Uros Islands, Titicaca: A Peaceful Idyll
January 1, 1970
Puno port: a warm welcome
¨Come to my island, to have dinner with my family¨― invites me Felix, an old native Uro Indian, spending his days in the port of Puno, Peru. What a success! Or is such hospitality usual among the Indians? At the port, Felix helps friends to attract people on lake tours. His outgoing character fits the busy port more than the quiet isolation of manmade Islas de los Uros. Natives live there almost the same way as their ancestors did, and don’t seem to prioritize material values, simply because not much of them can be of use there. At least señor Felix really doesn´t seem to care about money, as he invites me to come and even stay some days for free if I wish. At first skeptical, but later convinced, that there´s his wife, children, even grandchildren also waiting for us, I happily agree.
As evening approaches, we buy potatoes and bread in local market and head to islanders´ port to meet Felix´s son Javier. As we wait, an old woman gets off a boat with a bag almost her size. To my amazement, she drops it on her tiny shoulders and proceeds to carry it alone. At first puzzled, soon I see it´s nothing unusual here for women and even children to carry so heavily. ¨Unusually strong, inherently powerful they must be¨― I think to myself.
The life-giving Totoro reed
When Javier comes, we board a little motorboat and head into the dawn. The lake´s magic slowly surrounds us. Soft waves reflect the pastel colors of near–nightly sky. Only a few boats pass by in this lane between Totoro, the native reed, which grows in abundance here. In a few kilometers, we reach the village a huge ring of floating reed islands, all made by hands of local men and women. The reed grows tightly on floating masses of ground, tied together by roots. To make an island Indians separate huge square patches, attach to their little boats, take to the place, connect them together and finally anchor the isle with rope and stick dug into the lake bottom.
The Indian family
We moor at one of the last islands and get off. The rest of the huge family comes to greet us: Felix´s kind wife Franceska, two adult daughters, younger son Daniel and grandchildren. There also lives his mother and son-in-law. As family expanded, new blocks were added to the island. This way four to five generations can continue together. Families are traditionally big in Peru and keep their knot tight. Felix himself was a twelfth child in the family!
Mother Franceska invites me to dress traditional thick skirt and coat, as not to freeze in this chilly night on the lake ― we are in a very high altitude, so temperatures here drop low, differing dramatically from the jungle or coastal region of Peru. These bright woolen garments Mother has embroidered in intricate, rounded ornaments, passed down many generations. We proceed to have dinner ― wild duck soup ― in the simple reed kitchen. It is warming and soft on the stomach. After this delightful welcome, night falling, we part to our little huts.
I find my hut decorated with awe-inspiring traditional wall-hangs, each telling ancient myths. More than five heavy wooden blankets will save my sleep, as the night comes freezing.
Day with the Islanders
Sounds, not light, wake me up, as the hut is windowless. As I roll reed door to the side, perfectly bright sky almost blinds me. Everything is covered in light frost and sparkles softly. For breakfast, we just have tea with bread. I´m offered coca tea, as it is very popular in these parts, but decide to stick with well-known mint, which grows here in a tiny garden.
Delighted by the scenery of the lake and faraway mountains, I take out my paint. Almost everyone comes to paint me – even such simple thing as oil paint is new and attractive to this family. The kids are well talented, but only have some markers to express themselves. Now they remind me to appreciate the simple joys of life that we have so easily.
A couple of electricians come to fix some problem with the solar panel. The panel, which is subsidized by the government, looks highly in contrast to rusticity of the rest of the island.
Lunch is most basic chicken legs soup. It´s much less than anything I´m used to, but there it seems enough. Soon Felix comes back to the island with a bunch of other tourists. These ones have found the sweet spot through the internet (Javier takes care of publicity). Curious Dutch family and four Chilean and Spanish girls are warmheartedly welcome. Mother Franceska gives a presentation on local lifestyle with models made of same all–uses reed. We cook the new guests a lovely dinner – fresh Trout caught through a hole in the island. The lake around Los Uros is still fertile with fish, although due to pollution an eco-crisis starts to occur in some other parts of the lake, especially on the Bolivian side. The rivers coming to Titicaca get heavily polluted by fast-growing cities and plants on their banks, but the governments do little to avoid this. But as always, it starts with every inhabitant and tourist – ones need to be aware of the chemicals they use for cleaning, others need to keep their trash in the pockets when leaving.
Still, nowhere else I have felt such peace and tranquility. I´m very happy, more than I´ve felt in a long time while living in a busy 10-million Lima. Tonight I give my classy hut to new guests and go to sleep in a more authentic shed – where even the bed is a bunch of reed. It has a warm smell and atmosphere of family´s love and traditions, so I sleep peacefully.
Next morning the Dutch invite me on a trip to Taquile, an island couple of hours away from Uros. We depart early into the vast lake, merging with cloudless sky. Sitting on the roof of the yacht, we overlook the scenery. Our vision encounters bright pink flamingos standing in the endless reed fields. These fields are home to numerous wild birds. Wild ducks are being hunted with traps, at times Indians collect their eggs too. Natives try to take only infertile eggs, giving them a floating test: they say if an egg is floating, there´s no bird forming in it. After a couple of hours, we reach the beautiful mountain-island of Taquile. On all sides, it is terraced with crop fields, yards, and paths. Around 22 hundred people live there. They have a very intricate system of authority and costumes. The color and position of a hat they wear indicate if a person is married and if he´s in the ruling group. Only married man can rule. In general red, white and black are the colors of every costume in Taquile. Natives mostly live by fishing, farming, ancestral arts, and, of course, tourism. There is no central electricity and mostly candles or lanterns are used for light. The island is packed with visitors, but it takes little of its beauty away. The steep road to the high-set town hall takes our breath away almost at first steps, but locals move around quickly. I notice a teenage boy, carrying a bag of cement and sheets of glass up there. He seems exhausted, so I offer my help. I carry only the glass, but still have to stop and rest a lot. Titicaca is already in the altitude, and we´re climbing more! But the young lad is doing fine now with his 20-kilo cement bag.
Near the top lays island´s old town. It is mainly one square with an ancient church. In the midst, local Indians perform an old dance, accompanied by musicians. One of the narrow streets leads us to a simple restaurant. Afterwards, stronger and happier, we continue our climb to the top. Once there, the view is breathtaking. The magnificent Titicaca stretches to every horizon, and still, only a small part is visible. Nearby stands tall twin-island of Amantani. Boats and waves far down look miniature. Stairs of terraces cover all the mountainside. They hold rural stone-huts and beautiful gardens. I have no wish to depart from this point of visual bliss. But, sadly, our boat is about to leave, and we descend the narrow serpentine lane back to the lake.
Here comes the last night on Suma Suyawi – Felix´s island. Nobody wants to go to sleep, so we stay together until late, drinking tea, changing gifts and taking pictures. These people already feel like a family to me – so warm and hearty they are. When everyone parts, I stay in the yard watching stars.
Time to say goodbye! – says the cold light of the following morning. We all hug and promise to come back – promise not to the family, but to ourselves. Thick fog receives our tiny boat and hides the little haven from our sight – just until next time.