47-B. Uros to Amantani for the night 10 Sept.
[This post continues from our departure from Uros in the preceding post.]
From Uros we will be on the boat for something like three hours, to Amantani, where we will spend the night. I ride most of that time up top, in the sun and the wind, with a variety of young foreigners. (The barefoot Belgian girl who sits beside me for awhile has a tattoo of a butterfly whose wings are a map of the world.) Plenty of travelers’ talk, in a variety of languages. Sharing of tales and information. Lazy laughter.
At some point when a lot of people are sleeping and I’m up front chatting with Simon, he asks if we are three. I tell him we are. He proposes that we stay in the three-bed room at his home. I readily agree, after checking with Ragna. Simon’s wife is named Clara.
On the dock at Amantani, women in white blouses, bright red skirts, and black shawls wait. They have long, black braids and mostly middle-aged faces.
As the foreigners disembark and begin to mill about, Simon calls women’s names and foreigners’ names and matches them up. When he calls “Clara,” his wife, we move toward him and get introduced. The women, short and dark, lead sets of young foreigners, mostly European, slender and tall, up the stairs and along the paths toward their homes. In the same way, we follow Clara. The curving stone path up toward her home is steep enough that we notice it, but not so steep that anyone asks for a rest.
Three tall, slender young men are walking with us, but Clara is the only local woman, so I figure they’re staying with Simon and Clara too. We reach the top of the stone path and walk on dirt paths and the grassy edges of fields until we reach a small house with an even smaller front gate. On the second floor, two three-bed rooms extend out at right angles from the ends of the house. Clara shows the three Belgians to one of the rooms, then shows us to the other.
Lunch will be at 1, in about 30 minutes. Ragna and I go for a walk while Selma rests.
This is a peaceful place where people live and raise children under conditions our great-grandparents might have recognized. As we set out, it also seems a somewhat magical place. An Andean gull flies up from the vast lake and lands in the field at our feet. We hear giggling, and two school-girls pass us on their way home, sharing whatever secrets little girls share, and it strikes me that they are growing up in a place of beauty and safety. With a good view of Lake Titicaca they take for granted now, but will some day long for if they move to Lima or Los Angeles.
As we continue, we pass a man and two women working on a house. Adobe bricks are drying in the front yard. I stop and chat with them about the adobe, telling them that where I lived in the U.S., southern New Mexico, there are many adobe homes, although much of the U.S. has none. As always, there’s something wonderfully elemental about adobe bricks and mud. Working away cheerfully, they remind me how much I want some day to build my adobe house on my land on the river in New Mexico.
The house is plain and old-fashioned. Although an electric switch and light in our room suggests either that the house usually or sometimes or occasionally has electricity, or that it formerly did, or that Simon hopes it someday will. Our room has a wooden floor, a wooden table, three beds, and a window. The door is so low that even Ragna must duck to enter it safely. The only decoration on the wall is a years-old diploma awarded to their son when he graduated from something, perhaps middle school, perhaps high school. His name is Elvis.
The outhouse, which the ladies soon investigate, has a modern white porcelain sink and toilet, though the latter lacks a seat. There is, however, no running water, but rather a large pail just outside the door containing water, with a smaller pail floating on its surface, so that one may flush the toilet by dipping the smaller pail into the water and tossing the water into the toilet bowl. Sometimes it takes several dips. Next to this outhouse is a smaller and older one, and beyond that a still older one made of adobe. This one is large enough to contain easily a bathtub or shower, but there is none.
I have spent time in houses in Nepal and China that were even less modern than this one; but for Ragna and Selma the experience is somewhat shocking.
The kitchen, when we enter it for lunch, lacks electricity or conveniences of any kind. There is no refrigeration. There is no running water. The stove is built into a corner of the building, and is probably of adobe like the walls. Clara and a daughter kneel on the floor and prepare food in near-darkness.
Lunch is a vegetable soup followed by a plate of boiled potatoes, tomato, and onion. Meat and fish appear not to be part of the family’s normal diet, and we see none during our stay. The food is simple, but we relish it as I once relished daal bhat and other simple dishes in tiny mountain inns while trekking in Nepal. The food here is nourishing, tastes fine, but is certainly not highly-spiced. Spices other than salt and pepper, we learn, are also a luxury not within the family’s budget.
I watch the elder daughter, B___. The son, Elvis, is studying in Puno, as is the second daughter. They will either leave or choose Amantani. B___ is cheerful and intelligent, and an attractive young woman generally. I wonder how she feels about living out on this island. Is she content? Would she rather have gone on to some further education and a different life somewhere on the mainland? Is Amantani like so many rural areas all over the globe, mostly older folks and children, because the young adults leave in search of higher-paying jobs and easier lives? I feel great sympathy — perhaps wholly misplaced, as we never discuss any such thing — for B. For Simon and Clara, this is life, and they’ve made the best of it, succeeding economically and raising four fine kids. B___ is a new generation. For her is life on Amantani a beautiful, bucolic privilege? A tedious chore? No idea. If she is unhappy, we do not see a hint of it.
After lunch Clara is weaving, and Ragna gets her video-camera. Clara weaves, Ragna videotapes, Simon smiles a lot, and their eldest daughter and the baby lamb wander in and out. There is a lot of relaxed chatter and a lot of laughter. It is good.
Then, as promised, Clara leads all six of us visitors to the Plaza de Armas. Like everyone, she spins as she walks. We pass the adobe house the folks were working on, and continue a circuitous course along the island’s narrow streets.
We follow her to the Plaza de Armas, past homes and a school and a bar that looks as if it might be fun at night. From the Plaza, if we choose — and I surely do — we can walk up to some ruins at the highest point on the island.
The Plaza is nearly deserted. It’s only occupants are three women and a child. Clara leaves us there. Ragna and Selma start walking with us, but there’s a health clinic, and Selma, who’s not feeling well, decides to go in for a consultation. Ragna naturally stays with her.
The three Belgians and I keep walking, and the stone pathway soon steepens.
We talk as we walk, the usual talk of travelers covering some of the same ground; and we shoot photographs, of course. The walk is uneventful, but steep. I photograph two boys who demand payment so vociferously that I borrow a sole from one of the Belgians, having only 5-sole coins and unwilling to give them so much for a quick and unpromising photograph. Women carrying loads and women walking home from high pastures with sheep occasionally approach and disappear, on paths tangential to ours. A boy plays the flute for awhile just ahead of me, but just as I approach, supposing he will want money for the serenade, he scampers up to a knoll ten or twelve meters above the path. Before continuing he stands looking out toward the lake, puts his flute to his mouth for a few more notes, then turns and disappears before I can photograph him in his almost noble stance.
I drink a bottle of water on the way up, but am still thirsty. The Belgians point out that I should be wearing a hat. As I know, the sun at this altitude is unusually strong; and they have learned from a guide that the constant alteration between a hot and sweating forehead and a sweat-drenched forehead being assaulted by an icy wind can quickly give one a cold. I tell them I understand, but have no hat with me, and decline the offer of a loan.
Soon, however, we reach a woman kneeling by the path with items for sale. I buy a water bottle for three soles. Then I notice she also has local-style hats for ten soles apiece, and buy one. By paying her with a 20-sole note I solve three problems: thirst, a forehead vulnerable to sunburn and cold, and my lack of change to give people propinas.
From slightly above us to the right, a small flock of sheep races toward us. In this light, with the sun moving downward almost behind them, the dust they raise from the fields is like an aura, turning them and their shepherdess into some sort of mythical creatures in an old painting. It is the day’s only image I really look forward to seeing.
A girl descends toward me from the rocks. As she walks, I shoot a quick picture of her – then, when she reaches me, offer to buy one of the knit wrist-bands she’s selling. I have no use for it, but it seems a graceful way of paying her for unconsciously posing for me. Below, to her right, the sun continues its descent, and I wager with myself on whether the clouds will engulf it before it can provide us with a really appealing sunset. (I’m betting they will, but hoping otherwise.)
The sunset is indeed muted, at best. Que lastima! This would be a splendid place from which to watch a good one. Instead, I shoot what I can shoot: the lake, the islands, and an odd cloud-pillar catching a bit of the setting sun’s glow.
We reach the ruins and get separated. Surprising numbers of people are up there. At least dozens, perhaps a hundred. Where did they all come from? And why? What I see of the ruins, I don’t find particularly interesting — but since I don’t explore too vigorously, it’s unfair to say so. There are too many people, and this light is not conducive to photography.
There is, though, a little food stand off the path, just below the top. A cheerful fellow has set up an open-air kitchen and tables among the rocks, and does a brisk business in coffee, mate de coca, food, and a kind of fresh donut that turns out to be quite irresistible.
Only a couple of guides, waiting while their charges explore and photograph, seem to have bothered to stop in, but to me it’s a delightful haven in which to drink a warm coffee and write in my notebook. I see the Belgian guys pass, and holler half-heartedly “Have a coffee!” — but when they don’t hear me I don’t get up to make a further effort. I’m comfortable sitting and writing. Just before I leave one group, maybe a dozen tourists and their guides, does stop in, and I’m glad for the proprietor, who now has a large table to serve.
The walk down is long and cold, and although I shoot a couple of pictures of what the sky is doing – it’s sunset, though clouds mostly hide the sun, and there appears to be significant rain out toward the mainland – mostly I walk fast and hope I’ll get back to the village before dark. It’s a long walk. It’s pleasant, if a bit cool; but rain is coming, darkness is coming, and I’ve read about folks gettring stuck outdoors all night on Taquile.
I reach the Plaza de Armas. As I pass the bar we’d noticed hours ago, it’s truly dark. I know I’m nearly there, but also that in the dark it’ll be tough to recognize the way to get there. I may have to knock on a few doors and ask folks. But a moment later, as I pause to decide whether to go straight ahead or turn left, down toward the water, a kid asks me what house I’m looking for. When I tell him, he tells me Simon is his uncle [which, in Perú, may mean either a literal uncle or an older friend of the family], and offers to lead me to the house. It’s a lovely evening, walking the lanes of this peaceful island after dark — particularly when someone knows where we’re going.
Suddenly Simon is also there, having come out to look for me once it got dark. I slip a generous propina to the boy, and apologize to Simon for being late and causing worry. Within minutes we’re home.
Supper is simple and good. We chat with the family and with the Belgians. I get teased about being out so late. B___ discusses with the Belgians some sort of fiesta tonight that will be canceled if the rains descend — as, quite soon, they do.
Our room is charming by candle-light. Ragna and Selma are cold at first. I shoot pictures of each of them, and of the two of them sitting on Selma’s bed. There’s a sturdy stick to prop against the door at night — and on this night we make good use of it, for whenever we forget to place it there, a mighty wind blows the door open.
The room is cozy. The hard rain does not come in. It sounds good on the roof. Unfortunately, Ragna needs to go to the toilet frequently this night;’ and, even more unfortunately, I am required to accompany her, and stand waiting in the rain. Still, each venture out into the rain means a wonderful return to our warm bed. And the last trip outside, after the rains have stopped, yields a wonderful view of the fields and the famous lake, by the light of the nearly full moon shining from the clearing sky.
On Amantani, you normally stay with a family. Cost is S./25 apiece, but it’s also a good idea to take a gift, such as a bag of sugar or flour. Pencils and drawing pads for the kids.
With the family, food’s included in the S ./ 25: lunch shortly after your arrival, supper after dark, and breakfast in the morning before you depart. Food’s simple but good, and at least during our stay, there was no fish or meat at any of the meals. This was fine with us, but might dissuade some folks, I guess. (Strikes me now that a clever guest could kill two birds with one stone [pun acknowledged] by also bringing the family a gift of a chicken (or two) which then might be cooked for supper and shared between family and guests.)
If the conditions don’t dissuade you, obviously I recommend a night on Amantani. Or two. Specifically, if you go to docks, and to the small ticket offices just before you reach the boats, stop at the one on the left, “Amantani,” and perhaps even ask for Simon, the captain we got to know. [To contact him ahead of time, you may be able to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .] Simon and Clara and their family were delightful, and I’m sure other families were delightful for the folks who stayed with them. Further, Simon went out of his way for us in at least a couple of ways: when I was returning after dark from the top of the island, he came out to look for me, and although I was fine and almost home when he met me, I appreciated it; and when Ragna left her video-camera on the boat, he had it waiting for us when we went down there the following morning – before Ragna even noticed it was missing.
But be aware that:
1. there’s no electricity in the houses, or wasn’t when we visited, although we did get a candle for the room. This means take flashlights, don’t bother taking your lap-top out there, don’t plan on reading late or doing much after dark.
2. there’s no running water, so don’t plan on showering and do plan on using an outhouse, which can prove inconvenient if you’re up often during the night.
3. the food is simple but nourishing, and the table is in the outbuilding that houses the kitchen itself, and you will feel for Clara and her daughter, preparing all that food in a dark kitchen, by the light of a candle or the sort of head-lamp flashlight one uses when camping.
4. there ain’t much nightlife on Amantani, at least in the village we were in, which is the closest to where the boats come in. I saw a couple of bars / restaurants, but wasn’t sure how late they were open; and there was to be some sort of fiesta or dance, but heavy rains canceled that event, so I don’t know how that would have been or how frequently they’re held.
It’s quiet, particularly with no cars; the family with whom we stayed was very nice, and their life-style a bit of an eye-opener, I think, for most Europeans or Americans or Japanese.
I liked Amantani, and would have enjoyed staying longer. I mention the conditions, though, because I wouldn’t be doing anyone a favor by encouraging someone who’d be unhappy with those conditions to spend a night out there. For me, the positives outweigh the negatives.
There’s also a hotel on Amantani, although I didn’t see it; and that’d be a better option for some, and is said to be reasonably priced and quite nice.
Taquile was clearly much more geared to tourism, with many appealing little restaurants (none of which I had time to try) and probably slightly more upscale places to stay; but if you ain’t in shape, check first whether there’ll be someone near the docks to carry your luggage up the 500 steps. At least keep your stuff to a minimum and make sure you have a bottle of water for the climb. No problem for the young or those in shape, but five-hundred steps is 500 steps.