Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bolivia IV - Going South

Marooned in no -man's land
My next stop was in Sucre after a horrendous twelve hour bus ride. The main reason for this was that I had my legs crossed most of the way because the one and only toilet stop was so awful. On the subject of toilets - yes ladies, you have to pay and for this you may be given a few small squares of toilet paper which you are not allowed to flush down the toilet. In this instance the toilets were so revolting -they were outdoors, none would flush and one had no door, that I opted for a stricture instead.

Sucre was a pleasant town however, especially after miles and miles of dry eroded badlands. It would get my tidy town award. It had green squares, well tended nature strips and wide avenues with shade trees. There were beautiful whitewashed churches and more interesting architecture generally with the buildings properly finished and nicely painted. It is the official capital of Bolivia although La Paz has usurped most of its functions and become the de facto capital. The only remaining government office here is the Supreme Court thus the  streets are lined with attourneys' offices. The hostel was a quiet little place where everyone seemed to be taking Spanish lessons. It had a very pretty courtyard  and a big kitchen too, but did not provide breakfast. This meant taking my chances in the market where I bought bread rolls and some beans - a green vegetable at last!.

Interior courtyard at the Seven Papas
The courtyards are kept immacualtely clean, often in stark contrast to what is outside - the stray dogs, broken paving, rubbish  and open drains, although these problems were not apparent in Sucre.

I took a solo trip with the local buses to the seven Cascadas here amid deeply riven gorges.  You are advised not to do this trip alone as there were reports of muggings and robberies, and even a would -be mugger getting shot, but not finding anyone to do it with, I set off alone taking very little money, no credit cards or passport and not even my camera as advised. I don't own any jewellery or trendy clothes. You don't want to be mugged for your  sneakers. I also reported in at the local Police Station before heading off down the track. The officer seemed quite amazed and excited that I was doing it by myself. 
Alas, I didn't make it beyond the first two waterfalls because the others involved some serious rock climbing. If it was one thing I couldn't risk, it was being injured in some way. It was hard enough scrambling back up to a road where I hoped I might find a bus. After walking uphill for hours I finally hitched a ride with what was virtually the only car. The driver wanted thirty Bolivanos for taking me to the nearest bus station - a fortune in the local currency, but it was hot, I was tired and a bit lost and  I didn't want to be stuck out there in the dark so I had little choice but to give in.

Potosi, where  I landed next, was like Sucre's ugly sister. Once the richest town in Latin America  due to its vast quantities of silver - the biggest deposits in the world,  it is now an appalling wreck with only a few sooty colonial building as a reminder of its former glory. If ever an argument had to be made for a mining tax while the going was good, this place is it. The landscape was desolate and devastated. The few attempts at tree planting had expired long ago and the air was so bad that my eyes watered. Wish I had  pictures of this along with the black smoke pouring from the micros as they lumbered up the hills.
There is a very modern bus station in Potosi. Unfortunately my bus didn't go from there but from an old one in a less salubrious part of town. I went there in a decrepit taxi whose driver refused to give me change even though we had originally agreed on a price. However it doesn't pay to argue when you are travelling alone.
I looked down the row of bus companies touting for fares and booked with the one that had a picture of a sleek modern tourist bus - those that look like insects because their mirrors hang down like feelers, and was sure to have good toilets since I was facing another seven hour bus ride to Uyuni. With four hours to kill before the bus came, I set about searching for something to eat. The outside of the terminal smelled like a urinal. Mangy dogs snuffled around in the copious amounts of garbage and it was freezing cold. I didn't know it at the time but at 4600 m Potosi is  the highest city in the world.

 The only thing I could find to eat in a bit of a market below was a stale empanda.  Needing a coffee to wash it down, I went back to a little cafe with plastic tablecloths that I had seen in the way in. The coffee came out of an unmarked black bottle and was poured into a tin cup to which water was added from a kettle warmed by a gas cooker on the floor - the kind we use for camping. The result was lukewarm and tasted vile, but it was cheap. No one smiled and the people I saw on the street looked pale, unwell and miserable. My guide book says, that because of the harsh conditions in the mines which people still work cooperatively, people die of silicosis within ten years of working there.
My heart sank even further when I saw the bus. Contrary to the poster, it was an old yellow rust bucket, rather like a school bus, hard sprung and without layback seats, much less toilets. The seats were so narrow that I barely had room for my feet. Heaven help a taller person. I didn't fancy spending the night here and there was no one left in the office. It was going to be a long journey.

I didn't think it was possible, but Uyuni proved to be even colder than Potosi, though the town is pretty enough with  lovely churches and an attractive pedestrian mall lined with cafes and craft shops. It even had rubbish bins. I'm sure it is even nicer in summer when the trees are in leaf. They may dare to come out by then.  People come here to do tours of the lunar -like salt lakes in the region, but having seen my fill of salt lakes in much warmer places - I even worked near one in central Australia for a while, I wasn't all that keen to do it here, especially after hearing that the temperature there would be around minus 35o Not sure if that's Celsius or Fahrenheit but either way it was already teeth -chatteringly cold. Although there was a brave little heater going in the dorm in the hostel and there were big thick doonas, it felt about the same.

To warm up a bit, I ordered a big plate of spaghetti carbonara at one of the many gringo restaurants here.  This was expensive. Everything was dearer here - even the hostel cost twice as much as the one in Sucre, but the spaghetti was lukewarm and followed by a lukewarm coffee. Even the people were lukewarm. They just gave you the food and took the money without any expression or acknowledgement and then went back to watching the World Cup. Bolivians call the people of Uyuni armadillos. Not sure if it's because they can withstand the climate or they have such thick shells.
My next meal was a soup. This restaurant advertised ten different types, but after ordering the one with chickpeas, I was told that there was only one. This was a thin vegetable kind. While I was eating that the owner had a massive plate of a hearty looking soup with meat and potatoes. That was one occasion when  I really wanted to say, "I want what he's having!"

The only bus left at 4.00 in the morning and you had to be there at 3.00. It was minus ten when I arrived wearing everything I owned and I was still cold. The locals knew the drill, arriving with ponchos, thick shawls and bedding and big stripey bags of food and drink. You couldn't move in the bus. The lady next to me took pity on me - perhaps my lips were blue, and covered me in blankets. We travelled for some hours to the border between Bolivia and Chile and had to wait in line for two hours while Bolivian authorities stamped our  passports. Enterprising local women had set up huge pots of stew and were doing a roaring trade, but with more more buses arriving by the minute, I didn't want to lose my place in line.
Eventually we were shepherded  back onto the bus to travel another half hour or so, when the bus stopped abruptly in the middle of nowhere and we simply had to wait. It may have been two hours or three. This time there was no food or drink to be had and we were all starving, bored and cold. The ladies with their stew pots could have done a roaring trade here. Alas, the only activity was a volcano smoking gently in the background and the worst part was not knowing what was happening.

A volcano smokes gently in the background
 At last another bus came from the Chilean side and we were brought to the Chilean border still some miles distant. This border is apparently a bit of a soft spot for cocaine smugglers, so after the usual immigration rigmarole - long queues, people pushing in - locals giving priority, we then went to customs for another couple of hours while officers searched every single thing. The lady beside me was caught with several bags of undeclared coffee.

Dusk falls in the Atacama desert

I'd given my E.T. A. at the hostel in San Pedro as six P.M. How wrong I was! It was 9.30 before we hit Calama and even though we just managed to catch the last bus to San Pedro at 10.15 we still had an hour and a half to go. At least it has never rained in Calama and they serve expensive but very generous meals including dinner plate sized rolls and burgers. The even offer you a doggie bag so you can take the rest with you.
 




Saturday, August 30, 2014

Bolivia III- In Search of Something Green

Unlucky hostellers - Kevin and Andy, survivors of the Highway of Death
As soon as I felt  better and had gained a little confidence in the local transport system, I started exploring the countryside. The first place I had a look at was Tihuanaco, another archaeological site.  This was one which predated the Incas, although the fine stonework and the remains of a pyramid can already be seen there. This too was interesting because of its isolation and the fact that the village which stands in the area today is very modest by comparison. The giant monoliths found there were carved from a single piece of stone and have very intricate carvings. For many years the largest one languished in a museum in La Paz but has since been restored to the site which is now World Heritage listed. The excellent museum shows pottery and weaving from this period along with Bronze Age metalwork.

The loneliness of Tihuanaco
These figures are carved from a single piece of stone - the largest is about three times taller than I am
The Altoplano - high Andes, is so dry and barren at this time of the year  - I assume it's better in the wet season, but for now I was desperate to see something green. People recommended Sorata, a favourite holiday and weekend getaway spot for pacenos (people from La Paz), so once again I headed off in a mini bus. This time though I asked the passengers where I had to get off and not the driver.

For most of the four and a half hour journey the road was as bleak as those which I had already travelled over with just a few tantalising glimpses of the snow -capped peaks of Illiumpu  which rises 6427m behind La Paz.
The way to Sorata did not look all that promising, but you can see the peaks of Illiumpu in the background
Then, quite suddenly we were overlooking a green valley with many terraced farms and small villages and dropping 3,000 m over 80 Kilometres. It was a white -knuckle ride, especially as the driver paid no attention to the lines or the signs that said no overtaking. He was also good at multitasking, not only talking on his mobile, but even changing the battery, using his teeth to rip open the packet as we hurtled down the mountain.

The first bit of green since Aguas Calientes

Town Square Sorata
People usually go trekking in this area, but I wasn't feeeling that well. so I settled for  pleasant walks  around the town. It was the first time I had seen flowers since Aguas Calientes too and the views were really spectacular.

Corioco was said to be similar -i.e. green, but five hours in the opposite direction over the Cordillera Real and what is known as "The Highway of Death."  Adventure tourists are very fond of doing this on mountain bikes and may or may not end up looking like the two at the top of the page. I also met a girl in the hostel who had her foot in plaster for the same reason. Just travelling in the mini cabs was adventurous enough for me. Ours had  soft suspension on the  right hand side which  made me nervous every time we took a left hand bend. We also did the last part before we plunged down these hills in thick fog but even that was no reason to slow down. The driver simply honked his horn before driving around bends. For a long time I thought Bolivians must drive on the left like we do, but that's only when the drop is on the right. The worst mini bus related story I heard  in the hostel though, was from a man who jumped out of a moving bus when everyone else did, because they had seen the driver do it. Apparently the brakes had failed  and  the driver had let it crash into a house rather than letting it drop over the side of a ravine. The worst thing for me about travelling in  mini buses is that they won't let you stop and take pictures. The few I did get were either a blur or looked like the one below, but I did get a reasonable one of a massive landslip where we stopped for a while.
Views from the mini bus
Landslips like this were not uncommon and the roadworks have to be seen to be believed
"Welcome to Paradise" says a sign as you come into Corioco, stuck halfway up on the side of a mountain  opposite the one we had just come down. Indeed, lush vegetation grew by the roadside - bamboo -like plants, ferns, some kind of broad leaf plants, with splashes of busy Lizzy growing underneath. The relief was immeasurable. Peaches, grapes, coffee, mandarins, banana palms and ginger all grew here and they were just the things I recognised. Being also an outpost of European expats, there was  a good supply of coffee and cake as well. Sadly, my accommodation was not so great - freezing (I had to steal the bedding from the other bed in the room) and noisy at night  - there was a dance class with loud music which continued long after dark, and the shower was ice cold in the morning.
I  did spend a lovely day doing the obligatory walk to the three Cascadas (waterfalls) which almost made up for my sleepless night. The mountains towered above and stretched far into the distance and far below you could make out tiny villages and farms.  
 This counts as the first of the three waterfalls
Unfortunately I don't seem to have many pictures after this. Perhaps that was where I first encountered the sockets with straight flat pins - not angled ones like ours, or the three round ones in a row, that fitted none of the adaptors I had and could probably not charge my camera.
The locals very keen to take me on a tour of the coca fields at great expense, but that wasn't really my thing. You could also continue on to the Bolivian Amazon from here, another popular trek for hostellers, but I had stopped taking my anti -malarials while I was sick and you had to have taken them for several days beforehand. It was also rather expensive - around two or three hundred dollars, and since I hadn't been able to extract any money from my Visa card after that expensive train trip to Machu Picchu,  I reluctantly returned to La Paz. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Bolivia II - La Paz


La Paz
My first impression of La Paz, population  just under a million and at 3632 m the highest Capital city in the world, was not a particularly happy one. There was hardly a scrap of green to be seen. Rubbish lined the roadsides and the rivers looked and smelled like open sewers. Stray dogs roamed the streets picking at rubbish  and as we entered the town proper I could see a body (a dummy fortunately) hanging from a power pole. I couldn't believe that there were less than a million people here. Perhaps it was because most of their houses were crammed into the valley or perched on impossible slopes and you could see them all at a single glance.

First impressions
Impossible traffic jams presided over by female officers in orange and black cheerleader uniforms
Things did improve once I  had spent a bit of time there, though not all of it was enjoyable. The slight headache and sniffle I'd had in Copacabana turned into the worst cold I had ever had and I ended up having to spend several days in bed. In fact, they called ours "The Dorm of Doom" because five of the six occupants had the 'flu and  we were all coughing and snuffling our way through boxes of tissues while everyone else partied on in the Irish bar. They should have put a plague cross on the door.

When I felt a little better, I did one of the Red Hat town tours. These are excellent and nominally free, but you are expected to tip. We met up outside San Pedro Prison - quite an institution with the two thousand prisoners buying and renting out cells, conducting various other forms of free enterprise and  pretty well managing themselves. In consequence only twenty -five perimeter guards are needed, though the inmates aren't really hard core criminals -usually only prisoners on remand, small time crooks and politicicans who have been caught accepting bribes and the like. Alas, tours are no longer encouraged. As Maya, our guide pointed out, "It's easy to get in, but hard to get out." She made no bones about  the corruption that goes on -how much money you have determines not only the quality of your cell, but how soon your case is heard - and explained other aspects of the local justice system including what was behind the dummy on the power pole.

Both Maya (right in red) and her off  -sider Delia ? spoke excellent English

In some communities where they don't have sufficient policing or they don't trust the police to act on their behalf, the local people do a sort of Neighbourhood Watch with everyone keeping an eye out for their neighbour. The dummy is a warning that  community justice is active here and that's what they'll do to transgressors and thieves. Our own Neighbourhood Watch could learn a thing or two from here. I'm sure it would be much more effective than those nice little signs.

We then proceeded on to the market, some of the churches and Murillo Plaza where we learned  a bit about Bolivia's turbulent political history. You could still see the bullet holes from the last confrontation in 2003 between the military and the police in which 60 people were killed and thousands wounded. They were protesting about the then president selling their gas to Chile when they needed it themselves for cooking and heating. He then absconded to the U.S. A. taking the country's wealth with him and was replaced in 2005 by the popular and democratically elected Evan Morales who still rules today.

Plaza Murillo had more pigeons than I have ever seen. The presidential palace is the salmon coloured building and the parliament is on the left. It has also seen its share of action
[By the way, you can click on any of these pictures to enlarge them]

The beautiful coloured flags which hang over the parliament and the presidential palace are also interesting. The do not indicate gay pride, which seems to have taken over the design, but the 38 tribes which make up Bolivia. For this reason it has recently changed it's name from the Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia..

Another intriguing part of the tour was the visit to the Witches' Market which shows how strong the old beliefs are beneath the veneer of Catholicism. You can buy lotions and potions and amulets for every purpose - good marks, getting a job, catching a man,* as well as a good supply of llama foetuses for putting under the foundations of new houses. Without such ceremonies the builders will not start work because they believe that Pacha Mama - the earth mother will not smile upon their endeavours. Rumour has it that in the bad old days large buildings required human sacrifices before their foundations could be laid, but this practice seems to have fallen by the wayside. You will be pleased to know that no llamas are harmed in this process. Having no shelter in these harsh climes, Llama foetuses are easy to come by. Nor can the llamas carry twins to term and thus many are spontaneously aborted for this reason.

Lotions, potions and amulets at the Witches' Market
 * Should have bought some of these - but thought the white powder wouldn't make it through customs
..and a supply of llama foetuses

On Tuesdays and Thursdays every good Bolivian still performs Challah, a ritual giving thanks for past good fortune or to request favour for future endeavours
We also found out about how the bowler hats came to be a fashion item. There are conflicting stories. The one we heard was that when Bolivians saw high status Europeans wearing them when they came to put in a railway in the 1920s, they wanted them too, but the first consignment was too small, so an enterprising soul decided to make them a fashion item by passing them on to the women. They became so popular that even when the Italian factory that made them closed its doors there, it still kept a factory in Bolivia. Women wear them proudly and the angle on the head indicates the marital status of the wearer. Straight means married and settled while wearing it at a rakish angle means flirty, single or widowed.

Speaking of fashion, being plump is considered desirable in Bolivia as it indicates strength and child bearing capabilities. The full skirt or polera is worn to highlight this. Women do carry enormous enormous loads in those shawls on their backs - potatoes, even bricks, not just children. Although our guide said that it keeps their backs straight, I saw quite a few older women bent almost double from carrying such loads.

Women shopping in more sensible headwear though the bowlers do look very elegant. I was told that every woman has a Borsaline bowler somewhere. See them in action in the link above

We also learned about correct etiquette in the market - how to get a good deal from your casera by going to the same person each time and sharing a bit of gossip. Such relationships are handed on from generation to generation. We were shown where to get wholesome food, fine handcrafts and where the good bars were.


As well as getting my new glasses - not glam but robust and indestructible, I did a few day trips on the local buses as they ground their way up and down the precipitous hills. The above clip is from the Mirador Kille Kille as indeed it would have, had I walked it. Be warned, it's screechy, possibly because of the gale that was blowing there.
My next effort was to the the Valley of the Moon. Unfortunately as in Mittad del Mundo, the bus driver  forgot to let me out and I ended up at the zoo and the national park. It was a public holiday, so most of La Paz was there too and the views from thiis place were not unlike the valley of the moon anyway, as you can see in the second shot below, so I wasn't too disappointed.

Bolivians appreciate a good barbie too

Eroded hillsides near the Valley of the Moon
Getting into the spirit of things I sat down at one of the outside tables and ordered a soup. At least I thought I did, butl the waiter brought some chicken, chips, rice, a piece of corn and a piece of cheese. At least it was edible, not like the character in a National Lampoon who asks the waiter "What's that?" and is told," The fried telephone book you ordered, Sir."


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bolivia - I

Approaching the Isla del Sol
Bolivia is another of those places that stirs the imagination. I suppose I have wanted to go there ever since I saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Being apparently a place of rebels, outlaws and misfits, I thought I would fit right in. Certainly at this stage I was so close to the border, less than three hours away, that it would have been a crime not to have taken a peek. After all, what were  the chances that I would ever be this close again?
By the way, does anyone else think it's amazing - it happens to me in Europe too, that you can practically walk from one country to another, without having to pay the enormous price we do to get off this gigantic island  stuck way down there in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific?

There is however, much more cultural homogeneity here than in Europe. This is most likely because the Incas ruled from Quito in Ecuador through to Peru, Bolivia and northern Chile and they were followed by the Spaniards who ruled for the best part of five centuries, whereas Europeans were able to maintain their separate cultures for much longer. There is a sameness to the cities too -big churches, lots of Plazas called Plaza de Armas more often than not, big sprawling markets, no front gardens, no trees. If there are gardens, they are carefully contained within courtyards or squares and are not visible to casual passersby. Boxed in by the Andes and with very little arable land, I expect that there was not much room for landscaping.
I had to look twice that I hadn't mixed up the pictures of Puno with Copacabana which is also on Lake Titicaca and also had island tours. 
The Isla del Sol was not a reed island but a solid one and was considered the birthplace of both the sun and the Incas. For this reason I was expecting something quite monumental of the Templo del Sol.


An Inca guards the start of the Inca steps


His consort stands opposite
There were lovely views of the lake and of snow capped peaks in the distance upon climbing the Inca Stairs. I said I was just admiring the view whenever I stopped to rest and only managed to labour about three quarters of the way up before the tour operators called us back. I was expecting a bit more of the Templo del Sol, (below) though.
The Templo del Sol
My visit to Copacabana didn't start too well either. Just before we entered the town, we were all ordered off the bus. Several other tour buses stood nearby doing the same, along with a large number of people who didn't look all that friendly. They may have been carrying picks and shovels. A big mound of dirt blocked the road and we had to gather our belongings and walk about 15 minutes to meet up with mini buses which then took us into town - for extra payment of course. I wasn't sure if it was a strike or a demonstration of some kind and just stumbled along with eveyone else. I found out later that this was because the town was getting a gas main - good on the Bolivians - more about that later, but it was unnerving at the time.

When I arrived in town and started looking for the place I had booked, I discovered that my glasses were missing. It was dark now, but  after asking at the bus station first to see if anyone had found them, I took a mini cab back where we had left the bus to see if I had lost them there. No sign of them of course. At the police station where I also asked, the officer just laughed. Someone who translated for me said that he said that if anyone found them, they would never hand them in even if the prescription didn't suit them.

Then the cab driver drove me round and round the town taking me to many different hotels because he couldn't read my writing in my little book either. I also persuaded a couple of concierges to ring around, but no -one admitted to having my booking. If you book and don't turn up, they bill you anyway, but eventually I was so tired and frustrated that I just stayed at one of the places where he pulled up just to get some sleep.

My first mission in the morning since I couldn't even see enough to use a computer was to find  an optometrist, but there was none. The nearest optometrist was in La Paz they said and when I looked  in the little shops and chemists I couldn't even find a pair of magnifying glasses. At last I found an expensive magnifying glass used to check if notes were forged, and now being able to read the address and the phone number, I finally found my hotel. They forgave me for the missed night provided I stayed another couple of days, so I said yes, especially as I was starting to feel a bit poorly and appreciated  having a room to myself for once. It also cost less than the hostels I had been staying in in Peru.
When I could appreciate it, Copacabana was in fact a nice little town, friendlier than Puno and a bit more tourist -oriented. One street leading down to the water was all coffee shops, little grocers, handcraft stalls and gringo restaurants and the food was nicely presented, although the World Cup was ever present.

Little restaurant where I had breakfast. It also served vegetarian food
 The wood carvings in the picture above were unusual. I didn't see this use of wood anywhere else in Bolivia. There was an unusual custom too. It was the blessing of cars and trucks at the cathedral below (miniatures of objects wished for also, although that happens in January). As I was walking around town, I saw many cars sporting gladoli or other flowers, having just come from from such a ceremony.

The Moorish influenced cathedral dates from 1605
Caution!  bus crossing
On the last day in Copacabana I found a street stall selling those magnifying reading glasses and was able to sell my magnifying glass for half the purchase price.There must be a big problem with forged bank notes in Bolivia. When you handed someone paper money, they eyed you up and down, held it up to the light and gave it a tug or two, so it wasn't all that hard to sell the magnifying glass. As I still couldn't see very much  even with the reading glasses, I still had to go to La Paz. which was only about three hours away. It also neccessitated crossing part of the Lake, but instead of staying on the bus  passengers had to disembark and go by motor boat and wait on the other side until the bus finally made it. It did look touch and go there for a while and was the most exciting part of the trip.
 
What the barges looked like -glad we weren't on them


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Of Reeds and Ruins

Inca Funerary Tower at Sillistani, near Puno
I had a feeling that after Machu Picchu everything would be a bit of an anticlimax, but people who had been further South talked about the floating islands on Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world, which I also wanted to see. I was also somewhat apprehensive about another long bus ride after the one from Lima, but this was only six and a half hours compared to 24. Another plus was that this one would be taking place in daylight, which meant at least being able to see a bit of the scenery.
I was a bit disappointed by the way the Andes looked here. Because we were already so high up - over  3,000m, they didn't look much more than hills and with their dry grass, dusty villages and a few gum trees, I may as well have been in the outback at home.(Eucalypts are grown all over the Andes, because they provide a quick supply of firewood).
There were some differences of course. Most of the houses were still made of pise and small landholdings were surrounded by pise walls. Newer houses made of brick seen here and there, and especially in Puno all looked unfinished - no paint or render, reo bars sticking out from the top. It made me wonder what great financial disaster had befallen this part of Peru. When I could communicate with someone, they told me that there was a big tax on finished buildings so it was quite common to leave at least part of them incomplete.

Typical Aymara woman tending a llama with her daughter on her back
Unfinished buildings were everywhere
This part of Peru seemed poorer than the places which I had seen before. Women still washed by hand in the rivers and villagers threshed corn by hand. Nor were many vehicles to be seen except for the odd bicycle with a tray at the front and the occasional motorbike taxi. Usually they didn't look as swish as the one below which I photographed in Urubamba, a tourist town on the way to Machu Picchu. It is things like this which interest me. How people live and how they solve the problems of  every day life, especially when they do it a different way. For example, I didn't see a single baby in a pram until  I reached Chile many weeks later.
There was one modern convenience however. Almost every place sported an identical toilet in the back. I wondered if these were part of the UN's Decade of Water and Sanitation in the 1980's which was to bring both to poor people around the world though it failed to keep up with population growth.(More people were without at the end of the decade than before it). It could of course have been some other kind of government initiative, or just something the people did for themselves
Motor cycle taxi in Urubamba near Machu Picchu
Puno with a bit of Lake Titicaca visible in the background
I'm not sure what I expected of Lake Titicaca -maybe a few trees and a bit of  greenery, but it  was just this enormous body of water stretching over the horizon.

Puno - First impressions
Puno itself was a strange mix of half -finished buildings and unmade streets, but just off the main square there was a pedestrian mall with attractive restaurants and craft shops. Here too there was a procession in progress, though this appeared to be a more solemn one - a funeral perhaps, though there was some dancing as well. If you would like to see it and hear the somewhat excruciating music just click on the video below the picture. You will also notice that some women are wearing the bowler hats which are so ubiquitous in Bolivia. This is pretty close to the border. 
Procession in the pedestrian mall, Puno

Almost every restaurant and coffee shop and even the hostel boasted a flat screen TV featuring the World  Cup. It was impossible to avoid and impossible not to become involved. Some of the hostellers had come specifically to see the cup in Brazil and had then travelled around. Knowing how I feel about sport in general and football in particular, my offspring would be amazed at my recently acquired knowledge of the game.

After I happened to run into a young man I had met at the hostel in Cusco, we visited the reed island of Uros  together. This was a big plus as he also spoke Spanish. He was a bit like me in that he insisted that we walk to the harbour and book our own boat, rather than take a tour or a taxi, though I wouldn't have minded one on the way back. With the lake at 3820m. and the wind blowing off the water, I was not only exhausted but freezing.  Alas, the memory card in my camera ran out just as we got there. Although 'Eddie' offered to send me his pictures, we forgot to exchange addresses when we parted company at the end. Where are you Eddie?

[Just imagine Pictures here.....]

The Uros people originally moved onto the lake about seven centuries ago to escape the warlike Collas and Incas. Their houses, their boats, their furniture and even the islands themselves are all made from the totora reeds that grow on the lake.  As the reeds rot below, new reeds are placed on top. The people fish, trap ducks and do handcrafts. Wind - chimes, weaving, pom poms and miniature reed boats were on sale. The ladies demonstrated how you cook in a place made of dry reeds (the fire is made outside in a small ceramic oven) and the men showed us the decoys and traps they used. A young boy played ball with his dog on the rather unstable surface. There was a school and a restaurant on the opposite shore and a variety of handcraft stalls. Further down the lake, there is another large island and several smaller ones. I find it remarkable that such a unique lifestyle has managed to survive so many centuries even though Uros people have since intermarried with Peruvians.

Eventually I took a tour to Sillustani where both Incas and earlier rulers are buried in huge towers. Not as spectacular a setting as Machu Picchu to be sure, but remote and eerie. You can see it better in the photo at the top of this page.The fine stonework is already apparent in the later work and the guide said that it and the techniques used - a ramp is still there, were identical to those used by the Egyptians when building the pyramids. The funeral rites were also similar - mummification, removing the organs, the way the bodies were preserved, their placement in foetal position ready to be reborn and so on. Though archaeologists say that this too is purely co- incidental, you can't help thinking otherwise.The earlier stonework is more primitive and belonged to earlier tribes such as the Colla or the Wari. There is also a sacrificial site which also belonged to the Incas. Those unwilling to follow their leaders into the afterlife were dispatched here. Irrigated agriculture was also practised here as you can see in the background in the picture below.

A place to put your head - altar where unwillling followers were sacrificed
Older towers do not show the same elaborate stonework
The good thing about doing a tour although the guide spoke little English, is that afterwards we were taken into a a typical Aymara home. Although most Peruvians and Bolivians are officially Catholic, older beliefs in Pacha Mama the Earth Mother and Inti the Sun God still flourish underneath. Most houses in this area still have terrocota figures of good luck symbols such bulls or pigs on the roof and the women are responsible for maintaining the rituals. We saw how the animals were kept and how the cooking was done. We even had a chance to taste some typical food - potatoes of course, some toasted corn and a little cheese.

This stone house at Sillistani is having a bet each way. It has both the lucky pigs and a cross
The house we visited was much simpler than this. It was still made of pise and cooking was done outside in the ceramic oven which you can see in the second picture below.


Guinea pigs at the house we vistited. There were llamas too
Aymara meal - potatoes, raosted corn, a dip, some cheese.  You can see the stove too

Here we are being shown how the weaving is done
(Apologies for the picture quality. It was dusk by the time we arrived here)

It may not have been as beautiful as Machu Picchu, but it was probably more indicative of  what life was like in Peru outside the major cities and the way life has been lived here for centuries - modest, self sufficient, with very little impact on the environment. With roads, improved communications, television and people like us, I'm sure it won't stay that way for much longer. See it before it disappears I think, but then again, things may evolve as happily as they seem to have in Cusco where tourism has brought the benefits of modernity like medicine and education, without destroying the way of life. One can only hope.



 

Peru III - Among the Gods


The adventure begins.... Trekkers and train passengers disembark at Ollantaytambo
Getting to Machu Picchu wasn't easy, even for a non - trekker.  I knew my limitations and  was still weak every time I had to walk uphill. Just walking to San Blas about ten metres above central Cusco already had me looking for somewhere to sit down. Because I felt queasy most mornings, I had started taking sirroche capsules along with my mate, though some say this is not wise since they may mask the symptoms of altitude sickness. The cost of trekking was daunting too - around $500 plus your guide and tips etc. Not that it was much cheaper the way I did it, but it was a lot more relaxing. First you took a minibus, then the train, then after an overnight stay in the valley at Aguas Calientes, you took another bus the following morning.

As the mini bus trundled up and out of town,  I couldn't help thinking that nothing exemplifies the contrast between the old and the new as the sight of an elderly woman in traditional dress picking bits of wood and straw out of the rubble among the pise houses, while young men in jeans hurried by, talking into their mobiles.



The train was an unexpected treat
The train was quite luxurious. It had windows in the roof so you could see the mountains.Some of the mountains were snow capped or covered by glaciers and occasionally there would be a waterfall. Pan pipes played over the speakers and afternoon tea was served. Thanks Peru Rail!

 

The village of Aguas Calientes was a delightful place too, despite being full of tourists. It  was almost tropical with banana palms and extravagantly flowering trees. An assortment of colourful buildings clawed their way up the steep sides of the valley and its narrow cobbled streets allowed for foot traffic only. Aguas Calientes means "warm waters" so I set about looking for the hot springs which the name usually implies. There were indeed some at the head of the valley and after renting some rather unflattering swimwear I was able to join in. Afterwards I ate in one of the many cafes - alpaca steak if you don't mind - tough and lean, just like kangaroo steak, and a very delicious avocado entree which came with a free glass of wine. I passed on the guinea pig -like creatures. Someone told me they are served with their heads and paws on and their little faces look too cute. I slept in a small and friendly hostel and prepared for my four a.m. start.

Arriving in Aguas Calientes
Hot Springs
The Hostel
Two hours before dawn, after much queueing, shoving and showing of passports, we finally wound our way  up by bus to the top of the mountain. The tropical vegetation gradually gave way to more temperate rain forest - thousands of species and twenty -eight different eco -systems I'm told, though you couldn't see much of them at this hour. Then we located our guide, an English speaker thank goodness, and of course you had to have one, and proceeded to wait for the sunrise. It was good having a guide though, because he not only s explained what was at the site and Inca social structure and so on, but also answered many of my questions.

Waiting for a sunrise which never really happened
The view for most of the morning
Was it something I said?
I get it.  You want a selfie too
For a long time, mists swirled, but the mountain stubbornly refused to show its face. Then, after a brief encounter with the resident alpacas* and getting a bit annoyed with all the people getting in the way while taking selfies or worse still, asking me to take photos of them, the mountain finally revealed itself.

Not a postcard - the Real Deal. Have left the guide's sleeve in to prove it
Machu Picchu was the most sacred place of the highest Incas who were especially knowledgeable about astronomy. Their predictions were of great importance to agriculture. They had good reason to want to get it right. Failure to do so, or a bad season, meant that one of them would have to offer himself as a sacrifice. Don't worry though,  the Incas did it voluntarily as it was an honour. Several sites are to do with astronomy, but in the above  photo you can also see the ruins of dwellings, grain stores, ball courts, artisan's  workshops and agricultural terraces as well as some of the temples. An astronomy observatory was also located on the hill opposite. You could climb that too if you had the energy, but after several hours of climbing terrace after terrace I thought I should quit while I was ahead. As the guide said when we were looking at the irrigation and water control systems, "The Incas thought of everything, -except lifts!."

* At least I didn't steal them or go naked  
http://www.fertur-travel.com/blog/2014/crackdown-on-streakers-and-nude-posers-at-machu-picchu/8478/
http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/aug/22/tourists-behaving-badly-top-5-bad-traveller-tales?CMP=fb_gu