We set out by boat from Puno, Peru. Our destination, the Floating Islands called the Uros.
The islands are man-made, found on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, at 12, 507 feet, and 109 miles long.
There are over 40 small islands floating in the lake, each constructed of layer upon layer of totora reeds growing in the shallows.
The Uros were pushed back into the lake when the Incas conquered the region. They were so poor the Incas found them hardly worth taxing, but some were taken as slaves. After the fall of the Incan Empire, the Uros traded and intermarried with the Aymara on the mainland, eventually losing their Uru language for that of the Aymara.
We were given a warm welcome by the women of the island…
…who sang us ashore.
Each island supports up to 10 families, depending upon its size. The islands are anchored with ropes tied to stakes driven into the lake bottom. When attacked, the Uros cut the the ropes to escape into deeper water. When cohabitants fought, as a last resort they cut their island in half, to live separately.
Totora reeds rot quickly. New layers must constantly be added. Even so, an island lasts only about thirty years.
When we stepped onto the island, our feet sank several inches into the top layers of reeds.
Marcos, a leader on his island, explained through a translator that the white part of totora is eaten for food, and its flowers provide tea. The same reeds used to build the island are also used to build houses and boats for fishing, hunting, and trading with mainlanders.
A model of the island community shows each component, with its real life counterpart.
Houses and watchtowers.
And the people.
The Uros fish, and keep pigs on floating islands nearby.
They domesticated Ibis for meat…
Marcos welcomed us into his home.
Living in close quarters keeps it warmer at night. During the rainy season they sometimes use plastic tarps to keep dry.
The islands’ population dropped from 2,000 in 1997 to about 400. The draw of city comforts is strong, especially for the younger generation. The modern world encroaches. Solar panels provide music and television to make them more content with island life.
Tourism now provides income to purchase products available only on the mainland.
The Uros sell handicrafts made from reeds…
…or from materials bought on the Mainland.
It’s a delicate balance maintaining their traditional culture and making a living,
…between supporting their way of life…
…and keeping the children happy at home.
Flashy non-traditional water taxis, the Uru version of a gondola, transport tourists from island to island for a fee.
We caught a ride with Marcos.
He operates his taxi, sells his family’s handicrafts, and fishes to eke out a living for four generations of family.
A French Canadian I spoke to expressed extreme disappointment in the experience. She found it too commercial, and felt the Uros had sold out their culture to make a buck. But I don’t see their world or mine in such black and white terms.
Like her ancestors, that woman lives in Quebec, speaks French, and eats baguettes. But she also eats sushi, drives a car, and works for a tech company to pay her electric bill.
Such a fine line between preserving cultural traditions while adapting to the changing world around us. Since the beginning of time, most living things have both adapted and made the choices that put food into the mouths of their young.
The Uros are a unique and hardworking people living in a harsh climate under difficult conditions. Doing no harm to others or the world around them…
…they have done an amazing job keeping alive a way of life that began centuries ago.
All images and words copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck
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