Sunday, October 25, 2009

My Titicaca Troubles

Do you remember the story about Horst on Koh Samui? The one about great Thai food poisoning? Didn’t we have fun? In Peru it was my turn. Grab a Mate de Coca tea, pull up a floating reed island and join me as I revisit Lake Titicaca on the border between Peru and Bolivia.

You’ll be grossed out to learn that the national dish of Peru is guinea pig, which I’m sure—if I had been man enough to try it—would have tasted like a clump of deep-fried hair. Do guinea pigs have meat on them? The ones I tossed around as a child felt weedy at best.

The other, more food-like national dish of Peru is ceviche, raw fish or seafood marinated in lime juice (which chemically cooks it). Ceviche is good when it’s good, revolting when it’s revolting. I’ll save this for the end.

My “troubles” had begun in Cuzco: altitude sickness, sleeplessness, and a particular “trouble” that kept me sequestered in my hotel room and praying for death. Thankfully, we had already been to Machu Picchu and sundry ruins by the time I started having my “trouble”—oh goodness, Chris, we’re all adult here: I was evacuating though there was no fire.

As you can imagine, in this state I wanted very much to board a bus and drive five hours to Puno, the dismal town on the even more dismal Lake Titicaca.

The bus trip behind us, we dumped our bags at the hotel, a cheap chain hotel on a drab, reedy part of the lake, and took a taxi into Puno. We walked up and down the main drag a few times before coming to the conclusion that Puno was not worth the trip.

“Let’s take a tour of the lake,” Horst suggested.

“Let’s go back to Cuzco,” I suggested.

“It will be fun,” Horst said, ignoring me. “Here there are dragon boats . . . made of reeds.”

“Woot, woot,” I said, although I didn’t even know this expression back then. “Do these dragon boats have toilets by chance?”

The dragon boats—which were reed canoes with dragon heads—were kind of fun. The floating reed islands were interesting. The one we visited had its own post office and lots of fat women, one of which insisted—with her beautifully infectious smile—that I take a picture of her and send it to her post office. I guess they don’t get much mail.

When our day on the floating islands was winding down, Horst pointed to a building on an island near the shore and asked our guide what it was.

“Five-star hotel. Very expensive.”

“We’re eating there tonight,” I said to Horst.

“We’re eating chicken from the turny thing on the street again,” he replied.

Au contraire, Monsieur,” I said.


When we arrived back on shore, a taxi was waiting for us to take us back to our cheap hotel. By then I had convinced Horst that I would die before daybreak if I ate another rotten bird. He took the reins—I’m sure only because he didn’t need the hassle of my wee-hour death.

“Up there,” he said to the taxi driver, pointing to the Hotel Libertador, which is about five kilometers outside Puno and connected to the shore by a causeway.

“No, no, mister. No, no!” The taxi driver’s reaction couldn’t have been more dramatic if he’d thought an evil spirit inhabited the island.

Si, si!” I barked—an adorable bark of course.

He narrowed his eyes at me—and I mine at him—and he drove. He protested the entire way, but at the hotel when the guards saw tourists in the taxi, they opened the gates. Only then did the taxi driver loosen up—and stop rubbing his dashboard Virgin Mary.

In stark contrast to the impoverished town of Puno, this hotel was sleek and modern. The food was prepared with love, and the service was professional. No guinea pig on the menu, but I had the best ceviche I’ve ever had. And a filet. And excellent red wine from Chile.

My troubles were over . . . until that night when I tried to sleep at almost 4000 meters above sea level. Forget death, my body wouldn’t even let me sleep. The following day, we ended up flying back to Lima and the comfort of the sea.

I must be off,