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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Los Uros

While Lake Titicaca (pronounced tee-tee-khah-kah, with a great emphasis on the 'k' sound, i.e. not tee-tee-car-car) has always been on my list of must-see places, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to take a tour of the Uros and Taquile islands within the lake.

For one, Lonely Planet described the islands as "shockingly commercialised". I asked my friend, Vanessa, who visited Peru a couple of years ago for her opinion. She agreed that yes, although all tourists had to sit through a song-and-dance routine put up by the islanders, it was still a great eye-opener and opportunity to learn more about the unique Amyra and Quechua people hailing from pre-Incan times. "But be careful when you buy things from them," she warned, "these people may look ulu (country bumpkin) but are actually very clever okay!"

Having visited the islands before we did, Ching related her enjoyable experience on Amantani, a third island where visitors taking the 2 Day 1 Night island tour stay overnight. Compared to Uros and Taquile, Amantani receives fewer visitors, who are hosted in the islanders' homes for the night. Fresh from their tour of Lake Titicaca when we met in Cusco, Elaine and Rhys also confirmed that Uros and Taquile, though touristy, had a host of good photo opportunities.

Encouraged by Ching's feedback, we signed up for the 2 Day 1 Night tour (US$32 per person) with AllWays Travel, a tour agency who promised that majority of the tour proceeds would go directly to the islanders. But in the days preceding our arrival in Puno (the town alongside Lake Titicaca), the continuous stretch of early mornings (such as waking up at 3.30am for Machu Picchu!) and long days spent touring/traveling took a toll on us. So we traded in 1 day on Amantani for 1 free day in Puno.

Okay, so we admit that the thought of spending a long cold night on Amantani with no running water, electricity, proper toilets and heating really didn't seem very attractive at all. We chickened out in exchange for comfortable night in town. Yes, we're spoiled that way. I can't think of any valid excuses to make us sound any less wimpy.

So we rose with the sun (5.30am!), had breakfast (I've never wolfed down bacon and eggs at 6am before!) and set off for the dock.

View of Lake Titicaca from our (budget) room!

Boats lined up at the dock, waiting to ferry tourists to the islands

Beautiful clear views over and in the lake

Family excursion

Lake Titicaca is so huge that it's almost like going to sea. At 8,650 square kilometres, it can easily swallow more than 12 islands the size of Singapore. However, the lake used to be much smaller. The guide said that his grandfather could walk between towns along the shores of the lake, which now lie underwater. Temple ruins lying many metres below the lake surface have also recently been discovered - obviously, these temples once graced the lands around the lake. Similar to how sea levels have risen as a result of global warming, Lake Titicaca has also gradually increased in volume over the years, drowning acres of land in its vicinity.

The floating islands of Uros, our first stop for the day, only take up a small area on the lake. Los Uros, an Aymara-speaking community, comprises about 50 islands fashioned from totora reeds, which float on the surface of Lake Titicaca. A few families live on each island and the "president" (or headman) of the island is in charge of overseeing the community. The idea behind lake living was very simple - the Aymaras didn't want to be part of the tussles between pre-Incan races and the Incas, and later between the ruling Incas and the Spanish conquistadors, so they left the mainland and went to live on the lake. If any threats to their safety arose, they moved over the water and away from the skirmishes.

Approaching Los Uros

Everyday, individual tour groups are assigned to different islands. The islands take turns to host visitors, so that all the islanders have equal opportunities to earn some income though receiving tourists and also through the sale of their handicrafts (to the very same tourists now 'trapped' on their island.)

Approaching our designated floating island

The island of Balsero was ours for the day

Totora reeds grow freely in Lake Titicaca. The islanders dive down to hack the reeds. A thick layer of mud mixed with totora forms the base layer of the island. More reeds are piled on until the "ground" is thick enough to support the weight of the inhabitants. The result is similar to springy but firm mattress! *boing boing!* As the bottom-most layer (which is in constant contact with the water) disintegrates, more reeds are added from the top to keep the island afloat. In the rainy season (November to April), the reeds rot quickly and have to be replaced at a faster pace. Within each island community, should the residents get into any tiffs, they simply "divorce" by sawing the island into two and floating apart!

Exploring the island with a spring in his step!

Our action figures finally got to meet some friends of their own size and had their very own tour of a mini floating village

The Uros people use totora reeds for practically everything. Interestingly, their reed houses have taken on a more "modern" feel. The circular huts are no longer popular with the local folk, who prefer squarish studio units with A-shaped roofs. Oh, and don't forget that solar panel please, otherwise you can't watch TV or listen to the radio in your straw bedroom (there really are TVs and stereos in these houses!)

The little pig who built a house of straw now has a solar-powered burglar alarm to detect that Big Bad Wolf

The Uros travel between islands in reed boats. Children are rowed to the one and only primary school on the lake. On Sundays, families make boat excursions to church. Instead of toothpaste, the people chew on the soft, white interior of the totora to keep their teeth clean. Perhaps, the only useful item not fully fashioned out of reeds is the stove, which is basically a thick mud layer, to avoid setting the entire island on fire.

On an island like this, you SO do not want to be the idiot who screws up and sets fire to the kitchen

Within the Uros community, there didn't use to be a need to use actual money to purchase food and other daily necessities. The women bartered with one another for grain, potatoes, vegetables and livestock. The ladies on the island demonstrated this through a short skit, chatting and "squabbling" in Aymara over small bundles of produce. There was even a comic moment when one of the ladies threw down her offering, snatched a bunch of vegetables from another lady and pretended to storm off in a huff! That earned the home-grown actresses a round of applause from the appreciative audience.

After that, we were invited into their houses for a look-see. I had heard from Elaine how the local women would take this chance to grab every female tourist and dress them in traditional garb for a photo opportunity. As uptight as it sounds, I am seriously germaphobic when it comes to coming into physical contact with shared clothes or fabrics, such as seats on a bus (which passengers sweat and drool over!) and bedspreads/blankets which I am highly convinced are not washed after every use. So I was dreading the moment when I would have to don the same set of clothes worn by hundreds of sweaty tourists. Thankfully, the headman only gestured to some outfits hanging on the wall of his house and asked if we would like to put them on. I, of course, politely declined (phew!)

Act 1, Scene 1: the marketplace

While the men on the island earn some income through farming fish for sale, the Uros people now rely heavily on tourism to survive. The women embroider blankets, shawls and cushion covers, and make trinkets for sale to tourists. The guide encouraged the group to help the islanders by paying 10 soles (approx US$3.30) for a short ride in a reed boat. We chose to purchase a pair of Andean cross pendants instead (which now adorn the necks of our DanYilin action figures), and watched as the Uros women sent off the rest of the tourists with some local songs and a rendition (in English!) of "My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean".

Incredibly clear waters on this fish farm

The visit to Los Uros is touristy and commercialised in every sense of the word. Sadly, this is the only way through which this unique culture and community can be preserved. Uros children commute to Puno for their secondary education. Lured by the attractive prospect of modern life on the mainland (shops, cafes, pubs, discos), many of them do not return to live on the floating islands. As the number of residents diminish, so will the islands themselves. The chances of an entire community, culture and physical islands nearing extinction within the next one or two generations, are not unlikely indeed. We are blessed to have been given this opportunity to learn about and appreciate the unique people of Los Uros.

Hoping that her tourist dollar will help make a difference to the Uros community


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