Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 35, November 16, 2002
Rubbish Towns, Great Lakes, Scrotty Scots and Rock Cocks
Photos: C(h)ocks Away! Click here to enter the Penis Temple Gallery!


Worst Foot Forward

Your first (and worst) stop on the way to Lake Titicaca is Juliaca. It does not bode well - even in the more industrialised parts of the former Soviet Union you would be hard pressed to find a more depressing town. I know it must be dreadful because guidebooks actually tell you what a God awful place it is. Cold and grey, it's every building has that unfinished look so popular with the tackier Greek resorts in the late 70s and early 80s - all concrete frames and unfinished red brick with porcupine-like reinforcing sticking out of the tops of buildings. This punky look is so that extra stories can be added at a later date if the building's owners decide their carbuncle isn't big enough.There is no reason whatsoever to stop there, although I suppose, on the plus side, if you were looking for somewhere grittily real and guaranteed free of travellers on the Southern Peruvian tourist trail this would be it.

After another hour we hit Puno. Compared to Juliaca, Puno looks like Florence. Though, in all fairness, when compared to Florence, it looks like Puno. It's actually just a fairly modern town with the odd charming corner. In fact, Puno would simply be a completely normal, nice enough place were it not the largest Peruvian port on Lake Titicaca. So, through no real fault of it's own, it's something of a tourist mecca.

After a day's looking at impressively megalithic funeral towers (interesting in a sort of second division attraction sort of way), and then faffing around for ages, trying to do something original and independent, we decided to do what everyone else does and take a tour of a couple of islands. The reason we'd been trying to go by ourselves was because the way these tours are sold makes them look absolutely ghastly. And, to be fair, I was expecting something up there with Blackpool pleasure beach. But, reader, I was wrong.

Great Lake

Our first stop, about 10km out in Puno bay was the Uros islands. These are interesting and pleasant enough - they're not islands at all, but are large mats of floating reeds on which people live. Originally they lived out on the lake to escape the predations of the local Incas, but now they live like this so tourists can pay to gawp at them. They clearly make a reasonable living. All the ultracute reed huts have TV and solar panels. 'In a few years,' said our guide, 'they will almost certainly have internet.' As we floated around in a reed boat, I thought it would be rather a nice existence, drifting on your reed island on the lake, working on your broadband PC and occasionally hearing slack jawed tourists come out with acute observations like 'Their life hasn't changed for centuries, you know.'

This and a rather agreeable reed boat ride over and you're out of Puno's bay onto the lake proper. And here is where you see how truly awesome and amazing (in the literal, rather than traveller senses of the words) Lake Titicaca is. Not only is it vast (8000sq km) it is famous for being the highest navigable lake in the world. An azure blue and surrounded by Andean mountains, some of which are snow capped and over 6000m, it really is quite incredible. Oddly it is big enough to feel like you are on the sea, then you catch your (lack of breath) and realise that you are almost four kilometers above sea level..

Our first island was Isla Amantani. Nearing this, a rather dessicated, bump covered in cute walls and little villages all rendered stark by the blinding light and you feel as if you are in the Mediterranean, maybe somewhere off Greece. This feeling persisted until I decided to jump in the lake for a swim. Glacier fed Titicaca is the temperature of the North Sea in November and almost immediately my baser bits shrivelled, raisinlike. Worse still I'd jumped off the end of a jetty and, because of the cold had to swim, crawl back to the beach. This is where you realise quite how high you are: 50 metre's crawl at this altitude has you coughing up a lung on the beach.

Still, Amantani is utterly charming. In a bid to keep a handle on tourism, locals have stipulated that no hotels are to be built and that visitors have to stay with families. And we were billeted to an extremely cute family and put in accomodation of Lilliputian dimensions; actually, to be fair, the room itself was very nice, it's just for some reason all the doorways were three feet high.

Dodgy Dancing

So we spent the afternoon hanging around the island, before the evening's fun. This, we had been told was the opportunity to dance in traditional costume. Frankly this was my (and everyone else in our group's) idea of hell, especially Simon's. Indeed, good pal that I am, I was prepared to shame myself, knowing that his suffering would be greater. Moreover, Justine and Jane had been taking the piss for days. Still as the time neared, it appeared nobody was that bothered and I really didn't imagine that our host family would care one way or another if we went.

How wrong I was. For this is an island without TV in the evenings and, when we suggested we might not bother, we were told that our host's daughers would be terribly disappointed. Chastened, we waited for our ethnotastic costumes. And this was where Simon had the last laugh on the girls: for us chaps, costumes weren't that bad at all, just rather nice wollen ponchos and a silly hats. The girls, by contrast, first had to put on busty bavarian barmaid tops, which they then complemented with not one, but two skirts. Perhaps the best bit though was watching Simon watching Jane and Justine and laughing so hard he started crying. It's worth noting here that, traditional dress does the Peruvian women a great disservice. I'd spent the previous month assuming that here was a country with the biggest arses on earth. But, as Jane and Justine demonstrated, with two skirts anyone has a booty of Bromdignagian propotions.

But of course, further (and far greater) humiliation was to come. Viz, we had to dance. First up was Simon who managed to get away pretty lightly with some sort of circular group dance. But then Jane and I (until now, happy wallflowers) were plucked . I wound up opposite a 14 year old Peruvian who was an accomplished dancer and had rhythm in abundance. As anyone who knows me knows, I have none and, what's worse, was having to boogey beneath a sweltering blanket at 4000m. Still, my Peruvian Guinger Rogers was an awfully patient (if, I suspect, somewhat despairing) teacher and it was one of those evenings where you just had to work with the humiliation and stay with the shame. It helped that you also knew that there was plenty of embarassment to go round, though, with my solo effect, I may have taken more than my fair share.

The next day was off to Taquile, a marginally less charming, but still pretty nice island. It's somewhat lusher and has cliff top walks like Guernsey or Cornwall; there were also terrific and slightly surreal views of some Bolivian Cordellia or other, it's ice caps gleaming in the impossibly bright, but oddly chilly equatorial sun.

Straight out of Scrotland

But before we leave the lake, a word on our tour buddies. There were four Dutch girls who, while pleasant enough, were also hefty enough to cause our boat to list alarmingly when they all sat on one side. That´s true, they really did. And, as they slathered their bronzed, rounded thighs in sun tan lotion, it was impossible not to think of economy sausages sizzling away on a barbeque. There was another Dutch couple (in travellerland, the Dutch are everywhere), he pleasant, she impossible...but, well, they all paled in comparison to the Scottish girl.

Oh dear...what a mess. No, what a tramp: there really is no other word to describe her. She really was every negative in the 'travelling community' amplified and personified. My first impression was that she could be a bit irritating: when I told her I was away for a year, she replied rather dismissively that 'To really see the world you need two and a half years' (presumably avoiding, at all costs, that destination called full time employment). She then added that she planned to climb Mt Aconcagua, Argentina's 6959m collusus, privately, I wished her luck as the 150m climb up the island had left her gasping like an octagenarian. But, plenty of people are bumptious... then a second, more ofacultry dimension started developing - she smelled absolutely terrible and, now I looked, could clearly have done with a good wash.

Indeed, later, when I swimming in Titicaca, I was greatly relieved to have got out before she got in - even with 8000 sq. km, I was worried she's leave a ring around the lake. And then there were her clothes. She could have done with a new shirt and...and a new pair of jeans and a new T-shirt and... Now, you might think this is all a little unfair - after all, people travel on all sorts of budgets. But that excuse, much like the grubby little traveller herself, just doesn't wash. For one thing, you might think you're keeping it incredibly real, letting your clothes fall apart on your back, but in fact most South Americans dress as well as they can afford to and are unlikely to be impressed with Europeans who think it's clever to dress in something you'd use to bathe the dog. Secondly, if you can afford a round the world ticket and a thousand quid's worth of personal electronics, you can afford not to dress like a homeless person. Besides which, if you buy a bar of soap and a shirt (which may cost as much as two quid in Peru) dignity is thrown in free.

Gods and Rods

Anyhow back at Puno, we left the malodourous, self regarding little crusty behind and the following day took a taxi all the way to La Paz. This may sound terribly flash (it is 300km) but if there's four of you, it's a pretty attractive option. En route we stopped at the fertility temple. Although in a scruffy little town, this is truly a remarkable place: a shrine dedicated entirely to the worship of the male Johnson. Inside the usual superb Inca stonework is a series of small mushroom like phalluses surrouding a single large alpha prong. Naturally Simon and I went in there and prayed for girth. I can think of few better ways to spend half an hour.