Day 66: Floating Islands

Thur. 18th October 2012

Floating islands on Lake TiticacaI have a memory (real or otherwise) of 1st or 2nd Form Geography and hearing about Lake Titicaca and the people who lived on floating islands. Today, I got to fulfil a longstanding ambition by visiting them as we headed off onto the Lake before spending a night at a homestay with a local family. At 3,800m, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, and so we got to tick that box on our I Spy cards too!

Quince soles de verduras, por favor!Before getting on to the boat, though, we had to make a trip to the local market to by some fruit and vegetables to take as gifts for our host families. “Una bolsa de verduras, quince soles” (15Sol of vegetables in a bag) was the cry. The market vendors must have thought that all their Christmases had come at once as we all descended on different stalls. You do get a lot of fruit or veg for your equivalent of £4 – and we all had fun comparing the unusual specimens that we had alongside our carrots, potatoes, broccoli, etc.

Bicitaxi grand prix!Then it was back to the hotel where we found a squadron (not sure of the right collective noun) of bicitaxis waiting outside. It turned out that they were our transport down to the harbour to get to our boat. The bicitaxi drivers turned out to be quite competitive as we were racing down the streets of Puno taking any opportunity to overtake. As this was 8am then we needed something to wake us all up.

Heading out onto Lake Titicaca, past the reed bedsUnsurprisingly, at the harbour there were a lot of boats waiting for their load of tourists. We had a boat to ourselves and we were soon loaded up and off. The first stop was to the floating Uros islands. These are a group of some 40 man made islands that are populated by descendants of the Uros tribe who fled on to the lake to escape from the Incas. They build the islands using the native reeds that grow in shallower water (1m – 2m deep) – the base is made from blocks of the roots which are tied together and anchored to the bottom of the lake. They then layer more and more reeds on top until the surface of the island is a foot or so out of the water. Apparently, it takes about a year to build an island, a new layer of reeds needs to be laid down every month in the rainy season (15 days in the dry season)  and the island only lasts for 25 years.

Reed boat set up for the touristsIt is clear that these people are becoming more and more dependent on the tourist trade. We had a little show put on for us and then had the opportunity to buy some handicrafts. As ever, tourism is both a good and a bad thing – the extra income is raising their living standards, but it is also changing their way of life. We can’t help but think that in 5 or 10 years time, the whole place will become like a Disney theme park.

Arch on the pathway - yes, they are men with hats!After an hour or so on the floating island and a ride on a boat made of the reeds – in traditional style, but made larger so as to accommodate tourists – we were back on our boat and off to Taquille Island, one of the larger natural islands in the lake. As we headed across the lake, the fluffy white clouds seemed unnaturally low and close to the water – I suspect that the clouds are at the right height, but that the problem is that we are too high! We were promised ‘the best trout you have ever eaten’ for lunch on Taquille. I can’t say it was necessarily that, but it was tasty as was the soup starter and even better was the fried bread dough (like drop scones, but deep fried?).

Dodgy folk disguised as localsOver lunch, we had an explanation about the traditional local dress, and in particular about how the men had to weave their own hats and bags and that they were symbols of marital status and position in the local hierarchy. As we walked to the main plaza (much less grand than the plazas in the cities we have stayed in), we were able to see examples of these but again we were left with the question – just how much of this is for the benefit of tourists?

Back on the boat, we headed off to the peninsular where we will meet our homestay family. None of us are quite sure what to expect. We have been told that this is another project run by G Adventures to engage with and support the local communities. En route, we are given a sheet with some phrases to learn in the local Aymara language and warned that our hosts may not speak much Spanish. There is a welcoming committee waiting for us at the jetty and they take us to the local school where we will be paired up with our hosts.

Locals showing us how it should be doneBefore that happens though, there is a football match to get through – we won even though after the slightest spell of running we were all very out of breath. Even more scarily, we then had to don the local dress and try out one of the traditional local dances – it was in line dance style and involved much twirling of our pom-poms. We will have won few marks for style but at least we were all in it together!

We were then introduced to our new ‘mamas’ (or in our case ‘aunt’) and we headed off to our houses for the night. Our bedroom was on the top floor of a small building separate from the family house (hut). We had just dumped our bags when in marched three children – Janeli (10), Mario (8 – and a girl), and Sebastian (5) – carrying a portable games compendium. They introduced themselves, in Spanish fortunately, and so we spent the time waiting for dinner playing Snakes & Ladders and then Ludo (both with some very strange local rules).

Our group all in costumeDinner proved to be an interesting experience. We ate in what seemed to be the family’s hut – it was a single room (perhaps 12’ x 8’) that had kitchen, living (well, empty) space and a bed. We had seats at a table that was squeezed in to the living space and the rest of the family then sat on the bed or on rocks. We never were completely able to work out the family relationships. Our ‘mama’ was also called Janet (to everyone’s amusement); the three children were not hers but our ‘aunt’ and next door neighbour (Aurora?) and there was a man called Sixto who also ate with us. We did manage some of our rehearsed phrases in Aymara but our main communication was in Spanish – but mostly they just yakked away and ignored us sitting up on high at the table!

Tomorrow, we will be helping out with some chores for the family – so we shall see what that brings. We head to bed early and as we walk back we look up and see more stars than I have ever seen before. I was transfixed and spent 5 or 10 minutes just looking up. No familiar constellations of course, but I was able to see the whiteish glow of the Milky Way. A great way to end a very unusual day.

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One Response to Day 66: Floating Islands

  1. Sheila says:

    Great to be somewhere dark enough to see the Milky Way in all its glory. You should have been able to pick out the small constalation – Crux or Southern Cross. It is also at Machu Picchu engraved in stone.

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