Just Passing Through

2

March 13, 2013 by southerninversion

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“Cusco, Cusco, Cuscoooooo!!!”, “Cu, Cu, Cu, Cu, CuscoooooOOOO!!!” The shouts boomed like blasts shot from an old rusty cannon, loud and clear, projecting throughout the halls and echoing off the walls of the bus terminal. Transcendent, even through the thick exterior adobe, ear piercing at close range. The vendors were incessant and annoying, like an alarm clock buzzer continuing to sound, as you stretch for the snooze button that’s just beyond reach. Each ticket vendor repeatedly got louder, shouting their company’s particular destination, trying to outdo the calls and commotion from neighboring kiosks. Just in case you had no plan, were maybe unsure which bus line to take, or possibly clueless to where you were headed, they were all trying their damnedest to influence your decision. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was more than ready to catch the bus or ‘combi’ (mini-van/micro bus) to Bolivia and get the hell out of Peru! I was also still alone and still trying to shake the ‘funk’ that had hovered over me in recent days like a low flung black cloud.
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When we all finally piled in the van, I magically ended up in the shotgun seat. Although, it was not as enviable as one would imagine, being that I had to share the ‘front row’ with the driver and another older, fat gentleman, who was acting as our porter, or guide, or some other service, of which I was unclear. I have been amazed at just how many people Peruvians are able to cram into a standard size ‘combi’. Even an ‘extended size’ 15 passenger van, the type that we used for deliveries at my old job, is much larger than these simple transport vehicles. These vans are not ‘extended’ at all, and yet they still manage to pack them in. On one of my day trips outside of Huaraz, I randomly decided to take a head count of the total number of passengers surrounding me out of curiosity. It was astounding. There were 24 people, including me and the driver, no lie!
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Anyways, leaving out of Puno we traversed the sprawling shores and the placid azure waters of Lago Titicaca, which serves as a naturally massive aquatic barrier between Peru and Bolivia. When we reached the border, as is common in most South American border crossings, we were required to gather our belongings and hike across to the other side. After all the proper papers and documents, passports included, had been stamped and processed, we were able to resume our trip. Unfortunately, Americans are also required to pay an entry fee of US$135, in order to pass through to Bolivia. I being the only American on board, absorbed this hit and we kept on trucking, or literally ‘vanning’ in this case. Our final destination was Copacabana, the pleasant lakeside town just across the border. I was told that this was apparently the first ‘Copacabana’, from which the famous Brazilian beach derives its namesake.
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I spent a couple of nights here and made friends with a nice French girl, Stephanie, who I had met with a smile, during the onslaught of bus terminal shout outs earlier that morning. We got along swimmingly, and it was simply plutonic, as she had a boyfriend waiting on her back home. However, that didn’t stop us from sharing a bottle of Bolivian red wine, (who knew?), great conversation, and a huge gourmet pizza, at one of the restaurants that cater to tourists along the main drag towards the lake. My blues from the last week continued to gradually fade away, as I awoke the next morning, with a fresh spirit and eager anticipation to ride the ferry across the open water. I was headed towards the ‘Isla del Sol’, a modest size island, a few kilometers offshore.

The void of companionship and extended isolation I had experienced the past ten days seemed to vanish as well. Each day after entering Bolivia, I encountered new acquaintances to pass the time. First it was Stephanie, the Parisian, then a French speaking Canadian couple from Montreal, whom I befriended at sunset, upon the mirador that overlooks the town of Copacabana, and the vast expanse of the lake below. During the morning ferry boat ride, I met a Chilean girl, Ángeles, and we also quickly became friends. I hung out with her all day, during an epic hike to the north, clear across the entire island from the south, encompassing at least 15 kilometers, due to our misguided navigation and off trail improvisation .
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We arrived in the northern port around sunset and ultimately decided to take a simple wooden ‘boat taxi’ back to the south, physically unable to make it back to the southern port of the island. In part because of the dwindling daylight, albeit a convenient excuse. The private boat ride south felt like a cerebrally fitting end to our day’s adventure. We celebrated the voyage with a big liter bottle of cerveza in hand, cruising over the crests of the small whitecaps, that the wind had stirred up on the lake’s surface. That night our crew further expanded. We added a few more Chileans, namely a couple, Valeria and Esteban, amongst a few other guys as well. We all decided over dinner to stay another night on the island, except to switch locations and head north. We had realized earlier that day, after the hike, that the northern spread of the island was much more inviting and accommodating, with sandy picturesque beaches, flatter terrain, and more restaurants and hotels to choose from.
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Our group continued to grow exponentially. Once solely two, then four, it had now doubled a second time when Ángeles ran into an old friend of hers on the beach, who was traveling through Bolivia with his three cousins. So now, I was the sole ‘gringo’ amongst a pack of Chileans, eight deep altogether. Besides the cultural differences, and a narrowing language gap between myself and the Chileans, (thanks to my vast improvement in Spanish), there was also a considerable discrepancy in age. I was the elder statesman of the group by more than 13 years, as the youngest cousin was just approaching 20. This proved to be more of an issue for me, I think, than for them, due to our differences in standards, tastes, and preference, and mostly came into question when attempting to form a consensus on food options and the choice of venue for a place to stay.

The four cousins were camping out on the beach, which was legal, for a small fee. Their tent was cast amongst a dozen others sprawled out across the sand. Vale, Esteban, Ángeles, and I, all settled into the same place; a nice, newly constructed hostel, just across the harbor, where the ferry came into port. The island’s main northern beach had incredible views, with rock outcroppings on both lateral sides of the bay, and a dramatic hillside towering above. Overall a nice, peaceful ambiance. Although unfortunately, it was littered with trash. Scattered throughout the sand, under tufts and mounds, there were errant pieces of leftover food wrappers, discarded plastic bags and bottles, and cigarette butts and boxes. It all seemed to stagnate and concentrate where the steady break of soft rolling waves gently crashed along the shoreline. It was enough to discourage me altogether from swimming in the otherwise clear blue water.
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A simple solution could have been to place trash cans in key spots, yet there were no receptacles at all. Instead, the apparent solution to the problem from the Bolivian’s perspective, seemed to be using ‘chanchos’, (pigs), as street sweepers or beach combers, to eradicate the waste. Perhaps, it was only by coincidence, but they were literally roaming free all over the beach, gobbling whatever junk they could wrangle up or finagle from any unsuspecting onlooker or gawking tourist. It was actually really funny, almost a spectacle to watch. However, this situation didn’t really solve the problem, and only appeared to make it worse, as the pigs would run off with plastic bags full of random items, gorging anything edible and strewing the rest haphazardly wherever it landed. During our hike the day before, we had also seen two large hogs atop a heap of garbage, only stopping briefly to notice our presence, then continuing to root through the plastic, metal cans, and other debris, searching for sustenance of any kind.
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We spent the day lounging on the beach, drinking tall bottles of beer along with the pigs, stray donkeys, and cows passing by at random intervals. It was definitely a unique beach experience, one that would be hard to replicate anywhere else. In addition to the farm animals, the beach scene was replete with young college age tourists, most likely on summer break, visiting from the major cities in both Argentina (Buenos Aires, Córdoba, and Mendoza), and Chile (Santiago, Valparaíso, and Concepción).

The Argentinians were constantly drinking mate, strumming guitars, smoking, swimming, and cooking food, meanwhile the Chileans sat in circles, talking, while taking their turns at juggling. Both countries’ denizens mostly kept to themselves and only interacted sparsely, as the rift between the two countries is still mildly apparent. The rift and moderate distaste each have for the other, goes back several generations to territorial disputes and previous conflicts. In fact, I witnessed the Chileans sometimes posing as Argentinians when making transactions or negotiations with Bolivian shop merchants due to persisting resentment from the Bolivian side from similar past Chilean transgressions.
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The juggling however was a shared interest between the two, with both entranced in the desire to improve their skills. The Argentinian jugglers were dressed in a cross between a quasi ‘hipster’ style, with a flash of ‘gutter punk’ nonchalance thrown in for good measure. Evident, for example, with one guy’s dreadlocks fashioned into a rattail, spilling over the hood of his raggedly worn pullover. This was not characteristic of most Argentinians I met, moreover, just the juggler crowd. With whom you can find at stop lights throughout major cities, blocking traffic, doing their juggling act for spare change, and sometimes incorporating fire, if you’re lucky. The Chilean jugglers however, were much more clean cut, prototypical college kids, just having fun, drinking beer, and hanging out.

Apart from the free roaming, somewhat domesticated farm animals, the errant trash, the hipster jugglers, and the fact that we were at a gigantic lake… it was just an ordinary, normal ‘ol day at the beach. The sun’s rays radiated down with intoxicating intensity, as the lake’s high altitude, and the solar reflection off both sand and water helped polarize the effect. Even people with darker complexions get burned here, a testament to the preeminent value of sunscreen. The sun’s wrath is impartial and shows no mercy. Accordingly, I stayed covered up most of the day to avoid any further burns and to keep from becoming a ‘redneck’.

Lake Titicaca is a natural lake formed from a flooded valley, part of a massive land depression, nestled amid towering mountains and alpine glaciers, approaching 6500 meters in the Andes cordillera. It is one of the highest and largest natural lakes in the world at 3300 meters in altitude, with a depth in some areas of up to 100 meters or more. There have been several ancient cultures to inhabit its shores and use its resources, namely the Incas and the Uros. Sparse remnants of the latter culture still survive today in offshore communities outside Puno, Peru, where the ancestors live on floating islands, fashioned from intricately woven lake grasses and reeds. They use the same grasses to construct simple huts and ornate viking style boats for transport. They also still mainly subsist on the same, traditional ‘pescaterian’ diet, other comestibles, and crops from the land. The current influx of tourist dollars from sightseeing tours also helps subsidize their otherwise slowly declining culture.
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After a few days of soaking in the sun, I was still hanging tight with the entire group of Chileans, all 8 of us. We collectively decided to take the morning ferry back to Copacabana, then catch the next bus to the capital, La Paz, where ‘Carnaval’ was apparently in full swing. During the long, incredibly slow ferry boat ride back to shore, I played my fiddle atop the roof of the boat per request. Unfortunately, I somehow managed to get severely burnt on the top of my scalp, due to the direct exposure, which proved to be really painful later on that day. While waiting for the bus, we searched for a quick meal at one of the dockside restaurants, and the Chileans managed to wage a friendly ‘price war’ amongst the local neighboring restaurants. The young group of cousins negotiated a cheaper deal on an already super cheap ‘menu del día’, before eventually settling on a price of $16 Bolivianos, or about two dollars!

In comparison to Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, everything in Peru was much more affordable, especially if you were able to avoid the most touristic locales. Bolivia on the other hand was overwhelmingly cheap! The few nights I had stayed so far, were in a private room with a private bathroom for $50 Bolivianos (pesos), the equivalent of about US$7. Granted these weren’t luxury accommodations by any means, but they were clean, (my most critical concern), they had decent beds and mattresses, and this price even included ‘desayuno’, (breakfast, which is solely coffee or tea, with toast and marmalade). In addition to affordable accommodations, a lunch or dinner ‘menu’ at any restaurant would vary between $15 to $25 Bolivianos, about US$2-3. This usually entails an ‘entrada’ (appetizer), usually a brothy quinoa soup, followed by the option of either meat (chicken or beef), or fish (always trout) for the principal dish.
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A few hours later the bus dropped us off outside the main bus terminal in the capital, as access to the normal entrance was blocked due to the festivities going on. I had no plans or any clue whatsoever about La Paz. I was simply along for the ride, hoping that someone else in our ‘group’ had a plan or some kind of geographic orientation. We meandered down towards the main plaza, only to encounter a wealth of foot traffic on the side streets, with people standing compact, shoulder to shoulder, all claustrophobically cramming to catch a glimpse of the parade passing by. ‘Carnaval’ in Bolivia and Peru, from what I’d seen, was not what I had pictured in my mind. It was fairly simple and straightforward, not the swarms of intoxicated partygoers with elaborate costumes, amidst a sea of constant parades, beads, and booze I had expected. I was thinking of Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the pictures I had seen from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where ‘Carnaval’ is king.
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Instead, ‘Carnaval’ in Bolivia consisted of young kids, not even teenagers, running around with ‘Super Soaker’ arsenal type water guns and economy size cans of spray foam, pouncing on other little unsuspecting boys and girls their age, and blasting any other hapless bystander who got in their way. The parades and other extravaganza were an afterthought, only a small consequence to the water and foam wars, which were rampant and seemed to take center stage.
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Once we were able to slice our way through the stagnant crowd, we somehow ended up for a brief second in the middle of the parade route, amid twirling dancers, and a row of ‘quena’, (wooden flute), players from a marching band. We finally skirted our way back through the opposing side of the crowd, with our massive backpacks, and me with my fiddle in hand, navigating toward Plaza San Francisco. Along the way several of us got tagged with water and covered with spray foam from various little pranksters running amok. As the sun began to set and nightfall was upon us, we were exhausted from traveling and the situation became dire to find a place to stay for the night, and in the meantime at least, a bathroom. A few of us split up in different directions to investigate the area and enact a hostel reconnaissance, while others stayed behind to watch the luggage. Due to the celebration, most places were booked, and there were only a few options.

Yet despite the amazingly cheap prices for the available rooms, the Chileans kept seeking a better deal, because $50 Bolivianos (US$7), was beyond their budget. I was satisfied with a hostel that was clean and pleasant, and I definitely preferred to spend a few dollars more to make this happen. So after an hours worth of searching they all decided to pay $25 Bolivianos to sleep on the grungy floor of a hostel, while I paid $25 Bolivianos more for a private room and a bathroom in a ‘posoda’, a variation of a hostel/hotel. (Again, the age discrepancy came into play, as our standards and preferences were vastly different. I could not and would not sleep on a hostel floor). So at this point I split from the Chileans and we went our separate ways that Saturday night. However, the split was amicable and we had already made reservations to reunite for a 80 km downhill mountain bike tour the following Monday, along the jungle road, unequivocally better known as, ‘El Camino de la Muerte’, or the ‘Death Road’!
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Postscript: (hostels…)

After this trip I will be hard pressed to ever want to sleep in a hostel again, and maybe I never will. I think I am approaching, or probably have already surpassed the age where I’m comfortable there. Also, I seriously don’t want to turn into that ‘creepy, smelly, cheap, old curmudgeon guy’, whom I’ve met at many hostels along the way. However, without hostels as an option my trip would’ve been far less feasible and immensely more expensive. Additionally, on a positive note, when traveling alone, hostels can be a great way to meet people and always provide an interesting mix of cultures, languages, conversations, experiences, and perspectives. It just takes a while to get used to, its not for everybody, and its definitely not forever.

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2 thoughts on “Just Passing Through

  1. Anneliese says:

    John,
    I would like to share your blog with my Beginning Spanish students, who will be researching some of the countries you have visited. I am sure they would be very interested to read your experiences and descriptions, which are unique; much better than any travel brochure.
    Thanks for your writings, they are fascinating!
    Anneliese

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