Monday, February 18, 2013

We May Be Too Old For This –Stuff!

Map picture

Our last stop in Chile was at the small port town of Arica. At the end of the war between Chile and Bolivia, while Bolivia lost, it did receive a grant of access to the sea through the port of Arica. Today a railroad links the port to La Paz, Bolivia, which is now the source of most of the trade occurring in the port. Unlike the lower areas of Chile that were so prosperous, Arica had more of the feel to it of a company town supporting the port workers and their families. Dominating the city is the headland of El Morro from which one has magnificent views of the harbor, the city, and the Andes.

Our ship was only in Arica for six hours which was plenty of time to see what this area had to offer. On our tour, the first stop was made at the main square, Plaza Colon, from which we could walk to the Cathedral of San Marcos. This is an extremely interesting building having been designed by Gustave Eiffel. DSC00207The building is constructed from steel, and was built in France for shipping to Arica. When it arrived, it took three years to assemble the final structure. Also from the main square we had a good view of El Morro, the huge rock which dominates this part of the coast, and which we would later visit.

Emanating from Arica are two valleys which eventually lead to the Andes. As we departed the city center, our bus took the road which followed the Valley to the left. We drove for perhaps 30 minutes passing large areas dedicated to agriculture of all kinds. Finally we turned off the main road and into a dusty lane which ended at the Archaeological Museum of San Miguel. The museum is part of the University of Tarapaca, and is known for its fine collection of Chinchorro mummies and artifacts. This actually sounded very interesting to me, and indeed the exhibits were well done, except all descriptions were in Spanish and the museum did not offer a guide for the group. We were left on our own to tour the one story building. Lisa and I dutifully went from display case to case, but then another issue reared its head – the heat. The Museum was not air conditioned, nor did it have any open windows or fans to move the air. Very soon the hot stuffy air combined with display, after display that we could not understand finally caused us to give up and go outside in the afternoon breeze. This was really a pity because the museum looked interesting.

Once back on the bus, we once again drove 30 minutes back towards town, but before reaching the city the bus turned left and left again putting us on the road going up the right valley. We drove for a little ways and pulled over onto a dusty hilltop area. Our guide showed us across the distance a hillside which contained ancient geoglyphs which rose above the desert. DSC00225Unlike a petroglyph which is painted or chiseled onto a rock surface, these images were created by the careful placement of stones into the sand creating massive images of animals and humans, all facing towards the ocean.

Back in the bus, we went and off to the obligatory handicraft village where we were given 10 minutes to browse. Heck, you can’t get everyone on and off a bus in that time, but we did so somehow. From there we proceeded to our final stop, the top of the El Morro Promontory. From here we were able to take some good pictures of the surrounding areas, but the winds there were probably 40kts gusting to 50kts. DSC00240It was almost impossible to stand up, and the sands were whipped into our faces so everyone scurried back to the bus and returned to the ship. Strangely our ship was docked just at the base of El Morro, and when we exited the bus the winds there were fairly light.

So our afternoon at Arica came to a close, and our ship set sail for the port of Matarani, Peru. We were now approaching what we expected to be the highlight of the entire cruise. For four days and three nights we would leave the ship and travel high into the Andes visiting Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at an altitude of 12,500 ft. While I was in High School, I saw in a textbook, pictures of a beautiful temple built on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and then many pictures of the beautiful Bolivian people, the Uros, who lived on the lake on top of giant floating mats made of tortola reeds which grew along the lake’s shore. So when I saw this excursion offered to Lake Titicaca, I assumed we would see the temple and that I would get to visit Bolivia. Well, I was wrong on both counts. To my complete surprise, the Lake lies partly in Peru and partly in Bolivia, and our visit was just to the Peruvian side. The temple I remembered does indeed exist, but it is on the Bolivian side. So, I got to see neither the temple of my childhood memories nor the country of Bolivia! But, I did meet the Uros people, and I had a chance to walk on the famous reed mat floating islands.

Our ship arrived at Matarani, Peru early on the 12th. Our tour did not depart until after lunch, where we boarded a small van for the roughly 2 hour drive to the city of Arequipa. Known as the “White City” because of the white volcanic rock used in the construction of its buildings; it has a very ancient history spanning over 10,000 years ending with the arrival of the Spanish in the 1530’s. Our tour “group” turned out to only be 3 couples, so it was a cozy affair.

The day before our departure for Arequipa, we saw on the national news that the city had been hit with devastating rains which in turn had flooded out many bridges and roads. Fortunately much of the damage was to the east of the city and while we had to work our way around a number of intersections which were underwater, the disaster did not impact us. However, the following night the torrential rains returned, and while we had moved on to Puno, the city of Arequipa was declared a national emergency area, and the President of Peru flew to the city to oversee relief efforts.

For our short afternoon visit of the city, the second largest in the country behind Lima, we started with a visit to the historic Santa Catalina Monastery.DSC00303 Founded in 1580, the convent eventually grew until it was literally a city within a city, ultimately measuring over 215,000 sq. ft. which is the equivalent to an entire city block. The Convent is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and was in continuous use until the late 1980’s when it was opened to the public and the resident nuns moved to a newer building next door.

Next we visited the Main Square, known as the Plaza De Armas where the White Cathedral is located.DSC00344 Built in the mid-nineteenth century, it lies on top of the ruins of the first baroque church of the city. We were able to go inside; however, since a service was in progress I was not able to take any photographs. By now everyone in our group was dragging, and so we proceeded to our hotel for the evening.

In our drive to Arequipa, we had climbed from sea level to an altitude of around 8,000 feet. I have to tell you that we had the absolutely worst driver I have ever seen in a tour situation. The old man was timid and obviously unsure of himself. Much of the 2 hour trip was made in third gear. He would weave across the road seeming to have no concept of the center line or what it meant. Many times on the steep mountain roads, he would drive wherever he wanted. To pass, he would pull all the way into the other lane and “wait” for god knows what, until deciding to pull forward. More than once on the sharp curves, he would be startled by an oncoming car which he seemed to assume would just pull over! I saw early on that he did not seem to understand what a “stop” sign meant. I think that little lack of knowledge almost costs us our lives. We were driving on a road that went straight ahead, however another highway was merging from our right into our roadway. As we approached the junction, I could see that our road had a “STOP” sign, while the other highway had an open road. The roadway was full of traffic, and I watched in amazement when we got to the stop sign our driver simply kept driving straight ahead as if he was the only vehicle on the highway. Suddenly horns were blaring from both in front of us and from our right, and everyone was flashing their headlights. I could hear the screech of brakes. Our driver seemed genuinely confused as to what all the commotion was about. As we neared the city he became very nervous and confused. In the end, we all survived, and I have concluded that he must be from a rural area, and driving in the city was not his strongpoint.

Most of us had a restless night’s sleep: nothing major, yet, but none-the-less an indication that the altitude was impacting us. We had wake up calls the next morning at 3:45am in order to allow us time to have a light breakfast before arriving at the airport 2 hours prior to our 45 minute flight to Juliaca, Peru. From the airport would be a drive of about an hour to where we were staying at a Hotel located on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and just outside the large town of Puno. Since we had just arrived at an altitude of 12,500 feet most tour operators take you directly to your hotel and then allow the remainder of the day at leisure thus allowing us to acclimate to the altitude. Well, for whatever reason, that did not happen with our group.

Instead, along our drive, we pulled onto a dusty country road, stopping occasionally to get out and meet the farmers along the roadside. At one stop, the woman of the house was milking the family cows, and I found it rather interesting to visit with them and to see their home. We continued driving to finally arrive at the home of a family who raised llamas;DSC00405 well not only llamas, but alpacas, guanos, and even a vicuna. They welcomed us into their home compound, and of course offered some souvenirs for purchase. DSC00419Still it was interesting. The adobe buildings were clean, albeit bereft of modern conveniences. I saw no running water, nor electricity.

Once back on the highway, it was not long before we pulled off yet again and drove for a long time eventually coming to a car park. We came here to see the ancient cylinder-shaped tombs of the Kolla culture, which used the unique structures to bury their high priest between 1200 and 1450 AD. When we looked at what was ahead, it involved a rather long and steep walk up a rocky hillside to reach a viewpoint of the tombs. Lisa said that she was not up to making the trip, and frankly neither was I. After getting out of the bus I tried to walk around for some pictures, but found myself lightheaded and gasping for air at even the simplest exertion. Also my balance issue worsened to the point that not only was walking a problem, but simply standing became an issue. Finally the two of us found a bench in the shade where we sat in the breeze and enjoyed the view. Then we noticed a mini-van parked nearby which was mostly full of local people, and we correctly deduced that it was a shuttle into town. As we sat, more and more people arrived and got into the little van. We were laughing about how many people were in the van, when yet even more people arrived. They were all good natured about the process and seemed to have worked out a system. I could see children under the legs of adults and under the seats. The older women got to sit on the seats, while the younger among them got to sit on laps. I am guessing that the van was designed for 14 people. Conservatively I would guess that over 50 bodies were happily encased onboard for the journey to town….what else is there to say.

We FINALLY reached our hotel around 1pm, just in time for a group lunch. By that point we had been on the go for nine hours and the entire group was dragging. I really had no appetite, but out of politeness stayed with the group. Most people picked at their food, and finally by 2:30 or so, I could finally fall into bed exhausted. I had real trouble sleeping because I kept waking myself up gasping for air. Eventually I took a chill, and it took every blanket we had to finally get me to stop shaking. Frankly, I do not even remember dinner – I was having so much trouble walking and breathing, I could have cared less about dinner. I slept badly. I experienced nightmares and strange dreams all night. Just to add to the fun, the Andes exploded with a massive lightning storm down the valley leaving thunderous claps of lighting to punctuate our sleep. As it turned out, those massive storms were flooding Arequipa yet again, and this time hit the Cuzco area as well, causing massive landslides which washed out the main rail line in several places.

The next morning, we learned that both of the other couples had significant issues during the night, and one of the couples had decided to move to Lima, which was at sea level and where we were to rejoin the ship. I was so miserable that I offered to travel with them, but our tour guide quickly dashed that idea as virtually impossible given the problems with local transportation – and so we all meekly went along.

This day was to be the big day of our trip; an all day journey on the lake. We set out early to visit the most interesting and unique floating islands in the world, home to the Uros peoples. The islands are made of tortola reeds which are harvested along the lake’s edge and then layered in a certain way to produce these massive floating islands. The first island we visited was home to 7 families, and they were so excited by our visit. As I stepped off the ship, I stepped onto a surface that was very much like that of a mattress, a mattress with holes in it and vines along the surface. I would put my walking stick down and sometimes it was OK, while at other times it sunk down and was useless. I managed to somehow walk into the little square where our guide was giving a presentation, but I sure was not going far from the boat. I did learn that the reeds are constantly soaking up water and as they do, they lose their bounce, and the island sinks a little. The solution to this is to add fresh reeds on the surface, which they do every day. Eventually the entire island sinks to the bottom of the lake, and the reeds begin to rot. When that happens, a new island is built. The natives farm the nearby shores and they catch fish right at their front door.

We then visited another Island named Isla Santa Maria. This was a much larger island and had some well-built structures on it. After plenty of time for souvenir shopping, it was off across the lake for lunch at the private home of a Peruvian couple. By this time, I was having severe headaches, and my thinking and speech were loopy. All I wanted to do was to lie down and sleep. So it should come as no surprise that after an hour run across the lake to the far shores where the group stopped for lunch, I took one look at the 5 story climb and simply said “no way.” I convinced everyone it was OK to go ahead, and so I found myself alone on the boat. I heard a noise and looked behind me where a crewmember appeared with an oxygen cylinder. He set it up and then cleaned the mask for my use. He showed me how to lie down and rest with the oxygen on, and before you know it, I fell asleep. About 20 minutes later he gently removed the mask, and I just rested. Eventually the group returned and insisted that I come off the boat for a few minutes. To my total amazement, before me stood the entire family they had visited all dressed up in their finest clothes. It was explained to me that they were concerned about my health and had not only made me a lunch bag, but they had wanted to give it to me personally. Wow – that is one of those “moments” that you keep in memory for a very long time. I really was not hungry, and I am always leery of meals out in the country, but I could not resist looking in the bag. There was a beautiful cheese sandwich that smelled so good, I put my rules aside and tried a bite. Unbelievable! They had made the roll in their wood burning oven, sliced it partly open like a pita sandwich, and filled the center with cheese they made on the farm – it was wonderful!

That evening I was so sick that when they served dinner, I simply could not look at food, and excused myself. I had a pretty miserable night. Everyone, Lisa included was sick to one degree or another; however, I seemed to have had the worst of it. The next morning we were awakened at 4 am. After a quick breakfast we faced an hour drive to Juliaca and the airport. We were told that we were on a direct flight to Lima. I could not get down to a lower altitude fast enough! The flight departed at 9 am, and after a little over an hour landed. Assuming we were at Lime, I dutifully got up and got ready to leave the plane when something caught my eye outside; a sign that said “Welcome to Cuzco”. Even in my loopy state, I knew something was wrong. Our entire group had become separated, but I finally found our tour guide – it seems that our flight was changed at the last minute, and he forgot to tell us about it. So back down I sat. Finally we reached Lima and I could breathe!!!!

We returned to the ship in time for a late lunch, whereupon all of us fell into bed.

Thus ended our great journey; I really hate to discourage anyone from going to Lake Titicaca. It is a beautiful lake and the native cultures are very interesting. The ship and the tour company did a good job, and so I have no complaints. What I do think comes out of this is that we have reached a point in our lives where truthfully we are too old for some of this stuff. Staying at high altitudes is off our list of travel destinations.

Anyway, the very next day, Lisa and I had a private car and guide to visit Lima, but I think that is another story for another day.


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