TIGHT KNIT

Ev­ery man is a skilled hat maker in the close com­mu­nity of Peru­vians on re­mote Taquile Is­land

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - ESCAPE - Words sarah ni­chol­son

THE MAN with the white beanie sits away from the group, lis­ten­ing to the con­ver­sa­tion but not join­ing in, and he rarely lifts his eyes from his work. His rel­a­tives stop to stand and stretch their legs or just turn their heads to gaze across the blue wa­ter of Lake Tit­i­caca, which stretches south to Bo­livia from the tip of this iso­lated Peru­vian is­land.

“He’s a wid­ower,” my guide ex­plains in a whis­per. “You can tell by his hat. See how the other men all wear lots of bright colours while his is mostly white? His wife died re­cently and he is still so sad.

“He comes to weave with his fam­ily, he likes their com­pany, but he doesn’t talk much.”

You can tell a lot about a man’s mar­i­tal sta­tus on Taquile Is­land by his hat. Sin­gle men wear a white tip on what looks like a floppy night cap and those who have found a spouse sport a far fancier model with tight lines of vivid pat­terns.

When a cou­ple is set to get hitched the man knits the tra­di­tional cap to im­press the fi­ancée’s par­ents, pre­sent­ing the prospec­tive fa­ther-in-law with the hat to prove his worth and show he is able to care for a fam­ily.

The po­ten­tial in-laws test the young man’s skill by fill­ing the head­wear with wa­ter. If the wa­ter drips through it he fails and must start again – or clear out – but if the threads are tight enough to con­tain the wa­ter he gets the tick of ap­proval.

Taquile women also demon­strate their weav­ing skills be­fore ap­proach­ing the al­tar by mak­ing a belt to serve as a con­tract for mar­riage, fea­tur­ing pic­tures of the things she ex­pects from her hus­band – a sum­mer and win­ter crop, a house with a strong roof, a cow for milk, a sharp knife, a good bucket to carry wa­ter, am­ple fire­wood.

Once mar­ried, the man wears his cap to show he has a wife while the woman keeps her belt handy to re­mind the hus­band of his mat­ri­mo­nial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Weav­ing and knit­ting are im­por­tant on Taquile Is­land, a tra­di­tion that’s been trea­sured for cen­turies and handed down through the gen­er­a­tions, and while the mem­bers of this ex­tended fam­ily gather to make things to sell to the few vis­i­tors that ven­ture to this iso­lated com­mu­nity it’s more about main­tain­ing the ties that bind the fam­ily.

They sit in a cir­cle around the edge of a sun-drenched plateau, af­ter ex­chang­ing coca leaves as a greet­ing, and gos­sip as the men use four nee­dles to knit the is­land’s iconic cha­peaus and the women perch above prim­i­tive frames to weave vi­brant belts.

While tourists based in busy Puno rarely make it past the over­ex­posed vil­lages in Taquile’s north, trav­ellers stay­ing at Ti­ti­laka – the lux­ury wa­ter­front lodge a 30-minute drive to the south of the lake­side cap­i­tal – can visit these se­cluded com­mu­ni­ties near the is­land’s steep south­ern tip, led by an ex­pert guide.

Vis­it­ing Taquile Is­land with my Ti­ti­laka guide I feel like I’m step­ping back in time to the days be­fore the Span­ish ar­rived in the An­dean peaks and the Inca com­mu­ni­ties lived a sim­ple life of sub­sis­tence farm­ing.

There are no mo­bile phones or tele­vi­sions, women cook in bat­tered pots on an open fire, men re­lease the sheep to graze in the morn­ing be­fore herd­ing the an­i­mals back into their stone en­clo­sures at night, wa­ter is col­lected from a com­mu­nity well, and a style of dress adopted af­ter the Span­ish in­vaded is still worn.

It takes an hour to travel by boat from Ti­ti­laka’s pri­vate jetty to the pier in one of Taquile’s quiet coves. We meet our first lo­cals – a vil­lager and her two chil­dren wait­ing for a ride to Puno – as we step on to land

She holds the hand of her older child, while, in a sturdy black shawl around her shoul­ders, tied se­curely be­low her chin, her baby is held close to her back. The cu­ri­ous tod­dler peers around her ear to see us.

As we hike from the dock – and I do mean hike: Lake Tit­i­caca is al­most 4000m above sea level, breath­less­ness sets in af­ter tak­ing just a few steps – we pass lo­cals do­ing their morn­ing er­rands.

A teenage girl, wear­ing a colourful pom­pom on the cor­ner of her shawl­like hat to an­nounce she is look­ing

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