When I was younger, I’d watched enough documentaries to know that Lake Titicaca was synonymous with living a simple life in a hut on a floating pile of weed, people dressed in colourful clothes and eating fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Forty years on and I finally visited this remarkable part of Peru, spending time discovering life on the world’s most navigable lake and its inhabitants, all at over 3800 metres above sea level.
Taking a ferry from Puno, I sat on the top deck with Bolivia to the north and Peru behind me watching a thunderstorm brewing on the horizon. Fortunately, in the two hours it took to reach one of the floating islands, it came and went but when I did step onto the reeds, it made for an unusual sensation.
The owners of these remarkable islands are the Uros Indian whose civilisation is around 4500 years old. They started their unusual floating existence centuries ago in an effort to isolate themselves from the Incas who imposed on them the Quechua. Interestingly, they’ve outlasted their Peruvian ancestors.
As I tried to find my ‘sea legs’, I was greeted by Miguel and his extended family of wife, two children, brother, sister-in-law and a number of blood and marriage related relatives. Using an interpreter and props, Miguel demonstrated how they create and maintain their islands which vary in size but his community’s island was approximately 15 x 15 metres and would last from 20 – 30 years. Entirely made from the buoyant totora reeds which grow abundantly in the shallows around the lake, the construction is simple and clever. As the reeds disintegrate from the bottom, they regularly add more to the surface, around every three months. To secure the island, they are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. Soft and spongy, it’s an odd feeling standing on one of these islands, even though it’s around two and a half metres thick. The reed is stable and incredibly waterproof considering the rainstorm I’d experienced during the ferry ride.
There are no fences and therefore, has its risks. When asked if children every fell off, the answer an immediate: ‘Oh yes.’ Nothing more. Older children often look after the younger ones but there are no bassinets or cots, merely a blanket on the reed floor for a baby to sleep on covered with a blanket.
Someone’s status on an island is inferred by dress: the over-sized pompoms on a woman’s intricate, knitted hat and the colour are instantly recognised and understood by everyone in the community as being married or single. The brightly coloured clothes and textiles are a trademark of their culture.
There are some modern amenities such as small water tanks and solar panels (courtesy of the Peruvian government) which has saved many lives as the families don’t have to use candles at night. While traditional reed boats are tied up to most of the floating islands, the men have their own fishing boats with oars and engines.
Most cooking is prepared outside. If they don’t have a property stove, they’ll cook over fires placed on stones. They fish, raise chickens, ducks and guinea pigs for food on the floating islands and barter with the mainlanders for other staples such as quinoa and potatoes. Fishing is their main food and no commercial fishing is allowed. Violation of this law is four years in prison. However, the Uros are permitted to fish for their own consumption of around 1 kg of fish per day. You can eat the totora reed (which tastes something like cucumber) but the food is abundant for the families.
Their largest income comes from tourism, which has affected their traditional way of life in many ways. Tourism’s effect is quite blatant, with signs of ‘welcome’ at the docking side of the island and all their handicraft ready to be brought out at a moment’s notice which is contrived and somewhat disarming. In return, however, the people open their homes and explain how they live on the island. I was welcomed into their huts, which are around 2 x 3 metres, with beds on pallets and thick layers of blankets. One had a small black and white tv with old rabbit ear antenna on top. Possessions are limited and apart from traditional clothes.
Of course, the inevitable question came up. What about going to the toilet? I tried out the tiny outhouse that serves as a long drop toilet for solid waste. Not for the faint-hearted.
Despite the visit feeling somewhat artificial and a large emphasis on buying their handicrafts, it still felt an authentic experience and would recommend to any traveller.
Before I left, a black cat smooched up my leg and a young baby crawled into my lap for a cuddle. My childhood memories were intact. Not much has changed in forty years.
As printed in the Warrandyte Diary September 2018