Excerpt 7: Penniless in Copacabana

After getting struck with altitude sickness while trekking to Machu Picchu, spending a day by the world’s highest lake, Titicaca, in Bolivia was a godsend, even if there was a powercut and I had no money. Here’s the seventh excerpt from my book.

Absolutely Marvellous: Lake Titicaca-Bolivia
Photo by Ivan Mlinaric
I’d heard good things about Bolivia: hospitable locals, cheaper accommodation and food, a bustling historical capital, and an excellent place to visit the Amazon. I was excited about seeing a new country and wanted to relax and fully recover from the altitude sickness. However, just as in Ecuador and Peru, my first day in Bolivia had complications.
 “Donde esta un banco – Where’s a bank?” I said to the hostel owner in Copacabana, Titicaca’s lakeside town. I felt drowsy after another sleepless overnight journey, this time because the bus driver’s loud trashy pop music had kept me awake. The white haired hostel owner stared and frowned. “Un banco por favor?”
“No banco, no, no,” he said, wagging his finger. Was he saying there wasn’t a bank in Copacabana? I hoped not. After leaving Cusco in a rush I had no money.
“Banco, no tengo dinero,” I said, showing him my bank card.
“Ah, okay,” he said. I sighed and waited for him to signal where to go. “No, no banco; problema. No hay luz.” I thought luz meant lights, not electricity. A power cut had struck Copacabana, which meant even the cash points were out of order. What was I going to do?
Luckily, he let me off paying until the next morning, and even leant me $3 worth of Bolivianos. I was starving after not eating since Cusco, but settled for some bread so that I could have an evening meal. I refused to let the power cut ruin my day and went down to the lake.
Titicaca is the world’s highest lake at just over 3,000 meters above sea level, also known as ‘Rock Puma;’ titi – wildcat or puma, and karka – rock. The map of Titicaca is supposed to look like a puma chasing a rabbit – to me it’s like a Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing Bart Simpson – either way it’s massive.
As I walked downhill passed the red, yellow, and green houses and souvenirs shops, the deep blue reminded me of San Pablo Lake in Otavalo, but a few hundred times the size. The enormity of Titicaca was daunting. 
Anyone for a Pedalo? Copacabana
Photo by Erik Kristensen
Copacabana was like a beach resort town by the sea: gringos sipped beer outside the bars while enjoying the mild sun, a handful of stray dogs ran about barking and biting each other, and a few tourists dressed in shorts and t-shirts were out on a pedalo.
A couple of Bolivian ladies dressed for winter in colourful shawls and funky little bowler hats were parked on a red stone wall, pointing and laughing at the silly gringos on the funny boat-bike. I sat up from them and ate my bread discreetly so the stray dogs wouldn’t come running, but something worse came my way.
 A spicy meat smell drifted past. Shaded by a large yellow umbrella, an old guy had sparked up his special Titicaca Kebab stall. Next to him a group of four kids quarrelled as they played table football. Their parents stood waiting for succulent kebabs. The rich smell was too much. I felt poor and hungry, but nothing compared to the many people I’d seen on my travels. Suffering would do me good.
I spotted a few tourists walking up a small hill by the side of the beach and went to explore. In ancient Spanish, Copacabana means ‘to see the lake,’ which I did from the top of Mount Calvario. The hour stroll up was a breeze after Machu Picchu, and the view over to Isla Del Sol reminded me of Greek islands. The hill is one of the most important religious places in Copacabana and is a popular Christian pilgrimage point.
A group of tubby local women with plump round happy faces gossiped by a wall. I imagined their conversation.
“So what did he say, dear?”
“You’ll never guess, apparently the tubby look is back in again.”
“How do you know?”
“It was in last week’s Hola magazine.”
“Finally, that will stop him moaning about me losing weight.”
“It’s about time too, eh? Poor old Javier’s Titicaca Kebabs was about to go out of business.”
“Yeah, I heard that one of his friends cut the power to force everyone down to get a kebab.”
“I’m not complaining, let’s get going before he runs out.”
The hunger was getting to me.
After traipsing round mountains in Peru, Copacabana was an invigorating change. Seeing water was calming and, even without power or food, the lakeside town was turning into one of my favourite spots.
Back down in the village, I ambled round the grid like streets, took a few photos of the bright white Basillica church, and browsed the many colourful markets. Not once did I feel threatened being alone.
With the mid-afternoon heat, the local’s choice of clothes surprised me. The men wore jumpers and jackets, and the women long skirts with a jumper or shawl and a traditional bowler hat. Were they expecting a sudden snowstorm? And why were most of them overweight? I thought Bolivia was one of South America’s poorest countries.
I finished my afternoon by Titicaca. Sitting next to the highest lake in the world was a strange sensation. How had a lake like Titicaca arrived to the middle of South America? It would have been interesting to put the scene into rewind and watch Copacabana form around Titicaca, a marvellous natural sight.
As a reward for starving myself all day, I stumbled on a restaurant that accepted credit cards using the swipe system. Fresh trout with potatoes, salad, and a couple of cold beers sorted me out; no wonder the people in Copacabana were a little on the heavy side.
The electricity was back on in the morning. I settled with the owner, gave him a few extra Bolivianos to say thank you, and then squeezed into a small van heading to La Paz, the capital, about four hours away. I would have stayed longer, maybe just to try one of the delicious smelling kebabs, but I had to move on.

Next month’s excerpt from Brazil…

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