24 Hours in Brown Town

Puno Travel Blog

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Puno genuinely surprised me. We had been told that it was a drab, featureless transit town, good only for grabbing a connection to the Bolivian border and hopping on a tourist-laden boat to the floating reed islands of Uros. As it turned out, we had a memorable 24 hours in a town that, upon first appearances, is as charismatic as a Gordon Brown speech on a wet wednesday in Wensleydale.

Well I guess we got lucky, because the weather stayed clear for our visit to Uros. I have to say that I was genuinely impressed by the reed islands. Principally because of the massive quotas of energy and invention that must have gone into creating and maintaining them but also due to the bizarre sight of pigs, chickens, ducks and other livestock wandering around as if they were on more solid ground. However this enjoyment was tempered by the touristic whirlwind created by the guides and local people amidst the sulphourous eggy odour created by the rotting reeds. The kids sing (European nursery rhymes for some reason) and you´re expected to give them money. A local man shows you his reed-woven house, and then a selection of reed-woven souvenirs to purchase. The second island we visited was little more than a floating tat showcase, with more crappy craftwork than you could shake a reed at. And so on and so on...          

Overall, I´d say that Uros was worth a visit, if only for the novelty and uniqueness of the ancient setting and to give you the chance to imagine what the islands used to be like - it´s truly impressive. I had been warned what to expect in terms of the hard sell but I´m still sad, if not surprised, that the locals have chosen/been coerced into compromising their culture to such an extent for the sake of the tourist dollar.

Upon our return to the town we unexpectedly ran into the middle of a warm-up for February´s Carnaval celebrations. It may have been just a warm up, but you wouldn´t have thought it for the passion, vibrancy and sheer noise that went into creating a fantastic atmosphere. Centred around the church and main square, a cast of thousands paraded throught streets, letting off fireworks, dancing like loons, carrying effegies of Mary and other icons and generally having a wild old time. What really brought the showcase into its own though was the battle of the brass bands, which saw about 200 - 300 musicians facing off in the main square blasting out various tunes before heading off on the parade circuit.            

It´s this kind of completely unplanned experience that makes travelling in South America such a joy. It makes me a little sad that we don´t foster this sense of community in our English towns. We sit inside and veg in front of the telly instead -  and I´m just as much a culprit of this as everyone else. I would never endorse the church and its aims, but I can´t deny that it supplies a central focus and a sense of unity that is clear to see. If only this unity could be brought about in another, less manipulatory way, than perhaps many places in England would not be the soulless, grey destinations that they have inexorably become.         

Anyway, I digress, following a (surprisingly good) pizza and few drinks in a local bar, we headed out clubbing for the first time this year.  The place (Deja Vu) was jammed with locals and the odd cluster of gringos, boozing and dancing the night away to the usual mix of salsa, merengue and three-legged horse spiced up with the occasional Western classic dropped in to bewilder everyone. The night´s lowlights included Tom Jones´s "You Can Leave Your Hat on" and an unutterably awful dance remix of Rammstein´s industrial steam hammer single "Du Hast."

Anyway, we proceeded to slide the night away on a tiled dancefloor that, following the usual spillage factor associated with any club, anywhere, soon closely resembled an ice rink. This was pretty good for my slidey-feet dancing technique which, unfortunately, still did not impress the ladies - quelle surprise! Andy however, attracted and kept the attention of a Dutch girl and was not quite so eager to depart as the rest of us as our batteries ran down.         

Leaving the Scousemeister to it, I left the club at about 2.30, and having forgotten both the name of our Hostel (it was something beginning with Q) and more importantly, its location, I proceeded to wander the deserted, rain-soaked streets for over half an hour. Eventually I found the place near the train station and hung mercilessly from the door bell until the nightwatchwoman finally appeared, grunted and grudgingly permitted this rain-sodden Limey to enter the dark (but thankfully dry) corridors within.       

Andy eventually showed up just before 6am with a smile on his face. This was swiftly wiped away when I reminded him that we had to be at the bus station by 7am for our bus ride to Bolivia. A ride that would end four eventful weeks in Peru, a country to delight, exhaust, sadden and frustrate by turn.        

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photo by: lrecht