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.