Monday, July 13, 2015

The Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca

                                                        by Jim Goodman
the lower part of Puno, on the Lake Titicaca shore

       The first thing noticeable after arriving from Lima on a flight to the southwestern city of Puno is the change in temperature.  Puno lies beside the Peruvian portion of Lake Titicaca, over 3800 meters altitude, and is thus several degrees cooler than coastal Lima.  It never gets very warm in the summer and winter nights are usually below freezing.  The temperature can also drop suddenly with the eruption of a storm on the lake.
       The city itself is certainly not beautiful like Cusco or Trujillo, but it does have an atypical layout.  Founded in 1668 as a Spanish administrative center, the original town lay along a 3 km strip of flat land along the lakeshore.  As time went on, the city expanded up the hill behind it, where most of the city’s 150,000+ inhabitants live today.  Old and new government buildings, churches and a downtown area of restaurants, bars, travel agencies and shops selling alpaca wool jackets and sweaters occupy the streets at the base of the hill.  Steep roads and paths climb up to all the residential neighborhoods.
Aymara woman in Puno
       The higher one hikes, though, the greater the view of Lake Titicaca, the prime attraction of the Puno area.  It is the highest lake in the world navigable by large boats, fed by five major river systems and over twenty streams, with but one major outlet.  Besides the lake scenery, a Puno excursion includes visits to villages and islands, both natural ones and man-made floating ones, inhabited by interesting and colorful Native Americans. 
       The early history of the area is still rather murky, but the main indigenous people of the lands around Lake Titicaca are the Aymara, who have lived here for at least eight centuries.  They also reside in Chile and on the Bolivian side of the lake and one of their numbers there, Evo Morales, is currently the elected leader of Bolivia.  In this harsh, high-altitude environment they grew potatoes and quinoa and raised llamas and alpacas.  It’s not known what kind of political organization or state they had, or where the capital might have been.  The Incas under the expansionist Emperor Pacachuti conquered the Aymara around Puno in the mid-15th century and aside from one archaeological complex at Sillustani, little remains of pre-Inca Aymara civilization.
Sillustani and Umaya Lagoon
       Sillustani is an enjoyable and interesting half-day excursion 34 km west of Puno. It lies beside the beautiful Umayo Lagoon at 4000 meters altitude, a natural gem in an otherwise typically stark, high plains landscape of scattered villages and rolling, brown, virtually treeless hills.  Besides the very picturesque lagoon itself, the main attraction of Sillustani is the set of burial towers nearby, erected by the ruling class of the Qollas, an Aymara people who ruled the area until the Inca conquest.
       The vestiges of other ancient Peruvian states and civilizations usually consist of fortresses, temples, palaces, city walls, pyramids and stonewalled terraces.  The architectural legacy of the Qollas is a necropolis.  The Qolla nobility interred their corpses in large stone towers, called chullpa, several meters high, sometimes square but usually cylindrical, with a single small opening to the east.  They were so large because they were meant to hold the bodies of not just one person, but many members of the same extended family.  Modern excavators have found up to twenty skeletons in a single chullpa.
chullpa remans near Umaya Lagoon
       Relatives of a deceased Qolla person wrapped the corpse in cloth and interred it in a fetal position within the tower.  They also left gold pieces and ritual offerings as part of their funeral customs.  With about 150 of these chullpas in the area, that implied a lot of buried wealth and over the centuries grave robbers made off with most of it.  But in 1971 excavators found 501 gold pieces and 779 items of ritual offerings, attesting to the importance the Qolla gave to venerating their dead.
       Abandoned centuries ago, left to the mercy of wind, thieves and seismic disturbances, most of the chullpas today barely retain their foundations.  There are two kinds, perhaps because of distinctions in rank or wealth in the Qolla society.  One kind uses walls of piled up medium-sized stones.  The more impressive type has walls of large square or slightly rectangular stone blocks, with smooth, convex surfaces and right-angle corners. 
chullpas of the Qolla people 
       This type is always cylindrical and, being a sturdier construction, has better withstood the ravages of time.  Several of them are nearly as high as they were originally.  This enables us to mark the chullpa’s unique architectural characteristic:  it is wider at the top than it is at its base.
       The Incas who conquered the Qollas and other Aymara peoples were actually the Aymara’s erstwhile neighbors.  Inca mythology and tradition places their origin in Tiwanaku, off the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca.  The first Inca ruler then led a migration of several years over the mountains to the Urubamba Valley and founded a kingdom at Cusco.  When Pacachuti later on led his armies to take over the lands around Lake Titicaca it was sort of like reclaiming the Inca homeland.  
Bowler hats arte still popular with Aynara women.
       Inca rule over the Aymara lasted but a century before the conquistadores arrived and extinguished the entire Inca Empire.  The Aymara population fell under Spanish rule in the 16th century and large numbers of then were forced to work for their colonial masters at one task or another.  The Spanish founded Puno the following century to better manage this exploitation and their missionaries commenced strenuous efforts to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism.
       Relics of this era remain in the central business area of the city and include the central square called Plaza des Armas, with its colonial-era administrative buildings, an old stone cathedral with sculptures of St. George slaying the dragon and other Catholic motifs and the main market center.  Aymara women frequent the city for shopping and add an ethnic element to the crowds on the streets.  They are shorter and stouter than the non-Indian women, wear voluminous skirts that make them look even fatter, and top off the outfit with a colorful shawl or poncho and a bowler hat. 
       According to local legend, the bowler hat fashion originated in the 1920s, when a European company sent a shipment of them for use by local residents working on the railroad.   But they were too small, so the workers passed them on to the indigenous people instead.  Aymara women have been wearing bowler hats ever since. 
the church square at Taquile
       The Aymara also live on Lake Titicaca’s islands, natural and floating, accessible by a short boat journey from Puno harbor.  On the usual tour itinerary visitors first sail for two hours past the floating villages and out to distant Taquile, a moderately hilly, scabbard-shaped island 5.5 km long and averaging 1.6 km wide.  From its higher points one can see Amantani, a bigger island to the north, and Santa Maria, a town at the tip of the Copacabana Peninsula to the northwest. 
       The scenery is nice, but not spectacular enough to justify a two-hour boat journey.  Taquile’s primary distinction is its people and their old-fashioned way of life, scarcely disturbed by modernization.   Around 2200 Taquileños inhabit the island and they dress more colorfully than the Aymara one encounters in and around Puno.  The men wear a long-sleeved white shirt, black vest and trousers, sometimes a black waistcoat as well, a wide and bright belt with lots of tassels hanging at the sides, and on their heads either a brimmed black hat or a colorful stocking cap, similar to those around Cusco, with a tail hanging to one side.
shrine to the Earth Goddess,Taquile
spinning thread, Taquile
       The women favor ordinary long-sleeved blouses or sweaters, bulky, calf-length cotton skirts and black shawls over their heads that drape across their shoulders.  Women spin the thread and weave the cloth, but the knitted items, like belts, bags and caps, are a task for the males, who begin learning knitting while still boys.
one of the floating islands near Puno
       The island has no installed electricity but some families use solar panels for power.  No paved roads or motor vehicles exist and the Taquile lifestyle seems to be evocative of earlier centuries.  The residents make a living from fishing, horticulture, potatoes and tourism, particularly by selling their renowned textiles.  For other essentials they trade with the nearby port of Santa Maria. 
              Throughout the island arched gateways stand at junctions of the paths.  The best of these is at the entrance to the hilltop square where stands the Catholic church.  The Taquileños converted long ago, but did not entirely abandon their traditional beliefs, as evidenced by the rural shrines to pre-Christian deities that still stand in several locations.  And their basic moral code is still the one they followed before conversion:  don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be lazy.        
Uro women with drying tortora reeds
       On the return from Taquile to Puno travelers stop at the Uros floating islands, just five km or so from Puno harbor.  This phenomenon, unique to the continent and the main reason to visit Puno, offers the traveler an opportunity to witness an outstanding example of man’s ingenuity in making use of the special characteristics of a given environment.  In this case it was the abundance of tortora reeds growing on the shores and in the shallows of the lake.      
       The tortora reed has a very dense root and after the people harvest and dry the reeds, they interweave them into layers that form the ‘land’ of the islet, 1.5-2 meters thick.   Under ordinary circumstances the submerged layers rot after about three months and so the residents make new tortora layers to add to the top.  But the harvesting, drying and weaving of tortora reeds is a nearly constant activity.  The top layers, exposed to sunlight and the tread of many footsteps, dry out to the point of brittleness and break.  This allows moisture to enter and initiate the rotting process, requiring a fresh layer of reeds to cover them.
       The floating islands originated several centuries ago, conceived as a defensive measure, for each island had a watchtower and sentries posted to alert the islanders of approaching attack from the mainland.  Should one occur, the inhabitants could load themselves and their essential belongings into their boats, made from the same tortora reeds, and make their escape.  And if the enemy destroyed their houses or even sank their islands, well, no problem to make new ones.
tortora reed house
       It is not clear who the potential enemy would have been—Aymara, Inca or another people—or if such a desperate escape had ever been necessary.  Inhabitants of the floating islands are Uros, a people separate from the Aymara, but who have interacted and intermarried with Aymara for so long that they dropped usage of their original language and now speak Aymari among themselves.  Two to ten families live on the islands, depending on size, in simple houses made from the same tortora reeds. 
       Boats made from tortora reeds are also common on Peru’s northern coast, from Trujillo to Chiclayo.  But those are narrower, with upturned prow, and can only seat two passengers at most in the rear of the vessel.  The Uros boats are bigger, upturned fore and aft, wide enough to seat at least twelve passengers and steered by a standing oarsman (or oarswoman) in the rear.  Some of the fancier ones have roofs mounted over them to shield the passengers from sun or rain.
       Besides being material for making islands, boats and buildings, the tortora reed also has other uses.  The thick white part at the bottom of the reed is packed with iodine.  The Uros’ regular consumption of this keeps them from getting goiter.  They also apply this part of the reed to afflicted parts of the body to relieve pain.  And they brew a tea from tortora, one of the things offered a guest to a Uro home. 
Uro boat skipper
       Watchtowers continue to stand on the floating islands, though there is no longer any need to post sentries in them to warn of impending attacks.  They are there more as reminders of the past.  The only use they have nowadays is to check and see if any tour boats are heading their way.  The Uros’ economy is based on fishing and tourism, particularly the sale of handicrafts like tortora dolls, miniature boats, boxes and such, plus knitted and embroidered textiles. 
       Tourism provides the islanders with an augmented income, but also means many more people than usual are walking across the spongy surfaces, with each step depressing 5 to 10 cm, resulting in extra work adding more tortora layers.  With more money now, some of the Uros use corrugated iron roofs on their houses.  Others have solar panels to generate power.  But besides a few extra goods from the mainland and a motorboat here and there, the Uros’ lifestyle has changed little over the past decades.  Out-migration is minimal and the Uros seem quite content to continue their traditional way of living--a unique ecological adaptation, involving the creative deployment of the properties of a single, extraordinary, ubiquitous plant.

typical floating island in Lake Titicaca
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