Here comes the rain
It had to happen in the end. After over a month of little or no rain, the heavens above Lake Titicaca opened and decided to dump it all on our heads in one evening. First lighting decided to strike a bit too closely for comfort while we were up an island mountain on a - failed - geocache expedition, then the floodgates opened, the winds picked up and the deluge started.
We were staying with local families at the time, which meant a tin roofed room in their house typically, and at 2 in the morning it was tempestuous to say the least. In pitch blackness with the rain hammering down like a thousand mad drummers above our heads, it felt like we were suspended in an iron box in the sky and the gods were trying to hurl us down to the ground. Maybe, I thought in a sleep-addled fug, I really should not have walked round that pagan temple widdershins three times and made a whole-hearted wish without appeasing someone or other first. This continent is fairly crowded with gods...
We woke to mild drizzle (which still sounds like the end of the world under a tin roof) and a Lake that was the subdued grey of the Atlantic. After so much of Peru had delivered big time on the scenic impressiveness front, Titicaca let the rest of the country down badly by being like Cleethorpes on a wet November weekend. Still, the homestay had been fun if a bit cheesy (you haven´t lived till you´ve been dressed in a poncho and whirled breathlessly round a dancefloor by a tiny, cackling Peruvian woman) and it was good to pump some tourist dollars into the bottom of the local economy rather than simply turning it over to the purveyors of Guinness and other beers; the happy look on the face of the three kids Rob and I were staying with when I gave them a Kit Kat after a simple dinner will linger long in my mind. We, as in the Exodus group, stayed with the poorest community on the island and even with our input and dollars they often only manage to make the three hour boat trip to the mainland twice a year. It´s one of those times when yes, tourism is probably destroying local cultures and traditions, but when those local cultures and traditions include grinding poverty, back-breaking work and low life expectancy, then sod it. If you´d seen those three kids huddled on the floor round the fire, you´d want more for their future too.
Happily though, I managed to climb three peaks over 4000m on the lake which means I don´t have to hang up my walking boots for ever and retire to my sofa and look at my Wii as a dangerous amount of exercise over coming months.
Talking of poverty, the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, is trying to wipe it out of Bolivia by a programme of nationalisation and redistribution of wealth that´s seen a state pension introduced, incentives for kids to stay in education, and all the large multinationals crying foul. So far he´s doing well though and Freddie, our guide round La Paz today, certainly thinks he´s doing a good job of it and, like a good socialist, I nodded along vigorously. Morales needs to do well though. If the poor everywhere are in chains, those on the outskirts of La Paz are bound and gagged too, while elsewhere in the city the paranoid rich dwell in sumptuous houses behind iron gates. The inequality of wealth here, as in too many other places in South America, can take your breath away.
And that´s quite literally. La Paz, at 3600m, is the highest administrative capital in the world and the Bolivian national football team keeps trying to host tournaments here so it can run rings round the opposition (unusually, the richer suburbs are at lower altitudes, mainly because it´s a couple of degrees warmer down there). Perhaps if England had played Croatia here we´d have had a chance, but we arrived to the news that England had lost that match and were out of Euro 2008, which was a nice synchronous closing of the loop of sporting disaster considering we left Quito 5 weeks ago after losing the RWC final. Anyway, La Paz is a cool city: very bustling, very Asian in some ways (Kathmandu seems to be the favourite comparison), and for some reason I haven´t done my usual freak at the sight of more than 10 people and a goat in one place and instead have really dialled into it and enjoyed the place. In fact, it´s a shame that I´m leaving tomorrow because I get the feeling I´d very much like to see more of the city and the country around it, llama foetuses in the Witches´Market and all.
But, a cab´s picking me up at 5am tomorrow morning and then American Airlines are taking me to Miami before I mount a Virgin for Heathrow. 10.25am on Saturday morning I´ll be back in England (though sadly with not enough energy or time to get down to Bath to watch us demolish Bristol that afternoon). After nearly six weeks, I´m ready to come back too. I´ve had a great time here, made some great friends, laughed like a loon on more occasions than I can recall and seen some unforgettable sights. But John Urry´s concept of Tourist Gaze turns into Tourist Glaze with me after a while, and I´m ready to get home, see all the people I miss, revel in the space, have a pint, stomp around the countryside, ride the mountain bike and relax in a good hot bath.
It might not be as romantic as disappearing over the horizon with a pack on your back and a paranoid guidebook in your hand, but truly one of the best things about travel is the bit where it´s over and you come home.