Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca
Most sources agree that “titi” means puma in Aymara and “caca” (“karka” actually) means rock.  From that point there is a divergence as to what “puma rock” means.  Is the lake shaped like a puma?  Were pumas particularly numerous in the region around the lake?  Was there a rock in the lake where a puma once lived?  Or could it be that “Titicaca” sounding like “puma rock” in Aymara is a mere coincidence.  One could infer, for example, that Washington, the US Capitol city refers to the cleansing of a heavy weight (“washing” “ton”) —which is literally true, but also far-fetched.  It is possible that the name “Titicaca” is more ancient than the Aymara language.  One source I’ve found mentions that “titi” means sun in Puquina, a now defunct language that was once spoken around Lake Titicaca. 

Regardless of the origin of its name, Lake Titicaca is an amazing lake.  It straddles the border of Peru and Bolivia, covers over three thousand square miles and is dotted with islands, and most incredibly, the surface of its waters sit over 12,000 feet above the surface of the ocean.  It is the world’s highest navigable body of water.

Our plan is to navigate the lake over the next few days and we have chosen All WaysTravel to help us in that undertaking.  The leading sentence on the All Ways’ web site acknowledges both the rich culture and tradition and the deep poverty of the people in the Lake Titicaca region.  This tour company, like any tour company anywhere, helps support the local economy by facilitating visits by tourists into the local area.  But All Ways assumes an even greater social responsibility by using some of its profits to build and maintain libraries in local communities and by providing financial support for the local schools.  They also try to break down barriers between tourists and locals by arranging for tourists to stay as paying guests in local homes.  We chose this company because of their dedication to socially responsible tourism, but our experience with them proves that we’ve made the right choice beyond social responsibility.  Both the quality of service and the dedication of their staff are first-rate.

On this morning, the All Ways Travel van picks us up from the Casona Colon lobby and we drive to the dock.  The van driver points out the boat that we’ll be traveling on and suggests that before we board we buy a gift for the host family that we’ll be staying with.  There are vendor stalls by the dock selling all manner of goods, so after perusing merchandise in several of these we settle on some oranges and apples from a fruit stand.

The boat is a cabin run-about with a capacity of about twenty and there are maybe just a few less than that number on board.  Once we’re all settled a smiling dark-haired young woman introduces herself as Sylvia, our guide.  She also introduces Lloyd, the boat's pilot.  Lloyd backs the boat from its berth and we’re underway. 

Our first stop is a short distance into the lake from Puno at the Islands of Uros.  This is a group of about fifty islands – the number varies depending on who you ask and when you count because islands can disappear and new islands can be formed on very short order.  These unique islands are man-made – built of reeds, occupied by the Uru people, and have been inhabited for perhaps as long as a thousand years.

One thought is that the Uru people migrated to the Lake Titicaca region and built islands in the lake when they found that all the land was already occupied by others.  Another theory is that the Uru people moved into the lake for better defense.  The Uru traded with the Aymara people who occupied the shore around the lake and intermarried to the point that they eventually lost their original language and spoke only Aymara.  Ultimately they were conquered by the Incas and incorporated into that empire.  But through all of that they continued to live on their islands and maintain their way of life.  Their traditional food sources have been fish from the lake, the eggs of water birds, and the roots of torta reeds.  It is these reeds that they use to build their boats, their houses, and the islands they live on.  The islands are made of interwoven layers of reeds about six feet thick that are anchored to the bottom of the lake with ropes.  New layers of reeds have to be constantly added to the top since the bottom layer is continuously rotting away.  As I walk around the islands, the surface sinks slightly under my feet every time I take a step.  It gives the very real sensation that I am walking on a floating island.
Reed Islands!
The people are dressed in bright primary colors – the men in wool sweaters and reed hats and the women in colorful vests, full skirts, and reed or traditional Andean felt hats.  Everybody is friendly and anxious to show us hospitality.  One young woman who speaks a few words of English shows us her home and her handiwork.  I buy a couple of little gourds from her that have been painted to look like owls and Kathy buys an embroidered piece.  One of the men gathers us around to tell us a little of their culture.  He tells us that modern life is finding its way to the islands in the form of TV’s, radios, and solar panels.  Cooking is still done over fires, which must be built on top of rocks, since the entire surface of the islands is flammable.  There are “outhouses” on small islands a short distance from the main islands – everybody just relieves themselves into the lake and the lake disposes of the waste through dilution and the natural process of decomposition.  The dead, likewise, are buried in the lake.
Uru Women Attend a Fire
The latest census indicates around 2000 Uros descendants – they are disappearing by assimilating into the general population.  The number of those 2000 still living on the islands is in the mere hundreds.  The economy of those remaining on the islands is supported to a large extent by tourists like us, who visit and perhaps buy a few handicrafts.  So while tourism has irrevocably changed the Uros lives, perhaps without it the remaining people would move to the mainland and the islands would be gone.

We reboard the boat and continue across the water to Amantani Island.  On the way, Sylvia explains to us that there are about three and a half thousand people on the island divided between around 800 families and ten communities.  Each community takes its turn hosting overnight tourists.  Any given community hosts, at most, a couple times a week during high season. As we draw near to the island I experience a sense of déjà vu because the small island with its steep hillsides, sparse vegetation and grazing sheep reminds me so much of the Greek Islands in the Aegean.  It appears that most of the community is on the shore waiting for our arrival.  It also appears that everybody has put on their best clothes to welcome us. The men are wearing white shirts, dark trousers, dark vests and fedora-style hats. The women are garbed in white blouses with brightly embroidered fronts, very full red skirts with multiple under-skirts, colorful woven sashes, and black shawls that are elaborately and colorfully embroidered on the ends. They are wearing the shawls draped across their heads and down their backs. “How do they keep them balanced on their heads?”  Kathy wonders.

We get off the boat and stand in a group as Sylvia and village officials parse us into groups and assign us to hosts.  Kathy, Madeline, and I, along with a young guy from Paris named François are assigned to an older woman who is introduced to us as Innocentia.  She does not speak any English.  It is amazing how well we all converse over the next day.  The tools we have to work with are a small card containing words and phrases in Quechua, facial expressions, gestures, laughter, and an essential need and strong desire to communicate.

Innocentia starts walking up the steep hill to the village and her house.  Any illusion I may have had about this being like the Greek Isles evaporates as soon as we start walking.  Our walk is not starting from the sea but from a point about 12,000 feet above that.  My breathing is soon ragged.  Innocentia is walking very slowly—she obviously has done this many times before and is used to tourists not being acclimated to the thin air.  We pass a few knots of other tourists panting by the side of the path—one young woman is both gasping and sobbing.  This is hard work!  At least we know what to expect having recently walked the Inca Trail.  As we reach the edge of the village the dirt path turns to cobblestone.  There is a small store and clusters of houses spread out on large lots with vegetable gardens, and pens containing chickens and sheep.  We meet other villagers on the path and are impressed that many of the women are knitting or plying yarn on drop spindles as they walk along.  Eventually we arrive at Innocentia’s home—a cluster of several adobe buildings around a walled courtyard.  There is no evidence of a husband or children—Innocentia apparently lives alone.  She assigns rooms.  She seems a little confused at first when I go into the room with Kathy and Madeline but then she obviously realizes that we are a family unit.  Her guest rooms are on the second floor and are accessed by a walkway that we reach by climbing a rickety set of wooden steps.  Our room has a very low, small entry door, a tiny window, a rough wooden floor, three beds, and no other furnishings.  I immediately claim one of the beds which is firm to the point of hardness—just the way I like it—and I take a much needed short nap.
Sheep Graze on Amantani
After my nap, I go downstairs with Kathy and Madeline, we find François in the courtyard, and then we all go into the kitchen/dining area where Innocentia serves us a simple but filling and delicious meal.  We start with a nice quinoa soup and follow that with a plate filled with boiled potatoes and oca, a pleasant tastingyellow tuber that comes from a clover-like plant—it is an Andean staple.  There are also shell beans, and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes.

After lunch, everybody, both guests and hosts, congregate at a soccer/basketball court in the center of the village where a group of young men and women, both tourists and locals, play soccer.  I am amazed of the ability of the tourists to exert themselves at this altitude, then find out that they’re a group of British youngsters who have been in Peru on a service trip for a few weeks, hence they are probably used to the thin air.

There are not very many level spots on the entire island and there is a continuous uphill gradient from the shoreline to two high peaks which are named Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Pachatata (Father Earth).  Each peak has an old Incan temple ruin.  The local population, like most of the citizens of Peru, are Catholic, and like most of the citizens of Peru, their Catholicism overlays an appreciation of older religions and rituals.  Consequently, these old temples are still revered, and offerings to Pachamama and Pachatata are made on these peaks on specific dates, several times a year.  We are invited to climb to one of the peaks to watch the sun set over the lake and we join the bulk of the tourists in choosing Pachatata.  It isn’t quite as high as Pachamama, and the walk is also slightly shorter.  Frequent stops to catch our breath also allows us to appreciate the view of the island.  The island is filled with small terraced agricultural fields.  Some are being grazed by sheep, but most are filled with brown stubble, since we’re still in the midst of the southern hemisphere winter.  Sylvia tells us that the farming is all subsistence level, and performed by hand.  The crops produced includes barley, potatoes, beans, oca, and quinoa—exactly the food we’d enjoyed for lunch.  At the top, we rest, photograph the temple ruins, and wait for the sun to set.  Since this is the tropics, once the sun nears the horizon, it goes down hastily and dusk blends quickly into chilly darkness.  We find our way down from the peak to the soccer court and locate Innocentia who leads us back to her house for a dinner of more quinoa soup and rice with a nice vegetable stew. 
A View of the Sunset over Lake Titicaca from Pachatata
After dinner, Innocentia brings out an armload of clothing and proceeds to dress us in local attire.  For François and me this is an easy undertaking. It’s just a matter of us putting on ponchos over our usual clothes.  Innocentia assists Kathy and Madeline in the more difficult task of putting on embroidered blouses, two skirts each, sashes, and embroidered shawls.  Then, incognito as Amantani revelers, we walk to the local dance hall which is already filled with locals and tourists in local garb, all dancing to Andean music.  Two excellent local bands provide the music, our Amantani friends provide the beer, the whole crowd provides the energy, and everybody parties into the evening.  Kathy, Madeline, and I, who are all feeling a little exhausted from our busy day, ask Innocentia to take us home long before the merrymaking ends. 
Madeline and Kathy Disguised as Amantani Revelers
Back at Innocentia’s we take off our party clothes and transform back into American tourists then get ready for bed.  There is a small building next to Innocentia’s house that contains a shower, a toilet, and a sink.  It looks like it has never been used and I suspect that there has been some sort of issue with plumbing or water supply.  The building, in fact, is filled with corn and shelled beans—it has become a storage shed.  The “sanitary facilities” in use actually consist of a water spigot and a pit latrine, both located in the donkey pen.  The mom donkey is tied but the baby donkey is free and is very interested in our toiletries.  We have to shoo him away on a regular basis and he is not very shoo-able.  But on the other hand he is fairly adorable.

Soon, we switch off the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling of our room and I lie on my wonderful firm-to-hard bed under a mountain of wool blankets.  As the temperature drops throughout the night in our unheated room, I feel snug in my nest of covers.  At some point I during the night my bladder tells me that it needs some attention.  I think about the dark, the cold, the rickety stairs, the pit latrine, and the donkeys.  Then I think about how warm I am in my cozy woolen citadel.  Then I tell my bladder to forget it.  I close my eyes and sleep peacefully the rest of the night.

Then another Peruvian morning arrives.  It is six o’clock when I get up and make a fast and desperate trip to the latrine.  The morning is clear and brisk.  I feel rested, happy, and hungry so am grateful when Innocentia announces breakfast a mere half-hour later. She serves pancakes, which are tasty and gratifyingly warm on this cold morning.  After breakfast, Kathy gives her our gift of fruit and also pays her for our stay.  She gives Kathy a big hug, kisses her on both cheeks, and appreciatively tells us “Gracias, Mama, gracias Papa!”  I really appreciate the system that All Ways Travel has established that allows paying guests to stay in people’s homes.  The brief relationship we’ve developed with Innocentia is closer and more tangible than what it would have been had someone built a hotel on this island and Innocentia had wound up working there as a cook or maid.  And while there is bound to be some artificiality when there is a continual stream of tourists, the relationship is still more personal at this level.  We’ve been able to experience the intimacy of her home and her hospitality, and we’ve become “Mama and Papa” to her!
With Innocentia
Innocentia walks us down to the shore and boat.  Downhill this time, and quickly!  There are more hugs at the dock, and pictures, then good-byes.  By eight o’clock we are on our way to the island of Taquile.

The trip to Taquile is short but rough.  Like Amantani, Taquile rises steeply from the shore to a peak and it also reminds me of a Greek Isle.  It is an island of around two thousand people who live by fishing and farming, supplemented by the income generated by the visiting tourists.  Taquile is known for its fine handwoven textiles, which many regard to be the finest in Peru.  From the dock, we have to spiral around the steep hillside of the island for a significant distance to reach the central square of the town.  Sylvia tells us it will take an hour.  The path is quite steep at the beginning and is a hard climb in the thin air, but eventually the grade becomes more gradual and we actually reach the town square in about forty-five minutes.  According to Sylvia, all of the textiles made on the island are pooled by the families that make them and sold through a cooperative store.  The store, right on the main square, is indeed filled with knitted and woven items that are beautiful and high quality.  Sadly, since we are approaching the end of the trip we already have many souvenirs so we don’t have the need or the cash to buy any more.
Sheep Graze on Taquile
Other than the store and a small museum, there’s not a lot to see in the square, so we finally just find a shady spot to rest.  Eventually, Sylvia gathers the group together and we walk through town to a restaurant where we have a nice communal meal featuring trout on the pleasant patio.  During the meal two Taquileños demonstrate spinning, weaving, and knitting, then Sylvia gives an interesting short talk about the island and its culture.  She tells us that the colorful local garb, which is similar to what we’d seen on Amantani, is not worn to impress tourists, but is actually what everybody on the island chooses to wear on a daily basis.  The attire a person wears actually indicates information about them, including marital status, and that information could not be conveyed should everyone stop dressing in the traditional manner. It is the men that knit on Taquile, and they knit a specific color of hat for themselves that indicates they are single or married. The women weave, and when they get married they weave a very elaborate sash for their husband. The unmarried men wear a plain sash.  The matrimonial tradition on Taquile includes a trial marriage.  A couple will live together for several years to make sure that they are compatible before officially marrying.  However, since most residents are Catholic, once they’re married, their religion doesn’t allow them to divorce.  Like most Peruvians, the residents of Taquile have harmonized the ancient religion of their culture with their Christianity.  As is the case on Amantani, offerings are made to the Pachamama to insure a good harvest. 
A Taquileños Man Knitting
The wealth on Taquile is controlled by a communal collective, and the moral code is based on the Inca dictate of “ama sua, ama llulla, ama qhilla”—Quechua for “do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy.”  Taquile and Amantani are governed as one unit.  Since Amantani has more people, the mayor usually comes from there.  The men of Taquile are required to perform specific community service obligations and take turns serving for a year at a time.  Over his lifetime any given man probably spends four years performing these community service roles. 

Sylvia also mentions that there are no dogs on Taquile, making it perhaps one of the few places on Earth where man’s best friend can’t be found.  The islanders rationalize that dogs' main function is to act as protectors, but since Taquile is so safe, there’s nothing to be protected from, so dogs aren’t necessary.

After the meal and Sylvia’s talk, we walk directly back to the boat, climb on board, and head for Puno.  We are back in port by three o’clock and settled back in our room at the Casona Colon Inn a short time later.  We use the remainder of the afternoon to repack our suitcases and prepare for our trip home, and except for an excursion to a pizza restaurant, still don’t have a chance to see very much of Puno. 

Then another morning in Peru arrives—this one is our last!  This day is a blur of travel combined with interminable waiting.  First we travel by taxi for an hour to the Juliaca airport—Puno doesn’t have an airport. Then we fly to Lima and hang out for hours in the airport food court before finally taking our over-night flight to Atlanta, going through customs and flying on to Minnesota.  We arrive home early in the afternoon of the next day—exhausted by travel yet energized by an incredible trip filled with experiences and memories that will last a lifetime! 
One Last Inca Kola at the Lima Airport

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