Out on the floating islands - South America: a first time for everything - CycleBlaze

September 13, 2013

Out on the floating islands

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FROM WHERE I´m sitting, I look across a bay of unrestricted blue. My heart says it is a sea even though it´s a lake, the highest lake in the world. Lake Titicaca.

I am on the island of Taquile in a simple room of two beds but no other furnishings beyond a thin green carpet. The window frames are thin metal with peeling paint. But the view forgives everything.

We got here after 30 minutes of climbing a ragged steep path, our lungs bellowing and our hearts thumping. The people speak Quechuan. Two hours away by boat, they live on islands of floating reeds, sleeping in tiny houses which may last a year but could have the roof torn off next day should there be a storm. There they speak Amaya, one of the world´s rarer languages. It has, curiously, links with Japanese and some words are close to common to each.

The story is that around the time the rest of Peru was learning the bad manners of the invading Spanish, a party of peaceful Japanese turned up in hope of a peaceful life. Their words mixed with the original language as a creole and in time Amaya emerged as a tongue in its own right.

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Much more fascinating, though, is that these people - the Uros - still live on islands they created when shore land was too expensive.

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"Nowadays they live by tourism," our guide says. He is short, squat and in his late 20s, with a girlfriend and baby on another island. His name is Freddy and he says they won´t marry until they can afford the islands-wide party that tradition demands.

"People lived here because they couldn´t afford to live in the town. Here, it is a shared commune. We have our own administrative council and each island has a chief. The chief has a year and then someone else takes over, man, woman, man and so on."

The islands are made of metre cubes of earth, tied in blocks, from which the reeds grow. The blocks are then joined to form an island big enough for 30 or more people. The whole lot is secured to the lake bed by rope and stakes, although a good storm can set them floating off somewhere else.

The surface is resistant and springy at the same time, in the manner of an expensive ballroom. The reeds are soft enough to walk bare-footed and firm enough to play football. Seven out of ten Uros people still live on the islands, although their number falls every year. Some islands are open to tourists, whom the islanders welcome in the hope of selling beautiful and intricate embroidered rugs and pillow covers that can take a year to stitch. The money they bring in is pooled.

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Their patterns relate Uros history and religion. Here, they believe in a god of heaven and a god of earth. As elsewhere in Peru, the condor represents life above earth, the puma life on its surface and the snake its underworld.

Cooking is a problem on an island of reeds. Lighting was even more a problem until the arrival of small solar panels. Before then they used candles and fires sometimes killed several.

There are other problems. Islanders are prone to rheumatism and to poisoning from drinking lake water, which while fresh is not pure. And a small community means inter-breeding. Islanders have started marrying off-island, which generally reduces the island population, but often the islanders´ blood is not compatible wth those on land.

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There are island beliefs, too, not only in gods and nature but in the power of herbal medicine. Treatments are prepared from different parts of the reed.

Inevitably, I suppose, their life will become more a tourist attraction and less what it was. My clubmate, Jacques Sirat, came this way 15 years ago and found only gentle tourism. Now, while it isn´t rife, it is business and these people who once lived a quaint if damp life of their own choice will become, if they haven´t already, a living Disneyworld.

It´s a shame... but then we have contributed to it by visiting today, haven´t we?

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