg based on the following model:

I found skin-colored fabric and cut a leg out:

I covered it with fish-net type tights that my daughter picked from a selection of sheers I found for her (she chose the black):

This is what it came out like:

I helped them connect the lampshade to the robe with Velcro, then sewed the leg on:

It came out exactly the way they hoped it would:

Once the lamp was in place, I had to sew a thin sleeve onto the inside of the robe, to hold the wire that went all the way from a battery (placed in the robe’s pocket) to the lampshade:

My daughter printed the name of the show on an iron-on paper. On the first try it came out mirror-image, as she forgot to read the instructions. The second try was successful. I ironed it on for her:

I didn’t realize (until it was too late), that there is a wire underneath, in addition to other bumpy patches. The surface, therefore, was not completely flat. I didn’t press the iron too hard, so as not to melt the wire. In addition, while ironing, the glue on one of the patches on the other side of the sleeve started melting, seeping into the fabric and smearing all over my ironing board! As you can imagine, the transfer didn’t come out so well:

My daughter was not happy AT ALL! She was upset it came out ugly. I was upset it ruined my ironing board.

She concluded it was all my fault, and hardly spoke to me for two days. Eventually, she decided to make a new patch, on which she wrote by hand with sharpies:

She wanted me to sew it on, but I wasn’t about to take on any additional risks. I made her do it herself.

This is how it turned out, glowing in the dark!

It was a collaborative family effort, in the end. Despite the few bumps along the way, I hope that after a few years my daughter will think back of the experience fondly.

Earlier this week my daughter passed the Robe on to the happy recipient of the current production. During the ceremony, she showed the glow-in-the-dark effect to the production team, and was oohed-and-aahed. Soon, the new recipient will put her own mark on the robe, and pass it on to someone else. Traditions, memories  and art will keep intermingling!

 

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Cusco, Peru with Kids: Things to Do in the Capital of the Incas

Thinking of visiting Cusco, Peru with kids? I would strongly urge you to do so! The city itself can easily entertain families for a few days, and it can also serve as a comfortable base for traveling to other, nearby attractions. The following list is but a selection of what the city has to offer, and can serve as a starting point for your own explorations.

**If you plan to go and would like some tips about packing, click here.**

Things to Do

Walk Around, Get Lost, Explore

Most tourists visit the old city of Cusco, and this is the part of town I will concentrate on. This area consists of narrow lanes built around several squares. The biggest of these squares is Plaza de Armas, which once housed the palace of the Inca, as well as the palaces of the nobility and a few important temples. 

I was surprised by how similar this square was to the the one in Quito, Ecuador, which we visited last year. Except in Cusco the main square has not one, but TWO cathedrals. It is also more up-scale and tourist-oriented than the one in Quito.

As in Quito, many of the plain-looking facades along the city’s alleys hide rich and interesting interiors. There are numerous inner courtyards, now hosting boutiques, stores and restaurants. Make sure to walk into some–you never know what you might find!

As you walk down the streets, take a moment to lift your eyes from the cobblestones (only when it is safe to do so!) and look at the walls, doors and windows. They all have character, and probably many stories to tell, too! There are numerous naturally-occurring works of Arte Poverta / abstract art..

Visit Museums

There are several small museums in Cusco. They are fairly modest, but are a good place to start if you’re interested in local history. Before you visit, make sure to buy a Boleto Turistico, a pre-paid ticket which gives you access to the most popular sites in Cusco and surroundings, and which is valid for ten days (plan accordingly). Children under 12 get in for free.

Museum-visiting is a great, slow activity for your first few days in the region, when your body still acclimatizes to the elevation. On our first day we stopped by Museo de Historia Regional, which has some pre-Incan as well as Incan artifacts.

The Inca Museum is not included in the Boleto, but is worth a visit. It has mummies that might impress (or scare) your kids, interesting artifacts, and a video presentation showing the fate of the last Inca (hint: it wasn’t pretty). For the textile lovers among you, the museum also has a room dedicated to Incan weaving:

There are also live weavers working in the courtyard for you to watch. You can buy their work on the spot, too.

Finally, the museum has a store with some beautiful, unique woven textiles that replicate pre-Inca designs. No cheap finds here, though, but some really amazing stuff.

The Chocolate Museum is a fun place to visit when you need a break from all the other museums. It is not really a museum, but rather a fancy tourist trap where you can learn about chocolate-making, as well as taste different chocolates and chocolate jams (!). You can also take classes, and buy pricey chocolate bars and other products. The museum also has a small cafe, where you can sip hot chocolate and dine on chocolaty comfort foods. As you might imagine, my kids loved it, and I bet yours will, too!

Climb Up Saksaywaman

High above Cusco lies the impressive fortress of Saksaywaman, fondly known to tourists as “Sexy Woman.” A pre-Incan culture built it around 1100 AD, but the Inca expanded and rebuilt it. Reaching the site required a steep climb, so give yourself a couple of days to acclimatize before you try it. Once there, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the city, as well as with an introduction to some impressive Inca architecture.

If your legs haven’t turned into jello by the time you are done visiting this site, you might wish to go to  the nearby hill to get a closer look at the White Jesus statue overlooking the city:

Visit Convento Santo Domingo

After you learned a bit about Inca architecture and seen a few ruins, go visit the Church of Santo Domingo. The Spanish Conquistadors built this church on top of and around Qurikancha, the most prominent Inca temple complex. By doing so they wanted to both benefit from the spiritual power of the place and erase/symbolically suppress the earlier Inca legacy. Nowadays the structure is a strange mash of Inca, Spanish and modern architecture.

Ignore the later two, and concentrate on the Inca structures. The reason I suggest going there only after you’ve seen other Inca ruins is that you will not be able to appreciate the finesse of the temples otherwise. The complex housed the Temples of the Sun, Moon, Thunder and Rainbow. The Inca-period builders built them with stones so closely put together, that some of the seams are hardly noticeable (even a sheet of paper will not fit between the stones). The walls are very smooth, and were once completely covered with gold and silver (which the Spaniards stole).

When still a working temple, the complex housed the mummies of several Incas, as well as life-sized gold statues of lamas and other animals and plants. An onsite model helps you understand what the complex looked like at the peak of its glory.

Visit the Textile Museum

When you’re done visiting Convento Santo Domingo, walk a couple of blocks down Avenue El Sol. This will bring you to the Center of Traditional Textiles of Cusco. You don’t need to be a textile lover to enjoy this little museum. A few days in Cusco will be enough to convince you of just how central textiles are to the local culture. The museum will give you a deeper understanding of what making Peruvian textiles involves.

The Center has a nice showroom showcasing the process of spinning, dyeing and weaving. It also displays examples of weaving from different regions (sadly, picture-taking was not allowed). The museum is attached to a store piled high with beautiful pieces of woven cloth from all over the Cusco area. Several weavers work inside the store, allowing you to glimpse the process at work. Prices are very reasonable.

Shop

Cusco is full of shops and boutiques selling Peruvian handicrafts in all price ranges. High-end boutiques surround Plaza de Armas, selling alpaca clothing and silver jewelry. Lower-end shops loaded with many kinds of colorful items fill every alley and courtyard. You and your kids might enjoy browsing this huge array of shops. San Blas, another city square, is known for its artisan workshops, and is a fun place to look around.

It is true that after a while many stores start looking alike. It’s also true that not everything is handmade, or even made in Peru (think China). But every now and then you might come across something special. One day, for example, I found a beautiful, unique piece of tapestry in a store hidden inside an out-of-the-way courtyard:

On our last day, we delighted in finding Ceremonias Ayahuasca San Pedro at the back of a courtyard on 338 Triunfo St. This store was filled to the brim with what appeared to be genuine, locally-made handicrafts of various kinds. Prices were pretty high and no bargaining was tolerated, but many of the items on display were high quality and truly unique. We couldn’t afford the stone dragon, carved from one piece of stone, with each link of its chain moving separately:

But we absolutely loved the huge array of unique masks, and were able to buy one of the smallest ones for our collection:

Go to Mercado Central de San Pedro (San Pedro Market)

This covered market, located a couple of blocks from the central square, is a bustling center of commerce. It caters mostly to local shoppers, and has anything you can think of. A visit there will stimulate all your senses. There are food stalls of all conceivable kinds, flower stalls, chocolate stalls, household-goods stalls and souvenir stalls, to name some.

There are also aisles filled with fresh juice stalls, and aisles dedicated to mom-and-pop stalls cooking fresh food on the spot. Here you could get an entire meal for less than 5 soles ($1.5). And if you want to shorten your pants while you eat, or alter your skirt while you shop, local tailors are waiting right there to accommodate to your needs:

Eat

Cusco is bustling with restaurants of all kinds. Numerous eateries serve tasty, fresh food in huge portions. You can easily find tourist-oriented restaurants that will cook familiar foods from home, but it will be more fun for you to try some local dishes.

Pachapapa Restaurant on San Blas Square offers some genuine Peruvian foods alongside Western staples such as pasta (in case some family members are not in an adventurous mood). This is a good place to try cui, the local specialty:

This is what it looks like when actually tried (no, I didn’t eat it. I’m vegetarian!):

It’s also a good place to sip pisco sour, the Peruvian national drink. I did try that 😉

For vegetarians, Greens–right off plaza de Armas–is a culinary heaven (though not so much for local dishes).

Finally, Know About Local Clinics

Clinics and hospitals are not places you want to see while on vacation. If you’re travelling with kids, however, you should at least know about them.

Rest assured that Cusco has at least a couple of medical centers whose mission it is to help tourists. These centers are open 24/7, every day of the year, and provide good, Western-standard medical care. Their doctors speak English for those of us whose Spanish is not up to par.

As it happened, all three of my kids ended up using those medical services. And on the two least-convenient days of the year at that: Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Local doctors treated them for an ear infection, a sever travelers’ diarrhea, and a laceration that required stitches. They all returned home safely.

Your hotel is most likely to be able to help in case of a medical emergency, but keep the number of Oxigen Medical Network handy just in case:084-221213 / 225407.

A Tablecloth With a Bit of Mystery

My great grandmother Gele was a distinguished member of the Jewish community in Jerusalem at the turn of the twentieth century.

As such, she was involved with several charitable organizations. One of those was The Jewish Institute for the Blind. My great grandmother  was a member of the Institute’s board, as well as one of its big donors.

The Institute was established in 1902 inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Its mission was to provide education and vocational training to blind members of the community, mostly children, to prepare them for an independent life. Later, after Jews started building neighborhoods outside the walls, the Institute moved to the new part of the city. In 1931 it settled into a spacious new building in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood.

The Institute trained the blind in many different kinds of crafts. Here, for example, is its basket-weaving workshop:

Every year, before the Jewish New Year, the directors of the Institute used to send handmade gifts made by the residing blind to members of the board and to its big donors. The gifts were different each year, and came with a request to renew the financial support.

One year, at the end of the 1930’s, my great grandmother received this handmade tablecloth:

She gave it to my grandmother, who used it on special occasions for many years.  Later, my grandmother gave it to her sister, who kept using it. Before she passed away, my great aunt decided to give the tablecloth to my father. She knew my dad was sentimentally attached to it, associating it with hosting guests and important gatherings throughout his childhood.

By the time my father received it, the tablecloth was already old and fragile. My parents never dared to use it, but they still keep it folded in one of their closets.

To my parents, the tablecloth is somewhat of a mystery. They know where it came from, but not who made it. Most of all, however, they would like to know how it was made. Parts of it look to be crochet , but other parts are nothing like any crochet we’ve ever encountered.

If you’ve ever seen anything like this and know the technique that was used to make this, we’d love to hear from you!

 

 

My Father’s Sukkah: On Textiles, Reusing and the Creation of Traditions

Wednesday night marked the beginning of the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of the Ingathering). The holiday celebrates the end of the agricultural year, and also commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. My father’s sukkah celebrates all of that and then a little more.

When the Temple still existed, Sukkot was one of three pilgrimage holidays. At that time, people from all over the Holy Land used to make their way to Jerusalem during Sukkot, bringing with them harvest to the Temple.

After the destruction of the temple, Jews started celebrating the holiday by building sukkot (plural for sukkah), or temporary huts. We eat, pray, and sometimes sleep in them for the duration of the week. These huts–built to remember both the temporary structures our ancestors slept in during their forty years of wandering through the desert, and the huts farmers built in the fields during the harvest–usually have wooden frames covered with sheets of cloth. Their roof is covered with plant material, usually palm leaves, and is called a schach.

Nowadays, many people buy a sukkah kit online. It arrives ready to assemble, and is usually made of synthetic materials. Once the holiday is over, it easily comes apart, folded and stored for next year. But that’s not the way sukkot were built when I was a kid. Then, everyone had to build their own sukkah from scratch, every year anew.

Of course, some parts of the sukkah could have still been saved from one year to the following. The wood planks, for example, or the cloth coverings. In the case of my father’s sukkah, some of the materials were passed down in the family for much longer than that.

This is my father’s sukkah:

The outside materials are relatively new, but not so the cloth inside. These inside textiles were already hanging in my father’s grandfather’s sukkah in the 1930’s and before.

Originally, my great grandfather, Haim, and his wife, Gele, had other uses for these fabrics. My great grandparents used these as curtains and table cloths in their home in Jerusalem, in one of the first Jewish neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Old City. After many years of use, when these textiles lost their original luster and became faded or stained, my great grandparents turned them into sukkah walls.

While many of these fabrics are still beautiful and lively, one stands out as being really special. Someone, you see, meticulously hand-embroidered the fabric strips serving as the sukkah “door.”

My father thinks, but is not sure, that the delicate embroidery was the handiwork of his aunt Hannah, Haim and Gele’s daughter, who was a talented embroiderer. I can only imagine how many weeks (or months!) it took her to embroider this piece!

For us, children of a mass-manufacturing, cheap-goods materialistic culture, up-cycling, recycling and reusing are fashionable buzzwords. But not that long ago reusing was a way of life. Less than a hundred years ago, materials and objects were expensive. Things were well-made and pricey. People valued items, used them with care, and re-purposed them whenever possible. They also passed things down from one generation to the other.

Thus, Haim and Gele re-used old curtains and table cloths, turning them into sukkah walls. When, in the early 1930’s, they moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to live near two of their grown sons and their families, they brought their sukkah materials with them.

Between holidays, my great grandfather Haim saved his sukkah materials in his attic (“boidem”). He stored the wood, and also the textile wall coverings. Every year, once Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) was over, he, his sons and his grandchildren would start building their sukkah.

They treated the old cloth with care. They nailed these inside textiles to the wooden frame with upholstery nails. Before nailing, the grandchildren prepared squares of cardboard, usually from empty cigarette boxes, to put on each nail. They did so to make it easier to pull the fabrics out at the end of the holiday without tearing them.

On the eve of the holiday, Haim would come home from the synagogue with a poster of the ushpizin: images of the patriarchs: Moses, King David, and the like, and pinned it in the center of the wall opposite to the “door”. As far as my father remembers, this was the only decoration in his sukkah.

My father continues to use his grandfather’s textiles in the sukkot he builds himself, year after year, with his own children and grandchildren. Unlike his grandfather, my dad decorates his sukkah with artwork of his offsprings. I myself made the lampshade in the above picture when I was eleven. My nephews made the paper chains. My father carefully preserves not only his grandfather’s textiles, but also his children’s and grandchildren’s art. His sukkah, therefore, has more decorations as the years go by.

The sukkah textiles are now almost one hundred years old, yet still serve their purpose. They witnessed at least five generations of our family, and hopefully will see more to come. The fabrics enclosed ancestors I never knew in person, distant relatives who died before I was born. They created a holiday-sacred space for tens of relatives and guests, for eating, praying, talking, laughing, arguing and sleeping.

Somehow, I feel, they preserve some of the spirit of these long-gone people who lived, for one week each year, in-between them. The people who made them, the great-aunt who embroidered them, the great-grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who hung them, handled them, folded them, then stored them with care year after year. By serving as sukkah walls, these textiles, of course, help pass down the traditions of the holiday. But, by passing down from one generation to the next, they also tell the story of our family. In a way, they help create the story of our family. They are both a part of a tradition and the makers of new traditions.

That, I think, is something that synthetic, disposable sukkah kits could never do.