Here is my story from Puno:
On January sixth (ahem, my birthday!) Walker and I took a tour of the Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca - they're these floating reed islands the Uros people constructed to hide from the Incas. Sounds really cool, right?!
It turned out to be super weird. Like the weirdest, creepiest place I'd ever been. The Uros people can't even speak Spanish and you can tell they're dirt poor and that tourist companies exploit them to an extent. It's like they're kind of just putting on this show for you in the hopes that you'll buy stuff directly from them: candy bars, textiles, boat rides, little kid drawings out of coloring books...
There's also an eery Seventh Day Adventist missionary church floating right along side the islands, ick.
So ten seconds into it and I'm already dying to get off the island when Walker and I literally get nabbed by the queen Uros woman (see top picture to get an idea of who I'm dealing with) who somehow forces us into her reed "house," puts Walker in a knit cap and me in a flouncy hoop skirt, cape and bowler hat and parades us around the island.
Somehow we are the only people this happens to and everyone else on the tour looks at us with sympathetic, yet helpless, eyes.
Of course this is my worst nightmare and despite trying my hardest to hold it back, I burst into tears as she proceeds a frantic attempt to sell me a blanket.
The tears double when good-hearted Walker buys our ways onto a tortuous reed boat ride that lasts forever, because he feels it's obviously money that will go directly to the islanders. I stare daggers at him as a trio of little girls wave goodbye to us, singing some sort of farewell song.
Walker later recounted the moment:
There you were on your birthday, on a man-made island on Lake Titicaca, dressed as a Uros woman, crying.
Not a total loss.
We ended up bonding with our fellow tourists, we even dubbed one South Carolina guy traveling with his father "the most interesting normal person we'd ever met" - he was teaching at an international school in Argentina after teaching at one in Indonesia, with plans to return to a charter school he helped start in San Francisco, one of the subjects in Waiting for Superman. So interesting to talk to, without a twinge of elitism, self-righteousness or hippie mysticism. Normal guy, genuinely interested in the world around him and doing something about it.
That's one of the best parts of traveling, isn't it. Meeting people. (Oh gosh, I haven't even discussed the Hard Luck Canucks yet - yes, we do give everyone we encounter nicknames).
This was meant as more of a stop-over to get to the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, which is supposed to be better. But the Evo Morales American-only entrance fee, yellow fever shot requirement and traveler's visa curtailed that trip. Bolivia looks aaaaamazing though. We basically have to go back.
As for Puno,
We immediately got birthday sangria which cheered me right up.
Walker surprised me with tickets to see David Sedaris back in OKC!
Since it was Epiphany, all these little girls were carrying around little baby Jesus dolls in baskets. Our hostel owner Enrique told us it's a Catholic tradition to get new clothes for the baby Jesus every Epiphany. I love this stuff!
Speaking of our hostel owner, stay at Puma Backpackers. It's basically this family's house, complete with a teenage girl screaming at her parents about having friends over. Enrique and Walker deeply bonded. And the mother made the best pancakes.
The high elevation and catch-your-breath street climbs make for a memorable city regardless.
p.s. Getting to Puno...
We take this super cheap bus from Arequipa to Puno. Which is great, except there is only one bathroom stop in the middle of nowhere.
I have to go soooo bad and I find myself being swept off the bus into the crowd of bathroom seekers and before I know it, I'm squatting behind a gap-filled fence post with my fellow bus riders, floating through some sort of little kid filled backyard as if I'm in a dream, only to turn and see a pig being butchered right before my eyes...
I hightail it back to the bus and feel that this has been my most eye-opening Peruvian experience until we pass through the town of Juliaca - a gulp moment, literally trash everywhere...postcard poverty.