internet shop in Puno, on Lake Titicaca
temperature: 10 C / 50 F
elevation: 3,826 m / 12,552 f
After I left you last, we killed a little more time in Aguas Calientes, including my succumbing to having my boots cleaned by a teenage boy. He said, "Professional, no professional in Cuzco, professional only here." How could I resist? This kid was indeed a pro, and with a series of brushes and the requisite Kiwi, and with no small flair and panache, he transformed my filthy boots into shiny as new. Then I shocked him by giving him his asking price, making it quite possibly the most expensive shoe shine in Peru. Later, he spotted us looking for the train station with our luggage, and was quick to the mark, earning yet more soles. I cannot resist such an enterprising young man.
Our train trip back to Cuzco was highly stressful and uncomfortable. First we were bumped to a later train (despite having reservations and hard tickets), and had to kill two more hours at the train station. But that was the least of it. Remind me why I wanted to travel first class on this trip? First of all, it was dark, so the Vistadome was made moot. We were sharing a car with a loud, obnoxious group, and imagine our surprise when we learned they were Canadian! (Allan swears the ringleader had to be an American transplant.)
But the final indignity came when we learned that to Peru Rail, first class only means you are a better mark for sales. Blaring music, bright lights, and the next thing we know, the attendants are putting on a fashion show. I kid you not. They are modeling expensive alpaca clothing for purchase. Allan and I are both pretty sensitive to being trapped with noisy crowds. It was horrifying.
Next came the odors, then the switchbacks, and by the time we reached Cuzco, we were both nauseated and irritated.
But thank goodness for the Hotel Los Niños, who had our same room waiting, along with peace and quiet, and warm smiles. We had a good night´s sleep, a lovely breakfast, and the hotel packed us some sandwiches for the train. My new Spanish: para llevar. To take with us, to go, the idiom, not the verb.
The Vistadome to Aguas Caliente was only slightly more expensive than backpacker class, so we opted for the extra view. But the train south to Puno was a huge price difference: US $107 first class, $17 backpacker. At that price difference, we wouldn´t have considered first class, and when we saw the Peru Rail women applying makeup and cleaning jewelry for their fashion show, we were doubly vindicated. Backpacker class was quiet and comfortable.
Leaving Cuzco to the south, we didn´t see the grinding poverty we had seen to the north. The working-class homes quickly turned to farmland, complete with pigs, chickens, cows, sheep, and dogs, dogs, dogs. We saw dogs all over Cuzco, too, and the life of an urban street dog can´t be a very happy one, but the dogs on the farms look like they´re having a fine time. They don´t appear to be working farm dogs, but are clearly companions to the folks working in the fields. They come in every shape and size, many barking at the train.
We saw people working rocky soil with hoes, walking with bundles of sticks and grasses tied on their bags, or watching their herds in the fields. All the women were in traditional dress: skirts, multi-colored sweaters, the distinctive hat (something like a bowler - google it for a picture), with a long, black braid down their backs. They couldn´t possibly have been dressing up for anyone; this is what they wear to work their farms. The men are in modern clothing, as are the young women. So is this the last generation to wear this costume, or will today´s younger women dress like this when they reach a certain age?
There were also many kids working in the fields, which means they´re not in school - although I think many may have been too young for school, accompanying their mothers or grandmothers in the fields until they´re old enough. Everywhere, kids wave to the passing train with great enthusiasm. Allan takes this responsibility seriously and sticks his hand out the window to wave back.
Many adobe walls were adorned with political graffiti from the last election. We passed a few tiny towns, but they quickly dissolved back into farmland. On both sides of the train, the flat farmland ended sharply at the mountains, so the train was in the center of a valley. The mountains were very dramatic, sometimes bare, sometimes green, sometimes with snow-capped peaks behind them.
Several times on the trip, I could feel the change of altitude as the train climbed mas alta. This train wasn´t fast. That´s an understatement. The train was slow. It was actually saying clickety-clack, clickety-clack.
The one real town we passed through, Canchis, seemed to come to a halt waiting for the train to pass through. Peruvians are celebrating May Day - the international workers holiday - today (although farmers never have a day off) and people were gathering for soccer games. The town was packed with pollerias, little shops that sell only roasted chickens and fried potatoes, and tri-clos, three-wheeled pedaled taxis that have little canvas rooves for sun protection.
After the farms, we found ourselves riding through vast, flat prairies, called the antiplano - the high plains. Every so often a flock of sheep or llamas were grazing, with a solitary figure in a bright striped shawl sitting on a rock nearby. The train stopped at a roadside market at La Raya, the highest point on the trip: 4,319 metres or 14,172 feet. The sun was blazing and my head was spinning when we got out.
Little girls were posing with baby llamas for a sole, and women were selling unbelievably soft baby alpaca sweaters for a song. I had the strange experience of a kind of reverse bargaining. The woman gives her first price, 50 soles, about $17 US. I´m thinking, do I want to buy a sweater, which colour do I want, should I buy one here or later. She thinks I´m hesitating because of price, and asks for 45 soles. Allan comes by to see what I´m up to, and she offers two for 80 soles. This is getting ridiculous. I slipped it on, and the sleeves fit exactly, and when you´re 5´1", that seals the deal. I take the sweater and pay her original asking price.
The altiplano went on for hours. It was strikingly beautiful, the clouds forming shadows on the mountains. But it went on and on and on. And the train was so slow. It was beautiful, but even too much of the same beauty can get boring.
We drank a happy hour on the train, and some traditional folk musicians came on board, playing for donations, and finally we rode through the tough-looking, non-tourist town of Juliaca, so we knew we were almost there.
Puno is the jumping-off point for Lake Titicaca, the world´s highest freshwater lake, and it´s a little more packed with tourists than we expected for this time of year. But it´s also full of its own life, with a pedestrian-only main street, Calle Lima, a carnival, and a lively main square.
I won´t be able to post tomorrow, as we hope to be sleeping on an island on the lake, where families will put you up and feed you dinner. There are also reed islands - artificial islands constructed of reeds by the Uros Indians - which we hope to see via reed boat. We aren´t booking a tour, just trying to go on our own, so we´ll see how we do. Next time I check in, we´ll probably be in the colonial town of Arequipa.
One thing this trip has made me think about all the time is waste, and how much our culture wastes, and our place of privilege in the world to be able to waste. I´m not saying this in the sense that I plan to live a more frugal and austere life, or that people shouldn´t enjoy what they have. I don´t go in for self-denial - I don´t think it helps the world. I feel if we have privilege, we should realize it, and use it. But I´m putting all those judgements and opinions aside. What I mean is this trip is a constant reminder of our privilege, of the world divided into haves and have-nots, and how the haves can travel, travel in itself being the privilege of the haves.
You can travel in the US and Canada and never see poverty. Even though it´s there, as a tourist, you would have to seek poverty out to meet it. In South America, as in so many places on the planet, poverty is your unavoidable companion. We see people washing clothes against rocks and washboards in buckets. Every bag is reusable until it simply cannot be used anymore. Everything is sold and resold and reresold. And if we think we´re doing this with Freecycle or e-Bay, we´re playing a game, or making a choice that we have the privilege to make.
It´s not that I didn´t know that most of the world lives in poverty. It´s just seeing what poverty means, in the every day. It´s very sobering. It also infuriates me. I´m sitting in a train drinking bottled water, passing people who don´t have access to fresh drinking water. I got vaccinations to come to this country, for diseases that people here contract and die of. It´s a fucking crime.
Photos from the train trip from Cuzco to Puno here.