Monday, January 22, 2007

Island Hopping on the World´s Highest Lake

OK so it might not officially be the world´s highest lake, but Lago Titicaca is among the higest navegable lakes in the world. During this last week, we´ve been island hopping on the Peru and Bolivian sides, visiting a total of 4 islands. Our first experience included a two day, one night trip with a group where we visited 3 islands. The first stop we made was to the reed islands of the Uruos. This was truly a unique experience -- the Uros people, who speak Aymara, are a pre-Inca tribe that have been making their own floating islands for centuries. Living on their own hand made islands means that they don´t have to pay taxes to the government! In reality, the Uros are a group of about 30 islands, a few of which are accessible for tourists to visit. Each island has between 3 and 7 families living there, each with their own reed houses, cooking areas, and often with tourist visiting areas (where the gringos can buy their handmade crafts and replica reed boats). We also noticed that some of them had gardens and solar pannels for energy. Our guide explained to us that if there was an in-island argument, that they would simply cut the island in half, dividing the feuding families, so each half could go it´s own way.

After this curoious and facinating experience, we went to the island of Taquile. The community of about 2,000 Quechua-speaking inhabitants is known for it´s beautiful weaving and kniting. The men on the island are proud to knit their own hats, whose color represents social and marital status. We spent a few hours here admiring the weavings, and then made our way to the third island, Amantani, where we´d be spending the night.

When we arrived, there were various families waiting, each prepared to take in 2 to 4 people from our group as overnight guests. We made the trek up to the top community there, and our host showed us to our room. Very basic, the houses on the island are usually made of mud and straw, later to be covered in cement. After a few hours, we were served our basic meal of soup, rice, and potatoes cooked on a small, wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Later, our host led us upstairs where he dressed us in the traditional skirts, shirts, and ponchos of the island, and we were invited to a community dance with the islanders and our fellow group members. After a few hours of lively folk music and dancing, we went back to our room to sleep.

The next morning, we were in for a surprise. We didn´t know it, but we were lucky enough to have booked our trip to coincide with an important religious ceremony of the Amantani people. After breakfast, we made our way up to the top of the island to the Pachamama (mother earth) temple, more of a ruin, actually, and witnessed the celebration/prayers/ceremony to Pachamama for the successful season of crop growing. On the other side of the mountain, the other half of the island was celebrating and thanking Pachacamac (father earth).

During the ceremony, villagers bring coca leaves as offerrings, each person offerring 3 leaves for which they make 3 wishes. Later, people exchange coca leaves and soda or alcohol amongst themselves. The leader, or priest, eventually burns all the coca leaves in a mass. Later he returns to the sight, and if the ashes are white, it means there will be a good crop year. If the ashes are grey or black, more offerrings must be made to Pacamama in hopes of a good crop year and good rains. Clearly the Amantani people survive on agriculture and tourism, and every family has it´s own crops for their food supplies.

After the ceremony, we witnessed all the islanders sharing various beans, nuts, and corn in a buffet style, and many of us were invited to share in with the feast. After all the festivities, we boarded the boat and made our way back to the shore town of Puno, Peru. In the next post I will discuss La isla del sol (or the sun island) in Bolivia.

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