Mar 302014


Yes, today is my birthday, so I am going to go a bit hog wild in remembering birthdays past.  You’ll have to excuse the self indulgence — I promise I won’t do it again next year.  And . . . so as not to be totally self absorbed, here are some regular old anniversaries for 30 March which I have posted with hyper-links in case they interest you.


Today was the feast of Salus in ancient Rome honoring the goddess of security and well-being (welfare, health and prosperity) of both the individual and the state.  More here:



1842  Ether anesthesia is used for the first time, in an operation by the U.S. surgeon Dr. Crawford Long.

1858 The pencil with eraser attached is patented

1867  Alaska is purchased from Russia for $7.2 million, about 2-cent/acre ($4.19/km²), by United States Secretary of State William H. Seward. Henceforth it was known as “Seward’s folly.”


1746 – Francisco Goya, Spanish painter.


1811 – Robert Bunsen, German chemist, inventor of the Bunsen burner.

1853 – Vincent van Gogh, Dutch painter.  Can you pronounce his name correctly? Probably not.  Go here for the answer:

aardappeleters beeld_0

1930 – Rolf Harris, Australian singer-songwriter. Came to worldwide fame with the classic “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport.” (slightly racist for a modern listener).

1945 – Eric Clapton, English singer-songwriter, guitarist, and producer (The Yardbirds, Cream, The Dirty Mac, Blind Faith, and Free Creek). Take your pick.  This was popular when I was a teen:

I am in the habit on my birthday of reflecting on past birthdays as I celebrate the day.  So, I am going to do this “out loud” for you this year.  Don’t worry, I am not going to reflect on all 63 — just some highlights.




As attested by my birth certificate, I was born at 9 pm on 30 March 1951 in Hospital Británico in Buenos Aires, and my full legal name is Juan Alejandro Forrest de Sloper.  The hospital is only 5 blocks from where I live now on the same avenue, but it is much more modern now than it was then.


It is a good job that I have this original of my birth certificate because the old Registro Civil building that housed all the birth records of that era burnt down some years ago, destroying all the records.  When I applied for my DNI (Documento Nacional de Identidad) which all citizens are required to carry, they uncovered the hospital record of my birth with a notation from the attending doctor indicating that I was born with the umbilical cord around my neck, so that the delivery was much longer than usual.  In some cultures this is considered a good omen, but all I remember is my mother complaining about it once in a while when she was in reminiscing mode.  I was born with absolutely blond hair (as was my son), and so was apparently a favorite with the ladies when my mum took me to the park in my pram.

I have had my natal chart drawn by several people using different systems over the years.  Just for amusement I had this one generated by a website.


There is a long analysis that goes with it that I have appended at the end here in case you are interested.  It is alarmingly accurate in a great many places (and quite wrong in a few others).

Soon thereafter I was baptized in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in barrio Monserrat in Buenos Aires.  My mother was really anxious to do this because she was unhappy that the state required my parents to give me Spanish names. She thought that if I were baptized using English names she would then be able to use them on official documents.  I’m not entirely sure that her logic was sound, but all my documents from English-speaking countries thenceforth listed me as John Alexander (which I reversed when I returned to Argentina).  Here’s the font where I was baptized:



I don’t remember much about my birthdays until we moved to South Australia in 1958.  [Perhaps my sisters can fill in the blanks for me in a comment?  I do recall my mum saying that children’s birthdays were a BIG DEAL in Argentina.] In Australia birthdays for all the family followed a standard format.  You got your presents in the morning at the breakfast table, and then had a birthday dinner in the evening.  Our menu was invariant: roast chicken with all the trimmings — crispy roast potatoes, chipolata sausages, bread sauce, sage and onion stuffing, and a seasonable vegetable, plus a cake with candles.  This may seem rather simple, but I loved these special meals.  Poultry was not common on our table back then in Australia because it was expensive.  The cheap meat for roasting was lamb, and we had a roast shoulder pretty much every Sunday.  Chicken was a welcome change. I always put in a bid for a drumstick.  Being the family photographer I have photos of other people’s birthdays, but none of my own. This will have to do (nicked from the web).

Roasted Chicken Dinner


For my birthday this year my parents gave me the equipment for me to be able to develop and print my own film (black and white).  I had been taking photos for about 2 years (more or less incessantly), so this was the next logical phase. I did not get to use it for some time though because the next day my appendix burst and I landed in Hutchinson hospital in Gawler for an emergency appendectomy.  What galled me the most about it all was that I was sent home to get ready for the hospital with strict instructions not to eat anything.  So I had to sit through dinner with a pain in my gut, watching the rest of my family scarf down MY birthday cake. By the time I was sprung a week later it was all gone.  Here’s the hospital somewhat before my stay there.  Looked about the same when I was a prisoner there, though (including the nurses’ uniforms):



I turned 21 in 1972.  I was caught on a very unfortunate cusp. For centuries, turning 21 had always been really special because it marked the age of majority, and symbolized entrance into adulthood.  But when I was 19, the age of majority was lowered to 18 in the U.K. So all of a sudden I could vote, but with no fanfare or big birthday to mark it.  By the time I turned 21, that age had diminished in importance and I had legally been an adult for 2 years.  I was at Oxford at the time and rarely went home to my parents’ house. So we jointly agreed for me to simply celebrate as I saw fit, and they gave me £200 (a considerable sum in those days) to kick up my heels.

I had a girlfriend of sorts, Jill, who agreed to spend the day with me in London. I had no master plan for the day, although I did want to see a revival of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband in the evening.  We went to the theater to get tickets and then headed for Dirty Dick’s.  This is a pub that I had heard about when I lived in Australia and had always wanted to visit.  It’s in Bishopsgate on the edge of the financial district. It commemorates an 18th century merchant, Nathaniel Bentley (aka Dirty Dick), whose fiancée died on their wedding day.  Ever after he never washed, nor cleaned his warehouse.  When he died it was caked inches deep in filth.  The warehouse was demolished soon after, but entrepreneurs recreated the look of the warehouse in a pub Bentley had once owned and called it Dirty Dick’s.  In 1972 the main part of the pub was spic and span, but the cellar bar was still festooned with soot, cobwebs, and general muck in which you could spot dead cats and assorted debris.  Quite the wonderland.  I gather health laws have caused the owners to tidy it up, but bits of the original decor can be seen behind glass.


We had a light lunch there and then headed into the West End to poke around.  In our travels we came across a Japanese restaurant in St Christopher’s Place just off Bond Street.  Looked like an ideal dinner spot to me.  We went in and made reservations for after the theater.  We picked from a set dinner menu which I could not understand at all.  I had no clue.  As far as I know it was the only Japanese restaurant in London at the time, and Japanese cuisine was a blank slate to the English back then

When we returned after the play (around 10:30), the restaurant was packed with Japanese businessmen.  Not a woman in sight except for the waitresses dressed as geishas (who spoke precious little English).  The meal was superb and I was instantly hooked.  First course was a clear soup served in individual ceramic kettles.  You poured the broth into a bowl and then picked the finely julienned vegetables out of the kettle with chopsticks.  When I had filled my bowl with soup I noticed there was no spoon, so I asked the waitress how to eat it.  She replied “wiz you mouse.”  We had a gorgeous sashimi, paper thin, and served with shaved young ginger and ponzu sauce, a one-pot cooked at the table  . . . and on and on.  Lots of sake of course, and ending with plum wine (pronounced “prah why”).  A complete assault of new tastes that I wanted more of.  A 21st to remember a lifetime.


I spent my next birthday on Portland Island off the Dorset coast with another girlfriend (they kinda came and went in those days), Ruth, whose father shared my birthday. After dinner with her family we went off to Church Ope Cove, a private beach where locals have little huts, holdover from the Victorian days of bathing machines.  It was a breathless, moonlit night — idyllic.  It was way too cold to go in the water, but I went in anyway.  I figure a little madness on my birthday is called for.



This was a rather sweet year. I was doing my doctoral fieldwork in the coastal swamps of North Carolina.  I had not been in residence too long, and was boarding with an elderly widow who took in guests if she felt like it.  For most of the year I was the only guest, and she treated me as a son.  I paid $8 per week for board only — but she always fed me if I were around at meal times.  That’s where I learnt about greasy greens, hoppin’ John, cornbread, hush puppies, and Brunswick stew.  I was resigned to spending my birthday without much celebration, and so was delighted when I rolled in at dinner time and found she had made a pan of brownies just for me.  Southern hospitality.



I had been a professor at Purchase College (S.U.N.Y.) for a little under a year when I turned 30.  I was not happy about the transition.  As a 29 yr old Ph.D. assistant professor I was a bit of a whizz kid.  Turning 30 made me just another one in the herd.  To top it off President Reagan was shot that afternoon by John Hinckley, and in the evening I watched the Tar Heels (UNC basketball) lose to Purdue in the NCAA finals. Depressed does not begin to describe my mood that night.  I did recover, however, and went on to teach for another 30 years at Purchase College.  I estimate that in that time I taught over 6,000 students.




Turning 40 treated me a little better. My wife had just learnt that she was pregnant with our only son, Badger, I had tenure, and I was in line to be promoted to full professor that year.  I was conducting a senior seminar for anthropology majors on my birthday and was getting a little niggled because the class was all restless, not paying much attention, and seemed to be passing something around.  I was about to get cross with them when my wife and one of my older students started shuttling in all manner of goodies for a party, including a giant cake with candles.  What they had been passing around was a handmade birthday card for all to sign, with a wonderful graphic of a hummingbird (my totemic animal) kissing a ram (for Aries) on the front.  The only surprise party I have ever had. A great blessing.  I really was completely surprised; my wife and 18 students had kept it absolutely secret for a month.



I became an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1997 and was made pastor in my first church, Livingston Manor Presbyterian in Sullivan Co. NY.  I was really peeved that my first Easter there fell on my birthday.  My birthday usually gets tangled up with Easter somehow or other, but it rarely falls on Easter Sunday itself.  In the 20th century my birthday fell on Easter in 1975, 1986, and 1997.  It will not come around again in my lifetime unless I live to be 108 (2059).  So it was dumb luck that I had to conduct Easter services (including a sunrise service at 5 am) on my birthday.  Oh well.  As they say in the swamps of N.C. — “if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”


When I turned 50 I decided to have a giant BBQ in the garden in my house in the Catskills for as many former students as I could find. So I set to work with a book listing contact information for Purchase College alumni, seeking as many as I could to invite out.  It was a great day with quite a number of former students (from 1980 to current students) making the trek.  I suspect the only regular reader of this blog who was there would be James Knight (who brought me a bottle of old port).  If any other reader was there, please drop me a comment.



By 2009 I had been a widower for several years and had established a pattern of making a blowout meal for Badger and me on the day itself. (The night before, my girlfriend, Virginia, had invited me to a performance of Funny Girl at a dinner theater — sorry no photos — it was grand). This year for my birthday meal I had a lemon theme — for no good reason. Leek and potato soup with lemon zest, fresh tuna and trout with lemon and soy dipping sauce, ossobuco with lemon and caper sauce, side salad of hearts of palm and water chestnuts in a lemon herb vinaigrette, finished off with lemon tiramisu and limoncello (all my own recipes).

march 30 2009 003  march 30 2009 004  march 30 2009 006  march 30 2009 009

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This was my last birthday in the U.S.  Badger was off in college so I spent the day with my girlfriend, Denise, and her family.  Also, this was the last time I have spent my birthday with someone else.  Ever since, I have been alone.  I don’t care for cake at all, so I made a birthday tiramisu for dessert — with lots of candles.  Mushrooms were the theme for the dinner. This was the year I invented raspberry tiramisu.  I think I will keep the recipe secret. It is delectable.

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061 John and Denise on his birthday2


In August 2010 I retired and moved to Buenos Aires where I have been ever since.  I spent my 60th in Tierra del Fuego.  Unbelievable adventure.  I won’t wear you out with descriptions and images.  Here’s a facebook album if you are interested:

Otherwise, here’s my birthday dinner of Patagonian hare stew and cheesecake.

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I spent my 61st in Cusco with the day itself in Machu Picchu.  Here’s the album.

Birthday dinner of alpaca steak in cilantro sauce plus homemade ice cream.

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I was on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) for my 62nd.  My birthday was Easter Saturday and I had an amazing personally guided tour of the moai:

Dinner of local spiny lobster (no room for, nor interest in, dessert).



This year I am staying in Capital (Buenos Aires) because I am preparing to leave Argentina in June/July for a few years to travel the world (destinations uncertain at time of writing).  Instead of traveling I’m having a blowout weekend.  This facebook album will tell the story.  It will grow over the weekend. It began on Friday 28 March with a lamb vindaloo. Saturday I had a spicy oxtail and kidney stew, and today I am making lapin au vin rouge with cloves, ginger, garlic, and pepper (oysters on the half shell and smoked Patagonian venison as appetizers). Turns out cloves are the theme this year; they feature in all three main dishes.

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Here appended is the auto-readout of my natal chart:

Name: Juan Alejandro

March 30 1951

9:00 PM Time Zone is ADT

Buenos Aires, ARG

Rising Sign is in 25 Degrees Scorpio

You tend to be quiet, reserved, secretive and, at times, quite difficult to understand. Others notice your deep emotions and feelings and wonder how to draw you out. Stubborn and tough, you fight for any position you believe in. You are very resourceful and formidable when you become angered or upset about something. You enjoy living life at the cutting edge — for you life must be experienced intensely and totally. Quite courageous, you are willing to take calculated risks. Easily hurt by others, you often strike back with bitter sarcasm. Sensitive and curious, you are concerned with the deeper mysteries of human psychology. Once you have become interested in any subject, you pursue it with total fanaticism.

Sun is in 09 Degrees Aries.

By nature, you are very energetic and high-spirited. You are fiercely independent — you must be first in everything you do, and you enjoy taking risks. You are the one who will rush in where angels fear to tread. Quite brilliant at initiating new projects, you are terrible at following them through to completion. You are an enthusiastic leader but you tend to be a reluctant follower. Often you are quick to anger, but you usually recover just as fast, regretting later things you said when you were upset. One of your best traits is that you are simple and direct, blunt and honest — just be careful you do not hurt others’ feelings. Your need to be competitive at all costs may provoke resistance from others, but, as long as you maintain your usual Sunny good humor, this should not prove to be a major problem for you.

Moon is in 19 Degrees Capricorn.

You are serious and shy and very uncomfortable in those situations where spontaneous and exuberant emotional reactions seem called for. An achiever, you prefer doing practical, worthwhile things that produce tangible results. You need role models to respect, love and emulate. You tend to feel that you’re a failure unless you get an important and highly respected position in life. Don’t be so hard on yourself! For you, practical needs always win out over emotional considerations. Remember that you too have the right to comfort, security and love. Dutiful and patient, when you make an emotional commitment, you sign on for the long haul — your love is long- enduring.

Mercury is in 26 Degrees Aries.

Very quick-witted, you are known for being an independent thinker. You love to debate and argue, and are excellent at repartee and battles of wits. At times, however, you act too fast on hastily formed opinions and thus waste a lot of energy defending your rash and sometimes incorrect conclusions. It is perfectly acceptable for you to defend your beliefs with your usual vigor, but try not to take the opinions of others as personal insults.

Venus is in 11 Degrees Taurus.

You are known to be a warm and affectionate person, and you tend to form long- lasting attachments. The reverse of this is that you can also be quite possessive once you have made a commitment. The beauty, luxury and comfort of your surroundings are important to you and you will devote much time and energy to making your home just right. Beware of your tendency toward self-indulgence, especially with respect to eating incorrectly. You also need outside stimuli to get you in gear When things come too easily for you, you can be lazy and indolent.

Mars is in 22 Degrees Aries.

You are very independent and self-assertive, and you have lots of physical energy. You are not satisfied unless you can be the first to do something. As such, you are more comfortable in leadership positions than you are as an underling. When you are challenged by anyone for anything, you delight in the competitive process and will fight long and hard for your beliefs. You are bold and courageous and often act without thinking. At times, in your zeal to get ahead, you are tactless and offensive — learn that cooperation with others can often bring you nearer to your goals quicker because of the support you will get.

Jupiter is in 24 Degrees Pisces.

You are at your best when you give of yourself and what you have — try to avoid being a martyr about it, though. You’re a true idealist, but you must learn not to be upset when life does not cooperate with the way you think things should be. Very concerned with spiritual truth and growth, when you practice what you preach, you make an excellent role model for others. You are so devoted to altruistic ventures and concerns that you tire easily at times. It then becomes necessary for you to go off by yourself to recharge your batteries.

Saturn is in 28 Degrees Virgo.

Your life must be orderly and practical and full of known and familiar routines in order for you to feel comfortable with yourself. Be careful, however, not to let “order” become the be-all and end-all of your life, or you may become cold, crass and unfeeling. Doing useful, practical things boosts your self- esteem. Abstract concepts and reasoning seem frivolous and a waste of time to you. You are very critical of yourself (and others), indeed at times quite self-deprecating. Try to relax a bit and allow yourself the freedom to fail once in a while. However, you probably won’t fail very often because you are such a perfectionist.

Uranus is in 05 Degrees Cancer.

For you, and for your peers as well, the demand to be free from entangling emotional bonds is of paramount importance. You have a unique and unfettered view of family life and will be attracted to experimenting with freeform styles of relationship commitments. This may lead to a rootless, unsettled lifestyle.

Neptune is in 18 Degrees Libra.

You, and your entire generation, idealize all of the various experimental approaches to relationships — including “living together”, the formation of communes and collectives and the whole concept of “open” marriages. There is a stress on weakened commitments on an emotional and contractual level, but there are heightened expectations of the level of commitment and mutual support on the spiritual and metaphysical level.

Pluto is in 17 Degrees Leo.

For your entire generation, this is a time when the relationship of the individual to society as a whole is being thoroughly re-examined. Major attempts will be made to find a balance between the need to be self-sufficient and the need to honor debts of social commitment.

N. Node is in 18 Degrees Pisces.

You’re attracted to others who need your assistance. You seem to go out of your way to form relationships with those who are weak, sick, injured, addicted or troubled in some way or other. At your best you can indeed provide the relief that others need. But at times you can be victimized by those who would prey on your good nature and take advantage of you. This can lead to all sorts of negative situations — make sure that those you assist are truly worthy of your time, energy and commitment.


A small bonus for you if you make it this far — and no, this is not going to become a habit again.


Jul 242013


Today is the anniversary of the day in 1911 that a local farmer’s son took Hiram Bingham to the ruins of Machu Picchu, eventually launching a massive project to free the city from the dense jungle that had overgrown it, and turning it into one of the most visited historic sites in the world.

Bingham was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and attended O’ahu College, now known as Punahou School, in Hawai’i from 1882 to 1892. He went to the United States in his teens in order to complete his education, entering Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1894. He obtained a B.A. degree from Yale University in 1898, a degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1900, and a Ph. D. degree from Harvard University in 1905.  He taught history and politics at Harvard and then served as preceptor under Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University. In 1907, Yale University appointed Bingham as a lecturer in South American history.

Bingham was not a trained archaeologist. Yet, it was during Bingham’s time as a lecturer that he discovered the largely forgotten Inca city of Machu Picchu. In 1908, he had served as delegate to the First Pan American Scientific Congress at Santiago, Chile. On his way home via Peru, a local prefect convinced him to visit the pre-Columbian city of Choquequirao. Bingham published an account of this trip in Across South America; an account of a journey from Buenos Aires to Lima by way of Potosí, with notes on Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru (1911).

Bingham was thrilled by the prospect of unexplored Inca cities, and in 1911 returned to the Andes with the Yale Peruvian Expedition of 1911. On July 24, 1911, Pablito Alvarez, son of a local Quechua farmer, led Bingham to Machu Picchu, which had been largely forgotten by everybody except the small number of people living in the immediate valley (possibly including two local missionaries named Thomas Payne and Stuart McNairn whose descendants claim that they had already climbed to the ruins in 1906). Also the Cusco explorers Enrique Palma, Gabino Sanchez, and Agustín Lizarraga are said to have arrived at the site in 1901. Pablito and his father knew of the city because for years they had made periodic trips to the site to take artifacts to sell. So it is not quite fair to say that Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu.  The significance of his trip there was that Bingham was the first outsider to consider reclaiming the site from the dense jungle that overgrew it.

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Machu Picchu is one of the greatest archeological sites of all time because the Spanish conquistadores did not know of its existence. So what is there to this day represents an Inca city in completely unspoilt condition.  When Bingham arrived he found that a few of the buildings had collapsed but most were still standing. The roofs, made of timber and grass were gone, of course, but in general the city was exactly as it was when it was abandoned by the Inca.  Bingham photographed the site extensively and returned in later years with specialists to begin the restoration process, with funding and supervision from Yale University and the National Geographic Society.  Restoration still continues, and some archeologists believe there is more to be discovered buried in the vicinity. Unfortunately the crews took a large number of artifacts back with them to Yale, and currently the Peruvian government is negotiating for their return.


Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire. The construction appears to date from the period of the two great Incas, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–71) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472–93). It was abandoned just over 100 years later, in 1572, as a belated result of the Spanish Conquest. It is possible that most of its inhabitants died from smallpox introduced by travelers before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area. The latter had notes of a place called Piccho, although there is no record of the Spanish having visited the remote city.

Machu Picchu is situated above a loop of the Urubamba River, which surrounds the site on three sides, with cliffs dropping vertically for 450 metres (1,480 ft) to the river at their base. The location of the city was a military secret, and its deep precipices and steep mountains provided excellent natural defenses. The Inca Bridge, an Inca rope bridge, across the Urubamba River in the Pongo de Mainique, provided a secret entrance for the Inca army. Another Inca bridge was built to the west of Machu Picchu, the tree-trunk bridge, at a location where a gap occurs in the cliff that measures 6 metres (20 ft). It could be bridged by two tree trunks, but with the trees removed, there was a 570 metres (1,870 ft) fall to the base of the cliffs.

The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, with a commanding view down two valleys and a nearly impassable mountain at its back. It has a water supply from springs that cannot be blocked easily, and enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. The hillsides leading to it have been terraced, not only to provide more farmland to grow crops, but to steepen the slopes which invaders would have to ascend. The terraces reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides.

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The site is roughly divided into an agricultural sector and an urban center, the latter divided into the upper town and the lower town. The temples are part of the upper town, the warehouses, the lower. The architecture is adapted to the natural form of the mountains. Approximately 200 buildings are arranged on wide parallel terraces around a vast central square that is oriented east-west. The various kanchas or compounds are long and narrow in order to exploit the terrain. The extensive terraces have sophisticated channeling systems to provide irrigation for the fields. Numerous stone stairways set in the walls allowed access to the different levels across the site. The eastern section of the city was probably residential. The western, separated by the square, was for religious and ceremonial purposes. This section contains the Torreón, the massive tower which may have been used as an observatory.
Located in the religious zone are the primary archaeological treasures: the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. These were dedicated to Inti, their sun god and greatest deity. The Popular District, or Residential District, is the place where the lower-class people lived. It includes storage buildings and simple houses. The royalty area, a sector for the nobility, is a group of houses located in rows over a slope; the residence of the Amautas (wise persons) was characterized by its reddish walls, and the zone of the Ñustas (princesses) had trapezoid-shaped rooms. The Monumental Mausoleum is a carved statue with a vaulted interior and carved drawings. It was used for rites or sacrifices.


The Intihuatana (“hitching post of the sun”) is believed to have been designed as an astronomical clock or calendar by the Incas. The sculpture carved out from the rock bottom of the sun temple is interpreted as “Water mirrors for observing the sky.”  The Intihuatana stone is one of many ritual stones in South America. These stones are arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. At midday on November 11 and January 30 the sun stands almost above the pillar, casting no shadow at all. On June 21 the stone is casting the longest shadow on its southern side, and on December 21 a much shorter one on his northern side.
The central buildings of Machu Picchu use the classical Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls of regular shape. The Incas were masters of this technique, called ashlar, in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. Many junctions in the central city are so perfect that it is said not even a blade of grass fits between the stones.

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Some Inca buildings were constructed using mortar, but by Inca standards this was quick, shoddy construction, and was not used in the building of important structures. Peru is a highly seismic land, and mortar-free construction was more earthquake-resistant than using mortar. The stones of the dry-stone walls built by the Incas can move slightly and resettle without the walls collapsing.

Inca walls had numerous design details that helped protect them against collapsing in an earthquake. Doors and windows are trapezoidal and tilt inward from bottom to top; corners usually are rounded; inside corners often incline slightly into the rooms; and “L”-shaped blocks often were used to tie outside corners of the structure together. These walls do not rise straight from bottom to top, but are offset slightly from row to row.

The Incas never used the wheel in any practical manner. Its use in toys demonstrates that the principle was well-known to them, although it was not applied in their engineering. The lack of strong draft animals, as well as steep terrain and dense vegetation, may have rendered the wheel impractical. How they moved and placed the enormous blocks of stones remains a mystery, although the general belief is that they used hundreds of men to push the stones up inclined planes. A few of the stones still have knobs on them that could have been used to lever them into position; it is believed that after the stones were placed, the Incas would have sanded the knobs away, but a few were overlooked.

I was in Machu Picchu for my birthday in 2012 and had a celebratory meal in the neighboring town of Aguas Calientes. However, this was alpaca steak, so giving a recipe is not likely to be very helpful.  But, I stayed in Cusco, the Inca capital, for a week, where I sampled many wonderful Peruvian specialties including the national dish, ceviche, at a famous cevichería, serving 25 styles of ceviche and nothing else.  The one pictured is ceviche erótico, raw shellfish marinated in lime juice and squid ink.

Ceviche in Machu Picchu

Ceviche in Machu Picchu

There is an ongoing debate as to the origins of ceviche. Some claim the idea of “cooking” raw fish by marinating it in citric juices was introduced by the Spanish, others believe it was first created in Polynesian islands (where it is still popular). But archeological evidence seems to support the hypothesis that it was first created in coastal Peru prior to the arrival of the Spanish.  The recipe, as such, is very simple.  Cut very fresh firm fish into bite sized chunks and marinate it for several hours, or overnight in lime juice with onions and hot peppers.  It is usually served with corn, whole or on the kernel, and slices of sweet potato.  Both vegetables are eaten cold. It is also customary to have a small glass of leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), the leftover milky marinade, along with the ceviche.  Ceviche is considered in Peru as primarily a lunch dish.

Classic Peruvian Ceviche


1 pound white saltwater fish (albacore, sole, snapper, halibut etc)
1 cup lime juice  (lemon or sour orange will work)
1 tbsp salt
1 rocoto chile (chile manzano in Mexican markets) or 1 habañero
1 medium onion, sliced very thinly
4 tbsp chopped cilantro


Cut the fish into small pieces, 1 inch squares is best.

Salt the fish, then  put it into a zip top bag along with the citrus juice sliced onions and the chile chopped fine. Zip the top leaving a small hole, and squeeze all the air out.  Then close it completely. You can marinate the fish in a non-reactive bowl with a lid, but I find the zip top bag method preferable because all the fish is evenly coated with marinade.

Chill this in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. I usually do it overnight.

To serve, place the fish on a plate and top with the onions and chiles, and garnish with fresh cilantro.  Serve with cold corn and sliced sweet potato (as pictured).

Serves 4

As a variant you can use shellfish mixed in or on their own.  Best for this are clams, scallops, and squid (with tentacles). You can use crab or lobster too, but they need to be precooked.