Trains, Planes and the Altiplano – part 3.5

Trains, Planes and the Altiplano – part 3.5

Our first train ride took us to Augas Caliente. We were seated with students from Galudette University. When we were seated across from them we realized they were deaf. My wife had the presence of mind to sign to them a greeting and her name. They realized we spoke english and were from the U.S.A. The bond was immediate. My cousins daughter has an affliation with Gauledette Univ. and we started texting one another in rapid succession. They were international students studying at Gauldette. They were from China, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Korea. The adventures we shared were kindred, most of which was made possible from a simple devise….the text messaging on our cellphones. The spirit of adventure was shared by all of us. I  admired their daring do. By the end of our short train trip hugs were distributed all around. The world is most certainly a better place than I sometimes envision.

Our second train trip was living larger than our normal lifestyle. We usually travel a step or two above hitch hiking. We had booked our travel as a package deal and this was the benefit. The Andean Explorer is a train ride from Cusco to Julica and Puno. The train consists of two passenger cars and an entertainment car. It is for all practical purposes….a private train! Our job was to sit and enjoy the culinary delights, the entertainment and the view. Our other job was to aclimate as we gained serious elevation rising up onto the altiplano, the highlands of the Andes.

Our “fancy” train starts its upward journey through the gritty neighborhoods of Cusco. We are already 11,000 feet above sea level. It is an eleven hour ride that gives us sweeping vistas. Free ranging herds of llamas are miles from any roadway or house. Always within a few hundred yards you can spot a herder nestled into a bush or crevice tending his animals. I ponder the lifestyle of the Andean as he spends day after day watching llamas grow wool. We stop at a Catholic mission outpost, one of the highest points on the train journey.

Andeans set up a quaint market to sell their woven goods to the tourists that stop once a day. I can see five to ten miles in every direction. There is not a house, not a telephone pole, not a fence and not a pathway in any direction other than the rodeway and the train track. The market consists of a mission church and wooden racks on which to drape your wovens. Our tourist dollar means a great deal to these industrious people, I regret not purchasing more from them.

The train whistle blows and we travel on. After a few more hours on the Altiplano we enter the city of Julica at eye level. Hundreds of vendors booths are within five feet of the train window. They blur past until we slow down. Since we are in a train our elevation is at their roof level. We can look down into their booths or we can look up on their roof tops. On the sheet metal roof tops we spy many drying fetal pigs or else guinea pigs……I’m not sure which? I decide to use caution and keep my dietary habits simple and cooked. We experienced no intestinal problems while traveling, we ate only cooked foods and vegetables and did not drink tap water. We were not inconvenienced by this regime. Puno is a big bustling city, it is the port of embarque’ if you want to visit Lake Titicaca, Uros, Isle Taquile’, Bolivia. Thor Heyerdahl brought great attention to this region forty five or fifty years ago when we built an ocean going raft out of the reeds that grow in this lake. It was his intention to show that South Americans could have been expert seafarers and populated the Southern Pacific with their seamanship. (Do the research yourself) The island of Uros is an island comprised of reeds. The people that live here are obligated to buoy their lifestyle by adding layers upon layers of reeds to keep their lifestyle afloat. We arrived after a two hour boat ride and the inhabitants were ready to greet tourists. In the past year they had built a boat they called the “Mercedes”.

It was one step above all the rest, they had painted the bow of boat yellow. This is marketing at its simplest, build a bigger and better boat and you can capture more tourist dollars and better your lifestyle. It was a tasteful and in keeping with their native craftsmanship. It was a treat to ride and appreciate the efforts of boat building. Consider the history behind this type of craftsmanship, consider these reeds are quite similar to the reeds that hid Moses from the Pharoh.

The people of the floating islands are quite gracious. Tourism is an industry for them, but it also creates the burden of public relations on people that are trying to go about their daily lives.

They do it with grace and dignity. Uros is an island that has meaningful interaction with the outside world.

We board the boat and head off to an Isle Taquile’ the island is reknown for the very best weavings. It is an upward hike of hundreds of feet. This would be of no concern but we are already at 12,500 feet and now we experience shortness of breath. It is time to saunter rather than quickly walk along the pathways that lead toward the city center. There are children, women and old men weaving in every nook and crevice.

Some actively wanting to sell and others just intent on doing their weaving.

We motor back to our port city of Puno ready to ponder the days events. Puno is a big city with twenty four hour activity. We ventured out late one evening to get more altitude medication. The pharmicia was a block or two from where the taxi had dropped us. I struggled blocks to find the pharmica and I struggled through a crowd of humanity just to reconnect with the awaiting cab driver. All went well and no ill effects were had by us “flat landers”. The days spent in Puno were beautiful and breathless. They were puncuated with late night gasps, at 12,500 feet we awoke, alarmed that we needed oxygen. A quick plane flight back to Lima deposited us at sea level and left us feeling like we had left a dream world.

Bill Keitel

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