By Gabrielle Varela
We sat on bundles of reeds laid out in the clearing as a smiling man approached us in a rainbow colored chullo hat, a woven shirt, and athletic pants. He welcomed us to his island and introduced himself as Roi, the president of the island. Behind him, three men dragged a thick dirt block to the center of our circle. From this, he told us, we would make an island.
In November, I had joined a group of ten on a small motor boat and headed out to Uros Island, one of Lake Titicaca’s 42 floating islands. I was eager to have an experience that echoed the magic and adventure reported by the likes of Joseph Conrad and Hemingway, deep in the uncharted, heart of a country. I wanted to be taken in by the locals and learn new ways of living.
The reluctance of the Uros people to adopt 21-century luxuries and their relative isolation seemed promising. Even the small word “tribe” made my imagination recall tales of Jacques Cousteau. Structured from the torta reeds that grow in thick splintered nettles, the Uros people have lived on the abundant natural resources the lake has to offer since the age of the Incas. Roi and his men were prepared to demonstrate how they built and maintained the island.
Waves clapped against the edge of the island as more women in derby-style hats, their ropes of braids knotted with fuchsia and neon-green tassels, approached from small thatched huts surrounding the clearing. They settled themselves beside us, quietly chatting amongst each other as they began to embroider and sew. We watched as Roi and his men swiftly severed reeds and wove them together, then unrolled them in long mats over the cube of earth, stacking piece upon piece.
Within the hour, a bulky chunk had been built. Roi’s young daughter Emi rushed, over sucking on an orange slice and holding out her doll. Taking it, Roi placed the doll on top of the small starter island. The women in their hoop skirts of golden yellow and cerulean blue coo-ed at her and wiped her face free of the juice and pulp of the fruit. As we rose to follow the men lugging our island to the water’s edge, one caught my hand as I stumbled, still not used to the suppleness of reeds slightly giving under my weight. They heaved the “island” into the water, a large rock its anchor. As our beginning island rested on the lake’s surface with the doll leaning up against her new home smiling, I noted what a nice alternative this livable raft would have been to moving back in to my parents’ house post-college.
I thought of the history and tradition these islanders have upheld, their islands originally built as a defense against the expanding Incan Empire, which they’ve occupied ever since. Emi plopped down next to a man holding string that wound down into a small hole cut into the layers of dirt and brush. She reached her arm into the fishing hole and cupped water in her hands for me to see.
“Que linda!” said a woman kneeling down, stroking Emi’s braid.
“¿Que es esto?” asked Emi as she pulled at the woman’s khakis.
Ruffling through the layers of her skirt, she pulled them up to reveal her ankles, and then looked around and pointed to her father. “Pantalones!” she squealed and broke into wild laughter.
While Emi laughed at our cultural differences–on Uros island, men wore the pants–I found myself amused by our similarities and reconsidered what I’d expected from this adventure. Adventure is of course sharing and learning about our differences while also finding comfort in the unexpected places where we overlap. The president of the island was, after all, wearing Adidas athletic pants.
The growth of tourism to Uros doesn’t mean a loss of culture. On the contrary, visitors are welcomed here and most instances of Westernization are accepted in a sort of tongue and cheek manner. (Roi affectionately calls his extravagant tortilla his Mercedez Benz.) Once or twice a month, the islanders receive visitors on tours organized by travel agencies stationed in the mainland town of Puno. These tours bring people to the islands to explore and take rides around the marsh on the elaborately decorated boats. The boat rides and the selling of textiles and handmade crafts help support the islands economically and allow their inhabitants to maintain their way of life. It is this relationship that sets the welcoming atmosphere for groups such as ours to come and experience the islanders’ lifestyle.
As the day was winding down, we climbed back on our boat for the return journey. The women gathered at the water’s edge to see us off, breaking into song and dance. The gurgling and bubbling of the motor started up and we slowly drifted away. We clustered at the stern, waving our last goodbyes as the islands receded further and further, blending into the pristine landscape that houses them, the women’s brightly colored skirts becoming the size of flower buds among the mountainous backdrop.
Many day tours run to the islands and range in price from USD$55 -$150, depending on the company. Many day trips are available, as well as opportunities to stay on the islands. And for more Nat Geo content on Lake Titicaca, click here.
Photo: Gabrielle Varela