Volcan Sabancaya struts its stuff for us!

First, we want to thank people for your patience…we have so much to share, but not much time to post. I am working on getting caught up with the blog and have written much about our journey. Choosing and editing photos for each post and finding enough internet to post them is my current challenge. Stay tuned. I promise there will be much more to come!

PS – This entry is lengthy, but it would be difficult to leave any part out of the story.

As we left Arequipa, we saw a small puff of what looked like smoke rising in the distance. As we rounded a steep corner, a beautiful volcano came into view. The smoke was rising directly from the middle and we could not believe our eyes! Standing at its imposing height of more than 19,000 feet, the Volcan Sabancaya has been an active stratovolcano since before the Holocene era. After settling down for several centuries, it became active again in the late 1980’s. Its name, which means ‘spitting volcano,’ was given to it in the 1500’s indicating that there was some activity at that time, also. It does not erupt (blow smoke and ash) every day. This was a lucky day for us as we captured it puffing the first signs of smoke for the morning. We watched in amazement as the eruption grew and the volcano seemed to put on a special show for us.

Driving along the high mountain regions, we found huge herds of alpaca and vicuña – a wilder ancestor of alpaca. The vicuña are more petite and less furry than the alpaca, but they are still raised for their ‘woolly’ coats. Over time in these harsh conditions, the people of the area have begun to herd small groups and you can find many of the alpaca with small red woolen ribbons around their ears. Around every corner along this stretch of highway, a variety of people can be found overlooking their animals. The people collect the wool for the variety of handmade sweaters, hats, gloves, ponchos, etc., but we are not sure how the restaurants tap into the alpaca as a meat source, as we saw no signs of locals selling alpaca meat, milk or cheese. It was incredible to see how many herds seemed to be flourishing in these high mountain settings.

We spent one night on the shore of Lake Titicaca, as we prepared to enter Bolivia. The lake lies in both Peru and Bolivia and we chose a last night in the Peruvian city of Puno. I had seen pictures of Lake Titicaca and I knew it was beautiful. I also knew it was big, but I had no idea that an entire group of people lived on reed islands in the middle of this sparkling lake. When Jorge suggested we take a tour by boat of the water I expected to see a typical lake setting with people fishing, boaters enjoying the sun…you know, the usual. We took a private tour with a local guide and a skipper and headed out to see the sights. As soon as we left the dock, we entered a heavily reeded area with small channels that led to larger open spaces on the lake. Suddenly, it was a though we were on a ride a theme park. I could not believe my eyes as we began to see thatched roofed huts in geometric patterns on small ‘islands’ built entirely from the reeds found on Lake Titicaca. The people were dressed in what looked like costumes from Disney’s It’s A Small World. Surely, this was some tourist attraction, and not a real village…right? As we passed by the first couple of islands, we noticed a trio of women wearing brightly colored skirts and woven hats waving us in and our boat began to make its way to the edge of the tiny floating island, for we had been specifically invited to this small Uru village. The 500 Uru people who still live on these floating islands are descendants of the people who originally fled to these reed habitats to escape the Incan empire. They spoke a long-abandoned language called Puquina and believed that they alone owned the lake.

Today, they still use totora reeds for virtually everything – from the bases of the islands to the floors and huts in which they live, from the food they eat to the small boats used to carry them from island to island, from warmth to dental floss! The conditions on an island made of reeds in the middle of one of the highest lakes in the world (almost 3900 meters) can be harsh. The totoro reeds are used for virtually every aspect of life here.

The families on this particular island welcomed Jorge and I into their homes, shared stories of how they use the reeds, described daily life, showed us the small fish and wild ducks drying for food for the winter months, offered us a taste of the reeds and posed for photos with us. It was a unique experience to see this life and as we left, the three women sang to us. When we headed off, the guide explained that she had been coming to these islands for a very long time and that only twice had she seen the women sing for the visitors. One of those times was today.

Next, we were off to the Bolivian border. We thought we had prepared for the border crossing with Bolivian visas pre-registered online. You see, the US requires that the Bolivian citizens obtain visas to visit and the Bolivian government has reciprocated. According to the Bolivian consulate, we needed only to fill out the paperwork online, upload bank statements proving that we could support ourselves while in the country, proof of hotel reservations for the first night in Bolivia, and passport photos (which we made online), and take it all to the border where we would pay $160 USD each to enter the next country on our list. We thought we had everything we needed. We arrived at the border crossing at 2:30 in the afternoon, giving ourselves plenty of time to get through both the Peruvian exit process – remember, we have a truck that requires a temporary import permit in each country, and the Bolivian entrance process. Ha! We were wrong.

First, we had to find the correct office. This was supposed to be an easy task, as everything we read described that a new building had been built to house both the Peruvian and Bolivian border patrol. While this is technically true, it was not as simple as it sounded. The Peruvian officer would not stamp our exit until the Bolivian officer was certain that we had our visas. This was meant to be helpful to us and we appreciated his effort. When we stepped up to the Bolivian desk, the border agent laughed when we told him we had uploaded the documents and had copies of the application. He required that we have hard copies of bank statements, hotel reservations, passport photos, etc. Again, these are things that require a trip back into the ‘town’ to find the small tienda that sells photocopies. Unfortunately, this also meant finding some way of getting the information out of my computer and into the copy machine. Yes, remember Lima? My thumb drive was in the stolen purse. I do have a larger portable hard drive, but the idea of plugging that into some unknown person’s computer in the back of a small, not-well-lit internet café that consisted of one very old set of desk top computers wired to each other made me feel a little uncomfortable. However, it was now approaching 5 PM…the time when we are supposed to be stopping for the night and we needed the hard copies to get into Bolivia. So, I did. Just as the young man began to make the copies, the printer ran out of paper. Well…he did not sell paper at his internet café, so he sent his little brother to a tienda several blocks away to buy a few sheets. Jorge and I watched as some of the local kids played video games on the desktop computers, passed out more stickers and Jolly Ranchers, and asked the kids about school. (Access to school past grade six is more difficult than it sounds. I will fill you in later.) When the brother arrived, he had only 10 sheets. We needed paper for 35. After the photocopies, we had to find the tienda that took passport photos. We sat in a makeshift photobooth set up with two broom handles and a large bed sheet to get those snapped, paid a few soles for two sets of 5 photos and were on our way back to the border office.

Returning to the consulate with our necessary documents, we stepped up to the Peruvian counter, where there was a new agent waiting to greet us. He explained that he could not stamp our exit until the Bolivian agent assured him we had the necessary visa material. We stepped to the next counter, showed the guy the paperwork and he nodded to the Peruvian agent. We stepped back to the Peruvian desk only to be told that the Peruvian computer system was down now and that he could not help us. We would need to go back into town to the old border office. Remember when we entered Peru in the middle of nowhere? There was no computer system at that border crossing…

Now it was 6:00 and the sun was beginning its descent. We hurried back into the truck and into the small town which now had more than 100 people in line next to the bus station in the ancient remnants of the old border patrol office. This one is used for foot traffic, not for vehicles, tour buses and big trucks. As we stood in the long line watching as people began to fill out forms, Jorge decided to ask about the procedure. He approached a very helpful man behind the counter who shook his head and wondered why in the world the guy at the new office would send us here – his computer is also broken, of course! After all, the whole system was down. He sent us back and told us to insist that they help us in the new office.

At my wits end, we returned to the new office in the dark. As Jorge parked the truck, I went in to see the Peruvian agent once more. After almost three months of speaking Spanish, I am no longer afraid to communicate and as the agent tried to send me away I was able to begin arguing – in Spanish, that we had been back and forth three times, that we had all of the necessary paperwork, that I was losing patience, that it was getting dark, that we had to make it to La Paz because we had been required to make a hotel reservation there for the first night in Bolivia…he could tell I was frustrated when I began to speak English.

Just when I thought I was going to lose it, the policeman at a counter next to mine began to make a phone call. You see, the problem with the Peruvian computer system being down was that the agent could not verify that Jorge and I were not criminals, had not broken any Peruvian laws, and did not have any outstanding warrants for traffic violations during our stay. Without verification, they could not offer an exit stamp. As we began to contemplate sleeping in the border patrol parking lot, the policeman hung up the phone, apologized that it had been such a long process, told us that he had just called his boss and basically told him that we did not look like criminals and that he should help us. He motioned for me to bring our passports over, promptly stamped them and sent me to the Bolivian desk again. With tears in my eyes from the sheer frustration of the day, we worked with a new Bolivian agent who questioned why we had brought hard copies when we had already registered online?! After more than six hours at what was described to us as the easiest border crossing in South America, we were finally able to get on our way. When we arrived in La Paz well after 11 PM, we were overwhelmed by some of the most narrow and steepest streets we have encountered on the whole trip only to find that we could not park our truck anywhere near the entrance to the hotel. Frustrated, tired, and hungry we began to drive out of town. Just then, we decided to try the airport. After all, it would certainly have a parking lot. We were surprised to find it bustling with activity and went in to use the bathroom before climbing into the back of the truck for the night. As we were leaving, Jorge spotted a little ‘sleep nook’ that allowed travelers a 6-hour rental of small bunk beds while waiting for planes in the middle of long layovers. We took advantage of a few hours of sleep before heading out the next morning at 5 AM. We never actually saw La Paz, and we don’t plan to return. We will chalk this one up to bad timing. If you have any fond La Paz memories, we would love to hear from you. It will be nice to know what we missed.

Today’s theme – Sometimes the story is long.

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