Friday, August 31, 2012

Peruvian Charango Performance, Mobile Version

Street performers aren’t limited to intersections.

Oldest and I had hopped a bus to the oceanfront.  Given previous horror stories about the public bus system in Lima, I had pocketed enough for cab fare.

It is not unusual at all to see people hop the bus, deliver a sales pitch, and dismount a few minutes later, after making their sales.  Candies and nuts are the most commonly proffered, from impoverished yet entrepreneurial folks who buy in bulk and sell at a small markup.  We have seen costume jewelry, and some nicer silver stuff, and once I saw a man peddling special invisible-ink markers, with a UV-light – this gizmo was designed to detect counterfeit currency.  Since Peru is a leader in this industry (Hey, ya gotta be #1 at something) I wish I had bought one – but I haven’t seen them since.

Entertainers are also common – we have been entertained by comedians, and have considered paying generous tips to awful guitar players if they would just get off the bus.  Once a filthy old man produced a ballad with an old violin that would make Clint Eastwood misty-eyed.

Today’s entertainment was a young woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, with a charango, an instrument very similar to the ukulele.  As is common here, she had affixed a pan flute to the neck of it, so she could play them both simultaneously.

After this performance, I of course offered her a coin.  50 centimos is common, or about 19c, but I gave her a Sol, or about 38c.  Strangely enough, after she accepted the coin, she reached into a shoulder bag and handed me two small boxes of mint candies.  She had an unusual marketing technique going – she wasn’t selling her music, she was selling candy.  She was just using the music to get ahead of the hundreds of other candy-sellers.

She sold quite a bit of it over the next minute, and then she was gone.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Stickman Chronicles, Day 60

After two months of this, the Stickman is still the Stickman.

It would seem to the casual observer that forces beyond my control are preventing me from working out.  That is an excuse even more pathetic than my bench press.  The gym across the street was closed for two weeks, but I managed to get in two workouts at home with Mohammed.  My weight bench is missing a part, a support bar that makes it a bit scary to use, since I have replaced it with a piece of plastic pipe.  My last trip to the hardware store was unsuccessful, but I am determined to fix it an move on.

Even with all these hurdles, in the last thirty days I got in nine workouts.  This is only slightly better than days 1-30, but at least it's on the way up.

A degree of good news - I have divided my workouts into A, B, and C days.  I do ten minutes of cardio before and after, just intense enough to get my heart rate up to 130-140.  It isn't quite as simple as doing arms and chest one day and core the next - I have tried to work in some variety so there is no part of me that hurts too badly the next day.  I faithfully write down the amount of weight used and the number of reps, with a short comment indicating the amount of effort it required.  At present, there are four exercises each day, but I will be adding a few more as I learn them from my torturer, er...I mean my trainer.

My last A-day looks something like this:

Dumbbell Press - 25#, 3x10.  Tough, but ok (proud of this since I started with 20#!).
Standing up tricep extension with one dumbbell behind my head (Sorry, I don't know what it's called) - 20#, 3x10, also tough, but doable.
Lat pull-down thing - 60#, 3x10, ok, but just barely
Upright Ab row thing - 60#, 3x10, also barely okay
Situps on some kind of spikey-exercise ball that makes me feel like less of a man - 40.  Could probably do more if I wasn't thinking so much about getting away from this ball before someone I know sees me.

Just when I was starting to feel organized, Mohammed comes over to the house for a session.  We did a few normal things, some chest extension thingy with some old rubber band thingies I had lying around the house, squats, dead lifts, and some dumbbell work with the less worked muscles,

I have no idea what we did, because I am trying to block it out of my memory.  This was on a Saturday.  On Sunday and Monday, I could barely walk - I must have looked like I was suffering from both kidney stones and hemorrhoids.  My quads were killing me, and some obscure muscle that I am pretty sure holds the two halves of my butt together was angry and as sore as a cat's behind after someone scrubs it with a wire brush.  Tuesday was marginally better, and my Wednesday I was starting to entertain the idea of a workout - the gym had reopened, and I was anxious to get back inside.

I'm still adjusting the final A-B-C list, and working on changing the way I eat.  Apparently one meal a day won't fuel this beast.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Stickman Chronicles, Day 55

Ladies and gentlemen, I made a mistake this morning when I woke up.  The first thing I did was go step on the scale.  I say this is a mistake because the scale is the enemy.  It is likely the biggest source of discouragement out there, and for most people that comes in two forms - either for those who are replacing fat for muscle pound for pound, but give up because the 'scale' doesn't show progress, or those who run around the rooms giving high-fives to everyone because they have lost 15 pounds in three months.  It's a hollow victory if this is the third time you have lost 15 pounds after gaining 20 over the winter, so stop it.  It's called precongratulation.  I hate the scale.  I remember years ago I hated it so much I took one out in the yard and shot it.  Oh yes, I did.  And it felt goooood.

The Stickman's problem is neither of these.  (The Stickman sometimes refers to himself in the third person, it's called displacement).  MY problem is explained in previous posts, but the title should be a dead giveaway.  I weighed in this morning at 144 pounds.  This is exactly where I started on July 1st.  The day wasn't starting so well.

In spite of these setbacks, today was a day of just enough inspiration to actually make it to the gym, which is my point of failure most days.  I haven't yet figured out how to overcome that one hurdle.  Just get there.  It sounds like a variation of a slogan for Nike, but it really all boils down to that.
While starting my warmup and in between grunts and groans of my weight routine, I discussed this with Mohammed, my personal trainer, who incidentally, is also a counselor.  There is a huge benefit in that - everyone likes a 2 for 1 deal.

He basically told me that I needed to eat.  I had to get myself accustomed to eating small meals or snacks up five times a day.  This is the myth of dieting, he says.  A person's body will fight tooth and nail the shedding of pounds if it believes that its owner isn't feeding it right.  Eat healthy, and enough, then the burning of calories will cause the body to shed fat rapidly, since it isn't scared of starvation.  My body was having the opposite problem - it is afraid to put on muscle (which has, pound for pound, 23 times the caloric needs of fat tissue) because I'm not feeding myself enough protein, and my body thinks that the corresponding metabolic increase will cause me to starve to death.  Stupid body.

I'm not fond of the idea of protein powders.  They're mostly all the same, labelled "Bruce Banner's Massive Hulk-Building Formula" or some such malarkey.  I'd rather eat food.  If the ingredients on the back of something aren't recognizable as food - then don't eat it.  I think that's a good mantra.

So I am off to the market today, to search for some healthy raw ingredients that I can throw into a blender.  If I find something that doesn't taste like sawdust covered in soybeans and honey, I'll post the recipe here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Stickman Chronicles, Day 50

Has anyone ever had an out of body experience on the treadmill?

And no, I do not refer to collapsing beside it as the world spins around you, gazing up through the oxygen-debt-induced fog and begging Jesus to take you home.

I have again taken up meditation, nothing Buddhist - just relaxation techniques, and an attempt to stop my brain from thinking about all the stressful things that run through it 24/7.  Sometimes I sing to myself, or out loud if I'm alone in the gym.  Anything to stop the voice in my head.  No friends, I didn't say VOICES.  There's no one in there but me, and it's scary enough.

I got on the treadmill after my short workout, to do my ten minutes of cardio.  Sometimes I'll hold 5-pound dumbbells in my hands like a boxer, which for some reason makes my heart rate go through the roof.  I don't run, just a brisk walk on a solid incline, but if my heart rate tops 140, I'll dial it back a little and try to keep it there.

About three minutes in, the old ticker is pumping along, so I close my eyes and just tried to think of nothing.  For a while, I went through the details of my day, and future plans, things that make sense.  Then, somewhere in there, I started thinking of weird, random stuff.  The kind of things that a person dreams about and then wakes up and thinks, "Man, that was weird."  I was trying to chase a girl from high school who was riding a bicycle, when all I had was a skateboard.  I was driving a Hummer through my parents' backyard, trying to explain a rollover drill.  I was back on the helicopter again, riding back from a call and watching the sunset turn into night.  Nothing violent or disturbing, and my head is full of all sorts of that stuff buried deep down, and I would just as soon it stay there.  I'm talking about truly strange stuff that makes so sense.

It wasn't like sleeping while standing up either, because I have done that, too.

In milder states, it might be called a runner's high, and I have had that before.  The advantage is, it blocks out all the pain you should feel, so you can keep going.  This was nothing like that.  It was a deep meditative state, that almost felt like I took a cat-nap right through my 10 minutes of cardio.  When the timer went off, I snapped awake, which means that I wasn't quite awake the second before.

I have no idea exactly how I did this or why, but there it is in a nutshell. (Austin Powers:  "Why are we in this nutshell?")  Maybe that's an appropriate place for it, but all I know is, I felt GOOD.  Not sleepy, or even that relaxed.  Just good.  Wherever I was, I think I will try to get back there next time, and pay more attention to the road signs.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Magic of Machu Picchu

This is the final of seven installments.  Click here to read from the beginning.

We were to meet the bus at five-thirty – and since the station was a stone’s throw away from the hostel, the walk took 30 seconds – 28 more than I needed to determine that Aguas Calientes was one of the darkest towns on Earth.  It wasn’t for lack of city light, for while that was sparse, it wasn’t the problem.  The problem was lack of SKY.  The town lay at the bottom of a narrow gorge, with steep mountain walls a thousand feet high.  This is obviously the place where the South America chapter of the Twilight vampires live.
Just like one of them, Angel appeared behind us, and we boarded the bus.  A chill was in the air, just enough to fog the windows.  That turned out to be a good thing, since the path up the steep mountain consisted of turn after hairpin turn.  The vegetation made it appear that the edge of the abyss was just past the nearest tree.  By the time we reached the top, first light had been upon us for several minutes.
The lines were starting to form, but it wasn’t quite Disneyworld.  A short walk around the brick path, and there it was, cast entirely in shadow.  Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas, was there in living black-and-white and brown, the only trace of color in the pale blue sky above.  Even though we were at the top of this mountain, the surrounding peaks formed a giant nest around the ancient city.  We wouldn’t see the sun pop over the peaks for at least an hour.
So there we sat, on ledges made possible by Inca builders dead for half a millennium, listening as Angel pointed out different buildings, and taught us about Father Sun and Mother Earth, and how both must always be respected because they are the source of all life.  He showed us where we could expect the sun to appear on this particular date.
When the beam finally broke through, the brush of the sun drew a line harder than any Thomas Kincade painting, like a perfectly straight sword of yellow, slowing descending on the city, just as it had for centuries.  Then, for the few minutes that represented the cusp of daylight and darkness, I snapped photos as the sun first kissed the temple atop the ruins proper, then the peaks of the other high walls. 
Seeing that one thing made all the stiffness I felt from climbing out of bed go away.  For a few minutes, there were no worries, no conflict.  There was nothing except me, the Earth and Sun, and my cheap digital camera.

Within the space a man can hold his breath, the sun bathed the city in light, and it looked normal.  To such an extent that a 500 year old city hand made from stone can look normal.
Angel let us gawk for a while longer, then we headed around the mountain to see the Inca Bridge, a stone trail that crossed the face of a cliff a hundred feet wide and three hundred feet tall.  I guess it was too difficult to just build the trail at the bottom or the top of the cliff, it was much easier to just carve into the side of it.  Maybe that’s where some of the city stone originated.
Angel then led us around the other side of the mountain, to a place called the Sun Gate.  Angel had referred to himself as a “mixed man” when he discussed his heritage, but this is where I discovered that he is half mountain goat.  He’s 60 years old, and could out-walk us lowlanders ten times over.
After a quick twenty minute hike…How do I know it was 20 minutes?  Because every time we asked Angel how much farther, that’s what he said…anyway, almost an hour later, we reached the sun gate.  We had seen Inca burial sites and all sorts of medicinal plants along the way, but the sun was definitely there, beating down on all of us.  It was then that I finally understood the magic of this place.
The sun gate was nothing more than a giant stone door, but on the morning of the December solstice, the mystical sunrise we had watched earlier, instead of slipping over the mountain,  would for the first minute occupy only this doorway, sending a ray of light ten feet wide toward the city, which would strike the altar at the sun temple.  For those few seconds, it would be the brightest spot in Machu Picchu.
Angel stood there, closed his eyes, and tried to describe the mystical power of the Lost City of the Incas, but he couldn’t articulate how it was supposed to feel - it was like he didn’t have the words.  For a man who speaks Spanish, English, Italian, and Quechua, that might be a surprise to some.
There are some things that can’t be described.  They can only be felt.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Last Stop on the Way to Hot Water

Click here to read the story of our Cuzco trip from the beginning.

With our last stop of the afternoon, we got a lesson in Inca justice.  Apparently they didn't believe in prisons.  The basic rules were simple:  Don't lie, steal, or be lazy.  You got a few chances if you broke a rule, but after the third offense, the Incas just cut off the head of the offender.  Problem solved. 

One of the more complex rules involved marriage within a social class, so when the daughter of THE Inca wanted to marry a soldier, it would have been awkward to behead your own child and her boyfriend (although I have considered it myself, more than once).  Instead, the Inca just made him a general and exiled them both to a place called Ollantaytambo, a hillside filled with terraces, overlooking a small village, and flanked by a river.

I just never get tired of looking at giant stones cut flat and assembled with perfection.  The idea that a society could do that 500 years ago still astounds me - huge chunks of granite ten feet tall, hoisted up and assembled like they were beamed there by aliens or something.  There aren't a whole lot of practical theories, so aliens sounds good to me.

The village below is an archeological reproduction; walls are carefully rebuilt, and much of the original structure is maintained.  As with the ruin visited in Cold Showers and Giant Flesh-Eating Birds, the town had some reasonable semblance of indoor plumbing.  As usual, those downstream get the worst end of the deal.

Since my squad was tiring quickly of ancient rocks, we headed out through the obligatory gift shop, which in this case was a few acres of open market.  Two kids pointed wooden guns at us, and yelled, "Hands in the air, Gringos!" in Spanish.

Normally, I play along, but not today.  Something chapped me about the way these kids are being taught to see Americans as a cash cow, and not much else.

A short ride to the train station, and we were straight back into a 1950s movie.  This was a new experience for all of us, on any continent.  I had never ridden a train before, at least not for the purpose of getting somewhere (meaning the one at the zoo doesn't count).
Angel told us he would meet us tomorrow morning.  We were a bit surprised that he wasn’t going with us, but he said he would be taking the red-eye train for locals, it was much cheaper than the tourist train, and a lot more like a cattle car.
"This reminds me of the train station in Harry Potter, said Middle.
"You have to run really fast and jump into the wall," said Youngest, without emotion.
"I would knock myself out," Middle replied, giggling.
In her best Wednesday Addams, Youngest replies, "Then you didn’t run fast enough, and you have to try it again.  Let me know when it works."  There is no doubt that youngest has my DNA.

The train was so obviously made in 1960:  Our seats reminded me of a booth at an old diner, the four of us facing an aluminum table, two on each side. The scenery of the valley was fantastic, when it was visible.  Much of the time, I stared out my window at the riverbank.  The water itself was sometimes visible on the other side, but it was much of the same.  We got a light snack service on the way, but overall, I think this was a part we would have skipped.  We arrived in Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of the mountain of Macchu Pichu, and surprise, the train station was surrounded by a souvenir market.  The commercialism of this was starting to get tiresome. 

Sometime between entering the station and exiting the market, the sun had set, and since we were nestled in a steep valley, the tropical sun went off like a light switch.  A young lady with a small sign was there to guide us to our hostel, although the whole town stretched 200 yards along a roaring mountain river.
"Doesn’t Aguas Calientes mean hot water?" Asked youngest.
I answered her in the affirmative.
"I hope our room has it," she answered flatly.

Read the final chapter in the series, The Magic of Macchu Pichu.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Stickman Chronicles, Day 31

 I don’t know what possesses people to do certain things.  I also know that I am a people.  So I honestly have no idea why I chose this year to have my mid-life crisis.  I can tell you that it didn’t sneak up on me, because I have been planning this for months.
             I chose the first day of July as Day One of the Stickman Chronicles.  I call it this because it isn’t an average diet and exercise program.  I am 41 years old, but because of some twist of genetic probability, I have the body of a 12 year old boy.  I am 5-10, and weigh 144 pounds, a classic Ectomorph.  I will look up one day and have the body of a 90-year old man, and will likely skip all the stages in between.  My joints already hurt when I try to run, and I make noises like a box of Rice Crispies when I climb out of bed.
Some of my friends who can gain weight simply by driving past a Baskin Robbins seem to think this is a blessing.  Trust me it is not.  Lack of physical presence makes it difficult to be taken seriously in a business workplace, and I think it’s also more difficult to be considered for positions of greater responsibility.  Perhaps part of this is self-fulfilling – that is, because I don’t think I project a presence, I don’t.  A few of my friends tell me I am dead wrong about this, that when I need to project, I’m more than capable.  It’s just not something I can do on purpose.
Quit complaining that you are skinny, they say.  My mother reminds me that I make ten times the salary that she did.  Doesn’t change anything.  I’m not happy with my body.  I’m certainly not happy with the fact that I am getting older.  So all of you who know what it is like to not like what you see in the mirror should know exactly how hard this is to do.  If I ever run for President, this photo will probably be on my opponent’s campaign poster.

(You may ridicule the Stickman's hat or his Bob Marley pants, but please don't ridicule the Stickman's body)

            So, in classic fashion, I enter a midlife crisis, defined as a paradigm shift in attitude.  I am going to fight this.  I won’t ever be 6 feet tall and be 200 pounds of solid muscle, nor will I ever be 25.  But I would like to be healthier.  I would like to be stronger.  Faster.  Better than before.  Maybe I would like to make a funny sound effect from the 70’s when I run.  That would be awesome.
            Enter Mohammed, my new personal trainer.  His resume?  That’s easy.  He used to be a 130-pound stickman, but now he’s built like a brick outhouse.  He competed in the most recent Mr. Peru competition.  He moves amounts of steel that should require an industrial winch.
            My biggest issue with training is simply my own ignorance.  From 20 years in the healthcare field, I know quite a lot about the human body and how it functions.  Exercise physiology was never something I studied, because I never thought exercise was something that could kill you.
            So Mohammed sets out on day one to prove me wrong.  His strategy is simple, he had me use dumbbells or the simplest of machines that almost every gym has.  The first one was just a plain old dumbbell press, three sets of ten.
            I used 20-pounders, and it was just about all I could do to squeeze out the last two of the second set.  By halfway through the third set, Mohammed was giving me two or three pounds of assistance.  I’m really glad there was no one else in the gym.
            He had me going through lat pull-downs, tricep extensions, and some kind of rowing exercise where I sit upright.  Weights equally as pathetic, but I dutifully recorded it all in my notebook.
            I have always objected to cardio, simply because of my fear of burning excess calories.  It’s true I won’t be doing 45 minute of it every day, but I don’t have to fear it either.  I get on the treadmill for a few minutes to warm up, and crank the incline up to 8 degrees.  Once my Heart rate hits 140, then it’s time to start pumping iron.
            See?  It already sounds more manly than it really was had you actually seen it.
            So according to the title, this is an update as of Day 31.  It hasn’t gone as well as I expected.  We went on a week-long vacation to high altitude, and I probably ate some bad food somewhere along the line, and both of these events disrupted the ideal schedule.
                Which brought the total days spent in the gym to six for the month of July.  Hardly a stellar beginning.  I have no one to blame for this – it is a result of not being properly motivated to get myself to the gym.  Boil everything else down, and the only thing left is that I didn’t want it bad enough.
                A few good things have come from this, though.  I have a handful of exercises to do, and I know the weights to use and the number of reps.  I still don’t really have a routine yet, mostly because certain muscles in my body tend to scream for me to kill myself for several days.  I have thus far resisted.
                The Chronicles of the Stickman continue.