Being back in La Paz after experiencing a world of snow, ice, sky and sun was a little disorientating. The pace of life was a million times faster and the mood was feverish as Gas War protests heated up. Police in heavy-duty gear blockaded main arteries, bracing themselves to confront tens of thousands of resolute demonstrators flooding the edges of the city.
El Alto – where we’d taken taxis to and from the mountain – was especially chaotic. Merchants and vendors swelled the streets, intent on preventing commercial agricultural goods from entering town. Dynamite cracked and echoed. Dust clouds blurred vision. Fervent chants rang shrill, intensifying the fragile air .
Inevitably on his way out, president Mesa derided the protestors as ”irresponsible”, ”reckless” and ”anarchistic”, turning a blind eye to narratives of working class struggle and marginalization rendered by a nepotistic running of the country that was fast approaching its midnight hour.
It was time to get the hell out of dodge and move on to Peru. The situation was just far too volatile and unpredictable to hang around any longer. Next stop, Copacabana. The taxi driver who took me to the bus station happened to have a simple multi-fuel stove, which he pulled out as I was telling him about my climbing missions. I got a bargain for it, happy to finally have a compact stove that could burn almost any fuel. The tumult of La Paz bleared in the distance as a bus with threadbare wheels and shattered windows chugged lazily up onto the Altiplano.
In Copacabana, Lake Titicaca – at 3,812m, the highest navigable lake in the world – glittered in radiant splashes of sapphire and silver . Dotted with over 40 islands, the lake has been continuously inhabited for 13 centuries by an eclectic mix of Andean peoples.
The Uros, cast out of the Amazon by war-faring tribes as the legend goes, migrated to Titicaca and built floating islands out of tortora, a thick, buoyant reed that grows in abundance along the calm, azure shores. An indigenous group of a little less than 5,000, more than 1,000 Uro survive on some 60 self-fashioned islands the size of small football fields. This number is however constantly fluctuating as youth abandon life on water for the mainland.
Living on the lake was originally intended as a defensive strategy, but the Uros were not impervious to increasing pressure from the powerful Inca, at the height of their glory in the 15th century. Many were forced into slavery and required to pay taxes. Culturally related to the far more populous Aymara, their language (Uru) slowly whittled away as trade and intermarriage with the Aymaran became more ubiquitous.
While tourism has flourished and offered the Uros with income-generating opportunities – some estimate 80% are directly involved in the industry – the islanders continue to try and maintain their traditional livelihoods. Duck, flamingo and seagull are hunted. Numerous fish species are caught by employing the services of domesticated cormorants tied to villagers’ feet. Cattle are kept for dairy products and ibis for eggs. Cats patrol the islands, sniffing out rats and probably go crazy at all the bird and fish activity.
The tortora reed is their elixir, with an astonishing array of functions, including alleviating hangovers, preventing waterborne diseases and reducing inflammation. The super reed is also a primary source of food and is brewed as a tea, much in the same way as coca in the mountains. The reed is even used to make handicrafts and boats as well as being traded at nearby ports.
I sat during a fluorescent sunset on Copacabana beach contemplating the fate of the creative, industrious, colorful Uros, reflecting on the currents of culture and history that had flowed through Titicaca. As their complex social fabric frays due to indifferent vectors of modernization, the small pockets of Uros that remain steadfastly perpetuate their waterworld society.
By no means is it a zero-sum game though; many Uros openly embrace devices like solar panels, cell phones and radios and don’t necessarily see these things as oppositional to their way of life. Indeed they aren’t. And yet, of greater concern were the dwindling number of young people on the islands and the increasing dependency on eco-tourism.
”The lake used to be our universe. Nothing else existed. Nothing else mattered,” reminisced Emilio, an Uro elder who stopped to have a chat during a short paddle. Fortunately he spoke Spanish. ”Life has never been easy, but we used to have all we needed and things were simple. There was always a lot of time to spend with your wife and children, to enjoy the environment and pray to the gods and spirits of the lake. Life here is changing very quickly now.”
His eyes shifted down toward his oar and then across to the banks of Puno on the Peruvian side of the water. ”My only son wanted to make money and travel, so he went to the mainland to study and work. Now he lives in Lima. But I never hear from him. I don’t even know if he’s alive.” His voice trembled and I leaned forward consolingly to offer some water.
”I’m sorry to hear about your son. , What about other aspects of Uro culture?” ”We are losing many of our traditional ways. This is true. We can fight to protect our ancient skills and knowledge, but there is only so much we can do. Time changes the times. But we will always be Uro. Nobody can take that away from us. Nobody.”
With that the old man placed his right hand on my head and called out a blessing in Aymaran, half smiling, half lamenting, and then through the twilight illuminated tide, feathered purposefully back home.
Before heading toward the Peruvian border, I learned that I wasn’t able to draw any cash with my traveler’s card in Copacabana. A ferry was thus not an option, so I began walking to the frontier town of Kasani. I was laughed at and followed by two girls who threw wedding flowers at me and then guided down a shortcut by a boy overly interested in how much everything in my backpack cost. A few hours later I got to Kasani, dusty and jelly-boned. At the migration office I was told I’d apparently been traveling in Bolivia illegally and I needed a visa to enter Peru. Lovely stuff!
The officials didn’t seem to bother about my being in Bolivia off the books, but weren’t about to budge concerning the visa. Problem was I only had 20 Bolivianos in my back pocket. After some cigarette-fueled conferencing and scrupulous paging through of my passport, I was allowed to continue to Puno on the condition that I leave something of value at the office, return the next day, and pay a menial fine to get a visa stamp. Painless enough.
One might well argue that you should always carry a little extra cash while traveling, but not having such a back-up also makes for exciting experiences, where you depend on the kindness of others (not to mention hard-core negotiating skills) to get from A to B.
The next morning I strolled to the bus station to hop back to the border office to sort this visa thing out. As it turned out, the officials cut the fine for ‘illegally’ staying in Bolivia in half and then casually said it was only necessary to pay for my Peruvian visa once the allotted 90 days ran out. Well shit, with my passport stamped there would be no obligation to pay for the visa at all! I collected my camera which had been left as a ‘deposit’ and walked out in amusement at the half-assed bureaucracy. I’d planned on winging it through borders even since arriving in Argentina and so far it was working out just fine.
The first taxi I hailed screeched to a halt. Seated inside was one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life. Simone from Switzerland. Brunette, green eyes, with a smile that could hypnotize Sher Khan the python from The Jungle Book. I was planning to hang out in Puno for a while and then push on to Arequipa before turning inland to Cuzco, but Simone was heading straight for the old Incan capital that very night. Right throughout our first interaction all I could think about was how to ask her in as ‘uncreepy’ a way a possible if I could travel with her.
When the taxi pulled in to Puno I awkwardly took her hand and blurted out like a child, ”I want to come with you to Cuzco!”
”Yes sure! Let’s go get some bus tickets! I think there’s one leaving in the next couple of hours.” My helpless Piscean romanticism had taken over. To the north it was…Peru.