We breathed a collective sigh of relief as we crossed the border into Peru, hoping that our final country would offer relief from the problems that had plagued us in Senor Morales’ socialist mountain dominion. For the first few days we lived in idyllic ignorance and soaked up the flavors of Puno, the gritty city perched on the northwestern shore of the world’s highest navigable lake, Lake Titicaca. We had hoped to view the lake from the more picturesque location of Copacabana, Bolivia, but there was no way we were going to risk getting trapped behind strike lines again. So we resigned ourselves to our less charming yet politically more stable location and settled into a wonderful little hotel complete with a fireplace in the lobby to stave off the bitter nighttime chill and a windowed 6th floor dining room that offered sweeping views of the formidable waters.
Almost everybody who tours Peru passes through Puno, but I’m not sure anybody really likes it. We found the people reserved, the food bland, and the weather dreary, something unusual for this time of year. In the midst of the sleet and gloom, we booked the city’s one obligatory tour–a boat trip to the floating islands of Uros. In the waning light of the afternoon, we boarded a motorboat along with about 15 other tourists for the 30 minute ride to the islands. Our guide, Herman, pointed listlessly to a map and explained in a nasal monotone that Titicaca means “puma stone” in Quechua. “But be sure to pronounce the ‘c’ as a hard ‘k,’” he explained. “If you say the softer ‘c’ “or you’ll be saying ‘puma poop.’”
The Uros Islands were first constructed over 500 years ago by pre-Incan people seeking refuge from invaders. They constructed the islands out of the lake’s ubiquitous, buoyant totora reeds by anchoring them to clods of root-enmeshed dirt. In times of calm, they anchored them to the lake floor using ropes and sticks, while in times of danger, they simply cut them loose and floated away. A few hundred descendents of the Uros remain on the 43 islands today, but most of their relatives have chosen to take up life on the mainland. Those who have stayed do so mainly to cater to tourists who find their squishy, bobbing existence baffling.
We found the islands interesting but recognized that the steady stream of visitors over the years has permanently altered the lives of the inhabitants. They did not so much feel like a people untouched by time as a group cloying for the money of tourists. The women hawked wares shipped in from Puno, the men offered rides on boats woven from totora weed, and the children madly colored on tiny pieces of paper which they then begged us to buy. It would be naive to assume that any people could preserve an ancient lifestyle in a modern, commercialized world, but it’s still disheartening to encounter a people so clearly defined by their catering to passersby.
Titicaca has many permanent islands which we did not visit and we hear the people there live lives more consistent with those of their ancestors. The Isla del Sol off the coast of Copacabana is one of the most spiritually significant sites in South America both for Catholics who revere it as a pilgrimage site and indigenous people who view it as the birthplace of Inca culture and mythology. The most intriguing thing for us about Titicaca, however, was the fact that Bolivian Navy (yes those two words are indeed an oxymoron) uses the lake for training exercises since their country is landlocked, i.e., they have no ocean shores nor access to naval waters. The Bolivians have never really gotten over losing their coastline to the Chileans in the late 1800s and many still harbor dreams of winning it back. When zany Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez visited a few months ago, he stoked Bolivian delusions by claiming he would one day lounge on a Bolivian beach. We’re not putting any money on Bolivia staging a comeback anytime soon, especially since its people can’t seem to move beyond hurling sticks of dynamite, demanding free gas, and throwing rocks, but I suppose stranger things have happened. In this part of the world, nothing should come as a surprise.
Back on land in Puno, we noticed the town square was filled with noisy, banner-toting folks, who we thought might be part of a religious procession (they were gathering outside a church) or institutional celebration. Little did we know, a storm was brewing that would make our Bolivian troubles seem trifling and wash away our Peruvian peace in a flood of political discontent.