This past weekend I took a needed break from the familiar haunts of Puno and set off to discover a few of the islands of Lake Titicaca – Uros, Amantani and Taquile. I went with one of the many tour groups in Puno that offer trips to the islands for anywhere from 75 to 90 soles for the two day and overnight excursion. The first stop on our itinerary was the Uros Islands.
When you hear about the famed floating islands of Lake Titicaca, the Uros are the ones they are talking about. At first, I was actually under the impression that all of the islands we were visiting on this trip were floaters, but was ever so disappointed when I found out it was only the Uros. They had originally been formed by the indigenous tribes that were fleeing the Incas, and the inhabitants of the islands could actually physically move the islands closer to or further from the mainland as the need arose. They were constructed first from giant cubes of manure that were tied together and then covered with layers of criss-crossing reeds that grew in abundance in the lake. The end result is a spongy feeling ground that to me felt like a more adult and controlled version of a Bouncy Bounce! I was secretly hoping that my bed this evening would be made of nothing but these reeds.
Oh Silly Tourist!
The sad thing about the Uros Islands is that the whole concept of the islands once served as an ingenious solution to a cultural problem, but has now been lost in a swelling sea of mindless tourism. The people of the island didn’t seem to be as interested in sharing their culture so much as wooing the rich foreign visitors. I knew this visit was going to be all about the sell as the President who was teaching us how the islands were built focused more on entertaining us with his knowledge of American pop culture. I joined in with the courtesy laugh as appropriate, but inside I was rolling my eyes as I was well aware that my being there as a tourist only contributed more to this horse and pony show of a lecture. I should know by now though that I have to accept the negatives of tourism that come as a result of the benefits.
My real annoyance didn’t come until I was suckered into spending money I didn’t want to spend. As part of the so-called tour of the island, the families invite you into their homes, which in retrospect were probably not homes but staging areas, to have a brief chat before bombarding you with offers to try on their traditional clothing. I had read in some guide books that this was standard and didn’t think anything of it. I let them dress me in the traditional skirt and bowler hat and was sufficiently amused by the way my tall figure all of a sudden looked like an Oompa Loompa with booby tassles.
However, after the fun and games I was cornered by one of the girls in the little hut where she told me it would be 10 soles for playing dress-up. 10 soles is roughly $4.00 which is a fair amount of money in these parts. I figured, okay, she got me; I’ll contribute to the local economy. However, after I gave her the 10 soles, she started in on this pitch about how she needed more money to get medicine for her brother. This is when I said enough is enough and walked away. She had seen that I gave in too easily to her first demand for money so she started appealing to my rich foreign visitor guilt for more money. As much as I was perturbed by this situation, I reminded myself not to take it personally and to remember that this is what she does to survive. What still bothered me though was that I do in fact want to help those less fortunate than me, but I want to do it by donating my time to organizations whose missions I support, not by rewarding manipulative sales practices.
Exploring My Explorer Needs
After our brief visit to Uros that felt more like a sales pitch for shower curtain rings than the enlightening cultural experience I was hoping for, we set off on a three hour boat ride to Amantani where we would spend the night in a local family’s house. It was still rather chilly outside, but the sunshine was absolutely brilliant so I engulfed myself in as much warm clothing as possible and sat outside on the deck for the majority of the ride. This was the perfect time for me to kick back, reflect on my journey thus far and process some thoughts that have been bouncing around my head, most of which will serve as future posts.
The one little epiphany that I did have at the aft of the boat was that ever since the Disney Transatlantic, I have realized that I really love being on boats, ships and any other kind of nautical vessels for that matter. I think perhaps this all relates back to my childhood fascination with Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who set sail on the first circumnavigation of the globe. The feeling of venturing off into a vast expanse with no restrictive lines and markers (for the most part) to steer you on a set path is quite liberating and an obvious metaphor for how I feel about my life.
As my mind was in a daze reflecting on my newly discovered love in life, I was also being mesmerized by the landscapes of the snow-capped Andes in the distant. Until recently, the only images of the Andes I had were in another locked up childhood memory of perusing issues of National Geographic. The steely yet serene image was calming enough to make me forget my earlier annoyance with my previous tourist foolhardiness and starting anew in Amantani.