Raqchi Ruins

We took a trip to the Raqchi archaeological site a while back. The site is about a 2 hour drive from Cusco, tour buses which take you on an excursion from Cusco to Lake Titicaca or Arequipa sometimes stop in Raqchi but overall it’s a pretty quiet site. Much of the ruins appear to be reconstructed but I like going to places like this because it gives you a glimpse of what life in the Inca empire could have been like. By the way, a good part of what you see in Machu Picchu today is also restored, as you can tell by the pictures from the Hiram Bingham expedition.

Educate Me

Note to self: delete this post before kids reach university age.

I walk about 5 blocks every morning to get our car out of a garage (the parking lot by our house is still not finished). My walk takes me along the back of the main public university in Cusco, the UNSAAC.

The sidewalks behind the university are full of students rushing into their early morning classes. They say looks are deceiving but you can sort of tell the serious academic students from the cool kids and the fashionistas, the privileged kids from the ones who work their way through school. There are 15-year olds who are in university 2 years early because their parents obsessed about studies and there are 20-something career students. Some are happy, some look sad, at 7:00am young kids don’t have their guards up so much, they’re like open books rushing into the university.

One girl was walking while reading a book, getting a quick last minute of study time on her way to class.

“Poor girl” I thought to myself. “So worried to study some useless cr*p at 7:00am on a Monday.”

It was just a subconscious thought, not to be mean to her. However, I do wonder, as university education has become more and more popular have the academics been watered down and traditional liberal arts been replaced by cramming useless stuff?

You can describe pretty much any university course nowadays as “How to survive in your parents’ world, part XX of 250″ (or however many credit hours there are nowadays.)

Think about it. Go all the way back in the vaults of your alma mater to, say, the year 2005 and see how many thesis you’ll find in the computer science department on “application programming for Smartphones“. Or how many papers you’d find in the Economics section on “The orderly exit of a Eurozone member because you know some day it will happen.” Or look in the political science department for papers about the normalization of US Cuba relations, or the risk of civil war due to foreign geopolitical influence in the Ukraine.

These are all significant events in our time but 10 years ago barely a university would have touched on them. However, I bet you’ll find loads of papers in the 2005 computer science class on “Transitioning your corporate IT system to Windows Vista”.

We’re bad about predicting the future, so I think universities should teach less stuff that will be obsolete by the time the kids get their second or third job. Don’t cram useless stuff, rather teach these kids to ask questions, especially in a so called developing economy like Peru. Where are we going? What is really valuable in life? Why is traffic so dangerous here? What can we do about public transportation? Why don’t kids in small towns have decent schools? If 2 million tourists come to Machu Picchu every year and each spends a $1,000 where does that 2 billion US$ go? Why does a patient have to fly from Cusco to Lima for a fairly routine medical operation?

I don’t know the answers but somebody bigger than me should be asking.

A`ma nu-na nicho

Happy Monday! I don’t have a 9-to-5 job and I don’t have a commute so Monday mornings aren’t a big thing for me. In fact, I should admit I kind of like having the kids back in school on Mondays, I can sip my Peruvian coffee and quietly muse about work and life after a hard weekend of running around with the little munchkins.

But for those of you dreading Monday mornings at work I’ve got a handy Quechua word for you. Should someone at work ask you to do some useless thing that you don’t want to do this beautiful Monday morning, just reply:

A`ma nu-na nicho!

In Quechua: “I don’t want to”.

I don’t know if the spelling is correct because most Quechua speakers in Peru don’t read or write in Quechua, they only speak Quechua. I asked our maid – who’s fluent in Quechua – how to spell A`ma nu-na nicho but she doesn’t know. I don’t know if this is a throwback to the Inca culture, which did not have written word as we know it, rather, the Inca’s great understanding of architecture, math and astronomy was passed on in a system we call Quipu.

If using at work please be considerate and pick your battles because I wouldn’t want to be responsible for anybody’s firing. However if the time is right to tell someone that you can’t be bothered, kindly tell them A`ma nu-na nicho!

I may have been wrong about Messi going to MLS in 2015

The past few years when Barca wasn’t winning everything all the time I’d occasionally tease Otto that “Messi will play in MLS by the end of 2015″. That prediction isn’t looking so good right now.

As a side note I never meant that Messi wasn’t one of the all time greats, only that our expectations nowadays of top athletes performing at their best for such a long time are actually quite new – basically since the so called steriod-era. The achievements that made legends out of players like Sandy Koufax, Johan Cruyff or Magic Johnson were how good they were at the top of their game, not that they stayed at the top of their game forever and ever.

In Peru Messi is seen as one of the greatest, if not the greatest player of all time but in terms of pop culture legend in all of South America it’s doubtful that any athlete in my lifetime will come close to Diego Maradona.

It’s all Alan’s fault

Americans have a hard time with my last name and my first name isn’t very common. This led a former boss of mine to observe “Ward is like Cher or Madonna – everyone knows him by one name only”. The same could be said of Alan Garcia in Peru, he’s such a fixture of politics and popular culture (which are really one nowadays) that he’s simply referred to as “Alan”. When you say “Alan” everyone instantly identifies Alan Garcia.

I have a young man working with me nowadays, Alfredo. Recently I asked him about some code we wrote earlier and he replied that he didn’t remember the details, “I have a terrible memory”. I said “you’re young, you should have an excellent memory”. In my case I had a perfect memory until our first child was born, I would never forget important things and even trivial things I would remember perfectly.

Alfredo answered “It’s all Alan’s fault.”

With a mixture of sarcasm and seriousness he proceeded to explain that there was no milk when he was born during the disastrous first government of Alan Garcia, the period of hyperinflation in the 1980s. His mother suffered. “We – babies of his generation – suffered” he said wryly.

I asked Mamacita linda later in the day about that period and although Mamacita doesn’t like to admit to remembering the 1980s she does remember there would be long lines for basic items in the stores and you could only buy powder or can milk. The family “knew a guy” who would sometimes bring fresh milk and “it was soooo good”. Her mom used to “know somebody” at the store and at the bank who would always make sure their family had what they needed. Mamacita said you would only go to the store or the bank at certain times when you knew “stuff came in” and for even a few basic items her mother would pay with fistfuls of cash. I don’t think Mamacita’s family were privileged but they weren’t among the poorest or worst affected either. During this period Peru was also torn by violence and the terrorism of the Shining Path.

It all seems so absurd now. Thanks to demographics more than half of Peruvians have no memory of those bad old days. There’s been financial and political stability in Peru since the end of the Fujimori era in the late 1990s but I have some mixed feelings about the so-called progress since that time. What Peru gained in macro-economics isn’t reflected in institutional governance imho.

kids run at Señor de Huanca

Just a pretty picture

Picture of the week

Somewhere in Peru, on a winding road between a river and a mountain.

dog on motorcycle in Peru

I used to like when Otto would do his “room with a view” series, many moons ago.

“Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the
traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the
corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the
blue sky and the men and women who live under it.”

A Room With A View, E.M. Forster (1908)

Lima is like a pineapple

If you’ve been in college or the corporate world you’ve probably done the “describe yourself as a fruit” exercise, it’s commonly done as a “get to know each other” or “team building” exercise. For example:

“I’m like an apple. I don’t look very special on the outside but I’m so good for you that once you get to know me you’ll want me every day”

“I’m a lot like a grape: very versatile, mostly sweet but sometimes sour. I’m known better for my accomplishments (wine) than I am as a person.”

I was in Lima a while back and thought if Lima was a fruit, it would be a pineapple.

Step outside the Lima airport into the mess that is Lima traffic. Old buses belching smoke, scruffy looking taxis beeping their horns everywhere. Everything is dusty because Lima’s in the middle of a desert, only it’s hard to tell from within the concrete jungle that’s home to about 10 million people. The cool weather and milky-cloudy overcast don’t fit your idea of what a desert should be like anyway.

An hour in Lima traffic gets you to Miraflores, Lima’s best known tourist district. You check into your hotel tired and stressed out. After a quick nap you venture out to Parque Kennedy, nice during the day but too many hustlers at night, especially in that little “pizza street” where all the tourists go. You check out the expensive cosmopolitan shops in Larcomar – didn’t think there was so much money in a place like this. You take a walk down the Malecon (boardwalk) overlooking the Pacific Ocean and start to think, “this is nice, I could get used to this”.

The next day you take a touristy open bus tour around the city, you get glimpse of Lima’s colonial past, museums and the government district downtown. Provided you’re at least somewhat open minded, you’ll have mixed feelings about the place by this time, you can’t quite figure it out. Your hotel suggested you check out the Parque de la Reserva (Parque de los Aguas), an old park converted with beautiful fountains. The fountains are beautiful and the water is great fun in summertime but you vaguely remember reading on some blog that there are large neighborhoods on the outside of Lima without running water. You don’t want to fuss because you’re a guest here and respect the culture but everybody should have access to clean running water, no?

Unfortunately, if you’re a typical tourist this would be about all of Lima you’ll get to see. The next day another hour drive in horrible traffic back to the airport and off to Cusco you go. Your first impression of Lima will likely become your only lasting impression: traffic, dust and milky-cloudy overcast. However, if you stay a bit longer you’ll have a chance to see more.

Maybe you’re on a budget so you venture away from Parque Kennedy to have lunch at a local place. Look for the “Menu” sign which means they have daily specials, the type of place where the locals eat. You sit down and the waitress rambles of the 3 choices of the day. You have no idea what they are but look around and point at the least-unfamiliar looking plate: “I want that”. The little restaurant is full at lunchtime and a stranger sits down at your table. You realize this isn’t some hustler like the guys in Pizza street, no, he’s just another customer looking for a place to sit. You exchange niceties and as you’re eating your S/.12 (~$4) three-course meal you begin to think “why didn’t I eat here every day?” Nice people and the food is better at 1/3 the price of what you’d paid at the touristy places before. In fact, the food is great.

Later in the evening you take a trip to Barranco – your bus tour took you there but you want to check the place out for yourself. It’s a lot like Miraflores, only without the hustlers and fewer tourists. You have anticuchos at Tio Mario, someone tells you the story about the history of the place, how it was just a lady selling anticuchos on the side of the street many moons ago. You wonder why you don’t know many Tio Mario restaurants in the “land of opportunity” where you come from. Is everything supposed to be owned by corporations? You walk away fat and happy, feeling like a Lima expert, shaking your head at those poor 2-day tourists who’ll never know what they’re missing.

Next time you walk along the Malecon or Larcomar or Parque Kennedy, you’re now clever enough to avoid the hustlers and you strike up a conversation with a regular guy/gal. With all the hustlers chasing you down those first couple of days you were in town, you didn’t hardly notice the regular Limeños. Now that you’ve got the hustlers figured out you can sit down at Cafe de la Paz and have a Pisco with a regular Limeño, perhaps someone getting off from work after a 12-hour day. You might be the first foreigner they’ve ever talked to outside of their job. You might be the first person who’s ever bought them a Pisco at Parque Kennedy because many regular Limeños can hardly afford that indulgence.

People everywhere love to talk about their lives, their families, their city. So you listen to your new friend talk endlessly about the good and the bad, life in Lima. From the great food and the fun they have in summer to the hard times and the struggles of life in a developing ecomomy mega-city.

Then you realize life is so much more real here than it is back home. Lima is like a pineapple, once you get past the rough and prickly outside, nothing but sweet, juicy goodness on the inside.

ballet

Just a cute picture of my baby goose in her ballet

Paucartambo

Mamacita Linda went to work in Paucartambo for a couple of weeks recently. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to join her because I had baby-sitting duty at home. Mamacita says Paucartambo is very nice, quiet, clean, the kind of place where I would live if Mamacita let me. Unfortunately that won’t ever happen because schools in those small towns in Peru aren’t very good at all.

Paucartambo is located near the East edge of the Andes mountains, very close to the Amazon jungle. If you ever have the chance, make a trip from the Andes mountains to the jungle below, it’s one of the most stunning changes in environment you can ever make in a short period of time. Where the Andes meets the jungle is a beautiful place but also a place of significant environmental and social challenges nowadays.

Paucartambo is known for its annual festival of the Virgen del Carmen which takes place in mid July. However, while Mamacita Linda was there, a procession took place in honor of the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul visiting Paucartambo. Here are some pictures of Paucartambo and the procession:

Totally unrelated. I was thinking the other day, the farmhouse my dad grew up in didn’t have central heat (and it gets cold in Oostakker). Nowadays my dog sleeps on an orthopedic bed. I know it’s apples and oranges but the point is we have come a long way, I want to be thankful more often and fuss less than I do.

The Accidental Coder: How I became a (mostly) self-taught programmer

A while ago Twitter pal @glessermansazo asked me about learning how to write code, if I could recommend any good books. This got me pondering, my oldest daughter is changing schools this coming March – her first “real” school – and inevitably all the kids will have to tell their teacher “what kind of work does your daddy do?” Once upon a time those answers were simple, when the world was full of farmers, bakers, welders and carpenters but that was then. My daughter won’t have an easy answer, she’ll tell her new teacher and classmates a much glorified version of the following story.

First the short answer: I have a full-time job developing web applications. I work remotely for a US corporation, using mostly PHP, mySQL and JavaScript but I also dabble in other languages like GO. I have a side-job as a ferry-pilot, delivering small airplanes around the world.

That’s the SHORT answer! How I got here is another story.

Once upon a time when rock was pop, my father brought home a Commodore 64 computer. He was one of the first people in our area to buy a computer, most people didn’t really know anything about them back then. I learned how to write a few small programs in Bill Gates’ beloved BASIC and I wrote my first real program for a school project when I was in 5th grade. I didn’t really grasp the low level stuff – I still don’t – but I remember if you could hit the correct key combination you could escape the BASIC shell on the Commodore 64 and get into the assembly language. As a 12 year old boy I could make characters on the screen in assembly language and I vaguely felt mankind had gotten too big for its britches.

When my older brother started university he had to take some programming classes in Pascal but the professors told their students that this was mostly for learning purposes, to teach programming concepts. In the real world, everyone was using C – as we still do today. However, the university didn’t teach C because it was too powerful and easy to get in trouble.

So you wanna guess which book I picked up? Of course I decided to learn C. Why bother learning the concepts in university if you can learn the good stuff from a book? I was only 15 or so and by that time Pink Floyd had told me I didn’t need no university anyway. C is a wonderful programming language, the entire computer industry as we know it is built on top of it. Anyone who wants to program computers should learn the basics of C – just don’t put more elements in an array than you’re supposed to and stay away from pointer arithmetic unless you really know what you’re doing (I didn’t).

And then I quit programming. I’d had a love affair with aviation since I was about 5 years old and when I finished high school I enrolled in flight school. There’s a long story there too but suffice to say I spent 15 years flying airplanes, working as a flight instructor and building jet engines. I enjoyed aviation but it has its ups and downs. Somewhere along the way I was working 8 hours during the day and going to college at night, graduating when I was 33. I was working in a Fortune 500 company at the time which had outsourced most of it’s programming so I decided to pursue a degree in information systems, not computer science, but I did take a few programming classes in college. While I was in aviation I wrote some programs for aircraft weight and balance and I also did a short stint with an internet start-up during the internet boom in the 1990s.

Then I left my job at GE and came to Peru with the intention of working in aerospace, I had a contract with an aerospace company lined up when I arrived. The contract fell through and I found myself on top of a mountain in Peru with no job. I started looking for anything and everything. I was teaching ESL part time and looking for contract programming work online. I found a small 6 week programming job which turned into 6+ years of full time / independent / remote employment. I have no boss, no set working hours, it’s a very nice gig. I miss flying sometimes but programming is great because even someone like me who has no artistic talent gets to be creative, design things.

Coming back to the question @glessermansazo asked, what would I recommend if someone wanted to learn a bit about coding:

  • Take a few programming classes. I launched into everything head first, see if I could make something work without understanding the concepts. All that experimenting is great but when I took some programming classes years later I found it helped me a lot to think about the academic concepts.
  • Tinker with C at least a little bit, just remember the thingy about arrays and pointer arithmetic. Also, learn at least the basics of Linux – Linux is to operating systems what C is to programming languages.
  • Don’t fall for hype. Software like anything else is a business and people want to sell. Some things that were all the hype 5-8 years ago like SOAP and XML are now practically obsolete. On the other hand you can never go wrong with broadly accepted technologies like C/C++, Java, and PHP.
  • There are many new-ish languages and technologies now like node.js (which I’m tinkering with a little bit), Erlang, Scala, noSQL and untold frameworks, some claiming to be the best thing since sliced bread. You don’t have to learn them all, some are better for creative/expressive work, others are more suited for analytical work, etc. Find something you like and do it to the best of your abilities.
  • Don’t worry too much about this vs that. Ruby vs PHP, Python vs GO, mySQL vs Postgres, Ford vs. Chevy. Some languages are better suited for certain types of work (for example, C is better for systems programming and PHP is better for web development) but in my opinion a heated debate over things like PHP vs ASP often indicates you’re missing the most important part of software development: you are programming for real people in the real world. Designing the best solution starts with understanding the real world requirement, then you design the application around the real world requirement – not around your choice of language or technology.
roxi_at_work

Web developer is a popular job for expats in Peru

Maintenance

kids playing at Coney Park, mall Real Plaza Cusco

Coney Park

Happy New Year!  I hope you enjoyed the holiday season and here’s to good health and good fortune in 2015.

Speaking of holidays, school is out for summer in Peru so both kids are home 24/7 and it’s a bit of a challenge to entertain them as it is also rainseason here in Cusco. Have I told you yet what an adventure it is to take our kids out on the town? Whoever coined the phrase “terrible 2″ knew what they were talking about. Yesterday we took the kids to the movies, the one and only movie theater in Cusco is at a new-ish mall near our house. After the movie we were leaving the mall through the big ProMart home improvement store when we caught our youngest trying to flush her leftover popcorn down the toilet in one of ProMart’s exhibition bathrooms.

A while back I took both kids to that same mall by myself. I wanted to prove a point to Mamacita Linda: not only could I take both kids by myself, I could even accomplish something useful while I’m out and about with them, in this case buy a new pair of sneakers. I let the kids play for a bit in the Coney Park playground at the mall and then went sneaker shopping. In the shoestore my oldest all of a sudden realizes they are missing a toy phone they brought with them to the mall (which was a bad idea in the first place). We run back to Coney Park without any real hopes of finding the toy but to my surprise it was laying untouched by one of the games we played earlier. A friend of mine once left his wallet in a taxi in Dubai and the taxi driver returned to the hotel 20 mins later to give him back his wallet, insisting my friend check the contents to make sure nothing was missing. Here in Peru it’s rare to find something after you leave or forget it somewhere.

But I was going to tell you about maintenance. Before the lost phone incident, my kids were playing in a helicopter ride/toy at Coney Park. I was a bit suspicious because a few days prior I’d seen the helicopter tagged “out of service” but the tag was no longer there so I figured it had been fixed. The kids got in the helicopter but about halfway through it’s up-down left-right cycle, the machine seemed to get stuck and started shaking violently left to right, tossing my kids around as if they were limes in Jimmy Buffett’s blender. I yanked the power chord out of the wall and with a crying kid in each arm I advised the Coney Park staff their helicopter was broke, whoever “fixed it” didn’t get to the root of the problem.

This was before the lost phone. When we came back to Coney Park 15 minutes later looking for our toy phone, the manager was standing by the helicopter, watching another batch of kids go up and down, left and right. The machine worked OK for the moment so apparently it was considered “fixed”.

A broken toy is a minor inconvenience but in bigger issues like infrastructure the same attitude seems baked into the culture of Peru: don’t fix it as long as it kind of sort of works most of the time.