Lake Titicaca is monstrous, high, shared by Peru and Bolivia and our base for three days. The city of Puno lies on her shores and we spent an afternoon slowly climbing to the Condor statue, high above the city at the end of 500 steps. Just what one feels like a day or two after the Inca Trail. Puno is also around 3800m above sea level so altitude dramas kicked in again. I could have used those walking sticks again.
Dinner in an overpriced tourist restaurant and a visit to the huge supermarket completed we went back to the hotel to recover from the rain and biting cold. It’s wasn’t the most pleasant of welcomes.
A little more sunshine the following day saw us down to the port in tricycle taxis, narrowly avoiding several collisions on the busy roads as it feels like a bit of a free for all system and a tricycle is pretty low on the road kill chain. I did a lot of hiding behind my gloved hands.
On board “Victor Class” we puttered out onto the lake and after a few hours reached Taquile Island. Wearing all our clothes and rain gear we slowly made our way up and up, stopping to learn about medicinal plants from our local guide, Alex. Eventually the rain eased about the same time the uphill slacked off to more level standard and we could see the lake in its blue brilliance. We passed more locals, brightly dressed in the traditional glaring colour skirts, black shawls, multicoloured pom-poms bobbing as they walked and the men in beanies with pom-poms on the end. The size and number of pom-poms denotes marital status…and sometimes they swap things around, particularly at parties…is that the Taquile Island version of keys in a bowl?
One of the main attractions are the knitting men. Declared a cultural treasure by UNESCO, you can shop for bags, scarves, beanies, ear warmers, belts, gloves etc, all made by the boys and men of the community. The women spin the wool onto yarn and then men do the knitting. I bought a bag and a belt before we enjoyed lunch. After lunch we descended over 550 steps down to the dock to pick up our boat and continue onward to the community of Karina.
Karina sits on a peninsula jutting out into the lake and most of the residents are farmers or fishermen. Here we split up to settle into our rooms for the overnight homestay. Camille, Ivy and I stayed with Juana and her husband and their charming grandson, Isaac who was 11 years old and good fun. They appreciated our household gifts, my bottle of pisco and a ball, crayons and books for Issac. We had been told to prepare for basic facilities, no showers, straw beds and llama blankets. Camille and Ivy shared a room with ensuite bathroom and I took the bedroom up top of a handmade ladder, sans ensuite. It’s an interesting challenge descending that ladder at 3.15am in your thermals and boots, crossing the courtyard and trying not to wake the others so I could use the toilet. The beds were regular mattresses with piles of woolen blankets that are so heavy it was a mission to turn over.
During the afternoon we helped harvest potatoes, tend to the sheep, coo and fuss over a brand new lamb – the cutest little ball of bleating black wool you’ve ever seen – though mum was white…wonder if dad was suspicious?
We continued along the road – while I carried a four month old Sadie in the shawl on my back a la local style – down to the sports fields to do our best to give a decent contest to the locals in volleyball. It’s probably best we didn’t keep score and ended up mixing teams and having a good laugh. The cold made each hit sting everyone, not just us tourists. Player ages ranged from about 8/9 years up to around 40 and it seemed the younger ones had our measure pretty quick.
Skipping back home with the kids we got dressed up in the traditional party dress – the heavy wool skirt and a shawl with tassels and fastened with a pin that looks like it belongs on a kilt. I was a vision of bright orange and creamy pink and then the undersized, ill-fitting modified bowler hat topped it all off. It was over the top of all my regular clothes so it was all quite warm. A short game of soccer in the bedroom with Isaac – while we were dressed to the nines – passed the time till we walked down to the group dinner in another mudbrick house. Thunderstorms with rumbling thunder and stark lightening threatened all night without dumping more than a moderate amount of rain. The solid darkness was a stunning contrast for the uninterrupted view of the bolts piercing the water.
Dinner of quinoa soup, veggies and rice followed by herbal tea was served around stories of alien sightings and encounters with the devil on dark lonely nights searching for lost donkeys. Didn’t help many of us feel brave enough to venture out to the latrine if we needed it.
I enjoyed a sound night’s sleep under the crushing mountain of blankets, one perilous trip to the loo and a bright sunshiny morning trip to the latrine before hugging the day old lamb, fussing a young calf who liked to be scratched under her rope halter and a quick ballgame with Isaac before breakfast. Fried dough and a boiled egg with herbal tea. Breakfast of champions. We gave our eggs to Ivy since her allergy to gluten meant she couldn’t partake in the deep fried goodness.
A round of photos with the family and we met Juana’s husband and who we figure are actually
Isaac’s grandparents. In our conversations the night before he told us his sister had died the year before and we didn’t want to press the issue. It’s a tough life on the edge. Juana led us down to see us off at the port and we waved from the back, farewelling a unique experience in a special community.
We stopped by the Uros floating islands on the way back to Puno. A set up of connecting reed islands, tended by reed and motor boats, open to tourists to learn how they came to settle there, how to build an island and buy their embroidery. They were very welcoming and it was another visit to a culture that makes me grateful for my rich life.
It is a different kind of feeling to have sampled Taquile Island, Karina and Uros all together. There is a feeling of same, same but different – there’s lot of smiles, lots of welcoming hugs, everyone has the same dreams of family and happiness, life can be tough and takes a lot of work but they hold on passionately to their traditions, not tempted to give up the old ways to move to a life in the city. Having savoured the serenity of the peace and quiet of the communities, only interrupted by bleating sheep and bellowing cows, it makes all kinds of sense to me to keep the fresh air, sunshine and health of the rural life.