20 Nov On the Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca
Konstantina S., our guest blogger, went on an amazing trip to the floating islands of Lake Titicaca in South America. She shares her rendezvous with the Uros tribe and how this meeting made her travel experience remarkable.
I met “El Presidente” – that’s how he introduced himself to us – on La Isla Summa Willjta, one of the floating islands on Lake Titicaca. He was a dark-skinned, middle-aged man, dressed in shabby pants and a plain blouse; his face remained hidden under the shade of a soft hat, but his smile shone brightly even from afar. He stood proudly in the center of the island and, like a rooster in a hencoop, was surrounded with a few kids and several women of a variety of ages, all of whom were similarly dark-skinned. Unlike him, though, their faces were expressionless as if carved out of an ancient trunk, and they were dressed in vivid colors that looked dazzling against the blue of the shimmering lake on that sunny August morning.
We docked our speed boat next to the traditional balsa (the local reed boat), and tottered our way ashore, floating at an elevation of more than 3800 m, and sinking a little bit with each step into a wobbly ground that seemed like a grand pallet. We sat in a semi-circle, on heaps of reeds bundled together and covered with colorful woolen blankets, and, I felt, it was a pity the day was still young, for this should have been a storytelling experience to be lived under the starry sky. The Uros people surrounded us, emitting the familiar enchantment conveyed by everything new and unusual, while the legendary waters kept on flapping and murmuring under our feet, rattled by the ongoing wake of the numerous boats.
El Presidente remained at his position, demonstrating step-by-step the traditional technique of building a floating island. Initially, a basis is created out of the dense roots of the totora reeds – which are native and abundant in the lake. Then, layers of reeds are placed crosswise on top, acting as the stepping ground. In turn, reed huts are erected, a watch tower, a deck for the rafts and, very often now, small solar panels for electricity. An anchor holds the island in place, and a big saw is always at hand to divide this floating piece of land, in cases of dispute. We were told that such a construction lasts for about 20 years, while it requires constant maintenance since the reeds rot fast in the water. As such, new layers are added once per month during the dry season and every two weeks in the raining period – not a small feat by itself. Today, the lake hosts 90 such islands, where around 2,000 people make a living in the archaic way they have been using for years. Only tourism has been added to their agenda.
A tribe revealed as if through the pages of a timeworn book. Faces which seem forgotten by time: so few within the vastness of the sky and the water; their life so frail, frugal, and antiquated, almost defenseless.
With the help of El Presidente, our guide wrapped up the presentation, and, at this subtle cue, the women rose out of their passivity to parade in front of us – like an intermission for commercials – holding samples of their weaved artefacts. The sun, the legends, the simple life on the islands, husbands, wives, babies, and old mothers are captured among these plain woolen threads, and we remained mesmerized and captivated.
Half an hour later, carrying bags of local souvenirs and having taken hundreds of photos, we were waved goodbye as we embarked towards Puno. Meanwhile, other boats appeared, ready to dock on this or neighboring islands, where the Uros would execute the same performance, take similar pictures, and share similar smiles, broken conversations, and expressions of friendship, towards a goal that has remained solid for centuries: survival.
I sat at the prow of our boat, my head resting on my folded arms, my pores sucking the warmth of the sun thirstily. I closed my eyes, and I felt the silence of the waters and the undetectable swishing of the passing fish. I listened to the stories of the Uros tribe as recounted now by the lake, beyond the touristic façade. Even though these are not pure descendants from the original Uros anymore, still, they represent a tribe that has made a living out of reeds for hundreds of years, and, in their simplicity, have outlived the majestic Incas. Despite their resilience, though, they are an endangered species. The Uros tribe in Bolivia is already close to extinction due to climate change that has been drying off their source of life. Lake Titicaca is not immune to the global warming effect, and the colorful natives, with all their hospitality and naivety, will be forced to face, once again, the wrath of gods manifested through the greed and stubbornness of the, otherwise, ingenious and magnificent humankind.
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