Our hosts in La Paz, Mabel and her three kids, were more excited for the Fourth of July than we were. And so we celebrated by lighting up the old fireplace in Mabel’s art-filled 3-story apartment and roasting salchichas (hot dogs) and marshmallows. The next morning Mabel shared the stories behind the paintings and weavings on every available wall in her house, and in exchange we sang a folk song for her, the artwork we travel with. It was our last time together as a full group until we reunite in 2 months in Ecuador, which was a sobering and surreal farewell.
It was only 100 km down the road that Abe and I (Michael) first saw the sun glinting off of Lake Titicaca, el lago sagrado, or the sacred lake to the Aymara and Quechua people who live on its shores. We soon had our first interactions with Bolivians on vacation as we enjoyed some of the most breathtaking biking of the trip. One family kindly showed us a mountain bush with leaves that can be brewed into a medicinal tea. Our road curved over gentle hills around the jet-blue lake, and a glimpse into the distance reminded us that at 3800 m we were near the altitude of snow-capped mountains.
When we arrived in Copacabana, a city nestled on a peninsula between mountains and the lakeshore, the narrow cobblestone streets opened up into a square filled with dancing in brightly colored costumes and a full brass band. When we asked about the event, one woman told us that it was in honor of the Virgin of Copacabana, who 430 years ago had all of her gems and gold stolen and then replaced by the Bolivian people (from what we and our limited Spanish understand). When we asked her why people were carousing in bull costumes, she couldn’t say.
After crossing the border into Peru with relative ease (¿Cuantos días? was about the only question), We stumbled upon our next festival in the city of Yunguyo. It was Peruvian Flag Day, and police and soldiers were marching around hedges cut into giant turtles and rabbits as an older man sang the Peruvian national anthem. Just like we immediately noticed the lack of tereré and influx of coca leaves crossing from Paraguay to Bolivia, Peru offered its own distinctives. Brightly painted 3-wheeled motorized taxis buzz around like space capsules on narrower streets, and we have yet to try the Inca Kola advertised at every corner.
But even if we don’t yet completely understand Peru, we were forced to explain ourselves to large groups of curious Peruvians when we stopped in a plaza in nearby Ilave. What do have to say for yourself in Spanish with more than 20 Peruvian men looking for an explanation? Uncomfortable international experiences force us to clarify our own identity, a process that will still be with us back home.
While fixing a flat in a beautiful location next to Lake Titicaca, a touring cyclist stopped to chat. Jeremy, from the north of France, proceeded to join us for the next two days. A cyclist who straps a full-size hiking backpack to his back rack for several-day treks into the wilderness, Jeremy is quite adventurous. We sure enjoyed hearing his stories in Spanish about fording streams and going off-trail in Patagonia; you can keep tabs on his trip from Argentina to Alaska at http://www.2rouesvagabondes.fr
We took Jeremy’s suggestion to visit the Islas Flotantes de Los Uros off the coast of Puno, a community of indigenous people called Uros who live on islands built from foundations of tangled reed roots and layers of criss-crossed reed stalks. Houses and boats are constructed from the reeds as well–such a direct reliance on the natural world (with much help from tourism) is remarkable.
- I found a great deal on a room in Copacabana for two ($2/person), but then got the funniest look when Abe came in. We found out it was the matrimonial suite and they wouldn’t allow two guys to share it.
- In an effort to be more environmentally conscious with all the plastic bags that come with purchased food, Michael and I are attempting to save bags and reuse them every time we stop at tiendas for grocery items. Store owners are often happy to save a bag or two.
- During our tour of the floating islands, we met two extremely friendly Basque tourists named Guillermo and Olatz Verdejo. Apparently Guillermo is a renowned long distance swimmer with a few records in Spain.
Our next stay is Cusco.
-Michael and Abe