The bus from Charazani to Huarina, en route to Isla de Sol, only broke down once. Bolivians used it as an opportunity to water the local scrub brush, hiking up their petticoats and relieving their bladders. Miranda and I saw it as an opportunity to trade places.
A short while after boarding, we had stopped to pick up several elderly Bolivians. The bus was already packed full, so they stood in the aisle. First Felice stood to offer his seat to the woman, who took it without a word. Behind them several rows, and directly in front of me, the old man sagged against the seat next to him, and the woman occupying the seat leaned over to make room, encroaching on the passenger in the adjacent seat. I shifted in my seat, my conscience even more uncomfy than my tail. If that were my Grandma Rose ( and he somehow reminded me of her), I would want someone to get up and offer her their seat.
After a good 15 minutes of deliberating to myself anout whether my feet would tolerate standing for hours on a bus ride, I stood and offered the man my seat. He slipped silently into it. Standing turned out to be better than sitting in some ways. Bend your knees and spring and sway a little with the bumps and curves in the road and it can even be sort of entertaining. Someone started blasting pop music from their phone further forward in the bus and Felice and I both rocked along to it. Suddenly I could envision a remake of the music video for the song ” Baby, Bye bye bye” on a Bolivian bus starring Felice and his improvised dance moves, and featuring various Bolivian passengers. Imagining it made me laugh out loud.
Later, we would have discussions of whether it was culturally expected or otherwise called for to give up your seat for an elder. No Bolivians around us did it, signaling that it’s not necessarily part of the protocol here. I maintained that, prescribed by cultural protocol or no, it was a good thing to do. Besides, standing allowed me to shove wayward baggage back into place in the overhead storage when it slid around or threatened to fall. And what better way to know your foot is mostly recovered?
Upon arriving unceremoniously in Huarina, we downed a couple of fried trucha, crossed the highway and hailed a minibus to take us to Tiquina, where we were ferried across one side of Lago Titicaca to a point near Copacabana. There, we squeezed ourselves and our bags into a stationwagon and hired the driver to take us on this last leg for the day. Miranda and I (sitting in front) pumped the driver for details about the differences between farmed and wild trout, indicated mainly by the color of the fish’s flesh – the redder the better. Next to quinua (and maybe llama), trucha may be the most quintessentially Bolivian food, and it appears with regularity on menus across the country cooked at least five ways (al gusto – how you like it.) I’ve yet to have trout cooked in a way I didn’t like.
Copacabana is intensely touristy, but because it’s the launch point for all people making the pilgrimage to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, it’s at least a pretty international crowd of tourists swarming around. We encountered a number of Bolivians visiting this part of their country for the first time, too. We summited the small hill on one side of town overlooking the water and bought ourselves a nice dinner with some wine. We left stuffed full of trucha, eggplant, fondue, waldorf salad, and happy.
The next day we found a coffee shop with the rare waiter attentive to the needs of his customers and an espresso maker. More happy. We took the mid-day ferry to Isla del Sol, plugging our earphones into Rita and Jordan’s six-way hub and zoning out to their music while staring out over the choppy, deep blue water on all sides. The boat piloted us through an isthmus and offloaded us on a dock, where we paid the first of several visitor fees we would be assessed.
Then we began the brutal climb up a large, steep, winding set of stone stairs set into the hillside rising sharply up out of the lake. With my bigger pack on my back and my little daypack in front, not to mention the rapid altitude incline, my diaphram struggled to expand and I labored heavily to gain a few more steps between breaks. After what seemed almost an hour, we had huffed our way up to a side street that leveled off a bit, and we again piled the packs, posted guards and sent a delegation of four (out of seven) of us ahead to investigate our many housing options with the unsolicited assistance of two youngsters who live on the island, and had latched onto us the moment we got off the boat. I think these kids were more or less on commission.
We must have inquired about two dozen different rooms, ticking off a checklist of criteria, before we settled on the comfy but unpretensious accomodations of Doña Marta halfway up the hill. The views of the lake from her square cement balcony were just as sweeping as at the top, and better priced. Plus, she had a nice (unusual) unpushy manner. I commented on the nice view, noting that she is fortunate to see it every day of her life. She liked that.
We shed our stuff in our rooms and climbed the hill again, feeling relatively weightless but still short of breath, then hung a left into a funny pizza place. It was entirely empty except for a boy of about 10 or 12 years of age. We confirmed the restaurant was open and requested the menu. He brought it, one page, hand written on a sheet of graph paper. We ordered one meat, one vegetarian and one quinua pizza, beer, wine and a rum and Coke. As is often the case here, not everything on the menu actually existed in the restaurant. I had whiskey and Coke instead, while the boy went running out the front door. He came back moments later with several adults in tow (presumably the kitchen crew) and some of the ingredients for our dinner. Shades of ordering dinner in Haiti. Hours later, our pizzas emerged and they were well worth the wait. Most of my compañeros were skeptical about quinua on a pizza, but I can now say from experience, it’s delicious, and by the end I think most of them agreed. ( I’ve made it my mission to consume quinua in as many forms as possible here…salad, energy bars, beer, pizza, wraps, cereal.)
The next day, we caught a ferry from the south end of the island to the north end and hiked home. For whatever reason, my immune system was down and I wasn’t feeling 100 percent, but there was nothing to do but push on and enjoy the spectacular views. We passed through several Inca ruins, including the rock where it is believed the sun and moon were born, a remarkably constructed stone maze, and a large, ceremonial rock slab reminiscent of one of the final scenes in the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Past the ruins, we ascended a broad, reddish-orange set of sandstone stairs that seemed to go up forever. I had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, managing my breathing patterns as best I could, and plodded along. Although I layered sunscreen on several times, I was wearing a tank top, and by the end of the day, my back had a serious sunburn – the worst I can ever remember getting. I guess it’s called Isla de Sol for a reason. That night, feeling that we had earned our calories, we tried out a different pizza place. While we waited, thunder cracked and rain dumped outside, sending outdoor dinners skittering in.
Our third day on the island, we rested. Some of us took the short hike south along the coastline to an Inca ruin with vaguely trapezoidal doors and small, strategically engineered windows facing east (towards the sun) in the immaculately fitted stone walls. Since several of us were exhibiting resfrio (cold) symtoms, it occurred to me that we might make lemon garlic honey tea as my mom used to for me when I wasn’t feeling well. In the morning I had asked Doña Marta if she could conseguir (get) the ingredients so we could make it in the evening. By the look on her face, it was an exceedingly extranjero (foreigner) request, but she obliged. Lemons are rare, but limes are everywhere. Honey was out of the question, so we would use a little sugar. Garlic is used in Bolivian cooking almost as much as ours at home, so that was no problem.
After much wine and another pizza dinner, our group retired to hang out in one of our rooms while I consulted Doña Marta about the tea. She affirmed we could make it, but was clearly uncertain of the process, and the desired result. So she graciously permitted me to enter her kitchen, where rice and dehydrated potatoes (another Bolivian staple) were simmering away on her stovetop for her family’s dinner. I sat on a low stool on one side of her kitchen, waiting for a free burner and talking with Doña Marta about her life here on the island. Having lots of house guests was good because it meant income to support her large family, but it also meant non- stop hard work from before dawn to well after dark catering to our needs. Yet somehow she managed to say it without sounding bitter or unfriendly. I think she was genuinely glad to relate to one of us more like a person, and not solely as a customer to keep happy.
She watched with curiosity as I started water from her tap to boil, waited the requisite 5 minutes, and started squeezing limes in, adding sugar a little at a time and tasting to judge the ratio. She followed my lead, helping to squeeze the limes, add the garlic, put a cautious quantity of cayenne pepper flakes in, and taste again. It was really hot, spicy limeade, and it came out with just the right amount of acidity, sweetness and bite to go down easy while burning away sickness. We put two thirds of the steaming anti-enfermedad (sickness) remedy in a pitcher with mugs on a tray, and I left the rest for her and her family. She was delighted. Meanwhile, our group drank our portion and discussed book plots while lightning flashed steadily outside, illuminating the sacred mountains across the water on the mainland of Bolivia.
In the morning (our last on the island) I thanked Doña Marta for her assistance in making the tea. She responded that Bolivians customarily use only use mint and coca to cure colds, smiled, and thanked me for teaching her about the tea. Her family had liked it, and she was excited to try it again. Especially in light of how mistrustful and closed off Bolivians can sometimes be with outsiders, I felt honored that she had let me into her kitchen, had wanted to learn, and even more that she wanted to repeat the process. It was a rewarding cultural exchange, and better yet, a reciprocal one. I think she not only took away how to make a new kind of tea to treat resfrios at home, but also the idea that around the world we all get sick and use what we have in the natural world to cope, an idea she could respect.
It was New Year’s eve and we packed onto the ferry back to Copacabana, trying in vain to suck in as few fumes as possible during the two hour ride. From there it was back to La Paz on a bus. New Years was almost as uneventful as Christmas, other than the loudest, most startling fireworks I’ve ever heard in the street right outside our hostel. By now, we were good friends with the restaurant/bar staff at the hostel, and were allowed behind the counter, at first to do dishes and later to mix drinks and pour shots. Before you knew it, we were in 2014, and a couple of days later, our band would break up and scatter back to our Pacific Northwest home. I bid goodbye and boarded another bus, this time for Cochabamba in central Bolivia, home of the famous water wars where water privatization failed in the year 2000.