Monday, June 19, 2017

Home, Home on the Water

I love being in or on the water, so Lake Titicaca was a nice place to visit. It is the world's highest navigable lake. The lake sits at 12,630 feet in what is known as the Altiplano, the highland region. The only such region in the world that is higher is in Tibet, at some 13,000 feet. Legend holds that the sun god had two children who emerged from the waters of the lake to found Cusco and begin the Inca dynasty. Inca remains have been found at the lake, so perhaps the legend is correct. If you turn the map of the lake upside down, it is supposed to resemble a puma. I'm still waiting to be convinced.

The lake is both fresh and salty. The water tastes fresh, but testing reveals a small percentage of salt. Climate change endangers the lake. Peru has lost 30 percent of its snow cap in the last 50 years, making Lima the second dryest city in the world. If nothing changes, Lake Titicaca will cease to exist in 5,000 years. A river from the lake into neighboring Bolivia dried up six months ago. Although 28 species of fish once lived in the lake, only six remain. The lake's size helps regulate the temperature of the region. The temperature does drop below freezing overnight, but it has only snowed twice in Puno. Hail is common, but not snow.

The lake sits 52 percent in Peru and 48 percent in Bolivia. Its depth is not definitively known. Jacques Cousteau visited the Bolivian side of the lake and used sonar to register a depth of 902 feet. Given the size of the lake, though, it is quite possible there are spots that are deeper. Swimming is permitted in the lake if you can stand the average water temperature of 48 degrees F. And while swimming is permitted, pleasure boating is not. Kayaking is permitted in defined spots. Other than that, tourism boats and boats used by locals are the only craft allowed on the lake.
Our first stop was the Islas de los Uros, floating islands named after the natives who live there. These people have DNA related to the Mongols suggesting their ancestors might have crossed the Bering Strait and moved south. On a more recent note, they are descendants of slaves who worked in the mines. Slavery did not exist until the arrival of the Spanish and the Catholic church. African slaves brought to work there only lasted about three days before dying. Local slaves lasted about ten days. Some of these slaves built reed boats and escaped onto the lake, later building reed islands on which to live.
The reeds used to construct an island are cut in blocks from the bottom of the lake and average anywhere from three to 10 feet in thickness. Sticks are put in each corner and then roped into a platform into which more reeds can be woven. The weight put on each platform helps to stabilize it. 
It takes 15 months to one year to make one island, and islands last an average of 35 years. The inhabitants must take care of the platform. Dry reeds must be added to the top of the platform regularly. Some of the islands are anchored to the lake bottom. Should an island start to sink, there is no way to save it. Thus, when it starts to look as if an island might be dying, the men on that island start constructing a new one.

Life on a floating island is not without some comforts. The solar panels shown below were provided

by the government and some NGOs and provide electricity to the homes.

Power is not used for cooking. That is done over an open fire outside. You would be correct to think that an open fire on an island made of dried plant matter doesn't sound very safe. It's not, which is why there are always two people cooking.

As you might imagine, life on a floating island is not easy. While there are elementary schools on some islands, high school students must commute to the mainland or live in Puno and go home on weekends. Only 18 percent of high school students return to the islands to live; in four or five generations, the islands may be gone. Most women give birth on the island; there is a 5 percent maternal mortality rate in childbirth. The mortality rate for infants in 19 percent. Children often die falling off an island. Despite living on the water, most islanders do not know how to swim.

Every island has a social leader called a president. Presidents are elected annually, and organize the families to maintain the island. Islands vary in terms of the number of inhabitants. The island we visited was on the small side--15 people in three families.

When tourism boats first came to the islands in the 1960s and 70s, the islanders were not at all pleased. That has changed now that 60 percent of the local economy comes from tourism. The other 40 percent is from hunting, fishing, and trading. The principal craft is embroidery.
Tourists can also take a boat ride, though only three people in our group of 19 did so. The one that was not the husband or me came because we touted it as an adventure.
We rode on the boat's upper deck, giving a nice view of the small islands, many of which had a tourist boat visiting. I did not ask whether the arch served any purpose; I wish now that I had.
Propelled by men with paddles, the boat went at a nice, relaxed pace.

We also visited one of the elementary schools for the floating islands. The school platform was actually floating on pontoons rather than reed blocks. The kindergarten classroom we visited was not all that different from classrooms I've seen in the States. The subjects highlighted could be found in kindergarten classrooms almost anywhere. A book center.
An "I think and make" center.
There were others for music, science and the environment, days of the week, and behavior

After visiting the school, we went to Taquile, home of some of the best knitters in the world. Our guide Manuel said that they could knit 192 stitches per centimeter, something I really don't believe. That aside, the knitters on Taquile are all men.
The women are all weavers.
Both the knitting and weaving are quite intricate. Here is some of the detail of the knitted hat I purchased at the market.
As can be seen in the photo above, the men use very fine, double-pointed needles for their knitting. They don't just sit or stand to knit; they keep knitting even as they walk.

Hats serve a social purpose on Taquile. The colors and patterns of a hat denote one's marital status,  position within the community, job, and origin. A hat is also central to the marriage customs of the island. A young man cannot consider marriage until he has finished a special hat to give to the father of the intended bride. The father will fill the hat with water. If the hat holds water without dripping for 10 seconds, then the young man can pursue marriage with the daughter. A couple wishing to marry must live together for two years, during which time the young woman must knit two belts for the young man. The couple usually resides with the young man's family. At the end of the two years, if they wish, they can marry in the month of May, when a Catholic priest visits the island. (If the young woman becomes pregnant during the two years, then the couple must marry.)

Taquile's president is elected annually. Someone who is nominated is not permitted to decline the nomination. The election is held in November. There are 24 men serving on a council. To serve, a man must have two children; parents are viewed as slightly more invested in the  state of the island. Re-election is not allowed on the grounds that it might invite corruption.

So much for our very busy day on the lake. That night, we had a farewell dinner. The next day, we would fly back to Lima. Thirteen people would head home, while six of us would extend our tour with a trip to the Amazonian rainforest.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Going to New Heights

Leaving Cusco behind, we set out for Puno, some 380 km or 236 miles away. We knew it would be a long day. There were several stops scheduled, plus the drivers (the bus had to have two given the distance we were going) should not, could not, and would not speed. Buses and other commercial vehicles are equipped with GPS, but not in the way one might think. Those GPS units are wired so as to track the vehicle's speed. Each commercial driver begins a year with 100 points. A driver loses points for speeding among other infractions. If a driver's point total hits 0 during the year, the penalty is losing one's license for one month. Should a driver's point total drop to 0 a second time, the penalty is loss of one's license for one year. A third time? Say adios to one's commercial driver's license.

Our first stop was at a church known as "the Sistene Chapel of the Americas," Andahuaylillas. Since no photography was allowed, you'll have to take my word for that or visit a website such as this. Can you say "ornate"? I particularly liked the 1626 mural The Road to Hell, which can be seen on the website linked above. It's in the montage of photos below the text, in the upper right corner. There appears to be a tyrannosaurus rex on one side. Since one could suppose that in 1626 South America  no one knew about T-rexes, one wonders what sort of creature it was meant to be.

Photography was permitted outside so I can at least offer a view of the front facade.
 I can also offer a close-up of someone napping on the steps out front.
It was not clear if this dog belonged to anyone; there was, after all, a small market going on outside the church.
It's probably more likely that the dog was one of the many street dogs subsisting on handouts (the husband noted that no dog we saw appeared to be starving) and living outside; we were told that there are seven humans for each dog in Peru. 

Our next stop was the archaeological site at Raqch'i. Raqch'i was located on an Incan road system that began in Cusco. Most of the buildings still standing were enclosed by a wall 4 km in length, making it as much a fort as a city.
What is left of the Temple of Wiracocha actually looked different from the other Incan ruins we'd seen.
It is not clear if Raqch'i was a stopping point for travelers on the road, as a fort, or both. There were a number of circular buildings thought to be warehouses or storehouses.
We in no way covered the entire site. To do so would have taken more hours than we had.
There was a market outside of the site. I was getting quite used to seeing at least one weaver at each market.

Occasionally, we would have "surprises," stops or events not included in the written itinerary for the tour. Stopping to see and even feed llamas, alpacas, and vicunas was one such stop. (Danger ahead! The vicuna is just so darn cute.)
A bit after the camelid fun, we hit the high point, altitude-wise, of the trip. The sign I used in opening notes 4,335 meters, which converts to 14,222 feet. What was there? Another market!

 There was another stop on the road to Puno that we actually made two days later, on our way to the airport to fly back to Lima. Since it ties in so well with the path this post is taking...

That final stop was at Sillustani, a pre-Inca cemetery on the shores of Lake Umayo.
The tombs, or chullpas, were all above ground.
The largest one, to the right on the photo above, resembled a coffee cup, and I wondered how they engineered the wider upper body on the structure.
 The back of this chullpa had broken away. The rocks in the foreground once made up the back side.
The bodies put into the chullpas were mummified, though not in Egyptian fashion. For one, the mummies were not wrapped. Also, they were mummified in a fetal position rather than a straight posture.
There were various other chullpas not quite as impressive as the coffee-cup one.
An interesting note about Sillustani: This was the only ruin at which I saw any litter. I picked up a collapsed paper cup and handed it off to our local guide, Manuel. Can you imagine going to as many U.S. tourist sites as we did Peruvian ones and only finding one piece of litter? I wish!

Back to the trip into Puno. We were somewhat nervous about what we might encounter there. This was the iPhone report early in the morning as we were leaving Cusco.
Yes, that says "Mixed Rain and Snow" in between Puno and the temperature. So what did we see when we finally got to Puno at the end of the day?
I somewhat wish I could say that the white spots were snow, but they were actually hail.

While we had left the 14,000 foot altitude behind, we were still at the highest altitude at which we would spend time, 3,827 meters or 12,556 feet. Despite having been reminded of that fact, I had a brief moment of "how out of shape have I gotten" panic after getting out of breath walking up to our room on the fourth floor. Fortunately, that was the worst of it for me, though I know it hit some other people on the tour a bit harder.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Cuy in Cusco

We arrived in Cusco after dark and after splitting from one large group in a bus too large for the narrow Cusco streets to two smaller groups in two vans that were just the right size. Not being super hungry (the noon meal is the large one of the day in Peru), the husband and I settled for pizza and pisco sours in the hotel bar. A pisco sour is the national drink of Peru. Many restaurants offered members of tour groups such as ours the choice of a free pisco sour or a free lemonade with the meal. They actually taste very similar; the pisco sour just has alcohol in it, about 45 percent according to one guide.

There were three sights or events planned for our one full day in Cusco--Coricancha and Santo Domingo, a Dominican church built atop the ruins of the Inca Templo del Sol, or Temple of the Sun; the Cusco Cathedral; and lunch with a Peruvian family. Since I've been asked more than once since we returned, did I partake of guinea pig, I'll cover the lunch first. We split into two groups, each meeting a different family. The family the husband and I visited was husband, wife and six kids ranging in age from 23 down to about 4. The eldest, a lawyer, spoke good English and served as the interpreter. She still lived with her family; moving into one's own place is typically not done until marriage.

Cuy, guinea pig, was served as part of the first course. Sheila (the tour director, who was with our group) had told us that we did not have to take any or we could take only one piece to try it. That's what I did. There actually wasn't that much meat on my piece, but it was enough to say that it did not have a distinctive taste. A friend had suggested that it might taste like rabbit. It may have, but since it's been decades since I ate rabbit, I couldn't really say. One person in the other group told us that he'd liked it so much that he cleared the plate that had been passed around. The meal as a whole was a fine representation of Peruvian foods. Chicha morada was the beverage; the dessert was a pudding also made from purple corn.

After lunch we spent some time chatting with the family. The father is a local representative of Odysseys Unlimited, our tour operator. The older kids all spoke some English. The 10-year-old daughter gets about two hours of English instruction in school weekly. Since they were all willing to try a bit of English, I brought up from the depths of my memory some of the Spanish I once spoke fluently after minoring in it in college. The father complimented me on my accent. He also shot an unexpected question at me, and I actually managed to answer it.
Located on the Plaza de Armas at the center of Cusco, the Cusco Cathedral is a Jesuit church. Just as many of the cathedrals in Spain were built atop Islamic mosques, the Cusco Cathedral was built atop a former Inca palace. Unfortunately, no photographs are permitted. After the tour, the husband remarked that rather than call the cathedral a Roman Catholic one, perhaps Fusion Catholic was a better descriptor. There were clearly Incan additions to the Catholic elements. For example, there is a painting of the Last Supper showing the main course of the meal with a clear Incan flavor. Most sources say it is a guinea pig being served; however, I found one source that held it was an Andean chinchilla instead.
While that one out-of-the-ordinary item might well have been added by the Spanish to appeal to the Incas, another was more likely added by one of the Incas trained as a painter. There is another painting showing the torture of Jesus as he is made to shoulder the cross. This scene traditionally shows Roman soldiers poking Jesus with sticks. The soldiers in the Cusco Cathedral painting are dressed as Spanish soldiers. Many of the representations of Jesus in the cathedral show him with a slightly darker complexion that is usually shown.
As with the cathedral, the church of Santo Domingo is built on the foundations of an Incan sun temple.

The foundation walls were, as in other places, rocks fitted tightly together without mortar. One earthquake supposedly severely damaged the church while the foundations stayed intact. From the temple, the Incas saw the sun radiating outward in 48 rays. The courtyard of the church had some interesting modern sculptures on display.
Being a sucker for shots taken through windows and doors, I could not resist taking the photo below.
I feel as if I am not giving Cusco the attention it deserves, but I actually felt this day was something of a rest and catch-my-breath day after the awe of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. At the end of the afternoon, we bid Fernando a fond farewell and regrouped for the next day's bus ride to Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca and the highest point of our trip altitude-wise.  The husband and I went out with two other people from the trip for a very nice dinner accompanied by a very good red wine. If you're ever in Cusco, I highly recommend Limo.