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"High and Dry"
"July 5, 2000"

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Uros, the floating islands
Puno, Peru(31May00)

"The mountains you see on your left are popular with local climbers" cracked the intercom, as the tour guide gently gestured to her right. Behind her, images of birds flashed on the video screens, part of a program about he wildlife in the Peruvian Amazon that had been interrupted by her announcement. I'm not sure how it happened, but somehow, I had ended up on a tourist bus. Videos, drink service, a tour guide with microphone, flush toilettes - these are not trademarks of the adventure travel experience. But when one has diarreha, and when one has an all day bus ride to look forward to, having flush toilets makes being subjected to the annoynaces of a tour bus a worthwhile tradeoff.

I was on my way to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in an area known as the altiplano, or "high plain." The antiplano starts around Cusco and extends all the way down Bolivia and partially into Chile. At about 13,000 ft, it is notable in its bleakness - wide open fields of grain, llamas, alpacas, sheep, cows, and not much else. When not taking advantage of the facilities on the bus, I spent my time chomping on some unidentifiable chunks of what I think was lamb, bought from an old woman along the side of the road, who had brusquely cleaved it off of a larger, unidentifiable mass. My arrival in Puno, the bustling capital of the state of Puno, was a shocking one. Out of the window of the bus I noticed a man, down on the ground, his head gushing blood. No one seemed to take the slilgthest notice. By the time the bus finally stopped and I made my way back, all that was left was a large pool of blood on the pavement. I could only hope that he had found help.

Earlier, I had met a woman named Suzanna, and along with Andre, another man she had met on the bus, we headed out looking for shelter. We found it at a place called Posada Real, a small but very friendly hostal only a few minutes away. Thinking that we were "together" as a group, rather than random strangers who had met a few hours earlier, they offered us all one room. We exchanged a few confused stares, which only intensified when they offered us the second option of a single room and a double. Not being sure of who wanted to share a room with whom and who wanted whom kept out, we just stood in silence, until Suzanne finally declared that she would take the single and that we were on our own. They eventually found us a third room.

Our group started to enlarge, picking up a couple of fellow travelers from the hostal. Soon, we were a full blown tourist group. So off we went to do what tourist groups do - find pizza. We found it; Puno was littered with restaurants eager to pleast the Western palate. I opted for trout, which was a local specialty from the lake, and finished it off with "chocolate cake," whose only claim to chocolate was the thin layer of chocolate sputtered on the outside.

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Reed stacks
Uros, Puno Peru(31Mayb00)

For the following day, the rest of the group was joining a multi-day tour to several of the nearby islands, but I decided to head out on my own and try to catch a local boat to Uros, islands made up of floating reeds. Once a testament to mankind's ability to survive in unlikely places, the islands have become a caricature of themselves. Uros is a collection of tiny islands made up of floating heaps of reeds farmed from the lake. An entire culture evolved on the islands, surviving from fishing and hunting of birds, but now they are simply floating tourist stalls. Since the only reason to go to the islands is tourism, even the local boats are full of tourists - local tourists. I ended up on a boat with about five Peruvian tourists, visiting from nothern Peru. We hopped through about five islands in two hours - some are only 50ft in diameter, and the venders pushed their wares. I wasn´t buying, but my Peruvian friends were; sweaters, bowls, even a stuffed duck. I would just walk around, watching the reeds gently sink with each step, trying to keep from walking into a soft spot in the reeds and sinking.

Back in Puno, the time had come to make my transformation from tourist back to cyclist. I packed up and pedalled out, heading out into the stark, lonely landscape of the altiplano. while the terrain was near dead flat, the combination of thin air and an icy headwind quickly robbed me of my energy. I grinded from one farmhouse to the next, with only a long blur of the blue of the lake and the gold of wheat fields connecting them. Just as night settled in, I reached the town of Ilave.

Ilave was as simple and nondescript as they come. A gray little town with a small plaza and a one block long "main drag," it had one overwhelming redeeming quality; a hotel. Set in a faceless building on the main square, the hotel was a model of understatement. I was shown to my room by a chubby but endearing middle-aged man. I was offered the "matrimonial suite" for a princely sum of 15 soles (about US$5) to which I replied that I would only pay that much if the bride was included. I got the room for S/10.

Cold and tired from a hard day´s ride, I had been fantasizing about a hot shower all day, but fantasy it was, since the "shower" consisted of a giant barrel of ice cold water and a scoop. I passed, and opted for a warm bowl of soup in town. It was so cold that I selected a restaurant solely on thermal considerations. I selected the one restaurant that had lots of people inside and a front door that closed fully, locking out the bitter cold and locking in the body head of the patrons. The food turned out to be marvelous; a full meal of soup, tea, and rice and vegetables with chicken, all for only S/2.

I returned to my "matrimonial suite" and, being so cold inside that I could see my breath, quickly buried myself under a pile of blankets and clothes. Perhaps it was called the matrimonial suite because only marital activity could possibly provide the required warmth for a good night's sleep.

Given the extremely cold weather (it was -5ºC the previous evening,) there was no way I was going to start biking until the sun had had time to warm up the air a bit, so I didn't bother even getting out of bed until 9. It was still cold enough to necessitate wearing every piece of clothing I owned for the first hour of riding.

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Lake Titicaca, Peru(3Jun00)

The icy winds continued, and any hopes I had of a mellow ride soon faded. At the very least, the terrain was flat and the roads were well paved. But the instant I hit the border of Bolivia, that too changed. The pavement stopped exactly at the border, directly under the arch that marked the entrace to Bolivia: "Welcome to Bolivia, land of rocks and dirt."

The last 13 km of jostling reminded me of how fortunate I had been to have been on pavement for the past two days. With all of the "off road" riding I had done in my trip, I was wondering if maybe I should have brought mountain bike tires in the first place, rather than my explode-on-impact road tires.

I finally rattled and rolled into Copacabana, my destination for a few days, just as the sun was setting. Copacabana is a small town on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca. The town itself was rather plain, except for the beautiful cathedral, but its tranquility and simplicity also gave it a certain appeal. It was a great place to rest for the night, and at 10 Bolivianos a night (about US$1.5) it was inexpensive, too. And as if that wasn´t cheap enough, I couple of Dutch travelers I met in the hostal, Alan and Vincent, made a homecooked dinner of pasta and tuna on a camping stove, which we ate on the balcony. Vincent gets my vote for the most outrageous travel hobby. I thought that my carrying 15 lbs. of camera gear was nuts, but he was carrying a full set of bagpipes! He even had a bicycle with him, too.

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Isla Del Sol, Peru(3Jun00)

Lake Titicaca looks very out of place; a bright blue lake in the middle of a barren, high plain. Just off the coast of Copacabana is a small island called Isla del Sol, where I went to spend a day hiking. From the island the view became even more amazing, as you could see the snow capped Bolivian Andes jutting out in the distance like jagged teeth, a stark contrast to the yellow and blue of the landscape.

The spectacular scenery continued, as I set out biking the next day, on my final biking leg to La Paz, two days away. Fortunately, the pavement returned, but as always was the case, it came at a cost, this time in the form of more mountains to climb.

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The "ferries" of Tiquina
Lake Titicaca, Peru(4Jun00)

In order to get to La Paz, I needed to cross Lake Titicaca at a small strait near Tiquina. The crossing was only a km or two across, and there were regular "ferries" which did the crossing. Calling them ferries is generous; they were small platform boats about the size of a bus (just large enough to hold a bus, actually) with loose planks for floorboards. Normally, only vehicles travel on the platforms, with passengers going in a separate, more seaworthy boat, but seeing as I was the "driver" of my vehicle, I had to stay with my bike. I shared the boat with one car, and once we were loaded, the boatman pushed us off with a long pole, and then started the outboard motor to get us moving. In the porcess of loading, I had tossed my gloves into my helmet, but somewhere along the way they fell out, and straight through a gap in the floorboards and into the lake. I managed to recover them before they floated off into the lake

On the day I crossed, the weather was nice and the lake calm, but the previous week, it was rough and windy, and one of the ferries tipped, sinking a bus and killing four passengers, who had apparently stowed aboard to avoid paying for the boat ride. Everyone still seemed a bit edgy about it.

Once safe on the far shore, I started pedaling again. I clearly wasn't going to make it all the way to La Paz that day, but there really wasn't anywhere obvious to spend the night. The extreme cold made the idea of camping extremely unappealing, so I was hoping for a small town somewhere about half way. As the sun set, however, my situation started to grow more dire, as it was getting cold and dark, and there was nothing that looked like a town in sight. With nowhere else to go, I headed towards a group of buildings and started asking if anyone knew of a place to stay. The closest place anyone knew of was about 10km in the wrong direction, so I just kept riding around until I found a dirt road lined with buildings, which was close enough to a town for me. I asked again and was told that yes, there was a place to stay; "Go down the street and on the right will be a green door. Knock on it in a few hours and someone should answer."

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Las Batallas, Peru(4Jun00)

The whole thing seemed a bit tentative, but the man with the information seemed nice enough, and I didn´t really have any other options, so I decided to go find a place to sit and wait. Further down the road, I eventually figured out I was indeed in a town, called Las Batallas, which even had a plaza, so I sat down and tried to write. No sooner than I had sat down, however, a drunk old man came up to me and started babbling. Apparently this was full-fledged town, equipped with its own local drunk. The alcohol made him marginally coherent at best, but he also arrived with a mouth full of coca leaves, making him sound like a washing machine. He appeared to be desperately trying to ask me questions, but all he succeeded in doing was to spit green spittle and coca leaves on my notebook. I tried politely to tell him I couldn´t understand a word he was saying, but eventually I had to get up and retreat to another part of the plaza. He just kept following me, frantically gestering and mumbling something about his lovely bible collection. I decided to escape on my bicycle, figuring that I could keep my distance easier by pedaling. With more time to kill, I started looking for a restaurant, but there was not a one in town. There weren´t really any stores, either. The only thing I could find was a man selling salchipapas from a cart. I was running low on money, and I needed to save some for breakfast, so I had just a small order; a pile of sausage and fries, neatly wrapped in a paper cone. The vendor, upon hearing my perdicament with lodging, told me that if I couldn´t find a place to stay, I should come back, and he would let me stay in a small storage room.

I headed back to the green door and knocked, but got no reply. The an who had origianlly directed me there was still nearby, and he suggested I try the next one over, an equally nondescript metal door. After several minutes of pounding, an old woman eventually arrived, and she led me to a room. The room seemed very much like a hotel room, with a separate keyed lock and everything, but you would never know it from the outside. Again the cold left me with little desire to do anything but bury myself under the blankets and go to sleep.

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On the road
La Paz, Bolivia(5Jun00)

The next day was my last day of biking, the glorious final lap to cap off a fabulous journey. I envisioned a triumphant entrance into La Paz - it was even supposed to be all down hill - but instead it was one of my worst days of the entire trip. As nondescript as the hotel I had stayed in was, I had to pay a whopping 20 Bolivianos for the priviledge, leaving me without a single Boliviano to last me until I could find a bank in La Paz. That meant no food the entire day. As I slowly rolled out of Las Batallas, the frozen puddles cracked like glass under the weight of my bike. The only thing left I had to eat was a package of "sparkies," a type of chewy candy, and a box of jawbreakers. The 100% sugar diet, on top of no real dinner the night before, left me weak and demoralized. Not only that, but the road, which I was expecting to be downhill, was flat all the way until a couple of km from La Paz. My legs groaned defiantly as I tried to push myself the last few hours. Finally, I made it to the section of downhill, and my spirits immediately lifted. La Paz, the world´s highest capital at somewhere around 13000 ft, is actually set into a large bowl, with a huge snow-capped mountain looming overhead. The view was awesome, as was the ten minutes of screaming downhill I had riding into the town center.

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The highest capital in the world
La Paz, Bolivia(5Jun00)

La Paz reminded me a lot of San Francisco, with almost every street going straight up or straight down. Biking up SF's streets is a challenge, but with the added altitude of La Paz, it took every ounce of will I had left to not just get off and walk. When I finally found a hotel, I grudgingly carried my bike up the one flight of stairs, and I was done! My biking journey had come to an end. 2300 miles, four months, from La Paz, Mexico to La Paz, Bolivia. I was an awesome adventure, but I was looking forward to getting off the bike seat for a while.

Copyright © 2000 Peter Birch All Rights Reserved.