I was collected at the Casa Andina at 7am by yet another braces-wearing Peruvian guide to drive to the (inland) port. The port was quite close by, but as usual we had to go via umpteen other hotels to pick up the other passengers. When we eventually got to the Titicaca dock we were swarmed upon by a small battalion of lakeside Indian women trying to entice us to buy a bargain-priced hat or two from a broad assortment they were either carrying or wearing.
The German tourists from yesterday’s Cusco coach were on the same Uros Islands trip as me. These upbeat Teutonic folk were certainly enjoying their Peru visit. I have noticed that Germans on holidays are able to escape the stereotypical dour visage that is generally associated with them.
We were shepherded on to one boat which I thought was going to be our boat for the trip, but before we could settle, the crew moved us across to another boat, and then, after an apparent another change of mind, guided over to a third boat where we were allowed to sit down. There was a bit of a delay in embarking, during which we were entertained by a pipe-playing musician in traditional garb. The piper banged out three tunes, the second instantly recognised as “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”, the first time I had ever heard a rendition of a Beatles standard played on a Latino pan pipe! When he finished he took the hat round, most of the punters on board were not particularly generous but I tipped him 10 soles (my small contribution to the cause of local struggling community performers).
Our Titicaca tour director was the same guy who had accompanied us on the bus trip. Not sure what to make of him, he was friendly, enthusiastic certainly, but his thick Peruvian accent was hard to fathom. So, his jokes spoken in Spanglish it seemed to me, were largely lost on me!
We got out onto Lago Titikaka which is 3812 metres above sea level and shared between Peru and Bolivia. It is amazing to reflect on the fact that this is an enormous inland ‘sea’, the highest navigable lake in the world, a hundred or so kilometres from the Pacific Ocean! On the outward journey I noticed that reeds were freely growing all along the northern shore of the lake.
The first island we visited in the Lake was Taquile where we leisurely wandered from one side of the island to the other, taking in the views, very tranquil, relaxed ambience. We passed the fields comprising the Islanders’ collective agricultural system which basically hasn’t changed since the 14th century. At the other side we met a family of colourfully and traditionally-attired weavers. We had a demonstration of their antiquated textile techniques, finished products of which were available to buy (I bought a floppy white hat with a colourful patterned band for 30 soles).
After Taquile we went to Llachon – Santa Maria, where a shaman prepared a Pachamanca meal for us on the beach. This is a traditional form of cooking using underground ovens (something very akin to a Māori hūngi). Part meal preparation and part religious ritual, the ceremony involved the shaman pouring wine onto the mound covering the food and waving branches and leaves over it. The purpose of this ritual was to make offerings to Pachamama/ Mother Earth (the Incas’ creation myths have it that the people had their origins in the Lake!). Blessed or unblessed, the meal was delicious!
From Taquile we moved on the ‘Floating Islands’ of Uros, the highlight of the Titicaca trip. The Floating Islands were artificially constructed by the Uros people using bundled reeds from the totora plant mixed with mud to cut themselves off from the Incas and other aggressive neighbours. The community demonstrated how they expanded the tiny island by tying together extra reeds, soil and turf, and affixed to the sides of the island by rope.
The Uros, cutoff from the World in this way, survive by fishing (the Lake is stocked with Canadian trout and Argentinian kingfish) and by trading the goods and materials they produced for food from the surrounding larger islands. I couldn’t help wondering about the kind of alternative, parallel life they lived, living freely for sure, but living in a very enclosed, claustrophobic world – to my eyes. Walking around the uneven reed floor of the island was a novel and strange experience.
Whilst on Uros we were given a boat ride around the lagoon in one of the Island’s reed boats. I had used up all the money I had brought with me buying some cushion covers, so I experienced an uncomfortable moment when the reed boat pilot tried to hit me for a donation after we had returned from the ride. He looked quite put out when I intimated that I had zilch on me.
About 50 metres away from the island was a second, smaller artificial island, the story of its existence was a peculiar one. Four of the families on the original island fell out with the majority of the families and broke away from them, constructed a new floating island. The tourists in our group were a good bunch of people (mainly Americans and Costa Ricans), we exchanged lots of jokes, eg, do you need a passport to visit the breakaway reed island?
After returning to Puno I went for dinner in the town. Walking through the streets, just about every café and bar with a Peruvian band that I passed was playing that old favourite, ‘El Condor Pasa’. I returned to the hotel after eating and souvenir-hunting to find that a bulldozer was busy decimating an old building directly across the road – as if the road wasn’t already stuffed up enough!