Copacabana, Bolivia 1-19-95
(Excerpted from Chapter 17: The Inca Trail: The Grateful Unrich…)
Roads climb out of La Paz in all directions since – despite its altitude – the colorfully pleasant city actually lies in a big bowl. This protects it from the constant plateau winds, but can be a nightmare when there is torrential rain, since all the runoff rushes right into downtown La Paz.
The bus to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian border honks one more time for last-minute passengers. We are among them, having been told that there was only one flota per day that left at 8:00 AM. It is now 3:00 PM. The driver motions us aboard and we squeeze into the rear of the Scandia diesel.
We remain in low gear as we grind our way up the cobblestone streets leading out of the bowl. We head west on the high plateau, passing scores of mud and stick huts occupied by Aymara Indians wearing their trademark bowl-shaped hats. They are tending their potato fields, after having tied down their cattle and pigs, and herded their alpacas and woolly sheep onto nearby grasslands for the day. We pass through a few small towns, none of which display any commercial signs or billboards. The azure waters of Lake Titicaca come into view. A few small reed boats ply the gigantic lake, its vast shoreline covered in those same reeds.
We descend towards a river that runs into the lake. The driver tells us we must get off the bus now. The bus is loaded onto a barge for a trip across the river. There is a mad rush to a shack that says “Bolettos”. We each pay an extra eighty centavos ($.20) and catch a safer ride in a small boat. We await the slow-moving bus, then travel on, the road now turned to gravel. Across the mountain plateau the rutted path is at times nearly as sketchy as the one to Coroico. The driver makes frequent signs of the cross as we skirt cliffs whose sides plummet hundreds of feet to the shores of Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world.
The man sitting next to us in the cab of the bus, crammed in next to the driver, senses our apprehension and assures us that Copacabana is just down the road. He is exaggerating. Still, by dusk we descend back to a more horizontal view of the lake shore and drive into street lights. We hurry off to find a bed. Jill’s head is again pounding from the altitude – now more than 20,000 feet. A combination of mate de coca, aspirin and lots of water helps some, but I know we must forego our plans to see Machu Pichu and get to the Peruvian coast in a hurry. This is now a life-threatening situation.
We leave Copacabana on the 7:00 AM collectivo and arrive at the Bolivian border town of Kasani. After waiting 1/2 hour for them to open, then saluting the Bolivian flag at attention while it is raised, we cross under a stone archway into Peru. Peruvian time is one hour behind Bolivian time, so we have to wait an additional forty-five minutes for the next grand opening, watching as Peruvian officials get out of their beds and sweep the walkways.
We meet a Peruvian woman named Maria, who is traveling with a sick baby. They are coming from Brazil, where her other child is staying with a girlfriend. They are headed home to Juliaca where her mother and husband await them. We talk about Peru’s political upheaval. She pins the blame squarely on President Alberto Fujimori – a Japanese-born fascist – and his rico buddies. It is a very different perspective from the one I heard recited ad nauseam by the “enlightened backpacker” crowd in La Paz – who praised Fujimori for his law and order tourist protection racket.
I tell Maria we are interested in buying ropa typicas to take home and sell. She tells me she makes alpaca wool sweaters. She invites us to her casa in Juliaca and we accept. We switch buses at Yungyo and at Puno – after a grueling overnight involving sub-freezing temperatures, an unrelenting series of ten mph potholes and bus windows that were stuck open. We finally arrive at Juliaca. After three failed attempts we find a restaurant serving coffee. Exhausted, we sit down. The young boy who seats us quickly runs off to the store to buy some java just for us. When he returns we receive a cup of hot water and a packet of Nescafe. I wonder when they will sell the rest of the box and why in a coffee-producing region Nestle would enjoy such a monopoly with such a shitty product. Domingahira is 12. We thank him for his efforts. He stands leering over my shoulder as I write.
We hop a bicycle rickshaw with Maria and head into the slums of Juliaca. It is a pleasant ride. Jill’s head is better. I feel like I am finally reaching out and touching the Third World, instead of just gawking at it out of a bus window. This is my ancient home I am sure, one that I often dream about in the luxuriously vacant United States.
At the entrance to Maria’s house, sewage runs out into the calle. We walk down a long hallway into a small courtyard, then into a weaving room where three men sit behind machines making sweaters out of alpaca wool. Maria introduces us to her husband Ramon, who is apparently in charge. The three weavers, he informs us, are his brothers. It is a family business.
Alpaca wool is good stuff, but we are not in the market for a boatload of these sweaters. We decide that our Nepalese sweaters are of better quality. We buy one sweater for each of us and make as graceful an exit as possible. Maria is grateful for even our minimum purchase and insists on escorting us to a casa de cambio, then back to the bus station. An hour later we are on a bus to the coastal city of Arequipa – Peru’s second largest.
Arequipa reeks of fish processing. It is nondescript at best, so despite a chronic lack of sleep over the past 48 hours, we quickly grab a bus for Lima. We pass through a vast desert, humongous sand dunes pocked occasionally with a copper or gold mine. It is surreal and feels like I think it must feel on the moon.
Soon after entering Lima city limits, I know that it will rate right up there with Manila as one of the biggest shitholes on the planet. Think Manila minus the whorehouses and double the amount of garbage haphazardly tossed about on filthy streets. It feels like all six million of the desperate Peruvians who call Lima home are now staring intensely at our money belts. In our sleep-deprived delirium, we see them licking their lips, ready to pounce. The bus station is in a part of town that can only be described as terrifying.
Many Lima residents say the revolutionary struggles of Tupac Amaru and Sendero Luminoso have given way to common thuggery, rampant now even within those two groups. It is what happens when the people are reduced to a once a week meal of beans and rice, while Fujimori and his multinational corporate pals are exporting tons of $350 an ounce gold every week to be stored under some London bank owned by the inbred Rothschild family.
We arrive in Lima at 5:30 AM and leave at 8:00 PM. We do not sleep. Our foreheads grimy with black soot, our shoes caked with sticky garbage, we board a night bus for Trujillo. Just north of Lima there is yet another police check point. This must be the 10th or 11th of the trip. Peru is turning into an Orwellian B-grade science fiction movie and is about to get worse. The police look over the bus and ask one person to get up and come with them. That person is me. They order me to bring my bag and usher me into a tiny concrete room, just as another gringo is leaving. This must have something to do with Jennifer Harbury – the American woman jailed for supporting the Tupac Amaru. The exiting gringo looks terrorized. I hear one cop say he had some ganja on him. Apparently they let it slide. I brace myself.
As the young soldier searches my bag I tell him in Espanol that it is the rich people and the CIA who run the drugs through Peru, so why are they messing with me – a nickel and dime job on a night bus out of Lima. None present disagree. Embarrassed, their eyes sink into the backs of their heads. I am sent packing in a hurry, after getting the feeling that more than one of these Catholic underlings had something he needed to tell a priest. On my way out I shout that there are way too many cops in Peru, more even than in the fascist United States.
At Huanchaco – where the Pan American Highway meets the Pacific Ocean – we finally stop. We meet two pony-tailed Peruvian surfer artisans named Antonio and Martin. They roll a fat joint and we talk under a palapa, watching cold waves crash and clouds roll in. They say they subscribe to High Times and that a recent issue featured an article detailing Bush and Clinton’s involvement in the CIA cocaine trade. We talk of the Peruvian roll in this scheme. They are from the mountains, here to peddle their hand-made jewelry, most all with pot motifs. We buy a bunch of it.
Jill and I go looking for a room, but the hotels are chock full of Peruvian tourists. We are offered a bed at a private residence for $2.50 a night. We gladly accept. We haven’t slept in seventy-two hours. Breakfast brings a new perspective. Coffee, avocado and bread are offered by our hosts for one sole ($.45). A late 2:30 lunch is two soles and consists of tuna steaks, salad, chunky chicken soup and papaya juice.
The beach scene is a nice break from the series of long bus rides. Still, I am glad we covered all this ground, since we had planned to spend most of our time in Bolivia and Ecuador. Judging from the mostly tense vibe here in Peru, I think we had it right. The sweltering heat here is welcome after too many cold Andean nights. There is a feeling of general animosity towards foreigners in Peru, which I can’t remember ever feeling in another country. I can almost feel the hunger here – intense poverty gnawing at people, testing their wills, allowing them to contemplate knocking over some gringo for dinner.
Refreshed – we head north through Chiclayo, Piura and Tumbles. We arrive at the Ecuadorian border early in the morning. The bus goes straight into Ecuador, where we are informed we must take a motorcycle taxi 2 km back to Peru to get an exit stamp. When we return to Ecuadorian customs, throngs of money changers grab at our shirts and yell at us in rapid-fire Spanish. Later we are told that this band of thieves runs on rigged calculators designed to rip off greenhorn travelers. We wait to change money in town. Changing at the border is always a bad idea.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Stickin’ it to the Matrix, The Federal Reserve Cartel & Illuminati Agenda 21: The Luciferian Plan to Destroy Creation. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @www.hendersonlefthook.wordpress.com