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Evening in Yampupata

llama

When our boat landed at Yampupata, the beach was completely abandoned. I was very grateful that we had scrapped our original plan to hike from Copacabana to Yampupata the day before because there wasn’t anywhere we would have been able to catch a ferry to Isla del Sol. The beach was abandoned. There were boats tied up, but not a single person anywhere. There was a house on the beach and in the yard a big dog barked furiously. Barked and barked and barked and then charged Michael, tearing down the beach toward him, all teeth and froth and fury. Mike swung at the dog with his trekking poles and I started throwing rocks. We managed to scare it off.

Adrenaline pumping through our bodies, we tried to read a large map posted nearby, to figure out the road we should take back to Copacabana, but it was useless. (This is where I should mention that we didn’t have any maps with us, not because we’re idiots [although one could argue that we are] but because there are no reliable maps of Bolivia. Sure, there are some maps of the cities, but not the areas where we were hiking. The best map of the country was drawn at the turn of the twentieth century and though it was updated in – the nineties, I want to say, but don’t quote me – most of it is gray, unmapped space.) We were standing at this giant map on the beach, trying to make sense of a faded squiggly line printed on a peeling blue background, when a bus pulled up and a stream of people poured out. They were loud and laughing and blowing kisses at us. They made me nervous. Everything made me nervous. The empty beach, the barking dog, the fact we had no map, the locals blowing kisses and laughing at us. They climbed onto a nearby boat and sailed off. In five minutes it was as if they had never been there.

pumping water

We sat on the shore of Lake of the Gray Puma and pumped water to fill our bottles and bladders. It was very hot in the sun. Dave took this opportunity to go for a swim and just as I had convinced myself to strip down and dive into the icy water, a family settled down next to us and began washing their laundry. They were dressed in traditional clothes and I couldn’t bear to strip down to my sports bra and hiking panties, showing that much skin to people whose women never even show their ankles. It felt wrong for a million reasons.

We pumped fifteen liters of water, five for each of us, sorted out our gear, reapplied sunscreen, and began trekking up the road that led away from the beach. As empty as the beach had been, we were surprised when the road wound into a bustling farming village. It was late in the day, maybe four-thirty or so, and everyone was working hard. Men were building houses out of hollow ceramic brick, women were carrying bundles of harvested crops toward home, children were playing in the street.

“Copacabana?” the people asked us.
“¡Sí!”
“¿Necesita un paseo?”
“No gracias. A pie.”
Then they would grin at us and wave good-bye.

One little boy on a bicycle rode in circles around us. “Copacabana?”
“Si. A pie.”
“¡La bicicleta es mejor, señor!”
You’re right, kid. A bicycle is WAY better than hiking on foot.

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We hiked for about two hours along a winding road. We knew there were campsites somewhere between us and Copacabana, but we didn’t know where or how far away they were. It was getting late, we were exhausted, and we were – wait for it – getting hungry. (Again with the hungry!) It was decided that we would camp on a hill above the road. I was not happy with this plan. We could be seen by any car driving past in three directions. It was, in my opinion, the Bolivian countryside equivalent of sleeping under a freeway overpass. But I was out-voted. It could be hours of walking until we found a respectable campsite, so we would make due with this.

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We set up camp, dropping to the ground whenever we heard a car pass. We weren’t camping on anyone’s land, as far as we knew, but we didn’t want to advertise our presence. I changed my underpants, which, having not had the opportunity to do so since we’d left La Paz, felt like an unbelievable luxury. Mike fired up the camp stove to cook the quinoa we’d purchased earlier, but soon realized that quinoa makes for poor camp food. We burned through almost half of our fuel canister and yet we ate a cold dinner that night. Cold, unseasoned, and practically raw. It was freezing out. I was shivering in my woolen underlayers and fleece outer layers, so we crawled into our sleeping bags long before the sun set. At twilight, that moment when the sky is still light but your field of vision is dark, a group of children herding llamas crossed a hundred feet from our heads. Twenty minutes later a man walked by, saw us and stared. I worried all night that someone would come tell us we couldn’t camp there and make us move, or rob us, or kill us. Because that’s where my head goes, of course.

Hours later when the moon was very high in the sky, I woke up to the sound of drums beating in the distance. First drums, then faint strains of music threaded through the valley, up the road, into my ears. Half the sky was cloaked in gray clouds and half was clear as it could be. The moon shone so bright it all but drowned out the stars. Dogs howled in the distance and the music grew louder. Anyone else would have found it beautiful and serene, but I was sure we were done for. The music? That was the townspeople gearing up to hunt down the stupid white tourists sleeping on the land by the road. Oh Trish, I reasoned, of course they aren’t coming to hunt us down. They’re just enjoying some sort of celebration, playing music, dancing, getting drunk. Getting drunk. What if a bunch of local men got drunk and decided they didn’t want the stupid white tourists sleeping on their land they decided to come kill us? What if there was a serial killer in the town, a serial killer who’d never killed before because he knew he’d get caught if he killed in his own little town, but now he’d heard about the stupid white tourists and this was the perfect opportunity to satiate his desire? Or what if he killed someone in town and then blamed the stupid white tourists? We would end up in a Bolivian prison FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES.

It’s a wonder I ever fell back asleep, what with the absurd dramas I played out in my head on that dark, quiet night.

L.A. to Mexico City to Tapachula…

…to Lima to Santa Cruz to La Paz

La Paz = Love

Cementario del Distrito

Copacabana

Isla del Sol en las Fotografias

Trekking Isla del Sol

Trekking Isla del Sol, One Step at a Time

Trekking Isla del Sol, One Step at a Time

This post is a continuation of this post.

On the hike back we began to pass other trekkers, as well as women and children herding sheep. When we came upon the house where the man had told us we were early for tourists, we realized it was not just a house, but also a shop selling soda and water. The man was nowhere to be found but there was a little boy behind the counter who sold us four liters of water and let us feed crackers to the round little puppy who scrambled after us.

rolly polly puppy

We were warned not to touch the animals because they could be rabid. This one definitely looked dangerous.

Further up the trail we stopped to eat the raw peanuts, mandarinas, and the rest of the crackers we had scavenged from the bottoms of our packs. We spread our gear out to dry in the sun because when the morning frost melted, it left our sleeping bags and bivy sacks soaking wet. We took off our shoes and let our feet breathe. We shared news and recommendations with the morning’s ferry-load of trekkers who began to stream past, mostly students and grad school graduates, young people from all over the world.

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I took this picture to remind myself of this moment: I was exhausted, hot, sweaty, and hungry. Mike and Dave were flying up that hill and it made me mad. My muscles burned. I felt like I couldn’t possibly go on, I would never make it up that hill, not with this heavy pack on my back and the sun in my eyes. And then I remembered something Marie told me about her three-week backpacking trip. She said that when it got hard and she thought she couldn’t go on, she would tell herself, “I can take one more step.” And then she’d take another step. So that’s what I did. I can take one more step. I can take one more step. It became a rhythm I could move to. One more step. One more step. One more step. My mind would drift with the rhythm, one more step, and I wasn’t thinking about the sun (one more step) or the pack (one more step) or how steep the hill was. One more step. One more step. One more step.

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Look at the hillside to the right of the photo. See how it’s cut into so many lines? Those are terraces for farming. The Incas did that – terraced all the mountainsides – and the people who live there now keep working the terraces, farming the land, pulling the rocks out, leveling, fertilizing, growing, feeding their babies generation after generation.

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These women hike these hills day in and day out, babes on their backs, full skirts, patent-leather flats.

One more step. One more step. One more step.

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If you look at the left side of the house, you can see where they did not stucco over the mud brick. Nearly all of the houses we saw while we hiked around Lake of the Gray Puma were made of mud brick. When your house begins to wear down from years of rain? You build a new one, right next door.

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I said “nearly all” the houses were made of mud brick.

By the time we arrived in Yumani we were ravenous. Our last real meal had been almost twenty-four hours earlier. You burn about 5,000 calories in a day of hiking and we’d probably only eaten about 500 calories. Even our hair was hungry. (At least mine was.)

Yumani was a ghost town, not a soul anywhere. The restaurants and hostels were abandoned, except for one pizza place with a television blaring in the corner. Dave and Mike were not interested in pizza and I was too hungry to argue. (Interestingly, pizza is HUGELY popular in Yumani. Almost every restaurant boasts pizza and Italian food.) We found a tienda and bought a bag of quinoa we thought we could fix for dinner that night. A little closer to shore there was an open place with four tables that offered sopa, sandwiches, trucha, pollo y papas, and coca mate. They even had a clean bathroom, though we had to use our own toilet paper and hand soap.  It felt like an oasis. I ordered a cheese sandwich, expecting something wonderful and melty. What I got was dry bread with wet farmer’s cheese and sliced tomatoes. My mouth watered at the sight of those perfect, red fruits, but they were off limits. Raw vegetables and fruits = diarrhea that sprays out your bum and won’t stop. So I picked the tomatoes off and prayed I wouldn’t get sick from the little bit of juice that soaked into the bread. (I didn’t.)

It never ceased to amaze me, not nine days on the trail, how happy and refreshed I would feel after a short rest and a simple meal. I could be absolutely falling-over exhausted, but thirty minutes off my feet, some bread and some cheese, and I’d be ready to go again. After lunch we hiked for another thirty minutes or so, all down hill, through the town, toward the shore. It was only two-thirty, so I stretched out on the grass by the dock and napped in the sun while Michael and Dave chatted with other travelers. We caught our boat at three sharp and I slept all the way to Yampupata.

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*photo courtesy of Dave

L.A. to Mexico City to Tapachula…

…to Lima to Santa Cruz to La Paz

La Paz = Love

Cementario del Distrito

Copacabana

Isla del Sol en las Fotografias

Trekking Isla del Sol