The Surreal Killer

The Surreal Killer
Machu Picchu. Peru

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Prequel to the Galapagos Islands

Before we visited the Galapagos Islands several years ago, Elaine and I traveled from Salta, Argentina, the setting for my first novel The Empanada Affair, to Santa Cruz, deep in the Bolivian jungles, to Quito, Ecuador, which is high in the Andes.  Along the way we went to La Paz and Lake Titicaca and then on to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, which became the setting for part of one of my earlier novels, “The Surreal Killer”.  From there we went on to Quito, Ecuador and The Galapagos.  A current Work In Progress (WIP) brings Roger and Suzanne to the The Galapagos Islands, so I thought it might be fun for Jerry and Elaine to share a few of the spots in between the places where Roger and Suzanne have already solved multiple murders and one of the current WIPs.

Elaine and I visited Lake Titicaca, high in The Andes on the border of Bolivia with Peru.  We stayed overnight at Cochibamba, on the south end of the lake.  During the day we visited The Islands of the Sun and of the Moon, two of the most sacred sites of the Incas, in the lake itself.  The following day we caught the train that traversed the Peruvian Altiplano from Puno to Cuzco after a short bus ride across the border.

The church in Cochibamba was very interesting.  It was dominated by a huge statue of The Virgin Mary that stood behind and above the altar.  This statue was designed to rotate on its base so The Virgin could face outwards towards Lake Titicaca, or inwards towards the congregation, at the will of the priest.  Six days each week the huge statue looked out over the lake, where it protected the local fishermen from the capricious weather and from other unspecified dangers lurking in the depths of the lake according to the local legend.  Since the small flimsy fishing boats were designed for single occupants and made of the simplest materials, reeds and wood, these dangers were almost certainly all too real.  One such danger we learned about as we visited the Island of the Sun was that some of the islands floated, and the local fishermen risked drowning if they stepped on the wrong piece of ground.  Remember this all happens high in the Andes where the air is thin and the water is very, very cold.  On the seventh day, Sunday, the statue was rotated to face the congregation.  Given the increased risk of going fishing without the protection afforded by The Virgin’s watchful gaze, the local indigenous fishermen were encouraged to attend Morning Mass and the Priest’s congregation included just about everybody who lived in the area.  You might say they attended services religiously.

Like all of the churches we saw in South America, much of the community’s wealth, in this case not very much, was apparent in the church’s structure and decorations.  In addition to serving the community’s religious needs it was also a center for its social needs, so was well used during the week, especially by the women and children who did not go out on the lake with the fishing boats. 

There was, however, a bit of local competition for the spiritual attention of the indigenous people living in and around Cochibamba.   Elaine attended a late night counseling session presided over by a local witch doctor (shaman).  The shaman offered to forecast the future for attendees who were expected to reciprocate with a voluntary donation for his time and effort.  He was assisted in viewing the future by a small set of chicken bones he cast on the ground in front of his fire.  The individual patterns the bones made as they came to rest in front of the individual whose future was foretold was the basis for the shaman’s analysis.  This event was the total of the locally available nightlife in Cochibamba, so was well attended by the visiting tourists. 

The beverages offered at this event included a local rum, which would have been better used as a nail polish remover, and the ubiquitous Andean preventive and cure for high-altitude sickness, a tea made from coca leaves called mate de coca.  Coca leaves and tea are legal throughout South America wherever people live and work at altitudes high enough to cause pulmonary edema, and the locals swear by the efficacy of this local remedy.  It didn’t work for me, but some of the other tourists swore by it, so who knows?

Our train ride from Puno, Peru to Cuzco, Peru took about 14 hours, almost entirely traversing the high desert of southern Peru.  There were occasional small villages visible from the train, each with a school and a family planning clinic as major community buildings.  The population lived by farming and ranching in these small isolated communities, with their only contact with the outside world coming as a few trains a day roared by.  The universal secular education offered in these free public schools and the population control and beginnings of women’s liberation provided by the universal availability of the family planning clinics are part of a positive legacy left by former President Fujimori.  Hopefully history will judge him based upon some balance of the complex mixture of positive things he did for his country and the negatives of corruption and use of the military to forcibly eliminate dissent during the suppression of The Shining Path terrorist movement.

This is probably enough for now.  Perhaps we’ll be able to return to La Paz and its airport in El Alto in a subsequent blog entry.

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