Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Uros of Lake Titicaca: Life on a Floating Island

A view of the Uros, the floating islands on lake Titicaca which spreads over Peruvian and Bolivian territory
April 3rd 2014.  Puno, Peru.
Winter is starting here.

Despite the chilly morning wind, hundreds of tourists are standing at the main port of Puno, anxiously waiting for the 8 am 200-person boat, which will give them a three hour tour of Los Uros, the floating islands on Lake Titicaca, nowadays one of the main tourist attractions in Peru. 

On the other side of the city, my friend and I are waiting near the shore for a small wooden boat which will take us to the same islands; to the exception that we will stay there one week instead of three hours.

I have the incredible luck of traveling with a paparante of the Uros.  Paparante, or “grandfather” in the native Aymara language, is a much-respected designation attributed to elders who have offered a significant contribution to the history, traditions, or life conditions on the islands.

Eva and her aunt navigate the boat they use to
commute from the island to the city

As it turns out, the friend I am traveling with, Sampi, has been visiting and staying on these islands ever since he began traveling at twelve years old.   Seven years ago, he was nominated paparante of the island María. 
Sampi really does treat the residents of the islands like family: he brings food and medical supplies at every visit; shares with them his knowledge on medicinal plants; and leads groups of tourists there, purposefully generating an income for the islands.

The small boat arrives, paddled by a woman in her thirties with a red skirt, hat, and long black braided hair.  An older woman is sitting at the back, seemingly in her sixties, dressed in the same fashion as the first.
The younger woman jumps off the boat and comes to greet us.
-“Hola, paparante!”, she exclaims while extending her arms to hug Sampi.
-“Hola Eva linda!”, responds Sampi as he puts his arms around her. “De cuanto tiempo! Como va la isla, todo bien?  Y con la otra isla que tal?”.

As Sampi attempts to find out about the state of the island and its neighbourly relations, Eva simply smiles and shrugs, gives a quick neutral answer, and changes the subject.

From left to right: Rosario, Eva, and Olga, awaiting tourists in their
 traditional wear
Two years ago, the island for which Sampi has been nominated paparante became the ground for an unprecedented conflict between the two families who co-inhabited it.  One family had recently built a restaurant (the source of the money required for the investment remains a mystery to the other family to this day), which grew increasingly popular with tourist agencies; and which eventually brought in a significant, but imbalanced revenue to the island in favour of this family. 
One dispute led to the next and a few months later, it was decided that the Law of the Saw would be applied.
 In other word, the island (made uniquely of piled-up layers of totora reeds, a tall grass-looking plant that grows in the lake) would literally be cut in two with the help of a saw: one half for one family, and one half for the other. The first would keep the name of Maria, the second would take on the name of Eva Maria. 
End of the dispute.

The shape of Lake Titicaca reveals a feline chasing a rabbit
       The current situation is a long shot away from the state of peace, solidarity and harmony which pervaded this region in the beginnings of humanity, recounts the legend.

      According to it, the very first humans lived in the Andes under the protection of the all-powerful god Apu. The Apu ensured that the humans always had food, shelter, and protected them from wild animals….but under a single condition: that they do not climb the sacred mountain.

But the devil encouraged the humans to disobey the rule and climb up the mountain. Furious and disappointed, the Apu sent pumas down the mountain to devour the humans; after which the pumas turned to stone.  It is said that in the face of such disgrace, the Sun God Inti cried for forty days and forty nights until his tears inundated the valley, which became known as Lake Titicaca.

This legend would explain the etymology of the name given to this lake: in Aymara, “Titi” is “feline” and “kaka” is “stone” or “mountain”. Astonishingly, an aerial view of the lake reveals the clearly defined shapes of a feline chasing a rabbit.
View  of Lake Titicaca at sunset from Eva Maria island

 Jumping forward a few centuries.

Those who inhabit the islands today are overwhelmingly Quechua and Aymara people.  There are about forty islands with 2600 people living on them.  During his time as president, Fujimori had installed solar panels on some of the islands, so that at least a few gained access to electricity.  Additionally, the islands that have the most success with tourism now have the means to install electricity.

The island I am staying on for the week has no electricity (but the island with the restaurant next door does).
There is no Internet connection, but many households are equipped with cell phones, especially in cases where they have children going to school or university in Puno, the city nearest the lake shore.

The municipality of the Uros
The islands are more organized than they look. Each located on separate islands are three elementary schools; one general hospital; a small municipality; and even a cemetery.

But despite the improvements made over the years – often with financial support from the government- , life on the islands remains difficult.

The first obstacle is one often over-looked by tourists: the extremely harsh climate on the lake.
Tourists only visit the islands during the day, when the sun is shining and temperatures can rise up to 25 °C.  But as soon as the sun goes down, an icy cold penetrates up to various layers of clothing one is wearing, and there is no other option but to take refuge inside the little straw houses (far from being appropriately insulated) and under woolen covers.

Daytime is not much better: when the sun rays are at their strongest, they burn the skin of the people, despite their dark pigmentation.
“Before, it wasn't like this”, says Eva. “We could stay out all day and not burn our skin. Now we have to wear hats and long sleeves or else we get burned”.
Candelaria grinds wheat grains with the help of a half-circle-shaped rock

It isn't just an impression. Over the past few decades, a depletion in the ozone layer has been detected over this region of the Andes. In fact, a scientific study executed in 2009 by the University Santiago de Chile concluded that “the depletion strip has its lowest total ozone over the Andes Mountain Range”. 

The economic situation also constitutes an everyday struggle for many families.

 Until recently, the residents would exchange whatever aliments they grew on the islands (vegetables, potatoes, etc.) for rice, quinoa, and barley from nearby producers.  But the recent hike in the price of quinoa (its price rose by 86% only in 2013, according to a business article focused on Peru), due especially to North Americans’ new-found avidity for the much-hyped grain, has incited quinoa producers to instead sell their product on urban markets.

As a result, island residents must now buy cheap starches such as rice or pasta in Puno, and compliment their diet with fish they catch and birds they hunt. On most islands, meals are prepared in clay pots over wood fire.
Faced with this situation, many men of households have opted to find employment in the city, some even moving there altogether, leaving the islands to be managed by the women.

A totora boat especially built for tourists arrives at the island

Tourism helps.

On an organized rotational basis, agencies bring tourists to visit each island about once a week.  On this much awaited-occasion, the women put on their traditional wear, smile widely, give a quick tour of the island, and anxiously proceed to presenting their hand-made crafts to the visitors -mostly embroidery and jewelry-, hoping to obtain the highest price possible from the ignorant tourist. 

-“Thirty dollars! But I don’t have that much money!”, says a young American tourist hoping to buy a tapestry for his mother.
-“Yes you have. Ask your friend.”, casually responds Eva.

“I do what I have to in order to feed my family and pay for my daughters’ education”, says Eva, mother of three daughters. Es muy difícil. A while ago, we had such little income that I became depressed for about a month. Sometimes, we live sol by sol. It’s not like North Americans who receive a monthly salary and from there, can easily divide up their expenses”.

Eva and Candelaria had fun dressing me up in their traditional wear
Despite these difficulties, the Aymara women always find a way to entertain themselves. Together, they go and gather totora reeds (a perpetual activity necessary in order to replace the older decomposing layers at the bottom of the island floor), make embroidery, wash clothes, grind wheat, cook meals, and of course, giggle about their husbands and related intimate activities.

 As a gringa, I was initially treated by the women on the island more as a North American tourist than a friend of the paparante. But after a few conversations (thank God I spoke Spanish!) we bonded over common values, and simply as women – a bond so quickly ignited, yet surprisingly durable, one which I believe only us women are able to form among each other.

Sampi helping the Aymara women prepare a medicinal herb mixture to cure
their knees swollen from exposure to the cold
With more and more children leaving the islands to go to school in Puno, often times settling there for good, I wonder for how long life on the Uros will maintain its momentum. With tourism truly benefiting only a few select families on the islands, it seems as though those made better-off by the industry will stay, and those who do not benefit from it will gradually move to the city.

So if, as a tourist, you go visit these islands, ask your tour guide to visit the islands that receive the least tourists - they will know which ones. Or if you would like to spend a few days there, send me an email at and I will put you in contact with Sampi. 

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