July 4, 2008
The alarm went off at 5:30 this morning, and I opened the curtains of our room to witness a beautiful sunrise over Lake Titicaca, the lake tinged a light violet. Stands of totora reeds in the shallow water near shore and the peninsula beyond were silhouetted against the pink and purple sky.
After breakfast, we assembled for our bus ride to the dock, and then we would transfer to a boat to visit Uros and Taquile Islands. Our local guide for the next two days is named Edith. She is cute and sweet, and her English somewhat better than Edgar’s, though not as good as Boris’s. Sometimes she didn’t seem to understand our questions, so I tried to ask questions in Spanish, even though I didn’t want to appear rude to the others. There was always a translation following.
The boat was part of the KonTiki Tour company, I immediately noticed. Edgar and Edith are apparently both employed by KonTiki as well, contracting out to OAT for this leg of the trip. OAT requires local guides for each region. Boris, of course, was with us as well.
On the boat, we again greeted Edgar who boarded with his tour of the day, a group of people from several Spanish speaking countries.
After a ride of about two hours, our first stop, Uros Islands, was one of the most fascinating parts of this trip. Uros is a group of floating islands made entirely from totora reeds and their root systems.
This part of Lake Titicaca is full of these totora reed patches, which the Uros people use to make their islands, the ground they walk on, their houses, their boats, and are even used for food.
The Uros are an ancient people with an ancient language, which has become extinct, as they began trading with the Aymara people along the lake, and adopted their language. Nowadays, the people of Uros speak Aymara. Spanish is their second language.
The Uros predate the Inca civilization. According to their legends, they existed before the sun, when the Earth was dark and cold; thus they say that they have “black blood” making them impervious to the cold, as well as drowning and being struck by lightning. Their legendary ancestors disobeyed universal order and mixed with humans, so they lost their status as super beings.
Apparently the original purpose of the island settlements was defensive, when the Inca expanded their empire onto the Uros’ lands. By living on these islets, they could move if a threat arose. They have been living this way, on the highest navigable lake in the world, for hundreds of years.
There are about 40 of these floating islands, supporting from two to more than 10 families. On the largest island, there is a church and a primary school. Today, the Uros make their living by trading on the mainland and through tourism. They make beautiful embroidered crafts and small items made of reeds that they sell to tourists who visit their islands. They also fish and hunt shore birds and ducks for eggs and food. Some of the fish are for their own consumption and some they trade in Puno at farmer’s markets.
At the main island, we transferred to a balsa boat made of reeds, rowed by native men. We got off at a much smaller island, named Isla Suma Balsa, that is home to only a few families. This community consists of a few houses and storage huts. Notice the ground cover – all reeds. It is sort of spongy to walk on!
The men on the island demonstrated how these islands are constructed. The totora reeds have a dense, interwoven root system about 1-2 meters thick that supports the islands. They are anchored with ropes attached to sticks which are driven into the bottom of the lake. The people must add new layers of reeds frequently because the reeds at the bottom rot away quickly. They also wear away due to the people constantly treading on the reeds. In the rainy season, the reeds rot much faster, so new layers must be added more often.
The following pictures show how the men measure the thickness of the island.
During this demonstration, our guide, Edith, gave us a commentary in English of what was happening.
We sat down to listen to Edith explain the history, geography and culture of these islands. One of the men demonstrated with miniature versions how the island is constructed.
While all this was going on, the women sat nearby, making crafts to sell to the tourists. It would have been rude for us to not buy anything. Tourism is a major part of their economy.
AThen one of the women showed us another use for the reeds: nourishment! Peeling off the outer layer reveals a soft white interior that is very nutritious, rich in iodine. We all tried it!
The white part of the totora reed is also used to kill pain. The reed is wrapped around the place that hurts to absorb the pain. When it is very hot, they use the white part of the reed to cool off by putting it on their forehead.
Afterwards, we were invited to explore the island, including seeing the interior of their houses. Each person in our group was “adopted” by one of the women on the island who led us to see their houses and encouraged us to try on their clothes! I declined, but others did try them on.
Uros homes are simple, one room shacks built with reeds. Like other Peruvians, their cooking and eating is done outside. Food is cooked with fires on piles of stones. We saw traditional clay pots in these cooking areas.
After visiting the homes, the people had all their items for sale on display, so we shopped.
Several people then climbed the lookout tower.
Neighboring islands, taken from the tower:
Meanwhile, we were being summoned to board the balsa boat once more. It was time to say good-bye!
The people of Isla Suma Balsa lined up along the shore to sing to us – they sang an Aymara version of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star! We sang a song to them too!
We pulled away from Isla Suma Balsa on our reed boat, with two delightful rowers.
They also allowed the passengers to have a go at rowing. Here are Wally and Jayme:
We made our way back toward the “main” island. I took two more pictures of “our” island, Isla Suma Balsa, as we got farther away:
After being delivered to the island in the balsa boat, we waited for the motor boat that would take us to our next destination.
Our next stop on Lake Titicaca was TAQUILE ISLAND. (next post)