I woke up refreshed, after about 11 hours of sleep. It was wonderful and I was cured of Marcos’ Disease. But for some reason, as I woke up that morning, I began to have a funny feeling. Perhaps it was the price of the train, perhaps it was spending a month more than I’d planned in Peru, perhaps it was staying in mostly tourist spots: it could have been any number of things. But the feeling was that I needed to move and I needed to move quickly. I was like a horse, slapped on the rear by a tourist guide in a hurry. I moved, though I wasn’t sure why. I returned to Urubamba to say goodbye and to thank Yoyo but he wasn’t at home. I played for a bit on the internet, checked again. Still no Yoyo. I took a bus to Cusco.
The bus climbs the rolling hills. Was it that the hills were almost naturally terraced or were they all terraced by the ancient civilizations that had lived here so long before? Out the windows of the bus I could see people making mud bricks for their houses. Animals of all types: horses, dogs, cows, goats, burros, llamas. We would pass people carrying their children or possessions in blankets. They reminded me of African women, carrying possessions on their head: a completely different system but similar in its “one size fits all” application. The sky was cloudy with blue peaking through windows in the clouds. We finally reach the crest of the biggest hill and the road flattens. We can see the hills below us, houses dotted about, surrounded by their farmland. The grass is yellow and in the fields patches of red, almost purple, dirt is visible where the land has been plowed. The air is chilly, the horizon pink. Eucalyptus trees grow in small forests where the rocks have made way to let them. Llamas graze in yellow soccer field. As the light fades the city of Cusco spreads out below us, a seeming metropolis with it’s brown terracotta roofs. As we enter it becomes more and more city-like. Now some of the houses are painted, now all of them, phone lines appear, now signs on windows, stopsigns, sidewalks, traffic lights, apartment buildings, street vendors selling food: popcorn, Inca Cola.
We arrive and I need to get to the main bus terminal. “Taxi?” a man asks. I ask if I can walk there. “You need a taxi” the man says. In the car I ask how is his business. “Bad” he tells me. “The gas prices are going up.” “It would be good for the president’s campaign if the gas prices were lowered.” I said. “We do not have a president like in the USA.” He tells me.
He drops me off just outside the main terminal. It costs extra for a car to enter. I walk in and go to the first bus counter. I should mention that in Peru, and I suspect most countries, there is a lot of competition between bus companies. Most people don’t own cars and public transportation needs to be cheap, accessible, and generally reliable. Competition seems to do some of this and also explains why two monopolies, Greyhound and Amtrak, are the laughing stock of the USA. You go to each company’s office and ask prices and check out the buses. The first company charges 40 soles. The second one charges 70. I ask why they are so much and the young man tells me that his bus is direct. His is the only direct bus. Everyone else stops in Puno to change buses. “Excellent bus.” He says, “Lots of tourists! Only tourists!” I say I will go ask the other company how much time they take to get there, but money is money and 70 is too expensive. “No don’t go.” He begs me, hanging onto my sleeve. “They will LIE to you. They all lie! They will tell you they do not change buses, but they do! Everyone but us does!” I tell him to calm down and that I promise I’ll come back. He lets go of my shirt. I go to every other company that goes to Copacabana and they all charge the same: 40. Ask them if they change buses, they say all the buses get there at the same time, changing or not. The bus leaves at 10pm and the border only opens at 8am. They all go through together. I return and confront the expensive liar with this information. He senses something is wrong. “So all the buses are the same.” I say. “Ok. Ok. 45 sols” he offers. “But there’s no reason to pay more for the same service” I say. “Fine,” he tells me “40 sols. Which seat do you want?” “But you’re a liar.” I say. And then as if I hadn’t heard his generous offer the lady at the counter next to him tells me “No no! He said 40 sols!” They are still probably confused as to why I walked off…
I bought my ticket at the first counter I went to. I wanted to change about $5 to sols to spend on food en route. The lady where I bought my ticket offered to do it but gave me a terrible rate (2.5 instead of 3.2). I laughed. She tells me to wait and goes to ask her neighbor something. While she’s gone I hear the girls at the booth laugh as well. “What a terrible rate!” “It’s like robbery!” they say. The lady returns and I tell her the rate is better in the center. “That’s the center.” She tells me. “It costs money to get there.”
I leave the station and ask if the center is close enough to walk to. Many Peruvians don’t understand a word I say but it’s really not because my Spanish is bad. It’s because they only speak Quechua, no Spanish. The man I ask is one of these and he mumbles something about the center and taxis. A woman overhears and invites me to share a combi for about one sixth of the price of a taxi. I arrive at the center, change my money and play on the internet again, renaming my pictures on the website. It’s so strange to see them immediately. In the old days I would have to wait till I got back to see them. It was more of a surprise. I eat dinner and walk back to the station.
The bus arrives in Puno at 5:45am for our 2 hour layover before heading on to the border. The tourists here are different than I had encountered in Northern Peru. They are not off-the-beaten-track tourists but rather almost-off-the-beaten-track tourists. The difference is that actual backpackers tend to flock together while these tourists avoid each other, secretly hoping the others would go away so they could enjoy some authenticity. But those backpackers travelling for longer times (a year or more) tend to be a bit more standoffish, hardened and more realistic. But perhaps the dynamic in the Puno station was more of a difference between those travelling alone and those together. Those who are alone tend to seek out adventure and initiate relationships. To travel with others is to be conservative, having to take into account each new element added to the group. Often travelling in groups involves sharing each other’s company while the scenery changes.
We wait for the connecting bus. I have breakfast of fried eggs and coffee. My original ticket said Pony Express at 7am. It changes to Colectur at 8am. I begin reading my Lonely Planet on Bolivia and get excited.
The bus skirts the lake passing abandoned boats. In the fields they seem to have planted chewing gum wrappers and they have now bloomed into plastic bags of all colors of the rainbow, neatly separated in their white, blue, red, green, pink splendor. The sun shines brilliantly off the lake and the sheet metal roofs reflect the light like a thousand mirrors. Our bus is cosy, warm after the freezing night. Cows graze in the yellow scrub grass. We seem to be in the slowest bus and buses full of local Indians scream by us.
A huge yellow walled off area, probably a stadium of some kind, rises out of nowhere. There is nothing inside but some donkeys who seem to be grazing in the uneven dirt and plastic bags. Now there is a kind of village with stone walls of rock placed on each other to form a kind of hedge maze. They are delicately balanced as if they were made of one rock originally which somehow shattered but never realized it and a single push or strong wind would scatter the wall for good. Our bus picks up speed and the driver slams on the horn as we pass through an isolated roadside market, scattering people.
Everything along the lake is half finished, as if at some point everyone here just gets tired of his job and decides to stop and start another project. The dirt brick homes have no roofs, the fields are half tilled, the gates are either half built or half mended, it is hard to tell which. In the fields there is no organization to the houses, none that I can see. People seem to simply build and then grow crops around them. But some houses have no crops. And some crops have no houses. Soon it all dropped away as we rose above the shining blue lake and made for the Bolivian border.
Borders are those peculiar places that don’t quite make any sense. They are the spaces between the lines on the map. They make one realize that all of the rules we recognize and respect are simply conventions worked out between those in power with those out of power. It’s especially obvious when there are border conflicts. One day everyone respects the border: “But of course! These are Bolivians/Chileans/Palestinians over there. We are different from those guys and must respect the borders!” The next day, the border simply moves because of brute force. National identity is effectively determined by your ability to defend your borders.
We passed through with little ado. The most relaxed border crossing I’ve ever had. The official merely looked for an empty place, found one next to a USA one where it said “exits” and stamped away, little caring about the confusion it might cause for every other official stamping my passport.
I was in Bolivia.