It’s been very rewarding over the last two months to make the Andean Altiplano our home. Having spent so long wondering at the geographic marvels of the south its lovely to immerse ourselves in the cultural marvels of ancient America.
Not that there is no geography here. Peru, and to a lesser extent Bolivia, have proved to be the steepest places I think I’ve ever been to. The concept of ‘a short walk’ here is liable to involve changes of several hundred metres in altitude. We’re still ruing the decision to walk from Potosi bus station to the town centre – a choice that nearly killed us. Inca warriors must have had mighty thighs. Some of the Inca sites we’ve seen recently manage to spread several hundred metres up from one building to the next.
But the cultural side is phenomenal. As Marisa has said, there’s an enormous preponderance of hats in this part of the world (but we’re being quite restrained, we’ve only bought 2 each in the last month!). In southern Bolivia its Bowler hats, worn by all the women. I wish I had a picture of a 1960s London Suit to show them – they’d find a man in a bowler most amusing.
Dress is really regional here – as we moved north the bowlers got gradually taller – resembling deformed Fedoras after a while. Where we are now they have changed even more – crisp white (though regularly a bit grubby) stovepipes are the order of the day. But always (without fail) worn over a long pair of plaits.
And Peru in particular appears to have thriving costumery too. We’re seen women in wonderful scarves, and men in smart waistcoats. On one island the men wear different hats to indicate their marital status – and they do their own knitting. The sight of men knitting in the street is surprisingly difficult to get used to.
The traditional Inca attire seems to involve women wearing a wooden contraption a bit like a fruit bowl on their heads – which they find very useful for keeping small things in. And the men wear straw boaters with woolly red hats underneath. It certainly makes the marketplace colourful.
It’s been really nice to try and fall off the gringo trail a little. We spent a night staying with a family and shared dinner in their smoky unlit kitchen, and while it was all thoroughly above board and touristy – organised through a tour agency – it still gave the opportunity to admire their home, their crops and livestock and to discuss in our best Spanish what it is like to live there.
I also thoroughly enjoyed getting into conversation with a Bolivian teacher and asking a few questions about how things work here – the school system seems remarkable like my memories of African ones. Compounded by the depressing fact here as there that you still see a lot of little kids wandering the streets or working as shoeshines when they should be playing Star Wars in a playground somewhere (or whatever children do these days).
We were walking up a path the other day and fell in to step with a man, his son and their livestock (2 donkeys, 3 goats, 2 sheep and a dog). He asked us where we were from and we replied. England always meets with a bit of a nod, New Zealand normally with a puzzled look. Then he asked me another question, and I had to get him to repeat it several times before I believed my Spanish. ‘How far is your village?’ he said. I tried to keep a straight face as I replied, but aside from being a little funny it was completely wonderful: we were no longer gringo tourists, but just fellow travellers. We walked with him for over an hour until we reach his village, and then went our separate ways. He had been digging salt in local salt pans and was off to sell the produce of his labour.
We finally made it to Machu Picchu last week – I won’t bore you with waffle, but it really was fabulous, few places could live up to their reputation with such panache. We had a great guide and learnt an enormous amount about Inca history and culture.
You can’t help having the same kind of reaction to Inca engineering as you would to Roman stuff. For example we visited a set of ‘banos’ where they harnessed a set of springs to direct the water in perfect symmetry over their agricultural terraces. The centrepiece was a series of waterfalls, the lowest of which flowed across a wide but perfectly level stone – like an Inca version of Chatsworth!
I’m left wondering what comparisons we’d have made if the Inca had had a written language.
And the modern culture is just as strong. As I write a funeral procession is passing the door of the internet cafe – a big brass band playing and a procession of people completely stopping the traffic.
Bolivia and Peru (and I imagine Ecuador) are most intriguing. You could get quite lost here.
Oh no it’s the pigs!
Sometimes it’s important not to forget where you are. A couple of days ago, as lunchtime approached, we were walking through a village. Locals were washing carrots and onions in the drains – its harvest time. Everywhere the livestock was in the streets – including a lot of pigs. We commented how you never see pork on the menu.
Passed a little restaurant and saw the blackboard outside – a meat (it had to be a meat, as it was going to be served ‘al horno’) that we didn’t recognise. ‘Not beef, lamb or chicken’ says I ‘must be pork!’
Once we’d placed our order wee waited for our plates, and when they arrived were greeted by the sight of two whole guinea pigs. As reluctant carnivores at the best of times, we were a little taken aback, particularly since they still had their heads and feet – and on closer inspection their kidneys too.
Marisa sent hers back (wise girl).