25 October 2013

The road to Lake Titicaca

Thursday 3rd October
After a month in Cusco today is the day to scratch my itchy feet and head out for some adventures, the first stop is Puno for Lake Titicaca.

Leaving isn't all good, I had to say See Ya Later to Mama Carmen*, the woman whose home I'd shared for the last month.
As something I'd arranged via the language school I'd been staying in someone's home for my time in Cusco, which gave me among many things more language practice (Carmen doesn't speak English) and three home-cooked meals each day - she is an amazing cook and loves to feed you, to the cost of many a waistline.

My last night at Carmen's was actually spent on her sofa, as another student needed the bed I was sleeping in (her son's, not with him though) as I'd extended my already extended stay by another day and the school needed to get someone out of a hostel and into a home. 

Carmen wouldn't let me stay in a hostel (it is practically impossible to argue with Mama Carmen, in part due to the language barrier and in part because she will win) and gave me her sofa. Gives you an idea what she's like.

I dragged myself off her sofa at 0530 to make myself human for 0600 departure, taking the short taxi ride to the bus station for my bus to Puno.

I decided to take the touristy bus to Puno, which does the route via several tourist stops, providing an English speaking guide to talk you around the sites and a buffet lunch. This takes a 7 hour journey and turns it into a 9 hour one.

I won't discuss all the stops, as with the exception of Raqchi none were really worth it. Yes the scenery was very pretty and the ruins at Raqchi are quite interesting, but other than it was hours of being hearded around. Not worth the price difference from a normal bus, but a useful experience none the less. 

The bus journey wasn't straight forward, of course - the miners in Juliaca were protesting (I think because the government is trying to change their current free form setup to something more regulated and tax paying) and so the main roads were closed and vehicles being attacked (just rocks being thrown) - the bus driver had to take the bus along roads I really didn't think you'd be able to get a large coach up; narrow, windy, mud based, under construction and up (and then down) a serious hill. I'd want to drive something with the word "Landcruiser" around there, but in part that's because I still have ideas and dreams about building a serious camper van.

Friday 4th October
Another early morning - up at 0530 so that I'd be human enough to have breakfast at 0600 (when the hostel started breakfast - bread, jam and coffee). 

I was running a little late, as my body was complaining about another early morning and not catching up on sleep from the nights before - something I'll have to do when I reach Arequipa.

Threw breakfast down my throat, booked into the hostel again for Sunday night, threw my main rucksack into their storage room (day sack only for the island, but as my day sack is a 35+8 bag** that's not really an issue) and rushed towards the port, thinking that I needed to be there before 0700.

The taxi to the port was a mototaxi, which is a motorbike with a enclosed seat on the back. Kinda like a tuktuk.

A few minutes and a whopping 2/s later (just under 50p) and I'm at the port. Which really doesn't seem all that busy and nowhere near the number of tourists I'd expected.

I should point out that there are 2 ways of visiting the islands on Titicaca - one is to take an organised tour, where they sort out everything for you and then heard you around the island. I was planning on doing this, but after being hearded around with the InkaExpress I am in no hurry to be part of very touristy tour, so I took the other option and DIY'd it.

The DIY approach is to turn up at the docks nice and early, find a boat (there are plenty of people who'll sell you a seat on a boat) and one that gives you what you want (in my case: transport and a home stay) - the there are bonuses karma points if you pick a boat that is part of a lock co-op which benefits the islanders more than the touristy tours, which by the looks of it I did - I stayed at the Captain's house. Yeay for my karma.

Having bought my ticket by 0650 I was told by the boat's Captain (the man who sold me the ticket) that he sails at 0820 and I need to be back at the dock by 0800. Time for a little sit down and the chance to wake up some more, with the sun warming my back and casting a lovely light across the city. (the light this high up is lovely.)

The boat did sail, well - motor, at just gone 0820 and we started the 1 hour 50 journey to Uros, the floating reed islands. A very slow journey, given the distance - something normal, according to the utterly infallible Lonely Planet***.

They are what they sound like, in that they are the ultimate in self-build homes. Not only do the inhabitants build their homes from reeds, they build the islands the homes are on too. From reeds.

The islands are often described as "there is nothing like it anywhere else" which I can well believe. Unique only just starts to cover describing the concept of building an island out of reeds and then building your homes on it, especially when you are only a short distance from land.

Visiting the islands has a "human zoo" feel about it - you turn up, they talk about the islands and how they are made (in Spanish) and then invite you to buy their crafts, which is their method of income.
(note to self: write post on tat shops and how they are everywhere.)

Two hours of sailing later and we arrive at Amantani, the first of the non man made islands to be visited and my home for the night.
The captain of the boat had called ahead and arranged enough beds for us all, where the people we stay with are families who live on the island and who rent out beds to supplement their income - the same as within the group based travel, but where you know that they money paid goes to the family as you place it in their hands. (there is a problem with some tour operators ripping off families who offer home stays).

The steep walk from the harbour up to the houses was a reminder of the altitude and that everything needs to be taken a little more slowly - rushing at 3880m is a very silly idea.

I shared the home with 5 Spanish girls who were also on the boat, making me the token non native speaker.
We discussed (in Spanish) that I'd had 3 weeks of lessons and that before that I essentially had no Spanish - they were very accommodating to my poor and limited Spanish and were happy for me to try and speak Spanish, even though they all had far better English than my Spanish.

As a part of the home stay you are provided with lunch, dinner and breakfast. Although I've been eating home cooked Peruvian food for the last month this is my first taste of Peruvian food which isn't Carmen's - more normal Peruvian food, as compared to the wonders Carmen produces. 

The food was a lot more basic (soup, rice and what I think was fried cheese, along with a little salad which all of us didn't touch - well ingrained fears of salads and what they can do to a traveller's guts - along with the obligatory tea) and whilst not bad, it isn't Carmen's.

After lunch we went for a walk up Amantani "mountain", which is more of a hill but when you are starting at an altitude which is kissing 3900m everything is a mountain.
The walk up was OK, as I took it slow and steady, which is all you can do when this high. 

The walk gave some really nice views across the island and out to Titicaca and was massively peaceful - there are no roads, no traffic, no large group of people - just the sound of me trying to catch my breath, lost in the sound of nothingness.

It also introduced what must be one of the oddest football pitches - one on an island on Titicaca, at ~3900m. I can't imagine it gets much use, but it has a concrete stand for spectators and was probably built at the cost of much sweat and human labour - there aren't any roads to drive building materials up, it all has to be carried.

The traditional thing to do from the top of the island is watch the sun set, but as I'm not all that confident on my feet going down uneven terrain I decided to descend early, so as to get further down whilst we had some light - even with a head torch in my pocket, I wanted to get a fair way down with some daylight.

We had been guided from the house to the start of a single-track, can't possibly get lost, path by one of the family we were staying with, where luckily the path starts by the football pitch - a most useful landmark in an area where otherwise I'd struggle to pick out useful landmarks, something I'm fairly good at in cities and do subconsciously.

When I got to the place where we'd been left I thought I knew the way home, so followed what I thought was the correct path, confident in that the family has said "if you get lost just ask for the house of the Family Coco". After another 5-10 min of walking I'm not seeing what I'd expected to see, where thankfully I was close to a home and the boy ran inside as the big scary man was outside (looking lost). A short conversation in my best Spanish with him mum and the people who live there have no idea who Family Coco are or where they live. Bugger. 

I retraced my steps back to the main path down from the football field and continued to head down hill.

At this point it is worth knowing that whilst there are various houses in the area, there is nothing (obviously) around for people to be travel to/from. This is why I was surprised and thankful to finding another couple of people, neither of who had heard of Family Coco or knew where they lived. Bugger.

Time for the sensible option, as most of the light has gone and I've got no idea where I am or how to get to where I need to be - I return to the place on the path near the football field which is my last known point.

Reaching my last known point and I find one of the Spanish girls, who was waiting for the others to finish walking down. We discussed (in English, as I simply don't have the ability to communicate what I needed to in Spanish) that I'd been further down the hill, no on I'd met knew who the family was and that I really wasn't all that sure of how to get home. She, too, didn't really remember the way but was expecting to be collected by someone from the family at 1800, as that way they can guide us home - something discussed in Spanish and something I was totally unaware of. A theme for the weekend, as it turns out.
Lo and behold part of (the unknown) Family Coco arrived and guided us back to the house. 

What impressed me most about it is how she was very happily navigating and walking over uneven terrain without a torch. What also surprised me was that I found it a lot easier going down hill when all I could see is what my headlight illuminated, as compared to going downhill in the daylight. I this was reinforced the next morning when It was harder to walk over ground I could see than it was when I couldn't. 

The irony in all this... In my main bag safely stored back in Puno was my GPS - the use of which would have saved a lot of hassle. Note to self: always pack the GPS and spare batteries.

Dinner and a fiesta (i.e. locals playing a few tunes, whilst we are taught traditional dances, whilst we wear traditional Peruvian clothing - for a man this is a poncho, which even I can cope with). 

A wonderfully early night. Before 10pm. Asleep within seconds.

Saturday 5th October
Up for breakfast at 0700, having been out cold all night, for a 0800 departure to Taquile, another "big" island on Titicaca.

Just over an hour of gentle motoring and we're there, having had some nice views of what was our home for the night.

I had originally planned on sleeping on the island, but on getting to the island at just gone 9am and being told that we were leaving at 2pm I decided to return to Puno that day and use the time elsewhere - given my fixed time in South America time management is important. 

Having paid our entry free the captain highlighted on the map on the back of the ticket which port we are at (most handy). Cue a 40 min walk up (very steep, in parts) hill (at 3880m) - the only priority at the top was a bit of a sit down, as when you're that high walking up for 40 min is a noticeable thing.

I spent a relaxed few hours poking around the island, taking in the views across the lake (pictures of which exist) and talking randomly in a mixture of English and Spanish with a guy who turns out to be a tour guide.

I don't do souvenirs - in 6+ months of travelling I've bought 2 - but I bought a traditional Peruvian hat, mostly because it was a design which was ok and actually fitted. I look very silly, but it's pure alpaca wool and cost me a tenner.

At about 1300 I decide to wander back down to the boat - the hill is steep and cobbled and it could easily take as long down as it did up.

On the way down self doubt creeps in... Did the Captain say he leaves in 2 hours ("en dos...") or at 2 o'clock ("a dos..."). I reason that it can't be in 2 hours as it is 40 min each way to the main town square and that would leave almost no time to see anything, but given that my Spanish is poor it is possible I got it wrong.

Get to port to discover that I'd totally missed something (which was announced in Spanish) - the boat leaves from a different port than their one it arrives at, which is the other side of the island.
The port the captain circled as we arrived is where we were leaving from, but that isn't where we arrived - something my limited Spanish just couldn't get.

At this point I've got about 30 min to get back up the hill, the one which took me 40 min last time, across the island and down to the other port. Impossible, but I decided to try - move quickly and hope.

The moving quickly lasted about 30 seconds as it is impossible (for me) to run up hill at that altitude; 30 seconds and my body was screaming at me to stop, where if I didn't choose to it would remove the choice from me. I chose to stop.
I then chose to stand, well - tripod, for several minutes trying to catch my breath and not feel like I couldn't breath, despite having a resp rate which was through the roof.

Time for a new plan.

I'd stopped by some stairs which led up to a cafe, which a familiar looking group of tourists were leaving. "Are you Walter's group?" (Walter being the guide I'd been chatting with earlier.) They were and he was up in the cafe finishing his lunch. 

I discussed my problem with Walter and asked if there was any way of making it to the correct port in time - there wasn't. It wasn't likely, but it was worth asking. 

Next plan - catch a lift with another boat, where Walter just happened to have a boat which was returning to the mainland. Handy. I asked if I could ride with him, where he said he'd have to "call the office" and disappeared into the cafe's kitchen to make a call - a suspiciously short period of time later and yes I can, but I've got to "buy a ticket" for 30 sols (about £6.50). It is what I paid for a return to the island, but I don't have a lot of choice - deal.

I head back down to the port, as Walter was finishing up at the cafe, and waited to be invited on to the boat.

The boat was a speed boat by Titicaca standards and a lot more comfortable than the one I arrived on (actual seats vs. a plank of wood with a cushion on) and I was back on the mainland a lot quicker than I would be if I'd taken the boat I should of. 

As I got off the boat I thanked Walter again and very subtly handed him the money for the "ticket" so that his tour group wouldn't see.

Given that I'd missed my boat I wanted to leave a note for the Captain at his office, saying sorry for causing him issues and letting him know I was back safe & well. A small but important thing.

As I approached his office I found him there. "where were you?" he asked, where I explained I'd gone to the wrong port and so had to get a lift back with another boat.

Given that he is the Captain of a slow chugger and I came back on a speedboat he can't have got back to the mainland before me if he left at 2pm. Turns out it was in 2 hours, not at 2 hour.

My Spanish - it needs work.

* don't worry mum, you're not being replaced. Carmen is Mama Carmen to just about everyone who lives at her place. A surrogate mother to many, a replacement to none.

** I really need to learn the art of packing light, but this appears to be something I've failed to learn despite my best hopes. Part of the problem is that I'm travelling through many different climates and need a bit of everything. The other problem is that I've inherited my dad's "that might come in useful" gene.
It should be a lot easier for SE Asia as I only have one climate to deal with and I'll have an even better idea of what I don't need.

*** this is, of course, complete bollocks.