Saturday, September 22, 2018


Peru Day 10: For our last day in Peru, we started the day visiting the main square of Lima in the heart of the city, as part of a larger walking tour. The square itself was cordoned off from vehicular traffic, making it particularly welcoming to pedestrians like us. One edge of the square housed the Cathedral of Lima, notably not only for its architecture but also as the final resting place of the conquistador / explorer Francisco Pizarro.

Tomb of Francisco Pizarro

In addition to the cathedral itself, there were many exhibits on the history of the Church in Peru and artifacts. We spent about an hour walking through the halls, including the catacombs in one corner. After exiting, we tried to make our way to the main administrative building to see the changing of the guards but just missed it. We walked onwards past the Basilica de San Francisco to the Parque de La Muralla, a modern park that retained portions of the original wall of the city.

After relaxing on a bench for a while, we headed back to Miraflores for lunch and to meet Lupe. We walked through the bustling commercial district, with many shops and restaurants filled with people. After lunch, we also visited the Park of June 7th (named after a battle). Despite Peru already having been eliminated from the World Cup, decorations celebrating the games were still up, including a giant soccer ball with the World Cup logo. We walked through the adjoining Parque John F. Kennedy, named after the US President visited in the 1960s.

After my mom bought jewelry from ladies selling handmade wares in the park, we took an Uber to the Buenavista Cafe on the seashore. Lupe had made a great choice, as the cafe sat on the cliffs overlooking the beach. Even though it was windy, the cafe offered heat lamps and blankets to keep us comfortable. We chatted with Lupe and reminisced on all the coincidences that had brought us to that point.

After wishing Lupe well, we headed back into the city for a second attempt at Parque de La Reserva. Our flight was so late that we had enough time to catch the evening show, come back to the hotel for our luggage, and still make our flight with time to spare. The light show was well worth it. The parque has about a dozen unique fountains, with the second one serving as a backdrop for the light show. The surprise was that by causing the fountain to mist, the laser light show was *on* the water itself. The show was about the history of Peru and lasted about twenty minutes. We spent another hour walking around the fountains as night befell us.

Entrance to Parque de La Reserva

Light show at Parque de La Reserva

We made our way back to the hotel and then bid farewell to Lima and Peru as we headed back to the airport, thoughts of future trips dancing in our heads.


Friday, September 21, 2018

Cusco to Lima

Peru Day 9: As our flight was later on in the morning, we spent the hours after breakfast walking around the main streets of Cusco, passing by Plaza de Armas. Many statues from a recent festival (either the Catholic Corpus Christi or the Incan Inti Raymi Festival of the Sun) were clustered in a side plaza, in suspended animation. Children in school uniforms walked quickly past us, wrapped up in their own daily trials and tribulations. We ended up at one of the large open air markets Mercado Central de San Pedro.

In addition to the markets aimed at tourists like us, selling tchotchkes, there were many stalls with fresh vegetables or serving food to the locals. It reminded me of the open air markets I had seen in India. After buying a few items, we made our way back to the hotel, and then onward to Lima.

Upon arriving at the Lima airport, we took a ride to the Miraflores neighborhood where we would be staying. We checked in then tried to make the most of our afternoon. We initially went to Plaza de la Reserva, known for its water fountains and light show. Unfortunately, the show only came on at fixed times in the evening and we were 3 hours too early! We thought about waiting it out at a nearby cafe, but after an uninspiring snack, decided to amend our plans and visit Museo Larco that evening instead.

The museum is housed in what looks like an old upper class villa, with white walls and Bougainvillea flowers. It was founded by Rafael Larco, a Peruvian archaeologist who did much to advance understanding of the pre-Colombian civilizations in Peru. The museum is laid out both by region and chronology, with many original artifacts on display. After an introductory 10 minute video, there are multiple galleries to walk through. I was quite impressed by the attention to detail and explanations given.

After touring the museum, we considered having dinner at the museum itself. Looking at the menu and the crowd in the restaurant, we decided we were too tired to wait. To head to the exit, we followed the signs through the dining area to the exit. As we turned the corner to leave, I thought I heard someone calling my name out, but no - it must be the fatigue! Still, instinctively, I turned to look back and who should I see but Lupe, our Puerto Rican friend from Machu Picchu! She had mentioned visiting Lima for a wedding, but in a city of 10 million, what are the odds that we should cross through their wedding rehearsal dinner? After laughing about the coincidence, we made plans to meet for coffee the next day. 

We made our way back to the hotel and ended up ordering room service as the fatigue from our travels started to catch up with us. 


Thursday, September 20, 2018

Manu National Park Day 3

Peru Day 8: The highlight of Day 3 and arguably the whole Manu trip was the early morning bird watching. We woke in the dark and made our way down the steps into the boat. As we were on the water, the first rays of light began to creep across the sky.

You would think we would be alone in that quiet world, but we were actually part of a crowd. Many tours brought their visitors down river to a spot known for birdwatching. We disembarked on a rocky shore and climbed a small embankment to a viewing spot. We spent about 30 minutes looking around, but Abraham noticed a hawk in the distance, altering the parrots’ path.

We shifted a bit upstream, approximately 300 yards. We looked back towards the shore, where a wall of brownish-reddish clay stood along the banks, partially hidden behind the trees. Soon, a crescendo of mostly green parrots arrived, feeding on the clay itself. If you looked carefully, you could see their vibrant underbellies as they flapped their wings, revealing a full spectrum from bright reds to dark blues. The birds seemingly took turns, hopping on and off the wall. Abraham said this was likely to scout for predators, as the birds were completely unprotected when they were feeding and facing the wall.

The real treat came as the boats headed back, because the view from the boat was actually even closer to the wall, albeit less steady. The surprise caught me a bit off guard, as I had already packed up my camera. Luckily, there was enough time to still capture a few shots of the birds fully in flight.

The rest of the day was spent packing up and heading back to Cusco, unwinding our journey into the heart of Manu. Even the ride back though held surprises, such as this pair of toucans!

Two toucans

We reached back to Cusco at night and looked forward to sleeping in before our flight to Lima the next morning.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Manu National Park Day 2

Peru Day 7: We awoke before sunrise again for an early breakfast before setting out for the day. The courtyard in the center of the lodges itself was quite rich with wildlife, including several species of orchids. A feeder was effective at attracting several hummingbirds, darting back and forth faster than the eye could fully perceive. We also enjoyed seeing the sun set the clouds aflame as dawn slowly broke.
Huts at Bambu Lodge

Sunrise at Bambu Lodge

After eating, we strolled by the roadside as the van was prepared for the day. Even on an unassuming stretch of road, the amount of novel wildlife was quite impressive. Touch-me-not plants, hordes of soldier ants, and countless flowers dotted the roadside.

The van caught up with us and took us onward into the forest. Many birds dotted the sky, but Abraham was particularly adept at spotting the rarer species. He seemed to do this as much by sound as by sight, but the two senses were tightly paired. Even if he could identify a bird’s call, it would not be much use without being able to pinpoint the source. The highlight of this was spotting a toucan in a far off glade of trees, and then capturing the bird in flight.
Flying toucan
We saw many oropendelas (golden tailed birds) and parrots as well. As we went deeper into the forest, the bird density increased. Flocks of macaws flew overhead as we crossed one of the many streams.

Along the way, there was a petting zoo. While not fully ‘natural’, the animals were free to roam around the place, and let us see some of them up close. There were several species of parrots, a turtle, sloth, monkey, and a very friendly pig.

Similarly, we stopped by an orchid garden that was truly a labor of love of the gardner. I do not recall his name but he was generally regarded ‘The Orchid Professor.’ This was not just hyperbole as he actually had a species named after him! We saw dozens of species, including some of the tiniest orchids one can imagine, no bigger than a few grains of rice.
The Orchid Professor of Manu
We eventually ended up driving along a ridge overlooking a broad river plain surrounding the Atalaya River. Our tour shifted to its water-faring stage, as we unpacked the van into a boat. We did a short tour up and down the river for about an hour, seeing waterfalls and other river traffic as we motored along. Eventually, we pulled up to the banks of the river with a steep set of stairs leading up to our night lodging.

Unlike the Bambu Lodge of the night before, the Sago de Oro lodge had no electricity but it did have solar-heated hot water. This lodge was more deeply set in the jungle, with numerous birds darting around, in particular hummingbirds.

After a short break for lunch, Abraham took us for another hike around Machuwasi lake, which was more like a lagoon. We hopped back in the boat and headed downstream. We disembarked on a pebble-strewn beach on the opposite bank and started hiking into the jungle. The boots sure came in handy with all the mud! After about 45 minutes, we came into a clearing where we waited to board a raft.

The raft slowly drifted through a lagoon, with Abraham occasionally paddling but mostly pointing out the various animals around. We saw many bird species but the most interesting to me was the baby capybara! The capybara is a South American mammal that resembles a giant guinea pig. The evening was quite tranquil and memorable.

On the hike back, night befell us. We were prepared from the night before, so we felt more comfortable when Abraham wanted to stop and try to spot a caiman, the South American version of an alligator. He spotted one and centered the scope on it, but initially I had a tough time making it out against the muddy background, until all of a sudden, his yellow eye came into focus, staring right back at me! It was chilling because one could easily imagine wading into the water unaware of the danger lurking nearby. We soon made our way back to the boat and lodge, settling in early for another early rise the next day.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Manu National Park Day 1

Peru Day 6: With the moon still in the sky, we embarked on our 3 day-2 night journey to Manu National Park, an expansive protected area east of Cusco and Machu Picchu that housed the headwaters of the Amazon forest. The area is also a protected cultural zone. The journey would cover a descent from 11,000 ft to only 2,000 ft. Our guide Abraham with Amazon Trails Peru picked us up in a large van with a driver and a cook. We easily could have seated 3 more people in the large space.

As we drove out of the city, we picked up fresh bread on the roadside at the edge of the city. School-age girls clustered around the van in the pre-dawn chill, waiting to hand us the goods. To my eye, standing out in the freezing cold would have been quite terrible, but from their smiles and laughter, the girls showed no sign of discontent. Bread packed, we continued on our way into the mountains.

Our first stop was at Chullpas de Dinamarca, ancient tombs of a pre-Incan civilization. Supposedly, the royals were embalmed and entombed in these circular clay tombs. They appeared like a series human-sized chess piece castles dotting the hillside. A small rectangular window was carved into one side, but not much was visible within. The views of the surrounding valleys were quite impressive -- all things considered, not a bad sight for eternity. 

Tombs at Chullpa de Dinamarca on the way to Manu
Next, we headed to the town of Paucartambo, which lay along a river with the same name. As we took a cup of coffee, our driver went to get a tire fixed. We sipped the rich Peruvian coffee in a small shop as a World Cup soccer match played on in the background. The sun was fully out now and the heat was building.

As we continued onwards, we descended further and the surround flora began to change. The mountainous areas soon became more forested. As we crossed the simple park entrance, we entered a zone called the cloud forest, and the views did not disappoint. It truly felt like we were staring at the clouds, eye-to-eye, with hints of a forest peeking in and out as the clouds slowly sauntered by.

Cloud Forest
We eventually pulled over to the side of the road. Abraham was very sharp at spotting unique plants and birds with his naked eye, but his scope proved invaluable in bringing out the detail in the forest background. Even my SLR zoom lens was no match. As we took in the sights, the driver went ahead and set up a picnic table for lunch in a clearing up ahead. We enjoyed a fresh lunch with the rainforest surrounding us.

We drove deeper into the forest until we came to a viewing deck for the Cock of the Rock, a colorful bird that tends to cluster in a few areas in the forest. The males have a colorful orange head that are hard to spot initially but once seen, hard to miss. Standing there for 15 minutes, we spotted at least 7 flying around between the trees.

Cock of the Rock
Our last sight of the day before halting was a pair of monkeys, feasting on tree blossoms. 

We then headed to a bamboo lodge. The rooms were simple - beds with restrooms, lit but without hot water. After putting our bags down, Abraham took us on a night hike into the forest. I presumed we would have some background light from the moon and stars but was I wrong! The unassuming canopy overhead by day acts as shut out curtains by night. We were in pitch dark with only our flashlights to guide us. Walking became much more hazardous as it was very easy to trip over roots or other irregularities in the ground. While Abraham forged ahead undaunted, we 3 clutched each other as we cautiously inched forward. Abraham pointed out the ‘night life’, mostly spiders and moths. After about an hour, we headed back. We retired for the night after a quick dinner. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Machu Picchu Day 2: Huayna Picchu

Peru Day 5: The next morning, we awoke extra early in order to get on the first buses to Machu Picchu. What we thought was “early” though was about a 1000 people late! The line for the buses stretched several blocks into the city. However, this is likely the scene every morning as numerous buses soon started to arrive and load people. We arrived just as the sky was breaking but the sun had not truly crested the mountain tops - truly perfect timing as we realized once we entered the site.

Our first priority was to get me to the gate for Huayna Picchu, the mountain overlooking the citadel that one sees in the background of nearly every photo of the site. The add-on hike was a steep climb up to the peak. Making our way over, we saw the sunrise over the mountain peaks, flooding the site in sunlight.
Sunrise over Machu Picchu / Huayna Picchu

At this point, we split up, with my parents touring the site by themselves. I went ahead to the trail entrance and started my ascent. Who should I meet along the way but the Puerto Ricans? They were nearly as happy to see me as I, them. Sharing a few laughs made the steep climb that much easier. While there were steps, the climb did induce a feeling of vertigo anytime one inadvertently looked down.
Steep steps up to Huayna Picchu peak

At times, the stairs became so steep that I was left using my hands as much as my legs to stabilize the climb. After much exertion, we finally reached the rocky peak. I felt like I was hovering above the citadel, looking straight down at it. The vantage point also gave one a sense of perspective, and just how unique the site truly was.
Machu Picchu citadel, from the vantage point of Huayna Picchu peak
The time at the top as usual felt too short, but luckily the descent came much more easily. I could not imagine how the climbers ascending I passed on the way were faring, as the sun was fully out now and beating down on all of us. After about 45 minutes, I rejoined my parents in the citadel below.

We spent another two hours, wandering the site. We made our way to the Templo Del Sol (Sun Temple) at the heart of the site, considered its most sacred spot. As we descended, water channels ran alongside us, hinting at how the site once received its water supply. Around noon, we decided to head back to the bus for Aguas Calientes to catch our afternoon train back to Cusco. We rested as the train smoothly returned us to more modern times, a short respite before returning to an even more primitive locale: the Amazon.


Sunday, September 16, 2018

Machu Picchu Day 1: Inti Punku (Sun Gate)

Peru Day 4: 

We awoke early the next morning to take a taxi to the Poroy train station. Given the early hour of the morning, it was quite cold! The station had indoor gas-powered heat lamps which made the wait more bearable. At 7:30 AM, we boarded the PeruRail Vistadome train. The Vistadome had a more limited schedule, but had skylight windows to allow better views of the valley as we traveled. The train’s destination was Aguas Calientes, the town just outside Machu Picchu where most visitors stay.

The train was comfortable, with cabin-style seating in pods of 4 with a table in between. We 3 were seated with Lupe, a Puerto Rican woman traveling with friends seated in the adjacent pod. We all became fast friends over the 3 hour ride. Our chance meeting is also a good example of the influence of random events: upon exchanging itineraries, we realized that we shared the same itinerary for the next day, but the Puerto Ricans were also visiting Machu Picchu upon arrival! Our initial plan had us relaxing in Aguas Calientes that day, but the thought began to form upon further reflection: why travel so far and not get the most out of seeing Machu Picchu itself?

The ride paralleled the Urubamba river, which criss crossed the train tracks as we headed deeper into the mountains. The popular trekking Inca trail also started along the way, as we could see small bands of hikers taking off on their adventure. We also saw many beautiful vistas of snow-capped mountains, towering over the train.

After about three hours, we arrived at Aguas Calientes. The town itself was a collection of shops, restaurants, and hotels, split by the river itself. Three pedestrian bridges connected the two halves of the town. The seed of the idea of adding a second session of Macchu Picchu had fully germinated, so we went straight to the ticket office to see if they had extra tickets. Usually, one must book months in advance, but luckily they had a few extra slots. We checked into our hotel, then quickly made our way back to the bus depot. The bus ticket line was even longer than the Machu Picchu line! They only took cash, but luckily that included US dollars, so we were able to snag our tickets before the next bus left.

Bridges in Aguas Calientes

Every day, there are two windows of time to enter Machu Picchu, a morning session and an afternoon session. We joined in the afternoon session, taking a winding 30 minute bus ride up to the entry gate to Machu Picchu. Your ticket and passport are checked at the gate, and then a small pathway leads into the citadel. As one enters, there are several circuits around the site. We took the upper trek, which required a 15 minute climb up a set of stairs. At the end, a view of the citadel down below opens up. 

Machu Picchu citadel with Huayanapicchu peak in the background

From there, we decided to hike to the Sun Gate, or Inti Punku. The Sun Gate is about a two hour hike away from the site up an adjacent mountain. Along the way, we were greeted by several free-ranging llamas! Sadly, they didn’t share our excitement in seeing us, as they continued to graze as we walked by. About half way up, there is a guard house, which in reality is a small outcropping of stones. Mom decided to halt here, while Dad and I continued onwards to the Gate itself. After about 30 more minutes hiking, we reached the Gate. Peering back, we could see the citadel off in the distance. As the sun was starting to set, we could see its rays extending across the valley. It is still remarkable how the entire site was designed to be in harmony with its surroundings and the heavens above.

Machu Picchu citadel as seen from Inti Punku (Sun Gate)

As the rays lengthened, the site was closed, and we headed back down, picking up Mom along the way. We took the bus ride back, and quickly wound down for the night, looking forward to a second chance at Machu Picchu the next day by morning.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Sacred Valley: Chincero, Ollantaytambo, Pisac, and Sacsayhuaman

Peru Day 3: Using Viator, we booked a day-long guided tour around Sacred Valley, the Inca sites in the valley around Cusco. The trip included Sacsayhuaman ( 12136 ft ) in addition to Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Chinchero. Our guide Elvis picked us up at 7am from our hotel. As we were the only ones the tour, we had some flexibility to decide which order we went in, so we decided to start at the farthest point Ollantaytambo.

The city of Cusco is at an elevation of 11152 feet surrounded by mountains on all sides. On our way, we enjoyed beautiful sunrise in the mountains. We passed by Poroy, the train station from which will take a train to Aguas Calientes / Machu Picchu the next day. We saw Cusco city waking up and as we moved away from city roads became less crowded.

Our first stop was Chincero, a site about 12000 feet above sea level, higher than Cusco. After passing the newer town below, we parked and walked up steps for about 10 minutes to the site of the old Incan palace or summer resort. The old Incan walls still remain, but the main structure is a church, built by the conquistadores around 1607. The walls were a good example of the ‘dry’ technique, in which each stone was fitted together without the use of mortar. Terraces still surround the area, with farming actively practiced. Elvis led us to an open plain, where many batches of potatoes were undergoing a drying / desiccation process in the open air prior to storage. In the main square, there were local people selling handicrafts, many woven. After about twenty minutes, we returned to the car.
The plains outside Chincero

Ollantaytambo was our next stop. The site is an impressive fortress / palace built by Pachacuti just before the time of the Conquistadores. A series of canals brought water to the area from the Urubamba river. We toured the ground level temples first, before I climbed the steps to the top. Along the twenty minute climb, one could see terrace farmers working on the steep cliffs running alongside the site.


The top featured the Templo del Sol, or Sun Temple. Unfortunately due to time constraints, I had to turn back and head down after reaching the top. The valley and trail to the Military Site were visible, but would likely have taken at least 30 more minutes. Elvis had us on a tight schedule though!

Templo del Sol at Ollantaytambo

Next, we headed to the town of Pisac, where we grabbed a light lunch of empanadas and coffee at a local shop. The freshly made bread was excellent and quite filling! From the town of Pisac, it was about another 30 minutes to the archaeological site of Pisac overlooking the city. The site, high up in the mountains, gave an impressive vista of the full scope of the terraces in the valley. As we walked around the site, I hiked up to the Intihuatana, or Sun Post. This was listed as an elevation of 11,528 feet, which you certainly felt hiking up! The steps were not challenging themselves. Looking down, you could see how the citadel was laid out, and how water sources were channeled into the site.

Terraces at Pisac

We moved on to Tambomachay, which looked like a rest stop along the old Inca trail. Walking to the main spot, we walked along the original stones of the Inca trail. The site consisted of several aqueducts that may have been used for both water transport as well as hydration and bathing. While interesting, the site was small and self-contained, so we left after 15 minutes. 

By this point, it was the late afternoon and the sun was slowly starting to set. We had two sites left: Q’enqo and Saqsaywaman. Q’enqo was the old royal funerary of the Inca. At the center, a cave-like area acted as a mortuary, where the deceased corpse was embalmed and prepared for passage into the after-life. As we prepared to depart to our last site, we could see the city of Cusco reappearing in the distance.

Saqsaywaman was quite a way to end a packed day. Large stone walls had been erected, again with the dry technique, along multiple terraces. The site overlooked the valley in which Cusco sits, providing impressive views of the city including Plaza de Armas. When the Conquistadores came, they used the site as a quarry, taking much of the stone away to build the cathedral and other buildings around the city. Even in its post-Conquistador state, it was quite impressive. One can only imagine what the site looked like in its original state.

Ruins at Sacsayhuaman

Elvis dropped us off at the hotel, leaving us to prepare for our trip to Machu Picchu the next day.


Friday, September 14, 2018

Cusco Day 1: Qoricancha and Plaza de Armas

Peru Day 2: After a continental breakfast in the spacious restaurant area of the Wyndham, we headed back across the street to the airport. We collected our boarding passes for the Latam flight to Cusco and headed to the gate. 

There was a giant TV temporarily set up in the gate area and the Mexico-Sweden match was being watched by dozens of people. The locals here take their soccer seriously! Peru being in the final 32 of the FIFA World Cup may have added to the hype. 

We made it until half-time, but then had to leave as they switched our gate. Unfortunately, the new gate had no such TV. Eventually we boarded buses to drive out onto the tarmac to board the actual plane. My mom was a bit worried that we would have difficulty boarding if we were at the end of the line, but funnily enough, the buses invert the order. Last in the bus is first on the plane, a neat example of LIFO (last-in-first-out). 

Once on the plane, we were further delayed about 45 minutes, but eventually had a smooth flight of about an hour into Cusco. The flight attendants only served water, but that made sense given the listed short duration of the flight. Prior reviews had noted that flights into Cusco can be variable given weather conditions there, although our delay seemed mechanical.

Gorgeous views of the Andes greeted us as we flew east towards Cusco. Descending into the Cusco valley gave us panoramic views of the city, culminating in a remarkably smooth landing. The real turbulence though came once we stepped off the plane: the altitude change is real! All three of us felt somewhat lightheaded and imbalanced as we walked the relatively short distance from the gate through the terminal.

Once outside, we ended up taking a private car which cost 35 sol (S/35 is about $10 USD). The taxis outside were reportedly as low as S/15-20 but our taxi was fine, taking us to our hotel in about twenty minutes. We stayed in Casa Andina Standard Catedral, located at NE corner of the Plaza de Armas / Catedral area, the center of Cusco. The hotel room was nice and quiet, with 3 separate beds - quite a rarity!

Iglesia de Compania de Jesus, Plaza de Armas, Cusco
After dropping off our bags, we made our way first to the nearest tourist office to purchase the ‘boleto turistico’ or tourist ticket. The ticket cost S/130, but allowed for 10 day access to most of the major points of interest around Cusco / Sacred Valley. They only accepted cash.

Unfortunately one of the excluded sites was our next stop Qoricancha (also spelled Coricancha or Koricancha). The term comes from the Quecha language for ‘golden enclosure.’ Qoricancha was the most important temple in the Incan Empire. Most of the gold was given to the Spanish though, as ransom for the return of the Incan leader Atahualpa. The Spanish then built the convent of Santo Domingo on the foundations of Qoricancha, so what exists today is a hybrid of the two. To enter, we purchased tickets for S/15 each.

A Scale Model of the Church / Qoricancha

The inner courtyard contains two levels. Around the perimeter, the old Incan masonry still exists. It is quite distinct as they fitted stones together without the use of mortar (also known as 'dry' mortar). As impressive as it is in photos, it is still something else to see up close. After walking the perimeter, we ventured upstairs, which connected to the Santo Domingo portion of the facility. The church itself was nice but I found the display of the old ornate garments worn most interesting.

Upon heading back outside, we went to Casa Cancha, a museum of Incan artifacts, under the mistaken impression that it would close within an hour. Luckily for us it was actually open until 7pm! Unluckily for us, they charged us another S/20 to enter. Inside though, the exhibits were well worth it, with two floors of what looks like a converted hacienda dedicated to Incan artifacts.

After the museum, we met with our tour guide for the latter half of our trip. We had planned to visit Manu National Reserve, the Peruvian portion of the Amazon, where its headwaters start. Initially, we were planning on doing a more popular circuit of Lima - Cusco - Machu Picchu - Puno - Lima. However, after learning about Manu, my parents decided to amend the trip to remove Puno and shorten Lima to create time for a 3 day / 2 night tour of Manu. Our guide Mr. Abraham of Amazon Trails Peru met with us at our hotel to go over the trip itinerary and fit us for rubber boots for hiking in the rainforest.

We ended the night with dinner at Greens Organic. The restaurant was on the 2nd floor of the building two doors down from our hotel. It served organic food with a large range of vegetarian options. We had the African curry, spinach ravioli, and sweet potato gnocchi along with coca tea infused with ginger and lemongrass. All were excellent. After dinner, we walked around Plaza de Armas and purchased bottles of water before retiring for the night.


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Visiting Peru

My parents and I visited Peru from June 26 to July 6. We traveled to Lima from Houston IAH, and visited Cusco, Machu Picchu, Manu National Park, and Lima during our stay there. The following series of posts describe our journey in greater detail.

My parents and I departed from Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) at about 4:30pm via Terminal D (which is connected to the E gate we actually flew out of). Since we arrived about 90 minutes early, we waited in the KLM Lounge just across the pedestrian bridge in Terminal C. The lounge was comfortable with small snacks available in buffet style. Most people were watching the end of the World Cup match that was on. We headed towards our gate about 45 minutes before boarding.

The flight of 6.5 hours passed quickly, spent mostly watching movies on the on-board entertainment system. Upon arriving in Lima, the gate and immigration area were easy to navigate. They now do their visa electronically, so the yellow entry form we were advised to hold onto from multiple sources was no longer given out. As we were departing for Cusco early the next morning, we stayed at the Wyndham Costa del Sol airport hotel, directly across the street from the baggage claim area. The room was quiet and comfortable, and we quickly fell asleep.

Read the next post about our journey to Cusco the following day.


Monday, March 12, 2018

Drive by Daniel Pink: A Review

Daniel Pink is a former law school graduate and speechwriter for Al Gore. After those experiences, he became an author and public speaker. His most well known work is Drive, a book about motivation.

Pink starts off by describing basic research about motivation. He references work that shows  monkeys can be motivated by intrinsic rewards, the satisfaction of completing a task itself. Introducing extrinsic rewards (food) reduced output, possibly by decreasing intrinsic motivation. Drive looks at:
1) flaws in reward/punishment systems
2) how organizations use autonomy, mastery, and purpose to progress
3) resources to help such behavior flourish

Pink defines hygiene factors as items which are necessary but not sufficient for satisfaction; their absence is negative, but their presence does not lead to job satisfaction. For example, lacking a good parking spot will be very frustrating, but having one does not create joy or loyalty to a particular role. The old framework of motivation is Motivation 1.0 is basic human needs (food, etc); 2.0 is seeking rewards avoiding penalty. This structure echoes Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. Pink argues for new system based on autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

All activity can be broken down into physiologically necessary, play or work. The first one is a requirement to live, so usually does not require motivation. Similarly, play by definition should be pleasurable and not require any focused effort. Therefore, motivation must be applied to something, which we usually call work.  Per Pink, algorithmic work can be outsourced or automated; artistic, empathic, non-routine work generally cannot.

At first blush, one would imagine that incentives would help people be more productive, by greasing the wheels of motivation. And in some domains, this works. Extrinsic rewards help narrow focus; good for algorithmic tasks. However, these same incentives can be self-defeating for creative/heuristic ones. They can also cause people to take too many shortcuts to meet an extrinsic goal. Non-tangible rewards (like praise) can be equally effective, and less corrosive over time.

As work has evolved, people look to get different things out of the work they do. Management systems are antiquated. Pink refers back to his three main concepts: Autonomy requires self control over task, time, technique, and team. Mastery is the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose is finding work worth doing.

In the latter part of the book, Pink leans heavily on the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ( a future post will cover his book Flow). The idea of a flow or autotelic state is one of working towards a self-defined purpose. Personally, running serves that purpose. I find fulfillment when I run, independent of an extrinsic motivation. Pink notes that flow works best for Goldilocks tasks: tasks that are not too simple nor too difficult, but repeatedly reaching a flow state is a key to mastery.

Pink's Three Laws of Mastery are:
1. Mindset (growth)
2. Effort (pain/grit)
3. Asymptotic (never fully achieved)

Pink ends by quoting Csikszentmihalyi: "One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling that one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself." Overall, the message is the book is well-taken, but it serves more as a summation of others' work rather than original thinking or research on the part of Pink. This still has value, similar to Malcolm Gladwell's ability to distill concepts in a way that reaches a broader swath of people, but if you have time, I encourage you to read the books by the primary researchers like Csikszentmihalyi and Dweck to get more out of the exercise.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Grit by Angela Duckworth: A Review

Angela Duckworth is a psychology professor at U. Penn. A former Marshall Scholar and MacArthur Genius grant recipient, she is best known in the popular media for her book "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance." The book describes what characteristics transform one's potential into action, and how it often is not what we presume initially. She describes her theory of grit, and why this characteristic may matter more than other more specific talents.

The book notes that "Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another." As a society, while we appreciate effort, we seem to value the effortless talent, the prodigy, the one for whom everything comes easy. Duckworth terms this the 'naturalness bias.'

Her theory boils down to acknowledging some amount of natural talent must be honed through effort to develop skill. That skill must subsequently have more effort applied to it in order to reach achievement. Symbolically:

Talent x Effort = Skill; Skill x Effort = Achievement. 

Duckworth goes to on to define grit as the ability to stick with an endeavor even when it gets unpleasant. Grit has two main components: passion and perseverance. Most people are slightly more perseverant than passionate, but both are important. Grit helps you to hold the same top level goal over time, which lets you determine lower level goals. Say your goal is to run a marathon. This certainly requires passion, either for running itself or for the idea of fitness, as well as perseverance to do all the training required. However, once you set that top level goal, it helps organize lower goals such as buying the right shoes, eating healthy, and scheduling time for runs.

As we grow older, our experiences help us develop grit as we realize what is important to us and how to push through challenges. Duckworth defines the following four psychological assets that help "gritty" people:
  • Interest: intrinsically enjoying what you do.
  • Practice: daily discipline
  • Purpose: the conviction that your work matters
  • Hope: it occurs at each of the prior 3 stages, as it keeps one going even when things are tough
What should one do if you do not have a defined passion? Instead of latching on to one particular topic, just follow your curiosity. Find things that excite you, then double down on where your interest lies. A future post will cover Flow, a book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that describes the state of being fully engaged at the task at hand. While these may not represent personal passions, finding yourself in a flow state for a topic that engages you is a good key to recognizing a passion.  Duckworth argues that to discover a passion you should:
  • Begin with answers you are most sure of and build from there
  • Don't be afraid to guess
  • Don't be afraid to erase an answer that is not working out

Over time, your passion deepens your interest. As you mature to an expert, you notice details that escaped you when you were a novice. However, sometimes you hit a plateau. What will separate those with grit from the rest is the ability to still find ways to improve. The Japanese word kaizen, meaning continuous improvement, epitomizes this concept. To progress, you  must continue with deliberate practice, a notion popularized by psychologist Anders Ericsson in his book Peak (you may have heard of him in association with the 10,000 hour rule). Instead of avoiding negative feedback, gritty individuals seek it out as a means towards improvement. How to improve at deliberate practice? Duckworth suggests knowing the science/existing knowledge base behind an activity, making the work a habit, and looking at the work from different perspectives. You want to be aware of what you are doing without judging yourself too harshly for any shortcomings. We tend to be our own harshest critiques as we get older.

Going beyond grit though, Duckworth does acknowledge that what we apply our efforts to matters. One could stuff envelopes with 'grit,' but most would not see that as much of an accomplishment. Grit must attached to work that has purpose. Purposeful work is consistent with one's core values and makes a positive contribution to society. Growth mindset (as popularized by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck) goes hand in hand with grit.

Duckworth concludes by referencing the renowned playwright George Bernard Shaw:
The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy

Later research has pushed back against the idea of grit having much causal/explanatory power in successful outcomes. Clearly, grit is hard to measure but the general idea still make intuitive sense: people who succeed tend to do so by persevering where others would give in, usually due to an underlying passion built from a mix of innate interest and earnest efforts toward improving themselves. To understand Duckworth's ideas in greater detail, check out Grit:


Monday, January 22, 2018

Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans - A Review

Burnett and Evans of Stanford University developed Designing Your Life from a popular course they taught together. With their design background, they bring a fresh perspective on how to approach some of life's challenges for which there is no 'right' answer. Their main approach is the idea of reframing challenges. For example, the notion that 'Your degree determines your career' is reframed by noting that 75% of college grads end up working careers unrelated to major. Instead of aiming for success as a means to a happy life, they argue that happiness springs from a "designing a life that works for you" and noting that it's never too late to start designing your ideal life.

 What does it mean to have an ideal life? Many people, myself included, have spent many years shaping a life as a goal-directed activity: get good grades, admission to a particular school, work towards a certain job. However, much like a dog chasing a car, what does one do when you 'catch' your goal? For small goals, you may move onto your project, but if the pursuit of a fixed goal is the organizing principle of your life, you may find yourself suddenly adrift. Burnett & Evans counter that designing a life does not involve a clear goal, but is instead "generative - constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, always with possibility for surprise."

I lose the authors a bit at their next point. They view passion as the result of good life design, not its goal. To me, passion is both an input and an output. Without passion, how would one know where to invest their energy and attention? Presuming the initial efforts yield positive results, that should increase one's sense of passion for the work, leading to further investments.

Their notion that "if it's not actionable, it's not a problem" is helpful though. Many times I find myself perseverating on so-called "problems" that I cannot actually act upon. Reminding myself helps to focus my efforts on the areas that are truly under my control. We all want to feel secure that our actions lead to a future we are comfortable with, that we are in control of our fates, even if we acknowledge that the future is unpredictable (as argued in Stumbling Upon Happiness, perhaps happiness itself comes from being in control). Burnett & Evans flip the script on this notion by positing that by designing something, you change the future that is possible.

To start designing, it is important to start with your values. What actually matters to you? The book introduces the idea of coherency, which is the idea of living in alignment with who you are, what you believe, and what you are doing, while not sacrificing your integrity. After defining these notions, they go on to describe a Workview and a Lifeview, which are your personal responses to the purpose of your work and your life. Used together, they form a compass to guide whether you are on the right path or not.

Once you have these fleshed out, they suggest using wayfinding to guide your next steps, by seeing how your energy and engagement respond to different endeavors. Ideally, you are looking to achieve a state of flow, the feeling of being completely engaged in the activity on which you are focused. That's right - no email alert, tweet, or notification can distract you when you are in this state. Achieving this is not easy, but that is okay. You want to collect data about yourself and peak experiences to build a life that fulfills you.

I often feel that I am stuck or need to find the perfect idea, but the book argues to reframe this by reminding myself that I can generate many ideas, and can explore many of them. Instead of trying to find the "perfect" life, accept that there are multiple great lives that are possible and we get to choose which one. To test out different theories, it helps to build prototypes. For example, if you are dissatisfied in a sales job and think you might want to teach, why not try tutoring students on the weekends to see how it fits?

You want to generate 3-5 options. To help, ask people you already know how they approached such decisions. I am not naturally inclined to network, but when reframed as asking for directions or help, it makes the effort a little easier. At this stage, make the best choice possible, let go of the rest, and move forward. Remember - you can always design your way into something else if you need to in the future. Lastly, you are not alone in this journey. Ask for help in living and designing your life from others.

The book suggest several exercises to help catalyze your thought process. They are admittedly a little bit out there, but a bit of forced discomfort can actually help you be honest with yourself. As Richard Feynman once said, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool." I cannot say I did all the exercises, but the ones I tried were helpful in letting me see where I was getting in my own way.

Designing Your Life will not give you a specific plan on how to fix your life. And that's the whole point! There is no one-size-fits-all plan. What it will do is help you spark thoughts about how you can help yourself.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

2018 Houston Marathon Reflections

I completed my third marathon this past Sunday, finishing the 2018 Houston Marathon in 4:43. Even running with a friend, I still had a lot of time to let my mind wander as the miles went by (especially the later ones!). I figured I should write down those thoughts - how I felt about the race, what I appreciated about it, what I learned from the experience - with the hope that it helps others out there as well as prepares me for my next race.

The starting line was near the George R. Brown (GRB) convention center. My buddy Joe and I reached the pre-race area at about 6:30 AM. The race started at 7:00 AM. I had been originally assigned to Corral A, but after having to retrieve a forgotten pair of gloves and a not-so-quick pit stop, we fell back to Corral D. The later corral did not get to the starting line until about 7:30 AM. Luckily, despite temperatures in the thirties, I felt pretty comfortable in my long-sleeve technical shirt and shorts. After slowly walking up to the starting line, we got off to a smooth start.

For the first 11 miles or so, we ran within our planned range of 8:45 to 9:00 minutes per mile. Just before mile 11, my parents surprised us by cheering us on from the sidelines, as we turned off University Blvd to head towards Westpark / Galleria area. Joe started to have knee trouble and I could feel my calves start to slowly ache, but at the halfway mark, I was still within my expectations at 1:58.

That's when the wheels started to come off. First my calves went, followed by my quads. I was soon reduced to a run-walk combo, running a few minutes until the cramps returned, then walking until I felt them fully subside. Fortunately, mentally I was good and felt that I had good energy levels. Just didn't have the legs underneath me. I settled into a 14:00/mile pace for the last 10 miles or so until happily crossing the finish line right outside GRB.

What did I learn / relearn from this race?

  • You perform how you practiceKnowing that the course was flat with favorable temperatures, I was hoping to improve on my PR of 4:14 with hopefully a sub 4:00 time. However, skimping on training because of winter weather was my undoing, and it showed in the latter miles.
  • Be honest with yourself about preparation
    I had a training calendar set out, and while I roughly kept to it, there were still too many runs skipped or cut short if I wanted to meet my goal.
  • Run the race you have, not the one you want
    As I was realizing mid-race that I would not be able to keep up, remembering this helped me be at peace with falling off and letting go of my original expected finish time. Like life, races are full of unexpected factors and you must adapt to them. How you feel about the race will map more closely to your expectations rather than your actual performance.
  • Run each step mindfully
    What I mean by this is, early in the race, running mindfully meant keeping a consistent pace even when it felt easy to go faster. Later in the race, it meant listening to my body and not pushing it into a cramping state or worse, injury.
  • Be grateful
    Even as the race got away from me, being grateful helped remind me to stay focused on what was working & the road ahead, rather than what went wrong & what might have been.
Speaking of being grateful, here is what I am thankful for about this race:
  • Finishing safe & sound
  • Having my family there to support me and enjoy the event
  • Being able to run with my friends and mutually support each other during the race
  • The support of friends who did training runs with me & sent messages of support
  • Near ideal weather conditions, with cool temps and clear skies
  • Well-organized event with sufficient supplies at each station
  • Great crowd and positive atmosphere
Despite the mild disappointment of not meeting my original expectation, I am pretty happy with the run and motivated to keep it up and find races in the future that I can better prepare for. Here's to the next one!