Peo­ple of the Lake

Life on the man-made is­lands of Lake Tit­i­caca in the Peru­vian An­des

Qantas - - Contents - Photography by En­rique Cas­tro-Men­divil

TWO YEL­LOW pumas rear up on Lake Tit­i­caca, mouths agape, eyes rolling. “Mercedes-Benz,” gig­gles our “taxi” driver, Ed­uardo. I won­der for a mo­ment if I’ve chewed one too many coca leaves (a lo­cal rem­edy for al­ti­tude sick­ness). But while the thin­ness of the air at 3812 me­tres above sea level can do funny things to your head, there re­ally is a dou­ble-decker ex­trav­a­ganza of a to­tora­reed boat, with twin pumas at the prow, sail­ing past.

By com­par­i­son, our sin­gle-oar water taxi is a jalopy: bun­dles of to­tora reeds tied in a sin­u­ous shape that vaguely re­sem­bles a head­less duck, topped with a brightly striped wo­ven blan­ket to sit on. Ed­uardo is tak­ing us on a jaunt around the world’s high­est com­mer­cially nav­i­ga­ble lake, a body of water nearly the size of Puerto Rico and the birth­place of In­can civil­i­sa­tion. Pumas may no longer prowl its shores but they are still totemic as sym­bols of courage, power and en­ergy.

Ed­uardo’s peo­ple, the Uros, live here in the mid­dle of the lake, in to­tora-reed houses on float­ing is­lands they build and re­build them­selves out of – what else? – to­tora reeds. They an­chor the is­lands to the lake bed with rocks so as not to wake up in Bo­livia (the lake is di­vided be­tween Peru and its neigh­bour). The Uros, who claim de­scent from the first set­tlers of the An­dean plateau, have lived like this for hun­dreds of years since work­ing out it was one way to es­cape en­slave­ment by the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors, not to men­tion In­can and pre-In­can ag­gres­sors. Today, there are 94 is­lands, with up to 10 fam­i­lies per is­land. The Uros fish with cor­morants, keep cats to con­trol rats and eat both the flesh and eggs of ibises, which they raise like hens. One woman on Ed­uardo’s is­land sits weav­ing a fishing net from string. An­other beck­ons me to fol­low her across the springy ground into her one-room reed hut. There, to her chil­dren’s amuse­ment, she dresses me in the Span­ish-in­flu­enced An­dean cos­tume – in this case, a puffy, ruf­fled skirt of disco-green, a hot-pink bolero jacket and a wide-brimmed hat. (Later, my friends will do a dou­ble take on re­al­is­ing that one of the “lo­cals” in my pho­tos is me.) When it’s time to hand back her clothes, she shows me a se­lec­tion of ex­u­ber­antly colour­ful hand­made ta­pes­tries. The Uros still en­gage in barter but she seems con­tent with soles (Peru­vian cur­rency).

For all the tra­di­tion on dis­play, life here is chang­ing. So­lar pan­els perched pre­car­i­ously on reed roofs now pro­vide a re­new­able source of en­ergy that, un­like can­dles, al­low peo­ple to light their homes with­out wor­ry­ing about burn­ing them down. Mo­tor­boats moor along­side reed craft. The is­lands have their own FM ra­dio sta­tion broad­cast­ing news in Ay­mara, one of the two main lo­cal lan­guages (Quechua is the other, the orig­i­nal Uruquilla hav­ing faded away).

The lake’s ecol­ogy is also evolv­ing. It’s home to gi­ant water frogs that grow up to 60 cen­time­tres long when out­stretched and, in the hands of shamans, yield aphro­disiac “juices” – or so the lo­cals claim. How­ever, their

num­bers are de­creas­ing as cli­mate change (which is shrink­ing the lake), pol­lu­tion and in­tro­duced species take their toll. North Amer­i­can trout in­tro­duced in the 1930s have driven some na­tive fish to ex­tinc­tion. On the up­side, the trout have trans­muted into a tasty species with golden scales that re­flect the strong An­dean sun.

That sun has been elu­sive today. We be­gan our jour­ney on the lake un­der fat grey clouds. Alan, our Quechua guide, told us he’d asked the spir­its of the moun­tains to help us out with the weather then handed us three dried coca leaves each to ded­i­cate to Pachamama, Mother Earth. Af­ter we’d flung them off the stern, into the wind with our prayers, the gods seemed to be with us for a while, thin­ning the clouds to re­veal the blue An­dean sky. We’ll see the sky in all its sat­u­rated glory to­mor­row when we visit the mys­ti­cal preIn­can burial tow­ers of Sil­lus­tani but for now we’re won­der­ing if we should have spared Pachamama four leaves each in­stead of three. For, as we say our good­byes to Ed­uardo and his friends and set course for Taquile Is­land, men­ac­ing vi­o­let and grey clouds fill the low­er­ing sky.

The 2000-plus res­i­dents of hilly Taquile have a rep­u­ta­tion for pro­duc­ing the finest tex­tiles in Peru. In fact, the is­land and its art are recog­nised by UNESCO as a Mas­ter­piece of the Oral and In­tan­gi­ble Her­itage of Hu­man­ity. As we hike breath­lessly to­wards the peak, 4050 me­tres above sea level, Alan stops to pick muña, a minty herb that, like coca, helps peo­ple ac­cli­ma­tise to the al­ti­tude – though prob­a­bly not quite as help­fully as the oxygen tanks back at our ho­tel. The muña has a beau­ti­ful aroma and I rub the small oily leaves be­tween my fin­gers then hold them to my nose as a pick-me-up.

Alan tells us how to de­ter­mine, by the colour of their clothes and hats, which Taquileños are mar­ried: a gaudy pom­pom on a woman’s hat says she is look­ing for a hus­band; on a man, a red hat with a white tip means he’s avail­able. In­ci­den­tally, the man would have knit­ted his hat him­self. Women spin, dye and weave but knit­ting is a man’s job. And if he wants to get mar­ried, he’ll need to knit a spec­tac­u­lar cap for his prospec­tive fa­ther-in-law or risk a knock­back.

The Taquileños are proud and pro­tec­tive of their unique cul­ture and have de­vel­oped a com­mu­nity-con­trolled model of sus­tain­able tourism. They run the is­land on a com­bi­na­tion of col­lec­tivist prin­ci­ples, Catholi­cism and the In­can moral code: “Don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t be lazy.” We don’t make it all the way to the top of the is­land – not be­cause we’re lazy but be­cause forks of light­ning are be­gin­ning to ap­pear in the clouds and we face an hour’s boat ride back to our lake­side lodge.

Ti­ti­laka (ho­tel.qan­­ti­laka), a bou­tique ho­tel set on the tip of its own penin­sula, is look­ing good to us as we flee the gath­er­ing storm. The all-in­clu­sive price cov­ers gourmet meals (in­clud­ing that fa­mous trout and lo­cally grown quinoa), room ser­vice, bar, out­ings on the lake or into nearby Puno – and the oxygen. Sit­ting in the lounge, Pisco Sour in hand, gaz­ing through the pic­ture win­dows at the dra­matic, rain-lashed lake, I think, “Pachamama, do your worst. I’m on top of the world.”

The Uros, who are be­lieved to pre­date the In­cas, still have a largely tra­di­tional way of life de­spite en­croach­ing mod­erni­sa­tion

The “Mercedes-Benz” of Lake Tit­i­caca’s to­tora-reed boats (above); lo­cals re-en­act an In­can le­gend (above left and pre­vi­ous page)

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