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Many successful entrepreneurs and writers have said something like, “If I had known how hard it would be, I never would have started.”

What if that’s how we’re wired?

To help you understand what I mean, let’s talk about something we all struggle with: estimated completion dates.

How many times have you begun a project — such as a term paper or a household improvement — and found that it took 2 or 3 times as long as you expected? Or simply spent three times as long answering email as you meant to?

Perhaps this inability to guess the difficulty of projects is an evolutionarily advantageous trait. Perhaps evolution selected for this kind of blind optimism.

To help you understand why I blame evolution, let’s imagine two similar humans who both have normal aversions to discomfort: we’ll call them Clay and Faith.

Clay is grounded; he can accurately predict the difficulty of all projects. He’s a realist.

However, Faith typically overestimates the ease of projects and of her capacity to accomplish them. She’s an optimist.

Now imagine that both Faith and Clay are trying to survive on the plains of Africa 9,000 years ago. Who is more likely to start and continue a project to, say, till the land, or hunt all day for dinner, or trudge miles to find a greener pasture? Yep — it’s Faith, the optimist.

Perhaps life is so nasty and brutish that evolution selects for beings that can’t internalize that.

We know that optimists make better entrepreneurs. But what if this observation belies something deeper? That perhaps this trait of ours — our daily overestimation of our own abilities — is built into us not as a weakness, but as a strength?

This is a story about a postcard. It begins on Machu Picchu, climaxes at Lake Titikaka, and ends where the Amazon river begins.

Today is Monday. Wednesday I hiked Machu Picchu. Thursday I bought the Machu Picchu postcard to send to my girl Friday. And Friday I mailed the postcard in the lobby of my new hotel, the Hotel Francis Puno, on the coast of Lake Titikaka. I did so by dropping it into this mailbox (which is on the right side of this photo) — at the suggestion of the desk attendant. (Italics retroactive.)

(If you’re sketchy on Peruvian geography, here’s a copy of the Google map. Notice the distance from Puno in the south to Iquitos in the north of the country.)

Before I tell you what happened to the postcard and my trust in the Peruvian postal system, I have to explain a bit about el Hotel Francis Puno. Francis Puno is one of those Western-style oopsies found all over Peru. At some point – perhaps the 1980s, judging by the floral décor – some ambitious businessman built the Hotel Francis Puno to cater to the Lake Titikaka tourist set. Perhaps Francis Puno had a heyday when the intelligentsia of Puno sipped Peruvian grape brandy with European captains of industry, but as of May 2009 business ain’t so hot. My two British travel buddies and I were the only ones staying there this past weekend, and the empty corridors and lack of lights on the top three floors were like something out of The Shining. I doubt the five-story hotel has seen more than three or four guests at any given time this year – and probably going back much farther.

Now we skip to two days and one Lake Titikaka tour later. It’s 6 AM on Sunday morning and I’m sitting in the hotel’s lobby waiting for my ride to Juliaca International Airport — and I’m just staring at the postal box. The idea of a Peruvian postal mailbox, in the lobby of this neglected hotel, begins to seem curiouser and curiouser. And I think to myself, “I wonder if my postcard has been collected yet.”

Mind you, at this point it’s still a question of WHEN my postcard will be collected.

When Señor Hotel Attendant walks away, I amble over to the mailbox all nonchalant-like to investigate. Here’s a close-up:

If what happened next was a text-based adventure game from the 80s, it would go something like this (with my commentary in italics):

> look box

You see a mailbox labeled “Serpost.” It is red and white, echoing the colors of the Peruvian flag, and it sports a narrow mail slot on its slanted top.

> look in box

You try to peek in the slot but cannot see anything. There is not enough light.

> inventory

You pat your pockets. You’re carrying a passport, several assorted Peruvian coins, two note cards, a small bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, a Sharpie marker whose middle has been wrapped several times in duct tape, and a restroom receipt.

(In other words, no flashlight. It’s in my already-packed bag.)

> look box

You investigate the mailbox again. Looks pretty solid.

> open box

As far as you can tell, there doesn’t seem to be any place on the box’s front and sides where it can be opened.

> get box

I’m sorry, I don’t understand that command. Type “help” to see a list of available commands.

> lift box

You carefully grab the metal mailbox. It’s surprisingly light and comes right off the wall. Its removal reveals two nails in the wall to which the box was hanging.

(Like the piece of art it turned out to be.)

You consider the box and its method of entry. On the back side is the door with a hole where the lock used to be. The mailbox’s flap is unstably secured by an old piece of clear packing tape.

> open box door

You open the flap, which comes off completely. The manufacturer didn’t splurge on hinges. The box’s insides seem rather cavernous for such a small receptacle. On the floor of the mailbox are perhaps a dozen letters and postcards. Many appear to be versions of the archetypal Machu Picchu postcard.

> get my postcard

Plucking from the top of the pile, you retrieve your postcard, which you recognize by your improper capitalization of the Spanish word for May.

—end of walk-thru—

Mind you, this is the Francis Puno. To get a dozen epistles collected in the lobby’s mailbox, the mail must have last been collected months ago. More on that in a second.

First, a quick aside to understand how we got here. I didn’t send my Machu Picchu postcard from Cusco because I didn’t have time — like the Israelites, except with postcard mailing instead of bread leavening. So as I’m unpacking in Puno, I find the card and go downstairs to ask the shy man at the front desk – Where can I send this? Señor Hotel Attendant points at the post office box. The same box that we now know has been stoically collecting mail for an indeterminate but undeniably hilarious amount of time.

A few scenarios present themselves regarding Señor Hotel Attendant, all of which deserve further study. Either (1) he knows how often the mail is collected – never – or (2) he does not. Let’s look at bit deeper at each of these options.

If (1) Señor Hotel Attendant knows about the mail non-collection , then we may posit three or four subsequent possibilities: Either (A) he thought that pointing me elsewhere would be an admission that perhaps the Francis Puno did not merit the attention of Peru’s mail carriers, (B) he did not feel culturally empowered enough to tell a Western guest to go elsewhere to mail his postcard, or (C) his reasons for acquiescing to my use of the black holebox ranged from the apathetic to the malicious. Which is to say, either he didn’t care about my mail – a blatant disregard for a traveler’s epistolary welfare – or he actually wanted my card to spend a few penitent months in postal purgatory.

I suppose there’s also a possibility of (D), that he’s so fed up with tourists and their damn Machu Picchu postcards that he pulled a Newman and started passively hoarding them. But as Seinfeld and its brand of observational humor is less popular in Peru – “What’s the deal with Incan ruins?!?” – we can dismiss this scenario as unlikely.

But what if we give him the benefit of the doubt? Perhaps (2) he does NOT know about the impromptu club of Machu Picchu postcards holding court in the corner of his lobby. In this case, either (A) he is new on the job and has more trust in the Peruvian mail system than I can now muster, or (B) he has been working the hustle and bustle of the Francis Puno for months and has never thought to himself, “You know. A lot of tourists put mail in there. But I don’t know of any mail carriers coming to collect. I wonder if this is, as they say in France, a cul de sac?”

OK, aside aside.

We we last left our hero, he was grabbing his AWOL missive and returning the Casandra of mailboxes to the wall before the dastardly Señor Hotel Attendant returned to his station from his appointed rounds.

And so I’m sitting there, my postcard in hand, expecting my airport ride to arrive any minute, thinking, Well, what’s going to happen to the other letters? Are their senders mourning their lost messages? Is Paris Hilton still dating that one guy?

Señor Hotel Attendant has disappeared again, and it’s just me and the mailbox. I re-remove it from the wall, liberate ALL the letters, awkwardly replace the box, and return to my seat, hoping that the penalties for tampering with Peruvian mail are mild and circumstantially assigned. “But your honor, think of all the good boys and girls who will now receive cardboard pictures of Machu Picchu.”

Here are the contents of the box, laid out:

Perhaps someone could analyze the mail and better explicate the ids and egos of the types of people both (1) willing to stay at the Francis Puno, and (2) foolish enough to try to mail something there. Suffice to say that there are several Maccu Picchu postcards, including mine. But as with any multivariate study, the data are spotty. Most of the postcards lack dates. The earliest date on any of the other mail is March 22, 2009. Two months is a long time to be a mailed postcard sitting in Puno, Peru.

Before leaving the lobby of Hotel Francis Puno with the mail of several strangers, I had the same final obligation of any prophet – to warn the future against transgression. So I used the duct tape and sharpie…

…to write and post a note card above the box that said, in my best Spanish, “Correo no se recogen aquí.” “Mail not collected here.”

I am now in Iquitos in Peru’s Amazonia, where, at the time of this writing, I will mail the letters 600 miles away from their indended departure city. And in a week — somewhere in Brescia, Italy — a mother will receive a postcard from Machu Picchu from her daughter Laura who was there in late March, and the mother will think, “Hmm, that took a while.”

“And why is it postmarked from Iquitos?”

I can’t help but think that if the apostle Paul had mailed his letters from the Hotel Francis Puno, the New Testament would have ended up a good bit shorter.

This is the story of my trip to get to Machu Picchu. More to come on Machu Picchu and Lake Titikaka later.

But first a word from our sponsor, LAN Airlines, who wins the award for ably combining a competent and enjoyable travel experience serving South America with a website that is perhaps the most frustrating, poorly coded, and all-around poppycock way to book travel mankind could possibly invent. If you’re going to do AJAX — having a site respond to input with additional dependent input fields — it’s gosh-awful to do it poorly. A million monkeys typing on a million computers for a million years couldn’t have come up with an online booking site as Shakespeareanly tragic as that of LAN.

Well. That felt good. Now you’ll hear the rest of the story.

I have a habit of meeting people on the ride (train/plane/bus) to a new city, and then adopting them as my travel buddy while we’re there. Millie and I met coming off the plan from Lima to Cusco. I learned that she was late 20s, Australian, and traveling around the world.

After a bit of pleasantry:
Me: So, you got a hostel?
Millie: Yeah.
Me: Mind if I join you?
Millie: No worries, mate.

See? Told you she’s Australian.

This is Millie, at the hostel’s breakfast:

And me, with a bit of coffee.

Cusco, it should be said, is charming.

Millie and I grabbed a room, had dinner, and left for Machu Picchu Peublo (the base camp town for the Wonder) the next morning. We shared a 90-minute taxi to the halfway point of Ollantaytambo — or just call it “Ollanta,” if you have a train to catch — with some spectacular views.

Throw in some hastily befriended English speakers, and you might get something like this:

Here, the taxi driver, Wilfredo, inspects his headlight at a brief stop. (Why was he worried about headlights he wasn’t using? Can’t say, really.) Check out the mountain range in the distance, and notice how low the clouds are. We’re at 3,000 meters above sea level.

At Ollanta, we boarded PeruRail’s “Vistadome” train to Machu Picchu.

Riding PeruRail to Machu Picchy Pueblo, the small town from which one can board a bus to the magestic site, is a bit of a moral quandry.

  • On one hand, it’s the only legal way to get to Machu Picchu without doing a 4+ day hike from Cusco.
  • That said, PeruRail is old-school segregationist. On the low-end Backpacker train, tourists sit in one car with comfy reserved seats, while Peruvians must board a separate car, often standing room only — with nary an exception allowed. It’s a bit unbelievable.

    I only realized all this AFTER riding the Backpacker outbound from Machu Picchu. Which is to say, I was fooled. And I can’t help but at least be reminded by the nasty streak of collaborative inaction in human history (cf. slavery, Holocaust, Japanese internment).

    The point is not to raise a segregated Peruvian train to the level of the Holocaust. The point is simpler and perhaps more obvious — that human behavior can be less than impressive when one is benefiting from the exploitative power dynamic — and in this one scenario of the Machu Picchu train, when I benefited from segregation, I did a poor job of noticing my own unearned privilege (as the social scientists would put it). Something I’m going to have to digest a bit more.

    It’s all a bit sad that one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World is caught up in as odius a setup as PeruRail is running.

    Machu Picchy itself, of course, was spectacular. More to come about that, and more, in our next installment. Stay tuned, and don’t change that channel.

Welcome to this developing country, and congrats on being a citizen of a nation with a widely-traded currency. Now you have the opportunity to purchase goods here at prices your friends at home will act impressed by.

Doing so will require “negotiation.” Follow these steps, and soon you too will be traveling home with several suitcases full of colorful items with unpronounceable names and arguable bobo appeal.

  1. Find your object of desire, such as a painting, tapestry, or a “Gringo Parking Only” sign.
  2. Ask how much it costs.
  3. Whatever price is quoted, act disgusted at how high it is. Be dramatic. Loudly use whatever phases you know, such as “Dónde está la biblioteca!”
  4. After waving your hands for several minutes, counter-offer a price between one-forth to one-fifth of the quoted price.
  5. Now it is the merchant’s turn to act disgusted. Don’t say anything. He will point out how great the item is, how it is way better than anything you could get from Paul down the row. Paul’s stuff is schlock, he will say.
  6. You suggest a price 10% higher.
  7. He suggests a price 10% lower.
  8. More drama.
  9. Repeat steps 6 through 8 until your prices are close.
  10. Thank him and walk away, turning your back. Can you believe he’s trying to charge you $5 for an original painting? The nerve!
  11. He will grab you and agree to your latest price. Pay up.

Note: This post contains copious amounts of sarcasm. No actual views were expressed in the writing of this post.

It has been observed by people much smarter than myself that developing countries tend to have one very large city, almost always the capital, and several much smaller ones. Peru’s is Lima, a sprawling metropolis adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. I spent the weekend of May 9th and 10th in Lima, walking and biking around the city. Here are some pictures.

This is a view of my hotel, the Best Western Embajadores, from down the street.

In the bottom left is a taxi driver fixing his car who, whenever I would pass by, would offer me a ride. This happened several times. … If you look closely, you can see that he is a bit distracted by the woman walking down the street.

At the hotel’s breakfast, cereal came pre-bowled. Pretty convenient.

From a large mall, the Larcomar, built into the cliff overlooking the Pacific, I could look down on a game of futbol — as if in the nosebleed seats at Gillette Stadium. A pretty cool mix of elements: roaring Pacific ocean, futbol, and an Ivy-covered cliff — all from the deck of a mall.

Playing futbol on the beach on Saturday morning – pretty sweet.

I just like that the graffiti says “Te Amo,” or “I Love You.”

Though it seems addressed to Kathy. :(

Out of a local brandy, Pisco, is made the Pisco Sour, which is a bit like a whiskey sour. Egg whites make it all fluffy-like. Pretty tasty.

For my money, this is the finest-named establishment ever. Sandwiches? Cafes? I love both of these things, but for too long have they remained apart. No longer!

There’s a theater-in-the-round type of area in one of the parks that, on Saturdays and Sundays, has free dancing for the senior citizens.

The dancing was a great place to sit and practice your Spanish with an English student named Paul Brayan Cahuide Moores Nuñez and his wife with whom you will later go for a walk and get drinks.

That evening I returned to the Larcomar and was reminded of my Benches theory. In any place where it is untoward or prohibited for unmarried men and women to visit each other’s homes, half-hidden benches in public areas become an important part of the dating scene. Examples I’ve seen: University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN, USA; Beijing Normal University in China; the public square of Xela, Guatemala. Here, in the dark, several couples canoodle on the benches.

Mayors of the world: If you want to improve your city’s dating scene, install more benches.

These signs were posted all around the tourist areas — reminding tourists to not give to children on the street. I wish the signs also included the alternative — giving to established organizations that do help — and mentioned one or two approved by the city.

Sunday morning I went on a Bike Tour with Bike Tours of Lima, a pretty great outfit. Here are their offices; I admire anyone who decorates their walls with bike helmets.

This is me. On a bike. Which had as much use for me as it would have for a fish.

Peru has crazy amount of archeology going on, and the middle of Lima is no different. This is one of the sites, which used to be a kind of city center plaza.

Look closely at the list of prices; I love that University Professors get a 58% discount on admission. (3 Peruvian Soles = 1 Dollar)

A very, very large olive grove — just hanging out in the middle of the city.

In the park is a “happiness tree,” where just-married couples often come to have their pictures taken for good luck.

I know of at least one such couple. The woman is Nancy, but I just can’t recall the guy’s name.

Some great architecture.

There is more to share, but I have to catch a flight. Feel free to let me know in the comments what kinds of things you’d like to hear more about. Hasta luego.

Three things I’m bad at are (1) asking for what I want, (2) striking up conversations with strangers (safely), and (3) looking dumb. And as I’ve thought about it, I realize they turn turn out to be the same basic thing.

To help you understand what I mean, I’m going to ask you to take this short test. It’s just three questions, and you can’t fail*.

1) Imagine you’re sitting on a plane to South America, the seat in front is reclined, and you’d really like it upright so you can use your tray table. Do you ask?

2) Or imagine you just arrived in Lima, Peru, and you want a good place for lunch. Do you ask?

3) Or imagine you just need directions to Central Lima, and your Spanish ain’t so hot. Do you ask?

Normally, I stay mum. I deal with the reclined seat; I eat at the first place that looks good; I wait until I find a friendly-looking Englishman with a bowler hat and cane to ask directions.

But as I think about it, I realize that the issue is not just a (1) a fear of awkwardness; (2) a fear of rejection; or (3) a fear of bad impressions. It’s a bit more abstract than that — something like a fear of failure.

Isn’t that silly?

So, I’m posting this fuzzy self-help-ish stuff to say something simple — a goal I am making to deal with these three things I’m bad at. As I wander around strange Latin American cities in the next two months, I’m going to ask a lot of myself and ask a lot of other people.

* Not that it matters if you could.

Hey — remember “Don’t Panic”, the friendly message on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

So I’m on my way to meet the great folks that run ACCION Georgia for lunch on Tuesday — just talking shop about domestic microfinance, you know — when I see this button/alert in the elevator:

What a great sentiment. It makes me want to launch a line of assuredness paraphernalia. Other messages might be:

  • “Dude. Be Cool.”

  • “Oh, Her. She’s Just Jealous.”
  • “Stay Gold, Pony Boy.”

The next time you’re upset or anxious, just remember: Help Is On The Way(tm)

Getting to know a new computer is like dating someone — there’s a lot of awkward fumbling at first, they come with preinstalled habits you have to remove just right, and the experience naturally slows down over time into something ordinary yet charmingly familiar.

On our third date, my HP Mini and I were hanging out, and we got to chatting:

Andrew: “…and that’s why I’m afraid of almonds. … Hey Mini, you seem sliggish today — what’s up?”

HP Mini:

Andrew: “That’s so cute — you’re a computer that wants to be a toaster on the side. Listen: Just be yourself.”

Take it from me, kids. If you’re not a toaster, don’t be a toaster.

A 9-week trip to South and Central America doesn’t come along every Cinco de Mayo, so I bought a HP Mini Netbook to be my bff.

Its specs are very netbooky:

  • 10.1″ screen
  • 92%-sized keyboard
  • 16GB solid-state storage

The HP Mini FW376UA retails for $400, but I’m thrifty, so I got one refurbished off of a listing for a cool $260.

Of course, setting up a new computer these days is a pain. I’ve done it so many times, I even have a 34-item checklist I use. (True.) After a day of clicking NEXT on too many installation screens, my little Netbaby is ready. Besides a few broswers, here’s what I installed:

  • AutoHotKey - The HP Mini’s small touchpad and my ape-like fingers mean custom shortcuts and macros are the shit’s pajamas. has an great intro to the magically dorky world of AutoHotKey.
  • Cobian Backup – Method #1 for backing up my files. A solid piece of freeware.
  • Google Earth – In Latin America, there’s as much public wifi as there is love for the IMF, so Goog-E, as the kids call it, works as a nice offline maps program. While you’re connected to the Web, you pull up the area you care about, and Goog-E caches it for happy offline use. That’s Beans!
  • Skype – It’s 2009. Calling cards are gauche. All I need is my netbook, Skype, and my iPhone’s handy-dandy microphone-and-earphones-in-one headset and soon I’ll be phoning home like a piece of 1982-era special effects.
  • Windows Live Mesh and Windows Live Sync – Method #2 for backing up my files. And by the way, why does Microsoft offer TWO programs for syncronizing files across computers? (That’s right: TWO!)

I’m still looking for a name for the little tyke. Take another look, and let me know in the comments: What’s a good netbook nickname?

P.S. The title of this post is an homage to a great shirt over at Funny guys, they.

Turns out, when you write “City Tours” in cursive script, it can read as “City Jews.”