* monster post – you might want to put the kettle on…
November 1st was Todos Santos/El Dia de los Muertos (All Saints Day/Day of the Dead). That meant a long weekend and I seized the opportunity to travel to La Isla del Sol. This is an island on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest altitude lake, which borders both Bolivia and Peru.
By incredible luck, I travelled with a delightful Bolivian family, who took me entirely under their wing and ensured I had an experience vastly different than travelling as a lone tourist. After daily greetings with Rosa, the office cleaning lady and her 8 yr old son, José Luis, it transpired we were all heading to La Isla del Sol for the holiday weekend and suddenly I had instant travel companions.
We left at 4am (not my ideal departure time but well worth it for the good company) and travelled by taxi, minibus, boat, another minibus and finally another boat. The final stretch of the journey involved catching a lancha (motorboat) from the town of Copacabana to the island. As I was about to pay the tourist fee of 20 Bolivianos ($3) for the 2hr journey, Rosa intervened and sternly told the boatman “No es turista! Es familia!”, ensuring I paid the half-price ‘community’ fee. We were only just becoming acquainted at this point, but it was one of many remarkably generous gestures on the family`s part. They insisted upon hosting me at Rosa`s father’s house and shared absolutely everything with me – I truly couldn’t have wished for a warmer welcome.
Our group consisted of Rosa and her children Patricia and José Luis, Rosa`s sister Marcela and her children Omar and Monica (who is one of my colleagues, a nice surprise discovered en route), another sister Ericka and myself.
20 yr old Omar recently returned from 14 months of military training in the Bolivian barracks. He proudly showed photos of himself operating various weapons and firearms and recounted stories of gruelling physical training, punishment, and tests of wilderness survival (one of which involved having to eat rats). Though he misses the discipline of the barracks, he now makes jewellery for a living and enjoys watercolour painting in his spare time.
The island is beautiful, with ancient Inca ruins, ridged pampas (cultivated terraces), weaving paths frequented by locals and donkeys, and views across the vast lake to distant Peru. Clusters of eucalyptus trees grow tall and the paths are lined with koa, a fragrant incense brush, used in Aymará cooking.
Many families keep llama, donkeys, pigs, sheep and guinea pigs. Cue my first encounter with alpaca and llama! I hadn’t realised there was a difference, but alpaca are half the size and fluffier. Llama produce less fibre despite being much larger. Both spit when angry. (I wanted to call my blog `the spitting llama` but it was already taken).
Food & drink
Our first meal was chincharrón (fried pork) and chuños (freeze-dried potatoes), eaten with our hands, as we squatted around the cloth on the ground. It may not look that appetizing, but it truly was.
Fresh trucha (trout) is a specialty in this region and I had a chance to sample some in Copacabana`s market on the way home. Lunch for 8 people came to the equivalent of $12.
The infamous coca leaves are used for mate (herbal tea) or chewed as is, often with a chunk of natural sweetener encased in a wad of folded leaves. Upon experimenting with coca chewing, my cheek went numb after a few moments, an odd but not altogether unpleasant sensation. Used for all manner of medicinal and health purposes, coca helps with digestion, altitude sickness and alleviating fatigue (hence miners’ constant coca use).
In this community, families gather in the local cemetery on both November 1st and 2nd, to celebrate rather than mourn their lost loved ones. Seated in groups on and around graves, they bring food, drinks and flowers. Plates piled high with fruit are exchanged between families and each time a plate is offered, the recipient is told whom they are to pray for.
My host family was praying for their grandmother, who passed away 5 yrs ago, as well as Monica and Omar`s cousin Verónica, who tragically died only recently, aged just 18. I marvelled at the jovial atmosphere, having heard several stories to that effect and it was certainly thought-provoking to witness a much different perspective on death and dying.
Special sweet breads with faces represent those being celebrated, as well as bread shaped like walking canes, horses and ladders – all to expedite the soul’s journey to heaven. The atmosphere was positively joyous, and the final evening involved live music and dancing until well after dark.
At one point, as the kids became particularly raucous (/creative) – sliding in the grass on empty pop bottles as skates – a man in our group intervened. Unravelling his chicote (whip) from around his waist, he began wielding it at the kids’ backsides. It is made of cuero (cow-hide) for maximum impact. I was told he is nominated by the community to keep the kids in check. Frankly, I think I found it more sobering than the children, who returned to their frivolities soon enough.
I learned many Aymará tales and legends over the course of the weekend. Apparently spirits are commonly sighted on the island late at night and thus it is advisable, if one has to venture out alone, to whistle in order to keep the spirits at bay. (Clearly ghosts have their own intercultural differences, because my dear Malaysian aunt swears by the fact that whistling at night attracts ghosts rather than repelling them.)
My mind reeling from countless stories, I resolved not to use the outside toilet during the night at any cost. When I refused a coca mate before bed with this in mind and jokingly explained why, Monica and Omar exchanged stricken glances. Alarmed, they insisted I not to go to bed thirsty and after some prompting, confided the following in hushed tones:
The story goes that going to bed thirsty leaves your head no other option but to detach itself and wander off in search of refreshment. Upon returning to your body, if you are unlucky enough to be female, your long hair will get stuck, thus your head will be unable to reattach itself and you will die. Well. Not one to be superstitious (prior to this weekend) I nonetheless decided not to take any chances. I had a sip of water, went to bed only slightly terrified, and woke with my head firmly attached.
By this point, I was only mildly surprised to find that we were to sleep with a knife in the door. My roommate Monica revealed that the two of us needed a knife, since it is particularly dangerous for two women to sleep alone. It is thought that el diablo (the devil) can more easily access and possess women, on account of us being the `weaker` sex. (Generally these tales were particularly unfavourable to women).
Rosa and Marcela brought back enormous sacks of potatoes from the island and thus we loaded up 3 donkeys to assist us on the long walk to the boat.
And so I returned to La Paz, with some new friends and deep gratitude for an extraordinary and memorable 3 days. I recognise how incredibly privileged I was to not only witness but also participate in such important family and community rituals.
It leaves me wondering how we welcome (or not) complete strangers into our lives and homes in the North.
Congratulations for making it to the end of this post! You should probably win a prize. How about a toucan beak or a dried llama foetus from La Paz`s Witches` Market? (Assuming I can get them past customs.) Place your orders now.
This weekend I`m heading to the coffee production zone for 6 days. Exciting times! Stay tuned for a full report. Death Road here I come…