Saturday, July 2, 2011

Puno - Lake Titicaca

Yesterday was a mixed bag, with some high points and some really low points.

The first two-thirds were pretty miserable. I woke up at 4:45am (an hour before the alarm was to sound) and could not go back to sleep. At firs, it was just a question of needing to use the facilities. But I contunued to toss and turn and started to worry about some work emails that had come in that needed some attention. So I took my Blackberry into the bathroom and took care of the emails that needed to be addressed. Once done, my mind was at ease, but, sadly, my body no longer was.

I felt nauseous, weak - in a word, horrible. And it was getting worse the longer I was awake. Not a good thing when you're about to jump on a bus for six hours through the desolate Andes. (Although I did feel some solace, on that front, when I started throwing up and discovered that my stomach was already empty - as long as I didn't eat anything, I hoped, I wouldn't need a barf bag on the bus.)

Naturally, I grabbed my medecine bag and took some of everything that made sense. It seemed to work pretty quickly and, although I still felt awful, at least my system settled down for the bus ride. (Alas, not so for Amanda: she didn't start throwimg up until we were on the bus.)
Waiting in the freezing Cusco bus station
Sick and cold, the bus ride was, to say the least, a slog. It didn't help that they ran an American movie with Robin Williams and John Travolta that is one of (if not the) worst series of low-brow cliches and crude humor that has ever called itself a movie. I wanted to gnaw off my arms and legs and gauge out my eyeballs with spoons (presumably in reverse order).

Pit-stop in the middle of nowhere

When we got to Puno, however, things changed dramatically for the better (despite the town's being a dirty, skeezy place). We paused in the bus station to consult the guidebook and pick a hostel, seetling on a posada called Kusiilo Posada. As we looked for it on the map, a little man approached asked if we needed a place to stay. I waved him away, as I usually do the many touts that descend upon gringos with open maps - but then I saw the card he was holding: Kusilla Posada! We took him up on the offer immediately.
Face to face with a dragonfly on the way out
of the bus station
(Sylvestre is in the background)
Street in Puno

Sylvestre, as the little man called himself, became our trusty right-hand man. He helped us get tickets for the next day's trip to Arequipa, nabbed us a cab from the station to the posada, and facilitated our entry there.
Not that we would have needed his help to be welcomed there. Jenny, the proprietress welcomed us -- indeed attended to us throughout our stay -- with a level of warm, sincere hospitality and care that I have never received before, anywhere. She was like our mother, grandmother, and auntie all in one. She offered us some local coca tea (made from coca leaves) and made sure we were comfortably settled into our room. She counseled us on dressing warmly, asked us about our travels,fixed us breakfast the next morning (including some delicious fresh squeezed orange juice and the best rolls we've had in Peru), and sent us on our way with hugs and kisses and recommendations for the best Peruvian chocolates, and an invitation to come again soon. After leaving, Amanda and I both remarked that Jenny's personal warmth more than compensated for the lack of heat and hot water.

Now back to Sylvestre. While we warmed ourselves with Jenny's coca tea (which is reputed to qicken acclimation to the altitude, and which tastes like leaves), we told Sylvestre and Jenny that we only had the afternoon to see the town and Lake Titicaca. After expressing their dismay at such a short stay, the went into full planning mode. Sylvestre said that for 25 soles he could book us 4:00pm a boat tour to the floating islands that would get us back to town around 6:30pm; all cab fare included.

I told Sylvestre that his proposal sounded good but we weren't going anywhere without eating something. Amanda and I had eaten nothing but a handful of Ritz crackers since getting on the bus in Cusco (and nothing before that), and now that our stomachs were more settled, we were starving. This put our tour somewhat in jeopardy because it was already 3:40pm and food in Peru is not quick -- even the simplest meals have taken hours.

Realizing we were serious about this eating business, Sylvestre bundled us off first to a restaurant that offere sandwiches and fought with the chef in an effort to get him to serve us something quick that we could take away. The chef refused, so Sylvestre bundled us off to some shacks by the harbor where we got some cheese sandwiches. They were incredibly basic (two pieces of white Wonder bread with some squeaky white cheese), but in our semi-starved state they were delicious and devoured in a minute. Having thus caaried through on his promise to feed us, Sylvestre delivered us to the dock, where we boarded the boat to the islands. We never saw Sylvestre again, but we sure appreciated his help. With us assistance, we accomplished everything we had hoped to do at Lake Titicaca in the space of a few hours.
Cheese sandwiches!
As for the boat tour, it was well worth the rushed lunch and couple hours of further exposure to the cold.  We piled into a little boat with about ten other people - a group of Brazilians, an Argentine, and some Americans.  Our guide, Walter, spoke very fast Spanish and equally fast (and nearly unintelligible) English.  He took Amanda under his wing immediately, showing her lots of special attention. I, on the other hand, was of very little interest. His only comment upon learning my name was to point out that there was an animal called "Jack" (it took me a minute, to realize he was reffering to the yak).

On the boat

The lake itself is beautiful in an austere, high-desert way. There was very little vegetation along the shore, so the lines were very crisp and clean. The contrast between the silvery water, the tawny hills and the dark grey clouds was lovely.

Lake Titicaca
In contrast, the vegetation int the lake was quite abundant. There were great swaths of reeds growing in the shallower portions of the lakebed. Amomg those reeds swam a lot of waterfowl that I didn't recognize, but which had brightly colored heads on dark bodies.

It is from these reeds that the famous floating islands are made. For the past 900 years, the indigenous people have been building and living on what are essentially giant rafts made of the root-blocks of the reed plants, which are then anchored in place and surfaced with fresh cut reeds. On top of these floating islands the people build their thatched huts and boats, all made from the same native reeds. Groups of six or eight families (or about 25 or 30 people) lived on each island.

The village
It was fascinating to see how the islands were made and to see how the people lived on them. It could not have been easy. The huts were mighty thin for the cold, and the bathroom islands were only accessible by boat. Food was cooked on clay stoves set atop slabs of mud to prevent the reeds from catching fire. The boats, huts and indeed the entire island were in a constant state of deterioration and renovation as the reeds decayed and had to be replaced.

Building a model island
Stove on mud platform
Building a reed boat

Apparently they don't always use reed boats
It was clear, however, that much of this way of life was preserved and presented for the sake of the tourists. The business model was to get tourists on the islands, give a short presentation on how the islands are made, and the press the captive audience to purchase trinkets and textiles. Which was a little annoying but not without its amusements: One woman went so far as to pull Amanda into her hut and dress her in a full native outfit, including skirt and bowler hat (which I think was quite a feat of determination, given the difference in size between the two, plus the many additional layers Amanda was wearing).

After the island tour, which was thankfully short, we headed back into town and got some dinner. We invited some Americans who had been on the boat to join us, so we had the pleasure of company for dinner. There were three of them: Laura and Devin, both from San Diego, a high school art teacher and a recently unemployed digital media designer, respectvely. And another Devin, a newly-minted graduate of UT Austin who was traveling before starting work with some geo-services company. They were very pleasant and told us about their travels in Bolivia (where they had met up, and from which they had just come). It sounds like Bolivia is not that nice a place, some considerable distance behind Peru in its development (in fact, the description reminded me of Guatemala). The Devin from Texas was particularly amusing: He was trying so hard to be a hippie-spiritual, faux-Marxist backpacker, but kept slipping back into a regular, somewhat naive American kid. My favorite parts of the conversation were when he told us that the ruins at Sacsaywaman in Cusco were his absolute favorite Peruvian ruins (despite the fact that he'd seen none of them) and insisted that there was a famous 11-sided stone in one of the walls (despite our informing him that the famous stone has 12 sides and is located in town, rather than up in the ruins). Also he is convinced that the Incas cut and moved the large stones using sound and something to do with the Fibonacci sequence. (Riiiiight...) We asked him if he thought they might have used chisels and he said absolutely not, it HAD to have been sound waves -- he'd read a book about it.

With that, we trundled back out into the night, wishing bon voyage to our dinner companions and heading back to our hotel.

More Photos

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gnawing off appendages...seriously? You couldn't just close your eyes, stuff your fingers in your ears and and sing, la la la la?

Aren't you glad you didn't have to visit the bathroom island?