Need a New Year’s Resolution? Cut Down on Plastic!

Today I’m not writing about textiles or art, but rather about another topic that is important to me: trying to live a more sustainable life and cutting down on plastic. My ANY Texture adventure started because I wanted to give a new life to gorgeous, discarded designer textiles. As it evolved, I became increasingly aware of various environmental issues, and of the acute plastic-waste problem facing our planet.

From being an indifferent consumer like most of us (briefly even somewhat of a shopaholic), I am gradually becoming a more conscientious shopper and a bit of a sustainability freak. Because once you become aware of the problem, you can no longer unsee it. It’s everywhere you look. And it’s really important, for our own well being and very survival, as well as for that of our fellow creatures and the unique planet we live on.

I’m aware that my domestic plastic-reduction efforts are but a drop in the ocean. In fact, the pandemic made the waste problem much worse than it had been before. A short visit to a medical facility, where I saw great quantities of single-use gear of all sorts discarded without thought, made me wonder whether my tiny efforts were even worth the trouble. The problem is so vast and widespread that it really can be discouraging. However, what if a million households make the small changes we did? And then two million? The drops will eventually add up. And so I keep trying…

Today I want to share the modest, easy changes I implemented in my own household, including the good and not so good experiences. I hope this might inspire you to experiment with plastic-reducing efforts of your own.

After a few years of implementing little changes gradually, we’re still not plastic-free. That is a goal that is still beyond reach, mostly because so much food comes wrapped or packaged in plastic. But we’ve made some progress, at least. There were times over the last few years in which I drove my family crazy. At one point they had to take me aside for a “talk.” I relaxed a bit, but after a few years of gentle nagging I can now see changes in them, too 🙂

Cutting Down on Plastic in the Bathroom

I’ve found that that the easiest place to start cutting down on plastic is in bathroom products. There are now hundreds of companies producing eco-friendly products, with more coming on the market every day. Even Target just started selling some of these 🙂 

Toilet Paper

Shortly before the pandemic hit, I switched from regular plastic-wrapped toilet paper to a recycled, eco-friendly version. These rolls arrived individually wrapped in paper (unnecessary in my opinion, yet better than plastic), in a HUGE cardboard box. The size of it surprised even me, and led to weeks-long teasing from my family. But let me tell you–once March 2020 came around, I had the last laugh! When the toilet-paper shortages started, it turned out that I was ahead of my time, for my family still had a months-long supply!

Admittedly, my family was not too happy with this eco-friendly version. Although I bought the two-ply kind, it was still thinner and less soft than what they were accustomed to. People complained. Some complained a lot. There was even a small, short-lived mutiny. Now, however, we’re on our third box (I’ve been ordering whatever brand is available, and found no difference between them). There haven’t been any complaints in months. I think they got used to it. And the best part? We no longer have plumbing issues! No more clogged-up toilets, no nasty unclogging needed!

Liquid Hand Soap

Hand soap bars are already eco friendly, unless you buy them wrapped in plastic. I usually try to buy artisan soap wrapped in paper. Although this is more expensive than store-bought soap, it feels good to support small businesses, and is an affordable luxury.

My kids, though, like to use liquid soap for their hands. We wash our hands a lot now, in these times of Covid, so I thought I’ll try eco-friendly, water-soluble hand-soap concentrate. These are dissolvable pods you put in reusable bottles.

They arrived in a carton box, which was great. When I opened it, however, I discovered they were wrapped in … plastic! Disappointment no. 1.

The second disappointment was that once I added the stated amount of water, the soap felt like colored water. Very liquidy. The final disappointment was how they made my hands feel–completely dried out… Sadly, I still have 25 bottles-worth of this product. Needless to say, I will not buy more when it’s gone. I think I will try another brand, but if that, too, doesn’t work, my kids will have to switch to bars.

Shampoo and Conditioner

Most shampoos and conditioners come in big plastic bottles. Most of them contain mostly water. So I switched to shampoo bars and conditioner bars.

So far I tried only a couple of brands, mostly because these bars last forever–months on end! The result is mixed. The shampoo bars I tried worked great. They leathered and cleaned as well as bottled shampoos. The conditioners, however, were not quite as good. They didn’t leave my hair quite as soft as the conditioners I used before, and made it a bit more frazzled. HOWEVER: it took me years to find a bottled conditioner I liked, so I’m still hopeful I will find a more suitable conditioner bar. There are literally hundreds of brands to choose from! Besides, I think that having slightly-less soft hair is a small price to pay for leaving a cleaner planet for my children…

Cutting Down on Plastic in the Kitchen

Cutting down on plastic-wrapped food is not easy, especially during the pandemic. But replacing other kitchen products is more manageable.

Reusable Shopping Bags

Switching from single-use shopping bags to my own reusable Market Totes was one of the first things I did, even before my city issued a no-single-bag ordinance. We’ve been using the same three ANY Texture totes for over five years, and they are still as good as new.

During the first few months of the pandemic, stores no longer allowed customers to bring their own bags. In those few months we accumulated a ginormous pile of paper bags–which gave me a better idea of how many bags we actually saved in the years we did use my makes. Luckily, bringing your own bags to shops is now possible again, so we’re back to doing that 🙂

I still have a few Market Totes left in my shop, if you’d like to take a look. I will not be making any more, so the ones now listed are the last.

Leftover Storage

For years, we’ve used cling wrap to cover some leftovers (and reusable containers for others). I recently learned about flexible, multi-use silicone lids, and bought some of those. Since then, we hardly need cling wrap.

Dishwasher Soap

Until recently, we’ve been using dishwasher pods that came in a plastic container. I switched to an eco-friendly version that comes in a carton box.

The dishes turn out just as clean. There is no plastic container to “recycle” (plastic recycling, by the way, is a sham). The cardboard boxes are pretty and sturdy, and I’ve found use for several of them. In fact, I even shipped some of my products in those re-used boxes! And cardboard can be and is easily recyclable. 

Cutting Down on Plastic in the Laundry Room

Laundry Detergent

Just like dishwasher soap, our laundry detergent used to cames in big plastic bottles. I switched to dissolvable pods packed in cardboard from the same company as the above.

These, too, have been working just as well as what we previously used, while leaving less waste.

Buying Less Clothing

I used to love shopping for clothes. Once I became aware of the huge waste generated by the fast fashion industry, however, I stopped cold. I haven’t bought anything new in years. If I managed to stop, anyone can!

My girls still buy clothes every now and then, but a lot less than before. One of them now mostly shops second hand 🙂 When we had our big house cleanup and reorganizing over the summer, they helped me tidy my closet. As a reward, I let them “shop” from it. They each picked a few items, and everyone was happy: they were thrilled to have new things, and I was happy to see them wear my clothes–especially since everything looked way better on them than it ever did on me! A win win!

Future Plans

The most eco-friendly thing you can do is keep using what you already have for as long as possible. That said, I keep looking for more eco-friendly household products to try. We’re slowly switching to plastic-free deodorant, for example. Most of our family’s plastics, however, comes from food, and eliminating that is difficult, especially now. When the pandemic is over, and I once again dare browse stores and visit farmer’s markets, I will try to make wiser choices about which foods to buy.

Do you have any sustainable products to recommend? If so, please write them in the comments, so that I can try them, too!

Looking Back at 2020: An End-of-year Summary

2020 is about to end, which means it’s time for that end-of-year summary, by now a tradition. It turns out that this is my fifth end-of-year post. ANY Texture is now five years old! 

How do you summarize a year like 2020? A year in which the sense of time itself has been compromised? The world as we knew it shifted. Time got warped. Our lives were turned upside down and we all went on a wild emotional roller-coaster ride. Many of us emerge from this year somewhat altered…

Life Changes

For me, this year led to both physical and lifestyle changes. The physical changes were relatively quick: We had to adjust our house to accommodate distant learning and everyone being home all the time. We moved large pieces of furniture, rearranged rooms, assigned new functions to old spaces. My kids confiscated the glider chair that sat in my sewing room for years, and which housed my huge pile of unfinished projects. That forced me to try my hand at reupholstering… 

There were changes in the garden, too. After several years of neglect (ANY Texture’s fault!) I finally managed to spend a lot of time outside, digging, pulling, pruning and planting to save my sanity. The garden almost resumed its pre-ANY Texture glory.

The lifestyle changes have been more gradual and are still ongoing. My life slowed down. I’m in less of a hurry. More and more, I’m enjoying the small things, the little moments, the here and now (perhaps because the future is so unpredictable, and any plans are susceptible to change). I’m finding more time to read books, to watch movies, to practice yoga, to learn new things. I have a better balance between life and art making. With everyone home, there’s been more cooking, baking, eating, spending time together. The upsides of a dire situation.

Art Changes

ANY Texture was born after I got the Bag Bug five years ago. Following a few months of intense bag making, however, I started creating other things, including art quilts. For a couple of years I’ve been meaning to make more fine art, but haven’t quite gotten to it. When my father passed away last year, I realized that life was short, and that I should concentrate on the things I want to do and spend less time on the things I don’t enjoy. So I made less bags, participated in less craft shows, and completed my first quilt series, the Calendar Quilts. Then 2020 arrived.

Jacket

I kicked the year off with a boro jacket to honor my dad.

Right when I was finished, the pandemic happened. Shows got cancelled, online shopping halted, everything closed. I no longer needed to create inventory. Instead, I turned to art as a refuge, a means of expression, an escape from the world.

Animal art

Insects

We entered the first lockdown in the spring. I spent much of it in my garden, where insects, birds, squirrels and the occasional cat kept me company. I found it to be the perfect time to further explore the shape of insects and beetles, something I’ve been meaning to do more of since I completed my Dare! quilt in 2017. I made more butterfly brooches:

Art in Times of Corona: Textile Butterfly

Then the Amazing Beetles series.

Art in Times of Corona: Beetle quilts

And I was finally able to play with three-dimensional beetles as well:

Four fabric beetles

Birds

For several years I’ve been wanting to try Ann Wood Handmade’s owl and bird soft-sculpture patterns. The pandemic gave me the time to get to it. I first made owls.

And also wrote a tutorial for a small owl my daughter made based on something she saw in Japan:

Then I worked on a flock of birds.

And finally created a series of small bird quilts:

Cat

My sister and mother were supposed to visit in the spring. Their much-anticipated visit got canceled like everything else. So I made my sister a quilt of her cat Trini:

Trini the Cat art quilt

Abstract Art

My true passion lies in abstracts, and this year I got to play more with that. Interestingly, I am realizing more an more that even my abstracts are strongly influenced by nature…

Early in the year, I completed the Colors of the Day series, a series influenced by landscapes I enjoyed on past travels.

Later, I created a series of mood-depicting Textile Poems. These drew much of their inspiration from my garden.

I also explored the textural variety of Tree Bark, something that was on my to-do list since my trip to Japan a couple of years ago.

Art Influenced by Current Events

2020 was an unusual year, and I couldn’t but respond to it in my art. This year, I created three of what I think are my most powerful art quilts to date: Interdependence, Ashes and 2020.

I also made Black Lives Matter, Wildfires and Let the Mending Begin.

Other

Early in the pandemic, I made wall hangings of the Jewish Blessing of the Child for my children, just in case…

Before Thanksgiving, I made a textile card for my mom:

Thankful for you, mom

And in the fall, the maple tree outside my window inspired me to make an Autumn Leaf wall hanging. You can find the tutorial here.

Autumn leaf wall hanging

After completing all these art quilts and more in one year, I decided it was time to finally join the Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA), something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I’ve been really enjoying all that they have to offer. Check out their website for some gorgeous textile eye candy!

In December, I was honored to be included in an article on recycling in textile art, written by Heidi Ingram for the TextileArtist.org blog. Check it out here.

So here we are, at the end of 2020. Back in a second lockdown, with Covid numbers skyrocketing, but with the promise of a vaccine in sight. My sewing room is still messy. The Unfinished Project pile is taller than ever (I didn’t even touch it this year!), and is now homeless. My scrap boxes multiplied from three to seven, and are all overflowing (even though I used mostly scraps this year… This will remain a mystery).

Next year? Tackle those UFOs, perhaps? I have ideas for more art quilts than I can possibly make, piles of jacket-worthy fabrics, and a long list of things to learn. In other words, I’m excited to keep experimenting, learning, and growing as an artist… The adventure continues 🙂

Thanks so much for accompanying me on this journey!

Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year. Keep safe and cozy.

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!

The Summer That Wasn’t

And, just like that, the summer vacation is over. The kids are getting back to school, each on their own schedule. Except … this time these first back-to-school days are no different than any other day. We’re all still at home, all day every day, changing from night pajamas to day pajamas and vice versa.

Six months into the Covid 19 pandemic and counting.

Did the summer ever start? It doesn’t feel like it has. If it did, I can’t say where the time went. I certainly don’t have much to show for it…

We had so many plans for spring and summer 2020, so many things to look forward to.

The pandemic cancelled everything, of course.

For the first couple of months of lockdown, while the kids were busy with Zoom school, I managed to find solace in my fabrics and art. I composed textile poems, had fun with textile insects, and finally found the time to play with Ann Wood’s bird and owl patterns to create textile sculptures. I even made three pieces of tapestry with the Jewish Blessing of the Child, one for each of my children, just in case…

But when the school year ended, I put art aside. Together with my family I embarked on house and garden projects. We started with The Big Cleanup, a family tradition that got a bit neglected in the last few years. We did the usual deep cleaning, but also something new. Realizing that school will be remote in the coming school year, we also re-organized big parts of our house to accommodate everyone’s new needs. It was a lot of work.

By the piles of stuff my neighbors left on the curb, I could tell that many of them were doing the exact same. Later, newspaper articles confirmed that organizing/decluttering was, indeed, a pandemic side-effect

Like the house, our garden suffered from some neglect in the last few years. Perhaps because I put more time into art than into gardening. Not this summer! Once we  finished organizing the house, I put my kids to work in the garden. Together we weeded, pruned, pulled, planted and painted. We even started a Victory Garden. 

Then, a surprising thing happened. Once I started gardening, I didn’t really feel like doing anything else. Not even art.

It was an emotionally difficult summer, to say the least. The news went from bad to worse. Sickness, rising numbers, fear, despair, death. Political turmoil, civil unrest, racial tensions. Economic upheaval, unemployment, homelessness. Heat wave after heat wave, record-breaking heat. My mood went up and down. Then a little deeper down. Some days were good. Some OK. And then there were days in which I couldn’t do much at all.

The garden took me away from my phone, the news, social media. The flowers made me smile. The lush green allowed me to BREATH. Surrounding myself with plants felt healing. So in the garden I stayed.

There was always more to do out in the yard. For the first time ever, I saw the full cycled of spring and summer. Flowers bloomed and faded, others took their place. There were daily little changes. I became more aware of the wildlife my garden supports: the many kinds of pollinators, the birds, the visiting mammals. My garden hummed with LIFE.

I was confined, but an entire little world awaited right outside my door…

Yes, it turned out gardening was another side effect of the pandemic.

Like half of humanity, I was also busy with pandemic domesticity. Although our vegetable garden ended up being a complete failure, refusing to produce a single vegetable, our fruit trees were quite prolific. 

We gave some fruit away, but I also made a year’s-worth of jam.

And baked numerous apple pies. And cakes. And muffins. And more pies. They didn’t last very long.

In mid August, we experienced another heat wave, one that raised the temperature in Death Valley, CA, to 130 degrees, “setting a world record for the highest temperature ever observed during the month of August.” This led to a freak thunderstorm, which ignited over 600 fires all around California. The wildfires literally smoked me out of the garden and back into my sewing room. It’s been over two weeks now, and the air quality is still poor, keeping me inside.

I miss my garden, but it did feel good to reunite with my fabrics. So far I finished my pandemic quilt (more on that next time) and composed a wildfire-inspired Textile Poem:

I also made a larger art quilt influenced by the wildfires. I call it Ashes.

The weather forecast for this coming weekend predicts yet another record-breaking heat wave. I guess I’ll just have to stay in and keep creating…

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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PeruRail Titicaca-Cusco: A Magical, Surreal Ride on the Andean Explorer

Last time I wrote about our trip to Peru, I stopped in Lake Titicaca. But there is more! When we went to the lake, we took a day-long bus ride from Cusco. The tourist bus stopped several times along the way, offering mini-excursions. It was interesting, for a bus ride, but unremarkable. After our visit to the Floating Islands and our home stay on Amantani Island, we decided to take the train back instead. We didn’t expect much from the trip on the PeruRail Titicaca-Cusco, also known as The Andean Explorer.

Twenty-something years ago, I’ve ridden several “luxury” trains in China. I expected the train in Peru to be something similar: vinyl benches, crowded cars, a chicken or two roaming about, and a cart with unappetizing food passing along every couple of hours.

From the outside, the train was undistinguished, except that the crowds I was expecting didn’t materialize:

But when I got on, instead of a Chinese sleeper train, I found myself on the Orient Express!

Imagine my surprise and shock when we were lead into a beautiful, bright car, and seated in wide, comfortable armchairs set around white-tablecloth-covered tables! My kids got their own table, while my husband and I had our own. An unexpected mini-date that included a vase with fresh flowers on the table between us! My mood, which was pretty sour following an early wake-up call, improved drastically and instantaneously!

Let me give you a tour of the Orient Express of the Andeas:

The train had three passenger cars: A Dining Car, A Bar Car, and an Observation Car.

The dining car, in the above picture, was where we were originally seated. There were less than thirty five of us (the allowed maximum): tourists from all over the world. Throughout the ride it felt like staff members outnumbered us.

The Bar Car had more armchairs, arranged two by two around little round tables.

In the corner it had a fully-equipped bar:

The Observation Car had long benches in the middle. It was only half covered, with big windows all around allowing a panoramic view. Since it was Christmas, it also featured a tree in one corner.

I don’t usually show you pictures of bathrooms, but even the toilet on this train felt luxurious:

The looks and ambiance of the train greatly lifted my spirits, but it turned out to be only the beginning. Without knowing it, we were about to embark on the train-ride of a lifetime!

On-Board Experiences:

Shortly after the train started moving, the stuff distributed snacks and drinks. Alcohol in the morning does wonders to your mood! Needless to say, the ice between us passengers was broken fairly quickly. Tourists intermingled, chatted and became friends.

A couple of hours into the ride, a live band began playing Peruvian music in the Bar Car. Soon, we got to see some Peruvian dances as well:

This was followed by a fashion show, with a male and a female models showing us some high-end Peruvian alpaca fashion:

In the meantime, while we were greatly enjoying ourselves on the most luxurious train I’ve ever been on, the real Peru passed by outside our windows: arid grasslands sparkled with mud huts:

Small mud-built villages:

Little towns:

And the most remarkable of all: a bustling urban market set along the train tracks! Since there are only two trains a day, with predictable schedules, people had booths and merchandise set on the tracks. They removed everything when the train approached, then put it back up the second it passed:

The three-course lunch felt like a visit to a five-star restaurant:

In the afternoon, the guys at the bar demonstrated how to mix pisco sour, the Peruvian national coctail. All the adults got to taste it, as well as other alcoholic beverages. The band played again. By then everyone was happy enough to rattle along, clap, sing, and even dance!

The band, in fact, was quite amazing! At first they played hours of Peruvian/Latin music. Later, per the audience’s request, they moved on to Beatles, Frank Sinatra, and even Pink Floyd!

It was a truly surreal experience: riding a luxury train, complete with white table cloths, drinks, live music and fun entertainment, while dressed in unwashed hiking clothes and hiking boots. It felt rather odd to pass through a poor countryside full of friendly people, many of whom, both old and young, waved at us, while listening to “The Wall:”

Yes, there was even an afternoon tea service!

I truly hoped the ride would never end! I was actually sad when we arrived at our destination…

Only many weeks later, after I was already home, did I learn that The Society of International Railway voted this train as one of the 25 most luxurious in the world! Ready to go?

Visiting Cusco, Peru? What to Pack and Things to Notice

My family and I just returned from an amazing vacation to Cusco, Peru, the capital of the Inca empire. Cusco is a great place to visit, and is also a comfortable base for traveling to other, nearby attractions.

A rather large city, Cusco has many shops with pretty much anything you could need. But there are some things you might like to bring from home, just in case.

What to Pack

Medicines

Cusco’s elevation is 3,400 meters above sea level (11,200 ft). Anyone coming from lower altitudes will feel the effects of this high elevation. Every hotel in the Cusco region offers free coca-leaf tea for guests. Peruvians believe that coca leaves reduce elevation sickness. Many chew on the leaves directly.

Numerous stores offer an array of other coca products as well, to the same end:

However, you might find that drinking coca tea or sucking on coca candy isn’t enough to make you feel better. Before coming, therefore, you might want to consult with your doctor and consider bringing pills to relieve altitude-sickness symptoms (we brought and took Acetazolamide).

Note: if you are vegan or vegetarian, these pills might not be enough. As I learned the hard way, your diet might not have enough iron to allow your body to create the additional red blood cells that high elevation requires. Bring iron and vitamin B12 pills, and take one of each every morning. This will speed up your acclimatization.

Your body is probably not used to the germs in Peru. It is possible, therefore, that you will suffer from an upset stomach even if you take all the necessary precautions (such as frequent hand-washing and avoiding uncooked foods). Make sure to bring some medications for upset stomach, or even some antibiotics.

There are pharmacies all over the city, but it’s always safer to bring whatever medicines you take regularly, or those you think you might need. If you are taking dietary supplements, bring those as well. We traveled with a portable pharmacy of our own, and ended up using much of it…

Clothes

December is summer in Peru, but because of the high elevation weather in Cusco can be very unpredictable. Locals joke that one can experience four season in one day in this city, and they do not exaggerate! Prepare for layering, with clothes for all possible weather conditions! Rain gear is a must, although you can buy rain ponchos everywhere, for as low as 5 soles a pop (around $1.5).

If you plan to visit Cusco in winter, realize that temperatures will be frigid . Some (but not all) hotels have heaters, but no central heating. Hotels provide warm blankets, but the rooms can still be cold. Long underwear and warm pajamas will keep you happy.

Streets in the old city of Cusco are cobbled, and sidewalks can be very narrow. Nearby sites have a rugged terrain. Good shoes, preferably hiking boots, will serve you well.

If you are planning to do some hiking (even if only to the nearby fortress of Saksaywaman), walking sticks will make your life easier.

Other Items

You need to keep hydrated at high elevation, and therefore need to drink a lot. Unless you want to keep buying bottled water (thus contributing to world pollution), bring your own refillable water bottle. We filled ours every morning with water we boiled at least three times (tap water is undrinkable). We still ended up buying bottled water, but a lot less than we would have had we didn’t have our own.

Remember: Use boiled (or bottled) water for teeth brushing as well!

Due to the altitude, you might get sun burnt even on overcast days. Bring sunscreen and put it on daily before you leave your hotel. If you peel layers after applying sunscreen, make sure to cover the newly-exposed areas as well. We’ve seen plenty of very pink tourists (and got a bit toasted ourselves as well…).

Not all public bathrooms have paper. Always carry your own toilet paper just in case. And remember not to flush any paper down the drain. The sewage system cannot handle it, and you don’t want to be responsible for a flood (or worse: get caught it it’s path!).

Advice on Luggage

Everyone has their own travel style, and every trip requires its own kind of luggage. While we usually carry suitcases, we chose to bring backpacks to Cusco. For one, as I mentioned earlier, the streets of old Cusco are cobbled and narrow, and not so suitable for dragging wheeled suitcases. Also, you will most likely need to carry your luggage up and down stairs. In addition, many people use Cusco as a base to explore other parts of Peru. You might find yourself changing hotels frequently, and lugging your stuff into trains, buses or boats. Light, small and carry-able luggage will therefore work best.

The last time I backpacked, some quarter of a century ago, I carried a regular backpack. I still remember how hard it was to find things or reach the very bottom. This time, at the advice of our frequent-travelling friend (thanks, Arturo!), we took eBags and loved them. The fact that we could expand the bags turned out to be a great plus, as we didn’t quite expect the amount of loot we ended up purchasing…

Finally, Some Interesting Things I Noticed

Last year, when we first arrived in Quito, Ecuador, I was struck by the abundance of graffiti. The thing that stood out to me in Cusco was the cleanliness of the streets. We hardly saw any graffiti, and hardly any littler.

The second thing that stood out was the abundance of dogs. Canines were everywhere, in front of every door and every house. Big dogs, small dogs, shaggy dogs and short-haired dogs. Dogs of every shape and color.

At first I mistook them to be feral dogs and found them intimidating. Soon, though, I realized they were all pets. Almost every household in Cusco and beyond owns one or more pets. People keep cats indoors, but let the dogs roam outside. The dogs in Cusco were the most mellow, well-behaved creatures I have ever encountered. They all minded their own business, and hardly ever glanced at passersby.

If you lift your eyes up to the rooftops, you will see that almost every house in Cusco has a pair of bulls on the roof. Sometimes there are just bulls. Sometimes there is a cross between the bulls, or some other decoration:

These are guardian bulls. They are protecting the house and the family within it, and also symbolize fertility. One of our tour guides told us that in pre-Spanish times, houses had lamas on the roofs. After the Spanish brought bulls to South America, their image pushed lamas aside. For a while I wondered why two (obviously male) bulls would symbolize fertility. I later realized that the fertility people were hoping for was the fertility of the fields, which bulls help plow.

Finally, when in Cusco you will notice the rainbow flag flying from poles and balconies.

You might think you know what it means, but you will most likely be wrong. “We are not gays,” all of our tour guides insisted. They explained that the gay-pride flag has six colors, whereas the Cusco flag has seven. Also, the colors on both flags are in the opposite order. Locals believe that the Cusco rainbow flag was the old flag of the Inca Empire, symbolizing its seven parts. Whether true or not, people take great pride in it.

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.