Is this the real life, or is it just fantasy?
That’s what every long-term traveler asks at one point, I think. You wonder, what am I doing? These Peruvians are leading their lives, they’re working, whether it’s in the fields, the kitchen, the shops, and there you are, passing through, aimlessly. Do I have an aim? I have the feeling that my “job” as a tourist is to be curious, to observe, to learn. I met a lovely elderly American couple yesterday. The woman, an art conservationist said, out of nowhere, that she felt THIS was the real life, to learn about how others live, to meet new people and see new things.
Maybe it’s neither the one, nor the other but as ever, a good balance of both. You should go “home” and take care of your loved ones and your garden and house, you should work and earn money, see friends in your well-worn, well-known life. Then, from time to time, you should leave and get to know other things. Go somewhere where there is no running water, no internet, where everything is done differently. Then return to the lovely comfort of your home, even more grateful for everything you have.
I have the feeling I’m resetting myself. I’ve felt this especially strongly since I left all groups and stayed alone – as alone as one can get around here, because you’re continuously meeting people. But at least I was an individual and not a member of a group, which can also have its advantages, for sure, but it gets a bit tiring. I had no idea what to do once I arrived in Puno, the city on Lake Titicaca. It seemed too touristic, the “floating islands” seemed inauthentic, the group visits seemed too expensive; I didn’t want to be with a group. The girl sitting next to me on the bus had reserved a hut on one of the floating (Uros) islands so I decided to do the same. We had to wait in Puno for an hour before her boat arrived. I walked around, with my 11-kg backpack and observed... Puno is certainly very ugly, as are most Peruvian cities, with unfinished buildings, still naked with their construction bricks all visible, iron rods sticking out of their tops... But the Plaza de Armas and another square and the pedestrian street which connected the two were so charming, so calm! And most people were dressed in traditional style, a mixture of Peruvian, Quechua and Aramaya peoples. There were food sellers in every corner, selling ostrich eggs, fresh orange juice, pineapples, something like empanadas, jelly with cream, but only the tamale vendors had a very Turkish-style yell: “Tamaaaaales.” I bought an empanada and pineapple juice and sat on the Plaza de Armas and watched the people and a funeral that exited the cathedral and started a procession all around the town. Most of the people in the procession were on their cell phones!
When my friend arrived, I found out that she’s from Manchester and has been working in Turkey as an English teacher for the past 5 years! She couldn’t believe that she’d met a Turkish person here, so far away. We took the boat, which was very pleasant if you ignored all the trash (Peru has a really serious problem about trash – it’s everywhere, except in the city centers). But then our ways separated. I was dropped off on a small island and she was taken to another. There are around 90 floating islands, each harboring around 5 families. Mine was only for tourists and one family. There are tiny huts made from reeds, all sort of lopsided, a small lake in the middle and a bridge crossing it, a place to sit around the fire, bathrooms, showers, terraces to sunbathe on, and several different types of boats. The island was occupied by a very tightly knit, sweet but loud Dutch family and a very mysterious older French-Columbian couple who didn’t join us for dinner. The hotel owner, Percy Leonard (!!) took me around the island on his canoe, showed me how he cut the reeds to build the island grounds, made me taste one (“not too much, you’ll upset your stomach”), showed me how he lays the fishing nets and took me to the island where he lives with his wife and two sons and some their families. There he showed me how the floating islands were built. It seems so impossibly difficult to live here, you wonder why, after 700 years, when the threat from the Incas had ended, they insist on living on these wickety islands, which need to be re-covered every year, their canoes which rot after 2 years... And then there is the rainy season, when they can do nothing but stay in their little hut and work on their artisanat. How fulfilling can it be to create the same things that everyone else is creating? Or to repeat the same jokes to each and every group (we compared notes with the Dutch family. We both got our fill of “this canoe is called the Titanic and my name is Leonardo hahahaha”) There are nearly no young people left, and you can’t blame them. Percy’s wife, Maria, showed me their hut, a very rudimentary and tiny room where all 4 sleep together. She proudly showed me their tiny TV and radio. I could feel this was an act she repeated every single day. She dressed me up in her clothes, took me to the three appointed places to take photos, then showed me her embroidery, which of course I was expected to buy. The thing is, I liked her; it wasn’t her fault that she had to do all this to earn a living. Her embroidery was very cute, but it was identical (as I’d later see) to all the other embroidery executed by all the other women. I bought the cheapest pillow cover and started to leave, when another woman tried to take me hostage and practically begged me to buy something. It was horrible. I yelled out “Vamos” to Percy and we left. I was exhausted by the effort to speak and understand Spanish by this time so I was very happy when we finally went back “home” after a quick tour of the “capital”, where their president lives and the elementary school is. Many islands decided to join together in a huge circle to become more attractive for tourists (you can tie an island to a boat and move it where you like). They dance and sing around a big fire every night. My island was very isolated and the Dutch family and I spent the night around our own private fire, watching the stars and arguing about which was the Eye of the Lama (Alpha Centauri :) )and which the Southern Cross. It was very sweet, but ohhh we all froze, despite our layers and layers of clothes and the fire. Hub, the father, brought some blankets from their room and invited me to join them underneath. Very cosy! By 9 of course we were all ready to sleep. Percy had fortunately given us hot water bottles, which we had placed in our beds, so it wasn’t torture to slide in. But the blankets were so heavy (as again they would be the next night) that I couldn’t sleep on my back, as they pressed my feet down!! As I said, the ground is covered with reeds, which are very difficult to walk on, as well as very noisy. During the night, I heard someone walking up and down in front of my hut and I was terrified... You know, half awake, exhausted, with a door that doesn’t close properly. I screamed so loud... I felt very foolish. It was probably just one of the guests (a Peruvian family arrived very late) looking for their hut in the dark... I was so happy when it was morning and I could go out into the warm sun (the reeds were still covered with ice!) and tell Percy I wanted to leave after breakfast, when we were served the thinnest crêpes I’ve ever had, wrapped around fresh fruit. to go to Taquile island. He immediately found a way to get me there but I had to leave immediately. I didn’t have the time to take a shower and as I write I still haven’t washed, because there’s no running water on the island. But that’s ok :)
I met a very sweet French-Chinese guy on the boat and we talked and slept on top of the boat, in the middle of the huge lake, under the sun. Once we arrived on the island, their guide found me a place to sleep. Everything is always so easy here (knock on wood). I had lunch with the French guy and his 5 friends and they left afterwards. I felt so privileged to stay! There were only a few tourists left, I supposed, but I didn’t see any. The islanders packed up their wares (woven bracelets, toys, necklaces) and headed home. Both men and women are dressed so beautifully. The men knit their own hats, which look like old-fashioned night caps, and their wives knit them gorgeous, thick belts with symbols on them. The women wear very wide, twirling, brightly-colored skirts, belts and tops. Everything is determined by whether you’re married or single –the colors you wear, the bag you carry the authority you hold in the community...
I started off by having a maté de coca-muña (smtg like oregano, but not -- their matés made with fresh herbs are so good that I barely miss my Earl Grey!) on the Plaza de Armas, asked someone about where I should walk, and followed his directions. They constructed paths with huge slabs of stone a few years ago, but before it was all just dirt or grass paths, it seems. These stone paths are delineated by stone walls. It’s charming. There are paths everywhere and of course you want to follow them all! The neighborhoods are separated by stone arches, with either a cross or three heads (symbolizing authority) on top. I went up and up (stopping very often to catch my breath) and felt like I was looking at a naive painting, you know, the type where you can see a whole village scattered on a valley and hill and you can see brightly dressed people happily working in their fields, courtyards and gardens? It was exactly like that. There was even someone playing the flute. There were sheep bleating (even the sheep are decorated with brightly colored pompons!!). I could see children studying in the library. Everything was well in the world. I continued climbing the mountain until I found the perfect place from which to watch the sun set. I must admit, it was one of the most unspectacular sun sets I have ever seen, but I was just so happy to be there alone that I didn’t feel frustrated, especially when I turned to look behind me and saw the snowy Bolivian Cordillera mountains died pink from the sun and seemingly floating in thin air... I started to walk back to Carmen’s house and there, something happened to me. I said aloud, teşekkür ederim allahım and I just broke down form pure happiness. I have never cried so hard from happiness in my life. I cried and cried, trying to keep my eyes open to continue seeing this beauty, while a sheep gazed fixedly at me. I told her I was just fine, too fine, simply too happy...
I had dinner (I love quinoa soup!!) with that lovely American couple and their guide. The couple was around 60-70 years old and kept saying they hadn’t known what they were getting into when they decided to come to Peru. They hiked at more than 4000 meters altitude to go up to Machu Picchu, went up and down mountains, frozen to death, had to get up at unearthly hours every morning, barely slept… But there they were, alive and well!
After dinner, I went out and climbed up the path to find a place from which I could watch the stars. I had to go quite far because there were all these stupid eucalyptus trees blocking the view!! Way at the top, I lay down on the stone path and watched the Gök Kubbe – the Dome of the Sky. The sky here is truly a dome. You turn your head right, there are stars stretching to the horizon. You turn your head left, there they are again. You can do a full turn of your head to follow the Milky Way. And now that I know some constellations, they sky is even friendlier. I think I would have turned into a eucalyptus tree there if the usual human needs hadn’t intervened – I was cold, tired, I had to pee. I got up but argh, as I went down, I came across an arch with a cross on it and of course I just had to pass through it. I found myself in what had probably been a temple, then had been transformed into a church and was now a ruin. There remained a low, circular wall and a big stone altar with a big cross covered with red, wilted flowers. The space was immense and just perfect for watching the stars. The arch and altar glowed mysteriously beneath the light from my flashlight. A million stars glistened through the arch… And yes, obviously, I was struck by yet another epiphany, which I won’t try to describe (but I hope I’ll never forget).
As I write, Carmen’s 6 year-old daughter keeps running by me, each time saying “Holà!” The children here really do have “ruddy cheeks”! (des joues They seem happy. You can hear children’s laughter all the time. Could this be heaven? No, I don’t think angels would throw their Inka Kola bottles and strawberry gum wrappers all around…
After my late star-gazing last night, I was so warm when I entered the room! I thought, hey what was all the fuss about? And wore only my nightgown and socks and went to bed… I was shivering after a few minutes. I wore a long-sleeved top, my mother’s down coat (I’ve been wearing it day and night, anne, öyle teşekkür ederim ki!!), my pants and beautiful new alpaca hat and took and extra blanket. Again my feet were weighed down by the blankets and I couldn’t sleep on my back because they pushed my feet down. Grrr!!! I slept for 9 hours but it didn’t feel like it when I woke up, all bruised and battered by bad dreams and with a horrendous headache. But the sun was out, the view from my window was gorgeous and we had delicious banana pancakes with fried bread (it’s so crispy and good) and good strawberry jam and yummy muña maté. I wanted to start to write here immediately but the mood wasn’t there so I went back up the path to see the temple/church again and of course I couldn’t resist the pull of the paths… And walked and walked… Then I went back and was ready to write!
The 3-hour boat ride back to Puno was delightful, especially since I was reunited with internet and could communicate with the outside world. I learned about the scary earthquake in Bodrum. I was able to find a cheap hotel in Puna. I read and slept under the sun, on top of the boat.
I am in Puna right now, and there is a Peruvian band playing outside my window, flutes, drums and singing. I had the most delicious meal ever; alpaca marinated in pisco with rosemary and muna. Wow!!! And a glass of Peruvian red wine, so good. And of course, a cup of maté de muña!!
The hotel receptionist and I have been battling for the past hour to get me hot water. It finally worked. I took my first shower in five days. Ahhhh… The room yet again has a window that looks upon the corridor and the curtains are so flimsy anyone can see in. Oh, well. It’s just for one night. Tomorrow, a new adventure begins! I take the bus to go to Cusco at 10.