Life on the Lake

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There’s a lot to be said for living on a floating island in the middle of a lake. For starters, you’ve got unrivalled lake views, as well as your very own swimming pool just metres from your front door. A plentiful supply of food and water is readily available all year round and most importantly of all, if some new neighbours pitch up and start playing Thrash Metal at full volume until the early hours or have the temerity to leave the bins out when it’s not bin day, you can just hitch up your moorings and just float off to live somewhere else. I suspect there’s downsides too of course. Coming home half cut in the evenings is no doubt more precarious than usual, and the transport links to surrounding areas are somewhat limited. If you’re not a fan of water it probably wouldn’t be ideal, and nor would it if you’re not fond of eating fish or are prone to sleepwalking. Nevertheless, the twenty or so inhabitants of this island in the middle of Lake Titicaca looked happy enough upon our arrival, though that could be due to the fact another boatload of gringos, aka ‘money machines’, had just cruised in. Welcome to the least authentic, authentic experience on Lake Titicaca.

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Actually, it wasn’t that bad. Before our arrival at Lake Titicaca we’d read that the floating Uros Islands, once an isolated, safe and resourceful home for their inhabitants, had now become a grotesquely busy tourist honey trap, where hundreds of tourists a day were shipped in, entertained with some mawkishly awkward song and dance, before being flogged a load of souvenirs and shipped back out. So we’d feared the worse if I’m honest, but thankfully left quietly relieved. Yes, the reed island was full of small souvenir stands and yes, the whole experience was a little contrived to say the least, but we were the only visitors upon our arrival and well, it was still a floating island after all. It’s really not something you see every day.

Even just walking on the islands is an experience, with the floor of interwoven reeds from the lake itself giving a definite bounce to your walk, somewhere between Neil Armstrong and MC Hammer I’d say, while the island itself with its circular layout of about a dozen reed houses is held in place by moorings tied to the lake bed. As far as authenticity goes? Well don’t expect a completely traditional scene, but then you’ll do well to find that anywhere in the world with tourist access these days. The inhabitant Uros people still wear thick traditional Peruvian clothing, as much for protection against the cold and intense solar glare that comes at such a high altitude as anything else, and still cook over open flame and have the odd reed boat, or Balsa, floating about. The judder of motor boats streaking between the 40 or so Islands could often be heard however, while the satellite dishes and solar panels that somehow cling onto the reed huts suggest the islanders here are very much afloat with the latest mod cons.

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We visited three islands in our trip to Lake Titicaca, stopping at Amantani and Taquile as well as the aforementioned Uros Islands, and a reoccurring theme on each was an exhilarating amount of noise and colour that greeted us. From the crackling Peruvian folk melodies heard on Uros FM, the local radio station for the floating islands, to the beautifully intense rainbow effect of the many weaving instruments we saw being worked on Amantani, life on the lake seems to be a vibrant one. This was no better exemplified by our arrival at the main square of Taquile, which was met by the distant sound of a marching school band. From a nearby rooftop, we then watched as the brass band and drummers snaked through the surrounding countryside towards us, with flag bearers leading the way and locals draped over fences and gates to cheer the procession along.

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Their arrival was a grand one, and with military style greetings and plenty of goose stepping around the plaza meant this was surely an esteemed event, a triumphant celebration of great importance. There were speeches – lots of speeches – and an unfurling of the Peruvian flag along with more trumpeting, marching and saluting in front of the local dignitaries. It was an impressive display from all involved, particularly from the teacher who would bring his clipboard crashing down upon any school child who was visibly starting to lose interest, and using our rather sketchy Spanish translation skills, we were eventually able to establish that the whole show was in honour of the Battle of Arica, which was a (still disputed) territorial war with neighbouring Chile in 1890. A war in which they lost. Just imagine how busy the French would be if they did the same?

Our only night on the lake was on the island of Amantani, where an indigenous Quechua population of around a thousand families lives. It was with one of these families that we were to be staying, sleeping in their home and eating with them, and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of our time in South America. Collected from the small wharf by the two teenage girls of the family, we followed them up through grazing pastures and small clusters of buildings to their house, which like most others there was constructed of mud and brick with a thatched roof. It was a simple but comfortable set up, and once fed and watered and having met several members of the family, we set off for a look around the island.

We were once again led by the sound of distant music playing, this time down into the main village where a trail of drunken revellers led us to a wedding. It turns out these can actually last up to three days here, and although I’m not sure of what point we’d arrived within that three days, the celebrations certainly seemed to be in full swing and it was heartwarming to see such scenes of love, joy and celebration. As we looked up towards the party, right on cue a gentleman staggered outside in full voice, urinated against a wall and then slumped down in the same spot for a mid afternoon siesta, but not before he’d vomited down himself. Any wedding the world over it seems, there is always that guy.

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Leaving the raucous celebrations behind, we continued on foot up to the highest point of the island to a hilltop known as Pachamama, where beside some pre-Incan ruins we watched the sun fall behind the lake and surrounding islands, before returning to our home for the night. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, sitting at just under 4000 metres above sea level, and as such, it gets pretty chilly when the sun disappears, so we were more than happy to be welcomed into the family kitchen that evening, where we experienced a homely and comforting scene which you just don’t see in the western world anymore. Save for the mother and father who were at the wedding – no doubt by this point gyrating on the floor to ‘Oops, Upside Your Head’ – the whole family was here; Grandmother, daughter in law and the two teenage girls along with their ruddy faced, red cheeked little brothers, with us as well, squeezed into this tiny room. They wouldn’t let us lift a finger for dinner, despite our repeated pleas to help out, and so by the light of a few candles and the warming glow from the hearth, we exchanged tales each other’s worlds in broken Spanish, learnt some Quechua to their great hilarity, and ate hearty, home cooked food until our bellies were full. Life on the islands was alright by us.

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