Saturday, May 3, 2014

Traveling Between Islands

We ate breakfast at the Conde de Lemos hotel at 7:30 before being picked up at 7:50 by bus. When it arrived, Percy, our guide, was on board and ready to go. We drove just a few minutes down to the dock and boarded a small boat filled with tourists from around the world. Although the tour boat we were on had its own tour guide, Miguel, we would be straying a little further away from everyone else's itinerary. 

Miguel started off the boat ride by telling us about the huge celebration that takes place in Puno every February. 

As we travelled out of the Puno bay, we began to see tall stalks of grass pointing out of the water. This meant, as Miguel told us, that the water was no more than two meters deep. Within this network of tall grass lay our first stop on the trip: Uros. Uros is a region of floating islands in lake Titicaca. When we landed at one of these islands, one of the women living there gave us a demonstration on how the islands are made and the many uses of the totora plant - the tall grass I mentioned earlier. 

The totora plants form dense networks of buoyant roots. The people then drive large wooden stakes into the different pieces and tie them together. After that, many layers of totora are added on. As the bottom layers of grass rot away from the moisture, more layers are added on. Typically new layers are added every two or three months. Wherever they put the oven, they also have to place a stone between it an the grass so that the risk of the island catching fire is lower. Dry grass and fire do not mix well. 

As for the totora grass itself, there are several other uses for it besides flooring. First of all, it's edible. You peel back the husk like a banana, break off the top and then eat the inside. It doesn't really taste like anything, and it's very spongey and light. Second, you can roll the plant between your hands to crush the inside, break off a piece, slice it open with just your fingernail, and then place it on your skin to cool off. This also helps with sunburns. As someone of, shall we say, "fair complexion," I was most intrigued by this use of the totora in particular. Apart from building the islands themselves out the grass, the boats and homes on the island are likewise made by the same plant. 

Then we took a ride on one of the boats made with the same grass to a public island. There, we saw several small restaurants and even a post office. There were a group of chickens feeding, and also a net holding a large school of fish. 

From there we took a three hour boat ride from Uros to Amantani, a large island in the lake. During the ride, Percy told us a legend about the origin of Lake Titicaca. 

Titicaca literally translates to Puma Rock in Quechua. The story goes like this: Lake Titicaca didn't always exist, it actually used to be a dry valley. The people living in the valley were prohibited from ascending the mountain peaks surrounding the valley by the demi-gods. When some people tried to climb a mountain anyway, the demi-gods sent pumas to kill them. This plan proved to be unsuccessful, as there were so many people with intentions of climbing the mountains that the pumas wouldn't be enough. Therefore, the demi-gods made it rain over the valley for many days and nights until the lake formed. After the rain stopped, there were the bodies of humans and pumas floating on the surface of the lake, so they named the lake  puma rock. 

At around 1:30, we arrived at Amantani. As the boat docked, we looked up to see women in traditional dress waving to us from the top of a small cliff. We met our host mother, Señora Justa, who runs a hostel just a ten minute walk from the dock. We walked up to her house, crossing plots of land where sheep were grazing, patches of farm land, and stone walkways. The island itself doesn't have any heat or electricity, except for a few solar panels to power some lights in a sparse few houses. The real magic of Amantani comes from the view and the warm, hospitable people who live there. Señora Justa was very kind and welcoming to all of us, and her son, Cristián, was unbearably adorable. 

We ate Quinoa soup and trout for lunch, and then rested for a little bit before going off to the highest point on the island. 

After the Lares trek, the hike up the small mountain on Amantani was a piece of cake. We got up to the top in about 40 minutes, passing by plenty of farms and a soccer stadium on the way. 

At the top, there is a large square stone temple without a roof. Upon reaching this temple, the tradition is to walk three times counterclockwise around the temple. When we asked Percy what would happen if we walked in the other direction, he simply stated, chuckling, "it would be better to walk the right way." 

The temple itself is pre-Incan, but is still in use today. Every January, the gates are opened and everyone on the island congregates for a special ceremony. They place a table in the middle of the temple, and all of the people bring coca leaves to put on the table and ask for wishes. Percy told us that every 3 coca leaves grants one wish, so eventually a mountain of leaves accumulates on the table, and it's almost impossible to keep them all from blowing off. 

As night fell, we looked around at the distant mountains surrounding parts of the lake. We could see parts of Bolivia, with whom Peru shares 40% of the lake. Then we descended the mountain, guided by some flashlights that Señora Justa leant us. 

We ate a dinner of rice and some delicious cooked vegetables after entertaining Cristián in the dinning room for about half an hour. After eating, we got ready for a special celebration that the people of Amantani prepared for us. Señora Justa dressed us all in traditional attire; the girls in floral blouses, skirts, belts, and shawls, and me in a poncho and hat. 

After getting dressed, we walked with Percy and Señora Justa in complete darkness to the community building, where we saw several other groups of tourists from our boat with their host mothers. We danced around in a big circle with everyone in the room, then danced right out the door to the small eucalyptus bonfire on the volleyball court. We danced to a few songs out there, provided by live music, until it began to rain a little bit and we decided to head back to Señora Justa's. 

We had had a long day, so we went to bed almost immediately after getting back from the dance at just around 10:00 at night. Without electricity, the hostel needed some warm blankets to make sure we didn't freeze in the chilly night (Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, so it gets quite cold at night). So how did they make the blankets warm? They made them very, very thick. Amantani definitely gets the award for the heaviest blankets in the world. I could barely push them back to get under the covers, but once there I was nice and cozy for the night. 

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