In Peru not all who float are lost

Published September 12th, 2015

The trail of the slow-sailing motorboat is blazed head-first by a Peruvian flag flying proudly through clusters of totora, reeds that abound in the shallow section of the lake near the shore-side city of Puno.

The totora foreshadow our arrival to Uros, a self-sufficient island community constructed completely of the reed. We're sailing on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, South America's largest body of freshwater on the Peru and Bolivia borders.

Uros is populated by lake-dwelling descendants of the 800-year-old Aymara tribe who became nomads on the waters in an effort to escape many long and brutal years of persecution by the Incas.

Floating, stationary islands made of this wondrous reed provided them with a safer, more secure lifestyle, and they've stayed put since.

Sailing towards Uros Island (Image: Alison Weissbrot)

Aymara blood still runs thick through the veins of the Southern Andes, and the ancient dialect is spoken fluently and abundantly in the region. But only on Uros will you find a functioning, self-sufficient community of full-blooded Aymara descendants.

The bundles of reed grow bigger and more prolific until we are sailing within the confines of a centuries-old tribal community that it is literally afloat in the middle of the lake.

The boat docks and we step onto the island. The floor beneath us, hand-built from totora, is both buoyant and crunchy, a thatch work of yellow tubes swelling upwards in various spots in the form of tiny straw huts. An Aymara family is expecting us.

Welcome to Uros A warm welcome to Uros Island (Image: Alison Weissbrot)

"Hola, chica, ven conmigo."

The voice belongs to an Aymara woman named Rosa, small and plump and dressed in traditional colors and patterns. Two long, dark braids drape her back.

Before I can answer, I am sitting inside a miniature hut that is no more than a hollow outgrowth of the ground beneath it. The large bed that takes up almost its entirety is the only piece of furniture.

"My name is Rosa. This is my home," she explains in thickly accented Spanish. It's obvious that this is her second language; it's mine, too.

Selling tapestries Rosa and her daughter sell hand-woven tapestries to enchanted tourists (Image: Alison Weissbrot)

Rosa and I chat in our broken Spanish. She is the matriarch of the island. She makes a living by weaving tapestries depicting family scenes, Aymara tales and ancient deities like Pachamama (mother earth) to sell to the tourists who visit her every day.

Rosa goes to Puno once a week to pick up bread and other necessary food supplies. She has four small daughters who attend a totora school on another totora island of the Uros community.

She and her family travel by way of a two-story canal boat, composed entirely, of course, of totora. I learn all of this as she dresses me in the traditional patterned skirt and straw hat that hangs on the wall of her home.

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Traditional clothes All dressed up (Image: Alison Weissbrot)

Exiled to the lake as the only means to preserve their culture, this archaic community and its floating homes have become one of Peru's biggest tourist attractions. Tourists arrive by the hundreds daily.

Modern-day Aymara families have wisened to the profitability of the industry, and we fall for their worthwhile trap.

After a personal history lesson about how the island was constructed and the obligatory hand-woven tapestry purchase, we pay twenty nueva soles apiece for a canal ride in one of the reed boats to the island across the way.

Girls singing It's a singalong atop a totora boat (Image: Alison Weissbrot)

Aymara children may be adorable, but beware of puppy-dog eyes: They are the island's best negotiators. After an innocent singalong atop the second deck of the totora boat, where the young girls show off their impressive knowledge of English, Spanish, Aymara, Quechua, Japanese, and Korean tunes, we are expected to pay up.

"Plata! Plata, por favor!" Rosa's oldest daughter demands with pleading eyes that mask a knowing flicker. Well, what's a few morenueva soles? Those girls could sing.

I return home from this piece of floating history with a handmade relic: a charming and colorful totora mobile of a boat steered by two happy sailors under a purple and orange sun.

It dangles from a string, floating and suspended in the air of my suburban home. It reminds me of a dream I once lived, sailing through the floating islands of a not quite lost world.

Uros A distant memory of a faraway place (Image: Alison Weissbrot)

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This article originally appeared on Fathom.

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