Funny ferries and border shenanigans

When our bus driver told us that we’d need to board a ferry en route to La Paz, we assumed we’d be on the same ferry as our bus – after all, when we’d traveled from Berlin to Copenhagen, the entire *train* boarded the ferry. But by now we should know not to make assumptions! In this case, the bus got its own big, flat gondola, and the humans boarded a separate fume-choked (but fast) motorboat. It was a riot watching the slow progress of our bus across the lake – it looked top-heavy and likely to tip over at any moment.

Speaking of surprising crossings, as dual US/German citizens, we wanted to enter Bolivia as Germans since Americans are charged an outrageous $135 for a visa and Europeans $0 (which, by the way, is hurting tourism in Bolivia). At the border, we got our exit stamps in our US passports, and then presented our German passports. Since Bolivian immigration officials would need to see evidence of our presence in a South America, we needed to get Peruvian stamps in our German passports. But the shady Peruvian immigration officials passed us a little handwritten note that said: “USA $135 Germany $65”. It was outright extortion, because Peru does not officially charge visa fees. But $65 each was better than $135 each, so I paid up, but was not happy.

Homestay on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca

Elise and I did a homestay on Uros Khantati, one of about 50 floating islands on Lake Titicaca. Centuries ago, the Uros people first fashioned the islands out of totora reeds in an effort to isolate themselves from the aggressive Collas and the Incas. Now they keep the government at bay, since they pay no property taxes – only taxes on tourist services.

When I booked the homestay, I had no idea what would await us. Would it mean that we would would be staying in a guest room in the home of an Uros family? What kind of food would they eat? How long would we have to travel to reach the islands? Would there be running water, electricity or proper toilets? Elise was particularly worried about the latter. She needn’t have been.

We traveled by boat only about 20 minutes from Puno, Peru on Lake Titicaca. Soon we spotted our first island!

It really was a floating island made of reeds! As a neat freak, I couldn’t help noticing that there was rubbish strewn on the island, however. Would ours look the same? Soon we started to see many other islands, each with its own personality. Some had a reed lookout tower in the shape of a giant fish, others a giant bird. Many had dramatic-looking reed boats.

Soon, we arrived at our island, Uros Khantati – home sweet home for two days and a night.

It turned out to be a ship shape island with about a dozen cabins, a restaurant, lots of cheerful reed umbrellas and archways, a tall lookout station, and even a bridge and a pond. Walking on the springy reeds was a trip – almost like walking on a waterbed.

Our host, Chistina, greeted us and brought us to our cabin. Surprise! We had the cabin all to ourselves. It had lakeside views, a big bed, colorful wall hangings, and – to Elise’s great relief – a shiny, modern bathroom. As she would discover, the potty was also eco-friendly: the front part had a drain for Number One and the back part a pit for Number Two. Instead of flushing, one poured a scoop of what looked like kitty litter into the pit (we called it humany litter). Elise can be very particular about the hygienic standards of restrooms, but (to my relief) she gave this one a thumbs up. The lights were powered by solar energy.

There was a fun patio just outside our cabin with chairs and hammocks.

After we settled in, Christina’s husband Victor gave us a tour in a traditional reed boat with a puma face, the symbol of Lake Titicaca.

He showed us how they used nets to catch fish. He extracted two small fish from the net and put them in a bowl of water, noting that they were great for soup. Elise, of course, saw that the fish were suffering and asked if she could throw them back into the lake. Victor laughed and said yes. He then demonstrated how they gather fresh reeds using a surprisingly primitive-looking eucalyptus stalk with a blade attached at one end with wire. After he’d harvested a bundle of reeds, he peeled back the skin on one and nibbled on the white center. (He warned us not to do the same, however, since our systems were not adapted to the lake water.) Since the reeds on the island rot away from the bottom, he said that they must be replenished from the top three times a month during rainy season and twice during dry season. Placing the reeds on the ground is straightforward, but placing them beneath the cabins requires 25 people to lift the structures (logs stick out at the base of the cabins for that purpose) in order to pile up the reeds below. While he was explaining this, we saw a man on a small motorboat with an enormous stack of reeds returning to a neighboring island.

Victor told us that there were three families living on Uros Khantati. Since there are no schools in Uros, all the children leave by boat every morning around 6am to attend school in Puno, and return around 4pm. They move to the shore when it is time to attend college. Christina and Victor’s two children returned to island after college to help with the family business.

The islands are all anchored to each other and to the reeds by strong rope. I was fascinated to learn that the islands used to be in the center of Lake Titicaca, but that they were pulled by motorboat to their current location close to Puno three years ago in order to shorten transportation times to the lakeshore.

After the instructional part of our tour was over, we blissed out on the boat as we slowly made our way back to the island. Turns out, given the constant need to research our next destination/transportation/lodging/activities etc, and to write blog posts/select and edit photos, do our bookkeeping, and homeschool Elise – and to experience travel itself! – I rarely relax. But I was deeply relaxed in the warm sunshine and fresh air on the incredibly tranquil waters of the lake.

Christina served us a fabulous meal of grilled salmon, quinoa salad and potatoes, with beautifully arranged fresh fruit for dessert. In the late afternoon we put on traditional Uros costumes. Christina even wove pompoms into Elise’s braids.

It was very touristy, but I photographed our new German friends, Sinem and Fabi, paddling a reed boat dressed in Uros costumes. Fabi, by the way, proposed to Sinem after hiking the Inca Trail just as they reached Machu Picchu. She said yes! He was nervous that the ring would be discovered during security checks at the airport, but Sinem never suspected a thing. Well done, Fabi.

Afterwards, Christina showed us the handicrafts she and her daughter made, which included embroidered tapestries and pillowcases and figurines and mobiles woven from the reeds. There were many things I wanted to buy, but we have to stretch our budget for a full year and also don’t dare add any more weight to our packs.

Very satisfied with the day, Elise and I retreated to our cabin as the sun went down and had a very restful sleep.

The next morning, we relaxed in the sunshine as we waited for Victor to bring the boat to take us back to Puno.

Christina and her sister, who lives on the neighboring island, joined us for the ride back.

Our experience on Uros Khantati was excellent – one of the highlights of our travels thus far. If you are interested in doing a homestay on Uros, Christina can be reached at

Oh dear God is Puno miserable

After spending a week in charming Cuzco and then traveling through the wide-open Peruvian countryside, arriving in gritty Puno was a shock to the system.

Already the suburb of Puno – if you can call it that – started to elicit a feeling of depression with its jumble of shoddy brick buildings. But at least the suburb had spacious streets.

From the bus window, Puno appeared to be nothing but endless decrepit brick structures – bleaker even than New York’s bleakest inner city neighborhood.

It had a terrible effect on both Elise and me. We got into a bad mood, and I struggled to point out anything that would cheer her up. Even the lakeshore was depressing, given its nearly treeless cement walkways. Fortunately, once we’d dropped our packs at our hostel and were able to walk around, we discovered a pleasant pedestrian zone and a great vegan restaurant, Loving Hut, which had a phenomenal Asian soup and smoothies packed with nutrients. But it would all be worth it in the end, given what was to come next!

Postscript: the next morning on our way to the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, Puno looked a lot more cheerful as the sun was out and the townsfolk were celebrating Puno’s 349th anniversary.

Chocolate and Culture in Cuzco

We were planning to do a cooking class in Cuzco, but the menus on offer didn’t appeal to us so we decided to do a chocolate workshop instead. It turned out to be a lot of fun! We learned that Africa produces the lion’s share (70%+) of cocoa worldwide, but uses pesticides. Peru, on the other hand, currently produces less than 2%, but it’s cocoa is organic – something I appreciate greatly.

We started by roasting the cocoa beans and then peeled off the husks and made tea with them.

We then ground the cocoa beans to a paste with a mortar and pestle and used it to make both traditional hot chocolate and a spicy chocolate drink with cayenne pepper. Delicious!

We learned that the paste is usually refined in a mixer for 24 hours with ingredients such as cocoa butter, sugar and milk powder. So that we didn’t have to wait to make our bonbons, our instructor gave us liquid chocolate that had already been refined. We selected molds, added nuts, raisins, and candies and poured the liquid chocolate over it. After 45 minutes of refrigeration, our creations were ready to sample. Elise’s favorite was the one with gummy bears and M&Ms, and mine were the ones with Brazil nuts and raisins.

Having tanked up on sweets, we were ready to take in some culture. My goal was to see the treasures that had been taken from Machu Picchu, but none of the artifacts we saw were identified as having come specifically from MP. We nonetheless saw many interesting pieces. We started with the Inca Museum where we were greeted by this larger-than-life Inca warrior and a craftswoman making a traditional weaving, and later, by a group of mummies, which spooked Elise.

In spite of its small size, the museum had the world’s largest collection of ceremonial Inca wooden drinking vessels.

We then visited the Museo de Arte Precolombino which had artifacts from Peru’s ancient cultures from between 1250 BC and 1532 AD. My favorites were these head figures, female fertility symbols, and this utterly simple, but beautiful bottle which has characteristics from both the Inca and ancient Cuzco people.

PS The title of this blog was adapted from “Cappuccino & Culture”, the moniker that my friend My-Linh gave to the food and museum outings she’d planned for us group of gals back in Berlin.

El Condor Pasa

El Condor Pasa is a melody you hear everywhere in Peru – in stores and restaurants, on the streets…and (somewhat maddeningly) on a loop at breakfast at a campsite. Here, it is being performed by a street merchant on one of the toy panpipes he sells.

It’s strange how travel fills in gaps in our knowledge – not just on the Big Things like geopolitics and history, but on tiny bits of popular culture. Like everyone else in the world, I could sing along to the verses that Paul Simon wrote for this traditional melody. But for some strange reason, I never knew all the lyrics to the chorus. It took a trip to Peru to take note of them:

Away, I’d rather sail away
Like a swan, that’s here and gone
A man gets tied up to the ground
He gives the world
It’s saddest sound
It’s saddest sound

Well, I’ll be. As a child, I often felt a profound sense of sadness when I looked at facades of homes as we drove past in the car. I somehow felt that the people behind the facades were leading lives of quiet desperation. I never understood it or even tried to articulate it to anyone until I was much older. (Turns out, the feeling was strongest in economically depressed areas.) My sister, on the other hand, loved looking at houses and would point out the details that she found aesthetically pleasing. Her associations were all positive. Fast forward 40 years and she is living in a huge home that she’s lovingly decorated, and I am technically homeless. But I have sailed away, like the swan – with my little baby swan (i.e. my cygnet, but that doesn’t sound as sweet). And I am, dare I say it, happy – at moments, exceedingly so.

Why did Paul Simon include a swan instead of a condor in his lyrics? As a broad-winged soaring bird, the condor is a stronger symbol of freedom. Perhaps he got stuck on the rhyme scheme (“Like a condor that’s meant to wander/ponder/maunder?” Nooooooo.) He appears to have also inverted the meaning of the song, because El Condor Pasa was apparently originally a Peruvian homecoming song. Interestingly, though, the feeling of yearning that it evokes conveys homesickness as well as it does Fernweh (away-sickness).

Halloween/Day of the Dead in Cuzco, Peru

Elise was terribly distraught when she realized that she might not be able to celebrate Halloween – to the point that she said that she would rather quit traveling than miss the holiday. Her fears were quickly put to rest, however, when we discovered that Halloween is not only celebrated in Peru, but that it is part of an even bigger, three-day festival that includes the Day of the Dead. I was greatly relieved! And eager to make the holiday about more than just about trick-or-treating.

After visiting a costume shop, we decided to go for a classic Day of the Dead costume. We found a dress and wig at the store, and, just by chance, crocheted roses in a tiny snack shop. I painted Elise’s face (we did without the white base layer because it didn’t work on her skin) and headed out to Plaza de Armas, where the children trick-or-treat at the shops around the square.

She was incredibly shy at first, holding her arms around her and looking around nervously. “Everyone’s looking at me!” she said. Indeed, people kept gushing over her and asking to photograph her. Little kids stopped and stared, jaws dropped. A shopkeeper even photographed her against her logo wall so she that she could use her in her advertising. Her costume may not have been out of the ordinary, but everyone seemed amazed to see a little gringa in it.

We stopped in a church and said prayers for her Dad and mine. The tears streamed down my face. I thought about how each of them would perceive what we were doing. My Dad had immigrated to the US from Germany as a young man. He’d always wanted to visit California. Somehow, however, between family trips to Germany (and sending me there when I was nine) and summer vacations in New England, he never made it. I felt that he was applauding our efforts, and that we were somehow making up for CA for him. Likewise, I was also certain that Elise’s Dad was giving us an enthusiastic thumbs up. He’d spent his childhood in Quito, Ecuador, Santiago, Chile, and Mendoza, Argentina, and the greatest times we’d spent together were visits to Paris and Vienna and treks through the Himalayas, Rocky Mountains, and Shenandoah’s. Indeed, I was sure that he was doing one of his joyful whoops that his youngest was seeing not only the places from his childhood, but the wider world.

At the end of the evening, we came across Elise’s opposite – a little Peruvian girl wearing a gringa costume. The mom and I noticed this at the exact same moment, smiled at each other, and had our daughters stand together for a photo.

Camping in Ollantaytambo

Our Big Bout of Food Poisoning put a dent in our plans to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, so we did the next best thing – took the train to ruins, and then camped in picturesque Ollantaytambo, a quaint town in the Sacred Valley near the starting point of the trail with its own set of impressive Inca ruins. At 9,160 feet above sea level, it can get chilly at night, but thanks to our 20° Enlightened Equipment quilts (which wrap around one’s camping mat and snap together underneath), we were perfectly cozy. To Elise’s delight, a lamb nibbled in the field around our tent and even dared to eat a few blossoms out of her hand.

Our stay coincided with Ollantaytambo’s multi-day anniversary festival, which featured a parade and live music in the town square. The men dressed up in black suits and white shirts and the women in embroidered skirts and shawls. From our snug tent, we could hear the live music into the wee hours of the night. To my amazement, one of the acts had vocals that reminded me of one of my favorite bands, Amadou & Mariam.

The town itself is a backpacker’s paradise, with dozens of hostels and eateries, as well as shops selling jewelry, Inca-style figurines, alpaca wool hats, blankets, shawls and other embroidered goods.  Elise begged me for some soles so that she could do some Christmas shopping at Arte Conaky, which sold handmade jewelry. In hindsight, I think we should have gotten everyone in our family funky Peruvian winter hats like the artist was wearing. 😉

Llamas on Machu Picchu!

Never mind that Machu Picchu is one of the Seven Wonders of the World or that it’s South America’s most magnificent ruins. When you’re a kid who loves animals and wants to be a veterinarian, what matters most is that Machu Picchu. Has. Llamas!!! Elise had spotted some of them when we first arrived, but they proved elusive as we toured the ruins. The stonework, walkways, temples, agricultural terraces, and the spectacular mountain views were a photographer’s paradise. I loved every minute of it.

We’d made our way through most of the ruins when two of these gentle creatures caught Elise by surprise – and, for her, the real fun began. From that point forward, there seemed to be llamas everywhere she turned!

She fed them apples, pet them, talked to them, and filmed them for her vlog. The Little Sweetie was totally in her element!

After we’d finished our tour of Machu Picchu, we headed down the mountain for dinner in Aguas Calientes at a riverside restaurant, and Elise got to work on her next drawing, which included – surprise! – llamas. 🙂 As the perfect ending to a perfect day, we saw our new friends Meghan and Giannina again on the train back to Ollantaytambo.

Cusco and the Deathly Hallows

The overland route from Huacachina to Cuzco doesn’t look so bad. Until you zoom in.

Then you see the many twisting, hairpin turns. Normally not at all a problem for me – especially on Peru’s luxury buses with cushy, broad, reclining seats. But during the ride, the inevitable Big Bout of Food Poisoning finally struck, and it was an epic struggle managing the consequences while being slammed around in the bus bathroom.

Needless to say, we did nothing but sleep our first day in Cuzco. I had a nightmare that stayed with me till the sun rose that I was descending a mountain via a maze and had gotten trapped in a dead end, where I would die. Even when I woke up, I was in such a delirious state that I thought the danger was still real. Elise slept peacefully though the night, thank God.

On day 2, we managed to walk 10 paces to a tiny, organic restaurant across the street for basic soup broth and Peruvian mate tea, which helped. But that night I had more nightmares about death. My childhood home had been replaced by a gigantic yellow brick bridge tower. The bridge was so high up it was terrifying. A Czech friend had built a house beneath it, but I could see that the construction was haphazard. And then, from way on high, the bricks started falling in clusters and her roof gave in. Everyone was running out in a panic, but my friend didn’t make it and was crushed under the bricks. I woke up terrified and aching all over.

Finally, on Day 3, we felt good enough to venture into town.

We were immediately rewarded by seeing an alpaca and lamb accompanied by two ladies in traditional Peruvian dress. Elise was beside herself! And I loved the alpaca’s big, round, fluffy head and cute knock knees, and I thought it was adorable that one of the ladies had held up her colorful skirt to show off the pattern – like a big little girl. Of course, they – and even the Inca Sun God – expected a few soles for their modeling. It was all very touristy and light-hearted – just what we needed after having returned from the dead.

Desert oasis and sandboarding in Huacachina

We escaped the big city and reached Huacachina, Peru, a palm-fringed desert oasis surrounded by 100m high sand dunes. It was startling at first looking up and seeing the dunes, which loom like static tidal waves.

This was the somewhat mind-blowing view from our window:

We explored the tiny town by walking around the pond. It took 10 minutes. Elise added a bracelet to her collection. A woman from Argentina made one for her that picked up on the colors of her other bracelets.

The next day we caught a ride in a sand buggy to a spot for sand boarding. The driver roared the engine as we sped down what looked like 80° inclines. Elise held onto me tightly and we screamed as our stomachs dropped. After that, the sand boarding itself was like a gentle walk in the park. We started by zooming down on our bellies – weeeeeeeee! It was like sledding on powdery snow, except that it was wonderfully warm and cozy and über soft. Later, on a more shallow incline, we tried standing up on our boards. Seriously good fun!

The oasis at sunset.

Elise got a kick out of being able to sip fresh papaya juice at the pool bar at Ecocamp and play endlessly in the water, perfecting her handstands and boogying to the blaring dance music. I wished I had been able to enjoy the place as much as she did, but the decibel levels made that impossible for me. I kept thinking of the Hawaii episode of Mad Men. Don and Megan are in tropical paradise, but Don felt only tension.

To make themselves feel better about maintaining a pool in the middle of the desert, Ecocamp recycles, does daily clean-ups of the dunes, and even provides free room and board in poolside cabanas to volunteers working on sustainability projects. Unless you are Don Draper (or a misophone like me), it would not be a bad place to volunteer for a few weeks.  The town itself is tiny – only 200 inhabitants – and nearly all of them are geared towards making your stay fun.