Author Archives: Melanie McNeil

About Melanie McNeil

Quilter, Designer, Teacher, Writer

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.

Food

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.

School

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.

Infrastructure

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.

Housing

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

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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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Vote

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.

PLEASE 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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Catbirds

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.

Connections

Recently I was introduced to Deborah, who works with my new neighbor, Heather. When I told Heather about it, I thought about the web of connections leading to this chance meeting. 


A mid-August day in western Illinois can take your breath away. Temperatures run high that time of year. The humidity of the Mississippi River and the flat, fertile ground clings to everything and makes it hard to breathe. But on that day in 1933, the air was milder than usual and a light rain freshened the skies.

On that day in 1933, John welcomed Dorothy to his side, and they spoke their vows to honor and love each other, vows that were kept for 69 years. While Dorothy held his hands, her bridesmaid and cousin Rosemary held the bride’s bouquet.

John and Dorothy had nine children together, one of whom was Jim. Rosemary and her husband had children, too, one of whom was Chuck. Chuck and Jim, second cousins, knew each other as they grew up, attended the same university, and had overlapping social circles.

When Jim graduated college, he married, began a teaching career, and became a father. His teaching career thrived and his daughters grew, but his marriage struggled and ultimately ended.

One summer Jim began a master’s degree program at another university in Illinois. While there, a mutual friend introduced him to Melanie. Melanie and Jim quickly fell in love and married the next year.

After Melanie finished her degree, she applied for a job in downtown Chicago. Her interview was on the coldest recorded day in Chicago history (really!), and she got a job developing software for a major bank. One of her work mates was Bruce. Soon Bruce left the software development team to join the bank’s trust management group.

After a couple more years, Melanie left the bank to enter graduate school. She finished the degree and gave birth to a son, after which she taught Finance at the same school.

In the summer of 1992, Jim, his wife Melanie, and their young son moved to Iowa. Melanie was about to start graduate school (again!), but Jim didn’t have a job arranged yet. After 23 years teaching high school science, he hoped to find a similar position.

John and Dorothy’s son Jim spoke with Rosemary’s son Chuck. Chuck had a connection in the same Iowa town, a man who worked in administration for the school district. With Chuck’s recommendation to ease the way, Jim accepted a teaching position in the district. Jim had many talented co-workers at his school, people dedicated to their students. One of those was Jan, a gentle man who taught physical science.

Jim, Melanie, and Son were fortunate in other ways in their new home. Across the street in one direction lived Darrell and Judy, who treated the new family with kindness. In another direction lived Kathy’s family. Her son attended the same school and played on the same soccer team. The mom of another boy on that team was Beth, a relative of Kathy.

In 1996 Darrell and Judy moved across town. Melanie finished her degree in 1997 and applied for a job in trust investment management. The man who interviewed her and hired her was Bruce, her co-worker from Chicago, now living in Iowa.

Between Melanie’s new job and Jim’s teaching position, it made sense to move. In 1997 they moved to a new house, right next door to Darrell and Judy. Darrell and Judy’s neighbors on the other side were a woman named Hazel and her daughter Holly.

Holly was older than the son, but the two became friends. Their friendship deepened when Holly helped Son learn how to play clarinet and saxophone. She helped him learn the basics and Son came to love the saxophone. When he entered junior high he was fortunate to have an excellent band teacher. The band teacher encouraged the kids to play in the jazz band, which Son did.

In high school he continued to play. His jazz band excelled and often won area jazz band contests. One of those contests was hosted each year at Son’s high school. It was the annual qualifying contest for state competition. Many of the judges are professional jazz musicians and educators from the area. When Melanie helped run the qualifying contest in 2006, she met a jazz musician and professor named Steve.

Steve plays with a few different bands. One of those bands is called “The Beaker Brothers,” and they play a lot of rock from the late 1960s and ’70s. Ed is one of Steve’s bandmates in that group.

After Jim retired from teaching in 2007, his friend Jan recommended he work for an education resources company. Jan started there when he retired from teaching. Ed worked there, too, as did Darrell.

Backtracking in time… In 2002 Jim and Melanie and Son moved to a different house. Next-door neighbors on both sides worked for the same education company where Jim later worked. Two doors down lived Nancy, a retired teacher who quilted. In 2007 Nancy invited Melanie to a meeting of the local quilters guild. At the meeting, Melanie reconnected with Bethrelated to Kathy, who lived across the street from Melanie and Jim when they first moved to Iowa. Beth quilts, too. 

In summer of 2017, Nancy and her husband, the neighbors two doors down, sold their home to downsize. Heather and her husband, moving to town to work at the hospital, bought the house.

A different stream of time… For decades Jim has been a blood donor. Years ago, one of the phlebotomists at the blood bank, who frequently jabbed Jim when he donated, was Deborah. Yes, the same Deborah who recently met Melanie.

On a Friday night a couple of weeks ago, Melanie and Jim went out to hear The Beaker Brothers play. Steve and Ed were on stage with their bandmates, covering the Allman Brothers and other bands of the era. When they took a break, Steve visited with Jim and Melanie. As he did, Deborah approached to say “hello” to him. She already knew Steve through her friendship with Ed and his wife. As it turns out, Ed is Deborah’s ex-in-law.

Deborah recognized Jim and introduced herself to Melanie. She now works at the hospital in a different department. It is the same department in which Heather works.


Deborah and Heather might know each other despite all the other connections. But Jim and I only know that Deborah and Heather know each other because of all the other connections.

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

Herman Melville