Thursday, August 30, 2012

Journey of a Lifetime ( Part 11 ) - Cusco behind the scene

With two more days in Peru, Lulu and I signed up for a couple of optional tours which were being offered to us. Here are some of the tours Lulu and I joined which I thought were the best optional tours in our trip. 

Spiritual Healing with a Shaman:

I was so intrigued with the description of the tour which said " .. you will have the opportunity to meet with an Andean shaman and witness a real offering  to mother earth and the sacred protectors to thank them for this trip." Jesus told those who will join this tour will get a " shaman blessing ". It did not take a lot of convincing for me to join this tour.. Lulu and I immediately signed up.

What is a shaman?? A shaman ( or a healer ) is a person who interacts with both the normal world and the world of spirits, usually acting as a sort of intermediary between the two. Shamans are common in many tribal cultures, although shamanism may also exist in other types of culture. The shaman is often responsible for both the physical and spiritual health of people, and may also be called upon to invoke spirits for aid, or to predict the future and interpret omens.

We were ushered into a room and quietly took our seats around the shaman who was sitting on the floor. What a sight!!! a true to life Shaman sitting on the floor right in front of me!! I felt so lucky to be able to take a lot of photos of this ritual to show what I have  experienced.

He started his ritual while I watched in awe and listened to Jesus' explanation of what he was doing. The symbolism of each of the herbs, flowers, stones which he was taking out one by one and placing it in front of him.

Then he went to where we were sitting and gave us 3 coca leaves, told us to make a wish on these leaves and return them back to him which he included in his ritual.

The Shaman wrapped the offering, slowly stood up. Holding the offering in his hands, he went into a light trance and started to chant. His chanting took around 10 minutes. The whole group were mesmerized. Not understanding what he was chanting, we watched intently to what he was doing.

After his chanting, we were called one by one to the center of the circle in order to get our ritual  blessing. We had to tell him our name, then he would repeat our name and start chanting once more. It seemed like forever when he started chanting!! He asked me to bow my head, close my eyes, make a wish while he went around me smudging the offering all over me.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Journey of a Lifetime ( Part 10 ) Lake Titicaca and the Uros Floating Islands

After a hearty breakfast, Jesus with Charito, our tour guide for today came to our hotel around 9am to fetch our group from our hotel. We set out towards the pier, where we will take a 30 minute boat ride to visit one of the floating islands of Lake Titicaca.

The Lake is also home to various islands, whose inhabitants have preserved ancestral customs and traditions. An example of this are the Uros, living in " floating islands " manufactured artificially with reeds and transiting the area in their traditional boats known as totora which was also made of reeds. The Uros Floating Islands are man-made floating islands scattered across Lake Titicaca. These islands were also constructed from totora reeds found all around Lake Titicaca. Each floating island supports between three and ten houses, also built of reeds. These islands are held in place by poles driven through the reeds and into the bottom of the lake and ropes with rock attached to act as anchors.

Aboard the boat, Charito gave us a brief history of the floating islands. According to her, the island history predates the Incas. She added that these islands were great places to hide from both the Incas and the Spaniards so they have survived the woes of the land based people of Peru. They do have their own problems on the island, it was hard to keep their kids on the islands as they mature so the elders are at risk of becoming an obsolete society for that reason alone. Since they have no electricity in the island itself, they have added solar cells/batteries to provide some electrical power for convenience and entertainment, but it is very limited in capacity.

Here is a picture of one of the floating islands I took while we were aboard our boat.

The totora reed is of utmost importance to the Uros people. Without it they would literally sink. The reed and root system is what keeps the islands floating.

Of course, the reed is a major food source as well. The white end contains lots of iodine so the people have great teeth and no goiters. They make tea from the reed and it is good for a hangover or to ease pain in the same way that the coca leaf does. I got to taste the reed, it was not bad at all. It was somewhat sweet in taste. The reed tops are then gathered and fed to their guinea pigs.

Once we got to the islands, we were met by peasant women called " Campesinas "  in their native costumes, bowler hats and sandals made from recycled truck tires. I was amazed with their size!!! They had only one shape.. I said to myself, " was it the clothes these women were wearing that made them all look fat? " One impression which all of us shared after our trip was -- when we arrived at the dock of one of the floating islands was the natives all looked happy. Despite their hardships in the island... they were very gracious. One by one they held out their hand and helped us disembark on their tiny island. Walking around the little island makes you feel woozy.. not because you are experiencing altitude sickness but the surface of the islands were uneven and thin in some areas. It gave me the feeling of walking on a waterbed.

I was able to take a picture of the oldest inhabitant in the island -- she was 93 years old.

One of the natives there explained a bit to us about his customs, traditions, and lifestyle. He told us that his ancestors decided to build these floating islands to escape the Spanish conquest. Nearly five centuries ago, an Aymaran couple went out to Lake Titicaca and built an island for themselves to live on, made out of reeds. Since then, people have lived on these islands, carrying on their traditions of living in houses made of reeds, wearing typical clothes, and speaking Aymara. Over the years, they have become somewhat modernized, changing the style of their houses, learning to speak Spanish, and wearing shoes. In addition, the Peruvian government has installed a medical clinic and an elementary school to serve the island. Today, their primary source of income is tourism. However, some islanders prefer not to receive tourists on their islands and continue to live as their ancestors did.

We all listened attentively as Charito, our guide explained their lifestyle. It is somewhat hard to believe that people would prefer to live on floating islands made of reeds, but I suppose there are many reasons why they would continue to live there – the livelihood they can earn from tourism being one and the maintenance of their culture and traditions being another. Charito did mention that rheumatism is a problem in the elderly because the islands are fairly damp. Since they do not have any means of getting water, they would drink the water from the lake which was very salty.

Here are some facts I learned about these inhabitants of Uros Floating Islands:

* They continue living by fishing, weaving and now, tourism.
* They catch fish for themselves and sell them on the mainland. They also catch shore birds and ducks for eggs and food.
* If the level of the lake decreases, they may plant potatoes in soil created by the decaying reeds.
* The Uros residents of the islands create their homes from the reeds. The roofs are waterproof but not humidity resistant. Cooking fires are built on a layer of stones to protect the reeds.
* Residents wear layers of clothing, mostly woolen, to protect themselves from the cold, the wind, and the sun which at this altitude can burn fiercely. Many women still wear the distinctive derby type hat and full skirts.

( You can see a solar panel just to the right of the door on this hut. )

After our introduction to the island, the people who lived on the small island we visited took us to their homes and showed us their handicrafts.

For an additonal 10 soles, Charito took us on a short boat ride on their reed boat ( known as Totora ) to the other islands in the area. There are at least 40 floating islands on Lake Titicaca.

These Uros Floating Islands are a tourist destination, no doubt, but it was one of the most fascinating experiences on our journey in Peru. In fact, next to Machu Picchu, this place is a must see !!

Our tour to the Uros Floating Islands and Lake Titicaca took around 3 hrs... It was really nice to see the islands and interact with the locals. the scenic views on the tour are just AMAZING!! You get to learn so much about the culture of the people that live on these islands. Just make sure you drink lots of water, wear sunscreen and prepare your camera for beautiful pictures.....You have to do this tour! it is just breathtaking!!

When Lulu and I joined this tour to Peru, we were looking forward to Machu Picchu, and it lived up to our expectations, but Lake Titicaca and the Uros Floating Islands surpassed anything we imagined. Don't miss this experience!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Journey of a Lifetime ( Part 9 ) - Traveling to Puno

We packed our suitcases and boarded the bus to our next destination... Lake Titicaca which was located in Puno, Peru. It was a 7 hour journey from Cusco to Puno.

We had stops on our way to Puno. The first one was Raqchi or Racchi. 

Racchi is 11,815 feet above sea level. Located at the base of the Quimsachata volcano. It is known for the remains of the temple of Wiracocha. The temple was massive and was about 300 feet long. The foundation for the wall was over 10 feet high. They are the remains of the foundations of 11 pillars on each side of the wall, and there are ruins of living quarters around the site.

According to Jesus, the most important building inside the complex was the "Wiracocha temple". It was built by the Inca Wiracocha in honour to the Superior God invisible for the Andean people: "Apu Kon Titi Wiracocha". 

Near the temple were rows of Inca homes and storehouses. This was where the rich people were housed. The entire complex was surrounded by a wall.  Outside the wall was where the poor and the workers lived. Little of this wall still survives today, it’s bricks were used by the people of the area to build their houses.

Our next stop was at La Raya.  It was the border dividing the regions of Cusco and Puno. At 14,500 feet above sea level, La Raya provided beautiful views of the Andes rising high above alpaca farms.

Finally, we reached our destination.... Puno. Puno is the capital and largest city of the Puno Region and Province in Southeastern Peru. It is also the capital of Peruvian folklore and headquarters of the Virgin of Candelaria festivity and rests on the shores of Titicaca Lake, the highest navigable lake in the world. Puno is located at the edge of Lake Titicaca, 12,421 feet above sea level.

Puno's extreme elevation of 12,566 ft. was even higher than Cusco, so unless you've already spent time in the Andes, you'll almost certainly need to rest for at least a day to acclimatize. The city of Puno,  is a popular tourism and traveler's destination for a few reasons, the most obvious being the fact that it's located on the shore of the world famous and fascinating Lake Titicaca. The other reason is it offers relatively easy border crossing choices to Bolivia - which is just on the other side of the lake.

We proceeded to Royal Inn, our hotel and spent the rest of the day resting due to altitude sickness. I wasn’t feeling well when I arrived in Puno. In fact most of us in the group were feeling woozy because of the high altitude of La Raya, but I was in Puno for one reason, and not even illness could stop me from seeing what I traveled all the way there to see---- the fabled Uros floating islands. Before retiring to our rooms that evening, Jesus informed that that if we were having problems with our breathing there was oxygen available at the lobby.  I lined up together with the rest of the group to have a whiff of oxygen.

He gave us tips on how to overcome altitude sickness... let me share them with you..

Tips for High Altitude sickness:

* Try to lie down at least an hour when you arrive.
* Walk and move slow and steady.
* Drink a lot of fluids like water, soups and coca tea. The reason for this, Jesus explains, is that our digestion is slower in high altitude.
* The first lunch or dinner when you arrive need to be light meals. Try to eat easily digested foods like rice, pasta, vegetables, chicken and fish.. No beef.
* Try to avoid drinking alcohol on the first day at least. Our body works twice as hard at higher altitude on digestion and consumption.
* Do not try to breath faster or slower. Let your breathing adjust naturally.
* If you feel dizzy, make sure you stop and sit down. Do not force yourself to move on.

To avoid stomach problems:

* always eat well cooked food.
* Do not eat raw vegetables ( salads ) or non-peeled fruits.
* Drink plenty water with meals.
* If you have diarrhea, stop drinking coca tea. Drink black tea instead.

It was a long ride to Puno and having altitude sickness will really make you feel worse.... I better get some rest tonight -- tomorrow we are going to Lake Titicaca and the Uros Floating Villages...