On the islands of Lake Titicaca

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August 29th 2019
Published: August 30th 2019
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The past two days have been an amazing experience, giving us a privileged insight into some very different lifestyles. I feel as if I've been in the pages of National Geographic. We have been on the islands of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. We are now at about 3800 metres and I'm quite breathless when walking but otherwise okay.

Yesterday we set off early on a boat and headed for the Uros Islands, artificial islands which are made entirely of totara reeds. The people literally build the islands with reeds and anchor them with stick formerly using reed rope but now using nylon. They also use the reeds for building their houses and boats, as food and sometimes ferment them to make alcohol. Their lifestyle is traditional and very simple, but the world is creeping in. They welcome tourists and use the money they bring to acquire such things as plastic to cover the roofs of their reed huts in the rainy season or solar panels for electricity which means they can have TVs etc. The children go to secondary school in Puno and often don't return. They were very warm and friendly, sang for us, showed us how they build the islands, which need constant renewal, and took us for a ride on the reed catamarans with their double puma heads.

Then we went to Tequile Island, a natural island with a community of 2500 people which is quite traditional and self-sufficient. It consists of four cooperative farming communities who are run by annually elected leaders. The leaders must be married couples over 30. They have a very strong work ethic and are constantly engaged in productive activity. The women spin and weave and the men knit. A man looking to marry must knit a hat which the woman will inspect to decide if his work is good enough. The hat takes about three months knitting five hours a day and should be tight enough to hold water. An outside man who wants to marry a Tequile woman is not allowed to move to the Island unless he meets the knitting standard. Their traditional dress is complicated and filled with significance. Unmarried girls wear pom poms on their braids, and it is said they hide rocks in then to defend their virtue. Husbands knit clothes for their wives, including black shawls which signify marriage. Wives embroider complicated belts and bags for their husbands to carry the coca leaves they chew. Men wear floppy hats, the colours signifying their marital status. An engaged couple lives together in his parents’ house for six months before committing to marriage and building their own home so premarital sex is fine but there is no divorce. At Tequile, we had a delicious traditional lunch of quinoa soup, lake trout and fried bread, watched some traditional dancing and observed their complicated four needle knitting.

Then we moved on to Luquina Chico, a peninsula where we spent the night at a homestay with a local familiy. We were a little concerned about how primitive the facilities might be, but this community is really set up for tourists. We had a very pleasant room with a private proper bathroom plus a one month old calf outside the window and a view of the lake. Our Mama and Papa were Jorge and Sasquana and they had two children, a boy of 15 and a girl of 12. The family were very friendly, but our Spanish was better than their English. The other people on this tour have no Spanish and relied on charades to communicate with their host families so we felt relatively competent. The mother tongue in this area is Aymara and the children learn in both Spanish and Aymara at school. Luquina Chico is a traditional subsistence farming community which has consciously embraced tourism and are using the income from it to build facilities for the community. They have a good school and are building a community hall for festivals. The economic structure is private enterprise but the 60 families in this community obviously work co-operatively in many ways. They are modernizing quite quickly, and I think we are lucky to visit now before the lifestyle disappears. Remote communities like Luquina Chico don't pay taxes but still receive services including free education and health care.

When we arrived, Sasquana dressed us up in traditional festive garb and took us dancing which was great fun. Danny looked quite the part in a dapper hat and bright pink poncho, though I fear I looked enormous in three full skirts (the dancers at Tequile wore 12 layered skirts!) Then we had a simple but tasty dinner with our family of vegetable soup, rice and vegetables cooked in a mudbrick oven with a fire and clay pots and went to sleep in our mudbrick bed (with a comfy mattress) in our mudbrick room.

In the morning we joined in daily life. We helped make breakfast of fried bread and eggs from their chickens, took slops to the pigs, drove the sheep to pasture in the edge of the lake, and separated broad beans from chaff. It was fun and very tranquil, and we really enjoyed experiencing such a different lifestyle. The people work very hard. We think they must think of us as extraordinarily soft and lazy especially as the altitude means we pant doing any walking. I chatted to a 71-year old lady who was hard at work with a hoe! There's no women's work or men's work - both do whatever is required: cooking, laundry, agricultural labour. They eat well, simple organic food mostly vegetables, quinoa and beans and are very fit and they frequently live into their 90s. For lunch we had more vegetable soup, fried alpaca cheese (which tasted like saganaki) and root vegetables. Then we farewelled our families and took the boat back to Puno.

Tomorrow is the Festival of Santa Rosa and walking around Puno we came upon a parade of children from Santa Rosa School all dressed up. It was organised chaos and reminded me of Purim at King David, then I remembered that on her first Purim at KDS I asked Kathy, the new campus head, if she'd ever seen anything like this and she said every Catholic school has a saint's day which is very similar. Classes were dressed in themes: the little ones were fairy tale characters but the older ones included miniature Incas and various styles of national dress, including costumes similar to what we had seen the Luquina women wearing that morning.

It's our last night with the 14 of us together as a group: some are heading home, some to the Galapagos and six of us to the Amazon. The options seem to depend on when you booked. We went to a fancy restaurant with glitzy interpretations of national dances for our final meal together. They were more professional but less authentic than the dancing we had seen previously and included as very impressive dance imitating condors.


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