Bolivia was a fascinating country on so many levels. One of the first things that struck me on getting there, was that majority of the people were indigenous. They had a particular look to them that made it easy to tell them apart from foreigners. Majority of them were short, slightly plump and wore their own traditional clothes. Of course there were loads of younger people on the streets in western clothes, but one had the feeling that the general population was still closely tied to an older culture.
I planned a day trip to lake Titicaca - the world's highest altitude lake and also to the town of Copacabana and the island Isla del Sol. Copacabana is best known for it's 16th century shrine that houses the "Lady of Copacabana" - the patron saint of Bolivia. She is to Bolivia, what the "Virgin of guadalupe" is to Mexico. I had read a bit about Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol a bit before my trip, but nothing really prepared me for its beauty, magic and splendor.
I had a Bolivian English speaking guide for the trip and he definitely earned his money. I was the most inquisitive tourist. All the questions I had been holding in my head, were finally asked that day. He came to pick me up from my hostel at 7am. We got on a bus, and he started off a great history lesson on Bolivia. Bolivia has close to 35 tribes with the Quechua, Aymara, Guarani and Chiquitano being the largest tribes. Despite 55% of the population being fully indigenous and another 30% being part indigenous, it is only in 2006 that the country finally had an indigenous president - Evo Morales. Ever since the country's independence from Spain in the mid 1800s, the country had been ruled by a Spanish minority.
Though the country is mostly Catholic, the version of Catholicism practiced here is a mix between regular Catholicism and traditional religions. People believe and respect "Pachamama" - Mother Earth. I remembered my first day walking down a street called "Witch's street." I saw all sorts of strange paraphernalia, but the strangest one was definitely the hundreds of dried llama carcasses. At first I wondered if someone had killed grown llamas and dried their bodies, but my guide informed me that those were the bodies of miscarried baby llamas. It turns out llamas have lots of miscarriages and the fetuses are believed to be good luck charms. People buy them and bury them in front of their homes or keep them for other purposes. I also recall that later in the day when we went to the basilica at Copacabana, all the images depicted a devil who looked more like a villain in an Antonio Banderas film than the usual devil images I am used to seeing. Also the images of biblical characters all resembled indigenous Indians. It reminded me of seeing images of Jesus in Ethiopia with a huge afro and disciples who looked very Ethiopian. Bolivia, just like many other countries had been compelled to take on modern religions and had customized them as much as they could.
We started our two and a half hour journey to Lake Titicaca. Once we were on the bus leaving La Paz for Copacabana, I saw very curious characters who kept on jumping on the road. Some were dressed as zebras, some as donkeys and some as pigs. I initially thought that they were advertising one thing or the other, but it turned out to be a national campaign on road awareness and good citizenship. The people dressed as zebras, stood at zebra crossings and showed people that this was the right place to cross the roads. Those dressed as donkeys, taunted drivers who were making an "ass" of themselves by breaking traffic rules and those dressed as pigs grabbed people throwing trash on the road.....Wonder how this would work in Nairobi:-) I can imagine criminals getting their own costumes and using this as an opportunity to steal side mirrors, pickpocket pedestrians etc....
We had a great discussion about "Death road" during the journey. This is some extremely dangerous, steep road that cyclists (especially tourists) toured. I don't know how to ride a bicycle and I think there are many opportunities to almost get killed in Kenya (tribal clashes, terror attacks, matatus.....), so I never need to seek additional ways to risk my life:-) My guide seemed to think that it was a perfectly safe thing to do. "Only three tourists died last year." Part of the road to Copacabana made me think we were on our own "Death road". Bolivia has the most beautiful and rugged terrain I have ever seen. It is quite common to be on a bus that is driving on a narrow road on the edge of a cliff and continually overtaking other buses on blind corners. At some point I just stopped stepping on my own brakes and decided that the bus drivers must surely know what they are doing as they always drive on dangerous roads.
We finally got to the narrowest part of Lake titicaca and stepped off to get on a boat for a 15 minute ride to Copacabana. Our bus also got on another boat/ferry. The bus was much larger than the ferry. I have no idea how these boats don't sink. Copacabana was a beautiful coastal town, but was quite empty on the day I visited it. It turned out, weekends were the time everyone came there. My guide amused me with stories of all the great Bolivian druglords who would throw parties every now and then for everyone in Copacabana, donate millions to the Basilica and feed the masses - sort of like CSR for drugdealers. He said sometimes these feasts lasted days. The main attraction at Copacabana was the church. I loved the artwork in there depicting indigenous angels, dramatic looking devils etc.
We had lunch in a really cute little place. One of the things I loved most about Bolivia was just how cheap it was. We had a three course meal with a beer included for less than $3 (KES 270). My guide told me that a few years back, we would have had the same meal for $.80 (KES 70). I was simply amazed. After having survived on one main meal a day in Brazil (to keep costs down.) It was amazing to know that I could eat all I wanted in Bolivia and not run out of money.
We got on a boat to begin our 1.5 hours journey to Isla del Sol (Sun Island). There was something so magical and serene about being on Lake Titicaca. I found myself feeling overwhelmed with emotions of gratitude for how lucky I was to be at such an amazing place. Without planning to, I found myself closing my eyes and praying. I felt very peaceful. Even as I think back to that moment, I can almost feel that tranquility - a feeling like I was at one with the world and all of humanity and nature. At that moment, I felt Pachamama. I opened my eyes and found the guide looking at me. I told him what had happened, and he told me that the lake had always had great spiritual significance to the Incas and that what I was feeling was not uncommon. I know I felt something when I was on that boat on Lake Titicaca.
We got to Isla del Sol and got off the boat. The island was believed by the Incas to be the birth place of the sun god. We began our great trek to the temple in the island. We came across a lovely young girl with an alpaca. It was my first time to see an alpaca and I was beyond thrilled. They are different from llamas (though I don't quite see the difference), but the first thought in my mind was the line "Bad llama! Bad llama!" You will only get this if you watched "The Emperor's new groove." It was a 45 minute walk up the mountain to get to the temple. Bolivia is the highest altitude country in the world, and I definitely felt it during that hike. In general, I am horrible walking up inclines (Mt. Longonot almost killed me), and in this case oxygen was in short supply. I was panting for 50 people. My guide told me of a delegation of Tanzanian politicians he had brought there recently. Apparently one of the ladies had passed out. In retrospect, he shouldn't have been telling me such stories as I was struggling to get up the mountain. The views from the mountain were spectacular! It made all my panting worthwhile. The temple was a bit anticlimactic. It looked like a one storey building under construction. The views though on our way there, made the trip very worthwhile.
We got back down the mountain and took a boat back to Copacabana. We were the only two people on the boat. I lay down, basking in the sun, feeling the water rocking the boat. I didn't realize I fell asleep until I was woken up by the guide once we got to Copacabana. I had another 2.5 hour bus ride back to La Paz, got to my great hostel (Hostal Republica - used to be a former President's home), had a great steak dinner at an amazing price. I slept like a baby.