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Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Non-Negotiable Necessities of Travel

It’s that time of the year again – PACKING TIME. At the end of January, I’ll be hopping to Chicago for a few days before my friend Kelli and I head to India for a real life, legit Hindu wedding. (GET READY FOR UPDATES, PEOPLE!)

Preparations for this trip are a little different than normal. 

First of all, I don’t have to cart along every single possession I own. I can leave the bulk of my belongings behind in Cusco, with my lovely partner who will watch over them while silently cursing me for leaving him to jet off to the Taj Mahal.

Secondly, almost as if to add insult to injury, I’m hijacking my partner’s brand new backpack. Why? Because it’s nicer than mine. And it’s smaller. And it looks better. And because we are slowly dissolving the boundaries of what is HIS and what is MINE. (No, seriously. I noticed today that I was wearing his zip-up jacket, and he was wearing MY new sweater. Couple, much??)

As I set to work moving things into their new home today, I stumbled upon a few objects that MUST be in my backpack at all times. These are non-negotiable backpack dwellers, the veritable mayor of Possessions Village. In fact, if I’m caught without these things, I might as well NOT TRAVEL.

Every traveler has these items. And for me, they’re as follows:

Copies of my passport, driver’s license, birth certificate, and itinerary. Now, before you get worried about someone conveniently stumbling upon these items and stealing my identity, hang on. None of these are notarized, so they wouldn’t serve as legal documents if someone were to actually try to PASS as me. Furthermore, these copies are on hand in the event that my PURSE gets stolen in transit. So that way, if I suddenly find myself in a bus station or airport with a freshly missing purse/wallet, I can at least utilize these documents to PROVE that I am who I am as I attempt to sort out the mess, board the flight, or otherwise try to convince a mean-looking official that things are fine and I’m not a criminal.

A shrimp from Nashville, TN. I picked this beaded shrimp up at the Nashville Museum of Art back in 2006 or thereabouts. It lived on my keychain then for approximately five years. The shrimp was then relegated to living on my bookcase in Ohio, but some sort of sorcery occurred between 2011 and 2013, because then I found it during a trip to visit my mother in Tennessee in the summer of 2013. She found it, mailed it to me, and now it comes with me everywhere. Not only has it been a fixture in my everyday belongings (key chain) since 2006, now it holds even more importance, since my boyfriend’s nickname is Camaron (Shrimp). I’ve been carrying Camaron with me for years, without knowing a real life Shrimp was waiting for me! (Did I manifest that without knowing?)

Beaded shrimp doesn't look much like my boyfriend
shrimp, but the meaning is there. 

A rosary from Mexico City, Mexico. In 2008, during a trip through Mexico City, I went to visit the Basilica of Guadalupe, one of the most important religious sites in the city. After visiting the grounds, I passed through the market nearby which was bursting with all sorts of religious relics and Catholic-themed souvenirs. I picked up a small, knotted rosary, which pays homage to my own Catholic roots, and the fact that we can all use a religious symbol on hand, especially when situations get tough. 

Knotty rosary from Mexico City

Emergency items: flashlight, sewing kit, first aid kit, and a hand mirror. If these things aren’t in my backpack, I’ll feel weird on the inside. I haven't used most of these objects, but we all know the minute they AREN’T in my backpack is the second they’ll come in handy. I recommend always having these basic items on hand. Unexpected backpack rips can be trip-stoppers: this happened to me on my way to the airport in October 2014 – horrible long-term tear that came loose at the last second and made my backpack vulnerable to theft and even more damage with luggage handlers. I fixed that baby in 15 minutes flat. Maybe that’s also why I’m taking my boyfriend’s backpack this time; flashlights for unexpected power outages, or rummaging through luggage on dark buses/hostels; and hand mirrors for looking at yourself for the first time in two days after that horrendous journey on bus from southern Chile to northern Argentina.

Each trip has its own special packing list, but these items come with me no matter where I go, no matter the trip.

What things do you guys take with you? Any special amulets or good luck charms? Any bizarre packing must-haves? 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

5 Things I Didn't Know About High-Altitude Living

A little over two months into Cusco, I can say with certainty that life at 11,200 feet comes with its own set of peculiarities. This isn’t the highest up we’ve ever been – Jorge and I had the pleasure of visiting Potosi, Bolivia once, the highest inhabited city in the world at 13,400 feet. But that was just for a couple days, and we were happy to get out of there and to lower climes. Here are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned at 11,000 feet:

1.) Cooking is a different experience. Have you guys ever noticed the separate cooking instructions for high-altitude locations on every box of pasta in history? I used to, and never thought much of it. I remember inquiring about this – why would the instructions differ at a higher elevation? – and was provided with the accurate scientific response that I have long since forgotten. (Doesn’t it all just boil down to ATOMS?) I conveniently forgot about this as Jorge and I settled into Cusco. The first several occasions we cooked pasta or rice, we spent an inordinate amount of time checking and re-checking the food. Why was it still so HARD? Hasn’t it been 7-9 minutes? Really it’s been almost 15 minutes…How can it not be ready yet? Oh yeah. HIGH-ALTITUDE.

See that arrow? It means something.

2.) Hangovers reach a new level of raunchy. There must be some scientific explanation for this – dehydration occurs faster where there’s less oxygen because red blood cells need 1.5% of something and up here there’s only 0.1% and then oh yeah, MAGIC. Whatever the reason, I’m ashamed to admit that I once had a hangover once until 4PM after 3 (THREE) glasses of wine throughout the course of a very laid back—and LENGTHY--evening with friends. And it’s not because I’m almost thirty (even if it was strictly due to my age, it would still be an EMBARASSMENT). Be careful folks. Alcohol up here takes a different toll on the body. And you know why? It’s because of HIGH ALTITUDE.

3.) Moving around is more difficult. If your body is one of those randomly selected organisms that will be sensitive to high-altitude issues, surprise! Most things will suck. Unfortunately this has nothing to do with physical fitness, it’s just pure luck (or unluckiness). Visiting Potosi was by far the WORST – I got out of breath just brushing my teeth. In Cusco it’s not nearly as bad, especially since we’ve had ample time to acclimate, but a few aspects still stick out. If you’ll all remember, I used to live in Valparaiso which had comically steep streets that seemed, oftentimes, like a joke. Who would actually build a city so vertical, a city where most neighborhoods relied on ascensores just to get their groceries home? Well, Cusco has its fair share of inclines and hills, but it’s got nothing on Valpo. Which makes me feel particularly bad when I find myself out of breath here in Cusco after traversing a very minimal incline. And yes, that incline would be the equivalent of walking downhill in Valpo, but here? Steals your breath a little. Makes you feel pretty ridiculous until you remember OH YEAH…HIGH ALTITUDE.

4.) Thunderstorms aren’t just thunderstorms anymore. They are a full-body experience that gets you right into the middle of the storm cell, WITH NO FORGIVENESS. Plus, being this high up, you get the added benefit of strange snow-hail storms. In the middle of summer. Because it’s HIGH ALTITUDE!

5.) It’s pretty much always cold. I’ll go more into my geographic/weather pattern duncery in another post, but this high up, the extremes are more extreme. If the sun does come out in the middle of the day (which doesn’t always happen, not even in ‘summer’), it will be very hot, and you WILL get burnt. But then at night, you will need five blankets and a pair of alpaca booties and MAYBE THEN the only frozen item on your body will be your nose. For god’s sake, the alpacas here wear goggles and sometimes actual CLOTHING. That’s gotta tell you something…something like HIGH ALTITUDE!

Hey, Mr. Alpaca...can we borrow some of that fluff?
Maybe for some traditional hats and sweaters?

There have been some other strange things going on around here too, though I can’t be sure if they’re related to the elevation or not. Either way, it seems safe to blame it on the altitude. 

Is your boyfriend shedding chest hair at an unprecedented rate? Probably the altitude.  Does your tap water come out feeling like the literal refuse of a glacier? Might be the high altitude. Are people eating oven-roasted hamsters as a delicacy? Could also be the altitude. Are you suffering from painfully glorious mountain views nearly every moment of the day? The altitude may very well be the culprit. Have you recently scaled a mountain to reach a city that ancient people thought was a great idea to stick all the way up there? Now that one is DEFINITELY the altitude!

(Editor's Note: I began writing this post when the sun was out in full force and I thought I might be able to take a trip to the market in my tank top, to get a little tanning in. It is now snow-hailing, and some of it is coming through our skylights, where it sits melting on our floor. A little message from the gods. High Altitude!)