A Culinary Tour of the Southern Cone – Part I

Everybody loves food, and even better to write about food is to show it! Now in Bolivia, we have completed our tour of the southern cone (which to me means Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay – but we visited Paraguay as well, so I’m just going to include it here). Given the length of time we spent and the variety of delicious foods, Argentina will just have to occupy its own forthcoming post (which will do little to diminish their ever-present vanity for all things Argentine).

Thus, a sampling of what we ate in Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay:

Chile

Pino empanadas – beef, a hard boiled egg, and an olive. A Chilean classic!

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The most famous of the famous Chilean sandwiches, the Chacarero. Along with half a jar of mayonnaise, the base is thinly sliced beef, fresh green beans, and spicy peppers. Best paired with aji, a delicious and salty Chilean hot sauce. It usually as big as your head, unless you have a really big head. We shared this one at supposedly the best chacarero place in Chile, Fuente Alemana

02-IMG_2086-001Another famous Chilean speciality – the completo! A hot dog, or in this case two hot dogs, smothered in yet more mayonnaise, cheese, vegetables, and various other toppings. This was purchased from the also famous Sibaritico in Vina del Mar, where Anthony Bourdain even got one once. They also make their own mayonnaise there, so Hellman’s lost some business on that one.

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Cuddly guanacos, a llama cousin, make for great photo opportunities, but also fit nicely on a plate.

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Curanto is a seafood medley encompassing clams, mussels and multiple varieties of fish, in addition to various meats and potatoes, all cooked in a hole in the ground. The tinfoil did not taste as good as the rest.

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Churros! Need I say more?

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Uruguay

Confusingly, the Southern Cone at one point ran out of food words, and starting using the same phrases in different countries to describe completely different things. Thus while Lomito refers to pork in Chile, in Uruguay it serves as the national beef-based sandwich, competing with the Argentine Milanesa and Chilean Chacarerro alike. Simple but with tender meat, Uruguay in our opinion takes home a well-deserved second place in the regional sandwich game (but don’t tell the third place Argentines that!)

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While in Chile a large hot dog with everything you could imagine on it is a completo, in Uruguay it’s a pancho – both ertain the ratio of a kilo of mayonnaise per hot dog.

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Uruguay also does up its Sunday bbqs – in this case we got a pizza chicken, or literally cheese and sauce atop a grilled piece of chicken.
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Paraguay

Poor Paraguay is often overlooked, but it does has some specialties of its own commonly found on the street, such as a food drink salad and chipa guasu (i.e. Paraguay cornbread).

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If you ever find yourself lost in the chaos of the markets of Ciudad del Este, take a deep breath, walk west, and don’t stop until you hit a Quiero Fruta. While juices are found everywhere in all four countries, this stand has it going on.

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Meat is just often so much better when grilled on the side of the street. Throw in some yuca too for girth.

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And of course, don’t forget that you can get an entire chicken meal for a few bucks!

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Patagonia by the Numbers

As of April 26, 2015 (yes, I know I am slow in disseminating information, but I am typing all of this on my flip phone), we are done hiking! Forever! After 16 days in Patagonia, we are finally leaving the region, prepping for a 28-hour bus journey to the town to Trelew (which is still technically in Argentine Patagonia, but considered distinct for the purposes of this post – yes, I have the power to redraw ill-defined subnational boundaries through the words of this blog, I bet you didn’t even realize that. Maybe you’ll be nicer to me now. Maybe).

After countless beautiful lookout spots combined with a similar illimitable number of wet and stinky socks, we are officially putting Patagonia in the books.

Not too shabby

Not too shabby

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By the numbers:

  • Days in the Patagonia region: 16
  • Countries involved: 2 (Chile and Argentina)
  • Major spots visited: 4 (Puerto Nataltes in Chile, and Ushuaia, El Calafate, and El Chalten in Argentina)
  • Minor spots visited: 2 (Punta Arenas [Chile] and Rio Gallegos [Argentina] – mainly transit)
  • National Parks
    • Parque Torres del Paine (Chile)
    • Parque Los Glacieries (Argentina)
  • Kilometers traveled by bus: 3,815 (2,370 miles)
  • Hours spent on a bus: 67 (2.79 days)
  • Total days actually hiking: 8
    • 5 day-long hikes (7 hours or longer)
    • 3 half-day hikes (approx. 3-4 hours)
  • Kilometers hiked: 128 (80 miles)
  • Number of kilometers covered when Christine first voiced a desire to give up: 0.75
  • Number of glaciers sighted: 3
  • Number of glaciers walked on: 1
  • Number of rainy days: 2 (not bad for 16 days in Patagonia!)
  • Number of hikes for which the cheapest ‘waterproof’ shoes I could find at Sports Authority remained waterproof: 5
  • Pounds lost: 11
  • Peanut butter & Nutella sandwiches consumed: 33
  • Guancos befriended: 4.7
  • Guancos that reciprocated friendship: -2
  • Money spent: Hey that’s personal (but less than 3 bit coins)
  • Sasquatches sighted: 2
  • Sasquatches caught: 0 (including on camera)
  • Amount of times we will recommend Patagonia to the masses in the future: Infinite
  • Amount of times we will recommend Patagonia without waterproof shoes and on only two pairs of socks to the masses in the future: 0

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150 Minutes in Punta Arenas

Welcome to Punta Arenas!

Welcome to Punta Arenas!

In the Antarctica region!

In the Antarctica region!

On 10 April 2015, we flew into Punta Arenas with the aim of heading straight Puerto Natales (where we would start our Patagonia hike). Despite previous attempts, we were unable to book a bus directly from the airport to Puerto Natales, and thus were forced to take a bus into Punta Arenas town and try our luck at one of four bus stations there that service the frequently touristed route. To our dismay, we got one of the bus stations at 1:30 hoping to board the next one, at 2:30. Unfortunately luck was not on our side and they, in addition to all other stations in town, were sold out until 18:30 – apparently the ‘low’ season for Patagonia still equates into a decent amount of traffic. So what to do when stuck in Punta Arenas for the afternoon, a situation that many of us face at some point in our lives (some even daily)? Well, take our soon-to-be patented 150-minute tour of the city of course!

Punta Arenas is really south, like the way deep south. In fact in Chile, aside from some smaller population centers on the island of Tierra del Fuego its the most southern city of decent size, and the capital of the Magellenes and Antarctica region (yes Antarctica, it’s that far south). Looking at how far south it was on a map was enough for me to be astonished walking around – not so much for Christine. Thus we picked up a handy little map of the city, and set out on an improvisational walking tour, taking in all Punta Arenas had to offer.

a lovely park/marshland

a lovely park/marshland

The city itself lies right on the water, stretching up hill the further north to go, and despite its walkability it actually bursts at the seams at either end (who lives here and why? what do they do all day and during the winter? Do they ever hunt for seals and accidently stab themselves in the toe? All valid questions our tour unfortunately did not answer). In addition, on the map were many green spaces which I interpreted as parks – we quickly found them rather to be random expanses of barren marshland. Still adds a nice touch.

Our bus station was fortunately centrally located, so we started by heading down to the main square, or the Plaza Munoz Gamero. There was a tourist office there that was conveniently closed, while the monument on the middle, on Magellenes street was, you guessed, none other than Magellan himself, commemorating his trip around Tierra del Fuego in the 1500s. Otherwise of note, there was a cathedral and old Spanish-colonial type building hugging the wide plaza lanes, given it a distinctive historic Latin American town feel, despite its relatively recent roots (mid 1800s) and extreme distance from anything decent.

Our favorite Magellan!

Our favorite Magellan!

Church at main square

Church at main square

Main square

Main square

When in doubt, head north. We decided to do as much, where the city rises in elevation a bit. Walking up some steps to another monument of sorts for the Selknam people, an apparently extinct ethnic group that dressed up in really scary costumes a la something out of True Detective (Chile is really proud of these folks despite their current non-existence with paintings of them everywhere). Regardless of the impetus for this monument, it provided great views of Punta Arenas down to the coast.

Selknam people tribute

Selknam people tribute

Punta Arenas view

Punta Arenas view

From there we continued to walk north a bit through largely residential areas until we could walk no longer – the start of what we had assumed was a park began. In reality it was a large concrete wall we could not see over the top of. Continuing down it, eventually someone had broken it at one point low enough to serve as a vantage point, where we realized it was not a part at all but more of that barren marshland in the middle of the city. Though there was a large lagoon, that our map told us serves as an ice skating rink (luckily not right now though).

Heading east across the upper part of town, we continued through a weird park of sorts and past a university. Not too much happens here at 15:00 on a Friday afternoon, but then again people mostly stay inside and wonder why they live here (it was probably high 40s, not bad until the wind hits, but its hits often).

Eventually we headed back to the lower parts of the town and came across a series of structures decided to Croatia of all places. The Punta Arenas-Croatian connection is apparently strong, a point to which these monuments in prime real estate in the middle of town attested towards. Some say up to 50% of Punta Arenas-ans derive from Croatians who largely came over in the early 19th century (in fact, Chile actually serves as the largest center of Croatians outside of the Balkans itself, with most settling in the northern and southern extremes of the country).

Croatian monuments

Croatian monuments

Another monument to the Croatians

Another monument to the Croatians

Continuing on this path, we hit up the local cemetery – perhaps an odd place to visit for the non-devil worshippers among us, but the cemetery in Punta Arenas is apparently renown for its intricate and diverse grave sites. Ranging from tall house-sized structures hosting entire families to more simple apartment-style final resting spots, the cemetery hosts deceased from a range of ethnic family names, a testament to the diverse origins of Punta Arenas’ inhabitants. A great number of gravestones from the 1920s and 30s were in English, while of course we found a row of just Croatian names. The layout itself is well preserved, becoming an attraction, albeit a slightly odd one, in its own right.

Cemetery

Cemetery

Cemetery so big it has its own street names

Cemetery so big it has its own street names

Continuing after the cemetery we came across the Maria Auxiliary church, a massive structure. It just so happened to be directly after a funeral, with the church bell ringing out and a procession heading towards the cemetery from once we had just come.

Mariam Auxiliary Church

Mariam Auxiliary Church

Funeral procession

Funeral procession

The church led us back to down town, so we made a beeline south for the coast, where we passed across a Croatian school on Croatia street (this is really getting weird).

Croatia school . . .

Croatia school . . .

On Croatia street . . .

On Croatia street . . .

The coast itself is hugged by a highway, but has a little bit of a beach and even some prime basketball and skate parks. Another monument or two to Magellan is present, while the road continues to the port where we saw a cruise ship in the distance (not sure if they cruise inhabitants were thrilled with the exotically cold locations serviced by their ostensibly discount cruise ticket likely purchased on Craig’s List).

Just another ol' Magellan tribute

Just another ol’ Magellan tribute

Heading back north away from the coast through the center of town leads to another monument or two, until you hit up the main square area once again, and the road with all the bus stations. But the tour doesn’t have to stop there, as no trip is complete without some local delicacies. The town itself comes alive at 5pm, almost instantaneously, transforming itself from a desolate and depressing Siberian output back into an animated Latin American city in mere minutes. Drummers came out, kiosks were set up, and the churros showed up.

Patagonia Churros to be exact, freshly made and filled with dulche de leche cream. Four for 1,200 Chilean pesos (50 cents each) from a locally renown lady. A fitting but messy way to end our makeshift tour of Punta Arenas and 150 minutes well spent (note: I spent the next 150 minutes washing dulche de leche cream off my body). So next time you get stranded for hours in Punta Arenas thinking there’s nothing to do in this remote outpost town, think again and take our 150-minute city walking tour (and yes I will be trademarking this in an attempt to charge royalties every time someone in Punta Arenas walks outside, anywhere)!

Churros by Rio de las Minas

Churros by Rio de las Minas

Patagonia Churros!

Patagonia Churros!

Biking (Mis)Adventures in Middle Chile

One day while in Puerto Varas (a town in the lake region of Chile), Christine said something that shocked me to my core, words I will never forget and probably never get over.

“I think tomorrow we should bike to Frutillar.”

And just like that, lives were changed.

You see, Christine not only intensely hates biking, she is also awful at it, to the point where I and every decent human being alive worry for her safety every time she so much as look as a bicycle (not to mention her lack of tricycle skills). Such inadequacies have prevented us from renting bikes in a number of exotic locales, forcing us to while away at sidestreet cafes, as the world rides by. I am not much one to talk, however, as I can barely ride a bike myself. But that ‘barely’ is what sets us apart by leaps and bounds.

A convincing impression of a biker

A convincing impression of a biker

At any rate, we were staying in Puerto Varas and our day trip options were limited to biking, taking an expensive tour to the volcano (but you cannot get in it or sacrifice goats there, I asked), or kayaking (our usual option of choice, but again we were influenced by high price dynamics, and the water was quite cold). Thus biking seemed to be the most economical choice, and in situations like these (i.e. life), the most economical choice tends to win out, even if it comes to the detriment of our own health.

As for Puerto Varas itself, its a nice little town situated in the shores of Lake Llanique, with two volcanoes in its midst. Quite popular with the tourists, Puerto Varas has developed downtown area (area might be a stretch, maybe more like a 1×1.5 block) of accompanying infrastructure, replete with Patagonia, North Face, Rockford, and more outdoor gear shops. Frutillar on the other hand, was supposed to be a pleasant smaller town a short distance away, still well-off and touristic in its own right, but stripped of some of the externally-influenced comforts found in Puerto Varas.

The oft-covered Osorno volcano, seen from Frutillar

The oft-covered Osorno volcano, seen from Frutillar

Furthermore, many a Germanic folk have settled into this area of central Chile (prior to WWII, diminishing my hopes of starring in a Chilean Nazi hunting reality show), and Frutillar in particular was supposed to have retained much of its ‘Germanic roots,’ more than any of the surroundings areas. So in short, it would make a nice day trip destination from the ‘hustle’ of Puerto Varas, and serve as an interestingly cultural anomaly (though I guess it’s not really so much of an anomaly, as one Chilean worker we met along the bike ride would explain, “all the foreigners [i.e. Europeans] came here and bought the good land, leaving the rest of us with little,” – a similar story the world over).

So the main question of how to get there had been decided, surprisingly by Christine of all people. We visited a few bike rental places before deciding on the one that happened to be in front of us at the time of our decision, and reserved two mountain bikes for the next day. The bike shop employee assured us that we could do the trip and back in six hours (2 hours each way), the maximum amount you could rent the bikes until you were charged for the whole day, increasing the price by 50%. The scenic trip was supposed to be 25km there and 25km back, though there was a shortcut as well. Piece of cake (or kuchen) I figured.

Frutillar? or Germany?

Frutillar? or Germany?

Thinking about cake

Thinking about cake

The next morning we showed up at 9:30 to claim our bikes. The same bike employee gave us a helmet, lock, pump and flat tire gear (I feigned like I knew what I would do with such materials if the situation arose). He took us outside and pointed to the bikes we could use. I took mine out and was unable to adjust the seat; the latch literally didn’t budge at all. That was the point where the bike employee may have realized we were in over our heads here – he showed me how to do it with a quizzical look on his face, then also pointed out that on the makeshift laminated map he had given us, his cell phone number was written there in case we had any trouble – something I gathered he did not specifically point out to the majority of his clientele.

The path was supposed to be some sort of trail that eventually intersected with a backroad shared by man-powered vehicles, but only for a bit. To the north of town are railroad tracks (that I assume are now abandoned, but am not quite sure) – we were to ride along those to start out. We were given mountain bikes, but it was not necessarily to be a mountain biking trip. Or so we assumed.

We made it to the railroad tracks, where alongside it was a thin line filled with thick rocks. Describing it as a trail would be generous, I’d say it was more like a series of skinny jeans-thin areas where rocks were just too tired to pile on each other as high as they had next to it. Tall grass bounded the other side opposite the railroad tracks, so it really was a contained space. We started out by barely avoiding biting it on a number of occasions. We were unsure of if all 25km were going to be like this at this point – we nearly turned around and gave up less than 1km into the journey. But we preserved and made it out after a few treacherous (to us) kilometers, revealing both a sense of accomplishment but also the extremely limited nature of our biking abilities.

After coming onto the trail for a bit, we were supposed to just hug the coast, as the map depicted and eventually wind up in Frutillar. The bike employee confirmed as much, providing little further details on the route, a sense of calm that eased any anxieties we had about getting lost. Nonetheless, after hugging the coast as much as possible, the trail ran right into a thick black sand beach that ended at a grassy field with no worn areas. Probably less than 5km into the trip and we were already lost. A few other odd turns here and there, trying to stay on the coast as much as possible, forced us to back track a bit and confused us greatly.

Chileans, however, are nice people. While stopped at one point and looking at our pointless map, which told us to be next to the water while we were staring at a highway, one young man felt pity for our plight and pulled over in his car. He explained this was the route to Frutillar – the ‘trail’ of sorts was no more, we had to go onto this main road a bit before turning off to another side, but paved road.

While I generally like biking, I hate biking with cars. At the end of the day you are basically trusting other people not to run you over, and I just don’t trust other people at that mass of a rate. Not only that, but this was essentially a small highway, with minbuses and trucks plying down as decent speeds. A mountain trail indeed.

Taking out rented bikes out for a walk

Taking out rented bikes out for a walk

We sucked it up and went down the highway, hugging the right side of the lane as much as possible. After some more confusion we found the backroad to turn onto, which led us back onto the coast. There was still traffic on this road, but significantly reduced. What we were not prepared for, however, was the amount of elevation changes – very steep hills that proved impossible to bike up and intimidating to bike down (Christine even walked her bike down most of them, not even taking advantage of the free speed).

We had been on the road probably about an hour and a half at this point – given the bike employees estimated of 2-2.5 hours (revised a bit once he realized we were small time), I figured we were well on our way. I shortly saw a sign though, telling us Frutillar was 18km away, meaning we had only made it about 7km! It couldn’t be right, but we kept chugging along the road – myself getting quite far ahead of Christine to the point were we could not see each other most of the time, and then stopping every other kilometer to have her catch up. Not really a fun shared experience.

At one point, after a number of steep seemingly mostly up hills, we came to a fork in a road. Both led to Frutillar, and the more gravel path was likely the shortcut the bike employee had filled us in on. He said normally it was unusable, but as it rained last night we could bike on the gravel. That was supposed to be 5km, but it started up hill. The longer path went by the coast for picturesque water scenes. It was along a paved road and began downhill. It was unclear how far it was, but I figured we had already biked a ton by now, we must be close. Opting for the short-term option, we headed right on the paved road, for what turned out to be a short down hill followed by some serious up hill climbs and nearly 15 more kilometers of biking action.

At any rate, we eventually made it to Frutillar, exhausted. We were around 3.5 hours, well over the maximum limit the biker employee had estimated. The other issue probably was there was no way that we could make it back with the bikes in the six hour time frame, meaning the price had just gone up – nor were we even sure given our limited biking experience if it was even physically possible to make it back. I toyed around with the idea of living on the lam with the bikes in Frutillar for the rest of our days, seemingly solving both problems of avoiding the increased bike price and having to make it back to Puerto Varas. While it was seriously pondered for a quick minute, ultimately we shot the idea down.

Success in Frutillar!

Success in Frutillar!

Regardless, we had made it to Frutillar and were starving, so might as well rest and enjoy our time here. It really was a picturesque little town right on the water with a volcano in the distance. The Germanic roots were in full display, via the architecture of the buildings aligning the street and limitless places offering kuchen (an cheesy cake type thing) for dessert. Of course that was all in Bajo Frutillar (lower) along the lake side, the rest of the town up above was more traditional Chilean and less touristy (as our Chilean friend on the trail had informed us).

Frutillar's main drag

Frutillar’s main drag

In fact the bike ride itself, as treacherous as it may have been at times, was beautiful as well. For the majority of the time the lake was present on the right side, with mountains and volcanoes in the distance, while large farms full of free range cows and chickens dotted the landscape on the left. Part of the inspirational statement for us of the journey to Frutillar being a “pretty little bike ride” provided accurate indeed.

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After deciding to splurge and go to a semi-fancy place for their meal of the day (a stuffed tomato followed by fettuccini fresh seafood pasta and a flan-like substance for desert), we pondered our options as the reality of having to make it back to Puerto Varas began to set in. Maybe if we took the shortcut it would cut down the time a bit despite the gravel, but Puerto Varas still seemed eons away. In addition, I was sure we had biked more than the advertised 25km – all the road signs along the way telling us the distance of places did not add up with that figure in mind. So it likely meant at least another 30 km or so to return, a daunting task (for us with limited athletic capabilities).

Wussing out in action

Wussing out in action

There was public transport available, minibuses back to Puerto Varas – a possibility, but Christine did not think we’d be able to take our bike on as there was no bike racks and people didn’t really pile luggage on top of the vehicles here. So we had dismissed that option, but the bus stop was literally next to the restaurant we ate at, and upon exiting we saw a bus getting ready to leave with a sign for Puerto Varas. Might as well ask we figured, as we walked up somewhat dejectedly to the man in charge. He likely had no idea the impact his next words would have on us, when he said it would be easy to fit the bikes in if we took off the wheel, at double the ticket price. At that point, economics had gone out the window!

So we totally wused out, loaded up our bikes, and took the public bus back. There was still the possibility of making it back to the bike office before 5pm when it reopened after its five hour siesta (yes five hours, literally everything in that town closes from 12pm to 5pm), and thus avoid recognition of our stray into the more than six hour rental period. The transport took a while however and we didn’t make it in time, but luckily the bike employee took additional pity on us (a common theme) when I told him we had to take a transport rather than bike back, and didn’t charge us the extra fee.

In short, the attractive ‘biking to Frutillar option’ proved to be a pretty “little” bike ride indeed, and a good way to realize we should probably never bike again. It was a nice day all together though, while the fact that we are still alive is rather encouraging as well.

Graffiti in Valparaiso!

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A few days into our travels through Santiago and Valparaiso I came to realize two things – all stray dogs in Chile must sleep a government-mandated 27 hours per day, with extra credit going to those who choose the most inconvenient locations possible to humans, and that there is a thriving graffiti art scene in the country. Now, normally I don’t really get “art,” and much of the “art” Chile was no different. Against my better judgment Christine and I visited the Bellas Artes (Fine Art Museum) in Santiago (because it was free and literally a two minute walk from the abode of our gracious hosts) – about 200+ paintings of really old people from the 1800s that all looked the same later, I reaffirmed my lifelong plans to not visit an art museum in every country of the world.

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Exhibits A, B, C, and D of infiniti

The omnipresent graffiti, however, was different. While I probably still did not ‘get’ it (with much of it originating as a form of political resistance, especially during the Pinochet dictatorship), perhaps due to a childhood love of colorful cartoons that defined America (i.e. Animaniacs and Where’s Waldo), I did enjoy checking it all out.

Particularly in Valparaiso, the culturally vibrant coastal city about 125km from Santiago, graffiti adorns public spaces. Concentrated in the center tourist district but present throughout the city, some of it is even created in collaboration with the local municipal government as a means of beautifying otherwise boring old walls. At any rate, spread out amongst rolling hills that make up the city, this sort of “art” generally was pleasing enough to me that I actually took some pictures of it. Enjoy!

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Windy & hilly Valparaiso road

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Old people sleep almost as much as the dogs

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Tall grafitti

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This guy’s nose blows smoke

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I named this fish Mr. Squiggles. He did not respond to that name.

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Not my decision to take (and post) a picture of a cat

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Completely my decision to take and post this picture

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This one is famous apparently

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These monkeys later sold me some magic beans

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What my head felt like after the magic beans