Monday, 26 March 2007

Here we go-oh ...

... moaning all over the world.

That's the English for you. During our travels we complain almost incessantly because nothing is ever quite good enough for us. Then we go home and people ask "How was your trip?", and we reply, quite truthfully, "Brilliant!".

Anyway, here is more nonsense from me for those gluttons for punishment, all slightly out of date - think of it as a sort of Bolivian de-brief.

I was prevented from travelling to the north and east of the country since the rains have caused terrible floods and a lot of the roads are washed out. Well, not prevented exactly, but it became impossible to reach most places without the kind of Herculean effort of which I really couldn't be bothered.

Entire villages have been destroyed - they're built them on the side of hills using mud bricks, so when the floods come the houses go. Bolivia is already a poor country, and a lot of these farmers are scraping a very basic living at the best of times, so the hardship and loss of life has been severe.

So maybe the nation has more on its mind than whether I have a good time or not.

Buuuuut ... the countryside in Bolivia is absolutely beautiful, and the only thing wrong with the place is the Bolivians. It is a lot like being in Wales after all.
I didn't experience any outright hostility from the locals, even while wearing my Cienciano football top (which I was told later was a no-no, even before the 5-1 Bolivar @ss whoopin') but I met people that had been spat at in the street and had stones thrown at them and the like. Welcome to Bolivia.

Apparently they're a very proud people.

A lot of the Bolivians you meet in the street are nice and friendly (those that don't spit at you, that is), but it seems that a prerequisite of being involved in the travel and tourism trade is the kind of deep rooted malevolence toward humanity that back home is the preserve of people that think up reality TV shows.

They use a lot of the same tricks to scam money off you as the Peruvians, but they don't have the affability or charm of their near neighbours.

Meeting some Peruvians is like chatting to an old Irishman at the bar, where he's regaling you with one tall tale after another, and, yes, of course he'll take a drink, that's very kind of you, and you'll be so thoroughly entertained by his nonsense that it won't be till the end of the evening, when your wallet is empty, that you'll realise how much you've spent. On him.

Meeting a Bolivian is like having a red faced Glaswegian come staggering up to you in a pub and shouting "Hey, pal, are you gonna buy me a drink, or what?"

In India people will tell you whatever you want to hear because they simply can't bear to disappoint you, but in Bolivia they will lie blatantly to your face, with attitude and with aggression, because they think you have money in your wallet. They couldn't give a llamas *rse for your disappointment. You're rich and I'm poor, their bearing seems to say, give me your money. It becomes tiresome.

I appreciate the lives these people lead are unimaginably harsh compared to mine, but still, y'know. F*ck 'em.

I still haven't been called gringo anywhere yet, but in La Paz one guy I walked past in the street turned back and shouted at me - I think he said "Hey whitey, give me some money!" ("Blanco, déme dinero") - to which "No" seemed the only apt and appropriate response. I was expecting further discussion on the subject but my reply seemed to satisfy him - he carried on walking at any rate.

On one occasion a few of us were standing in the street waiting for the rest of the group (you do a lot of that if you travel in packs) and a couple of donkeys wandered past. One of the guys put his camera to his eyes to take a photo and suddenly an old woman came from nowhere, screaming at him that he had to pay. You photograph my donkeys, she said, you pay. As if his photographing her donkeys in the middle of the street was an intrusion. Like I say, they're a proud people, but after five minutes of being shouted at by this extremely large old lady* he didn't bother with the photo.

* It's a tendency to describe all old ladies as "little", but there's no such thing as a little old lady in Bolivia. Only the robust survive. Largeness is considered attractive and marriageable to such an extent that slim young girls in the country wear skirts to make themselves look bigger. In La Paz, where they have a diet of US TV and Latin American Vogue, they're just as borderline anorexic as anywhere else, but out in the mountains different rules apply. No self-respecting farmer wants a slip of a girl who'll die before giving him sons.

I guess I should point out here that I've been spat at in Surrey, and robbed more times in London than anywhere else in the world, so it's easy to forget just how thieving and hostile people can be back home. In La Paz I was chatting to an English bloke that had been ripped off in Brazil - by another Englishman. He was absolutely livid that he "was robbed by an English c*nt" (to use his exact, if asterisked, words). It somehow broke the traveller solidarity that everyone assumes exists, but quite often doesn't.

It's also easy to believe that they target tourists, though - which they do, but only because the odds of a gringo having money are better. I saw enough in La Paz to realise that the thieves there will rob anyone. Just like thieves everywhere, in fact. Rob from the rich (you) to give to the poor (them) and all that.

Like I say, it's a beautiful country. I've read that Peru was equally obnoxious fifteen or twenty years ago but the economy is more prosperous now, life is easier, so the people are friendlier, so maybe if the truly beloved President Morales delivers on his promises of stability and prosperity, in fifteen years time there will be no Bolivian buts. For now, though, they're a bunch of w*nkers.

La Paz grew on me, though. Did I mention before that it's apparently the highest capital in the world? I was actually higher up sitting in a hillside cafe in La Paz than I was while jumping out of a plane. Not quite as scared, though, despite all the crime warnings and terrible tales I'd heard.

In La Paz the many shoe shine boys in the street all wear balaclavas and face masks. It seems incredible to me, but I'm told it's because it's such a low status occupation that none of those involved want to be recognised. It gives them the look, though, of a crack team of desperadoes that are about to storm the ministerial palace and give everyone inside a really good buff and polish. Like on every street corner there's a couple of trainee ninja turtles ready to fight crime.

Despite the poverty, one thing they seem to have in Bolivia is a more varied diet than Peru, where if they ever ran out of chicken, rice and chips I think there'd be a famine of epic proportions. In Bolivia they call that dish Chicken Milanese, which to me seems to be doing Milan a disservice. When I was in Milan (a long while ago, I must admit) I don't recollect ever seeing a single chip. It should really be called Chicken Peruano.

I did encounter another side effect of being in a dwarf nation, too.

I'd brought with me an old pair of hiking boots (that have already served in New Zealand and India, not to mention the mean streets of Redhill) and I watched as the hills and mountains of Latin America quite rapidly destroyed them. With the Inca Trail looming I felt it was time to invest in another pair.

Normally I hate shoe shopping because I have mutant duck feet and it's hard to find decent shoes that fit me. When I bought trainers in Cusco I tried on about twelve pairs that I hated, by which time I was so bored of the whole process that I pointed to the cheapest pair in the shop and said "Just give me those".

However, I was confident that La Paz would see me right because I found a corner of the street market where every stall sold only shoes - I thought I'd died and gone to quality footwear heaven.

I'd reckoned without these pesky tiny latinos, though. I take a size nine (42 in Europe, 10 in the Americas) and most of these stalls were utterly astonished to hear me asking for such an enormous monstrosity of a boot. At one shop, where they had some great shoe solutions for midgets and pixies, the woman disappeared out the back for about twenty minutes and returned with the ugliest pair of trainers I've ever seen and said
"This is the only pair we have, that big". Her bearing suggested that I should count myself lucky that they even had these clown rejects from the circus, but I politely declined.

Finally I managed to find somewhere that was selling boots for normal people, neither the best designs nor the best quality, it must be said, but at least each one was large enough to fit over my big toe, after a bit of breaking in.

Bolivians walk unimaginably slowly. In fact they walk as if they're only putting one foot in front of another because the world doesn't have the decency to turn faster. They also employ a rolling gait that allows even those that aren't morbidly obese to block the widest pathways, and often they use props, such as large canvas bags, to assist them in this task. If these prove unavailable they make do with wildly swinging arms and unpredictable leg twitches. They do this knowing full well you're trying to get past - even more so if they realise you're a tourist. If you're carrying a rucksack, forget it.

So while I was wearing in my new boots, I found some real satisfaction in using exaggerated leg movements (maybe some uncharitable people would call them "kicks") to get the more recalcitrant out of the way. Who needs "permiso?" to pass when you have new boots?
All the best



Ten signs you've been in Bolivia too long
1) You've met more than three Bolivians
2) You now think Peru is an over-priced tourist trap
3) Being ripped off to the tune of about 6p will leave you fuming for days, and ready to start a riot
4) Altitude, schmaltitude
5) Seeing vast fields of coca leaves, or raw cocaine, no longer interests or amuses you
6) You've taken to scrupulously checking every note you're given, so as not to be lumbered with any more worthless, unspendable pieces of scrap paper ... worth approximately sixty pence.
7) You're quite happy to shove even the old ladies off the pavement if they're in your way - it's either them or you
8) You've started awarding points for style to the people that try to rob you
9) You now know why you've never heard the phrase "Bolivian craftsmanship"
10) You're in Bolivia


While I was in La Paz I had what was for me a genuinely new experience, meeting a whole crowd of unfriendly Australians. Although I was shocked at the blatant racism in Australia, especially Sydney, I think I can say that every native I met there was friendly (though some of them did need some softening up), and every antipodean I've met in London has been affability itself.

Maybe the Bolivian vibe had affected them, but this lot didn't quite fit the mould.

Apparently they were all quite young and this was their first trip abroad and they were terrified of everyone and everything, so were huddling together for protection, but I've truly not met such a bunch of stuck-up kangaroo-f*ckers before - and I realised that the Aussies can disappear up their own backsides like everyone else. You see, travel really does broaden the mind.

The people that seem to unite everyone, though, are the Israelis.

Almost everyone I've spoken to seems to have their obnoxious Israeli stories, and all the tour guides hate them - some even explicitly ban them. I must admit I haven't had any problems on this trip but when I was in New Zealand, if ever there was a group in a hostel or campsite that were throwing their weight around, acting like they owned the place and generally making things more awkward for everyone else, they were, without exception, Israeli. I even had a slight contretemps with one particular Israeli on a campsite once, and still bear the mental scars.

They're even less popular here than the Californians.


On my last night in La Paz I was having drinks with my tour group from the Salt Flats, and another group that had been following the same route and staying at the same places. In the normal way of these things, because there were so many of us we picked up quite a few stragglers, including a (friendly) Aussie called Phil and an English girl called Tracey that we rescued from the unfriendly Australians.

When the bar closed, one English couple invited everyone back to their hostel for further drinks. After a brief conversation with my Aussie, during which we agreed to buy some whiskey to take along, he disappeared to the bar and came back a few minutes later with a litre bottle of vodka. "This is better" he said "More people drink vodka".

I don't like vodka, but bearing in mind how late it was and how many we'd already had, I figured we might appreciate a little help with the booze, so I didn't punch him or anything.

So then the three of us, Phil, Tracey and me, leapt into a cab to head for the couple's hostel. At this point the English girl decided she didn't want to go to the party, but would rather go back to her hotel. Fine, we said through gritted teeth, which hotel is it?

She couldn't remember the name.

Where is it?, we asked.

She couldn't remember where it was, but suggested that we drive around until she saw something she recognised.

After a short while part of the name came back to her, and with the cab drivers help we worked out which hotel she needed.

When we arrived at the steep pedestrianised street leading to said hotel I realised for the first time just how drunk this girl was. She was unable to get out of the cab unaided, and it took both Phil and myself to hold her upright and get her moving in roughly the right direction. She couldn't remember her room number, but fortunately the doorman of the hotel knew her (he didn't look completely shocked to see her in such a state, either) and we left her in his capable hands.

So finally we headed off to our little party. Except that at this point we realised that we'd become separated from the main crowd, and didn't know the room number we wanted. Never mind, we said, we'd sort something out.

The taxi bill wasn't cheap in the end, but we figured the driver had earnt a tip. Quite frankly I felt like I'd earnt a tip myself, but finally we arrived at the right hostel, at the same time as a couple of blokes, and I slipped in behind them as if it was natural and followed them up the stairs.

I've cursed myself many times in the few days since for what happened next. I really don't know what came over me.

As I was about halfway up, I heard Phil the Aussie walk up to the night porter and explain, in Spanish even I could understand, that he'd met some people in the bar and they've invited him back for a drink. He didn't remember they're names, and he didn't know what room they were in, but could the porter tell him which room an English couple were staying in?

I could've kept walking up the stairs. I should've kept walking up the stairs. However, I turned round and went back to reception, just in time to see the night porter go absolutely mental, start shouting, and throw the pair of us out, saying something along the lines of "we're not running a night-club here".

So, there we were, in the street in the middle of the night, plus one bottle of vodka, minus one party. At this point Phil decided he was tired and wanted to go to bed, and frankly I was a little tired of him, so we decided to go our separate ways. The only thing left to sort out was what we'd do with the vodka. I'd paid for it and he'd given me half the cash, and he now didn't have enough cash to buy me out, so I gave him his money back and kept the bottle.

So that was how I came to find myself smuggling a litre of vodka that I don't like across the border into Peru.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

I've learnt a new bit of latin american slang

A 'brichera' is a girl who targets gringos for their money, something a lot of the guys fall for because it's such a novel experience for them. You get bricheros, too, but mainly the guys here are just after a sh*g with the gringas, so I imagine it's not dissimilar to being at home. I think I'm fortunate enough to look like I don't have any money, but I think I might have met one brichera, a girl who was dancing in the middle of a bar who then came up to me and said "It makes you very thirsty, dancing so much". Fortunately I had a half-finished bottle of water with me, so I offered her that to stave off the worst effects of dehydration. She can't have been that thirsty, though, as she politely declined my offer.

I met one guy who'd had a Peruvian girlfriend for a while, and he told me he'd spent about two thousand quid in a single month. "What on earth on?" was my response, because life here is really cheap. Even when he told me I couldn't quite believe it, but that woman must have a pretty good jewellery collection by now. As soon as he was out of cash and wouldn't treat her to the high-life any more she started a massive row with him and stormed out of his flat. He was heartbroken.

I've also met a couple of guys that have admitted to being robbed after taking a pretty latina home - they have a good time but wake up the next morning a bit light in the wallet, camera and passport department.

Nothing, though, compares to the story this French guy told me.

He'd had a frustrating evening in a club, failing to pull a sexy Dutch blond. While walking home he met a latina in the street and smiled at her. Without a word being spoken, apparently, he found himself in an alley round the corner, she was on her knees, he had his trousers round his ankles and he was having quite a nice time. Then he took her back to his hostel where she continued to entertain him, and she even took some saucy photos of the pair of them.

Then she left.

The following morning he realised that everything he'd had in his trouser pockets had vanished, as had his camera.

He went to the police station to report the crime, but initially the police were sceptical of his account. It didn't seem plausible, they said. Lots of tourists make false police reports in Cusco, apparently, as part of various insurance scams, and the police have become quite sensitive to stories that don't quite ring true. They sent a policeman out to check his version of events and speak to potential witnesses, and fortunately the doorman at the hostel could verify the presence of someone in his room late the previous night, and even identified the miscreant from a photo.

The French lad was left sweating in an interview room while all this happened, and then the police chief came in, leaving the door open.

"There's good news and bad news", he said. "The good news is that the thief is a criminal known to us. The bad news is that it's a guy."

At this point he heard the entire room beyond erupt into furious laughter, and he was ushered out into the main office with a bright red face.

I can't verify the truth of this story, but the bloke swore it happened to him exactly as I've related it to you. Personally I think most people would keep quite if it happened to them, so I found myself believing it.

Touch wood I've still not been robbed yet. I've also not been sick so far, though lets just say that constipation hasn't exactly been a problem. I had a few nervous moments on the bus back to Cusco from La Paz, though.

Having been told it was an eleven hour journey (for which you can usually read fourteen), and still bearing the memorial scars from my ten hour hell-ride from Abancay to Cusco, I'd spent a fair amount of time shopping round the various bus companies, asking about the journey, the condition of the buses and the services they offered. I eventually plumped for a fantastic sounding affair that promised to be direct. Yes, there will be a toilet. Movies will be shown. Meals will be served. There will be lots of space aboard.


While about half a dozen of us were waiting at the terminal for our palatial bus to Cusco, another bus pulled up. It was the oldest, dodgiest, most decrepit and most deserving of being taken up to the Death Road and thrown off that I've seen so far, which is saying something. It wouldn't even have been accepted as scrap back home.

Get out of the way, I thought, our wonder-bus needs to park there.

Then a woman from the bus company came out and told us that this bus would take us to another terminal, from where the real bus would leave. Hurry up and board, she said, the other bus is waiting. No time, no time for discussions.

Now, I've been told some outragious bus whoppers on this trip (in fact in latin america there are three questions to which bus companies are legally obliged to give inaccurate, erroneous or just plain dishonest answers: What time does it leave? How long does the journey take? Is it direct? All must be answered with a barefaced lie or the company runs the risk of losing its license to operate) but when confronted with this audacious piece of sheer effrontery, I almost burst into spontaneous applause.

Not believing for a second that this bus wasn't the one we'd end up lumbered with, and not being convinced it would even make it as far as Cusco, I hopped on board.

Now, the night before I'd been persuaded to try a new culinary experience by a group of friends from my hostel. Astonished that I'd not tried the food in the market yet, and knowing I was leaving the country in the morning, they promised me the best (and the cheapest) meal it was possible to get. They ate in the same place every day, they said, it was always good, they said, it was really clean and they loved it. They said.

It was far from the best, it was far from clean, and it was nowhere near as cheap as I'd been led to expect. Describing it as food at all, in fact, was a bit of a stretch as far as I was concerned, and when I pondered the quality of meal you can get in La Paz by spending about 50p more, I wondered about the hell kind of budget these kids were travelling on.

However, I was hungry so I ate what I could, washed down with a couple of beers and we all went to bed.

Then morning came.

Left to my own devious I can be pretty lazy. On a normal weekend back home it's only either the need to eat or the need to pee that will drive me out of bed at all, so I'm no stranger to the need to get up to use the lavatory.

This, though, was novel to me.

I don't want to go into too many details, but I was rather taken aback by the expansive nature of my toilette the following morning, and my body's enthusiasm to be making this lavatorial evacuation. I hoped that was it. Oh no.

A mere two hours into my 'bus' ride to Cusco I felt the first indications that the bank of Nathan's bowels were ready to make another express deposit, and I knew it was going to be a long trip.

As the journey wore on I was actually glad to have been told the obligatory "No, we don't stop anywhere except Cusco" lie, because during the frequent breaks in semi-deserted villages in Butt-f*ck, Nowhere, I was able to relieve some of the pressure that was building up so quickly. It took quite a few sessions before I was empty enough for my sphincter to relax. At that point so could I.

Like I say, not ill exactly but definitely ... uncomfortable.

You'll be pleased to hear that once we'd crossed the border the bus become almost deserted, and I think because it was a Bolivian company it was granted an exemption from the Peruvian Screaming Baby laws, so the last half of the journey was okay.

So I'm back in Cusco, ready to put the second part of my plan for world domination into effect.


Sunday, 18 March 2007

Eight people, three days, one jeep and no showers

Somebody open a window.

No, wait, everybody open ALL the windows.

We went on a tour of the beautiful southern Bolivian landscape, and by the final day we were humming so badly the animals could smell us drive past in Venezuala. When one of us raised an arm to point out an interesting geographical feature we were stripping the leaves off bushes at three metres.

It was worth the olfactory abuse, though, because some of those geographical features were pretty damned interesting.

Vast savannas, seemingly endless deserts, vivid green lakes and a mildly active volcano. It strikes me that a volcano can be mildly active in the same way a bullet could be mildly unhealthy or a case of syphillis could be mildly unwelcome, but alas we couldn't get close enough to find out just how mild a stream of red hot molten lava can be.

We started out at the Salt Flats, which is like an Arctic landscape of bleached white reaching to the mountains on the horizon. Several travellers I'd met described it as the most beautiful place they'd ever been, and it was okay.

That evening we stayed at a local pueblito in a house made of salt - salt brick walls and a salt floor, sleeping on beds made of salt and we ate at a salt table while sitting on salt chairs. Strangely enough, though, when I asked for salt with my dinner I was given ketchup, but if I suppose if you live your entire life surrounded by salt the last thing you want to do is eat it.

The second day was the one for the great landscapes as far as I was concerned, though, really rugged scenery with bonus flamingoes.

There were several other jeeps doing the same or a similar tour, but our group was by far the coolest (hi, guys and gals). Also our driver was the good samaritan of the bunch, delaying our departure on the second morning while he tried to help another driver rescue his four wheel drive that had somehow gotten stuck in about an inch and a half of mud, and regularly stopping to help fix the jeeps that had broken down in the middle of nowhere.

After a while this got pretty tiresome, and we were trying to encourage him to just drive past. Scr*w these guys, we'd say, let's go. It's not that big a desert after all.

By the third day I think the basic mode of life and lack of sleep was starting to take its toll on me, because I found myself mumbling to myself "yeah, geysers, so what, seen 'em" or "interesting shaped rock, big deal", but it was a fantastic experience.

Before the Salt Flats I did a mountain bike ride down what is officially (apparently) the most dangerous road in the world. Having been to India and witnessed Delhi driving first hand I found myself sceptical of this claim, but they say that an average of one hundred people (including two cyclists) die every year on this road, so it's clearly going to be up there in the top ten.

It was brilliant, hurtling down a bumpy dirt track with nothing standing between me and certain cliff-bottomed death but my poor balance, terrible co-ordination and complete lack of experience on a mountain bike. I loved it. I'm tempted to do it again.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

What I did in Lake Titicaca

I visited the so-called "floating islands" of the Uros people, which are essentially large organic rafts tethered to the bottom of the lake. The islands, the houses on them, their boats, in fact pretty much everything they have is all made of reeds. They eat the reeds, too. They taste horrible.

The people first built islands on this lake a few hundred years ago in order to avoid paying tribute to the Incan empire - as soon as the Incas approached they would haul up the moorings and the island would float out to the middle of the lake, thus creating what might well be the earliest tax dodge in recorded history. The people still try not to pay tax, but they consider themselves fiercely patriotic Peruvians and campaign for subsidies from the government for their lucrative touristic enterprise, which is what the islands have become. They remind me a lot of the modern conservative party.

The islanders' traditional way of life is disappearing, and at first I was sympathetic, but the more I heard about it, the less I cared.

Apparently lots of the traditional islanders are buying houses on the mainland and now travel out to the lake just for "work" - ie, showing tourists their authentic and ethnic and traditional way of life. Also, teenagers now have to leave for the mainland to go to secondary school, and very few of them ever come back. Then I was told that they have a very high infant mortality rate - one in three children born on the islands dies before they're three years old, because they all use the edge of the raft as their toilet and then use the reeds growing at the edge of the raft for food.

At this point I started thinking "f*ck their traditional way of life".

I can imagine a young lad returning from school:
"You should see the houses on the mainland, Dad, they have solid walls and heating and this crazy stuff called plumbing which means you're not sh*tting on your own dinner every day, it's amazing!"
"Well, let's sink this floating death trap, son, and let's go!"

I also visited some real, honest to goodness islands, which are really the tips of huge mountains sticking up over the surface of the lake. They were beautiful, but I heard a similar complaint that tourism is ruining the islanders' way of life. I know that tourism can be red in tooth and claw sometimes, but here we're talking about paved footpaths across the island instead of dirt tracks, solar powered refrigeration instead of cooking with rotting meat, and real beds instead of earth mounds covered in reeds.

I mean, sometimes you just have to let it go.

They also have a cuisine based entirely on the fact that nothing much that grows at this altitude is edible. They have plants that are highly toxic in their natural state, but they're such accomplished cooks that after two days of careful preparation, cleaning, boiling, peeling and then cooking, they can create a dish that tastes like sh*t.

Because regularly even the inedible plants let them down, they've developed a way of dehydrating potatoes so they can be stored for up to ten years. You dig them up when they're frozen (it's below zero overnight even in the summer apparently, so that's not too difficult - hmmm, heating, that's another evil brought to the island by tourism) and then draw the water out of them and they shrivel up and turn purple, but at least they don't rot.

They're horrible, I've tried them.

You know what I'm saying about the old ways? Sometimes it's just not worth it.

Anyway, on one of these islands there was a mountain peak that a group of us set out to walk up - 4160m above sea level. About half way up one of the girls admitted that she had a heart condition, exacerbated by the altitude, and she wasn't sure she was going to make it.

I tried to be sympathetic, but judging by the reaction I got I don't think I quite pulled it off.

I mean, I appreciated all the other girls fussing around her and trying to find out if she was all right and all that, but I was thinking more along the lines that if I had a heart condition (exacerbated by the altitude) then I might have mentioned it before we set off to climb a fr*gging mountain. Thankfully the group divided itself neatly into those who wanted to climb to the top (the men, who carried on) and those concerned about the welfare of this silly t*rt who was about to have a heart attack several hours by helicopter away from the nearest hospital, who stayed behind.

This was a trip out from the Puno, on the Peruvian side of the lake. Puno itself isn't all that great, but it's the easiest way to visit some of the islands in "not the highest navigable lake in the world", which is well worth it.

The first hostel I was in ripped me off - I had to pay a deposit on arrival, and when I left they refused to believe I'd paid it. I didn't get a receipt, you see, always get a receipt. I would have been willing to believe it was a genuine mistake except that in the course of arguing about it I spoke to three different people, all of whom said "I was working that night and you definitely didn't pay it" and I was thinking "I did pay it, and not one of you w*nkers was there that night". By this point there were three guys standing around me, all looking pretty het up, so I just coughed up the three quid and left. Believe me I shall be writing a stiff email to the Lonely Planet about this.

My original plan was to leave my luggage with them while I went to the islands, but having just been robbed I didn't really feel like saying "Oh, and by the way, can you look after all my valuables for me?" so I asked the guy at the boat company that was taking me out onto the lake. He said "Sure, no problem, I'll leave it in the office for you"

When I got back I went to the office and they didn't know anything about my luggage.

After my rather shrill insistance that they really did have it in the face of their insistence that they didn't, the woman eventually phoned round various places and said that it was in another office. I asked where the office was and she marked it on a map, and it was about a hundred yards away. She said that when they closed (in about four hours time) they would deliver it to my hostel. On the other hand, I said, I could just walk round there and collect it now.

Sure, she accepted, slightly stunned by my off-the-wall thinking.

In Puno I also met a woman who'd been ripped off by a bureau de change - she'd been given some fake dollars (always check the notes they give you), but when she took them back they refused to replace them ... because they were obviously fakes. I was behind her in the queue and got drawn into the conversation, and the most striking thing about it for me was that throughout the woman was insisting on speaking in French, despite the fact that the people she was speaking to didn't understand a word of it. I could almost see the logic (these people are foreign - I speak foreign, I speak French - therefore, I shall speak French) but she really might as well have been speaking in Swahili or Klingon for all the good it was going to do her. I was able to throw my pidgin Spanish into the mix and successfully confuse everybody, which felt good, but she she was even speaking French to me, despite me speaking English to her.

She left in order to fetch a policeman, and I decided to take my currency exchange business elsewhere.

They were also particularly bad about accepting their own currency in Puno. In lots of places around the world I've become used to being given large denomination notes by banks and exchange houses, which you then have to swap somewhere for money you can actually spend, but throughout Peru they take it to whole new levels. I can almost accept it with one hundred sol notes, which are virtually useless and unusable, but you might try to buy a one sol cup of coffee with a five sol coin (roughly eighty pee) and they won't accept it because they have no change. Have these people not taken in any coins in the course of their business day? Have they never heard of the concept of a float?

Puno was the first place where I had to pay a one sol commission for the privilege of turning Peruvian money I couldn't spend into Peruvian money I could. It's only just over fifteen pence, but the principle annoyed me.

So from Puno I crossed the border into Bolivia, and visited Copacabana. Not the famous Copacabana in Brazil, but a small tourist town with a hippie vibe on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca.

This involved a good example of Peruvian "we're only three feet tall" bus design - moulded headrests at shoulder blade level. I believe for the strapping six footers amongst us they were quite ergonomical, because they sat in the small of the back and provided a massage whenever we went over bumps, but for me it became agony after three hours of not being able to sit back in my seat.

The officially mandated screaming baby was sitting across the aisle from me, and in accordance with the law he stopped crying as soon as we reached the Bolivian border*.

* In case you think I'm callously indifferent to the plight of crying children and their parents, I should point out that the only time I saw a Peruvian baby cry was on a bus, and every bus I caught in Peru offered this feature as standard, so I think in Peru they take their children on buses to cry. I can imagine a similar scene in households across Peru - "This child is sick!" "Quick, somebody call a bus company!".

But I'm in Bolivia now, which is tremendously exciting since I only bought with me a guide to Peru, so it means I'm officially off-book! Of course, I've mainly been following recommendations from, and travelling with, other people that do have guide books so I'm still pretty much following their advice, but I don't have one myself. I call it the Lonely-Planet-Lite school of travel.

From Copacabana I visited the Isla del Sol, which is another island in Lake Titicaca, and is beautiful. I was there with ten assorted South Americans, most of whom only spoke Spanish. I think we had a great time. There was certainly a lot of laughter whenever I was around. I also understood my first pun in Spanish. It had the tiresome air of a well-worn line, but I got the joke. I also made my first quip in Spanish. It was pretty poor, but it's nice to get even a courtesy laugh in another language so I was pleased*.

One of the latinos recommended a place called Sorata because it was pretty and seldom visited, so a Mexican chap and I headed out there. I could see why few people visit, because from Copacabana the journey involved a taxi, a boat and two buses.

We set out before dawn, with the roads wet from the overnight rain. On one side of the road was the express route to Lake Titicaca, an almost sheer drop of several hundred metres with just enough of a slope to guarantee at least a couple of good bounces before hitting the water, and on the other side a cliff wall, an express route to oblivion if ever I've seen one. In between was a lunar surface of craters and trenches that was laughably called a "road" because in Bolivian Spanish they have no word for "joke-we-play-on-the-tourists".

The taxi driver (sensibly conscious of undue wear and tear on his clutch) didn't change gear very often, though he did grudgingly drop down into fourth for the real hairpin bends. He was also clearly concerned about his brake pedal, touching it only seldom and then very lightly, and his headlamps. He mostly had these off, switching them on every hundred metres or so in order to memorise the layout of potholes ahead, before plunging the route back into total darkness.

Of utmost importance to him, however, was obviously his fan heater, which he refused to switch on at all, despite an inch thick layer of condensation on the windscreen and the terrified entreaties of the front seat passenger.

When the driver swerved sharply, skidded, hit a rock with his rear tyres and then bounced twice before coming to rest facing out into the depths of the lake, I was quite glad I'd already been to the toilet that morning.

I believe Alton Towers were considering a new ride, The Bolivian Taxi Driver, but it was deemed unsuitable for children or adults of all ages.

On the bus we then caught there was no screaming baby (not required by law here, see) but I was sat next to a woman carrying a bucket of not quite dead fish, possibly my favourite sharing-personal-space-with-livestock experience to date, and certainly one my nose will never forget. It also provided evidence that el señor Mexicano is a nicer person than me, because at the very moment that I was thinking "Jes*s, that woman is going to sit next to me with a bucket of dying sea-food", he'd already realised that the load was too heavy for her and had leapt up to help her lift it on board and ensure that it was securely wedged between my seat and hers, which unfortunately meant it was on the opposite side to him.

I'm currently in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. It's pretty ugly, but I'll be heading off back into the countryside tomorrow.

So, sorry about the mammoth missive, but it feels like ages since I've written.

* For those that are interested, here are the pun and joke:One of the guys was using his charm on one of the women, telling her how beautiful she was, and she said he was like Pinochio. He replied that calling him Pino-ochio did him a disservice, he was more like Pin-nuevio at least. That's like "I'm not Pin-eight, I'm more like Pin-nine at least"

Earlier, the same guy had gone off to hire a boat to take us to an unspoilt part of the island (which only had about four hostels, three restaurants and two tour agencies) and he returned standing on the prow of a pretty nifty looking speed-boat with his arm aloft. I said "Vivo el jefe!", which I wanted to mean "All hail the chief!" and, incredibly, I got a laugh.

Another potential you-had-to-be-there moment, we were all taking the p1ss out of the islanders approach to taking money from the tourists, as they were charging for absolutely everything you wanted to do. Toilet? Three bolivianos. Photo? Five bolivianos. That evening one of the girls said "I've had an idea!" and one of the guys said "Ten bolivianos"
Yeah, sorry.

While I was in Cusco I watched the local team (Cienciano) play whenever I could, visiting the stadium when they were at home, watching on TV when they were away, and I even bought an official shirt. However, all the team I was there they lost every game. So I was pleased to see the other day that they beat Bolivar 5-1, especially since they were a goal down at half time. Imagine my delight then as I was sitting in a crowded Bolivian bar, in my Cienciano shirt, surrounded by morose locals watching as goal after goal went in past the weary, demoralised and frankly woeful Bolivar defence. Magic.

Ten signs you've been in Peru too long

1. Well you can stick those f*cking pan pipes up your *rse for a start.
2. No, really, I mean it. Shove 'em where the condor won't fly. Poke 'em up Paul Simon's if you have to, just stop playing them near me.
3. One pound thirty for a three course meal? Tourist prices.
4. If the Incas were all that great then they wouldn't have been rolled over by a few dozen Spaniards. I mean, even the French could have taken them. Maybe. With a bit of help.
5. 85p a pint? They saw you coming, mate.
6. You find yourself thinking that maybe you do want your entire wardrobe based on a llama wool theme with alpaca accessories.
7. At least the Roman empire destroyed themselves by descending into a quagmire of incest, murder and other assorted insanities, rather than being humiliated by the Spanish, of all people.
8. You've found yourself thinking more than once "It's your currency, b1tches, learn to accept it"

9. And the Romans knew how to build a straight road.
10. You'll be back in a fortnight.

Comrade Marsh sent this reply to my previous mail and I thought it was worth quoting:

Your message inspired me to research what actually is the highest lake in the world, and I stumbled upon a website called I think I have a similar attitude to you in that I am not particularly passionate about the order of merit for high altitude bodies of water - even if I was, there seems little I could do about it - but it seems that someone out there wants to nail these lies once and for all. It opens with the sentence "Cold is the enemy of a high lake", which I read in a Richard Burton-War of the Worlds voice in my head

Every time I looked out at Lake Titicaca I found myself thinking "Cold is the enemy of a high lake ... DAN - DAN - DERR"

Saturday, 3 March 2007

My ongoing battle with the buses of Peru

The other day I got caught in the Cusco rain (I'm here during the rainy season, the clue's in the title), slipped over on a wet cobblestone and hurt my back. Then I went back to the hostel, hung up my raincoat in the bathroom and went to bed. In the morning I discovered that the coat had fallen off the hook and one sleeve was hanging in the toilet bowl (why oh why didn't I put the seat down?) so it was sopping wet.

I'd grown tired of the endless pointless flat searching (well, I'd looked at a couple of places) so I'd decided to get out of town for a few days. Most of my stuff was packed already, so I didn't really have a choice about wearing the coat without a major re-pack, though I did roll the soggy sleeve up.

In the course of doing this I realised that the flush on the toilet probably wasn't the most efficient in town, because my sleeve bore the faint but unmistakable aroma of urine.

So I headed off for my bus, which should have been five hours but turned out to be eight, behind the obligatory screaming baby ("Sounds like he's just tired" "Yes, well, screaming solidly for four hours would be enough to wear anyone out. I suggest he takes a break before his lungs start bleeding"). I was also sitting next to someone who smelled like a chap of regular and voluminous bowel movements, but who didn't like to waste his money on fripperies like toilet paper. Or soap. So I wasn't in the best mood throughout the journey, through the mountains with the windows open.

To be fair, though, he probably spent eight hours thinking I stank of p1ss.

I'm now in Puno, which is on the shores of Lake Titicaca, which is apparently not the highest navigable lake in the world, despite what some people might tell you. I mean, it's not something I've ever felt strongly about myself, but I've read it and been told it quite a few times now, so I thought I'd share that piece of non-information with you.

When I got here last night there was some kind of carnival celebration in full flow. They'd turned the main square of town into one giant foam party, and there were a procession of bands and dancers in the streets. I think there's been a celebration of some kind every week since I've been here, so either this is the time to go to Peru for street parties (it's all about planning and research for me), or these crazy kids just do this all the time. I know what I suspect.

There have also been a few political demonstrations, but I haven't known enough Spanish to know what they were about. I hope they weren't on behalf of the "Let's kick out the gringos" Party, but you can never be too sure. On the whole they love tourists here and welcome them with open wallets, but I'm told not everywhere is the same. One girl was telling me how beautiful Bolivia was, but she did say that you often see "gringos out!" and "tourists go home!" painted on the walls in Spanish, and at one point someone spat at her in the street. I told her that if I wanted that kind of hostility I'd go to Wales. However, I might well go to places like Copacabana and La Paz, which are incredibly close here, and about as tourist friendly as they get. I mean, they even let Barry Manilow write a song about Copacabana.