Lake Titicaca - a name made for the Carry On movies!!

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June 12th 2019
Published: August 4th 2019
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12th June – Lake Titicaca

We decided to get up at 6am. We were being picked up at 07:45 which gave us time to have a leisurely breakfast onboard before disembarking the magnificent Belmond Andean Explorer. Despite a cylinder of oxygen in our compartment, we struggled to operate the valves so suffered last night as a consequence. It was only when we mentioned it over breakfast, one of the train attendants accompanied us back and showed us the process. We both took the opportunity to inhale some temporary relief before leaving the train.

We identified our luggage and boarded the mini bus to the hotel where the rest of our group (those who took the 9-hour uncomfortable bus journey) were waiting for us. Why, when we arrived in to Puno in relative luxury, did we all look bleary eyed compared to our fellow travellers who all seemed bright eyed and bushy tailed??

I turned to Roisin who was looking a little pale. She had been very quiet and now pulled me to one side to tell me she would sit this one out due to fatigue. It wasn’t just the fatigue that was worrying her. She had already glimpsed the lake. Although not as great as any of the Great Lakes, this was open water compared to anything the UK had to offer; over 3000 square miles of open water…in a small boat not any bigger than a cruise ship ‘tender’. As we have had some bad experiences in tenders this made Roisin very nervous. She then compared this to the whale watching boat in Alaska. That was full to bursting and with choppy waters in the fjords of Juneau made for a very uncomfortable and bumpy ride.

I mentioned this to Carlos, our guide for the day. We both used our powers of persuasion to convince Roisin to come along. We went outside to look at the sea state. The lake was like a mill pond. We looked down at the jetty from the hotel terrace. Carlos pointed the boat out to Roisin. ‘It looks very small’, observed Roisin.

‘No, it eez just far away!’, replied Carlos.

Someone’s a Father Ted fan, I thought!!

Carlos continued: ‘It eez a 40-seater. Today we ‘ave twenty-four passenger. Plenty of room for lady to stretch out!!’

That was the clincher. Roisin had been so looking forward to this tour so she agreed to come along. It was a decision she did not regret. We both savoured every minute.

We re-entered the hotel to join the rest of the group. Several minutes later, Carols reappeared, did a quick head count and we all followed him out of the hotel. We heard a scream from the edge of the terrace. As we approached one of the ladies said she thought she had just seen a rat. We all looked down in to a small grassed area with scattered shrubs and small bushes. Indeed, there were rodents running around but as Carlos pointed out, these were a family wild guinea pig. Whilst this generated an ‘Aww!’ from most of the group, I just thought of the one that got away!!

I’m surprised the Carry On team never made a movie about the Incas. Lake Titicaca could have been the centre of many innuendos and puns. The tag line of the film would have been something like. ‘Carry On Inca – there may not be many Cacas but there are plenty of..!!! The name Titicaca actually comes from the two Quechua words: Titi which means Puma and Caca which means mount. This name is a reminder of the felines that lived many centuries ago in the vicinity of the territory. If that’s the case, why didn’t they call it Lake Kitticaca?? That sounds more feline. The current name is more of a reminder of the number of female only tribes that lived many centuries ago in the vicinity of the territory!! (or is that the plot to another Carry On film??)

The boat trip was about thirty minutes to an archipelago of islands three miles off shore, populated by an unusual tribe who live in unique circumstances but to them it was just a way of life. Meet the Uros people. Their manmade islands are created from reeds anchored to the lake bed. They use the Totora reed which grow in abundance on the lake. Most of the Uros islands used to be located near the middle of the lake, about nine miles from the shore, however, in 1986, after a major storm devastated the islands, many Uros rebuilt closer to shore. There are about 800 Uros living in the archipelago of 45 artificial islands.

There are over forty floating islands in the community. One of the islands even acts as their capital city. The Uros made Lake Titicaca their home hundreds of years ago when the Inca took over their land. They were forced to flee on to the lake but could not land on the opposite shore in fear of other tribes who would not take too kindly to this invasion onto their land so the Uros stayed put and adapted to a new life on the lake. Each island is shared by several families who take turns in receiving visitors and tourists for reasons which would become obvious later on!!

We docked at an island that had been allocated to us and were instantly greeted by half a dozen of the locals, who stood in a line adjacent to the boat’s gangway. ‘They still speak the ancient language of Aymara.’ Carolos whispered. I’m not too sure why he whispered as none of the islanders spoke English apparently!!

Kamisaraki, Kamisaraki’, each one of the welcoming party said to us in turn as we all disembarked. We returned their greeting (‘How are you?’) with ‘Wariki’ (I am good)

Walking on a bed of reeds was a unique experience. Our breathing was still laboured but the concentration required to walk on the spongy surface without looking like Neil Armstrong’s moon landing gave us a short respite. After a few minutes, however, walking became more natural and we were back to taking large gulps of air trying to take in as much of the thinned oxygen as possible.

Several huts also constructed from reeds stood either side of the island with a larger communal hut occupying the side opposite to the island’s small jetty.

We were directed to sit on a couple of logs. The elder of this particular island then addressed us all, and continued to explain how the islands are constructed. Luckily his seminar was in Spanish and not Aymara so Carlos acted as the interpreter throughout. The elder demonstrated, by using a small cross section, how the reeds are cut then layered on a four-foot-thick network of roots and how they are anchored to the lake bed. He explained that the anchoring had to be precise or else he could go to sleep in Peru and wake up in Bolivia!! Carlos later told us that this was the Elder’s favourite joke he tells all his guests!! As the reeds slowly disintegrate, these have to be replaced with new reeds., a process that is repeated three times a month!! If there was to be a dispute between families sharing the same island, which has happened many times throughout the ages, the island is simply cut in half!! The Uros people are self-sufficient and still use bartering as a means of obtaining goods and services. The Uros don’t pay taxes as the Government don’t provide anything to them. Not everything, though is obtained through bartering. The Uros do venture ashore occasionally. We noticed above each hut, there was a solar panel that provides electricity to the islands. These panels were bought with money obtained from tourism. I don’t think the solar panel company would accept a few crates of fish and a barrel of wine for ten solar panels!!

The demonstration of constructing the islands lasted about twenty minutes. We were then split in to pairs and were allocated our very own islander. He led us to his home and bid us enter. I say home, my garden shed was slightly larger. At least I can stand upright in my garden shed!! The hut was, not surprisingly, built from reeds and was suspended on stilts. The ‘property’ was very sparse with one bed (unmade I hasten to add!) along side a wall and a number of clothes that were piled up in a corner. There seemed to be no personal possessions but then again, these people live a full and spiritual life with food and shelter being all they require. I did not ask if I could take a photo, although I had no hesitation that our host would not have objected but somehow, we both felt slightly uncomfortable at seeing a glimpse in to this man’s private life. We had to respect his privacy. We did not feel uncomfortable for long, as our host offered Roisin and I several garments to try on for size. As I have been told many times (but not aware of), if there is dressing up to be had, you will usually find me at the front of the line!! After a few photos around the island to the amusement of our fellow travellers and our host asking how much my camera was (by using the universal sign of holding his hand, palm up and rubbing his thumb and forefinger together) he took us to his stall. Usually at this stage I would become disinterested and walk away but there was nowhere to walk to. In any case, these people, the Uros, have taken us in to their home. We understand that they have to make a living. Our host showed us some embroidered works. Some of the smaller goods only take a couple of days to produce but others can take a few months. All are so elaborate in detail. The materials are relatively inexpensive but the cost is reflected in the length of time it has taken to complete. Most of the patterns are symbolic and are connected with the history and beliefs of the tribe. We chose a wall hanging/small table cloth. We asked the price, which sounded reasonable, so did not bother to haggle with him. We found out later that everyone had accepted the asking price, as after all, we were contributing to their economy The Uros people only keep a small percentage of the profits. The rest goes in to the upkeep for the island.

Our time experiencing a day in the life of the Uros was at an end. We boarded a local boat, also made out of reeds. Both hulls of the catamaran were shaped like a large canoe with a fierce looking animal head on each of the prows. These boats are usually used for fishing but today it was a complimentary taxi service that would take us the ten-minute journey across to the capital island. This was only a ten-minute stop. Most people were happy enough to visit the store for refreshments or just mill around in the vicinity of the boat as we were all starting to feel the effects of the high altitude again. Roisin and I took the opportunity to get our passport stamped and then it was time to move on.

On to the next island, naturally formed this time. The trip took just over one hour. Taquile is a small isle forty-five km from Puno, six km long and only one km wide. It was here, lunch had been arranged. Carols pointed out the restaurant as we sailed by. This didn’t bode well. We docked on the other side of the island. Carlos provided us with two options. Either a forty-five-minute hike over the hill or follow the beach around the cove for a few hundred metres then up some steps that would bring us directly in to the gardens of the restaurant. Feeling pretty rough by now, six of us decided on option B, whilst the rest, as if they hadn’t had enough hiking in the past week decided to follow Carlos over the hill. The temperature was now in the mid-30s, the few hundred metres along the beach felt like a few hundred miles. The dozen or so steps to the restaurant were taken one at a time with several rest stops en route!! Immediate relief washed over us as we entered the air-conditioned dining room.

There are approximately 2,000 inhabitants on this rocky outpost in the middle of Lake Titicaca. The people of Taquile (known as Taquileños) run their society based on community collectivism and on the Inca moral code of ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla, (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy). The island is divided into six sectors for crop rotation purposes. The economy is based on fishing, farming, horticulture based on potato cultivation and craftwork, much of which contributes to the tourist-generated income from the approximately 40,000 tourists who visit each year. Taquile's families own rams, sheep, cows, chickens and the occasional guinea pig. The craftwork is divided between weaving and knitting; women do the weaving, while the knitting is man’s work!! The tradition begins when they are young boys, some as young as eight. Whilst their mainland compatriots are starting to learn the skills with a football at that age, these young islanders can be found clicking away as they learn to ‘knit one, purl one’!! A popular item among these crafts are the iconic chuyo hats that many of the locals wear.

Surprisingly, many items of knitwear were held out for sale as the family who ran the restaurant proceeded to perform indigenous dances. After the fourth dance, most of the tour group were looking fidgety. Half the group were wandering around the terrace taking photos whilst the other half were still sitting down but I’m sure this was out of respect and politeness for the hospitality this family had shown. I would have offered the same respect should I have been able to get this six-tonne African Elephant from my chest. My lungs felt like they were being used as bag pipes!! Carlos announced to everyone to make their way back to the boat. I haven’t seen everyone move so fast!!

From the jetty, the the hotel was up hill. (it had to be, didn’t it??) Forty steps made it a concerted effort to walk back to the relative sanctuary of the hotel and the instant relief of the oxygen rich environment of our room. Today had been certainly enlightening and although, some may have called this a tourist trap, we all agreed that the Uros people live a full and enriched life we in the West cannot imagine. Pushing their wares may seem like hard sell but as mentioned earlier, they only get to keep a small amount of the profit. You would never find discarded ‘Made in China’ labels trampled in to the reeds and you could also observe workers making, in some cases, very detailed and intricately unique handicrafts. That said we both can’t wait for tomorrow We will be leaving the lofty heights of the Andes, descending from 4000m above sea level to 4m!! It’s back to Lima…

Additional photos below
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9th August 2019

Island life suits you
As a maritime man, I feel your report from these islands stands out as a bit of an emotional high point from the many (hundreds now?) of cultural tours you've reported on around the world from Siberia to Tonga. Clearly these islanders made a connection, and your appreciated their situation, perhaps more than some of the other villages you've been to with larger (?) cruising groups. I wonder if this could be a sign of the times for a different kind of holiday in future? (the people of Venice will thank you!) Snarko
9th August 2019

Making a connection
Thanks for your kind words Andrew. As an ex journalist I hope the grammar of this blog wasn't too off kilter!!!

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