You ever have one of those times when you can’t stop smiling?
Maybe it was the cool intensity of the high altitude sun and the smell of fresh, clean air. Maybe it was because I felt better than I had in days – my stomach was happy and my energy was back. Maybe it was because we were out on the water; I don’t know if it’s water’s negative ions or just my natural affinity for water as a scuba diver, but going out in a boat always feels like a new adventure.
But mostly it was because we were in one of the unique places in the world, Lake Titicaca, visiting the Uros Islanders.
So what’s the big deal? The world is full of islands, and many have distinct populations. But while the Uru people are unique, it’s the islands themselves that set the place apart.
And they’re man-made, out of totora reeds.
Reed boats have been around for ages. The earliest evidence goes back 7000 years in Kuwait, and even the Bible refers to baby Moses setting sail in a reed basket. Odds are the Uru developed their boats separately, although Thor Heyerdahl tried to prove a connection back in the 70’s with questionable success.
But entire reed islands?
Why not? Floating islands can occur in nature, when growths of cattails, bulrush, sedge, or reeds extend outward from the shoreline of a wetland. Once the extension gets into deeper water, the plant’s root systems bind the plants together and the vegetation floats. If a storm comes along, the connection to shore can be severed, and you get an instant island.
The Uros predate the Inca, but were also contemporaries that were subjugated by them. One theory for their inhabiting the floating islands is as a defensive measure, a way to get away from the Inca and other enemies.
It’s one thing to hang out on a natural floating island, getting your feet wet in a swampy bog while your enemies wave spears from the shoreline, it’s another to make it a permanent stay. Floating islands need maintenance, especially if they’re to support much weight.
Plants don’t live forever. Once they die, they need new plants to grow in as replacements while the old ones rot away. For the Uru, rather than depending on enough new plants to grow in and stomping them flat, they harvest reeds from the shore area and spread them in layers on top of the old, disintegrating reeds. In the dry season, a new layer can last a couple months, in the wet season only a couple weeks. The rotting layers compost into mats that can be several feet thick – this is enough to support dry habitation.
So what stops an island from floating away, sailing in the breeze, smashing into the shoreline or your neighbor’s island? Anchors, of course. It wasn’t clear how they set them. I do know one island we visited was in chilly water about 55 feet (17 meters) deep, that’d be a tough free dive if you still had to pound stakes in the dim bottom light.
The Uru use reeds for more than just maintaining islands and building boats, they’re also material for housing, fuel for fires, cooling compresses for a hot day, even food.
Walking around an island has an odd feel, it’s almost like walking on pillows. Consider walking on a gigantic waterbed, where every step the ground gives a couple inches. My sore back loved it, another reason that smile kept wrapping itself around my face.
You’d think cooking on an island full of dried reeds would be a major fire hazard. How do they do it?
They’ll set out flat rocks as a base, then build the fire within clay ovens. Iron pots sit atop the oven, reeds get fed into a small opening to stoke the fire, and hot food is the happy result. This can also serve as a campfire, one can only imagine how cold it gets at night at 12,500 feet.
Oops, that’s right, I forget to mention Lake Titicaca (cue 8-year-old boys tittering at the name) is the highest navigable lake in the world, as well as the largest lake in South America.
There are few Uros left living the island lifestyle, maybe 2000, and a cultural observer might object to the idea that the Uru lifestyle has turned into a Disneyland ride. But it’s a trade-off.
Islanders that object to plying the tourist trade, and there are a couple hundred, simply move their islands off the beaten path. But they have a subsistence based life and little chance for any extravagance, getting ahead, or sending their kids to school. Most kids, with the city of Puno next door aren’t into it, and they abandon the culture once they’re old enough.
Those who invite tourists do sacrifice privacy, but can still live the island life and share the culture with the outside world. They make extra money giving reed boat rides (only 10 soles, about 3 dollars US) and selling crafts. And they are quite crafty.
With the extra money, they can do trade in Puno, buy things like solar panels and TV, and send their kids to school. This makes a life in the islands more attractive to the kids when they grow up.
On one island, they’ve even built a couple “cabins” for overnight visitors, and have upped their game with serving food the average foreigner can enjoy, rather than the bony little fish that are a more typical part of the Uru diet.
The Uru people were a friendly, gracious bunch. But supposing you’re an Uru, sharing a small island with another family, and congenial relations suddenly turn ice water cold. What do you do? It’s not like there’s a real estate market for empty islands, they need someone living on them for the constant maintenance. The Uru have an original solution.
They get a big saw and cut the island in half. Then each will sail off to a new anchorage, moving lock, stock, and reed bunches.
Moving islands can solve other problems too. Our guide told a story of a politician in Puno. It seems he saw a potential new tax base with all that tourist money going the islands, and told them they needed to pay up by a certain date. But when the date came and he sent his tax collector to the islands, they were no longer there.
This’ll be the last story from the Peru trip. We headed home not long after Lake Titicaca, our heads full of new memories and our hearts full with new joys. I don’t know if we’ll ever return, but the experiences will live on – never to be forgotten.