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 seƱor 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"

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