Welcoming the Spirits Home

At this time in 2019, my husband and I traveled to Oaxaca City, Mexico to experience the celebration of Dia de los Muertos.

We’ve never been very good at taking selfies.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday where the souls of deceased relatives join their families for a brief reunion. From October 31 through November 2, the border between the spirit world and the living world opens, allowing the spirits to cross over. The holiday is filled with beautiful symbols, traditions, and imagery. It is a joyful time: the spirits are treated as honored guests as they feast, drink, dance, and play music with their families. Many believe that if you remember them, they never cease to exist.

One of the most recognizable symbols are the alters or “ofrendas” (offerings) that can be found in public places and private homes. Although each colorful alter is unique, they all are decorated with specific components that honor loved ones and provide what they need on the journey to rejoin their families.

Every ofrenda includes the four elements: water, air, earth, and fire. Water is provided so the spirits can quench their thirst after their journey. Air is represented by colorful paper banners.  Earth is represented by food, especially bread. The light from candles helps the spirits find their way. In addition, alters are decorated with pictures of the departed, their favorite foods and drinks, sugar skulls, and marigolds (whose scent and bright orange color help attract souls to the alter).

All of these pictures were taken of ofrendas in public places. The alters created in private homes tend to be much less elaborate, but equally beautiful.

I’m sharing these images from our trip as part of Terri’s Sunday Stills photo challenge, whose theme this week is Indoor/Outdoor Decorations.

Traveling in the Time of COVID

When my husband mentioned to a friend that we were traveling to Canada this summer, his friend said, “Wow, that’s brave” (and, by “brave,” I think he meant “crazy”). While any amount of traveling – whether to a foreign country, another state, or another county – could be considered brave (or crazy) during a pandemic, this trip felt like a pretty safe bet for us.

As this chart from the New York Times indicates, our journey would take us from a country with relatively high infection rates to a country that, for the most part, appeared to be taking the pandemic seriously. When we learned in July that the Canadian border would open August 9th to fully vaccinated U.S. tourists, we started to finalize plans for our trip north.

In normal times, a road trip up the length of California, then through Oregon and Washington, would be a wonderful opportunity to visit friends and favorite spots along the way. But because we knew that we would have to get COVID tests within 72 hours of crossing the border, we decided to play it safe and take the most direct route with the fewest number of stops. Long days of driving and eating mostly at fast food establishments (where it is possible to get fresh salads) isn’t our favorite way to travel but we didn’t want to get within miles of our destination and find out that we had contracted COVID somewhere along the way.

Even with hours and hours of driving, we found that arriving at our carefully selected overnight stops in the late afternoon gave us great opportunities to stroll around their historic districts and discover lower risk outdoor dining opportunities. That turned out to be more fun than expected.

We had arranged to have our COVID tests two days before we were to cross the border at a facility that guaranteed results in 24 hours. The following day, we had our (negative!) test results and just one more overnight stay before queueing up early to be among the first American tourists to cross the border.

Because of other blogs you follow, some of you already know a main focus of our trip to Vancouver Island was to meet up with a group of bloggers who have become dear friends. We are all fully vaccinated and we knew that most of our activities would be outdoors enjoying the island’s amazing natural beauty. We hiked through forests, explored beaches, ate in some lovely outdoor restaurants (including some excellent food trucks), and partied on the patios of our friends’ homes.

During our almost month-long stay, we managed to pack in a ton of fun, miles of hiking, lots of laughter and maybe a little too much eating, all while staying safe and COVID-free. Since several of the bloggers have already written about the fabulous time we had (Donna, Retirement Reflections and another post; Erica, Behind the Scenery; Kathy, SMART Living 365), I will let their posts tell that part of the story.

In order to cross the border into Canada, my husband and I were required to present our passports, proof of vaccination, and documented negative COVID test results. To cross the border back into the United States, all we had to do is show the border guard our passports and assure him that we didn’t have any fruit in our car.

Crossing back into the U.S. felt a lot braver – and perhaps crazier – then traveling to Canada.  

Sunday Stills: A Change of Altitude

It’s almost as if Terri (Second Wind Leisure) knew that my husband and I would be spending a few days up in the mountains when she came up with The Great Outdoors as this week’s Sunday Stills photo topic. Although I often have to search my files for images when I join in on one of her photo challenges, this time all I did was walk out the door of our little cabin and there it was… the great outdoors!

We were delighted when our friends, Kathy (Smart Living 365) and Thom, invited us to join them for a few days at their mountain retreat in nearby Idyllwild. The cabin they have rented for a number of years has a mini-cabin situated just a few steps away. It’s perfect for the hosts and the guests – lots of opportunities to connect, but enough separation so that everyone can have some privacy and alone time.

We hiked:

We hugged trees (and each other):

Kathy and Thom showing a tree some love.

We moved boulders:

Full disclosure: it didn’t budge (thank goodness!).

We watched the sunset… :

A fire a couple of years ago left these trees bare, but still beautiful.

… just before the full strawberry moon rose:

We enjoyed great conversations:

There may have been some adult beverages involved.

And, we marveled at nature’s artistry:

I loved how the bark’s texture changed closer to the soil.

The red bark of the Manzanita starts to peel, reveling the new growth below.
I think I saw a mountain gorilla on the trail… or not.

The few days that we were able to enjoy the clear mountain air and expansive vistas were just what we needed. There is nothing quite like spending time in the great outdoors to reduce stress, encourage reflection, and help us appreciate the gifts of Mother Nature.

Sunday Stills: The Silver Lining of Clouds

When I was young, my favorite summer days were those when cloudless Southern California skies promised idle afternoons baking my body at our local beaches. It wasn’t until I was older—after inflicting untold damage to my skin—that I started to truly appreciate clouds. Not only do they provide a respite from the heat and help block harmful UV rays, but they can make the sky so much more interesting to photograph.

Although one of my favorite things to photograph is the contrast of colors and shapes against a bright blue – and cloudless – sky…

… I am more often drawn to the interesting shapes and colors that clouds add to the image. Below is the same image with clouds (the original) and without (edited). I think the clouds add interest to the image, but you may prefer a clear sky. Many photo editing tools allow the original sky to be swapped for another so, even if Mother Nature offers one sky, you can choose something else.  

Looking towards San Miguel de Allende from the botanical gardens.

Sometimes cloud formations are so beautiful, they are the focus and there is little need to include much else in the image.

Have you ever seen clouds that are so perfectly situated in the sky, it’s almost if they were painted in that way?  

Ring around the sun in San Miguel de Allende.
Ring around the top spire of the Parroquia in San Miguel de Allende.

Clouds can also add interest to black and white landscape photographs. Without the puffy white clouds, the sky in both of these photos would have been dark gray and black and, I think, less interesting.

Big Island, Hawaii
Big Island, Hawaii

And, as any connoisseur of sunsets will agree, clouds – or the lack thereof – can make or break a spectacular display. After some practice, you can start to guess whether you should have your camera ready or not before the sun drops below the horizon.   

Key West, Florida
Southern California.

This week’s theme for Terri Webster Schrandt’s Sunday Stills photo challenge is Clouds and Fog. See Terri’s photographs on her blog, Second Wind Leisure.

Thursday Doors – Christmas in San Francisco

Back in the day, when we could travel without worry, my husband and I spent part of our Christmas holiday in the beautiful city by the bay: San Francisco. One of our favorite things to do in San Francisco is to walk and, if you’ve been there you already know, that means hills… lots of hills. In fact, I read that San Francisco is considered the second hilliest city in the world, next to La Paz, Bolivia.

The wonderful thing about hills, besides the great cardio workout you get, are the views they often provide when you arrive at the top:

At the top of Lombard Street (the “crookedest street in the world”) looking towards Coit Tower.
At the summit of Telegraph Hill looking out towards Alcatraz Island.

With its sweeping views, vibrant downtown, bustling waterfront, historical neighborhoods, and eclectic architecture, as long as you are in decent shape, the city is best observed on your feet (preferably shod in sturdy walking shoes). By walking rather than driving, you will also be better able to appreciate the Victorian beauties, especially when their doors are dressed up for the holidays. No blow-up plastic Santas here; the decorations are elegant and understated. It just takes a bit of bling to make a grand impression.

It has been a couple of years since we’ve been to San Francisco, but it’s a city that will always call us back. Even though we’ve been there many times, there is always more to see.

Thursday Doors is a weekly celebration of doors hosted by Dan Antion at No Facilities. Head on over to see his collection and to see what others have shared from around the world.

Wishing you and your family a safe and happy holiday and a wonderful year ahead!

Adjusting Our Comfort Levels

My husband and I were very strict about our personal isolation when Covid-19 started to be a thing. We planned our meals carefully and took advantage of shopping services when we needed groceries. We limited our interactions with friends and family to phone calls, emails, texts, and this new thing we’ve all learned about called Zoom. When we ventured out back then—for a walk or a drive—it was eerie how few people we encountered.

As time has progressed and more has been learned, we have adjusted our behaviors somewhat. We are still very careful about our interactions; we avoid crowds and don’t go anywhere we can’t control our physical distance from others. Anyone who thinks this whole thing is overblown or even a hoax, isn’t someone we choose to be around.

Although we still prepare most of our meals at home—same as pre-virus—we do get take-out from a few favorite restaurants now-and-then. We’ve enjoyed several driveway happy hours with small groups of friends, and I’ve attended a couple of book club meetings held in a member’s large backyard. We now go early-morning grocery shopping a couple of times a month at a small, local store and have ventured into Home Depot once or twice for needed supplies. We still take advantage of curbside pick-up when we can but, occasionally, we need to actually enter a store (we are the ones wearing both masks and gloves).

Happy hour with neighborhood friends.

What we hadn’t done up until a couple of weeks ago, is to travel more than a few miles from home—and certainly not overnight.

Then, some good friends of ours (Kathy, of SMART Living 365, and her husband, Thom) invited us to visit them during their stay at a mountain cabin. The cabin—one they have rented every summer for many years—is located in a small community a little over two hours from our home. It is nestled among the pine trees, features a large deck and, best of all, has a guest cabin on the same piece of land—just perfect for a two-night stay.

Physically distanced, socially together.

After six months of restricted movement and limited social interactions, we decided that spending a couple of days in the mountains with—physically, but not socially distanced—friends was worth the extremely small risk. We knew that they were as careful as we are, and their generous offer came with the understanding that we’d all do what was safe and comfortable.

Kloe (can you see her?) leads the way up the hill.
Between a rock and… another rock.
The red branches and green foliage of a Manzanita tree contrasts against the clear blue sky.

After so much time staying close to home, our short mountain get-away was rejuvenating . The vistas were gorgeous, the company warm and welcoming, and the conversations lively and thought-provoking. Although these last six months haven’t been the challenge for us that so many others have faced, we found that a change of scenery, new paths to explore and, most of all, spending time with good friends, was just the balm we needed to help sooth our souls.   

happy to get away.

Thursday Doors: Grand Doors

The colonial era of Mexico, when it was known as La Nueva España or New Spain, stretched on for 300 years, from the 16th century into the 19th. During this period, the Spanish destroyed many of the original sacred temples and religious sites, replacing them with buildings that reflected the style of architecture found in Spain.

Examples of its colonial past can be found all over the city of Oaxaca. Many of these buildings have been restored and are still in use today, the churches providing daily services, and monasteries and mansions repurposed as museums, galleries, shops, and hotels. Sadly, other colonial buildings are crumbling, victims of time and neglect (not to mention several substantial earthquakes that have rattled the city over the years).

Grand buildings often have grand entrances. This week’s Thursday Doors post features some of the doors leading to Oaxaca’s colonial history.

Behind the doors of Iglesia de Santo Domingo, a wedding ceremony is just about to conclude. The performers are waiting for the doors to open so the celebration – often lasting well into the night, and even into the next day – can begin.

The Basilica de la Senora de Soledad  – built between 1682 and 1690 – featured grand doors leading to other grand doors.

A side door of the Templo de San Matías Jalatlaco. I was tempted to remove the little white sign before I took this picture, but was afraid I’d be struck by lightning.

This church was rather simple compared to many of the huge stone churches in Oaxaca, but that’s probably why I liked it so much… that and its lovely iron gate.

The magnificent Teatro Macadonio Alcala hosts performances ranginging from operas to plays and classical concerts. My husband and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly, which is set in Japan, live-streamed from the Met in New York, sung in Italian with Spanish subtitles. What a world.

Thursday Doors is a link-up of fellow door aficionados generously hosted by Norm Frampton. Head over to his blog to view all the amazing doors he and others have posted.

Thursday Doors: Aging Doors

Last week, I shared photos from our recent trip to Oaxaca, Mexico of doors that were bright and colorful. Although I am drawn to vibrant colors and bold contrasts, I also appreciate doors that aren’t quite so pristine. Some are fashioned from a hodgepodge of materials, some show the natural patina of time and weather, and some have been sealed off, no longer used for their original purpose. (I’m pretty sure an analogy can be made to our human aging process, but I won’t go there.)

Like so many gates and doors we saw in Oaxaca, I really wanted to see what was on the other side of these:

This next one is for Dan, who likes his Coronas served with a wedge of lime:

Although the actual door isn’t visible, I love the aging art that surrounds it:

Doors that no longer open:

Thursday Doors is a link-up of fellow door aficionados generously hosted by Norm Frampton. Head over to his blog to view all the amazing doors he and others have posted.

Thursday Doors: Vibrant Oaxaca

Just as it was two years ago when we first traveled to Oaxaca, a good number of the pictures I took on our recent trip were of the beautiful and varied doors we saw. Colorful doors that hint at equally artistic interiors; grand doors of churches and historic buildings; decaying doors that wear the patina of time; iron gates and open portals that invite you to step inside. The doors found in Mexico are rich in color, diversity, and history – just like the country itself.

The first set of doors were among the most colorful ones in my collection. Either the door itself was painted a vibrant hue, or it was surrounded by colorful frames and walls.

A close-up of the door knocker

Thursday Doors is a link-up of fellow door aficionados generously hosted by Norm Frampton. Head over to his blog to view all the amazing doors he and others have posted.

Adios Mexico, Hello Home

Santo Domingo at sunset

After six weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico, my husband and I arrived home yesterday. We always have mixed feelings when we end a trip; sad to leave the people, sights, and sounds we’ve enjoyed on our travels; happy to get back to our home, friends, and our familiar routines.

Once I’ve had some time to organize my pictures and re-read my travel journal, I’m sure I’ll have a few more blog posts about our experience. But first, while the trip is fresh in my mind, here is what I already miss about Oaxaca, and a few things that I’m happy to enjoy now that we’re home, sweet, home.

What I’ll Miss

Friendly Faces. The people in Oaxaca – both the native population and the expats – are warm and welcoming. Most people smile as they pass, often saying Buenos Dias, Buenas Tardes, or Buenas Noches, depending on the time of day.

Wonderful Food. Oaxaca is known internationally for its delicious cuisine, and most of it is very affordable.

Chili Relleno served with squash blossoms… yum!

Walkability. We didn’t have a car and didn’t miss it in the least. Just about everywhere we wanted to go, we could walk. Bonus: despite the copious amounts of food we consumed, we both lost a few pounds.

Free, Live Music. It was a rare day that we didn’t encounter music on the streets or in the parks. A well-known singer performing for a large crowd in an outdoor auditorium, a symphony orchestra playing in the central square, a band playing dance music, a guitar and maracas trio, students practicing their drum and bugle music; music is everywhere in Oaxaca.

Celebrations. Weddings, quinceaneras, birthdays, anniversaries, who-knows-what saint’s day; they are all joyously celebrated. And, often, everyone is invited – maybe not to the actual service, but once the celebration spills onto the streets, the more, the merrier.

Art. It’s everywhere. The churches and historical buildings are gorgeous, museums and galleries are abundant, homes and business are brightly painted, murals adorn many of the walls, and local artisans display their creativity in shops and on the streets.

Wouldn’t you love to come home to this mural every day?

Colorful Money. Pesos put our boring greenbacks to shame.

Pretty pesos

Exchange Rate. Right now, the dollar is very strong, and our money went far.

Weather. Mid-seventies to low eighties during the day, cool – but not cold – in the evening

Laundry Service. Our apartment didn’t have a washer/dryer so we took everything to one of the many lavanderias around town. For 20 pesos (about a dollar) per kilogram, they washed, dried, and folded our clothes. They even folded our underwear… I never fold our underwear.

What I Love About Being Home

What’s Familiar. Our house, our neighborhood, our friends, our food, our routine.

What’s Easier.  Being fluent in the native language, drinking water out of the tap, being able to put toilet paper in the toilet.

Wherever we travel – whether around the United States or to another country – we love to embrace all that is delightful and unique about the places we visit. And, whether we are gone a few days, a few weeks, or longer, as sorry as we are to say good-bye, we always appreciate returning to that special place we call home.