14 August, 2010


it's hard to believe that it's been over a year since we came back from Peru, but time flies when you're having fun. after leaving the south of the country we flew back to the capital and spent a couple of days exploring the areas around Miraflores, Lima's fancy neighborhood.

Jill and i doing our own version of El Beso at Parque del Amor.

one of the main attractions there is the Parque del Amor, where as you can see we came up with the obvious picture. but it's a very nice park really, walled off from coastal cliffs by mosaic tiled walls that also form benches from which to admire the hazy view.

the love of my life, above, and below, the two of us with fancy Miraflores in the background and the Pacific Ocean 300 feet straight below us to the right.

we finally tried eating salchipapa--sliced sausage with french fries--and spent much of one afternoon wandering around looking for a place that served cuy, roast guinea pig. we had been avoiding it up to that point in the trip for some vague fear that it would make us sick, but now that we were on our way home, we figured we'd throw caution to the wind and just do it. the only problem was that it's more of an Andean treat, and nobody in the low-lying cosmopolitan bustle of Lima seemed to be interested in cooking up a furry little friend. so we were a little bummed, but at least we got that sickness we were wanting on the way home, but that came a little later and since i particularly graphic in describing the last bout of illness, i'm sure no one will mind if i skip the gory details of this one.

when we found the search for household-pets-as-food fruitless, we turned our attention to some more, yes even more, ruins. we walked and walked until we found Huaca Pucllana, a clay pyramid and surrounding religious complex dating back 1500 years or so, then decided to walk some more when we discovered it was completely enclosed behind a wrought iron fence with a steep fee to breach. so we got more adventurous. we took a series of crazy taxis and buses out to what seemed like the middle of nowhere and found the following:

Jill braves the desert sands of the Lurin River Valley adjacent to the very busy and bustling metropolis of Lima, and below, i try the same, only less successfully:

pretty much literally the middle of nowhere. actually it was the middle of nowhere right next to somewhere; it's a strange little section of desert right next to the outskirts of Lima, and just across the street from yet another supposedly amazing archaeological site: Pachacamac. i say supposedly because after all the hassle to get there, we found we had chosen the only day of the week that the site was closed.

the wonderful rewards that awaited us for making the hard slog out to the archaeo-cultural site of Pachacamac on its day off. hey, at least we weren't the only ones:

so after spending a few minutes wandering through the desert dunes like Lawrence of Arabia, we made the long trek back into town wondering whether Pachacamac's being basically a much bigger version of Huaca Pucllana made it less of a big deal that we hadn't seen it, since we had chosen not to see the other, or if it compounded the sense of loss at not having been able to see either as a representative sample of the genre. apparently we didn't wonder very hard though, since i still don't have any answer for that. the bus ride back was hot and annoying but things like that do give you a good chance to see parts of a city that you wouldn't ordinarily, as we drove through many Lima neighborhoods that i'm sure get few if any tourists.

i suppose that's because there's little for a traveler to do in an ordinary neighborhood where folks are just going about their business, and indeed we decided to head back to where we knew there'd be something to do for the few hours before our very late night flight back to Atlanta: the Larcomar mall in Miraflores. just down the coast from the Parque del Amor is this entire shopping center with a movie theater and a bowling alley and the whole nine yards literally built right into the cliffs overlooking the ocean.

the view from the Larcomar.

we wandered around and had some good hot chocolate at a place that seemed to have built a balcony right out over the sheer drop-off, and finally ended up at a restaurant where we had a bow-tied waiter who had not only an apron on but also a towel over his arm, but who seemed to have nobody else to wait on but us. this place was a seriously upscale eatery, with excellent food and ambiance, and we enjoyed it all for a good amount of time but very little cash--i think the whole meal with dessert was about US$30 for the two of us--a tiny fraction of what we would have to pay for a similar meal back in America.

as if to highlight that disparity, the food on the flight back to the States almost made me have to actually use one of those little bags in the seat back pocket for the first time in my life, so all things considered, though i was glad to get home after a couple of weeks on the go, i really could have handled staying in Miraflores for a while.

24 April, 2010


for some reason Jill had been much more excited about Lake Titikaka than i had, but then again she had done most of the planning for this trip and seemed to know better what to expect. i had heard of some islands that were alleged to float on the lake, and Jill was talking about staying overnight on an island in the lake, so it all sounded fine to me and i was just interested in having been to what is commonly referred to as the "highest navigable lake" in the world.

my brother told me all he wanted from Peru was a picture of me not laughing in front of a sign for Lake Titikaka; since he's my most faithful reader, here you are. below, some of the many tourist boats that ply the (generally more clear) waters of the lake; here in the harbor the algae was so thick we saw birds walking across its surface.

clearly the qualifier "navigable" gives away that it isn't actually the highest lake in the world, and i still haven't found a source to indicate what exactly constitutes a navigable versus a non-navigable lake, but the Wikipedia article gives a clue, calling it one of the highest "commercially navigable" lakes in the world. indeed, there are a lot of boats that ply the icy waters, most of which seem to be part of the tourist trade, but the lake is a huge one, straddling about 60 miles of the Bolivian border and sprawling over more than 3,000 square miles of the earth's surface.

Jill and i feeling chilly on the boat out to the floating islands despite all the sunshine. below, i have followed the indigenous spelling for Lake Titikaka, as our tour guide told us that the Spanish, in spelling it Titicaca had managed to both strip the original of its meaning and add some offensive scatological references as a way of demeaning the native peoples. so ruthless!

and it's a beautiful lake, with generally clear waters and nice views of the high Andes on both the Peruvian and Bolivian sides. but, boy, is it high up there. by comparison, Snowbird, the ski resort at which i spent many of the days i should have been in high school, is about 11,000 feet above sea level on top of it's highest peak; Lake Titikaka and Puno on its shore sit at around 12,500 vertical feet, well more than twice the elevation of the Salt Lake valley. that produces some rather odd climate characteristics, in that it was quite hot when we were standing in direct sunlight, but really very chilly if the sun became obscured by a cloud or we stepped into shade, hence the warm clothes despite generally bright skies in most of the pictures.

as we reached the edge of the large Puno harbor, we came into sight of the quite extensive complex of islas flotantes, or floating islands, which are also known as the Uros Islands, after the indigenous people who built and inhabit them. all in all, there are 42 of these structures on either side of a channel that leads out to the open lake, and our tour boat took us to the one named Isla Santa Maria. we were told that the islands were built by the Uros so they wouldn't be taxed by colonial and later governments, and while there used to be many of them, the people find that their children typically want to work on the mainland so there are fewer and fewer inhabitants and islands all the time as tourism and light trade become the only things keeping the islanders afloat. keeping the islands themselves afloat, on the other hand, are thick mats of totora reeds that are layered and continually replaced on top of large sections of totora root beds that are harvested just for the foundations. stakes are then driven all the way through the islands to fix them in place in the lake, but they can be moved if necessary and can of course be altered in size and shape.

above, Isla Santa Maria of the Uros floating islands in Lake Titikaka, clockwise from top left: the watchtower that gave a good overview of the artificial archipelago; Jill and i eating the amazing all-purpose totora reed; the dragon-like boat of the Santa Marians, which they allowed us to ride... for a small fee. which actually seemed very small when then made a frail looking little lady take one of the oars to row us; a general overview of Santa Maria showing its houses and height above the water; the handicrafts the islanders were most interested in selling to us; and a handy schematic of how the islands are built that our tour guide pulled out to show us. below, a video of the friendly departure song the islanders sang to us.

for some reason i had thought these were the islands we would be staying on, but was somewhat relieved to find there were more traditional islands for that purpose. in actuality, the islas flotantes are pretty sturdy feeling, although your feet sink in a good inch or two with every step, as if you were walking across a field of very thick grass. almost everything on each island is made of the totora reeds, including the houses and, on our island, most of a watchtower; they even had a boat made almost entirely of reeds which they said would last anywhere from six to nine months before having to be replaced. as if all that weren't enough, you can even eat a good portion of the versatile totora reed, though it seemed like eating styrofoam made of water, so its nutritive value probably isn't too high. there were a few things not made of totora though, including a discreetly placed solar panel that generated some power for the one TV on Santa Maria. even here you can't get away from TV.

above, the setting sun glares through one of the many stone archways that straddle the pathway up to Pachamama, one of the island's two peaks, the other being Pachatata. the former is Mother Earth, the latter Father Earth. below, scenes from our costumed dance party show Jill being dressed by our hostess Grigoria.

but we didn't stop trying (to get away from TV), and we eventually succeeded. about three hours further out into the lake we finally came to a tiny harbor on the southeast side of Isla Amantaní, and were there introduced to our hostess for the next 24 hours, Grigoria. as a Quechua speaking island native Grigoria didn't speak much Spanish, much less any English, so she smiled and bobbed and then took off like a mountain goat up the steep slopes to her house, which was about halfway to the pinnacle of hilly Amantaní. when we got to her house, which was made of adobe bricks like the other buildings scattered around, we met her daughter, Yovanna, who spoke good Spanish and a couple of words of English and so helped us to communicate. she showed us our room which was on the second floor up an outdoor ladder, and which had a door just about high enough for my legs and belly to get through; unfortunately, and even more uncomfortably, both of the beds in the room shared this same, um, shortcoming of being too small.

but we were only at the house long enough to get some hostess-provided lunch, which consisted of several different varieties of small potato, in almost all colors of the rainbow, some fried cheeses and a soup or stew that was filled with a local grain called quinoa (say keen-wa). owing to my earlier sickness this was the first time i had eaten in almost two days, and it was a ginger effort at that. Grigoria had deeply weathered hands with dirt deeply encrusted in large cracks, and as she placed the bowls on the table i watched her thumbs dip into the broth of the soup. though it made me think twice about beginning to eat again, my second thought was how humbling it was to see how this woman lived and all the hard work she was doing to keep her home and family going while her husband and son were away working on the mainland. with no electricity she cooked in a tiny candlelit kitchen over an earth stove and made almost everything her and Yovanna needed to live, including most of their clothes. and i was glad i ate the soup: it was delicious and just what the doctor ordered to get me back up to strength, and one of the first things we did when we got back to the States was find some quinoa to have in our own pantry.

above, some scenes from Grigoria's house, clockwise from top left: me on the staircase ladder that led to the top floor; a view of the house itself, which was actually one of the larger ones we saw; some of the many varieties of potatoes available were lying around in the courtyard; a soup Grigoria made us with quinoa, a very filling and proteinaceous grain native to the Andes; the view from the house down the hill towards the lake, looking east towards Bolivia; along with the quinoa we were served some of those potatoes and a bunch of fried cheeses, probably made of goat (or maybe llama) milk; Grigoria's tiny kitchen, in which she prepared us meals in earthen pots over a clay oven; and Jill shows that the door to our room really wasn't made for a pair of 5'9" foreigners. below, the night sky was so awesomely clear and dark that the stars seemed to go on forever and the famous Southern Cross constellation could hardly be missed.

not long after our life changing lunch, we took a hike with the rest of our tour group up to the top of one of the island's twin peaks known as Pachamama and Pachatata--Mother Earth and Father Earth, respectively--just in time for a rather spectacular sunset on the lake. then we came back down and were geared up in some traditional costumes Grigoria had for us so we could attend a dance at a local hall that seemed to have been built just to hold such dances for tourists. the small band made up of local teenagers cranked out the Andean beats and pretty soon i needed to escape the stifling heat that was building up inside by taking a wander outdoors. the darkness was profound and the night sky shimmered with a literally endless array of stars and galaxies, and despite the deep cold i had a hard time wanting to go back to the frivolities. when the dance was over and we were back at Grigoria's, Jill and i crept out of our room for as long as we could stand the chill just to take some more of it in. it was one of the most fantastic, serene things i have ever experienced.

scenes from Isla Taquile, above, clockwise from top left: the men (or boys) do the knitting on this island, and indeed can be seen at their avocation almost constantly; Jill and i joined the band for a little music making--naturally i took the pan flute; Jill tries coca leaf tea; i have better luck with the fish; a young Taquileño with the trademark cherubic cheeks. below, Taquile is not without its own archway fetish. Peru is in the background this time.

the following morning we bid our farewells and made for our boat which was to take us south to Isla Taquile, another indigenously peopled island but this one with just a touch more modernity (and, very sensibly i thought, no dogs). there was a pretty touristy presentation of music and dance by some islanders, who seem to be mostly famous for their hats, which are knitted by the men, and a lunch at which we finally got some coca leaf tea, which was much better in the anticipation than the actual experience. coca tea is made by steeping coca leaves (yes, the ones used to make cocaine, though apparently it takes several tons of leaves and a lot of kerosene to come out with a kilo of the drug) in hot water, and is supposed to be very good for helping acclimate to high altitudes, but frankly it tastes like dirty grass clippings and is not at all pleasant. a better option is muña tea, made by steeping a sprig of a very common plant that has a reasonably pleasant (especially with a lot of sugar), almost minty taste, and we were even advised that this was actually better for altitude problems than its more famous coca cousin.

on our way back to Puno we saw a few private boats out, this one looking vaguely like a Middle Eastern dhow or felucca. it was a beautiful sunny day out on Lake Titikaka.

well, whatever drink you end up liking, our trip to the many and varied islands of Lake Titikaka had been educational, enlightening and altogether very enjoyable, dirty wet grass notwithstanding. i had kind of felt that after Machu Picchu much of our trip would be a bit of a letdown, but found the lake quite the contrary and actually competing for my favorite part of the whole journey. the floating islands were novel, but i really think it was the homestay that Jill arranged on Amantaní that did it for me. it's hard to compete with the sheer awesomeness of something like the Lost City of the Incas, but there was something about the serenity of an island with no electricty, miles from anywhere, with perfect views of crystal waters and clear starry skies that i will never forget.

28 February, 2010


this day, our first full day way up on the altiplano was supposed to be a major one, a great one. it was to be a leisurely day to trip to Copacabana--not that Copacabana, the one just over the Bolivian border around the south end of Lake Titikaka. but once again, we hit a few snags, only this time it wasn't the fault of striking transit workers.

no, while socialism got involved a little later on, this time what went on strike was my whole digestive system, beginning when we left the clay-eaters of Atuncolla. not that i blame any of it on them--my problems i believe stemmed from lunch, though curiously Jill and i split everything we ate, and she didn't even get a hint of sickness. i may have eaten more lettuce on my sandwich or something, but what i got seemed much bigger than i would have expected from such a small garnishing. in any case, that night a massive foreign horde had invaded and my body's defenses had been overwhelmed and basically revolted to join the onslaught. seldom have i experienced such pain, nor when i have have had to do so on a tiled bathroom floor of dubious cleanliness. and usually i have a pretty good gag reflex but in this instance i had to press my toothbrush into a service it was never quite designed for, which i did seven times over the course of a very long and uncomfortable night. so when the morning came and we were to head for Bolivia, i was still feeling pretty fragile and not at all like being on a bouncing bus with a bunch of loud-mouthed, tobacco-reeking hippies, but i guess we all have to sacrifice.

proof we did make it to Bolivia, above, and below, proof it wasn't quite as we'd planned...

trouble is, not all sacrifice turns out to be worth it. when we got within fifteen minutes of the border the bus steward started making the rounds and asked us, in broken English, if we had our visa. in broken Spanish i told him that, no thank you Friend, we didn't need one of those, and he could move on with his rounds. after doing so, he came back, seemingly having forgotten what we talked about, but really having worked out the words to tell me that in fact, Friend, you will be needing a visa, thanks to a new requirement just for Americans, hooray! apparently Bolivia's socialist president, Evo Morales had decided to impose this requirement, but whether it was because the much vaunted "change" America's Dear Leader was supposed to be ushering in hadn't yet destroyed capitalism or because a mighty cash cow was going unmilked i don't pretend to know. nevertheless, at 135 bucks a pop--more than we paid to get two Chinese visas through a travel agent in Japan--i suspect it was a little of both, such a delicious irony for us residents of the Evil Empire to reflect on.

we let our new friend know that for us this was only a day trip, and somehow seemed sure that would make a difference--as if he made Bolivia's entry requirements all by himself--but he was quite certain that US$270 would be required whether we wanted to be in country for two hours or two weeks. we were still pretty sure he was making it up so we let him know we would take care of things at the border and he went away again... for a few minutes until he came back with the kind of plan that almost made me think he did make the immigration laws in those parts. he said there was a way that we could pay half price, but he would have to take care of our customs paperwork and we would stay on the bus the whole time it was in Bolivia, under his wing, so to speak. Basically, he was pretty sure he could smuggle us over not one but two borders for the measly sum of 135 American Dollars. when i reflect on what some people go through to get to America, or the expenses to which my parents went to allow us to immigrate to the United States, i tend think that we were being offered a killer deal. on the other hand, when i think that Jill and i would probably still be locked in a Bolivian prison, having paid $135 to get there, i'm confident we made the wise choice to disembark the bus at the border and wait in the charming Peruvian border town of Yunguyo for the couple of hours it would take the bus to come back for the return trip to Puno.

Jill having "crossed" one of the loosest borders we've come across.

now when i say Yunguyo is charming what i mean is that it is small and consists of a street with a bunch of cambios--currency exchange shops--and a side street that looked like it would go down to the lake shore but that turned out to be guarded by a scrawny but fearsome looking wild bull who happened not to look like he was tethered to anything. so all our exploring came to naught and we ended up sipping Sprite and munching saltine crackers so my guts would have something to do during all the time we were waiting. actually we did do something a bit more exciting after all: i had the distinct feeling that our friend had been telling us porkies about the border crossing because we hadn't come across anything about this supposed new visa fee, so we wandered up the road and just walked across the border like we owned the place. and nobod seemed to care. there was even a very military-looking Bolivian border guard standing off to the side of the road, so we decided to approach him lest he be tempted to check us out in greater detail. we wanted to see if he could confirm or deny these fees that were increasingly seeming like an attempted scam, and without any apparent knowledge of English, he did in fact confirm the exorbitant visa fee story, but then curiously didn't seem to mind that we just wandered off further in the direction of Copacabana proper.

so we have been to Bolivia--hence its flag in the sidebar--just never officially, and not for very long. i'm pretty sure that if i ever wanted to cross a border illegally, that would be the one to go with. i haven't yet worked out what one would do later on when someone asks to see entry papers. i don't remember a time in all our travels that we've ever been stopped for such a check outside of some official and obvious checkpoint, but i'm sure the one time you don't have that little stamp in your little book is the one time you'll run across the cop who wants to card you just because he can. so we were lucky. the weather was good, the little fellow pictured above at the cambio kept us supplied with refreshment and even sold us a few Boliviano notes and coins, and our actually well-informed friend even stopped on his way back through to pick us up, just as he had said he would. things were looking up for us and the rest of our time by the great lake.

14 February, 2010


so we had arrived in Puno and witnessed a strike, had got some lunch and taken a quick look around, but other than that we had a whole day we hadn't planned to have in this town and we didn't know what to do with it. so we hit up some tourist agency to see what kind of cultural things we had missed on the way down from Cuzco and what may be near enough to do in a day, and as luck would have it we weren't disappointed.

on the altiplano, you may grow sturdy but you don't grow tall: Jill and i at a bizarre roadside attraction on a hill overlooking Lake Titikaka.

we were able to book an afternoon tour to a little place called Sillustani, just off the road back to Juliaca. there we would be taken to see the remains of some ancient funerary structures of the Colla people, a group of the indigenous Aymara who, along with the rest of them were conquered by the mighty Incas who rolled into town in the 1400s. the Collas lived on very high, windswept plains and buried their nobles in stone towers, the better to worship them, you see. each tower appears to have been a mostly hollow cylinder whose height indicated the relative importance of its family of inhabitants, with a beehive shaped stone mound inside that actually housed the mummies. it is thought that the beehive shape was intended to represent femininity, while the cylinder evoked a more masculine idea. and that's what made our tour so comical, and not to the youngest members of our party either...

above, clockwise from top left: Jill with the roadside puma, an important animal in the Inca culture; Jill taking in the eerie desolation of Sillustani's high plateau; our tour guide, explaining the penes over and over again; the 2-Sol (67-cent) picture of Jill with the baby llama, cheap at twice the price; and some hardy-looking, red-cheeked children of the high Andes. below, Sillustani was bleak in a beautiful way, feeling somewhat medieval to me somehow.

the problem with tours is that you usually have to take them with other people, and generally there are bound to be some you'd rather not travel with. unfortunately, this tour was no exception, and the problem pair in this case were an old couple from somewhere in Spain, so you wouldn't have thought they'd have language problems. actually the guy seemed alright, but he was hard of hearing and so maybe it was his fault that his wife was as loud and terrifically obnoxious as she was. when we were standing up on the plain and Jefe was explaining what the so-called chullpas were, he would get a bit shy and give all references to phalluses in a rather timid voice, so much so that the the Spanish guy couldn't hear him. he kept asking his wife what was being said, and as we were standing on what was supposed to be hallowed ground, the cold wind blustering through the tall montane grass, she finally gave in and yelled at him: "como un PENE!" i was glad i knew enough Spanish to be amused at the exceedingly inappropriate way old ladies sometimes talk.

above, who needs gravy for potatoes when you've got... clay? below, clockwise from top left: Jill and i with the Familia Vilca of Atuncolla; Jill with their pet alpaca (note the stubbier nose and shorter ears than on a llama); myself and Senor Vilca with the same alpaca and a couple of llamas; some pet--and i use that term very loosely here--guinea pigs, the nearest of which is very pregnant; and the entrance to the little village of Atuncolla.

if people are going to be extremely annoying, at least they should provide some entertainment, even if it only lasts a few moments. but the remainder of the trip we distanced ourselves from the Penes so as not to offend our new friends the Vilcas. after the plains of Sillustani, we stopped in a small village named Atuncolla, where the few residents lived simply and mostly self-sufficiently, it seemed, their children wearing handmade traditional clothes and sporting the chapped red cheeks common to young inhabitants of the altiplano. we toured the housing compound of the Familia Vilca, which consisted of a courtyard enclosed by a wall of mud bricks and a few small structures, each with its own purpose in mind. they had their own living quarters, some guest quarters that could be rented very cheaply if one desired such an authentic experience, a cooking area, a sort of shed, and a hutch for the guinea pigs. to avoid being indelicate about what the guinea pigs were for, i will say that the Vilcas were feeding their guests on this tour; we weren't treated to anything quite so lavish, but i hope you get the idea. instead, we had some homemade cheese, which i understood came from either the llamas or the alpaca, some potatoes, and some clay. yes, they made us a steaming pot of clay. to eat. it was grayish brown and fairly runny, and we were to break the small potatoes and eat them with some clay on top, like it was some sort of gravy. it actually wasn't bad at all, but we really didn't know what the point was or who first figured out that eating clay was a great idea. as it turned out, it may not have been in my case, as my guts were beginning to feel a bit the worse for wear from our strike-side lunch, but what i began feeling that evening was just the beginning and would make the next day's trip far worse than even the Familia Pene could have done.