Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Puno, 12-13 January

Potential confusion: Puna: the altplano; high plain of the Andes, Puno: City with a population of 118,000 that happens to be in or on the Puna.

Puno: Maybe you've not encountered the name, but you will have seen the classic images of the reed boats that ply the lake, the back of buses and every second craft stall. Probably in a National Geographic, whilst sitting in your dentist's waiting room. The town is often the entry point for the "trail", a trilogy of 'must sees': Cusco, Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca. We've passed along the lake road on two previous occasions and only used the city as a resupply depot. Never stopping to investigate. Our impressions were of a classic Peruvian city. A congested collection of collectivos, their conductors hollering destination names that are incomprehensible, yet we will almost certainly have passed through them. Of mototaxis that swarm around the central market like it was their hive. Of I rendered clay-brick built buildings that sprout steel rods for the extension floor that never seems to be completed. A city in perpetual construction. A city in perpetual motion. But the major impression was of the railway track that ran up the middle of the main thoroughfare, over which we seemed to be required to cross on too many occasions. In short, two words summed up the city: manic and mayhem. Fair to say it was a place low on our 'repeat' or 'to do' list. Which is disrespectful, and manifestly unfair.

Yet again the place has materialised as part of a touring circuit that starts on the coast and encompasses Lake Titicaca and the Puno. Four days cycling at high altitude, four nights of camping and bucket washing necessitates an extra day's recovery. And as has happened so often before, when you peel back the skin and start to delve a little deeper, so neat moments are thrown up.

In the Andes, if you see a man with a large drum, you turn around and follow him. He could, of course just be heading off for band practice in the local school yard, in which case, it will be like listening in on the wireless, there'll not be much visuals, you'll not get that magnificent grumble through your guts. However, if it should be Saturday early evening, you could get the full televisual performance. We follow the drum and get our reward.

A large congregation of women and men are gathering in the Plaza, in front of the cathedral. The men, dressed all in black, with a regulation haircut, the ladies in red and black, their hair in tight buns. At first I wondered if they were all waiting staff, in which case service in the city's restaurants will be slow tonight. The coiffure and the later arrival of the processional banner soon told the truth. The national police academy. Like all dance, I find it near impossible to describe. Traditional to the varying cultures of these high plains, it appears to have little structure, yet the choreography is near perfect. Every performer, there's over one hundred, turn, hop or skip-step in unison. Where these ranks and files are constrained by convention, each step traditional, there will be one single character who 'freestyle' dances. 'It' is the devil. 'It', because it's not possible to determine the dancer's gender, yet the impression is androgynous, verging on femininity. Bloody stragged hair, twisted goat's horns, bulging eyes, wild unkempt demeanor. 'It' gets to flow freely around the open spaces within the square. The whole performance is in constant motion for over an hour. A feat of enthusiasm and skill, particularly as the girls are in three inch heels. And the band plays on. That solitary drum reverberating right through my stomach.

Eventually they all troop off to the police headquarters, that are conveniently situated in the corner of the plaza. Carrying at their helm the statue of the 'Virgen de la Candelaria', for it is her festival that is about to commence. We troop off to find our tea. That accomplished, it's not difficult, you only have to decide if it's to be pizza, Chifa or chicken, then select one from the many. Replete, we're heading back to our room, when those distinctive thumps of drum, draw us right back to that same open space. The new band plays a variant on that same refrain of before. Only this time the dancers are in a traditional dress.

Puno's claim is the 'Folkloric Capital of the Peru', and on any given evening it's possible to find some 'action' somewhere in town. So maybe our serendipitous encounter wasn't quite so fortuitous.

Sunday morning we carry out one of our favourite manoeuvres. Wandering a town in the silence of the Sabbath. At a time when it's possible to look at a building and not feel that you're impeding the locals going about their businesses, when It's possible to stand in the middle of the street and not be mown down by a taximoto. Only on this Sunday the armed forces are out on the streets. Police motorbikes are strategically blocking off side roads. Time to head back to that plaza again. Only there's no riot shields or water cannon. It's all medals and swords, spit and polish. Even the local authority personages are in a uniform. All present to watch the president hoist the national flag and sing an interminable national anthem. Thereafter to goose-step past a viewing gallery of military brass weighed down by medals and caps encrusted in scrambled egg. We position ourselves unobtrusively in the farthest corner from the saluting dignitaries, watching all. The squaddie checking his mobile, another 'selfie' photographing the event, the lady civil servant hobbling in tall heels.

That show over we head down to the shore, to a lakeside walkway. This being a Sunday the area is a hive of activity. The pedal boats are dodging on the inner pond, the touts are latching onto every 'gringo', and a folkloric group are being filmed. The all-in-black director is attempting to organise the independently minded older members of the troupe. We stop to watch another piece of free, unscripted entertainment.

Puna winter, the wet season is underway. It rains hard in the night. We ride out of the city the next morning, over cracked paviors, through puddles that might be fathomless, our tyres slicked in slippery mud, negotiating with taxis and trucks, along nameless one-way streets that never want to go our way. We're back into the same world that had coloured our two previous visits. A city that's like those bunches of 'Lady's Finger' bananas that are being hawked on the passing stalls. You need to peel back that thin skin to find the flesh within.