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
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.
Women in brightly coloured skirts await our arrival
View from the “watch tower”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When we were finished shopping we sat down to a beautifully presented lunch in a small and immaculate, mud-floored, stone hut.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
High Heels in the Wilderness is for women like me. Women who love clothes. And books. Who dream of travelling to amazing places. Who want to explore their own lives, and their own potential, now that they aren't twenty (or even forty) anymore.