Land of hats and plaits

Saturday 15th November 2008
Hello, we're now in Bolivia in Copacabana, due to travel to La Paz, the highest capital in the world tomorrow.

Our journey from Cuzco was very interesting, travelling on a condemned local bus with a smashed windscreen and seats that stood up with you and skidded around the filthy bus.
The journey was stunning though, travelling through the Altiplano with herds of llamas and alpacas and Incan ruins scattered around the otherwise barren landscape, with snow capped mountains in the distance. We were going to take the train which had been written up in the Guardian as the most beautiful train ride but the cost was 175 dollars, ridiculous, nearly a week's budget, so we got the bus which follows almost exactly the same route along the tracks for only four quid.

Somebody had crammed a white bag into the luggage rack and we watched it wriggle around throughout the journey until it made it's final bid for freedom and whatever creature/s was contained within fell onto some unsuspecting person's head!

We arrived in Puno on the Peruvian side of lake Titicaca and ended up staying close to the port in what can only be described as the Ghetto, totally run down, people making fires in the streets, packs of dogs and intimidating young men, holes in the ground, smashed windows... you get the picture. When we got into our room in a hostel, there were men showering in our supposedly private room so we had to wait in another room whilst they finished and left us with a filthy bathroom. The ´breakfast in bed´ made up for it though, a plastic bag of rolls and a flask of hot water, one knife, no plates and 3 mugs. My how we laughed as we scattered crumbs onto the floor of the seedy hostel where rooms could presumably be rented by the hour.

Anyhow, the next day we went down to the port and haggled for boats to an island called Taquile on lake Titicaca (which used to be a sea apparently.) Taquile is pretty much self-contained and an anthropologically intact tribe still live there.

We ended up being the only people not on a tour boat and joined the local ´collectivo´, our second virtually condemned vehicle in 2 days - this time a boat. The captain however was lovely and very proud to have tourists on his boat despite the fact that it broke down in the middle of the lake - he pulled the pipes out of the engine, sucked the fuel into his mouth and spat it all over my bag which was next to the motor. We weren't concerned however as before the boat had departed, the captain and his toothless, coca chewing sidekick, had blessed the boat and thrown an offering of coca leaves into the lake for good luck on the voyage.

I ended up teaching noughts and crosses to a little boy from the island whilst his mother and her friends giggled at us. I hope this was a good influence on him as I later looked up from my book to see him playing with a syringe, complete with needle, and injecting his toy plane, which was slightly disturbing.

When we arrived at the island, the captain had a word with the officials of the community and they waived the fee to let us on the island. He wrote down his details and promised to collect us on the other side of the island the following day in order to take us for a free visit to the reed islands where his mates live on our return to Puno.

The island of Taquile was incredible, a fascinating place, inhabited for thousands of years. It has no running water, roads or electricity. Life still continues pretty much as it always has, the local community not intermarrying, farming the land, still using the original Inca terraces and traditional cattle ploughs and working as a cooperative for tourism.

We had to sign in a book and local families take turns to put visitors up in their homes for a night. We stayed with a gorgeous family who made us great meals and really looked after us. We stayed in a mud and straw hut which had views of the lake and Cordillera Real peaks covered in snow over in Bolivia. We gave them gifts of fruit and Minton's head torch which one of the ladies had been going gooey over!

Everyone spoke in a whisper which was really surreal but made sense as the loudest noises on the island are sheep bleating and the buzzing of bees which seemed deafening, no traffic or TV or anything, it made us feel like right loud - mouths!

The men wander around the island knitting and the women wander around spinning wool.

It is quite fascinating how the traditional culture is still very alive. The men wear knitted wee willie winkie hats (which is what they wander round knitting) and if they are married they are all red, if they're single they are half white - it´s like an anthropological traffic lights party!
The women wear multi-layered colourful skirts and black shawls with bright pompoms on the corners, however, if they're married they are smaller pom poms in only one colour. All the men carry a little embroidered ´man bag´ in which they carry coca leaves and when they say hello, they shake hands and exchange coca leaves. We had noticed the men on our boat doing this also and chewing away on them on the journey.

We spent our time scampering around the island watching this living anthropological museum and exploring the unguarded Incan ruins dotted about the place, it really was rather special. We are growing rather fond of picnics and power - naps in Incan , although our power - nap in Machu picchu had to be the best!

We were gutted to leave but Marcello (our captain) picked us up the next day and took us over to the floating reed islands, very strange places and extremely touristy now. They were first made by people trying to flee the Incas and set up remote communities. They are literally made by piling reeds on top of the old rotten ones, they just keep replacing them. It was such a weird sensation walking onto them and they are moving about - our one was particularly small though. There are several islands and he took us to one where we didn't have to pay an entrance fee.

We were immediately bundled by a load of grubby little girls who forced us to the floor and insisted on doing our hair the same as theirs (in plaits). It was really rather painful but hysterically funny. We were so bullied by them and paid them for our hairdressing session with a banana and a half eaten packet of biscuits, but they seemed pleased. We were a source of great entertainment for the locals on the boat and the women on the island who all stood around to watch and laugh at our pain!

After another night in the ghetto we crossed over into Bolivia where we are now, staying on Copacabana where everyone has an exciting hat of some description. I have now developed an unhealthy obsession with hats. I want one of all of them, especially the see-through American style visors with Copacabana written on them for playing poker!

We spent our first night watching the sun set over the lake and eating fresh trout from the lake with the local police who all bundled in for their beer and trout, then went for happy hour mochitos and were still in bed by 9!

The next morning we went to the square of the cathedral, a pilgrimage site as it contains the most religious icon in Bolivia (a Madonna in a pretty frock) to watch Challah (or the blessing of the cars). People going on long journeys bring their cars to be blessed by the priest who emerges from the cathedral in white robes with a bucket of water and a big red carnation and splashes water with his flowery wand all over and inside the car. They attach bunches of flowers all over the car and throw flower petals in the engine and all over it, then finally they shake up some bottles of beer and spray it all over the windscreen and inside the bonnet. It really is quite a spectacle but I cant help thinking that it would be safer not to do it, as a sticky windscreen covered in petals and flowers flapping about somewhat obscures one's view, plus beer and petals in the engine cannot be good, but perhaps I'm just a fuddy duddy.

Yesterday we visited Isla de la luna, supposedly the birthplace of the Incas but we know it's not really. It was lovely but a bit disappointing compared to our experience on Isla Taquile. We walked the length of the island through several communities all of whom make you pay to pass through! The ruins were great however, a complete labyrinth overlooking white sandy beaches on the vast lake - so hard not to keep calling it the sea. It was weird seeing the animals on the beach drinking the water as it's not salty. There was even a tied up fishing cormorant which they train to catch fish for them.

We managed to rescue a Peruvian hairy piglet who had become all tangled in its ropes and stuck in the scorching sun, and it tried to follow us. If anyone has time can they research rare breeds farms with Peruvian hairy pigs, I definitely want one!!

We spent the night on the island in a sleety storm which was quite exciting but soooo cold!

We're now back in Copacabana for a Saturday night out - might even make it 9.30 tonight!!

Off to La Paz and then to the jungle for a week so next instalment should be a while away

All the best, Kate xxxx

P.S Just saw a poodle called ´chico´ dressed in combat gear chasing another dog it had fallen in love with. All the men were shouting its name trying to get it back. I managed a photo for the collection thank goodness!!