Floating Villages, Baby Lambs, and Eucalyptus

Trip Start Sep 25, 2013
Trip End Apr 15, 2014

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Flag of Peru  , Puno Region,
Sunday, October 6, 2013

I have a love hate relationship with tourism. And I'm pretty sure the Peruvian people would agree. As a traveler, the struggle to find balance between exploring an areas peoples, culture, and history, and not feeding the commercial tourism wolf, is a constant challenge. Yet, would I visit Peru and not experience the tourist destination of Machu Pichu? Not a chance. The best I can do is to go about my exploring in a way that supports the local people, be respectful of their culture, and hopefully go about seeing some of these sights in a less-traveled way, leaving a gentle footprint wherever I step.

Visiting the floating villages of Lake Titicaca was one of these times where this was difficult to do. I had debated on taking the trip, knowing it would be full of tourists, may not be quite as authentic as it seemed, and fully aware that I would be asked to purchase wares at every turn. Well, I was right. But I did it anyway.

I had nestled myself in a city of 170,000 people, called Puno. The air is thin in Puno, as it sits on the shores of LakeTiticaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, at 12,500ft. elevation. The main draw to Puno are the islands that sit amidst the massive lake that is shared by neighboring Bolivia.

After taking the first day to rest a bit, adjust to the lack of air, and explore the city, I was ready to get on a boat to the infamous islands that I had heard so much about. I planned to visit the floating villages of Islas Uros, and then continue on to Isla Amantani for an overnight stay with a local family, and then on to Isla Tequile the following day. I stopped at the local fresh market to grab some gifts for my host family: rice, sugar, matches, and Nescafé(commonly used here). The market itself was a feast for the eyes; whole skinned goats hanging from hooks, various entrails lying in rows, ladies cracking the leg bones of goats(?) on wooden stumps, goat heads grimacing on the counter- and, of course, the usual, more pleasant fresh fruits and vegetable in abundance.

Items purchased (along with a few soaps snagged from my hotel bathroom), I was ready for my overnight. I was delivered to the docks to a cozy cabin cruiser of sorts( I don't know my boat varieties-can you tell?) with a diesel running truck engine to putter us along our three hour journey. We were a group of approx. ten folks from all over the world. I sat up top for some fresh air, chatted with three nice men from the states, and enjoyed the view. Our first stop was Islas Uros- the 70 floating islands where time and existence are far removed from the bustling city. These floating villages are built from the totora reed which grows in the shallows of the lake. This floating way of life began centuries ago as a way to escape the Incas. It is rumored that some of these "residents" are brought in from Puno in the morning to make it look as if the islands are more inhabited than they are. That may be the case, but regardless, the primitive way those that do reside here, live, is remarkable. This reed supports the ground on which they walk, build their homes, and construct their boats. They even host a primary school on the island- amazing! When we arrived, the ladies introduced themselves, the guide talked about their life on the island and we tasted the reed, as it is edible as well. We toured a home and then the ladies and children lined up their reed trinkets, pottery, and child-sized boats and villages for us to peruse, and to hopefully purchase. Unfortunately, the community here largely relies on tourism. Again, I struggled with feeding the wolf and gently declined. I was mildly uncomfortable and was ready to move on when the time came to load the boat.

Next stop- Isla Amantani. This island boasts no cars, dogs, or roads. Items brought onto the island must be carried up rocky hills and stone trails. It is a serene and beautiful place. We were greeted at the dock by representatives from several of the local families, all dressed in their traditional attire. There is a rotating system of lodging here- a "sharing of the wealth" of sorts. Each family hosts up to eight visitors a month. Myself and a young newlywed couple from Colorado were placed together for the night with señor Juan- a warm, distinguished fellow with a playful sense of humor. We followed the señor up the rocky pathways(we were sucking air, he was not) to his lovely home of orange hues and sunny yellow rooms. I was caught by surprise at the modern feel of the home- I anticipated it being far more primitive. My room was bright and hosted three twin beds with thick blankets for the chilly nights. I had a view of the lake and the pastures below. I smiled to myself as this room was nicer than most hostels I had slept in!

I was distracted out my window by my Colorado housemates, Beth and Roland. I ventured out to see what they were up to and saw a tiny baby lamb climbing into their laps, trying to suckle on any available skin. It had just been born three hours earlier and was not clear as to who was to supply the milk. I sat in the grass and the wee one made her way to me- umbilical cord still attached, fur still crunchy from birth. This was a treasured moment for me. The sister of señor Juan, Maria, sat on the ground near the momma ewe and with one hand pulling back the ewes leg and one around the wee ones head, she pushed the little head towards the bulging nipple and...success!

Mari told us to vamos and changed into her traditional dress to take us to the square to meet the other travelers, as we were to walk up the long climb to several ruins at the highest point of of the island- Pachamama and Patchatata. Here, you can see 360 degree views of the surrounding islands and the snow capped mountains of Bolivia. My new friends and I bought cervezas along the trail and when we reached the top, we wished each other salud! and soaked up the incredible views. The sun setting tinted the clouds orange and the whole sky glowed with pillows of warm light. I circled Pachamama (Mother Earth) three times, making three wishes as I went (which is the custom) for both my loved ones and my own life's journey as well.

With the crescent moon above and the stars bright, we made our way down in the dark, and followed the señor along the stone path to dinner. Maria had made vegetable rice soup and a veggie stirfry of sorts. Along with coca and muna tea, we chatted around the table. The Señor sat with us while Maria busied in the sparse kitchen. This was one of those times where I was frustrated by the language barrier. I wanted so badly to communicate with this lovely man. His warmth, the many thank you's and hand squeezes over the gifts that I brought, the way he teased the small village children, his twinkly eyes and his easy smile, all made me want to know him better. I wanted to hear his stories. I had my iPad out to show some pics from the canyon and the señor was fascinated by it. Although we didn't have internet, he and I were able to slide through a few pictures on Tumblr and he told me the names of what we were seeing in Spanish. A fun way to learn Spanish! He asked me all sorts of questions about the iPad and wanted me to play my music. He then gave me his hotmail email address - which busted me up! These basic transactions I was able to understand, but anything further, and I was blocked. I am inspired to take Spanish lessons while here, as I need to be able to connect with these lovely people. After all, that's why I am here!

Señor strapped a large bag of potatoes onto his back and bid us goodnight. I wasn't able to understand where he was going, but did gather that he would not be with us in the morning. Lots of cheek kisses and hand squeezes later, we said our goodbyes. I offered him some soles to help with our stay, as I have no idea how much these families receive for having us, but I'm sure it isn't enough. I went back to my room, and proceeded to bury myself under about six heavy wool blankets to take shelter from the cold. Unable to move due to the weight of the warmth, I fell to sleep.

The next morning I woke at 6am to bright sun over the island. I went to the kitchen where señora Maria was preparing our breakfast. I think señor Juan enjoyed having us, however, I am not sure Maria felt the same. She walked with a limp and I'm pretty sure after seeing her trail- worn, crunchy feet, they were the culprit. Cooking for us added more work to her already difficult day, and I couldn't bear that I may be responsible for her being tired. I quietly followed her to the water source in the pasture. I watched her dip a dirty bucket into the larger reservoir bucket( this was for my hot water and our tea) and offered to carry the bucket back to the kitchen. She acquiesced. As we neared the kitchen door, I noticed a similar, dirty, empty bucket near her outdoor, ground, dishwashing station( which the chickens love to feed from) and motioned that I would fill that one as well. She nodded. I then gathered more water for the toilet flushing station( although their is a flush toilet, you have to fill the back with water from a bucket in order to flush it) as it would have been her job to do. Helping hands, and along with a gift of some soles, her crinkled face seemed bit happier towards me. She motioned for me to wake my sleeping friends and we all gathered for a breakfast of fried fritter bites and more tea.

Maria changed into her traditional attire again, and we followed her limping figure, slowly, to the boat. Here, she and I sat and waited until all had gathered. More cheek kisses, hand squeezes, and many thank you's later, we bid our goodbyes.

Next stop- Isla Tequile. Here, we enjoyed the splendor of this beautiful island. The amazing woven crafts, the stone paths, a hike to an ancient mausoleum, and the most fantastic fresh trout lunch at a table overlooking the islands. Incredible.

After a few hours, we made our way to the boat for the slow putter home-afternoon siestas, reading, journaling, and blogging. Despite my concerns over this experience, I felt filled by the connection with the señor and learned so much about these resourceful, local peoples. It was wonderful!

On to Cuzco!!!
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