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  • From New Delhi, India
  • Currently in Florida, United States

Peru - Spring 2010

I'm living in Cusco, Peru for 4 months studying abroad with IEP!

Peru 13: Lake Titicaca, the last days in Cusco

Peru Cusco, Peru  |  May 02, 2010
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Peru 13: Lake Titicaca, the last days in Cusco


My deepest apologies for the delay of this last post about the events that took place during my last 2 weeks in Peru. My excuses are less than satisfactory: an almost total lack of internet during that time, getting back to the US, spending as much time as possible with friends and family, and the onset of an intellectual laziness which I attempted to overcome by reading The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown’s latest movie book… less than impressive) and listening to entirely too much reggaeton.


Needless to say, said attempts to overcome intellectual laziness were moderately effective, hence the eventual appearance of this note.


Anyway, the last weekend I had in Cusco was not spent in Cusco, but rather in Puno and on Lake Titicaca, which are a 6-ish hour bus ride to the southeast. Naturally, I took a night bus and got there before sunrise on Friday morning (April 16th if you’re tracking my dates). My host mum, Marilyn, had contacted her uncle who owns a tour agency in Puno to arrange for me to visit Los Uros, Amantani, and Taquile, three sets of islands on the Lake, with an organized tour. It’s possible to visit the islands without a tour obviously, but I wanted to stay with a host family and by that time was entirely too lazy to arrange things myself. Plus, it’s really not much cheaper, and the islands are so touristy anyway that going independently is hardly worth it. The cost of the tour was about 35USD, plus 10USD for transportation between Puno and Cusco. A bit on the expensive side for just 3 days, yes, but I’ve definitely spent $45 on dumber things than a trip to the world’s highest navigable lake. I should also say that the cheapest ticket one can find between Cusco and Puno is 15 soles = $5. This does, however, mean you’ll be cold, cramped, and probably next to someone eating something strong smelling (or worse, a crying infant. Cute, yes, but still annoying at 2am)


 I also finally discovered that the best seats in the bus are on the right side in the middle of the bus, by the aisle. Why? Well, sitting on the left is terrible because you smell the fumes from passing vehicles, windows are terrible since they never quite close and nights are chilly, and the half-way point is away from both exits and the bathrooms (if your bus even has any) but still close to the emergency exits.


So after a freezing bus ride, I left Friday morning with the tour. We visited Los Uros, a series of floating islands constructed out of reeds and the solidified silt that settles to the bottom of the lake. The water here is shallow – not more than 15 feet – and the people live almost exclusively off tourism. It was beautiful, there’s no question about that, but it kind of bothered me to see how tourist-centered the place is and the ends to which the people who live there go to amuse visiting foreigners. They make small trinkets to sell, but they also get a cut from the tours that stop their boats there. The islands are made of reeds, and so smell weird and are soft to step on. The entire island has to be recovered in reeds a couple of times a month also, since they decay of course, so they’re layered about 1.5 feet deep at any given time. These islands, while worth visiting shortly on the way to the larger, natural islands, made me feel like I was in one of the countries in EPCOT or in some kind of constructed false-reality. There’s no other way I can explain it.


From there, we continued to Amantani, the second largest island on Lake Titicaca. The largest is on the Bolivian side, Isla del Sol. Other than enjoying the incredibly beautiful surroundings, there wasn’t a lot to do on the island itself. We hiked up to some ‘ruins’ on top of one of the hills. They were supposed to be ancient temples, but I’m almost positive they were constructed as a tourist destination in the last 30 years. The night was passed with a host family, who also fed us both lunch and dinner, simple but yummy. That afternoon I broke one of my cardinal rules of traveling, and napped during the day for a couple of hours. The exhaustion and sleep deprivation from the week finally caught up to me. Also, I once again thanked my lucky stars for brining my sleeping bag. I would have frozen without it. It’s easy to forget that even though I was less than 15 degrees south of the Equator, the altitude (over 12,000 feet above sea level) means days never got too warm and nights can be chilly


The next morning, we left for Taquile at 7am, passed time there hiking around, had lunch, and got back to Puno by 3. Yana, a german young woman a few years older than me, and I did some souvenier shopping before heading into town for a simple dinner. I took a night bus back to Cusco later in the evening and arrived early the next morning.


It wasn’t the most adventurous or exciting trip, but it was relaxing. I returned to Cusco to a series of exams, presentations, and papers. I also found out that one of the students on our trip was physically assaulted by a Canadian tourist. And a program assistant asked her how drunk she was. I was shocked at how not just sexist, but completely ridiculous, illogical, and not to mention irrelevant that question was. It shouldn’t have mattered if she was stumbling around back alleys of Cusco black-out drunk and butt-naked. Getting assaulted is NEVER the fault of the victim. Ever. Obviously we all take precautions when traveling, especially when going out at night, but asking those kinds of question, especially explicitly, is extremely disrespectful.  It was equally stupid of the students to tell only peruvian males what happened ‘because they’re from here… and they’re guys, so they can do more stuff.’ It’s amazing how quickly people internalize social structures and the perceived ability of individuals. Result? No one filed a police anything, no one took her to a hospital, no one told any english-speaking female so she could get some help emotionally. I wrote several pages in my journal detailing the situation and examining it from different angles, and may at some point post them, but I think I’ve made my point crystal clear. I wasn’t even in town, but I’m still upset by how it was handled.


Wednesday was our last day in the program, and my flight to Lima was at 7:30 the next morning, so naturally I went out with a few other students in the program. That night had two highlights: a ridiculously cute puppy which a Spanish tourist had found and was now carrying around with him in his backpack, and a what was quite possibly the most visually appealing shot I’ve ever seen. (pisco, something blue, and grenadine, if you’re curious.) I’ve never liked grenadine since it tastes like particular icky cough syrup, but that combination whatever it was, wasn’t bad. I returned home at about 3:30am very happy, but also conscious that my flight was early and I had no alarm clock. Fortunately, my roommate lent me hers. In my ‘happy’ state, my subconscious convinced me that she’d set it for me, which of course was ridiculous… so I woke up at 6:13 for a 7:30 flight. Cursing, I jumped out of bed, landed in my pants, and was out the door by 6:19. Thank goodness the airport was walking distance from our apartment, or I would have really been in trouble. By 6:45 I was going through security and getting ready to pay the airport tax. The woman behind the desk stamped my boarding pass and muttered something that sounded like ‘stupid Americans… can’t tell time’. I chose that opportune moment to glance at my boarding pass… where it said that my flight was actually at 7:10. Bolting across the terminal to the gate, I shouted ahead to the airline employees who were closing the door to the concourse. They didn’t hear me, and had to reopen the gate when I arrived a few seconds later so I could board.


If I hadn’t made it, it would have been a dumb decision. But since I did, it just makes me sound even worse-ass than I did before. (Alex Murray, enlighten me, if ‘more bad’ is ‘worse’ then why does ‘worse-ass’ sound like a fungal infection while ‘badass’ sounds, well, badass??)


A little over an hour later, I landed in Lima, where the niece (Cristina) and goddaughter (Isabel) of my thesis advisor and academic mentor (Dr. Hardman) were meeting me.


This might be a little strange, so let me explain the backstory:


Some of your may remember the printer cartridge box which went almost everywhere I did last semester. That box (aka my baby since the most convenient way to carry it was cradled in my left arm) was a file for a graduate Field Methods linguistics course. I got into that course on the recommendation of Dr. Hardman, who teaches the course periodically. The premise of that course was to be able to go into a language environment without prior knowledge of that language, with nothing but a paper and a pencil, and walk out with the grammar. After a few weeks of theory and methodology, we started an actual project eliciting words, phrases, and sentences from a language called Jaqaru, which is spoken in the province of Yauyos in Peru about 250km southeast of Lima. The file was used to organize phonological and morphological occurrences during the course of the analysis.


Dr. Hardman has worked with indigenous Andean Languages and the communities in which they are spoken for over half a century now. Since I was in Peru and had also worked with one of these languages (Jaqaru), she and her husband Dr. Bautista, arranged for me to visit Tupe, Dr. Bautista’s hometown in Yauyos where Jaqaru is still spoken.


Which explains why I was skyping with a professor from halfway across the world.


 Getting to Tupe from Lima involved a 2 hour bus ride to Cañete followed by a 2 hour collectivo to Cotahuasi, same idea as the thing I took from Tacna to Arica when I went to Chile. The official capacity of the collectivo was 5 including the driver, but it actually varied between 7 and 14 with the driver yelling ‘a bajo!’ (‘get down!’) every time a government vehicle passed us. We tried to pay the driver to drive us all the way up to Aysha, but it couldn’t get up one of the hills since the sand was too loose. So Isabel and I set off on a 4-hour walk at 4:30pm. Fortunately, the moon was full, and with flashlights we arrived in Aysha, a small town up the valley, around 8:30pm. That night, we stayed with Señora Gladys. (I did my best to keep track of who was related to whom how, and succeeded to a certain extent, but the record is far from perfect) The next morning, we left Aysha around 9am and hiked to Tupe, arriving around 1:30pm. Isabel, the woman I traveled with, had heart issues a few months earlier, and so we walked a bit slower, but I was still impressed by her stamina and perseverance in spite of her physical condition.


Tupe was very different from anything I’ve ever seen or experienced before. For one thing, everywhere else in Peru I was a tourist. There, I was perceived as foreign to a certain extent, but more than anything else I was Dr. Hardman’s student, and because of that and because I was traveling with Isabel, I was given a unique window into the traditional world, which other outsiders, like the men from Lima who were reconstructing a school that was destroyed in the 2007 earthquake, could not imagine existed.


While there, I focused on observing, not unlike what I did in India. The easiest way to summarize my trip and experiences without completely revealing my 2010-11 journal article is to list them:


(A few rough translations of the little Spanish which appears here: Tia/tio = aunt/uncle, Señora/ Señor = Mrs./Mr., Señorita = Miss, Doña/Don = Mrs/Mr, but with more respect)


1)      Despite being Indian and experiencing first hand how rapidly family gossip spreads across continents, I’ve never lived in such a small town before, and was surprised that within about 2 hours of my arrival, everyone seemed to know that I was there, that I was Dr. Hardman’s student, that I was not, in fact, Isabel’s daughter,

2)      The women who live here are incredible. Some of your might have seen my facebook status about drunkenly planting potatoes in the Andes. About that, (1) don’t judge. The world would be a better place if the lines between work and play were not so clearly defined (2) I have never in my life experienced as much pressure to drink as I felt in Tupe as a 60-something year old Tia Canela pushed a tea cup of chamisqul into my hands as she wove back and forth half-stumbling through freshly-dug potato fields. (3) After lunch in Tia Canela’s kitchen, she got into a heated political argument with an older man of the opposite party. This resulted in her pretty much barricading 15+ people in her kitchen as she tore him apart. I tried to escape while she served more soup, but she caught me by the skirt and all but dragged me back in and made me eat. (Mum, you would have been proud.) Eventually, one of Señora Jeni’s daughters distracted Tia Canela long enough for me to make a break for it, and we spent the rest of the afternoon hiding down by the river near the soccer field just below Tupe.

3)      Cooked watermelon is actually pretty awesome.

4)      Since I’d done so much hiking before actually going to Tupe, I got what I consider to be a huge compliment: ‘You walk like a Tupina’. Considering these people consider hiking the 6-ish hours from Cotahuasi to Tupe normal, not to mention the hours spent in an average day’s commute to and from the fields, that was amazing to hear.

5)      Isabel was very close to one older woman, who was 76 years old. This woman lived not far from the river, and Isabel called her “Vieja” (‘old woman’) jokingly. I still have no idea what he proper name is, but since I am about 25 years younger than Isabel and therefore needed to show her proper respect, called her ‘Doña Vieja” to the amusement of anyone who heard me.

6)      Señor Benjamin and I ascended to the base of Tupina Chaka, the cliff overlooking Tupe, by a slippery, overgrown trail leading upwards and away from Tupe. Word of warning to anyone who ever does hiking in Peru: If you see a fuzzy orange flower, DON’T TOUCH IT!! It’s gorgeous, and you will want to take photos of it, but DON’T TOUCH! The fuzz is actually tiny spines that feel like fire if they so much as graze your skin. The majority of that ascent consisted of Señor Benjamin practically running up the mountain and me scampering up behind him until the trail disappeared under a clump of vegetation. He would then spend a moment scratching his head before saying decidedly ‘vamos por aqui’ (we’ll go from here) and plunging forward along a trail that I could barely make out myself.

7)      As an outsider, especially an outsider from an Indo-European background, it might have been easy to mistake the concern with which Tupinos treated me as an inevitable result of belonging to ‘the weaker sex’, especially since that would have been the mindset in other parts of the world where I’ve traveled. However, their reasoning was quite different, and quite logical: (1) I am an outsider and therefore do not know the mountain trails, or even how to follow them. Therefore, I needed guidance. (2) I am not married and do not have children, therefore I am not as mature or as self-sufficient as a mother, even if that mother is my own age. (3) I am a guest and Dr. Hardman and Dr. Bautista’s student, and everyone in Tupe has the highest regard for both of them. I was being cared for on their behalf, and acting on the behalf of others seems to be a very important part of the Tupina culture.

8)      The physical strength of these people in absolutely incredible. I saw women over 75 climbing up and down mountains with 10kg loads on their backs while herding livestock and keeping track of grandchildren and great grand children

9)      For anyone who’s seen The Emperor’s New Groove, I’d like to forever eradicate the notion that fleas are harmless. Not only are fleas not harmless, but they are, in fact, some of the itchiest, most annoying infesting insects known to humans.


We descended from Tupe to Aysha on Thursday, April 29 on foot, and from there took a truck. There was a combi descending that day also, though we didn’t think it looked quite safe… the driver confidently reassured us that he ‘only drinks two on days that he drives’… so we took the truck. It’s amazing how we in the ‘developed’ world make crazy efforts to go to random places to live, travel, and experience a life that is completely normal for more than half the world.


There are some songs that only sound good while riding down a mountain drinking on the roof of a truck.


We passed the night in one of the houses of Doña Macedonia. She owns and maintains at least 4 houses in total: two in Canchan, one in Tupe, and one between Aysha and Tupe. The next morning, we woke up at 4am to catch a combi back to Cañete, where we continued in a bus to Lima.


About 24 hours later, I landed in the Tampa airport completely wired and very, very awake. Why? The majority of the coffee in Peru is exported, meaning that I’d been drinking powdered Nescafe something for four months. Needless to say the Dunkin Donuts in the Lima airport sold little cups of heaven for $2 (and the cashier laughed at me when I asked if I could pay half in dollars, half in soles). Of course in the plane I was still excited by the prospect of coffee, so I had a cup of coffee and a coke. You may remember that at the beginning of my trip to Peru I was amazed by how much better the coke in Peru was than it is in America. Reason: Real sugar. So I landed in the Miami airport around 6pm starting to crash. So I did the logical thing and bought a bottled frappuccino, thinking it would last me until I got back to Tampa. What I didn’t account for was getting stressed out over payphones not working and chugging the entire thing. (btw, chugging coffee is a terrible idea) Neither did I account for crashing again around 9:30 pm when my return flight to Tampa left… so I did the next logical thing and had another cup before getting on the flight.


Result? The first thing I said to my parents (after accidentally greeting them in Spanish when mum spoke to me in Punjabi) was ‘s-s-s-so-ifIhypothetically-drank4cupsofcoffee-andasoda…”


I then proceeded to eat for the next hour before realizing that my stomach was no longer accustomed to Indian spices any more.


Totally worth it.


Everything I did and went through, loved or loathed on that trip, was completely worth it.




P.S. Stay tuned. I’m leaving for Hong Kong in less than a month!



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