“Omerta,” explained the Italian – his unruly hair held back by a headband and hands wildly gesticulating hands – “the law of silence. If there is a fight or a crime committed, no one will say anything about it. That’s the thing about Italy. We’ve got it all: beautiful architecture, the best food, wonderful cities,” he paused, counting out the marvels on his fingers, “and beautiful women, people that is. But there has to be a tradeoff or everyone would be rushing to live there. And that tradeoff is the Mafia. You can’t get anything done in business or politics without facing corruption.”
It’s just as bad in Bolivia, I thought to myself. “Corrumpida hasta la medulla,” they say. Corrupt to the core, to the inside of the spinal cord.
The conversation reached a natural hiatus. We all breathed in deeply, taking the timeout to digest the density of the Italian’s social critique. My sister breathed in yet deeper, the stories had shed some shadow on her sparkling dream to move to Italy to play soccer.
But it only took a few moments for the refreshing breeze coming off Lake Titicaca to blow us back to reality. The dark side of Italy was forgotten as the Siren song of nature washed over us. We faced endless sparkling blue interrupted by strange towering humps of green terra erupting out of the water. We all turned our heads bow-wards. Land-ho. We had arrived at the Island of the Sun.
We piled off the small barca at the south end of the island. A couple of Argentines makes a scene with the pobrecita Cholita asking for a 5 Boliveano park fee. A scene over 80 cents. That’s why the islanders all know how to speak Argentine slang – more out of odium that adoration.
We needed to get to the north end but all the boats were private and expensive. It was the wrong day of the week to be circumnavigating islands at such a high altitude. My Bolivian friend Julio, oft mistaken for my private guide thanks to his verbosity and limitless culture general, gave them a piece of his mind about it. In all honesty, he had failed horribly in being a guide of any sort. He had assured us an endless supply of bag-carrying donkeys would be expecting our arrival but the only living creatures having any apparent interest in carrying our bags were a pair of malnourished Bolivian youths. They were interested in making a quick dollar (or at any pace really).
After suffering an epic internal conflict between pity and guilt we decided to pay them to shoulder our load for the 3 hour trek. It seems somehow wrong to pay someone to carry our bags, to outsource our suffering to cheap labor. If they seemed too heavy for us, how can we dump them on the scurvied shoulders of two youngsters? But it seems that when you try to help you often harm, and when you do things that seem cruel and exploitative you might actually be helping out. Oh, the counter-intuitive 3rd world.
As it turned out, what our guides lacked in stature they made up for in lively belligerence.
If you were cruising along the shores of Isla del Sol about two hours later, perhaps you may have witnessed these two jovenes trudge down onto a sandy beach and plopping down with a hodge-podge of backpacks. Three tourist types would have lagged just behind them, in apparent overwhelmedness gracias to the vast natural beauty of the island. You may have been puzzled at their penchant for snapping senseless amounts of photos and their oversized cameras.
Those tourists would be us. Those tourists would be mumbling unintelligibly in awe of the rolling, semi-developed agriculture hills, the loose pigs and sheep nibbling at the grass and of course – the snowy peaks towing with lonely dignity across the elegant waters.
Our llevadoros were also mumbling, but not exactly in worship. Oh Gringos and their constant pleas to stop and photo the flowers.
The conversation to this point had been decidedly jocular. They toyed with our innocent introductory questions – they gave us fake names, spoke hyperbolically about their poverty, and made fun of Julio for being a ‘fake’ Bolivean. “You don’t know what these plants are? What kind of Bolivean can’t recognize a POTATO PLANT!” After years abroad, Julio’s accent had become quite neutral. This perplexed the boys and in turn they developed the plausible story that he was our personal guia.
Was it more believable that he was our friend? That would likely be a novel concept to them.
So we walked, and traded lies. We found ourselves in part frustrated, in part intrigued by the mystery of island life. One of the guides started waxing polemical about his 13 year old esposa, wife. And whenever Julio grew too deriding in response to their fabrications, they would regress to Aymara, their native language, and poke some more fun at us.
It was a jolly company that arrived at the beach. The boys, tired of slogging, talked us into paying them to row us the final stretch. We agreed, on the condition that we could jump out for a quick dip partway through the lake.
Partway across Julio and I asked to row. The boys looked at us skeptically, but acquiesced. After rowing in three or four circles and suffering extensive criticism from the boys, we finally started moving in the right direction. I tried on a bit of Spanish: “Estamos volando!” I cried!
And one of the boys responded: “Como un Tortuga…” Like a turtle. This sent us all into bursts of laughter.
We switched back and I took up my imaginary drum. I am assuming that they have never seen Ben Hur, but I yelled to the boys, with hopes that they would understand: Ok Lads! Ramming speed!
The Sun began to set behind hills at 4000 metros sobre el nivel de mar, saying her goodbyes to an unlikely fellowship of boisterous interlopers shrieking in freezing exstasis and splashing out of the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca.


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