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Travel Writing

Markets and Octopus in Galicia

by Elena on March 8, 2010

There are many images and smells in Galicia that bring me back to my summers in Spain as a child.  The little things that people see, smell, hear, and taste which combined you can’t find anywhere else.  Things like the bunches of chorizos hanging from the ceiling of our pantry or tossed on the side of a truck ready to sell to people shopping the local market.  The smell of octopus boiling in large pots, hardening and softening in the burgundy stained water before the vendor pulls one out with a hook.  The loud bellow of the delivery man’s horn when he drives thro  ugh town each morning to deliver everyone their bread.  Even the white powder of the salted cod that needs to soak in water until the salt that once preserved this big fish slowly seeps out so it‘s suitable to eat.  These are the things I remember well, the little things that continue each day, when I leave, when I return, and when I leave again.
This past week was the feria do pulpo, and people come around with the same purpose, to buy and eat octopus.  Although in the rainy winter when the surrounding towns lack people and the desire to leave ones home, there isn’t much ambiente a very important quality that adds people, movement, and life (vida).  This day there were mostly men with salt and pepper hair just above their ears and nowhere else that came to eat pulpo at the local bar with their friends.  They talk sports I imagine or something else like their pesky wives, their wine, and the reminiscences of stories when their bodies allowed them much more than mere talk about  past adventures.
The pulpeiro let us try the pulpo and it was soft and flavorful having lost all the toughness that it had before cooking.  Once cut with sharp scissors you drizzle olive oil on top of the pulpo and then sprinkle some Spanish paprika and rock salt and it’s ready to eat.

There are many images and smells in Galicia that bring me back to my summers in Spain as a child.  The little things that people see, smell, hear, and taste which combined you can’t find anywhere else.  Things like the bunches of chorizos hanging from the ceiling of our pantry or tossed on the side of a truck ready to sell to people shopping the local market.  The smell of octopus boiling in large pots, hardening and softening in the burgundy stained water before the vendor pulls one out with a hook.  The loud bellow of the delivery man’s horn when he drives thro  ugh town each morning to deliver everyone their bread.  Even the white powder of the salted cod that needs to soak in water until the salt that once preserved this big fish slowly seeps out so it‘s suitable to eat.  Chorizos in Galicia Spain

Bacalao Salted Cod in Galicia SpainThese are the things I remember well, the little things that continue each day, when I leave, when I return, and when I leave again.

Pulpo Octopus in Galicia Spain

This past week was the feria do pulpo, and people come around with the same purpose, to buy and eat octopus.  Although in the rainy winter when the surrounding towns lack people and the desire to leave ones home, there isn’t much ambiente a very important quality that adds people, movement, and life (vida).  This day there were mostly men with salt and pepper hair just above their ears and nowhere else that came to eat pulpo at the local bar with their friends.  They talk sports I imagine or something else like their pesky wives, their wine, and the reminiscences of stories when their bodies allowed them much more than mere talk about  past adventures.

Pulpo Octopus in Galicia SpainPulpo Octopus in Galicia Spain

The pulpeiro let us try the pulpo and it was soft and flavorful having lost all the toughness that it had before cooking.  Once cut with sharp scissors you drizzle olive oil on top of the pulpo and then sprinkle some Spanish paprika and rock salt and it’s ready to eat.

Pulpo Octopus in Galicia SpainPulpo a la Gallega

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Machu Picchu’s Uncertain Future

by Elena on February 13, 2010

Peru Machu PicchuA couple weeks ago, floods and mudslides forced over 3,900 tourists to flee the area.  Most were flown out by helicopter because the flooding destroyed the trail system that people use to go to and from Machu Picchu and Aguas Calientes.Peru Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu remains closed to tourists and will stay that way until the Peruvian government can rebuild the rail system.  Machu Picchu already had a weakened structure, growing more weak with each of the thousands of tourists who wander on top of its stones each year.  The flooding will undoubtedly affect the tourism economy.  Peru officials are worried about these effects, and they are already lowering prices trying to lull tourism back to the country.

The fact that people lost their homes, livelihoods, and businesses is enough to bear, but the effects will be even harder to recover from if tourism doesn’t pick up eventually.  It is a sad truth that locals who depend highly on tourism will be affected the most, at least the most directly.

One of the reasons I avoid writing about such tragic events is because my words always seem trivial compared to the events themselves.  Rick Steves does a great job with this sort of commentary such as his response to the earthquake in Haiti and his commentary on the poverty in Haiti even before the disaster struck, but not all of us have that ability.

Having been in Peru less than a year ago it is extremely sad to see the same places I visited destroyed.  Again, this is an egocentric feeling that displays how the places you visit form a personal connection with you always.  The footage of the wreckage, as well as a post from Uncornered Market, inspired me to go through my pictures of Peru.  The photography section is back up with pictures from Peru, including Machu Picchu.

Images via: The Sacramento Bee

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Aventure At Any Age

by Elena on February 8, 2010

Adventure Into Your Old Age NYTimes

Image via: NY Times

The stereotype for hostel life and adventure travel usually entails a large group of fresh-faced kids in their twenties with an oversize backpack peaking over their heads.  Backpacker life is changing, however, like Nomadic Matt discusses in his post about backpackers turning into flashpackers.  In the past you may have been lucky to have more than one computer available at your hostel, but now more and more hostels are coming equipped with computer rooms and free wifi.  The customers at hostels also reflect the change in travel culture.  Most people will be carrying around some fancy gadget in order to document their trip and keep in touch with family and friends back home.  At your next hostel take a look around you.  Yes you will undoubtedly see the bearded American guy in Birkenstocks, and the ridiculously in shape Aussie guy signing up for a biking tour, but you will also see some other people and they won’t be in their twenties.  People’s priorities are changing and more and more ‘grownups’ and active seniors are deciding to travel later in life.

There are organizations that are capitalizing on this trend (as smart companies always do) and providing services to older travelers.  Exploritas and Overseas Adventure Travel cater to this specific clientele.  In the New York Times article Seeing Old Age as a Never-Ending Adventure, they interview people like Tom Lackey who at 89 years old wing walks, where he straps his feet onto the top of a plane’s wings while in flight.  How many twenty year olds do you know that do that?

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What Do You Want to Do Before You Die?

by Elena on February 3, 2010

The Buried Life

If you had one day to live, what would you do?  Would you climb a mountain?  Would you kiss the person of your dreams?  Would you tell someone how you really feel?  Now, if you had a whole lifetime to live, would you lose that drive?  Or would your list just keep getting longer?

The opening credits for MTV’s new show The Buried Life are not what you are accustomed to hearing on the music network.  Known more for the kids on The Hills than actual music videos, MTV is taking small steps away from fake tanned adolescents and meaningless hookups (small steps but steps nonetheless).  As opposed to previous programing, The Buried Life is about adventure and encouraging others to follow their dreams.  It isn’t the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, but rather the true story of four friends riding around in a bus they named Penelope.  These four friends from Canada (I’ve heard an aboot or two) have made a list, 100 things to do before you die, and they are determined to cross off each item, no matter how difficult.  In an effort to achieve some balance, they don’t solely focus on their own crazy list.  They are also striving to fulfill other people’s wishes.  For every item they cross off their list, they help people accomplish something on theirs.

This project started way before the MTV contract.   If this were a show created solely by MTV it would lose the authenticity.  I still can’t help but feel a sting of cynicism while watching the ease with which these guys get into the Playboy Mansion and into movie premieres (maybe with a little help from MTV?) although maybe dressing up as Oompa Loompas and Cristiano Ronaldo are harder than it looks.  The encouraging part is that they began their adventure and created their list without the help of a cable network, using corporate sponsors and gaining popularity by posting videos on YouTube.  Ultimately it’s the personalities of the guys involved that show the sincerity of their goals, no matter how ridiculous.  It’s easy to demean such tasks as sneaking into the Playboy mansion or asking Megan Fox out on a date, but the point is to do whatever it is that you want: the difficult, the easy, the silly, and the just plain stupid, if that’s what you want to do.  Ask yourself:

When was the last time you did something that truly scared you, excited you, made you feel alive?

There is no doubt that our objectives would change drastically if we had less time to live.  Suddenly all those inconsequential things become much more meaningful.  The point of a show like this is that you shouldn’t forget your list just because you have  a whole lot of time.  It is too easy to get caught up in everyday life and forget what we really want.  Of course we can’t all adopt a big purple bus and completely neglect our responsibilities, after all not all of us are freshly graduated guys in our twenties.  What we can do however is remember that sometimes those crazy dreams are more important than we think it may be time to revisit them.

Out of complete self indulgence I created my own list that I will continue to add on to when the mood strikes.  So what do you want to do before you die??

Image via: theburied.life

You can watch full episodes of The Buried Life on the MTV website.

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Travel Won’t Answer Your Problems

by Elena on January 21, 2010

Travel With Red UmbrellaI met with an old friend this week.  We sat over a western omelet, fulfilling the ritual catch-up, reminiscing about the past and predicting our future.  It is interesting when you meet with someone after a long period time of being apart, especially if that person knows you well.  In a way they can gauge how much you’ve changed, or how much you’ve stayed the same.

Like some people, he thought vacation was going to be his escape, maybe even a small answer to all his frustrations and worries.  He learned quickly that this wasn’t the case.  He had been looking forward to his trip and when his expectations didn’t live up to reality, he was inevitably disappointed.  He returned home, back to his routine, spending hours and days in his place of  business, disillusioned by his travels.

This got me thinking about the expectations we have when go abroad.  If you’ve traveled a lot you may start to feel overwhelmed.  Churches and cathedrals all start to look the same and you may even begin to get a little pretentious.  My vacation spot is way better than yoursI went to Machu Picchu way before it became one of the New 7 Wonders. Long term travelers can also be perceived as running away from responsibilities, problems, or the ‘real’ world.  People may ask what exactly it is that you are looking for or running away from.  These are difficult questions to answer because we all travel for different reasons and in different ways.  Because of limited vacation time, most Americans travel for short periods of time.  Some of us may want to get drunk in Cancun, while others want to climb mountains, learn a language, or live abroad.

In my experience, one of the great things about going away is the feeling you get when you leave a place behind.  It isn’t completely rational, it’s probably not entirely healthy either, but there is nothing like knowing that tomorrow you will be somewhere new.  Not everyone will agree of course, but when you get that itch you will recognize it right away.

For this reason it is easy to think that once you’re gone all your troubles will be left behind.  Of course this isn’t always the case.  Similar to the way some people may find comfort in a brisk jog around their neighborhood, or more appropriately a couple pints of beer, travel comforts too, but as we know a carton of Ben & Jerry’s won’t get rid of the problem and neither will picking up and flying to the South Pacific.

Traveling isn’t always easy.  I’m not talking about a resort vacation with a massage therapist and daily yoga, that seems rather easy to me, but rather the decision to travel long term and see the world, often on a budget.  You won’t get the comfort and amenities of home and you will spend significant periods of time away from family and friends.  What travel can do, however, is bring you in contact with a different way of thinking.  Read Rick Steve’s Travel as a Political Act if you want to get inspired.  He talks about the ways travel can broaden your perspective and help you answer some of the pressing questions and problems you have back home.  Experiencing something outside of your comfort zone may be difficult at first, but it will teach you something.

Travel itself won’t answer your problems, but it can aid you in figuring out just what you want to do in life, what makes you happy, and what situations you can handle.  It can help you grow, and frankly, like a small carton of Ben & Jerry’s it can make you feel a hell of a lot better, at least in the moment.

Image via: alicepopkorn

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Coca Museum In La Paz Bolivia

by Elena on December 30, 2009

Coca Museum in La Paz BoliviaWhile in La Paz, Bolivia I was looking forward to seeing this small unusual museum, especially after a bout of altitude sickness in Peru that had me chewing on coca leaves for days.  The museum is on calle Linares, and lucky for us it was down the block from our hostel.  Like many shops and restaurants in La Paz, the museum is located inside an alcove hidden in between buildings and back alleys.  It is on the second floor of what looks like a residential home.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by a man who looked confused to see visitors who were so uncharacteristically on time for the opening of the museum.  He turned on the lights and opened its doors for us.  After his brief statement about the museum, he offered us some coca leaves which visitors are free to chew on during their visit.  The museum consists of one large room with many displays covered in pictures and text, as well as a  few small artifacts.  There may not be much in comparison to other more elaborate museums, but they certainly are not as provocative.  The information dedicated to this small leaf, is hard to find anywhere else.

Coca Museum in La Paz Bolivia 4The coca leaf is a very important part of Andean culture, and the plant was seen as sacred by the Incas.  It is believed that people in the Andes have used coca leaves since 2500BC after traces of the leaf were found in mummified bodies in the ruins of Northern Peru.  The oil of the plant was used to remove tumors and prevent the body from physical discomfort.  Today many people continue to use the plant, in particular those who live in the highlands.  While traveling around the Andes we saw many people chewing on these leaves which are said to relieve altitude sickness.  The coca leaf stimulates the respiratory centers, allowing more oxygen to absorb in your body, especially helpful for those of us who aren’t born with the larger lung capacity of people who live in high altitudes.  It is also believed that the leaf regulates metabolism of glucose and contains nutritious qualities similar to quinoa and wheat.Coca Leaves

During colonization, the Catholic Church first banned the use of this leaf but later recognized its medicinal purposes.  This sudden change of heart most likely had more to do with the increase productivity of the native workforce that chewed the leaf rather than concern for people’s health.   The curator of the museum explained how the colonists abused workers by relying on the plants increased productivity, as well as lowered appetite.

Fast forward hundreds of years and you get to 1863, the beginning of the legal cocaine boom.  The coca leaf is made up of various alkaloids, one of which we know as cocaine.  Cocaine is made when you extract the alkaloid from the coca leaf.  The trade of cocaine first started after chemists visited the region and saw the popularity of the coca leaf among people that live in high altitudes.  The first purpose of cocaine was of course medicinal, but it soon became used for other forms of entertainment.

A French chemist name Angelo Mariani used coca leaves from Peru to make his wine vin Mariani.  It was essentially cocawine and contained about 6mg of cocaine per ounce of wine.  The ethanol in the wine helped extract the cocaine from the coca leaves.  Another pharmacist by the name of John Pemberton also included coca leaves in the drink he created, which later helped create one of the most successful companies in history.  Coca-Cola’s original purpose was not as a soft drink, but rather medicine that relieved exhaustion and headaches.  The original recipe of Coca-Cola did have traces of cocaine (9mg per ounce), but they changed its recipe around 1903 when people began to worry about the effect of the drug.  Some say the drink didn’t become completely cocaine free until 1929.  Coca-Cola became wildly popular around the time of prohibition, when Americans were forbidden to drink alcohol.  Today Coca-Cola continues to use coca leaves that have been “spent,” meaning they no longer have traces of cocaine.  Their manufacturing plant imports the coca leaf to the US, but don’t try doing the same.  Don’t even think about bringing back coca leaf tea, if you live in the US, unless you want to spend some time with airport security.  The Stephen Company manufacturing plant, is only company allowed to import coca leaves of any kind, so drink up all your coca tea in Bolivia.

Coca Cola and Mariani WineThe Coca Museum was created by doctors, sociologists, anthropologists, and various institutions in order to create awareness about the coca leaf and its derivative cocaine.  Drug use in Bolivia has only increased in high numbers since preventative drug laws were enacted, however the coca leaf is not considered a drug, in essence it isn’t much different than the popular stimulant in the US, a cup of jo.  The curator of the Coca Museum made it very clear that the coca leaf is not cocaine (which needs to be created in a lab), but rather a natural remedy and tradition that has lasted for many years.

Coca Museum in La Paz Bolivia 2This guy doesn’t look so good.  Reminds me of the Bolivian version of the D.A.R.E. program.  Just say no to drugs or you’ll end up looking like this guy.

Image of Coca-Cola and Mariani Wine via: Coca Museum and Wiki.

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Travel Writing – Real or Fiction

by Elena on October 5, 2009

Travel Writing
The Guardian travel blog most recently published a post about travel writing and whether or not this somewhat self-indulgent art form is in fact truth or fiction. They argue that the line between truth and fiction is often blurred because writers may ‘introduce “colour”, altering the sequence of events to make a book or article “flow.”

Of course these types of exaggerations don’t have a place in guide books or instructional articles because they require accurate research on accommodation, budget, and description of sites; however, when it comes to personal accounts of travel, does “colour” interfere with the purpose of the story. Writers such as Tim Cahill and Bill Bryson have long inspired me to travel and experience Road Fever. Their perspective and slightly off humor personal accounts are clearly from their perspective. There is no confusion about that.

When I think of the times that I may ‘colour’ a story on some of my recent travels, they are hardly ever a declaration of a falsehood. This year while traveling on a trail towards Machu Picchu, I experienced a horrible bout of food poisoning and altitude sickness. At the time I was in the middle of the mountains with no easy route back to a doctor or even a moving vehicle. Was I close to death? Hell no. But did I feel like it? I guess you could say that (a mixture of puking, dizziness, and difficulty breathing can certainly change a person’s perspective). When a tour guide suggests to take some oxygen to help with breathing, rationality tends to go out the window. Let’s just say that the colour added to this story was in fact, an accurate, but emotionally exaggerated depiction of the truth.

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Move Over Busker

by Elena on September 9, 2009

Well the rest of my life lay in front of me
I was pedaling down the road
When I saw nell gwynne and her oranges
And I’ll have one of those
She said move over busker, don’t bang your drum
Move over busker, your time will come
-Paul McCartney

After posting about street performers, I perused through my photo collection and picked out some more of my favorite busker photos.

In the southern Spanish city of Granada there is a rich amalgamation of three very different cultures, histories, and religions: Islam, Catholicism, and Judaism. Home to the Moorish palace La Alhambra, Granada has a flavor that sets it apart from the rest of Spain. The Mirador de San Nicolas (lookout point) faces the magnificent Alhambra, and I highly recommend to anyone visiting this small city to go here just before sunset. The lookout is located in the Albayzin, a neighborhood with small winding streets and white-washed houses with colorful gardens. Set upon a hill, the Albayzin is a perfect location to view the old palace.

Flamenco Performers sing near Alhambra
At Mirador San Nicolas there are always people singing and playing guitar. The group we saw this particular day really epitomized every stereotype I was looking forward to: the raspy voices (most certainly due to years of heavy smoking), the incredible strumming of the Spanish guitar, the rhythmic clapping, and the melodic improvisation of flamenco singing. Those c

ouple of songs, played to accompany the sunset, were enough to send a chill down my spine, and toy with the idea of quitting my day job in order to sit around these hills, smoke cigars, and learn to play flamenco guitar.Flamenco performers near Alhambra
No one else could wear a mullet and a white turtleneck cutoff and still look as badass as this man right here.

Flamenco Performer near Alhambra One of my favorite things to do in Mexico, or in any place for that matter, is to roam around the local markets. They are full of life and delicious food. I also find that they are a great way to see the people of the city go about their daily routine. I took this picture in Tepotzlan, Mexico around the time of the Day of the Dead. You can see a bushel of marigolds in the foreground of the photograph. These neon orange flowers are prevalent around this time, when people use them to decorate altars and pay homage to those who have passed. Right after I took this shot, the guy in the bright yellow shirt chased me down for a small tip and some friendly flirtation.

Performers in Tepotzlan Mexico MarketJust outside of Vancouver, about an hour or so on bus, you will find Capilano Park, home to the 450 ft long and 240 ft high Capilano Suspension Bridge. When we finished crossing the bridge and exploring the park we noticed a 3 person band getting ready to play. They weren’t buskers in the traditional sense, (look at the name tags) but rather park employees. Nonetheless people gave them tips after they sang some Elvis, Johnny Cash, and other crowd favorites.

Vancouver BuskersBarrio La Boca in Buenos Aires is known for its brightly colored facades, its Italian immigrant population, and a slightly dodgy reputation. If you ignore the obvious tourist traps and souvenir shops, you can almost imagine the immigrants painting the houses bright colors, in order to give life to this rundown part of town. Nowadays it has become somewhat commercial, but you can still enjoy the tango performances at one of the many cafes.

Tango Dancers in La Boca Buenos AiresTango Dancers in Buenos Aires La BocaGrauman’s Chinese Theatre is exactly what you picture it to be, tacky, commercial, over the top, and just a bit uncomfortable. My discomfort is mostly due to an overzealous Elvis impersonator who got a little handsy. Nonetheless there is probably no other place you can see Jack Sparrow, Elvis, Zorro, Spiderman, Minnie Mouse, Jessica Rabbit, and even Chucky (you know the maniacal, homicidal plush toy that made you fearful that your toys would come to life in the middle of the night) all in the same place.

Los Angeles Chinese Theater Olvera Street in Downtown Los Angeles provides quite the contrast to the massive structures that crowd around the business sector. The performers, street vendors, restaurants, and cafes serve as a taste of Mexican culture a small tribute to a community with such a large population in this city. It is small and unassuming, but I tend to love areas such as these. I really enjoyed the fact that I could get a peeled mango on a stick, a massive dulce de leche stuffed churro, and agua de jamaica at one of the nearby vendors. The headdress of the performer below was amazingly massive, and from what I can tell there are many performances such as this one taking place nearby.

Downtown Los Angeles

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New York City and Petanque

by Elena on July 6, 2009

One of the reasons New York City is so unique is because of the conspicuous happenstances you come across everyday. You can see a businessman in heels chasing down a bus, a naked cowboy with a guitar in Times Square, the 6 mile expanse of green smack dab in the middle of a high rising metropolis, or a juggler performing on the side of the FDR Drive and merely chalk it up the the fact that anything, and I mean anything, can happen in New York City.

This past spring I was walking around and taking pictures with a friend of mine. I never got a chance to post them and I wanted to because I think they are so quintessential NYC. Not necessarily momentous, but rather a mundane and casual afternoon.

Washington Square Park finally is opened to the public. All the other times I visited in the past 2 years I had the misfortune to see uninviting gates and fence surrounding the area where I used to roam instead of attending classes. This spring day the park returned to what I remember most about New York City, the way people come together to use the public space, in particular the parks that are always bustling with people playing games, catching some rays, walking their dogs, or going for a stroll.

In the park you will often find a group of men throwing around a metal ball. We decided to ask them the name of the game we had seen many times before but didn’t really understand. One of the guys told us it was a French game named petanque (similar to Italian bocce or English bowls).


The purpose of petanque, played by millions of French in the summer months, is to throw hollow metal balls as close as possible to a wooden ball called the cochonnet. It is often played on a dirt surface which I would imagine provides an appropriate cushion for the metal balls being thrown.

You throw the ball with somewhat of an arc as you can see with the guy below. I thought the cigar in his mouth was an authentic touch, because in my mind I imagine lots of men coming together to play, smoke cigars, talk about sports, and enjoy the good weather and company. But that is my interpretation.

The origin of the games petanque, bocce, and bowls, is said to derive from Ancient Greece and Rome. For a full set of rules on how to play petanque check it out here.

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The Fog In Lima

by Elena on June 28, 2009

The typical tourist route in Peru is to head to Cusco after visiting Lima. Since we only had a little over a week in Peru we decided to do just that. We would spend a few days adjusting to the altitude, as well as enjoying the city. Every guidebook suggests staying a few days in Cusco before doing the trails to Machu Picchu. Please take there warnings seriously. I had an interesting bout of altitude sickness on the trail (more about that later).

Our flight to Cusco was delayed because of a dense fog that descended upon Lima. From what I know about Lima, and what I experienced on most days, is that it is common in the winter for Lima to be covered in fog, especially the closer you get to the water. As usual I’m not exactly looking forward to the flight and a delay just makes the anxiety of waiting that much worse. One of my friends caught me taking a quick nap at the airport.

The flight into Cusco was beautiful. Since Cusco is in the midst of a bunch of mountain ranges, on our descent we passed a few snow capped mountain.

We saw a bunch of advertisements in the airport for oxishot, basically oxygen in a bottle. There was also an oxishot vendor on premises. We decided against buying the oxygen, thinking it was unnecessary, probably a little presumptuous of us. Actually in Cusco it pretty much was unnecessary, since we all didn’t feel too many symptoms from the altitude, however on the Lares Trail I would have been a lot happier if I had one of these bad boys.

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