Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Google Wave Looks Freaking Awesome!

Google Wave has me excited. I can't really explain what I've seen, so I'll let Google tell you about it. "Google Wave is an online tool for real-time communication and collaboration. A wave can be both a conversation and a document where people can discuss and work together using richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more." The website is over here.

This demonstration video is pretty long but it's really cool.

It's funny because I've felt the need for an application like this lots of times. When I am planning a trip with another person, say to Thailand for example, we are both doing lot's of research and trying to find the best places at the best prices. Then we have to dump links into email and hope the other person reads them or likes them and just wait for a response. Then after an amazing adventure, we'll have pictures on several different devices that we want to share quickly. These little snags are compounded when your travel group is four or five people. Google Wave sounds like it will make this process smooth like butter.

Now the question is, who is going to be a pal and give me an invite to Google Wave?

Kanikosen Slated for 45th Chicago International Film Festival

Kanikosen, the movie where you can see me for about 10 seconds if you don't blink and know exactly where to look, is coming to the 2009 Chicago International Film Festival(website). The movie's playing at the New York Film Festival was cool, but CIFF is very exciting for me because it's close enough that I can attend. The special screening I saw in Ashikaga was all in Japanese, so this might be my only chance to see the film on the big screen and actually understand what the heck is going on.

Show times are: Oct. 18 at 8:15pm, Oct. 19 at 6pm, and Oct. 20 at 3:30pm. Tickets will cost you $9 if you are a student, senior, or a cinema/chicago member and $12 if you aren't. The Oct. 2o showing is $5 for everyone because it's a matinee.

Also, if you happen to be flying into Chicago with American Airlines you can use the promo code A18H9AB for a 5% discount. The festival's website isn't clear how long the code is good for, so don't blame me!

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Ex-Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich Extended Interview on the Daily Show

Maybe you caught the Blago interview with Jon Stewart when it aired, but it was edited for time. Watch it here in its entirety. I CANNOT WAIT for this to go to trial. This is either the biggest conspiracy ever or the most delusional man on the planet.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

PeruRail to Machu Picchu

We woke up to an early morning in Cusco and took a taxi to the train station.

We drove way out of tourist land and saw some real life happening. Here some small time farmers were having a little market with big piles of vegetables on the side of the road. My ears were already popping as we were steadily driving upwards.

The PeruRail line runs from Machu Picchu station to Lake Titicaca. Machu Picchu station is actually located in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. Machu Picchu is an unpopulated ancient city perched on a cliff, so it understandably doesn't have its own train station. An additional bus ride is needed to get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes.

View peru in a larger map

There are several classes of train listed on the PeruRail website (here). The tickets prices make it pretty obvious that the train is not meant for locals. We took the mid-level Vistadome train one way and it cost us $71 per person. The most luxurious train, the Hiram Bingham, costs travelers $334 one way.

We chose the Vistadome service in part because the extra windows were meant to enhance our Peruvian mountain viewing experience. I'd say they delivered.

We were served a nice breakfast on a fold out table. Unfortunately that meant two rows of seats were facing each other, which really killed the legroom. We had our choice of several breads and drinks. I had some coca bread, which had a greenish tint to it, and and Angelica chose the coca tea. I couldn't fully enjoy my breakfast, though, because by this time I had a serious pressure mounting in my head. I had caught a small case of the sniffles a couple days prior and it was now becoming a problem. I think because my head was already a bit stuffy from my cold, I was having some trouble adjusting to the change in elevation. Everyone's voices sounded like they were underwater. Luckily I snapped out of it by the time we reached our destination.

The train stopped a couple of times, but not really long enough for us to buy anything. I felt bad for the people who were here selling things despite that fact.

When I wasn't teetering on the verge of head explosion, I enjoyed the view as we wound our way through the mountains.

The train stopped in Aguas Calientes and my throbbing head and popping ears were grateful.

On the path from the train station to the rest of the town was a cleverly placed maze of souvenir shops.

By the time we left Peru, we had learned that when it came time to buy things, it was best if I waited around the corner while Angelica bargained. Prices were always lower when the sharks couldn't smell their delicious American prey.

The railroad runs smack through the middle of the town.

You might have to give it a click to tell, but this mountainside was covered in lots of little red and green cactusy plants.

Many people return to Cusco on the same day they arrive. We though that might constrict our time to enjoy Machu Picchu, so we got a room in Aguas Calientes. I would recommend the same to you.

Angelica and I carried all of our things in two backpacks. We did alot of moving around and didn't want to lug heavy luggage all over the place. I was really happy with how it worked out. It was funny though, because everyone kept asking us where our luggage was, like we were the only people with small bags. The people at the airline, some taxi guys, and some people at the hotels were all impressed with our rugged outdoorsiness. If we both know what it means, it counts as a word.

I saw a lot of these "secure earthquake zone" signs in Peru. This one was right across from our hotel room. Lucky us. I wonder why they don't have signs like this in Japan?

We had a nice little lunch before heading to Incaville. There are several restaurants along the main sidewalk parallel to the railroad. The people working there were fairly aggressive about getting customers. They waved menus in our faces and quickly rattled off how cheap and wonderful their foods were as we walked on by. Part of the reason for the competition might be because all of the restaurants seemed to be serving the exact same thing. Someone got the idea that tourists like pizza, because pizza signs were everywhere. I didn't come to a different continent to eat the same old thing though, so I shunned the pushy Peruvian pizzerias (hehe). When we finally picked a place to eat, I had mostly vegetables. Wikitravel had an interesting little tidbit that I didn't read until I had already left the country:

"These restaurants are not up to the standards of those in Cuzco or Lima, but are generally satisfactory. They tend to be moderately high priced. Some guidebooks report an unusually high incidence of food poisoning in the area, possibly attributable to the fairly common power outages (with loss of refrigeration). Cooked pizza and bottled beer or soft drinks are safe bets, salads and Pisco sours (made with raw egg whites) are best avoided here."

Maybe pizza isn't such a bad choice after all...

Prices fluctuate on everything in this city except maybe train and bus tickets (the price is already printed on those). The "tourist menu" didn't even list prices, making the whole thing potentially expensive for the unwitting traveler. Even professional bargainer and Spanish speaker Angelica had to have a little conversation with our waiter. The waiter apparently didn't agree with the low price we had been promised by the menu holder outside. So shady.

We watched this little boy play with magnets on display at a souvenir shop. He kept moving them around in different patterns, and I think he may have even "borrowed" a few for some fun magnet games at home. I wonder what it would be like for a little boy to grow up in a town like this.

When we finished eating we hopped on a bus to the ancient, lost, amazing, stoney, and Incan city of Machu Picchu. I slept most of the way, but Angelica said it seesawed in switchbacks up the side of a mountain.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Secret of the Incas

Lately I've been reading a ton about Peru, Machu Picchu, and the Incan empire, and this little gem caught my eye. Charlton Heston stars in Secret of the Incas, a 1954 adventure film. It was filmed on location in Cusco and Machu Picchu. Heston's character is a proto-Indiana Jones, sporting the now iconic leather jacket and fedora. Apparently its copyright has expired, because the whole thing can be found on Youtube. If you squint while you watch, it looks just like my trip. Give it a gander.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Obama's Healthcare Plan

I am doing my best to keep up with American politics during my travels.

Here is President Obama's speech to congress last week if you missed it.

I recently read an article in the the Wall Street Journal entitled "Fact-Checking the President on Health Insurance" (here). It picks apart a few of the claims Obama makes in his speech.

An article I really enjoyed reading is "5 Myths About Health Care Around the World" in the Washington Post(here). As there are several nations that have already gone the route of public health care, I think it would be wise to review how things are working for them and adjust our actions accordingly. Here's my favorite paragraph:

In many ways, foreign health-care models are not really "foreign" to America, because our crazy-quilt health-care system uses elements of all of them. For Native Americans or veterans, we're Britain: The government provides health care, funding it through general taxes, and patients get no bills. For people who get insurance through their jobs, we're Germany: Premiums are split between workers and employers, and private insurance plans pay private doctors and hospitals. For people over 65, we're Canada: Everyone pays premiums for an insurance plan run by the government, and the public plan pays private doctors and hospitals according to a set fee schedule. And for the tens of millions without insurance coverage, we're Burundi or Burma: In the world's poor nations, sick people pay out of pocket for medical care; those who can't pay stay sick or die.

Is the United States on the verge of something great that will improve the health of our country, or another inefficient government policy that will force us to shoulder an ever greater tax burden? What do you think?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Peru Part 1: Lots of Planes and a Guniea Pig

I had barely been in Colombia two days when I packed a backpack with a few sets of clothes and headed for the airport to catch a plane to Peru. Angelica and I mainly wanted to see what everyone wants to see in Peru: Machu Picchu. There weren't any direct flights, though, so we had to fly from Bogota to Lima, then Lima to Cusco.

On the flight to Cusco the clouds were so thick that we couldn't land. We flew in circles for an hour or so waiting for the weather to clear, then returned to Lima. We got a free lunch for our trouble, but we also got another good size layover.

I figured it was a good time for me to plunge into the local fare. This is a tamale but much different than those I can get in Springfield. This was salty and had raisins in addition to the chicken inside. The dark purple drink is called chicha morada. It is made from purple corn and who knows what else. It was super sweet and so rich that I couldn't drink more than half a glass.

Later on I bought this little bag of gum drops. I thought it was interesting that purple corn was listed as one of the fruit flavors.

Our second attempt at landing in Cusco was a success. Here you can see the lonely little airstrip.

That first taxi ride from the airport in a new country has become a source of excitement for me. It's like a free tour of the city.

The Cusco Cathedral. There were several grand churches in a fairly small area. Even a couple of schools I saw had high stone walls and other imposing attributes.

We were super tired from the long hours of traveling. As much as I wanted to get out and see everything right away, nap time was necessary. By the time we had our showers and everything, it was dark outside.

Cusco is super touristy. There was a band playing some local sounding music on a little stage nearby. I wouldn't be surprised if a band played there every day.

This donkey statue stands in front of a school. It even has books strapped to its back. I told Angelica it reminded me of Pinocchio. I don't know if it is meant to be a reference or not.

Cusco started to get more interesting as we walked down the side streets. Cusco's main square is tourist territory. A large percentage of the restaurants were pizza places or other food obviously aimed at foreigners. In addition to that, many of the restaurants have touts with menus out front who got to be very annoying. I was much happier down the streets that seemed to be for the locals. Everything was cheaper, authentic, and no one was shoving things in my face to buy.

This beat up Pikachu slot machine stop just inside a barber shop. I couldn't figure out how to get it to work, and it seemed to be missing a few buttons.

There were several little arcades and internet cafes with kids playing games. I guess these places are a ton more popular when the average kid can't afford to buy a home system. We stopped in at a quaint little arcade. There were about ten machines smashed together in a little room. The owner sat in one corner and watched a tiny tv while several kids played. Many of the cabinets were fighting games. All of them were old.

The tokens looked homemade.

At the end of the night we stopped at one of the touristy places called Bar Cusco. Here are a couple of local things, a Cusqueña beer and a pisco sour.

This place had a few "traditional" things on the menu, so we went for those. I had "Oven made Guinea Pig, pepper souffle with potatoes and creola sauce" for 49 soles. I'm pretty sure it was the most expensive thing on the menu. Angelica had some alpaca meat.

The little guy looked ready to strike so I quickly gave him a little taste of the Bush Doctrine.

Was this a meal or an anatomy class? All of its teeth were still in its little mouth, and its claws were still on its little hands. I had to peel back its skin to get to the food part. The meat was chickeny (you probably could've guessed that, right?). The waitress said I was supposed to eat it with my hands, but I thought staying just in fork range of it was a better plan. When I had finished picking at it I asked for it to be taken away immediately. I didn't need it staring me in the face for a single minute longer.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

In Colombia, McDonald's Delivers

You might think it very tourist-American of me to write about McDonald's in other countries, but I think the fact that McDonald's delivers in Colombia is newsworthy. I had assumed that the United States was on the cutting edge of sedentary over-consumption of calories, but I'm afraid we have fallen behind. The learner has become the master.

I was thinking it might be cool to pick something strange that is only on local menus, but having to order over the phone put the brakes on that plan for the time being. I stuck with a classic, the Quarter Pounder with cheese combo. You can't go wrong with that. There's actually a location extremely close to Angelica's house, so it didn't take long at all for the food to arrive.

The box everything came in was pretty serious about not accepting the food if the seal was broken. It's the symbol of the trust shared by myself and Ronald.

The fries came in a little box so that they didn't spill everywhere in transit. The Spanish is "Like in McDonald's, but in your house".

Speed holes so you can eat faster.

Dessert was something from the supermarket. Arroz con leche is rice pudding with cinnamon as far as I am concerned.

I just got back from the Incan ruins of Peru Monday evening, so I've got some coverage of that brewing. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

My Month in Colombia Begins

I tapped a little something out somewhere over the United States. "The plane just went over some heavily populated area. It's something like looking into a computer's mind. So many lights, densely packed in lines and grids. Bright veins spider out into spindly branches. You can't see a city's problems from up here, just the light."

The first thing that I always notice when I come to Colombia is the traffic. It is insane. I used to be frightened by the constant honking, death-tempting near misses, and the swerving due to moon craters in the pavement, but now it's all become pretty funny. Sure, if I had to drive through it myself I would probably cry, but I trust my Colombian companions to safely deliver us through the madness. Traffic lights seem to be obeyed fairly well, but not much else. Stop signs are entirely optional. At a red light it is routine to have people walking amongst the stopped cars selling all sorts of things. Flowers, cleaning equipment, and fruit pass by my window while I try to look as uninterested as possible. Yesterday a man stood on another's shoulders and they both juggled while we idled. The trick then is for them to stop their performance soon enough so that they can bob from car to car to collect donations through car windows opened just a crack. Traffic have never been so exciting.

I went to the American Embassy in Bogota yesterday and today. The Japanese government mercilessly stickered and stamped my passport a total of 25 times during my two years in and out of Japan. Add to that a couple recent little excursions and my passport was filled thoroughly. The addition of another set of pages to a passport is a free service that the embassy provides. I went in and dropped my laden passport off for it's upgrade without any difficulty. I went through three checkpoints with two metal detectors without much fuss, completely contrary to the hellish line waiting that Angelica has had to endure several times. I even got to see a motorcade leave with what must have been someone important. My second visit to pick my passport up, though, was pretty awful. The guard on the outer gate spoke crap English, while the guards on the inner gate spoke none. When I left I was told something like "come back at three". Coming from the nice lady who worked at the embassy, this seemed a loose guideline. Coming from the staunchly monolingual guards outside, though, this was a one minute window of entry opportunity. From the lengthy Spanish diatribe I received from multiple guards I gathered "this card says 3, and now it is past 3, so come back tomorrow." Someone told Angelica "3 means 3. Not 3:05 or 3:10". I'd say a same certain someone is confused about where their arepa money comes from.

Well I'm leaving for Peru today, so I did "come back tomorrow". But I can't say I was happy about it. I've never written a letter to an ambassador before. I'll tell you how that goes.

Here's my not-so-official looking ticket to getting my freaking passport back.

I took a couple of pictures of the embassy compound out the window while we drove off. We were stopped less than a minute later by police, who questioned us about why I would do such a thing. I'll be happy if I never see that place again.

I had a lot of fun yesterday, too, though. Angelica's cousin had her birthday party yesterday, which was pretty cool. It was a pretty lively party. A band played right in the living room and lots of people were dancing. It was a nice little peak at Colombian culture.

The snack food here is really good. These Maizitos are the same thing as Fritos in the US.

I love the packaging. Don Maizito says "We are fried!" The four squares show the correct way to open the bag so that the chips explode out.