Sunday, March 16, 2014

Islas Uros -The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca

I was very keen to check out the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, because I just couldn't imagine how people have managed to live on them for generations, somehow feeding their families and building homes and churches and schools.
Going there through the totora reeds
The islands are made up of the totora reeds which grow abundantly in the shallow waters. The base is made up of the rooted plants, with the soil that collects around them. On top of that are criss-crossed layers of cut totora reeds, which are about a centimetre in thickness and grow up to two metres in length.  New layers of reeds must be added every few months as they rot from underneath. When family members want more independence, they actually cut through the layers, and push the sections apart to form two islands. 

The homes are built on this springy foundation, with walls and roofs also of totora reeds.  In fact almost everything is made of totora reeds -furniture, decorative arches, handrails, and of course, boats. The island I visited has a well established tourist business, and has made 20 very comfortable cabins, and a dining room,  nicely decorated and very clean. The washrooms have modern compost toilets. The electricity for lighting is provided by solar panels.

Cristina, my host
Views from the island

I was taken over by boat and at first I was the only guest.  I sat in the sunshine watching two of the many begin construction of one of the traditional boats. They created large mats of totora, and then placed a few dozen empty plastic pop bottles on top. The wrapped the mats tightly around the bottle, and tied then in many places, with no plastic showing. This makes very buoyant pontoons. Over the next few hours a totora platform was created on top of the pontoons. They told me it takes about two weeks to complete a boat. 

While I sat there, a cute little girl came to chat. She was not shy at all, and told me her name is Anita and she is four years old. I took a couple of photos of her, and then she wanted to use my camera. She took dozens of photos, and had lots of fun seeing the results.

Taken by 4 year old Anita

Then her five year old cousin, Milagro (Miracle) shyly approached. Anita tried to take her photo but she kept pulling her hat over her face.

It didn't take long for her to come out of hiding, and soon she was also taking photos, including a bunch of very funny selfies.

I was served a fabulous lunch -asparagus soup and bread, then fried trout with quinoa and vegetables, and finally fruit and tea.  All was beautifully presented. Apparently a couple of members of the family have gone for hospitality training, and it really makes a difference. 

Dining room
Three young Americans arrived in the early afternoon, and after they had their lunch we were all dressed in traditional clothing and then taken out on a traditional boat to check the fishing nets. There were only six little fish in the nets, which we were told is because it is the full moon. The Uros inhabitants eat mostly fish, birds, and bird eggs gathered from among the reeds. Chicken and other meat is a treat about once a month.

Then our boatman showed us how the reeds are cut and piled in bundles across the boat. He also peeled the root of one to show us. He said it is very nutritious, but not a good idea for tourists to eat, because of the large lakewater content.

When we got back, ten more tourists had arrived, from France. By then it was getting cool as the sun went down, and we were invited to sit in the dining room for a cup of tea. Dinner was served soon after that. We were offered a taste of the tiny fish from the net, but they were more bones than meat. After that, tomato soup (Campbells, I think), and then the main dish, which was chicken with veg and rice. Dessert was very yummy too -crispy triangles of pastry with mango inside, served with a drizzle of sweet cream. 

Not much to do after that so I headed to my room. The evening was getting very cold, so I put on many layers to stay warm while I was reading, including fleece top, woolen sweater, down jacket, hat, scarf and gloves. Cristina had put two hot water bottles (actually 2 two litre pop bottles filled with hot water) in my bed, so when I got in it was quite cosy with the typical two ton layer of blankets. Perhaps I will end up kind of wide and flat.

My bedroom
 I slept very well, in absolute silence, and awoke to another gorgeous sunny day. My little thermometer registered 8 degrees Celsius in my room, but as soon as I got into the sunshine it was hot.

 Breakfast was also a notch above the usual : fruit juice, scrambled eggs, bread, butter! jam, yogurt, tea or coffee.

Back in the sunshine, the women of the family showed us their embroidered wallhangings and cushion covers, as well as miniatures of the reed boats, made by the men. I bought a very pretty cushion cover, mostly to help support them.

Although the family has a successful business there, it is a very difficult life. They said that arthritis and rheumatism are common ailments from living in a constantly damp environment. They have to work constantly to avoid deterioration of their "land" and homes and transportation. Fruit and veg and other staples must be purchased on the mainland. There are five small elementary schools on the islands, but after that students must go to Puno for further education. Tourism is the only way to survive or get ahead, if they want to remain on the islands. 

Inter-island convenience store
It is hard to imagine that many young people, having been away to Puno for education, would want to return to the traditional lifestyle on the islands. I imagine that the only way it will continue is with ever-increasing tourism.

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