Puno is a city in the southwest of Peru near the border with Bolivia, and best known as the Peruvian home of Lake Titicaca: the highest lake in the world (12,500 ft) and the largest body of water in South America. The strange name is a combination of words from Quechua and Amayra, the two dialects spoken by the locals who live on the islands of the lake, and means Rock Puma. I arrived on a Friday morning to join a boat tour to a collection of forty-something man-made islands known as Uros. The Urus are a collection of 2,500 or so brave souls who have dedicated their lives to conquering this extreme environment. When our ship unboarded, we were given a tour and an explanation of their lifestyle. Amongst these islands, there was one with a school, another with a health center, and even one with a soccer field The Urus construct these islands from some sort of reeds piled on a different kind of reed, which are crowned with little huts made of a yet another type of reed. They eat fish and you guessed it, some sort of reed-stem-fruit, yet somehow ALL of the women are flirting with the line between fat and obese. The men, oddly enough, are not.
I have to say, as impressive as it is that the Urus have mastered this environment: I don’t get it. I understand there is heritage here, a sense of cultural pride and identity that gets passed between the generations, but as the boat sailed away from the island and the local ladies sung a song for us in Quechua, Amayra, then Spanish- putting on the same show they’ve put on who knows how many times before- I couldn’t help but wonder, why would anyone willingly subject themselves to these hardships and this dependence on tourists? What is it like for the children here to wake up every day and see boatloads of visitors unloaded on their islands, all reminders of the mystery of what lies beyond the lake, and take pictures of their houses and their families, pictures that they will then take back to the places they come from so that they can say, “look at what we found!” Every difficulty that the Urus spend their lives surmounting could be avoided by moving to the mainland, any number of the actual islands that dwell on the lake, or just someplace not made entirely out of reeds.
On Saturday, I decided to forego the touristy stuff and get immersive. After speaking with some locals, I learned about a (naturally occurring) island on the middle of the lake called Amantani where there is a population of 4,000 who all speak Quechua as their first language. Following their instructions, I caught a van to a nearby port town an hour away, and then accompanied a few locals in a taxi to a small boat waiting on the shore. We boarded and I found myself amongst a dozen island natives all chowing down on coca leaves and babbling away fluently in yet another foreign language, and here I was, just newly conversational in Spanish. Yet over the next hour, as we sailed toward their home, I was able to entertain (what isn’t funny about me in this context?) and make some friends, including a 27 year-old mother named Yenny (sp?) and her 2 year-old daughter, Anya (also sp?), who was shy at first but by the end of the ride was sharing her blanket, food, and butterfly hair tie with me.
When we reached the island, I paid my fare of 5 soles (~$1.40) and prepared to set out the island, that is, until Yenny stopped me to introduce me to her awaiting husband, Uri (think I got this one right). As we four set off together towards the heart of the island, I inquired about some local temples and place to sleep, intending to spend the quiet day alone, reading and reflecting. Before I knew it, we were at their house. Yenny opened a door to a bedroom, and after a moment of confusion, I realized they were offering me lodging for the evening! Once I had recovered and given excessive thanks, I settled in and we enjoyed a lunch together. I learned that they (like most of the locals) made a living growing a variety of crops and making artisanal goods, and that someday they hoped to learn English so they could converse with tourists as most do not speak much Spanish. They asked me if I would be interested in joining them for some work in the fields that afternoon, and indeed, I was interested.
Amantani is sort of like a little mountain with two peaks. The inhabitants live scattered around the base of the island, and their farmlands crawl up the side of this mountain, with Incan temples dedicated to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Pachatata (Father Sky) on either peak. We set out up the mountain, Uri and I taking turns carrying a pick-axe/ hoe or Anya on our shoulders. After a long climb, we arrived at a little plot of land, where Uri’s parents and little brother (9) were already working, and after sharing some bread, the whole family and I were side-by-side, preparing the soil for planting potatoes. If you are like me and have never down anything resembling farm work in your life, this involves taking the pick-axes/ hoes and sort of flipping over and softening the soil. It is not easy work, especially at this altitude, and after a few hours my soft, college-educated hands were bruised and blistered.
Uri relieved me from my duties and he showed me to the site of the Pachatata, the foundation of an old Incan temple still standing. After some pictures and relaxation, he pointed out the way to the other peak, and I spent the rest of daylight exploring the temple of Pachamama and the beautiful tranquility of this island. When I returned to their house just before dark, we had dinner together, went to bed with the sun, and after an early breakfast, it was time for me to catch the boat back. With some sadness, I parted ways with my wonderful hosts, leaving them with my Spanish-English dictionary and an abundance of thanks.
Dear Universe: you have shown me, once again, that if you are only willing to step into the unknown with a little faith and good intentions, there will always be someone, or something, looking out for you. This gringo couldn’t be happier that he decided to go off the books on this one: I can say confidently that this was one of my best experiences I’ve had down here. I also could not have had a greater reaffirmation of my commitment to mastering Spanish, as none of this would have been possible if I didn’t have the ability to communicate and understand, and thus see their world through their eyes.
Hope that this was as magical for you as it was for me.