Saturday, July 3, 2010

Floating on Islands in Lake Titicaca

Having your very own island in the middle of a beautiful lake somewhere is a common dream for many people, but out of reach for most ordinary mortals ... have you ever thought of just building your own island?  The Uros islanders did, centuries ago -- they constructed floating islands made of reeds on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, in their efforts to escape the warmongering Incas.

One of the floating islands of Uros
The Uros people have largely disappeared today, but several hundred indigenous Aymara people still live on the islands.  At last count, there were 52 floating islands -- subject to change when couples get married, or neighbours feud, and islands are sawn in half to create separate spaces.  Sometimes they just opt to tow their island to a different location, instead of going to the trouble of dividing it.

I took a day trip there from Puno, Peru, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  Puno itself isn't an attractive town for the most part, although it's got an appealing pedestrian street (where my hotel was located) that lets you get away from the grime and traffic and noise of the rest of the town.  The real reason to go there is its proximity to the lake -- Lake Titicaca, whose name has made generations of schoolchildren snicker but in actual fact means "Rock of the Mountain Cat" in the local language (the cat in question being the puma, sacred to the Inca, and the rock being located on Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side).  It's a startling splash of vivid blue in the midst of bleak altiplano scenery, surrounding by the cordillera of the Andes and, quite literally, taking your breath away at an altitude of 3,800 metres.

The Uros islands floating a few kilometres offshore, constructed of blocks made of reeds and mud, overlaid with a metre-thick matting of fresh reeds that is replenished once or twice a month.  The ground is springy underfoot, and a dozen anchors hold each island in place so the residents don't float away and wake up in Bolivia one morning.  Houses and boats are constructed of the same reeds that grow in the shallow places of the lake, and islanders' lives seem unchanged from the original Uros natives centuries before.

Uros islander in his tiny reed hut
Well, except for television, that is.  I got a chnnce to check out one tiny reed hut, and a 6-inch television had pride of place on the shelf by the bed.  The hut's owner pointed it out to me proudly, as if I would have never seen such a marvel before, and showed me the solar panels that gave them electricity.

I can't imagine living like this.  Islanders are very friendly and welcoming to tourists -- and very eager to sell their handicrafts -- and seem quite content with their way of life.  Even the tiny black cat on one island didn't seem to mind it (although he may have been keeping his incapacitating fear of water to himself).  But how isolated and limited it must feel, to anyone exposed to a different lifestyle; their children go to school on the mainland in Puno, as there are no schools on the islands, and I wonder how they can come back to live there and remain satisfied, once they've seen other options.

It's an eye-opening and interesting place to visit, and quite peaceful floating in the middle of the sapphire water of Lake Titicaca ... but I think my day there was enough.  I like the way I live, so I don't think I'll trade it in for a floating existence any time soon.

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