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Published: December 5th 2007
After the Inca trail (see yet to be completed entry) we retired to Cusco for a few days rest and relaxation. This involved getting a much needed massage, which as it was booked through our tour company, meant I didn´t end up taking my massuse out for dinner, as a few in our group did - in one instance, one guy took out three at the same time! In my mind that´s just greedy. The rest of the time was spent wandering the streets, exploring the city.
Both evenings were spent dancing Salsa (we have some very pushy women on the tour who demand dance partners - the sensible guys retire to the pub whilst I just get dragged into it - they must be desperate). The first night we had an enjoyable and funny dance lesson from a British ex-pat who taught us a few moves and an important lesson - apparently as long as both you and your dance partner are having fun, then you are a good dancer. Well, this was like a revelation for me, I can dance shit and still be good!!! We took our newly honed skills to the local Salsa club where I
showed the locals just how good I was - my dance partners enjoyed themselves (or so they told me and women have never been know to lie to a guy about how good he is), although the locals looked less than enthused.
On one of the evenings we went out to eat at and English style Pie and Mash restaurant, where I learnt another valuable lesson - the dangers of eating salad. Now, I have been happily mocking those who say salad is filling and is a meal in itself - in my mind it is garnish for meat. However, I was careless and allowed myself to get distracted by my lettuce, tomato et al, so much so that I had to leave some of my pie. The more experience pie eaters amongst the group lamented my school boy mistake. I raise the issue now so that you don´t end up making the same mistake. Start with the good stuff and leave the salad to last.
After Cuzco, we moved on to the city of Puno, which lies on the shore of Lake Titicaca, for a couple of days. The lake is the highest navigable body of water
in the world and is famous for the pre-Inca cultures (there are a lot of native language speakers in the area) and its islands, in particular the floating reed islands. Puno itself consists of one street, as the rest is a concrete maze full of people bustling about but nothing in particular of interest.
As part of the tour, the group got to take a three hour boat ride out to two islands (Taquile and Amantani), stay with a local family in their house, play a game of football against a local team, dance in native costumes and then the next day visit the floating reed islands. I would love to describe this experience to you but unfortunately all I can relate is my hotel room to which I was confined for all of Saturday (with the typical travel complaints). For those of you who are interested it was simply furnished with decent beds, yellow walls, a tv, and an on-suite bathroom in a turquoise colour (in fact a lot of bathrooms in South America seem to come straight from the 70s in the UK and come in a variety of colours - so far we´ve had mint, turquoise
and mustard. Nice). So I spent most of Saturday in bed watching football - not too dissimilar to how I would normally choose to spend the weekend but disappointing none the less.
Next day I managed to drag myself out of bed and pay a mug´s price to join one of the tourist boats heading out to reed island (they must have seen me coming which isn´t surprising as I stand about a foot taller than the locals, am still white despite all the sun and can usually be seen sporting the specialist hiking / travel gear I was sold at great expense back home, as well as my battered cricket gap). Anyway, the reed islands were terrific.
The floating islands of the Uros people were built 700 years ago by farmers fleeing other local groups. They are built out of the root balls of the local reeds with fresh reeds laid on top. There are about 40 islands with each one supporting 10-15 families. They use the reeds for everything - their houses and boats, as well as fuel and even to eat (the fleshy white stem is like a starch and full of calcium, so I
was told). The community survives through fishing, crafts, and now tourism. Stepping onto the islands feels like standing on a waterbed but they are reassuringly buoyant. The most fascinating aspect is that the islands are built using blocks that are tied together and pegged into the lake bed (like a tent) and when communities or families fall out they literally saw their islands apart and float to another part of the lake. The island has some mod-cons thanks to solar panels. In the end I was definetely glad I saw them - a real highlight of the trip.
That afternoon, I rejoined the group and a few of us went on an excersion to see the burial towers of Sillustani near lake Umayo (don´t worry the place names are more for me than you, I don´t expect you to remember them). The towers were built by the pre-Incan Colla peoples and stood over 12m tall (they were destroyed by the Spanish looking for gold). They were particularly impressive against the dark, thunderous sky that came in as soon as we arrived. Back in Puno, Jules and I whiled away a few hours in a Rock and Reggae bar (where
else would you go, given the choice?).
The next day was a travel day into Bolivia heading for the (de-facto) capital La Paz, which was slightly disconcerting as when we were in Cusco we heard that Civil War had broken out. This isn´t actually the case (you don´t need to organise the "free Matt" fund just yet) - six of the nine provinces in Bolivia had street protests against the new constitution being drafted in La Paz. As I write this, there is about another week to go so expect some more fun and frolics as the final version is published.
We stopped off at Bolivia´s most significant archaelogical site of Tiahuanacho, which was the centre of a civilisation that existed from 600BC, although the site is dated from 700-1200AD. Unfortunately, the group is pretty much "ruined out" so we may not have appreciated the various temples, pyramids and monaliths, as much as we should have. As with pretty much all the sites we visit, the backdrop (mountains again) was just as impressive as the site itself. On entering La Paz, we stopped at the top of the valley to take spectacular shots of the city below.
On our first night in La Paz, the group organised its first leaving do. This consisted of sending a scouting party out to booze alley (there is a street for everything (and apparently this means EVERYTHING) you could wish to buy in La Paz) to get supplies for the party - they came back with (10+?) litre kegs of rum and vodka for next to nothing although I probably would have favoured the contents of the petrol canister from the truck in a blind taste test. To compliment this, we got 4, 72cm diameter pizzas, which filled a whole table each. I have never seen pizzas that big and I would dread to think of the family that it would feed if it were the family size (no to be fair, it would probably do mine with perhaps a little room for a light sorbet for afters).
The theme for the party was green and unfortunately it coincided with the end of the Movember contest. Consequently I was sporting the dreadful combination of ´tache and lurid green tie bought from the market at great expense (20 Bolivianos, about 3$) - I´m afraid the photos really wont do it justice.
Various comments I received during the night included that I looked like a pimp, was off to a school disco and perhaps the most insightful of all was that I should never be allowed to work with children. It was a great surprise, therefore, when I didn´t win the Movember contest. I got rid of both the tie and the tache the next day, only to find that most of the group thought I looked about 12 and were asking me why I wasn´t in school.
So we danced the night away to whatever tune the local Bolivian DJ cared to play and it was a very random selection of music - I haven´t heard many people try to mix an Abba song onto the end of a hard Techno dance track before but our guy felt it could be done (N.B. it can´t). Despite much heckling he kept strickly to his play order, which meant being ready at a moments notice to jump into Salsa, disco or cheesy pop (thankfully, as I think we have already established, I am now a master of all three).
La Paz has a couple of particularly interesting activies (neither of which
I am subjecting myself to). The first is a tour of San Pedro prison, made famous by a recently published book in Britain by a former convict. In the prison, tourist are shown round the prison where all the prisoners have to pay for all their requirements and many have businesses to support themselves. The wealthiest live in the equivalent of hotel rooms whilst the poorest sleep 8 to a cell. It is also supposed to have the best quality drugs in Bolivia and the prison cat died of a cocaine overdose.
The other attraction is death row, the deadliest road in South America that has (or had) over 100 fatalities a year as it was too narrow for two way traffic and yet cars, lorries and even cyclists would fight their way up, down or even over the edge of the road. Nowadays, tourists can mountain bike down it in relative safety but as I can fall off a bike on the flat with no-one around me, I decided (I think wisely) to give it a miss.
So whilst many of the group enjoyed these experiences, I spent my time wandering the steep streets of La Paz.
It is a fascinating city, very different to the ones we´ve experienced so far, and although it is far from beautiful, there are some lovely winding colonial streets and nice squares. Crammed into a valley with steep rockfaces, most directions you turn you are faced by steep narrow streets that are full of traffic, pedestrians and street vendors. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and it shows in the way people huddle around street foodstalls and how so many people where native dress (much more than in the other countries we´ve visited). La Paz also has a reputation for being more dangerous for tourists with muggings and bag slashing being relatively common. That said, the atmosphere on the streets is pleasant, with some areas having a real energy with the people buying, selling or rushing around whilst in other places people barely move as they sit around talking to friends or embrace their wives / girlfriends / bit on the side (and this is at 11.30 in the morning, clearly no rush to work or go to Uni). Another highlight are the minivans that act as taxis with pre-determined routes where a guy will stick his head out
of the window shouting for business, as a colleague bundles unsuspecting passengers into the back.
A couple of other points on interest in the city itself included the Witches Garden where people can by potions to cure all oddities and shrivled llama fetuses (and any part of any other animal you care to wish to buy) to use as part of offerings to the traditional gods, which is still done in many Andean communities today. In fact, a feature of our time here has been learning about how all the pre-Spanish civilisations made offerings to the traditional gods and prepared their dead for the afterlife in similar ways. Even today, it is easy to see how the Catholic and traditional religions sit side-by-side with many people having a dual faith.
The other highlights included a visit to the Valley of the Moon and the Coca museum. The Valley of the Moon is an eroded clay bed that has formed thousands of twisted and strangely concorted pillars. For those of you not impressed by the sound of that, it is situated next to the highest golf course in the world.
The Coca museum is stucked away on a
side street but is well worth a visit (and not just for the tourist shop / cafe at the end of the tour). The coca plant is still an integral part of the lives of the Andean people but yet is a major problem for both Peru and Bolivia. One study showed 90% of indigenous people still use Coca and its cultivation during the Spanish occuation played a major part in preserving part of the traditional culture. It has been used since Inca times as a medicinal plant - it increases the bodies capacity to endure hard labour, exhaustion and high altitude, and was used as an anaesthetic - and it is still used by the porters on the Inca trail and miners. However, the pressure of the international community to eradicate cocaine production has made it hard for farmers and rural communities, as its cultivation is an important source of income.
Finally, (as this is a long entry and I appreciate that you all have fascinating lives to lead), just a quick comment on the dynamics of the group. There are a number of single guys on the tour but very few single girls, which has led to
one of the girls having a number of blokes being interested in her - think of the film "There´s something about Mary" and you´ll get the idea. I´m not one of those guys (yet!!!) although I am her (unofficial) dance partners and have agreed to try to take my number of dance moves into double figures, so perhaps I too am trying to impress. It is only going to get worse as in Santiago, 8 new people arrive, 6 of them single guys (apperently the companies complaints policy doesn´t cover this).
OK, time to take a cold shower. Hasta luego.
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