When your base camp is at 11,000 feet above sea level (Cuzco), naturally the next stop would be Lake Titicaca. At 12,500 feet above sea level, it is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world.
I set out from my cosy room in the Hostal Loreto for the travel agency at the other end of Plaza de Armas. I told the smiling raven-haired agent that I wanted to fly to Lake Titicaca and back. Travel in Latin America is seldom as straightforward as one would imagine. And this was certainly the case here.
Firstly, there was no direct flight from Cuzco to Puno, which is on the banks of Lake Titicaca. You need to fly to Juliaca. From there you can take a taxi or a collectivo (car-pooled vehicle) to Puno.
Moreover, there were flights only 1 way from Cuzco to Juliaca. On the way back I would have to take the train. Hold on. The train only travelled every alternate day. So if I had to travel back on a day the train had its siesta, well, I’d have to take the bus.
That settled, I was getting my air and bus tickets when the travel agent saw my race listed on my Identity Card. She excitedly started chatting about how she always wanted to visit India and that I was only the second Indian she’d met. Curiosity got the better of me and I asked where had she met the first one. She replied that she’d met him in Tacna (a town near the Peru-Bolivia border) and that in fact there were many Indians in Tacna. Apparently the Indian traders were doing good business there by selling used cars across the border in Bolivia. The enterprising gene of the Indian diaspora brought a smile to my face.
So I could barely suppress a chuckle the next day, when I was sharing a collectivo from Juliaca to Puno. We were about 30 minutes into the 45-minute ride and passing through open countryside with mountains forming a majestic backdrop. There had been no living being in sight for miles, except the occasional cow lazily munching grass. Eventually, a man-made structure slowly came into view. It was a petrol station. As the collectivo came closer, I could read the sign: NUEVO DELHI. (New Delhi.) Even in the back-end of beyond, you could always count on the hard-work ethic and dauntless nature of immigrants to set up new frontiers. In time we reached Puno and I schlepped my gear to a hotel near the Lake.
The next morning I was on a boat trip. First stop: Isla Maria. 1 of the 42 enchanted floating islands in the Islas Flotantes de los Uros.
Each island is entirely made from dried totora reeds. So are the houses and boats. So if you happen to stay next to a crotchety neighbour, you could always cut away the piece of island on which your house is built and float away. If only the entire world could live like this, we would have a recipe for world peace.
Since the lower layer of the reeds decomposes quickly because of exposure to water, new layers of dried reeds have to be constantly added on the top. Each island virtually rebuilds and renews itself once every 3-6 months.
The principal food of the Uros, a pre-Inca tribe that populate these floating islands, is (you guessed it) a totora reed. And it’s also used for tea and as a cooler when the temperature rises. The versatile reed is also a principal medicine used by the Uros. It’s amazing that just one creation by God can sustain life. I can’t imagine a single man-made creation doing that. (God 1, Man 0)
Since none of the islanders was inclined to cut up a patch of island to float further up Lake Titicaca, we had to get back into our motorboat and head onwards to Taquile Island.
As we step ashore, the craggy terrain is home to sheep and rams that graze without showing the slightest interest in the arriving tourists.
Bright pink and red Cantuta flowers lit up the path alongside the stone steps that led up to the quaint town square. There, the village headman greeted us. His weather-beaten face flashed a warm smile as he welcomed us to his village. I learnt that besides the Southern Quechua spoken here, an unspoken language is used here: Hats.
The village people have colourful headgear that to the uninitiated looks the same. Actually, there are 3 different types of hats and they tell you the social status of the wearer. The village headman wears one. Married people wear the second. And singles wear the third.
The position of the floppy hats also speaks volumes. If the floppy bit is angled to the right, it means that the single person is open to being approached for a conversation or a date. If the floppy bit points to the left, it means the person doesn’t wish to entertain anyone. An ancient Spanish Governor had introduced the headgear since it was the traditional garb in the Basque countryside, where he had grown up. These days, it isn’t in use in Spain any more, but it is still the tradition at Taquile. And over time it has evolved from fancy headgear into a language.
It’s such a simple way to avoid discord and disappointment. Now if only we could have a way in cities to tell people ”Hey, I’m in a good mood” or ”Piss off” without saying a word, I think we’d be truly civilized.
Taquile is famous throughout Peru for its handwoven clothing. Oddly, it is the men (starting at the age of eight) that knit while the women make yarn and weave.
On our way back to the boat I was feeling peckish. A Quechua Indian woman was selling Kit Kats, corn chips and other titbits. I bought a chocolate and then changed my mind and bought another more expensive goodie. I ended up confusing the simple soul and she was giving me back more money than I’d given her. She couldn’t understand why I kept insisting on still giving her money and was getting a bit flustered. I had to eventually ask the boatman to explain to her that she didn’t owe me money, but I owed her money. It’s amazing how simple and trusting people can be when they live far from the distrustful walls and doors that characterize civilized life in cities.
The next day I was headed back to Cuzco by road. What started out feeling like an entirely unnecessary 8-hour road trip (I could have been back to Cuzco on a flight in 20 minutes) turned out to be a delightful journey. We made a few stops and each one was memorable in one way or another.
We stopped at the little town of Pukara, which had a delightful little museum. Amongst other valuable exhibits there was a chart that tracked the high points of the Inca civilization and Spanish rule with historical highlights in other parts of the world. Benches ringed the fountain in the centre of the town square. Men perused their newspapers here with the gravity of someone washed up on a desert island with nothing but a newspaper for company. Shaggy dogs lazily sprawled in the shade of trees. No one seemed in any hurry to go anywhere, so it was a wonder that everyone got back into the bus on time for the next leg of the journey.
We stopped for lunch at a delightful ranch that offered a monumental spread. I ate with the appetite of someone who knew he had a few hours on the bus to sleep it off. Particularly memorable was Quinoa, a local dish that I found reminiscent of cous cous. We also stopped at a farm to admire the llamas and vicunas.
25 miles from Cuzco, we made 1 more stop in the little town of Andahuaylillas. I stepped into the Church of San Pedro in the square. To my surprise the interior was a lot more magnificent than the sombre exterior. I was struck by the quality of the gilded frescoes, colourful murals and gold-leaf altar, and marvelled at the fact that this could be found in what I thought was an off the beaten track church. Only later did I discover that the interior of this church has been called the Sistine Chapel of the Andes. Some have gone so far as to proclaim it the Sistine Chapel of the Americas. To me, it was as miraculous a discovery as, oh well, America itself. And it was the perfect way to end a journey of epic discovery.
After a day of rest in Miraflores, a new suburb of Lima, I headed to the airport. As my plane lifted off and headed for Houston, I couldn’t help feeling that the Spanish conquistadors had got it all wrong. They felt they’d plundered this rich land of its treasures. But centuries after the departure of the Spanish, Peru’s richest treasures are still there.