My head is pounding, my ears throbbing, and my stomach cramping into agonizing knots. I bow my head, squeezing my eyes shut to hold back tears of pain, as a train steward, with a stately flourish, delivers an elegant porcelain plate with an artfully arranged gourmet meal. The last thing I want to do is eat.
Larry and I are on the Peru Rail Andean Explorer for a 10-hour journey from the Incan city of Cusco to the town of Puno located on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I gaze out the window at the high-desert plains stretching out in a vast plateau of rolling umber, stark against the misty backdrop of jagged Andes peaks. As the train reaches La Raya, a breathless 4,321 meters above sea level, I’m gripped with altitude sickness.
My lunch sits untouched as I wage an internal battle to regain my composure. Finally, the train steward silently removes the plate, and brings me a cup of hot coca tea. I sip gratefully and, as the train begins its gradual descent, the medicinal properties of the tea gently ease my symptoms. By the time we arrive in Puno, situated at a more comfortable 3,855 meters, the pain has subsided, and I simply feel in need of a nap.
Lake Titicaca is a sacred place for the Incas. According to Incan mythology, the world was created when the god Viracocha came out of the lake and created the sun, the stars and the first people. The first Inca king, Manco Capac, was born here.
We have come to visit Islas de los Uros, floating hand-made islands built-up by intertwined layers of reeds harvested from the shores of the lake. The Uros people, in an admirably shrewd and entrepreneurial tactic, maintain their ancient lifestyle and protect their privacy by tightly controlling the tourism to their homes. Many of the 40 islands are not open to tourists, and the number of visitors are restricted to small groups. This lends itself, we discover, to a very pleasant, personal and welcoming visit.
A small boat ferries us across the frigid, blue water glittering in the intense sunshine. We approach a low-lying island about 100 meters across and raised less than a meter above the lake surface. We disembark to take our first tentative steps on the spongy surface of the reeds.
The islanders gather to greet us, smiling shyly, offering a welcoming handshake. The men are dressed in black pants and white shirts, a brightly knitted cap pulled over their heads. The women are adorned in intricately designed wool skirts and jackets woven in the brightest combination of reds, greens, oranges and magenta.
Everything on the island is constructed of reeds. Freshly harvested bundles are lashed together to dry in the sun. The handful of small huts scattered around the outer edges are each built from bands of reeds, tightly woven together to form walls, with two mats of reeds stretched across to form a peaked roof. Beside each home is a cluster of ceramic cooking pots and a fire pit. A reed-roll forms a pen containing a dozen guinea pigs, and a few ducks wander around a small communal fishing pond. I realize these animals are not pets.
Our guide demonstrates how the island is built. The first layer is the root ball which traps the water and allows the island to float. Multiple layers of crisscrossed reeds are added, stacked in opposing directions to provide stability. The bottom layers, in contact with the water, slowly disintegrate, so it is a continual chore to harvest and add fresh reeds. “This is a lot of work,” the guide tells us, “so everyone must contribute. If someone doesn’t do their share of the work to keep up the island, we have our ways of dealing with them.” He picks up a large pruning saw and cuts the root ball in half. “We cut their hut off the island and let them float away.” He pauses for dramatic effect, a sly grin on his face.
The women show us some of the local food sources including a collection of bird’s eggs, berries, dried fish and guinea pig. Even the succulent baby shoots of the reeds are edible. It tastes like a cross between a celery and a scallion.
Our tour group members are paired up with the families on the island. Larry and I are escorted by a young husband and wife, and their small son, to visit their hut. We share no common language but find a connection in smiles, friendly gestures, and a shared sense of curiosity. They bring out a change of clothing, and encourage us to try them on. Although I tower head and shoulders over the young lady, I obligingly pull on a vivid orange skirt and turquoise jacket, a rainbow-colored hat complete with pink, black and magenta pom-poms.
She giggles as the skirt only reaches my knees, while hers sweeps her feet. We pose together for a photo enjoying the frivolity of the moment.
Their young son excitedly leads the way into their home. The single room’s inner walls are encircled by a woven reed bench to provide seating and storage. A double bed occupies the far end. In the corner is a small television and DVD player. The movie playing is Sponge Bob Square Pants. A single solar panel provides enough power to bring cartoons to the highest navigable lake in the world. A gift, we later learn, from the late Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori in his attempt to gain the vote of the Amerindians.
The couple leads us back to the middle of the island where a collection of handicrafts, textiles and weavings are displayed. We purchase a number of things, pleased to contribute to the economic viability of this unique community. We are escorted aboard a totora reed boat – shaped like a catamaran with two banana shaped hulls strapped together and a platform lashed over the top. The double hulls curve upwards and the front of each is woven into the shape of a dragon head.
As we sail away, I spot a lone hut stranded on small, forlorn island. “Hey, look at that,” I elbow Larry, “there’s the lazy neighbor!”