Sunday, May 29, 2005

Grand poder, Copacabana and the spontaneous border crossing


Saturday was big day at La paz, for the Grand Poder was held all day and filled my day with color and songs. However, the upcoming storming blockades and demonstrations combined with my agitating need for some new sights and adventure, lead to my spontaneous venturing west to the border with Peru, to a little tranquil town named Copacabana, sitting on the shore of beautiful lake Titicaca. There, with two nice fellows, I have explored the area and hopped to the near and most famous, Isla del sol, Island of the sun. Returning back, I was not able to return to La paz, and the next place that was worth visiting was Cuzco, i.e, crossing into Peru.

Not just the event of Grand Poder is called as such: the great power, as it is freely translated, is a show of sound, dance and color which lasts from the rising of the sun till long after it have sunk under lago Titicaca, west of La paz. Saturday was the day, and we all woke up early (Hanna, Gerald and Bert, a Dutch guy who accompany Gerald in Peru) and made our way to the San Francisco plaza, which the parade was suppose to pass through. When we got there, the main street (i.e, Santa cruz) was already filled with people walking in all directions, and benches where already standing, waiting for the crowd to come and take it´s sit. Not that it was for free, of course. But, you know how Israeli´s mind works: why paying 20-30 Bolivians for a Keter chair when you can get a free sit on the dirty asphalt road? That was, in an after thought, a wise thing to do, as it enabled us to walk around and not to stay-put at the place, guarding it so no opportunist might grab it and have it´s fun on our precious Bolivians. At a certain point, Shuki, a 22 year old Israeli, has joined us also and took a seat at the asphalt, as the parade marched along. What can I tell you, it was a very impressive event, full of beautiful costumes, orchestrated band of trumpets and drums that maintained the bit for the costumed dancers. Even when the sun shone hard and directly over head, (and those of you who where at La paz can apprehend the intensity of such a sun at this altitude) the dance and sound never stopped. I shot frames over frames like a maniac (a total of one film, which is a lot for one event) and I hope that soon you could also have a glimpse of such a magnificent event. Beautiful as it was, this parade was repeating itself at a certain point and around three pm me and Shuki took off in order to have some lunch at a local place near our hostel. Somewhere while watching this parade I decided to go the next day to Copacabana, a tranquil town on the shores of lake Titicaca, 4 hours ride west of La paz. I knew that Monday gonna be bloody Monday, so I decided it would be wise to leave La paz before the blockades are mounted on the roads. Figure out, that I have made a mistake which I couldn't realize at that time: out of all the roads leading out of La paz, only the La paz-Copacabana main road was blocked near the gigantic El Alto suburb. So, without knowing it, I trapped my self at the border corner.

I have told Shuki, and Pier, a 31 year old French geo-physics who I met also in the Austria, that Im planning on going to Copacabana till things chill down in La paz and Bolivia. Over dinner, I have outlaid the plan for the next five days and after a brief though, they both decided to join me. So, we were set: Sunday we leave for Copacabana, right before the political storm unleashes it´s power. We booked places at that evening and packed our stuff, because the bus was due to leave at 8 am. A taxi came to pick us from the hostel and dropped us at the bus terminal (it was a tourist bus, which we thought was the only one leaves that day for Copacabana and turned out to be a false info). Lots of tourist were there, and after an half an hour there, we climbed on our own bus and headed for Copacabana. At a certain point an Australian couple sat besides us and we had a nice conversation. The three of us will meet this nice romantic couple all along our stay in Copacabana and eventually, I would even be gifted by the girl, that her name I didn´t catch. But first things first.
After two hours of drive, we came to a little town that we all thought to be Copacabana. We were requested to get down the bus, and pointed to a dock with several motor boat tied to it. I inquired about our muchilas on the roof-top but the conductor pointed to the dock and assured me everything is ok (you know how I am so suspicious about anything and anyone). We went to the dock and bought ourselves a ticket for the other side of town. Figure out, we only came to a San pedro de Tiquina, which was split into two sections by the estrecho de tiquina (strait of Tiquina). Amazingly, we found our bus floating right next to us on a big motorized raft.
We joined our bus and continued on for an additional hour of drive till we came at last to Copacabana. After dropping our big muchilas at the hostel, we went on to find some food and to look around town. The beach, however, was a little disappointment as it was neglected and not attractive at all (Copacabana is regarded as a beach resort, but not enough is invested in order to MAKE IT a real beach resort). In any case, after an ice cream Shuki left for a nap at the hostel and me and pier laid our eyes on Cerro Calvario, a 100 something high hill, which has a beautiful view over lake Titicaca and Copacabana, especially at sunset. I aimed to stay there till that event while Pier decided that waiting two hours up there was too much for him, and he climbed down. I waited there, thinking over numerous stuff passing through my head (and no, I wasn´t inlighted with anything, I must admit). As the sun went down slowly, more and more tourists (and even locals) have come to give their respect to the great sun going down. I have taken a panoramic set of frames and I hope it will be good (still didn´t developed the films). I have taken several pictures of the setting sun, and amazing sunset indeed, and once it was under the horizon, I took off as it was getting really cold up there, and I was only with my thin fleece. Even so, the sun kept on throwing amazing colors into the skies and I was awe struck, even when the hill blocked most of my view. I found Pier, a bit disappointed, as he missed the sunset. We both went back to our hostel, and while Pier went to find his dinner outside, me and Shuki prepared rice with tomato sauce and tuna. Yes, a very banal and typical field dish, but that was the only thing coming to my mind. At the end, a Dutch girl that was sleeping also in our hostel helped finish this massive dinner and filled to our tops, we went for a nice drink before sleep at a nearby bar.
The day after was the day of the trek. The Yampupata trek is a 17 km long day trek which begins in Copacabana and moves on north to the edge of the half island, which at the tip lies the peacefull town of Yampupata (see map at: From there the plan was to take a boat and to cross the strait of Isla del sol and then, continue exploring Isla del sol.
We set out early, around 9 am and started walking on the main road that leads to the northern towns of Copacabana and along the lake shores. The views were amazingly beautiful, with the deep-deep blue color of the lake absorbing the sunlight and invite you to get in (not that it is recommended as you could get your nuts freeze in a sec!).
Over the course of this trek, only once we had actually a steep climb, and I remember Pier and Shuki thrusting forward as I breathed heavily (even after a month in La paz). Lago Titicaca rests at an approximately 3800 m, and it was felt mainly when climbing. Along the way we have met the Australian couple and at Yampupata we all dined together at a local restaurant. Then, we went on looking for a boat that will take us across the strait. Couple of locals pointed us to a row boat, saying it will cost us 10 Bol each person. Sounded good, so we walked toward the boat only to find that a 70 year old fisherman (!) is gonna take us there. MAN, and he can row! Stopping only to take off his worn-torn sweater, he rowed without stopping, against the wave current with total indifference. As I sat there, and saw his great effort, I thought that we might as paid him more. But then again, who am I kidding. On our way through the strait, we saw the great mountains of the Cordillera real on our right, all snow capped and mighty in the afternoon sunlight. It was a spectacular view.
After half an hour of rowing, we came at last to the shores of Isla del sol. As seen in many action movies, in a commando style we jumped out of the boat into the rocky shore, waves splashing gently at it (only this time, we paid the row man and not leaving him to keep an eye on the boat). The fisherman rowed back to Yampupata, and we set our eyes at the moderately steep path leading up-up toward the middle of the Island mountain range. We walked briskly and after 20 min we reached the "center" of the Island, a compound full of accommodation of any kind that can be think of. I had a recommendation from Bert and Gerald, and I took it. Inti Kala inn was on the top of the Island and we had some steep climbing to do! But, once there it was worth it. On the one side, blue Lago Titicaca and on the other, the mighty Cordillera real (this time, we saw all of it!). We checked in and sat at the porch looking north-west and totally awe struck by the view (only pictures can explain this). Later, while Shuki slam-dunk into the bed for 5 hours of sleep (!), I and pier took a very cold shower (and even more cold was the concrete itself! My feet went cold for at least an hour and a half before I felt them abit warmer!). After a nice dinner, I took off to have some sleep (while Shuki woke up from his sleep and joined Pier for a conversation), and even though it was damn cold in the room (I didn´t had my sleeping bag with me), I managed to huddle under the blankets and pass the night quite nicely. The following morning was cold but as beautiful, and I and Shuki had our regular Desayuno (breakfast), bread and Dulce de leche while Pier had his continental at the hostel's restaurant. We moved on our exploration, heading due north on a comfortable path till we reached a checkpoint, which marked the southern border of the Isla del sol conversation. The path itself was not hard to hike, even though most of our climb we have done the day before when we climbed to the hostel area. On our way, the right side lake glittered from the shining sun, with the Cordillera real peaks accompany us, while the left side enabled us to view the blue waters absorbing the sun rays. Along the way, several unimpressive Inca ruins were visible, and after walking for three hours we came to the northern part of this island, and had a short break on a rocky slope, when the sun shines and delicately burn our skins. Me made our way north toward what was an Inca town, and now no more than low level ruins perched on the shoulder overlooking an amazing beach with crystal clear waters licking at it´s sand (also called Roca Sagrada). Near the ancient stones there was a peak which protruded into the lake waters and, of course, we went up climbing it and taking some pictures of the beautiful view seen from it. At that point, we had two options: or to go by foot back to the southern part of the Island (where we started our hike) by an alternative, shore dedicated path or to travel by a boat back to the same point. We all agreed that returning to the same point, even from a different path, will be a bit boring and also time consuming, we decided to check our way back by water transportation. We went down to the shores area, and our way we have met a French couple touring this Island with their two young kids. Seems that the husband was working in Santa Cruz as part of an organization dedicated for the development of Bolivia level of life, and this was their little vacation out of bustling Santa Cruz. Together we hired a motor boat at Challapampa, a small town near the northern tip of the Island. After 30 min of cruising we came to one of the main ports on the Island, where we took an additional, big, tourist boat that cruised further south to Copacabana. The cruise itself was tiresome, and it was evident from the tired faces of most people on the boat (except for the little two kids which were in good spirits and were all alert and jumping from one place to another). After an additional hour (or even more) we came finally to the Copacabana.
Here, our trio was starting to fall apart: Shuki looked for transport to Puno (Peru) while I and Pier looked for additional information about the troubles in La paz. Not that we found some, but still we tried to gather as much information as possible. We came back to the hostel and while Pier headed for the showers, Shuki and I went to a tourist restaurant (with an attractive menu and price) and had dinner and a nice conversation about our future plan in Israel (which I must admit I try no to think about it too much). At a certain point, the Australians couple joined us to the dinning and conversation. On my way back I checked another hostel, as I thought to move to another hostel till I'll find a way to go back to La paz. I waited for the clerk in one hostel when he came rushing in like a storm, and in response to my question about any available accommodation, he replied with no connection, that there are 4 departures that night to La paz, and that are the only way of transportation from Copacabana to La paz. OK, I said to him, but Im looking for a room (and also for such a transportation, but first thing first). But he continued mumbeling something about those only departures, which are planned to leave from 4 am to 6 am. I marked his comment about this transportation, and after receiving his answer about my original question I left the hostel. I decided that this might be a good chance going back to La paz, as I needed to remove the stitches in my face and also all my trekking gear plus my Lonely planet and glasses were waiting for me in the cold deposit room at the Austria hostel. I would take off early in the morning and once in La paz will plan ahead what to do.
I woke up at 3 am, washed my teeth, organized the little things that were needed to be packed and made my self a little breakfast (pan, dulce de leche and some coffee). I paced quickly in the cold air at 4 am, and arrived quickly to the empty and dark plaza. At first, I haven´t seen a soul in the streets, and apart from some barking dogs, not a thing made a sound. After circling the plaza I found two Cholas sitting at a corner. Conveying with them let me to the understanding that there was no transportation to La paz. At first, I didn´t want to believe that I woke up at 3 am just to realize it was all a rumor and not more. But as I froze in the very cold morning at that dark plaza, I realized that I might not gonna get out of Copacabana. Well, not at that day. Even so, they told me there is one taxi that leaves to La paz, and it charges out rage payment per person. At first I declined that idea, but when around 4:30 the car drove up to the plaza, I understanded that it is either staying at least an additional day here, or to take it, what ever it takes. However, while im calculating how much it is more expensive that normal situation (and it was no damn normal situation in any case), I realized that I will in no way fit in that already filled taxi. The locals ran and jumped into the taxi, filling it in every vacant space available. Even if I could find a way to squeeze with all those Cholas, I didn´t forget that it was a 4 and half ride back to La paz. Getting in there was a nightmare for sure. Once the taxi left the plaza, the rest of the people that didn´t manage to squeeze in just walked off the plaza, accepting defeat. I didn´t, as I was still unable to accept the fact that I woke for nothing at 3 am. So, here I was standing in the lone plaza, trying to think what to do while freezing my bones. To go back to the hostel to sleep what ever time left of that night or whether to wait for another transportation or other alternative at the plaza? While thinking, I decided to give a ring to my family, as it was a good time to call back home. While talking with my brother, I noticed several other people coming to the plaza and was filled with hope. Maybe there will be another way to get the hell out of here?? After conversing with the locals I managed to grip that there is an alternative way to reach La paz, via crossing the Peruvian border and then taking a bus from there to La paz. However, this doesn´t solve the whole problem, as road blocks were near La paz (at El Alto), so in any case I might find myself stuck with other 50 locals waiting for the raging protestors to enable us to pass. At 6 am I decided to go back to the hostel, as in any case the border checkpoint opens only at 8 am, and it was a waste of time waiting there in the cold. The seniora was surprised to find me with my disappointed face at her front door. I went up and cuddled my self with the blankets, not removing even my shoes. I was to damn cold!
In the morning, I went to the internet café in order to send some emails, and there I found the lovely Australian couple, waiting for the Internet to be open. I have told them about the minibuses and the frozen sleepless night I have been through. They asked me what is the rush going to La paz with all this mess, and I told them about my stitches and my stuff locked in the hostel. What you got there, she asked and I lifted up the bandage. She took a close look and said to my surprise, no problem, I cant take it off with no effort. You?, I asked. Yep, she answered. Seems that she was working as a nurse in the operating room, assisting in artery opening surgery, and part of her job was to stitch and remove stitches (not at the face, but removing stitches was easy and didn´t demanded special equipment). I told her that I would consult with my doc and then I´ll give her an answer. I had to get my doc quickly, as they were about to ride to cross to Puno, Peru. I called Dr. Mauricio and he agreed that this "operation" is very simple and that she can remove them if she like. Full of optimism, I went back to the internet point and fixed a time for the "operation" with her. I had an hour, and I hurried back to my hostel and took my stuff to look for a better hostel in the mean time. Ten minutes before we were suppose to meet, I found a nice hostel and dropped my stuff there. We have met on the street of Copacabana, and while she joined me to the upper floor loby, her boyfriend went to have a cappuccino in a near café.
The operation itself was simple as hell: first we moistened the area so the skin will be softer, and then with a scalpel she cut stitch at a time, and with tweezers I gave her (PINZETA) she pulled out the very thin nylon cord. At all, she pulled out five of them, doing her best to find any more. For some reason I remembered I had six, but I forgot to ask the doc on the phone how many did he sew into my face. We decided that I will check this with him. So, quickly I ran back to a public phone and made an additional call. Well, he answered, I really don't remember. Try to look for an additional one or two. Great, I thought for my self, now I have to find her before she leaves town. If not, I will have to find them myself and take them out by myself, not a thing I would like to do. I went back to the hostel and after removing some dead skin clumped with dried blood I managed to find another one, which was so short and tiny that I was not actually sure that it was there and that it wasn´t hairs from my beard. I went out of the hotel and started looking for the two. No sooner than I made ten paces, I have noticed both of them checking out the souvenirs shops on the main street and I made my way toward them. Well, she asked, what did he say. She was surprised to hear that there might be even two more, and even more surprised when I told her about my discovery. She took a closer look and managed to see that little cord, still gripping the flesh. We moved to a near bench in the main plaza (the same one I have waited in the cold, only five hours previously), and under the radiant sunlight she managed to remove the last, sixth, stitch. Hurray! Inspecting the red scar, she was not able to find another, and I assured her that there are six, no more. I promised her that I will invite them both for a drink, if we ever meet in Peru, as they didn't had to much time on their hands.
In the evening, while surfing the net, I found out that there is another rumor about busses to La paz on Thursday, as this was a holiday in Bolivia. Rumors, I had got bitten by them already. But I was optimistic in any case. The buses are supposed to leave at 8 am, so at least my night won't be ruined. I wrote an email to Tim, an American I met at Sorata and then in La paz, that I am at Copacabana and do my best to get to La paz. We fixed a week before that we might do together the Noel-kempf national park, and after he will return from a tour in Uyuni, we could meet in Santa Cruz before departing for the isolated jungle. I was not sure what was his position, and if could get to Santa cruz from Uyuni.
I have dined my self in a nice touristy restaurant that turned out to be an educational event also. Miguel, 50 year old, is the owner of this restaurant and had a perfect American English. He was raised in the USA, after his parents left Bolivia while he was little, and after 36 years in the USA and also in Europe, he decide to return to his roots and settle in little tranquil Copacabana. We had a very interesting talk about the situation of Bolivia in general, and particularly about Bolivian people and I have learned so much, that I haven't remember all the issues we discussed there in the little restaurant. At last, when already all the clients left the restaurant and the last employees left to there home, we parted with smiles. Leaving the place, I was filled with optimism and sympathy to this poor people, as I understand part of there social and economical problems there are being through in the past several decades, and hoped that if change will come to this land, it will not change Bolivia for the worse but to the best.

The following morning I got up at 6 am and at 8 am I found that no busses were waiting at the little plaza. Damn those rumors! I decided that I have waited enough, and went to a close tourist agency to book myself a ticket to Cuzco. I heard a lot of good things about this Peruvian ancient city, and it sounded like an ideal place to pass some days till I know what happens in Bolivia. While I was there, I met with an Israeli that was just arriving from La paz on a 2 am bus, and at some point all the people in the bus needed to get down from the bus and remove a sand pile from the road, as it blocked the road. With those good news, I didn't needed any more evidence to comprehend that getting into La paz is problematic, and getting out is even more of a headache. I bought a ticket to Cuzco with an optional stop in Puno, as the total driving time to Cuzco is approximately 8 hours, and the bus leaves only at 1:30 pm, which means that I will get to La paz around midnight. Not a good time to wander in the city looking for a hostel, I tell you!
In the passing time I found out that there were several busses heading to La paz (now you tell me??), due to the fact that no blockades were expected that day. I played a bit with the option to convert my ticket from west to east, but at the end I decided that I should wait a bit in Peru till things will be better. Why to go to La paz, when you can be stranded to the hostel, all around are protestors, police and tear gas? Turned out, that the only way blocked by the extremist was actually the road west, from La paz to Copacabana (to the border). You can imagine my feelings as I discovered this fact only in Puno, while I had already a ticket to Cuzco. My miserable choice pushed me hard into the Peruvian border, and now I didn't had too much of a choice. I had to cross the border to Peru!

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