Friday, October 20, 2006

Visiting Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca (Rock of the Puma) is the world's highest lake navigable to large vessels at 3,810 m above sea level between the borders of Peru and Bolivia. With a size of 8,300 km2 and a length of 190 km it is big! The lake is inhabited by several different cultures all taking pride in their own local costumes. They live on either real islands – or islands they have built themselves.

Wanting to explore the life on some of the islands on Lake Titicaca, we arranged a guided tour to two of the different indigenous cultures: The people on Isla de Taquile and the Uros Indians living on homemade floating islands.

Taquile Island is a big island located 35 km from the harbour of Puno. The indigenous people living there, speaks Spanish and Quechua and they have some really weird customs, - we laughed very much having them explained. For example, they have a hat-dress code! If you are a boy under 14 you need to wear one type of hat. If you are more that 14 years old and single you will wear another hat than the ones being married and so on. Also – the way you wear your hat says a lot! Wearing it to the side – you are sad and having some kind of problems. Wearing it to the back you are a happy man! You can change the way you wear your hat/your mood every couple of hours if you feel like it. The rules continue on... being a single girl you will wear big pom poms on your sjale. Being married you need to tone down: meaning you only use little pom poms. Within the first 3 months of engagement you need to move in together with your partner and his family. If you do not get pregnant within 5 years, the engagement will be cancelled. For sure you can not get married without having a kid first! Normally you get 5-8 kids. If you want to be a leader (meaning you are allowed to wear a special hat) you need to have at least three children! How the boys meets the girls? They carry little stones in their pockets. When they see a girl they like, they throw the stones at her!

Enough said about the strange rules. The inhabitants live primary of agriculture and weaving with a technique as old as their history. Of cause the tourism has had a small influence on their life and it is said, that was it not for the tourists the above rules would probably die with time. Despite the little impact tourist do have, the 300 Quechua families seem to be living on Taquile Island still very much following their ancestral customs, which you could feel as you passed by the old man knitting a hat or the small kids leading their group of sheep.

The terrain reminded us the Cusco region. Lots of ancient agricultural terraces and rustic stairs made of rocks. We had a nice walk going up up up, a couple of hours on the main square watching the habitants weave, and after lunch we continued to the Uros Islands.

The Uros islands are like nothing we have ever seen before. If you can see behind the somehow touristic facade, you will feel the magic feel to this place. It’s a place where time hardly seems to have had any influence on the everyday life of the Uros Indians.

When the Incas expanded in South America hundreds of years ago, the Uros indians was forced our of their territory and onto the lake. How to do that not having an Island to go to? Well they took advantage of all the totura reeds growing at the banks of the lake and used them to build everything they needed, first of all islands! By making a 2-3 meter deep island of layers of reeds, they succeeded in building sustainable floating islands. Until today they carry on this tradition. Imagine that! Stepping onto an floating island at first feel like stepping on an waterbed. But as you reach the centre of the island it is impressively stable.
2-3 times per month the locals need to put out a new layer of reeds. Doing that, the island can last for many years.
We had arranged to spend one night living with a local family. This is not normally for the tourists, but for us in was an important way in our seek of going behind the somehow touristic façade.
All in all there are around 45 floating Islands. Originally the islands lived of agriculture, primarily fishing, but after the islands have become more and more famous, many of the islands have chosen to live from tourism meaning that they welcome tour groups to visit their island a couple of hours in the morning, to get a peak into their lifes, in exchange of getting a chance of selling some handicraft. There are still some Uros though who continue on their lifes on islands away from the tourists.

The island we visited is named Khantati and is a family island where everybody is related. The whole family had together made the decision to go into tourism since it pretty much disturbs everybodys private life.
Our host Rita was a kind and open woman and as soon she heard that we were coming, she invited us to a local wedding on one of the other islands. Unfortunantly, we did not make it in time for the wedding so when we arrived at the island, it was nearly deserted except for two women showing us Ritas hut for then to turn to their own huts again.

We had a feeling of having the whole floating island for ourselves. Very strange. A feeling of solitude reached us, in a good way. On the other side we could not help feeling a little abandoned. When would everybody come back from the wedding?
We took a couple of walks around the island (had to be a couple since one walk around the island is only 30 seconds of entertainment). Anyone surprised that Barbara got wet feet, being too curious and not noticing where the island needed repair? Then we went to our hut. It was too made of reeds. Since they don’t have closets their clothes hang on the walls being rather decorative in its strong colors. We checked the madras, it was real! We had expected a reed madras so this was a nice surprise. Returning outside we found one of the women and got into a nice chat with her about life on the floating islands. The kids go to pre-school on one of the neighbouring islands. To go to highschool, they need to go to Puno, about an hour in a small boat. What about problems with neighbours? Well they simply cut the island in two and let their enemy drift away.
In the middle of the conversation Ritas mother showed up with a bunch of kids. She asked if we wanted to join the kids as they were gonna go to the wedding party to pick up all the missing island people.

Sure, why not?! So we went on a ride with the 14 year old Eduardo rowing the boat. As we came closer to the wedding party we began to realise what we were letting us in to. Music, dance and lots of beers, hundreds of happy drunk locals. The way to celebrate weddings is for sure universal. Rita and a couple of her indigenous friends invited us out for a dance. They were wasted and Rita landed on the ground several times. Henriks dance partner, a quiet dark girl, with long ponytails, dressed in the colourful long skirts as all the locals are wearing seemed a little enteminated having to dance with tall blond Henrik. Henrik at the same time was wondering how to get out of there – and also why she had so rough hands!
He got the answer half an hour later when the small boat we arrived in was loaded with people and Henriks dance partner rowed everybody safe home acompagnied by Ritas lovely beer-songs.

At the island we were met by Ritas mother and the most filling vegetable soup we have ever had and then we went to bed buried under 5 thick blankets.

Waking up on the island was amazing. Surrounded by silence and to be able to watch the simple life of the Uros made this experience feel real. We spent time talking to the habitants while waiting for our boat back to Puno. They truly feel that they have a good life on the islands and none of them wants to trade their life with an urban life in Puno. They all seem really relaxed. At the floating islands the word stress is not commonly used!


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