South America | Peru | Southern Peru | Puno – Island Life
On arrival in the not-too-pretty town of Puno, I booked myself onto a island tour on Lake Titicaca for the next day. At some point in the middle of the night, the bad tasting chicken pastry thing that I bought in Cusco the previous day decided that it had had sufficient time inside me and it wanted out! I was very glad I was in an en-suite room. The following morning it was clear that I was not going anywhere that day – even the walk across the road to the chemists took all my mental capabilities. I spent the rest of the day lying in bed, watching films on cable TV and drinking Coca tea. Thankfully the next day I felt just about well enough to handle the boat trip -I’m not sure that I could have coped with another day of mediocre movies. The moral of this story is obviously don’t by dodgy pastries that have been hanging around a while in the doorways of small shops. My stomach thought that it was a good idea at the time though.
So, onto the boat trip. We left the port of Puno for the ‘Uros’ floating islands on lake Titicaca. The floating islands consist entirely of reeds and their roots and, as the name suggests, they are actually floating. Every few weeks, the inhabitants lay new reeds onto the surface of the islands as the ones lower down rot. Historically the islands were inhabited by the pre-Inca culture, the Aymara. However there aren’t any true Aymara left but their language still survives on the islands. Nowadays the islands are split into 2 groups: the tourist islands (robust islands built to withstand hundreds of visitors per day each of which are home to a handful of families in traditional reed houses) and the non-tourist islands (which are fragile structures whose occupants live in shacks with corrugated metal roofs). After paying for the privelege of taking photographs of the colourful inhabitants we took the boat to the Island of Amantani a bit further out on the lake.
At the small harbour of Amantani we were greeted by a group of the islanders from the families that would be our hosts for the next 24 hours. A Swiss guy, Nicolas, and myself went with an old man called Facundo who took us the 500 m up the hill to his small house. At an altitude of 4000 m, this was no easy task. On arrival at his small adobe dwelling we were introduced to his daughter, Lucia, and her daughter Judith and shown to our small room on the 1st floor. It was very cosy up there with a bed covered in thick, brightly-coloured blankets and posters of footballers and animals on the walls. After a lunch of rice and fish we met up with the other members of our group to walk up to the highest point on the island, the Inca temple of Pachamama (the deity of mother earth). It was a tough climb but the view from the top over the vast expanse of lake Titicaca as the sun was setting was definitely worth it.
The island’s inhabitants speak Quechua so with my newly learnt phrase I asked Lucia if we could eat with the family in the kitchen instead of up in our room. The kitchen was a very small room about 3 x 2 m, with a small stove in one corner and the little Judith curled-up asleep in another. There was just enough room to get Nicolas and myself seated and it was an amazing experience to share this part of family life on the island. Later that evening, the tourists were dressed up in the traditional clothes of the island (beautifully embroidered skirts, blouses and shawls for the ladies and a poncho and a woolly hat for the guys) and we were treated to a night of traditional music and dancing with the locals. Dancing in a thick poncho and a woolly hat at an altitude of 4000 m is pretty tiring though and after about an hour and a half everybody was ready to head back with their surrogate families.
From Amantani we went across the lake to another Quechua-speaking island, Taquile. Here we were told about the fascinating customs of the island which revolve around the clothing of the inhabitants. It is possible to tell the social and marital status of the guys on the island solely from the hat that they wear! Men of authority (who are obviously married) wear a woollen hat with ear flaps, other married men wear a hat without earflaps which is all red. Unmarried men wear one which is half-red and half-white. More than this, if the floppy top part of the hat of the unmarried man is folded over to the side, he is looking for a woman but if it is folded over to the back he has one but is not married. I’m not sure what they do on windy days! For the women, the unmarried women wear brightly coloured skirts and have large pom-poms on their shawls. Married women are slightly less colourful with smaller pom-poms. The men of the island also have a pre-occupation with knitting. Nearly every young man on the street is busy knitting away – which accounts for the craft shops stuffed with knitted merchandise.