Staying with the locals
Trip Start Oct 14, 2007
92Trip End Jul 25, 2008
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At the harbour, we were told we could buy a couple of bits as a gift to the families that were to put us up for the night; simple things like pasta or rice or fruit but strictly NO sugar or sweets. This is because of the dental problem they have on the islands and also to prevent them from becoming addicted to sweets like I am! This told me a little bit about the place we were to stay that night. We bought them some different kinds of fruit, a pack of pasta, a pack of rice, some pencils and some paper. And this still came only to a few pounds.
We climbed aboard our boat and set off for the first stop of the day, Taquile Island. Taquile is a hilly island (not good if you have to walk over it at an altitude of 3,800m!) with amazing views over the Lake and mountains in the distance. During the Spanish Colony, it was used as a prison and well into the beginning of the 20th century. In 1970 it became property of the Taquile people, who inhabit the island since then (current population around 3,000). Luckily, the inhabitants have maintained their traditions and culture. The women wear brightly coloured skirts until they are married and then they replace this with a black skirt decorated in pink to indicate their married status. As a present for their new hubby, they cut off some of their hair and sew it into a belt for their husband so that a piece of them is always with their husband. Such a sweet notion.
The men start sewing hats when they are very young. They wear a hat of red and white with various patterns when they are single and wear it a certain way to indicate that they are searching for a wife. To flirt, they shine mirrors in the direction of the girl they are trying to attract or throw small stones to catch her attention - what happened to just saying hi! When they are married they make a new hat which is completely red to show to everyone that they are taken. These are all very old traditions which they still use today. It is such a simple and uncomplicated way to do things; these traditions make sense (okay maybe not the throwing stones one!).
After being bombarded by more textiles and Alpaca wear, we stopped briefly for lunch and moved on across the Lake. The idea of a dip in the Lake arose somehow and Nick took up the challenge to dive into Lake Titicaca. Being in the throws of winter, the Lake was mightily cold and so I politely declined to join him! He plunged in and immediately clambered back out, shivering from head to foot. The "I told you so" was on the tip of my tongue but I thought better of it after receiving a rather bewildered look of "what the hell was I thinking". And then I just said it anyway!
Moving on to our final destination for the day, we arrived at one of the pinnacles of the Lake. Here, we were greeted by a mini parade of the locals. They had musical instruments and stood in a long line waiting for us to come and introduce ourselves. It was a little daunting and I felt very honoured that the whole town had come out to greet us. The tour company always brings their tours for a home stay and the visitors are shared around the villagers, taking it in turns. Being only 6 of us in the tour we were to be paired off with a family, so luckily no one would be alone. Unfortunately I was paired with Nick...just kidding babe. Although I would have liked to have been paired with someone that knew a little more Spanish then just our pitiful attempt at asking where the toilets were!
Stood in the middle of their small village (basically in the middle of fields and some hillside houses), we were handed over to our surrogate parents for the evening, Alfonso and his wife. They led us to their house on the hillside where we met their 14 year old son Mijo. We produced our bag of gifts to them which they were most impressed with and were shown to our room. Seeing their house which is very small and seeing our room made me feel even more humbled. The room was bigger than the rest of their house and had two big beds in it. There must have been about 10 blankets on each bed too. They obviously want to make sure that they get picked for the home stays. We were told that they receive some money for each visitor that they get but it is such a small amount of money - less than what we had paid for the bag of gifts! They live such simple lives as fishermen and farmers and the home stay is a little extra for them to live on.
The sun was gradually going down and we met back up with the rest of our group in the centre of the village to play a little football or basketball with the local kids. Exercise is usually a bit of a strain for me, but running around with local youngsters at a high altitude was a bit of a killer. By the end of it, I was just a panting mess! Good to get in some exercise before the trail though.
So as the sun set, we walked back to our house for dinner. Staying with the local people, they obviously speak NO English. Their native language is Quechuan but they also speak Spanish. Not that that helps us! In broken Spanish-English, I did my best to try to make conversation with my head buried in a Spanish phrasebook. Nick did his best Spanish pronunciation of the phrase "where is the toilet" and we looked bewildered at anything else that was said in return! In our defence, we did strike up a bit of a conversation, finding out information about their lives and managed to understand some words. The rest we guessed at or nervously laughed and explained that we didn't understand. There was a lot of hand gesturing going on which made for an entertaining evening. It was like a big game of charades!
We found out that their son went to school and that they had been married for 30 years, having lived on the island for 60 years. We found out that 70 families lived there and that it was growing all the time. We found out they liked dancing and managed to tell them that their home was very quiet and that where we are from is very noisy. Not bad for novices!
The dinner was a soup with vegetables, potatoes and corn followed by a bowl of other types of potatoes with cheese. Apparently Peru has over 3,000 different types of potato and I now feel like I have tasted a fair few of that number! They made sure we had lots of food and only took a little for themselves. Although my mouth was incredibly dry from all the potato, it was a very fulfilling meal and I felt incredibly grateful to them. They had obviously pulled out all the stops. Sat in their little kitchen, they gave us seats to sit on while they sat on the floor and cooked in their tiny stone fire ovens in the corner.
After dinner, they gave us a drink of the tea we would be drinking for the next few weeks. It is Mato de Coca. This is a brew derived from coca leaves which helps relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness (I could have done with this in Uyuni!). The locals usually chew the leaves to do the same job to deal with the altitude. It tastes as it sounds - like drinking hot water mixed with leaves! But if it does the job, I am all for it. Some sugar with it helps and then it's hot sugar water with a hint of grass flavour! Mmmm.
Then the time had come when we were to follow the locals back into the village to watch a dance in the local hall. Here came our little surprise. The mum brought out two outfits and gestured for us to put them on. We both looked at each other and wondered whether it was just us that would end up being dressed up - this wasn't in the program! So we played dress up, which consisted of me being dressed by mum in 5 layers of different colour skirts, a little jacket, a wrap, a bowler hat (hoorah!) and some tassels which I understood were to be spun around while I danced! Nick was let off too easy with a poncho, a woolly hat followed by a cowboy hat and some tassels. Nick's face dropped at the prospect of having to dance which made me think the situation was even funnier.
Following them down to the local hall, we waited for the others, holding our breath. Luckily when they walked in, they had all been dressed up to - we were not the only ones. We were all under the impression that it was just to be the locals to dance, but evidently audience participation was necessary. The dance consisted of the men spinning (flinging) the ladies around to show off the many layers of skirts. The women would twist and turn sending the skirts flying while spinning the tassels they held in their other hand. Next it was our turn to try - luckily there was no one left to operate the camera so our shame has not been documented. The dances were very long, only ending when the band decided to stop and rather repetitive. Being a woman and the one being flung about by a local, it was very tiring!
So after an hour or so we retired for the evening with our family and went to bed. In the morning after some quick pictures, we said goodbye to the family (giving them a little something extra) and headed back to the port to sail back to Puno. Before arriving in Puno, we visited the Uros islands or floating islands.
These are a group of 42 or so artificial islands made of floating reeds (totora, a reed that abounds in the shallows of the lake). These islands have become a major tourist attraction for Peru. Their original purpose was defensive, and they could be moved if a threat arose or if you didn't like your neighbours! Everything is made out of reeds; homes, boats, watch houses, the floor (!) and of course their food! They eat the stalks of the reeds which we managed to get a taster of. You guessed it - it tastes like grass! The island lasts about 30 years tied to an anchor of the roots of the reeds. The structures such as the houses are replaced every year. Food is cooked with fires placed on piles of stones. To relieve themselves, tiny 'outhouse' islands are near the main islands. The ground root absorbs the waste.
The Uros do not reject modern technology: some boats have motors, some houses have solar panels to run appliances such as TV, and the main island is home to an Uros-run FM radio station, which plays music for several hours a day! Pretty high-tech for people that live on reeds! For school they row in little boats for an hour to the mainland and they trade their textiles and reeds for any other materials or food that they need. Sounds like a hassle free life but I don't know how I would feel about my house moving about.
Back on dry land, I reflected on my night on Lake Titicaca. It was the most humbling experience. This has really prompted me to try to get better at my Spanish and it has taught me that the poorest people really are the friendliest, most welcoming and hospitable. Their shared their home with us and received such a small amount in return, all so we can experience their culture and share an insight into their lives. It was incredible. Thank you to Alfonso and his family.
Leaving Lake Titicaca behind, we get back on the bus for a 6 hour journey to Cusco. We are close to the Inca trail now, just counting down the days. Cusco is the main city before the trail so it is our last chance to get the rest of our supplies before we head off to Machu Pichu. Here we come.