Sunday, December 30, 2007

Peru - A Peek through Eternity (I)


Titicaca Lake

I am again at one end of the world, contemplating the beginning of a great civilization. The old Inca legends place Lake Titicaca as the primordial centre of their culture. The two children of Sun God, Manco Capac and his sister consort Mama Ocllo, have emerged from the silver waters of Titicaca Lake and together they founded the Inca Empire. During and after the Spanish Conquest, the lake has been considered the secret hide-out of the Incas Empire gold, due to its spiritual significance. This has inspired many fortune-hunters to venture diving into the cool waters.
Amidst the adventurers, celebrities have tried their luck, too. Oceanographer & Scientist Jacques Yves Cousteau has been exploring the depths for 8 weeks, using mini- submarines. He found no gold, but something more precious: a unique 60 centimetre tri- colours frog that apparently never gets out to surface.



Floating Islands - Los Uros



The first thing one learns is a patriotic lesson. Peruvians are very proud of both their heritage, as well as their natural resources. So once you’ve learned the geography of Lake Titicaca, the Floating Islands are open for you to explore.


Around 3000 descendants of the old Uros are living nowadays. Only a few hundred choose to remain on the islands.There are around 42 floating islands on the lake, all man-made. These Islands consist of totora plant (reed) and soil layers. Basically, totora dense roots provide the support for the islands. An island lasts around 30 years. Julio, our guide, explains that Uros leave a hole in the middle of each islet and monitor the depth. When time comes, they start building a new islet and move on. The Uros use totora for almost everything in their daily life, especially in their diet and medicine. The white bottom is eaten for iodine, in order to prevent goitre. They also use the plant for tea and to wrap the body area where they experience pain.The Uros live in huts made of totora.
During the rainy season, the reed needs to be replaced, as it rots at a fast pace. Totora is also added continuously to the Island’s base. The main occupation of the islanders is fishing. The “native” fish species are killifish and catfish. Trout was artificially introduced in 1939.

The Uros use the totora plant to build their famous balsas. (Reed boats)

Titicaca means “Rock of the Puma” and the balsas are true to the legend. Each balsa is finished with a puma head.
The Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl used these crafts as a model for his famous Kon -Tiki expedition, in which he sailed by raft 4,300 miles (7,000 km) from South America to the Tuamotu Islands.Lifestyle remains simple on the floating islands; however the Uros do not reject technology, as one would be tempted to imagine. The best present they have ever received, I am told, were the solar panels given by the ex - President Fujimori.

The islands have slowly become one of the most interesting destinations in Peru.
Los Uros open their houses to the tourists; explain their traditions and life style. Women are supplementing family’s income by selling handmade art crafts.
Men keep looking after the islands’ stability. When we arrived, they were starting the construction of a new island. Small children are schooled on the Islands, both in a Traditional and a Christian School. Older kids and students have to complete their education on the mainland.

Their toys reflect daily life as a mirror and it’s not very unusual to see little boys driving their father’s boat without supervision.


Taquile Island

The population on Taquile Island is a very small community and until 1950s they were relatively isolated from the mainland. Currently, around 1700 people live on the island.

Taquileños are famous world wide for their hand-woven textiles; the clothing articles made here are renowned to have the highest quality in Peru. The work of spinning and weaving is done mainly by the men and this tradition goes back to the ancient Inca, Pukara and Colla civilizations.

Community life and collective decision-making is the key for a peaceful living. The Taquileños society is based on collectivism and on the old Inca moral: “do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy”. As an outstanding proof of their honesty; the island does not have police or jail; any problems arising within the community are solved by leaders elected annually.

Taquile’s economy consists of fishing, terraced horticulture (mainly potato cultivation), and the revenue brought by the tourism industry.

Locals live modestly, in full harmony with their land. This 3-year old child had no footwear, while the rest of us (tourists) were bundled up and the cold rain was pouring down.

There are no cars or roads on Taquile. The only entrance to the island is a path of stone stairs, climbing up from the lake at a steep pace (approx 600 feet).

There are no horses or donkeys, not even llamas or alpacas; all loads are carried on the shoulders. Taquileños keep only a few cattle and sheep for their daily needs. It was interesting to note that there were no dogs on the island.


A young student is playing traditional Andean music for us. He is dressed with the traditional Taquileño costume.
The most characteristic apparels of Taquileño attire are the “chullo”, a knitted hat and the calendar waistband, which illustrates the annual cycles connected to ritual and agricultural activities.
The calendar waistband has been studied by many historians and researchers as it is a rich source of information which portrays valuable fragments of the oral tradition and of the community and its history.

The chullo, we come to find out, is far from being just a hat. It tells the community a man’s social status and rank. If the chullo has a white part on its bottom, the man is unmarried. After their wedding ceremony, men may choose to keep their initial chullo or change it for a “married man” version, which is plain red.
A community leader has a chullo with richer, brighter colours and earflaps.

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