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Published: August 9th 2006
From chilly Puno (great deal on steaming mugs of mulled wine for 25 pence a go) on lake Titicaca (contrary to my geography lessons not quite the highest navigable lake in the world) we visited the island of Taquile. On boarding the boat we noticed - you could hardly fail to - that most of the men looked like a cross between camp waiters and pirates: dressed in white puff-sleaved shirts, black waistcoats and baggy britches, plus extravagant cummerbands. These locals also, from toddler to decrepit oldie, wear "noddy" hats (minus the bell) that indicate their marital status - red and white being for single suitors.. Apparently my new multi-coloured beanie marked me out, rather aptly, as a long-suffering spouse. These guys, not the women, spend their entire free time... knitting! They may be minding the sheep or walking chatting to their chums, but they'll be knocking up some little number... On the island we stayed with a lovely family who´s eight year old was roped into being our guide. This was a job he reveled in, especially post- his first ever coca cola, as he spent the afternoon in a sugared-up frenzy terrifying us as he leapt from boulder to
boulder, up and down the cliffs. We kept envisaging returning to the homestead: "Errr, sorry but your son...".
Finally it was time to leave Peru and head around the lake to the Bolivian side and Copacabana. It has to be said that the beach here certainly isn´t a patch on it´s Brazilian namesake. A day or so later we hiked the 17km along the undulating shoreline where we caught a rowing boat to another Titicacan island: Isla del Sol. This is a beautiful Mediterranean-like island with fantastic views of the Codillera Real on the mainland, but being 3800m above sea level and steep as hell was knackering to investigate.
It was at about this point that digital camera No. 2 bit the dust (never buy a Sony!) and our first visit to La Paz (again putting my geography teacher to shame as it isn´t the highest captial city in the world - apparently Sucre is the capital of Bolivia.) was called for. Approaching La Paz is spectacular: a vast ampetheatre of a city, the bowl perched high in the clouds and loomed over by the 6439m Navado Illiamani.
On a slightly negative note we were initially rather
Witches market in La Paz
disappointed by Bolivia. It was, pre-departure from the UK, our most anticipated S. American destination, expecting it to be our latin India... The Bolivians thus far were not as friendly or engaging as the Peruvians and, horror of horrors, prices seem to have trebled in recent years. Rooms have soared to almost 6 dollars a night! OK, it is still the cheapest country on the continent, but now a grande cervaza will set you back almost 50 pence!
Currently the must-do activity out of La Paz is to ride down "the world´s most dangerous road" on a mountain bike. My geography teacher didn´t mention this one, but the statistics on the number of vehicles (and now cyclists) plummeting to their deaths from this unpaved, crumbling and dizzying 3000m decent can´t be argued with. Fortunately my ligament-limited knee (bless it) excused us this one so we hiked down the parallel 71km "El Choro" trek instead. This starts above the cloud line to deposit you, 3 days later, in the balmy heat of Coroico.
Coroico: Bolivia was looking up! This is a real tranquillo town; set in a picturesque valley it basks in the sun before being enshrouded in ethereal
cloud in the late afternoon. Plus this place is home to a dream guesthouse - hostel El Cafetal. Poolside decadence is run by two French ex-pats who do French cuisine proud: rare steak roquefort, Llama medallions with kamisake (ok, so not remotely French), giant fluffy souffles, fillet mignont.... heaven! Then there´s Chilean vino tinto at a squid a bottle... drunken heaven!! The only drawback is the regions popularity with sandflies who also dine well here, seemingly predominantly on gringos. It turns out that not only do these fiends carry Leishmania but the most virulent form to boot - afflicting bonemarrow, spleen and liver. However, we both seem to be processing our alcohol just fine at the moment.
Returning to La Paz - a necessity due to the lack of roads linking Northern towns - meant a journey up "death road". Wouldn´t you know it, on the day we decided to leave we saw our first rain in 10 weeks and the cloud had reduced visibility to mere yards. The bus was then late so a night ascent was called for and then the bloody headlights failed: a most enjoyable journey.
We spent a couple of days organising and
on wandering the streets one afternoon we noticed a sign in a dingy, open-fronted locals´eatery that read "Chica" - a beer made from fermented corn. Now, as we hadn´t yet sampled this local beverage we felt it our duty to do exactly that. Upon entering we could hear music coming from a passageway at the rear. Like moths to a flame we followed and soon popped out in a sunny courtyard that was full of bottle-laiden tables and drunk locals. Discovered a new, and best yet, Bolivian beer: "Bock" at a flavoursome 7%. Obviously we sat, enjoyed the sun, numerous beers and the jukebox. Locals would occasionally come over and introduce themselves, welcome us to Bolivia and even dig-out the odd Doors track for us. People were dancing (staggering), we we´re dancing (staggering) and all was fine with the world. Somewhat later, three very smart suited men engaged us in some Spanglish and rather peculiarly announced that they would make sure we were "safe tonight"?! More merriment ensued. The suits then asked if they could join us, just as two other guys did the same. The latter two seemed to be told no by our "chums". Nevertheless, all converged on
our table. At this point one of the suited men appeared to make a rather rapid stilted Japanese bow. Shit! Working in Glasgow hadn´t prepared me for this level of proficiency with "the kiss". There was a sickening thwack and a guy went down - he didn´t crumble, but went back like a toppling domino. His head hit the tiles with another crack amidst a rapidly spreading pool of blood. In seconds the bar was empty; obviously no one wants to be a witness in Bolivia. Ali was on her knees cradling the fallen guys head whose rather prominent nose now lay flush against his cheekbone. The protagonist left, the victim wouldn´t let us take him to the hospital and the staff just encouraged us to leave too. Another suit apologied for us having to see this side of Bolivia? We made our way briskly back to the guest house where I strangely came over incredibly dizzy and started developing a fever; I did not feel well and this really wasn't alcohol-induced. Suddenly we thought of the open bottles on our table shared with the suits... I'd had just one swig out of my last one before it had all
kicked-off. Had it been spiked? Were the suits planning on rolling us? Had we been saved by the gallant, now flat-faced man, or were the two groups merely fighting over the right to roll us. Or, was this weird malaise simply coincidental... It doesn't pay to dwell.....
Feeling a tad jaded with La Paz life we decided to head to rural Sorata, back up north. Like Coroico it didn´t disappoint and once again we found an idyllic hostel with views to break ya nose for. Really, the mountains, namely Mt Llampu (6362m), felt close enough to touch. The weather was great as were the prices and food: definitely a place to chill for a while - which we duly did.
Having got away somewhat from the gringo circus, we (ok, I) remembered a quote in the poxy Lonely Planet
about an off-the-beaten-track place called Yani. This description is now painfully etched in my memory: "Medieval cloud wrapped villiage.... Bolivia doesn´t get more enigmatic than this.... the adventurous won´t regret a visit..". Nice and early we were there for the 4-wheel drive. "Ha" I hear you say, "getting soft.. a 4-wheel drive indeed". Yeah but.. the only other way
up was to walk... for several days... So, in we piled: 11 adults into an ancient Toyota Landcruiser, plus a tot who sat behind his dad (the driver), and a papoosed babe. Ali and I had opted for the facing bench seats in the rear, each of which should seat two bodies. Opposite us was a Bolivian lady.. she was not small, more like a small happy family rolled into one. Next to her was a youngish woman busy breastfeeding said swaddled baby. Not a good move. The back had sod-all head room, we both leant forward as even our diminutive statures wouldn´t allow for erectness. Ali had her head inches away from the huge woman´s huge cleavage and I must have looked like I was about to take turns with the baby... We set off. Twenty yards later we stopped for an old whizzened woman who reckoned she was going to get in as well. Where would she sit? We had 4 in the front including squashed child, 4 in the middle and our cramped rear. Ok, she´d sit on my knee! Jeez.... The woman then suffered from motion sickness, plus it seemed - given the pervading aroma -
that the rumour we had heard regarding Bolivian women/their innermost underskirt/and toilet paper really might be true. We skirted up around Llampu, climbing for 2500m on precipitous tracks that laughed in the face of "the world´s most dangerous...." to almost 5000m. The scenery really was staggering - what we could see of it. Bugger me that kid could drink! Finally, we reached a tiny village and, to our travelling companions amazement, we alighted.
Yani. Ok, it´s tiny, but there "was" a basic hostel - so we´d been told. We asked for the "hospedaje" (Spanish for hostel). "Not in this village". Oeerr... We walked around the ledge to the next set of houses. "Ingenio has one" we were told and on we went. Ingenio: a semi-decrepit ex-mining town where some poor souls still pan for gold. Further directions placed us by what appeared to be a doctors' surgery - that was closed. Maybe they had rooms here? Several hours later and it dawned on us that "hospedaje" sounds a lot like "hosptial". Surely not?! Yep, we were at the hospital - just grateful that we weren't sick. "Alojamiento" is what we should have been asking for, but this was to
prove even more frustrating - it seemed that we'd found ourselves a restaurantless, bedless village and the inhabitants were none too friendly. In desperation we found a shop that sold beer and sat on the kerb knocking them back. Surely someone would take pity on us before we froze? Bolivians love a drunk, don't they? Miraculously a room was found - it turned out to be a windowless cellar with no access to a loo that we were grateful to share with several hundred weight of potatoes and a truck driver (he just materialised - fortunately after Ali had finished her nighttime ablutions in a discarded margarine pot). Actually the accommodation reminded us of sharing a derelict WW2 pillbox with a hermit on Hong Kong Island - sweet memories!
We followed the Independence day celebrations back in Sorata - constantly assaulted by Ali's new mate. It didn't matter where we hung out this snotty-nosed little miss would find us and promptly jump up on Al's lap... There were lots of parades: day parades, lantern-lit night parades; plenty of marching music with the ubiquitous pan-pipe players, drums and brass instruments. However, the Bolivians still weren't the hardcore partiers we'd been
led to believe - although I hear they hold a mean funeral... Really.
Ali has just peered over and said I need to include some more cultural observations.. So here's a few recent snippets.. The fruit and veg here is vast.. particularly the pineapples and the pumpkins. Potatoes: there are hundreds of varieties, but that doesn't excuse the whole of South America for being so obsessed with chicken and chips. There is only one more typical restaurant and that is a pizzeria! Chirimoya is our current favourite fruit: armadillo skinned on the outside with the sweetest white flesh inside. We have had some decent local nosh recently though including a Bolivian speciality: Pique Macho (you need to ask for it "moy picante" as they tone it down for gringos... a bit like Scottish curry houses). This is a dryish stew consisting of beef, spicy sausage, potatoes, tomatoes and onions, with chopped peppers, a hard boiled egg and local cheese sliced on top. A common site on almost any street is local indigenous women sitting with a pile of their handmade cheese. I was convinced this was made from Llama milk or at least sheep milk, but have since been
assured that it is actually dull old cows' milk. In fact I asked one guy minding his Llama if he used the milk from them and he said they didn't produce much. I think he was having a laugh at my expense though as they looked very much like male Llama... Llama foetuses are very popular in the witches market in La Paz although we didn't ask what they were used for. Men here all have hair - even the oldies. Several times we've heard children turn to their mums and ask why the man (me) doesn't have any hair? Often they get a clip round the ear and the lady gives me a comforting sympathetic look (due to my obvious medicated state?). What I do have though is a full set of teeth and even a number of the nippers here don't. If teeth are missing it tends to be the two front ones... If a full set is still in place then it is obviously fashionable to have them framed in gold - literally each tooth lined with a ring of gold...
Anyway, we are off tonight on the 14 hour journey to Sucre.. A real treat
in store for Ali as we are travelling "Bus Cama". Hoping she doesn't get a taste for reclining as these beasts are expensive......
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