Another day alone in Cusco

•January 26, 2013 • Leave a Comment

As I’ve mentioned, this is my first time traveling alone. I’ve never been terribly good at being alone; if you know me, you know I talk a mile a minute, and I am very much a social creature. However, I’ve never been good at introducing myself to strangers. Actually I’m terrible at it. It’s one reason I don’t generally go out to clubs, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone at such a place.

Anyway, I had hoped this trip would force me out of this bad habit. Apparently not. I’ve now gone two days without having a real conversation with anyone, and I may be starting to go mad. Don’t get me wrong, I’m having a good time, but I’m also fiending to speak to someone who’s not a shop keeper, in something other than broken Spanish. Tomorrow night I join my G Adventures tour group, so it shouldn’t be too much longer.

So far today the weather has been great, warm and sunny. There are always ominous clouds on the horizon, and it will probably rain at some point, but I’ll enjoy it while it lasts. I walked around the city some more, eventually ending up at the Museo Inca. It is an archeological museum that covers everything from the oldest settlements until the Incas were pretty much entirely wiped out or assimilated by the Spanish. No photography was allowed, so you’ll just have to imagine the clay pottery, woven tapestries, and bronze spear heads for yourself.

3 hours of walking around builds quite an appetite, so it’s time to find some more food fuel. You also can’t walk half a block here without someone giving you a leaflet for a massage parlor, which vary in price from $6-$20 for an hour. I may have to check one out later.

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Alpaca: cuddly and delicious

•January 25, 2013 • Leave a Comment

After waiting out the hail storm by taking a very solid nap, I went out in search of some kind of moderately authentic meal. My previous walkabout had shown me that for every restaurant in Cusco serving local fare, there are 10 serving pizza, pasta, burgers, and every other kind of international food. So before I went out, I loaded up the trusty TripAdvisor app. Very quickly I had zeroed in on a restaurant, and a 20 minute walk got me there. It was closed. Luckily a nearby square had WiFi, so I found another option, only 5 minutes away. It was also closed. At this point my stomach was on the verge off revolt, so I began to quickly scan the menus of nearby restaurants. Finally I found Kushka Fe. Alpaca steak? Check. Clientele speaking Spanish? Check. Sold!

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I ordered the house special Alpaca, served with a creamy mushroom sauce and a side of mashed potatoes. It was tasty, sort of like a thin beef steak, a bit more gamey.

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Next I stopped for a beer at 7 Angelitos, a hole in the wall that advertised that it was classic rock tribute night. Unfortunately I was too early for that, and I lacked the patience and fortitude to drink it out alone until then. So I decided to call it an early night, and give myself the evening to read, and to research some museums to check out tomorrow.

Wandering around Cusco

•January 25, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Let me start off by saying I’ve never traveled alone before, so this is all new to me. Starting Saturday my agenda will be set for me by the tour group, and a good thing too, because I have a tendency to become paralyzed with indecisiveness. But I’m trying to overcome that, so I spent the afternoon wandering the streets of Cusco, with no particular agenda.

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The day started out beautiful, warm, and sunny. I walked to the central area around the Plaza de Armas, which is a gorgeous park surrounded by incredible Spanish churches and less incredible tourist restaurants.

Eventually hunger got the best of me, and after considering the menus of far too many places, I stopped at a simple cafe for a chorizo sandwich and a cappuccino.

Having sustained myself, I ventured back out into the city. The skies promptly opened up. First a drizzle, then a downpour, then a full on hail storm. I don’t really mind rain when it’s warm out, but I was not dressed appropriately, so I scurried back to the hotel to change my clothes and drink a beer.

One does not go to Peru in the rainy season without expecting rain, so it’s fine, just gotta figure out what (indoor) activities to partake in next!

Settling down in Cusco

•January 25, 2013 • Leave a Comment

After a short flight from Lima, I made it to Cusco. Despite being nestled deep in the mountains, it is quite bustling, and I probably could have walked here faster than the taxi could get through the traffic.

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My initial observations on the locals:
-Quechua children are adorable
-Despite it being 80s, sunny, and humid, nobody wears short sleeves
-I may have the only beard in the country. Even the homeless guys are clean shaven.

The Hotel Prisma is fairly basic, but clean, and with friendly staff. Immediately upon arrival I was provided a cup of the traditional coca tea, which is supposed to ward off altitude sickness. Of course I’m also taking the non-traditional diamox pills, so hopefully I’ll be fine.

Anyway, time for me to shower and go explore the city.

On my way to the land of the Inca

•January 25, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I just arrived at the Lima airport in Peru. The 8 hour flight here was one of the easiest I’ve ever taken. A half empty cabin allowed me to stretch out, and I slept for nearly the entire flight, important when flying overnight. Despite departing slightly too late for dinner (11pm) and arriving a little too early for breakfast (7am), we were served both. Cheese tortellini with sides of salad, crackers, brie, and cheesecake made an excellent dinner.

So far my terrible broken Spanish hasn’t been too much of a detriment. Gracias, por favor, agua, and cafe americano have been enough to get me though my limited conversations so far. Thanks, Señora Ovadia!

Anyway, next stop is Cusco, a quaint tourist town high up in the Andes. I have 3 days there to soak it in and do some relaxed sight seeing before the real adventure begins.

Coursera Lecture Grabber

•August 14, 2012 • 2 Comments

Coursera is a great idea. Free online classes from top universities. A talented teenager not being challenged in school can take a math class from Stanford. A stay-at-home parent can get started on a new profession. A shmoe like myself, working in a different field than what he went to school for, can try to close the gap with his CS-major coworkers. Or people who just want to learn something new can survey a variety of topics taught by experts in their fields.

I don’t think online courses can easily replace in-person learning (not that I ever did much of that myself anyway), but that’s not the point here. Rather, Coursera (and similar sites like MIT’s OpenCourseWare) can help to democratize access to higher learning. Anyone with access to a computer has access to unbelievable educational resources.

Of course, in practice self-learning can be very difficult. I’ve never had much self-discipline, and for someone like me I need teachers and deadlines breathing down my neck in order to get my classwork done. But I’m willing to give this online course thing a shot, and it helps that Coursera has a very slick website. I enrolled in the Princeton course “Algorithms, Part I”, which started this past Sunday. So far it seems much more polished and complete than the course offerings I had looked at on MIT’s OpenCourseWare. This course is obviously geared towards the online audience, not just a recording of an in-person course.

In particular I appreciate that the course lectures are high quality MP4 files that are easily downloaded, and not embedded YouTube videos or such. However, each week’s lectures are split into multiple parts, and being the lazy person that I am I did not want to have to remember to log onto the website every Sunday and manually download each video, then copy them over to my phone, tablet, laptop, etc. So I rigged the following bash script, which downloads videos from a Coursera lecture site.

It uses 2 files:
– cookies.txt: a Netscape-style cookies file containing your Coursera login session info (chrome firefox)
– downloaded.txt: keeps track of which lectures have already been downloaded. Will be created if it doesn’t exist.

Make sure to set the variables under “# SETTINGS”, in particular for the course name, the download directory, and the directory containing the cookies.txt and downloaded.txt. I have this set to run weekly from cron and download to my dropbox, so it will automatically sync out to the rest of my devices.

This script could be easily modified to also download lecture slides, by grep-ing for pdf and downloading those as well.

The only caveat with this script is that it depends on the cookies being valid and not expired, so you’ll need to update the cookies file every so often. I started toying with logging in via Perl’s WWW::Mechanize, but didn’t get too far, so I stuck with the simpler solution.

#!/bin/bash
# lecturegrab.sh
# Downloads course lectures from Coursera

# SETTINGS
MYCOURSE='algs4partI-2012-001'
DLDIR="$HOME/Dropbox/Videos"
MYDIR="$HOME/Dropbox/Code/lecturegrab"
COOKIEFILE="$MYDIR/cookies.txt"
HISTORYFILE="$MYDIR/downloaded.txt"

# Check that we can read the cookie file
[ ! -r "${COOKIEFILE}" ] && echo "Error, cannot read ${COOKIEFILE}" && exit 1

# Get the list of all available lectures
VIDS_AVAIL=`wget --load-cookies ${COOKIEFILE} -O - https://class.coursera.org/${MYCOURSE}/lecture/index 2>&1 | grep download.mp4 | sed 's/.*lecture_id=\([0-9]\+\).*/\1/' | tr '\n' ' '`

# Go to our downloads directory, then pull every lecture we don't already have
cd "${DLDIR}"
for i in $VIDS_AVAIL; do
	if ! grep "^$i\$" ${HISTORYFILE}; then
		wget --content-disposition --load-cookies ${COOKIEFILE} "https://class.coursera.org/${MYCOURSE}/lecture/download.mp4?lecture_id=$i"
		echo "$i" >> "${HISTORYFILE}"
	fi
done

Maya-Ik Pulled Chicken Nachos

•July 20, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I must admit, I can be hard to motivate. Oh, sure, I’m great at starting things. But once the initial shininess wears off, I often have trouble following through to the end. Yes, I know this is a common malady, and as a part of the internet generation I am hardly alone in having the attention span of a particularly intelligent goldfish. So when something needs doing, something that requires a long investment without immediate payoff, each of us needs to find ways to motivate ourselves.

Personally, I am motivated by food. I can get myself to do pretty much anything if there’s a delicious meal at the end of it. So when I decided to start running, going to the gym, and just trying to get into shape for the first time of my life, food became a useful tool towards accomplishing my goals.

This takes many forms. Sometimes it’s as simple as glass of chocolate protein milk as a reward for getting my ass to the gym. Seriously, I would have started working out a long time ago if I knew it could be used as an excuse for adults to regularly drink chocolate milk. Other times it means a greasy burger from Shake Shack or Five Guys. But frequently it means cooking myself something tasty.

Usually this happens on the weekend. I go for a late afternoon run, build up a solid appetite, then cook something and ravenously devour it. But when I run after work on a weeknight, I don’t have time to cook something complicated. Last night I went for a great six mile run, while my good friend Ira Glass whispered stories in my ear. During the run, my hunger increasing, I thought about what I could quickly assemble when I got home.

Luckily, I had just received some inspiration earlier that day. A certain friend of mine who shares my love for very flavorful hot sauces had tipped me off to a US distributor of Maya-Ik, a thick green hot sauce from Guatemala that goes great on eggs and pretty much everything. Its tag line is “Make your food come alive!”, which I assume is a reference to some kind of Mayan zombie apocalypse. I immediately ordered 4 bottles of it, and that afternoon the package arrived with my spicy bounty.

So I knew my dish had to include Maya-Ik, and I didn’t want it to be complicated or time-consuming. Obviously I had to make nachos.

Keep in mind that speed and simplicity were top priorities here. Prep was 15 minutes, then another 15 in the oven, then nachos. If I really went all-out, I would make fresh salsa, and include other toppings like beans, sour cream, and green onions. But that can wait for the weekend, on this night I included only the essentials.

Since I didn’t have time for salsa, I went with the next best thing: grape tomatoes. Cut into halves or quarters, they are easily scoopable. Sliced jalapenos are a nachos staple, although you may want to remove the seeds, depending on how masochistic you are. And of course I got a shredded Mexican cheese blend, although cheddar works just as well.

I believe all nachos should include a protein, whether it’s pork, chicken, or beans. I went with chicken, which I cooked on the stove top while prepping the veggies. All it needed was a little bit of salt, pepper, garlic, and olive oil.

Once done, I put it in a bowl and shredded it with two forks.

With my veggies chopped and my chicken shredded, the only thing left was to layer everything and heat it up.

I don’t know about you, but I find the worst part of eating nachos is when the top layer is gone, and you’re down to pretty much a plate of chips. You try to find that one chip with a drop of cheese that managed to escape to the second tier. To avoid this, I double-layered the nachos.

One chicken breast was only enough chicken for the top layer, but the veggies, cheese, and hot sauce were put in both layers.

I slathered these chips in Maya-Ik. No, really, I went through a third of a bottle on this one dish. Depending on what hot sauce you have and how much of a capsaisin connoisseur you are, you may want to use less.

I’m happy to say these chips (along with a cold beer) provided me with quite a bit of motivation to continue getting into shape. Of course, I may have to run a bit further to make up for all that cheese, but one step at a time…

Ingredients

  • 1 boneless skinless chicken breast
  • 1 bag tortilla chips
  • 1/2 container grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
  • 2-3 jalapenos, thinly sliced into rounds (optionally with seeds removed)
  • 4 oz (1/2 bag) shredded Mexican cheese blend (or cheddar)
  • Maya-Ik hot sauce, or another flavorful hot sauce, to taste (I used around 2 tbsp)
  • Salt, pepper, garlic powder, and olive oil

Directions

  1. Put a teaspoon of olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Fully cook the chicken breast (approx 10 minutes). Sprinkle salt, pepper, and garlic powder on both sides.
  2. While the chicken cooks, slice the tomatoes and jalapenos, and pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
  3. When the chicken is done, put it in a bowl and pull it to shreds with two forks.
  4. Layer the ingredients in a square glass baking dish: chips, tomatoes/jalapenos, chicken, hot sauce, cheese. Repeat the layers.
  5. Bake for 15 minutes.
  6. Eat delicious nachos!