Friday, April 16, 2010

Bus Breakdowns and High Lake Towns

We’ve been on the go, traveling within Peru in the last month, so thought we’d share some travel (mis)adventures, and some happy discoveries that balanced the inevitable frustrations.

First, how we cope with the frustrations (and not just related to travel . . .): we wait until something changes. We can’t change anything, people will lie about what may or may not happen, so patience and flexibility, those watchwords of Peace Corps life, are the only tools we have. That, and the attitude of G.K. Chesterton, whom I believe I’ve quoted before, to the effect “an adventure is only an inconvenience, rightly viewed.” We have plenty of “adventures.”

First, though, a travel success: the overnight bus service from Arequipa to Lima averages 16 hours, and while the bus companies have developed some reasonably comfortable reclining seats, it still comes down to a total of 20 to 24 hours of bus transit between Chivay and Lima, a trip we have to make every couple of months. The air service between Arequipa and Lima, however, is quite good, and for Peruvian residents (Green Card! Ta-Da!) very economical, nearly the same price as bus service. We’ll never be done with the bus trips, but we’ve mixed in a few air trips, and the increase in morale is directly proportional to the decrease in hideously swollen ankles.

Bus travel between Chivay and Arequipa frequently means getting up at 3:45 a.m. to catch an early bus for the 4-hour trip. Arequipa is significantly warmer than Chivay, so we like to travel light, but (ever the Boy Scout) every time we leave I ask myself if I’m prepared to stay comfortable and safe if the bus breaks down at the top of the pass. Last Friday, I decided I was, although I compromised on my footwear, sandals with wool socks instead of real shoes.

Of course, the bus broke down at the top of the pass, 15,800 feet high in the sky, dawn breaking, the temperature below freezing, fresh snow from last night’s squall frosting the nearby peaks. Of course after the two-and-a-half-hour wait, my feet got cold, but everything else was fine. Jean was less prepared, but warmed up as the sun rose higher. Remarkably, a passing bus stopped, and just happened to be carrying a spare water pump, like this was a fairly common thing to keep handy. Repairs made, we traveled on, and my feet thawed out in sunny Arequipa.

Coming back from that same trip, we chose a different bus line, but THEIR bus broke down before even getting out of Arequipa. Repairs were effected in an hour or so, but it was not a confidence-builder. On average, we face a delay of an hour or more about half the time we travel that route, but we nearly always get there.

Semana Santa (Holy Week) is a lost week in Peru, everything shuts down and people tend to travel, so Peace Corps allows us a few travel days, too. We took advantage, going to Puno on Lake Titicaca and being tourists for a few days. We traveled in a tourist bus, only marginally more comfortable than the average intercity equipment, but well-attended with a guide who stopped periodically at scenic or historic spots equipped with (primitive) toilet facilities, a nice touch on a 6-hour ride.

Aside #1: the FAA requires pilots to use oxygen if they’ll be above 12,000 feet for more than 30 minutes, and requires both pilots and passengers to have oxygen or a pressurized cabin any time above 14,000 feet. We live at 12,000 feet, and though we regularly travel over that 15,800’ pass, nobody—and especially not the driver—has oxygen. Most people just zonk out, but that’s not a great option for the drivers. We watched our driver stuff a handful of coca leaves in his mouth to deal with the altitude, the traditional local remedy.

Once in surprisingly scenic Puno, we took a boat to the Uros Islands, which truly are floating islands made of reeds--they just keep piling them on as the stuff on the bottom rots and floats away, century after century. It’s one thing to read about a floating island, another to step off the boat and have the whole island rock underfoot. Everything is made of totora reeds—the island, the homes, the cuisine. We paused a bit, then carried on to the (real) island of Amantaní, where we spent the night.

“Turismo vivencial” is the big thing here in the Colca, tourist home-stays with rural families who provide traditional meals, the family including the visitors in their daily activities, maybe even throwing in a hike to a historic site, or attending a cultural event. They’ve refined that to an art on Amantaní, and we wanted to see how they managed it. Amantaní is accessible only by boat, has no (or very limited) electricity, and the 4,000-or-so inhabitants engage in subsistence farming—and tourism. Interesting to feel like a “crop,” ripe for the harvesting. We stayed with a family, ate an astonishing variety of tubers (this is Peru, after all), a vegetarian diet that was rich and satisfying on an island where no livestock are kept for meat.

Aside #2: This is truly a nation of entrepreneurs, but we find that they tend to think more in terms of communal enterprises, consortiums or associations. Instead of having nine separate families competing for tourists in their homes, they form a consortium, and when tourists arrive, they’re farmed out to whichever family is next on the list, all sharing equally. It’s required a shift in our thinking when we deal with businesses, as we’re more accustomed to the I/me/mine style of American competition and free enterprise. We’ve come to appreciate the difference.

Every region of Peru has its distinctive style of traditional dress, at least for the women. Skirt color and cut, and headgear vary remarkably. Men, in general, have just adopted standard Western attire.

We, along with all the other tourists on the island, ascended to ruins at the top of the island, a hill called pachatata (father earth), for a spectacular sunset. I have to say, Lake Titicaca is quite beautiful, even moreso when viewed from one of the islands. It’s immense—like ten Flathead lakes, or one liquid Ravalli county, running 102 miles long by 40 miles wide—and on the day we visited, tranquil. Snowcapped mountains rise in the distance, both in Peru and in Bolivia, which shares part of the lake. (Peruvians snicker that Peru gets the Titi, Bolivia gets the caca. . . ). Then, after dinner, our hosts flung traditional (not Sears) ponchos and other fashion accessories over us, and away we went for 90 minutes of dancing and drinking, coming home to sleep under the standard four alpaca blankets.

The stars that night were the equal of any we’ve seen anywhere, ambient light being utterly absent, and at that elevation (12,500’) not a lot of atmosphere in the way, either. It was also the quietest night we’ve spent in Peru, as there are no dogs on the island, no roosters, no cars, no planes overhead, no public address loudspeakers blaring announcements at 6 a.m. It was rapturously tranquil.

Motoring back to Puno, we stopped for lunch on the island of Taquile, which features a closed society in which only the native islanders can own land, or operate a business. It’s a system with advantages and, obviously, some disadvantages, but we admire their fierce sense of self-determinism. Here, interestingly, the men knit the distinctive hats that they wear, and which tell you something about their marital status. The quality of the knitting—specifically, its ability to hold water--also signals something to the young island maidens about the supposed suitability of the knitter.

Well, that strayed significantly from my intended transportation focus, but there’s another slice of life in Peru for you—nothing ever goes quite where or how you intended, but it always ends up some place interesting. Call it an inconvenience or call it an adventure, but in the end somebody eventually shows up with a water pump, or a poncho, or maybe just some herbs and an incantation, and it’s on to the next adventure!