A Walk, or Few, in the Park

Sunset in the Park

Our South American adventure started in Southern Chile’s Patagonia in the Torres del Paine National Park. It’s not the easiest place to get to – 24 hours of flights from Mexico City to Punta Arenas, Chile, and then 5 hours of bus rides to get to the park and another 40 minute bus ride to our lodge* – but it was well worth the long journey. It may be the most beautiful place I have ever been. Or maybe that was because I was so happy to be in the mountains again after island living for 2 years. Mountains, glaciers and lakes, oh my!

There are two ways to visit the park: backpack and do one of two multi-day hikes – the circuit or W – or stay in a hotel and take day hikes. As my camping limit is generally 2 nights and I don’t carry gear, we opted for a hotel. There are not many in the park, so we chose the most economical and had low expectations based on the reviews. Once again, my life experiences of rustic Wisconsin cottages served me well as Hosteria Pehoe has seen better days.

The point of the park is not the accommodations, but the views. Hosteria Pehoe had the best hotel views in the park, hands down. Our bartender showed us where to take the path to the scenic view for our first sunset, and the sunrise the next morning was equally spectacular. Even better – sunrise was around 8:15 a.m. My kind of place!

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We were out of hiking shape, but raring to go. On our first day we took a walk on the road to the Salta Chico waterfall and then hiked up to a lookout where we saw soaring condors. It felt great to be back in the mountains.

Day 2 was intended to be our easy day. We were building up to a 12 1/2 mile hike to the base of the Torres that we planned for Thursday, so on Tuesday we arranged to take the boat cruise to Grey Glacier. This is where traveling in a remote place with primitive hospitality services has its drawbacks. The wifi at our lodge wasn’t good enough for us to make the reservation for the cruise. The desk clerk at our lodge assured us that while the cruises were scheduled four times a day, the only one running was at noon and that we would have no problem booking it upon arrival the Hotel Lago Grey, where the boat departs. Unfortunately, she was not willing to make a call to reserve it for us. So we, together with another couple, hired a driver to take us to the Hotel Lago Grey where they informed us that there were no spaces on the noon cruise, but we could get on the 3 pm cruise. As we had 5 hours to kill, our options were to hang around the hotel or to take a hike to a scenic lookout above the lake. Feeling energized by the mountain air, I pushed for the hike.

Early View

The beginning of the hike was pleasant and I was happy with our choice. Then it got steep and I was slogging along. We were hiking with the other couple, and I felt like I was holding everyone back, a feeling I hate. I missed the stability of my hiking poles and regretted pushing for the hike. The other husband bailed while we forged ahead with the wife. Shortly thereafter, a couple of American men overtook us. They were trying to rally me to keep going, but I threw in the towel and Matt elected to descend with me while we sent the other woman off with them.

We cruised back down to the road and then our driver took us to the beginning of the trail for the hike to catch the boat. We trooped across a rocky beach, admired the bobbing icebergs and waited for the Grey III.

What a fun trip! The clouds that had blown in made it all the more interesting when trying to stand on deck in the driving wind. The color of the icebergs was an amazing blue and the glacier was impressive. I was surprised by how close we got to it. I was lucky be on deck to catch a moment of calving – when ice breaks away and falls into the lake. Fantastic!

I was demoralized after my failed hike to the lookout, but the next day we decided to walk to Salto Grande waterfall. Somehow it escaped us that it was an 8 mile walk, which wasn’t exactly our plan for the day before our big hike. But it was another lovely day for a walk.

Finally, the day had come – our hike to the base of the Torres. I was nervous about managing the hike, but I got the lowdown from a family we met who did it the day before us and our driver gave me a pep talk on our way to the start of the trail. We stopped to buy some provisions and then as we prepared to leave, one of my hiking poles was stuck! I was looking at the ridiculously priced gift shop poles, wondering whether it was a sign that I was too out of shape for the hike, when a workman walked by. We asked him for a pliers and he willingly helped us get my pole in order.

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The hike was hard. It was not as steep as the Grey Lake lookout and we were prepared for hiking, but it was not easy. At least not for us – plenty of people practically skipped by us. The hardest part was the end when you are climbing up boulders, sometimes through shallow streams. But it was spectacular – the terrain changed a lot throughout the hike, you could dip your water bottle into the stream for water and the day was fantastic. I am not sure that I will ever be in a landscape so breathtaking again.

On our last day our driver took us on a half day tour of the rest of the park before catching our bus to Calafate, Argentina. We enjoyed strolling on the shores of the beautiful Lago Azul (Blue Lake), admiring the rainbows in the Paine Waterfall and observing the wildlife. We saw so many guanacos on our days in the park that we felt like we had seen 90% of the entire population. I was keeping my eyes open for a puma, but we never spotted one although we enjoyed seeing many lookout guanacos on the hills standing watch for their herds.

Protector

Another grand trip to remember!

* In retrospect, we should have rented a car instead. Despite reading about a “shuttle” there was no public transportation within the park and we paid a small fortune in private transfers.

Thank You, Little Library!

Thank you for giving me a volunteer project to occupy my 2 years on the Galapagos Islands. I needed it. We went from this:

to this:

to this:

In less than 2 years, we built an open air library at the Tomas de Berlanga school and increased the collection from 400 semi-acceptable books to over 3,600 books specific to the needs of the school. The books all came via donations.We created a Bring a Book program with the Lindblad National Geographic ships. This program provided over 1,300 books to the school! We raised almost $2,000 in donations, which allowed the library to be self sustaining. We purchased a dedicated library computer and supplies and mailed books collected in the US. We held a book sale, a Dr. Seuss contest and instilled a love of reading in at least some of the students. We began an expansion, financed in part from the library fund, but unfortunately only the the concrete got poured before I left.

Thank you for facilitating my interaction with great, fun kids. I’ll miss these readers!

Thank you for introducing me to some great people who have become fantastic friends.

Thank you for the reminder that sometimes you just have to do things and not overthink them. Personal reinvention is the norm in a place like the Galapagos so going from retired attorney to “librarian” didn’t seem out of place.

Final Farewell

A final THANK YOU to Matt and my family and friends who supported the project through donations, advice, assistance and enthusiasm! You are too numerous to name (and I would forget someone) but you know who you are.

Know anyone who wants the library director gig? Here is the information; pass it along!

VOLUNTEER SCHOOL LIBRARY DIRECTOR NEEDED FOR THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS!

Have you ever wanted to live on the famous Galapagos Islands? Here is your chance! Tomás de Berlanga School (TdB), a K-12 bilingual (Spanish/English) school in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador, is looking for a part-time volunteer to manage its open-air school library. Adult candidates must have a passion for children’s literature, great organizational skills, basic proficiency in MS Office, including Excel, and a desire to live in a unique, yet challenging, island environment. MLIS or teaching degree is not required. English fluency required. Spanish fluency desired; a working knowledge of Spanish is required. The school year begins in May and ends in February. We require a minimum commitment of 4 months. The schedule is 3 days per week, which provides ample opportunity to enjoy your time on the islands. TdB will provide a volunteer visa.

The Library Director is responsible for all aspects of the library. Duties include indexing, leveling, labeling and maintaining the library collection; holding regular library hours for book check out and story times; maintaining the school’s book wish list (all books come via donations); communicating with potential donors; directing the work of teachers assigned to library duty; and light cleaning.

If you are interested in this opportunity, please contact the incoming school director, Justin Scoggin, at justinkscoggin@gmail.com

For more information about the school, you can view our Facebook page or website.
https://www.facebook.com/tdberlanga
http://tomasdeberlanga.edu.ec/

Love Is in the Air

Size does matter. That’s what our naturalist told us as we watched the blue-footed boobies perform their mating dance. Foot size, that is. Because the male boobies are a progressive bunch who share the egg incubation and child-rearing duties with the larger, female boobies, the females look for big feet, in addition to the perfect blue, when choosing a mate.

When Matt and I returned from our trip to Wisconsin over Christmas, the end was in sight – only 3 more months on the Galapagos. We were eagerly counting down and one of the highlights along the way was our second Lindblad National Geographic expedition, this time on the newly launched Endeavor II. (Here are posts on our first National Geographic cruise and my cruise on the smaller Samba: Cruising the Galapagos and Sailing on the Samba.) Admittedly, Matt and I approached the cruise with a bit of a “been there, done that” attitude: after almost 2 years we have seen most that the islands have to offer. Instead, the islands wowed us again and we were as enthusiastic as first-time visitors when we saw new-to-us animals and voyeuristically observed mating behaviors.

Back to the sex. The birds were providing quite the shows. This poor swallow-tail gull couple had their fun interrupted by a frigatebird who just wanted to cause trouble!

Wah!!!

Matt and I were thrilled to see flightless cormorants for the first time. This pair did not disappoint: we watched their courtship dance that began in the water and then continued on shore only a few feet in front of us. Their turquoise eyes were stunning.

While the blue-footed boobies get most of the attention, the red-footed boobies’ colors are even more spectacular with their blue and red beaks in addition to their red feet. These pairs had already committed and were in the real estate phase of their relationships. The males would fly off in search of just the right twig, which they would return to give to the female. Then the two would fight over exactly where to place the twig in the nest. Who said decorating is easy in the wild?!

Incoming!

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The frigatebird bachelors were doing their best to attract some females. They have a teenage boy mentality: the males all hang out together, puff out their pouches and whistle to the females in an attempt to get their attention. No one got lucky while we were there.

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It was not all about the birds. My beloved marine iguanas were building their nests. It was a spectacular sight to see their compact bodies kicking up sand everywhere we looked. Even more fun were the turf wars.

We didn’t just see great land animals. On our way back from a hike, we spotted a whale from our zodiac. The rest of the passengers were back on board, but we were off on a wild whale chase!

It was both exhilarating and slightly terrifying – zodiacs are just little rubber dinghies! Matt and I were lucky to spot this orca from the ship on another day.

Orca

One of my favorite creatures to spot while snorkeling is the elusive octopus. This one was pretty easy to see for a change.

And, of course, my favorite:

Which leads us to the land iguanas.

Tres Amigos

In addition to the great animals and views, we also met fantastic people and had good conversations, games and laughs. An unforgettable last trip around the islands!

Iguana Obsessed!

There are many magical aspects of the Galapagos Islands, but for me, the iguanas are supreme. There are endemic (native only to a particular place) marine and land iguanas on the islands. The marine iguanas are the only reptiles that drink salt water. Eventually, they blow out the salt through their nostrils. How cool is that? They are herbivores and feed on the ocean algae.  They fascinate me – how they move both on land and in the water and their chameleon-like color changes to match the seasons. The land iguanas are equally interesting. They eat cacti and other plants and come in various colors according to island location as well. While I am looking forward to leaving the islands at the end of March, I am going to miss these characters.

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No, Moving to a Foreign Country Won’t Help

 

i-voted

During this contentious election cycle, many state-side friends have said that they will move to a foreign country if Trump gets elected. Some of them are sincere when they say it. It won’t help. You can run, but you can’t hide. You will still feel bruised and battered by this unprecedentedly ugly election.

In the past, we could disagree in a civil manner. Our presidential debates were usually snooze fests with mediocre viewership. This year, the election became a reality show, full of insults, tweets, one-liners and misinformation. I shudder to think that any high school debater watched the debates and thought these were appropriate debating techniques. How did we fall so low that the two major candidates for President of the United States traded insults on par with dimwitted elementary students and couldn’t manage to shake hands? And while I think about 92% of the rude comments came from Trump, the times that Clinton stooped to his level made me cringe. Is this really how the American voters want their President to act?

And what about Clinton supporters? Yes, we are appalled that Trump is the Republican candidate and has a good shot at winning this election. But how about keeping our discourse at a proper level? It’s hard, of course, when Trump defrauds millions with his fake university, insults broad classes of people, and speaks of grabbing women by the pussy, but why stoop to his level? Often I read articles bemoaning Trump’s bullying comments only to read the anti-Trump comments that appeared to channel the man himself in crudeness and lack of intellect.

Make no mistake, I am not suggesting keeping quiet or refraining from respectfully disagreeing with those who think differently than you. But as a whole, this election seems to have brought out the most ugly things about America: our resentment, bigotry, callousness, entitlement and crudeness. When you move to a foreign country, you become an unofficial US ambassador. I have had countless conversations with non-Americans asking me what the hell the problem is with our country. It’s a terrible feeling to have to acknowledge that racism, misogyny, and hate seem to be the driving factors for many voters in this election.

When Matt and I became ex-pats, we didn’t do it because we disliked the USA. However, as with most people of privilege, we were ambivalent toward what we had. We took for granted our rights of free press and free speech, our judicial system based on due process and our fair elections. Living in two other countries has been an eye opener. In both, the press is restricted and one cannot criticize the President. We have seen governments that suppress news, including that regarding potential natural disasters, and change constitutions and laws to suit their ends. We witnessed a local election when the frontrunner was imprisoned by the incumbent government with no charges brought. We experienced a government that increased sales tax by 2%, restricted the money one could send abroad without a 5% surcharge paid to the government and placed an additional 3.5% tax on wages to pay for earthquake relief because of inadequate reserves. Until about 4 months ago, we were walking around proud to be Americans. It was as though we finally understood why the USA is the super power it is.

Now I question just how great the USA is. If we have so much as a country, why are many acting so terribly toward one another? What on earth are people afraid of? What do they think they lack? It is profoundly depressing to me to think that as a country we have not moved forward since the civil rights movement of the 60s. It is disturbing to see the distortion of facts and reality in the press, or outlets that currently pass as press. And it is downright horrifying to think that our 200+ year history of peaceful transfers of power may be challenged by a losing candidate.

You can move to a foreign country after the election, but it won’t help. You will still be an American.

 

Sailing on the Samba

The Samba

The Samba

I was working in the library one Tuesday afternoon in July when Matt came to see me with a funny look on his face. The owner of the Samba, a 14-passenger, 78-foot sailboat, had just invited us on an 8-day cruise. The ship was sailing that night. Matt couldn’t go because he was hosting a group of US teachers who were training his teachers, but he urged me to accept the invitation. I waffled – did I want to go alone, would I get seasick on a small boat? – and quickly realized that I was being foolish. It was a wonderful opportunity, I had my own cabin if I did puke the whole time and Matt would get to have our small apartment to himself for a change. We got home from school around 4:30 and by 6 I was packed and waiting on the dock to be taken to the Samba.

What an amazing trip! The crew, my fellow passengers and ship were fantastic. Last year Matt and I were guests on the National Geographic Endeavor, and I didn’t think that experience could be topped. (I blogged about it here: Cruising the Galapagos.) This trip followed essentially the same itinerary and was equally fun and exciting.

There are pros and cons to being on a bigger ship versus a smaller ship. I honestly don’t know which trip I preferred, but on a smaller ship you get to do this:

On the other hand, a smaller boat is rockier and our first night was rough. On a late night trip to the bathroom – all of three steps away from my bed – the ship pitched just as I got through the doorway and I fell sideways, somehow ending up like a beetle on its back in the shower stall. I laid there, stunned, crunched up in the 18 inch square stall and not really awake, trying to figure out if I could actually get up without help. It became clear why our guide, Franklin, had advised us to wear pajamas to bed!

We were up early every morning because our days were chock-full of activities: hiking, snorkeling, kayaking/paddle boarding. The activities were offset by delicious meals and tasty snacks; no dieting on this trip! During downtimes we played cards, Catchphrase and relaxed in the common areas. Franklin taught everyone to play the Ecuadorian card game Cuarenta and the Martin family taught us a group card game. I never felt unwelcome or uncomfortable traveling alone and couldn’t have asked for nicer people. Franklin was an entertaining guide and made getting up early worth our while. He made the mistake of drawing a cute picture on our second schedule and we then insisted he do it every time.

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On a trip this active, it is hard to pick the highlights, but swimming with the penguins was one. These tubby torpedoes are unbelievably fast when hunting their dinner.

While most of what we saw and did was not new to me, my excitement was as genuine as my new friends’ excitement. I never tire of watching the birds, iguanas and other animals. While we were busy every day, we were never rushed and could enjoy countless moments in a genuine manner.

Best of the Birds:

My favorites, the iguanas:

Bored with Us!

Under the Sea:

Octopus’s Garden

Unexpected Highlight –  Wild Dolphin Show! *

Frolicking Dolphins

Dolphins Racing the Boat

Two nights the dolphins treated us to the most fantastic show. I have never seen anything like it, and this spectacle reinforced all I knew about dolphins – their beauty, athleticism, playfulness and intelligence. The captain sailed in large, lazy circles so we could enjoy the show and it felt like the dolphins were performing for us, as though they wanted the attention and to light up our lives. When they first started racing the boat, I asked the crew why and the response was “they are playing with us.” They were. I also loved that the crew was all on deck (well, apart from the ones steering our course) to watch the show and their wonder was genuine too.

 

This is How Happy the Dolphin Show Made Me

This is How Happy the Dolphin Show Made Me

Sailing on the Samba – one of the best gifts I have ever been given!

* Don’t go to a dolphin show. Seriously, don’t. Living here has made me struggle with zoos and aquariums, but I understand that good ones are important to conservation efforts. Dolphin shows are not.

The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca Part II – Taquile Island

After leaving the Uros Islands with an uncomfortable feeling that we had just been conned (The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca – Uros Islands), we settled in for the 2-hour boat ride to Taquile Island and hoped our next experience would feel more authentic. Along the way, our guide told us about Lake Titicaca and Taquile. The people are known for their beautiful textiles and, in an interesting twist, the men all knit and the women weave. Similar to the Uros Islands, the Taquile community decided to control the tourism on their island. The community is a cooperative and runs day tours, home stays, restaurants and textile sales. After lecturing us for awhile, our guide piped down and most of us cat-napped on the ride.

Taquile is tiny – about 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide – and stunning. We landed on a lovely beach with farming terraces dotting the hillside above it. Some young tourists who had done a homestay were playing with local children on the beach when we were met by our local male guides.  They were wearing beautiful outfits – bright, knitted hats with earflaps (chullos) and gorgeous woven sashes (chumpis). The men never stopped knitting. It was remarkable to see them walk and knit, especially given that we were not on smooth pavement. The hats denote marital status. While men wear knitted hats, with or without earflaps, married men wear red, patterned hats folded to the right, while unmarried men wear hats that are red and patterned at the bottom and white at the top. Folded to the right, it means he is looking for a girlfriend; hanging down the back means he is taken or not yet interested in dating. The island’s elected officials (men) wear black, felt hats during their terms. The community marries within itself, and our guide bluntly remarked that a disabled man who was causing some minor disruptions is the end result when the gene pool doesn’t expand. In addition, couples cohabit before getting married. If the cohabitation doesn’t work out and they didn’t have children, they part ways. I’m not sure how that works out as it would be pretty hard to avoid your ex on this tiny island!

After a brief introduction on the beach, we walked up the path. Matt and I thought we were pacing ourselves and going slowly, but apparently we weren’t as we inadvertently ended up following another group and had to be shooed back to wait for our own. Due to the altitude, some folks had a trouble with the ascent, but we had been in the Andes long enough to be acclimated. The views are stupendous and we were able to see Bolivia in the distance.

Eventually our group congregated in a courtyard and the women filed in to set up their weaving. I was confused to see the black head coverings as we heard the islanders were Catholic with the usual indigenous bent. Our guide told us that the head coverings were to protect the women’s hair from being bleached by the sun. A woman’s hair is a great asset and a bride cuts off her hair to weave into a sash for her husband’s wedding gift. No word on what a man gives his wife, but apparently he has to finish knitting his married-man hat before he can tie the knot. As our guide talked and got one of the men to demonstrate how to clean wool with a local plant, the women bent over their weaving in the hot sun while wearing multiple wool skirts and sweaters. In talking with one of the women afterwards, she admitted that it was terrible for her back to weave in this fashion. She also said that the runners they were weaving take about 3 weeks to complete.

Ancient Tools

Ancient Tools

After the talk and demonstration, there was the usual setting up of textiles for sale with the obvious expectation that we would buy. In talking with other visitors to Taquile, I think our experience was different than usual due to the elections. The main square where there is usually a textile market was closed, so the selection was limited and we felt more obligation than if we had been wandering around a market. We bought a few things and likely would have bought more given the fine quality if we had seen more than just a sampling. In addition, the weavers and knitters were not friendly (and Matt and I usually get points for at least speaking Spanish though on the island they also speak Quechua) and I felt a vibe that ranged from indifferent to resentful. Very different from the overly exuberant women on Uros, but awkward just the same. Matt and I compared notes later and he felt the same hostility.

After shopping, we were herded to the Eco Lodge Taquile for a traditional lunch of quinoa soup, fried trout and tea. The setting was pleasant and the lunch was fresh and tasty. We then hiked around more of the island to another dock for pick up. The day remained beautiful and the walk was leisurely and lovely. Upon our arrival to the dock, we discovered that the crew had returned to Puno to vote! We were stranded for about an hour and half with no beverages in the hot sun and nowhere to go as we were not allowed to wander. Needless to say, this ended our trip on a sour note. Matt and I struck up a conversation with some friendly Australian tourists who were planning their cocktail hour upon returning to their hotel and we had to break the news to them that it was a dry country due to the elections. We gave them “directions’ to our source in the market and hoped they found some libations for the evening.

There is no doubt that Taquile is beautiful and we felt we saw an authentic way of life (questionable on the Uros Islands), but we also felt unwelcome, which is odd for a community that has decided to become a tourist destination. It is hard to say whether I would recommend either excursion to someone traveling in Peru.

The Tourist Trap of Lake Titicaca – Uros Islands

Maybe it was because we had such a good time in the Colca Canyon. Maybe it was because I ended up so sick that we had to spend substantial cash to change our flights and travel plans back to Ecuador and missed one stop on our vacation. Maybe it is because I live with a gorgeous ocean view and have become spoiled. In any event, Lake Titicaca was the low point on an otherwise spectacular trip to Peru.

Sunrise Over the Lake

Sunrise Over the Lake

Lake Titicaca’s fame, apart from a name that sounds naughty, is as the world’s highest navigable lake at 12,725 feet (3,856 meters) above sea level. It forms a natural separation between Peru and Bolivia. The main tourist attractions are visiting the floating Uros Islands and one of the solid islands known for the handicrafts produced there. Puno is the main Peruvian city on the lake and we knew not to expect much from it. So we booked two nights in a nice hotel and planned to spend our full day on a tour to see the Uros Islands and Taquile Island.

Hotel Libertador

Our Oasis – Hotel Libertador

My highpoint of our stay came that first night. The Peruvian elections were the next day and we remembered that alcohol sales are prohibited beginning the afternoon prior to the election until the afternoon after the election. Needless to say, this wasn’t going to work for us native Wisconsinites. After confirming that the hotel also couldn’t sell alcohol (although we could have broken into the over-priced mini-bar), we were on a mission. We had some other errands to run and then asked the cab driver if he knew somewhere we could buy alcohol. He named the major grocery chain and we explained that his country’s laws didn’t permit alcohol sales. Clearly the man wasn’t a drinker, because he assured us we were wrong. To be agreeable, we dashed into the store to confirm our knowledge and asked him for a Plan B. He thought a moment and took us to the city market – a multi-block, sprawling affair – dropped us off on the corner where he would wait, and directed us to a store a block down and to the left. We set off and were overwhelmed by a typical, Peruvian market of chaos -food, clothes, sundries, probably some live chickens had we looked hard enough. We backtracked after a few rows and then realized we needed to get a grip. This was nothing new for us and we speak the language. After asking the cell phone vendor where to buy booze, we were given the same directions and found a corner stall doing a booming and obvious business. We bought a bottle of wine for each night’s dinner and were on our way. That night at the hotel restaurant, I brought the wine in my handbag and asked the waiter if they were able to open and serve it to us. He was very gracious and assured us it was no problem, but then tried mightily to get us to give up our seller. He told us how incredibly high the fines were and that he couldn’t believe we found anywhere to buy it. I couldn’t decide if he wanted to turn the vendor in or stop and buy a bottle for himself! (Yes, I recognize that this highpoint says something about me, but apart from being happy to have wine to enjoy with our dinner, the highpoint came from the fact that we actually knew about this law and could navigate everything in Spanish. It made us feel like we really had lived in Peru once upon a time.)

The next day we headed to the pier for our trip on the lake. We soon realized that we had paid way too much by booking in advance, but we got over that pretty quickly. We were ushered onto a speedboat that was closed and comfortable, particularly when compared to the Galapagos ferries. We were excited for our trip as we headed to the first stop, the Uros Islands.

Our excitement started to wane when we reached the islands about 20 minutes later. Island after island had the same scene – reed houses, a tower, a traditional boat, solar panels and colorfully garbed ladies trying to flag down our boat.

The floating ATM was a dead giveaway of the shakedown yet to come.

ATM

ATM

We eventually stopped at Khana Marka Mayku and disembarked on the squishy reed island. It was like a moon walk at a county fair. A bit unsteady, we were herded to the communal area where we were introduced to the family that lived on this tiny island and greeted with a song.

The traditional garb was bright and colorful, the people were smiling and friendly and the overview of life on the island was interesting. We learned that the island is made by first hacking though the reeds to turn them into reed-root blocks that are tied together to form the base of the island. Layers of fresh reeds are placed on top and fortified every few months with new reeds tossed on top to counteract the decay. The islands are secured to the bottom of the lake so they don’t float away, but can be up-anchored and moved. Family units live together on the islands and have communal cooking, eating and living areas and private sleeping areas. The government provided solar panels, but there was some concern over what the monthly charges would be as they hadn’t been disclosed. There were two island schools – one public and one run by Seventh Day Adventists – and a soccer field. Families rotate which islands are open for tourism.

We learned that the families mainly eat fish, birds and reeds in addition to what they buy with the money from sale of these items and the tourism trade. We were invited to try the reeds and assured by our guide that they were safe to eat. Given my subsequent illness, I think I should have passed on the reeds.

After the demonstrations and information came the sales pitch. First the women showed their lovely textiles. I am a sucker for textiles and was prepared to buy one or two to support the local economy. Before that happened, we were separated into small groups and “invited” into a home by one of the women. This is where the hard sell occurred as we were shown each of her wares and pressured to buy. It gave me flashbacks to being 20 and locked into an upper room by a Moroccan rug merchant! This time, I had cash and was happy to make a few purchases to spring our early release.

After everyone had bought a suitable amount of souvenirs, we were invited for a ride (at an extra cost) on one of the traditional boats. Most of us gamely climbed on board and Matt and I secured an upper deck seat. They women sent us off with a song and a cheesy “Hasta la vista, Baby!” shout.

Once on deck, 8-year old Israel and his pouty, 3-year-old sister Rosa made their way up top to entertain us. He told me about taking a boat to school, what he studied and pointed out the floating soccer field. He was sweet and cheerful while his sister was a terror who spent most of her time punching him. I couldn’t imagine living on an island with that little monster and wondered how harmonious their island life was. Israel ended with a song after which he and his sister hit us up for money. We complied but were later told by other tourists that they were specifically instructed by their tour organizer to not give money to the children. While I understood, I would have felt worse not giving money to Israel and a few bucks wasn’t going to matter to us while it might to them.

We were dropped off on another island for a short, low pressure shopping stop before heading to Taquile Island, about a 2 hour boat ride away. The Uros Islands were interesting, but the staged, orchestrated affair had none of the charm of our home stay in Sibayo. In Sibayo we were also offered goods for sale, but we did not feel the shake down of the island, nor were the children used to beg from us. We also were unclear: how much of this Uros lifestyle we saw was genuine and how much for our benefit? Matt and I were already toured out for the day and hoped Taquile would be a better experience as we settled in for the boat ride there.

El Condor Pasa – Cruising the Colca Canyon Part III

Soaring

Soaring

The main reason most people travel to the Colca Canyon is to see the Andean condors soar through the valley and we were no exception. While we enjoyed all of our trip: hikes, homestay, bird watching, hot springs, cave art and more, the main event was watching the condors.

Our guide, Salome, planned the viewing perfectly: we left our hotel at 7:30 to travel to Condor Cross and arrived shortly before 8. Only a few tourists were gathered. The bus tours stay in a town farther away or come from Arequipa, so we were able to sleep in, if you consider getting up at 6:30 am to be sleeping in, and still arrive before the masses.

Salome quickly got us situated in a prime spot she had shown us the previous day and immediately directed our attention downward where 5 condors were gathered (we only spotted 4, but Salome leaned waaay over and saw a fifth). We laughed that none of the other tourists had noticed them and then nicely showed them where the condors were resting.

And then we waited. And waited. We were now inundated with other tourists, but held firm to our prized positions. I bushed off some very rusty Italian and chatted with a friendly, Italian-speaking Swiss tourist. A hawk flew by and got us all excited until we realized it was only a hawk. Then one juvenile condor, followed by a second, took off and began soaring through the valley. It was breathtaking to watch them glide and drift through the canyon on the air currents. Eventually, the adult condors got in on the action and other condors also appeared to provide us excellent, live entertainment.

We Have Lift Off!

We Have Lift Off!

What goes up, must come down…

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After about an hour, we started the short hike to the van. I was delighted with having seen 6 condors at that point, but on our return hike we saw another 8 condors. Every time we stopped watching to walk a bit more, another one or two would appear. We felt incredibly fortunate especially because the Belgians we met at the homestay only saw two condors the day they visited. Lilian later teased us and asked whether we would brag about how many condors we saw if we ran into them in Lake Titicaca. We did not see the Belgians again, so we were not tested.

Our day’s fun was not over. On our way out of the canyon we stopped in Maca to enjoy a colca sour  – a pisco sour made with cactus fruit (sancayo) juice. While I normally skip street food due to a sensitive stomach even after living in Peru, I wasn’t passing up a colca sour! Salome knows the owner, so we also got to see the skull of a family ancestor. They don’t know exactly who the person was but found the skull when tilling the family field. They named it Juan (I think) and treat it respectfully (if charging a small gratuity to see it counts as respect). Note his elongated skull of the Collaguas people.

Maca was set up for tourism, something that gives me mixed feelings. On the one hand, I do not begrudge anyone from making a living, particularly from tasty cocktails, and if we can help drive a local economy, I am happy to do it. On the other hand, there is a fine line between sharing one’s culture and turning it into a tourist trap. Our homestay was a genuine experience, Maca was borderline and Lake Titicaca was the worst of its kind.

After our drink, we visited Santa Ana church. We had visited a handful of mountain churches on our trip, but after the grandeur of the Arequipa churches and monasteries, we were a bit churched-out. Maca’s church had been damaged in an earthquake but still retained much of its spectacular, gold-leafed interior. It also had an impressive display of statues, most with gorgeous embroidered clothing. Salome pointed out the indigenous and Spanish influences in all of these mountain churches. She also told us how the main statues used in processions would get new clothes every year and how families would try to outdo one another with the grandness of the clothing.

Finally, there were these crazy statues in the town square.

Salome tried to ask a local about the action-hero guerrilla on the woman’s back but all the man would say was that the statue wasn’t a correct depiction. When Salome asked what the proper depiction should be or what the folktale was behind the statue, he kept complaining how the statue wasn’t done correctly. Eventually she gave up, but Matt and I felt vindicated. We feel like we have these bizarre conversations often in Spanish and always attribute it to our lack of language skills. But no, sometimes people just spend a lot of effort repeating the same non- answer over and over again!

We left Maca and made our way out of the canyon with one final scenic stop to view the mountains. Then we were on to Puno on the banks of Lake Titicaca where Salome and Lilian left us to make their long drive back to Arequipa to be home in time for the obligatory elections the next day. What a great trip we had with them!