Author Archives: Melanie McNeil

About Melanie McNeil

Quilter, Designer, Teacher, Writer

Museum of International Folk Art — Santa Fe, NM

As winter turned unevenly to spring, we headed southwest to Santa Fe. We hoped to find warmer weather, opportunities to hike, and some great museums. Well, two out of three ain’t bad!

Santa Fe and the surrounding area have notable historical sites, landmark churches, art galleries galore, and several world-class museums. Though our time in New Mexico was cut short, we had the great pleasure of visiting the Museum of International Folk Art. The broad plaza below, shared by the Folk Art museum and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, shows the foothills east of Santa Fe. Directly to the west is a lovely botanical garden.

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Peru | Everyday Life

by Melanie and Jim

As tourists, we were able to experience some of Peru’s highlights. We enjoyed high-quality accommodations, comfortable travel, and excellent food. Most Peruvians’ everyday life is not as carefree and luxurious. Our tour guide Walter made sure we had some opportunities to see the ways Peruvians really live.


Peru is the land of potatoes, a crop domesticated thousands of years ago. More than 3,000 varieties are grown in the Andes, well-adapted to the elevation and harsh conditions. Along with corn (maize,) quinoa, beans (legumes,) and tomatoes, potatoes make up a large part of the native diet. Chicken is a favorite, too, evident by the popularity of chicken restaurants including KFC fast food.

Another typical meat is cuy, or guinea pig. Though most of the world knows guinea pigs as pets, they are another indigenous food and a convenient way to add protein to the diet. Walter told us they are a favorite for feasts and special occasions, and often a whole one is roasted for each person. For all the galleries below, click any picture to open the gallery and see more detail. 

We were treated to a home-cooked lunch that featured cuy and stuffed peppers,  and a beverage made from Peruvian purple corn. White corn was also a side dish, sporting kernels as big as a pistachio nut in the shell.

Outside of larger cities, supermarket-style grocery stores are not widely available. Single-commodity shops and markets with a variety of vendors are available all over. Markets are like U.S. farmers’ markets, with produce, butchered meat, and various breads on display.


Education is free and compulsory for children through secondary school. University is free for poor students but only available based on high performance on entrance exams. Children attend primary school close to their homes for first through sixth grades, or until they are approximately 12 years old. Older children have five years of secondary school. For those who live in the country or small villages, this can mean walking miles across mountainsides. All the school children wear uniforms to school.

Our group visited a primary school in a small village. A wall and gate enclosed the school property with grassy yard and small classroom buildings, garden, and a separate outbuilding for the bathrooms. The two classrooms each held about 14 children. The children we joined were in fourth through sixth grades. The uniforms they wore were hardly standard, as some had uniform sweaters but no matching trousers or skirts, or other combinations of non-matching items. The families of many are very poor.

To thank the teacher and students for hosting us, we each brought some school supplies for their use. Also, we stopped on the way and bought reams of paper, something the teacher requested. Tripmates brought maps, including a map of the U.S. that Walter and another traveler showed. We used the map to point out our home states and tell them a little about our country.


A large amount of our tour group’s travel was in a comfortable bus on well-maintained highways. Roads within villages and in the countryside were more variable in quality. The city streets of Lima and Cuzco were hectic with traffic, but with the apparent chaos, we only witnessed one minor fender bender. Pedestrians cross streets at their own peril; jaywalking is not advised, and even crossing with lights requires caution. Lima has a number of in-city private bus companies running designated routes for mass transit. There also is a public metro rail, though the one time we used it, the scheduling seemed quite random for arrivals and departures at the terminal.

Besides the transportation infrastructure, another element that creates challenges is the public water systems. It’s not unusual when traveling to use bottled water to avoid digestive distress and other illnesses. Walter told us even Peruvians don’t drink tap water without boiling it first.

Also, the sewage system isn’t sufficient to deal with human waste. Toilet paper is disposed in trash rather in the toilet, a minor inconvenience, but not always easy to manage. Many growing urban areas in the Sacred Valley dump human waste directly in the Urubamba River. The tourism that supports and grows the economy creates costly problems, as well.


The home we visited for our lunch was large and comfortable, but probably not typical. The host family has been providing these lunches for years, earning income that allowed the addition of an extra kitchen space. The kitchens and dining room are arranged around a central courtyard.

It’s common for families to start with a small home and add on over time. We saw many buildings obviously unfinished, with concrete columns jutting into the sky, creating the base for upper floors. Later when finances allow, the walls will be filled in with clay tile blocks, and windows added when able.

A hillside home in some places would be a prime location for the views. Instead, the slopes surrounding Cuzco are filled with slum housing. The city has expanded rapidly in the last 30 years, as more people have resettled from the countrysides for better job opportunities. While this provides opportunity and resources, the risks of landslides are continual, and a moderate earthquake could be a major catastrophe.

Peru Post Links

This is our final post about our trip to Peru. If you’d like to see more, all the posts including this one are listed below. Please take a look and feel free to ask if you have questions. Thanks so much for spending time with us on our trip of a lifetime!

Peru | Lima | First Impressions
Peru | Textiles and Ceramics
Peru | Arts & Crafts
Peru | Pisac & Ollantaytambo
Peru | Machu Picchu
Peru | Tipon and Sacsayhuaman
Peru | Beer Bar – Oxen – Blessings
Peru | Hillside Homes | Traffic Woes
Peru | Everyday Life
Inca Pot | c 1500
Noon @ Ollantaytambo
Peru | Machu Picchu Plus Much More

Peru | Arts & Crafts

by Melanie and Jim

Roofs of many buildings in Peru feature two terra cotta bulls, often accompanied by a Christian cross. The bulls invite good fortune and protection to the home.


We were fortunate to tour five significant ruins sites during our ten days in Peru, and there were dozens of other sites dotting the landscape as we traveled. Our itinerary also offered a variety of experiences, like visits to a shaman, a beer bar, museums, and a village elementary school.

Peru has a long and proud cultural heritage. We had the privilege of seeing two artisans shops to learn some of the process of bringing this heritage to life.

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Peru | Machu Picchu

by Melanie and Jim

For many people, their strongest association with Peru is Machu Picchu. Legendary “lost city” of the Inca, it was revealed to the public in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. As a professor at Yale University in South American history, he organized an expedition to Peru to find the last capital of the Inca. Led by local guides, his crew arrived at Machu Picchu, a largely forgotten site.

The world knows now that Machu Picchu was not the last capital, and that others likely arrived at the mountain city before Bingham. He still deserves credit for the movement to reveal the vine-covered community at the edge of the jungle. Excavations he led over the next three decades exposed a magnificent city that continues to baffle the imagination.

(If you’d like to read more from Bingham himself about the discovery, check this book, provided by Project Gutenberg.)

These days, with a burgeoning tourist economy, Machu Picchu is still the largest draw for tourists in Peru. It certainly was the largest draw for us.

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People of color, poor people, women, students, and people with disabilities all face continuing efforts to disenfranchise them. This is not new. But the only way to ensure your right to vote is to vote. Otherwise, those without our collective interests at heart may take that right away, whether you are poor and dark-skinned and female or wealthy and white and male.

Collection of the American Folk Art Museum

Made by Jessie Telfair of Georgia in 1983, this beautiful quilt embodies our collective political voice. From the American Folk Art Museum,

This is one of several freedom quilts that Jessie Telfair made as a response to losing her job after she attempted to register to vote. It evokes the civil rights era through the powerful invocation of one word, “freedom,” formed from bold block letters along a horizontal axis. Mimicking the stripes of the American flag, it is unclear whether the use of red, white, and blue is ironic or patriotic, or both.

We have the right and duty in the US to vote, though there is no legal obligation. Consider the Suffragettes. Consider the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Consider that people continue to try to disenfranchise some of our citizens. The only way to ensure our rights is to vote.



Barred Owl Visit

Any day with an owl visit feels like a lucky day.

Last evening as Jim and I ate dinner on our deck, the sun was dropping in the sky behind the trees. A squirrel broke the peace, screaming a few feet away from us. There are a number of neighborhood cats that roam, so we often hear a squirrel or bird sound the cat alarm. The squirrel was persistent and I looked into the trees to locate it. On a branch 15 feet away and above my head was a grey tail hanging down. That was no squirrel tail — it was an owl!

The tail I saw first, with its beautiful distinct bars.

The angle of the sun and the deck screening made photos tricky, but Jim was patient and got several. Click any photo to open the gallery and see more detail.

Soon the squirrel alerted the robins, who took up the chatter. They scolded and dive-bombed the owl a few times, brushing their claws through the owl’s feathers. The owl remained unperturbed, though at a point it turned its head to face down its harassers.

While Jim watched, the owl stretched a wing out, and then swept the wings up and back while spreading its tail. The setting sun and screening added a lot of sparkle to these photos.

As we fell asleep later, we heard the owl call, reassuring us that it was still in the yard.

Hands and Hearts — A Quilt From the Whole Family

A quilt made by me, with considerable help from Jim, for our son and his bride. Read about the process of designing and making.

Catbird Quilt Studio

Do you remember this piece? I made it in April as a “sketch,” just something to try forming shapes and colors and lines into a picture in appliqué. It’s a representation of a Claddagh ring. The traditional Irish symbol represents love (heart,) loyalty (crown,) and friendship (hands.)

The pretty heart in the middle was printed like that from fabric I bought eleven years ago. I drew the hands and crown from the basic Claddagh ring symbol. And then I encircled it with a ring of batik. It is all on a black Kona cotton background.

At the time I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it, or if I would do anything more. I considered the possibility of creating a small wedding gift for Son and his fiancée. But I didn’t have a plan.

Then about a month before the wedding, I started hankering to make that gift. I…

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Jim has been watching the phoebes for weeks. A few days ago he noticed the nest was empty, and it seemed the family was gone. Just this morning he spotted them again. Though the fledglings are out, the phoebes are still in our yard.

The nest, a “permanent” structure, sits on a beam under our deck. With the babies gone, Jim drilled a small hole between floor boards to get a better view. The hole is only about a quarter inch across, but the camera lens on the phone is smaller than that. He was able to get this photo looking down into the nest.

Phoebe nest 2018. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Of course the photo makes it look as large as an eagle’s nest, but in truth, the cup of the nest is less than 3″ across.

The wrens also seem to have sent their first brood out into the world, as it’s become less noisy out our back door. Often they have a second brood, so we’ll look forward to their chatter returning before the summer is out.

We still have the catbirds. Early this year we were treated to several of the plain, grey birds in our yard. Usually we’re only aware of one or two.

Catbird. 2018. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

Catbirds on suet feeder. 2018. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

What birds are hanging around your yard these days?

Cute Speckled Fawns

We love watching the visitors to our yard. Jim’s been sharing photos of the phoebes that took up residence under our deck, and a few days ago he showed you a video of a groundhog, twenty feet up in a tree eating mulberry leaves. Deer often come around, too.

Recently we watched a doe with one tiny speckled fawn as they approached the house. The doe caught sight of us in the window and stopped next to a tree. While she stood, fawn nearby, a mama raccoon came down the tree next to her with two babies! It was like a scene from a Disney movie, choreographed so the animals are in the same shot.

This morning a different doe appeared with two fawns. They are so sweet and spindly, with the pale freckles making lines along the ridge of their backs.

Jim caught some video of the three of them.

Do you have visitors in your yard or neighborhood?

Backyard Birds | Cooper’s Hawk

When Jim and I looked for a different home more than a decade ago, one thing Jim insisted he wanted was a view to the west. Having grown up on a midwestern farm, he learned to love the broad horizon, with its window on the setting sun and on incoming storms. What we actually got, though, is quite different from that. Instead, we have trees nearly touching our house on the west side. With summer’s leaves unfurled, the view beyond our property is completely obscured.

My view to the west, late spring, early evening.

We can’t see oncoming storms, but we do have yard birds. If you read the descriptions in bird books or at one of our favorite sites, All About Birds, you would see that most of our birds like the margins between woods and grasslands. They find familiar territory here.

Some of our birds are seasonal, migrating to or through the area, while others are around all year. Recently Jim posted about a pair of Eastern Phoebes that are nesting under our deck. The phoebes are new to us, though this is within their summer region.

As I worked in the kitchen a few days ago, I hollered at him to get his camera. A Cooper’s Hawk was perched on the tree out back. Usually when we see them, they are too far away too see clearly, or they are swooping through, intent on catching a meal. But this one was still, and at my eye level. It also was directly above one of our bird feeders. No, it doesn’t find its meal in the feeder; it finds it at the feeder. Coopers eat smaller birds and rodents. Once we watched one land on, firmly grasp, and fly off with a struggling squirrel. Surprisingly, they’re not terribly big birds, only about the size of a crow. Click any photo to embiggen.

Besides the great photos, Jim also was able to get this short video.

We don’t have the setting sun, but we have an ever-interesting assembly of birds out our window.