Dodging the (blanket) fuzz

Backpacking & Trekking, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Peru — By on July 19, 2006 at 10:21 pm

Puno, the Peruvian gateway to Lake Titicaca, turned out to be something of a slum with prisonlike, unheated accommodations, so we opted not to stay there for another night and instead take a five hour bus directly to infinitely more gorgeous “White City” of Arequipa.

Earlier in the day, we’d returned from Copacabana (Bolivia) to Puno (Peru) on a tourist bus, and had been appropriately insulated from reality with climate control, an English speaking guide and of course, a slew of other backpackers seatmates hailing from all parts of the world.

When we arrived in Puno and realized that we couldn’t use our pre-purchased tourist ticket to head to Arequipa a day earlier than scheduled, we bought the cheapest seats we could find-just a shade under $5-on a bus that serviced, from front to back, 100 percent locals. I was quietly thrilled at the utter lack of other tourists, as examples of “real,” unvarnished culture are hard to find on this, the Gringo Trail.

Soon after boarding the bus, a young, moon-faced woman with dark braids down to her a waist and a multi-tiered pink skirt reminiscent of an 80s prom dress approached us and asked us, in Spanish, if we’d like to borrow blankets for the ride. Seasoned to be suspicious of anyone offering anything for free, we declined the ultra-soft, sizable mantas and instead bought our own at the next stop in Juliaca. It was a wise move: the ride through the mountains rapidly turned sub arctic, and we had to hide our entire bodies and faces under the fabric to keep from becoming human popsicles.

Adding to the freezing frustration was the fact that the bus stopped constantly, at first to add more passengers and then to get raided by the aduana, or customs officials. We watched as they pulled bags from the bottom of the bus and then poked through bundles in the overhead bins, clearly looking for some kind of contraband.

We were pretty convinced that they we’re searching for drugs (Peru is the continent’s second largest producer of cocaine and shares a sizable border with Columbia), so when the stern looking uniformed men started yanking blankets out of bags, we twisted around in our seats, watching as they carted off the very woman who’d offered to lend us a few from her own pile.

As it turns out, according the comparatively well-dressed Peruvian women in the seats next to us, carrying the machine manufactured blankets across the border from Bolivia was illegal, a customs infraction that wasn’t quite as serious as packing away a few kilos of cocaine, but disallowed just the same.

The blanket girl reboarded the bus and joined her group, look more sheepish then terrified, and later as the temperate inside dropped off as steeply as the cliffs outside our windows, I wished that I’d taken her up on the offer the “borrow” an extra from her. They might be contraband, but as Jen and I played polite tug of war with the one we shared between us, I secretly wished I had an extra one all to myself!

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