Floating Islands, Amantani, Taquile
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On Friday, we toured the Islas Uros (floating islands) in the waters of Lake Titicaca just outside of Puno. The islands themselves are constructed from the totora reeds floating in the lake. First, they lay a one-meter thick foundation made of blocks of totora reed roots; then, another meter of reeds are laid over top. Houses, also made from the reeds, are constructed right on top of the reed floor.
The totora reeds are the lifeline of the people who live on the floating islands. In addition to the island itself and the houses on it, the boats are constructed of reeds. The boats are pretty big - I saw one that could probably seat six to eight people comfortably. They have a short shelf life of one year because the reeds eventually disintegrate back into the water. Our guide told me that some people have started using empty plastic bottles to shore up the bottoms of their boats and extend their lifespan. The white tops of the reeds can also be eaten. It tasted like a cross between a cucumber and a water chestnut, with a slightly stringy texture, like celery. My guidebook compared the flavor to hearts of palm.
Each island elects a president, who serves a one-year term and represents the island in the neighborhood association of floating islands. There's a floating island hospital, a floating island primary school (although secondary school is held in Puno), a floating island bathroom that uses composting toilets, a floating island well for drinking water and several floating island churches of various denominations. The residential islands house varying numbers of people, although the one we visited was home to seven families, with 29 people in all. If a family has a dispute, they can cut their island in half and float away from each other, possibly linking up with another island if they choose.
There’s a set protocol for tour companies visiting the islands, as outlined by the neighborhood association. There are two shifts, so that one day all of the "A" islands are visited and another day the “Bs.” When it’s an “A” day, for example, only the islanders on the “A”’ islands will stand up and wave to the tourist boats. Each tourist boat then docks at an “A” island without another tourist boat. Using this system, each island gets its fair share of visitors.
As we cruised past the islands, I felt transported back in time. Women in brightly colored wool skirts and jackets sat in circles on the islands, embroidering pillowcases and tapestries and knitting clothing. Little kids in miniature copies of their parents’ dress toddled in and out of the simple reed cottages.
As we docked at our island, the women called out greetings in Aymara, the pre-Incan language spoken on all of the islands. Lucky for us, they’d also learned Spanish over the years, to better interact with tourists. We sat down on a semi-circle bench made of reeds, which was actually very soft and comfortable, and watched a demonstration on the construction and history of the islands. Then, the women invited us to peek inside their houses. The one we saw was small, with room for just two beds that were each smaller than a twin. Our hostess, Diana, told us that five of her family members, including herself, slept in there.
There’s a bit of controversy surrounding the issue of whether or not the families actually sleep in the reed houses. Some people on the mainland claim that the floating islanders commute back to Puno every night after the tourists leave. The islanders, of course, insist that they sleep on the islands. There’s no way to tell. I did notice an absence of personal items in the house. There weren’t any cooking pots or discarded pairs of shoes or any other signs of everyday life. There were handicrafts hanging on one wall, but those were all for sale. Clothing hung on another wall, but Diana let us dress up in it, so I’m not sure that the family wore it.
Once we’d donned our native dress, it was time to go souvenir shopping. The women had set up blankets outside the huts that were covered in beautiful mobiles, masks, miniature reed boats and small figures. Most of it was beautifully done, and I couldn't resist taking home a souvenir. I bought a beautiful mobile consisting of a tiny reed boat, a blue bird made out of string and an abstract rendition of the sun.
Leaving the floating islands, we motored three hours farther into Lake Titicaca, to the island of Amantani. This is the second-largest island in the lake, after Isla del Sol, and home to 4,000 people. There are no hotels on the island, so tourists stay with host families. Just like the rotating visitation system on the floating islands, the accommodation on Amantani is arranged on a rotating basis. On the dock, our guide called out our names and introduced us to our host sister for the evening, a girl named Malena who was about our age. We followed her up an increasingly steep hill to her family’s house, stopping once to catch our breath. Just like on Isla del Sol, this is a place where it’s wise to only take a daypack. I could barely breathe by the time we got to the house.
The house was larger than I expected, with maybe three or four rooms on each story, arranged around an open courtyard. The doors were very low, probably four to four-and-a-half feet tall, so we all had to stoop to go into the rooms. We lucked out because our house had electricity, which isn’t common, and beautiful views of the lake. I guess the views were the trade-off for an asthma-inducing climb up from the harbor.
We knew our host family was supposed to cook us lunch, and we were totally starving when we got to the house at 2:30, having eaten breakfast around 7 a.m. However, our host sister hadn’t said what time we’d eat, and we didn’t even know where the kitchen was. We also didn’t want to rudely show up before they were ready for us. This meant that for an hour-and-a-half of tummy grumbling delirium, we laid on our beds, reading and wishing it was lunchtime. Finally, we followed the scent of smoke through a doorway and found the kitchen. Turned out, they were waiting for us to come down before they started to cook. AAH!
When we finally ate around 4:30, our lunch was delicious - and not just because we were so hungry that tree bark would’ve tasted like Godiva. Everything was cooked over a wood-burning stove in the corner of the simple kitchen, which had a rough stone floor, a table on one side, and a shelf of pots and dishes. We started with quinoa soup, which had oca (a root vegetable similar to a carrot) and some leafy greens floating in it. It was delicious. Our main course consisted of rice, tomato, potatoes and a slice of Andean cheese. I call Andean cheese “squeaky cheese” because it squeaks against your teeth when you chew it. The flavor’s good, though, nice and salty.
After lunch, we learned that the bathroom had no running water. This wasn’t as problematic as you might think. We decided to skip our showers and to use baby wipes to wash our faces. To flush the toilet, we dumped in a bucket of water from a larger bucket sitting next to the toilet. I had no idea that would work.
Once everyone had mastered this new skill, we had to get moving. We met up with our larger group on a basketball court where everyone else who’d been lucky enough to eat lunch on-time had spent the past couple of hours playing soccer with the local kids. We were, of course, the last ones there, and as soon as we got there, our guide offered us three options:
1. Hike to the top of the mountain.
2. Hike around the island on a flatter trail.
3. Hang out in the bar.
The group split up, with most of us choosing to hike up the mountain. It only took an hour or so to reach the top, with beautiful views along the way of terraced farmers’ fields and the lake. Of course, you can’t walk two feet down here without someone trying to sell you something, and this hike was no exception. First, two small boys followed us up the hill, tooting as best as they could on small sets of pipes. They were pretty terrible, with no discernable melody, but I was impressed that they could puff into those things despite the altitude and steep incline. Still, when they held out their hats for money, I ignored them. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people trap you into listening to their unsolicited performances, then demand cash. It would be totally different if I’d, say, stopped to listen to them on the street. Then, payment would be fair.
In addition to our two little pied pipers, a random man rode up on a horse to see if anyone wanted to pay for a ride up, instead of walking. No one took him up on his offer, but he did manage to scare the crap out of a two-year-old in our group who was riding on her dad’s shoulders and immediately burst into tears.
Farther along, we passed probably twenty vendors who had spread their various kitsch over the stone walls leading up to the ruins on top of the hill. Are you catching a theme here? Ignoring all of them except the Andean donut seller - since no one can resist every temptation - we finally reached the stone ruins of a Tiwanaku (pre-Inca) ceremonial site dating back to 8-9,000 B.C. It’s said that walking around the old temple three times grants wishes, so of course we did this. The site, with its ancient history and panoramic views of the island and the lake, was made more majestic once the sun went down and a full moon appeared in the sky.
By the time we’d hiked back down, it was around 7:30… and time for dinner. Too bad lunch had been served only three hours before. We ate anyway, and it was mostly an instant replay of lunch, although the soup was potato instead of quinoa, there was no tomato, and we had French fries instead of potatoes. Unlike at lunch, the family ate with us, which gave us a chance to talk.
Talking went well for the first half-hour. Then, without warning, the dad launched into a lengthy and bizarre sermon courtesy of his 7th Day Adventist church. 7th Day Adventism is a relatively new phenomenon on the island, having established itself ten to twelve years ago. I guess passion makes up for tradition, because this guy rambled for close to an hour on topics such as:
- The official day of rest is supposed to be Saturday, not Sunday (citing various Biblical references).
- Very soon, the Vatican is going to pay the U.S. to issue religious identity cards to all of its citizens. Then, anyone who isn’t Catholic will be burned to death in a vat of hot oil that’s been boiled seven times over.
- In 2012, a planet is going to collide with the earth. Then, Jesus will come and take all of the martyrs (I guess those who died in the oii?) to heaven.
This whole speech put us in an awkward position, since it’s never polite to call your host a nut-case. We also knew that polite disagreement and logical reasoning would probably get us nowhere, so our part of the conversation consisted of, “Oh,” and, “Uh-huh,” for an hour. Our host sister, mother and grandmother just sat there, not saying much, so we never found out whether or not they agreed with the guy.
Finally, we got out of there with the excuse that we had to get ready for the dance. Malena dressed each of us in a traditional white blouse embroidered with colorful flowers, a brightly-colored skirt lined with a beautiful petticoat edged in eyelet, a colorful striped cummerbund to hold all of that in place, and a black shawl with more bright embroidery on the ends. The clothing was gorgeous and very heavy. At the dance, our guide asked me how my outfit was, and I answered, “Tight.” It was the first thing I thought of, because the skirts and cummerbund were constricting my poor tummy, which was valiantly trying to digest its carb-alicious dinner. He laughed for about five minutes. I guess it’s easy to laugh like that when all you have to throw on is a woven poncho!
Our group looked great, but pretty funny when you noticed everyone’s hiking boots sticking out from under the beautiful clothing. A band played traditional instruments - guitars, pipes, etc. and sang while we learned to dance in the traditional style. The basic move was a kind of strut, with partners linking hands and pushing their arms forward and back, and the women swishing their hips. Sometimes, the whole group would perform together, with Contra dance-like moves such as everyone forming a tent with their arms and couples running underneath. We had fun and our hosts were good sports about dragging the rhythmically-challenged gringos along.
The next morning, we ate pancakes for breakfast (sweet, dense but at least hot) then suffered the painful but obligatory sales pitch by the grandmother of our host family. She’d spread the usual wool hats, socks, etc. out on a blanket in the courtyard and waited for us to buy something. The girls played nice and bought bottles of water, but I didn’t need any. Plus, I figured we'd already directly paid the family about $30 USD for our stay, which was wildly overpriced for what we got in that part of the world, and we’d brought hostess gifts of milk and rice. There is a limit!
Escaping grandma and her woolen goods, we walked down to the harbor to meet up with the group. Of course, I realized about two-thirds of the way down that I’d left my souvenirs from the day before at the house, so back up the very steep hill I went. I knew the boat was waiting so I tried to run as much as I could, then slowed to a walk, then had to stop completely because I was having the closest thing to an asthma attack that a non-asthmatic can have. The altitude had totally shot my lung capacity.
Once I finally made it back to the boat, I climbed onto the top deck to cool off and watch the scenery. I could see rain across the water in Bolivia, and I hoped we’d be able to avoid it at our next stop, Taquile Island.
Taquile’s seven square kilometers are home to 2,000 people who speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. The people lead very traditional lives centered around farming, and, more recently, tourism. On Taquile, the men wear color-coded woolen stocking caps to show their marital status. A red hat means married, while a red and white hat means single. Rainbow-colored hats denote people in positions of leadership.
Maybe it was the gray weather, but I wasn’t that impressed with Taquile. Geographically, it looked pretty much the same as Amantani and Isla del Sol, and we hardly interacted with any locals during the time we spent there. Basically, we hiked up another steep hill from the harbor, stopped in a square to souvenir shop for more woolen goods, then hiked to the other end of the island and had lunch. Not that interesting.
The island restaurants all had the same menu, which was the same one we’d seen on Isla del Sol and Amantani - trout or an omelet, with rice, potatoes and a tiny portion of veggies. We were lucky to have lunch at the exact moment that the heaviest rains of the day rolled in, and they stopped by the time we were finished. Perfect!
After lunch, we hiked down hundreds of stone steps to our boat, which was waiting in the harbor. Going down was painful on my bum knee, but at least I could breathe. From there, we took the boat three hours back to Puno.