Puno

Puno is the real Peruvian city life. Its people look like they’ve lived a hundred lives. Everywhere bike-taxis swoosh passed offering us rides we don’t want. It stinks. Actually, it downright smells of shit. The streets are lined with waste. We walk around stalls of rotten fruit and grey buildings. It’s dirty. It’s depressing. Men are peeing against walls and I get a whiff of urine. I miss the clean streets of Cusco. I wish my illusion of Peruvian life wasn’t so ruined.

It had been easy to be taken up by the charms of Cusco, its beautiful alleyways lined with low white houses and its craftsmen working their trades, the colors and the parades, the beautiful Spanish architecture. The old Incan capital stood proud in its valley. We had walked cobbled streets of hot hues and felt the sun warm our skin. Roasted guinea pigs were being sold by toothless women in traditional attire.  We had followed the Machu Picchu road and celebrated La Inti Raymi by drinking amber beer on usually forbidden grass. But Cusco is a mirage in an arid desert. Puno is the truth. It’s harsh and real.

Puno is the real Peruvian city life. Its people look like they’ve lived a hundred lives.

Puno’s advantage is that it sits by the Lake Titicaca. That’s probably why people come here. You imagine that a city sitting by such a mystical lake would be as enchanting as the legends. But it’s not. Lake Titicaca is where we are heading to next. We didn’t really know we were until we got to Puno and looked for a way out. Then, we found out about Copacabana and the Isla del Sol. Maybe we knew about them before and heading to Bolivia was always the plan, but in my memory, they are the Promised Land.

After an hour of walking in the city and being followed by multiple limping beggars, we walk to the station, calmly, as if that was always the plan. We buy tickets for Copacabana where we hope to find another bit of paradise.

Copacabana’s air is fresh and sweet. It’s a bit like being inside a huge strawberry

On our way to Bolivia, the bus slows in front of a shack where we are asked to disembark. In the wooden cabin, a man sitting in the middle of piles of paperwork behind a lonely desk; the custom officer. The man grunts while stamping our passports. His attention is turned towards a tiny television showing a blurry rendition of the current football game. We are of second importance. I still think the towers of documents were there for show. As the bus pulls out, a common looking westerner runs out of the Bolivian office and begs us for the entry tax money. He looks around with pleading eyes. A kind man proceeds to give him the money and the boy rushes back to pay his due. I remember feeling guilty for not offering to help him. I feel worse today knowing that people have helped me.

Every few kilometers there’s a tan boy of about 15 holding out a hand. He says we’ve reached a checkpoint. We need to pay the fee or walk back. It doesn’t look like a checkpoint. It doesn’t look like anything.

At some point, though it might have been on the way back into Peru, foldable seats appear in the aisle to accommodate passengers that hadn’t been there before the border. The bus is suddenly holding 30 people too many. In Bolivia the buses are loaded tightly, everyone pressed into each other like lovers. No one is left behind. It is somewhat heroic.

Copacabana’s air is fresh and sweet. It’s a bit like being inside a huge strawberry. It’s refreshing. We overlook the lake and it is a beautiful sight. In contrast, our room smells of old plumbing. We go spend a day on La Isla Del Sol. We are told a great many things about the lake Titicaca, the Islas del Sol y la Luna and the Floating Islands but who remembers any of that. I do remember something about UFO sightings around the lake but that might have come from a different conversation at a different time.

His laugh probably carries a hundred miles; we already know we will find him again a long time before the boat docks.

On the Isla Del Sol we are offered the opportunity to walk the length of the island or to wait for the boat to take us around. Adventurous and stupid as we are, we went for the walk. We are the only ones. It takes hours under a scorching sun. Every few kilometers there’s a tan boy of about 15 holding out a hand. He says we’ve reached a checkpoint. We need to pay the fee or walk back. It doesn’t look like a checkpoint. It doesn’t look like anything. There is only sand everywhere, our sunburned cheeks and this boy always with a cap worn backwards à l’Americaine. We put money in the boys’ hands every time. We feel cheated and yet who cares. We wonder if tourists often decide to walk the Island.

We reach the other side. Traditional dancing is ongoing and we smile. We chat with a blond-haired Australian whose name is lost somewhere in my memory. We see him again on our way back to Copacabana, happily drinking with the locals of the Floating Islands. His laugh probably carries a hundred miles; we already know we will find him again a long time before the boat docks. This night we sleep a deep sleep. Tomorrow, we head further into Bolivia.

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