Monday 31 May 2010

The Panama Hat

Sunday 20th January 2008 was the last day of my first ever trip to Australia. Before leaving Melbourne, that afternoon, I bought myself a hat. A Panama hat, from City Hatters, next to Flinders Street station.

In the days that followed, I made a monumental decision that changed my life forever. In the coming months, as I extracted myself from my business, and spent more time 'working from home' the hat came to symbolise my impending freedom. I once made a vow, that if the sun were shining and I wasn't working, I would be wearing it. It was an easy promise to keep.

However, a hat that well loved and travelled must eventually succumb, as will we all, to the pressures of life. The pinch had torn and disintegrated. The weave dried and cracked. I should remark that it is not actually a true Panama - though the weave comes from Ecuador, it was made in the States. I resolved, earlier in the year, to buy a genuine Panama hat in Ecuador, and allow my old one the freedom it had so richly earned. To place it back from whence it came.

The hat and I share a few final thoughts

And so this morning I purchased a 100% genuine Panama hat. Woven and lovingly hand crafted in Cuenca, Ecuador, over a period of months. It is a thing of infinite beauty and exceptional craftsmanship. On the day when I will give my old hat away, I can't help wondering when and how this one and I will head our separate ways.

I sit in Plaza Grande for a few moments, wondering where I should leave the old one. I can't bring myself to do it. I walk around for a while, then pass an old man, stop and turn back. There was something in his eyes, no doubt about it. I gently took the hat from my head and crouched beside him.

Disculpame señor. Este sombrero tiene mucho suerte para mi. Pero, no lo necesito ahora. Te gustaría? Es un regalito a usted, de mi.

He smiled and accepted my offer. I thought about asking for his photograph, but somehow that would have cheapened the deal - made it an exchange and not a gift. And anyway, I saw his face and will never forget it. I put my hand on his shoulder instead, said goodbye and walked away, a smile upon my face and just the slightest hint of a tear in my eye.

Quito Old Town

My friend Steve lived in Quito for a few years and furnished me with some pointers. Here’s what he said about Quito old town:

The old town is pretty far from most stuff and also pretty dodgy. Quito is pretty dodgy in general actually - every time you go out you have to prepare for the fact that you might get mugged, although you rarely do. It's a bit like Holloway Road in that respect.

Fortunately, that's where the similarities with Holloway Road end. The historic centre of town was the first city to receive UNESCO heritage status, in 1978. (Holloway just missed out). It is considered the best preserved colonial centre in Latin America. Magnificent churches and cathedrals are on almost every corner, and the narrow streets climb up and down and disappear into the sides of the hills that surround the town.

They keep the cars out of the centre on a Sunday, so I took the opportunity to run the gauntlet and have a stroll about. It's not just the cars it seems - despite the fact that there are hundreds of locals wandering the streets, most of the shops and cafes are shut too. I find somewhere to eat in Plaza San Francisco, and am amazed to be served a very yellow looking ceviche, flavoured with sweet mustard. I guess it wouldn't do if we were all the same.

Even on a busy Sunday afternoon, I can see what Steve meant. There is a slight edge to the place, a lurking menace that you can't quite put your finger on. Much later, I head out for dinner. The streets are deserted, all the restaurants closed, and the sense of impending violence sharpened considerably. If I wasn't six foot one and as hard as nails, I might even be a bit worried. I pop back to the hotel to research alternative dinner plans, and the guy looks at me as though I am mad. Toma un taxi señor.

Things are a bit better today. Everything's open, the streets are lively, loud and busy and the lingering mist of danger has evaporated. And in Plaza Grande, some sort of Independence related celebration is occurring.

It's not a bad place really. I like it, but I'm probably a little bit too tired to make the effort to appreciate it. Today is my last day in Latin America. It's been an awesome few months, and I know I need a lot more than that to really do it justice. But there's a grand 'plan' scribbled on a piece of paper somewhere in amongst all the crap I'm carting around with me, and it is quite insistent. On June 1st, it says, I have to swap continents.

Saturday 29 May 2010

Only quitters quit quitting

My arrival in Quito is somewhat ominous. The anticipated bloke with the sign bearing my name simply isn't there. I contrive a cab to take me to the hostel so I can abuse them, but the place is banged up with no one in sight.

I am in the Mariscal district of Quito New Town. The many bars are pumping out dubious 'rock' music and a strange combination of sketchy locals and conspicuous yanks are crowding the sidewalk. It is a little after 4pm. I'm prowling the streets with my three bags weighing heavily upon my shoulders, and resolve to check myself into the first hotel I see, regardless of any characteristics that it may or may not possess.

Luckily for me, the first place I stumble upon is a very fine boutique hotel, with matching prices. I wearily abandon my bags and promptly crash out, despite the thumping musical sounds emanating from the street below. By the time I come to, it is dark. The music is louder and the streets throng with people. I may as well be staying in Leicester fucking Square.

I decide to conduct a little reconnaissance, find a bar to prop up and maybe somewhere to eat. I walk a few blocks but can't believe how rubbish it is. Crap bars, drunk Americans, dodgy locals. I am in desperate need of a beer but can't find anywhere I would deliberately walk into in order to consume one. Eventually I pull a double take as I walk past an inconspicuous, shit looking place with a couple of empty bar stools. That'll do for me.

It transpires that it is a karaoke bar. I sit unobtrusively sipping my 'Conquer' whilst brushing up on my Spanish thanks to the lyrics flashing across the screen. One guy really can sing. He is followed by a girl who really can't. Her enormous breasts, whilst obscuring almost everything else within a two-block radius, can't hide the fact that most animals, in the last painful throes of their lives, emit more melodious notes than her more than ample lungs.

Later, when she unsuccessfully attempts to seduce me, I take my cue to leave. I can't find a restaurant that doesn't look rubbish, so finally settle for the one next to my hotel where I am entitled to a free mojito. I chuck this back with a beer chaser and eat. The food's better than I expected, but halfway through it dawns on me that I am in a bar with fake trees propping up the ceiling, surrounded by drunk Americans, and I would rather be suspended naked from the Statue of Eros than spend another second on these streets. I retreat, earplugs in, curtains drawn, and plan a move into the Old Town for tomorrow.

Nobody likes a quitter I know, but I really have no choice.

Un cuento de dos capitales

1. Lima, Peru

Forty-eight hours is hardly enough time to get to know a city, so I don't really try. The first thing I do, upon discovering that my B&B possesses the most comfortable bed I have encountered in several months, is fall into a deep, detached sleep. And then I get drunk. Properly drunk, with English people.

They're not quite the Graham Greene type ex-pats one might expect to find in a Latin American capital city. In fact, I am in the esteemed company of Miles Buesst, the Captain of the Peruvian national cricket team. You have to admire the tenacity of an Englishman determined enough to achieve ICC Affiliation in a country with one cricket pitch, whose closest away fixture involves a journey of 2,400 kilometres to Santiago, and where the nearest shop selling cricket equipment is on a different continent. The only advice I could offer was that he should write a book.

The hangover took a fair bit of sleeping off. That done, I headed into Miraflores, the hospitable, westerner friendly side of Lima, for lunch. We had to pass up a few of the better Cevicherias due to the long queues outside, but eventually found one and got stuck in. I haven't eaten an enormous amount of ceviche in South America, though I have made it on a Peruvian cooking course in Buenos Aires. This one kicks ass. And it kicks a lot more too when you get a mouthful of the chilli. The liquid that remains on the plate is known as leche de tigre (tiger's milk) and is apparently available individually as a male aphrodisiac. No wonder they eat so much of the stuff.

Having bade farewell to Miles, and with a Peru cricket shirt now tucked under my arm, I spend the afternoon wandering Miraflores trying to get a feel for the city. It lies somewhere between the two extremes I have encountered so far; the European capitals like Buenos Aires and Santiago, and the crazy South American ones like La Paz. It's definitely nearer the former than the latter, and that will only ever move in one direction. But it still retains enough unexplained holes in the ground, shoeshine boys, taxi drivers who think they're Nelson Piquet and people selling everything to be defiantly South American in its style. I kind of like it.

2. Pescados Capitales

My culinary experience of Peru was hijacked by the gastroenteritis I suffered at the hands of the Bolivian popcorn, so I was determined to atone on my last night in Lima. I'd heard good things about Pescados Capitales, so it seemed as good a place as any.

I kick off with an ice cold Cusqueña while my order takes shape. A Pisco Sour to start me off. Then ceviche of flounder and octopus. Then brochettes of prawn, squid and octopus. All rinsed down with a Sauvignon Blanc that smells like a wild English meadow.

It is all very good. But the ceviche doesn't top what I had at lunchtime. The heat here is coming from black pepper, and I prefer the rounder sweeter heat of chilli. But the shavings of octopus and the big chunks of lenguado are divine.

The brochettes too are very good. Skewers of octopus in butter; soft, succulent and juicy. Prawns marinated in chimichurri, and squid in anticucho. I really savour every mouthful, all the time resisting the temptation to rise from my table, stroll across to the loud, obnoxious American and his friend who looks like Ned Flanders, and smash their heads together.

I am forced to try the crème brûlée, which disappoints. And so I am forced to drown the disappointment in a Gin and Tonic, and when that doesn't work, in another. By the time order is restored, the comfiest bed in South America beckons me into its midst, and I wilfully pass out.

Friday 28 May 2010

City in the clouds

Some places are, quite simply, very, very special. Trying to define them with words, even pictures, feels futile and disrespectful. All you can do is wait until you see them for yourself, sit quietly somewhere, and appreciate them just as they are. Machu Picchu is without question such a place.

Via a bus to Ollantaytambo, another bus, and the train that weaves up the Sacred Valley towards Aguas Calientes, I made my way. My stomach almost completely recovered and buoyed by the excitement of what lay ahead, I ate a splendid meal in town before getting an early night in anticipation of a very early morning. The river roared outside my window and sent me into a blissful sleep.

It also disguised the sound of the rain. The torrential rain. It did such a good job, that I wasn't even aware of it at all until I stepped outside at 6.30 am, hopelessly unprepared. Luckily it abated a little as we made our snake like ascent to the summit and the famous 'Lost City' of the Incas. I'm not quite sure who was meant to have 'Lost' it, but they definitely found it again, that's for sure.

Even at this time there are plenty of people knocking about, though it's hard to see them through the clouds. I resist the temptation to look too much and wind my way up the slippery steps to the Hut of the Caretaker for the classic view of the ruins. It is completely obscured by cloud, but I don't really mind.

In some ways more incredible than the city itself is its location. As the clouds gradually dissipate, stunning ragged mountains appear from the mist. The Incas built the city here to be closer to the Gods. They succeeded. The sense of being somewhere both intensely spiritual and physically improbable see to that.

History is not within the grasp of mortal men. Quite the opposite. We lie within its reach. Every now and then its icy fingers tingle down the spine and we may be lucky enough to feel it. Reaching out to us, breathing life into us through the actions and beliefs of people who have long since shuffled off. In a quiet spot in Machu Picchu, or Pisac, or any of the other ruins in the Sacred Valley, you can almost hear it, whistling between the great stone walls.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

My week in Ruins

Cuzco itself is surrounded by a number of notable Inca ruins, and more still lie in the Sacred Valley of the Río Urubamba.

From the centre of town you can walk up to Saqsaywamán. It will almost kill you, but you can, and accompanied by a couple of Aussies from the hostel, I do. It's a big sprawling site with spectacular views over the city. It is also overrun with tourists, many of them Latinos, with the odd group of Americans discreetly blending in amongst them.

Blending in

This is my first proper experience of an Inca site. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is the stonemasonry. First of all, they got these massive stones to wherever they needed them without using the wheel (although they knew about it, it was pretty much useless on the terrain). Then they would somehow cut and fit them together so tightly that a sheet of paper won't fit in the cracks. Modern attempts to replicate the possible techniques they used have been fruitless. Their walls were also built to withstand earthquakes, making them virtually ineradicable. Which is why so many of them remain today.

Inca stonemasonry


Half an hour or so from Cuzco, on the banks of the Urubamba river, lies the little town of Písac. And on the sides of a mountain that looms up from the town, lie the remains of the old Inca settlement. The hillsides are terraced all the way round, for agricultural and defensive reasons. At the top, the buildings cling impossibly to the rocks. It's a wonderful place to walk around - far less tourists and many more opportunities for peace. I spend a few long minutes at the top, clinging desperately to my hat in the gusting wind and wondering how the hell they managed to build the bloody place.


Via an absurdly precarious footpath, a tunnel and some nice stone steps alongside a sheer drop, you can make your way to the other side of the mountain, more ruins, and if you're stupid, like me, you can make the 45 minute descent into town.

Further up the Sacred Valley you hit the tiny town of Ollantaytambo. Ruins and terracing ascend the hillsides yet again, but the town itself this time is pretty much unchanged since the Incas were around (probably a few more hostels nowadays).

It's a cool little place with friendly people, but there are a lot of gringos in town, myself included. And that's because this is the last stop on the way to the greatest site of them all. Machu Picchu. And I cannot wait.

Sunday 23 May 2010

Cada Sunday

One of the great things about South America is that you can never be quite sure what will wake you up in the morning. Dogs, fairly often. Car horns are popular. Firecrackers. Singing, whistling, chanting. Drums, maybe. Or, if you're unlucky, like me, diarrhoea. This morning it was all of them - no telling which delivered the fatal blow.

Sat on the roof eating a meagre breakfast, I could hear the beginnings of some kind of carnival. Outside and it is really going off. A giant procession is snaking its way through the streets, and it seems like the whole town must be involved. I walk past groups of similarly clad ladies gearing up for their turn.

The locals who aren't taking part are lining the streets. Kids with cameras are running around taking pictures of their mums. As well as the colourfully clad traditional groups, there are student doctors, nurses, men and women in suits, all marching under one banner or another.

I peel away and have a wander around the quiet back streets for a while. I make my way to a small square away from all the action, only to find a miniature version in full swing there. Benches from the church have been put out in the street, and there's a group of Peruvian Morris Dancers [citation needeed] dancing in front of some kind of golden altar. Not sure what the Vatican would make of it all, but they seem to be enjoying themselves.

The main square, Plaza de Armas, is the destination for the main procession. I can't quite work out where they all go after, maybe they just head back to the beginning and start again. Either way, it's a great atmosphere. The drums are beating, trumpets are blowing, people are dancing. Everyone, myself included, has a smile on their face.

The best thing about it all is that it is completely inclusive. Young and old, all shades, shapes and sexes. It must be a pretty special occasion to bring all this about, and I'm wracking my brains to work out what it might be. I can't think of anything religious, and I haven't seen any streets named 23 de mayo, which normally gives it away. Eventually I give in and ask someone. ¿Que pasa hoy? I ask a pretty girl. Es Cada Domingo señor. Cada Sunday? What the hell is that? Cada Sunday? Cada. Cada. Cada.

Oh yeah, got it. Cada. Spanish for each.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Tooled Up

The scariest thing about being so ill the other night was not knowing what it was. The mind can't help but wonder in these situations. Typhoid, cholera, who knows. Since there's been no fever or anything accompanying it, last night's return was more of an inconvenience than a worry. But it was one hell of an inconvenience. Since I had the shits for two weeks after a trip to Egypt once, I reluctantly traipse down the pharmacy this morning to get antibiotics.

I am now armed to the teeth with everything I need to tackle the evil triumvirate of altitude sickness, back pain and chronic diarrhoea. And tackle them I will. Cuzco rocks and I'm not spending another minute indoors.

Clockwise from top left: Electrolyte sachets; Lactobacillus; Acetazolamide;
Ibuprofen; Ciproflaxacino; Loperamide; Diclofenaco/Paracetamol

Michael Jackson eat your heart out.

Friday 21 May 2010

Puno to Cuzco Sour

It started moving just after eight. A slow, rolling movement. Like mercury in a child’s puzzle. Or a drop of rain trickling down the window pane (there would be plenty of that later too). Some people were in its way. They got out just in time. Others saw it coming: stopped, waited. As soon as it had passed, they rushed back into the space it so briefly occupied, and carried on as if nothing had happened. Some of them, especially the children, waved.

One hundred and eighty kilometres lie between Puno and the Imperial City of Cuzco. The train is the most expensive, and the slowest, means of traversing them. But it is also the coolest, and the most scenic, and ten hours on a train beats eight on a bus. Even if it does cost a whopping $220.

The cost should have hinted at the demographic; no Agatha Christie cast lists today. There are eighteen passengers in total. Unsurprisingly, I’m the only solo passenger. There are a couple of honeymooners by the looks of it, and the rest are all the wrong side of 50 and on inheritance sapping organised tours. I start to feel a little uneasy.

I feel worse when they break out the “traditional” Peruvian music and dancing and everyone watches clutching their complimentary (knock it off the 220) Pisco Sours. I stay in my carriage reading. I can’t reconcile myself to this sort of parading of “tradition”. It smacks of bullshit. I bet the Incas didn't break out the windpipes when the conquistadores came over the God damn mountain. I'm happy to preserve my anonymity behind my battle scarred panama.

We stop in the middle of nowhere to allow the train coming the other way to pass. A lady is running down the tracks after us in the rain, child on her back, hands clutching toy llamas. There is some interest amongst the old folks. A Dutch couple ask how much. "Cinco Soles Señor" (About £1.20). "Tres", he replies. I look up from The Book Thief to make sure I heard correctly. I did.

My anonymity discards itself and I tell him what I think. He informs me that you have to haggle in this country. We’re not in a fucking carpet shop and I didn’t hear him haggling when he willingly coughed up ten Soles to Peru Rail for a Kit Kat. $440 for him and his missus to take a train and he wants to haggle over fifty cents with some poor indigenous girl trying to make a crust selling stuffed llamas. I offer to pay the extra two Soles, tell him to grow some manners, and we leave it at that.*

The rest of the journey passes without incident and I get to hide behind hat and book. It is excruciatingly uncomfortable of course. I have bunged myself up with Loperamide again, but now the back is in the ascendancy once more. Chatting with one of the stewards, he tells me there is a quiropráctico in Cuzco. He might not know it yet, but he just made a new best friend.

I'm going back to the waving children for a minute. Why do people wave at trains? I did it as a kid, for sure, but since my ninth birthday, I can't say I've been much of a waver. I actually find it quite awkward. Embarrassing even. But that probably says more about me than it does about waving. Well now I have a captive audience. Ten hours, one hundred and eighty kilometres. That's a lot of little Peruvian kids to wave at. Halfway in and I'm addicted. I somehow manage to abandon the feeling of looking ridiculous (I should be used to it by now) and feed off the pure joy it brings to the soul.

Or maybe I'm just trying to alleviate my guilt. A train belching out untold pollution is carving through the Peruvian countryside carrying eighteen gringos with more money than sense. I feel like a tourist. A real card carrying tourist. A phoney. The view might be great, but the sense of hypocrisy is greater. This little cocoon of pointless indulgence, snaking its way through the honesty and integrity of the Peruvian people and somehow stripping something away in its wake, leaves a sour taste in my mouth. No amount of waving quite manages to wash it away.

* ****

Thursday 20 May 2010

Floating Islands

My main reason for being in Puno is to catch the train out of here. But as well as that, there are the floating islands, a few Inca sites and the town itself, which is apparently rather pleasant.

Unfortunately for me, shortly after arriving yesterday, I succumbed to an unusually violent and prolonged attack of the shits. During the night it was accompanied by some truly spectacular vomiting. I was cold, depressed, afraid and alone. It was the furthest I've felt from home since I left. I had been looking forward to a busy day of sight seeing today, snapping away at my leisure. Now it seems my enduring memory of Puno will be this image;

Thanks to the Loperamide, I was able to get through the morning in one piece, though admittedly without leaving my bed. I signed up for a tour to the islands leaving at 4pm, and decided to have a scope around town in the meantime. I popped over to the pharmacy to stock up on preventative measures, but found the sun and the heat too much, so retreated once more.

By half three, when they came to get me for the tour, the day itself had taken a turn for the worse. Gone were the clear skies and bright sunlight. Now it was cold, windy and dark. Not exactly perfect conditions for what I had in mind.

About 2,000 Uros people still live on the famous floating islands. The islands themselves are made of layers of reeds, anchored to the lake bed with ropes and sticks. They need constant replenishing as the reeds underneath rot away. Their houses are made of reeds, their boats too. They even eat the stuff.

There are a few issues with the Uros and the impact of tourism. We are invited into a house on one of the islands and flogged some hand woven fabrics (how can we resist)? The men of the village are struggling to secure one of the anchors in the wind. We rush out and help, tug of war style. Meanwhile it has begun pissing it down. Taking pictures is impossible in these conditions. And I can't photograph the people because they're all inside their crazy little houses.

It is a remarkable way of life and an incredible place. I can't help but wish I'd been able to come out earlier in the day when it was nicer, but I guess God had other plans. Having consumed nothing more than a powerade, some pringles and a small packet of boiled sweets in the last thirty hours, I'm kind of hoping he lays off of me tonight.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Boat over troubled water

Most backpackers are in Copacabana in order to visit Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the Sun itself in Inca mythology. Which may go some way to explaining the extraordinary number of crusties in town.


For the last two days, the lake has been too rough for the boats, creating a backlog of eager backpackers (backlogpackers?) trying to get out to the island. I arrive on the one thirty boat fractionally too late to take a prime seat on the roof, so I’m forced onto the main deck, where school chairs are screwed to the floor. It fills with a pungent mix of malignant soap dodgers, crazy Dutch guys, pasty Paddies, some weird Japanese dude and posh English girls roughing it for the first time. Ten minutes before we are due to leave, I realise I can’t deal with it and decide to jump ship. I almost get to the back of the boat before reason takes hold. I stop and sit down. What a tit. Trying to bail on the only chance I will probably ever get to visit such an important Inca site. Chickening out just because I don’t like crusties.

I try and get comfortable in my tiny seat, and not become irritated by the bloke in the stupid hat playing the bongos. Or the jugglers. Or the people in striped trousers. Or the public schoolboys dressed like Robinson Crusoe. But it’s not happening. I make an executive decision. I leave. Immediately. Three hours on that boat for forty minutes walking around part of an island? Seen one you’ve seen them all right? Wight, Man, Dogs, Sun. And I mean, it’s not like the Incas were right anyway, is it?

The Sun. Came out of a small island apparently

An hour or so later I am making my way up Cerro Calvario, past the fourteen Stations of the Cross. In the distance, I can make out the wakes of the tourist boats, and I thank the Lord himself for sparing me. It's hard work getting up there, with the altitude and my back, but I take my time and stop to say hello to the occasional local on his way down. At the top is a row of crosses, and some of the most incredible views I am yet to see. It was so worth it.

Walking up a hill named after the Lord’s last mortal journey, admittedly unladen, but with my back in its current condition, was probably a stupid idea. But in a genuine miracle, it appears to do the trick, and by the time the sun goes down I’m taking my socks on and off just for the fun of it. Not to mention congratulating myself on my unquestionably wise decision to abandon ship and spend the rest of the day enjoying Copacabana, minus a few dozen crusties.

I have a bus to Puno tomorrow lunchtime, but I don’t really want to leave.


Copacabana is a proper little travellers’ town, but I like it. It’s a tiny place whose streets bristle with activity. The locals seem incredibly tolerant of the large backpacker community, and are very friendly if you take the trouble to engage with them. My hotel is halfway up a hillside with a tremendous view of the town.

Copacabana from La Cupula Hotel

An extremely beautiful (and inexplicably Moorish looking) cathedral, the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, takes centre stage. It houses a statue of the Virgin Mary, to which many miracles have been attributed, and is the subject of pilgrimages from all over the world. Also inside is the most spectacular altar I have ever seen. Photographs are banned, but I make a donation and confess my sins.

The spectacular altar...

...and the roof

Confession for the illicit photographer

Outside, Bolivianos make the pilgrimage to bless their automobiles, through a combination of flowers, praying to the Virgin Mary, and letting off firecrackers (again). Stalls even sell toy cars so you can take them inside and bless them.

Outside the Basilica

Aside from its religious notoriety, Copacabana has made a name for its trucha, or trout. We lunch in a local comedor; fried trout, salad and spuds, for 15 Bolivianos. The Cocinera even lets me take her photo.

In the comedor


Later in the evening, four of us dine in a big restaurant in town. I can’t remember it’s name, but then neither can they probably. The waiter doesn’t know how to open a bottle of wine, so we help him out. Then three main courses arrive (excellent grilled trout), but one Trout Lasagna (don’t ask) doesn’t. Upon enquiring of its whereabouts, our grinning friend reassures us “esta en el horno” (it is in the oven). This is only just about topped by the “Irish Coffee” (Milk and whiskey) and the toilets with no light that you have to cross some mud on a plank to reach.

The restaurant at my hostel was pretty good though. Beer battered pejerrey (silverside) may be less popular than the trout but was definitely no less tasty. I also dined repeatedly at a little café called Pueblo Viejo, on the busy street leading down to the lakeside. Its owner is either extraordinarily rude or extremely nice, depending on how many gringos he’s had to tolerate that morning.

Calle 6 de Agosto, Copacabana

Although Copacabana is around 3,800m above sea level, the altitude sickness isn't too much of a problem any more. The sun is though, you need layers of screen on. It gets very warm in the daytime, and bloody cold at night, or in the shade, and as one might imagine, all the town's residents take adequate precautions to deal with the extreme fluctuations in temperature.

It's a dog's life.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Bridge over untroubled water

Today’s blog started writing itself long before I woke up. A sensitive appraisal of the increasingly debilitating effect of my back trouble, entitled “Growing Pains”, it would have begun with a tear jerking description of me trying to put my socks on, followed by the fearful prospect of further suffering during a three and a half hour bus journey on Bolivia’s infamously treacherous roads, dowsed first by the prospect of a comfortable reclining seat, then sensationally reignited by this photograph:

It would have documented the pain’s inexorable growth inside me throughout the journey, until I began gnawing through my fingers in agony, pausing only to cry out loud when my rucksack tumbled off the roof, down a hillside, and into the world’s most interesting lake. Then, possibly from a hospital bed, hours, and several hundred irritatingly well-chosen words later, it would have culminated in a slightly over dramatic yet hauntingly resonant and profound treatise on the nature of human suffering.

But it didn’t quite pan out like that. It did start with an unspeakably painful attempt to put my socks on. And that was followed by this photograph;

…taken just before 8am. But I craftily bagged the back row all to myself so I could lie down and alleviate the pain. Until about ten minutes into the journey that is, when we pulled over and the bus filled up with Bolivianos. The rucksack just about stayed where it was, despite a drastic swerve when we may or may not have killed a stray dog.

Two hours in, making sterling progress, and having replaced my deep depression with inexplicable and hopelessly unjustified optimism, we came to an abrupt halt. Unbeknown to me, the journey entails crossing a short stretch of water. On these barges:

There is a long queue of cars, buses and coaches. We wander down to the water’s edge to investigate, but nothing’s happening. We can’t work out why. Eventually, and to our astonishment, we discover the lake is considered too choppy for a crossing. When can we cross? “No se. Mas tarde, tal vez. O mañana.” The prospect sends a shiver down my now twisted spine. We are condemned to wait, helplessly staring at the waves wondering if and when they might relent and allow us to continue our journey. The locals don’t seem too bothered, as usual.

I always understood that in Bolivia, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, money will buy you anything you want. But no; the coastguards have no price. I am presented with a golden opportunity to test my resolve and not stress or worry about things beyond my control. And this is definitely beyond my control. I mean, if throwing money at it doesn’t work, in Bolivia of all places, then I’m fresh out of ideas. After a few hours lying under the blazing sun, amidst admittedly delightful surroundings, an American guy drawly remarks; “I really appreciate the innate beauty an’ all, but would it have killed them to build a bridge?”

Four hours after we arrived, and a boat attempts the crossing. Successfully, which is cue for the rest of us. Or is it? The coaches nudge optimistically towards the ramps, but the barges aren’t taking the bait. Luckily the smaller boats, that aren’t attempting to float huge buses across a stretch of water (that is now unquestionably a lot choppier than it was this morning) on planks of wood, have started ferrying passengers across. We abandon ship, get our gear from the roof rack and join the rush.

Despite being an incurable chicken when faced with the merest sniff of danger, and my hopelessness at swimming notwithstanding, I’m actually okay on the water. But they were right. It is choppy. Our tiny craft is thrown about for ten hilarious minutes, a few people looking pretty scared and tenaciously gripping the sides. But if we were in our bus on one of those things, I would be shitting myself with fear.

Eventually on the other side, we cram into a local minibus and begin the final leg of our journey to Copacabana. The scenery is extraordinary, but we’ve earned it. Laden with bags, I walk a few blocks to my hostel and find my room still available. I take a hot shower, power nap, and drink a cold beer looking down over Copacabana as the disappearing sun bathes it in golden light. A couple of guys are playing cards on the table next to me. They stop and we chat. After a while, the Kiwi asks, “You know how to play shithead mate?” And in the joyous hours that followed, I almost forgot that I could no longer move my body.