Wednesday, 23nd December, La Paz: driving day
We leave Puno late in the morning (which is foolish because La Paz is an 8 hour drive away – and that’s not including border control).
Before we leave, we see the amazing site of a wedding outside the main church in Puno. The crowd of wedding guests has gathered on the pavement, a band of 5 mariachi-looking fellows is playing loud music, and the bride and groom are dancing. Nothing that special, I hear you thinking. Not until we realised that the bride was a chola, an indigenous woman of the region, with little bowler hat on (sombrero), the classic dress – though richly embroidered white for the wedding, and 2 black plaits down her back and linked together at the bottom. She is surrounded by other women in similar, if less ornate, attire, all dancing with their tradiotionally garbed men. A crowd has gathered beyond the wedding guests to witness the joyful event. Mike and I are the only gringos, I stand sheepishly on the edge, where Mike, ever the documentary maker, elbows his way through the crowd and points our huge camera at the couple to capture the moment.
The day is beautifully sunny, and we set off to drive around the spectacular Lake Titicaca. On the way, we pull over to get a shot of Puno, back across the lake, glistening in the bright sun. As we are doing so, a chola creeps out from the tumbledown house we have stopped beside to look at us. I take the opportunity to ask if we could interview her and her husband. Rosa, for that is her name, tells me that her husband is working the fields, but agrees to talk to us. I have to confess, dear reader, that I didn’t understand a word of it. If she was speaking Spanish, it was a slurred and garbled version far from anything which my low-level comprehension could make out. She did say, though, that love is for life. She then stuck out her hand and asked for a propina (tip). Fine, fine, have 5 soles.
The border takes hours. 3 hours. Mike disappears off to interact with an old man who regarded computers with total bewilderment but still had to spend his working day using one. I am left guarding the bike. Lucky for me, a fascinating character wanders up and starts chatting about the bike. It turns out he is a world expert veterinarian on camelidos sudamericanos. To you and me, that’s the term for the family which is comprised of llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicunas.
He’s lectured around the world on these beasts, and was even lured to Italy to work on one of the many alpaca farms out there. I ask him all the questions I have ever wanted to ask about llamas and their littler friends:
1. Like camels, are they quite bad-tempered? Yes.
2. Like camels, do they have bad breath? Yes.
3. What are the occupational hazards of working with these type of beasts? Do they bite? No, they don’t bite. They spit, and kick. You can’t walk behind them.
4. What’s the difference between them all? Llamas are the biggest. They and alpacas are domesticated. Vicunas, the smallest, and guanacos, are wild. The animals are covered in hair, not fur, which is great for making clothes out of. Llama hair is the coarsest, then alpaca – with vicuna being the finest, and most prized. It can cost an absolute fortune.
5. He talked about how integral these animals are to rural societies in Peru and Bolivia. He said that it’s not possible to study them without understanding the role they play – entire families depend on them.
After another couple of hours of driving (in the dark, thanks to the spectacularly inept customs official who took an hour to press the “print” button on his computer…) we descended into the mighty bowl / bowel that is La Paz. First night hotel choices are always a struggle, we get lost, we’re broken with tiredness, and can’t make any decisions. So Hotel Berlina had our custom, until we could think straight in the morning, and head for where the fun was…