The floating islands of Lake Titicaca…

Within an hour of arriving back in Puno, we bumped into our Canadian buddies who we had met in Arequipa. They were racing back to their hostel for a quick shower before catching the 10:30 p.m. overnight bus to Cuzco–the same bus we would be taking in two days’ time. The reason for their hurry, the explained, was the fact that they’d just returned from an overnight tour of the floating islands complete with a homestay with one of the families. They highly recommended it, so we rushed back to our own hostel and asked our host to book the tour for us, despite the fact that I was now caught in the middle of the a cold that I’d caught while weak from food poisoning, which lingered throughout the duration of our trip (though the last week or so was pretty mild).

Our bus picked us up the following morning at 6:50 a.m. Our hostel kindly allowed us to leave our larger _MG_7439packs in their storage facility and we’d packed our small backpacks with some toiletries and a single change of clothes since we were only going to be away for a single night. There was a family of three French people–a couple and their son who spoke Spanish fluently and was in his early 20s. And there was a group of three Chilean friends. Obviously, the Chileans spoke Spanish fluently as well, and Colin and I were at a distinct disadvantage as the only group without a single person who could communicate more thoroughly than “one large beer please” or “the bill, please.” We were still sunburned from the ferry ride from Copacaban to Isla del Sol, and I was trying to lay low to keep my cold from consigning me to bed, so we sat in the main area of the boat, which was covered from the sun, along with the captain–a kid of about nine years old whose dad owned the boat and sat nearby, beaming proudly at his son’s prowess and how impressed his passengers were with him.

Our first stop was Uros, an island made entirely by weaving totora reeds that grow in the lake into a _MG_7506giant, reed floor. I believe there are more than 4o such islands on Lake Titicaca, but the one that we visited was large enough for just six families to live there, and their houses were also made from totora reeds, which turned out to be edible as well. One of the island’s residents showed us how to peel back the top, revealing a white stalk that had the consistency of coconut, but slightly stringier, and tasted bitter and then a little sweet. The residents walk barefoot across the island, and subsist on fishing, hunting water fowl, and now tourism. Their boats were made from the totora reeds as well, or at least they used to be and are now made partially with blue plastic tarps that they attempt to cover with reeds. I could see little _MG_7459 _MG_7456spots of blue peeking through the floor of the boat when we took a brief spin around the island in one of the boats, but I was mostly grateful for the added insurance that we wouldn’t sink. The water in that part of the lake wasn’t especially deep; I think I could have stood up there, and the island’s residents anchored the island to that location to prevent themselves from floating into a deeper part of the lake (the resident joked that they didn’t want to float into Bolivia because they didn’t have passports).

It was a strange experience walking across an island made of reeds, which were constantly in the process of rotting and being replenished. The entire island had the smell of decaying plants, and the floor had a little bit of give to it that I wasn’t necessarily expecting despite the fact that Lonely Planet warned that you could put your foot through the rotten parts of the floor. All the residents walked barefoot around the island, the men and women quiet and purposeful, the children racing along with the excitement of _MG_7502 _MG_7496 _MG_7495being young and having visitors over, crashing into the reed ground and giggling some more. Of course, Colin pointed out that houseguests must have been an hourly occurrence for them. That’s just how popular the floating islands are with tourists. I think the lake is the second most popular tourist destination in Peru–behind Machu Picchu, of course–which is really saying something considering just how much there is to do in this incredible, diverse country. There were no dogs on the island, only a single cat which, we imagined, had a nervous expression.

We proceeded to Amantani where the group broke into two, the French family going one direction and the Chileans and ourselves going another to meet our host family–a couple with two sons. Within 10 minutes they had us seated at their kitchen table while the wife prepared our lunch at a small oven set into the wall, which had been blackened by the heat and smoke. Lunch consisted of quinoa soup, a hunk of bread, cheese, potatoes, and muno tea (a very intense kind of mint which Colin loved and the Chileans explained was good for colds). The wife remained on her stool by the oven watching us eat and smiling at us. She wore, like all women on the island, sandals, thick brown stockings, a thick skirt, a large blouse, and her hair was divided in two braids. Some of the women have colorful, decorative balls hanging from the backs of their braids, which I have not yet been able to figure out.

One of the Chileans chatted constantly with our host while the other two were much quieter.

After lunch we hiked to Pachutata–a temple dedicated to father earth, resting atop a hill opposite Pachumama–a temple dedicated to mother earth. Once we’d reached the temple, the guide told us to pick up a rock and walk counterclockwise around the temple three times, then place the rock on the wall of the temple. I didn’t much want to participate, for the same reason that I don’t forward crap that threatens that I’ll have back luck if I don’t forward it on Facebook, and for the same reason I don’t pray or buy into astrology. My atheist mind just isn’t programmed to buy into that stuff and where there’s no real faith, I don’t think it’s right to make sport of someone’s beliefs or habits. But Colin really wanted to so I did anyway, imagining none of the other tourists really bought into what they were doing either. We had stunning views of the lake and Copacabana, including the violent flashes of a lightning storm, which we’d experienced firsthand our single night on Isla del Sol. The tourists were going wild trying to capture photos and video, all while young Peruvian children approached us repeatedly asking us to buy bracelets from them.

We returned to find our host mother cooking dinner–maize soup and a dish of rice and vegetables. And more tea. The islanders, it turns out, are vegetarians, mostly for practical reasons. They have a limited number of animals on the island, and they’d rather use them for milk and eggs than meat. And they _MG_7560mostly eat what they grow themselves. Quinoa is practically a religion there. Everyone eats it, extolling its health properties and benefits. There are a couple thousand people living on Amantani, and no colleges. For college, the students have to go to Puno, and mostly they study tourism or agriculture. All across Peru, people talked about studying tourism in college, which makes sense given that it’s such a significant industry in the country. We learned much of this from picking up bits and pieces of the conversations the chatty Chilean had with our host. We learned, for example, that it’s too cold on the island to grow pot. And that the bus path from Lima to Cuzco is quite dangerous. Just before we’d arrived in the country, a busload of workers crashed and everyone aboard was killed. Fifty-something people.

My contributions to the conversation included revealing my fears on the bus in Juliaca, which the host justified by stating that Juliaca was a dangerous place. I also told them–in bad Spanish and mime–about the man in Juliaca who had flashed the bus, and the Chileans roared with laughter. But I think our biggest hit was a small, inflatable solar-powered lantern that we’d brought on the trip, and purchased for about $15 at Camp and Pack in SLO. Our host mother seemed especially interested, asking us to demonstrate it for everyone else.

In the morning, after a breakfast of fried dough and jam which was somehow perfect, we left the light in our room with a simple note that said, “Para ti. Gracias por todo. Colin y Ashley.” I am sure, even in this simple note, that I butchered the language.

At 8 a.m. we were once again on the boat bound for Tanquile–“not tequila”–where we hiked to a plaza and Colin and I visited a men’s and women’s knitting cooperative. It was the first time we’d seen any_MG_7599 reference to men making anything with textiles, so I was especially keen to buy something there. Then a short climb to a garden for almuerzo, and down 360 steep steps to return to the boat. I usually enjoy a good downhill climb, but my legs were shaking a little by the time we’d made our way down.

It was 3:30 and we were both sunburned and tired by the time our boat pulled into the dock at Puno. We parted company with our fellow travelers–the quietest of the three Chileans kissed my cheek, to Colin’s mostly-pretend chagrin–and headed to the hostel with seven hours until our bus would be leaving for Cuzco.

We hadn’t showered that day. We were told there was hot water at the home where we were staying on Amantani, but had instead found no water at all when we woke up and went downstairs to the shower. And we’d been hiking for two days, and would not be pulling into Cuzco until 4:30 a.m. I desperately wanted a shower. We talked the hostel that was storing our luggage into allowing us to purchase a shower and a few hours in the dorm for 20 soles. Then, freshly showered, tired, sunburned, and loaded down with luggage–our presents were really starting to add up–we headed to Terminal Terrestre for our overnight bus to Cuzco.

(PHOTOS BY COLIN RIGLEY)

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