Sunday, November 11, 2007

sitting on top of the world

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As incredible as this vacation has been, we've suffered two pretty huge traumas: my laptop died a complete and total death, and last night, somehow, some awful, mysterious, terrible somehow, I deleted our entire days' photos of our trip on Lake Titicaca. When we got home, Marc was able to recover them, thankfully. This happened after dinner; I was trying to move the days' worth onto our external drive to save them, so I could also delete the camera card to give me enough room for more photos. They moved onto the other drive, I verified they were there, did it again, and then deleted them from the camera card. Then, so no other guests would pick through our photos, I emptied the recycle bin. When I went to open the file to look at the pictures, the folder and all the photos were not there. I sat there in stunned disbelief. They weren't on the drive, they weren't on the camera card, they just weren't anywhere. It made no sense and it made me sick.

Before that happened, yesterday was an incredible day sitting on top of the world. We went to the port around 7:30 yesterday morning to try to negotiate our way to a private tour. All we wanted was some guy to drive us out into the lake and let us visit two places, as long (actually, as briefly) as we wanted. We finally made an arrangement that felt ok. Our driver's name was Serrillo. It was a really big boat, it could hold 16 people, and only Marc and I (plus Serrillo) were on it.

We were headed first to Uros, the floating islands, and then farther out to Isla Taquille. The floating islands are just woven of reeds, and there's a whole collection of them.

In the pre-Incan times, the two groups were constantly at war with each other, so this group of people got the brilliant idea to go out into the lake and build themselves some islands so they could stay out of the warriors' way. See the islands, woven of packed straw that must constantly be replenished, since it rots from the bottom up:

As the boat was pulling out, we noticed with some slight discomfort the state of the boat's "motor". We noticed it because Serrillo had to keep adjusting all the jerry-rigging he'd done to keep it running. There was a screwdriver jammed in like a lever, some string holding other stuff together, a wet rag wrapped around something that had to hang outside, and mysteriously, a baseball cap covering something. Throughout the trip, he kept looking back at the engine with a worried expression.

So we made it to the first island. The islands were arranged in a kind of semi-circle and in the bay they formed were a dozen huge reed boats with big animal heads. Some were doubles, side by side. Island people in full traditional dress were driving them and of course they were all full of tourists.

So we pulled up to an island and suddenly we were swarmed by women and children helping us out of the boat. They were incredibly friendly, asking our names, telling us their names, making connections with us. I said my name and a chorus went up: "Lorena!" A short stout woman grabbed my hand and said (what a coincidence....) that her daughter's name is Lorena. They called to each other all around the small island, telling them that my name is Lorena. Julia, Lorena's mother, held my hand tightly and tugged me over to her array of things she makes -- little reed boats, woven things, jewelry, so much stuff I couldn't see it all. She kept touching me and grinning, and people from all over the island came over to grin at this new Lorena. She and I talked about our children, and since my Spanish is horrible at best, I struggled with listing my children and their ages and I wasn't always sure what she was saying. It was hard to get away, but I did buy a little reed boat for my desk, to keep paper clips. That's Julia, below, with Marc, and footage of her in the video below the photo. She was darling.

The video, which includes Julia:

Marc and I sat on a log to kind of watch everything, watching the show being put on for tourists (which of course included us), when another little stout woman named Victoria came and sat by me. She knew my name was Lorena and she held my arm so tightly as she talked to me. I kept saying "no espanol, solamente un poquito" (which is probably wrong, as far as I know) but she just kept chattering away. Then her husband Augusto came over and stood looking down at us; he was chattering away too, and I sat there grinning like an idiot.

Serrillo finally came and took us back to the boat, and a small boy, probably 8 years old got on, too. He'd been on the island, apparently, and Marc and I finally figured out that he must be Serrillo's son. (Neither of them spoke as much English as Marc and I speak Spanish.) So the son got on and we pulled out again. Serrillo had to make frequent trips back to the engine to keep it going, and his son would drive. Sometimes Serrillo took a long nap and his son would drive. At first this startled us, but the longer Serrillo slept and that little boy was driving, we started to find it hilarious. Eight years old, navigating a large, old boat with two rich tourists from New York across Lake Titicaca. He certainly has a different life than either of us has had. Sometimes Serrillo went on the upper deck of the boat to have lunch, he'd take a nap, he'd just want to sit in the back and watch the waves, so the boy did more driving than you'd imagine. It was truly a funny part of the already-funny journey.

Luckily, we were on the top of the world, boating across the highest navigable lake in the world. It felt high. The light was strange, and the air was thin and clear. We knew we had to wear sunblock, but unfortunately I didn't think about my head. So both Marc and I got sunburned scalps. But there we were, driving across Lake Titicaca. So incredibly surreal.

See the snow-capped mountain in the distance:
We finally made it Taquille, which is remote and isolated. The island has been populated for thousands of years, and the current people only marry others on the island. They allow tourists to come, but not to take photos. The only nod to tourists is the placement of a restaurant or two on the very top, near the village. So there we were, puttering across the lake, when I opened the Lonely Planet book to read a bit about the island. And here is what I read:
There are 500 steps to get to the top of the island.
Dang. I wish I'd read that before. 500 steps, I can't do that in Manhattan, much less at such an incredibly high altitude. But there we were, and we'd come that far, so what the hell.

The guidebook said it takes a breathless 20 minutes to climb to the top, so Marc and I figured 40 minutes for us and told Serrillo we'd be back in two hours. We started for the stairs, which were rocks and occasionally a small slab, zigzagging up the side of the mountain. Native people were going up them with huge packs strapped on their backs, and they were panting and had to stop frequently. This did not look good. So up we went. OH....yeah. Also, it was around noon. Very near the equator. Higher than the highest navigable lake in the world.

Beautiful flowers growing on the mountainside, with working terraces all around
(but not visible in this photo):
We started climbing and told each other we would stop as often as either of us wanted, which we did. It seemed ok until we were about 7/8 of the way up the mountain when suddenly I started feeling very VERY sick. Not just hot, not just out of breath, but sick. Oddly sick, not right, something's pretty wrong. We could see the top, but there was no way I'd make it. A few steps further was a huge stone arch with a flat place on the other side, and a lot of shade. So I forced my way to the shade and really thought I had sunstroke or something. It was bad. On the very tip-top was the village, but luckily we didn't feel it was our sole destination.

I felt a little bit bad about needing us to stop so long, but Marc reminded me that the journey was the point and who cares about going exactly to the very top -- stop and look. Where we were was where we were going. Look through the arch. And even though I felt like dying, when I looked through that arch and saw the vastness of Lake Titicaca, with the mountains on the rim, it was all OK, even though I was still sick. So we sat in cool shade, I drank a lot of water, and we just watched. Apparently we were very near the restaurant exit, because a lot of tourists went past us, but the good part was watching this small group of young children.

Three boys, one tiny girl, playing on rock walls at the top of this mountain. They had a wooden top with a string, and one boy would put it on the little girl's head to spin. She was eating candy and didn't seem to mind. One boy was knitting as he walked around, which has become such a common sight that it doesn't even seem striking any more. They wore the clothes of their group, which meant black pants and a white shirt with a short black vest for the boys (along with unusual caps), and the tiny girl wore several skirts, a sweater, and woolen knitted leggings, with sandals. They paid absolutely no attention to the tourists. They were really playful with each other, chattering away in whispers. They always whispered. I think one young boy was the brother of the little girl, and he was so tender with her it made me cry, once again. She was sitting on a rock ledge overlooking the lake, and he came over to her and touched his forehead to hers. They looked into each others' eyes for several minutes, turning their heads side to side a little but always touching foreheads. Later the group left, and as they went up a relatively high ledge (for little kids), the boy turned and gently helped his sister up. It was really touching, their tenderness.

This woman sat in the hot sun, spinning with a drop spindle, the entire time we were there:

When we had about a half hour until time to meet Serrillo, I was feeling much better so we started down the mountain. You think down is going to be easy, and it certainly was easier than up, but down wasn't a picnic, either. We got to Serrillo at 2pm and out we went, back across the lake for a 3-hour tour (a 3-hour tour...). Marc took a nap on the long cushioned benches inside, and so did Serrillo. It was just me and the little boy, puttering across the lake. Wild, weird, strange, surreal, unbelievable, fantastic, amazing.

And this was the final surprise. We stopped at the Uros island; neither Marc nor I expected this. Serrillo and the boy climbed out onto the island, and several minutes later they came back with a stout woman and another younger boy. While we were waiting, this little girl with a dried-snotty nose came on the boat and tried to sell us some stuff. And what a coincidence! Her brother's name is Marco, too! I think it's a combination of incredibly smart native psychology and something about their culture -- they make personal connections immediately, find ways to make you part of them no matter what it takes, and smile at you and touch you constantly. It's not at all intrusive, but it is notable. So finally, Serrillo came back with what we believe must be his family, and off we went.

Serrillo's wife was doing some embroidery, and if I hadn't seen her doing it by hand, I'd have sworn it was done by a machine. The stitches were absolutely perfect, each exactly the same length as the others. She knew my name was Lorena when she got on the boat, so we think she must have been working on the island all day. But unlike the clothing people wore on the island, full skirts of colorful material, braided hair with alpaca tassels on the ends, those odd little bowler-type hats, she had on a crushed velvet skirt and a plain old sweater. So she'd just been at work all day, and she changed back into her normal clothes to go home. It made us laugh.

We wanted to eat dinner in Puno instead of at our hotel restaurant, so we found this place recommended by Lonely Planet called DonPiero. As we sat waiting for our food, I heard the Eurythmics on the street below, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This. Everywhere we went we heard 80s music, actually. In one cab, that song Take On Me. And ABBA too, lots of Chiquitita. It really made me laugh. Our dinners were good, steak and french fries, and limonade as usual. Back to the hotel, off to the computers, erase the pictures.

Thank heavens Marc is so technologically clever.

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