Bridge and grandkids

This automatically generated recommendation by Facebook is deliciously apt. One of the "activities" listed on my Facebook page is Contract bridge, so Facebook thinks I would also like Grandchildren.

Just the thing to help the ACBL convince more young folks to pick up the game.

Houston, we have a problem

I am doing a delayed blog of my Peru trip because I didn't want would-be burglars to get any ideas. But for those who missed that explanation, it was a shock to see me roaming the weather center or showing up for the weekly club game.

"I know how it ends," remarked K., "it ends with you guys returning home safe."

Ah, yes ... but that happy ending was *this* close to not happening. We returned from Machu Picchu and got on a train as expected, but the van that picked us up at the temporary railway station to take us to Cuzco ran into troubles.

A group of disgruntled Peruvians had called a strike for Thursday and they decided to start flexing their muscle on Wednesday night. They threw tires on the road to Cuzco and started to burn them.

The Peru Rail van drivers got amongst themselves, formed a caravan and took to logging roads to get around the mobs burning up the streets. When we came from Cuzco, we drove on the railway track. I'm sure you can imagine the condition of roads that were discarded in favor of driving on a railway track.

These logging roads were in the mountains, and wide enough for only car. Once, when a big old truck came barreling down the road in the other direction, it took 20 minutes of careful maneuvering to safely cross over. Not completely safe -- it did involve losing the paint job on the van that we were in.

The paint on the side of the van wasn't the worst of it. The roads were full of rocks that'd slid down the mountain sides and if the gravel was too loose, we had get off the van (to lighten its load) so that the driver could get it across. At one point, we had to push the van and while we were pushing it, there was another rock slide! We all scampered and luckily, the rock slide missed us by a dozen feet.

On the positive side, if you are on a remote mountainside in Peru, the sky is full of stars. And the Milky Way earns its name.

Anyhow, we got back to Cuzco at around 2.30 am and caught barely a wink before we had to get back to the airport to get to Lima.

The van driver hushed us and bade us hurry to the van that was parked a block away. We rushed to the van and he quickly took us to a street with heavy military patrols. The army looked like it meant business -- there was going to be no one burning tires on the streets of Cuzco. The army guys looked inside our van before they let into the airport, so we knew the airport was going to be safe.

Since we got up at 4am to climb Wayna Piccu, and then did a bunch of hiking, and had that thrilling ride back to Cuzco, it was an adrenaline-filled 30 hours till we got to the airport in Cuzco.

Ten hours later, though, we were in the good ol' USA. Who knew you could be that happy to be in Houston?

Up Wayna Picchu

We got up at 4am to stand in line with 400 of our closest friends. Only 400 people per day are allowed to climb Wayna Picchu ("young mountain"), the iconic mountain that forms the background of every photograph of Machu Picchu ("old mountain"). They let the first group of hikers in between 7am and 8am and the second group between 10am and 11am.

We signed up for the second group, so that we'd have time to catch the sunrise. The sight of the sun coming up behind the mountains and hitting the valley was pretty amazing. Because this was so close to the winter solstice, we also got to see mirror images in shadows at many places within the ruins (as planned by the Incas, who were sun worshippers).

Machu Picchu is all about the setting. The workmanship in the Cuzco palace of the Sun is much more impressive and the menhir-walls of Sasqawaman much more awe-inspiring. What Machu Picchu has going for it is the sheer gorgeousness of its mountain site. And the fact that it is well preserved -- the Spaniards didn't discover it and so, they didn't blow up the walls as they did to other Inca monuments.

We did hike up Wayna Picchu. Took us an hour up and an hour down. This is the most strenuous hike I've ever done. I've done longer hikes, and hikes where we gained more altitude, but in terms of sheer steepness, this one takes the cake. At least a third of the trail, we were climbing 60-degree inclines. Something I didn't realize -- when a trail is this steep, climbing down is also time-consuming.
And nerve-racking. When we entered the trail, we had to sign in and when we got back down, we had to sign out. They had rangers posted at several particularly steep parts of the trail, so that hikers who paniced (we saw one woman who did) could be helped down. Still, incredibly worth it.

The adrenaline was still pumping when we got down, so two of us (we were a group of 5 who climbed Wayna Picchu) decided to go out and do another trail. This was to an old Inca bridge, which was probably how peasants made it to Machu Picchu in those times.

Impressive, when one thinks of the effort needed to create these trails. We got exhausted just walking them and the ancients went there with primitive tools and chipped away at the rocks to create them! We're such wimps. But then again, we don't have the benefit of coca.

Planes, trains and automobiles

The train ticket read "Cuzco to Machu Picchu". Talk about false advertising.

At the Peru Rail station in Cuzco, they loaded us on to vans and drove us through some rather pretty scenery.
But pretty soon, the good roads went away and we found our van driving on a railroad track. Literally!
Apparently, the roads had been washed away, so they had to take a detour to a temporary railroad station. The train, when we finally got to get on it turned out to be rather nice. Vistadome and everything.
But just as the train didn't quite start at Cuzco, it didn't quite end at Machu Picchu either. The train journey ended in Agua Calientes ("Hot Springs"), a pretty little tourist trap a few miles down the mountain from Machu Picchu ("Old Mountain").
Planes, trains and automobiles to get here. Machu Picchu tomorrow!
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Is this picture worth 30 soles?

There were two Peruvian dishes I really wanted to try. Alpaca, I managed to have on the second day of our trip in Puno. It was wonderfully juicy, but that first meal of alpaca was never equalled. Every other restaurant cooked it like pork, and then, it turned out to be dry and rubbery. So, don't blame me if you go to Peru and decide you don't really care for Alpaca -- you have to be lucky to find a restaurant that cooks it well.

The second dish I wanted to try was "cuy", guinea pig. After a long search, over many days, we finally found a restaurant that did have it on their menu, but we'd gone there for lunch and they said that they'd serve it only for dinner.

After negotiating with the chief cook in the kitchen (she spoke no English, and we spoke no Spanish, so the negotiation was interesting), she agreed to cook us guinea pig if we'd buy the whole animal. Deal!

I asked the cook to pose with the pig, and he was very, very happy to do so. The whole animal turned out to cost 30 soles (about 10 US dollars), but there was little meat on it, so what I really got out of that whole episode was a nice photograph and a good story.
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The bustling navel of Inca civilization

Because I usually get many more Facebook comments on my posts, I think you find these Peru blog posts either too numerous or a bit boring ... but I've started, so I don't want to stop. Instead, I'll wrap these up quickly.

Cuzco, which used to be the Inca's capital, is still a bustling city. We saw lots of artists at work and the local market was full of life.
It is full of Inca monuments, but what remains is only a fraction of what used to be. The Spaniards destroyed the pagan temples and, in many cases, built churches over them. They also dynamited many walls because they believed the walls contained gold or silver. The museums in the city are also incredible, but what blows them all away is the quartet of Inca ruins at Sasqawaman (below). I hope Machu Picchu, to which we are leaving tomorrow, is not a disappointment.

Returning from Sasqawaman, this herd of sheep stopped the van. Very romantic, no?

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The tackiest Jesus statue of them all

I used to think that the gigantic statue of Jesus towering over Rio was unique to that city. Instead, it appears that every mountain town in Latin America has one of those. These two are in Juliaca and La Raya.
The one in Cuzco, though, takes the cake for tackiness because it is right next to Incan ruins at Sasquawaman.

Ruins from Puno to Cuzco

Who would have thought that the bus from Puno to Cuzco would turn out to be one of the most interesting parts of this trip? From pre-inca steps at Pukara to a fort at Raqchi, a colonial church at Andahuillas (built on top of an Inca monument), the journey has been incredible. Chronological too.

And have I mentioned the Peruvian sky? It's blue. Very blue. Really sets off those ruins.
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In the Andes, on Sunday

Sunday in Andean Peru is not a day of rest. Makes for great photographs, though.

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Hard-scrabble, but not ridiculous

Lunch on Saturday was on another island, Taquila, on Lake Tititaca. This island has a Mediterranean island feel to it, down to the grilled trout they served on a patio overlooking the water.
The island is a hard-scrabble kind of place more than 2 hours by boat from Puno. The views are incredible -- this, for example, is the view from a window on one of the villagers' homes.
Because there are no pack animals on the island (why the villagers don't import some, I don't know), everything has to be hauled up on back. Villagers with sacks on their backs quietly stepped around huffing-and-puffing tourists and calmly went on their way. In the sacks? Bottled water and other things that tourists insisted on as they wolfed down the grilled trout.
The young girls on the island had an easier way of earning money. They'd stand by the road, smile for the cameras and collect a sole (about 30c) for their efforts.
The general consensus amongs the tour group was that while Taquila island is gorgeous, the four hour boat-ride to get there and back was a bit over the top. Living on a floating island is oh-so romantic, the thinking goes, but living two hours from civilization is a little ridiculous.
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Inspired, bamboozled and disgusted in Uros

Puno, Peru is 3800m above sea level -- it's one thing to climb a 12,000-ft mountain but it is another completely to stay there. So, the first thing that the hotel offered us when we landed was a cup of coca tea as it is supposed to help altitude sickness.

But coca is a narcotic and while the hot tea was nice, the narcotic left me sleepless and nursing a massive headache all night. The next day, still nursing my headache, we went off on a boat tour of Lake Titicaca, the huge lake on the border of Bolivia and Peru.

Uros is a set of inhabited reed islands. The islanders cut these reeds off the lake bottom, and build up a 3-foot bed of reeds. On that bed, they then build their houses. Pretty awesome.
The islanders supposedly make a living by fishing and weaving. What they really do is to make a living selling trinkets to tourists. Each reed island supports 4 to 5 families and the islands take turns hosting tour boats. Once a tour boat arrives, the islanders do a quick demo, take you inside their homes and let you take pictures wearing their costumes. By then, you are total jelly and they pull out the rugs and reed boats. How does one bargain with people who've opened their homes to you and let you try on their skirts?

I don't know if the tour guide was pulling our leg but he explained that the reed people made their own shampoo. Women apparently collected their husbands' early morning urine, let it sit for several weeks and then used the residue as shampoo. So, when I saw this woman washing her hair, I didn't know what to think.
The job of deciding what to think of women using their husbands' urine as shampoo is hereby delegated to you.

Peru is just Wyoming with alpaca

Friday, we flew into Juliaca, Peru from Lima. From the air, the landscape looks a lot like the Rocky Mountain West:
Juliaca's airport has the coolest baggage claim that I've ever seen. The center of the baggage claim has a scene of a church wedding with dolls in traditional Peruvian clothing all around. There was even a trio of musicians to welcome the plane from Lima/Cuzco.

We drove from Juliaca to Puno, which is on the shores of Lake Titicaca. An island tour tomorrow, but meanwhile, we walked around the city center. Lots of local color, including this absolutely cute mother and child:

We picked a restaurant at random. They had a "tourist menu": soup, entree and dessert for 15 soles (about $5). The soup was quinoa; the entree was an extremely juicy cut of alpaca. Alpaca is a revelation -- lean and juicy at the same time.
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A disappointing start

I refrained from updating this blog while the wife and I were in Peru because ... who wants the grief of being robbed while away?

I'll use my pictures to recreate the trip, trying my best to not let later events influence my posts.

Our trip started rather disappointingly. We flew into Lima and stayed the night in Miraflores -- the posh neighborhood of Lima. We had to leave the next morning for Puno, though, so all we could do was to take a quick walk around in the early morning. It was only when we were on the van headed towards the airport that we realized that if we had stuck with our walk a little more, we'd have at least gotten to see the beach.

Just in case you missed that: we fly into the "gastronomic capital of Latin America" too late to have dinner and fly out too early to experience Lima's Pacific coastline. This is the first time we've ever done a package tour and this is not a good start.

I sure hope the rest of the trip goes better.

An inauthentic bookclub at an inauthentic pub

Friday, four of us met for a "book club" at an English-style pub in Norman. "Book club?", asked one of the wives immediately when her husband told her, "what book are y'all reading?" He had to explain that the "book club" moniker was a joke, dating to when some of the fellows actually had a book club and then had a meeting where they talked about anything and everything except the book they'd ostensibly read. My wife waited until I got back before asking me the same question and getting the same answer.

The pub itself -- Abner's (the city is named after Abner Norman, a railroad engineer) -- is great. Good selection of beers at reasonable costs: for instance, they had Smithwick's and Harp as $3 specials. Plus, the sweet potato fries are heavenly. It's a great addition to the Norman weekend rotation.

But talking about books, the book I'm reading now is
"The Authenticity Hoax" by Andrew Potter, a Ph.D philosopher
(his Ph.D is in really in philosophy: his insurance company is not giving him any discounts). This is one of the books you relish as you read because the arguments are so striking. A couple of examples:
  • On science and religion, he remarks that scientific discoveries alone are not enough to kick us out of the enchanted garden [referring to a world where religion gives us just-so stories to explain the universe] and that religion will play a role in people's lives as long as people accept the idea that religion and science have non-overlapping magisteria. So far, a standard argument. And then, he says the kind of thing that brings you up short because it's so pithy and so true: "For true disenchantment to occur, the scientific method of inquiry must be accepted as the only legitimate form of explanation".
  • On what constitutes a modern sensibility: For Socrates, "self-discovery" just meant coming to terms with where you fitted in the great scheme of things, i.e. "know thyself" really just meant "know thy place". He continues: "The work of Jane Austen is so important precisely because it marks the transition from that world to a more modern sensibility -- most of her stories hinge on her characters' nascent individualism straining against the given roles of the old social order." A few pages later, he rounds off the topic: "No statement of how the world is can, by itself, validate any conclusion about what ought to be the case. We are no longer entitled, for example, to the argument that just because some groups are slaves, slavery is their natural and therefore justified condition".
His neat, well-written arguments advance an argument about what authenticity means and why it's a hoax. The crux of his argument is that the idea of authenticity has fallen victim to what, in philosophy, is called the "Hume's guillotone". We have imbued so much aura around the vague term "authenticity" (does it mean genuine? real? not false?) that we fall into the trap of drawing moral conclusions based merely on the thing being described as authentic. After all, why should the "genuine" article be better than something which has been polished, improved? Is an English-style pub in Norman, OK inauthentic and therefore necessarily snooty and bad? How about holding a book club where no books are discussed? This was interesting reading for me, because I committed this exact logical fallacy just one blog post ago -- after all, why should Dalip Singh Saund (whom I implicitly held up as an authentic Indian-American politician) be therefore morally better than Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley (inauthentic politicians who probably converted to Christianity only so that they could run for election in very conservative states)?

Potter then pivots to a discussion of how the idea of authenticity shoves under the carpet much that was unfair and brutal in pre-modern societies and that the quest of left-wing hippies everywhere to "discover themselves", go on eco tours and fetish everything organic or natural or heirloom actually endangers the earth and rejects the benefits of market-driven, specialized economies. It is at this point that Potter's arguments start to sound over-wrought -- the Buddha promulgated a code of living in a far simpler and lucid way: "Moderation in all things," he said.

That said, "The Authenticity Hoax" is one of those books you should read, not because the overarching argument is novel, but because the minor discussions are so enthralling. It's like taking an eco-vacation, not because the destination is particularly interesting but because the scenery along the trip is awesome.

Politicans casting off an inconvenient faith

If three instances make a trend, I'm waiting for the third Indian-American politician who converts to Christianity so that he can run for electoral office.

Bobby Jindal, born a Hindu ("Piyush Jindal"), converted to Catholicism on his way to being elected governor of Louisiana.

Nikki Haley, born a Sikh ("Nikki Randhawa"), became a Methodist enroute to becoming a State legislator in South Carolina and running for the Republican nomination for governor. The Christianity conversion doesn't seem to have helped her much though -- a couple of political operatives have emerged out of the woodwork claiming to have had extramarital affairs with her ... and now, her opponent's strategy seems to be to brand her a faithless (in the other sense) woman.

The really sad thing is that these are not the first American politicians of Indian descent. That would be Dalip Singh Saund (who didn't change his name or change his religion). He immigrated to the United States in the 1920s and campaigned to let Asian Indians become American citizens (something limited to just people of European descent at the time). It took till 1949 before the law was finally changed and he could become an American citizen. Six years later, he was a Congressman representing a California district; he went on to be re-elected twice.