Men in textile cone hats waved at us as we rocked past in our boat, their tanned round faces wrinkling in delight. The still water cast gentle ripples behind the reed boats, which had great curling necks that became grotesque laughing puma heads with white painted teeth. Passengers sat in the helms or the bellies of the beasts, and a few were promoted to the woven towers above.
Boats made from totora reeds
Women wearing long thick colourful dresses grabbed our forearms with strong hands, and welcomed us in the rolling dialect of Quechua.Komisarati.Waaliki.We were shown the traditional Uros way of life, with the president of Islas Uros demonstrating how the islanders use the totora reids to create boats, houses and even the floating islands themselves. He also joked that if there was a dispute, they would simply cut off their neighbours and let them float away. He showed us how they hunt for birds, knit clothes and weave reid gifts to sell, before proudly showing us his hut that he shared with his wife. It was simply decorated with thick rugs and only a calendar adorning the wall, but he showed off his small television box that demonstrated that the islanders were embracing new technology despite their insistence on traditional methods a millennia old.
Children selling traditional wares
Two small children sat in the bright sunlight, dressed in coloured wools to thaw from the cold night before. The girl, older than her brother, frowned in the glare as she waited for another boat load of tourists to tour the island. The younger boy played with the reid mobile of boats that symbolises the union of marriage and the fishing profession of his people. A flamingo sat in the shade behind them, gazing out at the visitors with golden fiery eyes. A controlled splash announced the trout farm which housed large fish. A woman knelt down to grind corn into flour, and it coated her face in a cream-coloured beard. I crouched on the bouncy reids and chatted with children before buying a crafted mobile and a few handmade bracelets. As we jumped back on the boat, the women sang and laughed, shouting ‘Hasta la vista baby!’ after us like Arnie.
There was a 3 hour boat ride to Amantani, where we would be staying with local families for a home stay. As we docked in the port, our families stood waiting on the shore. My friend and I were introduced to Señora Carmen in Quechuan, and she was to be our acting mother for the experience. She shyly greeted us, waved goodbye to her friends who wore the same thick high waisted skirts and white blouses with trailing long scarves, and led us quickly away. We followed her as she strode ahead, her black hair long and plaited and swinging with her steps. Her feet moved with speed over the familiar rocky paths as she led us up away from the shore, through a path that cut through various homes made from dry stone. A horse stood grazing up ahead, and belonged to the father of the family that the boys were staying with, named Alfonso. On our tour of the island he rode it up the hillside dressed as a western cowboy.
We approached Señora Carmen’s house and met her husband, a lean looking man who wore a floppy hat and a serious face. Her daughter Irena was around 16 years old, and she had a younger son of 8 years who played in the stony courtyard with his toddler cousin who also lived there with his mother. After dropping our bags off in a small but comfortable room with a corrugated tin roof, we rejoined the family for a lunch of rice and green vegetables.
We had brought gifts with us from the mainland at Puno, and rare foodstuffs such as rice and bananas that are not easily attained on the islands were well received. I had packed toys from home, such as a clapping wooden Jacob’s ladder, coloured chalks and bubble wands. The boys had fun decorating the courtyard in shimmering petrol bubbles, and scribbled pastel animals and houses on the bare stones. Later that evening, I gave Irene a small kaleidoscope and showed her how to change the picture inside. She stared at the moving concentric circles by candle light, before her mother playfully snatched it away to look. I gave her father a harmonica, which he blew into with a squeak that made everyone giggle, including an older brother that had appeared from his day fishing. There were no televisions here, and they were happy to entertain themselves with jokes or playing with the children.
Señora Carmen led us to the local square to meet the other visitors, impressively knitting as she walked. We were given a tour to the top of the island, and the steep passage upwards was no easy feat at the high altitude. On the way, we passed female shepherds and children selling jewellery, knitted hats and scarves. The path split at the top as the shimmering water of the immense lake became visible all around us. The path to the left took you to Pacha Tata, and the one to the right led you to Pacha Mama. Only one could be visited as daylight was fading, so we chose the more challenging Pacha Mama site. As we reached the top, the sun began to sink and pour a stream of gold on the surface of the water. It was a chilly, dark descent down but the sunset still burned on our retinas as the blood red clouds dissolved into black.
We were treated to a dinner of quinoa soup, served with salad, the local purple ochre and a slice of cheese. The family, out of respect to us as guests, would not eat with us at the table and instead enjoyed theirs in the kitchen, which honestly made us feel slightly awkward. However, we were soon reunited as we dressed for the dance at the local community hall. Señora Carmen and Irena wrapped thick linen around us, and delighted in our exasperated faces as they squeezed the belts tighter and tighter still. The embroidered flowers flowed down our blouses, and exploded into colourful long skirts. A long scarf, worn like a shawl, fell over our shoulders and we were ready to venture outside.
The boys were also dressed for the occasion in huge decorative ponchos, and we jumped into the festivities. A live band of panpipes, singers and drums roused the crowd into a frenzy. Irena grabbed my hand, and we were thrown into a line of dancers linked by the hands who circled round wildly. Children and adults of all ages participated, and the older women were exceedingly strong and swung me almost to the ground as the line suddenly changed direction and squirmed into a gap. It reminded me of that prehistoric Nokia game ‘Snake’, where you must manoeuvre in the space without biting your own tail, but the body grows progressively longer. We took a few breaks to catch our breath as the energetic swinging sprints continued, and enjoyed the toxic looking Inca Kola as we watched stars shooting across the Milky Way. I danced with Irena until our hands became too slippery to hold, and left the line to allow her to hold hands with the young boy that she was too shy to approach before. As the last song finished, our tired legs carried us back out of the steaming hall into the crisp starry night, following Irena home to the sound of cicadas and frogs.
The scratching hops of a chicken on the roof woke me before dawn, but Señora Carmen was already awake and preparing delicious pancakes with marmalade for breakfast. We had to depart early for our boat to Tanquile, but not before a proper goodbye where we thanked the family for their hospitality, gave them money to cover our stay and were given showers of kisses on our cheeks in return. We were led to the port once more, and sat with all the other mothers as our boat rolled in. They waved to us as we departed, and the good humour we left with was soon replaced with feelings of nausea as the waves rocked into the side of the small boat. It was the first time I was lake sick and a German couple kindly gave me smelling salts to revive me, which made me feel very eighteenth century.
We arrived at Tanquile and hiked up a dusty mountainside lined with an impressive dry stone wall, the colour of sand and built like a fortress boundary. A moving stack of hay shuffled up the hill, the woman hunched below it barely discernible. Sheep wearing bright pompoms grazed in the shade of the trees, and a boy flew a paper kite on the mild breeze. This island was the first landing point for the Spaniard King in his conquest in the 15th century, and had since become a centre for the textile trade. We learned the significance of the hat colours worn by the local men: red and white means single; with the top leaning to the left means he has a girlfriend; to the right means he is searching for one, and if slung to the back it means he is not interested in courting. Red signifies married, and a husband will wear a belt that is given to him by his wife, with a story woven into the front and symbols featuring on the back. In a romantic gesture, women might weave their own hair into the gift.
We booked our 2 day, 1 night Amantani Experience tour of Lake Titicaca with Edgar Adventures who are based in Puno and specialise in sustainable and responsible travel. The trip cost S55, with S30 extra being donated directly to the family that we stayed with, http://www.edgaradventures.com/
Quechuan language, by Mark Rosenfelder, http://www.zompist.com/quechua.html