Wednesday, 16 April 2008

We started the day in La Paz, Bolivia (see previous journal) and crossed the border into Peru from Copacabana. Our family and a couple from England hopped in a van for the two and a half hour drive to Puno. Clay and I were in the back row of the van, the kids in the next row, the couple from the boat in the row behind the driver. Being in the back did nothing to help Clay, who was feeling worse by the second. A horrible headache, a fever that turned his face red and came off him in steamy waves, and eventually nausea as we bounced and jounced over the not so great roads. He took it like a man, he grimaced and closed his eyes and I closed my eyes, too, and prayed he wouldn’t throw up, that he would make it to the hotel, that he’d get better. The kids were preoccupied with their games, and the other couple didn’t seem to notice until we arrived in Puno that anything was amiss.

I did manage to look out the window and listen a bit to the woman who was transferring us to the hotel, as she told us all about what we were seeing out the windows. Each community we passed had its own school, and the villagers in that community work in each other’s fields, getting all the work done together. If someone decides to leave the community, their land is divided up amongst the people in the community, it all seems very fair. Each home had a small, bright green shack in the back, the toilet. I wondered why they all decided to paint their toilets bright green, was there ever a rebel that decided to paint theirs pink?

Most of the homes didn’t have windows, it gets too cold in the area for windows. The fields were full of people working in the fields, brightly colored clothes, petticoats, bowler hats, side by side as they harvested their potatoes. Have I mentioned there are over 2,000 different kinds of potatoes grown in Peru? This seems amazing to me. Most buildings in the “bigger” villages bristled with rebar at the corners, long bits of metal arcing to the sky. We saw this in Egypt as well, they prepare the building for more floors. In the future, when there is money, they will use this metal to attach the next story.

When we got to the hotel, I handled the tipping and got us checked in while Clay paced, desperate for a bed to lie down in, his body shaking with fever. The other couple, and the guide, were well-meaning in their attempts to diagnose him (“It’s probably altitude sickness”) and cure him (“Drink coca tea, that’s supposed to help”), but I was certain this was not altitude sickness, this was something worse. Clay grabbed a key and went upstairs while I rallied the kids and we followed a few minutes later. After getting the kids settled in their room, I went to check on Clay, who was immersed in hot water in the tub, still shaking. We took his temperature, it was over 102, which is really high for him since his normal temperature is around 97.5.

We ordered room service, I contacted the guide and after some initial communication difficulties was able to tell her we were not interested in our all day tour of Lake Titicaca the next day. She agreed to call in the morning to check on us. Our hotel is beautiful, we have an amazing view out over the lake, marshy grasses on the edge were tinged with gold as the sun set. The kids are in a “suite”, Alayna’s bed in the living area, so she has her own space, always a bonus. I bounced between our rooms, setting up a small pharmacy next to Clay’s bed as he fell into a fitful sleep, making sure he took an antibiotic pill first that his mom left behind in New Zealand, and getting the kids to bed. We have twin beds in our room, a blessing since Clay is sick, I won’t bother him while he tries to sleep. I said one more prayer, “Please God, help Clay heal, help him feel better,” and drifted to sleep. It was 9pm.


Thursday, 17 April 2008

Clay woke up feeling a little better this morning. He still wasn’t great, but he was able to get up and go to breakfast in the restaurant. After a bowl of cereal and a piece of toast he headed back upstairs to bed, his plan was to sleep all day. Since he was getting better, I contacted the guide and asked her if the kids and I could do a short tour of the floating islands on Lake Titicaca, she said she’d meet us at 2. We had a quiet morning, the kids played legos and read while I caught up on email and journals. We got a quick lunch in the hotel bar area and then met our guide, leaving Clay behind to continue sleeping, and healing.

We took a short ride through a channel we had seen from our hotel room window, waving, wondering if Clay was watching from the room. I was sad Clay was going to miss this, it was something we had been looking forward to seeing for a long time. Betty showed us a map on the boat of Lake Titicaca, she said the “titi” part belongs to Peru, and the “caca” part belongs to Bolivia, which got a hearty laugh. About fifteen minutes out we arrived at the Uros floating village. This experience was much different from the floating island we visited on the Bolivia side, for one thing the people really live on them. The one in Bolivia was more of a living museum. About 2,000 people live on the islands, 200 grade school children, and there are about 40 separate islands loosely connected with each other. On each island there are five to seven houses, circling around a fire pit, sometimes a small fish farm dug out of the floating mat in the middle.

Our boat stopped near one of these islands, and we were greeted by four smiling women who took our hands to help us off, giving us hugs and kisses on the cheek. They did not speak Spanish as their first language, there are actually three main languages spoken in Peru, as well as much of Bolivia. One is Spanish, one is Quechua, a language derived from Incan times, and another thrown in just for fun. Even in the big cities, you’ll find people speaking three different tongues, many are tri-lingual, speaking all three. The kids and I were directed to the center of the floating island, where the guide and the inhabitants of the island enthusiastically told us all sorts of things.

The kids were enamored with a small bowl filled with water and four swimming fish, the guide explained that these are the fish commonly caught and dried by the Uros people. The kids plunged their hands in the water and picked up the fish while our guide, Betty, began explaining just how the floating mats are constructed. They have a base of thick roots, maybe two feet deep, then reeds are laid in a cross-hatch pattern on top. New reeds are added every two weeks or so, it was a strange feeling, walking on the spongy stuff. You could dig down just a few inches and hit the muddy roots, just a little deeper and you were in the lake.

They think that families originally lived on boats made of the reeds, with small houses on the boats, but as the families got bigger they began to weave these large floating mats to live on. They once had a problem with the mats floating away during wind storms, now they anchor them to nearby reed beds. Sometimes the islands would split apart in a storm, they are actually made up of many different patches, so now they anchor the patches together so they won’t separate. We were taken into one of their small homes and dressed up in their traditional clothes, the four women throwing clothes back and forth to each other as they got us dressed. They were having fun, playing dress up and chattering back and forth, I felt like I was in the presence of a bunch of friendly aunts, getting us ready for a picture-taking ceremony. We got some great pictures. The women were so friendly and smiling, and I really don’t think it was just an act. They were truly friendly people that loved showing off their home and their way of life.

The four women demonstrated their bartering system, they acted out a scenario in which they arrived in a market, took their bundles off their backs and opened them up to reveal their goods, and then began grabbing and trading back and forth, lots of jabbering and sometimes snatching each other’s hats in fun. Benji’s impression of this was hilarious, in his journal he wrote: “instead of using money to buy things, they just grabbed it.” In the past, the people of Uros relied entirely on bartering, they used no money. It’s only been in the last fifty years or so that they’ve begun making handicrafts to sell to tourists (that would be us), so they can purchase things like school supplies from the nearby town. Stores in town don’t accept potatoes in exchange for pencils and paper. Their children are sent to a primary school located on the floating islands, once they reach middle schools parents can choose to send their kids to school in Puno, but it is expensive and many don’t continue the education of their children.

My stomach didn’t shrink the way it usually does at the mention of handicrafts, I wanted to help these people preserve their way of life, they were kind and friendly and interesting and they worked hard for their living. Betty told us we could take an authentic reed boat ride, we used the rest of our money to buy two small reed boats for the boys, an embroidery for our home with pictures of the Uros women in their bowler hats on the floating island, and a small embroidery for Alayna with pockets to keep all her little odds and ends. It will fit great in her locker at school.

As we finished up our shopping two little kids emerged from one of the straw homes, one of them crying. He looked like he had just woken up from a nap, he ran into the arms of one of the kind women we’d been spending time with and snuggled in. We came over to say hello and admire these little guys, not quite two years old yet. Their chubby cheeks were rosy brown instead of pink, a little chapped and wind burned. They seemed very serious, peering at us from the safety of their mothers’ arms. They wouldn’t smile, I imagine they see plenty of tourists and were ready for us to go away so they could have their mothers to themselves again.

A man tied string onto the boys’ boats so they could pull them along beside us, and we boarded a boat for our “authentic reed boat ride”. The women lined up along the side of the island and sang to us as we took off, starting with some traditional songs and ending with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, their accents thick, the words barely recognizable. We smiled and waved and clapped as we drifted away, I took one last look at the little kids at the women’s feet, sitting quiet and solemn. Nate and Benji trailed their new boats along beside us, scaring me half to death as they moved up and down the boat. “Stay on your stomachs!” I commanded, as Alayna and I lounged in the boat, leaning against one side and waving at all the kids we passed as we quietly glided past each floating island.

It was peaceful, the man in back dipping his oar to keep us moving. We passed a couple of kids in a motorboat who couldn’t get the motor working, so they started rowing. We passed a girl with a soccer ball on one of the islands, kids running in a herd around her. A mother came out of one of the homes and called to the kids, maybe it was time for tea, or homework. It was so cool, to see people living in this place. I tried to imagine what it would be like, so different. Yes, it was touristy, but I was grateful that these people had found a way to make their lifestyle work in the modern world, and that they were eager to let us into their lives for a few moments.

We stopped on another island where we saw a baby condor, raised from a chick, being kept in one of the reed houses. It was a little smaller than Benji, pretty enormous for a baby, but didn’t seem too aggressive. We climbed a rickety ladder to a lookout to see the villages spread out all around us, a pig rooted nearby on his own little island. A cloud came over the sun, it was getting chilly, we hurried down the ladder and towards our boat to head back to the hotel. A woman ran after Benji, offering him another reed boat as a gift, this one with little people attached. We tied a string so all three kids could trail their boats behind our big one on the way back. Nate’s string broke and we had to turn our big boat around for a rescue mission, we were successful and gave our captain a hearty applause.

We came back to find Clay a little better, he was bored in the hotel room but still not feeling good enough to get out. We told him about our adventure, ordered room service again for dinner, and watched a little Gidget before bed. Benji had a headache, he fell asleep holding his head, we’ve all had a touch of the altitude sickness, probably even Clay. It’s made recovering a lot harder, we get winded just climbing one flight of steps. In the morning we’ll get on the train to Cusco, ten hours, and we’ll end up at a slightly lower elevation. The hardest, highest part, is over, Clay is on the mend. Our world, in this big world, is good again.