May 07, 2006 GMT
(5) Peru: The Highlands

My impressions of Cusco were not as favorable as the first time I visited.

It was the street urchins and the peddlars that probably made a difference. Plus, it was not Inti Rami so the festive spirit was without. I weighed it all carefully and decided against a return visit to Machu Picchu.

My first visit to Machu Picchu was one of awe and wonderment. "The Vertical World of Machu Picchu" was how I described it then. I did not want to tamper with that pristine memory. I did not want to temper my rememberances. I did not visit Machu Picchu.

I travelled into the Sacred Valley and covered it's entire length. I visited Pisac, that ancient Inca stronghold and Ollantaytambo, the fortress, which was probably not how the Incas conceived it, but rather, as yet another religious retreat.


The Sacred Valley.JPG

The Sacred Valley...how appropriately named. About two thousand feet lower in elevation than Cusco it had nourished a Nation, and nurtured a culture. It had provided the fodder of expansionism.

The Inca Empire moved north and south, east and west from Cusco. Over the course of the next 150 years they would conquer and subdue all civilizations from Ecuador in the North to Chile in the South, from the Pacific in the West to the Amazon in the East.

They controlled their Empire carefully, monitoring everything made and sold, grown and harvested. The ancient Quipu was their abaccus...their record. They terraced the mountains and stored their food surpluses for times of shortage. Everyone had a job. Everyone had a purpose. Everyone was accountable.


The Sacred Valley.JPG

I carried an illness with me from Cusco or perhaps it had been brewing prior to that...maybe the Chicha? I retired early to bed, in Ollantaytambo and shared the same spot the next day. Even though my hostess plied me with Matte de Cocoa and a special Celery tea, it did little to mitigate the war that raged within. I had a good bout of dirrahea going...not uncontrollable...but totally liquid. I had involuntarily contributed my supper and then my breakfast the following day. I had hardly the energy to move about. I knew I had to get off of this mountain.

The morning of the third day I saddled up and rode out, heading south for Puno. There was no easy way off of this mountain. The road to Puno climbed steadily all day moving me from the Sacred Valley at 9,400 feet to 13,500 feet at Lake Titicaca. Over the course of the next 450 km my condition worsened. I hadn't eaten in two days but couldn't face the prospect of food even though I knew I would soon stop from lack of nutrients.

I tried a tiny sandwich for supper, in Puno, and it stayed. I was still passing full liquids for my third day. North American drugs would not touch this thing...and for good reason. It was altitude related and not necessarily food related. I felt so bad I could hardly move. On the fourth day I made a move. I went to the pharmacy on the corner and got an Andean prescription. It was more like a Wonder Drug.

Exactly 12 hours after I took my first pill, I suddenly felt like the weight of the world had been removed from my shoulders. My head cleared and I felt alive once again. I passed my first dry gas minutes later. I was enjoying getting re-acquainted with my dual purpose orifice after such a long abstinence. Then suddenly it mis-fired...back to the drawing board.

They were re-tiling the hallway outside of my room, in Puno. The first day they laid two maybe three tiles. The next day maybe one or two more. They would be finished sometime. Then, there was a commotion outside my door...voices were raised, criticisms were passed. The following day the hallway was almost completed. The work was nicely executed, just like the Inca Chiefs the day Pizarro rode into town.

The Spaniards had beheaded a civilization. They cut it off at the knees. Without guidance and control the subjects lost their direction, lost their will to perform, lost their will to live. The terraces fell into disrepair, the fields and crops into ruin. The downward spiral continued for centuries...the Spanish plunder was complete... it was beyond gold and silver. They had destroyed a civilization.

Today the Quechua and the Aymara, the oldest of the ancient civilizations, are worse off than they were 500 years ago, before the conquest. Then, their lives had purpose, their bellies had food, their families had shelter and self respect. Today, they are foreigners, strangers in their own land. They eke out a living, living hand to mouth, their daily bread most often rather than not, just out of reach. They have reduced themselves to building trinkets for tourists, trying to guess their whimsical fancy. They make only pennies on each sale, their desperation masked by the gold and glitter of the haggling crowd, as the tourist whittles away at their meager profits in a supersaturated market. Goddam Spanish.

At Lake Titicaca the Yavari lay resting placidly in the cold, clear waters of this the worldīs highest and largest fresh water lake. Originally commissioned in 1862, she and her sister ship were built in Wales, shipped around the Horn to Arica, Chile (then part of Peru) and hauled over the Andes to Lake Titicaca, by llama pack train, in 2,766 loads. The whole process took over six (6) years to complete.

Lake Titicaca.JPG


The Yavari.JPG

Originally conceived as a coal fired, steam boiler to drive her engines, no one quite realized there was little or no coal in this part of the world. If there was no coal there was tons of dried llama dung. However, the heat release from a ton of llama dung was hardly equivalent to a ton of coal and the volume required was very considerably more. The ship was cut in two and 60 feet added to her berth to accomodate the extra fuel capacity. Her beam was maintained at 6 meters or roughly 20 feet.

On her initial firing, in this high elevation, oxygen starved environment it took eight (8) hours of continuous stoking to build a head of 100 psig steam. In the early 1900's her aging boilers were replaced with a four cylinder marine, diesel engine with which she remains fitted on this day. Nearing restoration, the plans are for her to ply the waters of Lake Titicaca one more time, before the end of the decade.

While breakfasting at the hostal, I met two lovely ladies from Denmark. One of them had been living with the indigenious on an island in the lake. Hers was a voluntary program to teach them English and enrich her own life in the process.

"There is one thing I have been wondering about these past few days", I said.

"Do they bathe?"
Her friend piped up, "Yes, I have been wondering about that too."
"They wash their faces once or twice a week."
"There are more parts to the body than the face", I prodded her.
"Well, maybe once or twice a year", came the answer.

"They walk barefoot all the time," the older one said. "They donīt seem to feel the cold."
"My feet havenīt been warm since I arrived," I said. "Even at night, in bed with my socks on, they donīt warm up."
"And did you notice their toes," the older one continued.
"Not really," the younger one responded.
"They're huge, especially the big toe".
The younger one smiled. "Yes, you are right". "Since they are not encumbered with shoes, they use their toes all the time for gripping and climbing. That is why they are so well developed."

It was time to get off the mountain...but how? I asked around town. I had been told in Ilo that there was a paved road from Puno to the coast. The maps showed one leaving from Puno but nobody knew of it. I was perplexed. How could such an important development in their lives be such a secret. I asked taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers and secretaries. A truck driver told me I had to go to the Bolivia border and then turn south...that was 200 km away. So much for the goddam maps. What good are they anyway if they just copy the same old shit and print a new date on the cover.

I resigned myself to the 200 km ride. If anyone should know it would be a truck driver. I stopped one more time, when halfway there and asked a bus driver whose bus said TACNA on the display.
"Does this bus go to Tacna?"
"Yes"
"Is the road paved?"
"I donīt know?"
"Are you the driver?"
"Yes"
"How can you not know?"
"I donīt know?"
"Which way do you go?"
"That way", pointing across the highway. It was a dirt road.
Fu_king idiot. One more to add to the Idiots I had met on this trip.

A crowd had gathered around the bike. A man stepped forward. "Where do you want to go?", he asked.
"Tacna," I said.

"Go to the the Bolivia border at Desaguadero. There is a paved road from there to Tacna. You can be there in five hours, maybe less." Finally, someone with conviction and an air or authority. "Is this a new road?" I asked. "No, it has been there for a few years". I thanked him kindly and was on my way.

At the Bolivian border, there was the road turning south to Tacna and well signed too. I fueled up and rode over the hill. The road went for a few miles to the west and then turned north. It doubled back almost half of the way to Puno, the way I had come, before it turned west again. There must be a good reason for this but I couldnīt see it. My NEW "Rough Guide" roadmap showed virtually no roads in this sector. Just a few "tracks" going to unknown places. In the 21st century what could possibly be so difficult as drawing an existing road onto a new map?"

At 15,600 feet it had cooled to 8C again. It would not improve until I started to descend. Descent was a long time coming. I stayed up at elevation for over an hour. Finally the road turned west and the spiralling, tortuous descent began. Like a coiled serpent, not Quetzelquotal the Feathered Serpent (that is further north in Mexico) the road wound its way off of the mountain.

I stopped to check my tires partway through the descent. They were hot. The edges soft and sticky to the touch; the rubber shredded from the carcass in strips. They had sacrificed their lives to save mine...they were doing what I had paid for. There was nothing beyond the edge but the valley floor a thousand feet below.

Posted by Robert Bielesch at May 07, 2006 12:45 AM GMT
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