Saturday, July 31, 2010

Farewell to Nova Scotia ... and hello Newfoundland

Wow, it's been a while since I wrote here.  I got back to Toronto safely (and my bag eventually showed up, just a day late) and had a short week to hang out there before heading off again.  I didn't get to see nearly everyone I wanted to, but will do better when I'm back again!  (And it was GREAT to see those of you I did get to spend some time with ... there's nothing like old friends.)

Right now I'm sitting in a ferry terminal in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, after a gorgeous sunny day of driving up from Halifax.  I'd forgotten how spectacularly beautiful the Cabot Trail is, on Cape Breton Island (it's been about 25 years since I was here ... yes, I am old).  For the Canucks out there who haven't made it to this particular corner of the country, make a point of getting here -- forget about the exotic foreign destinations for a bit, the Maritimes are worth it!

I took the train out on Wednesday, after spending a couple of days in Barrie with the family -- despite a minor miscalculation of leaving it too late to get a bus back to Toronto on Tuesday night, I raced back to the city on the first GO train (5 o'clock in the morning is a very uncivilized hour) and threw some stuff in a couple of bags and headed back to the train station to meet my sister and brother-in-law and catch the train to Montreal.  From there, we switched to the overnight Halifax run -- surprisingly comfortable, even in economy, and not at all crowded so we got to eat with the posh folks in sleeper class in the dining room. 

After a day in Halifax and Peggy's Cove (possibly the most photogenic village in Canada), we hit the road today for Cape Breton.   The villages are tiny and colourful, the houses painted every colour of the rainbow (my favourite was the cute wee purple house -- I think I'll paint my house that colour, when I eventually have one).  A huge national park takes up most of the northwestern corner of the island, as the Cabot Trail winds its way around the coast -- my ancestors (Irish and Scottish all) must've felt right at home here, as it looks very like the west of Ireland or the highlands of Scotland.  Stunningly beautiful Kodak moments in every direction ... and as an added bonus, we saw a huge bull moose grazing peacefully by the side of the highway, completely uninterested in the paparazzi tourists snapping his picture.

I feel much more like I'm from "away" now -- the accents have noticeably changed, and road signs are sometimes sporting Gaelic as well as English.  (I plan to make that my next language to learn.  Possibly not as useful as Spanish, but definitely would reclaim my Scottish roots.)  We ran out of time to make a pilgrimage to New Victoria (where the MacLellan great-grandparents are buried) but will make a visit on the way back through.

Assuming the ferry's on time, we'll leave in about two hours for Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland, on the southwestern tip of the island, arriving about 7:30 in the morning.  We'll stop in the Codroy Valley (also ancestral MacLellan homeland, where my grandfather was born) before heading up the coast toward Gros Morne National Park.  With a bit of luck, the sunny weather will continue and we'll actually be able to see the mountains -- always a bit iffy in misty, rainy Newfoundland.  But it'll be beautiful, regardless.

Then it's up to L'Anse aux Meadows and the Viking ruins, and possibly a quick side trip to Labrador, before heading around the island to St. John's.  Buchans, at the end of a road in the middle of the province, is a necessary stop along the way, since my father was born there before Newfoundland was even part of the country (but the fact that he was born British doesn't help me get to the UK any more easily -- I checked into that years ago when I first came home to Canada).  We get the ferry back from Argentia (on the east side) in about two weeks.

I can't wait!  I haven't been to Newfoundland since I was 15 or 16 -- so never as an adult and never without my parents.  Going to George Street in St. John's will probably be a very different experience this time around ...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Oh, for a pair of red ruby slippers ...

Dorothy had a lot easier time getting back to Kansas ... all she had to do was click her heels together three times and repeat "There's no place like home, there's no place like home".  Wish it was that easy -- instead I have to get on a plane tomorrow morning at 6:45 and change a couple of times in Houston and Cleveland before I finally get off in Toronto about 14 hours later.  That's assuming I make the connection in Houston -- my travel agent gave me a pretty tight window so I'm hoping I can get through customs and security in time!  Would really hate to miss my flight.

I can't believe I'm going to be home tomorrow night.  It feels like forever since I left to go bum around South America, but, paradoxically, the time has also flown by much too quickly.  I'll be glad to get home -- mostly -- but there's so much here that I'd still like to see.  I'll have to take another year off and come back (I'm sure my boss won't mind).

I feel like a Very Bad Traveller lately ... I've been in Quito for three days and I've seen NOTHING of the city.  Well, not nothing, since I get a panoramic view from the rooftop terrace of the hostel, but ... well, nothing.  I haven't set foot outside since I got here. 

A Good Traveller would have ignored the fact that she was sick and gone out anyway, wouldn't she?   Well, I didn't.  I stuck near the bathroom, which seemed more prudent than running around a strange city with an upset stomach.  The weather kind of put me off too -- raging thunderstorm when I arrived, torrential downpours every afternoon and even hail one day.  This is the kind of weather to enjoy best by staying inside and watching it through the window, not by schlepping around in outside while feeling tired and ill.

Plus, that rooftop terrace is really nice (and has a roof, so I didn't get wet in the torrential downpours), so it was very tempting just to stay there all day and hang out.  Everyone else around here seemed to think so too, as the terrace was pretty full all day.

Today I feel almost human again -- I even had breakfast, so real food for the first time in about four days.  (This is one reason why backpacking is so good for the waistline -- at some point, you are bound to get sick and be unable to eat.  The pounds just melt off with a good case of dysentery, especially -- had that in Morocco once.) 

But I still haven't gone anywhere -- I spent today writing instead.  Still not sure if I'm writing the greatest mystery novel of all time, or a complete load of )@(%*&!, but it's a whole lot of fun anyway.  I also ran into a couple that shared a dorm room with me way back in April in Bariloche, so we hung out and chatted for a while -- this Gringo Trail is a small world, indeed.

And I'm still not going anywhere this afternoon, other than to another hotel; I booked a place near the airport (read: expensive) for tonight, since I have check in about 5 a.m. tomorrow, so I plan to go there mid-afternoon (basically, as early as they will let me) so I have ample time to enjoy it.  I don't stay at "nice" hotels often enough to be jaded about them, so I still find it extremely amusing to stay in places that have minibars and room service.  This one even has a casino somewhere so I could even try to win enough to pay for the damn hotel in the first place.

So that's it.  Nearly four and a half months and about $18,000* later, I'm coming home.   Thursday night at Hair of the Dog, anyone?

*South America isn't as expensive as this makes it sound -- $18,000 includes Antarctica, the Galapagos and Easter Island.  Without those 3 things, I'd only have spent about $8,500 here, flights and all.  Yes, I keep obsessive track of my budget and spending while travelling -- surely that doesn't surprise you?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In the Footsteps of Darwin: Up Close and Personal with Galapagos Wildlife

Sea lion pup
(I’m going to apologize in advance because this probably isn’t going to be my most inspired blog post ever. I came back from the Galapagos sick and am still feeling blah, so I’m not at my creative best. But bear with me – the Galagagos Islands are worth hearing about, even with less-than-stellar writing!)

I left July 4th on a very early flight from Quito, after getting to the airport promptly at 5:15 a.m. as requested; the check-in desk finally opened about half an hour later and we could deal with the formalities of boarding. It’s a small world among Galapagos passengers, I discovered, as I met a few of my fellow boat passengers in line at the airport check-in desk!

How seriously they take the management of the Galapagos Islands was apparent from my airport arrival on. All of your luggage is carefully x-rayed and (in some cases, hand-searched) to ensure that you’re not bringing any foreign plant or animal material to the islands; they’ve been fighting an ongoing battle since the establishment of the park in 1959 to eradicate all of the introduced species, so they don’t want to accidentally introducing a few more. Overhead lockers on the planes (and all of the hand luggage inside) are disinfected and sprayed with insecticide before the plane lands in the islands, as a further precaution.

When you get to the islands, this care and oversight remains apparent. Tour boats all have carefully planned and fixed itineraries from which they cannot deviate; should they remain past their scheduled time in any one location, a GPS tracking system notifies park management, who will get in touch with the boat’s captain to hurry him along.

Monetarily, too, it’s a serious business getting there. On top of the $400 flight to get there (for foreigners – it’s cheaper for Ecuadorians), and the cost of the boat tour, there’s a $100 entrance fee that you must pay at the airport, for the privilege of setting boat on Galapagos and a $10 tourist card that you must purchase. Both of these are checked again when you leave, and if you were so careless as to throw them away, you must purchase them again.  (Fortunately, I keep everything as souvenirs so still had them both.)

Almost everyone who goes there joins a boat tour – 97% of the islands are national park (the other 3% being the towns and farms that predate its establishment), and they’re much further flung than I had realized, so there’s really no other practical way to see much of the place. Much of the places that you’re allowed to see, that is – of the 97% that is national park (including marine), only 1% of that area is open to visitors, and only then on carefully laid out walking trails and clearly delineated sites. The rest of the land and sea is left to the animals and birds and reptiles and fish – who are, after all, the stars of the show and the reason everyone comes here in the first place.

The islands are visually stunning, but not what I expected – they are `young` volcanic islands (meaning only about 9 million years old or so, compared with Hawaii`s 90 million years) so are still very rocky and sparsely vegetated in many places. There`s even an active volcano or two still around, and the ongoing process of creation continues as new islands are being formed. Humans arrived here a couple of hundred years ago and, of course, immediately set about bringing in all the animals they were used to from home (and a few others tagged along accidentally, like black rats and flies on ships) – many of these became serious threats to the local wildlife and a few native species have become extinct.

But the Galapagos Islands are rebounding. One island – Espanola – has been completely restored, with all non-native plants and animals eliminated and indigenous species flourishing. Not all of the islands are at that point yet, but the efforts continue – all of the national park staff and the tourism operators working here seem to take their responsibilities very seriously, and understand what a magical and irreplaceable part of the world that has been entrusted to their care.

And the animals themselves? By all appearances thriving, and not at all bothered by the tourists who come to gawk at them. They act like bored celebrities who can’t be bothered to notice the surrounding paparazzi – at most, you might get a curious sea lion lifting its head to check you out briefly, but odds are he’ll go back to sleep almost immediately. It’s up to YOU, the interloper, to get out of THEIR way, not the other way around; I got used to stepping over iguanas and tortoises or circling snoozing sea lions, and keeping a careful eye out for seabird nests on the path so I didn’t accidentally crush an egg or a chick. At one point, a cantankerous bull sea lion blocked our way back to the dock; it took a determined effort and a lot of shouting from our guide to convince him to shuffle his tremendous bulk out of the way. (He was too big to just step over – plus he would probably have bitten us.)

I loved them all, from the pint-sized prehistoric monsters that are iguanas, to the countless species of birds, to the playful and inquisitive sea lions, to the tiny Galapagos penguin (smallest species in the world after New Zealand`s fairy penguin). But my favourites are probably the tortoises – these gigantic beasts can live at least 200 years, and weigh up to 250 kg. A couple of tortoises that Darwin brought back from his 1832 expedition are still living in zoos in England; one that used to live in Sydney Zoo just died recently. They`re incredible beasts – so ugly they`re captivating, and quite dignified and charming in their slow and ponderous way.

150-year-old Galapagos tortoise
Most tortoise species are coming back from the brink of extinction – they used to be a favourite food of sailors, as live turtles could be stored on board ship for up to a year – thanks to successful breeding programs in a couple of research stations. Only one species has dwindled down to a single survivor -- `Lonesome George`, as he`s called, is a male tortoise aged about 100, who was discovered nearly 40 years ago on one of the islands. No other survivors of his species have ever been found, and efforts to interest George in genetically-compatible females from similar species have thus far been unsuccessful. So George remains, a happy middle-aged bachelor (remember he`s probably going to live to be 200) with no prospect of little Georges on the horizon. Hopefully in another 100 years he`ll have worked out his commitment issues, or his species won`t survive.

I did realize, though, that -- despite the fact I fall in love with wildlife -- I`d make a terrible naturalist. We encountered an orphaned sea lion pup on one island, desperately skinny and crying plaintively for his mother – our guide told us that he probably wouldn`t survive more than a few days.  I`d have liked nothing better right then than to scoop up that pup, take him back to the boat and feed him all the fish his little sea lion heart could desire, before taking him back to Canada as my new pet (wonder what Toronto`s laws are on sea lions?). As a naturalist, my job would be exactly what our guide’s was: watch dispassionately and let nature take its course. It would break my heart every time I saw it – nature’s a bitch.

I didn’t see most of the marine life that my fellow passengers saw, as I still haven’t conquered my fear of snorkelling (the Great Barrier Reef experience wasn’t a fluke) -- make that “extreme panic attacks and conviction that I am about to die” reaction to snorkelling, as “fear” just isn’t a strong enough word. I did manage, by the end of the week, to swim a few strokes while breathing through the tube, but it took every ounce of willpower I possess. (Perhaps I should start in a bathtub and work up from there; attempting to snorkel in the open ocean just isn’t working for me.)  So I had to content myself with watching the sea turtles and sharks and sting rays from the boat; fortunately the water’s very clear and I still got a pretty good view.

We had at least 2, sometimes 3 or 4, landings or snorkelling trips a day, since it was a small boat with just 11 passengers – quick to load us all on and off. So we covered a lot of ground in 8 days, and retired to the catamaran (the very comfortable Nemo II) each night for dinner and socializing. Food was included – 3 sumptuous meals a day, and decadent snacks every time we got back on board the boat – but for a couple of days near the end I had to pass on most of it. I don`t think I was seasick, but I was definitely sick; climbing up and down a ladder from a berth to a tiny bathroom several times a night on a small boat in rolling seas is not an experience I`d rush to repeat.

I`m still a little queasy, so I`m not venturing far into Quito. I`m heading to a hotel near the airport tomorrow night (as my flight leaves at 6 a.m.), but if I feel a little better I may go see something of the city tomorrow. I`m not terribly bothered if I can`t, though – Quito`s Old Town, where I`m currently staying, is a lovely old historical part of town, but after four months of baroque cathedrals and Spanish colonial architecture I won`t feel too deprived if I miss exploring ONE city`s highlights. You can get colonial-church-ed out after a while, and sometimes one more museum is just one too many.

So I`ll just have to come back one day – to go have my picture taken on the equator line, if nothing else! – to Quito and to the rest of Ecuador. I thought when I started this trip that I’d see more of the country, but time has run away from me ... and there are a lot of interesting places to go, so a return trip is definitely on the agenda at some point.

And in just over 48 hours from now, I’ll be back in Toronto – I will be mostly happy, a little sad that this phase of travel is over but glad to stay put for a little while in familiar surroundings. And happy to have peanut butter for breakfast again ... so Shelley, make sure the place is well-stocked!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Letter from a Weary Traveller

I was just thinking how deeply unpleasant flying is. I have lots of time to contemplate this today, as I am spending approximately 10 hours getting from Cusco to Quito, counting all the waiting-around time in various airports. I’m in Lima right now, at about 5 pm on Saturday, and have 3 hours to kill till my connecting flight to Quito. I’ve already been through security and immigration, and browsed through all the shops on offer (it is amazing what kind of tat is for sale – and more amazing that some people must actually buy it, or they wouldn’t keep selling it). So I have nothing to do now but wait.

You’ll probably be reading this well after the fact, as – despite the advertised “Wi-Fi” zone in which I am currently sitting – I cannot connect to the internet. My laptop is, of course, with me (it never goes in my checked luggage) so I’m typing on it right now. I’ll upload whenever I next have access.

I left my hostel in Cusco about 12 pm, got to the airport in plenty of time and checked myself in all the way through to Quito. So I don’t have to pick up my bag here in Lima and re-check it, which is convenient (although, in hindsight, it would’ve killed some time if I had to do that, which might not’ve been a bad thing). I get to Quito about 10:15 pm, so I probably won’t roll up to my hotel near the airport till after 11 by the time I collect my backpack and get through immigration again. Then I have to get back to the airport by 5 a.m., to do this all again on a flight to the Galapagos.

Ugh. I used to think flying was exciting – the first time I ever boarded a plane was to move to London, England when I was 24, and the notion of where I was going would have made it an exciting prospect in itself. But flying also used to be more enjoyable – the free wine with dinner alone made it almost worthwhile. Now you get next to nothing – not even always a meal or snacks (some airlines make you pay for those, such as my most-hated American Airlines).

It doesn`t bother me, particularly, I just find the whole experience very dull.  Oh, once I had a sort-of panic attack for no apparent reason -- flying back from Jackson Hole last winter, I think.  I was convinced that the plane was about to drop out of the sky and practically hyper-ventilated.  Don`t know why, I`ve never been afraid of flying before or since.

And airports aren’t fun places to hang out, unless you’re really into shopping and don’t mind spending well over the odds for whatever you’re buying. I don’t shop, really, unless I have to, so that has little appeal. Would it kill them to have a movie theatre, or free internet stations, or somewhere I could go listen to music?  Some airports are definitely worse than others ... I think LAX still wins as the most boring airport in the world.

There are restaurants, cafes and bars, of course, but the problem is that I have almost no vices left with which to amuse myself – I don’t drink alcohol much anymore (Hair of the Dog crowd, if you’re reading this, stop snickering – I’m serious), and I’ve largely given up coffee (my workmates will have trouble believing this, but it’s also true). And I like the way I’ve been losing weight this trip, so I`m not inclined to pig out on some unhealthy airport meal.

That doesn`t leave me many options, so here I am. I`ll probably write in my travel journal later, too – I have a couple of days to catch up on – or read more of the novel I`m toting around. What I could really go for, though, is a fitness centre where I could go work out – all this enforced inactivity is getting to me.

Maybe I`ll just walk circles around the airport lounges. So what if everything thinks I`m crazy.

p.s. uploading this from Guayaquil, Ecuador airport, on a brief stopover before going on to Galapagos.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Floating on Islands in Lake Titicaca

Having your very own island in the middle of a beautiful lake somewhere is a common dream for many people, but out of reach for most ordinary mortals ... have you ever thought of just building your own island?  The Uros islanders did, centuries ago -- they constructed floating islands made of reeds on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, in their efforts to escape the warmongering Incas.

One of the floating islands of Uros
The Uros people have largely disappeared today, but several hundred indigenous Aymara people still live on the islands.  At last count, there were 52 floating islands -- subject to change when couples get married, or neighbours feud, and islands are sawn in half to create separate spaces.  Sometimes they just opt to tow their island to a different location, instead of going to the trouble of dividing it.

I took a day trip there from Puno, Peru, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  Puno itself isn't an attractive town for the most part, although it's got an appealing pedestrian street (where my hotel was located) that lets you get away from the grime and traffic and noise of the rest of the town.  The real reason to go there is its proximity to the lake -- Lake Titicaca, whose name has made generations of schoolchildren snicker but in actual fact means "Rock of the Mountain Cat" in the local language (the cat in question being the puma, sacred to the Inca, and the rock being located on Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side).  It's a startling splash of vivid blue in the midst of bleak altiplano scenery, surrounding by the cordillera of the Andes and, quite literally, taking your breath away at an altitude of 3,800 metres.

The Uros islands floating a few kilometres offshore, constructed of blocks made of reeds and mud, overlaid with a metre-thick matting of fresh reeds that is replenished once or twice a month.  The ground is springy underfoot, and a dozen anchors hold each island in place so the residents don't float away and wake up in Bolivia one morning.  Houses and boats are constructed of the same reeds that grow in the shallow places of the lake, and islanders' lives seem unchanged from the original Uros natives centuries before.

Uros islander in his tiny reed hut
Well, except for television, that is.  I got a chnnce to check out one tiny reed hut, and a 6-inch television had pride of place on the shelf by the bed.  The hut's owner pointed it out to me proudly, as if I would have never seen such a marvel before, and showed me the solar panels that gave them electricity.

I can't imagine living like this.  Islanders are very friendly and welcoming to tourists -- and very eager to sell their handicrafts -- and seem quite content with their way of life.  Even the tiny black cat on one island didn't seem to mind it (although he may have been keeping his incapacitating fear of water to himself).  But how isolated and limited it must feel, to anyone exposed to a different lifestyle; their children go to school on the mainland in Puno, as there are no schools on the islands, and I wonder how they can come back to live there and remain satisfied, once they've seen other options.

It's an eye-opening and interesting place to visit, and quite peaceful floating in the middle of the sapphire water of Lake Titicaca ... but I think my day there was enough.  I like the way I live, so I don't think I'll trade it in for a floating existence any time soon.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Are We There Yet?

I can`t quite believe it, but this trip is nearly over.  Four and a half months (almost) sounded like a really long time when I set out, but it's flown by ... and at the same time, here I am in July, about to head off to the Galapagos Islands for my final leg of the trip, and March and Antarctica seem like a lifetime ago. 

I owe you a post or two -- I just got back from Puno, Peru, and it`s an interesting spot and worth a few words.  But I`ll do that later.  In the meantime I wanted to catch you up on plans for the next couple of weeks before I head home; I haven`t had Wi-Fi access for the last few days and internet access has either been very expensive, or slow (or both), so I haven`t spent any time here.

Anyway, here`s the scoop ... I fly from Cusco to Quito tomorrow (via Lima, with about a four-hour stopover), arriving in Quito about 10 at night.  I`m crashing at a hotel near the airport (so decidedly more expensive than my $3-a-night Bolivian lodging) as I have to turn around and head back again about 5 a.m. to catch a 6:30 flight to the Galapagos.  I spent 8 days there, flying back to Quito on the 11th (another early flight I think), and have a few days left in Ecuador before I fly back to Toronto on July 15th ... via Houston, and Cleveland, arriving about 14 hours after I leave Quito.

In the meantime, I`m back in Cusco for a night.  I found a hostel right on the Plaza de Armas, the main square, and I went out only briefly to stock up on everything I`m running low on (shampoo, sunscreen, toothpaste) as I`m not expecting to be able to find much in the Galapagos (or if I can, it will be expensive, probably).  Then I got back on the laptop -- yay!  free Wi-Fi again! -- and have been slowly and laboriously uploading pictures while typing away here.  (It`s a glamourous life we backpackers lead, really.)

I took the Inka Express tourist bus from Puno today, which stops at a few sites along the way -- Incan ruins at Raqchi, for example, and yet another colonial church in Andahuaylillas (they call it the ''Sistine Chapel of Peru'' -- I wouldn`t go nearly THAT far, but it is pretty striking).  Some of the towns we passed through seemed desperately poor -- I can`t even begin to imagine living there! -- but the people were friendly.  No one appeared to resent the rich tourists blowing through town for a hour or two (perhaps it`s just that they hoped to sell us lots of stuff), but I couldn`t help wondering if they really were as happy with their lot as they seemed.  If you grow up in a situation like that, if it`s what you`re used to and what you expect ... do you not feel the lack?  Is contentment more about expectations than about what you actually have?

Okay, never mind the philosophical tangent.  I head to the airport about noon tomorrow, and catching a taxi will be easy (they circle the plaza in droves) -- I am now savvy enough about Cusco taxis to know when I`m being ripped off, so I expect it will be pretty cheap.  (My taxi driver tonight from the bus station tried to charge me 7 soles for the ride -- about double what it should cost -- but backed down really quickly when I turned away to find another taxi.)

I`ll probably write here again tomorrow, one last time before I head off to tropical isles ... and then will take an enforced break, since I doubt I can find Wi-Fi cruising on a catamaran in the Galapagos Islands! 

Bolivian Rhapsody

Copa, co-pa-ca-baaaa-na ....

Okay, the Copacabana I went to was in Bolivia (definitely not north of Havana), and has nothing to do with Lola the showgirl, but I still felt compelled to sing the song incessantly while there.

I got to Copa (as I shall henceforth call it, Copacabana taking entirely too much effort to type) after a hideous night bus ride from Cusco.  Well, "hideous" might be too strong, but it wasn't fun.  (I think I got much too spoiled while travelling in Argentina -- anything less than that level of comfort is a let-down.)  Anat, my Israeli friend from the Machu Picchu trek, and I canvassed a few different companies at the bus station, and picked one that was both reasonably priced and whose ticket clerk swore up and down it was a comfortable "cama" ride and we'd only have to change buses once, at the border to a minibus.  We also learned that you can bargain for bus tickets in Peru -- who knew? -- as he started out quoting a price of 75 soles and ended up at 60 when we were prepared to walk away.

Well, he lied, on both fronts.  Definitely not "cama", seats were much narrower and didn't recline that far.  We were also given, strangely, one blanket between two people -- since I was travelling with a friend, this wasn't a huge concern, but what if I'd been alone and ended up next to a dirty old man?  There's just no way that would have ended well.

About 6:30 a.m., we were woken up and thrust unceremoniously off the bus -- it carried on to La Paz and we were shuttled off to a small and decidedly uncomfortable minibus.  Our backpacks were tossed haphazardly onto the roof and (sort of) tied down, but had the bus travelled at any semblance of speed or hit a big enough pothole in the road, I think the backpacks would have gone flying.  (I'd love to travel lighter than I am right now, but losing the entire contents of my backpack would be a little TOO light!)

At the border, we were dumped on the side of the road, by the Peruvian border post that had not yet opened for the day.  It was supposed to open at 7 a.m., and we arrived about 10 minutes to 7, so it shouldn't have been too bad ... but apparently Peruvian opening hours are more "suggestions" than hard-and-fast rules, as the office didn't open till nearly 8.  From there, we had to hike with our backpacks across the no-man's-land between border posts over to the Bolivian; poor Anat (who likes to shop and has collected many souvenirs) struggled under a backpack that was probably bigger than she was!  (Granted, she's pretty tiny, but it was still a very, very large pack.)

We got through the Bolivian side without much delay (except for an American girl who had shown up optimistically with an expired visa -- Americans are the only ones who need one for Bolivia -- and hoped that she could just get a new one at the border.  She couldn't.).  Then we waited around for yet another minibus to carry us the final 10 km or so to Copa, and by the time it finally arrived and made its ponderous way to town, we were at least an hour and half behind our scheduled arrival time. 

No matter ... Copa is pretty quiet this time of year, and we got a hostal room without difficulty (hostal = cheap hotel, not to be confused with hostel).  I didn't know it was possible to get a reasonably comfortable room, with our own bathroom and shower, for $3 a night ... but in Bolivia, at least, it is.  For 10 Bolivianos more (about $1.50), we could've had an ensuite bathroom; as it was, it was right next door, with a padlock on the door to prevent anyone but us from using it.

Copa is touristy, as Bolivia goes, so it's well supplied with restaurants and souvenir shops.  Sellers are not as aggressive as in Cusco, so I didn't feel too much like a "walking wallet" and could actually just wander around and enjoy the town.  It's laidback to the point of sleepiness, with one main street heading through town from the lakeshore, and the streets get quiet after about 8 pm.  The view from the harbour is breathtaking -- the vast expanse of Lake Titicaca stretching to the horizon and beyond -- and there's an impressively (and unexpectedly) grand basilica in the main square.  Local women and men stroll the streets in traditional clothing, the women especially eye-catching in their multi-layered skirts and colourful shawls.  There are few cars on the streets, just the buses and collectivos that ferry passengers further into Bolivia or over the border to Peru; most locals cart their goods around in huge bundles on their backs, wrapped up in one of those colourful shawls, or wheel them around on adult-sized tricycles with large cargo baskets in front.

Transporting stuff the hard way on Isla del Sol
It's definitely a different world.  It's even more so if you venture to the Isla del Sol out in Lake Titicaca.  It was a mystical place for the Incas, site of their creation myth and the birthplace of the Sun God.  It's still a little otherworldly:  it's a slow 2-hour ride by rickety boats to travel the few kilometres out, and with scarcely 5,000 inhabitants mostly clustered into two small villages at either end of the island, the island and its Inca and Tiwanaku (pre-Inca) ruins are yours to roam in peace and solitude.  The tiny museum that greets you when you step off the boat can send a few shivers down your spine; among other things, it displays real human bones recovered from archeological sites on the island, scattered somewhat haphazardly on a counter top. 

From the north end, where the boat let us off, we walked south across the length of the island.  It`s a peaceful hike along the ridgeline, once you climb to the highest point, and I`d have no trouble with hills that size at sea level, but this hike STARTED at 3,800 metres -- Titicaca is one of the highest-altitude lakes in the world.  It isn`t just my lack of fitness that had me gasping a little on the uphill stretches -- the air really is thinner up there!

So we definitely earned the right to have a big dinner out -- with Aditi, an Indian girl (living in Dubai and volunteering in Bolivia for a few months) we met on the boat ride over, we spent a relative fortune at Pueblo Viejo cafe (by ''relative'', I mean it cost about 3x our hotel room -- big money for Bolivia!). 

I headed back to Peru the next day (counting down the days till I need to be in Quito) and Anat headed onward to La Paz.  So I`m travelling solo again -- nice to have company for a few days, it can get wearisome managing everything on your own! 

p.s.  The biggest benefit of a travelling companion?  Having someone to watch your stuff in the bus station when you have to head to the bathroom ... seriously, have you ever tried managing a tiny bathroom stall with a large backpack in tow?