A Dying World
Islas Flotantes, Peru
Peru’s Altiplano, or high plain, lies at a breathtaking 15,000 feet.
The altitude squeezes my lungs as I step off the plane and make my way to the tiny shed that acts as the terminal for Puno airport, gateway to Lake Titicaca. A one hour morning flight from sea level at Lima takes us to the ancient Incan capital of Cuzco at 10,000 ft. To help tourists acclimatize in a hurry, coca tea is served on the flight and I find instant relief as I imbibe the neutral tasting beverage. I feel no narcotic effect but am aware as it opens my capillaries allowing a more efficient blood flow to the brain. With a one-hour layover before traveling on to Puno, we now find ourselves gaining 15,000 ft. in altitude in just under three hours. The effect is dizzying.
I pick through the mountain of baggage that has been dumped on the tarmac by a skip loader and find our bags. They seem to weigh a ton and I find myself taking only a few steps before stopping to suck air.
Inside the terminal, I buy a prepackaged box of cocoa leaves. They will be my constant companion for the next two weeks as I chew my way to easier breathing along with the other lowlanders. Coca is a way of life in Peru for people of simple means, as witnessed by the darkly colored teeth of most of the peasants.
My wife and I have come to the great lake of Titicaca that sits on the border between Peru and Bolivia. Our final destination is the Islas Flotantes, or Floating Islands of the lake; an ancient civilization on the fast track to extinction.
The floating islands are exactly what the name implies; giant free floating platforms made from woven Totura reeds, hand pulled from the lake on which they sit. The Uros tribe that has lived here for centuries originally fled to the middle of the lake to avoid raids from the Inca and Colla peoples, and have been here ever since, slowly evolving into a totally unique culture.
These people are master weavers whose work first came to public attention in 1947 when Thor Heyerdahl came to Titicaca to build his large reed boat, the KonTiki, modeled after local craft to prove that Peruvians had crossed the Pacific Ocean centuries before to inhabit remote islands. Their boats are unchanged to this day.
There is no lack of local guides standing around the small harbor in Puno eager to take us out to the islands, whose daily position depends on the wind and the mood of their inhabitants to approach or avoid the mainland.
For a few soles we hire our man and are underway in his small motorboat. Near shore the water is emerald green beneath an azure sky. Aside from the hum of our boat’s motor, it feels like we are travelling back in time.
Within a half-hour we can see what appears to be a tiny settlement poking out of the water. There are many low buildings woven entirely by hand and even an observation tower manned by a local boy who alerts the islanders of our approach.
Mother and Child
We are greeted by a throng of unwashed children when we land, all thrusting their hands out for whatever we may give them, while some try to reach into my pockets to help themselves. The children are dressed in western style clothing. Many wear t-shirts with various logos on them, probably given to them by previous visitors to the islands. I have brought bubble and chewing gum for I was told it would be appreciated, but as I try to pass it out, a near riot ensues.
The children begin pushing and shoving each other in a frantic effort to secure the gum. Smaller children have no chance here and so I yell loudly and put the gum away as I push my way past them. This in no way deters them from aggressive begging as we make our way ashore. I stop and press some gum into the hand of one tiny girl who stares at it uncomprehendingly. As soon as I am gone I see her surrender it to an older boy. We can see several adults near the huts that pay us no mind as we approach.
Dark skinned women sit in front of their huts wearing the colorful local costume of multiple petticoats and Boler hats. They display their tapestries as we pass and call out to us in Spanish, but when I reply, they switch to Quechwa, the ancient tongue of the Inca. I stop and buy a beautiful little reed boat, an exact scale model of the ones all around us and this seems to give me great face with the vendors.
The reeds are spongy and we sink a little as we walk around, much like trying to tread on top of a waterbed. It is absolutely silent except for the crunching of reeds beneath our feet. The islands had no electricity until recently and of course no running water except for what we are floating on. Cooking pits have been made with stones brought from the mainland and we can smell fish cooking in large cast pots. Behind one of the huts a group of young men are busy binding large sheaves of reeds while a large pig stands watch. These will be woven into the island’s base in days ahead. As a totally organic environment, the islands are always bio-degrading and must be constantly rebuilt. From what I can see, weaving, fishing and eating are the only occupations here.
One large building stands out among the squalor of low huts. Our guide says it is a church, yet it is unlike any I have seen.
Inside the large square room there are no windows. There is a reed altar at one end covered with a vast array of varied items. In the center is a foot tall statue of Mickey Mouse with arms extended like a welcoming Christ. Mickey is surrounded by the most eclectic collection of junk imaginable.
There are old bottles and cans, pieces of clothing, discarded cartons and even an old bowling ball. A battered teddy bear sits in the corner next to a large ball of tin foil. Everything you can imagine discarding sits on this altar.
With limited connections to the outside world, these people have evolved their own eccentric religion over the years. They believe anything found in the lake is sent to them by God and therefore sacred. What is in effect a large garbage dump is also these people’s place of worship. They believe lightening is God’s anger and the wind his breath. Before leaving, our guide mumbles a few prayers under his breath and I add a few coins to the altar.
Reed Boat on the Water
Next we are led to an ancient reed boat and poled to an adjoining island. The water here is no more than a few feet deep although we are a couple miles from shore. There is total silence upon the water. I can imagine myself sitting in this same boat hundreds of years ago with nothing changed from how it appears today. We spend the day touring several small islands, all very much alike. At each one we pass, children line the shore with outstretched hands.
At the end of the day we board our motorboat for a cruise by the largest island. The village chief lives here and no outsiders are allowed to land.
As we pass by, a few women scurry into their huts hiding their faces from our cameras. While most of the people on the smaller islands are used to tourists and cameras, the inhabitants of the chief’s island still believe we can capture their soul with an image-maker.
The sun is setting as we motor for the mainland and the lights of Puno begin to twinkle on the horizon. Looking back the only light on the islands are from early cooking fires. This entire civilization is nothing more than a silhouette against the indigo sky. Millions of stars appear and the islanders probably believe God is happy tonight.
I am told there are no pure blooded islanders left. The few remaining natives have all intermarried with mainlanders willing to share this harsh and isolated life. But even the natural lifestyle is evolving to try and keep pace with the modern world. In the 1990’s, then President Alberto Fujimori gave each island it’s own solar panel to generate electricity but I see no sign of it anywhere. We were not allowed inside any of the huts other than the church. Today many of the Uros own their own powerboats although these are usually kept hidden from the tourist’s camera lens, fishing at night.
Where the islands used to be miles from shore, they are now kept at a very reachable one-mile, clearly visible to the mainland and a short motorboat ride away.
As I can see from my own visit, these people are adapting to whatever image the tourist expects in order to obtain their money. This is not done from greed but simple economic necessity. Unfortunately, it is usually the death knell of a primitive culture.
As these islands become more and more commercial, people will cease to visit them. In the end, the people will either be forced to move ashore or become an isolated community of fishermen. For the time being, they are still a fascinating time warp into an ancient way of life.