XLVI. Puno and Uros 9 Sept.
Around mid-afternoon we go down to the docks to see what the deal is on going out to the islands.
Near the docks there’s an extensive market we never really explore. As you reach the end of the street that ends at the dock, “captains” and the shills of other captains surround you with propositions and suggestions. We learn that one option is to come down tomorrow morning, when for $./ ____ apiece we can take a two-day trip that will stop briefly at Uros in the morning, reach Amantini in time for lunch, then from Amantini to Taquile the following morning, then return to Puno, arriving mid- to late-afternoon. We would spend the night on Amantani, paying a host family S./ 25 for lodging and three meals – lunch, supper, and breakfast.
Unfortunately, the boys can barely manage to start the engine. Once they do, it coughs and stutters ominously, too often for comfort. Not very far out into the lake, the motor dies. While we share humorous speculation about sitting out here all night, swimming out to the luxury hotel that seems to be the nearest land, and the like, the two boys keep taking the engine apart, trying various tricks to convince it to start, and cleaning the gas-lines. Unsuccessfully.
It isn’t dangerous, since other boats full of happy folks keep steaming past on their way to the Puno docks, and we could flag someone down and hitch a ride; but neither is it great fun.
Finally they get the engine started, and we continue. I’m inclined to suggest we just head back, and give up on Uros for today, but the boatmen say the engine will work now, and I acquiesce. It’s a fine afternoon. We chug along between two long lines of reeds, startling the lake-birds foraging or nesting in among the reeds. They turn away from us to swim out of sight, so photos are worthless, but I enjoy brief glimpses into their world.
About three thousand people live on the forty-some islands of Uros. They are said to be an ethnic mix of Uros, Aymara, and Inka peoples. They lost the Uros language years ago, and speak Aymara now; and the last full-blooded Uros woman is said to have died around 1959. But they follow the Uros ways, if modified a bit to accommodate computers and solar panels and such.
The islands of Uros, the “floating islands,”
are human creations, but from nature. Supposedly seeking flexibility to flee quickly from the Inka if necessary, the Uros people built their islands from totora reeds and clay. These reeds develop dense roots and naturally interweave to form a layer called Khili, which supports the island, though they also use ropes to anchor the islands. The island is about a meter thick, and as the bottom, submersed in water, rots away, they replenish the top with fresh reeds.
These reeds are also partially edible [their white lower ends] and are rich in iodine; they’re bartered for other items; they are wrapped around a wound to absorb the pain, and eaten in reed-flower tea; and the toilets, I’m told, are reeds lined with lima beans, which are said to remove all odor as they decompose.
They also build their boats from those reeds.
They also build their homes from those reeds.
They even build watchtowers in the shape of a bird or a fish from those reeds:
Once you manage to get there, particularly in the rich sunlight of late afternoon, Uros is one of those places that eats film the way dogs eat their dinners. A world of golden reeds is a novelty, the people are colorfully dressed, and the blue waters surround it all. The islands you visit are unabashedly tourist-oriented, although my cynical guess that people don’t really live on those islands proves false. (The next day on one island we glanced in the windows of a reed schoolhouse where some poor young lady was trying to maintain discipline while foreigners wandered in and out taking pictures.) This first visit, the three of us are the only foreigners on this island, and we can see very few foreigners visible on nearby islands, which adds to the spell.
Initially a local gentleman sits on a bundle of reeds, with a map and a pointer, and explains Uros culture to us. He also tells us that the lake’s name meant panther in one of the local languages, and shows us that the map of the lake looks, when turned upside down, like a panther. (I’m wondering whether the early civilization that named the lake had such maps, or made their way across the lake envisioning it’s overall shape as resembling a panther, but whatever. Later someone else claims “Titicaca” means “rock that controls the movement of two suns” in Aymara.) I try to stay near my seat, to be courteous, but am a lot more interested in shooting a few pictures than hearing a lecture, though some of it’s interesting.
Fortunately, after his interesting talk, we get to wander around the small island awhile. There are 40-some islands in Uros, only about a dozen of which the public may visit. Those dozen either get visited on some rotating basis or individually cut deals with various captains, but when several boatloads of foreigners are out here at once, they’re each tied up to a different island.
After wandering about, meeting local people, and being shown the stuff they have for sale, spread out on blankets which were uncovered the moment the man finished his explanation with the map, we are invited to go for a ride on a local reed-made boat, from one island past others to a second island. This costs S./10 apiece, paid directly to the local people. Of course we choose to do it.
Floating along on the blue water, sitting on top of a little two-story boat made of reeds, is a hell of a pleasant way to spend part of an afternoon. Moving slowly and silently, we shoot more pictures and just enjoy the gentle ride. The engineless silence enhances the experience. We’re just gliding, aimlessly, in a visually interesting place. We glance down into the little world each island is, with children flying kites and adults performing various tasks or just sitting around gabbing. The reed islands look glorious in the late afternoon sun. Birds wing their ways home among the kites. Although I know that these islands of Uros remain the way they are partly for our benefit, we’re glimpsing a very different life, slower and simpler and older; but mostly this world just feels incredibly peaceful and quiet. The end of this ride comes far too soon!
When it does, we explore another small island, meet a few more local people, and look at a few more blanketsful of crafts. This island actually has a small restaurant/concession stand, at which I buy a couple of drinks at understandably inflated prices. Then we’re back on our original boat, chugging 15 minutes toward Puno.