Today, we got up bright and early to catch a lancha to Isla del Sol, the island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, full of legend and on the border between Peru and Bolivia. Today started off intense, with two hours on the boat to go from Copacabana to Isla del Sol (freeeeezing cold in the wind, so we ended up huddled like penguins by the end, sitting on the roof where the view was spectacular and the spattering rain had free reign). Once on the island, after a quick pit stop and frantic buying of coca leaf tea (for the warmth and the altitude), we were off to a museum rather lacking in any sort of explanation or story line, and then the sacred rock where they still sacrifice a llama to bring in the new year on June 21st. We laid our hands on the rock, after a detailed explanation about how we could see the faces in it, for luck and good energy. A quick stop at the ruins of the temple, whose name means “maze” because it really was possible to get lost inside when it was roofed and impossible to see where you were, and then we made the 3 hour treck to the southern part of the island, arriving just in time to catch our boat back.
After a well-deserved dinner, one of the friends I´m travelling with convinced the other two of us to rent motorcycles for half an hour and tool up and down the lakefront road. I think it was right up there, in terms of rather risky but highly enjoyable things I´ve done here. There were no helmets, and tons of people with similar complete lack of motorcycle riding experience also weaving their way along the increasingly muddy dirt road. Multiple dogs got way too close for comfort. My motorcycle inexplicably turned off and took alarmingly long to start up again. But it was a nice way to say goodbye to the settting sun, making a hearty contribution to both noise and air polution, running circles around the non-motorcycle-savvy friend who´s (rightfully) on the very cautious side. It was one of those moments when I was like “well, I am currently being one of those super annoying tourists, but honestly, I don´t really care”. I figure it´s ok to have those moments once and a while.
Isla del Sol was actually a really interesting place to be as a tourist. Copacabana, the mainland town that feeds into the islands, is very traditionally touristy. There´s tons of artisan stuff from all over Bolivia, you can exchange money, buy bottled water (tap water isn´t safe to drink) or eat trout for cheap pretty much anywhere. Almost all the people who you see are tourists. Or people from other latin american countries working promoting restaurants to earn money to continue traveling and being tourists. It´s very impersonal. Isla del Sol, however, has set up its tourist industry as a cooperative. You have to pay to enter the northern, central and southern regions of the island, and there are ticket check points upon entry and exit. All the guides live on the island, and I think all the people who sell food and water and artisan things along the way are from there, too. They are very well-organized, and also charge a lot (by bolivian standards) because they can. It´s cool, though, because the island hasn´t resorted to being completely overrun by the tourism industry. Sure, the towns where the pickup and dropoffs with the boats from the mainland happen are all hostals and hotels, and there are a lot of people (especially kids, oftentimes alone and not more than 11 years old) manning the various refreshment stands, but it´s still a primarily agricultural place. There are millions of little plots that cover the island that, with generations, have gotten split smaller and smaller, so that any given family will have a bunch of tiny plots to cultivate, and they will be all over the island, not just in one place. They cultivate for 5 years, and then let the earth rest. There´s corn, potatoes of all colors (red, white, black, purple, you name it). There are sheep and alpaca for wool, and pigs trot around freely, scrounging for scraps. Donkeys are the transport animal of choice. They have maintained traditional religious practices from their pre-Inca ancestors, which makes it the first place I´ve seen that doesn´t have an ornate Catholic church somewhere to oogle at.
I have been struggling a lot here with cultural differences, with tourism, with being a stranger in a land where everything still seems so traditional and, in some ways, relatively untouched by Western civilization. It is hard to appreciate without exoticizing, absorb without coming too fast to conclusions. I feel uncomfortable asking people if I can take their picture, especially women in traditional attire, because I don´t want to see them as objects, I want to see them as people. But I also struggle to start conversations with people, especially those who are so overwhelmed by the constant onslaught of tourists and don´t want to talk, just make the money they need to feed their kids or whatever. When kids come bouncing along on the trail between the north and south of the island asking for spare change, I don´t know whether it´s better to just give it to them, or if I should require something like information about them, a conversation at least. I don´t know how I feel about obviously having a lot of money in comparison to these people. There are so many problems to see, but also so much that is beautiful that we don´t have in the US, that I am left feeling like maybe I am the poor one. These kids have nothing, but to watch them playing on the beach, cavorting, running, poking, laughing, is absolutely delightful. I don´t see a lot of american kids that free, but neither do you see 7-year-olds in the US selling you crackers and bottled water an hour´s walk from civilization. Talking with one of my friends today, I´ve realized that I´ll probably never have a complete answer to these questions, that the process of having questions is really important. I have also come to realize that if taking pictures makes me uncomfortable or is removing me from the situation I´m in because I am interpreting it through a screen instead of my emotional reaction, then it´s time to put the camera away.
I guess I´ll leave you with that. Questions. And I invite your thoughts or own experiences questioning your identity, your culture, your belonging, your right to tell the story of your time in a place far away from home.