Monday, April 17, 2017

Peru Under My Skin

Without too much exaggeration I think I can say that I've got Peru under my skin. And I won't be done with thinking about it, and processing our experiences there, for a while. I guess this is one of the benefits of travel. You come home a slightly different person than when you left. 

But enough philosophizing, as my friend Nancy says. Let's continue with our trip. This is a shot I took as we were leaving Colca Canyon. Before we hit the highway for Puno. Lovely, isn't it?

 Inca terraces, near Colca Canyon, Peru
Inca terraces near Colca Canyon
We visited Puno as a jumping off point to explore Lake Titicaca, and its islands. Lake Titicaca isn't the largest lake in the world, not even close. But it is the highest navigable lake. We spent a day touring the lake and two of its islands. 

Our first stop was one of the Uros Islands, man-made floating islands which exist on Lake Titicaca. Historically the Uru people, oppressed by other groups including the Inca and Aymara, and unable to "secure land of their own," built islands made from totora reeds. On these floating islands they lived in peace and relative security for centuries. Tourism here did not really take off until massive storms in the 1980s forced the Uru to move their islands from the centre of the lake closer to shore. Here they were more protected from storms, but also more easily accessed by boat from Puno. There are still more than forty of these islands, and while many of the Uru people now live on the mainland, the islands are still home to over two hundred people. 

Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Puno, Peru
Women in brightly coloured skirts await our arrival

reed buildings on Uros Islands, Lake Titicaca, Puno, Peru
View from the "watch tower" 

 soccer field near Uros Islands, Peru
Nearby soccer field.
As part of our tour, we listened to a presentation of how the reed islands are constructed, and how the people live in this unusual environment. The Uru people rely on the totora reeds for pretty much everything: all their buildings, houses, boats, even medicines come from the reed. After the talk, we were invited to look in one or two of the reed houses, and finally presented with an array of local handicrafts which were for sale. Hubby wandered off to watch this man, below, who was repairing one of the reed boats. Hubby said it was lovely to see how intently the man's young son watched his father, and how earnestly he attempted to follow his father's instructions. 


 man mending straw boat on Uros Islands, Peru
Like father 

small boy helps his father with a straw boat on Uros Island, Peru
Like son
But as interesting as it was, I found the experience on Uros oddly unsettling. Partly because I was having a great deal of trouble breathing. Not having ever walked on a floating reed island before, I had no idea I was allergic... to... well, whatever. Maybe the dust from the dried reeds, combined with the dampness, I'm not sure. But I was also not comfortable with the "staginess" of the experience. The presentation was fine. But the idea that the women of Uros were then expected to gather in front of us and clap and sing... when clearly a couple of them looked like they'd rather be doing something else... anything else... made me squirm a bit. It seemed demeaning. And then for a further uncomfortable half hour or so we endured the "hard sell," as one blogger puts it, as we waited for our boat to leave and tried to avoid purchasing items we didn't really want. 

I don't blame the people of Uros for this. Tourism is an important part of their economy. As Joshua Foer says in his excellent article in Slate magazine: this is a "culture that survives entirely off the voyeurism of the outside world." And I guess I'm just not altogether comfortable in the role of voyeur/tourist. Without tourism there'd be far more poverty and hardship here. But it's a two edged sword, isn't it? The tourist traffic makes the upkeep of their islands much more difficult. Reeds which naturally rot in the water and have to be replaced and replenished every three months or so, take a lot more wear and tear from so many tourist feet. The islanders try to manage this by controlling which islands take visitors. I read that about half of the islands welcome visitors on any given day, while on the other half, the people get on with their normal lives. And as Foer, who with his wife visited the Uros islands and stayed with a local family, says: the "Disneyfication of an entire culture" is the price these people pay for "giving themselves and their children the best possible future." You can read Foer's entire article here.

After Uros, we were off to the island of Taquile. Once our boat docked, we had a thirty minute hike up to the main village. No small feat when the village altitude is 13,000 feet. Thank goodness we'd had a few days to acclimatize in Arequipa and Colca canyon. I was beginning to perfect my "altitude saunter," slow and easy, no rush now, just breath deeply, and place one foot after the other. As our guide said to a couple of young Ozzies who rushed off before the rest of us, and then were forced to watch as we all, every one of us, passed them by, "It's not a race boys." No... it wasn't a race. But if it were, us old tortoises would have won. Ha.

 the climb up to the main village on Taquile Island, Peru
Slow and steady is the best pace at this altitude.
Our time on Taquile was magical. The day was perfect, the sky bluer than blue, and the view beautiful. 

 view over Lake Titicaca from the top of Taquile Island,

Like on Uros, we were treated to a brief talk. The young man below featured largely in the chat by our guide, who teased him gently about being newly married, as he explained how the marital status of each person is signified by the pattern and type of hat they wear. The hats, like all the knitted goods created on Taquile, are knit by the men and boys who learn how to knit when they are six or seven years old. How cool is that? 

My stepdad used to knit. He said his grandmother taught him, and I remember, when we were kids, my stepbrother and I fell off our chairs laughing one night, when my stepdad picked up my mum's knitting and proceeded to work away on it. The hats the men are wearing here are knit on the tiniest needles imaginable. Not the needles featured in this shot, but much smaller, like long pins, actually. Amazing. 

man knitting, Taquile Island, Peru

Afterword, there was music and dancing. And soon each member of our tour was invited by a local dancer to join in. Great hilarity ensued when Hubby danced with one tiny lady who could not follow his "moves." Ha. I know just how she was feeling. 

music and dancing on Taquile Island, Peru


local dancer on Taquile Island, Peru

After the dancing we were invited to peruse the handicrafts before lunch. I bought the belt which I'm holding, and which was made by this gentleman. I can't wait to wear it. The items on display, knitted and woven, hats and belts among other things, were all crafted on the island. I read later that they are among the highest quality artisan products in Peru. In fact Isla Taquile is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site for its enduring culture and for its textile art.

me and the man who made this beautiful belt on Taquile Island, Peru

When we were finished shopping we sat down to a beautifully presented lunch in a small and immaculate, mud-floored, stone hut. 

table set for lunch on Taquile Island, Peru

A large pottery urn filled with steaming quinoa soup was delivered to each table. It was delicious. As was the second course of rice, pan fried trout, vegetables, and potatoes. Everything was really lovely. Even the coca and wild mint tea.

lunch on Taquile Island, Peru

After lunch we were guided back down the hill, past tethered sheep and small terraced agricultural fields, eventually connecting with a stone path. Which we followed back down to the beach, and our waiting boat. 

Inca-style agricultural terraces on Taquile Island, Peru

It's odd, really. Our visit to Isla Taquile had been as carefully scripted as our experience on Uros. We were as much "voyeurs" there, as on Uros. So why had I not had the same feelings of discomfort? Certainly the Taquile experience was much more smoothly managed. The local participants looked as if they were having as much fun as we were. There was laughter and smiles all round. The handicrafts and textiles offered for sale were wonderful. And the meal we were served was lovely. I've since read that the residents of Isla Taquile have taken control of the tourism on their island, and "run their society based on community collectivism." Taquileños are the masters of their own "Disneyfication", to use Joshus Foer's word from the Slate article. But whether that accounts for the very different emotion I felt as we left, I can't say. I do know that we were quiet on the boat ride back to Puno. Still full from our lunch. Tired from the hot sun and the walking. But also feeling somehow that we'd just experienced something very special.

gate leading from village on Isla Taquile down to the beach, Taquile Island, Peru
Inca style gateway down to the beach
The next day we were off bright and early for our bus trip to Cusco. And it was with very different eyes that we watched the outskirts of the city of Puno flash by the bus windows. Certainly different from a little over a week previously when we'd arrived in Arequipa. We still saw the broken pavement in places, the muddy corners where small vendors gathered, the bristling bundles of seemingly haphazard electrical wires on some streets. Hubby would put emphasis on the word "hazard." But we could also see the efforts at what we might call "urban renewal." Like this retaining wall with the Inca themed mural.


Inka themed mural on retaining wall in outskirts of Puno, Peru

Or the many streets like this one, below, where the city has installed steps for pedestrians up the steep inclines. Puno like Arequipa is built on hills. Our driver said that when they'd had a sleet storm a few weeks ago nothing in the city could move on the numerous bricked and cobblestone streets that led up into the hills. People here aren't wealthy, but it looks as if they are moving forward. Hopefully tourist dollars help in this. 

streets of Puno, Peru
Outskirts of Puno 
Then before we knew it we were in Juliaca. The next city to Puno on the route north to Cusco. With a population of just over 200,000, Juliaca is twice the size of Puno. Our guide a few days earlier had described it as a "city of business." Supposedly Juliaca is the financial capital of the region, and the largest trading centre. To us it looked much more modern than Puno, but also more jumbled, and much more chaotic.

dirt streets in Juliaca, Peru

We were very glad to not be doing the driving on this day. One just points their vehicle into this maze and hopes for the best, I think. But, you know, as we wended our way through the mishmash of trucks, cars, bicycles, tiny motorcycle cabs, handcarts, and pedestrians carrying enormous bundles, we wondered why the presence of so many reputedly successful companies, and international businesses (we saw many familiar logos along these streets) has not made a greater impact on the infrastructure of this city. Why did Isla Taquile with its "community collectivism" seems so much more prosperous? 

traffic jam on the dirt streets of Juliaca, Peru
Juliaca "round about."
But Hubby and I weren't going to be able to answer that question. Not that day anyway. We soon left Juliaca behind and headed up into the Andes bound for Cusco, and in a few days Machu Picchu. Hubby was busy taking pictures of llamas out the bus window, and I had moved across the aisle to an empty seat. The better to settle down for a nap. Rising at the crack of dawn for four days in a row was my absolute limit. Besides, buses always make me sleepy. 

So, yeah. I guess you could say that I've got Peru under my skin alright. In all its beautiful, smiling, jumbled, messy, delicious, disastrous-ness. Like the song goes... kind of... I've got Peru deep in the heart of me. So deep in my heart that it's really a part of me. I've got Peru under my skin. 


I know Frank Sinatra singing this Cole Porter classic has absolutely nothing to do with Peru. Except that it does, in a way. I've been singing this song ever since I started writing this morning. And in my opinion Sinatra does it best. Besides. He's just too cool for school, don't you think?






I thought I was done with Peru when I started this post. Turns out I'm not. Maybe I'll wait a week or so before I write the last installment. Give you a bit of a break. 

Have you ever visited a place that got under your skin. That kind of took hold of you and wouldn't let go? 

Do tell.





Two Traveling Texans
Linking up with #Theweeklypostcard over at Two Travelling Texans

21 comments:

  1. I'm loving your long travel posts . There's no chatting in our house when I have my early morning coffee & read all about SA . When we were in the north of Thailand the children of the hill tribes were the ones who did the selling of their wonderful woven crafts . Hubby loved the haggling but he always offered more than they asked , so every time they agreed a price he offered more . The kids soon got the hang of it & thought it was a great game - lots of laughing & a way of spreading money around without giving handouts . In answer to your question , It was India that seemed to get under our skin for all the same reasons SA has affected you . Colour , chaos , smells , food , strange architecture & of course the people - a real culture shock & totally unlike home . I thought my wanderlust was satisfied after our years of travel but you are making my feet itch a little bit . You could have a second career as a travel writer - so good .
    Wendy in York

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    1. Ah, thanks so much, Wendy. Love the way your husband haggles. That's how we felt about tipping and such. We can spare it, so why not tip big?

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  2. I loved this post and how your brought up your feelings of discomfort. Just when I asked myself, but weren't you feeling like voyeurs on Taquile too, you brought it up in the next paragraph. It's a strange thing which I have felt before as well. I suppose traveling to any country makes us a bit of a cultural voyeur but the way we respond to our experiences can be so VASTLY different. Thanks for sharing this depth of experience from your Peru trip.

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    1. Thanks, Melanie. One thing about Taquile was that the villagers, their homes and private spaces remained private. They brought their goods out to a grassy spot with benches. We didn't feel like invaders as much as on Uros. Also one other commenter below had a much earlier experiene than we did...over 30 years ago. It's worth reading her comment.

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  3. Yes, the voyeur thing is an issue.
    Denmark has been under my skin for 40 years!
    Thanks for sharing your experiences and for your honesty.

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  4. I can’t wait for your next installment on Peru. The country gave me that uplifting feeling that people where trying to improve things (noticed a lot of construction along roads to install sewer systems, among many other things) while trying to preserve what made them special, especially in the Sacred Valley, a magic place indeed.

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    1. We had that impression too, Marie-Odile. But there is so much to overcome, still, especially in the areas that have been newly flooded.

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  5. Just read your two Peru posts back to back. What a treat. Loved travelling alongside you and sharing your insights. Photos are beautiful. Definitely a place I'd love to visit. Totally get the ambiguity. It's hard seeing poverty first hand coming from a position of relative privilege and some of those contrived meet the locals scenarios are uncomfortable. I remember that feeling while being shown around a traditional home in a Beijing hutong. It's a tricky one. The pleasure of travel and new horizons alongside the feelings of guilt or responsibility coming from where we do and knowing what we do. Places which have got under my skin? Many for different reasons. Agree with Wendy re India. Look forward to next part of the journey. Iris

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    1. You are so right, Iris...the pleasure of new horizons set against the feelings of misgiving and a bit of guilt.

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  6. I visited the Uro islands and Taquile more than 35 years ago, but came away with an impression very similar to yours. At that time, the Uros still lived quite far out in the lake, but it was possible to book a stopover at one of their islands on the way to Taquile. They were only just starting to receive tourists, so there was almost nothing to be seen on their island except the apalling poverty of its inhabitants. The feeling of being a voyeur feeding on other people's misery was overwhelming. I am very glad to read (in your post and in Foer’s article) that in the meantime the Uros have found the means to use tourism to serve their own interests and improve their situation. But your observations made me wonder (after all those years) what other differences between both places might persist until today. Here is what I have come up with, I wonder what you think about it:
    In my memory, the people of Taquile met their visitors at eye level. They were proud of their beautiful island, their excellent artisanal products and their independence. One man explained to us the meaning of some of the designs they use in their knitting and told us that a particular zigzag line with little stars at the points was called "el camino del turista", the tourist's way, because it was supposed to depict the aimless strolls of tourists who stop at every corner to look around. He may have made this up, but the anecdote shows that not only had we, the tourists, come to observe them but they also were observing us and obviously found us quite amusing. It is very likely that their social traditions and co-operative organization lie at the basis of this confident attitude.

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    1. Thanks so much for this, Eleonore. You may have something there.

      And after reading your comment I thought of one further thing. On Uros we did wander, albeit around a very small island. It was hard not to see every aspect of their lives. We were right there in their space, so to speak. On Taquile, we followed the guide up a path, to the areas where the presentation took place, then a few metres away to where we ate our lunch. Then we were guided by a villager down the path through the fields until we met the path that was paved with stones etc. We never wandered. I wonder if this is something that the Taquile islanders developed to take control of the tourist presence and impact on their small island. And keep their own private spaces private. Certainly they seemed much better organized than on Uros. And their island seemed much more prosperous.

      I have also begun to wonder if I was simply reacting emotionally to what I thought I would feel if I lived on Uros. The damp... the straw...which as I said I found I had an allergic reaction to... the feeling of claustrophobia of living in such a confined space. And of course, the poverty. And at the same time I felt sad for them and guilty because how "first-world" of me to feel sad for them when I knew nothing about their lives. Ha. You might well say that I am totally over-analyzing this!

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  7. Not at all! I find it very useful to explore this mixture of curiosity, empathy and guilt which we feel when confronted with circumstances very different from our own.
    I agree with you on the question of privacy. On Taquile, we were allowed to wander a bit then (el camino del turista ;-)), but we did not enter a single house except the one that served as restaurant. And the whole visit was clearly run by the Taquileños themselves, including the boat which took us to the island. (I remember the two boatmen who, as soon as the boat was on its way, took their knitting from under their broad belts and knitted away on their tiny needles.) This kind of organization is certainly easier when the whole community is working together.
    My reaction to the Uros island was very similar to yours and, I think, for similar reasons. As I said before, I always felt that the cold made poverty even worse, and the ice cold water of the lake which seemed to permeate everything made me want to leave (and feel guilty about it) as soon as I had set foot on the island. Historically, the Uros did not choose that lifestyle because they found it attractive, but as a last resort to escape persecution. If after several centuries they now consider it their cultural heritage and want to conserve it that is up to them. And if tourism gives them the means to get better health care and send their children to school, I am glad for them.

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  8. Peru is a country I have wanted to visit for a long time. The places you visited are so beautiful. No wonder you cannot take the experience out of your mind. #TheWeeklyPostcard

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    1. It was really beautiful... and a bit heartbreaking at the same time. Thanks for dropping by Ruth.

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  9. That lake is beautiful, another reason why I need to visit Peru. Oh and I am a big Frank Sinatra fan too, so loved how you tied it in. I think most places I have gotten under my skin. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

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    1. Me too, Anisa. So every time we travel our list just gets longer because we almost always want to return.

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  10. What a beautiful and interesting place! The traditional dress is so neat to see! #theweeklypostcard

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    1. It is indeed, Hilary. Thanks for reading.

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  11. I enjoyed my visit to Peru too, although didn't go to Taquile island but down to the Bolivian end with Isla del Sol. I do share your discomfort of the "disneyfication" of the people from the Uros Islands, it really is a double edged sword. Colca Canyon though had to be a real highlight to me, that landscape is breathtaking. Peru is definitely a broad and diverse country. #theweeklypostcard

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    1. Thanks, David. We loved Colca too. Most particularly because we arrived before anyone else and had the place to ourselves for an hour or more...just us and the condors:)

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.