Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Did anyone catch that date? One month from today, on May 15, we’ll arrive in the Austin airport! Today was a travel day, we began by taking a taxi to the airport in Iguazu. We were halfway to the airport when we realized we had left behind the picture we bought of our family on the boat in front of a waterfall. I knew exactly where it was sitting, but even though we checked the rooms carefully before checking out, it was somehow overlooked. It was the only picture taken the day we didn’t have our camera, I was sick. I sunk into a funk, and began to count all the things we had lost. Things were unraveling, we were losing things left and right. Benji’s fleece was left on the plane from Chile, his DS case and some games in Australia, Nate’s fleece was back in Egypt somewhere. Somewhere along the way we lost a travel pillow, a miniature rabbit, and my little moleskin journals are all full. I have to resort to paper torn from hotel notepads or my big and bulky Curious George journal to take notes these days.

By the time we boarded the plane I had slipped from pathetic to the tragic comic, and after lamenting my gray hairs and coffee breath with the kids, breathing all over them to prove just how horrible it really was, I was feeling better again. After all, we could have lost a lot more. We found a camera in Buenos Aires, an older model that still fit all our accessories, and cheaper than we expected since it was older. We actually found good food while waiting for our plane, a salad with lettuce that wasn’t wilted, tomatoes and corn and a boiled egg. I was happy again.

We can hardly claim Bolivia as a destination, we’ll spend less than twenty-four hours there before boarding a boat on Lake Titicaca and sailing to the Peru side. Our first two flights went smoothly. As our second flight touched down, we wondered if we’d have to disembark. We were now officially in Bolivia, but our destination was La Paz. We’d take our third and last flight on the same plane, so we figured we could just stay in our seats for the hour and fifteen minutes layover in Santa Cruz. As we sat there, in no hurry, smugly watching all the other passengers snatch their luggage from overhead bins and tug them out from below seats, I began to get a sinking feeling. When we were the only ones left on the plane, I knew for sure, we’d have to disembark after all. Of course that required gathering all the items that had been scattered, checking and double-checking under seats and in back seat pockets. I was determined to leave nothing behind after leaving the picture behind this morning.

When we finally departed, we walked down a long, long, skinny hall, still not in any hurry, complaining that there was no reason for us to get off a plane we were just going to get right back on again. Then we saw a sign for passport control, and realized we were getting our passports stamped, which meant we would have to apply for our visas here. When we left back in August, Americans didn’t need a visa to enter Bolivia. But somewhere along the trip that changed. Thanks to the heads up from our travel agent, Blue Charm, we had gotten all of our Bolivian visa documents in order--we had pages and pages of paperwork all filled out, all our ducks were in a row, including our yellow fever certificates, copies of credit cards, pictures of the kids, and copies of our flight itinerary for entering and leaving Bolivia. But we now had to wait for someone else to go through all our paperwork and approve our visas and stamp our passports, and we had only forty-five minutes to get back on the plane. Stress set in.

I tried not to drum my fingers on the counter as two men went through all our stuff, and a woman from the airline whispered into one of the men’s ear, probably explaining that we had to be on our plane again shortly. We sent the kids to sit in some nearby chairs while we waited. To the credit of those men at the airport, our visas were completed in record time and we told the kids to gather their things. That’s when Nate realized that he had sat in a blob of bubble gum. It was all over his pants and shirt, and somehow it got on his book and backpack as well. I told him to leave it while we clutched all our backpacks and our passports and paperwork and ran for the gate, we could hear them announcing that our flight was boarding and we had to leave the airport and go through security again. Eek! The adrenalin was pumping when we arrived at our gate to find a long line of passengers waiting to board, we had made it no problem. I knelt down and began to scrape the gum off Nate’s shirt and pants, I wanted to make these things last another two days before I washed them! I got most of it off, and even had time to wash my hands before we boarded and sat down in the same seats we had warmed just an hour earlier.

Every day needs a bit of excitement, we settled into our seats for our last hour long flight. The only DS still with charge was Nate’s, the kids passed it back and forth and “shared” a Mario game until we touched down in La Paz. Benji fell asleep while we landed, he walked down the airport hall in a daze, his eyes half shut, while onlookers smiled sympathetically. We met our guide who transferred us to our hotel, Benji fell asleep on the way. Our first glimpse of La Paz was beautiful, we were on a road way up high and looking down on thousands of lights that crept up the surrounding hills. “It’s like the Milky Way below us,” said Anna, our guide. “It is saying, ‘Welcome to La Paz’.”

She chattered away as we tried to take in La Paz after dark. She explained how the poor people live up on the hills, while the rich live towards the south. She said, “You must realize, there’s a demonstration in La Paz just about every day. We in La Paz worry when there isn’t a protest, we wonder, where did “they” go?” She told us about the protest that had happened earlier that day, the rich in the city are disgruntled with the current president, that he is taxing them heavily and asking uncomfortable questions about how much land they own, and where the taxes are for that land. Then the poor protest the rich people’s protest, and so it goes . . . While she talked we passed a couple “snogging” on an entrance ramp to the freeway, we passed hundreds of people just walking about in the downtown area, things were really hopping. We passed a woman in a bowler hat, our first “bowler hat sighting.” I had seen pictures of women in Bolivia and Peru with these strange hats perched on top of their heads, but I wondered if they did it just for the tourists, a traditional dress. This woman didn’t seem to be trying to impress any tourists, she was waiting on a curb for a bus to pick her up.

When we got to the hotel there were computer problems at the front desk, we all settled on the poofy lobby sofas, half asleep, until we could get our keys. After finally getting our keys, the kids went to bed without brushing their teeth, Clay and I were asleep just a few minutes later. I don’t know what it is about traveling that makes you tired, you just sit all day, but whatever the reason it certainly does. I wondered about all those people outside our hotel, just beginning their nights, finding a place for dinner. Do they sleep late? Do they take siestas in the middle of the day? I fell asleep wondering.


Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Anna picked us up after an early morning breakfast to drive us to Lake Titicaca. I love our guide books description of Lake Titicaca as being “more than a word third grader’s laugh at”. On the way we noticed many vans full of people. Some of them would stop and a man would slide open the door and yell into the streets. Anna explained that these were called “collectivos”, or mini-busses, and they each follow a certain route throughout the city. The man calling out from the door of the bus was yelling where they were headed next, if it was the destination somebody wanted they would hop on board. It is an inexpensive way to get around town, or even from small town to small town. La Paz looks like such an interesting city, we wish we had scheduled a day to explore it. We passed lots of graffiti, it seemed everyone in town had something to say, and wanted to write about it on a wall. To my delight, we saw dozens and dozens of “bowler hat” women as we passed through several markets. I tried to get pictures but was having trouble figuring out the new camera, so I had to rely on my memory to “write” a picture instead.

These women are so bright and colorful, they wear layers of petticoats and skirts, each a different, bright color. Reds, oranges, yellows, blues. Most of them had a colorful cloth wrapped around their back, holding either a baby or goods they had recently purchased or were hoping to sell. These cloths are each different and reflect a bit of the personality of the woman wearing it, all have bold patterns and many colors. Their bodies are short and round, it’s hard to tell how much is them, and how much is their clothing, they wear so many layers. Their cheekbones were high, their eyes brown and bright, and perched on top of their heads were bowler hats.

I asked Anna for the history of these hats, why do they wear them? They serve no practical purpose, their short brims don’t offer much shade. Anna said they were first fashionable in France, then in England, and when the British found they had a surplus of the bowler hats, they exported them to Bolivia and Peru, where the men began to wear them. Eventually, the women decided they liked them, and they haven’t changed their minds yet. I loved them, they seemed so snappy.

As we moved into the countryside we passed many fields, but the landscape was generally brown and yellow. Anna said only in the rainy season do the fields green up. They grow mostly potatoes, all sorts of potatoes, and a few grains as well. We passed a field with a stick in the middle, a bowler hat perched on top. Somewhere in that field, a woman was squatted over the rows, working. They even wear their hats in the fields! We passed more fields where groups of women worked, still wearing their colorful layers of petticoats, some with hats perched on their heads. They must use pins or something to keep them on, they aren’t pushed down enough to stay on on their own. I think that is the truest test of whether they wear these “traditional” clothes for the tourists, or for themselves. Anyone who wears a bowler hat and layers of petticoats in a field, is wearing them because they want to.

And it is such a style statement. These women are poor, they sell goods in the market to make a living, they work in the fields. And yet they have a great sense of dignity about them, they take time to feel good about their appearance. They looked like large flowers scattered in the fields as they bent over, working.

When we reached the lake, we visited a small museum for about twenty minutes, wandering around with headphones and listening to the history of the people in the high plains of Bolivia and Peru. Towards the end of the exhibit we reached a display on the traditional reed boats used by the people, and I had one of those moments when things seem to come full circle. Way back in Norway, in August, we visited a museum about a man, Thor Heyerdahl,  who was convinced that Egyptians had traveled in reed boats all the way across the Atlantic to South America, bringing their customs and boat building methods with them. To prove it, this man built a boat just like the ones used in ancient times and made the trip. And now here we were, in South America, seeing the boats from the other side. Amazing.

We boarded our boat with a few other passengers and began to explore Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,800 meters above sea level. It is also huge, sometimes you couldn’t see land in any direction. We stopped at a small floating museum, a replica of floating villages that could once be found all over the lake. We walked on the spongy surface, ate some fried minnows and the inner core of the reeds that had a high water content, a helpful resource for natives who needed water. We bought a couple souvenirs and headed out again, stopping at the Island of the Moon, where we hiked up a hill to some ancient Incan ruins. We huffed and puffed, the altitude was getting to us, and admired the lake from the top of the hill. The way it reflected the blue sky was just beautiful. The ruins were once a temple where virgins lived, and sacrifices were made, now just bits of crumbled rocks interlaced with wildflowers. We dodged the souvenir vendors, getting away with just a couple belts woven out of Alpaca wool and a small necklace, then boarded our boat to continue.

We stopped next at the Island of the Sun, where Anna extracted an Incan promise from each of us, that we would never lie, never steal, and never be lazy. We were then allowed to plunge our hands into the icy cold water coming from a small waterfall. This water is actually melted snow from the distant Snow Mountains, Anna claimed the water we touched took ten years to reach us, and it would give us long life. We climbed a lot of steps to reach a restaurant with a beautiful view, where we enjoyed some lunch. We ate soup with unfamiliar bits of grain in it, a Peruvian grain called quinua, which is as high in protein as meat is. Fried fish, some veggies, some watermelon, and some coca tea to wash it all down. Coca tea is made with coca leaves, the same leaves used to make cocaine, and is supposed to do wonders for altitude sickness. I thought it tasted like boiled spinach, in the words of the kids, “not my favorite”, but I dutifully sipped it in the hopes of avoiding the gnarly symptoms of altitude sickness. Mainly headaches and nausea. As we finished our lunch, someone further up the hill began playing a trombone, it seemed such an out of place instrument, here on this ancient island. And yet I liked it, the old and new meet again.

We had one more stop before reaching our departure point for Bolivia, and our entry point for Peru. We took the boat to Copacabana, as I tried to get that Barry Manilow song out of my head. We boarded a bus that took us to a very famous church. The story goes that a man had a vision of Mary, traveled many miles to carve the vision out of a single piece of cactus wood, then returned with the virgin where she was kept in a small adobe chapel until the Spanish built a proper church for her. As we arrived we noticed a row of cars parked in front of the church, bedecked with flower garlands and ribbons. We thought we had happened on a wedding, but it turned out the cars were being brought to the church to be blessed.

Their owners had wished for the cars at the church years before, praying to Mary that they might own a car. When this wish came true, they came to the church to thank Mary and have their car blessed by a priest. They set up an assortment of treasures in front of their car or truck, pictures of Mary and candles and fake paper money, said some prayers, then shook up a bottle of coke (Anna explained they sometimes use champagne or beer) and walked around the entire vehicle, spraying it. It’s good luck to be able to make it around the entire car with the liquid still spraying. Then everyone clapped and cheered and took pictures. It was pretty cool that we happened upon it all.

Anna took us to a nearby stall where they sold “offerings”, anything from plastic cars to miniature stores to paper money. Thousands of people make pilgrimages to this church each year, once a year people walk four days to reach it. At one festival they festoon the entire church with fresh flowers. Once a year people from Peru visit the church to ask for blessings. When these pilgrims arrive, they purchase the offerings, maybe a small plastic car in hopes that Mary will bless their family with one. Or paper money, in hopes that they’ll have good fortune the next year. They also sell a little man statue, short and squat with an alarming smile and a big belly. It does not look ancient, it looks like a car salesmen, I’m not sure what the history is, why they chose that particular image. People take him into their homes to bring good luck and fortune to the family. If this is given as a gift, the knitted cap on his head is pulled down over his eyes until it arrives at the proper home, otherwise it might see how it got there and try and return to the church.

The church has a unique feature, the virgin statue is supposed to be facing the water of Lake Titicaca, offering her eternal blessings on the lake, but when the Spaniards built the church they failed to realize this and built Mary’s spot with her back facing the lake. This was remedied when they designed a rotating platform for Mary to rest on, during most of the year she faces the lake and a small sanctuary that was added on to the back of the church, only during big festivals is she turned to face the crowds in the larger section of the church. We tiptoed into the smaller chapel and whispered as we admired the carved Mary, she was pretty, and I favored the smaller chapel to the much larger and ornate altar screen on the other side.

It was time for us to cross over to Peru, our twenty-four hours in Bolivia was over. We drove up a pitted road to the immigration gates and disembarked from the bus with a few others. Anna walked us to the office where we handed over our passports for stamps, then another office a few feet down the road to fill out the Peru paperwork. We said our goodbye’s to Anna, and then our hellos to the woman who would transfer us by bus two and a half hours to Puno. Two and a half grueling hours for Clay, who has been fighting a cold for the last four or five days, and finally discovered it was something much worse than a head cold.