Traveling is a great way to spend your time if you enjoy oscillating wildly between a state of boredom and discomfort and one of total wonder. These past two days, I’ve been in Puno, a place I’ve heard described as “squallid” and “charmless,” and I have to admit that when I first got here, it felt like those descriptions were right on the money. It’s very dirty and pretty cold, too, and no one seems to have central heating, least of all our little hotel (we have a space heater). Also, the hotel has the weirdest bathroom situation: the neighbor’s bathroom has a high, frosted window that looks into our bathroom, and another that looks into our room. We can hear errrrthing. But, Puno improves upon further acquaintance.
Yesterday morning, we walked down to the water. The part of town we walked through is completely modern, all built in a style that I guess is common to all poor countries, where unpainted cinder block reigns supreme. Lake Titicaca viewed from the shore of Puno is sort of underwhelming. You get no sense of the vast size of the lake, and the water is crowded with decrepit little pedal boats and decrepit, big tour boats. We took a nicer one of these to see the floating islands of Uros, which have for hundreds of years been made of reeds by the people who live on them. It’s the most precarious, strangest existence I’ve probably ever seen. Everything is made of reeds: houses, beds, the ground. The reeds are also an important food source (the Uros trade some of the fish they catch for pretty much everything else they need). Walking onto the island is like walking onto a water bed. The Uros are fishermen and hunters, although nowadays they mostly live off the hordes of tourists that come to have a look at their islands. They are extremely well-organized in regards to the tourists. They have a rotating schedule of houses open to visitors, and they do a great job of explaining their own history (very basically, they started living on the water in order to escape being subjugated by the Colla and later the Inca) and how they live. Even with all the tourists and how well-managed the community seems, the Uros are unlikely to keep up their traditional life-style in the long run. Children who go off to high school and college on the mainland rarely come back. But the whole thing is a wonder. The floating islands are unique; the sort of adaptation to an environment that seems so far-fetched it’s like something from a story. Last year, I read an Ursula Le Guin novel where there was a group of people living on a series of connected rafts out in the ocean, and I remembered loving this idea, and also finding it totally untenable. But they sort of exist in real life!
In the afternoon, we got back to Puno and went to a delightful little museum where I absorbed absolutely nothing, except that there were three mummies from this place called Sillustani. After that, my Dad and I went on an aimless walk south of the Plaza de Armas, to a part of town we hadn’t visited yet. We were vaguely climbing, and we were both kind of apprehensive because both our guidebook and the hotel clerk had warned us against wandering too far from the central part of town (due to muggings). It turns out, though, that if you leave the center of town, suddenly the streets are much cleaner, and the houses are older and poorer, but imbued with something special: what my dad calls wabi-sabi. There were so many lovely, crumbling mud-brick houses, walls hunched almost as deeply as the old ladies that suddenly seemed to be everywhere. I mean, I saw one old lady who was at least ninety making her way effortlessly up a hill that probably would’ve killed me if I’d been going up it instead of down. We walked around for about an hour, and by the end of it we were feeling a little more at home. I almost feel bad for people who come to Puno and get shuttled all over the place in vans, or stay at resorts and never see the city. There’s something really endearing about it. Every night, the entire population seems to spill out into the street in their best clothes, and a brass band appears out of nowhere and strikes up a plaintive Andean something or other in the Plaza de Armas. It’s chaotic, but familiar, friendly. There’s a real community life here.
This morning, Wednesday the 6th (for those of you keeping track…me from the future), we went to visit the village of Chucuito, which is just outside Puno and which is best known for the ruins of a highly suspect Incan fertility temple. Is it real? Is it not? Don’t ask, says the NYTimes. Anyway, it made for a lovely outing. The town was very small and quiet, and although there were a few old cars parked along the streets, we didn’t actually see anyone in a car while we were there. The only sounds were those of pigeons flapping up into the belltowers of the two closed churches (both colonial), and a radio playing cumbia (?) from a food stall along a short street lined in little metal stalls with plastic chairs out on the asphalt. It was before lunch, so no one was eating yet, though it did smell like delicious pork. There was a beautiful lookout over Lake Titicaca, the shore of which is confused by a profusion of totoro reeds, bright green against the dark blue water.
In the afternoon, we went to see the chulpas at Sillustani. Chulpas are burial towers constructed by both the Inca and the Colla people. Aside from how impressive the towers themselves are, with their enormous stones (the Colla people supposedly taught the Incas the secret of fancy stonework), the setting was spectacular, on a peninsula jutting out into a lake, surrounded by steep, flat-topped hills. Like elsewhere in the Altiplano in winter, the landscape was very yellow, all covered in dried-looking scrub and grasses and pale, reddish rock. We drove back to Puno as night fell. The sky was just that shade of violet in which trees stand out stark and black as cut-outs. An apple truck had overturned on the narrow road to the city, and as we drew near it, we could see people running to where it was, and coming back with the fronts of their sweatshirts loaded down with apples. The city was beautiful when we came to it, in the dark. The lights twinkled all the way down to the edge of the lake, which reflected the last light of the day, and ranged up the steep hills at the edge of town.