Saturday, January 21, 2006

Where the kiwi has flown - #3 Lake Titicaca

The Gay Maitre D' and I were standing patiently in line at Lima airport, waiting for our hand luggage to be scanned. We were cutting it a bit fine to get on the plane, but it seemed that most other people in line were going to Cuzco too, and being good little descendents of British colonials, we queued. Suddenly there was a commotion behind us: "Coming through, coming through!". A very loud American voice. "Oh my god! That's Rosie Cheeks!" said the Gay Maitre D'. We forgot our good manners and fell into a trot behind her, letting her elbow her way through. Within minutes we were seated on the plane, where we then waited half an hour for the remainder of the passengers to have their hand luggage scanned.

The Gay Maitre D' and I had spent the night in Cuzco airport, talking a lot, sleeping very little. I'd met up with him in Santiago airport - he'd come from New Zealand, and me on a plane from Colombia that went via Lima (apparently it was cheaper for me to fly all the way to Santiago and then back up to Lima, rather than just get off the plane in Lima, something to do with my round the world ticket). We'd then waited for Rosie to arrive from New York (the Gay Maitre D' holding a romantic "Will You Marry Me" sign - long story) only to have to give up when her plane was delayed arriving. But here we now were reunited on a plane to Cuzco.

We had two days to kill before the Editter and Hepzibah would arrive to do the Machu Picchu trek with us. As long as we stayed above 3000m (so as to acclimatize to altitude) we could go wherever we wanted. And so a couple of snap decisions later saw us ensconsed on the overnight bus to Puno. It was a cold, not very comfortable night. But, for me at least, totally worth it.

The next morning we joined a tourist boat on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. As we did the introductions, everyone booed the Americans and the Americans booed the French. Sigh. Nobody booed the kiwis.

Our first stop was the Uros islands, a group of tiny islands made from reeds. Everything on the islands is also made from reeds - the houses, the post office, the school. Reportedly the indigenous Uros people retreated from the Spanish and eventually were forced onto the lake in a bid to retain autonomy and maintain their traditional way of life. Which is now put on show to tourists. Still, at least they made a little bit of money off us.

The reeds grow in the lake and they gather them, dry them and use them to build up the top layer of the island as the underneath decays. They also eat them and build boats out of them.

We then continued on to Amantani island where we spent the night. It was quite a hike up to the village, where we stayed with local Quechuan-speaking families. We then hiked even higher, to about 4100m, to the top of Pachamama, the goddess-hill of the island (the god-hill is Pachatata). The Gay Maitre D' smoked his last cigarette (he didn't smoke again until we reached Lima, after Machu Piccu - a whole week later).

After dinner (consisting primarily of potatoes and yams) we got dressed up in traditional native costumes to join in a dance with the villagers - who I'm sure never get sick of doing this night after night for all the tourists. Unfortunately for me, it was at this point that the altitude sickness struck. Our host stuffed eucalyptus leaves in my headband and gave me plenty of indian mint tea to drink, but all I could do was sit miserably while the Gay Maitre D' and Rosie Cheeks were spun around in circles by the locals.

In contrast to Amantani and Uros, Taquile, which we visited the next day, was much more touched by tourism. Here there were shops with loads of handicrafts and a couple of restaurants.

On the way back to Puno, the boat crew challenged the tourists to have a swim in Lake Titicaca. The only ones mad enough, were, predicably, the kiwis - me and the Gay Maitre D'. As the lake was around 10C (50F), 'swimming' involved leaping in and then swimming madly back to the boat and getting out as quickly as possible.

That night we braved another overnight bus back to Cuzco, where the Editter and Hepzibah had meanwhile arrived, and an even bigger adventure awaited us: the 4 day Machu Picchu trail.

Where the kiwi has flown #1 Tsunami Diving
Where the kiwi has flown #2 A Vignette of Cali