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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Living the High Life - Life at Altitude

If you've never been above 2,400 metres (8,000 feet) or so , you may not entirely get that living higher up can be challenging. In fact, some people are affected at elevations as low (relatively speaking) as 1,500m/4,921ft. The ,oxygen is just thinner up at high altitudes and aerobic activity can be hard. 
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Sea level, we know you well!
I noticed it first when we first got to Quito for a visit. Climbing the stairs at the hotel made me breathless. (It was a pretty hotel but nothing so luxurious that it took my breath away, if you know what I mean.) I didn't really notice it when I was walking around, unless I hit a steepish hill or stairs. I was lucky, I didn't get any of the "hangover" symptoms that some people get. (Things like headaches, nausea, lightheadedness etc.) That is, until I got to Cuenca...a city at a lower elevation than Quito, ironically. This type of altitude sickness is more formally called AMS (acute mountain sickness.) There are worse and more deadly types that involve liquid in the lungs and on the brain. These are deadly and best to be avoided. AMS is a good precursor to the others, but isn't necessarily a requirement.
El Panecillo in
Quito - 2,850 metres (9,350 ft)
This is the perversity that is altitude sickness. Just because you don't get it once, doesn't mean you can't get it another time. It also means that if you want to live an active lifestyle you have to be okay with feeling like you can't draw in enough breath. I've learned that even though I feel like I might suffocate, I really won't. I might puff up inclines like the little engine that could, but I still make it up. It's not so bad in Cuenca; stairs still wind me, but I recover a lot faster, but get me up into the Cajas and any incline makes me feel (presumably) asthmatic.  In truth, the higher you get the harder it gets, but I've found that if I can keep putting one foot in front of the other, I'll hit a sweet spot and stop suffering eventually.

Cusco (3,399m/11,200ft)
It's not just that, either...being short of breath. Sometimes, when we come back from being at sea level I get sick (as in nausea and vomit - sorry...I know that's a gross thought) and it wipes me out for two or three days even though I'm only talking to the toilet once, usually in the middle of the night on the day I arrive. It happened the first time I came to Cuenca and it happened again the last time, but there have been at least four times in between that I was fine. You just don't know.
Cuenca - 2,500 metres (8,200 feet)
Mirador Turi (slightly higher than Cuenca)
This last time I was cocky, we ate empanadas for lunch and then had pasta for supper. Not exactly light eating if you know what I mean and I paid the price. You can try to counter balance it or take steps to avoid it.

How to (try to) Avoid AMS:

In the first 12-24 hours it is best to avoid:
          1. ALCOHOL (none, zip, zilch, nada, zero)
          2. Heavy foods, stick to clear liquids like broths, clear juices etc (no, still not alcohol)
          3. Physical activity - keep it to a minimum
(These three rules our are from Jorge, our hotel manager in Cusco.

Oh, and HYDRATE, HYDRATE, HYDRATE! You loose tons of moisture up at altitude, so you'll want to drink lots of water. Fortunately, Cuenca has some of the world's best drinking water, but most other places you'll need to drink bottled water. Most of us don't have enough time to do what really needs to be done to avoid altitude sickness which is only ascending 500m (1,640ft) per 24 hour period.

Peru - the Salkantay Pass
4,630 metres/15,190 ft
Living at high altitude also affects how things cook, including how water boils (it actually boils at a lower temperature, so things cook more slowly), and how cakes and cookies bake. You can't just whip up your favourite batch of chocolate chip cookies without making changes to the recipe. (Which means they may never be the same again, no matter how hard you try.) The good news is that there are lots of sites out there to help you. Just be prepared to make adjustments to those tried and true recipes.
El Cajas - Tres Cruces Summit
This is life at altitude and some people need oxygen and others need to get themselves to a lower altitude ASAP. You can actually die from altitude sickness at it's most extreme, so it's something that you have to be aware of when considering the leap to the stunning Andes. If you want to find out more visit, a nifty site with everything you ever wanted to know about high altitude living, including how long you should cook an egg at your exact altitude.
Huayna Picchu (2,720m/8,920ft)
There are actually benefits to living at high altitude. You tend to lose weight, as your body is working so much harder to get oxygen. Your heart gets stronger (assuming it was originally healthy) and your red blood cells increase and when you go back to sea level physical activity is easier. (At least for the first couple of weeks.) I was much more able to perform in Australia without incident because of my high altitude life. That being said, it's still hard to workout here, but I'm training to improve my cardio performance and am likely in better physical condition now than when I was in my 20's. If that isn't a recommendation, I don't know what is!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Hard to BULK Up in Ecuador

Let's face it, we're a consumer nation, and there's nothing we like better than a "good deal". This concept has spurred on things like buying clubs, IKEA and (of course) Costco. To be right up front, many things in Costco scare me. Have you seen the size of some of the tuna tins? (Ron's parents only wished something like that existed back in the day, what with the 11 kids to raise.) It's given us the idea that bigger is often better: yes the idea of bulk purchasing. 
Now, there's only two of us, but we still bought 20kg bags of rice, 24 roll packs of toilet paper and 3 litre tins of olive oil. Why? Because we knew we'd use it and it was always cheaper in the long run. This leads me to Ecuador - land of the single purchase. You can actually buy a single cigarette from the corner stands. When you go to the pharmacy and are looking for ibuprofen (for example) you can actually buy ONE PILL. It can be challenging to buy the whole packet - at the very least you get a strange look. Heck, I've even seen them hand out single shots of cough medicine. (You can also buy eggs individually.)Toilet paper is the same price whether you buy 4 rolls or 24 - actually sometimes the 24 is more expensive and almost all food items are individually wrapped. When you buy a packet of saltines they come in neat little packages of three crackers. Talk about over packaging!

Single serve pills
So, why? Why is this? It actually comes down to cash flow. Just because 24 of something costs less per unit (in theory), you still need the money to buy the larger quantity and not everyone has that luxury. So the smaller stores sell the smaller individually wrapped packages at maybe a penny or two higher than the big stores sell the multi-unit packages (per unit). Why buy 10 when you can buy 1? (This also applies to instant versus brewed coffee. Instant is cheaper and you don't need extra equipment.)

Tons of tiny instead of one big one
This has been a life lesson for us and it's been very difficult to get our little North American brains wrapped around. It's really hard not to reach for the "family sized" items, but we're getting a handle on it. It's actually so crazy that I've seen restaurateurs buying 50 tiny bottles of soy sauce. (You can't get bulk soy sauce here, at least from what I've seen.) They don't have food distributors like they do in NA. either, they all shop at the mercados and at the big chain grocery stores...can you imagine the nightmare of running a restaurant???
Here, the answer is mainly..."no"
Anyhow, this realization is humbling and, in many ways, simplifies everything. There are no coupons to worry about, sales to chase (at least most of the time) and you buy what you can afford and no more.  That's not to say that there aren't people here with money. Cuenca is actually quite a well off city, but we can learn a lot from people who only operate in cash.

So the next time you're buying your jumbo pack of [fill in the blank], think of me and my Ecuadorian neighbours with our little pack of one.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Perplexing Case of Lost Time

If I had a dollar for every time that someone asked me what we do to fill our days, I'd have at least a hundred bucks. For people with things like full-time jobs, school aged children (or younger - aigh!) and students trying to survive the post secondary education system, the thought of having almost endless free time is pretty mind boggling.
Me lazing around reading
I know. I've been there. I've squished in the house cleaning on a Thursday night so I could go somewhere on a Saturday. I've spent the whole weekend running chores only to find, much to my horror, that it was almost Monday again and I had nothing really to show for my weekend except an extra hour's sleep.
Us taking a break on a rock

So when I'm asked what we do everyday, I say one of two things: "Whatever we want" or "As little as possible." In my mind, this isn't actually true. We still have to clean the house, do the laundry and go to get groceries. Sometimes we have social engagements or Spanish classes to attend, the dentist needs a visit every once in a while and we try and get out every day for a "constitutional". Then there's our gym schedule. We go three times a week - Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We're almost always doing research on our next great trip; as the whole point of this adventure is to get out and see the world. With so much dedication to such things, a nap is usually needed to get us over the midday hump. Sometimes it's a bit overwhelming. (A can hear many of you laughing right now.) 
Yup, sitting on our butts again!
So here's the thing. Humans are adaptable and we adjust to the demands of our lives, more or less. That I find it stressful to have two appointments in one day would have been laughable only a few short years ago, but that's actually how it is now. The luxury of a two hour breakfast is now standard. I sip my coffee, surf the net and before I know it, it's 11 am and I haven't even made the bed yet. My time fills as necessary, things have slowed down and I'm hardly ever in a rush to get something done. (Including the housework, much to Ron's chagrin...he's a disciplined creature who knocks out his chores as soon as they are due and puts me to shame.)
Waiting for the bus to come pick us up
I don't know what happened to time. It still passes rapidly and I'm usually at a loss as to where the day has gone, despite not really having anything to do. (Thursdays are my favourite, as they're "free" days, no chores, no exercise, no anything...just sloth...yes, I'm that lazy.) So this is retirement; this is why retired folks can write letters, hang out in Timmies for endless hours and tell the same stories over and over again; we have nothing better to do. (Okay, there's some retired people out there that never learn to slow down...bless their hearts.)
Yay, retirement!
So while you can't imagine having each and every morning to just whittle away  the hours, I can't imagine having to rush anymore. Two sides of the same coin, you might say. Lord help me if I ever have to go to work again. Have hope, this could be you one day! No time is lost, really, it's just passed quietly.

PS Check out my interview on

And hello Costa Rica, you're officially country 100, followed closely by the Dominican Republic making 101

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Little Blog that Could

The very first picture on this blog
When I first started this blog, it was kind of an exercise in vanity as well as an easy way to keep our family and friends up to speed with what we were up to. We had moved more than 6,000 kilometres away and this was our equivalent to the annual Christmas letter.

Our one time home
That was over 6 years ago and my little blog has expanded into something bigger. It's a place for wannabe expats and first time travelers to get info, as well as a glimpse into the lives of people living abroad, and a place for the fam to see what's going on, where we are and, occasionally, to see what we look like.  (Not to mention, a place to shamelessly flog my books!)
A rare sighting of the black jacketed
Well, as of today, I've had hits from 99 countries (6 of the seven continents)...who knows where the 100th is going to be from! I'm slowly sliding towards 40,000 hits (less than a thousand to go) and am hoping to get there before year end. By no means is this a wildly successful blog, but for what it is, it's doing pretty well.

Home, for now
Despite the world upheaval, some people just want to get a little  peak at someone else's life and we're happy to oblige, no matter how dull it seems in the heat of the moment.

My forever home
So here's to the 100th county, whomever you will be and to the 40,000 reader. Here's to all of you who got us this far and to whatever lies in the future. 

Thank you!