South to Bolivia

Itchy feet, regained strength, and I'm on the road again. Goodbye Cuzco and hello expanses of the Andean altiplano. A further increase in altitude to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The night we arrive it's snowing. Biting cold. A chance meeting with Reinhardt, the German friend, who I had met at Manglaralto (Ecuador), means that I've got a new travelling partner. Tired and cold, but we're down on to the street for a good snowball fight. A stray missile and we meet with some Swedish and Ecuadorian girls for dinner.

Burying deep into my sleeping bag I draw the chords that pull it into the shape of a "mummy bag". Just my face open to the mercy of the night. The power is off from eight p.m., so we've been reading by candle light. It's been another great day and I feel a good ten hours of shut-eye coming on. Sleep, eat, exercise, eat, exercise, eat, sleep. Same old thing. Day in, day out. Regimented and pattern like?

But sure enough, the excitement of being in a fresh place, new travelling companion, and good health, and I'm up early. A quiet walk in the snow. It's just sunrise. Already the streets are a hive of activity. What a wonderful scene, I consider, whilst sitting on a disused old, oil can. The dawn, soft mist, new day, and setting up of a market. The indian women in their mushroom of layered skirts and bowler hats, leathery feet cramped into car tyre sandals. Mantas on their backs, with either a child's head, protruding, vegetables or other marketable produce.

I questioned the proposed origins of the bowler hats used exclusively by the women. An English hat manufacturing company, a massive overstock of bowlers and changing fashions, they offloaded masses of the hats into Peru and Bolivia. Unchanged in time, stunted evolution.

Methodically they would lay out a plastic sheet, cover it with cloth, usually made of flour or rice sacks sewn together, and then lay out a display of their wares. Next they would assume their customary squatting position and either chat, cook some tea on their kerosine burners, start to knit, weave or spin wool. Never a wasted moment for most of these ladies.

There were the "cargadores", pack-horse labourers who would act as transport for almost anything. A simple method really. Simply get the said article, place your rope around it and then, with your back to it, tie the rope around your chest. Just bend forward and heave it up on to your back and away you go. I had seen many a disproportionate load being carried this way. Whole beds or cupboards appearing mountainous on top of men a quarter their size.

After a good breakfast of fried eggs and toast and tea, we made our way off to see the famous Uros Indians, and their floating islands made of reeds. We also make several other side trips to Inca ruins, of which the most perfect stone joints of the round towers of Sillustani are the most impressive. I had become somewhat blase. Too many astounding churches, over exposure to masonry perfections.

Again the night-time temperatures plummet to below zero and the streets become icy. Onwards, ever onwards.

Peru and Bolivia were both underdeveloped countries. Predominately Indian population, real Andean countries and yet dissimilar. From the first kilometer of setting foot in Bolivia I knew that this was going to be the country for me.

Bolivia, which straddles the Andes, is a land of gaunt mountains, cold desolate high plains and semi-tropical lowlands on the Amazon side of the Andes. The Andean range is at its widest here, at about six hundred and fifty kilometres, and is basically a western and an eastern cordillera (mountain chain), with a huge high plain (the altiplano) in between.

We had made our way from Puno for the classic crossing of Lake Titicaca and on to Copacabana, on the Bolivian side. The rides and border crossing had all gone smoothly and we would be staying in our first eighty cent per night hotel. The standard was the equal of any two dollar Peruvian hotel. But who was counting? Was the dollar much stronger here? In the coming weeks we would find this to be a grossly understated question.

Copacabana is a graceful town on the edge of Lake Titicaca. Being so close to Lake Titicaca was something I'd dreamt of a lot in the days when I was planning my trip. As much as it was not the "highest lake", but moreso "the highest navigable lake in the world, meant little. It had a history, a strategic positioning, an ever changing beauty. Famous as the destination of the Virgen of Candeleria festivities, it offered us an overnight resting place, and glowing red sunset over the ripples of Lake Titicaca. Excellent dinner of trout and chips, held by candlelight due to a sudden and unannounced black-out.

Travelling towards La Paz, the world's highest capital city, we were treated to the altiplano and its mountainous backdrop. A harsh, strange land, that was a dreary grey; and solitudal. The air unbelievably clear, cold daytime temperatures and a certain nostril-tingling crispness to it. There's a definition of space, of human frailty and insignificance

The definition of snowy peaks way off in the distance is testament to that clarity, almost corny, like on most postcards or business calendars. Drawing us closer.

Shedding some psychological barrier with the border crossing from Peru into Bolivia, I once again relaxed. Experiencing, rather than tense and enduring. Travelling in Peru had been full of unique experiences, wondrous sights, but overall had managed to prevail a high profile of thievery and illhealth. Once again I was enthused, bubbling up on the edge of my bus seat, soaking up every moment. It was six months into my travels and I was being dealt with a much needed boost of motivation.

For all its greyness, the Altiplano was exciting me. Llamas and alpacas roaming the countryside, An occasional adobe hut sporting simple thatched roof. Around were vegetable gardens. The potato and the oca (a vegetable tuber) grew in abundance. Quinoa, which was like millet, and corn would grow in paddocks with primitive stone fences. An indian lady looking after her small herd of llamas, sitting in the middle of nowhere, spinning wool or knitting. Makeshift fences supporting rows of beans.