S. America

Living on the Lake

Men in textile cone hats waved at us as we rocked past in our boat, their tanned round faces wrinkling in delight. The still water cast gentle ripples behind the reed boats, which had great curling necks that became grotesque laughing puma heads with white painted teeth. Passengers sat in the helms or the bellies of the beasts, and a few were promoted to the woven towers above.

Boats made from totora reeds
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Women wearing long thick colourful dresses grabbed our forearms with strong hands, and welcomed us in the rolling dialect of Quechua.Komisarati.Waaliki.We were shown the traditional Uros way of life, with the president of Islas Uros demonstrating how the islanders use the totora reids to create boats, houses and even the floating islands themselves. He also joked that if there was a dispute, they would simply cut off their neighbours and let them float away. He showed us how they hunt for birds, knit clothes and weave reid gifts to sell, before proudly showing us his hut that he shared with his wife. It was simply decorated with thick rugs and only a calendar adorning the wall, but he showed off his small television box that demonstrated that the islanders were embracing new technology despite their insistence on traditional methods a millennia old.

Children selling traditional wares
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Two small children sat in the bright sunlight, dressed in coloured wools to thaw from the cold night before. The girl, older than her brother, frowned in the glare as she waited for another boat load of tourists to tour the island. The younger boy played with the reid mobile of boats that symbolises the union of marriage and the fishing profession of his people. A flamingo sat in the shade behind them, gazing out at the visitors with golden fiery eyes. A controlled splash announced the trout farm which housed large fish. A woman knelt down to grind corn into flour, and it coated her face in a cream-coloured beard. I crouched on the bouncy reids and chatted with children before buying a crafted mobile and a few handmade bracelets. As we jumped back on the boat, the women sang and laughed, shouting ‘Hasta la vista baby!’ after us like Arnie.

There was a 3 hour boat ride to Amantani, where we would be staying with local families for a home stay. As we docked in the port, our families stood waiting on the shore. My friend and I were introduced to Señora Carmen in Quechuan, and she was to be our acting mother for the experience. She shyly greeted us, waved goodbye to her friends who wore the same thick high waisted skirts and white blouses with trailing long scarves, and led us quickly away. We followed her as she strode ahead, her black hair long and plaited and swinging with her steps. Her feet moved with speed over the familiar rocky paths as she led us up away from the shore, through a path that cut through various homes made from dry stone. A horse stood grazing up ahead, and belonged to the father of the family that the boys were staying with, named Alfonso. On our tour of the island he rode it up the hillside dressed as a western cowboy.

Homestay at Amantani
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We approached Señora Carmen’s house and met her husband, a lean looking man who wore a floppy hat and a serious face. Her daughter Irena was around 16 years old, and she had a younger son of 8 years who played in the stony courtyard with his toddler cousin who also lived there with his mother. After dropping our bags off in a small but comfortable room with a corrugated tin roof, we rejoined the family for a lunch of rice and green vegetables.

Family
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We had brought gifts with us from the mainland at Puno, and rare foodstuffs such as rice and bananas that are not easily attained on the islands were well received. I had packed toys from home, such as a clapping wooden Jacob’s ladder, coloured chalks and bubble wands. The boys had fun decorating the courtyard in shimmering petrol bubbles, and scribbled pastel animals and houses on the bare stones. Later that evening, I gave Irene a small kaleidoscope and showed her how to change the picture inside. She stared at the moving concentric circles by candle light, before her mother playfully snatched it away to look. I gave her father a harmonica, which he blew into with a squeak that made everyone giggle, including an older brother that had appeared from his day fishing. There were no televisions here, and they were happy to entertain themselves with jokes or playing with the children.

Blowing bubbles
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Young cousin sitting with his knitting mother
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Señora Carmen led us to the local square to meet the other visitors, impressively knitting as she walked. We were given a tour to the top of the island, and the steep passage upwards was no easy feat at the high altitude. On the way, we passed female shepherds and children selling jewellery, knitted hats and scarves. The path split at the top as the shimmering water of the immense lake became visible all around us. The path to the left took you to Pacha Tata, and the one to the right led you to Pacha Mama. Only one could be visited as daylight was fading, so we chose the more challenging Pacha Mama site. As we reached the top, the sun began to sink and pour a stream of gold on the surface of the water. It was a chilly, dark descent down but the sunset still burned on our retinas as the blood red clouds dissolved into black.

Pacha Mama
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Pacha Mama
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We were treated to a dinner of quinoa soup, served with salad, the local purple ochre and a slice of cheese. The family, out of respect to us as guests, would not eat with us at the table and instead enjoyed theirs in the kitchen, which honestly made us feel slightly awkward. However, we were soon reunited as we dressed for the dance at the local community hall. Señora Carmen and Irena wrapped thick linen around us, and delighted in our exasperated faces as they squeezed the belts tighter and tighter still. The embroidered flowers flowed down our blouses, and exploded into colourful long skirts. A long scarf, worn like a shawl, fell over our shoulders and we were ready to venture outside.

Traditional dress
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The boys were also dressed for the occasion in huge decorative ponchos, and we jumped into the festivities. A live band of panpipes, singers and drums roused the crowd into a frenzy. Irena grabbed my hand, and we were thrown into a line of dancers linked by the hands who circled round wildly. Children and adults of all ages participated, and the older women were exceedingly strong and swung me almost to the ground as the line suddenly changed direction and squirmed into a gap. It reminded me of that prehistoric Nokia game ‘Snake’, where you must manoeuvre in the space without biting your own tail, but the body grows progressively longer. We took a few breaks to catch our breath as the energetic swinging sprints continued, and enjoyed the toxic looking Inca Kola as we watched stars shooting across the Milky Way. I danced with Irena until our hands became too slippery to hold, and left the line to allow her to hold hands with the young boy that she was too shy to approach before. As the last song finished, our tired legs carried us back out of the steaming hall into the crisp starry night, following Irena home to the sound of cicadas and frogs.

The scratching hops of a chicken on the roof woke me before dawn, but Señora Carmen was already awake and preparing delicious pancakes with marmalade for breakfast. We had to depart early for our boat to Tanquile, but not before a proper goodbye where we thanked the family for their hospitality, gave them money to cover our stay and were given showers of kisses on our cheeks in return. We were led to the port once more, and sat with all the other mothers as our boat rolled in. They waved to us as we departed, and the good humour we left with was soon replaced with feelings of nausea as the waves rocked into the side of the small boat. It was the first time I was lake sick and a German couple kindly gave me smelling salts to revive me, which made me feel very eighteenth century.

Usually still waters of Lake Titicaca
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Boy flying kite on Tanquile
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We arrived at Tanquile and hiked up a dusty mountainside lined with an impressive dry stone wall, the colour of sand and built like a fortress boundary. A moving stack of hay shuffled up the hill, the woman hunched below it barely discernible. Sheep wearing bright pompoms grazed in the shade of the trees, and a boy flew a paper kite on the mild breeze. This island was the first landing point for the Spaniard King in his conquest in the 15th century, and had since become a centre for the textile trade. We learned the significance of the hat colours worn by the local men: red and white means single; with the top leaning to the left means he has a girlfriend; to the right means he is searching for one, and if slung to the back it means he is not interested in courting. Red signifies married, and a husband will wear a belt that is given to him by his wife, with a story woven into the front and symbols featuring on the back. In a romantic gesture, women might weave their own hair into the gift.

View from hillside
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Notes

We booked our 2 day, 1 night Amantani Experience tour of Lake Titicaca with Edgar Adventures who are based in Puno and specialise in sustainable and responsible travel. The trip cost S55, with S30 extra being donated directly to the family that we stayed with,http://www.edgaradventures.com/

Quechuan language, by Mark Rosenfelder, http://www.zompist.com/quechua.html

Top Tips: Surfing down sand dunes

Huacachina in Peru is a bizarre place. Steep golden sand dunes tower over the green lagoon where wading birds parade in the water against blood orange sunsets, and hotels cluster around the water for protection. At sunrise, guests trek 250ft to the top of the slopes, and enjoy the view of desert for miles around. Growling dune buggies leap across the sand and launch every passenger from their seats. My friends and I decided to tackle these giant shifting hills armed with snowboards, but here’s some things you should know:

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1) Make yourself sand-proof Flip flops, t-shirt and shorts might seem appropriate for this terrain, but when you are hurtling down the steep dunes on your belly inches from the sand you will regret not having an extra layer. Ask my arm. Leave your camera at home unless it has a waterproof case.

2) Be realistic If you’ve never been able to stand on a snowboard, mastering these skills on sand is unlikely. It is possible to board if you have extreme skill, but even then it is much easier to hit bumps and dig your way into an impressive face-plant. It might not look pretty, but you will always win the race if you belly-surf like a rocket down the slope.

3) Wax up Candle wax is an essential accessory here, so make sure your guide provides you with some. The more time you rub your board, the faster you’ll speed down to the base.

4) Stick to the plan Listen to your guide and only hit the slopes that they recommend. My friends and I got carried away and launched ourselves down a series of 200ft dunes, before our guide told us to walk all the way back up a monstrous crumbling hill. If you’ve ever seen the Gladiator escalator which used to destroy contestants at the last hurdle, you’ll know what to avoid.

5) Don’t look down Some of these dunes are seriously steep, so avoid looking at the tiny ants waiting for you at the bottom. As always, it’s best to go earlier if you’re afraid of heights, and dig your shoes into the sand if you want to slow down.

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Happy surfing!

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The Quest for Seven Waterfalls

‘Siete Tinajas,’ hissed the locals of Quillabamba in their soft lisps as we crossed the square, Seven Waterfalls.

My friends and I made our way into the cool innards of the helado parlour, which boasted every colour and every tropical fruit flavour, including the perfume-infused lucuma that is produced locally. Two glistening balls of ice cream were served in generous scoops for just S5. The rough plasterwalls were painted a bright yellow, and the plastic tables had cheerful plastic covers decorated in daisies. Sunshine suited this place, and it is no surprise that Peruvians have named it the City of Eternal Summer.

Ordering my second cone, I practiced my best Spanglish with the owner’s daughter while my friends were musing on how we could spend the next couple of days in this tiny town. Quillabamba is surrounded by jungle and dissected by angry white rivers. Tubing was ruled out – the river that our guide from Aguas Calientes had recommended to us had swelled monstrously since he’d last been here, and it was now a death-defying rapid. Not fit for inexperienced rafters on flimsy inflatable doughnuts. We’d already visited the local swimming pools at Sanbaray the evening before, in an attempt to wash away the inch think dust that the road had been deposited on us during the long bus ride up.

Seven Waterfalls sounded too good to refuse. Think Herbal Essences video. Rapture in wild, untamed nature. Standing in the darkness of the cave, the cold wet rock enveloping you as you gaze through the falling water into the bright world beyond.

We set off to find the bus stop, but it no longer existed. Undeterred, we eventually stumbled upon a bus terminal. A couple of buses were parked in the dusty heat, and before them sat a dozen grizzly men on plastic chairs, smoking and chatting. Approaching them without my phrase book on show, I asked if there was a bus to the Seven Waterfalls. One man pointed to a smudgy window at the edge of the depot forecourt. Following his lead, I asked the second man behind a screen, ‘¿Qué autobús va a las Siete Tinajas?’ He shook his head and crossed his hands twice to show there was no bus. But finding a ride was pivotal – not only did we want to explore the jungle and waterfalls – we did not want to return to town past the snarling dog packs that had gathered outside the open garages where men showered sparks over rusting bonnets.

Cue Dareek. A round faced, excitable taxi driver who saw our miserable plight and stepped in to save us. At an extortionate price. However, not much haggling could be done since the usual mountain road was closed for maintenance, and he was the only driver wiling to take four flustered gringos the long way round. The journey took five times longer than the usual twenty minutes.

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Dareek pointed out the impressive eagles, or ‘ganaserro’, with giant brown wings that circled slowly, looking for dead animals to consume. Or tourists, he joked. He fondly adopted the nickname of ‘Dalek’, and our trip was punctuated by stops to study volcanic rock, peer into abandoned white stone chapels and sample the fresh guapa that he nimbly plucked from the trees. We were afforded a long break to take photos of the stony mountainside homage: ‘Quillabamba Te Quiero.’ The Dalek wasn’t satisfied with how many we were taking, and gestured to us to take (hundreds) more.

Unlike his robotic namesake, his love for Quillabamba was infectious, and the onward car journey was filled with jovial broken snippets as we asked about his family, work and home. Job prospects in the region were limited but the town was receiving more and more tourism, with tour companies expanding their Machu Picchu itineraries to include white water rafting on the local Urubamba river systems. We had fun teaching him the nuances of the English language, but had to admit defeat when trying to explain the differences between ‘three’ ‘free’ and ‘tree’. In return, he taught us some Quechuan – although ‘chiriwanmi’ (cold) was not an adjective we could use to describe our stuffy car.

Opening the window was a mistake. Fine red-gold dust swarmed in, sticking to our pores, clothes and tonsils. We saw an unlucky motorcyclist coated so thickly he resembled a relic, a statue carved from one colour of stone. We pulled over to pay a small child to cross the river as the guard snored in the shade of his hut. We twisted upwards around a new mountain, until we finally stopped.

A man wearing only shorts and a scraggly beard greeted us and impatiently ushered us past his house. Our guide translated that we needed to pay him for entry, and as we fumbled for change our eyes searched the place for the infamous waterfalls. Dalek grabbed a thin chewed rope and began bounding up the rock face ahead. Taking off our hot boots, we watched his body sway and wondered how the flimsy rope was still intact. Once he’d climbed to the top of the lower ridge, he pointed to a small trickle. We were here. This was the waterfall, only there was no water. And we really could’ve done with a shower as we were pasted in dusty sweat.

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My friends and I laughed, but the flatness betrayed our obvious disappointment. Determined to enjoy it, I started towards the swinging rope and followed the guide. All of us reached the wide ridge and clamoured up barefoot past dry tree roots towards the top, watching for sleeping snakes. Fat-bodied black cicadas screamed from branches above us and flew by our heads to ensure that we could hear them. Two eagles looped in intersecting circles not much higher than us. The jungle was thick and battled the light that fought through the canopy to reach us. Dalek sprung across a wooden bridge to show us a small brook under slimy dark leaves, which would usually spew endless volumes of water over the steep edge during the wet season. Instead, we looked down at smooth curves of giant rock.

20130712-230004.jpgWe descended on the other side and explored a slippery pool that had formed. The water did not seem to be running down the rock, but rather seeping from the saturated stone. We competitively abseiled down in leaping long arcs, causing dismay to our guide who cried ‘¡despacio!’, slowly!

Before we squeezed ourselves back into Dalek’s car, we sat under the hum of three large hornet nests that had attached themselves to the underbelly of a tin roof. My friend bought chocolate from the bearded owner who farmed it himself. Taking a large bite of the corner, his face screwed up in disgust as the overpowering bitterness filled his mouth. It had not been exactly how we’d pictured it, but our dusty ride to find the Seven Waterfalls had been unexpectedly worthwhile. And we will always treasure this special photo:

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Notes

All photos to be credited to the very talented Alex Buckman.

Helado de Lúcuma,http://southamericanfood.about.com/od/desserts/r/lucumaicecream.htm

Ecotrek Peru, http://www.ecotrekperu.com/en/our-trips/rafting-a-biking/quillabamba-4-days.html

Quechuan Phrases, Cultures of the Andes, http://www.andes.org/q_phrase.htm

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How to get down from the top of a volcano

My skin and clothes had turned the same smudgy grey-brown. The earthy taste of dirt was wedged between every tooth, and a paste was forming on my dry tongue. My wrists were now sore hinges, and both legs shook as I dismounted from the bike. My poor bottom was more than a little shaken up. I beamed at my friends through my aching jaw – we had survived the descent.

Arequipa is an extreme city by all accounts. It experiences 8-10 tremors a day, and the giant cartoon crack on the bell tower of the cathedral testifies to the real possibility of another earthquake. The preserved body of Inkan child sacrifice from 500 years ago, named ‘Momia Juanita’*, crouches in frozen captivity in the local Catholic history museum. Three ominous volcanoes loom heavy on the horizon, with El Misti winning the title for most active. Between rocky gorges white water flows furiously, creating froth that could rival any barista’s cappuccino crown. The water flips the heavy orange rafts and canoes that shoot themselves down river, and takes unlucky oars captive (including mine).

So in the spirit of the place, my friends and I signed up for a mountain biking trip down a mountain. Well, not exactly a mountain – the Chachani volcano. Opposite the monstrous time bomb that is El Misti.

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Things didn’t start well. We all got so excited about spotting two native vicuñas (like llamas, but fancy and rarer) on the long drive up, we were forced to squat unceremoniously at the top to relieve ourselves. It wouldn’t have been too bad, but there was a troop of armed guards who patrolled the area to protect the communication tower, and it was their job to watch what we were doing. Our tour guides, as polite as they were, must have inwardly despaired as I velcro-ed my elbow pads to my knees. Erin and I asked them to show us how to work the gears more than once, but in hindsight all we needed to know was how to slam the brakes.

Within minutes of hitting the dusty track, our bike chains jumped off in revolt as we accidentally rode over boulders. Our intrepid team of four soon became two, and I cautiously followed my friend Alex who struck out bravely ahead, inadvertently showing me where to ride to avoid all the sand bogs and huge rocks. Despite riding cautiously with my fingers firmly on the brakes, I continued to pick up speed. I was paranoid about my other friend Dan cutting me up in an artistic manoeuvre, as he was a seasoned cyclist who could already discern the difference between high and low gears. After a few more bends of gingerly using my feet for balance, I decided to let go and gather speed. We raced towards the first check point, skidding in the sand and wrenching our handlebars in a futile effort to manouever ourselves around the rocks. The whole time, I kept imagining what we’d do if El Misti began to smoke and spew lava.

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Alex continued to lead out front and stopped to replace his chain again, so I caught up with him for a breather. We looked back up the yellow zigzag track towards the peak, over the low scribbles of desert shrubs, but we couldn’t see the other two. The 4×4 was not ahead of us at the checkpoint either. Perhaps we had gone the wrong way – the checkpoint was just a red smear of paint on a rock after all, and there were lots of rocks. But there was an unspoken moment of quiet dread. What if something had happened; what if there had been an accident? We decided to push on and wait.

The obstacles got larger. Huge smooth boulders rose out of the track and I began to perch above my seat. The sand pits got deeper and greedily sucked our tyres into them if we veered off the steep grassy verges for a second. We saw one of the guides in a red top ahead of us hurtling down the mountain side, adopting a low crouched poise as he took on the treacherously bumpy shortcut. We spotted the 4×4 jumping down the track towards us, following a lone rider that was unmistakeably Erin, with her blonde curly hair bouncing out of her helmet. But two guides stepped out, meaning that the red speeding devil was in fact Dan, and he had beaten us after all.

We stopped for a drink to wash the sand out of our mouths, and ease the Lego claws that were forming at the end of our wrists. We readjusted our knee pads which had shaken themselves down our legs, and recounted our last hour’s ride to each other. Erin’s story won without a doubt: as she set off, she hit one of those magnetic boulders and fell off her bike, ripping her trousers in the process. It was a huge tear from her knee all the way up the inner seams, and the guides resourcefully patched her up with lots of electrical tape.

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Now that we were all setting off together, the competition was on. There was sadistic pedalling, gear wrenching, and reckless swerving up the slanted corners. The brakes were applied constantly, but our tyres had acquired a dangerous taste for the road. This section made the earlier boulders seem like pebbles, and with no suspension my teeth rattled in my head as I gripped on to the handlebars. My feet bounced off the bucking pedals and my helmet rode up and down my forehead as if I was repeatedly surprised. If our back tyres had kicked out over the edge, it wouldn’t have ended well and it’s not something electric tape could have fixed. As if to reinforce this morbid point, an optimistic eagle began to circle overhead.

After another hour of riding, we stiffly sat on the ground and ate lunch. We compared how many times we’d replaced our chains. It wasn’t just physically tiring – the concentration it took to swerve and pick out a path was mentally exhausting.

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As we set off down the shortcut, we took it in turns to battle through deep sand, each getting so far before falling off. Ahead of us lay a long uphill sand section which we struggled to get our tyres around. The tour guides had warned us and offered to load our bikes on the 4×4, but I was far too stubborn to admit defeat. Instead, I carried by bike in the sweltering heat as my feet sank into the sand whilst the guys kicked down to budge an inch.

Reaching the road was like rediscovering civilisation. The concrete may have been cracked, but it was smooth and flat and propelled us round its corners that hugged the mountainside. We glided down as fast as our bikes would take us, and there was a distinct lack of passing lorries to slow us down. Alex nearly suffered a heart attack as a dog ran out in front of him, barking at the speedy intruder. We rode through the slum area outside Arequipa, where people had flocked to in protest against paying taxes according to our guides. Litter floated everywhere and stretched plastic sheets flapped against concrete. There was no infrastructure to support life in this mustard coloured wilderness – there was available water in the nearby reservoir but no electricity. I realised that our ride encompassed some degree of risk, but here people faced real danger. This desert was an impossible place to try to survive, outside the jurisdiction and security of the government, beneath the volcanoes.

Notes

*More on Juanita coming soon.

Tour operator: http://perubikingtours.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/chachani-downhill-arequipa/

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