the Long's Strange Trip

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Questing into the unknown...
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~  Of Reed  Boats and Floating Islands ~
March 27 through March 31, 2000
$1 U.S. = 3.40 sols
$1 U.S. = 6.04 bolivianos
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Puno, Peru
March 27 through March 28

Beautiful, rugged Peruvian landscape(ccl)  The train ride from Cusco to Puno was listed in our guide book as, "one of the most beautiful train rides in South America".  It was that, and it was also the bumpiest.  We pulled out of Puno at about 8:30 A.M., and the ride was bad at the start and continued to get worse.  About 15 minutes out of Cusco, the car started rocking back and forth so bad that someone's bag fell off of the overhead bin above us and smashed onto our table, inches from our heads.  Well, that certainly got our attention...

The Puno Express  Total riding time to Puno was just under 12 hours.  That's a long train ride, but it was beautiful.  We went through some really lovely, basically uninhabited areas.  Along the way we passed herds of sheep, llamas, and alpaca.  While I wouldn't compare the punctuality to the British train system, or the ride to the French TGV, it got us there, and we enjoyed the trip.

As our man Caesar was taking us to the train station in Cusco in the morning, he told us that our hotel in Puno was "included", and that someone would pick us up at the train station.  Sure enough, a guy named Fellipe met us at the station and took us to a hotel.  He knew Caesar, but there seemed to be some confusion about whether our hotel was paid for or not.  The sign in the lobby of the hotel announced that a double was $45, which is really high for Peru.  But we went to bed not really caring, figuring it would all be worked out in the morning.

In the morning, we learned that Caesar had lied, and the hotel room was NOT included.  But when we told the hotel manager that we were checking out because the price was too high, it rapidly fell from $45 to 35 Peruvian soles (about $10).  We learned a valuable lesson in travel at this point: always act like the quoted price for the room is too much - chances are, it will go down.

Floating reed island  That morning we took a tour boat to two of what are known as the "Floating Islands".  In order to escape the Spaniards in the 16th century, the Uros people built floating islands in Lake Titicaca and some still live on them today.  When I stepped off the boat onto the mat of reeds, it felt rather squishy, and I was afraid I might fall through.  The "island" itself was no more than 400 square yards, and the people who lived there sold crafts in order to make a living.  They must replace the reeds periodically, as those on the bottom are continually rotting in the waters of Lake Titicaca.

One of my sisters, Nancy, asked me what was so amazing, so compelling about Titicaca?  Why is it such a fabled place?  It's hard to say, but there is an incredibly spiritual feeling about the place.  Lake Titicaca is the largest lake at an altitude above 2000 meters in the world.  Tahoe is big, but Titicaca is bigger.  It dominates the landscape, and at many places it's impossible to see across it.  It looks like the ocean.  The water is crystal clear, and the sky is robin's egg blue.  Most days, the water is so tranquil and smooth, you would think it would make the best place to water ski in the world.  But it's cold, so I didn't try it.

The men knit - really!  On Wednesday morning we got up early and headed for the port in order to get the boat to Taquile Island.  Taquile is in the middle of Titicaca, and is inhabited by about 1200 people.  The inhabitants of the island were conquered by the Incas in the thirteenth century.  In 1937 the residents bought the island back from the Taquile family.  It is a bucolic place, where the men knit beautiful woolens and the women spin wool into incredibly fine and brightly colored yarn.  When we arrived on the island, we climbed to the top of the hill where we were met by a group of island men, who are responsible for assigning overnight visitors to a family on the island.  We were assigned to Dena, a sweet young woman who led us to her house and showed us to our room, a simple mud brick-walled room with a dirt floor.  Dena fixed us each a torta for lunch, which is kind of an open-faced omelet with french fries built right in.  Not the healthiest fare, but resources on the island are limited, as it's a 4 hour boat ride from the mainland.

Pre-Inca ruins  After lunch we explored the island.  It's less than 100 acres, so it didn't take long to walk around the perimeter.  We were met with breath-taking views at every turn.  The island people were going about their business, tending sheep, making mud bricks, and working the fields.  We watched a group of teenagers practicing traditional dances in the schoolyard.  Once soccer practice started, however, the male participants quickly moved on.

That night we had dinner with Thomas and Alexis, two young guys from Switzerland.  Alexis has one more year of medical school, then he wants to be a psychiatrist, and he's interested in shamanic techniques for healing mental illnesses.  They taught us a bizarre Swiss card game, which I never fully understood. 

Sunrise over Taquile  Sometime in the middle of the night I heard Wiley utter an expletive.  He announced that his wedding ring was no longer on his finger.  We got up at sunrise (which was spectacular) and walked around the island looking for it.  Turns out, it was under the bed the whole time.

On Thursday we walked to the highest spot on the island, and enjoyed the view.  We said goodbye to Dena after lunch, and headed down to the port to catch the boat back to Puno at 2:30.  We got on the boat that we thought was ours, but the boatman threw us off, saying his boat was "Privado!" and that it was full.  We were able to catch a ride on a boat that had already pulled away.  Once they saw that we were about to miss the last boat back, they graciously gave us a ride.  We never understood where our boat was, but we were glad to be able to get back to the mainland.

On Friday we took a tourist bus to Copacabana, Bolivia.  We stopped at the Peruvian border to deal with the passport officials.  Once there, we realized that we had lost the cards we had filled out upon entry into Peru.  We were told that we would have to pay a $5 fine, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.  When the passport official looked at my passport stamp, he discovered that we had been in Peru two days longer than our thirty day stamp allowed.  This, we were told, would cost us $20 per person, for every day we were late.  $80, total.  We had to go back into Peru, back to the closest border town, and cash a traveler's check.  Meanwhile, our bus headed on into Bolivia, with my coat and Wiley's poncho on it.  Eventually, we got the money, paid the fine/bribe, and got into Bolivia.  We waited for the bus as it came back into Peru, but our stuff wasn't on it.  We figured it was gone, and took a collectivo, which is a large 70's American car or van that transports 6 - 10 people to the same destination, into Copacabana.

Once in Copacabana, we met up with friends we had met that morning on the bus, who told us that a British couple, Steve and Jane, had retrieved our stuff from the bus.  We found them at a bar that evening and got our stuff back. 

On Saturday we rode the bus the final three hours into La Paz, the capital of Bolivia.  It was quite a journey, as it required us to get off the bus at one point and take a ferry across Lake Titicaca, while the bus was ferried across on a barge.  We got into La Paz at around 5:00, and they stopped the bus on a busy city street where the bus driver started unloading the luggage from the top of the bus.  Wiley was waiting for him to hand down our luggage, while I waited on the sidewalk with our daypacks.  I felt someone tap me on the shoulder, and I turned around to see a man pointing at a piece of paper on the ground, asking me if it was mine.  I felt like something was strange, but I told him no, it wasn't mine, and went back to watching the daypacks.  About 30 seconds later, I felt another tap on the shoulder, and the same guy was pointing to the top of the bus and saying something about "Tu mochila!" (your backpack).  Now I knew something was up, but when I turned around, I realized that Wiley's daypack was gone.  Wiley started running down the street, and I figured the pack was gone.  It all happened so fast, but I felt so STUPID, because I had heard about that scam.  I had made a mental inventory of the bag by the time Wiley came walking back, bag in hand.  He had seen a man getting into a car with a coat over his arm, had run up to the car, seen the daypack in the back seat, and had reached in the window and grabbed it.  The car sped away, and we had our daypack back.  A story to tell, and a lesson learned!

So we have spent a pleasant three days in La Paz.  It's a beautiful, affluent city, surrounded by rugged hills and snow-capped mountains.  Tomorrow we fly across the big water to Madrid, and head southward to Morocco.

Click here to continue in Spain with "Back to the First World"





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