Carnival! - Puno to Juli - South America: a first time for everything - CycleBlaze

September 15, 2013

Carnival! - Puno to Juli

Now, that's what I call a hill!
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EVER HAVE one of those days when everywhere you looked failed to please? And then, out of all the misery and effort came moments snatched from glory?

Well, today was one of those.

Just lately I´ve been suffering from a severe lethargy that has doctors baffled. I know that sounds a joke but for three days I have been unaccountably tired, a half-coma in which not a single joint or muscle protests but in which any effort beyond a walk has been debilitating. I say doctors are baffled because, not wanting to give up this venture, we did call one. And two came.

They took the usual tests, including one that ruled out altitude sickness, and left an exhorbitant fee with the news that they couldn´t find anything wrong with me. It is a given, of course, that merely seeing a doctor, even just arranging for one, will create instant recovery. And so, this morning, although I couldn´t say I felt well, I felt bright enough to venture out.

For which, I have to say, I was poorly rewarded. Because not only was there traffic, and not only did every driver squirt his horn from the moment he spotted us on the horizon, but the countryside was flat, bleak and dull. Of which more later.

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But what of the unexpected treats?

Well, the first came when the road curved round a village that had been bypassed. Taking the unsurfaced road through its centre would provide not only a short-cut but the chance to escape the noise of the highway and perhaps the welcome sight of a bar.

It had been a long time since tourists had passed and we were eyed with friendly curiosity and greeted with buenos dias, amigos. We have been called gringo as well, if in a friendly and teasing tone, but here everyone was more mannered.

Just before the square, and every town and village has one, the road became surfaced. Lined on the square were two formations, one of perhaps 16 men in dark suits and bowler hats and the other, a pace or two in front, women in traditional dress.

Come and join us, they gestured. So we did, and we shouted "Long live Peru", even if we had no idea what was going on
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They stood in formation like that all through ceremony and the speech that followed
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Some had seats, but it was hard to see why
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We were waved to join in, for something was about to start. We smiled and declined and went in hunt of drink, which we found in a dark and crowded shop where the owner installed us at a fraying table and on shaking chairs before disappearing. By the time we came out, the crowd down the road had increased. The formations were still there but now people were standing in that lethargic way which is a talent here in South America.

Suddenly four flags began to rise on white poles on the edge of the square, backed by green shrubs. Three we didn´t recognise but one we did: the red, white and red of Peru.

From a microphone outside the town hall to the right, a man in appropriate suit and bowler said Viva.... something and we all answered Viva! Then he shouted Viva Peru and for the first time in our lives we shouted Viva Peru! and began to feel terribly South American, as though a bunch of generals would gallop round the corner to suppress us. But they never did and the only thing that happened was that a suitably awful school band behind the bushes began playing tunes, and then what we were told was the national anthem, which, played better, would be rather catchy but in this case merely went on far too long.

The formations didn´t move. The only thing that did move was the man at the microphone, who began a speech in which the only word we recognised was politico. We´ve still no idea what we witnessed but it was glorious and everyone semed content we´d been there.

Little about the rest of the ride brought laughter to the soul, I'm afraid
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The countryside here is odd, all flat fields held in by low rocky ridges in the half distance. There are many buildings no larger than a domestic garage. It is hard to distinguish what must be stores from what must also be houses. The houses, we see, have only one, possibly two windows. Many windows have no glass and many houses look unoccupied. They are scattered without supporting roads. The area close to them is marked by low stone walls, but only occasionally do the walls form a square, so theire role is defeated. In any case, there is nothing within them, except we did see a triangle of walls around a telephone pole.

Strange straggling villages of mud huts no larger than a western garage. This is an area of unadorned poverty
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Villages, when they have a name, often have bright yellow signs boasting "We are beating anaemia" or "No more illiteracy!"

This is a bitterly poor area, where people survive rather than live. We see them herd heavy-footed cows now and then and we see the rare lone pig, goat or llama. But how this land, almost 4 000m hugh, supports all who live in those tiny, cramped houses, we don´t know.

In time we come, gratefully, to Juli. A metal banner across a fork in the road tells us it is a regional capital but explains little. We take the hill into town and approach the square by a road crowded with vans, tuk-tuk taxis, cars and a lone woman urging on a bleating sheep.

It was at the top of the last sharp rise that the second and biggest thrill of the day awaited us. Noisily. Because the square was alive with dancers, women in swirling blue dresses, men in whatever they cared to wear, girls in what their mothers had chosen, and teenage boys in outfits with brown, rodent-like masks that hid their faces. They danced to a band which marched behind them, urged on by as many people as I have ever seen moving rapidly from tiddly to drunk.

Unexpected but delightful dancing in the street - although it turned into a window-smashing exercise, we heard
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After a while we crossed the square, through the crowd, followed by a high-pitched "Good morning... good morning... good morning..." We turned. Behind us, five boys in costume, their brown legs bare, their faces covered by those masks. They switched to bird-like tweeting, "Nnneuh, nneuh, nneuh..." until they stopped and thrust out their hands. We shook them and were shaken in turn with enthusiasm, a theatrical passion.

"What is your name?" one asked in English.

"My name is Léo," I said.

They repeated the name together, tasting it, trying it for size, continuiing that "Nnneuh, nneuh, nneuh..."

Then the boldest said "Léo?...



And they fled in mock alarm.

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Time and again groups of boys went through similar routines, anxious to cause harmless nuisance and to shake hands with gringos. Old ladies held Steph´s arm or stroked it, to see whether it felt the same as theirs despite its paleness. Old men stood in my path and raised their hands in front of my face, palms inwards, before mumbling something and moving on with glazed eyes.

We didn´t see the orange fight - the battle of the flying oranges - but that was apparently even more extravagant fun. Oranges were flung by opposing sides using David-like slings. The idea was to re-enact the invasion of the Conquistadors and the battles that ensued. But by all accounts the moment one of the oranges broke a window, the rest were fired at more windows in an outbreak of mass hooliganism.

It was all enormous fun. Except, perhaps, for those who owned the windows.

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