It's all about the size of your stereo...

Trip Start Sep 28, 2006
Trip End May 04, 2007

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Monday, November 13, 2006

I woke up at 6:45 am, showered, finished packing and ate breakfast in my hostel, since Victor Victoria doesn't open until 8 am and I had to get to the bus terminal by then. Breakfast was not as bad as I was expecting--fresh juice, real coffee (as opposed to that nasty syrup stuff), a couple rolls and two eggs for 5 soles. No "el tropical," but it did the job. I arrived at Terminal Terrestra around 8 am and bought a ticket to Puno with Ormeno (apparently the best company) for 25 soles. I asked for a student discount and saved five soles. Not much, but hey, when you are on a budget everything counts. I have learned to always ask for a student or an SAE discount--usually I can get at least a little bit knocked off, even if there is no discount advertised.

The bus left at 9 am. It was fairly empty and extremely comfortable--huge cushioned seats with tons of foot room and reclining capacity. Definitely an improvement over those awful (but cheaper) buses in Ecuador! I felt ridiculous for bringing my alpaca blanket on the bus though, as it was hot as hell up on the top level and no windows could be opened. I snagged a window seat on the left, which is supposed to have the best views of Lake Titicaca as we approach Puno. The scenery throughout the six hour ride was quite lovely, although I was suffocating from the heat, had the worst headache, and my body was aching. I thought that after having spent so much time in Quito and Cusco, I would not have any more problems with altitude sickness, but I definitely was feeling the effects of our rapid increase in elevation. I spent most of the ride snoozing, playing with my camera, and watching "50 first dates" with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. The movie was originally in English of course, then dubbed in Spanish, and with English subtitles, too tiny to read.

I shared a cab with an American couple from Texas to my hotel, Hostal Imperial, which was on my SAE discount list and ended up being a three-star hotel. Fancy! I know, I know, I should be staying in dorms, but it only cost 35 soles a night for a comfortable, private room with bath and breakfast, so not a bad deal. After showering, I went straight to Allways travel to book my 2-day, 1-night tour of the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. As you may know, Lake Titicaca borders Peru and Bolivia, and is the highest lake in the world. I will be visiting the Bolivian side later in the week. With my SAE discount, the tour only cost 54 soles so I was psyched. I then wandered around a bit and did some shopping. I have been fairly good about spending money, but I TOTALLY went crazy and somehow ended up spending 140 bucks on a hat and two shawls from a high end store--nearly four days of living expenses! Granted, they were all handmade, the highest possible quality and absolutely gorgeous, but still. I felt such shopper's remorse, I can't even tell you. The huge black shawl is Royal class baby alpaca and a really classic piece. It definitely would have gone for three times as much back in the states. And the pink and orange baby alpaca scarf was just too beautiful to pass up, and will replace my favorite pink scarf that I have with me and am wearing to death. I somehow convinced them that with my SAE card I had a 10 percent discount there, which I really thought was true at the time but then later realized was not. Whoops. So now I have to figure out a way to get them home, since the South American postal system is far from reliable...I guess I will just have to risk it and hope that the Peruvian post gets my things home safely.

I grabbed dinner in a lovely restaurant called Apu Salkantay, located on the main street, Calle Lima. Gary gave me a ring on my cell and met up with me at the restaurant. He is only doing a day trip out to the floating islands, but we will be taking the same bus to Copacabana on Thursday morning so I will see him then. I sat in the window, hoping to relax and people watch while I waited for Gary, but instead was
harassed by local women and children trying to sell me things through the window. How can
you have a peaceful dinner when little kids are constantly pressing their
faces against the glass trying to sell you finger puppets? They were
quite cute, the kids and the puppets, but if you looked at either for more than a few seconds they assumed
you were going to buy something. Gary made that mistake and before you knew it, the kid was inside, ready to make the sale. And of course by that point, it's impossible to refuse, especially when the puppet costs less than a dollar.

I woke up at 6 am on Tuesday morning, waited forever for the water to get hot, got dressed and then went down to breakfast before the travel company picked me up at 7:30 am. Breakfast was a huge disappointment--two rolls, the nastiest "juice" I have ever tasted, and that coffee syrup stuff. I need real food for breakfast--eggs, yogurt, fruit whatever--and thankfully had some cheese and a banana with me to supplement my measly meal. We were told to bring snacks to the islands, since the food we would get from our families would consist primarily of rice and potatoes, and I had a little extra to spare.

I was the first to get on our bus, and watched with disappointment as couple after couple boarded after me. A bunch of Germans, some French, Americans, Italians, Spaniards (but from the Vasco region so they do not consider themselves Spanish), Israelis, and various others--all in all, about 20 people. Thankfully, there was another girl traveling alone and we soon started chatting. Her name is Georgia, and she is from Canada. Unfortunately, she is traveling in the opposite direction (she just came from Bolivia and is heading to Cusco), but at least that meant we could swap travel tips. I was hoping to meet some travel companions, but what can you do. I later became friendly with the Israelis (a newly-wed couple and a couple of girls), who are going to Bolivia next like me, and I had a great time hanging out and speaking Spanish with the four people from Spain. I have definitely come to the conclusion that people from that region of Spain are hilarious. So, all in all, even though not everyone was social, I had a pretty good group.

We boarded our boat, which was quite small, and enjoyed the beautiful scenery for 30 minutes before we arrived at the Uros Islands. There are tons of floating islands, but we only visited two of them. The Uros Islands are man-made out of reeds, called tortura, and each floating island usually houses a few families. They travel between the islands in row boats or more frequently in these reed boats . We were able to (or more specifically somewhat forced to) pay extra to ride from San Miguel island to the second island in one of these boats. The second island was a bit larger, and also had a small school and medical center. And both islands had at least one reed house with satellite TV, which was a little strange.

On San Miguel island, our guide explained how the Uros make their islands by layering reeds on top of each other (well it's a bit more complicated than that), as well as the other ways in which tortora functions in their daily lives. For example, the Uros people not only use the reeds to construct their islands, houses, and boats, but they also eat them as well. Apparently the reeds are good for a number of ailments. As I am so wonderfully demonstrating in this picture, you just peel off the outer layers, break off the top, and there you go. It tasted like lettuce or celery, so basically like nothing. We were supposed to buy gifts for our families, and Georgia almost bought toothbrushes because she thought that would be practical. We found out, however, that reeds are very high in calcium, and as a result, the Uros people eat reeds instead of brushing their teeth. Good thing she opted for rice, pens and notebooks like me!

Our guide told us that the Uros people are far better off now than they were 25 years ago. Now that foreigners visit the islands regularly, they can afford meat and some other things to make their lives more comfortable. I am of course happy that they have benefited greatly from tourism. At the same time, however, the Uros islands are SO touristy that they have essentially become floating souvenir stalls, and as a result have lost much of their appeal. They were all selling a number of trinkets and woolen goods, none of which seemed unique or of high quality. When we were given a little free time to wander around each tiny island I was after five minutes eager to get back on the boat and move on. So, although I definitely found these communities interesting and am glad I visited them, the whole experience was somewhat depressing.

Our boat ride to Amantani island was quite long, 2 and a half hours to be exact, but the scenery was amazing. Lake Titicaca is gorgeous, and we really lucked out with weather! Both the sky and the water were intensely blue, and they seemed to blend into each other. I talked for awhile with our guide and with Georgia before going up to the top of the boat to catch the increasingly breathtaking views, such as this distant mountain range in Bolivia . The Spaniards were hanging out up there and we had a great time chatting until we reached Amanatani  around 1 pm. A very friendly, young man greeted us as we disembarked, introducing himself as the political head of the community. We gathered our belongings and hiked up a long hill, which was a bit difficult at 3800 meters. Georgia and I decided to bunk together, as we were supposed to form groups of two or three before being assigned to a local host family. Our family consisted of Estefan and her husband, their 12 year old son, and their two younger daughters. This picture shows the younger of the two girls, and she was adorable (although really smelly--I don't think they shower very often, since there was no running water). Georgia and I played with her during much of our free time. Communicating was a bit difficult as she spoke very little Spanish.

I was very impressed with the quality of our room. I had imagined blankets on the floor rather than real beds and much filthier conditions in general. Actually, I wasn't even sure we were going to have a room. Braving the out house was loads of fun, especially in the middle of the night, but otherwise our house was quite comfortable. Well, for me at least. The people of Amantani are quite small and Georgia (who is 5'10") banged her head pretty hard the first time we headed out, just before I took this picture. I am only 5'5", and even I had to duck slightly to avoid hitting my head.

After settling in for a bit, we headed downstairs to the kitchen for lunch. The kitchen consisted of a tiny room with one small window and filled with tons of smoke. There is no electricity on the island so Estefa cooked everything over the fire. Georgia and I sat at a little table in the corner, and I am guessing the family ate either before or after us as only Estefa was around. The food consisted of all starches, about which we had been thoroughly warned. For lunch, quinoa soup, rice, potatoes, 1 egg (an unexpected protein treat), a slice of tomato, and mate de moonia, which tastes like mint and is good for altitude sickness. For dinner, corn soup, rice, a potato dish, and tea. For breakfast, two plain pancakes, a piece of bread, and tea. My diet down here has largely consisted of starches so I was somewhat used to it. Thankfully we had a stash of Twix bars and other candy to munch on for extra sustenance (so nutritious, I know!).

Before our hike up to the highest point on the island to watch the sunset, we all congregated at the soccer stadium to hear our guide give a brief talk. They may not have electricity, meat, or many other things that most people would consider essential, but they DO have a huge soccer stadium! Our families brought us to the stadium about fifteen minutes early, presumably to purchase some local goods (mostly woven hats) as there were about ten women waiting for us with their items on display. It worked on me--I bought a bright orange hat and some candy, and as we waited for everyone to congregate in the stadium I enjoyed watching the women spin wool and weave. The women always seem to be doing one or the other, particularly as they walk. Our mother, for example, was weaving a very intricate hat as she led us on our 20 minute hike up to her house.

As soon as everyone arrived, our guide began to speak about the Amantani people and the mountain we were about to climb. One of topics he covered, which I found particularly amusing, was how Amantani men and women fall in love. Normally, he spoke in Spanish and in English, but at this point he only spoke English so that the local women would not understand what he was saying. First, I will begin by saying that on Amanatani island, the women do EVERYTHING. Not to say that women don't do everything elsewhere in the world (because that is essentially how it is, right?), but it is on a higher level here. The women do all the hard labor , they raise the children, they cook and take care of the house, they make most of the goods they sell to tourists (I did see some men knitting on Taquile island, so I have to give them credit), etc. And the men? Well, the few men that I did see, since there are far more women than men on the islands, just sat around and drank beer or did nothing at all. What a tough life they lead! Ha. As the women work, the men go off to the mainland to make some money in order to buy themselves clothes, bikes, and radios, among other things for their personal pleasure and I suppose to make themselves more attractive to the women. Radios are apparently the key to "how Amantani men and women fall in love," as the size of a man's radio determines how many women he will attract. The bigger the radio, the more appealing he is in the eyes of Amantani women. Hmm...My comment of course was that perhaps the men with the bigger radios were compensating for something...sorry, someone had to say it!

It took about 25 minutes to hike up the mountain, and on the way a local kid was banging a drum and another was playing a recorder out of tune--painful for my classically trained ears. I was dying for some peace and quiet, as that was really a huge part of being on an island without cars, pollution, electricity etc., so I was a bit put off when they made a racket for most of the way up and then would not leave us alone until we gave them some money. I was impressed with the recorder player though--I definitely could never hike up a mountain and play my oboe at the same time, let alone a mountain that started at 3800 meters. Granted, the boy didn't have a delicate reed and complex fingerings to contend with, but hey, air is air and he had to sacrifice some in order to make some noise.

We had about an hour to kill before the sun set when we reached the top, so Georgia and I shopped and wandered down the other side of the mountain for a bit to get a glimpse of the neighboring islands. Although I resisted buying a beautiful handmade wool sweater and matching hat set for my sister's non-existent baby (hey, my mom has already bought baby clothes for her non-existent grandchildren! SO SCARY!), I caved and bought a miniature woven hat, as I am obsessed with miniatures. It was so cute and only 30 cents! I also bought 4 regular hats. The paths along both sides of the mountains were lined with local women selling their beautiful, handmade goods for only 9 or 10 soles (under 3 dollars), and you can never have enough hats, right? They will be very useful in Bolivia!

The sunset around 6 pm was incredible, and as you will see from the following sequence of photos, kept getting better and better.

After the sun went down, Georgia and I had to book it down the mountain as it suddenly was freezing, we only had a little flashlight, and Marie (the older of the two girls) was waiting for us in the soccer stadium to take us back for our dinner of rice, potatoes, and more rice and potatoes. Yum. Care for some carbohydrates with your carbohydrates? I gave Estefa my gifts of rice, notebooks and pens for the children, who walk an hour each way to school every day and are in need of supplies. She seemed appreciative until she tried to get me to give her my 3 AAA head lamp batteries. She didn't exactly ask me for them either. We each had our lights on, she looked at mine (which was strong compared to hers) and said in Spanish, "Tomorrow morning, give those to me." I was a bit caught off guard and stuttered something to the effect of "Sorry, but they are my only ones and I need them" since that was the truth, but then of course felt extremely guilty and selfish as she clearly needs them more than I do. Yeah, batteries are expensive but I can afford an extra set. It weighed on my mind for the rest of the night and first thing the next morning I put them into her hands. She said thank you but almost in a way indicating that she had expected it. Whatever, I am happy to help out and it gave me some peace of mind.

At 8 pm, we had an "event" that consisted of traditional dancing and music. Georgia and I tried to run off to the main hall after dinner in our own clothes, but Estefa caught us just in time and dressed us up in traditional clothing. Here I am, wearing about four layers of my own clothes, and then several heavy layers of Estefa's clothing, all of which she made herself. The craftsmanship was amazing, especially the embroidery on the blouse and head scarf, but Georgia and I felt incredibly ridiculous and looked like balloons, especially with our pants on underneath our skirts! The men had it so easy--they just had to put on a poncho and a hat! We then made our way to the event, where everyone had already started dancing and drinking beer, and arrived oh-so *fashionably* late. Here is a shot of Georgia, another American woman on our tour, and me before we were all grabbed by the locals to dance. The "local dance" was a bit boring, basically involved holding your partners hands, moving your arms back and forth while walking back and forth, and each song lasted around ten minutes so it was awkward. You can't see me very well in this picture, but I am in back to the left, behind the German women making a funny face. I danced with Estefa a couple times, and then Georgia and I danced with each other for the first couple minutes of each song to avoid being grabbed again. The whole event was very touristy and basically just an opportunity to sell drinks and to give tips to the musicians. Estefa told us that they only dance and hold these events when tourists are around. Georgia and I only stayed for a half hour or so, and could have done without it to be honest.

I managed to get some rest, despite being woken up Wednesday morning around 5 am by the sounds of a big, loud radio (hmm...) and little children squealing, among other strange, undiscernible noises. I managed to stay in bed until 5:45 (we were supposed to get up at 6:30), and shortly thereafter our little sister burst into our room to say hi. Yesterday, the family ate either before or after us, but in the morning we were slightly early and caught them eating breakfast around the fire. They were eating bowls of rice and potatoes, while we received plain pancakes and bread. I livened my pancake up with half a banana (gave the other half to Georgia, who gave me a longing look when I whipped it out of my bag) and syrup and butter as well, in my imagination at least.

After breakfast, we hiked back down to the harbor and said goodbye to our families before getting back on our boat and heading to Taquile island, which was far less tranquil (tons of restaurants and shops) and much more oriented towards tourists than Amantani. However, the scenery was still gorgeous and I am glad we went here. We hiked up to the center of town, which took about 45 minutes, and then had an hour or so to hang out, get food, and of course shop for more woven goods. One thing I found particularly interesting about the Taquile people was the significance of their dress. The type of hat and the way in which one wears a hat indicates a person's marital status. There are other elements of one's dress, such as pom-poms, that represents this as well. Young girls, for example, wear large pom-poms while married women wear smaller ones. Furthermore, young boys express romantic feelings by throwing small pebbles at the girl they desire, to get her attention I suppose. I found that a bit strange. And lastly, the young couple lives together for several years and only AFTER they have children can they get married. If they fail to have babies after three years, the couple must separate and the woman usually is forced to leave the island because no other man desires her. Because of course impotence is NEVER the MAN'S fault right?! Um yeah, right.

Before getting on the boat and heading back to Puno, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the harbor. The views were stunning, as you can see. I almost felt like I was in Italy, back in one of the many memorable sea-side restaurants my mother and I visited during our trip together back in June, 1999. That thought quickly disappeared when I got my food of course. I spent most of our 3-hour ride back to Puno reading my Footprint guide on Bolivia, where I am headed tomorrow morning, driving myself crazy trying to formulate some sort of itinerary for the next three weeks that made sense. I finally decided that it was far better to just take it day by day. If I don't make it to Cochebamba or Sucre or wherever who cares. I just want to stay safe and have a good time. It will all come together eventually. At least that's what I always tell myself because, well, it usually does.

I was dropped off at Hostal Imperial around 3 pm and immediately took a super long, HOT shower. I was in a different room with awesome water pressure. I mailed all my new hats, scarves, and some other random things back to California via Serpost for about 85 soles, and was a bit freaked out as I handed over my package of goods since I will be down about 200 bucks if it fails to arrive. It ended up getting home safely, so I am 4 for 4 now in sending things home and having them get their safely from Ecuador and Peru.

I was supposed to meet Gary around 6:30 pm to have dinner and get info for tomorrow's bus ride, and did email to kill some time beforehand. I very surprised to get a long email from my Dad. He rarely uses email, so this was his first email to me while I have been gone. He wrote that he really enjoyed reading about my travels, which made me happy of course, and more importantly, that he and my mom are COMING OUT TO VISIT ME IN JANUARY!!! I am BEYOND excited. We had discussed the possibility of a Patagonia trip back in September. However, they had not mentioned it for nearly two months, and since they just returned from India in November, I was under the assumption that a Patagonia tour was totally out of the question. What a happy surprise!

The pros of my parent's visit are obvious: I miss them and get to spend time with them; it will be their first time in South America (SA never was on their radar, like with many other Americans); they can bring me things I need from home (no more rationing contact lenses); I will get to take flights rather than long bus rides, I won't have to do Patagonia alone (which I have heard can be difficult, with the long bus rides and challenging treks); and lastly, having Patagonia planned out will force me to get organized and plan out my time in northern Argentina and the beginning of time in Brazil.

The cons? Well, the latter is kinda annoying in a way, as I will not have as much flexibility and freedom. Then again, it will be high season in Argentina and Brazil so I will have to do a good deal of planning regardless. Traveling with my parents will mean I won't have as many opportunities to meet other backpackers and will thus be skipping out on those types of experiences for a good chunk of Argentina. But I of course have had and will have so much time for that, so I don't really care. Also, we will most likely be participating in some sort of tour, and I am not a huge fan of group tours. However, I know my parents would rather drop dead than be a part of those awful, obnoxious American tour groups, so I trust their judgement. Lastly, I feel guilty that my parents will be paying for me as this is supposed to be MY trip and thus entirely funded with my own money, but I of course cannot afford the type of vacation that they want to have. As a compromise, I think I will give them whatever I would normally be spending each day for as long as we are together. So, all in all, the pros outweigh the cons by a long shot and I am incredibly psyched. I have no clue where we are going to go exactly and how the dates will work out, but I am sure we will have a great time together. I am so much easier to deal with now that I have a more go-with-the-flow attitude, so hopefully we will not go hyper-crazy on each other like we sometimes do at home.

Gary met me at my hotel and took me to the main plaza, where we met up with a huge, international group of people from his day tour of the islands. I am usually not a big fan of large groups, particularly when it comes to trying to pick out a restaurant together. However, we settled on one fairly quickly (was overpriced and not that fabulous, but whatever) and it was nice to meet some new people. I had a lovely time talking to a chef from Barcelona. Everyone spoke English but him, so I talked to him in Spanish the whole time so he would not feel left out (and of course to practice my Spanish). I also finally tried alpaca meat, which kind of tasted like steak. I suppose llama is next on my list...although I have been warned that you only should eat it at a reliable restaurant and must get it cooked very well done, as many llamas carry parasites.

Tomorrow at 7:30 am, I take off to Copacabana with Gary, so that means adios Peru y bienvenidos a Bolivia!
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