Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Island life, city life, desert life.



After Machu Pichu and the Floating Islands, Sarah and I were done with tours for a bit. Machu Pichu was amazing, and the Floating Islands were interesting in their own way. But, at the same time, we were burnt out with being led around by a guide in a group of other confused tourists. On the other hand, we had enjoyed Tequile's island vibe, and were excited by our next destination: Isla Del Sol, in Bolivia.

Just across the Peru/Bolivian boarder is the small town of Copacabana (but, no, not that Copacabana) on Lake Titicaca. After what was possibly the most lax border crossing I've ever experienced ("change your money over there, have Peru stamp your passport there, walk through that arch, and have Boliva stamp your passport, and you're done!"), Sarah and I were in our second country of the trip.

The trip from Copacabana to Isla Del Sol was an hour and 30 minute long passage ferry crossing. While Sarah and I had agreed that Isla Tequile reminded us of Sicily, Isla Del Sol was maybe Sicily... with the weather of the Scottish Highlands (another place neither of us have been). The days would be gorgeous and sunny. But, shortly after midnight it would begin to downpour... really, really downpour. Then, almost magically, the rain would pass around 11AM each morning, letting us explore the island in the sun all afternoon.

And, what an island to explore! No internet (thus our silence for the last few days)and no cars. Little old women and children leading donkeys, pigs, sheep and llamas down the narrow cobblestone paths that served as the islands "roads." Tiny bays with even tinier towns perched over them. So relaxing, after the chaos of the last few weeks. And, we even saw a lunar ecplise while eating dinner the first night.

Speaking of dinner, since it was an island with limited contact with the mainland, there were basically three choices for dinner in each restaurant: trout, omelettes or spaghetti. We did see one place advertising hamburgers, but when we sat down and looked at their menu, "hamburgers" had been crossed out, leaving (you guessed it) trout, omelettes and spaghetti. To be fair, their spaghetti was very good. The cheese they make in this region is soft, salty and goes very well shredded on top of pasta.

Hiking around the island itself was wonderful after spending the last few weeks dodging cars and their horns. The only problem was with the the guys selling tickets. Basically, you need to buy a ticket to get into the ruins on the island. Sarah and I were sort of worn out on ruins, so we hadn't planned on buying a ticket. The main problem with this is that there is really only one path going around the island, and at two places on that path there are guys selling tickets to the ruins... and they won't let you pass until you buy a ticket. To make things even more confusing, it seemed (after the fact) that one of the guys isn't legit. Still, Sarah and I managed to convince one guy to let us pass by buying only one ticket, and convinced the second guy to let us pass buying only one discount ticket (oddly, he had two ticket prices). Still, it was frustrating, and the difficulty explaining that we only wanted to walk around the island only highlighted that life would really be easier if we knew some more Spanish.

Isle Del Sol overall, was probably the first place we felt like we were ahead of the tourist curve... if just barely. As I mentioned, there is no internet, nor any bank (something that proved challenging for us since we didn't think to bring enough money). But, at the same time, you cna see a lot of hostels being built, and the children have already learned the chant of "have you cam-er-ah? Phot-oh-graphica me!" So, in a few years, I see things changing dramatically for the residence of the island.

Anyhow, sadly, our trip to Isla Del Sol was over too fast, and we were back on the ferry home. The return ferry wasn't quite the relaxing, sunny affair that the first ferry ride was. The rain hadn't stopped, and the overcrowded ferry's small sheltered section was packed with tourists and locals making their way back to mainland. The pilot stood stoicly at the rear of the boat, striking a dramatic pose in his fedora and heavy woolen blanket wrapped over his shoulders. He was so focused on piloting the little boat, and trying to see through the rapidly fogging-over windows on the far end of the ship, that he hardly seemed to notice that the boat was so loaded down, that water was nearly slopping over the boats edges.

I sat squished within the boat. On right side of me sat a girl who was either sea-sick, just sick or hung over. It was hard to tell for sure, but her eyes would roll back in her head as she took woozy pulls from an oversized water bottle. (Beyond her, oddly, was a girl who looked so much like Meghan that I kept seeing her out of the corner of my eye and doing double-takes. Meghan - your doppleganger is in Boliva right now.) Around my feet sat several elderly Bolivian women in their traditional bowler hats, shawls and skirts. Occasionally, someone would offer them a seat on a bench, but mere moments later, they'd be sitting on their colorful bundles on the floor again.

And, on the left side of me sat Sarah.

I'm not sure why (basically, I was bored), but I decided it would be a good idea to roll up the ferry ticket... and stick it in Sarah's ear. Obviously, Sarah didn't find it to be as amusing an idea, and suddenly leapt awake, letting out a little squeek of startlment. "Why'd you do that!?" She scolded me, then her face turned a little red, "Now they're all laughing at us."

I turned to see two of the elderly women sitting at our feet laughing. One of them repeatedly sticking as finger in her ear, as she explained to her friend what she had just seen me do.

All we could do was sort of sit there red-faced, as I repeated what has sort of become a mantra of mine on this leg of the trip: "Lo siento, mi esposa. Lo siento."

A short time later, we were on another bus to La Paz. I'd been sort of dreading La Paz since I'd heard a few others describe it in less than glowing terms, and had heard more than one pick pocket story. But, nothing prepared us for what we would see as our bus reached the edge of the valley that La Paz lay within. Spreading out below us, as far as the eye could see (or at least as far as the smog would allow us) was La Paz: A sprawling warren of thin roads, brick buildings and the occasional nest of skyscrappers. A pure urban sprawl, and an amazing one.

Our bus dropped us off in the middle of the old downtown. And, after buying our tickets to Uyuni (our next destination), Sarah and I had a few hours to explore downtown. After grabbing a beer at one restraunt, buying me a Bolivian flag patch at a stall, grabbing a bite to eat at another restaurant, and exploring a few streets, we were back on the bus again.

La Paz, we hardly knew ye. But, while we both agreed that it was best to get on the road again, we also both agreed that someday it would be worth returning to give La Paz more of a chance.

Having heard many a horror story about the bus rides in Bolivia, Sarah and I opted to pay the roughly extra $5 US to catch a ride on a first-class bus, instead of the repainted school buses that seem to make up the majority of the Bolivian bus fleet. The ride was still long, bumpy and sleep still managed to elude me, but at least we were able to ride it out in comfortable, reclining chairs, with a movie, and an on bus bano. Part of us felt like we were taking the "easy way out," but another part of us agreed that there were some cultural experiences (like 14 hour bus rides on uncomfortable, chicken-laden buses) that we could pass on. For now at least.

Roughly twelve hours later (it was supposed to be nine, but the recent rains had turned the desert outside Uyuni into a swamy mess, criss-crossed with newly formed rivers that our bus had to ford) we were in Uyuni. Like usual, I was a gibbering, sleep-deprived mess, but a quick nap in our new hostel has gone a long way to correct that problem.

Tomorrow, we depart on a three-day tour of Salar de Uyuni. During that time, we won't have internet access, and after that we'll be on another bus to Santiago, so don't expect another blog entry for a while. But, I'm sure we'll have plenty to babble about when we reach Santiago.

1 comment:

ambika said...

That was the bizarre thing about Amergris Caye in Belize. On one hand, you could see that they must have had weekly deliveries from the mainland because of the plethora of goods in the two grocery stores. But no one, and I mean no one, had decent fruit or vegetables. And the ice cream was always slushy from having melted on the journey there and then re-frozen in the freezer section. Damn paradise islands.