We are floating on reeds, complete with bed, cabin, solar panels, and bottles of beer. Occasionally one of the residents runs barefooted across the matted foliage and everything shakes. My boots are off and I’m sitting beneath an umbrella made of the same material as everything else on the island: totora reeds. We’re a half a mile away from Puno, Peru, afloat on Lake Titikaka, living the way the Uros people have lived for centuries, minus the beer and solar panels. Sequestered in the middle of the water, the Uros were spared the constant incursions by the more famous inhabitants of the lake, the Inca. The key to their survival until present day has been the totora reed, an endemic water plant with a hollow stem found along the shore of the world’s highest navigable lake.
The lives and history of the Uros people are tightly woven within the totora reeds. Not only are the man-made islands woven together with the aquatic plant, but so are their massive banana shaped boats. The totora boats are remarkably seaworthy and resemble Viking longships, especially the traditional design which is completed by the prow being topped by the head of a puma. The pre-Incan Aymara had a legend of the birth of their people. In the Temple of Tiwanaku in Bolivia stands a giant bearded figure, a “white” warrior chieftain named Viracocha who the people revered as a god-king. The mind jumps to a lost Viking exploration party, somehow washed up on the western shore of South America, winding up on Lake Titicaca to help establish one of the world’s great empires. It’s a neat, western oriented fantasy, somewhat dashed when one hears the name of the idol: Kon-tiki – a name of unquestionably Polynesian origin.
It’s a mystery so intriguing that it inspired Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdhal to built a traditional totora boat and sail it to Polynesia in an attempt to prove a possible link between the Polynesians and the South Americas. He called his craft the Kon-tiki and put the people of Lake Titicaca on the map as some of the world’s great early shipwrights.
The island population is growing. There are more than 70 floating reed islands, most of them near Puno’s harbor. These are visited by hundreds of tourists a day, which makes for a healthy business amongst the islanders. Most tourists are able only to stay a matter of minutes, but we booked a night with the only working hotel in the man-made island chain, and were able to immerse ourselves in life aboard the cozy floating reeds.
When our hosts Christina and her husband Victor told their neighbors they wanted to start a hotel everyone laughed. Why would gringos want to stay out here overnight? They like bathrooms and running water and being warm, everything the islands can’t offer. But with the help of some devoted visitors, they’ve made it happen. It’s a place without noise, blanketed with a thousand stars at night, that rocks you gently to sleep like you’re in a floating cradle. We slept in a little totora hut covered in warm blankets to keep out the lake chill that fell sharply after the sun set behind the mountains.
In the morning, Christina and her family donned the traditional bright garb of the Uru people and wait for guests. We sat with them, waiting for a boat that would take us on to Amantani Island, a real island, further out in the lake.
A boat pulled up, siren wailing like an emergency vehicle. It was a floating market, selling goods from island to island. The family gathered around and gossiped with the shopkeeper. I bought some drinks and Magda pointed out later I’d been thoroughly soaked, the shopkeeper had surely given me the tourist price.
After the floating kiosk had left, another outboard pulled up with a distinguished looking man steering. Christiana went over and they spoke in Aymara. She gave him some money and he left. He was collecting from the community for a funeral. Later someone asked us where they bury their dead. A good questions we should have taken the opportunity to ask.
When a group of tourists finally arrived they boarded the island cameras blasting. We tried to stay out of their pictures so as not to spoil a thoroughly inauthentic authentic experience.