Leaving the Altiplano Behind

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Trip End Ongoing


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Friday, January 6, 2006

Since Mike had spent the first year of his life in Puno, we had expected to feel his presence there with heavy hearts. Instead, we thoroughly enjoyed walking down memory lane: remembering how the market women jokingly offered us a million Soles for our beautiful, blond haired baby; peeking in the windows of his room in our house on Avenida el Sol, even though half of it had been demolished to make way for a sparkling new three-storey apartment building; and climbing the surroundings hills where we so often took him for picnics on a Saturday afternoon with the rest of the gang!

Remembering a special weekend when we took Mike on a boat trip to the islands in Lake Titicaca, we decided that a return excursion would be in order. First stop was the famous "Floating Islands" of the Uros people - now totally over-commercialized to the extent that tourist boats almost outnumber the Uros themselves. Nevertheless, the feeling of walking on a wet, spongy island constructed from layer upon layer of totora reeds is quite an experience.

Our main destination, Isla Amantaní, was another three hours east across the lake. As soon as our trusty captain has set the boat on course, he handed over the wheel to the mate and then proceeded to settle down with a small mirror and pluck hairs out of his chin for the next hour! On the island the families themselves have organized home-stays for the arriving visitors, as there are no restaurants or hotels. We climbed the hill with our hosts Estaphan and Teresa, from the water's edge to the uppermost housing compound in the village, where a hearty lunch of quinua soup followed by a plate of rice, potato and a boiled egg awaited us. Sitting in the adobe kitchen filled with smoke from the cooking fire, we couldn't help but wonder why after all these years of development aid, houses still are not equipped with such a basic facility as a smokeless stove and chimney.

An afternoon climb to Pachatata (Father Earth) at the island's second-highest summit provided magnificent views of the lake as well as the various crops that were obviously benefiting from the rainy season - potatoes, quinua, faba beans, barley and tarwi. Be that as it may, the storm clouds quickly gathered and we were forced to leave the solitude of the pre-Inca Tiahuanaco ruins to avoid a thorough soaking. Although the thunder, lightening and heavy rain continued throughout the night, we were warmed by the sincere hospitality of our host family, complete with seven children and a grandchild.

Although similar in many ways, the Isla de Taquile is the last of Lake Titicaca's islands where the people have retained their traditional dress. Hiking for several hours around the island the next day, we admired the various hats, vests, embroidered blouses, and shawls with multi-coloured pompoms. Each of these items of apparel apparently tell their own interesting stories about status of marriage, mood of the wearer, and likely response to potential admirers......hmmm....perhaps we would do well to adopt similar dress codes in Canada!!

We left Puno with the unquestionable feeling that some necessary healing had taken place, and finally headed back across the altiplano towards Bolivia. Sounds easy enough, although we endured yet another frustrating border crossing at Desaguadero - after the fourth unabashed request for a bribe by a uniformed border official, our patience was running extremely thin!! Not wishing to revisit the congestion of La Paz, we luckily managed to bypass the capital and the chaotic sprawling satellite city of El Alto relatively easily and made our way southward where we spent a night camping in the open pampa.

There were still quite a few more high altitude passes to be crossed before leaving the thin air of the altiplano behind us. The almost daily rains had definitely changed the landscape of the mountainous areas, so in addition to clouds reducing our visibility, we found ourselves dodging the numerous boulders on the road, resulting from recent landslides. As we finally dropped down into the Cochabamba Valley, our hearts went out to the unfortunate farmers whose abundant crops were submerged in the muddy waters of the overflowing river.

Walking the streets of Cochabamba, we felt that "schizophrenic" might aptly describe this city of perpetual spring. Although our guide books had clearly warned us of the nerve-shattering atmosphere of Bolivia's largest market town, we decided that a short ramble through the heart of the market would be of interest. The first half hour was rather intriguing, but being caught in the smelly chicken section during a heavy downpour was not exactly the adventure we were looking for!! Chaos ensued immediately following the rainstorm - streets became mini-lakes; cabbages floated towards the drains; passing cars splashed mud over everything; and purchasers hurriedly hailed taxis and micros to escape the turmoil.

As a complete contrast, the chic restaurants in the northern part of the city simply put out their colourful awnings as they continued to cater to the trendy crowd. Owners of the fashionable apartment buildings stood proudly on the tree-lined boulevard, seemingly oblivious to the disorder taking place in the southern market areas. We felt truly fortunate to have experienced the two very different faces of a progressive Bolivian city.
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