The road to Lake Titicaca is paved with … well, sometimes it’s not paved at all

After a jam-packed first fully awake day in La Paz, we took off to the hills on April 13 to spend the day at the infamous Lake Titicaca (5th graders, please keep your snickers of laughter to the comments). To get there, we had to climb out of the bowl that La Paz is set down in and pass through the rapidly growing pueblo of El Alto. An observation I’ll make over and over again is that it’s sometimes difficult to know whether many of the buildings in the poorer parts of Bolivian cities and towns are in a constant state of construction or degradation. Half-finished houses of adobe or the ubiquitous red brick often melt into their crumbling neighbors.

My La Paz host mom, Marta Eugenia, says that each extended family of campesinos (country folk, if you will) will help build one family’s house at a time. Along with this kind help comes the saying, “Today is for me, tomorrow is for you.” Quid pro quo, and all that.

Once we found our way around some detours in El Alto (and off-roaded a bit, not uncommon in a nation with only about 6% of its roads paved, I read somewhere?), the landscape quickly became agricultural, with bunches of red and green quinoa drying in the fields, along with rows of habas (like lima beans but tastier). Campesinos were tending everything by hand, alongside their sheep, cattle, pigs, dogs, and the occasional burro.

Lake Titicaca itself is huge, with ambiguous marshy edges and hills the color of adobe bordering it. The voluminous white clouds dropped their shadows on the surrounding hills the way they do in Big Sky Country like Montana. Traditionally, the indigenous people of the area wove canoes of reeds from the lake, and we passed one such boat on dry land, as well as the mini-boats and mini-llamas of reeds which you saw in my last post.

No road trip is complete, of course, without snacks: galletas (cookies) de vanilla, pasankalla (sweet popcorn made from huge kernals), and pacay, a crazy fruit with thick green skin which you cut open to reveal six or seven large, shiny black seeds surrounded by a sweet, feathery fruit — the original cotton candy. Except not electric blue.

And few people who know me well will believe this, but I actually ate the trucha (trout) from Lake Titicaca. Vegetarian or not, I’ve never been much for fish. Still, I took my co-worker Stephanie’s advice and tried the trout. Not that I had much choice, because that was pretty much the only thing on the menu that day, but you could try it in at least a dozen different ways: grilled, fried, with lemon or butter or garlic or sauteed onions, etc … Half-way through the meal I happened to notice the scales and fins peaking out the bottom of the trout on my plate — so I knew that it was the real deal.

While not exactly a llama, a young vicuña (raised for their super-fine “wool”) was stationed outside the restaurant and, as a camelid, was a fine stand-in for a llama. Everyone in my group each tried alternating between feeding it clover and hugging it for photo opps, with much hilarity ensuing.

One of the best parts of the day, however, was when a local man took a few of us out on the lake for a spin on the front of his boat, which was not exactly set up for people to sit there, but he drove slowly so we had a grand time with the sunshine, the water, and the breeze. It was absolutely gorgeous out on the lake.

A sad part of the trip, and about Bolivia in general, is seeing the pure volume of garbage lining the roads, especially in rural areas. It speaks to the intensity of the poverty in parts of the country, the lack of resources for collecting the trash, the insidious infiltration of Western consumerism, and the cultural acceptance of throwing s*** on the ground in many places.

(My apologies for the total lack of photos here, but since I have been staying in the smaller town of Oruro the past few days, I have only had access to dial-up internet, channeling AOL circa 1995. I promise to add gorgeous pictures later if you promise to look at them.)

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