A thunderstorm louder than any I have heard before booms and rolls over the island during the night. It is so loud and so close that I wake with my heart beating fast, a little afraid we will be washed away. Jamie sleeps soundly through the rippling flashes and godlike growls and looks at us blankly when Suzie and David come downstairs to share stories of a wakeful night. We look at Jamie doubtfully.
You slept through that? With the tin roof and everything?
I say, gesturing to the ceiling. Jamie looks up, pushes out his bottom lip and shrugs.
David put his teeth in in case we had to run away!
You put your teeth in? In case you got washed in to the lake?
Says Jamie, raising his eyebrows at David, who nods proudly.
You have to be ready in an emergency.
He replies sagely.
Fortunately, nothing is amiss outside. All the buildings are still standing and the only sign of the vanished storm is a wash of leaves in a large puddle on the little, tiled patio. Jamie and Suzie take a walk back up to the spitting alpaca to collect a small cache of discarded enamelware we spotted the day before. It will be added to the growing collection of bashed up plates and mugs I started during my first trip to Isla Del Sol in 2013 and now hang on the kitchen wall like a hipster granny has moved in.
They return an hour or so later with reports of a forlorn alpaca sitting in the grass, spitless and drenched from last night’s rain. I feel guilty for laughing at her the day before but perk up considerably when I see the collection hidden in Jamie’s bag. There are two filthy bowls with stencilled flowers at the bottom, two mugs with little bouquets on the side and a battered plate. This along with
the matching bouqueted mug, homemade colander and little plate we uncovered the previous month will make a glorious addition to the kitchen.
My delight is short lived however when it is decided we will scrap the plans for a four o’clock departure and leave, instead, at midday. This island, a little jewel in my book of memories, talked of incessantly for the last two years, is being scrapped in favour of a brassy hotel in Copacabana. I
had pictured a long walk around the dewy headland, gazing out at the
trout filled waters wearing flowers in our hair and perhaps a rendition of Kumbaya. But is not to be and reluctantly I pack my things and sulk at Jamie who is doing an admirable job of placating everyone at the same time and wears a look not dissimilar to that of a martyr. He sets off down the hill carrying three rucksacks and an air of saintliness and I follow several minutes later, legs scissoring uncontrollably as I try to catch up.
As the little boat pulls away from the shore an hour later, I look up at the lovely island I have spent so much time on and actually feel relieved. Bye island! I’ll never be back! I murmur, suddenly knowing that I have seen enough of the place. It’s time to leave and explore somewhere different. The boat is full of people from all over the world and I sit next to Suzie chatting, both wrapped in coats and scarves to guard against the chill wind that the lake water blows down our necks. Opposite us, a young Japanese couple are fishing about in a packet strewn with kanji and methodically plucking strips of bonito out. They pop the dried fish strips between their lips like cigarettes and chew them slowly down before feeding another strip in and gazing across the water. The wind wafts the savoury, umami rich scent of the bonito across to me in quiet puffs and I find myself mesmerised by the methodical patience of the two eaters.
I step ashore eighty minutes later thinking hungrily of the bonito then remember the delicious ceviche stand in the main square. Pushing the Japanese aside, I hurry everyone to the hotel and race through a shower, impatient with the long cooing stares at the lake view when I emerge. Lake Schmake! I think while combing the tangles painfully and hurriedly from my hair. Throwing jackets over people’s heads and pushing them downstairs I manage to get everyone in to town to a soliloquy on the perfection of Copacabana’s limey, fishy treats. Alas though, a ceviche lunch is not to be. I arrive in the square breathing hard having walked up the hill rather keenly but when I walk to the stand, where cauldrons of white fish and lime juice normally reside, today are tea cups. I look at the women running the stall to find myself staring at a stranger, a tea and cake selling stranger.
I moan thinly at Jamie and, nearly weeping have to find comfort in a plastic cup of bright yellow jelly which tastes faintly of fruit but mainly of wobble. It doesn’t matter though, it’s still jelly and by the time I am slurping on the last gaudy, shivering scraps, my mood is much improved. We walk Suzie and David round to the indoor food market for fried fish, rice and a nice stomach bug for David washed down with warm Coca Cola. Jamie shakes his head when I order and sits watching us eat. He simply can’t face another plate of fried meat and rice having consumed minute variations on this meal for the last six months. So we merrily crunch down our trout skin and scoop up the rice and Jamie avoids an unpleasant few days of Bolivian Belly which David, drawn and pale, endures in solemn silence until we reach Chile.
Unbeknownst to Suzie and David we have more or less decided for them to scrap the plans to continue through Bolivia and announce the news that we are returning, instead, to the Atacama Desert. Expecting doubt and confusion, we are rather pleased when their faces light up at the news.
So we can go to Humberstone?!
Shouts Suzie in delight, immediately catching on to our plan. We nod excitedly at their enthusiasm. Having only had three and a half hours at the wonderful, rusting abandoned mining town, we are thrilled to find we can go back and explore the place again. During our previous visit only managed to cover two thirds of the place at a very fast clip and besides, we have some thievery to do this time which we weren’t prepared for last time. So, after an evening trying and failing to force feed barbecued heart on a stick to our unwilling audience, we give up, chow down the street food ourselves and bed down, bubbling with quiet excitement for the coming days.
The eight o’clock bus leaves miraculously on time which is more or less unheard of in Bolivia. Exhaust fumes pour from beneath the vehicle in filthy clouds and it makes a quiet but rebellious chuntering sound when it goes uphill. The inside of the bus smells like the rear end of a badger but it takes off at a clip through the sparse, vibrant landscape and a licking breeze billows in through the window. An hour in to the journey, we park up and everyone gets off. Having done this before I know what’s happening but the few tourists on board have no idea and the driver doesn’t bother to inform them.
You have to get off and take a ferry while the bus is boated across the gap.
I tell two tall, confused German girls as we make our way out. They unfurl their long legs from the tiny space in front of them and follow us with puzzled expressions on their faces. They rummage in their pockets for change as we buy four tickets for the crossing and then we all pile aboard a small motorboat which fills with fumes on the crossing, nearly gassing all the passengers. We step off on the other side of the narrow gap in the lake, wobbly legged and nauseous trying to keep an eye on our fellow passengers but they all vanish immediately with the speed of those who know something that others do not.
It turns out though, this being Latin America, that the big secret is food and drink and not any bus boarding urgency. A flood of old ladies in extreme hats gather around the empanada stands and order up big, brown glasses of mocochinchi and heaps of meaty filled pastries. They chew quietly and watch me as I crane to look for a glass of maca, an extremely odd drink made from maca root sweetened with sugar and boiled with water. Thick, sweet and smooth, it is like breakfasting on an oozing cup of caramel and since trying it, I have been preoccupied by finding more. It seems, however, that it is a purely Peruvian recipe and the stalls here yield nothing.
Anyone who needs to go to the loo, go now!
I hear Suzie shout, the matriarch still pulsing strongly within her. My pursuit of maca interrupted I wander back over to join them. We stand, arms curled around a lamppost watching our bus sail precariously across the watery gap atop a wonky, straining set of wooden planks covering the floor of a rusty pontoon. Finally, after fifteen minutes, the pontoon docks and we pick up our bags and discover David has vanished.
He went to the toilet?!
Says Jamie incredulously to Suzie
Now?! When he’s had fifteen minutes?
I have a momentary flash of Jamie as a father unceremoniously marching piddling children to the toilet with a grim expression and then I feel a quiet unfolding of panic.
But the bus is here!
I say to Suzie who gives a helpless shrug and reminds us of the stomach bug.
The bus has driven off the pontoon and rounded the block to meet a streamof passengers. David is nowhere to be seen. Jamie starts pacing.
They’ll leave him behind!!
He hisses and strides over the square to shout through the echoing toilet stalls at David. The last passengers climb aboard the bus and still no David.
We’re one short!
I call to the driver who looks at me with mild disgust and ask where our short one is. When I tell him he sighs impatiently and revs the engine a little. I have little faith he will wait and tap my feet on the ground trying to look like I am aiding the situation with impatience. After five minutes I usher Suzie on board like a sacrifice in the mistaken belief that this will placate the driver. We have a flight to catch this afternoon and if the bus goes, there’s no hope of catching it. I look at the driver with a grimace, wondering if I will have to supplicate myself to convince him stay. He ignores me and focuses instead on the lone form of Jamie as he appears at the other side of the square. The driver looks at me questioningly. Is this him? No, I indicate and flap my hands at Jamie to speed him up in the vain hope that Jamie’s speed will encourage the driver to believe in David’s imminent arrival.
Where is he?!
I call to Jamie who shakes his head tightly and marches on board. The driver is making ready to leave motions and finally I see David walking calmly across the square. The driver starts up the engine and puts the bus in gear. With this I panic and start to wave frantically to David who finally sees the urgency of the situation and starts to run. The driver beeps him loudly and he dashes across the last few metres and jumps up the steps of the bus. The driver is already pulling away as I follow him up the stairs and we plonk down in our seats, very relieved. Jamie gives David a frowny look but David, out of breath, ignores him serenely and looks out the window as the countryside accelerates past us again.
La Paz’s main airport is actually in El Alto, a huge, sprawling city which merges imperceptibly with La Paz. El Alto lies high up on a desolate plain almost four and a half thousand metres above sea level and tumbles down in to the valley before changing names and postal addresses. The place is an enormous knot of mess and chaos with piles or rubble strewn about, lumpy roads which end in great pitted stretches of dirt and mile upon mile of unrelieved ugliness and it is here we arrive some three hours later. We peer out the window as the city gathers strength and soon we are packed in the middle of it surrounded by traffic jams and swarming crowds. There is something wonderful and fascinating about it despite the ugliness propagating in every direction. Every shop is packed with exciting things that we crane to see.
To call Suzie a prolific photographer would be putting it mildly and here too she presses the lens to the window to capture hundred of photos of the huge bags of puffed maize, the fabric shops, the restaurants, the street food. There is stuff simply everywhere we look and I am so distracted by it that I don’t notice for some time that ‘airport’ road signs have begun to appear. We are nowhere near the bus’ final destination but this being Bolivia, should you wish to disembark in the middle of a busy four lane highway then your wish is their command. I hurry down to ask the driver if we can please have our bags from underneath the bus and signal to everyone else to follow. They clamber hurriedly off the bus to find themselves in the middle of a crazily trafficked overpass lined with vendors sat on the floor selling shawls, belts, shoes, hats. I stare longingly at the array of things which we have no time to buy before Jamie has hailed a taxi from amongst the scrum.The traffic is like cooling treacle, oozing slowly over the bridge and squeezing unctuously through narrow gaps. Suzie and David, as yet unused to the casual chaos in which the traffic operates here, make low sounds of surprise intermingled with the occasional squeak as they watch small children gently scooped up on the bonnet or dragged along attached to the wing mirrors by their t-shirts.
Once the taxi has cleared the crowds, we speed up and arrive at the airport well in time for our afternoon flight. The driver peels an old man off the back wheels and unhooks several wing mirror bound children before waving us off, smiling cheerfully. We head in to the gleaming airport and a couple of hours later are boarding the flight which takes us unsteadily back to Iquique. Perhaps the pilot is a little inexperienced or perhaps he is stinking drunk, it’s hard to say. Starting with a frightening veering motion on the runway during the disconcertingly long run up and finishing in a thudding, one wheeled, breath holding landing in Iquique, he succeeds in alarming everybody on board. I disembark shakily and turn to David.
Welcome to the Atacama Desert!
I say, gesturing at the bone dry, Martian mountain range beyond us. His eyebrows shoot up as he notices the new surroundings and we scan the brilliant, lucid edges of the landscape in the sharp, clean air. The sky is totally cloudless, hung above us like a sail and the air smells beautifully of the richly laid minerals this area is famous for.
We follow the crowds down through customs and are immediately surrounded by four thousand taxi reps and drivers vying for our custom.
shouts one man.
Eventually, after an awkward standoff between drivers, we toddle off after a cheerful man who agrees to take us to the centre for $15. He gestures to his car and we follow him. He keeps going so we follow him some more. A woman calls to us and tries to take our trolley and talks to us in a stream of impossibly fast Chilean Spanish.
No, no we have a driver.
I explain, tired of the constant hassling. I am momentarily thown by her obvious confusion but there’s no time for working out the problem, we have to catch up with the driver who is still walking. We hurry to catch up but he keeps going. He continues right to the far end of the long, long line of taxis, crosses the road and finally gets in behind the wheel before he spots us and laughs.
I was going to bring the car to you!
He chuckles, shaking his head at the trotting gaggle of English who have followed him. We bundle in and he drives straight back to where we have come from and opens the window where the woman who tried to steal our business stands. She smiles and laughs as the driver gestures with a nod of his head and a shrug to his band of apostles in the back. The driver gives her the details of our journey which she notes down and I realise she wasn’t trying to steal us at all but tell us where to wait for the driver. She catches my eye and I laugh,
Erm….we really like walking…?
I offer mysteriously and the taxi pulls away leaving her and the airport behind.
The road to Iquique opens up in front us, baked, red rocks to one side and sparking, indigo ocean to the other. Suzie presses her face to the window to hungrily absorb the alien landscape.
Which way is it to Humberstone?
She asks excitedly and we point to the mountains.
I call back to her and stare out at the desiccated, age streaked rocks ablaze with bouncing sunlight. The rocks stare back at me, expressionless and inhospitable and I find myself tapping my toes in anticipation to be back out there again with the blank sunshine warming my face and the smell of saltpetre in my nostrils. I think of the stencil we found last time, dumped out with piles of decayed wood behind the town. Stamped from a sheet of thin lead with the number four on it, we reluctantly left it behind three weeks previous. This time tomorrow, Suzie will be exploring the basketball court, I’ll be sucking on an ice lolly in the dusty main square and the lovely stencil will be tucked away in my bag.
And no one will know except us.
Peruvian Maca- A breakfast drink of kings…..no really, maca root is really quite expensive here in the UK but its worth it, promise.
If you do decide to buy it for this lovely drink, ensure you source it properly because there has been reports of maca being smuggled out of Peru such is the price it will raise outside the country. The drink, once made is smooth, thick and as sweet as you want it to be. I recommend getting hold of some raw cane sugar if you can, the taste really makes a difference. Maca root itself is said to be extremely nutritious and wonderfully, amazingly good for you. I don’t know about that, I just know it’s really good at 7 in the morning in a cold train station.
2 teaspoons of maca powder
1 teaspoon of raw cane sugar
a mug of water
a splash of whole milk or cream
Stir the maca with the sugar and mix in to a paste with a small amount of the water. Once you have done this, add the rest of the water and heat slowly whilst stirring until the mixture thickens slightly. Serve in a cup with a splosh of milk or cream on a cold and frosty morning.