¡Hola a todos!
Firstly, thank you so very much to all of you who have sent me such heart-warming and wonderful birthday messages – I feel very special today! Yesterday was indeed a birthday to remember for a long time to come: Machu Picchu was everything I had tried so very hard not to imagine (for fear of disappointment, as my Canadian friend Corey so clearly elucidated to me those many months ago during that halcyon Cambridge summer); in fact, it was more. Of course, I speak of the present and, as I am sure you have all noticed, this blog is currently far from present. I do not complain; I am still enjoying the writing process very much and it is lovely, as ever, to read your fantastic messages of support from back home and elsewhere. Nonetheless, as I am unable to compromise my verbose and detailed approach, I fear that the back-log will continue unabated without some level of intervention, despite my being at the outset of my birthday festivities (oh yes, Machu Picchu was simply the – very special – start).
I last left you all on the verge of Peru and yet another time change. As I stripped back another hour on my time-piece, muffled by the impenetrable dark crowding in from outside my coach window, I contemplated my situation: Peru; country of Inca-inspired prestige and mystery; country of countless travellers’ tales of wondrous scenery and experiences; country, I was later to discover, of serious socio-political traumas and deeply resonating strife. I felt an excitement, almost carnal, that I had not experienced so strongly since first departing my beloved home to take the road of adventure. Why I should wait so long to experience this feeling again and why it should be stimulated by Peru I cannot say, except that I clearly felt rejuvenated after the perjuries of La Paz, coupled with my natural exhilaration in anticipating a new country. Furthermore, of course, Peru I already knew to hold the esteemable treasures of long-lost, recently rediscovered Incan sites; strange, informative, previously unimagined burial sites rich in cultural significance. In short, to a dedicated Classicist so far from home, Peru, with its numerous humanitarian highlights, was worthy of the excitement factor.
Cam and I journeyed first to Puno, the Peruvian equivalent in cultural worth to Bolivian Copacabana, due to its useful position for further exploring the rich delights of Titicaca and especially the lake-based communities. Our border-crossing was smooth and swift, although I could not help but notice the increased visual reference-points to Swine Flu, the latest seismic trauma to shake the medical world; no indeed, the world as a whole, medical or otherwise. Reliable information continues to come at a premium regarding this influenza: I have long since decided upon a course of enlightened knowledge wherever possible, combined with vigilence (constant in the manner of Professor Moody may be a little too taxing) in combatting the risks. Another stamp in my passport, another bus boarded, we continued to Puno itself, a rather large lake-side town with a rather poor, though to my mind somewhat undeserved, reputation. Cam and I remained here for one full day, as we shopped around for a tour out onto the lake to the nearer islands.
Once our tour was booked, we decided to seek out a pool hall, a decision that was to lead to all manner of escapades. First, we relied upon Cam’s guide-book, with absolutely no success: we tried three halls, all were closed. Next we fell back upon the age-old custom of accosting any unsuspecting local. In South America, one does this at their peril: multiple side-streets, wrong turns and exasperated failures later,we finally stumbled upon a kindly soulwho not only gave us some distinct directions but,even insisted upon accompanying us the half-block to the hall he had in mind. So it was that we found ourselves outside a rather featureless door, one that could easily have been a residential dwelling (it certainly boasted of no indication that pool-tables lay within). Alas, the door remained closed and, upon glancing in through a window, it became apparent to me that the hall was closed to paying customers and had been forsome time, dust-sheets covering the entire room in view. Completely unfazed, our friendly guide hailed a taxi to take us to an alternative destination outside of walking distance: I write “taxi”; in reality it was a bicycle, with a small, elevated bench attached to the front and an ancient old gentleman hunched over the handlebars. My misgivings were considerable but, we climbed in and were soon wheeling our way down the busy road, our speed barely troubling the wheezing pedestrians crawling alongside us on the pavement. At one point, I turned to our driver to see him off the bike, pushing the entire contraption on foot and sounding akin to one who has contributed exceedingly to the profit-margins of ‘Lucky Strike’.Alarmed and guilty though I felt, we did finally success in reaching our destination and, as luck would have it, in finally happening upon an open, fully-functioning (well, by Peruvian standards at least) pool-bar. Here, we indulged in numerous games, as well as ‘Inca Kola’, a fizzy drink that according to appearance and taste is overloaded with ‘E’ numbers; wonderful stuff. It was while we enjoyed a rather competitive few games that we were introduced to the seedier side of Puno – a local drunk wandered in from the street and promptly (very, considering his state) set about bullying in the hall owner, himself clearly the wrong end of a courtship with some nefarious drug or other. A fight broke out,was quickly suppressed and then the local police arrived. Cam and I made ourselves scarce and looked on in some disbelief as the police asked a couple of questions with about as much interest apparent as one might expect to find of a football fan at the Milan fashion week and promptly disappeared back outside without so much as moving the drunkard along. After this the bullying recommenced, climaxing in a move of breath-taking audacity; the drunk up-ending his food-carton over the somewhat spaced-out owner, before making about as dignified an exit as one could, after chucking food over someone and stumbling away at a snail’s pace.
The remainder of our time in Puno passed with decidedly more tranquility and we rose early the next morning for our transfer to the lake-side and our vessel to take us out to the islands. Our first stop was the Uros Islands, the famous platforms constructed of reeds indigenous to the lake that are then able to float at will and can be moored or moved whenever the island’s inhabitants so desire. The reeds at the base of the construction are constantly being eroded from the rest of the structure by the lake’s waters and so it is a constant effort to lay down more reeds on top, thus preventing the island from disintegrating completely. Every inhabitant of a reed island has their own personal patch that they are required to maintain;failure to do so results in the lazy inhabitant, complete with their personal patch being, quite literally, cut adrift of the rest of the island, forced to go it alone so to speak, until they are taken in by another island community, if they are lucky. The reeds even act as a source of sustenance, the inner tuber being quite safe to eat, though rather low in nutritional value. The islanders were incredibly friendly, especially as they receive touristic visitors most days of any given week: perhaps this attention, and the resultant source of income, is encouragement enough for such hospitality, failure though it has so often been at other destinations rich in travellers.
Sailing on from the Uros, we arrived at Amantani Island, the largest of our trip, a little before lunch. Here we were to spend the night with an island family, sharing their table and their facilities. The islanders greeted us at the jetty and we were siphoned off to our respective hosts, Cam and I remaining together. Our hostess was a quiet young lady of only twenty-seven years, although her countenance suggested a far greater age, wearied no doubt by a gruelling regimen. She had two young, lovely children but, there was no father in sight, nor was he ever mentioned during our stay. I have found so far on my trip that such home-stay arrangements are a particularly helpful option for such single mothers, who are at least able to supplement their scant – if even existing – income with the money such temporary guests provide. The home itself was little more than a shack in places: two floors constructed from crumbling stone brick-work, topped by corrugated iron roofs and an out-house toilet that one ventured into only in the most dire of circumstances. The kitchen was a tiny structure separate from the main building, with a stooping doorway and a cramped table. Nevertheless, the food provided by our friendly hostess was tasty and contained some vegetables with the staple foodstuff of the region, potato. That afternoon was spent exploring, exchanging some pleasant conversation with our family and was then followed by a (mercifully) swift game of football played against the locals, at an alitude approaching 4000m: needless to say we were licked within ten minutes but, we certainly did not embarrass ourselves and, indeed, the match could even have lasted a little longer, were it not for the need to climb the adjacent hillside in time to see the sunset. This Cam and I achieved with the encouraging promise of a local beer at the summit, enjoyed looking out over the lake and towards yet another quite beautiful end to the light of day.
Upon descending from the summit, we returned briefly to our family dwellings for an evening meal of quinoa soup and yet more potatoes, accompanied by a little red meat. Quinoa is a local grain and a very healthy, very widely enjoyed food staple here in Peru. It is also rather filling, another inherent virtue. Our meal concluded, we donned home-knitted head-wear, with the useful dual purpose of keeping us warm in the biting evening chill and identifying us from a distance to our hostess. Snugly wrapped up, we departed the home headed to the local hall and to an evening of local music and dance held in honour of we visiting travellers. The music was great, if a little homogenous and the dancing was certainly an experience: even the poorest of shifters could cope with relative ease. The movements were repetitive and uninspiring, the lack of eye-contact made between ourselves and our local dance-partners a little disconcerting and then exasperating. Nonetheless, the experience was fantastic and a fine culmination to another richly cultural day.
Departing Amantani early the next morning on the back of a breakfast of pancakes we arrived mid-morning at our final destination on the two-day trip, the island of Taquile. Here are woven some of the finest wool-based garments, purportedly, of anywhere in the world – so fine are the finished articles that UNESCO has designated them of significant cultural worth, succeeding not only in raising the profile of the island but,also the price-tags attached to the various scarves, gloves and hats on display in the artesanal markets surrounding the island’s main square. So important are such handicrafts that they are even used to help decipher important personal questions; so important, that the skills required are even appropriated for determining choices of marriage. For instance, every male upon Taquile wears a woollen hat,woven personally by the wearer himself. A hat completely red in colour signifies a married man, one half woven with red wool and half muli-coloured designates a bachelor. This surely comes in useful for all those timid young maidens when checking out – discreetly of course – the local talent at the weekend. We were warned, however, of taking such visual aids to literally: often, an older gentleman sporting a singleton’s hat is merely wearing his old, now redundant model, due to having absent-mindedly misplaced his married equivalent! Furthermore, when a young buck takes a fancy to a maiden, he must prove his worth, frequently by weaving her a reed water jar: he is then assessed by the saucy young lady according to the jar’s design and its ability (or otherwise) to hold water without leaking. How practical! The shortcut, oft taken it would seem, is simply to seduce the young filly in question and succeed in impregnating her, after which a marriage-union is inevitable. The joys of the modern age – or not so modern at all perhaps.
I departed Taquile with a smile upon my face (such quaint customs!) and returned to the mainland, and to Puno, for one final night before moving on to Arequipa, opting for an overnight bus of some seven hours – a relative blink-of-an-eye journey in comparison to some previous trips. Little did I know concerning Arequipa, besides the intoxicating recommendations passed on to me by fellow travellers of a simply lovely destination. I was soon to discover the merit of these glowing testimonies and they will form much of my next blog but, for now, it is time once more for me to love you and leave you all.
¡Saludos a todos!