I only vaguely remember learning about Lake Titicaca when I was a kid in social studies. The time we spent on it can’t compare with the time we spent on llamas, for instance. We learned about llamas every year. They really wanted us to learn about llamas. And it wasn’t until I got to Peru that I discovered that on the South American camelid social scale, the status of llamas is below that of alpacas. Alpacas are where it’s at, man.
But I digress. To get back to Lake Titicaca, I sort of knew that it was in South America and that it had floating islands, whatever they were, and that was about all I could have told you. If pressed, I might have recalled that it was at high altitude. Now I’ve visited Lake Titicaca, I’ve been to the floating islands and met some of their delightful inhabitants, and I can say that the altitude, to use the vernacular, kicked my tail. I was tired ALL the time.
First the facts: Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and at approximately 12,500 feet above sea level, it’s the highest navigable lake in the world. It’s shared between Peru and Bolivia and gives Bolivia’s navy something to do, since that’s a landlocked country. In Inca myth, the creator god is supposed to have been born on Isla del Sol, giving Lake Titicaca the nickname “The Birthplace of the Sun” and also according to Inca legend, the first Inca king was born there. On the Peruvian side, the town of Puno, Peru, is on the banks of the lake and is heavily involved in the lives of those who live on the lake. Their children go to school in Puno and the people who live on both the floating and more permanent islands trade or sell their goods there. The Hotel Directory in our room in Puno is the only one I’ve ever seen that had a section on “Oxygen Services.”
The Uros people came up with the ingenious idea of creating islands where there were none centuries ago, when the Inca moved in on their turf. Reeds are abundant around the edges of the lake. How hard could it be to build an island out of reeds and escape to the middle of the lake? However they came up with the idea, and whatever those first islands looked like, the Uros people have lived that way ever since. The base of a floating island is a reed root system several feet thick, topped with reeds that have to be replenished twice a month as the old ones disintegrate. The island is anchored by a dozen or so cords that are weighted so boats can glide over them. The people on the island we visited had a small-scale model of how the islands are built. Reeds are also used for furniture, houses, boats, fuel for their stoves, snacks (the white part of the reed), cattle feed (the green part), soap, and toilet paper. The dried ones (for TP) are surprisingly soft; they passed one around. The Uros people historically have lived by fishing, hunting birds, and trading or selling fish or reeds in Puno, but now they’re also gaining income from tourism, from tours of their islands and from selling handicrafts directly to island visitors. There are about 1,700 Uros living on the islands and the population is decreasing as young people leave to take jobs in the city. This may happen with parental encouragement. Island life is hard and some parents want a different life for their children. There are a few modern conveniences. Some of the islands had water towers and solar panels, and a home that we visited had a small TV set.
Our guide had to interpret most of what our island hosts said, but the people are warm, friendly, and welcoming, and they laugh a lot. The president of this 20-person island did much of the talking. The president is elected to a one-year term and has the ultimate authority in case of disputes over communal issues, for instance, if one family is accused of not doing their share of island maintenance. There are a couple of larger islands where the larger community can get together, including a soccer field, and where young people from the different islands meet, although some also find potential mates in Puno while at school. Couples can meet by boat in the reeds for privacy. As it was put to us, “Dates one and two are quiet, but by date three, the reeds are shaking.”
We left the Uros Islands and went to Taquile, an island of about 2,000 inhabitants. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site due to the textile skills of the people who live there. Children of both sexes learn to spin wool starting at age three or four, and after they become expert at this, girls branch out into weaving and boys into knitting.
The weaving was of course beautiful and extremely intricate, but you can’t throw a rock in Peru without disrupting somebody weaving. The knitting was a little more unusual. The men use smaller needles than I’ve seen before and handle five at a time. It was interesting, but perhaps not surprising, to hear how integral clothing is in the lives and relationships of the Taquilenos. Women weave the elaborately decorated back support belts for their sons and husbands, and men make skirts for their wives. On special occasions, women may wear eight or ten skirts. Men knit their own hats—white for single men and red for married men. When a young couple wants to get married, they go for a walk on the beach with both sets of parents. The man takes off his hat and pours water into it. It must hold the water without dripping for a count of ten seconds, or permission to marry is refused by her parents. If he can’t make a decent hat, how can he hope to be a good husband? He may be given a second chance, which means he has three months to make a second hat, starting with spinning the wool himself. I couldn’t help thinking that, knowing what the test is going to be, if he doesn’t have the sense to try out his hat ahead of time, he probably doesn’t need to be getting married. That may be the true test after all.
I’ll admit I had mixed feelings as we toured the islands. I found the area and its people fascinating, but at the same time, I would have felt uncomfortable, like we were invading their privacy, if they had not made it abundantly clear that they welcome tourism and the money it brings. That made me feel better.