Travel fearlessly: Banish worry and timidity; the world and its people belong to you just as you belong to the world.*
October 1, 2013
I pressed my back hard against the cement wall and raised my camera to my eye, hoping desperately that no one would take offense at my photographing the crowd. Hundreds of men and women streamed past me on the narrow cobblestone street, blue and orange and gold hard hats bobbing as they shouted "mas dinero" and other slogans I couldn't understand. Plastic whistles screamed, air horns blared, and voices bellowed. I wished I had another set of hands to plug my ears while I kept taking pictures.
My second day in Puno, and I was caught up in some sort of demonstration. Thousands of men and women were converging on the Plaza de Armas. Organizers gave speaches from the steps of the cathedral. Hundreds were already in the square when I arrived about 9:00 am, and more poured in over the next hours.
I kept taking photos, trying to capture the different groups as they went by me and occasionally squeezing past the onlookers to find a different vantage point. My raised camera was met with benign stares, smiles, waves, and thumbs ups. One young man even gestured for me to join the marchers, but I just laughed and stayed in place. I wasn't brave enough to jump right in.
I'd heard that there had been general workers' strikes in Cusco and other cities around Peru, so I assumed that was what was going on in Puno, too. When I asked later, some people told me it was a general strike (a theory I thought was supported by the cry for mas dinero, more money), but others said it was a strike by workers from small mines. Apparently the federal government was trying to bring small mines into compliance with the same federal regulations large mines follow. Officially, the intent was to ensure the small mines were complying with environmental regulations, but apparently the miners/mine owners thought the government was just trying to get more tax dollars out of them. Undoubtedly, there was some truth to both sides.
Whatever their reasons for marching, these men and women were adamant about their messages. As they listened to the strike organizers, loud cheers were raised and slogans chanted. Much to my relief, the whole situation was just loud, not violent. Despite my nervousness about the crowds, everyone was peaceful. To ensure that peace, Puno police officers formed cordons around the square. They just stood there, shields and batons ready, intimidating to my American eyes by their very presence. I needn't have worried. I walked by one group as I was leaving the area, and a young officer said, "Hola, senorita. Como estas?" (Hello, miss. How are you?) Unfortunately, his voice was so quiet, I didn't hear and register what he'd said until I was already past. (I had a frequent problem catching that soft-spoken Peruvians were actually talking to me.)
While many businesses were shut down for the strike, street vendors were plentiful for feeding the masses. I bought two chicken empanadas (kind of a sandwich in a folded pastry) from an old woman, and sat on a bench in the sun to eat them. Well, I only ate one which was all I intended to buy in the first place. Apparently, I misunderstood the woman and thought she said one cost S/.8.00, but when I gave her the correct change, she gave me another empanada. Way too much food, but it was easier just to go with it than try to correct my mistake with my limited Spanish.
Puno, situated on the Peruvian altiplano, was very arid. I found myself drinking lots of water, not only to combat altitude problems, but also just to keep my mouth wet. It was difficult to produce enough saliva to comfortably eat the dry empanadas.
Having decided in the morning that I was already sick of my own company (apparently I'm not as interesting as I thought), I'd arranged to go on a tour to Sillustani, a nearby Incan site with burial ruins. I was eager to chat with other English speakers. At 2:00, a bus picked me up at my hotel, and we were off to battle our way through Puno traffic to the countryside.
English? Hah! While Alejandro, the tour guide, spoke very good English, he had to repeat everything he said twice: once in English and once in Spanish. I was the only one in the group of ten or so who spoke English. The rest were Spanish, German, and French, and all had some common understanding of Spanish, but no English. I was still lonely.
At least I was lonely in someplace interesting. Sillustani (prounounced see-you-stan-ee) is a pre-Incan and Incan burial site with the remains of several burial towers, some still intact (although I don't know if the bodies are still in them). The local peoples mummified their honored dead much like the ancient Egyptians did. One difference was that an Andean mummy's tendons would be cut so that the body could be curled up in a fetal position rather than stretched out flat. The body would be wrapped in cloth, etc., and then placed in a basket of woven reeds before it was placed in a niche in the tower. According to Alejandro, that basket was called a chullpa, but the term is commonly used incorrectly to refer to the towers themselves. If my notes are correct, the towers should be called allawasi. In Quechua, the local language, wasi means house, so allawasi makes sense.
(This seems like a good time to mention that although knowledge of the Spanish language is considered necessary in Peru, the official language is Quechua, the language the Incas used to unite their empire. Many older and rural people only speak Quechua, while urban and young people are likely to speak both.)
Sillustani, by the way, means "long fingernail" in Aymara, another indigenous language. The site sits on a long peninsula which extends into Lake Umayo, a small lake a bit higher in altitude than Lake Titicaca. Apparently, the peninsula reminded locals of a long fingernail. The allawasi were built by the Colla people, Aymara who were conquered by the Inca in the 1400s.
The allawasi in Sillustani are made in two distinct architectural styles: cut stone and natural stone. Contrary to what one might guess, the natural stone ones are not older than the cut stone, just different. Both styles are round, and smaller at the base with slightly flaring sides.
The Incans copied construction methods from earlier civilizations like the Aymara when creating their impressive stone structures (more on that in a later post). The pre-Incan towers at Sillustani demonstrate amazing stone work in which stones were cut to precise shapes with bronze and stone tools, and ground down with water and sand. Concave pockets were carved in the adjoining sides into which a mortar of mud and straw was packed to help the stones stay together better. It must have worked; these towers have been standing for over 600 years. The bases were specifically designed with gaps to allow the towers to withstand earthquake movements. The destruction seen at the site is the result of human vandals.
Some of the towers at Sillustani are unfinished. As a result, it is possible to see the construction methods used. To move the very large stones used in the towers, temporary ramps were built to the top level of the tower. Once completed, the ramps were removed.
The bodies would have been placed into the towers before they were sealed at the top. The towers were built with small doors at the bases which were later walled in, but they're so tiny they couldn't have been used for placing the bodies. I'm not sure what they were for.
My favorite part was, as always, the people. This woman was sitting near the exit path at Sillustani selling opportunities to take photos of her pet vicuña, a wild cousin of llamas and alpacas. She was enticing photographers by saying, "Muy bonita" (very pretty) while gesturing to her pet. After I took their photo, I showed it to her. Her smile was radiant as she said, "Bonita!" I heartily agreed, "Tu es muy bonita" (you are very pretty). Unfortunately, I had no soles left to pay the little girl with the baby alpaca for her picture. She didn't look to happy to be posing anyway.
We had an opportunity to see some traditional house architecture on our way back to Puno. These homes are made of handmade adobe bricks, and have thatched roofs. Toritos, little bulls, are placed on the roof tops along with Christian crosses to bring good fortune and protection to the household. I love the juxtaposition of symbols of traditional beliefs and the Christian beliefs which were introduced by the Spanish conquerers.
The final lesson of the day: I love pisco sours, but they don't mix with altitude. Just one drink with dinner had my head bursting on the walk back to my hotel. No more alcohol!
*Mountain Lodges of Peru, the local company Adventures in Good Company contracted with for our trek on the Salkanty Trail, gave us a sheet of tips for The Art of Traveling. I'll be quoting from that, as appropriate, to start most of my Peru posts.