Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Island in the Sun

Since Janaki and I were so busy with the project during our last trip to Bolivia, we had very little opportunity to check out the many beautiful and fascinating sites that this country has to offer. In some ways we were slightly disappointed having spent 8 months down here and seen less of the country than many tourists see in 3 weeks, but at the same time we accepted that it was part of the reality of being focused on working on a water and sanitation project rather than sightseeing. We were especially disappointed, however, that we had not seen Lake Titicaca (originally Titi Kha´rka, which apparently roughly means rock of the puma in the Aymará language), an enourmous lake near La Paz set at nearly 4000 m above sea level, which was sacred to the Incas, and their predecessors in the region (and continues to be a very special place to the indigenous Aymará of the Altiplano). When we left Bolivia last year without having seen it, we decided that we would need to make it a priority to spend some time there the next time we were in the country.

So... last wednesday, after our first two days of adjusting to the altitude of La Paz and meeting with representatives from CIDA and Oxfam Quebec, we hopped on an afternoon bus and headed to the town of Copacabana on the lake´s shore. Our first day by the lake was spent relaxing, enjoying the view from our hotel room, and checking out the sites of the town (including a beautiful cathedral with distinctive middle-eastern influence in its archictecture).

On our second day we decided to venture out the La Isla Del Sol, a roughly 11 by 8 km island about 5 km from the lake shore. According to Incan legend this island was the source of the Inca, and according to Incan and pre-Incan beliefs it was the birthplace of the sun itself. As such, it was an extremely important ceremonial site for hundreds of years before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the area in the 1500s. The island today remains very significant for highland indigenous people, and is inhabited by 2500 Aymará who make their living through a combination of tourism, fishing, and subsistence agriculture.

Upon our arrival on the island we were greeted by a young Aymará man who offered to be our guide. Over the next 2 hours, showed us through the ceremonial sites and ruins on the north end of the island, while explaining the culture and way of life of the people who currently inhabit it. After the tour we were feeling reasonably energetic, so we decided to trek the 10 or so km from the Chincana ruins to the south end of the island where more ruins and hotels awaited. Unfortunately, we thought that we were better acclimatized to the altitude than we actually were, and the hilly terrain posed us quite a challenge. We finally arrived at a hotel just as the sun was going down. The hotel, like the ruins themselves, and most tourist facilities was run and maintained by the Aymará themselves(at least as far as I could tell). Visiting the historic sites on the Isla del Sol was even more impressive because the descendants of the people who constructed them are still there to talk about their history.

We took the boat back to Copacabana the next morning, and caught a bus back to La Paz, where we rested for a day because Janaki had picked up a nasty cold on the island.

After La Paz, we headed off to Cochabamba, the first part of Bolivia that we´ve actually revisited on this trip. In Cochabamba we´ve met with some of our friends who work with a community development organization called CEDESPAR. The visit has been very enjoyable and allowed Janaki some time to recover from her cold in a more agreeable climate, but we´ll be heading to Santa Cruz soon to check on the project.

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