August 2016 archive

Highs and lows on the road to Arequipa

The evening of the third day after we left Puno I was in a mood. A bitter wind had come in from the west, whipping the tent viciously as we set about staking it on an empty hillside with little shelter. Normally a little evening wind would be nothing more than a minor challenge, or perhaps something to shout into, to enjoy the exhilaration of bellowing at, or along with, rowdy nature. But this particular day had been a long one.

Up at 4,500 metres on a bike loaded with heavy souvenirs, climbing a gruelling four mile constant hill is particularly tough. I like to think of myself as having decent cardio fitness, but this hill was a challenge too far for me to ride: I had to push up the relentless, unforgiving climb. Little by little, one step at a time, breathing deeply, focussing on that stretch of tarmac five metres ahead. Peruvian road builders appear to get a kick out of placing an incline wherever possible, and to ensure it’s as long as it can be. But on a day when we were heading west, to the coast and off the Altiplano, long climbs weren’t expected.

long climb

long climb

Indeed, by the time we reached the peak of the mountain we were climbing, we were a breezy 700 metres higher than where we’d been on Titicaca.

mirador over lake

mirador over lake

So I was ready for a night of deep sleep by the time we stopped to set up camp. But I knew what would be ahead: long hours with little rest, doing my best to warm up in the tent. You see, the Altiplano gets cold at night. Drinks bottles frozen solid cold. So cold that you can still feel it coming through your bedroll when you’re in your sleeping bag and a thick tracksuit. I knew it would happen, as it had been that way for weeks. I was tired and knew sleep wouldn’t be coming easily that night.

So I was in a mood.

Although we were as high as I’d ever been on land – and almost as high as Europe’s highest point – this evening was a low point for me. Shouting into the wind this time wasn’t an exhilaration but a frustrated release of tension.

low morale at a high point

low morale at a high point

The next morning though came with calm: Herds of sheep and lamas picked their way across the mossy ground, relaxed in their easy search for grass. The wind had settled and the amber morning sun had already begun to thaw through the ice of the night before. And – a refrain Sophie and I have used many times on this journey – what goes up, must come down.

camping down

camping down

And down we went. For most of two full days we freewheeled down sweeping switchbacks off the High Plane, ever lower to the warm and attractive colonial city of Arequipa. Oh Arequipa, where the buildings are beautiful, the food is delicious and the sun shines bright! Oh Arequipa with your smiling residents, tree-lined squares, comfortable hostel beds!

into town - Arequipa

into town – Arequipa

We were through now with the most trying riding of the journey. No more cold. No more 4,000 metre mountains to climb. No more breathlessness from the altitude. Sure, there’ll be the opposite extreme of heat to deal with, and the bugs of the tropics, but we feel we covered the harder half of the journey first. Northwards now, to the sun!

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks

The floating islands of the Uru people

colourful Uru ladies

Sophie’s sickness was a good excuse for us to take a couple of days to fully recover and allow ourselves time to be tourists. We headed to gringo hotspot Puno for some time off the bikes as we’d heard about the floating reed islands of the Uru people on Titicaca and decided we shouldn’t miss the chance to visit them.

Centred around a huge reed forest a half hour boat ride from Puno, the floating islands represent a way of life that’s hardly changed since before the Incan Empire. The island villages are home to a few hundred Urus, with between two and ten families on each island. Each of the family members plays an important role in the constant maintenance of the totora reeds that form the base of the islands, whether weaving them into houses or replacing the flooring that is constantly rotting in the damp environment.

colourful Uru ladies

as we approached the islands we were greeted by these ladies

Why decide to pursue this Sisyphean way of life? The thought is that the original Urus moved out into the lake as a defence from enemies. The lifestyle allowed them to be both hidden and mobile, able to pull up the roped anchors and sail across Titicaca if a threat arose.

It was a strange feeling as the floor sunk a few centimetres with every footstep, knowing that under the metre or so of reeds, roots and silty mud was 20 metres of lake water and kingfish to Titicaca’s floor.

And it was fascinating talking to the inhabitants about how they rely on the totora reeds as construction material, pain relief and even food.

one of the larger islands

one of the larger islands

These days many of the inhabitants head to Puno to trade fish or buy supplies. And now there are many solar panels, providing electricity for modern conveniences. But the island building tradition remains: a testament to the ingenuity and imagination of tribal man.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

Sophie in traditional Uru outfit

Sophie in traditional Uru outfit

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks :)

Marie with baby in her hut

Marie with baby in her hut

leaving the islands

leaving the islands

A night on the ward

Sophie picked up some food poisoning in Copacabana: probably from the fried chicken that looked like it had been sitting there for a few days. Crispy and tasty, but riddled with E. coli, listeria, campylobacter, or whatever bug it was that kept her up all night, always one step away from the bathroom.

The morning after two days of suffering though, she declared herself strong and ready for the 90 mile ride to Puno, on the Peruvian side of Titicaca. Good woman: if she feels up to it, let’s get some miles in!

The first 45 miles were smooth and painless. We were happy to be in yet another new country, pleased with the bright fuchsia border stamp in our passports that legalised our presence in Peru. And the evening bode well for the hospitality of Peruvians, as a shepherd woman and her daughter invited us to sleep in their hut, refusing our protestations that we were fine in the tent we’d just staked and prepared. It was freezing, she explained, and her hut was just across the field.

We fell asleep warm and content. Another productive day with distance behind us. But the bastard bug wasn’t through with Sophie yet and woke her up with panicky quickness deep into the night. Forced her outside where she woke the nearby bulls and lamas with awful groans and strained retching.

Come morning, there was no way she could ride. A single mile down the road and we had to stop and hitchhike. After an hour of increasing frustration at the lack of pickups, two policemen stopped their Hilux and drove us to hospital in Ilave.

The nurses and doctor, bless them, didn’t miss a beat. They sat her in a wheelchair and wheeled her to the emergency room where – no waiting time – they immediately got to work with the usual blood pressure, blood sugar and temperature checks.

“It’s a fierce bug you have, very aggressive. We have to keep you here overnight and ensure you’re strong again before we let you go”. Usually this news might come as an unwelcome setback, but the look on Sophie’s face spoke of relief as her body rocked and convulsed with nauseous agony in her chair.

With nowhere organised to stay, the ward staff allowed me to sleep in the bed next to Sophie’s, and I settled in for a day and night of waiting, watching drip changes and being available for any help I could give.

As my friend José says, “it’s not a trip in South America if you don’t spend time in a South American hospital”. Sounds about right. Well, the lass is on the mend now, trying to stick to the doctor’s orders of a chicken soup and water diet. Sure she’ll be right in no time – she’s a tough cookie.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

putting on a brave face

putting on a brave face

Maxima and Serafina were wonderful nurses

Maxima and Serafina were wonderful nurses

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks :)

The Kon Tiki and ancient skills

We were cycling aside Titicaca one evening, wondering where to pitch the tent, when I saw a sign for a ‘Kon Tiki Museum’.

The Kon Tiki Expedition is one of the most exciting and audacious adventure tales ever told. It’s the true story of a 1947 expedition across the Pacific by Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl and five other crew members who were aiming to substantiate Heyerdahl’s theory that people from South America populated Polynesia in pre-Colombian times. The only way this could have been done was by sailing over 4,000 miles on balsa wood rafts.

Using only materials available to the pre-Colombians, the Norwegian and Swedish crew survived the gruelling 101 day journey to arrive safely on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. The voyage was an incredible success and changed expert attitudes into how the islands may have first been populated.

I’ve long considered Heyerdahl a hero, and seeing the sign for the museum, we had to stop there to spend the night.

Fermin Esteban, the owner, greeted us and suggested we pitch the tent near a magnificent 40 foot totora, or bulrush reed raft that was floating at the edge of the lake. Fermin is a master builder of these boats, having had the technique passed down to him across the generations. His father Paulino knew Heyerdahl well and had even accompanied the Norwegian on a different expedition, down the Tigris river.

He showed us hundreds of photos of various rafts being built and the many expeditions that had been launched around the world. In his farmhouse workshop, reed tables, hats, decorations were all on display, showcasing his impressive craftsmanship.

Fermin – an Aymara Indian – explained that more than 20 trans-oceanic expeditions had been undertaken on reed rafts in the past few decades, all using the same construction techniques that have been used by the Incas for millennia. And we can expect to hear of a further expedition, sailing from Los Angeles, California in 2017.

The rafts are still used on Titicaca, but are these days mainly a display for the tourists. Most of the locals now prefer wooden or fiberglass boats. It’s people like Fermin who are ensuring the building know-how will not get drowned under the tide of modernity. Long may the skills continue!

Check out the You Tube video below of Fermin’s father Paulino working with the reeds:

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks :)

Fermin and his wife

Fermin and his wife

totora raft and fiberglass boats

totora raft and fiberglass boats