The welcoming committee on the Uros Islands (Andrea Edwards)
Today we will take a boat on Lake Titicaca and travel to the island of Amantani, where we will spend the night with a local family. As I'm showering in the hotel before leaving, I give myself a little pep talk: even if it's miserable, it will be an adventure and something to remember for the rest of my life!Really, I am excited but naturally a little nervous. After breakfast we meet in the lobby: Andrea and I, Santiago, and Santiago's friend Marco, who is also a guide. Marco's tourists are sick and won't be making the trip, and Marco has decided to go anyway because he has never experienced a homestay. Marco is with us for the entire time, and he is very nice, although he doesn't speak a word of English so we communicate with him only through Santiago. We will be taking a boat on Lake Titicaca first to the floating Uros Islands, and then on to Amantani. There will be approximately 15-20 of us going, so after we're picked up in a large passenger van at the hotel we stop and pick up the remaining passengers. We are the only Americans; the others are from the UK, Belgium and various other countries. The van takes us to the dock where we will catch our boat. We have the opportunity to purchase last-minute family gifts and snacks before boarding. Andrea and I each buy a large, ugly rain poncho for the trip, because unfortunately it's already raining and looks like it could continue for a while. We pile into the boat and travel about an hour to our first stop, the Uros Floating Islands. Lake Titicaca is one of the largest lakes in the world, and the largest above 6560 feet. It is also the highest navigable body of water in the world. In other words, it is one impressive lake! There are many reeds in the shallow water when we first set out. We will later learn that these are totora reeds, used to make the floating islands and just about everything else the indigenous people use and need. We are greeted at our first floating island by the local people dressed up in bright colors and big hats. They look genuinely delighted to see us. In the short time we spend here it becomes obvious that these people are truly happy. We gather in a circle under a canopy and listen as Angel, our guide for this trip, describes the islands and the people who live here. With the help of the local people, he describes how they cut the thick earth that the totora reeds grow from and tie these blocks of earth together to form these artificial islands. They were originally created by the indigenous people to escape their conquerors. Today there are only 5 or 6 families (albeit large ones) that live on the island we visited. Walking about the island is strange. It is covered with thick layers of reeds and feels kind of spongy. The huts, also made from totora reeds, are built up on platforms of, what else, totora reeds! We are invited by one of the women to enter her house. Although small, it's quite pretty. I sit on the bed, and she shows me that it is made of totora reeds covered with several thick blankets. She asks if we would like to dress up? Why, yes! She hands me a bright yellow skirt, a vest, pom poms to wear around my neck (I think these are traditionally worn by single girls) and a crazy hat. Of course Andrea and the young couple with us do the same. It is crazy fun! We then look over the local handicrafts for sale, mostly mobiles and replica boats made of reeds. We then climb to the top of the lookout tower on the Island for the view. Because it's still sprinkling, I wear my stupid green poncho and nearly kill myself getting up and down the steps. We take a boat, made of totora reeds, naturally, to another floating island a short ways away (there are approximately 40 of these islands on the Lake). It's a row boat and looks a bit like a replica Viking ship. Once underway, Santiago insists that we take the oars. So, Andrea gets on one side, and I get on the other, and we attempt to move the boat with the help of the real oarsmen. We don't do very well, but it makes for yet another fun photo op! The second floating island is much like the first, only this one has --swear to God-- a Seventh Day Adventist Church! We get souvenir stamps in our passports. After a brief visit we load back into our boat and head to Amantani, approximately three hours away. The weather clears up en route so we are able to spend some time outside, both on top of the boat and on the deck. We see the mountains of Bolivia, Taquile Island (which we will visit tomorrow), and off in the distance, Amantani Island. When we arrive at Amantani we are greeted by women and men from the families that will host us. The women are dressed in traditional black skirts and white blouses decorated with flowers. The women have long braids and the men wear hats. They are friendly but also a little shy. Angel puts us in groups of 4 or 5 and assigns us to a family. Andrea, me, Santiago, Marco, and Augustin, a tourist from Lima, will stay with the same family. We are introduced to Alejandro, the family patriarch, a man I guess to be in his 60s, and he leads us to his home. My first impression of this place is that it is more modern (I use the term loosely!) than I expected. After all, the only thing I really have to compare it to is the home we visited last year in Ollantaytambo that had dozens of guinea pigs roaming around and human skulls decorating the mantle! As Alejandro leads us up the path to his home, we pass the bathroom, which is a separate small building. It has an actual porcelain toilet and sink, although we will have to pour buckets of water into the toilet to flush it. And it has no electricity. Still, it beats the outhouse I had envisioned! We turn a corner and the main part of the house is directly before us, and the bedrooms are in a separate courtyard to our right. This part of the house has two stories. There are 3 bedrooms on the second story where we will stay: Andrea and I in one; Santiago and Marco in another; and Augustin in the third. The rooms are surprisingly nice, with painted walls, curtains on the windows, colorful blankets on the beds, and posters decorating the walls. Heck, this feels like the Ritz! I assume that the family sleeps in rooms on the lower floor. The staircase up to the second-story bedroom is a bit treacherous, but all in all, just fine. And the view from our bedroom is absolutely breathtaking. We go to the main part of the house for lunch. It is one room, approximately 20 x 8, with a table, fireplace, and kitchen. There we meet the family matriarch, Graciela, their daughter-in-law, and Isabella, their 16-month-old granddaughter. Richard, their son, is Isabella's father. Alejandro and Graciela have four children, and they have been married 40 years. Graciela is very shy. She smiles but does not sit with us at lunch, even though Santiago implores here to. I don't know what we would do without Santiago here to speak with them and for us. We are very lucky to have our own guide here. None of the others do, and their experiences don't seem to be as rich. And none of them would of course know where to begin to fix dinner for their families, and yet we will because Santiago has been here before. We are served a lunch of quinoa soup, roasted potatoes, and a kind of cake made of baked cheese. Delicious, but very filling. After we eat, we have tea with mint pulled from their garden. Even at this altitude, and although a very cold climate, they are able to grow most of what they need. There is, in fact, a huge bush with passion fruit outside their front door. Who knew passion fruit would grow in a place like this? We are to meet Angel and the others at the local soccer field at 4 for a trek up Pachatata, or Father Earth, the second highest point on the island. Alejandro, or Papi as he is called, leads us there. It's a steady uphill climb, past sheep and cows and chickens and homes, and by the time we get to the soccer field my heart and lungs and legs already hurt--and we haven't even begun the actual climb! We have not been bothered a lot by altitude yet, but this climbing at over 13,000 feet is kicking our butts! Thankfully we have a few minutes to recover at the soccer field while Angel explains the significance of Pachamama and Pachatata. Pachamama is slightly higher but further away. There is a shrine at the top of each mountain and each January the local people gather there for a big festival. We will walk to this shrine on Pachatata. I'm rarely concerned about my ability to make these kinds of treks, but I'm concerned about this one. Pachatata exceeds 14,000 feet. Andrea is concerned, too, but we decide that we will stop as often as necessary to catch our breath, even if it takes all night! Luckily the path is mostly paved, but it's a steady incline in very thin air. It's beautiful, however, and the views are fabulous. Lining the pathway are local people selling their handicrafts and chocolate bars. And, very oddly, nearly at the top there is a huge building under construction, apparently to be used to sell handicrafts to who??? Really, who the heck is going to climb up here to buy enough stuff to justify this big building all alone up here on a mountain? Santiago calls it a white elephant. We take a lot of pictures as we climb, both goofy and scenic, not only because everything is so photogenic but because it's also a good excuse to stop and catch our breath! As we approach the shrine we pass through a series of arches. The shrine itself is actually an enclosed space made of stone, and entry is only possible during the festival. We all linger at the top, waiting for the sun to set. It's about 5:30 p.m., and it's cold and windy. Santiago had secretly bought 2 Diet Cokes in Puno and gave them to us earlier (Andrea has not been able to get Diet Coke in restaurants and doesn't like the readily available Coke Zero. It's jokingly become a kind of quest to find Diet Coke here). We share one can to celebrate, in lieu of champagne. The walk down is much easier, and by the time we reach the soccer field again it's completely dark. Papi meets us there and leads us back home. We wash up and meet in the kitchen to fix dinner. As the family watches, we boil spaghetti over the fire. Meanwhile, Andrea and Santiago chop vegetables while I make the sauce over a kerosene stove: onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, tomato paste, water and lots of garlic powder. And, fresh oregano from the family garden. Marco and Andrea also prepare the bread with butter and garlic powder. Santiago and Marco take pictures throughout the process. It's a lot of activity for a small space! The family, this time including son Richard, sit by the fire and watch and play with baby Isabella. She is a beautiful little girl, shy but happy. When the food is ready Andrea and I dish it up and all of us sit around the table: the five of us and the family of five. Graciela is clearly not comfortable sitting at the table with everyone, and she sits in the furthest corner quietly. But everyone seems to enjoy the meal. At one point I survey all of these wonderful strangers that we've been so lucky to meet and marvel that we have prepared them dinner on a far-away island in Peru. The world is a wonderful place and I feel so lucky to be able to travel and experience it. After dinner Andrea, Santiago and I linger at the table, drinking tea, while the family does the dishes (we offered to do them but Santiago said it wasn't necessary, that the family would likely prefer to do them themselves. I think he just didn't want to do dishes!). Marco went to the featival that the locals put on for the tourists at the soccer field. We decided not to go because Santiago had described it as being kind of cheesy and mainly an excuse to drink beer. Andrea and I have absolutely nothing against cheesiness or beer, but it's frigid out and we don't particularly want to trek back up to the soccer field, so we enjoy the warmth of the kitchen instead. At about 8:30 we decide to go to bed. We are lucky that our room has electricity, but no heat. So we take additional blankets from the third bed in our room and add them to the stack already on our own beds. I sleep in sweats and a t-shirt under six thick blankets. It's quite cozy, but incredibly heavy. I can't even roll over! But despite it all we both get a decent night's sleep with only one trip down the rickety stairs with a flashlight in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
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