Night number 2 in Hostal El Virrey. This is definitely a bring-your-own-toilet-paper kind of place. Fortunately for me, wily traveler that I am, I thought ahead and I am the very picture of hygeine
Today was an eventful day. It started with a meal of my homemade soup. I am told by the experts than the best thing to do in lieu of refrigeration is actually to leave the top off of a container when possible. I tried it both ways, and watched my soup go through various metamorphological stages, all of them unexpected. To tell the truth, I'm sick of soup.
I also had cheese troubles. I pulled my recently-bought cheese out of its bag to be rewarded with buckets of water pouring out of the cheese. How they got there, I don't know-it seemed dry when I bought it, and eating it now, it's dry, but somehow it was holding gallons of water, waiting for the right moment to release.
But you didn't click here to read about my culinary difficulties. You want the good stuff--hard facts, good stories, wierd people. (and pictures!) As always, I'm happy to oblige.
Lake Titicaca is actually a pretty interesting place, geographical facts aside. It's huge, and on the Peru side (Bolivia is on the other side), there are two main islands, Taquile and Amantani. There are no motor vehicles on either island(no roads, for that matter), and the couple thousand people on each island live pretty much as they have for thousands of years, unchanged by the invisible fist of tourism. They speak Aymara, a dialect similar to Quechua, and are mostly farmers.
Oh yeah--there's also the Uros. The Uros started as a culture separate from the Incas. They lived on the side of the lake, scraping out a living. The Incas considered them so poor that around April 15th, all the Incas required of the Uros as tax was a hollow cane filled with lice(The Uros were audited in 1512, after the Incas discovered that one their canes from 1509 was actually filled with fleas). Eventually, consquistadors and Incas began attempting to conquer the Uros, and so, rather than the standard boring decision to make axes and swords and fight, they decided instead to make FLOATING ISLANDS, float out to the middle of the lake, and live there, fishing and farming, free of all attempts to harm them. Pretty cool, huh?
Well, having leaned all his, I was pretty psyched to spend some time checking out the lake.
I got up at 6 and headed down to the docks, where Mr. Guidebook
told me small motorboats wait until they get about 20 people, then
head off to the islands. I tried to rent a canoe or kayak, but peole
just looked at me like I was loco. Sure enough, at the docks a guy
was prancing around yelling "Taquile Taquile Taquile!" so I hopped on
his boat. Right afterwards, I heard him say to a couple, in perfect
English, "Would you like to go to Taquile? There's space on my boat."
I asked him afterwards, "Where'd you learn English?"
"In the street."
"It's really good."
It was raining, as always. The boat was covered, so I took a seat and waited to take off. I was a bit disappointed to find out that these boats weren't just ferries, they were also tour boats complete with guides. The windows of the cabin immediately fogged over, and my fellow travelers sat back in their seas, chewing their cud.
A tour guide got up in front of the boat and said in English, "Ok, group. We are condor group. Remember that, OK? Condor. If you get separated, just tell someone you're with condor group, and they'll help you get back with us." I feigned seasickness and ran out to the deck to sit in the rain.
The boat slowly chugged on. It's about a three hour trip to Taquile, so I settled on my tuckiss and watched the lake. The shallowish bit(15 meteres or so) near the shore is marshy, covered with totora reeds, which are, well, reeds. The boat weaved in and out of the reeds, our wake making the entire marsh wave back and forth.
The lake: big. 200-odd meters deep at the deepest bit, around 75 km wid and 150 km long. During storms, waves can reach 4m, and have put many a good ship and crew in peril.
After half an hour, the guide finished his shtick inside and walked
to the poop deck, where I was sitting.
"What's up?" He said in Spanish.
"I hate big groups, so I came back here to look at the lake."
"Where are you from?"
"United States. Have you always lived in Puno?"
"He nods. "How long have you been in Peru?"
"Almost a month."
"You been to Cusco?"
"Yeah, I live there. I'm trying to learn Spanish."
"What do you think of the girls?"
A short aside here--Every Peruano I talk to asks me what I think of the girls. This is a cultural thing that Americans don't share. Instead, we try to pretend we're interested in other things, like the art in museums where girls hang out. The direct approach down here sometime takes me by suprise, and can get ridiculous sometimes. Habia un vez, in my hostal in Cusco, I needed to call to get a bus ticket, so I asked one of the(there's about 4 senoras) senoras if I could use the phone. "Who's the girl?" She asked me. "What?? No, no--I need to get a bus ticket." "Suuuuure." As I pick up the phone, I hear the woman whisper to another, "He's in love." Anyway, with regard to the question about girls, after the trillionth time someone asked me, I learned to say "Pretty damn incredible," which always gets a laugh from varones."Pretty damn incredible," I reply, geting my laugh in return.
We delve into the ugly linguistic world of English. English is clossed like an overflowing toilet with more bizarre synonyms, homonyms, homophones, and phonophones than any other language ever.I feel amazed when anyone else can speak it with the subletly of a native speaker. It's incredible that I can even speak it.
After a while, the conversation dies away and I notice he boat's engine in a wooden box built into the deck, the cover propped open by a wrench. "It's from an old Ford," the guide tells me. "All the boats use car engines. It's cheaper."
Later I would notice that other boats had extended exhaust piped reaching 10 feet above the deck to keep the fumes away from the passengers' delicate shnozzes. Our boat, however, had opted for the 'no exhaust pipe' option, and the smell of exhaust (and carbon monoxide) wafted through the cabin, possibly accounting for the bovine behavior of my fellow travelers.
A while later, the guide goes in, and I am joined briefly by a Korean tourist with (count 'em) two cameras around his neck and one in his pocket. After a moment, the cold, rainy weather prove too much for him and ge ducks back inside to get his dose of C=O.
I stay on deck, watching the lake as we plod along the ford engine
giving it all it's worth. The rain stops after a while, and I am
joined by a gizzled,middle aged man who lights up.
"Where're you from?" I ask him in Englis.
"What did you do about the altitude when you got here? It's killing me." He pauses to light a second cigarette. "I can barely breathe."
I'm about to reply when his wife comes outside, cigarette and lighter already already in hand.
"This is my wife," the man says. "This guy's from the US," he tells his wife.
"Really?" the wife says, doing her best chimney impression. "What did you do for the altitude?"
An hour or so later, our boat pulls up to the dock at Taquile. The guide calls out, "OK condor gourp. We need to stick together. We're here for three hours, so everyone stay close." I ask him if I could just wander around alone, and he tells me sure, but the boat's going to wait for us at another dock, so I'll need to find it. I say OK and head for the hills, trying to stay ahead of the stampede behind me.
After a few kilometers, I make it to a part of the island devoid of tourists. Here, the island is terraced and irrigated, the islanders growing potatoes, corn, and beans. I walk along a rough stone path, occasionally passed by women in huge puffy skirts spinning wool onto handheld spools as they walk, and men in vest and floppy wool hats carrying shovels. A lot of the women have a black cloth draped over their heads, which is vaguely reminiscent of Muslim veils.
The sky begins to clear, and I am treated to incredible lake views. I click, click, clicked my little camera until my index finger falls off, and continue walking.
Finding this other dock proved more difficult than I had thought, since everyone on the insland spoke only Aymara, and I didn't. But the island was only 6km long, so I just kept walking and eventually ran into it.
I hung out at the dock for half an hour, waiting for the group, and then we all piled into the boat and started chugging back.
On our way back, we were going to visit the floating islands, which are about 7 km from Puno. I'd heard that, ever since tourism hit Peru in the70s and 80s, the islands had drastically changed, but I wasn't quite prepared for what I saw.
As our boat pulled alongside the islands, people on the islands waved their arms, trying to get us to come to <>their island. We pulled up alongisde one sleepy looking island and walked ashore. The islands are mae first of the mud from the bottom of the lake, cut into cubes about 2 feet on a side and dried. The cubes are then tied together and they float. Then, dried totora reeds are piled on top of the cubes to make a walking surface, and more are added every week or so, since the ones on the bottom rot out. All in all, the islands are about 2m thick, and float in 15m of water. They're normally anchored, but they can be dragged around by boats. Cool stuff.
Our islands was a sleepy little affair with a few reed huts and a couple people. Stepping onto it, the ground felt a little spongy, but pretty firm. No sooner had we stepped off the boat, however, that the island sprung its tourist trap. People rushed out of the huts, carrying informative posters about the island. Women ran out, setting up stands of islands souvenirs. I debated whether or not to jump off and swim for home, but the water looked a bit cold, so I just walked to the periphery.
I watched the Korean alterating between his three cameras in rapid-fire succession, taking pictures of everything in existence. It struck me that it really sucked, what was going on here. These people, the Uros, had a unique, if hard way of life, until in the 70s, somebody decided that they absolutely HAD to see the funny people living on the floating islands, and this idea caught on until hordes of tourists flocked there every day. It didn't take long until the Uros realized that the most profitable route would be to abandon their subsistence living and instead make souvenirs for the tourists. They began to buy their goods from Puno, and really turned themselves into a tourist attraction(to their credit, there are some islands that still live traditionally, refuse to cater to tourists, and don't like to be visited). The Uros could be fat couch potatoes who sit around eating chips, drinking beer, and watching football on TV, but as long as they live on a floating islands and make little toy boats and dolls that tourists think are cute, they're set.
After about 20 minutes of milled(I spend most of the time watching guinea pigs, which were being marooned on a corner of the island), the islanders all stoof together and sang for us, elementary school style, with hand motions and everythingm in Aymara, Quechua, Spanish, and English. It was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. Cultural prositution is not a pretty thing, but somehow the entire group was watching, enthralled. Afterwards, a reed boat pulled up, and the islanders insisted on rowing us to another island. It was really too much for me. I kept looking at the other tourists, expecting them to be having similar reactions, but kept hearing things like "That's so sweet," or "Wow, it's SO interesting." Ugh. I also noticed that a lot of the things we were being shown were fake. For example, the boat, rather than being made of reeds, like the traditional boats, was actually made fof 2x4s wrapped with reeds to give the illusion of authenticity or traditionalism or whatever. The same went for a lot of the houses.
Finally, we left the islands and headed back to port, getting in right at sunset. I figured I'd had enough fake culture for one day, and went back to my room to write it all down.
A note on tourism: Yeah, I have a holier-than-thou attitude towards other tourists. It's kind of hypocritical. My thoughts towards the matter are that when I go to another country, I want to see what that country was like before me or others like me decided to go there. I want to be the one that changes as a result of my visit, not the country. Kind of a leave-no-trace traveling philosophy. I don't like things that are designed to appeal to me, I like things that simply are, and may delight or repulse me. For this reason, I don't like places that are build to accomodate and entertain tourists, and I don't like people who like these places. It irritates me that, because one day I decide to travel to some other place, I can change people's lives there just based on my visit for a few days.
This entire thing boils down to an interesting moral question, if I haven't put you to sleep yet. In general, tourism changes locals' lives for the better, otherwise they wouldn't take part in it. So the question here is: do I (a) impose my own morals on another culture and refuse whenever possible to support any tourist industry, as a result leavign that culture worse off than it would be if I did 'touristy' things, or (b), do I go to the touristy places, dump money into the tourism industry, perpetuating a growth cycle of tourism, and rather than impose my morals, impose my culture on this other place. Ot's a tough problem, but I'd rather impose my morals and be a conscientous objector to the Tourism Invasion than take steps down the road to a world where every country is another America, proudly flying the Visa flag and welcoming idiot tourists like myself with open arms. Yes, I'm refusing to help people who could clearly benefit from my help, but I don't want to do it on these terms. Anyone visiting a country can thoughtlessly shell out money, inevitably changing the country without a thought as to how. I'll try to make as little difference as possible, stay away from tourists areas when I can, but things where locals buy things, and do my part to avoid pumping up the tourism balloon. Sometimes, I'll suck at it, and end up supporting things I don't want to support, like the metamorphosis of the Uros, but the least I can do is try. And oh yeah--I'll continue to be disgusted with every idiot tourist I see. I wouldn't have it any other way.