Saturday #16: The Calm Before The Storm

Before we get started, let me warn you that Saturday #16 was very low key and doesn’t deserve more than a paragraph or two. On the other hand, the rest of the week was pretty special, making this is one of the longest blog posts to date. Thankfully there are photos for those who lose interest after a few paragraphs. (And, yes, I mean you Greg Gangle).

I started Saturday #16, as I do most days, by checking e-mail and Facebook over breakfast at a hostel. The first e-mail was from my dentist’s office in Toronto. They use an automated system to send multiple advance notices when you’re due for an appointment, and to be honest it’s a pain since I have repeatedly asked to be removed from the list until I return to Toronto. For some unknown reason I resisted the urge to hit delete on this particular message.

The e-mail began, “It is with a heavy heart and great sadness that we, the staff at Richmond Dental, send this e-mail. Our dear friend Dr. George Chatzis has passed away.  He was hospitalized for over a month and unfortunately was not able to overcome his ailment.”

I have no idea what happened to Dr. Chatzis, my dentist for the past three years, but I know that 39 is far too young to go. Hell, 52 still feels reasonably young to me, but when travelling with mostly 20 to 35-year-olds, as I have been for the last three months, I’m constantly reminded that I’m not getting any younger. I’m grateful to be able to travel the world for a few years. I only hope that Dr. Chatzis made time in his very busy schedule to actually enjoy life as well.

After such an unsettling start to the day I decided to take it easy and just tie up some loose ends on Saturday #16. Besides, I have a very exciting day planned for tomorrow. I’ll give a full account of Sunday, October 19 when I get my hands on photos and videos that were taken by others. Unfortunately that may take a week or more. But first let me fill you in on what I’ve been doing since the last post.

I kicked off Week #16 in the town of Aguas Caliente, a stone’s throw from Machu Picchu. On Sunday (October 12) I made my way to Olantaytambo by train and on to Cusco by shuttle van. The train ride was quite relaxing but there were 15 of us in a 14-passenger van for the last two hours of the journey. A boy of about 8 or 10 slept the whole way – his body spread across his parents’ laps and the aisle with his feet resting on my left knee. I wanted to ask the parents if they had slipped something into his breakfast cereal but they didn’t understand a word of English and I wasn’t in the mood to play charades or draw pictures.

Early on Monday morning I boarded a train to the city of Puno. I didn’t have a reservation but I tagged along with friends who did, and being the low season I was able to get a private room at their hostel for the about $18 US per night. That’s an exorbitant price in Puno but the place did have some character. If I thought I wouldn’t have issues driving a Bug on steep hills, I think I could have got them to throw in free use of it for the day.

I’m sure I’ll experience my share of ‘local’ trains when I’m in India next year so I don’t feel the least bit guilty for taking the very classy Andean Explorer from Cusco to Puno.

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It sure felt like India when we passed through the town of Juliaca and the train slowed to a crawl while shopkeepers and shoppers scurried out of the way. Hundreds of merchants set up their wares just inches from the tracks. In fact, some squatters hawk their books, DVDs, and even fruit and vegetables from the space between the rails. Some of them spread tarps over their goods when the train passes. Others do not. I hope this isn’t too graphic, but most people on the train had the decency not to use the washroom while we rolled through town.

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I shot a video from the back of the train as we passed through Juliaca. It’s posted on my Facebook wall and linked in the blog post of October 17.

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The main (only?) reason to visit Puno is that it sits on the shore of Lake Titicaca – the highest ‘navigable’ lake in the World.  Early on Tuesday morning I boarded a 36-passenger boat for a full day excursion. The first stop, about 5km off shore, was one of the 47 floating Uros Islands.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uru_people

To be honest, this felt like a trip to the Polynesian Village at Disney World. The “President” of this particular floating island said that his extended family of 23 were living on the island. Only about 6 people were present when we arrived and there were three boats with large Mercury engines moored behind these huts. It’s possible that 23 people live on the island. It’s also possible that they live on Tequile and simply travel to the island when a tour is booked. Who knows for sure?

After spending about 90 minutes with the Uros people and their domesticated bird, we traveled about 45km to the Island of Tequile. We had lunch at a small family run restaurant that obviously caters to the tourist trade. I wasn’t expecting much so it was a pleasant surprise to get quinoa soup and fried rainbow trout that were as good as any I’ve ever had.

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While most of the people on our tour elected to walk uphill for another half hour to visit a marketplace (Trinkets R Us), I headed back downhill to explore the local marina and several abandoned stone buildings that I had spotted on the way up.

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On the way down I came across this barefoot woman who was watching her flock of sheep. She didn’t speak English, I don’t speak Quechua or Aymara, and to complicate things she appeared to be deaf and nearly blind.

When I offered a 20 Sole note in exchange for a few photos, she looked puzzled and initially indicated no. After a second and third attempt she realized that I was offering 20 Soles for a photo, not for a live sheep.  Once this was cleared up she was happy to take my money and I was happy to know that she wouldn’t pimp out a poor little sheep to just any strange man found wandering the island.

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On Wednesday the two Swiss couples (Kaspar and Leonie, Marcel and Stefanie) and myself took a van to the town of Sillustani. We stopped along the way to visit a local family who make alpaca rugs and apparel. Of course we weren’t the first gringos to visit this couple but it really did feel like we were dropping in on a rural farm family in Chatham or Clinton rather than the tourist traps that we visited Tuesday.

The man of the house showed us how he grinds quinoa into flower, dries potatoes for year-round consumption, hooks rugs that he sells at a roadside stand and raises very fat little guinea pigs. We all know what happens to guinea pigs when they’re fully grown. He explained that he often gets a sore back from hoeing fields by hand, and when he does he rubs a little bit of this “original snake oil” on his lower back. He swears that it relieves the pain within minutes. 

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His wife knits mitts, gloves and scarves from the wool provided by her flock of 50 or more llamas and alpacas. I purchased a pair of reversible handmade alpaca gloves for 24 Soles ($9.33 CDN). They might come in handy if I get as far south as Tierra del Fuego in November.

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As we approached the front gate I spotted a rather lanky figure that I momentarily mistook for Mick Jagger wearing a scarf.

The main purpose of the trip was to see the remarkable pre-Inca structures just outside Sillustani. I understood about 75% of what a guide said in Spanish and broken English but I’ll defer to Wikipedia for the purpose of explaining it here:

Wikipedia: “Sillustani is a pre-Inca burial ground on the shores of Lake Umayo near Puno in Peru. The tombs, which are built above ground in tower-like structures called chullpas, are the vestiges of the Colla or Aymara people who were conquered by the Inca in the 15th century. The structures housed the remains of complete family groups, although they were probably limited to nobility. Many of the tombs have been dynamited by grave robbers, while others were left unfinished.”

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Is it just me or do you wonder how long it will be before Starbucks plasters a logo on the side of one of these giant pre-Inca structures?

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There were several photo ops with the Swiss National Synchronized Jumping Team. Here they are pictured near a cliff, just south of Sillustani. The judges gave this one 8.5 of 10. It would easily have garnered a 9.5 had Marcel (the trained gymnast of the group) actually been airborne.

By Thursday I was back on a Peru Hop bus and headed to Copacabana and eventually La Paz, Bolivia. The scenery was variously stunning, disturbing, and intriguing. There are times when I wish I could get off the bus, like when we passed this Bolivian gas station / convenience store, but I know that I see more by bus than by air and it’s much easier than driving my own vehicle.

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I booked the trip through Peru Hop’s sister company, Bolivia Hop, although that name is nowhere to be seen on their rather generic looking buses. This note from the operators (Irish lads Colin and Will) might explain why.

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The border crossing between Peru and Bolivia went relatively smoothly. You get off one bus on the Peruvian side, go into a Peruvian government office and have an exit stamp placed in your passport, then go next door to a police station where they do a 30-second background check. How much info they can look up in 30 seconds over a dial-up connection is a mystery to me, but they stamped my exit card and I quickly left without commenting. Once you pass the security check you head to the local money-changer, convert Soles to Bolivianos, then walk up the hill to a large arch that marks the border. The Bolivian Immigration office is about 50m down the other side of the hill.
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I wasn’t sure if “To Go The Toilet” was an order or suggestion, but there were guys with very big guns standing around so I took the sign at face value and stopped for a whiz.

After about 45 minutes at the border we got on a new bus for the one-hour drive into Copacabana. Most of the passengers got off in Copacabana and promptly boarded another tourist boat for a half-day trip to Isla del Sol. Just to be different, Team Switzerland and myself opted to stay on the mainland and explore the local market.

We left Copacabana shortly after 5:00 pm as we had to be at Tiquina before the waves picked up and local barge and ferry operators closed for the night. Tiquina is located at the narrowest part of Lake Titicaca and by crossing the lake here you cut several hundred kilometres and a second border crossing off the route between Copacabana and La Paz. And who wants to spend another 200 km on a bus when there’s a perfectly good alternative? Not the 30 of us who piled into a small boat while the bus crossed on a barge that was about one meter longer and a few hairs wider than said bus.

It’s a 10 minutes crossing in a boat with a 40HP engine so if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering why they don’t build a bridge. I raised that with the owner of Bolivia Hop (who was on the bus for the last leg) and he told us that the government engineers showed up at Tiquina a few years back to start drawing up plans for a bridge. They were promptly blown to smithereens by a stick of dynamite that was tossed onto their boat. The government abandoned plans for a bridge and the locals continue to make a living by operating small boats and barges and a handful of restaurants and roadside stands that cater to people waiting to cross the narrows.

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Few if any of the passengers seemed to be worried that three life jackets for 30 passengers might be an issue. I figured that if we got into trouble, I’d just grab the sack of live chickens that the woman beside me had dragged onboard. Live chickens do float, don’t they? Thoughts of Les Nessman reporting on the WKRP turkey tragedy did pass through my mind.

Okay, now we’re back to Saturday #16. After reading of my dentist’s death at the age of 39, I decided to take it easy for one day. I made two trips to a local laundry service, had a coffee in the town square, and found a bank machine that actually worked. Long after leaving the bank I realized that I had left my card in the machine. Thankfully it was turned in and I was able to retrieve it on Monday.

As I walked back to my hostel, I passed what at first appeared to be a tiny print shop. The room measured about 2 x 3 meters and contained a small counter, a cash register and one piece of equipment. I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw this Polar-Mohr paper trimmer.

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When I liquidated a printing business in Langley, BC in 1990, I sold an identical cutter to a used equipment broker from Seattle. I distinctly remember him saying that it wasn’t marketable in Canada or the US but when he had a container full of similar equipment it would be shipped to Mexico or Central or South America where good used equipment was still in demand. I can’t prove that this is the identical machine, but I can say that the very same model of Polar-Mohr cutter was used to trim the harness racing programs that were sold at Cloverdale Raceway (Fraser Downs) from 1976 to 1990.

I wrapped up Saturday night with a trip to Argentina Steakhouse where a 16-ounce sirloin, French fries, salad bar and fresh rolls set me back 71 Bolivianos or about $11.53 CDN. They really get you on the beer though. A 600 ml bottle of Cusquena was 14 Bolivianos or $2.28 CDN.

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I know this Saturday was a little on the dull side but please stay tuned for a report on what I did on Sunday, October 19. It was one day that I will NEVER forget.

NOTE: I am at the mercy of others who will provide the photos and video for my account of Sunday, October 19.  I hope to receive those files in the next week but with unknown internet access on Easter Island, it’s anyone’s guess as to when they’ll be posted.  In the meantime you can watch this video courtesy of the BBC.

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