Travels in Bolivia & Peru #1: Humbled in Bolivia

June 7, 2002

Greetings from Cusco, Peru. I'm off to Machu Picchu
tomorrow, but thought I'd take a few minutes to jot down
some thoughts from my time in Bolivia...

We flew into La Paz and were greeted in the small airport by
my sister Jessica's shining face. It seems that the months
living and studying in Bolivia have been very good to her.
She wore a brilliant turquoise sweater made of alpaca wool.
Alpaca is a funny-looking (to me) llama-cousin prevalent in
these parts.

Within a few minutes, I was feeling very out of sorts. I'd
had a few warnings about the effects of flying into the high
altitudes here, but with typical 20-something-male
perspective, I never figured, it would apply to me. It took
me several days to feel normal. Hills and stairs left me
unnervingly breathless...

And that's unfortunate for a traveler in La Paz, because the
city is as full of hills as San Francisco. Charming colonial
squares and big cathedrals, and locals who took the hills up
and down at a pace that made my lungs and head hurt even
more to watch.

The poor of La Paz live mostly in el alto, above the city.
The socioeconomic breakdown means that those poor are mostly
of an indigenous group called the Aymara. The dress of the
Aymara women is wild -- flat dress shoes, big wide skirts,
brightly-colored textiles that carry babies or goods on
their back, and topped off by a bowler hat. The origins of
this outfit have something to do with the Spanish, but I
haven't figured out exactly what.

Close to the Peru border, a town called Copacabana was my
jumping off point for La Isla del Sol, and island in Lake
Titicaca where it's said that the sun was born. On a day my
body granted me respite from altitude confusion, we took a
boat-ride to the island and hiked around for a while.

The ruins there are interesting and the scenery striking.
Around one turn of the trail, I looked over my shoulder to
see nearly tropical blues and greens lapping gently against
the island's shore, and my frame of vision was topped by the
snow-capped Andes mountains above. It reminded me a bit of
trekking in Nepal, where the Himalayas are ever-present.

The natural scenery left my mind though, when I stepped into
a circle of earth defined by aged and mostly buried bricks.
Within the circle was 8 or 9 small white stones arranged in
a smaller circle around a large white rectangular dais. Our
guidebook passed us rumors that the spot was used in Incan
days for animal, or perhaps human sacrifice. The space
overlooking the huge lake, gave me shivers...

Speaking of human sacrifice, I'm on this trip with my
family... Seriously, though, it's wonderful to be away from
everything and together with my mom, my brother and my
sister. A family friend of ours that lived with us when I
was three years old is along as well, so we've filled the
restaurants and hostels of Bolivia as much with reminiscing
and laughter as we have with travel plans and reflections.

It's a pretty different experience for me, as I'm used to
being on the road with one other person max. Once I let it
be its own experience, it's a perfect one, and a milestone
in my the relationships between my mom and her eldest kids.

As I was humbled by the altitude and beauty of Bolivia, I'm
been amazed by Peru's differences and culture. More to come
from here in a few days.

I imagined I'd be signing off "adios," but in Bolivia
everyone says "chau," so...

Chau from South America,