Today we visited the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca. Nearly thirty years ago a friend visited these islands and lived with the Uros people for a few months and since then I have been fascinated by the tales she brought back with her.
The Uros are descendants of a Pre-Inca group who live on forty-two self-made floating islands. The island settlements were originally defensive, as the Uros were escaping from the Incas. Their original language disappeared some 500 years ago as they intermarried with the Aymara and adopted their language.
We took a boat to the settlement with our guide Carlos who has been working as a guide to these islands for eight years. He explained that the tourism industry had provided the Uros with an opportunity to earn money to supplement their very simple lifestyle. Each day boats come and rotate around the different islands, so each has an opportunity to sell their handicrafts.
We visited a small island which was home to four families. Each member of the family was involved including the children as young as three or four. As the children ran and tumbled in the reeds I realised there were no skinned shins. Grubby faces, runny noses, enchanting smiles and little tour operators! The surface of the island was bouncy, not dissimilar to a waterbed, from the layers of reeds (about one meter deep).
The Uros also make reed boats, two gondolas braced together like a catamaran, and these are used to ferry tourists about. We took a ride on one of these and the children entertained us with songs they had learnt at school – some in English as well as French. As we left each child came and shook our hands – they had been trained well.
Their very simple reed houses generally last about one year before they need repair and many are opting for plastic, timber and corrugated iron to extend the life span of the houses. Unfortunately these materials spoil the integrity of these settlements.
About two thousand people live currently in the Uros Islands off Puno (there are other settlements in Bolivia) and as Carlos explained, they may not last all that long into the future. The children go to high school on the mainland and many are being enticed by the trappings of modern city life – education, a job with real income, electronic gadgets with connectivity and a city social life none of which is on offer on the island. Carlos feels that in the future the culture may gradually disappear and at best (or worst) become a “Disneyland” experience to show what it was like in the past.