Saturday, December 03, 2005

Happy Birthday to Me

Anapia, Peru

When I was younger, I did not really like to celebrate my birthdays. That changed later on when I figured out that your birthday is the one day of the year that you can be the center of attention and have things your way with a minimum of persuasion. "Come on, it's my birthday" is a thin but effective argument. From about 20, I have tried to gather around as many friends as possible and get drunk trailer park style. Since a mob was not in the cards and (as much as I enjoy it) going out and drinking with just Jason is not that unusual of an event, I decided to look for a more creative venue and format. For reasons not entirely clear, the chosen venue was Lake Titicaca's Anapia Island and the format was left to chance.

In my mind, Lake Titicaca is one of those places that exists entirely to serve the needs of trivia. Like Ulan Bataar and The Caspian Sea, I am generally more likely to see the name on Jeopardy than on a road sign. I reckon that is why I was so keen to go there for my birthday. Puno is the biggest Peruvian city on the shores of Titicaca. A travel agent there arranged for us to stay with a family for two nights on Anapia Island.

Getting to the island is a bit of a trek. The journey started bright and early when we boarded a comfortable bus full of other gringos on their way to Boliva. A scenic hour and a half later, the driver dropped us off on a dusty road just before the border. We stood there for a bit having a North by Northwest moment before hiring a bicycle taxi to cart us into the town of Yunguyo. We were met by at an arranged point by a man who was to take us the rest of the way to the island.

After picking up a few supplies, we walked across town (only a kilometer or so) and boarded a small passenger bus known in these parts as a collectivo. On first inspection, you think that maybe 12 or so people could fit into the available seats. Do to Peruvian advances in stacking technology, they get more like 25 passengers aboard. These people must be masters at Tetris. Our short journey was good value for money at thirty US cents a head despite the discomfort caused by long legs in short seats and the disconcert at having all of our worldly belongings traveling unsecured on the roof.

The collectivo dropped us right next to Titicaca where we boarded a small (maybe 15 foot) boat after a short chat with a friendly family enjoying their Saturday by the lake. The boat ride takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes. The scenery made it seem like less. The shore was green with fields and farms and clusters of trees. Beyond those were hills and blue sky and, in the direction of Bolivia, snow-capped mountains. Little groups of ducks scattered from the boat's path and we saw many small boats powered by colorful sails.

Anapia is small and remote. You can walk across the widest bit (taking in the highest point) in less than 30 minutes. Most people live in stone houses, work the land, and raise animals (pigs, chickens, and cows) for a living. I got the impression that much of the local produce is for local consumption. We, at least, were drinking milk straight out of the cow and eating eggs fresh from the chicken. The gift of mangos to our hosts was appreciated as all fruits on the island have to be brought in by boat.

Before leaving Puno, I had stopped at a local bakery and picked myself up a birthday cake. After dinner on the first night, we sat down with the family in a concrete room lit by dim bulbs for a little birthday party. There were no candles, but Jason led the group in song, and we washed down big pieces of cake with steaming glasses of hot chocolate. The conversation was awkward due to language difficulties, but everyone agreed that the cake was good (if expensive by local standards).

Earlier in the day, our hosts had mentioned something about putting flowers in my hair when we were discussing plans for the party. I had passed this off as an idiomatic expression. It turns out to have been literal. When everyone had had their fill of cake, they took turns dumping a handful of flower petals (or small pieces of paper, I never determined which) on my head, giving me hugs, shaking my hand, and wishing me many more happy years. That done, we all went straight to bed. It was about nine thirty.

I woke up the next day with no hangover, not stinking of cigarettes, and with no blank spaces in my memory. It did not really feel like a birthday, but maybe that is for the best.


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