Friday, 23 September 2016

Getting Writing Ideas From Travelling

Note: I'm saying fantasy novel as that's my main focus for reading and writing, but these could easily apply to any genre.

Peru was a magnificent country to visit, with such a huge variety of cultures, climates, landscapes, foods, etc. And it got me thinking. While I'd love to see an Incan fantasy series (like what Aliette de Bodard did with the Aztecs), there are so many aspects of travel that can be used to inspire writing that don't require tons of research or transporting a particular culture wholesale into a book.

Food. So often in fantasy books people will travel across countries and continents and yet never comment on the food they're eating. And yet, food differences can be huge. Consider what your character ate at home and then question whether they foods they encounter on their travels will be spicier or blander, use ingredients unavailable at home, look strange even though it's a familiar dish (for example I had stew in France that used only medieval ingredients, so the carrots were white instead of today's common orange and tasted different as a result). Different countries tend to focus on different grains - depending on growing conditions. The rice in Peru, for example, tasted to me like a cross between white rice and Japanese sticky rice (so, a little sticky but without a distinct flavour of its own, as with bismati and jasmine).

Language. I know 'common' has become short hand in fantasy novels for having peoples of different backgrounds talk, and when there is no common tongue somehow the protagonist understands 7+ languages. But wouldn't it be fun to watch a protagonist enter a city and try to bargain for something only to realize they can't understand what's being said? You can get a lot of information across using gestures or by drawing pictures and it might be fun reading about the difficulties of communication in a fantasy novel.

Transportation. I come from a country where most people have cars. Unless your city has good public transportation or you live downtown in a major city, it can be difficult getting around without one. But other countries have numerous forms of transport. Peru had buses, combini (like buses only privately run and departing only when full or nearly full), taxis, motortaxis, etc. And traffic was insane. There were stop signs that I'm sure only 1 in 20 cars paid attention to. Traffic police were constantly blowing their whistles to keep people moving...

Noise. This is something one of my professors in University pointed out, that the noises were hear every day - and learn to tune out - would have been completely different in the past. And travelling somewhere with different noises can remind you of that. I stayed one night on an island where a donkey braying woke me up, and in the jungle howler monkeys were my alarm clock. But even the lack of traffic can bring forward other noises you forget about. Insects are LOUD. And pervasive. Bird song. Running water from a stream. Frogs around ponds and lakes. Medieval societies would have had mills grinding grain and creating a racket that likely went on day and night. Think of what's in a town/city and what sounds those things make. Does your city have room for wagons to go down cobbled streets? That's a racket, not including whatever animal is pulling it.

Then there are things you might not think about that people in the past did that you only learn because you researched or travelled to a place. The city of Cusco was built in the shape of a Puma. The head was a hilltop defensive bastion, the heart was the location of the temples and worship. Other Incan cities were also based on animals, which is a pretty interesting method of city planning that I'd never heard of before.

Sometimes it's good to get out of your comfort zone and go to a place that's very different from what you know. You'll discover you have some habits that are hard to kick, and notice things you've never considered before. And if you can't afford to travel, libraries have books and videos on different places. I learned a lot about Peru before I went there. And that learning made my experience - and my ability to notice little things - greater.

Now, you don't want to bog down your narrative with thousands of little details about food and travelling and language and culture, but the occasional aside about how something is different from home gives a touch of verisimilitude that can elevate your novel from good to great.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Peru Trip Part 4: Puno to Lima

We got back to Cusco and checked-in to our hostel. An hour later we got the news that our tour bus to Puno the next day was cancelled due to an impending two day strike in the area. The next day we frantically tried to find a way to get to Puno so we could continue our trip and eventually got tickets on a night bus.

We arrived in Puno in time to see sunrise, but were quite tired for our tour of Lake Titicaca and its islands. The first stop was the Uros floating islands. The islands are made of layered reeds that have to be constantly renewed. The platforms are quite squishy, your feet sink into the reeds an inch or so when you walk around. Houses are built up on extra platforms of reeds, and must be raised for new reeds to be laid down underneath. For electricity the people now have solar panels.

It took about three hours to get to Amantani island, and most of us napped on the boat. Our group was split up for the homestay and sent off with their ‘mama’. Our host had a little garden out back, and a courtyard with rickety stairs we had to climb to get to our room. Lunch was delicious: quinoa soup, slices of tomatoes and cucumbers, two types of boiled potatoes, and a slab of fried cheese.

After lunch we hiked to the top of the island for sunset. The altitude was still pretty high, so it was slow going. Again, the views were worth the effort. In the evening we were dressed in local costume and brought to the community centre where a dance was underway. Many of us were too tired to dance, but I enjoyed watching others. We retired early.

The next day we had rolled quinoa pancakes with jam for breakfast and were on our way to the final island of the tour, Taquile. More climbing got us to their plaza de armas, and a pleasant walk around the island gave us more beautiful views.

Another day, another bus, this time to Arequipa. We passed some small lakes, got to see alpacas and vicunas, and saw a few mountains and volcanos. 

Our hotel was a converted colonial building, and had some great decor. The city’s plaza de armas was gorgeous - my favourite of the trip. The white marble looked so beautiful. From the correct angle you could even see the mountains in the distance. We visited the Jesuit church and its painted St Ignatius chapel (no photography allowed), and the the Santa Catalina monastery, which was huge. In many cases the nuns had a series of rooms to themselves, including their own kitchen (or maybe heater?). I got some nice night photos in the plaza before heading off to bed.

We flew to Lima and spent the first day exploring the Miraflores neighbourhood - including its stray cat filled Parque Kennedy and Mercado #1 de Surquillo, where we got lunch at one of the food stalls.

After lunch we did some shopping and then walked along the coast to the Barranco neighbourhood and the Bridge of Sighs. We had dinner at a restaurant that included a dance show. 

Our last day in Peru was spent in the centre of town, at the plaza de armas. We saw the changing of the guard, toured the San Francisco monastery and catacombs, and then walked to the park with the Magic Water Circuit - a series of lit fountains including a light show.

That night we picked up our luggage and headed to the airport for a 3:40 am flight home.

Puno to Lima from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Peru Trip Part 3: Inca Trail + Machu Picchu

This was both the highlight and hardest part of the trip. Highlight because Machu Picchu is amazing and the views on the trail were incredible. Hardest, because the trek is not easy. It's full of steep, uneven stairs (both up and down) and punishing heights (Dead Woman's Pass, the first of two high passes, is 4200 meters).

We started at Kilometre 82, where breakfast was prepared for us. The walk starts with 'Andean flats', meaning there's a lot of gentle and not so gentle slopes. There were a few high stretches that first day, but nothing compared to what we faced on the second. It's a good preparation day, and our company (Alpaca Expeditions) had us walk further than most companies, so we'd have a bit less of a hike on day two.

Day two started early and we walked a gruelling 16 km. Yes, I know 16 km doesn't sound so bad. But we started at 3300 m, went up to Dead Woman's Pass at 4200 m, down to Pacaymayu at 3580 m, where we had lunch, back up to 4000 m for the second pass, and then camped at 3600 m. And trust me, you can't adequately prepare for altitude hiking when you live close to sea level. There was another Canadian couple that was huffing and puffing the last 100 m of the first pass, leap frogging me, counting off 20 steps before having a rest break. And all those fantasy novels of people running up mountains and/or having no problem with them are wrong. Our porters - who were from mountain regions and properly acclimatized, were also taking rest breaks and huffing and puffing along (and not just because they were carrying gigantic packs).

One of the photos shows our last public washrooms before our lunch location, a llama picture, and then there's a photo of the mountain we're about to climb, followed by a close-up showing that the minuscule coloured dots on the distance picture are actually people near the peak. Getting to the top of that mountain felt incredible. Though, around that last 100 m mark, someone else's guide came down and told some people ahead of me that the path down was worse, which wasn't what I wanted to hear when I wasn't even done this first difficult part.

He was right though, the path down was very steep, very uneven steps, and you had to walk with extreme care in order to not trip and break something. At lunch time our chef gave a demonstration of how to make lomo saltado (basically beef stir fry), which was pretty cool. The meals on the trail were a real highlight, though altitude made it so I couldn't do the meals justice. I didn't get sick (thankfully), but my appetite was down, despite the huge amounts of exercise I was getting.

Day two also had us entering could forest, which meant misty cool weather and lots of mosquitos at night. The mist cleared enough that we were able to see an incredible sky full of stars. The moon was half full, so it wasn't as starry as our guide wished, but there were a lot more stars than I can see from Toronto. We were all exhausted, so we didn't get to admire them for long.

Day three was the best. I was getting quicker on the downhill stairs - and it was mostly downhill stairs that day. It meant I was at the front of the group, instead of the back, and had stretches of time on the misty path where I couldn't hear or see any other humans. Bliss. Luckily the mist broke as we got to the first of the day's two gorgeous ruins, allowing us some lovely valley views. There were llama droppings on the ground and our guide quipped that they were 'llama beans'. The second ruins that day, Winay Wayna, were my favourite on the trek. They're quite large, and we almost had them to ourselves, which made photography a lot of fun.

We woke up early on the final day. It's only an hour walk to the sun gate, then another hour down to the site, but they don't let you start walking until 5:30, so by the time we made Machu Picchu it was full of day trippers.

The site itself is magnificent. Lots of interesting temples (the circular one is the Temple of the Sun, while the one that looks like a rock slide is the Temple of the Condor - the two big side rocks = its wings), sacred rocks, and architectural features. And again, that view! Absolutely stunning. We had a tour and then got to enjoy the site for a while.

Finally, we took a bus down to Agua Caliente, where we caught the train and then a bus back to Cusco.

Inca Trail + Machu Picchu from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Peru Trip Part 2: Cusco and the Sacred Valley

We flew from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco and got checked-in to our hostel before going out to explore the city. We started at the San Pedro food market, where I had a lucuma con leche drink (lucuma is a fruit that has a caramel style flavour + condensed milk). There were a lot of different booths - some with food items (prepared and ingredients), some with flowers, some with tourist goods for sale. I also tried choclo, the giant corn on the cob. I was expecting sweet corn as that’s what we have in Canada, but the kernels were hard and dense and I couldn’t finish it.

We made it to the Plaza de Armas (central square) around dusk, and so got some nice pictures of the Cathedral and Jesuit church (La Compania de Jesus) as the sun set. On the mountains in the distance, we could see the white Christ statue and three crosses. For dinner we went to Limo, which had great food presentation (tasted great too). The crescent moon looked really cool, lit from the bottom instead of the side like at home.

The next day we had breakfast at our hostel and then waited in the front lobby for our 8:30-9am pick-up for our day trip. At 9:20 we were still waiting, so we called the booking office. Six minutes later a frazzled looking woman came in, and hustled us out to the nearby square. There she hailed a taxi and got in with us. She didn’t speak much English and didn’t tell us what was going on, just talked to the taxi driver for a minute. Then she got out and the taxi drove away with us inside.

The taxi driver didn’t speak much English either, so we weren’t sure what was going on. Was he our guide for the excursion? Was he driving us to meet the bus? Was he driving us to one of the sites? We eventually communicated enough to know we were going to Chinchero, the first stop on the tour. It was a wild ride - traffic’s pretty crazy in Peru at the best of times, and our driver wanted to pass a lot of cars and drove quite fast down windy roads.

We made it to Chinchero where our tour group was just starting to hear a presentation on textiles - how the wool is prepared, local natural dyes, and what some of the patterns mean. It was quite interesting and I’m glad we caught it. We then had time to shop.

The next stop was the ancient agricultural site of Moray. The belief is that these giant circular terraces (one’s been restored but there are 2 others that are unrestored at the same site) were used to create seeds for corn and potatoes that were acclimatized to the conditions at different altitudes. The first crop of potatoes would be grown in the bottom ring, and then would spread up and up and up, eventually covering all of the circular rings. The corn worked the same way, but was planted at the top of the straight area and worked its way down. The seeds would then be sent to people living at those altitudes, giving them hardy crops. Our guide on the Incan Trail believes the site was for growing medicinal plants, so not everyone agrees on its purpose.

Our last stop was the one I most wanted to see, the Maras salt flats. Water with 70% salt content pours out of the mountain and the local people channel it off during the rainy season. During the dry season (when we were there) the water evaporates and they can harvest the salt. The flats were down a steep cliff that provided some amazing views. The flats themselves looked amazing. There were a lot of shops where you could buy the salt (white and pink for eating, and black for bathing), salted chocolate, seasoned salt, and the regular souvenirs.

After the tour we had some free time in the city and so went to the Q’oricancha (Incan Temple of the Sun), now the monastery church of Santo Domingo. It was once covered in gold, with life-sized gold statues of people and animals in the courtyard. The Spanish pillaged the temple, tore down as much of it as they could, and built their church on top of the remains.

A festival was going on in the grounds, so we got to see some folk dancing.

We walked down some side streets and found the famous 12 sided stone, monument to the precision with which the Incans built their edifices.

The following day we had our Sacred Valley tour. We got picked up as scheduled and were on our way. We had a few short stops for shopping and admiring the view, with the first main stop at the archaeological site of Pisac. The Incans liked building close to their gods, so many of their cities were high up with incredible views. The walls of their cities were built with a slight incline, to help them weather earthquakes. Their doorways were also slanted towards the top, to help prevent damage.

We had a bit of time to shop in the market of the colonial city below the Pisac ruins before heading to our lunch buffet in Urubamba. We passed a street stall/restaurant cooking the local delicacy: cuy (guinea pig).

Then it was off to Ollantaytambo, the only remaining fully Incan planned city and its ruins. Due to the sun’s position, I didn’t get a good shot of the ruins from below, but I got some nice shots from above, and some of the other side of the city - with the ancient granaries and the face carved in the mountainside. There were some gigantic stones used at the top of these ruins for the Temple of the Sun. Our guide explained that the richest people were at the top, with the best architectural buildings, while poorer people were lower down, with their stone work not being quite as precise. It’s amazing how many of the old Incan aqueducts and fountains are still in use today.

The city of Ollantaytambo is quite small, just a plaza, the train station for Machu Picchu, the ruins, and a small series of narrow cobbled roads dating from Inca times (when room for cars wasn’t necessary, so they’re all pedestrian lanes). Doorways on either side of the narrow paths led to large open courtyards of houses that were quite beautiful (when you could look in). Our hotel had a beautiful garden outside the building.

There was an abundance of motor taxi’s, motorcycles with coverings and seating for 2 people inside, in the main square. Some had fanciful designs, like the Batman logo. At night there were so many stars in the sky. But I didn’t have a tripod and the confluence of valleys in the town meant the wind was so strong I couldn’t get my camera to stay still enough for a decent photo.

Cusco + Sacred Valley from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Tomorrow it's on to the Inca Trail.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Peru Trip Part 1: Amazonian Basin

I just got back from 18 days in Peru. Normally I wouldn't post trip recaps here unless they had some sort of writing or SF/Fantasy connection, but Peru was so cool - and I don't like facebook for these sorts of things and I have no intention of writing out my trip stuff over and over again - so I'm doing it here for the sake of convenience.  I'll also have some tie in thoughts on how to use trips for writing inspiration at the end of the week.

This explanation goes with the photos in the slideshow at the bottom of this post. The soundtrack is from short videos I took while in the jungle. At the end of the week I'm also hoping to compile some of the video clips I took into one video (note, these were more for sounds and small events rather than the cool youtube trip videos you see that narrate everything, so don't expect anything too spectacular).

I left on September 1st and arrived in Puerto Maldonado on the 2nd (it was a painful flight plan that included 'sleeping' at the Lima airport).  When I arrived in the jungle it was hot and humid, just as I'd pictured.

The company I went with for my stay was Posada Amazonas, of Rainforest Expeditions.  It's co-owned by the Ese-Eja community of Infierno, and our guide was a member of that community.  The lodge itself is situated on community land off the Tambopata river preserve, part of the Madre de Dios state.

The day my group arrived, we were picked up at the airport, brought to a lodge to minimise luggage, and then transported by boat to the lodge. On the boat, we were given an amazing seasoned rice dish wrapped in a bijao leaf.

The main lodge was made using local construction techniques, and had hammocks, a bar, dining room, bedrooms, etc. joined by wooden walkways.  The bedrooms were walled on 3 sides using reeds and plaster (?). The bathroom also had some natural ventilation, with a plastic square around the shower. It was the dry season, so bugs weren't much of an issue, but the beds all had mosquito netting put down at night, just in case. There was one giant moth that kept falling into a vase placed on the bedside table and several smaller moths that sat on the flooring - daring us to squash them by accident.

The first night we went to a canopy tower 37 m high (120 feet) to observe birds and get a different view of the jungle. We saw some parrots flying and several other birds but no monkeys. The view itself was unbelievable. At one point in the far distance we could see flashes of lightning.

Food was served buffet style, and there was a good variety of dishes. There were even some fruits unique to the area, including the passion fruit like granadillo - a hard shell with a jelly like interior holding numerous black seeds.

The second day we went to see an oxbow lake - formed when the bows of the river get too close and the river starts a new path, bypassing that curve. There were a lot of different birds, a swampy section that was a vibrant green, monkeys, piranha's (we went fishing, caught a few and then threw them back in the water - holding a piranha is a crazy experience, you can feel it flexing its sides, trying to escape your hold). The lake even had giant river otters, which only 60% of the visitors are privileged to see.

In the afternoon we had an ethnobotanical tour, learning about indigenous plants and how the native peoples use them for healing. On the way there we passed a juvenile caiman sunning itself on the beach. Our guide made a shaman headdress and staff out of palm leaves before serving us 3 liquors made from the medicinal plants.

The next morning we tried to see parrots and macaws at the nearby clay lick but the weather was unseasonable cold and overcast that none were there (in fact it was so cold I had trouble sleeping with only the thin blankets the lodge carried - our guide said it never gets that cold in the jungle). After breakfast we went on a walking tour to visit a several hundred year old ceiba (or kapok) tree. On the way we encountered a termite nest (round blob of excrement & dirt in a tree), more monkeys, monkey-comb (our guide said the spiky rounded fruit was used by monkeys to comb their hair, but I'm not sure if he was telling the truth or just messing with us). Everything in the jungle has spikes on it, even bamboo and other trees. We passed more army ants before coming to the giant tree. Honestly my pictures don't do the tree justice, you just don't get the sense of scale. Near one of the roots our guide used a stick to coax out a tarantula.

On the walk back, our guide picked up some plant fuzz that looked like cotton, a giant spike from one of the trees, and a leaf and made a dart gun. He said the natives would use bamboo for the blow pipe, but the leaf did a good enough job.

That afternoon we went to a locally owned farm and saw some capybaras by the river side. Apparently they sit near the edge of the cliff in case a jaguar comes out of the jungle hunting them. They can then jump into the river to escape.  The farm visit was cool - we saw some local trees, coca trees (the plant cocaine is made from, but which natives use to combat altitude sickness), cacao trees (for chocolate), different peppers, an more. We also got to try two kinds of mini bananas (yellow and white fleshed).

Night in the jungle is surprisingly peaceful. Mornings... now they can get loud. We were woken up by howler monkeys around 5 am. Our last day, we were able to see some parrots on the clay lick as we drove by on the boat. Then it was back to the airport, heading to Cusco.

Amazonian Basin from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Pokemon Go: Fun Photos

The last time I was out playing Pokemon Go, I wandered through the Japanese park where my husband and I got married.  I placed a lure on the pokestop and then took a bunch of photos of the pokemon that showed up.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Shout-Out: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the prestigious Ulthar Women's College. When one of her most gifted students elopes with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt must retrieve her.