Carlos respectfully called the old man “Viracocha”. He was sitting in the sun, his cheeks roasted from years of exposure, gnarled hands deftly knitting a shawl. The long, pointy end of his woollen hat dropped to his right shoulder, a sign that he was married.
This is how the men on this island revealed their status. Further up, we’d see younger men herding sheep jauntily, hat bottom on left shoulder, nudging each other as a group of girls took their week's knitting to the co-op. On Tequile Island, Lake Titikaka, this is what they do. Raise wool, knit it, sell it. Wool was the singular product that had seen them through for centuries. And of course, the setting being incredibly photogenic, these folks are happy to pause for the camera.
Our motorboat churned once again, on the blue waters of Titikaka, and 30 minutes later we are on Llachlon Island. Climbing up the terraced hills, with hardly anyone around, we came to Joseph and Seraphina’s cottage overgrown with gardenias and begonias.
Earlier, she had made a cantuta flower garland for me. Her baby minded that strangers had taken up his mother’s attention, and cried out so violently, he almost keeled over from his sitting position. A home cooked lunch was brought to a table with a wide expanse of views; Quinoa and potato soup with chopped onions, tomatoes and chillies. Steamed trout and coca leaf tea followed. These idyllic islands held a way of life that remained locked up in themselves; each one was so distinct, it was hard to believe they were only a few miles apart.
The floating reed islands of Uros had most captured my imagination and having read about them, I had made my way to these parts. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, a soul nourishing experience. An hour later, the engine tone changed, and I woke up to what looked like haystacks in the water. They soon revealed themselves as beautifully hewn works of art in reeds. “The Uros islands are a flotilla of about 45 islands,” said Carlos, “I’ll take you to my friend’s place, which is further up.”
Dashing past the first few islands was painful; I’d have gone much slower, taking in each one of them. I stood at the helm, peering into them, making out the neat huts that circled the edge, the open space in the middle, the boats floating on the edges, turned up on both sides like ancient Egyptian barges. The Aymara people went about their business, they seemed to be stomping rather than walking.
They dressed differently from the people I’d seen on Tequile and Llachlon islands. Each island is a tiny microcosm, with its age old own dress code, customs and language. Foot sank a few inches into the reeds as I finally stepped on the friend’s island. It was like walking on porridge. The entire island was made of totora reeds. Three women in colourful, layered skirts giggled their welcome. They had bowler hats and long braids that ended in enormous pom-poms. They walked me to the corners of their 40 meter wide island, Carlos translating the Aymara all the while.
The Uros are a pre- Inca race, living in these parts for over five centuries. Legend has it that they were ordered off the land, so they lived on the lake, on islands made of reeds. The reeds are everything to them. They sell them, eat them, ride on them and use them for medicinal urposes. And because of their unusual existence, they now make some money as tourists are drawn to see Uros. One of the ladies took me around the island on a reed boat.
The Uros, I’d read, fish for food, and they also manage to farm guinea pigs on the islands. There was more I wanted to know, but with no language in common, we parted, not knowing.