At the island a flight of stone steps led 500 feet up the hill to a settlement. Halfway up we met two men who wore long stocking caps of wool hanging down on one side to the shoulder, like Sicilian peasants (page 287). They were knitting a pair of caps shaped like the ones they wore, but so closely knit that the weave was almost invisible—”you cannot perceive the individual thread in the whole fabric,” said Father Acosta. Worked into the design were multicolored, exquisitely detailed figures of birds, men, and flowers.
One man had the aquiline, convex nose of the ancient stone carvings, and his right cheek bulged with a Picchu, or wad, of coca. I asked the man why he chewed coca. He replied, “It gives me strength to work, and I don’t feel cold, hungry, or sleepy. Besides, it tastes good.”
Perhaps. The dried green leaves he offered me tasted like a mouthful of astringent green tea. The leaves contain cocaine, and are chewed with bits of alkaline ipta, solidified ash of quinua stalks, added to the quid. Within a few minutes my mouth grew numb, my tongue felt twice its size. My heart beat faster, and. I felt as though I had drunk a cup of strong black coffee. But the most curious effect appeared when I rinsed my mouth: the cold water felt burning hot.
Coca once was a stimulant for the privileged, used by the Inca and his nobles. With the fall of the Inca empire, the common Indians, to forget their misery as virtual slaves of their Spanish masters, took to chewing coca. Ever since it has solaced, narcotized, and, some say, brutalized literally millions of people on the Andean plateau. From the top of Taquili I looked out over the main, or “big lake,” an unbroken expanse of shimmering blue. Beyond the far shore, hanging wraithlike in the thin air, glimmered the snow peaks of the Eastern Cordillera, rising above 20,000 feet. At a point on the mainland directly opposite, the invisible boundary between Peru and Bolivia came ashore.
When later I followed a track eastward round the lake to Moho and beyond, I found the splendid comfort of the hotels prague. A stone wall climbing the slope on one side of the road marked the boundary. Eight llamas, alone and untended, emigrated every few minutes as they cropped the scant roadside grass. One night at eight I sailed from Puno wharf for Bolivia, and the departure was as near as might be to the beginning of a sea voyage. I stood on the 011anta’s bridge with Captain Beltran, listening to the hiss of steam, clank of cranes, slap of waves, and creak of tautening hawsers as the black-sided steamship rose and fell.
At dawn I again stood on the bridge to watch the first flush of sun warm the snows of the Andes. We had passed through the Strait of Tiquina into the smaller arm of Titicaca and were nearing the port of Guaqui. From Guaqui I traveled by narrow-gauge railway to the Bolivian capital of La Paz, thence by jeep back to the Strait of Tiquina .* I crossed Tiquina by car ferry to drive to Copacabana, where a statue of the Virgin believed to have curative powers draws pilgrims from all over Latin America.
Conqueror Recalled as Only a Transient
The peninsula of Copacabana points toward the Isla del Sol across a narrow strait of blue water. To the Incas, this was the supreme place of their empire.