Getting high

I'm waiting out a torrid rainstorm here in Cusco, in an Internet Cafe. All Internet cafe's advertise themselves with the adjective "speedy" here in South America. This one happens to fulfill that promise. I've been in Cusco before, and I've spent enough time here to actually have a favorite Internet cafe.
Cusco (also spelled Cuzco, depending on the source; every location and building here in the city has multiple spellings and names, reflecting the tension here between the city's Queccha/Incan roots and its modern identity, post Spanish invasion and post independence from said Spanish conquerors): the first thing most visitors notice about the city is its altitude of 3,400 meters. You don't see it, but you feel it. Walking at a brisk pace quickly leaves you breathless, and if you push it, eventually you get a nasty migraine. Or worse. It's my first experience with altitude sickness, which affects people randomly. It has nothing to do with your fitness (reminds me of oxygen consumption in scuba diving, which also seems unrelated to any measurable physiological characteristics of the diver).
Once you get over the dizzying heights, though, Cusco is a fabulous destination. Much more interesting and exotic than Lima, which you almost always have to fly through to get here. Sure, it's a tourist mecca, but it earns that distinction by virtue of its Incan ruins. The walls of Cusco are a spatial embodiment of its history. The base of many walls consist of Incan masonry, still existing from the age of the Incan empire in the 15th and 16th century. On top of that base of stones, fitted together with remarkable craftsmanship, are the cement and clay walls built by the conquering Spanish. Most of the cathedrals in the city were built by the Spanish atop Incan temples, and it's a shame more of those temples don't exist today. The Incan walls are famous for being made up of giant stones fitted together with remarkable airtight efficiency. The technology to build such walls exists today, but not the patience.
Today, Cusco seems to want to return to its Incan roots. Most locals I meet here proudly proclaim themselves Indian, though no pure Incans remain. Still, it's unique to see a country embrace its distant past. Most contries I've visited treat their indigenous peoples like a cultural artifact to be placed in museums by the conquering Europeans.
Despite the lousy weather right now, I've gained a second wind and am excited to begin the hike. A few days ago, lying ill in a tiny cabin on a ship off of the coast of the Galapagos Islands, I had a momentary pang of homesickness, but now that I'm in Cusco I'm ready to travel another several months. It could be a result of the delightful Peruvian or Andean cuisine. I'm surprised not to have seen any Andean cuisine in the U.S. The day after my nasty bout of altitude sickness, I had a huge Peruvian lunch at a an outdoor restaurant (quinta) called Quinta Eulalia. My meal consisted of rocoto rellenos (spicy bell peppers stuffed with ground beef and cheese and vegetables), choclo con queso (corn on the cob with a slab of local cheese), and chicharrones (fried chunks of pork ribs called chancho). Mmmmmmm. The corn on the cob here is some strain I don't recognize. Each kernel is three times the size of a corn kernel in the U.S., making it look like some mutant vegetable. Other favorites include their locros (potato stews), adobo (spicy pork stews), tamales (like corn bread, wrapped in banana leaves), and anticucho (grilled beef hearts on a skewer). I tried the cuy al horno, the most famous local delicacy, roasted guinea pig. The meat was sweet, but there were a ton of bones, and since the pig came out to me whole, legs splayed out on the plate, teeth bared in a sort of death grin, I couldn't help but feel some pangs of sympathy for an animal which we embrace as house pets in the States.
I have achieved travel zen. No amount of travel inconveniences ruffle me. For every inconvenience there is more than one benefit. The altitude which plays havoc with my body also means that lots of the mountain biking here is downhill. It's insane downhill. You're on an ancient mountain bike, without toe clips or clipless pedals, with lousy brakes, flying down the mountain on the same path as suicidally aggressive trucks, buses, and taxis, fleeing from stray dogs which may or may not be rabid but are definitely hungry, dust and potholes everywhere. And from time to time, if you dare look to the side, you'll see some several hundred year old Incan ruins, like the salt pans of Salinas. How can you beat that?
(though I do, on nights when Mark Prior is pitching, desperately wish I could get a televised feed...I read how he plunked Barry Bonds and then jawed with him...I'm just waiting until I get home so I can purchase an authentic Mark Prior jersey to go along with the autographed Mark Prior baseball I bought last year)
"I respect Barry as a player, as a hitter and obviously what he's done... The inside part of the plate for me, for me to be effective I need it. I was just trying to back him off. He said what he had to say and I said what I had to say. I hold nothing against him. That doesn't mean the next time I face him I'm not going to go right back inside."
--Mark Prior, Cubs pitcher, after hitting Barry Bonds (AP)
"I'm sure it could have gotten heated. I wasn't going to back down from him at all... Just because he's got 15-20 years in the big leagues and 600 homers and I have been in the league a little under a year doesn't mean I have to stop doing what makes me a professional."

No escape from Kiper's hair, even in Cusco

Any more worthlessly analyzed event than the pro football draft? The last time I was in Cusco, I stopped for lunch at a restaurant, and the meal took two hours, as the wait staff was working on South American time. The TV in the corner was tuned to ESPN, which was, I surmised, broadcasting the NFL draft for nearly the whole day. Mel Kiper and the rest of ESPN's supposed draft geniuses, dubbed in Spanish, boxed in to complex screens that had tickers running across the left and bottom of the screens, several rows or columns deep, numbers scrolling right to left, up to down, in all directions. It was, perhaps, the single greatest volume of incomprehensible multimedia information every to wash over me. (I should note that super agent Drew Rosenhaus was the only person so loud that he could not be drowned out by the dubbed Spanish track; Rosenhaus, inspiration for Bob Sugar in Jerry Maguire, is the perfect caricature of a power sports agent, except he's for real)
I agree with TMQ on the absurdities of NFL draft analysis--it's all much ado about nothing. Among them, the ridiculousness of 40 yard dash times which differ by mere percentage points, insightful observations such as "first round quarterbacks usually fail since the last few superbowls have been won by journeymen quarterbacks," and stuff like that. I personally find it ridiculous that groups of rowdy fans for a team will be shown on TV, cheering or booing draft picks of players they couldn't name just days before. Why do we care what those boorish football fans care? And why are they spending an entire day of their lives watching a football draft live, anyway? Get a life.

Road Reading

I've been devouring books during transit times through airports, or long bus or plane rides. The selection is miniscule, and most bookstores that carry any English books have the most random selection. It takes dedication to sift through for some worthwhile nuggets. Among my conquests these past two weeks:
  • George Stephanopoulus' All Too Human: A Political Education, a fairly interesting account of his days working on the first Clinton campaign, up until his resignation at the end of Clinton's first term. The relationship he had with the Clintons was a complex one, and because they didn't end up as close friends Stephanopoulos can give an honest opinion of Clinton (one could argue that his honest account ended their friendship, though it doesn't seem that way). The book also made me realize just how much of a model it was for Sorkin's The West Wing. Entire plotlines seem lifted from real life. Speaking of Clinton, I see Monica Lewinsky's reality TV show has debuted; it's events like this which make me yearn for another couple of months away from the U.S.

  • Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho. I'd read excerpts before, but never the entire book. More gruesome and disturbing than the movie it inspired, which more people were exposed to, I suspect. This is an impressive novel, and its narrative induced in me a trance-like fever. Or perhaps that was the bad ceviche talking. At any rate, I'll have to put it on my all-time favorites list when I get home.
  • Jonathan Seabrook's Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture took me just a few hours on a plane ride to finish. Seabrook, who wrote and still contributes on occasion to The New Yorker, writes about the replacement of highbrow and lowbrow culture in America today, and he dubs the conquering fusion of commerce and culture nobrow. He uses the struggles of The New Yorker as a case study of how cultural elitists have lost sway in a society in which pop culture reigns supreme. In America, a nation where social hierarchy is extremely fluid, highbrow culture (reflected in the early, William Shawn New Yorker attitude) consisted of opera, classical music, ballet, the classics. It's the attitude that says anything that is popular can't be of substantive quality, because such an attitude is all that preserves one's elitism in a society in which any Joe can become one of the wealthy, instead of just inheriting it. Somewhere along the way, though, fringe became mainstream, and all the boundaries collapsed and became meaningless. Nirvana's success is most often cited as that seminal moment in the music world when alternative became mainstream, and the assimilation of hip hop is seen as the logical outgrowth. Clinton is the Nobrow president, able to use polls to maximize his Q-ratings, changing chameleonlike to maintain his popularity instead of having to take a guess at which stance would be most popular with the public. Anyway, that's just a rough summary of his thesis, which, though it meanders a bit, is quite fascinating. I think I personify nobrow in my tastes, which range from classic to pop culture. If you had to pick a magazine that reflects nobrow, perhaps Entertainment Weekly would be it.

I've hit the end of the line, though. I don't have any more books to read, and Cusco doesn't have any great English language bookstores. My need to read is compulsive. Given my current state, I really wish I could plug my iPod in and start downloading tunes from Apple's new music download service. As if you needed a reason to purchase an iPod, which now comes in a few new models with a slimmer form factor. I'm glad they added a docking station, and jealous, of course, since mine is one of the old fatties, and, at 10Gb, the lowest capacity now offered.