One of Peru’s biggest surprises for me was the communities that dwell both on and around Lake Titicaca. Staying in Puno, a Peruvian city that borders the lake you could be completely unaware of the magical people that live only minutes away in a very alternative but traditional way of life.
The Uros people actually live on floating islands within the lake. So these islands are made with blocks of compost type material cut into large brick shapes. Then thick bundles of reeds are placed over the top to create the island floor. It’s so hard to describe but it’s completely insane being stood on a floating island with its cushioned reed floor, you have to bounce your way across. Kind of like walking across a giant water bed (not that I’ve ever done that). They then anchor the island to the lake bed with rope and stones. This stops them waking up in a completely different part of the lake. Every 3 months they have to replace the reeds and depending on the quality of their floating brick work it can last up to 40 years.
There are 62 floating islands within Lake Titicaca, many house families. The one I spent most time on was home to 6 families and each island has a President and a First Lady. Some of the islands have facilities, so a school, a hospital, shops, cafes but the majority have homes on. There’s no police station and the Uros people adhere to the Inca values of not stealing, causing harm etc etc. What made me laugh was if some neighbours living on the same island fall out they can simply cut their chunk of the island off with a saw and off they float, apparently it happens!
Like many Peruvian’s these islanders still wear their traditional gear. The women have around 5 skirts each with a different bold neon colour and when they dance you can see glimpses of all these colours. On top a tiny waistcoat and a little bowler hat. The men also wear bold colours, big ponchos and cool hats.
After the Uros islands we headed to Taquille and learnt a little more about the quirky local customs. I love the fact that the women pick their potential husbands by their weaving abilities. All the dudes make themselves a long wooly hat and if they’re single it hangs to the right. They’re shy folk, they don’t go clubbing get smashed and drag the nearest female home. I’m up for the hat system, kind of like an old school Tinder. The women inspect the weaving qualities of the hat and if it’s good the guy is in there. Breaking tradition throughout the world the new couple then live together for a few years before getting married. During this time the man wears a brightly woven bag with neon pom-poms attached to warn other ladies off that he’s taken. Although marriage vows haven’t been said, once the couple are living together there’s no backing out. This waiting time is simply to save enough money for a wedding that everyone can go to as they have open weddings.
Then finally our end destination was Amantani, on a peninsula next to the lake. Football is as huge here as it is in the rest of Latin America so as soon as we landed we got hauled in for a massive game of Lake dwellers Vs the rest of the world. Although us gringos puffed a bit, due to the altitude (not fitness obvs) we scraped victory. I even scored, albeit off my chest but it was a goal nevertheless. Then they dressed us up in their clothes, so not flattering but I love it all – the hat, the neon skirts, the cool mini jacket. After a quick demo of their traditional dance it was our turn. Yes we looked like proper tools, swirling our pom-pom strings around but it was hilarious.
Our local families took us under the wings and led us off to our various homes. Sunny Moon (what an epic name!) the eldest daughter took three of us to her home, across fields and up hills as the sun disappeared. Her mum Matilda greeted us with a huge smile and a bowl of vegetable soup. Then the dad Pedro returned from a day’s graft and hugged us all. Truly beautiful people, with big hearts and almost tear-provoking smiles. We’d brought some gifts to thanks them for having us, a big wheel of cheese, fruit and veg that we knew they were’t able to grow and a football. My heart sank when I realised I was staying with a family of girls and I shrugged my shoulders at Sunny Moon when I presented the football, but she just giggled and pointed at her dad, Pedro. His eyes lit up, he was delighted with it. Phew.
With no light, bedtime comes early and morning is equally as early. First job of the morning was making bread. The bread they eat is similar to fried pitta bread. Matilda had already made the dough, but it was our job to stretch the dough out into pitta bread sized shapes ready for frying. Then brekkie! We sat in their little kitchen house (each room is a separate small house) and munched on the bread, home made jam, an egg and sipped coca tea (to try and ward off the evil altitude). The radio played a crazy latino music but there were cheers and it was crackly, it sounded like a live broadcast of a local festival. After washing up brekkie in an old tyre in the garden, full of freezing water we went to de-skin potatoes in the garden. Peruvians eat so many different kinds of potatoes, ones that I had no idea even existed. Oh and Quinoa, they have over 140 edible varieties. Quinoa and spuds are a big deal over here. Anyway, these potatoes were small and black and it was our job to peel the skins off the squishy ones so they could dry out in the sun. Basically they are mini mouldy potatoes that you wouldn’t even pick up back home, they smell and are pretty gross. But these spuds are important Winter stock, so we layed there and peeled. We chatted and peeled, with a view of shimmering Lake Titicaca, the sun warming our bones – life is good. Could I do it long-term?! I really don’t think so but I’m happy to have sampled this simple life. Pedro came and joined us after he’d checked his daughters had made the hour hike to school. Even though conversation was limited it just seemed to flow, no awkwardness we just enjoyed each other’s company.
Then Matilda came and got us because it was time to milk the cows. We found their two cows and two calves in a nearby field, no barn or high-tech kit here. I was hoping to have a go but as soon as I saw Matilda milking like a pro, I knew it was best to leave it to the expert. We headed back laden with milk, sat down to a delicious lunch of fresh veg, rice and suspicious looking little black potatoes.
I wasn’t there long and I’ve stayed at a few family homes now through Central and South America, but this one left an impression. We were accepted so warmly, by a family and a community where tourism is still a relatively new thing. Apparently when tourists first came to Puno (the nearest Peruvian town) and wanted to visit these people, word got round that the Spanish were invading again and they got ready to defend themselves. It’s still a new idea that people want to come and see how they live and take nothing from them.