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

Suspended between Heaven and Hell on the salar

The Salar de Uyuni had been on our minds for the past couple of weeks. We were excited to spend a day riding 50 miles west to east across the gigantic salt flat. Aside from the obvious pure beauty, it somehow represented to me a Rubicon, where we would have climbed as high as we would go, left the south of the continent way behind and crossed into new, totally different cultures and stories.

But first we had to get from the border to the edge of the salt.

Soon after leaving the rudimentary, friendly border crossing, we had our first taste of Bolivian life: a herd of 20 or 30 lamas blocking the road ahead, happy to take their time, clearly unfazed by human presence.

Border crossing

Border crossing

The time didn’t slow us down: we could only go at walking pace as the sandy road caused Sophie’s slim tyres to slip into deep divots, making riding impossible.

What could have been a short jaunt of around 70 miles to the salar became a tiring three days of alternating riding and pushing the bikes. The thinness of the air at high altitude and the lack of sleep due to biting cold exacerbated the feeling of exhaustion, so when we finally reached a hostel at the edge of the salar, we were ready to chow down some lama meat before hitting the hay.

Cemetery near the salts

Cemetery near the salts

Pushing past huge cacti

Pushing past huge cacti

Pushing further

Pushing further

The hostel itself was built from salt blocks: huge squares that had been cut from the surrounding landscape. The beds too were sculpted from salt, and the floors were coated in rough crystals. The novelty and ingenuity was a welcome surprise, though the dry nostrils and throat in the morning reminded us that it doesn’t make the most comfortable choice.

After our scrambled eggs and coca mates the next morning, we were ready for the flats. It’s a strange feeling when you make your first pedal stroke on the salt. Everything you’ve taught yourself in the past tells you that riding on what looks exactly like a frozen lake is dumb: you’ll either slip or crack the surface and fall into freezing water. But of course you do neither. The tyres grip tight to the crystals, making slipping impossible. There’s so much friction, in fact, that our ideas of riding 15mph were quickly quashed.

Deep into the white desert and we were pedalling through an ocean, riding on water, far from land or noise, pulling ourselves through space. And through the day nothing changed. After three or four hours on the clean monotony of the flats, it occurred to me: perhaps I was in limbo, a purgatory suspended between Heaven and Hell where there was no pain but no pleasure also; only an endless ride across the icy white under a paper thin baby blue sky.

Evening sun sparkling

Evening sun sparkling

It was late in the evening when we pulled into Colchani, our faces hot and dry from the relentless reflection. We found a room and turned in. I fell asleep immediately, dreaming of fruit salads and explosions in the sky.

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 :)

Ceremony beneath the volcanoes

I didn’t expect fireworks the night we’d reach the border, or litres of milk punch, dancing around a fire and a gigantic birthday cake, but the best things are always the unexpected.

It was the fiesta of the birth of Carmen, the Virgin Mary. Eduardo, our host in Ollagüe was deeply involved in the organisation and soon after inviting us to stay at his home he asked if we’d like to come along.

Cebolla is even smaller than the tiny two-road frontier village of Ollagüe . Built on the flats by a salar and defined on all sides by volcanoes, there are few huts, a communal toilet block, pick up trucks dotted around the dusty landscape and of course the chapel, decorated with jaunty bunting in the colours of the Chilean flag. When we arrived, a large crucifix was lit outside the chapel with splendid fairy lights flashing red, green, white, blue.

As the single-room stone hut adjacent to the chapel began to fill with people, we watched their actions to learn what behaviour we should copy: kneel in front of a table covered with lilies and carnations, then blow smoke from a pan of charcoal over the flowers as a lady fuelled the burning briquettes with incense.

We in turn covered the flowers with blessings – mint liquor, coca leaves, red wine and blue confetti – while repeating the refrain:

“Es una Buena hora”. “It’s a good hour”.

When the offering was ready, we carried it to the chapel where prayers and blessings were said before the statue of the Virgin. And then a parade around the village, holding the statue high and proud as firecrackers and fireworks were set alight, whizzing and sparkling into the blackness of the cold night.

There was wine and feasting before a cauldron of milk punch was brought outside by an abuela and set aside the wood fire that we – the happy congregation – danced around to keep warm.

“Es una Buena hora”.

“Buena hora”.

And music into the night: a live band that continued the same infectious cumbia beat for hours, as the party danced harder, messier, drunker into the morning.

In a remote mountain village where fun is hard to come by, an excuse to meet your friends, feast on meat and alcohol and dance all night is as welcome as sleep and old as society. And the next morning, our heads throbbing from dryness and altitude, when Eduardo offered us a parrilla and hair-of-the-dog in another remote village, we could hardly say no. Grilled meat, cold beer, Chilean red and clean Andean air is, as I understand it, the best remedy for any night-before.

Our final days in Chile were a success. Time to leave our home for the past three months and open a new chapter: Bolivia. Es una Buena hora.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

looking along the tracks

Looking along the tracks

Ollagüe, under the volcano

Ollagüe, under the volcano

the chapel

The chapel

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 :)

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