September 30, 2013
It seems to be my destiny to arrive in a strange (to me) place and hire a taxi driver who assures me he can take me to my hotel and who then proceeds to abundantly prove, even though I don't speak his language, that he has no idea where I need to go. While my arrival in Peru didn't quite match the level of adventure my arrival in Bangkok had last year, it was still disconcerting nonetheless to go on a 40 minute taxi ride with someone whom I knew didn't know where my hotel was located. At one point, we even asked a little girl if she knew where to find La Casa de Manuelita. Of course she didn't. Happily, he found the unobtrusive entrance eventually, and the proprietor was waiting up for me.
I was supposed to have arrived in Juliaca about 5:00 in the afternoon, and then had planned on a taxi ride to Puno, a small city on the shores of Lake Titicaca. On our initial approach, however, we encountered high winds that caused the plane to bounce through air pockets and be buffeted side to side. I think the two young women from Brazil sitting next to me were convinced they were going to die. Every time the plane bounced they shrieked. At first, the shrieks were followed by gales of embarrassed giggles, but before long the giggles were replaced by tears and hands thrust up in supplication. When the pilot announced he was aborting the landing and diverting to the nearby town of Arequipa, they gave prayers of thanksgiving.
Personally, I've been in much worse turbulence in much smaller planes.
After waiting in the plane for an hour or so in Arequipa, LAN airline decided to make a second attempt at Juliaca before sending the plane on its way to Lima. Another woman on the plane asked a flight attendant twice, "You mean we're going back to that crazy place?" Her voice dripped with disbelief. Of course, the wind had died down in the meantime and the plane landed without incident. The whole situation just meant that I arrived at my hotel a few hours later than planned.
Puno is a city of about 100,000 people in southern Peru near the border of Bolivia. It sits at just over 12,000 feet in elevation, and is on the western side of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. I chose to spend a few days there acclimating to the altitude before I met up with the group from Adventures in Good Company for our trek to Machu Picchu.
One of my favorite things to do is just wander around a city seeing what there is to see. Given the altitude, my plan for the first day was to just move slowly and breathe. I had a headache (dolor de cabeza), but I attributed that to lack of sleep over the past 36 hours rather than a direct result of thin air.
Walking around Puno was a bit like strolling through the pages of a National Geographic magazine. Middle-aged businessmen in suits dodged young girls in tight jeans and women in traditional Quechua and Aymara "costumes." Young mothers in western clothing tied babies to their backs with shawls woven with bright acrylic yarns. And everyone used cell phones. It never ceased to make me smile to see an old woman dressed in full skirts and a colonial-style hat peering at her cell phone while seated on the cathedral steps.
I headed first for the Plaza de Armas, the town square. Every city and town has one, usually with the town's main cathedral making up one side of the square. Puno was no different.
I was feeling my lack of facility in the Spanish language on this morning. I had enough capability to generally get my needs met, but not enough to ask what was going on in the square that morning. I watched what appeared to be several preschool classes line up in front of the cathedral. An official spoke a bit, and then the children were given saplings. Many parents and grandparents looked on from across the street, while some helped the teachers keep order. All of the kids were in school uniforms, and looked adorable, as kids always do. I would still love to know exactly what was going on. My guess, given the signs the kids were carrying, etc. was that it was something to promote environmental awareness.
Pollo montado for lunch at Hua Sapata (it must have been a good restaurant - all of the other patrons were locals) revived me, and I wandered down toward Lake Titicaca to the handicrafts market. Stall after stall was filled with colorful woven shawls, knitted hats and gloves, and bags of all shapes and sizes. I noticed, however, that the "handicrafts" in each stall was essentially the same as what was in the others. I did buy a pretty pair of gloves for Mom and a little purse for my immediate use.
The best part of the market, however, was the women. There were half a dozen sitting together in the sun knitting, and I asked one if I could take her picture. She started to say "yes" when one of the others interrupted to say I needed to pay her S/.5.00 (five Nuevo Soles, about $1.75). I shrugged, said okay, and took a couple of pictures. When I was done, I squatted down next to her to show her the photos on my camera (I'd remembered how delighted the women in Bhutan were to see themselves). In halting Spanish (mine, not theirs) we proceeded to discuss my traveling alone (which they thought was very brave) even though I had a husband and daughter at home, and whether or not I liked Puno (I did). I wished I'd had some knitting or a drop spindle so I could have sat and joined them for a while. Well worth my S/.5.
I was brave at dinner and tried an alpaca steak. It was cut very thin and was overcooked, but it was tasty. It reminded me a lot of moose and caribou: there was a definite game flavor, but it wasn't too strong or unpleasant. The cream of asparagus soup was divine. The Cusceña beer was a mistake.
I'd had a headache all day, but nothing critical. The only time I'd really noticed the altitude was when I was walking uphill - I'd get a little out of breath. The beer, however, just about killed me. I'd previously been able to walk slowly up to my hotel without stopping. After the beer, I had to stop four times to catch my breath. Worse, I felt like someone had clamped a vice to my head and was trying to squeeze it in half. I have seldom been so relieved as when the pain mostly abated after I climbed the four flights to my hotel room and collapsed on my bed. The beer was good, but definitely not worth it! Crawling under the 40 pounds of blankets (no heat source for the room) and going to sleep early was bliss.
*from the cover of the Live Inspired journal Mandy gave me to record my adventures in Peru (wonderfully inspirational journals can be found at www.live-inspired.com)