Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca
Most sources agree that “titi” means puma in Aymara and “caca” (“karka” actually) means rock.  From that point there is a divergence as to what “puma rock” means.  Is the lake shaped like a puma?  Were pumas particularly numerous in the region around the lake?  Was there a rock in the lake where a puma once lived?  Or could it be that “Titicaca” sounding like “puma rock” in Aymara is a mere coincidence.  One could infer, for example, that Washington, the US Capitol city refers to the cleansing of a heavy weight (“washing” “ton”) —which is literally true, but also far-fetched.  It is possible that the name “Titicaca” is more ancient than the Aymara language.  One source I’ve found mentions that “titi” means sun in Puquina, a now defunct language that was once spoken around Lake Titicaca. 

Regardless of the origin of its name, Lake Titicaca is an amazing lake.  It straddles the border of Peru and Bolivia, covers over three thousand square miles and is dotted with islands, and most incredibly, the surface of its waters sit over 12,000 feet above the surface of the ocean.  It is the world’s highest navigable body of water.

Our plan is to navigate the lake over the next few days and we have chosen All WaysTravel to help us in that undertaking.  The leading sentence on the All Ways’ web site acknowledges both the rich culture and tradition and the deep poverty of the people in the Lake Titicaca region.  This tour company, like any tour company anywhere, helps support the local economy by facilitating visits by tourists into the local area.  But All Ways assumes an even greater social responsibility by using some of its profits to build and maintain libraries in local communities and by providing financial support for the local schools.  They also try to break down barriers between tourists and locals by arranging for tourists to stay as paying guests in local homes.  We chose this company because of their dedication to socially responsible tourism, but our experience with them proves that we’ve made the right choice beyond social responsibility.  Both the quality of service and the dedication of their staff are first-rate.

On this morning, the All Ways Travel van picks us up from the Casona Colon lobby and we drive to the dock.  The van driver points out the boat that we’ll be traveling on and suggests that before we board we buy a gift for the host family that we’ll be staying with.  There are vendor stalls by the dock selling all manner of goods, so after perusing merchandise in several of these we settle on some oranges and apples from a fruit stand.

The boat is a cabin run-about with a capacity of about twenty and there are maybe just a few less than that number on board.  Once we’re all settled a smiling dark-haired young woman introduces herself as Sylvia, our guide.  She also introduces Lloyd, the boat's pilot.  Lloyd backs the boat from its berth and we’re underway. 

Our first stop is a short distance into the lake from Puno at the Islands of Uros.  This is a group of about fifty islands – the number varies depending on who you ask and when you count because islands can disappear and new islands can be formed on very short order.  These unique islands are man-made – built of reeds, occupied by the Uru people, and have been inhabited for perhaps as long as a thousand years.

One thought is that the Uru people migrated to the Lake Titicaca region and built islands in the lake when they found that all the land was already occupied by others.  Another theory is that the Uru people moved into the lake for better defense.  The Uru traded with the Aymara people who occupied the shore around the lake and intermarried to the point that they eventually lost their original language and spoke only Aymara.  Ultimately they were conquered by the Incas and incorporated into that empire.  But through all of that they continued to live on their islands and maintain their way of life.  Their traditional food sources have been fish from the lake, the eggs of water birds, and the roots of torta reeds.  It is these reeds that they use to build their boats, their houses, and the islands they live on.  The islands are made of interwoven layers of reeds about six feet thick that are anchored to the bottom of the lake with ropes.  New layers of reeds have to be constantly added to the top since the bottom layer is continuously rotting away.  As I walk around the islands, the surface sinks slightly under my feet every time I take a step.  It gives the very real sensation that I am walking on a floating island.
Reed Islands!
The people are dressed in bright primary colors – the men in wool sweaters and reed hats and the women in colorful vests, full skirts, and reed or traditional Andean felt hats.  Everybody is friendly and anxious to show us hospitality.  One young woman who speaks a few words of English shows us her home and her handiwork.  I buy a couple of little gourds from her that have been painted to look like owls and Kathy buys an embroidered piece.  One of the men gathers us around to tell us a little of their culture.  He tells us that modern life is finding its way to the islands in the form of TV’s, radios, and solar panels.  Cooking is still done over fires, which must be built on top of rocks, since the entire surface of the islands is flammable.  There are “outhouses” on small islands a short distance from the main islands – everybody just relieves themselves into the lake and the lake disposes of the waste through dilution and the natural process of decomposition.  The dead, likewise, are buried in the lake.
Uru Women Attend a Fire
The latest census indicates around 2000 Uros descendants – they are disappearing by assimilating into the general population.  The number of those 2000 still living on the islands is in the mere hundreds.  The economy of those remaining on the islands is supported to a large extent by tourists like us, who visit and perhaps buy a few handicrafts.  So while tourism has irrevocably changed the Uros lives, perhaps without it the remaining people would move to the mainland and the islands would be gone.

We reboard the boat and continue across the water to Amantani Island.  On the way, Sylvia explains to us that there are about three and a half thousand people on the island divided between around 800 families and ten communities.  Each community takes its turn hosting overnight tourists.  Any given community hosts, at most, a couple times a week during high season. As we draw near to the island I experience a sense of déjà vu because the small island with its steep hillsides, sparse vegetation and grazing sheep reminds me so much of the Greek Islands in the Aegean.  It appears that most of the community is on the shore waiting for our arrival.  It also appears that everybody has put on their best clothes to welcome us. The men are wearing white shirts, dark trousers, dark vests and fedora-style hats. The women are garbed in white blouses with brightly embroidered fronts, very full red skirts with multiple under-skirts, colorful woven sashes, and black shawls that are elaborately and colorfully embroidered on the ends. They are wearing the shawls draped across their heads and down their backs. “How do they keep them balanced on their heads?”  Kathy wonders.

We get off the boat and stand in a group as Sylvia and village officials parse us into groups and assign us to hosts.  Kathy, Madeline, and I, along with a young guy from Paris named François are assigned to an older woman who is introduced to us as Innocentia.  She does not speak any English.  It is amazing how well we all converse over the next day.  The tools we have to work with are a small card containing words and phrases in Quechua, facial expressions, gestures, laughter, and an essential need and strong desire to communicate.

Innocentia starts walking up the steep hill to the village and her house.  Any illusion I may have had about this being like the Greek Isles evaporates as soon as we start walking.  Our walk is not starting from the sea but from a point about 12,000 feet above that.  My breathing is soon ragged.  Innocentia is walking very slowly—she obviously has done this many times before and is used to tourists not being acclimated to the thin air.  We pass a few knots of other tourists panting by the side of the path—one young woman is both gasping and sobbing.  This is hard work!  At least we know what to expect having recently walked the Inca Trail.  As we reach the edge of the village the dirt path turns to cobblestone.  There is a small store and clusters of houses spread out on large lots with vegetable gardens, and pens containing chickens and sheep.  We meet other villagers on the path and are impressed that many of the women are knitting or plying yarn on drop spindles as they walk along.  Eventually we arrive at Innocentia’s home—a cluster of several adobe buildings around a walled courtyard.  There is no evidence of a husband or children—Innocentia apparently lives alone.  She assigns rooms.  She seems a little confused at first when I go into the room with Kathy and Madeline but then she obviously realizes that we are a family unit.  Her guest rooms are on the second floor and are accessed by a walkway that we reach by climbing a rickety set of wooden steps.  Our room has a very low, small entry door, a tiny window, a rough wooden floor, three beds, and no other furnishings.  I immediately claim one of the beds which is firm to the point of hardness—just the way I like it—and I take a much needed short nap.
Sheep Graze on Amantani
After my nap, I go downstairs with Kathy and Madeline, we find François in the courtyard, and then we all go into the kitchen/dining area where Innocentia serves us a simple but filling and delicious meal.  We start with a nice quinoa soup and follow that with a plate filled with boiled potatoes and oca, a pleasant tastingyellow tuber that comes from a clover-like plant—it is an Andean staple.  There are also shell beans, and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes.

After lunch, everybody, both guests and hosts, congregate at a soccer/basketball court in the center of the village where a group of young men and women, both tourists and locals, play soccer.  I am amazed of the ability of the tourists to exert themselves at this altitude, then find out that they’re a group of British youngsters who have been in Peru on a service trip for a few weeks, hence they are probably used to the thin air.

There are not very many level spots on the entire island and there is a continuous uphill gradient from the shoreline to two high peaks which are named Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Pachatata (Father Earth).  Each peak has an old Incan temple ruin.  The local population, like most of the citizens of Peru, are Catholic, and like most of the citizens of Peru, their Catholicism overlays an appreciation of older religions and rituals.  Consequently, these old temples are still revered, and offerings to Pachamama and Pachatata are made on these peaks on specific dates, several times a year.  We are invited to climb to one of the peaks to watch the sun set over the lake and we join the bulk of the tourists in choosing Pachatata.  It isn’t quite as high as Pachamama, and the walk is also slightly shorter.  Frequent stops to catch our breath also allows us to appreciate the view of the island.  The island is filled with small terraced agricultural fields.  Some are being grazed by sheep, but most are filled with brown stubble, since we’re still in the midst of the southern hemisphere winter.  Sylvia tells us that the farming is all subsistence level, and performed by hand.  The crops produced includes barley, potatoes, beans, oca, and quinoa—exactly the food we’d enjoyed for lunch.  At the top, we rest, photograph the temple ruins, and wait for the sun to set.  Since this is the tropics, once the sun nears the horizon, it goes down hastily and dusk blends quickly into chilly darkness.  We find our way down from the peak to the soccer court and locate Innocentia who leads us back to her house for a dinner of more quinoa soup and rice with a nice vegetable stew. 
A View of the Sunset over Lake Titicaca from Pachatata
After dinner, Innocentia brings out an armload of clothing and proceeds to dress us in local attire.  For François and me this is an easy undertaking. It’s just a matter of us putting on ponchos over our usual clothes.  Innocentia assists Kathy and Madeline in the more difficult task of putting on embroidered blouses, two skirts each, sashes, and embroidered shawls.  Then, incognito as Amantani revelers, we walk to the local dance hall which is already filled with locals and tourists in local garb, all dancing to Andean music.  Two excellent local bands provide the music, our Amantani friends provide the beer, the whole crowd provides the energy, and everybody parties into the evening.  Kathy, Madeline, and I, who are all feeling a little exhausted from our busy day, ask Innocentia to take us home long before the merrymaking ends. 
Madeline and Kathy Disguised as Amantani Revelers
Back at Innocentia’s we take off our party clothes and transform back into American tourists then get ready for bed.  There is a small building next to Innocentia’s house that contains a shower, a toilet, and a sink.  It looks like it has never been used and I suspect that there has been some sort of issue with plumbing or water supply.  The building, in fact, is filled with corn and shelled beans—it has become a storage shed.  The “sanitary facilities” in use actually consist of a water spigot and a pit latrine, both located in the donkey pen.  The mom donkey is tied but the baby donkey is free and is very interested in our toiletries.  We have to shoo him away on a regular basis and he is not very shoo-able.  But on the other hand he is fairly adorable.

Soon, we switch off the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling of our room and I lie on my wonderful firm-to-hard bed under a mountain of wool blankets.  As the temperature drops throughout the night in our unheated room, I feel snug in my nest of covers.  At some point I during the night my bladder tells me that it needs some attention.  I think about the dark, the cold, the rickety stairs, the pit latrine, and the donkeys.  Then I think about how warm I am in my cozy woolen citadel.  Then I tell my bladder to forget it.  I close my eyes and sleep peacefully the rest of the night.

Then another Peruvian morning arrives.  It is six o’clock when I get up and make a fast and desperate trip to the latrine.  The morning is clear and brisk.  I feel rested, happy, and hungry so am grateful when Innocentia announces breakfast a mere half-hour later. She serves pancakes, which are tasty and gratifyingly warm on this cold morning.  After breakfast, Kathy gives her our gift of fruit and also pays her for our stay.  She gives Kathy a big hug, kisses her on both cheeks, and appreciatively tells us “Gracias, Mama, gracias Papa!”  I really appreciate the system that All Ways Travel has established that allows paying guests to stay in people’s homes.  The brief relationship we’ve developed with Innocentia is closer and more tangible than what it would have been had someone built a hotel on this island and Innocentia had wound up working there as a cook or maid.  And while there is bound to be some artificiality when there is a continual stream of tourists, the relationship is still more personal at this level.  We’ve been able to experience the intimacy of her home and her hospitality, and we’ve become “Mama and Papa” to her!
With Innocentia
Innocentia walks us down to the shore and boat.  Downhill this time, and quickly!  There are more hugs at the dock, and pictures, then good-byes.  By eight o’clock we are on our way to the island of Taquile.

The trip to Taquile is short but rough.  Like Amantani, Taquile rises steeply from the shore to a peak and it also reminds me of a Greek Isle.  It is an island of around two thousand people who live by fishing and farming, supplemented by the income generated by the visiting tourists.  Taquile is known for its fine handwoven textiles, which many regard to be the finest in Peru.  From the dock, we have to spiral around the steep hillside of the island for a significant distance to reach the central square of the town.  Sylvia tells us it will take an hour.  The path is quite steep at the beginning and is a hard climb in the thin air, but eventually the grade becomes more gradual and we actually reach the town square in about forty-five minutes.  According to Sylvia, all of the textiles made on the island are pooled by the families that make them and sold through a cooperative store.  The store, right on the main square, is indeed filled with knitted and woven items that are beautiful and high quality.  Sadly, since we are approaching the end of the trip we already have many souvenirs so we don’t have the need or the cash to buy any more.
Sheep Graze on Taquile
Other than the store and a small museum, there’s not a lot to see in the square, so we finally just find a shady spot to rest.  Eventually, Sylvia gathers the group together and we walk through town to a restaurant where we have a nice communal meal featuring trout on the pleasant patio.  During the meal two Taquileños demonstrate spinning, weaving, and knitting, then Sylvia gives an interesting short talk about the island and its culture.  She tells us that the colorful local garb, which is similar to what we’d seen on Amantani, is not worn to impress tourists, but is actually what everybody on the island chooses to wear on a daily basis.  The attire a person wears actually indicates information about them, including marital status, and that information could not be conveyed should everyone stop dressing in the traditional manner. It is the men that knit on Taquile, and they knit a specific color of hat for themselves that indicates they are single or married. The women weave, and when they get married they weave a very elaborate sash for their husband. The unmarried men wear a plain sash.  The matrimonial tradition on Taquile includes a trial marriage.  A couple will live together for several years to make sure that they are compatible before officially marrying.  However, since most residents are Catholic, once they’re married, their religion doesn’t allow them to divorce.  Like most Peruvians, the residents of Taquile have harmonized the ancient religion of their culture with their Christianity.  As is the case on Amantani, offerings are made to the Pachamama to insure a good harvest. 
A Taquileños Man Knitting
The wealth on Taquile is controlled by a communal collective, and the moral code is based on the Inca dictate of “ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla”—Quechua for “do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy.”  Taquile and Amantani are governed as one unit.  Since Amantani has more people, the mayor usually comes from there.  The men of Taquile are required to perform specific community service obligations and take turns serving for a year at a time.  Over his lifetime any given man probably spends four years performing these community service roles. 

Sylvia also mentions that there are no dogs on Taquile, making it perhaps one of the few places on Earth where man’s best friend can’t be found.  The islanders rationalize that dogs' main function is to act as protectors, but since Taquile is so safe, there’s nothing to be protected from, so dogs aren’t necessary.

After the meal and Sylvia’s talk, we walk directly back to the boat, climb on board, and head for Puno.  We are back in port by three o’clock and settled back in our room at the Casona Colon Inn a short time later.  We use the remainder of the afternoon to repack our suitcases and prepare for our trip home, and except for an excursion to a pizza restaurant, still don’t have a chance to see very much of Puno. 

Then another morning in Peru arrives—this one is our last!  This day is a blur of travel combined with interminable waiting.  First we travel by taxi for an hour to the Juliaca airport—Puno doesn’t have an airport. Then we fly to Lima and hang out for hours in the airport food court before finally taking our over-night flight to Atlanta, going through customs and flying on to Minnesota.  We arrive home early in the afternoon of the next day—exhausted by travel yet energized by an incredible trip filled with experiences and memories that will last a lifetime! 
One Last Inca Kola at the Lima Airport

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Traveling Through the Andes to Lake Titicaca

The route from Cusco to Puno on Lake Titicaca is through the Andes, so it is both rugged and high altitude.  Nevertheless, there are several options for getting there. You can board a train: Perurail offers a 10.5 hour trip aboard the Andean Explorer. There is also a modern, well maintained highway, Highway 3S, that snakes 250 miles through the mountains, so you have the option of driving or taking a bus.  If you choose a bus, you can do a straight-up passenger bus that drives straight through in about 6 ½ hours or a tour bus that stops at interesting points along the way and takes a little over 10 hours.

We’ve considered all the options, and decided on the tour bus. Thus, on this day we take a taxi to the Inka Express bus terminal and are on the bus before 7:00 AM.  This bus has five stops and essentially moves backwards in time.  The first two stops are at old churches built by the Spanish in the 1500’s.  Further down the road and further back in time is the town of Raqchi with its Incan ruins that include the impressive Temple of Wiracocha.  Then after a lunch break and an early afternoon stop at La Raya Pass, the highest point on the journey, the bus stops for a visit to the museum in Pukara.  Pukara was a large and remarkable population center in the Pre-Inca “Late Formative Period” (500 BC- AD 200).  Here are the highlights of the day’s passage:


We spend most of the first hour getting out of Cusco.  It seems like we’re barely underway when the bus pulls over in the town of Andahuaylillas.  This little town is famous for The Church of San Pedro Apostol de Andahuaylillas, which has been called the “Sistine Chapel of the Andes,” or even the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas.”  It was built by the Jesuits in the 1500’s and like so many other Spanish buildings it was built on top of a preexisting Inca structure.  In this case, this Christian church was built on top of a huaca – a sacred place.  A bit ironic, but in fact probably quite deliberate on the part of the Spanish.

We are not terribly impressed with the exterior of this little church but when we get inside we immediately understand the Sistine Chapel reference.  Every square inch of every surface is covered with murals, silver, gold-leaf or mirrors. .  And the artist was quite definitely not Da Vinci.  Or maybe it was Da Vinci - only on hallucinogens. 

Actually a large group of artisans contributed to the adornment of this church over a period of more than a century.  The interior of the church was decorated throughout the 1600’s and 1700’s by teams of itinerant local artists.  Murals were an effective way to reach the local population.  Most of the local people were illiterate and many didn’t speak Spanish.  Quechua, the language of the Incas, was the language spoken by most of the population and is still the primary language in many parts of Peru today.  So since the church couldn’t reach its audience with spoken or written words, a picture was worth a thousand words, a mural was worth a million words, and an entire church filled with murals was worth….well you get the idea.

While the church now contains numerous framed paintings on canvas, the original artwork was entirely painted on the walls.  The first mural we observe as we enter the church is a huge scene with a cast of millions depicting the battle between Heaven and Hell.  The vast multitudes in the mural seem to be oblivious to the battle, but as they go about their daily routine, they are surrounded by devils and angels duking it out for their souls.  For any uninitiated non-Christian entering the church, it would certainly serve as a conversation piece and would undoubtedly initiate a few questions. 

The entire ceiling of the nave is painted in red, dark blue and gold-leaf geometric diamond shapes with a floral motif.  It reminds me a lot of an M. C. Escher etching, only on a grand scale. 

The interior of the church is decorated with so much chromatically and emotionally overwhelming art, that after a while I am longing for a blank wall so I can rest my eyes.  But no, there is no rest for the weary sinner in this church. 

Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the church, so I’m not able to capture my visual experience.  There are a few interior shots here, but they hardly do justice to the experience of seeing it live.
The Church of San Pedro Apostol de Andahuaylilla
Artwork Around Church Entrance

After maybe only another fifteen minutes on the bus, we stop again, this time at the village of Huaro to visit another church – this one is The Church of San Juan Bautista, similar to the Andahuaylillas church in that it was built by Jesuits in the 1500’s. Also, like the other church, this one is filled with murals.  Over the years since the church was built, church officials commissioned local artists to paint murals and decorate the church.  When a new composition would be painted, the artist would simply paint over the top of a preexisting one.  This continued, layer after layer, until the last works were painted in 1802 by Tadeo Escalante.  Escalante, a local artist who descended from both Incans and Europeans, covered over ten thousand square feet of wall and ceiling surfaces with biblical scenes in explicit and gaudy detail:  Salvation, damnation, ascension, rapture, angels, devils, and the urgent need for Christianity to save the collective mortal soul of humanity.  While this church is similar to the Andahuaylillas church in theme and the enormous quantity of the art, there is perhaps a more unified feeling in this church since the bulk of the art is by one prodigious person.  Escalante followed a school of Peruvian art called “The Cusco School.”  One of the distinctive features of this school was the representation of Roman Catholic saints in the image of indigenous Peruvians.  That style is obviously represented in the murals in Huaro and it was a perfect style for Escalante to follow since it allowed him to remain true to both branches of his heritage. 

Once again, we do all of our photography outside since cameras are not allowed in the church.  In addition to our photographs, Kathy does a nice sketch of the church.

Kathy's Rendering of The Church of San Juan Bautista in Huarao

After spending the first half of the morning visiting Spanish churches, our late morning stop at Raqchi is to tour ruins from the earlier Inca era.  It is interesting to remember though, that most of these ruined Incan buildings were built just a little over a hundred years before the Spanish churches we had just visited. 

Archeologists have found evidence that there was a village on this site prior to the Inca expansion, but it was during the Inca period that it grew to the large and prominent outpost it was when the Spanish arrived.

According to Inca myths, the great creator god, Wiracocha, came to this region but the people who lived there didn’t recognize him and attacked him.  In response, Wiracocha made fire fall from the sky to burn the land.  The people went to Wiracocha and begged his forgiveness, so he extinguished the fires and then revealed his true identity to the people.  They built a shrine on the spot where he stood and from that point on they worshipped him and brought him offerings.

In the late 1400’s the emperor Huayna Capac traveled through, noticed the shrine and asked about it.  When the local people explained the story of Wiracocha, he was so impressed that he dictated that a much larger place of worship be built here.

The Temple of Wiracocha was a huge rectangular two-story building measuring over 300 feet long by over 80 feet wide, constructed of adobe on a foundation of high Inca stonework.  It was the largest known building ever constructed by the Incas.  In addition to the temple there were eight rectangular buildings around a courtyard – these may have provided lodging for travelers or perhaps they were barracks.  There were also 220 circular buildings which very likely were storehouses.  The entire complex is surrounded by a perimeter wall about two and a half miles in length.  Just beyond the wall is a dry moat to make the complex even more defensible.  The nearby hillsides have been terraced for crops and include irrigation channels.  There is a spring that runs through the complex and it has been enlarged to form a pool near the temple. 

The Spanish, of course, did their best to destroy all of this, which is why the churches we have just visited are extant and this complex, a mere 100 years older, is in ruins. 

We do our best to see this huge site in the small time we’ve been allotted.  The enormous temple is intact enough for us to appreciate its scale.  The roof and interior are gone, but much of the exterior adobe walls are still standing.  Preservationists have put terra cotta roof tiles on top of the walls to protect them from rain.  Many of the storage structures are still partially intact, some of the perimeter wall is standing as well, and of course the terraces remain.  The courtyard is now filled with tourist stalls and while one could view them as tawdry, they are no doubt an important part of the local economy.  I buy a ceramic soap dish inscribed with the Southern Cross from one of the vendors.

Exterior Wall of Temple of Wiracocha at Raqchi


Temple to Wirachocha
La Raya Pass

We have been gradually gaining altitude during our entire trek and by the time we stop at the town of Sicuani for lunch we’ve reached 12000 feet.  After lunch our ascent becomes more rapid and when we stop at La Raya Pass, we’ve reached over 14000 feet – the high point in our journey.  The pass is a watershed, with water flowing in one direction to the Sacred Valley and in the other direction to Lake Titicaca.  The mountain scenery here is as breathtaking as the altitude.  We drink in the view but we are also distracted by the ubiquitous vendors selling tourist stuff.  I’m pretty set on posing Madeline for a picture with a woman and her llama and lamb.  Unfortunately, everybody else wants a picture with her too, so the line is long, the time is short and I totally fail in this endeavor.  Kathy, meanwhile is drawn in by several vendors selling yarn.  She’s captivated by the beautiful colors and amazed by how cheap it is.  She also runs out of time due to her indecision regarding what use she would put the yarn to and how much she should buy.  After the fact she admits that there was really no way to determine the fiber content and that it could have all been acrylic for all she knew – the standard problem with yarn and fabrics here.  I could say with certainty that the lamb and llama posing with the woman were garbed in 100% wool but when the fiber isn’t directly attached to their bodies, it becomes anybody’s guess. 

Scenic View of Mountains at La Raya Pass

We reach Pukara around 3:00, and continue to fall back in time.  The museum at this last stop before Puno contains local artifacts that are older than anything we’ve seen today.  While it was merely an outlying province under the Incas, Pukara was a large population center in the Late Formative Period (500 BC- AD 200).  It covered nearly 250 acres at its peak and was home to thousands of people.  The fact that Pukara dominated or at least traded with a large region is evidenced today by frequent discovery of pottery in the Pukara style over wide areas of Peru and Chile.

Pukara pottery is unique because of its style and the production techniques that were used to make it. The pottery varies in color from dark red to brown and is painted yellow, black, grey or red decorations set apart by narrow lines carved in the pottery.

Today, Pukara is still renowned for its pottery.  After we’d been in Peru for a while we started to notice the two small bulls that seemed to be on top of the roof of every house.  It turns out that these bulls are ceramic, are made by artisans in Pukara and are called “The Two Little Bulls of Pukara” or just “The Pukara Bulls.”  These bulls are usually displayed along with a cross, small vessels for holding chicha or coca water, and sometimes a Peruvian flag or other iconic items.  The significance of these ornaments and their history has turned out to be difficult for me to sleuth out.  Every source seems to have a different and sometimes contradictory story. 

Here’s my version of the truth on this subject.  Please don’t take this as the definitive truth.  One source, after discussing this very topic, stated that when he is in a foreign place and encounters an unfamiliar custom, he asks the first passerby about it and then accepts that person’s explanation as the truth.  He emphasizes that it is important never to ask more than one person, because he may encounter disagreement and then he’s stuck doing further research.  My approach differs slightly in that I have looked at several sources and when there is disagreement, I have chosen the one I like best.  So here’s my truth:

These bull figurines are placed on the roof to bring good luck, to insure bountiful crops and fertile livestock, and to bring general prosperity to those who live within the house.  They are often given as house warming presents.

The tradition supposedly goes back to the Incas, thus it predates the Spanish and Christianity.  Obviously if that is the case, the cross, which is an ever-present part of every display, would have been added after the Spanish arrived.  Cattle, of course, arrived with the Spanish as well, so the bulls themselves couldn’t have been part of the preconquest arrangement. 

The Incas did use talismans called Illas.  Illas were small stylized alpacas carved in stone.  They were kept in the houses of herdsmen, wrapped in special fabric, given food and drink as offerings, and venerated as minor wacas or gods.  In return the Illas would engender the fecundity of the flock and provide protection.  Over time, apparently, the function of Illas expanded to include protection of crops, and then of dwellings. 

I suppose when Spanish Catholicism became predominant, anyone who wanted to continue the tradition of the Illas would have to do it in such a way that the Christian rulers would find acceptable.  Naturally a display containing a cross would put a patina of respectability on this dubious pagan tradition.  And as cattle became the de facto grazing animal, replacing alpacas, it would be natural for bulls to replace alpacas in these displays. 

Perhaps the Christianizing of this Inca custom was not even a blatant act of subterfuge, but simply a matter of continuing a life-long tradition by those who converted to this new religion.  Religion as it is practiced today in Peru today is Christianity flavored with the Inca religion that existed there before it arrived.  A prime example of this blend of religions is right across the street from the museum in Pukara.  Santa Isabel Church, an old Spanish church built in 1767 is protected by a wrought iron fence.  It is further protected by a perimeter of pillars - each pillar is topped with little ceramic bulls.  Beyond religion, Inca elements show through the European overlay in Peruvian language, customs, cuisine, and mode of dress and probably all other aspects of Peruvian culture.  This is almost surprising considering the time and effort the Spanish put into trying to erase all of it.

"Two Little Bulls of Pukara" on a Rooftop
Bulls Around Santa Isabel Church in Pukara
One of the Santa Isabel Bulls

We arrive at Terminal Terrestre, the Puno bus station around 5:30 and take a cab to our hotel, the Hotel Casona Colon Inn, a very nice, quaint, and historic hotel with a strange and quirky name. 

This paragraph is entirely a digression about the hotel’s name.  If you wish to continue with the last bit of narrative for this blog post you may skip this paragraph entirely, but I really wonder about the unfortunate name.  When I look at the English and Spanish translations of the hotel’s website, the name is the same, so this is not a case of some sort of mistranslation from Spanish to English.  So what are they trying to tell us?  Hotel and Inn are both English words and they both mean the same thing.  Casona is essentially the Spanish version of Hotel.  So far we’ve been told that this is a hotel.  That leaves Colon.  Colón, in Spanish is the last name of Christopher Columbus, i.e. Cristóbal Colón.  But this word has no tilde – so this word is English and means "large intestine", and this, literally is the “Hotel Hotel Large Intestine Hotel.”  It really is very nice, quaint and historic!  Maybe I’m missing something on the name.

Our first impression of Puno:  It seems more modern than Cusco – the streets are wider, and the buildings are newer.  But it also lacks Cusco’s charm – the streets are wider and the buildings are newer.  Even though Puno is in the mountains, it sits on a plateau, so it’s flat, thus there are none of the hilly cobblestone streets like we encountered in Cusco.  But of course Puno does have Lake Titicaca, the vast high altitude lake stretching westward from Puno for miles and miles.  In general, Puno is much less touristy than Cusco.  There aren’t throngs of tourists filling up the streets, nor are there throngs of street vendors trying to sell stuff to tourists.  It also seems like there are fewer people here that speak English than Cusco – perhaps also related to fewer North American tourists.  We aren’t able to get impressions beyond our first ones since evening is coming and we need to get an early start tomorrow for our excursion across Titicaca to visit some of its islands.

We have a late dinner in the hotel restaurant, which is every bit as quaint and historic as the hotel, with delicious food, and an endearingly sweet waiter who does not speak English.  We really don’t have too much trouble communicating our order, but the trouble comes when he tries to be conversational.  I do need to point out that while his English vocabulary is small, our combined Spanish vocabulary is even smaller.  We are stymied for a while about one question he asks us, but finally figure out it is, “Where are you from?”  “Oh! We’re from the US,” we tell him.  He seems confused and asks, “Where are you from?”  “The US,” we say, “The United States.”  He pauses, then asks, “Where are you from?”  Maybe he wants to know where in the United States.  “Minnesota,” we offer.  A look of confusion.  “Minnesota….Center of the country in the north.”  I draw a map in the air with my finger. “Northern Midwest.  By Canada.”  He brightens.  “Canada?” he ventures.  “Yes, right across the border – very cold in the winter.  Brrrrr!”  He smiles and leaves.  I’m sure we look  mildly confused.  What was that all about?  Our looks of mild confusion disappear immediately when he returns and they are replaced by looks of utter and complete confusion as he happily plants a small Canadian flag in the center of our table then wanders away with a smile on his face.  I look around the dining room and realize that several other tables have small national flags as centerpieces.  Over there next to the wall are the Brazilians, and a couple tables over sit the French, and here we are, the happy Canucks, having a nice dinner at our Maple Leaf festooned table. 

But it is a nice dinner.  And it is a lovely, quaint and historic hotel.  And our waiter, actually, is competent, friendly, and very, very memorable.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Rain, the Forest, and Other Tropics

Colds are called colds because folk wisdom dictates that one acquires them by being exposed to cold weather.  In fact, a cold is an upper respiratory infection caused by a number of different viruses.  I had disproved folk wisdom by acquiring a cold in tropical Peru, and on this day this particular Peruvian virus has tightened its grip on my body, twirled me several times around its little virus head, and slammed me into a brick wall.

I’ve somehow managed to get myself to breakfast, but when Michel starts talking enthusiastically about a morning hike I decide that the time has arrived in the progression of my disease to opt out of the hike, to rest, and to see if I can muster the strength to fight back against the virus.

So when everybody else leaves on the hike, I set up my “sick room” in the hammock on the veranda in front of our room.  The set-up is simple:  Me in the hammock, a book, Mr. Mustache Man the cat for company, and a nearby chair holding Kleenex, Tylenol, and a glass of water. First I take a great nap, then when I wake up I continue to lie in the hammock and read my book.  The book is “Talking About Manu – Exploration of a Virgin Rainforest” a book I have mentioned in a previous post.  The book is authored by Marianne van Vlaardingen, the founder and owner of Pantiacolla Tours and is a great guide on the flora and fauna of the Manu Reserve.  It also contains a brief discussion of the human inhabitants. 

It is amazing to consider that in the present day where it is possible to connect with practically anyone almost anywhere, and where “the shrinking world” is a catch phrase, that entire cultures exist that have had little or no contact with the outside world.  There are at least two such groups in the Manu reserve.  One is called the Kogapacori the other is called the Mashco Piro.  These are names that outsiders have given these groups.  Nobody knows what they call themselves.  There have been sporadic sightings of these groups over the years – usually from a helicopter or boat, but very few close encounters.  One close encounter Marianne discusses in the book took place in the early 1990’s.  Three women speaking a language nobody understood showed up at an outpost on the Manu River.  Because some of their words resembled words from the Mashco and other words seemed to be from the Piro,  both indigenous groups in that area, people started referring to them as the Machco-Piro women.  Then that name was transferred onto the entire group that they came from.  The three women lived on the banks of the river for a number of years and subsisted on roots, fruit, and the eggs of birds and turtles.  They showed a great deal of hostility to anybody who would happen along the river and would often run after the boats yelling and throwing things.  Finally they incorporated themselves into a group of Machiguenga Indians and left the area.

An epilogue to the information about the Machco-Piro people in the book is the recent information that has been appearing in news reports.  Starting just last year the Machco-Piro people have made sporadic and increasingly frequent contacts with the outside world, and those contacts have not all been peaceful.  They often appear singly or in groups, seemingly out of nowhere, and demand food or gifts.  Some people who have not been compliant have been killed with arrows.  The village of Diamante has been an epicenter for contacts, and because of the potential danger posed by the Machco-Piro the local eco-tourism lodge has been closed, which has created economic hardship for the village.  The Peruvian government is doing its best to keep control of the situation – trying both to protect the local villagers from the Machco-Piro natives and to protect the natives from diseases carried by the locals to which they have had no exposure and thus have no immunity. 

I lie in the hammock, read the book, nap, join the others for lunch, and then go back to my hammock, book, and lap cat while the others take an afternoon hike.  Mid-afternoon, I’m awakened from a nap by an unearthly noise that would be difficult to describe, but may be close to the sound that would be produced by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir if they were all high on LSD and being attacked by a truckload of rabid swine.  I find out later that I’m hearing a group of howler monkeys.  But as I’m listening to it, there’s nobody around to ask.  So I’m just awake and wondering if I’m safe or if the marauding drug crazed songsters and disease addled hogs will stampede from the forest and kill me .  And since I am awake anyway, I take stock of my personal health and decide that a day spent with hammock, book, and cat have served me well.  I’m not cured, but I’m improving and able to rejoin the land of the living.  The cold continues the rest of my time in Peru, but I do feel a little better every day.
Howler Monkeys Thinking About Hogs and Songsters

Our remaining time at Pantiacolla Lodge consists of day-trips and hikes punctuated by Hubert’s excellent meals.  In no particular order here are some of the highlights:

Ants:  I mentioned bullet ants in a previous post.  They pretty much keep to themselves in the trees where they live, but we often encounter amazingly long columns of army ants and leaf cutter ants.  We carefully step over them and allow them to continue on with their business while we do likewise.  All of the buildings at the lodge are on stilts and each stilt has a ring of poison to block ants from entering the building.  Somehow, though, ants find their way into our bathroom – perhaps they come up the pipes.  Fortunately, they only come at night.  I am more than a little surprised the first time I make a nocturnal bathroom visit and see that the toilet is swarming with millions of ants.  Happily, they do confine themselves to the bathroom and mostly to the toilet, and happily, as a male I can use the toilet even though it is swarming with ants.  But there's no way that I ever could or would sit down on that toilet!

The clay lick:  Macaws and parrots in the western Amazon region, and only those birds in that region, eat clay.  Some biologists believe that they eat clay to make up for a dietary vitamin deficiency while others feel that they eat clay to neutralize toxic or caustic chemicals present in some of the foods that make up their diet.  Regardless of the reason, macaws and parrots show up in the hundreds at specific “clay licks” on cliffs and river banks every day to devour clay.  Very early one morning we travel by canoe up the river to a clay lick.  As soon as we arrive we notice a lot of macaws and parrots circling high in the air and occasionally flying closer to check out the situation on the ground.  They seem nervous and never actually land at the lick.  Michel notices a bat falcon sitting for a period of time on a dead branch. Bat falcons are small and pose a danger only to parakeets, but its presence is apparently making all of the birds nervous. The birds also seem to be having issues with several nearby vultures – part of a group of vultures that are keeping track of a dead capybara near the shore on the other side of the river.  None of the macaws or parrots ever land so we are never able to see any of them close – so the expedition is a bit of a bust.  On the other hand, we are standing on the shore of a river in the Amazon rainforest watching flocks of parrots and tons of macaws.  Perhaps they’re a bit far away, but not as far away as they would be had we stayed in the US.

Flora and fauna:  One day we see a jaguar print in the mud. This is as close as we get to any jaguar - as far as we know. Other than a capybara that swims right in front of me in the river one day we don't see a lot of large mammals.  They exist, but there's a lot of foliage to hide in.  On our hikes and expeditions into the rain forest we mostly we take note of the plants and flowers, insects, and small animals.  In the rainforest, where there are so many species of living things and where there is so much competition for survival, it seems like everything either has thorns or is poisonous.  An example – One day we go to a hot spring to swim and relax.  When we get out of the water, Kathy puts her shirt on over her swimsuit and I notice that there is a caterpillar on the shirt.  In my attempt to brush it off, I push her shirt and the caterpillar right next to her skin. She immediately screams in pain and within seconds a large red welt has formed.  The defense mechanism of this caterpillar is to concentrate the toxins of the plants it eats into the hairs that cover its body.  We immediately tell Michel about the caterpillar exposure.  He shrugs sympathetically and tells us that Kathy will not die.

Above left:  Thorns on a walking palm - Above right:  Cane toad - this large terrestrial Amazonian toad has poison glands.  Its tadpoles are also extremely toxic 

Above left:  These caterpillars move en masse as a protective strategy.  The caterpillars on top go over the leading edge and the trailing edge caterpillars climb on top and move over the mass.  Above right: A poison dart frog.  The lipophilic alkaloid toxins in its skin are used to poison the darts used for hunting by various Amazon cultures.  Scientists have extracted a variety of medically useful compounds from these toxins including epibatidine, a pain killer 200 times more potent than morphine. 

Moths on a Fern
 I can’t leave the topic of rainforest hikes without mentioning that the heat and humidity range from uncomfortable to unbearable, depending upon the day, the situation, and one’s frame of mind.  Bear in mind that we are outfitted in long sleeves and pants to prevent mosquito bites and we are wearing large rubber boots so we can navigate the rain forest muck.  It is possible to swim in the river to cool down, but the river itself is bathtub warm.  During the hottest part of the day, the best approach is to just hang out – move around as little as possible and siesta in the nearest available hammock!

The Fantastic Food:  I have already mentioned the great culinary skills of Hubert, our cook.  He continues to produce delicious meals every day, three times a day for the entire excursion.  Our traveling companions come up with a plan to bring him back to Belfast and open a Peruvian pub where he will be the cook.  For one lunch he serves his version of a Peruvian layered potato dish called causa rellena.  We all unabashedly consume huge amounts because it is so good.  Then we discover that this is only the appetizer when he follows up with an equally wonderful stew of rice and meat.  We can’t do the second course justice!  For dinner one evening he serves lomo saltado, an interesting fusion dish created by the Chinese who settled around Lima.  It is a stir-fried stew of beef, onions, peppers, peas, and tomatoes flavored with soy sauce, and is served with rice and fried potatoes.  We always look forward to mealtimes, and we never leave the table hungry or disappointed.

Huito Fruit Tattoos:  The huito is a small tree that grows in the Amazon region.  The juice of its immature fruit is clear, but produces a chemical reaction with skin that results in a permanent dark blue color that only fades after several weeks have passed and that layer of skin is sloughed off.  The natives of the rainforest use the juice of the huito fruit to paint elaborate patterns on their bodies.

While I am in the rainforest I’m adopted into a native Amazonian group.  In the adoption ceremony they use sticks dipped in mashed huito fruit to make a pattern on my arm. The rest of the ritual involves days of fasting, hallucinations, virgins, jaguars, condors, serpents....all the usual stuff.

Of course the preceding paragraph is entirely a bald-faced lie that I make up when I get back to the US to explain to my friends why there is a huito fruit tat covering my arm.  The truth is slightly more mundane but no less entertaining. One afternoon, Michel presents a huito fruit that he has picked up in the forest and asks our Irish friends if they will grate the fruit into a bowl for a project that he will explain in detail later.  The guys each take a turn grating and then present the grated fruit and the leftover portion of the fruit it to Michel.  He shakes his head and says that he really needs the whole fruit grated.  So they get back to work, and after Michel gives his approval of the completely grated fruit, we all go off to take our afternoon siesta.  I wake up from my nap to the sound of great exclamations of consternation coming through the wall from the room of the Irish gentlemen.  Their hands, of course, have all turned a very dark shade of blue.  Michel is very amused at his joke.  That evening, Michel offers to paint tattoos onto anybody who is interested and we all volunteer.  It is, in fact, several weeks before my tat completely disappears.  What a great souvenir to bring home! 

Evenings at the lodge are fun. We play cards a lot. There’s also a game table in the lodge that has holes on the top and a drawer underneath.  In addition to the holes on top there’s a brass frog with an open mouth.  The game is to attempt to toss brass coins into the frog’s mouth.  This is apparently a popular bar game in Peru.  It is very challenging but also lots of fun!

My Cool Huito Fruit Tat
Up the river:  The day arrives when we have to get back in the canoe and head up river.  Our route back is exactly the way we went in since there is only one route.  Going against the current takes longer than when we were going downstream, but we eventually arrive at Atalaya where we climb aboard the Pantiacolla van and continue back into the cloud forest.  We spend the night at Posada San Pedro, where we had stayed on the way down.  The next day we stop in Paucartambo and have lunch at the same little restaurant where we had stopped before for breakfast.  They serve a lovely beet, bean, and pea salad with a rice and vegetable pilaf.  It is market day in Paucartambo and it’s much livelier than it had been on the trip down – we enjoy observing the commerce along every street and appreciate the opportunity just to people watch.

Market Day in Puacartambo:  A Cartload of Dressed Out Alpacas
We arrive in Cusco late in the afternoon.  I am embarrassed to admit that the first thing we all do is link to wi-fi after the hardship of having been disconnected for nearly a week.  We also assemble a large mountain of dirty clothes to be laundered.  Kathy is under the weather – perhaps an altitude issue after having spent time at almost sea level in the rain forest.  So she rests while Madeline and I peruse Cusco for dinner options.  The really pleasant reality is that we have nothing booked for tomorrow, thus we can spend an entire day in Cusco doing whatever we want to!