I met “El Presidente” – that’s how he introduced himself to us – on La Isla Summa Willjta, one of the floating islands on Lake Titicaca. He was a dark-skinned, middle-aged man, dressed in shabby pants and a plain blouse; his face remained hidden under the shade of a soft hat, but his smile shone brightly even from afar. He stood proudly in the center of the island and, like a rooster in a hencoop, was surrounded with a few kids and several women of a variety of ages, all of whom were similarly dark-skinned. Unlike him, though, their faces were expressionless as if carved out of an ancient trunk, and they were dressed in vivid colors that looked dazzling against the blue of the shimmering lake on that August sunny morning.
We docked our speed boat next to the traditional balsa (the local reed boat), and tottered our way ashore, floating at an elevation of more than 3800 m, and sinking a little bit with each step into a wobbly ground that seemed like a grand pallet. We sat in a semi-circle, on heaps of reeds bundled together and covered with colorful woolen blankets, and, I felt, it was a pity the day was still young, for this should have been a storytelling experience to be lived under the starry sky. The Uros people surrounded us, emitting the familiar enchantment conveyed by everything new and unusual, while the legendary waters kept on flapping and murmuring under our feet, rattled by the ongoing wake of the numerous boats.
El Presidente remained at his position, demonstrating step-by-step the traditional technique of building a floating island. Initially, a basis is created out of the dense roots of the totora reeds – which are native and abundant in the lake. Then, layers of reeds are placed crosswise on top, acting as the stepping ground. In turn, reed huts are erected, a watch tower, a deck for the rafts and, very often now, small solar panels for electricity. An anchor holds the island in place, and a big saw is always at hand to divide this floating piece of land, in cases of dispute. We were told that such a construction lasts for about 20 years, while it requires constant maintenance since the reeds rot fast in the water. As such, new layers are added once per month during the dry season and every two weeks in the raining period – not a small feat by itself. Today, the lake hosts 90 such islands, where around 2,000 people make a living in the archaic way they have been using for years. Only tourism has been added to their agenda.
The voice of our guide dimmed into a whispering noise in the background, covered by the babbling commotion of life on the lake. I focused on the women of the island who sat under the shade of reed-made umbrellas, sewing and embroidering multicolored local artefacts, chewing the soft interior of the reeds (which is iodine-rich and acts as a remedy for everything), or cradling to sleep babies tied up on their back. Their faces remained dark and indecipherable, hidden under the shades of hats in various shapes – hats which seem to be a kind of Peruvian Indian cult throughout the countryside. A few kids dashed by in a game of chase, occasionally lurking behind a pile of reeds, finally ending up on the big raft, running up and down in a soundless remake of a Pirates-of-the-Caribbean battle scene.
A tribe revealed as if through the pages of a timeworn book. Faces which seem forgotten by time: so few within the vastness of the sky and the water; their life so frail, frugal, and antiquated, almost defenseless.
Supposedly, they are descendants of the so-called “Sons of Sun” – the super-human people who, legend has it, existed before the sun when the earth was still black and frigid. Back then, they prided themselves on having “black blood,” being quite resilient to the cold, and safe from drowning or being struck by lightning. They fell from their superior status because they mixed with humans and, hence, were condemned by the gods. As a pre-Inca caste, they developed the renowned Tiwanaku civilization extending towards today’s Bolivia, but, around the 11th century AD, they, again, fell from the grace of gods. They were there, at Lake Titicaca – the perceived by the Incas center of cosmos and origin of the sun, the moon and humankind – when, as per tradition, the Sun sent his son, Manco Capac and his sister (or wife) Mama Ocllo as founders of the Inca tribe and civilization, and, hence, turned a new page in history. By then, the Uros, this once-upon-a-time proud and powerful tribe, had fallen back into such poverty and oblivion that, when the Incas conquered the land a couple of centuries later and turned them into vassals, they were imposed the minimum taxation and were forgotten. Today, the locals take pleasure in believing it was their life on their floating homes (back then, still rafts that hosted the family and the whole household) that granted them safety and some freedom. They might be right. After all, this tradition of the floating homes – be they rafts or islands – was indeed a sanctuary and a means developed to provide assurance and security.
With the help of El Presidente, our guide wrapped up the presentation, and, at this subtle cue, the women rose out of their passivity to parade in front of us – like an intermission for commercials – holding samples of their weaved artefacts. The sun, the legends, the simple life on the islands, husbands, wives, babies, and old mothers are captured among these plain woolen threads, and we remained mesmerized and captivated. But we got dragged into an elongated selling process, which aimed at making us feel part of the tribe and the island.
Initially, the women left their embroidery on the ground and started singing in a local dialect, then in Spanish, and finally in English, clapping their hands. Some of them were rather old, and their expressionless faces conveyed all but the joy that was supposed to be included in the songs. To me, it looked rather pathetic, and I felt embarrassed sitting there, staring at an unnecessary performance held entirely for our sake. Then, we were each picked up by a different lady, gently pushed, with body-language signs and a mixture of Spanish and broken English, into their homes. I ended up in El Presidente’s hut – a clean and plain square room with a bed in the middle, piles of colorful clothes on either side and a small electric light bulb hanging from the reed ceiling. The sunlight dribbled through the reed holes on the walls, creating kaleidoscopic patterns at the darker corners. With the help of El Presidente’s wife, I selected a skirt, a vest, and a hat, and I exited in disguise, meeting the rest of my similarly dressed-up team. We posed, we took photos, we posed again. El Presidente tried to initiate a conversation with me, but my Spanish failed me. I understood that the rest of the men from this island were out, fishing and hunting at the lake. Only one man is supposed to stay behind, keeping the tourist business afloat.
Once all these “rituals” had been performed, and hundreds of photos had been taken, we were finally led towards impromptu selling stalls, where each of our hosting ladies spread out her work, inviting us to take back into our homes part of the sun, the colors, and the legends of their life. It only took us a few minutes, and then we were waved goodbye as we embarked towards Puno. Meanwhile, other boats appeared, ready to dock on this or neighboring islands, where the Uros would execute the same performance, would take similar pictures, and would share similar smiles, broken conversations, and expressions of friendship, towards a goal that has remained solid for centuries: survival.
I sat at the prow of our boat, my head resting on my folded arms, my pores sucking the warmth of the sun thirstily. I closed my eyes, and I felt the silence of the waters and the undetectable swishing of the passing fish. I listened to the stories of the Uros tribe as recounted now by the lake, beyond the touristic façade. Even though these are not pure descendants from the original Uros anymore, still, they represent a tribe that has made a living out of reeds for hundreds of years, and, in their simplicity, have outlived the majestic Incas. Despite their resilience, though, they are an endangered species. The Uros tribe in Bolivia is already close to extinction due to climate change that has been drying off their source of life. Lake Titicaca is not immune to the global warming effect, and the colorful natives, with all their hospitality and naivety, will be forced to face, once again, the wrath of gods manifested through the greed and stubbornness of the, otherwise, ingenious and magnificent humankind.