Sunday, May 14, 2017

Lake Titicaca and a brief sojourn into Bolivia

After the historic charm of Cusco, arriving in Puno was something of a shock. A few well-preserved and renovated historic buildings exist around the main plaza but far more common is the ramshackle, new construction, which proliferates. It is a typical frontier town with a strong emphasis on economics, trade and contraband. (from Bolivia we were told) I didn’t enquire about what exactly that involved.

 The buildings seem thrown up haphazardly and incomplete. Brick exteriors are neither rendered nor painted and most have rebar (reinforcing rod) poking up above, suggesting the desire to expand just as soon as another sudden financial flush or windfall appears. Even those buildings with little more than a framework constructed are functioning as cafes, homes, stores or other businesses at the street level. Streets cross the seldom-used railway lines without warning and wind into plazas and small parks with no apparent zoning and a mishmash of styles and uses abound.

However is it very clear that this is a determined entrepreneurial community and any service, product or commodity can be acquired here. An extensive market takes over several blocks on Saturday and this was a huge highlight for us. This town has spunk and an attitude that says we are here to survive and thrive not just to pander to tourists. 

When the rambling vendor–filled, traffic-choked streets suddenly open up to the wide vista of the spellbinding view of the shores of Lake Titicaca, it comes as a delightful surprise. The tranquil mirror-like surface of the lake emerges from this confusion and it is obvious why so many local and foreign visitors are attracted to this dusty town. Snow capped mountains stand regally beyond the lake and the clouds seem close enough to touch. If Tibet is the roof of the world then this must be the ceiling.

The shores host birdlife and “totora” (or reeds) grow abundantly along the water’s edge and in the shallower sections of the lake as well. This quiet harbour close to the town has a boardwalk for promenading and private boatman touting their services attempt to compete with the agency run half-day and full day trips out to the famous floating islands and other attractions.

These islands are little more than bales of totora bound together and anchored and then covered with even more cut reeds to create a comfortable if somewhat spongy base. They need constant maintenance and replenishment about every 15 days but this long-standing tradition has survived for centuries. The fascinating life of the indigenous folk, who fled the rule of the Incas to establish themselves as an independent floating community continues today and is on show, with different islands being selected for visits on a rotation basis and the funds generated are shared among the whole community. The tourist dollars acquired through entrance tickets and handicraft purchases are improving the lifestyle and viability of this fragile community but one still wonders how long they can continue their way of life.

Houses, furniture, boats and many daily items on the islands are made of reeds but signs of modernity are creeping in with solar panels providing electricity and exposure to more outside influences establishing a deep desire to send children to the schools, which have now been established on neighbouring islands. We certainly enjoyed our brief visit and would highly recommend the experience.

Seeing the expanse of the lake on this day trip was what confirmed for us that we should at least take a brief trip to the Bolivian side of the lake.

 Being harvest season it was fascinating to see the activity in the rich, fertile fields on the lake’s edge, as we bussed between Puno on the Peruvian side and Copacabana on the Bolivian side. The corn and wheat crops were largely already harvested with stalks standing upright among the stubble but brightly coloured strips of quinoa were still ripening in the sun. Women in colourful skirts were scattered about performing the backbreaking labour required and kestrels hovered above or sat on overhead wires staring attentively at the harvested fields- no doubt contemplating a feed of the mice and reptiles scurrying around below.

Copacabana couldn’t have been less like Puno. The buildings still suffer from that incomplete look but more are rendered and painted and some are even whimsically designed to look like storybook creations. That famous beach in Brazil stole the name of this quiet backwater, which appears to serve no function except as a resort for local and foreign travellers. Cafes, handicraft stalls, restaurants, guesthouses, hostels and hotels line every street.

There are plenty of hiking opportunities along the lakefront or into the mountains beyond but the natural islands nearby are the main attraction here. Isle de Sol and Isle de Luna have ruins and history and indigenous peoples but I’m sure for many, like us, they are simply a way to spend a pleasant day boating on the lake and hiking about enjoying the views and a quiet and peaceful time. We engaged in bird watching and heart thumping climbs to over 4,000 metres just because it was possible.

Having whetted our appetite in Copacabana we then took the plunge and decided another brief detour to La Paz would give us a bit more of a taste of Bolivia and we certainly have not been disappointed. Bustling with activity, sprawling across a huge expanse of valley and hillside and an enigma of poverty and enterprise, La Paz has simply astounded me and posed more questions than it has answered.  

How can public transport consist of cable cars and this be affordable? 

What is it with the bowler hats? Just how many petticoats and skirts does the average Bolivian wear at once? Why are so many school-aged children not in school? 

Why is La Paz an administrative centre, in fact the highest one in the world, but not the capital? What is it with the obsession with pastries, cakes, jellies and other excessively sweet treats? How do those stick-thin skinny jean wearing young girls with their midriffs exposed become the wide hipped bowler hat-wearing mamas? How much corn and bread can a single Bolivian consume? …………..

Without a doubt both cultures have a great number of similarities and we have barely scratched the surface of either. 

The military presence, the propensity for pomp and ceremony, the easy laughter and the colourful vibrant cultural displays, the loud brass bands and the respect and patriotism of the people are common elements.  

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