Wa­ter beds

With the Uros peo­ple on Lake Tit­i­caca

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - CAR­RIE KABLEAN

Have you ever imag­ined your­self on your pri­vate is­land, away from the cares of the world, self-suf­fi­cient and pay­ing no tax? That par­tic­u­lar dream has been the re­al­ity for the Uros peo­ple, who have been liv­ing on South Amer­ica’s Lake Tit­i­caca for thou­sands of years.

A hardy lot, the Uros moved into the mid­dle of the lake, which strad­dles Bo­livia and Peru, to avoid the pesky In­cans, who were busily sub­sum­ing other civil­i­sa­tions. They built boats and float­ing plat­forms on which to live and kept out of the way of the In­cas.

They kept clear of ev­ery­body, ac­tu­ally, un­til 1986 when a huge storm dev­as­tated their homes, prompt­ing many Uros to re­lo­cate closer to the shore. In do­ing so, they lost their splen­did iso­la­tion and were dis­cov­ered by tourism. Adapt and sur­vive, how­ever.

We get a glimpse of their cul­ture and lifestyle when we board a boat from the Peru­vian port of Puno early one Septem­ber morn­ing and mo­tor gen­tly north­wards across Lake Tit­i­caca, which at nearly 4000m above sea level is eas­ily one of the high­est in the world and so large it’s more like a sea. It’s a glo­ri­ously sunny day, sky and wa­ter vy­ing for the most bril­liant blue.

Hav­ing cleared Puno there is lit­tle in the way of built environment to be seen; in­stead our guide points out the birds and water­fowl, and the ubiq­ui­tous to­tora reeds that are so nec­es­sary to the Uros peo­ple. These reeds are what they use to make their float­ing is­lands, boats, houses, floors and fur­ni­ture. It seems to be ev­ery­thing but a source of food. But, wait, the root is rich in io­dine and can be eaten, used for pain relief and tea.

We are also told how to pro­nounce “Tit­i­caca”, surely a word that has caused much amuse­ment in many a school­room. All the em­pha­sis goes on the last syl­la­ble. Tit­ica-CA! So, now we know.

In less than an hour, some of the is­las flotantes hove into view, brightly painted dou­ble-hulled boats with an­i­mal-head prows moored along­side. Women in tra­di­tional dress, all bright reds, pinks, yel­lows and blues, wave in wel­come and a short while later we set foot on to the float­ing is­land of Suma Uro.

It feels spongy, a bit like walk­ing on a wa­ter bed. But, as peo­ple live, work, eat and sleep here, clearly we are not go­ing to sink. We take in the reed houses, the watch tower, which these days is or­na­men­tal rather than func­tional, the outdoor cook­ing area on a stone slab (you wouldn’t want to start a fire here) and meet Fran­cisco, el pres­i­dente of this par­tic­u­lar 13-strong com­mu­nity.

The Uros speak the an­cient na­tive Amer­i­can lan­guage of Ay­mara, but Fran­cisco speaks Span­ish and our guide trans­lates and so we learn how the reeds are cut, tied and formed into me­tre-high blocks, teth­ered to­gether and an­chored, and how an­other me­tre’s worth of reeds is laid on top be­fore the reed houses are built on an ex­tra plat­form of reeds.

The is­lands, and there are some­where be­tween 50 and 80 spread right across the lake, av­er­age about 15m x 15m and last about 25 years. Don’t like your cousins or your neigh­bours? Easy. Build your own is­land. Bowls con­tain­ing lo­cally caught fish are passed around. Birds, water­fowl and duck eggs are part of the tra­di­tional diet around here, as is quinoa. A rel­a­tively new “su­per­food’’ to west­ern cul­tures, Peru­vians have known about quinoa, and its seem­ingly end­less va­ri­eties, for cen­turies.

“Is that a so­lar panel?” In­deed, it is. The Uros are keen to pro­tect their cul­ture but are not averse to technology. The Peru­vian gov­ern­ment has pro­vided so­lar pan­els, which pro­vide enough power for a television or ra­dio, to those fam­i­lies who live full­time on the is­lands.

And while the tra­di­tional reed boats are func­tional as well as pic­turesque, there are a few lit­tle run­abouts on the wa­ter, pro­vid­ing a more ef­fi­cient if less eco-friendly way of get­ting into town.

Fran­cisco proudly shows us his house, ob­vi­ously the best in Suma Uro, and very com­fort­able and cosy it looks, with its pink-and-red striped blan­ket on the bed (I no­tice reeds un­der the mat­tress), a large dec­o­ra­tive mo­bile over­head and sole elec­tric bulb hang­ing from the roof. There are a few lit­tle kids around, shy but cu­ri­ous. “Where are the older chil­dren?” They are at school. “There is a school on the is­lands?” It turns out there is, al­though a lot of the older chil­dren are taken to school in Puno. There is also a Sev­enth Day Ad­ven­tist church and a ra­dio sta­tion.

We make our spongy way around the reeded sur­face of the float­ing is­land, check­ing out the neigh­bours and, of course, the re­tail op­por­tu­ni­ties. This is the trade-off. We get to see how the Uros live and they get to sell us the blan­kets, hats, model boats and trin­kets that look, mostly, just the same as all the other lo­cal hand­i­crafts that are on sale on the main­land.

It’s not a hard sell, but the women’s smil­ing faces are hard to re­sist and the repli­cas of the tra­di­tional boats are spec­tac­u­lar (al­though there is no way they would get past Aus­tralian Cus­toms.)

For the princely sum of 10 Peru­vian sol ($4) we are rowed around the is­lands on one of the tra­di­tional boats and Fran­cisco’s small­est daugh­ter comes along for the ride. Other tourist boats are on the lake now. Not all the float­ing is­lands are open for in­spec­tion, per­haps as few as 10, and those that do use a ro­ta­tion sys­tem so ev­ery­one shares the spoils.

We spend about 40 min­utes on Suma Uro and there is an air of a “liv­ing mu­seum” about the ex­pe­ri­ence. The craft in­volved in build­ing the is­lands and their in­fra­struc­ture is re­mark­able, as is the en­durance of the Uros peo­ple, but how much longer will this unique cul­ture en­dure?

As Fran­cisco tells us, a lot of the young peo­ple feel the lure of Puno and Lima, es­pe­cially those who want to study at univer­sity. The most re­cent cen­sus counted 2000 Uros, of whom only a few hun­dred now live on the float­ing is­lands.

As we head to our next des­ti­na­tion, the is­land of Taquile (5.7sq km; pop­u­la­tion 2200; ground, solid), we pass is­las flotantes with plas­tic sheet­ing in­stead of reeds on the roofs of houses. It can’t be easy to live here in the rainy sea­son, or when winds blow the is­lands from their an­chors. Even in Septem­ber, the night tem­per­a­ture drops to 7C; in Fe­bru­ary the range is from 0C-8C.

Late in the after­noon, af­ter we’ve tested our lungs at high al­ti­tude on a trek up and around Taquile, our boat docks near the small village of Lla­chon, still on the shores of Lake Tit­i­caca but back on main­land Peru.

This is a com­mu­nity home­s­tay, courtesy of the amenable Cal­ixto and his smil­ing fam­ily. Com­pared to Suma Uro, it is lux­ury in­deed.

We make our spongy way around the float­ing is­land, check­ing the neigh­bours and the re­tail op­por­tu­ni­ties

Float­ing is­lands on Lake Tit­i­caca, top; Uros woman on a reed boat, above left; a colour­ful wel­come, above right; vi­brant hand­i­crafts, be­low

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